Monday, January 10, 2011

British "elf n safety" paranoia comes to Australia

Father and pint-sized son get the festival cold shoulder

At not quite two years old, Hugh Price is a bit shy of 85 centimetres tall. So at the balmy early evening opening to the Sydney Festival on Saturday, Hugh's father hoisted him on to his shoulders for a better view of the six-piece Chinese folk band Hanggai.

Through the crowd of families at Martin Place, a security guard noted the move and approached Hugh's father, Sean. The child had to come down. He was in danger. Mr Price, of Newtown, thanked her and assured her Hugh was safe. Moments later, a male security guard gave the same instructions. Four more joined him and "surrounded" Mr Price, his wife, Meg Quinlisk, and Hugh.

"They said that I was putting my son in danger because someone could come running through the crowd and it would knock me and him to the ground," Mr Price said. "There was no danger. I had made an assessment as a parent does in that situation. It was early in the evening. There were just families around."

Feeling intimidated, they left. "I wasn't going to enjoy the performance. I felt like they were questioning my ability to parent," he said.

Festival organisers distanced themselves from the dispute. A spokeswoman said the guards were not acting on the instructions of organisers. "The instructions that security had from the festival were they should approach people who were obstructing sight line," she said. But that was not the case with Mr Price and Hugh. "The security guards went with their own reason," she said.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties said the guards' behaviour was "completely inappropriate" and could be setting a serious legal precedent. "I've got an almost-two-year-old myself and she rides around on my shoulders all the time and she loves it," said the secretary, Stephen Blanks.

"It's giving the wrong message that security people are there for personal safety as opposed to crowd safety and there's a real difference," he said. "Once they start doing this … they're throwing up a legal nightmare for themselves."

The security company responsible for the area on Saturday, ACES, did not return the Herald's call yesterday.


NSW family says repeated surgery postponements caused more agony

Having an elderly loved one in hospital for more than four weeks, with a hip operation continually postponed, was too much for a Macquarie Fields family who lashed out yesterday at Campbelltown Hospital, calling on the Premier, Kristina Keneally, and the Minister for Health, Carmel Tebbutt, to intervene.

Alan Dwight, 67, a retired storeman, had a fall at his home on December 9 and was admitted to Campbelltown Hospital's emergency department that day. His wife, Irene, told the Herald that because of the continual postponements, other complications had set in.

Mr Dwight had surgery for bowel and bladder cancer 16 years ago. He has a colostomy bag and had trouble with his bowel, unable to, for a time, keep down his food. He had developed mild pneumonia and because of the repeated pre-operative fasts, had lost weight he could ill-afford to lose.

Mrs Dwight, 55, who has been married to Mr Dwight 33 years and has had four daughters, said that if the surgery had been done promptly, he would have been out of hospital, being cared for by his family.

"Week after week I have been promised and promised and promised," she said. "They told me they could not do the operation on weekends because they had no staff."

Barry Anderson, a friend of the family, said: "We got given some pretty poor excuses, like 'not enough nursing staff' and, 'It's busy because it's school holidays.' And even with that, for the first week he was in there, it wasn't school holidays.

"At around 4am on Christmas morning Alan couldn't breathe. He reached for the buzzer to call a nurse, but there wasn't one. He managed to get attention by smashing the tubes coming out of his arm on the bed rail repeatedly to make a clanging noise. We very nearly lost him …

"The hospital and his doctors had agreed to contact his wife Irene and or his daughters if anything happened and to keep us up to date but we didn't hear anything about this."

A spokesperson for the South-Western Area Health Service, which covers Campbelltown Hospital, said the hospital understood the distress of having a loved one in hospital at this time of year. Until now the patient was assessed as not well enough for surgery and that this would be performed when it is clinically appropriate.


Consumer group slams "nutrient" drinks

CHOICE is stepping up the campaign against vitamin water drinks, describing them as "expensive lolly waters" with hyperventilated health claims". Some contain a third of a woman's recommended daily sugar intake in one 500ml bottle.

The consumer advocate CHOICE first complained to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in 2008 that Coca Cola Amatil's Glaceau Vitamin Water made a mockery of food labeling laws, but the complaint was rejected. Since that time the market has been flooded with similar products such as Nutrient Water and Smart Water.

CHOICE spokeswoman Ingrid Just said Nutrient Water claimed its Cranberry Grapefruit Multi-Vitamin Water drink offered the same benefits as eight hours sleep, a bowl of steamed greens and pre-dawn power walks.

She said it was time to "get tough on potentially misleading promotions and labelling", such as 'nature approved ingredients' and 'natural flavours', "which mean nothing". "This type of labelling creates the impression that the drinks can be used as a safety net for a poor lifestyle when grabbing an apple and a glass of water will provide you with far more nutrients for a fraction of the cost," she said.

A spokesman for the ACCC would "neither confirm nor deny whether any investigations are underway". However recent actions include labeling changes for Sanitarium breakfast cereals and National Foods juices.

The ACCC was concerned that Berri Australian Fresh "Daily Juice" packaging suggested that it only contained juice that was recently squeezed, when in fact the products within this range may contain either fresh juice or a blend of fresh juice and aseptically stored juice. Sanitarium packaging suggested certain breakfast cereals contained more fruit than was actually the case.

CHOICE has called for the ACCC to take another look at the way vitamin waters are marketed. "These drinks are leading consumers up an imaginary garden path to health and vitality," Ms Just said. "Treat them like any other sugary or artificial drink; enjoy occasionally, not as a means to any kind of wellbeing whatever the label or pretty pictures might suggest."


Some vintage Bob Ellis

Julia Gillard is "not well informed" and is part of a Melbourne-based gang called The Mouse Pack, while Tony Abbott has "good manners", is "formidable" and possessed of a "first-class mind". So says Bob Ellis, party historian and speechwriter for, among others, Kim Beazley and Bob Carr.

Ellis has forged a political career out of telling it, brutally, as he sees it. Now he has a new book that's bound to ruffle a few feathers.

Even though Liberal leader Abbott (along with his wife and Tanya and Peter Costello) sued Ellis successfully for $277,000 for defamation, might there be the stirrings of curious bromance (despite it being a neologism that would surely make Ellis himself shudder) between the writer and the opposition leader?

"The person he most resembles, I've just decided, is Scott Fitzgerald," Ellis wrote in a review of Abbott's book. "The classic good looks, big flashing smile, easy Irish eloquence, angelic writing style, self-doubt, Catholic guilt, hot temper, Gatsby-like yearnings for past relationships long gone and luminous in remembrance, fondness for football and self-flagellation and his need for a son, all bespeak a literary genius drawn by life and lesser pursuits into spiritual shallows and drunken remorse like Scott, poor Scott."

He appears largely to have forgiven Abbott for the catastrophic lawsuit ("he was dragged into it by Costello") and has even discovered Abbott's socialist tendencies. "He is no more a Liberal than I am," Ellis says. "Liberal is the name of the suit he is wearing. He is actually a Catholic socialist. He's DLP [Democratic Labor Party] and always has been."

But Ellis draws the line at defending Abbott on the war in Afghanistan and the treatment of boat people. "It's odd isn't it," he muses. "So unf---ing Catholic."

This is vintage Ellis. He has always taken great glee, in his own lugubrious fashion, in being the wilful contrarian, writing and saying whatever he damn well pleases to the point where he can seem possessed with a kind of intellectual Tourette's. It's a compulsion that has, inevitably, stirred up much conflict along the way.

There was that defamation action, which resulted in the first run of his book Goodbye Jerusalem being pulped, and numerous public spats with his enemies on the left and right. Then there was the tawdry episode in 1999 that remains lodged in the public consciousness; accused of having an affair with scriptwriter Alexandra Long that left her pregnant, Ellis read a statement on ABC radio revealing excruciating details of the pair's encounter in a Sydney hotel room. The upshot of Ellis's defence was that a "not unprecedented bout of impotence" meant he could not be the father (a claim subsequently disproved by a DNA test).

Nothing it appears - not even his own humiliation - will stop Ellis telling it how he thinks it is. His marriage to scriptwriter and novelist Anne Brooksbank, whom he met in 1966, survived the episode and he has continued hurling incendiary devices from the sidelines of Australian politics in books and essays ever since.

This year's federal election has proved particularly fertile ground for Ellis's writing, forming the backdrop of his latest book Suddenly, Last Winter, a diarised account of events, starting with the hasty ascension of Julia Gillard to the leadership. And it is for Gillard, who is "sudden, firm and wrong" in everything she does, that Ellis reserves some of his most acidic barbs.

"She's not well-informed," he says. "She hasn't, I think, read a novel or seen a film with subtitles and I doubt if she has read Encounter or the New Statesman or Vanity Fair or Harper's or the London Review of Books or The New York Review of Books and therefore she doesn't have hinterland. She has not much except a kindergarten sandpit response to things: 'Nyah, nyah you're just jealous because I'm prime minister and you're not.'

"It's perfectly all right for some reason if you are deputy prime minister to do that but when you are prime minister, you have to speak for the nation and I don't think she has discovered what that is.

"One thing is sure - there will be no Gillard era. This is not a 20-year stretch. Civilised people's hands are already over their faces every time she speaks. That cannot last. She has no power, no influence, no friends, no learning. There's not much there."

So is there no way back for her? Ellis pauses for a while and then pronounces: "She needs a Falklands war. She modelled herself a great deal on Thatcher but lacking, alas, the husband or twin children that would have made that kind of act respectable."

Gillard is part of a Melbourne-based gang Ellis dubs the "Mouse Pack", which includes Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson. "They twitch their whiskers and come out in favour of the Afghan war without studying the problem or noting that an army intelligence officer [independent MP Andrew Wilkie] holds the balance of power," Ellis says. "This is not so much dumb stuff as stuff that comes from people who have been in the same small room for too long, stroking each other's fur."

And in Ellis's political taxonomy, the timid rodents in Victoria can be contrasted unfavourably with the minor parties and independents. "I love the independents," he says. "I love the small revolution those independents effected in those 17 days. They were just wonderful. Suddenly, instead of talking about the deficit versus the surplus in 2013, people were talking about things that matter - they were talking about where the water goes, how the country towns survive and why farmers are suiciding and whether gays should marry."

And of those independents, Ellis singles out Bob Katter, "my favourite human being". At one point, Ellis writes that Katter "in his huge white hat ... resembles 15 simultaneous Johnny Cash songs bayed from the back of a speeding truck in monsoon rain".

This sort of stuff seems effortless for Ellis who, while occasionally falling prey to his own bombast, generally writes quite beautifully. He claims to sleep five times a day (it's like living with a wombat, says his wife) and writes best immediately on waking.

The hours between 3am and 6am are also particularly productive and will often see him seated at the sloping desk in his northern beaches home filling up his notebooks with meticulous longhand. "You don't actually know what the end of the sentence is when you start it," he says. "If you write slowly in longhand then you may well discover it. People who start off with dot points and use word processors are just f---ing fools. "The fountain pen should never have been superseded. Some argue that the feather should never have been superseded - more great works have been written with a feather than a word processor."

Later, when Ellis is posing uncomfortably for our photographer, his notes and papers bag at his feet, he remarks that he doesn't know how he continues to "get away" with saying what he does about Gillard and others.

And perhaps in that casual comment there is a deeper truth - that for someone like Ellis there could be nothing worse than the prospect of being dismissed as irrelevant by the targets of his attacks. But one has the feeling that if his enemies think ignoring him will make him go away then they are sadly mistaken.


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