Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Winds and tides of political expediency

For the last word on the Antarctic misadventure of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, perhaps expedition leader Chris Turney might borrow something like the following from Prime Minister Tony Abbott:

On the high seas all sorts of things happen; there are winds, there are tides, there are other things that they’re focussing on. … Even people who are the very best at their job will occasionally make mistakes – test cricketers occasionally drop catches, great footballers occasionally miss tackles.

That ought to silence Turney’s critics, because Mr Abbott’s winds-and-tides dodge certainly seems to satisfy his government’s boosters in relation to the Australian Navy’s “straying” into Indonesian waters. In these days of satellite positioning and radar, it beggars belief that navy vessels could stray so widely, on not one but at least two occasions.

Regarding the Navy’s Indonesian detours, my conjecture is that Abbott was terrified that any embarrassing disasters occurring in the course of those initial tow-backs might discredit his Government’s policy; hence he required the Navy to go all in. The PM seemed quite sanguine today about pre-empting findings of an anticipated inquiry into the incidents – of which the Government may yet deem the Australian people not grown-up enough to be informed of the findings.

Sadly, the Government and its boosters will have no compunction about letting the Navy take the rap for supposedly “dropping the ball,” while Abbott and Morrison duck for cover.

Nor will any alarm bells ring in their heads for a defence service increasingly politicised and subject to the whims of executive government.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Swamp: The Muddied Waters of a Mystery Wrapped in a Riddle Inside an Enigma

Two fabulously wealthy sisters, Jeanie and Margaret Clement, proprietors of a rich and prosperous farming estate called Tullaree, near Tarwin Lower, Victoria, fall into decline and ruin spanning the first half of the 20th Century.

Long after their property lapsed back to its natural state of marsh and swamp, the sisters continued eking out a meagre life in the squalor of their ruined homestead. Egress to the outside world was only possible by wading through treacherous swamp waters. The older sister, Jeanie, finally expired of old-age and neglect in 1950.

Only a couple of years later, Margaret mysteriously disappeared without trace, amid intrigues and hints of foul play. A quarter century later, skeletal remains now thought to be those of Margaret Clement were found in a shallow grave at Venus Bay, only a few kilometres to the east of Tullaree.

Such are the broad contours of the legend of the Lady of the Swamp, talk of which I’d first heard when in my teens in the early ’70s. By that time the lady in question had been dead at least 20 years, and oral tradition had it that the ghosts of Margaret Clement and her faithful dog, Dingo, may be encountered on any moonlit night wandering around near the old homestead.

A brief historical sketch of this strange saga is available online here; however, the definitive account may be found in Richard Shears’ book, Swamp: Who Murdered Margaret Clement?

I say ‘definitive’, but in fact Shears’ book is to my knowledge the only published study about the case. And, while the work contains much factual historical detail, it has to be said that it is in large part also a work of creative imagination, joining many disparate dots to spin a ripping yarn.

There is much in the story of the Clement sisters to stir popular fascination; a riches-to-rags saga with contrasts of pride and folly, gritty courage and fatal weakness, of deep wells of personal resilience mocked by almost comic ineptitude.

It’s almost certain that the mystery of Margaret Clement’s disappearance and presumed murder will never be solved. Virtually nothing is known with any precision about her movements in those final days and hours, and after more than 60 years all the principals are now dead.

Beyond that, arguably the popularisation of Margaret’s story, virtually to the status of legend, has tended to muddy the waters of factual appraisal. It began perhaps as imperceptibly as when the swamp first tentatively began its rise toward Tullaree’s threshold.

Barney Porter, the journalist for The Argus who in 1950 ‘broke’ the story of Margaret’s poor, lonely life following Jeanie’s death, wrote of how “staff photographer Len Drummond and I waded through three miles of swamps” to get the story. And yet he apparently failed to ascertain Jeanie’s name, which wasn’t mentioned at all in his article.

Again on the scene at Tullaree in 1952 after Margaret’s disappearance, Porter repeatedly referred to Jeanie as ‘Jenny’. To be fair, this seems to have been a common error in contemporary reportage across several newspapers. However, with his first-hand knowledge, one might have expected Porter to at least have nailed that basic detail.

Oddly, there even seems some confusion over the fate of Margaret Clement’s dog, Dingo. The animal is said by Shears to have been killed “in the autumn of 1952,” “on a cold day in May,” and was found by Margaret “dying on the verandah.”

Staring in horror at the clean, straight wound across his throat she knew that no animal had caused it.

Shears is quite explicit that “his throat had been cut” by human agency, and that Margaret had disappeared “not long after Dingo’s death.” The suggestion seems to be of a sinister connection between the killing of Dingo and Margaret’s fate.

That may well be, but elsewhere Shears quotes a very close friend of Margaret’s as saying, at the time of the search for the missing woman, that the dog’s “body was found months ago with his throat clawed and bitten.”

That quote is from Barney Porter’s article in The Argus of 27 May 1952, from which Shears has quoted verbatim and at length. The article suggests Dingo’s death may have occurred as early as March 1952, whereas Margaret disappeared mid- to late-May. Moreover, it states that the dog’s “body was found near the swamp,” as distinct from “on the veranda.”

So, those contemporary reports suggest a different scenario to that propounded by Shears. Perhaps poor Dingo died after a random encounter with another dog, perhaps a local feral, his death entirely unrelated to his mistress’s disappearance several months hence. The insistence by Shears on a tenuous sub-plot makes for a good yarn, perhaps, but is unhelpful if the object is to present a factual account of events.

All such ancillary detail aside, what does remain is a baffling mystery and probable crime. On the discovery of the skeletal remains at Venus Bay, the balance of circumstantial and hearsay evidence seemed to point to the guilt of one Stan Livingstone, a neighbour of Margaret’s.

With his wife, Esme, Livingstone is said to have cultivated a friendship with the bereaved Margaret, following Jeanie’s death, such that the old woman enabled the Livingstones to buy the once grand Tullaree property for the bargain price of ₤16,000 (of which, essentially, Margaret received ₤3,000 after discharge of mortgages on the property). After more than a decade of hard work to improve the homestead and lands, the Livingstones sold Tullaree in the mid-1960s for ₤96,500.

Yet even on that point the historical record presents conflicting material. An article in The Argus of 26 October 1956 reported that the Livingstones had then just sold the property for ₤67,500 to a Clarence Stewart of nearby Koonwarra. Presumably the sale did not proceed, for whatever reason; or perhaps the article misreported some other kind of transaction.

On a recent visit in the district, it so happened that the place in Venus Bay at which I was staying was only a brief walk from the site where Margaret’s presumed remains were found, now all built over with the holiday homes of the living.

Then one day, on a drive out Buffalo way, I spotted Tullaree’s edifice standing majestically about a kilometre off the dusty road across tranquil pasture. Thanks to the toil and sweat of successive owners since Margaret Clement’s disappearance, Tullaree has prevailed above the ravages of time and the elements; even if the facts – and justice – have not.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Two minutes of hard facts on Israel/Gaza

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Report doctored

I saw a copy of the Herald Sun lying on a table whilst waiting at the local GP.

“Why not?” I thought. Silly me, I’d forgot there’d be an Andrew Bolt column.

How can she remain?” screamed the headline. No prize for guessing who ‘she’ is.

Anyway, the column is typically a polished regurgitation of the stuff he’s pedalled all week on his blog.

Funny how he likes to quote, or rather misquote, from a report of an Expert Panel whose authority he’s refused to accept until he found it could be incrementally milked to support his partisan agenda.

For example, he says the only qualification the Expert Panel made with regard to the Coalition’s boat turn-back policy is that it must be safe to do so and with the “permission or acquiescence” of Indonesia.

Wrong again...

3.77 Turning back irregular maritime vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia can be operationally achieved and can constitute an effective disincentive to such ventures, but only in circumstances where a range of operational, safety of life, diplomatic and legal conditions are met:

  • The State to which the vessel is to be returned would need to consent to such a return.
  • Turning around a vessel outside Australia’s territorial sea or contiguous zone (that is, in international waters) or ‘steaming’ a vessel intercepted and turned around in Australia’s territorial sea or contiguous zone back through international waters could only be done under international law with the approval of the State in which the vessel is registered (the ‘flag State’).
  • A decision to turn around a vessel would need to be made in accordance with Australian domestic law and international law, including non-refoulement obligations, and consider any legal responsibility Australia or operational personnel would have for the consequences to the individuals on board any vessel that was to be turned around.
  • Turning around a vessel would need to be conducted consistently with Australia’s obligations under the SOLAS Convention, particularly in relation to those on board the vessel, mindful also of the safety of those Australian officials or Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel involved in any such operation.

The obligation of non-refoulement is perhaps the most problematic ‘operational’ consideration. Strictly speaking, you’d have to do some kind of reasonably rigorous assessment of the claims of each and every asylum seeker on board each and every boat before towing it back out to the open sea.

You see, Doctor Easychair? — it’s all somewhat more complicated than your one-line reformulation for idiots. How many times must we correct your simple-minded reading and comprehension?

Later today I came across a puff piece on our good Doctor Easychair by former Labor leader Mark Latham, e.g.

Bolt, in effect, is Australia’s de facto shadow minister for boat people policy, climate change scepticism, Aboriginal welfare, freedom of speech and the culture wars in general.

Read the above piece in its absurd entirety, then try reading the following sentence without gagging with laughter:

Mark Latham was once the prospective leader of this nation.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Leak suppressed

I only came across this today, but it seems to me a bit of a News £td beat-up or stunt or something...

For cartoonist Bill Leak, the nanny state is real. It has just snuffed out his attempt to launch a new business aimed at poking fun at the government.

Leak had been planning to sell cardboard covers for packets of cigarettes that would have obscured and ridiculed the graphic images of gangrenous legs and cancerous mouths that have been mandated by federal legislation. ...

He made contact with manufacturers and developed the outlines of a business plan. But after he took advice from a Sydney silk about the impact of the government’s plain packaging laws, the project was dead.

The risk of being dragged through the courts was too great. ...

Leak said the law had stifled his ability to make a political point while developing a new business.

“It was an attempt to deploy satire as a weapon against the nanny state, but the nanny state has a bigger, nastier bite than I thought.”

Oh puh-lease!

It’s written by Chris Merritt, The Australian’s legal affairs editor who offers no insight whatever on Bill’s “advice from a Sydney silk.”

He features a quote from Nicola Roxon being all defensive about the government’s plain packaging legislation, presenting the A-G as creepily unhumorous while giving no context about what prompted her remarks.

Apparently one of Bill’s mock fag packets was ‘branded’ Roxon’s Nicolatinas. Gee, subversive yet classy. And hysterically funny at some level, I’m sure.

In keeping with the clubby News £td milieu, the story has been picked up by the likes of the IPA and Tim Blair as an example of the imminent threat to free speech by instinctively totalitarian nanny-statists, etc. etc. etc.

Tragic to think in what useful capacity these bods might ever be employable if their imaginary wicked nanny-statists were ever successful in ‘silencing’ them.

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Gillard ‘backflip’ is courageous and honourable

In so far as it’s possible to do so in a race to the bottom, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has this week acquitted herself with courage and honour.

When Parliament rose at end of June with the country crying out for a solution to the critical impasse, the PM undertook to abide by whatever recommendations were arrived at by the expert panel.

True to her word she has thus far done so, and at great political cost to herself and her party.

The Opposition’s demand for an apology from the PM is utterly risible. It demurred with regard to the expert panel, sitting with comfort on its hands as the boats kept coming. As Peter van Onselen wrote at the time:

One well-placed Liberal source told The Australian that Abbott would rather see Labor continue to bleed politically with ongoing boat arrivals. If that means deaths at sea continue, he said, so be it.

Or as Graeme Richardson more succinctly put it:

Abbott won’t budge, won’t compromise and won’t lose a wink of sleep over it...

Abbott has apparently “stopped short” of condemning the PM for having “blood on her hands” over deaths at sea since Rudd and Gillard dismantled the Howard-era Pacific Solution.

It remains to be seen whether this is some kind of quaint magnanimity, or whether he simply fears it may come back to bite him in the event Pacific Solution Mk II fails to stop the boats.

As well it may.


I wonder if there’s been a cynical, opportunistic, “blood on their hands” political blame-game in the Euro Zone...

Rescue operations in the Mediterranean are hampered by poor coordination, disputes over responsibility, disincentives for commercial vessels to conduct rescues, and an emphasis on border enforcement, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper published today.

People fleeing persecution or seeking a better life attempt the dangerous crossing from the North African coast to Europe, often in unseaworthy and dangerous boats. An Eritrean man lived to tell of the deaths of all 54 of his fellow passengers when their small dinghy sank in the Mediterranean in early July, 2012, bringing the known death toll this year to 170. As many as 13,500 people have died in such efforts at crossing since 1998, including at least 1,500 in 2011, the deadliest on record. [My emphasis.]

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Regime uncertainty and base partisanship

The Catallaxy Files site regularly presents a rich seam of idiocy. Most recently I was amused to read resident Perfessor Sinclair Davidson blaming Rudd and Gillard for Howard Government policy.

The argument is that spiralling energy costs commenced at mid-2007 specifically with the release of the Shergold report on emissions trading.

That enunciation of “vague government policy” contributed a significant inflationary effect on energy prices, by virtue of a handy little construct known as regime uncertainty.

But the Perfessor notes...

We can hardly blame events in 2007 on the Rudd-Gillard government. Well maybe we can.

Well, of course we can! You see, on the release of Shergold’s report...

At that point climate change policy became bipartisan with the Howard government adopting ALP policy...

See how it works? There ain’t nothing that can’t be blamed on the GillardGillardGillard.

There’s a slight  difficulty, however, for the Perfessor’s account: Climate change policy in fact became “bipartisan” somewhat earlier than he suggests.

Howard announced Shergold’s Task Group on Emissions Trading in December 2006; thus, it was obviously firmly Coalition policy before even then.

And the Task Group released an Issues Paper in Feb 2007, which surely would have given investors the jitters well before the final report was issued at end-May of that year.

Still, I’m sure such trivial details will present no difficulties for the Perfessor.

Nor will the fact that Gillard after all has now delivered certainty for the energy sector.

Or that Abbott’s blood-oath to repeal carbon pricing arrangements — which, it’s been argued, he’ll be unable to do — can only serve to undermine that certainty, with the consequence of more regime uncertainty to further exacerbate our energy price woes.

So, next time you open another shocker of a power bill... Blame Tony Abbott.

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Innuendo ventured, nothing gained

Andrew Bolt continues to rake over the ‘connection’ between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Bruce Wilson/AWU scandal...

The Age and Sydney Morning Herald has typically run dead on this scandal, although it curiously ran this video as the news started to break into the mainstream media. It is an interview with Peter Gordon, who was Gillard’s boss at the time and gives this oddly indirect character reference:

I think she has a very robust sense of her own integrity and she prefers that view to those who would assail it.

Gordon is silent on his own view of that integrity.

That’s actually, er, less than correct.  About half a minute earlier in the same video, Gordon in fact says of Gillard...

I do recall about her that she was always very steadfast about her own integrity, even when it was under attack. I think she’s got a very balanced inner sense of what her mission is, and what’s right and wrong.

In their entirety, Gordon’s remarks about Gillard could frankly almost be described as ‘glowing’.

That’s particularly interesting considering that, according to the Gillard biography Bolt himself cites, there were “tensions between Peter Gordon and Bernard Murphy, and Gillard was a Murphy ally.” (Jacqueline Kent, The Making of Julia Gillard, Viking, 2009, p. 93.)

But Gordon’s somewhat glowing estimation of Gillard is, of course, rather inconvenient to the narrative Bolt wants to construct in his post — namely, that Gillard allegedly left Slater & Gordon under (unspecified) disgraceful circumstances.

Sadly for our good Doctor Easychair, all he has is innuendo, informed by his standard selective presentation of material.


When you want to move on from your present employer, ask for the kind of “oddly indirect character reference” like the one Peter Gordon gave for Julia Gillard.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fingers crossed in place in WA

Piers Akerman is in full hand-wringing mode about the impasse over the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Aside from declaring that “Gillard IS the national disability” (nudge, wink), he asserts

WA already has a more generous scheme in place.

Gosh, how very advanced of WA. So, one wonders, how “in place” is this western wonder?

The West Australian Government says it will trial a disability insurance scheme with or without the Federal Government. ...

WA’s Disability Services Minister, Helen Morton, says she has put forward four potential locations to her federal counterpart as the state would like to host a trial.

“We’re very keen, we’ve got our fingers crossed, we hope that we’ll be able to get one of those trial sites up and running,” she said.

One has to wonder about the gulf between Akerman’s conception of “in place” and Morton’s “fingers crossed”.

Oh, and how much “more generous”?

The State Government has not said how much money it will contribute to the NDIS.

In contrast with Akerman just making shit up as it suits him, Andrew Bolt at least has stated flat-out that “I don’t know enough,” but he’s “on high alert” anyway.

And so must we all be, with jokers like these ‘informing’ the national ‘debate’.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Higgs discovery further explained

Let’s be clearer on the meaning of the claims made earlier this month:

“We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV...” said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti...

“The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found,” said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela.

CMS is, of course, the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at CERN’s LHC. They’ve issued their own press statement, which illuminates further:

CMS observes an excess of events at a mass of approximately 125 GeV with a statistical significance of five standard deviations (5 sigma) above background expectations. The probability of the background alone fluctuating up by this amount or more is about one in three million.

And the ATLAS particle physics experiment at LHC, in its own press statement,

...puts the significance of the signal at 5 sigma, meaning that only one experiment in three million would see an apparent signal this strong in a universe without a Higgs.

Now, pardon me while I warp over to a universe without a Higgs to confirm that. (I may be some time.)