Sunday, February 08, 2009

Truth-telling top cop accused of racism

Even using the euphemism "Middle-Eastern" instead of what he really means -- Lebanese Muslim -- does not let him off the hook. And in a way that is right. "Middle Eastern" tends to unfairly condemn Lebanese Christians -- who have been remarkably successful at integrating into Australian life -- and have in fact been making a large and positive contribution for at least 100 years. So the Leftist nonsense about it being wrong to call a spade a spade can hurt people who do not deserve it at all

A new underworld documentary series, in which a senior police officer claims Middle Eastern gangs in Australia have "perfected" crime, has become embroiled in a row over racism and ethnicity before it has even aired. Channel Seven's Gangs Of Oz has already been labelled "damaging" by Australia's race discrimination commissioner. His concern has been echoed by legal experts, a former detective and a leading group involved in community diversity which called on the network to re-edit the documentary before broadcast.

In the first episode, titled Middle Eastern Gangs, Detective Superintendent Ken McKay, the head of the state's Organised Crime Directorate, makes the remarks which have sparked outrage. "The Middle Eastern groups are involved in everything. If they didn't invent it, they perfected it in terms of crime," he explains. He then adds: "The criminal, in the Middle Eastern sense, is more cowardice [sic] than your general criminal. They'd rather use a gun than stand in a fistfight."

After watching the show, federal Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma said Superintendent McKay's casual use of terms such as "Middle Eastern" caused communities to feel stigmatised. "Ethnic descriptors used by NSW police, and in particular the descriptor 'Middle Eastern appearance', is seen by the community as contributing to stigmatisation."

While Gangs Of Oz claims to be an expose on organised crime, its critics suggest it only serves to illuminate Channel Seven's "sensationalist" reporting techniques. Dr Michael Kennedy, a lecturer in social justice at the University of Western Sydney, who previously spent 18 years as a detective in the NSW Police Force, said: "What Ken has said in this show is completely counter-productive to what the police are trying to achieve. "Using cliches and one-liners will only serve to alienate the community who have Middle Eastern heritage and I'm afraid it will be officers on the ground that will have to put up with the backlash from these remarks."

Yasser Solimon, executive director of Diversity International and a prominent member of Victoria's Muslim community, said: "It's very sensationalist and deliberately tries to shock. I would like to see it re-edited before going to air or at least some sort of introduction put on which attempts to balance the views in the show."

The producers of the documentary, which is set to air on Wednesday night, are former Today Tonight host Neil Mercer and veteran tabloid reporter Steve Barrett. Mr Mercer said: "Ken was calling a spade a spade." "We are so used to police officers dancing around things and not engaging in plain speaking but nobody could accuse him of that." "He's a very senior member of the NSW Police Force and experienced in talking to the media. I certainly didn't take his comments as racist and I don't think anybody else should."


New South Wales public hospital's $75m in unpaid bills

NSW public hospitals have officially hit rock bottom, producing their worst financial results on record. The NSW Health annual report, to be tabled in Parliament next month, reveals all the State's health services blew their budgets during 2007-08, plunging them into unprecedented debt. In total, health services overspent by $159.4 million - a result 500 per cent worse than in the previous year. Despite this, patients are being forced to wait longer for beds and more medical mistakes are being made.

The disastrous results have prompted the State Government to declare a crackdown on spending and tighter monitoring of budgets. But staff cutbacks [not including "essential" personnel such as clerks, managers and "administrators", of course] are likely to have a detrimental impact on services to patients this financial year. The Northern Sydney and Central Coast regions sank deepest into the red, racking up debts of $63.3 million - more than double the total health service overspend in 2006-07. The debt-laden Greater Western and North Coast area health services each went over budget by about $30 million.

Unpaid bills also reached new highs, leaving businesses that supply hospitals struggling to stay afloat. The value of accounts not paid within a benchmark of 45 days skyrocketed from zero in 2007 to $75.1 million in 2008. South Eastern Sydney Illawarra was the worst offender, owing creditors $24.3 million. Greater Western had not paid $20.9 million and Greater Southern accumulated bills of $12.7 million. This is the worst level of creditor payment on record -- and the figure has increased since results were compiled. Last week, NSW Health admitted the total amount owed to creditors was now at $117.5 million.

The report also revealed worrying slumps in key performance indicators. One in four patients waited more than 30 minutes to be offloaded from an ambulance at emergency departments. This transfer, described as "a challenge", is supposed to be as quick as possible to improve a patient's chance of survival and ambulance efficiency. Nearly a quarter of emergency department patients waited more than eight hours for an inpatient bed.

Mistakes are also on the rise. There were 583 serious safety incidents "in which death or serious harm to a patient has occurred", the highest figure in at least five years. NSW Health claimed, however, this was because of a change of definitions and better reporting. There were also more incorrect procedures, including surgery mistakes, and more deaths of hospital patients in falls.

Overall, NSW Health's expenses amounted to a record $13.12 billion in 2007-08 - nearly $36 million a day.


Onya Quenty!

For non-Australian readers, "Onya" is one of those many abbreviations that Australians so often use. It is short for "Good on you!". I have an idea that it may be used in Britain too. Through much exposure to Australians, Britons have learnt some of our slang

GOVERNOR-GENERAL Quentin Bryce has dumped $6.5million plans to renovate the two vice-regal residences because of the economic downturn. The sweeping renovations to Government House in Canberra and the gracious Admiralty House on Sydney Harbour had been planned by Ms Bryce's predecessor, Major-General Michael Jeffery. The bulk of the money, $5million, was to build a multi-function reception room at Government House, in the leafy Canberra suburb of Yarralumla, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin. The massive project was a key part of a 10-year strategic works program. The plan was to replace office areas at the corner of Government House with a lavish new function and reception area opening onto the lush gardens.

A handwritten note from Ms Bryce's official secretary, Stephen Brady, to his deputy, Brian Hallett, explains that the expenditure could not be justified because of "the serious economic circumstances facing the country, and hardships by fellow Australians". Proceeding with the extension - the cost of which Mr Brady noted could "spiral" - would be "folly".

Other renovations now on the backburner include $885,000 for air-conditioning at Admiralty House, stonework and sea wall repairs at the harbour mansion, upgraded lighting at Yarralumla and general repairs and road resurfacing. Taxpayers shell out about $12 million a year to support the Office of the Governor-General, which employs about 90 staff.

Ms Bryce, sworn in last September, has demonstrated a less ceremonial approach to the role. The traditional "vice-regal" column that records her daily appointments has been replaced by "the Governor-General's Program". She prefers not to be called "Her Excellency", and has already undertaken tours of Afghanistan, East Timor and drought-ravaged rural Australia.


Barry Humphries, the clown prince of suburbia

In my view he is the world's greatest living satirist -- JR

'FAR from wishing to change society," Barry Humphries once wrote in his wonderful orotund way: "I can only hope that my audience will pause, reflect for a moment, and pass on their immutable way, not forgetting, perhaps, to drop a coin in my hat."

The mock humility suggests a lowly street act but Humphries, who turns 75 on Tuesday week, is a performer known by millions of adoring fans, his celebrity astonishing. Yet surely few actors in history have been so derided or critically lacerated as the man who created Les Patterson, Sandy Stone and especially that force of nature, Edna Everage; most of the attacks as humourless and splenetic as the people he mocks in the live shows he once called "massage parlours of the human spirit".

At the start of his long career he was seen as a coterie comedian, too smart for his own good; now his celebrity is disparaged as a sell-out, a sign of meretriciousness and of his seeming irrelevance to contemporary reality. To those on the Left who loathe his seeming disdain for anything progressively worthy, he is a political conservative, but to those on the Right, habitually uncomfortable with larrikinism, he's a cultural extremist.

"A conservative contrarian while many in his generation were moving left, Humphries nevertheless retained a bohemian delight in transgression that makes him a radical," says cultural historian Tony Moore, author of The Barry McKenzie Movies, an account of the comedian's "ocker comedies" that celebrated and critiqued the Australian national character in the 1970s. "While Humphries the artist indulges elitist inclinations, the performer loves the applause from the crowd. Here is the paradox in Humphries's cultural politics, and possibly his personality."

Another paradox is how a young man who couldn't remember lines (he called it mnemonic thrombosis) actually became an actor in the first place. Let alone one who would transform Australia's creative consciousness. Saved from the business future his parents had planned for him, Humphries was somehow invited to join the fledgling Union Theatre Repertory Company early in 1955 and toured Victorian country towns performing one-night stands on an assortment of stages. He played Duke Orsino, in tights, in a production of Twelfth Night ("absurdly miscast," he said), directed by Ray Lawler who worked on his play, Summer of the Seventeen Doll, in his hotel room after each show. "Playing Orsino wasn't an auspicious beginning as an actor for Barry," remembers fellow cast member Malcolm Robertson. "The school audiences didn't accept him in the role as much as he tried desperately to bring different approaches to it."

Edna made her debut in "dribs and drabs" during the tour, recalls Robertson, largely invented to relieve the boredom of the long hours of bus travel between halls. The actors sang, recited poetry and Humphries gradually developed a falsetto impersonation of a gauche, garrulous Melbourne housewife. He improvised by absurdly, and endlessly, repeating the platitudes of the well-meaning members of the Country Women's Association who, after each performance, thanked the actors for bringing culture to their towns.

At Lawler's suggestion Edna, named after Humphries's nanny, made her first appearance in a UTRC revue, the final production of the 1955 season as Melbourne prepared for the next year's Olympic Games. It was felt that although he was a lousy actor but "naturally, instinctively ridiculous", he possibly might contribute to "the more frivolous theatre". He devised a sketch in which his "average housewife" offered her Moonee Ponds home as an Olympic billet; the dialogue while short on conventional gags lovingly detailed the amenities and appointments of her villa. Humphries recalled the audience was convulsed at the references "to burgundy wall-to-wall carpets, lamington cakes and reindeers frosted on glass dining-room doors".

The cultural aspirations of Edna Everage, then with bare, hairy legs shod with flat black brogues and wearing a pointed yellow clown-like hat purloined from Humphries's mother, suddenly found their way into art. "Edna's simpering genteelisms and her post-war, house-proud rhapsodies had a kind of thrilling novelty that is hard to believe today," Humphries wrote in his 1992 autobiography, More Please.

Another revue called Rock'n'Reel followed in 1958 at the tiny New Theatre in Melbourne in which Humphries introduced Sandy Stone to the stage, elderly and comically melancholy, alongside Edna. He had been first heard on a record called Wild Life in Suburbia with Edna on the other side. For the next 50 years Humphries has maintained that he is just another clown, still mastering what he calls "the cheering-up business" which began on that bus. But as critic Katharine Brisbane once wrote: "It is revealing the dead heart inside which makes Barry Humphries a clown quite out the ordinary."

He has developed a compelling understanding of show business, its secret wisdom, that of bringing gawps of wonder by tricks, wiles and all kinds of ballyhoo; and also of how unforgiving it is. "In this kind of entertainment you can't afford to hesitate; you must have the courage to go on with it; success is 80per cent effrontery and 20 per cent talent," he once admitted.

Unlike some great performers, the excitement he conjures remains inside the proscenium arches of his theatres and, these days at least, never follows him into the street. His characters bear no relation to the urbane, often mordant wit he reverts to when he becomes Barry Humphries, the make-up and frocks left in the dressing room. Certainly his speech sometimes appears so elaborately filigreed, his syntax worthy of Milton that you wonder whether that is an act as well. People often ask: who is he really? His performance of himself is consummate; he never travesties the art of acting but neither does he ever tarnish his own privacy: what we get in reality is extravagantly artificial.

Airing on Tuesday, ABC1 television documentary The Man Inside Dame Edna -- filmed during Humphries's 2007 Back with a Vengeance Australian tour -- attempts to explore the hidden side that gave birth to his alter egos. The filmmakers take Humphries back to the "nice" Melbourne of his childhood, suffocating and complacent. He speaks of what David Williamson calls his continuing demolition job on his thankfully departed mother -- seen by many as the model for the monstrous Dame Edna in her full flowering -- as her creator continued to develop her through the decades into a beloved mini-industry. "In fact we can thank Barry's mother for the appearance, out of literally nowhere, of our greatest social satirist," Williamson says. "I'm not sure she'd be flattered to think she had contributed so much to Australian humour, but on the other hand she has been immortalised."

The seeds of Edna can be seen in one devastating incident. Humphries tells of returning from a wonderful afternoon tea at the house of one of his mother's friends and remarking on how much he enjoyed the cake they'd been served. His mother's one-word response sums up much of the class snobbery that he would spend his life dissecting. "Bought!" she said to him. On another occasion he came home from school and found all his books had disappeared. "What happened to my books?" he asked. "Oh, you've read them," his mother said. "A nice man from the Salvation Army came and took them away." For the rest of his life, he says, he has searched for replicas of these same books. [I have had exactly the same experience -- JR ]

He talks of his adolescent heroes, the dadaists of Zurich and Paris -- Tzara and Picabia -- and his pioneering "street theatre" at Melbourne University. Of dadaism he says: "Its message of bad taste, of effrontery, of ferocity really, gave me a wonderful sensation of liberation, of intensity, and neither of those things has been granted to me as a privileged suburban dweller."

Phillip Adams argues that contrary to common belief Humphries actually discovered Australia in the 1950s in his first revues, in which Edna and Sandy Stone appeared. "He found its illusions, its brand names, its advertising jingles, the funny names of its suburbs and streets," he says. "And suddenly Australia was called into existence; it had been there only we hadn't discovered it."

Williamson remembers in the early '60s hearing of a brilliant new comic talent whose work was only available via rare vinyl records, "passed around like sacred objects among those in desperate search of a release from the stultifying fake 'niceness' of an Australian middle class desperate to distance themselves from the convict 'stain". The mention of Humphries, he says, was like a cryptic password identifying one as belonging to a renegade group who refused to concede that Australian suburbia was the closest thing to paradise yet achieved on earth.

"He gave permission to a new generation to refuse to be 'nice'; to wage war on the insufferable Australian smugness," according to Williamson. "Graham Kennedy, I'm sure was a beneficiary." So was the new wave of Australian theatre centred around the Pram Factory, La Mama and Nimrod and the emerging film industry with its hugely successful larrikin comedies. "Sometimes we might have gone a little overboard in our celebration of the vulgar poetry of Australian English, but it was needed; all we ever saw was English plays and American films. Barry was the prophet appearing miraculously from the deserts of Australian conformity."

Comedy writer Garry Reilly, co-creator of the ground-breaking Naked Vicar Show, agrees. "Barry transformed not only the comedy business, but also the way we look at ourselves; he was the bridge that took us from the cosy non-threatening world of vaudeville into and dangerous new territory of satire," he says. "It was uncomfortable at first as we struggled with what it revealed about ourselves and even worse, how others saw us."

His influence on satirists continues. "Barry Humphries is the reason I decided to become a writer," says comedian Shaun Micaleff. "I'd seen a number of his shows over the years, even managing to catch him in London's West End where, famously, he had arranged several people to topple out of a balcony. He was and remains very good at unsettling an audience; even appalling them slightly."

There seems little self-doubt about Humphries as he approaches 75 years of age, most demons conquered. To the chagrin of many observers there is no sense that by appearing so constantly on stage he seeks to overcome any emotional history. No sense of unreality assails him as it does some famous actors; he is not a man who leaves the stage and returns to being a nobody. Or does he? Of all the characters he has created one stands out, my favourite Humphries figure, the only one the enigmatic comic himself, in the foreword to his autobiography, suggests is real.

He is not the friendly fellow who confronts him each morning from the shaving mirror with his rehearsed and jaunty grin. The real man Humphries suggests is the round-shouldered, middle-aged man, dewlapped and disconsolate, "a few feet from me and looking in the other direction", he glimpses when he steps into a lift or washroom.

Happy birthday, Barry.


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