Making contact

About half way through our three-month trip around Australia, She Who No Longer Reads Newspapers asked if she could contribute a guest column on our return. So here it is:

Laurel Wilson

By Laurel Wilson

On our 14 week road trip to WA and back this year, I shared a cup of tea with three ladies in Alice Springs; had a chat with a local in a pub at Fitzroy Crossing; got some directions to a campsite from a young man at Karajini National Park; learnt something of the history of the Gascoyne region of WA and bought a souvenir from a young woman there; and in Ceduna chatted to the painter of a picture of whales which caught my eye. “Well that sounds pretty unremarkable,” I hear you say. And so it should be, but in each of these conversations, I talked to one of the ‘real locals’:

Three Aboriginal women of indeterminate age are sitting on the footpath near where we’ve parked the caravan in a back street of Alice Springs. One asks me if I’d like to buy one of the paintings they are working on. “No, sorry, not buying today,” I reply. But it set me to thinking about how to approach these women. It was morning tea time, so what to do next seemed obvious. I asked them if they’d like a cup of tea – quite easy to provide, as the caravan, with its efficient gas stove, was right there. They didn’t have cups with them (or indeed any sort of container, apart from their painting equipment, so I did wonder how they would get a drink of water if they needed one). I managed to find four cups, though I kept the one with the Australian flag to myself, thinking it was a bit insensitive to offer it. Oops. Forgot the sugar at first. Bikkies were appreciated though.

I asked if I could sit down with them and received a nod of assent. Conversation ensued? No, not really. There are over 200 Aboriginal languages extant in Australia. These ladies spoke one of them. I didn’t. “Are you from around here?” I asked, after telling them where I lived. “Yes”. “What area?” I said. “Bush,” was the reply. Which may have been the extent of their English, or could well have been an admonition not to be so nosy.

“Hi – my name’s Davey. Where are you folks from?” asked the youngish Aboriginal man as we sat by ourselves in a historic pub at Fitzroy Crossing. He was drinking a glass of water. I was having a light beer, as that’s all there was on offer that day. I told him where we lived and offered practically the only word in language that I know. “Nara,” I said, then asked him what the greeting word was in his area. “That’s a hard one,” he replied. “There are people from so many language groups here that there’s not just one word.”

Karajini National Park

Onwards to the beautiful Karajini National Park – not far East of the spectacularly ugly Tom Price.
Me: I get kind of confused about directions over here – can you show me which way the campsite is?
Him: Where are you from?
Me: Queensland
Him: Well, does the sun rise in the East and set in the West over there?
Me: Um, yes.
Him: Well, what’s the problem, then?

Tom Price Mine

It’s not often that someone can take the piss in such a gentle but effective way.
This conversation was with a young Indigenous man who sold me the T-shirt which says: ‘Go with a clear open and accepting spirit and the country will not treat you badly’.

Carnarvon’s Gascoyne Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Centre was built when local land title claimants agreed to substitute the Centre for their claim on waterfront land. Despite the dubious generosity of this bargain, the Centre is most impressive. It includes an art and craft gallery, conference rooms and a café, as well as a permanent interpretive exhibition which outlines the Aboriginal history of the area, before and after the coming of Europeans.

“Come here, sit down, listen and learn,” said the elderly Aboriginal man – projected on a screen, but it did seem as if he was talking directly to his listener. Burlganyja Wanggaya – Old People Talking. All of the elders spoke in a matter of fact way about their experiences within their family groups as well as their interactions with non-Aboriginal people. But it would be a hard heart indeed that didn’t feel a wrench at the tale of the married Aboriginal stockman whose daughter was taken away and who was denied access to her, despite numerous attempts. The young girl was told her parents didn’t want her. Only when her niece tracked her down many years later, did the young girl, by now an elderly woman with her parents long gone, become re-united with what remained of her family.

In Ceduna SA we dropped into an Art and Craft gallery run by local Indigenous people. A painting of whales caught my eye, as we had recently seen them swimming close to shore at the ‘Head of Bight’. Luckily for me, the painter of that work was at the attached studio that day. I met her and had a brief chat as she proudly showed me some of her other work in the exhibition.

According to the recent SBS TV show ‘First Contact’, 6 out of 10 Australians have had ‘very little or nothing’ to do with Indigenous people – or at least with people they recognise as Indigenous. The show took six young Australians, who had never met an Indigenous person, on a journey to various parts of Australia, where they met Indigenous people. Four of the participants had very negative attitudes, considering Aboriginal people were ‘dirty’, ‘alcoholics’, ‘welfare cheats’ and/or obtained benefits unavailable to non-Aboriginal Australians. The shock jocks would be proud of how well their propaganda has spread. By the end of the three part programme, one of the people with negative attitudes had left the show. The other three were gracious enough to acknowledge that their original prejudices were unjustified.
So, how would you go in the same situation? You’re unlikely to have Ray Martin come knocking on your door offering a month’s tour of Australia, so as an alternative, how about going out of your way to meet and talk to an Indigenous person?

Feel like helping to redress the balance?
Check out and ‘like’ local non-profit organisation Mimburi Upper Mary Aboriginal Association’ on Facebook.
Read about the remarkable Aboriginal women elders (and those who assist them) who live in the remote WA desert – Kapululangu Women’s Law and Culture Centre


Simple as ABC

ABC low res
ABC South Bank

We’re hearing a lot about the national broadcaster at the moment because management has been handed an open razor by the current government and told to slash $254 million from its $1.22 billion operating budget within five years – a massive 20%+ cut. The ABC has already started making changes that will cut $207 million from its bottom line (in 2015). As you’d expect, jobs will go in ABC newsrooms, programmes will be cut or centralised in Sydney and some of our international radio services will go. Hopefully they will axe Upper Middle Bogan and It’s a Date while they’re reviewing what is valuable and what is not.

Toowong ABC site

Managing director Mark Scott says 400 jobs will go and the property portfolio is to be reviewed. This will overjoy developers, who have long slavered over the central locations of many ABC-owned buildings. In Brisbane the ABC sold its riverside site at Toowong (left) and moved to a new campus at South Bank (above).

Concerto, East Perth

In Perth, listed developer Finbar and its Singaporean joint venture partner have already pre-sold 43% of the 226 apartments planned for Concerto, a 38-level apartment building at 189 Adelaide Terrace, East Perth, the 1.28ha former site of the ABC, bought by Finbar’s partner in 2008 for $37.58 million.

If only Mark Scott had called me earlier! The answer is so simple – re-introduce the concept of an annual public radio/TV licence.  People used to pay an annual licence fee back in the 1920s and continued to do so until the introduction of colour TV in the early 1970s.
An annual fee of $35 per Australian household would raise $273 million a year. That’s it, job done. The licence would allow households to listen to ABC and SBS radio and all of its variations and watch ABC TV, SBS and NITV, as well as catch up on Iview and SBS on Demand.

The problem with a public radio licence is that roughly half the people in this country will scream blue bloody murder about being asked to cross-subsidise those dangerous lefties at the ABC. If you read stories online about the budget cuts, keep on scrolling down and read the comments. It’s a hilarious debate between left and right wing ideologues. I know the ABC monitors comments and approves or disapproves, but surely they must realise what a loaded bunch of nonsense this is, as the lobby groups on both sides of the debate give it their best shot.

You can learn a lot about a large organisation by reviewing its annual report. Scoff if you like, but that’s how Warren Buffett made billions, by assiduously poring over company reports and then getting to know the companies better through site visits until he decided to buy.  The ABC’s annual report contains what all such reports should – a high degree of disclosure. On page 115 we find a summary of contacts received from the public in 2013-2014, totalling 52,287 emails, letters, faxes, texts and phone calls.
There were 26,484 complaints, although most of them were about programme standards and scheduling. Sure, people complained about bias. There were 2,812 contacts alleging party political bias, 2,038 contacts alleging bias other than party political, 1,439 contacts complaining about factual accuracy and 810 claiming a lack of balance.
In short, only 9.3% of the contacts were about bias or party political bias.
So if you strip out allegations of leftie bias, what’s the motivation for the funding reduction? Not much really – just a government intent on cutting funding to many areas that the previous government deemed important. (Alas, the previous one burned so many bridges we fear they will never find a way to cross back over the River of Discontent.)
It is politically dangerous work, tampering with the ABC. People in the bush and the outback rely on it utterly for news, weather, and information about the wider Australia and, if there is a crisis (a flood, a ‘super cell’ a la Brisbane last night, a bushfire, a pending tsunami) the ABC is their only lifeline.
The ABC’s critics often complain about “middle management bloat” (which happens to any large organisation). But an examination of the wages bill shows ABC staffers don’t get paid as much as those who drive trucks or trains for multinational mining companies.
Wages and salaries at the ABC rose 6% to $368.1 million in 2013-14, for an average salary of $67,615 (compared to the Aussie ‘average’ full-time wage of $75,556). I know that’s not how it works in the real world, but it gives you a bit of a picture. More than half the ABC’s 5,444-strong workforce (57.9%) earns less than $85,000 a year. Another 1,050 earn between $85,000 and $100,000. There are 161 men and 98 women who earn more than $145,000. Just how much more than $145,000 is not stated (page 109). However, according to a ‘leaked report’ passed on by the Australian newspaper in November last year, Lateline host Tony Jones topped the list at $355,000, while half a dozen other presenters earned between $250,000 and $300,000. But what a responsibility: reporting to the Australian public and the Commonwealth Government as shareholder.
Comparisons are odious, but David Koch from Channel 7’s fluffy ‘Sunrise’ programme is said to be on $1million.

But as I was saying about radio licences
Some of the older readers out there will remember the days of radio licences. The original concept was a radio which was tuned to one station and then sealed. The customer paid for a licence and that fee was handed over to the station his radio received. That restrictive system thankfully didn’t last too long and in 1924 licences were based on A class (public radio) or B class (commercial radio).
Class A stations received grants from the Commonwealth via radio licence fees and Class B stations were allowed to sell advertising.
That system lasted until 1972 when the reformist Whitlam government abolished radio and TV licence fees, decreeing that the ABC be funded directly by the public purse.
In the UK, the BBC still charges households £145 a year for a combined radio/TV licence. The BBC is being pilloried in the UK press, with its annual budget blowing out to £3.4 billion, partly because of the 2010 decision by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to freeze the television licence fee until 2016. The BBC, clearly the global benchmark for quality TV and radio, was forced to trim its budget by 20%, as it also had to take on the cost of running the BBC World Service.
Mark Scott has no doubt been looking at how they did this (redeploying or sacking staff, sharing programmes between stations and channels, sharing radio news bulletins, more repeats and a reduction in original programming).
I would happily pay $266 (£145) a year for the priceless freedom of choice the ABC and SBS/NITV has been providing. Who else is going to broadcast the likes of John Pilger’s Utopia, or Babakiueria, that satire on the history of Australia’s settlement, or the ribald adventures of Rake’s Cleaver Green?

A super end to the week

Japanese abacus
A Davy Coogan

In early 2007 our since-retired accountant sat back in his chair and asked the crucial question about starting a self-managed superannuation fund: “Can you tell me why you want to do this?” Then he explained in detail just how onerous it is to run your own super fund. He explained how you need to keep records for 10 years, how big a burden it is in terms of compliance, and, crucially, even when you get an accountant to do the books, the buck stops with you. We decided to go ahead and roll over our superannuation balances from large funds because, if you’ll recall, in 2007 the world markets were imploding and some large listed companies were facing annihilation. We had not been happy with the returns from our managed super funds for some time. She Who Has Not Been An Acronym For A While had slipped her money into cash in 2006 (smart, eh) but the paltry returns (less than 2%) were prompting us to manage our own affairs.

A Big Mistake
I say that from the viewpoint of someone who just wants to lead a quiet life. Our SMSF has brought us a positive return in every year bar one and, despite our expensive travel habits, the balance has not atrophied as much as we had thought. But on a personal front, keeping the books and making sure one does not breach the terms of the all-seeing Trust Deed has been a burden for one of the world’s many anxious people.
I have a theory about anxiety – it troubles conscientious, honest people far more than it bothers the people who hide their money in Luxembourg and pay sanguine lawyers and accountants to keep the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) at bay.

Speaking of the ATO, did you know that among the many functions of our under-resourced tax collection agency is supervising self-managed superannuation funds?
The ATO charged us a supervisory levy of $388 this year. I spend about 11 hours a month updating our internal accounts, filing paperwork and reconciling bank accounts. Any simple errors made along the way can double the amount of time spent. If there was any justice in the world, the ATO should be paying me $388 for supervising my own fund.
Actually, given the ATO’s workload and clearly inadequate staffing levels, it’s a wonder they get around to me. Did you know the ATO has 17.18 million “clients” including 12.3 million individual taxpayers, 2.7 million small businesses, 750,000 trusts and 534,000 SMSFs? All of this work was carried out in 2013-2014 by 23,631 people (before the ATO was required to cut staff numbers by 3,000). They are an efficient lot, though – the ATO’s annual report says the cost of collecting $100 is 69c.

Come back, it’s quite simple really
For those of you who run screaming from the room whenever anyone mentions superannuation, I can understand your anguish. I was a business journalist throughout the era when successive governments pretty much ballsed it up. In 1980-something I set up my first super scheme, before Paul Keating introduced the Superannuation Guarantee Levy (1992), without which many of us would get to 65 with no super whatsoever.
The way super rules were in the early 1980s, I could make after-tax contributions and claim them on my personal tax return. This was before salary sacrifice became a thing. Stay with me here – it’s not that hard to understand.
Historical data from the Commonwealth Treasury tell us that prior to the 1980s, no tax was paid on contributions to superannuation funds. Super fund earnings were tax exempt and tax was only imposed on 5% of lump sum benefits. Pensions or annuities were taxed at the recipient’s marginal rates. Sounds like a fair and simple system.

Tax havens and other sharp practices
Ah, but then the Greed is Good era began and all sorts of chicanery was invented to minimise tax. So in1983, the government moved to thwart the concessional treatment of lump sum superannuation and termination payments.
They introduced a complex system for eligible termination payments (ETPs). The full value of ETPs was included as income, with the post 1983 component taxed at a maximum rate of 30%. For those aged 55 and over, the rate was reduced to 15% up to a threshold.
This system was tweaked in 1988 so the government of the day could bring forward tax revenue. This involved reducing tax on the post 1983 component of ETPs and imposing a 15% tax on super fund contributions and earnings.
Reforms to superannuation in 2007 aimed to make superannuation easier to understand (hah!), and improve incentives to work and save. Superannuation benefits paid from a taxed fund to people aged 60 and over became tax free (hoorah!) The treatment of ETPs was also changed to differentiate between payments received from employers and those received from superannuation funds.

Tax-free Super (Yippee)
These rule changes are said to be behind the exponential growth of DIY Super, which 10 years ago represented less than 10% of all funds.
The ATO reported in June 2014 there were 534,000 SMSFs in Australia with total assets of $557 billion. About 28% of these funds have $1 million or more in assets, but the median fund balance is $518,000.
The ATO is collecting $207 million a year in supervisory levies. It seems iniquitous that they charge $388 whether your account balance is $2.95 million or $295,000. Scope for a sliding scale, perhaps?
I mentioned salary sacrifice before. For a two-income family, this can be a painless way of saving for your old age, which will come along soon enough. In the last eight years of my full-time working life, I was taking home a small wage and shovelling the rest of my pre-tax income into my super fund.
Along the way, there were sterling years when industry-based super funds earned 25%+ and charged very little for managing our money, so as a strategy it paid off. I still have an industry super fund which, now that I am a certain age, is just another bank account from which I can withdraw lump sums whenever needed (as long as it lasts).

Silas Palmer

Sennheisser headphones maybe?
“Whenever needed” can include expensive, age-related items like hearing aids, crowns, ride-on mowers and mobility scooters (which may or may not be deductible).
Or indulgences like producing an independent songwriter album, augmented by some amazing musicians including Silas Palmer and hopefully ready for sale and download in early 2015.
In coming weeks I will be writing about crowd funding, the creative urges of older Australians, the struggle of independent sound engineers, the death of the CD, the not-quite successful birth of the paid music download, the endemic practice of downloading and copying anything that is not tied down, occasionally mentioning a finely crafted recording of truly excellent songs.
Since you have all been so patient working your way through the perils of superannuation, I’ll leave you with the (free) version of Loudon Wainwright III’s protest song “Something for Nothing.”
Ain’t irony great!

620 road closures

Bibliothèque nationale de France

I so rarely go to Brisbane and this week I’m there four times, just when the whole city goes into lock-down for the outrageously expensive and disruptive G20 conference. It started last Sunday with our annual garden concert at Fairfield – our former neighbours have been hosting this event for 10 years (not counting 2011 when their back lawn was awash). We started setting up our small PA system, all the while being “buzzed” by helicopters, supposedly on manoeuvres, rehearsing their role for the coming week’s shenanigans.
Finally at 3pm we go up to start the concert and just as we did, a lone helicopter hovered overhead. What was he thinking?
“Ten four, HQ, we got ourselves a folkie gathering.”
“Roger that – have they go a permit?’
“It looks like a private house – and…they all seem, like, elderly.”
“OK BravoEcho, move on.”

We’ve had our share of G20 vehicles up here in the hinterland – black limos, white vans, all with G20 number plates. We imagine they are making half-day tourism forays into the hinterland − checking out the Glasshouse Mountains, browsing the cheese shop, tasting a few local wines, buying an investment property or two. The conspiracy theorists point to our well located comms (radio communication towers) on hilltops and move their internet security settings to high.
Ah well, it’s good to know the G20 folk feel OK about freely driving about in our town while authorities make it as difficult as possible for us to visit Brisbane at this time. Crikey, they don’t even have to pay to park.
We had tickets to the ballet in West End yesterday and were wondering (a) how to get there and (b) how to get home again until friends who live in Bardon offered us a bed for the night.
Then we got an email from Queensland Ballet, warning us to “Please plan your trip and allow extra time ahead of your journey.” We ended up taking the Go Between Bridge (one of two Brisbane bridges – the other is the Goodwill Bridge – named after ‘famous’ bands). That was too easy – we were half an hour early, but had to park three blocks away.

And then, this Monday morning, at what my musician friend Silas Palmer calls “stupid o’clock”, we will be driving to Brisbane so he can catch the 5am red-eye flight to Melbourne. We’re driving to Samford on Saturday night where Silas is playing at a G20 Women in Docs gig (it’s free). Then we’ll take him back with us and spend a day in the studio while he adds piano and fiddle to my new songs. Hopefully by then the 620 (sorry G20), road closures will have ended and Monday’s 2.30am drive will be easier than today’s three-hour drive to Maleny via Woodford. The freeway was a car park today and last night, on account of people doing what Mayor Graham Quirk urged them not to do (leaving town for a three-day weekend at the coast).

Tabling the G20 agenda
While the Federal government is spending some serious coin to stage this event, the businesses that are affected by detours, road closures and barricades receive no compensation.
Sydney Morning Herald political reporter Heath Aston was apparently shown some Federal Government G20 contracts that outlined some of the expenses incurred over the two-day meeting. There was a lot of talk about the meeting table, which was commissioned for the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in 2006 (at a cost of $70,000). The Abbott government has approved a further $36,000 to extend the table and another $68,000 for chairs.
More than $10 million is being shelled out to house the 20 delegates and their entourages at some of Brisbane’s leading hotels. Another $250,000 has been earmarked for taxis and rental cars and $150,000 for “tablet devices”. Oh, and did I mention $34 million for security?

Excuse me – I have a question. What happens to the table (which will apparently cost $150,000 to be moved around between lead-up meetings to its final destination at the Brisbane Exhibition and Convention Centre) once the G20 is over?
Considering it is highly unlikely the G20 will return to Brisbane in our lifetime, why not put the table and chairs up for auction? I would think some cashed up city council would love to brag about that. Or a high class restaurant could grab it for their VIP room. Or perhaps one of the country’s idle rich would like a showpiece dining table. They’d have to extend the dining room of course, but what else is money for?
Then again, the table (and other recyclable detritus from the G20), could be donated to a clever timber worker with instructions to build a small, affordable, sustainable house – a display home for poor people, if you like, located on a suburban allotment donated by a kind-hearted developer (they do exist). This house (I’m thinking three rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom and somewhere to chain the pushbike), should be rented at $50 a week to the person on the bottom of the public housing list. This, I think, would make several points about a few things.

I’ll admit we live in a sort of utopian bubble up here, gathering at our local watering hole on Fridays to harrumph about this and that. Mr Clean had a few pointed questions for the G20 organisers. Had they not ever heard of Skype? Were they deliberately trying to incite dissent by occupying a city for two days and denying its people freedom of movement? They could have taken over Hamilton Island for the weekend and repelled all boarders. All good points, Mr Clean.
One of my old business contacts observed that the main risk with the G20 is that they will listen too much to economists, who spend most of their time looking out the rear window, and over-stimulate world economies with money-printing and fiscal incentives.
He says most world economies have been recovering quite well over the past three to four years without their help.
He is expecting a stoush and will be disappointed if there isn’t one, adding that, whatever form it takes, he hopes that some degree of common sense prevails.

From the mouths of babes
That left me pondering what you’d say to a four-year-old, in that ‘why’ phase of life, if he asked why Brisbane was hosting the G20.
Kid: “Daddy, what’s a Geetwenty?”
Dad: “It’s a meeting of 20 finance ministers and central bankers who play a significant role in ensuring that international and domestic economic policies work together to protect the global economy against future shocks.”
Kid: “Yes but why?”
Dad: “They meet so they can restore business and investor confidence and address the causes of the global financial crisis and ensure financial stability.”
Kid: “A dress like what Mummy wears?”
Dad: “They also have to make important decisions about inflation.”
Kid: “What’s inflation?”
Dad: “Well, if Mummy buys a dozen free-range, organic eggs from the co-op and they cost $7 and next week they cost $9, that’s inflation.”
Kid: “Why don’t we get chooks, then?”