Monthly Archives: August 2008

‘Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change” by Clive Hamilton

2007, 230p.

This book exposes the names and organisations behind the Greenhouse Mafia- the group of Australian energy and resource producers who lobby the government ( in particular the Howard Government, but given the uneasy shuffling of feet I suspect the Rudd government ministers too) to act in a way that privileges their own interests over all.  He gives this shadowy group definite names and identities: the climate change skeptics (William Kininmonth, John Zillman), the industrialists (Hugh Morgan), the lobbyists  (the Lower Emissions Technology Advisory Group) and the press (the Australian, Michael Duffy etc).  For this alone, I’m glad I read this book. Sometimes, when I read the newspaper I feel as if it’s nothing but an arena for lobbyists and PR consultants to buy space for whatever they are pushing; the mantra over “balance” means that undue exposure can be given to minority views, and the anodyne, deceptive and largely interchangeable names given to “groups” and “bodies” with widely varying agendas become almost meaningless.

But he also exposes the duplicity and paradox in the Howard government’s position on Kyoto. He argues that the Howard government, as the ‘cover’ for the Greenhouse Mafia, consciously sabotaged Kyoto because it didn’t want China- a major energy export market- to limit its emissions while at the same time arguing that Kyoto is unworkable and unfair because they are not limiting their emissions.

At times, and as the book progresses, he becomes increasingly shrill, particularly against Murdoch’s Australian , which detracts from his argument.  The book highlights that ordinary Australian’s concern about climate change stretches back deades, and that at the time of writing (2007), this commitment looked as if it were about to be activitated.

But I very much doubt that the Greenhouse Mafia has disappeared.  I fear that the fine-tuning of the response to the Garnaut report in response to “business export fears” is evidence of the Greenhouse Mafia flexing its muscle against the Rudd government as well.

Hello possums! The Age Breaking News!

Well, thank God it’s not just me! I read in today’s Sunday Age that brushtail and ringtail possums are invading roofs and gardens across Melbourne!

Ron Smith woke one night thinking his Hawthorn house was being robbed.  He crept downstairs and found two possums helping themselves to a fruit bowl in the kitchen.  That’s when he remembered leaving a skylight open.

One escaped through the skylight, but the other “got stuck behind the stove” he recalls. Removing it required an electrician, a pest controller and $350.

Only $350!!  I’ve been ripped off!!! I was charged $500.00, and as you will remember, they were still getting in!

I think I’m writing in the past tense.  I decided, after a few nights,  to bring the bananas back out of the fridge where I had been hiding them and to chance the fruit bowl again, to see if they were still coming in.  So far, touch wood and May Jennifer Get Rheumatic Fever (the family invocation against illfortune- mind you, Jennifer had Rheumatic Fever last about 48 years ago but it just goes to show how lucky we are in this family)- the possums haven’t been back.  But as soon as they are, no more Ms Nice Guy! I’m going to get value out of my $500 and six month’s guarantee.  I too, will again have a man on the roof with his bum sticking up.

Pardon my faulty expressive vocabulary

I see that Barak Obama has selected Joe Bidden as his vice-president.

I’m a well-informed person. I know who Joe Bidden is. I’ve heard of him.

Well, actually, I realised that I haven’t.  Joe Biden? Bye-den? Is that the same bloke that I’ve been mispronouncing Joe Bid-den in my internal soundtrack while reading? Oops. I guess it’s another case of the old receptive-vocabulary-outstripping-the-expressive-vocabulary syndrome.

Deep in my literacy researcher past, I remember that it took five plus or minus two utterances of a word that you’d read, but not actually said out loud, until it moved from your receptive vocabulary to your expressive vocabulary.  How versatile that ‘five plus or minus two’ formula is!  But there’s always a bit of a risk when you’re using a word for the first time.  Are people going to snicker because you’ve mispronounced it? Is it really a word, or is it something you just dreamt up?  Is this the right context?

Because, yes, Reader, I have snickered at those who speak of eppy-tomes  (epitomes) and mack-a-bers (macabres). In fact, I think I may have used eppy-tome myself until I recognized the error of my ways. And it took me several attempts until “apotheosis” just tripped off the tongue when discussing the chapter so titled in Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend with first year history students.

I wonder if the gap between expressive and receptive vocabulary is wider or narrower among adults who read a lot compared with adults who do not?  I’ve just done a quick Google and can find lots of incomprehensible research about children, especially with communication and reading difficulties, but not adults.  I think, as a hunch, there would be more of a gap with good readers.  I always pull out the dictionary when I encounter a new word, although if I’m reading someone like John Banville, sometimes there are just too many unfamiliar terms and it becomes distracting.

I heard both Obama and Joe Bye-den speaking on the radio. It’s interesting how American politicians always have to have a story that encapsulates something about the American national narrative.  I don’t think we do to the same extent in Australia- although then again, Kevin has his dead father, Bob Hawke had the bottle,  Paul Keating had Bankstown, Mark Latham had his ladder of opportunity, Johnny Howard had his father and grandfather meeting on the battlefield.  But I can think of other examples of Australian politicians without a personal/national narrative and they didn’t seem to suffer for it.

So, good on you, Joe Bidden/Biden.  Already I’m forgetting that I ever thought your name could be pronounced any other way.

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton


Had this been the only Tim Winton book that I had ever read, I too would be throwing every award that I could at it: last night it was announced that it had won the Age Book of the Year.

Like the swell of ocean waves, you think that it’s building into a surf-story, then all of a sudden you realise that you’re into the full-blown coming-of-age story complete with betrayal, sexual experimentation, parental estrangement, empty dreams and disillusionment. It has it all: beautiful writing that just takes you along with it, a wry narrator whom you almost instantly like, a love for the ocean, and an ease of telling that is sure without being pretentious.  Much like the public persona of Tim Winton himself, it seems.

And I guess that here lies my problem with it.  I’ve read several Tim Winton books, and I feel as if I’m reading the same story again and again.  His evocation of his Western Australian roots, his Christian background, his middle aged male protagonists, his collection of broken, betrayed and disillusioned people…they’re all there in The Riders, Dirt Music, The Turning and now again in Breath.  The sheer exuberance of Cloudstreet- probably my favourite Australian novel- seems a long time ago, and it was. He does Angelus, and his nostalgic male protagonists very, very well.  But I think of other authors- Peter Carey, Margaret Attwood, Joyce Carol Oates- who really stretch themselves and their writing into new shapes and places and I wish that, perhaps, he was a bit braver.

Retiring judges

One of my middle-of-the-night anxieties involves the degree of presumption I’m revealing in even attempting to comment on a judge’s career. After all, what would I know? Hell, I’ve only ever sat in the public gallery of a court!

So I was pleased to hear an appraisal of the retiring Chief Justice Murray Gleeson on Radio National’s Law Report the other morning by George Williams, from the Law School of UNSW. This is how Williams summed up the Chief Justice’s career

George Williams: I think you need to look at his role on the court in two different ways: one is as a judge, one amongst seven, and as a judge he’s well-known for writing judgments that are concise, that are direct, that really do get to the nub of the question of law, and he has a very strong reputation as being one of the leaders of the court over the last decade. As a Chief Justice, you can look at his public role, he’s someone who’s spoken strongly on behalf of important legal principles, he’s defended the court, and he’s been prepared to get involved in the media in discussing some of those issues.

Where he perhaps hasn’t had the same impact is perhaps changing the way the court operates internally. He’s been a good administrator, but we don’t have a court that’s perhaps made leaps and bounds in terms of moving towards more of a joint judgment system like the United States. It’s a court very similar to the court he inherited, and he hasn’t been a reformer in terms of changing those basic practices.

How do these criteria stack up with Judge Willis?

1. The quality of his judgments. Well, I’m not a lawyer, but it seems that his judgments were well thought through. Certainly he showed independence of thought- he was quite happy to go out on a limb and take a different stance from his brother judges- in fact, I suspect that he revelled in so doing.

2. Public role- speaking out on behalf of important legal principles. Certainly he was outspoken, but were they important legal principles or just a form of point-scoring? The scrutiny of the actions of public officers was important- but was it HIS role to do this? His stance on Aborigines- at a surface level contradictory, but on deeper reflection was based on important legal principles. But there’s always a “but” with Judge Willis. There’s a certain amount of ‘playing to the gallery’ in relation to settler rights in relation to Aborigines, the independence of Port Phillip from Sydney oversight, and the superior quality of Port Phillip without a ‘convict taint’. And his public role was certainly ambiguous- he absents himself from many of the public roles within Port Phillip Society e.g. patron, benefactor etc, and prides himself on holding himself separate. Yet the same man is heard gossiping loudly on street corners, and giving vent to political opinions in the shops.

3. Preparedness to get involved in the media. Probably too much. A bit of distance here would have been ‘judicious’ (groan)

4. Good administrator. He certainly was a good manager- ferocious in championing his own sphere of influence (BUT was that just a way of big-noting himself?) He resisted funding cuts strenuously (BUT ditto?); he was loyal to employees who were loyal to him (BUT did he need to shore up his position?). I’m sure that he volunteered to come to Port Phillip precisely because it gave him the opportunity to establish a court from scratch, based on his own principles and predilections. No doubt he had sniffed the political wind, too, and hoped that when Port Phillip became a separate colony, he would naturally become Chief Justice.

I don’t know if any of this has taken me any further, but it’s interesting to see what the criteria for judging judicial ‘success’ might be.

Things to celebrate

1.  That I live in UNESCO’s second City of Literature. I KNEW that there was a reason that I live here!

2.  That the Abortion Law Reform Bill might actually pass.

3. That St Kilda’s  stupendous Robert Harvey will have a send-off at Telstra Dome this Sunday- and I may just go!

‘Aphelion’ by Emily Ballou

2007, 493 p

There is such a thing as too much.  Chocolate, for example. Or wine. Or, as in the case of ‘Aphelion’ by Emily Ballou, too much scenery, too many storylines, too much thinking, too much talk, too many themes, too much imagery, too many pages, too much ‘luminous’ prose.

The book is set in the Snowy Mountains, in a small town that has been relocated as part of the hydro-electric scheme.  Four generations of women live in the family home- the 101 year old Hortense, her 80 year old daughter Esme, Esme’s niece Byrne (about 50) and her own daughter Lucetta (20 plus).  Into this seething mass of mother/daughter/aunt entanglement comes young Rhett from next door, returning to the family home after the death of his mother, bringing with him Hazel the American museum curator who barely speaks to her mother.   You can probably imagine the multiple themes here: motherhood, regret, what-ifs, relocation, dislocation, nostalgia etc. etc. etc.

This book felt like a Sunday evening serial on the ABC with lots of Australian scenery (just in case it can be flogged off to British television), iss-ews that we can all identify with, and multiple storylines.

But it wasn’t all bad.  In fact, even though the book was overdue and I was accruing a daily penalty, I wanted to keep it until I had finished it.  Perhaps, in spite of all these qualifications and criticisms, the fact that I wanted to reach the end is the most important response of all.