Friday, September 30, 2011

Larissa's Broken Record

DAVID Marr, who figures in the previous post, can leave the reader a little confused at times, but his talent for dragging facts into a fog of omission and leaving them there to perish is perhaps preferable to some other folks’ annoying little ways. With Marr it is at least possible to follow his tracks and drag lost truth back into the light of day. With Larissa Behrendt, however, the confusing trails make even the simplest attempt at verification an energetic exercise. Consider, for example, some of the Bolt plaintiff and well known tweeter’s accounts of her father, ancestors, family and “raised black” upbringing. This account of her dad, as told to the Silly’s Malcolm Knox, is a good place to begin:
That story begins with her parents. Paul Behrendt was the eighth of nine children born to a German editor and an Aboriginal woman in western NSW, Lavinia Boney, who had been taken from her family and was working in Parkes Hospital when they met.
So here is the first confusion, a relatively minor one. Was Larissa’s gran  “Lavinia”, “Lavena” or perhaps a third variant? Knox could have taken it down incorrectly or Behrendt may not have known how to spell the name of the woman she venerates as the fountainhead of her Aboriginality. Whichever party messed up, the short summary of her death certificate suggests the latter is the case, also listing the year of grandma’s death as 1942 and Lithgow as her final resting place. It is definitely the right woman, as Paul Behrendt’s 2006 obit in the National Indigenous Times notes that he was born in 1939 in Lithgow, where the cemetery register has his mum listed as having been interred under yet another spelling, “Lavina”.

Also of interest is this press report in the SMH of November 12, 1934, which names Larissa’s granddad, Henry the German editor, as one of those hospitalized after police used truncheons to break up a protest by “unemployed outside the Courthouse”.  The following month “H.W.E.. Behrendt” stood for the local council but finished last in a crowded field, out-polled by the informals.

Those who put such a stock on heritage might see Larissa’s political activism as the bequest of her white granddad. Then again, probably not. For some reason it is only aptitudes attributed to race, discernible or not, that are to be acknowledged and endorsed.Remember those H.W.E.  initials, by the way. They will figure later in this post. Now back to Malcolm Knox’s profile.
''I never knew either of them. Lavinia died after giving birth to the ninth child, my Uncle Peter, and Dad and his siblings grew up in the Burnside Home for Children. The circumstances aren't known, which was one reason I fictionalised it in Home.''
After his institutionalised childhood, Paul lived on the streets in Sydney.
Two things about this seem odd. The first, that in other accounts of her father’s childhood, Larissa’s words kinda, sorta leave the impression that he, too, was stolen.  Here it is “the circumstances aren’t known.” Or it might be an impression gained by way of inadequate punctuation, as in “my Grandmother had been removed by the Removal Policy and then my father had been in a home since he was five.”  Or this to the ABC’s Michael Cathcart, “My grandmother was taken away when she was twelve … And my father and four of his siblings were institutionalised.”

The second oddity is that other versions from other sources are available, ones that appear to have grasped “the circumstances” very well indeed. Paul Behrendt’s Austlit biography, available to non-subscribers only in this thumbnail, puts it this way:
“…Behrendt's father was unable to support the children, and the children were sent to Burnside Home in Sydney. At the age of twelve Paul Behrendt returned to live with his father and stepmother. Behrendt returned to his ancestral lands and made contact with family members…”
A gulf is opening between Larissa’s version of her father’s life and those available from other sources, many of them official. Austlit says he went home and lived with Dad. She tells Knox, he  lived on the streets, then adds a heartbreaking vignette about a father-son encounter:
''He actually ran into his father, who said, 'I'll keep your shoes clean, son.' It still gives me chills to think of those meetings,'' Behrendt says.
The records would suggest that Larissa can dry those tears and feel just a little warmer and cosier toward the white world, the one that would seem on the strength of her “unknown circumstances” and narrative ambiguities to have cast her black pater aside like so much dusky jetsam. In fact, what they suggest – and strongly suggest – is that single parent H.W.E. Behrendt was doing his very best to reclaim the boys and build a better life for them all. They also suggest that Larissa’s version does the white granddad’s memory a gross injustice.

Start with the SMH of July 9, 1948, which announced the winners of a Housing Commission lottery to determine the “big families” that would get the 100 available homes with three or more bedrooms. The report notes that all entrants in the draw had been on the list for larger digs since 1944, the year Paul and his siblings were placed in that Parramatta orphanage. Amongst the lucky winners, “H.W.E. Behrendt”, who scored a place in Strathfield. That second document is Paul Bahrendt’s service record in the RAN, which Larissa says her father joined “to get three meals a day”. If so, the wages of an “assistant elevator mechanic” must have been very poor, because that is the civilian occupation stated on his service record (click the image tab on the right).

Aspiring seaman Paul Behrendt nominates his next of kin as good ol’ H.W.E. Behrendt, the white man whose memory “chills” Larissa, and the recruits’ civvy street address is listed as 59 Park Road, Burwood, which is on the current border with Strathfield, where H.W.E. won his big family home in the Housing Commission’s lucky dip.

Also of interest is the recruit’s physical description – 5-foot-6-and-a-bit, black hair and an “olive complexion”. No mention of Paul Behrendt being an Aborigine. It is just as well the dead cannot sue, because Judge Mordy might have have to settle another case of ruffled racial sensitivities.

So what do we have here with our competing versions?

By Larissa’s account, a black man who was abandoned by his white father, quite possibly even stolen with the uncaring dad’s consent. Next, a vagrant life, followed by a Navy enlistment inspired only by the need to get a regular feed.

Against this the official record: A hard-pressed widower forced to place his kids temporarily in an orphanage, a man who then began an immediate effort to obtain a large house, and a child who found employment as a junior lift mechanic until he was 18 and old enough to join the armed forces.

Oh, and there is one other document that redounds to the maligned H.W.E.’s credit, once again a report in the SMH, this one published on December 23, 1953, which lists Henry Behrendt as having passed his accountancy exams. In addition to reclaiming his kids and securing a decent home, he also worked and studied to provide a better life for all.

In her interviews, Larissa makes no bones about her novels being thinly fictionalised accounts of what she insists is her family history. She is good at it, too, according reviewer Anita Heiss, Larissa’s pal and fellow Bolt basher, who notes “an obvious talent for the creative form”. Quite a talent indeed!

What a pity Larissa did not view family’s history from another, more sanguine perspective: a racially enlighted mixed marriage, a politically active granddad, the Depression’s privations and heartbreak of a mother’s death, followed by the anguish of a dislocated family. After that, the triumph of the human spirit as the re-united clan found security in a post-war Australia brimming with opportunity and justice for all.

But who these days would want to read a book like that?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Marr And Pa

ANYONE who has read Dark Victory, David Marr’s co-authored expose of John Howard’s inhumanity, will have realised very early on that the man whom Silly editor Peter Fray urges his paper’s reporters to emulate has a tendency to, well, place an excessive weight on some facts while skating very lightly over others. At the start of his Tampa book, for example, the reader gets many sympathetic pages about the plight of the rescued Afghan refugees – many of whom, Marr concedes, were not Afghan at all – before any mention that “a delegation” representing the ship’s unplanned human cargo invaded the bridge and threatened its captain and crew with big trouble unless the vessel was put about immediately for Christmas Island. By any definition it was a hijacking, but Marr leaps with sprightly grace over this inconvenient reflection on his heroic victims’ disregard for law, preferring to paint Howard & Co in subsequent pages as villains for refusing to reward with entry permits those who forced with threat and intimidation that change of course. While this is all ancient history, the Marr syle is well worth keeping in mind when reading his approving analysis of the damage Judge Mordy has done to free speech in the matter of Andrew Bolt.

Here's Bolt on Larissa Behrendt: "She's won many positions and honours as an Aborigine, including the David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writers, and is often interviewed demanding special rights for 'my people'. But which people are 'yours', exactly, mein liebchen? And isn't it bizarre to demand laws to give you more rights as a white Aborigine than your own white dad?"
Among the problems here are that Behrendt's father was a black Australian, not a white German. And like all the others, Behrendt was raised black. Judge Bromberg wrote: "She denies Mr Bolt's suggestion that she chose to be Aboriginal and says that she never had a choice, she has always been Aboriginal and has 'identified as Aboriginal since before I can remember'." Bolt didn't contest her evidence.
There is no denying Bolt did get it wrong. Behrendt’s father, by his daughter’s account, came to regard himself as an Aborigine. Chalk one up for David Marr, who curiously neglects to set the record straight. Had he done so, Bolt’s error would not only have struck Silly readers as negligible, the truth would also have bolstered  Bolt’s overall argument that an individual who chooses a single, minor strand of genetic pedrigee above all the rest is making a statement not on breeding but of politics and cultural preference.

The truth is that it was Behrendt’s grandfather who was white and German. It was her grandmother who was of mixed race. Both are an equal number of generations removed from the woman who famously tweeted that she preferred bestiality to Bess Price, so while Bolt is wrong in the particular, his overall point stands.

There is another thing about those paragraphs that is worth noting, the line where Marr says Larissa “was raised black.” Her version, as told to Marr’s colleague Malcolm Knox, does nothing to explain what “raised black” actually means. Indeed,  for those not quite so exquisitely attuned to the mores of racial identity and self-identity, it is a bafflement:
It was, ironically, [her white mother] Raema who instilled a sense of Aboriginal identity in Larissa and her brother. ''When Jason got picked on because of his colour, Dad had said … 'My son is as white as you are.' It was Mum who allowed us never to feel embarrassed about our Aboriginality. She has a great heart and social conscience. But it came at a cost to her, because she couldn't feel part of it herself. So she dropped us off at rallies and stayed outside.''
How odd that Marr did not share these facts with his readers, did not plumb the Silly’s archives for a little context and background. Perhaps he was distracted at his keyboard by the sound of champagne corks popping or, just as likely, more sweet nothings from the lips of a doting editor.

I Acknowledge The Bloomingdale's People....

DR ANITA HEISS, one of the plaintiffs in the Bolt gagging, tells Crikey! readers:

"I am continuing to focus on what I love doing most, working with young Aboriginal people around the country and teaching them how to write their own stories, in the hope they too will one day have the position of privilege to publish their own words."

Well, for six months of the year, anyway (see the 2:00 mark).
(Thanks to Bob On The Murray for sending the Crikey excerpt.)

UPDATE: "Anita’s $90,000 grant over two years will help her research and produce two works, including a memoir, Am I Black Enough For You? ‘The work will include my insights on contemporary Australia and views on Aboriginal people today — like the need for greater selfrepresentation in literature and the classroom,’ said Anita.

UPDATE II: Meet Anita's mob -- the publicist, the stylists, the photographer, the life coach, the Melbourne and Sydney makeup artists and, of course, her personal stylist.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Champion Verdict

WHAT A shame the old Champion Hotel on the corner of Brunswick and Gertrude streets was turned into a rug salesroom. The Bloodhouse was its nom de guerre, and you didn’t need to add an adjective, the adjective, because in Melbourne it went without saying. The blacks’ Bloodhouse, that is what everyone knew it to be, a place where any driver who pulled up outside and waited for the lights to change received a 60-second education in despair. Not the patrons’ despair, because they were too far gone to care, shouting and facing off, lurching into the roadway, women hiking stained dresses and squatting for a squirt in the gaps between parked cars. Much More Ballroom, the hippy mecca, used to be just up the street, but love and peace didn’t cut it on that corner. The vibe, man, it was bad. Stepping over pools of spew, sometimes comatose bodies, it just wasn’t cool. For caring, gentle white folk who talked of love and peace the Champion was a bummer, a corner to be avoided lest it spoil a nice buzz.

It is gone now, long gone, and the former patrons swept from sight. Great for property values, and not one of the terrace renovators who have transformed Fitzroy from slum to chic would wish it back. But today, a few hours after Andrew Bolt was found guilty of ruffling a new, paler and vindictively sensitive species of blackfella, you can’t help thinking how much the old Champion is needed.

The victors will be out there tonight before the cameras, telling how Black Australia just isn’t going to take the Dutchman’s slanders for one more day. Their lawyers will be skiting, too, and the ABC’s talking heads will nod and put the soft questions that, at the government broadcaster, signify support and sympathy.

Indeed, even if a reporter wanted to note that artist Bindi Cole, one of the triumphant plaintiffs, would never, ever have been denied service in the front bar of a quieter, whiter pub than the Champion, he will not put the question. Too dangerous now, legally too risky. Who but Bolt has had the balls to say the emperor has no clothes, and that the exposed skin is so often no darker than a Greek’s? Certainly nobody at the ABC or The Age, where it must have been a day of unsettling internal dialogues. Yippee, the dominant voice would have cried, that Bastard Bolt got his! But what of us and the opinions we express? Might we be next? Expect tomorrow’s editorial to begin by deploring Bolt for what he is and what he wrote, with the rest an exercise in nuanced incoherence. On matters of race, once you have mastered maudlin impotence, it is by far the best policy not to care enough to have a point of view, especially one that might see you sued.

And that is why we need the Champion, as a reminder that the problem, the real problem, has nothing to do with educated self-promoters who know how to get the grants and play the system. They can look after themselves, as it seems they have all been doing, hurt feelings and all.

But the poor bastards who made the Champion their second home, what of them? They have been moved on but are still out there, high on smack in Smith Street, pissed to the gills and just as quarrelsome in the dirt of the Fink’s dry riverbed, bearing bruises and offering sex for a flagon on the outskirts of Ceduna and a thousand other outposts of shame.

Do you think those children of the Champion – grandchildren and greatgrandchildren by now -- will be celebrating tonight in the long grass, breaking out the cheese and pinot gris, doing a little networking, sizing up the opportunities for a grant to shoot an SBS documentary about the day Bolt had his ears boxed?

Not a chance. The Champion is gone and for too many whites, the old problem, and still the real problem, has been largely pushed from sight. Now, thanks to Judge Mordy, it will be perilous even to speak of it.

Justice? We have not seen that today. Not for open debate or common sense, and certainly not for those who need it most.

UPDATE: "Emerging Indigenous artist" Bindi Cole talks about herself and Aboriginality. Have the barf bag ready at about the 3 minute mark.

Bolt Guilty Of Free Speech

THE news is just breaking on the radio. Andrew Bolt is said to have been found of guilty of writing some columns that really annoyed a few people whose ethnic backgrounds, real or confected, put them on a protected pedestal.

This is serious.

UPDATE: According to ongoing reports, ex-Labor candidate and Labor-appointed judge, Mordy Bromberg, has ruled that "the way Bolt went about writing his columns" -- the radio reporter's words --  settled his guilt.

Why is an enemy of free speech on the bench?

Why is Premier Ted Baillieu not cleaning out the courts, putting the Labor-appointed hacks, lickspittles and be-wigged totalitarians out to pasture? (UPDATE: Several readers point out Bromberg is a federal judge. Apologies for allowing the growing frustration with a state Liberal leader to spill into this post.)

Why aren't we pouring into the streets with pitchforks and flaming brands to defend the right to offend the terminally precious?

Why aren't clients of the lawyers who handled the prosecution pro bono taking their business elsewhere?
Anger isn't enough. Take a tip from the left. Get active. Defy wicked laws. Get in their faces.

How To Be As Smart As Wayne

BEEN behaving yourself lately? Not running up stupendous debts, tithing to a crackpot cult or turning the blind eye to the activities of your old mate, a brothel-creeping embezzler, who does you quite a few favours?

Yes, yes and yes? Well that’s just bonza, but surely you feel a little underappreciated now that Wayne Swan, who cannot answer in the affirmative to any of the above, has been honoured as The World’s Most Fantabulous Fiscaleer?

Don’t be down in the mouth because now you too can enjoy the recognition you deserve with a lovely, stainless steel facsimile Chippendale plate, just like the one that made Wayne the Wonder Treasurer’s day when he dropped in last week on the editors of the most influential magazine you did not know existed.

See, it is exactly like Wayne’s.

And all for just 32 quid, postage not included, from UK outfit! Look, it’s just like Wayne’s plate. Exactly like Wayne’s, actually. And in no time at all you will have the confidence to tell everyone on your street what they are doing wrong.

Impress your friends, enhance your mantelpiece, use it to awe the bank manager and extend that overdraft. Who knows when you might feel the need to splash some mad money on ceiling insulation, grace the backyard with a million-dollar shelter shed or a write lots of cheques to dead people and strangers at $900 apiece?

But wait, that’s not all! For the sort of union members' small change Craig Thomson leaves as a tip on the dresser you also get 20 characters of free engraving, enough (with two left over) in Wayne’s case to emblazon “Treasurer Of The Year”.

So if you want to add a pair of exclamation marks at the end of your inscription, go right ahead. They will certify an even greater authority than our acclaimed treasurer, and all for a fraction of the amount your bills will rise under Wayne and Julia's tax on carbon dioxide.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pvt. Parts Reporting, Sar!

FOR ONE of the more amusing tales of wardrobe malfunctions consult Boy On A Bike.

Just don't ask him to recount it from a squatting position.

Publisher By Appointment To Mick Gatto

THE trouble with modern education is that there is far too much of it, and mostly the wrong kind, as Tony Hassall explains, recalling the delicious mischief worked by The Australian some years ago:
Literary theory became the uber-discipline, supplanting literature as the primary object of study, and Australian literature was collateral damage. Just how far Australian literature slipped off the radar was graphically illustrated a few years ago when 12 local publishing houses rejected a chapter from a Patrick White novel mischievously submitted to them, by this newspaper, with only the characters' names changed. No one in the publishing industry recognised the work of this celebrated Australian author, whose style is, to say the least, idiosyncratic.
Things have only grown worse in the ivory tower. If your fondest desire is to be published by a university press, don’t bother sending a serious manuscript to once-reputable MUP, where the tastes of commissioning editors and submission sifters run lately to gangland memoirs, self-hating Hebrews, climate catastropharians and coppers who didn’t let a few flames spoil dinner.

But perhaps that appraisal is just a tad too harsh. MUP has published at least one decent book of late.

Beware Of Greeks Snaring Gifts

THIS IS a wonderful time of year to be in Melbourne, just as everything is waking up for spring. What the councils’ green shirts these days disparage as “exotics”, by which they mean anything that isn’t native, are coming into bloom, so there are sprays and cascades of blossoms and scents spilling over second garden fence. By the first Tuesday in November the roses will be all over Flemington and for a month or two after that, until the first of the north winds bake the Christmas roast before it goes into your oven, there is probably no more congenial location on the planet. The AFL Grand Final is a handy human marker for this annual transformation, a reminder to check the tent and stop by the op shop for a $1 frypan you will not mind ruining over the coming summer’s campfires. This year’s contest, Collingwood v. Geelong, will probably be a fine match, as both their encounters this season have been, the Cats taking both. The first regret of this otherwise splendid season will be that footy is not a game where both sides can lose, as neither Grand Final contender commands the slightest affection at the Billabong.

The second annoyance to soil the season also has to do with footy. It is Andrew Demetriou, who heads the AFL and is seen and heard at Finals time much more than in any other month. You can dislike him instinctively for his looks and mouth, surrender to visceral sentiment and detest the mere sight of a man whom the Great Bunyip fashioned in the image of a proctologist’s butt plug. But that would be a waste of prejudice, because there are so many other, far more reputable reasons to loathe him.

If you are a Tasmanian, it will be for denying your state its own footy team. There are 400,000 Apple Islanders and their passion for the sport guarantees a new club’s success, especially with the government incentives that continue to be tossed on the table.

Bugger them, says Demetriou, who next year will have overseen the birth of two new clubs in parts of the country where the local preference for thick-necked men running each other is unlikely to be shaken, not in a donkey’s lifetime.

In Melbourne, sit through the AFL’s next Green Round – yes, there is one, often played under lights – and try not to conjure the number of homes that could be powered with the rendered fat from Demetriou’s head. If Meat Loaf fails to make this weekend’s game, a guillotine and tumbrel would make splendid half-time entertainment. It would be like snapping the eraser tip off a thick pencil. This being Melbourne, any number of older ladies in the stands will already have brought their knitting.

Or try the Welcome to Country ramble that precedes the Indigenous Day round. Ignore that possum coat and the rent-a-blackfella platitudes tumbling out before the first bounce. To maintain that certain air which tokenism exploits when good manners are present, concentrate on the smoking fire and draw joy from the thought of Demetriou being tossed upon it.

And if none of those options are quite up to what the ardent barracker believes a fit fate for the wretch who is wrecking our great game, consider what the little bastard did today, when he sold out the clubs to Julia Gillard and Andrew Wilkie.

The Western Bulldogs draw 40% of revenue from the pokies, according to the club’s president, and its future, like so many other clubs, depends on those machines. There was a revolt brewing, with Hawthorn’s Jeff Kennett directing some of the spleen left over from the weekend’s heartbreaker at Nanny Wilkie and his belief that human weakness can be remedied with legislation. And then came word that the clubs should stick a sock in it while Demetriou extended a conciliatory hand.

And why, for what what reason did Demetriou lead the AFL's about-face? Because he is concerned for these armies of problem gamblers, who are to be slightly inconvenienced on their roads to ruin, for that is all the practical result of loss limits will be? If Demetriou cared about degenerate punters he would have vetoed bookmakers’ club sponsorships.

No, Demetriou is debasing football and the clubs in order to secure and preserve government monies that help him do further damage to the sport. In Queensland and South Australia stadia are being spruced up with government dollars, nice Labor government dollars.

Demetriou’s plan to force Aussie Rules down northern throats is stupid, but the man pushing it is nothing if not sly. If existing teams are being stripped of talent by the need to staff two new squads, what is to him? He is running a business, and like any tycoon with hand extended he knows on which side his bread is buttered, if not the game’s, and which governments not to irritate. So he will sell out the existing clubs to push his ill-conceived expansion.

That’s the modern game for you. Still great on the field, but an increasingly sad spectacle elsewhere.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Black Like Who?

BOOK BUFF Jane Sullivan’s rumination on the disputed right of white authors to put themselves inside the heads of Aboriginal characters brings to mind a little piece of Australian literary history, one steeped in delicious irony by the Fairfax veteran’s decision to begin her little piece with fond memories of the children’s books written and illustrated by the Durack sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, of whom she now takes a dim view. “Fascinated by Aboriginal stories and art,” Sullivan writes, the sisters “began to appropriate these stories and pictures into their own art.” She finds this “questionable” and observes with smug approval that “two white sisters claiming to represent Aboriginal culture would probably not find a publisher today.”

Two paragraphs on, having hailed a new kiddies book written by genuine blackfellas, she speaks glowingly of the “immense and demanding” effort – community consultations and deciphering a long-dead American anthropologist’s notes – required to see the book from conception to printer. Then she tosses in that element of unintended irony: “ I can’t imagine the Durack sisters going to all this trouble.”

Really? How peculiar, because another of the Durack girls’ most energetic projects to promote aboriginality, to use the race solons’ favourite word, not only won Sullivan’s approval, it also prompted her to defend a fraud. If you want an example of how contorted our thinking has become on the subject of race, the then and now of Sullivan’s sentiments captures it to a tee.

Briefly, in the late 1950s a young and dark-skinned man turned up at the Durack homestead and was taken in, as so many others had been before him. Elizabeth had made his acquaintance while visiting Aboriginal prisoners, which she did throughout her life, and as Maureen Clark explains in her 2004 PhD thesis, her mentoring, encouragement and editing saw an ex-con blossom into a literary talent. By 1965, her protege had completed a novel, Wildcat Falling, which was published under the pen name Mudrooroo and hyped as the first such work by an Aboriginal writer.

But there was a problem: Mudrooroo, whose real name was Colin Johnson, boasted not a trace of Aboriginal blood, a fact subsequently exposed by the revelation that such melanin as he possessed was the legacy of an African-American grandfather. This is all very well known, and Clark’s thesis does a good job of recapping the basic facts, once the reader penetrates the requisite academic verbiage and obligatory references to “colonial imperialist narratives” and the like.

Now let us return to Jane Sullivan, who in 2000 reported on an antiquarian book fair at Malvern Town Hall – a gathering which, just coincidentally, a bookish Bunyip also attended. One of the vendors, Michael Treloar, was hawking as a job lot a collection of Australian literary frauds that ran from Angry Penguins to The Hand That Signed The Paper and the autobiography of Wanda Koolmatrie (another bogus blackfella who turned out to be no Aboriginal woman but a white, male taxi driver). Amongst the collection of hoax authors, Sullivan spied a copy of Wildcat Falling, which inspired her to inform Sunday Age readers that it had been misclassified:
The last item in the collection, Mudrooroo's 1965 novel, Wildcat Falling, stretches the definition of a hoax, as it seems there was no deliberate attempt to fool anybody. Mudrooroo is a highly respected author and academic who has done much for indigenous writing, but recently activists have alleged that his grandfather was an American Negro (as far as I know, Mudrooroo hasn't commented on this). 
By that stage there was no doubt about Johnson’s pedigree, certainly not amongst the Nyoongar people, who several years earlier rejected his claimed heritage after he declined to meet elders seeking to investigate his bona fides. His name was subsequently added to the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation’s  Wall of Shame (see note 23) dedicated to those lacking the  correct bloodlines to appropriate, to use Sullivan’s word, Aboriginal culture and heritage. Yet, despite all this, Sullivan was discomforted to see Johnson branded a fraud and his book a hoax. While not referring directly to Sullivan, Clark explains the indulgent mindset:
The irony of Johnson’s real life narrative however is that it was his skin colour that not only constituted the primary mark of his alienation but which, for dominant white society, also determined the potential legitimacy as an Aboriginal writer.
Then, quoting another academic, Clark gets to the nub:
Gerhard Fischer has argued that it was Mary Durack who determined Johnson’s Aboriginal identity from the physical evidence before her and who made him what he was to become, an Aboriginal writer.
When viewed through the fractured prism of race relations and current racial politics it seems the Duracks are to be condemned for “appropriating” Aboriginal myths and art, yet Johnson, their creation and the greatest example of their handiwork, is to be cut lots of slack because, while his DNA is deemed inadequate, skin tone alone is just dark enough to get him over credibility’s line.

These are strange times when black is white and white is black and the spectrum of acceptability in between is determined by a well-intentioned white woman's mentoring and the  subjectively political eye of those who would condemn her while embracing her creation.

God help us all.

Broome Needs Sweeping

IT IS probably a good thing, a very good thing, that ex-military man Kev Gillett no longer has access to automatic weaponry, otherwise hippies would be diving for cover all over Broome.The poor fellow spends weeks in the Great Sandy Desert, makes it to civilization and is just enjoying his first brewed coffee when the Bongwater Brigade ruins his day.

Pop across to his blog and enjoy a fit of righteous indignation. And visit the site tomorrow as well because Kev is always worth reading.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Jess' A Minute, Blondie

BLONDE economist Jessica Irvine tells us… many other loved Australian brands such as Holden and Vegemite were American-owned from the start -- by General Motors and Kraft.”

That would have been news to poor old Fred Walker, of the Fred Walker Cheese Company, who went to his grave in 1935 believing his chief chemist, Cyril Callister, invented the world’s greatest toast enhancer 13 years earlier. Kraft entered a partnership with Fred in 1925 and bought out the company upon the founder’s death.

Jessica is a bit closer, but still wrong, about Holden, which was building bodies for imported GM chasis under contract , as well as doing the odd bit of work for GM rivals. It was in 1931, 75 years after Holden began, that GM took control.

Yes, they are small details. But if a newspaper and featured columnist cannot get the small things right, why should they be trusted on the big ones?

Solyndra: Tip Of The Berg

FOR some reason, up until this morning, neither Phage nor Silly had published more than a few inconsequential words about the Solyndra scandal in the US. A week or so ago, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman argued in his syndicated column, re-published in both papers, that green subsidies “really helped start-ups leverage private capital, but you also get Solyndras.” If the Fairfax target audience was capable of curiosity, this throw-away reference might have incited it. Despite all the many reports on Obama’s politically motivated squandering of $500 million, until that point not a single mention had graced the pages of either Australian broadsheet.

Three days later, Fairfax man in Washington Simon Mann added a little more to the sum of Age’s readers’ knowledge, such as it is. “Having abandoned its push for a carbon price, the Obama administration is under fire in the wake of the collapse of solar panel maker Solyndra, into which it ploughed more than $US500 million.” Again, no mention of the quid pro quo that apparently opened the cash spigot for a generous Democratic Party donor. That is hardly surprising, given that Mann was decrying Republican presidential candidates’ climate-change scepticism, which means “Green power does not rank in their calls for American energy independence.” Fairfax does not have many readers left, but those who remain can rest assured that they will never be confronted by news stories that might provide an incitement to independent thought.

This morning in the Sunday Phage the cause of public enlightenment took a turn for the better, although it was left to an opinion columnist, the IPA’s Chris Berg, to explain the scandal in terms other than evil Republicans’ indifference to the environment. Berg’s article is a good read and a fine summation of everything the Age has failed to report. But his column does not bring readers entirely up to date, there being no reference to Solyndra’s quest to mine additional green dollars from Australian taxpayers.

Unlike the US parent, Patrick Featherston, head of Solyndra’s Australian subsidiary, claimed in a submission to Department of Climate Change not to need “direct cash contribution from the Government”.  Rather, it was “an accelerated depreciation schedule of 5-7 years” that would spur “a large uptake” of rooftop solar systems.

Our PM has few things to celebrate these days, but Solyndra’s sudden collapse in the US may be one of those rarities. If the US company had not gone bust, who can tell how many buyer incentives the Gillard government might have provided to promote a rogue multinational’s technology? It could have been awkward, with Solyndra’s Australian clients attempting to reach the customer service department of a company that no longer exists.

Gillard’s sole consolation would have been her good friends at Fairfax, where the policy, apparently, is to publish opinion on the news pages and hard facts in the op-eds. And where, on the form of the past few weeks many failing years, no mention would have been made of it at all.

UPDATE: Here's a thought. Why doesn't a reporter call a few of the Australian companies installing Solyndra's products and ask where they stand now? Who knows, there might be a story there.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Testing Times At The Office

POOR Hawthorn. The Hawks will not be playing in next weekend’s Grand Final, having failed last night by a miserable three points to get the better of Collingwood. There will be post-mortems, of course, and the most obvious explanation will be that Jeff Kennett’s leg-weary boys ran low on ergs in the fourth quarter. Few who watched the game, a genuine classic, will disagree with that assessment, but readers of this morning’s Silly will know better: If only the MCG had been officially designated a five-star sustainable sports stadium, Hawthorn’s final-term fitness and work rate would have soared, making vistory inevitable.

This is science we are talking about here, folks -- good, hard, solid, settled science, the sort the Silly and Phage never hesitate to report when field surveys and results, even the most dubious ones, provide just the merest hint of a suggestion they might endorse those newspapers’ jolly green preconceptions. In this instance it is the benefits of working in sustainable office environments, with the Silly reporting the latest news from the Clipboard Kingdom in the story’s first paragraph “The new wave of ultra-green office buildings,” it begins, “is bringing unexpected benefits for their occupants beyond the obvious savings in cost and energy.”*

Overlook the sentence’s cack-handed construction and grammatical imprecision, which are no more nor less than one expects these days from quality journalists and those who teach them.* Instead, examine the, ahem, scientific method the story asserts has established the benefits. After quoting two twenty-something lawyers in Sydney, writer Nick Galvin switches his attention to the south, where he reports the following:
The pair's sentiments are backed by an increasing body of evidence, including a detailed study with another law firm, Oakley Thompson, after it recently moved into a newly refurbished green building in the centre of Melbourne [500 Collins Street]. The study, conducted with the University of Melbourne, found sick days had fallen 39 per cent and the lawyers' billings ratio rose 7 per cent despite the overall hours worked falling 12 per cent. The survey even found the firm's secretaries were typing 9 per cent faster in the new building and with greater accuracy.
Detailed study, eh? Well, not quite. As anyone who examines the actual results will ascertain very quickly indeed, the methods are about as reliable as Hawthorn’s set shots.  Let us take those claims one by one:

SICK DAYS: The study contrasts five years of pre-renovation sickie stats with those for just nine months after the office was awarded its five green stars. The five-year figures were “normalised”, just like tree-ring data, and the post-renovation numbers were not, with the number crunchers asserting they saw no need to do so.

Even so, incidences of illness in post-renovation January exceeded those for the same month’s five-year average. And where there were differences, they were generally slight. March numbers were only a whisker below the five-year norm, as were those for the previous November. Such overall gains as the study claimed to observe are attributable almost solely to three months of somewhat wider divergence (see Chart 3).But given that the post-renovation numbers are based on part of just a single year, it is reasonable to assume that some of the previous years’ pre-renovation figures were just as low.

Logic and surmise are our only guides on this point as, for reasons unexplained, the authors neglect to provide each of those years’ individual trend lines. 

BILLINGS: The claim is that lawyers brought in 7% more fees while working 12% fewer hours. Let the report itself, which Galvin evidently neglected to absorb, explain why that summarised result is pure nonsense.

First, there is the differing natures of the compared samples (underscore added at the Billabong): 
QUOTE #1: The data on which these conclusions were made covered only ten months before the office move, and ten months after the move. Before this period, data was collected manually and the records were not readily comparable. The differences in data collection approaches would also make the comparison questionable.
 Then there is the matter of the survey’s participants:
QUOTE #2:the pre-occupancy survey was conducted four months before the move, while the post-occupancy survey was three months after the move … It was a voluntary survey and of the total of 20 employees (including partners and solicitors), 12 (60%) agreed to participate. For the survey to obtain meaningful comparisons, the post-occupancy survey should cover the same participants as in the pre-occupancy survey. However, only eight of the 12 original participants responded to the second survey, so that the comparison covers only 40% of the total staff.

But not to worry. Another firm, stockbrokers this time, also was surveyed, with an unnamed senior executive quoted as saying “productivity has gone through the roof.” Alas, there is no way to verify that enthusiasm. As the survey’s authors concede (they do an awful lot of concedin’):
QUOTE #3: … Because Lonsec [the brokerage] only agreed to join the Study after the move, the survey could only be retrospective, with participants directly comparing their new accommodation with their memory of their past accommodation. This is less objective than asking staff to rate a building before a move and then, some time later asking them to rate the building again.
FLYING FINGERS: And finally there is the astonishing claim, the most improbable of them all, that typists are faster and more accurate if tapping away in a green building. As with those busy, busy lawyers, the before-and-after sample was miniscule. An improvement of 9% is claimed, but go to Chart 5 and you will be struck that only five secretaries were tested. Of these, according to Chart 6, one – Typist 4 – was more accurate in her previous surroundings!

There is plenty more in the findings that should have raised reporter Galvin's eyebrows, and it is to be hoped that one of those savvy statistical sorts who make Catallaxy Files so interesting will bring an expertise greater than that of a specialist in Etruscan semiotics to the subject. But even without a more probing analysis, two things stand out as causes for alarm.

The first is that, once again, the Silly has demonstrated its eagerness to swallow and regurgitate more of the green guff its reporters and editors find so congenial, accuracy and insight be damned.

The second is far more alarming and can be found in the survey’s URL, which announces with its “” that it is now an official document and thus certain, absolutely certan, to be cited when justification is sought for more green handouts or, inevitably, punitive taxes and levies on those employers whose offices are, as yet, uncarpeted with green cant.

If only the Hawks had known what wonders motivated statisticians can work, they would have sent last night’s final score over to Melbourne University and had themselves declared normalised winners. Making stuff up, that's the new normal.

UPDATE: What a pity the survey did not include Ned from the US version of The Office this activist version of The Office in the sample of happy employees. Ignore the preaching at the end, and thanks to Dan Lewis for pointing out the error.

* Buildings do not come in waves. Benefits, unexpected or otherwise, are brought to, or bestowed upon, recipients. Why are the savings in cost and energy obvious? Where is the comma after occupants?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sophie Mirabella = Craig Thomson!

EN ROUTE to the golf club this morning, thoughts of putting the new Callaway driver to good use were pushed aside by the sudden, urgent need to find the brake pedal, pull over and try not to throw up. It was Jon Faine’s ABC radio show that did it, more particularly his quite astonishing conversation with Age investigative reporter Michael Bachelard, who has two stories in this morning’s paper about Sophie Mirabella, her former relationship with a much older man and his estranged children’s apparent suspicion that the Liberal MP alienated their father’s affections in order to plunder his estate.

The story itself is dubious enough. Even by Bachelard’s account, Mirabella had long-standing (and horizontal) ties with former law professor Colin Howard. She appears to have looked after him during his decline into dementia, and he seems to have been genuinely fond of her, even after their relationship foundered and she married another. The kids are complaining that he gave Mirabella money to win her seat and, later, to help her buy a Wangaratta home. They also believe her to be the sole beneficiary of his estate, said to be worth around $1 million.

There is no point in recapping the details at greater length. They are available here and here. What needs to be mentioned – and borne in mind by anyone tempted to purchase another copy of the Age as produced by its current staff and management – is Bachelard’s rationale for the public’s “right” to know of some very nasty family business. A trained reporter would have taken down the quote verbatim, but here is an amateur’s rendering as scratched on the back of a scorecard with the stub of a blunt pencil. Remember, what follows is not verbatim, but it certainly captures the gist of Bachelard’s justification for dragging the feud into print:
FAINE: How do you justify this intrusion? 
BACHELARD: Well, if Craig Thomson can be investigated for using union credit cards to hire prostitutes, Mirabella’s relationship with Howard and what his children are saying is fair game.
Again, that is a paraphrase. If the transcript is published on the ABC site, it will be added to this post. In the meantime, though, consider the tortured logic The Age applies to its selection of worthy stories: Craig The Brothel Creeper, is copping flak, therefore it is fair and just to give a bit of the same to a Liberal.


Honesty Fades To Black

A RECENT paramour, a lovely and good-hearted gal, was very keen on a night at the flix, especially if the Westgarth or Sun happened to be showing a documentary purporting to distill the essence of what you might call the Indigenous Experience. Her enthusiasm was a mystery because, if you have seen one such film, you have seen them all. Scatter a few blackfellas and a heavy dollop of white guilt about the screen, chuck in a reverential narrator, and polish the lot to a blinding gloss with a Film Australia grant and Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s old chamois. Why she took such delight in seeing black people pick their unskinned dinners from beds of embers must remain a mystery, but many people do. Give the genre’s directors a chance to punctuate 90 minutes of patronising footage with long, static shots of big, red suns going up or down, usually to an accompaniment of corroboree chanting or frolicking black children, and their genius will be proclaimed all the way from Yarraville to Northcote.

One such film was called White Fella Dreamin’, which tells the story of a white martial artist and roadie who not only befriends David Gulpilil but becomes his “brother.” The narration begins with the white man proclaiming his tribe, skin type and totem and announcing that he is a now a bona fide Aboriginal, at least to his own satisfaction. He and Gulpilil go hunting, their children splash in waterholes and their wives join the menfolk about the campfire, often to watch another of those interminable bloody sunsets.
A forgettable film, despite the awards heaped upon it, it was brought to mind by today’s news that Gulpilil is off to serve five months behind bars for breaking his wife’s arm. These things happen in some relationships, be they black or white, and the purpose of this post is not to heap additional guilt on the convicted. But what of the filmmaker and his guilt, should be let off without censure? As the documentary states, he lived amongst his adopted tribe for as long as a year at a time. Why did the brutality of the Gulpilil household end up on the cutting room floor? Surely the incident that put a bash artist behind bars was not a one-off case. In a film that claims to reveal the essence of aboriginality, one of the most striking aspects – no pun intended – is omitted. The explanation can only be a commitment to mislead.

If the director and others like him had made even a slight effort to present Aborigines as human, to depict just a few of the failings that condition implies, it might be possible to speak openly of grave problems and, just possibly, of solutions. But it seems some delusions are sweeter than Choctops and, when it comes to the noble-savage myths of post-modern preference, far too pleasant not to swallow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Funny Business With "Julia"

WELL, that’s official then. At Home With Julia isn’t funny. Worse, it is an example of the ABC wasting public money, abandoning quality control, displaying both contempt for the office of the PM and scant regard for the sort of entertainment Australians really need and enjoy.

Don’t by any means take that as a Bunyip’s opinion, as it is not a view endorsed at the Billabong, where there is nothing but admiration for a show that pulls off the notable theatrical coup of satirising a farce -- the latter being the slapstick misadventures of our real-life PM, who daily demonstrates a talent for plot twists no comedy writer could match. From ancient pillow talk with a swindler to her about-face on the humane treatment of refugees (2007: “Australia should deal with its own case load”. 2011: “…you've risked you're life at sea and you will be at real risk of ending up in Malaysia”), the poor woman must be so preoccupied with her oscillations that availability to serve as an assistant birthing coach for Penny Wong’s baby is in serious doubt. That joyous event, by the way, would make a wonderful AHWJ:  Craig Thomson donating sperm with the help of union-financed carnal consultants. Bob Brown standing ready with the euthanasia needle if the infant’s toes don’t quite add up to ten. Greg Combet nibbling dutifully on the placenta, which his Climate Change department has certified as low-carbon, locally grown, organic produce.

Alas, it will not happen. Tragically, the series is being squeezed out of existence by both left and right, neither side entirely sincere.

On left, where a sense of humour has never been much in evidence, opinions range from that of Sophie Cunningham, who professes to believe the series is anti-woman, to Peter Craven, who dismisses it as “inane drivel”.

And on the right, it is disrespect for the office of PM and our flag that constiutes the alleged bone of contention.

Well pardon a Bunyip’s cynicism, but no one is telling the truth here. The left don’t like it because the ABC, by its reckoning, should not be adding to a beleaguered Labor leader’s many woes. We hear not a peep about inanity or bad taste when Hungry Beast is shouting “motherf---er” at Middle Australia, nor when that show assembles climate scientists to rap about “sucking d—k in Copenhagen.” But AHWJ goes beyond the pale. What the left lacks in humour it makes up in hypocrisy, as we all know.

And the right? Well, while reports from the coalition party room speak of outrage, one can only suspect it is confected. What Liberal or National could not delight in seeing the PM reduced to a laughingstock, to know that she has reached that point of political no-return when all respect has vanished and her only public use is to be the butt of mockery?

Yes, yes, Abbott’s crew will profess their disgust, but the real agenda is to seize and set aside another cudgel for beating the ABC, ideally to a pulp, when our current government is turfed out.

This flap over At Home With Julia, you just have to laugh.

UPDATE: Not very funny last night, not at all. If a scriptwriter begins a series by drawing inspiration from Moliere,   tossing a bit of Eugene O'Neill into the mix is a dreadful mistake. As for the flag, it wasn't its use as a post-coital coverlet that provided the greatest offence. The subsequent mention of needing to have it dry cleaned was worse.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Comrade Sweetheart, Get Me Re-Write

HERE is a curiosity – or three of them, truth be told.

At the foot of page three in today’s edition of The Age there is an upbeat story asserting that Australians are warming to the mining tax in increasing numbers. “Mining tax gathers more support,” says the main headline, with the subordinate line proclaiming, “People miffed at huge profits: survey”. The source is an organization, Per Capita, whose research incurious reporter Jessica Irvine, last week’s blonde on Q&A, quotes accurately enough. As a journalist let it not be said that she does not make a good typist.

Now here is the first peculiarity.

In the ink-and-paper edition of the Age, a free copy of which was kicking around the golf club bar, Per Capita is described quite simply and without explanation as a “think tank”, which does not tell you very much about it.

The online version of the same story and sentence, available via the Silly website, is different. It adds an extra word, “progressive”, as in “the progressive think tank Per Capita.” Actually, Per Capita is rather more than that, but its tireless campaigns to elevate both taxes and class resentment can wait until a little later in this post. For those who have watched Melbourne’s once-decent broadsheet decline to a mockery of its stated ideals, the matter of that key word’s deletion is far more fascinating.

Did an editor in Melbourne strike out the offending word to hide Per Capita’s affiliations and make the pro-tax case a little more persuasive? There is a lot of unprinted space in the last line of the paragraph, so it could not be that the word was excised to make story fit space. One is left to conclude that a dubious internet survey – neither Age nor Silly bothers to mention that it was an online poll, by the way – conducted by a hard left PR outfit is seen as a reputable and unbiased source.

And at the Age, perhaps it is, as Per Capita preaches very much the same twee pinkism the newspaper supports in its editorials and, without telling readers, on its news pages. Placing the report on page three speaks of a definite editorial enthusiasm for the survey’s findings. Neglecting to think twice about that placement screams of tampering with the truth, since Per Capita’s connections need to be noted. Here are some of its crusades: Taxes are good for you, markets need regulating, and if you disagree with either of those assertions your “choice architecture” will just have to be re-modelled by psychologists for the common good.

Per Capita’s Melbourne office is located in a row of Victorian buildings, listed by the National Trust as Mary’s Terrace, on Cardigan Street, just around the corner from the Trades Hall. The location supports the adage that you are known by the company you keep, as the renovated complex is owned by RMIT and is home to the Australian Education Union. The Environmental Institute of Australia and New Zealand also hangs its shingle at the address.

And what of the survey itself? Simply put, it is meaningless, as Per Capita has never before included a question about mining taxes in its annual survey of public eagerness to be shaken down by the ATO. The questions and findings of 2010’s poll are here, with nary a mention of mining to be found. This year’s results are here.

So what of that growing “support” The Age claims in its headline – the second of those oddities mentioned above? Without a benchmark, how did Ms Irvine, who is blonde, and her editors, who are bent and lazy, arrive at that conclusion? They compared Per Capita’s findings with the results of an Age/Nielsen telephone poll conducted last June.

Different polling company. Different method. Different question, most likely (you have to contact Per Capita to obtain a list of this year’s questions). Journalism, meet propaganda.

While that slipshod comparison was good enough for the Silly, at The Age someone must have figured the message still needed a little extra ginger. The evidence of that, the third riddle, is in the two versions of the story’s initial paragraphs. Contrast, compare and observe how, when the text reached Melbourne, someone took a few liberties. First, the Silly version:
THE majority of Australians support the idea of a mining tax, with supporters outnumbering opponents almost two to one, according to a survey to be released today. 
Now read how it was re-written for the ink-and-paper Age (no link):
The majority of Australians continue to want a mining tax, with supporters outnumbering opponents almost two-to-one, according to a survey to be released today. 
Pardon! Six paragraphs on, the same story cites that Age/Nielsen survey as saying that, in June last year, the majority of respondents – 49% -- opposed the mining tax. So where did that “continue to want” come from?

The mind of a quality journalist, obviously – the same sort of person former Age editor Michael Gawenda (and others) believes deserving of public financing.

They won’t get the facts straight. They lie, twist and distort. And now they reckon it is time to see their mortgages paid from the public purse. No wonder they are so keen on more and higher taxes.