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November 30, 2007:  A year ago tomorrow we arrived in Australia.

-The defeated Liberal government became a real train wreck when the heir apparent, the former treasurer Peter Costello, announced he was quitting politics rather than attempt to rejuvenate the party that John Howard had steered into the iceberg of public opinion. A world-class mixed metaphor there .... So the Liberals held a caucus vote to determine their new leader. The feral former health minister, Tony Abbott, who was the greatest of the Howard cheerleaders, withdrew his candidacy at the last minute while hinting darkly that he might try again in a few years. Thus ended the possibility of a new Liberal dream team of Abbott and Costello leading the country, in a manner of speaking, into the future.

The new Liberal leader of the opposition is medical doctor Brendan Nelson, who took off his trademark earring when he became minister of defence in the Howard government. He edged out the former environment minister, Malcolm Turnbull, allegedly because the latter was eager to say "sorry" to the country's aborigines for past injustices. Howard had always steadfastly refused to apologize, referring instead to "express regret," and could have learned a thing or two from Canada's Conservative Mulroney and Harper governments about how to put issues like that behind him.

The Liberal opposition will support the new government in ratifying Kyoto. Yay! Peter Garrett, the former rock star (Midnight Oil), is now the minister of the environment; showing how much the new government considers it a priority, Prime Minister Rudd has split the ministry into two, giving climate change and water to a new minister, Penny Wong.

-Enough politics. We ate the first rocket (i.e. arugula) from the vegetable garden yesterday. This after a November which had four times the average rainfall, so it was pretty battered.

 
November 25, 2007:  federal election post-mortem.



The gauntlet that voters run on their way to cast their ballots, this one at the Katoomba library. There are a myriad of signs and a line of spruikers from the different parties handing out "How to Vote" cards -- necessary for some due to the complexity of the preferential ballots (see the November 21 entry below). So so different from Canada, where political advertising is banned in the vicinity of all polling places. Here, there's just a 6-metre clear zone around the door!

So, what's so exciting about this change of government, especially for me, as I'm not especially pro-Labor/labour or left wing? It has to do with the change in the Aussie character that's set in during the 11 years John Howard and the Liberal Coalition have been in power. All kinds of people say that it's a meaner, more selfish place than it was in the 70s and 80s. More grasping and materialistic, less open to new people, ideas, immigration and the disadvantaged. Spending on education has gone down, pollution has gone up, there's been little investment in public infrastructure. Even the business community has acknowledged the lack of policy development in the country. And, there's Australia's involvement with the Americans in Iraq, and Howard's fervent embrace of George Bush, his "mate." Yuk. In fact, a lot of people agree that Australia's become a lot more like the USA, with the ditch between rich and poor turning into a chasm. It hasn't been a tolerant, forgiving place under Howard's leadership.

Howard has especially been a climate-change denier, right up to his death-bed conversion during the election campaign. The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, really struck a chord with me when he said last night that he was going to put an end to the old battles, such as the one between "economic growth" and "climate change." He professes a positive, internationalist outlook that will see Australia leading by example rather than sitting back and counting its coins and throwing barriers up on its shores.

So that's why this was so important. We can be proud of being a part of this country when the government really wants to engage positively with issues beyond shipping coal to China. But even in the coal-shipping things will be different: Rudd spent years as a diplomat in China and speaks fluent Mandarin. It won't be perfect, but change is the first step.


 
November 24, 2007: election night, 9 pm, in the middle of a rather drunken and hilarious election party with Doug and Caroline, who came up from Syedny, uh, Sydney. Labor will be the new government, which is important as much as anything because it puts an end to the Howard era!!! Wooooooo--eeeeeeeeeee!! I'm reminded of the lyrics to the Who song, "Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss" in "Won't Get Fooled Again." But it's better than that, as Howard himself has stayed too long and appears to have lost his own seat -- the first time since 1929 that a sitting prime minister has been given the boot. I'll write tomorrow, soberly, about the impact on the Aussie character. Back to the wine and TV .....
 
 
November 22, 2007: okay, back to the important stuff.



I spent my childhood summers at Shuswap Lake and revelled in the wild thunderstorms that followed hot days. Such drama, such a sense of shelter inside our cabin as the wind howled and the lightning lit up the sky. Then I had many summers in benign, mild Vancouver where thunderstorms are rare and feeble, and only experienced them on trips to eastern Canada and during summertime jobs in places like Banff. I realized when we moved to the Blue Mountains that I had missed this grand summertime opera. Right ...

So, yesterday. High of 27 and quite humid, followed by a huge storm of marble-sized hail bashing the metal roof with such a fury we could barely hear the thunder. The good news is that the rainwater tank got another thousand or so litres. The bad news is my vegetable garden is almost flattened! Didn't worry about that as a child. And, when we were in our age of innocence at the cabin at Shuswap, we had Coalman lanterns and a transistor radio and wouldn't have known if there was a power outage anywhere.

 
November 21, 2007: 

- I'm writing this in the evening in the middle of a blackout (love those laptops!) due an utterly violent thunder- and hailstorm. Pictures tomorrow!

-Wednesday, a few days before the Saturday federal election, the last day for election ads on the TV! Hooray! The ad campaigns from both sides have been so negative I could have thought I was in the USA. Labor's winning lead has held steady in the polls, but because of their need to win 16 marginal seats to take government old Lazarus John Howard could still pull it off. In his recent speeches, perhaps out of desperation, he's been reduced to saying that you really have to have experience in order to run a country. In other words, don't change, ever. A brilliant Catch-22. North Korea's Dear Leader would agree.

After years of the Liberal government saying that Australia was a world-leader in its response to climate change, a damning international study said that not only was it not a leader, but Australians per capita are the worst polluters in the world. Worse than Canada or the USA, I asked myself? The answer must be in large part due to the almost complete absence of hydroelectricity here. This place runs on c - o - a - l, and as more Australians decide they need air-con for everything, the demand is going sky-high along with the emissions.


But will this make a difference in the election? Interestingly, the opposition Labor-party leader, Kevin Rudd, makes only glancing reference to the environment in his recent speeches, knowing that Labor and the Greens (whose electoral preferences -- see below -- go to Labor)  have the environmental vote sewn up, concentrating instead on education and industrial-relations laws to try to sway "the swingers."

In the mail the other day came a "how to vote" guide. Having been in BC for its attempt at proportional representation -- a system that was going to have multi-member ridings and god knows what else -- it's interesting to be in a country that has had a preferential ballot for generations, and has compulsory voting.

On Saturday, Christine will front up at the voting place on Katoomba's main street and be presented with two ballots. The more important one is the one on the right; the order of the candidates is chosen by lottery and, as it says, every box has got to be ticked to make the ballot valid. As mentioned above,  Greens (for example)  instruct their voters to put Labor as second choice, and the other parties also broadcast their preferences. This ballot's fairly straightforward. The first candidate with 50% +1 of the votes becomes the member of parliament for that electoral district.

There's a second ballot for the Senate.  People tend to vote with their heads on the House of Reps ballot and with their hearts on the Senate one. The Senate has real power and can initiate legislation, but not on money matters. With the Senate ballot, you can vote either with a single tick for the party you want, and then let the electoral commission sort out who will actually represent you based on preferences, lists, etc., or you can vote for the individual, in which case you have to number all the candidates, of whom there can be dozens on the ballot. The Liberals/Coalition have had control over both the House of Reps and the Senate in the past few years, which has allowed them to introduce quite extreme laws, especially the ones on Industrial Relations/working conditions that have become so controversial.

It's way too complicated to explain here, but there's an excellent article on the curiosities of the Aussie voting system on wikipedia.

-I was interested to read that Katoomba is one of the two Australian towns that have become part of the Italian "Slow Town" or Cittaslow movement. It fits everybody's laid-back lifestlyle, for sure.

-And a quick movie recommendation. There hasn't been a lot to crow about in the Aussie movie industry recently, but Look Both Ways is an excellent drama, very black like a crow with some great comedic turns.

 
 
November 16, 2007:



The new domestic stamp for the beginning of summer -- a gorgeous piece of nostalgia with the happy family towing its caravan behind an FJ Holden, the Aussie General Motors product of the era. Nowadays you can get a bumper sticker that says: "If you can read this, I've lost my caravan."
 
November 14, 2007: 
"Tanks a lot," we said as the tradesmen left, leaving behind our new 7,000-litre rainwater tank. They installed it on the 6th during a rainy week and by the time the skies cleared on Sunday it was about 1/3 full, this from just a portion of our roof. Depending on how frequently it rains, we may have to reconfigure our gutters to keep a good supply available.

There's a diverter valve on the house's downpipe that drains the first few minutes of rainfall, complete with dust, bugs and leaves, into the storm sewer. We can then use the saved water for the garden -- whenever we want -- and also for clothes washing and toilets, which should cut our water bill considerably. The cost of this landscape-enhancement is reduced quite a bit by government rebates: each tap you connect is worth so much, as is each toilet. Is it ugly? Sure, but it's the look of modern Australia.

-Less than two weeks to go till the Federal Election and the "class war" aspect of it is heating up. The handbill below, part of the ever-increasing pile of junk in our mailbox, hints at the fear campaign the Liberal/Coalition government is waging to try to hang onto power. Labor has been steadily ahead in the polls.



The inference is, of course, if you vote Labor federally then the entire country will be a (unionized) workers' paradise. The Commonwealth of Australia is, by the way, debt-free, but part of the reason the States are in debt is due to federal downloading of responsibilities without any corresponding transfer of funds. Sound familiar to Canadians? The difference here is that the States don't have the right to levy their own income taxes or sales taxes, so they get whatever crumbs are tossed to them.

But in an ironic twist, Labor is selling itself to voters as being more fiscally responsible, while the Prime Minister is on a massive spending spree of "middle class welfare" tax reductions and giveaways; the economy is so hot that interest rates have been rising steadily in an attempt to stem inflation, hurting "the battlers" in the Strugglevilles on the outskirts of the big cities -- the lower middle-class voters who've kept Prime Minister Howard in office for 11 years. And in a further kick to the battlers, house prices on the outskirts of Sydney have dropped by 10-15%, while mortgage rates have gone up 5 times in the past 3 years; house prices in the posh eastern and northern suburbs of Sydney are up 20+ percent during the same period. Interest rates are certainly higher here than in North America: it's easy to find a bank term deposit for 3 months at nearly 7%.

It's going to be a tight one. Labor has to win 16 seats to become government. They could win the popular vote but still lose the election. Don't touch that dial ....

 
November 6, 2007:
The first Tuesday of November has been Melbourne Cup day for more than a century -- "the rice thet stops the nye-shun," as people say. It's a public holiday in the State of Victoria, and everyone elsewhere in the country who can attends a lunch or goes to the pub and "has a flutter." 120,000 people attend the race, including mobs of gorgeous women in fancy hats and frocks. $150+ million gets bet on it and, this year, it was a wonderful break from the constant election pseudo-news.

We went to a lunch of about 40 people at the village hall at Mount Wilson (pop. about 42) organized by Christine's sister-in-law Judy and stepbrother Graham. Great group of people, none of whom appear to pay a bit of attention to horse racing for the balance of the year. As we drank champagne cocktails we were trying to get definitive explanations of Trifectas, Exactas and Quinellas, but as there was no web connection we were stumped. After two hours of drinking and an excellent lunch of cold chook and salads, everyone focused on the big-screen TV for the race preparations, and made their bets on the sweep that Judy was passing around. For $2, you got to pull a card out of a bin that had a horse's name on it, which was fine as nobody knew which nag to bag. I got "Efficient," which seemed more practical than exciting.

As the horses were paraded in front of the grandstand, the commentators seemed to be talking about every horse but it. Then, as soon as they got the 21 horses and riders stuffed into the starting gate, they were off. It's a long race: 3.2 km or 2 miles. My horse, as far as I could determine, was way back in the pack and out of the running until, with 200 metres to go, he pulled wide and charged down the side, winning by a half length in the most exciting finish I've ever seen!!! Whoo, is horse racing ever great!!!! After I calmed down, I collected my winnings: Christine and I had bet $6 total and took home $14. I wish the stock market was that good. Beginner's luck, I guess. (I've ripped off a Reuters picture by Mick Tsikas, above)
 
November 2, 2007:

Storm moving eastward across the Blue Mountains

-we're getting good rain this morning, ironically just a couple of days after a 60-something guy in western Sydney died in a fight precipitated, no pun intended, by him watering his garden with a hose when he shouldn't have. Apparently a younger man berated him for violating the water restrictions, whereupon the older man turned his hose onto him. Bad move, as it turned out. The younger man is now charged with some variant of murder.

-further evidence of the general weirdness, at least in big-city Sydney, involves an advertising campaign directed at slowing down the hoons (i.e. the fast drivers). In the TV and print ads, an attractive woman holds up her hand, palm forward, and waggles her little finger, which apparently means "you've got a tiny dick, mate," or words to that effect. It apparently struck a chord with one hoon when a woman he'd cut off waggled her pinky at him. He threw a bottle at her car, causing $400 damage, and was subsequently arrested.

-it's the half-way point in the federal election, a.k.a the class war, in Australia. It's still Labour's to lose. The consensus of commentary and conversations with the locals seems to be that it's time for a change: in one newspaper column, the writer said that voters weren't waiting for Prime Minister Howard with baseball bats but felt more like people who sadly had to put down the family pet after 11 years. Although there's a lot of bi-partisanship on some of the big issues, such as aboriginal reconciliation, there are stark divisions on climate change and, especially, on the government's new system called Work Choices, which Labour and its supporters say will strip away workers' rights. Average people I've talked to are really angry about it -- workers' rights goes to the core of Australian values.

As an example of the class war, go to the Liberal Party website and watch the clip called "Who will be in charge in a union dominated Government".

The best set of Labour's ads are on its YouTube site.

As part of the extraordinary new-media slanging, a clip of Labour leader Kevin Rudd allegedly snacking on his ear wax, got posted to YouTube and actually made it onto American late-night TV -- Jay Leno, I think. Rudd laughed it off, saying that he figured all public figures could wish that their behaviour was always exemplary.

The best video to emerge is a piece of satire by Hugh Atkin, a 23-year-old law student at Sydney University, which depicts Kevin Rudd as a Chairman Mao figure in a video styled on Chinese propaganda films. "Rudd impress and frighten Australian person with his earnestness offensive," reads the alleged translation of the Chinese commentary, set to heroic music. "He unnerve decrepit Howard by deploying clever principle of 'similar difference'. Leader Rudd declares swift and violent Education Revolution." The only link to it is off the Sydney Morning Herald site, which I hope will stay up for a while. It's particularly amusing because Rudd is fluent in Mandarin.



 


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