Monday, May 14, 2007

The grand dame

Dame Edna Everage has just flown in from London. Not one to slum it, Australia's beloved housewife gigastar is resting up at a Byron resort and spa, recuperating before she leaps on stage at the Capitol Theatre for what she dubs the "climax of [her] jubilee celebrations": the Sydney season of her new show, Back with a Vengeance. "Sorry I sound a bit husky," she purrs. "I've got a cold. It's the old jetlag. I hope you're recording this, darling? Don't sell it on eBay 'cause I'm too husky."

It's now more than 50 years since the shy Moonee Ponds housewife turned theatrical star. Her purple coiffure and elongated spectacles may be her calling card but it's her sharp tongue that has allowed her to bear the title of the longest running theatrical institution in history, with a career that includes award-winning seasons on Broadway, films and television chat shows.

She's taken time out after a massage and before a dinner catch-up with her friend Di Morrissey to reconnect with her possums via the media. Fresh from completing a seven-show British TV series, The Dame Edna Treatment, Dame Edna's theatrical return features Barry Humphries and friends and follows a successful Melbourne season during which she was celebrated with a city-wide Ednafest.

"While I was in London doing this TV show, a street in Melbourne was named after me," she says. "I thought they'd probably rename Collins Street but in fact it was just a little lane, in the better part of town of course. It had formerly been called Brown Alley, isn't that horrible? Luckily it wasn't an underpass! It is now called Dame Edna Place."

In the past few weeks she's sung duets with kd lang, Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, Shirley Bassey and Deborah Harry for the series, but says TV shows are just a sideline: it is the public across the footlights she lives to serve. "I still pinch myself, darling, to think it was a little over 50 years since I stepped onto the boards in Melbourne, a painfully shy woman," she says, adding that it is now the audience who are shy. "And I'm still so humble, though I don't think humility is one of the great virtues. Like chastity, it's one of the ... well, it's not even a virtue any more. It's almost a drawback."

Her first theatrical foray was as Mary Magdalene in the local Moonee Ponds nativity ("I had to put ointment on our Lord's feet and then dry them with my hair and, of course, having mauve hair was a bit special"), but the dame attributes Humphries with setting the course for fame. "He wanted some advice about what the average Australian housewife thought, did, believed," she says. "I gave him some tips, he invited me to do a little segment of his stage show, the rest is history. Of course, he did sign me up to a contract that has proved to be unbreakable and I cannot wriggle out of it. He and I have a somewhat strange relationship."

Dame Edna says she's embraced modernity but laments the lack of style that has permeated the theatre scene and she longs for the old days when women would frock-up for a soiree. "I always like to dress better than any other woman in the audience," she says. "It used to be quite difficult. In the old days women used to dress up when they went to the theatre; it was an event. Now you're lucky to see someone with shoes on."

She's not a political animal ("If anything I'm far to the left; I like to say I'm to the left of Genghis Khan") and she won't allow pollies anywhere near her shows. But Dame Edna is quick to berate Labor and Kevin Rudd in particular: "Do we want a prime minister who looks like a dentist?"

Not one to hold her tongue, the dame has offended her fair share of people. As a guest columnist for Vanity Fair in the US, she infamously dismissed Spanish as a language of the hired help and Salma Hayek spearheaded a campaign demanding an apology to the Hispanic community. But the dame is unapologetic. "Oh that Salma," she sighs. "She was looking for some publicity ... She didn't get the point at all."

Most of her memories are sweet. She has hosted too many legends to remember - although Charlton Heston was a stand-out ("he's a bit ga-ga now but he was a lovely guest and surprisingly sporty"). She says it is her soft spot for Aussie audiences that keeps her coming home. "It's very personal," she says of Back with a Vengeance. "It's me just sharing. It's me thinking aloud on stage. Luckily my thoughts are interesting; there are people that think aloud in public who one would rather shut up."


Faked ambulance response times

QUEENSLAND'S corruption watchdog has been called on to investigate claims paramedics are forced to falsify records to enhance emergency response times. Officers contacted The Sunday Mail last week alleging they were under pressure from Queensland Ambulance Service management to claim less time to handle calls than was the case. They said this followed a worsening of response times, highlighted by Emergency Services Minister Pat Purcell when acknowledging staff were overworked and morale was low. Mr Purcell said a "bad winter" last year had contributed to problems with response times, which the QAS sets at a maximum of 10 minutes for emergency calls.

A female paramedic said her boss demanded staff hit the "at scene" button in their ambulances, which alerts the communications centre to the time the ambulance reaches its destination, well before they actually arrived on scene. "I am an ethical person and refused to follow these instructions. I was warned there would be repercussions if I didn't," said the officer who declined to be identified. She took "repercussions" to mean some form of disciplinary action.

Another paramedic confirmed the "at scene" direction from QAS bosses. He said ambulance crews were grilled if they failed to meet the 10-minute deadline and it saved them intimidation or harassment by acknowledging they were already "at scene". "It is actively encouraged," the QAS source said.

The State Opposition called on the Crime and Misconduct Commission to investigate the claims. An exclusive Sunday Mail report last weekend revealed that Code One response times had dipped below the 68 per cent pass mark set by the State Government. The state average in the first quarter of 2007 was 66 per cent. But, in the worst areas, most notably the Sunshine Coast, the figure was below 60 per cent. That meant four out of 10 emergency patients had to wait longer than 10 minutes, a situation the Opposition said had almost certainly led to deaths.

Another ambulance officer said with crews being sent outside their area to cover staff and vehicle shortages, it was almost impossible to get to a Code One within 10 minutes. "The QAS is like Russian roulette. They are playing with our lives," he said.

State Opposition Leader Jeff Seeney said instructing paramedics to push "at scene" buttons minutes before they were actually on site was dishonest. "It's intimidation of staff to falsify reports, to keep the truth from the public about ambulance response times," Mr Seeney said. He said the CMC needed to investigate what were very serious allegations.

Mr Purcell blamed an increasing and ageing population for an extra 5000 Code One callouts a year. A spokesman for Ambulance Commissioner Jim Higgins said there was no record of staff being "threatened" in respect of paramedics' allegations. He said the QAS operations manual stated officers must press "at scene" when in sight of the scene.


Expert warns against drinking recycled water

This is where the dam-hating Greenies have got Australia to

RECYCLED waste water should be used for drinking only as a last resort, an infectious diseases expert said today. Several Australian states and the ACT are considering the use of recycled water as a response to critical shortages. Professor Peter Collignon, director of infectious diseases and microbiology at ACT Pathology, told a senate inquiry the water would be better used for non-drinking purposes. "I think we should recycle as much as possible. My viewpoint is, that last option should be putting it into our drinking water," Prof Collignon said. "We should find all other ways of using water for irrigation, watering our ovals, all those things so that we have as pristine as possible the water we're using for drinking."

Prof Collignon said purifying water of sewage had historically been a major cause of public health improvement. "We're going to now, instead of separating it, physically put it back in," he said. "I think that's a major step that really requires a lot of thought before we start doing that." He said the reverse osmosis process used in the proposed recycling had been shown not to completely remove salt. "If it leaves 1 or 2 per cent of salt, why can't it leave 1 or 2 per cent of viruses?"

Prof Collignon was giving evidence at a Senate inquiry into southeast Queensland's water crisis and the proposed Traveston Dam. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has vowed to go ahead with recycling waste water without submitting the proposal to a referendum. The ACT Government has a similar plan for Canberra.

While Singapore is often cited as a user of such water, Prof Collignon said it was used only for industrial purposes. He said the only other place in the world using it as drinking water was the Namibian capital of Windhoek in southwest Africa, where the alternative was worse.

The head of the French company that will manage the Queensland project has also said recycled water should first be used for non-drinking purposes. Veolia Water chief executive Antoine Frerot told Britain's Financial Times last month that industry and irrigation should use treated waste water instead of tap water. "That would halve the demand for natural water, Mr Frerot told the paper. "That is what we should do, before talking about drinking waste water."

Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce said Prof Collignon's evidence and Mr Frerot's comments cast doubts over Queensland government claims that drinking the water was safe and done all over the world. "The whole premise of recycled water saving Queensland works on the belief that you will excrete more than you drink," Senator Joyce said. "I don't think this is physically possible unless you have got a condition that requires immediate hospitalisation."


Lasseter's reef: A great Australian legend lives on

THE man who founded Darwin's Beer Can Regatta says he has discovered Central Australia's fabled Lasseter's Gold reef _ and is getting ready to mine it. Darwin businessman Lutz Frankenfeld said he has known where Lasseter's reef was for years. He found the site by carefully studying accounts of Lasseter's second and fatal trip to find the gold. "There are a lot of major landmarks to find before you can consider it the area - and we've found all of those," he said.

Mr Frankenfeld said that the reef is often hidden by sand after flooding. He said he has had Central Land Council permission to mine the site since 1994 and is now negotiating with a mining company for a potential joint venture agreement to develop the project. Mr Frankenfeld says he has had an exploration lease over the area for almost 25 years and has been slowly organising his plan to mine it. He said the site was almost 500km west of Alice Springs on the border of Western Australia.

Harold Lasseter said he stumbled on a quartz gold reef seven miles long, four to seven feet high, and 12 feet wide in 1897 at the age of 17. He said it bulged with gold. Lasseter died searching for the lost reef in 1931. Since then at least 13 major expeditions have set out to find the treasure, but all have failed. And Lasseter's grandson Robert Lasseter jnr said just as many have claimed they have struck it lucky. "My mum had a fellow on the phone last night from New Zealand who claimed he found it," he said. But Bob jnr said he did believe the gold reef existed. "Some day someone will find it," he said.

Darwin historian Peter Forrest has written that he believes Lasseter made up the story about the fabulous reef. "I haven't been given any information to make me change my mind ... but I have been wrong before," he said yesterday.


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