Friday, May 30, 2014

A story of WWII heroism

One story which could not be told during the war, and which was lost in the aftermath and has only recently been pieced together from wartime diaries and service records, highlights the special bond that tied Australians and Americans then and serves to illustrate the shared values which unite our people today.

Melbourne author Tom Trumble has published a truly remarkable account of the survival of a group of Australian airmen stranded in Japanese-occupied Timor after the bombing of Darwin and later Broome destroyed the Australian flying boats which might have been able to extract them.

Their leader was 24-year-old meteorological officer Bryan Rofe, the author’s grandfather. The young man’s attempts to keep his band alive and rally their spirits are heroic, but that is just part of this extraordinary story.

After evading Japanese patrols, living off the land, assisted by some but by no means all Timorese, and ravaged by ­malaria, the small group was effectively abandoned by the Australian military.

However, the US navy overheard their radio transmissions and launched a rescue. The submarine USS Searaven was sent to the area and after several frustrating days managed to make contact with the survivors.

Members of the US crew swam ashore at night so as not to alert Japanese spies.

The men were weak, barely able to stand. Getting them off the beach could not be completed in one night and, at huge risk, the US submarine stood off for several days until all the men were aboard.

Five days after they had left, a fire broke out in a main power unit and another US submarine had to take it in tow on the surface, vulnerable to aircraft attack, to Fremantle.

The full story is contained in Trumble’s book, Rescue at 2100 Hours, and it is gripping.

US Lieutenant Commander Hiram Cassedy, captain of the Searaven and Ensign George Cook, who repeatedly swam through shark-infested waters to reach the men, received the US Navy’s second highest decoration for valour, the Navy Cross. Two crewmen were awarded the Silver Star.

Rofe survived to head the Australian Antarctic Division.

This is a story of heroism. It is a great pity it has come to light so late and that generations of Australians who don’t know the true history of the Australian-US alliance will only have the flawed perspective offered by the left-leaning historians favoured by the left-leaning curriculum.


Welfare whingers, look at NZ

THE Kiwis may consistently flog Australia in rugby, but if welfare and whingeing were a competi­tion we would be the undisputed champion.

Even after Joe Hockey’s tough budget, Australia’s welfare mountain will still dwarf anything across the Tasman.

The culmination of almost two decades of mainly populist budgets, the Abbott government will spend $6200 a person on cash welfare next year, over 25 per cent more than New Zealand’s government will on each of its citizens (converting all amounts to Australian dollars).

Education spending, at $2900 a person, is 10 per cent more generous in Australia but health expenditure is torrential by comparison: Australian state and federal governments will lavish more than $4600 a person to keep Australians alive and healthy, almost 50 per cent more than is spent in New Zealand. No methodological quibble could bridge such stark differences.

The relative splurge extends to hiring, too. Australia’s population of 23.5 million is about 5.2 times New Zealand’s, but as of June last year we had 8.4 times as many public servants: 1.89 million across our state, federal and local governments compared with New Zealand’s 226,000.

If the federal government overnight reduced welfare, health and education spending to New Zealand levels it would be rolling in a $40 billion budget surplus next year rather than wallowing in deficit until 2018 or even later.

Australians’ hysterical reaction to the Coalition’s first budget must bemuse New Zealanders, especially since Treasurer Bill English said last week that he would cut public spending as a share of gross domestic product by more than twice as much as the Abbott government has announced.

In fact, without a minerals boom to line government coffers and despite a huge repair bill from two devastating earthquakes, New Zealand’s budget will be back in surplus by $NZ400 million ($370m) next financial year, rising to $NZ3.5bn by 2018.

English, now in his sixth year as New Zealand’s Treasurer, commendably chose not to emulate the world’s greatest treasurer Wayne Swan and kept a tight leash on public spending before and after the global financial crisis, preferring to cut income taxes and lift consumption tax. The Key government, facing election again later this year, is now reaping the rewards.

While Australia’s economy is lumbering back to trend growth, New Zealand is enjoying a boom, its economy predicted to grow 4 per cent this year and 3 per cent next without pushing up inflation. The country’s unemployment rate is projected to fall to 4.4 per cent during the next few years as ours hovers around 6 per cent.

Apart from a bloated public sector and a wellspring of whingeing, what does Australia get for its vastly more indulgent public spending? Much higher taxes, for one thing. The marginal income rate most Australians will pay from July — 34.5 per cent — will be higher even than New Zealand’s top 33 per cent rate, which makes a mockery of our 49 per cent top rate, which will be higher than China’s and France’s.

It hasn’t made us happier. Even rising interest rates have been unable to dent record high confidence levels among New Zealand households and businesses, while Australians’ mood has oscillated between gloomy and indifferent for months.

Nor has it much improved our lives. Genuine poverty is not obviously higher in New Zealand than Australia.

Indeed, the UN’s Human Development Index, which compares living standards across 186 countries, puts both Australia and New Zealand in the top 10.

Our handout fetish has comprehensively ruined some markets: the cost of childcare is much lower in New Zealand despite the per capita public subsidies there being seven times smaller.

To be fair, English didn’t inherit the mess in 2008 Joe Hockey has today. New Zealand came close to bankruptcy in the 1980s, forcing its then Labour government to make drastic free market reforms that make Hawke-Keating Labor seem timid, and which Helen Clark’s government broadly respected.

Swaths of regulation and practically all corporate subsidies were abolished, and social spending was curbed substantially. New Zealand lost its car industry in the late 80s.

What English did inherit, however, was a population less spoiled by handouts and more accepting of the need for dramatic reform to improve long-term prosperity.

Australia is still much richer on paper than New Zealand but it wasn’t always. Australia’s welfare and tax habit will increase the chance of history repeating itself.


Vegetation-clearing curbs in fire-prone regions to be eased

Greenies trumped

Residents in bushfire-prone regions of NSW will be given greater scope to clear vegetation close to homes to reduce fire risks under laws proposed by the Baird government.

Households will be allowed to clear trees with 10 metres and shrubs and other vegetation within 50 metres of their homes.

"We’re putting people before trees," Premier Mike Baird told reporters in Sydney on Thursday. "This is empowering individuals."

The laws were first mooted late last year after bushfires in the Blue Mountains in October destroyed more than 200 homes and damaged more than 100 others. They also come as the prospects of an El Nino weather event in the Pacific increase; the resulting dry, warm conditions would raise the chances of another early and busy fire season.  

"We have worked closely with the (Rural Fire Service) to develop these new rules which will empower landowners who are taking responsibility for minimising the fuel loads near their homes – a key fire prevention goal," Mr Baird said.

A report following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria by Philip Gibbons from the Australian National University found that clearing trees and shrubs within 40 metres of homes was the most effective method of fuel reduction.

Ross Bradstock, from the University of Wollongong’s Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires, said land clearing could be beneficial in reducing the threat fires pose to houses but only if residents avoid planting gardens that nullified the benefits.

"There’s certainly evidence that clearing of this kind can contribute to a significant reduction of risk," Professor Bradstock said. "However, things like garden design particularly close into the house - which are not necessarily captured by this [policy] - can be very, very important."

RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers welcomed the new laws: "We need to ensure the community is as prepared as possible for bushfire and these changes will give residents the flexibility they need to clear their property from bushfire risk."


Trent Penman, a senior research scientist at the Wollongong centre, agreed that vegetation clearing near homes could reduce the risk of a second ignition source other than from ember attack.

Land clearing, though, has the potential to destabilise slopes and ridges, creating other threats to properties, particularly in the Blue Mountains, Ku-ring-gai Chase and the Illawarra Escarpment region near Wollongong.

"You might remove the trees but then you end up with unstable land surface that might slip under heavy rain," Dr Penman said. While ridge-tops could be undermined, "at the bottom of the ridge you don’t want things falling on your head, either", he said.

Councils and the RFS could also find themselves with additional monitoring roles without the extra resources needed to manage them. "It will create a lot of extra work for them," Dr Penman said.

The RFS's Mr Rogers said residents would be able to identify whether clearing posed any land-slip risks from maps that will be made available once the laws are passed.

He said that there was "no silver bullet" when it comes to reducing fire risks and residents in bushfire prone areas should continue to keep in contact with their local RFS unit and maintain a bushfire survival plan.

Threatened communities, species

Greg Banks, a former RFS staffer and now the bushfire policy officer for the NSW Nature Conservation Council, said the loosening of clearing rules could make communities less prepared.

"Under the existing process, it requires people to engage with the RFS so that they come out and have a look at their property before issuing a hazard-reduction certicate to clear,"  Mr Banks said.

Contact with fire experts can also assist homeowners to identify evacuation routes and even the preservation of some vegetation that might now be cleared, he said. "Some vegetation can prove very useful in providing a barrier to embers."

Tensions may also increase among residents of areas fringing bushland, such as Hornsby, Mosman and the Sutherland shire, many of whom have chosen to live in those regions because of the natural environment.

"Are they going to be do something on those properties because their neighbours already have?," Mr Banks said.

The Greens said the new laws would also give a "carte blanche" to the destruction of sensitive native habitat.

"Trees and scrub are essential vegetation for native animals, especially as effects of climate change continue to take place, so it is essential to retain oversight over clearing," said Greens MP and environment spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi .


Malcolm Turnbull saves Peppa Pig's bacon

Peppa Pig's head is off the chopping block, according to communications minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The communications minister has quelled fears the beloved children's show is bound for the abattoir, tweeting that the popular pig is safe from proposed ABC downsizing.

"Contrary to media rumours, Peppa's is one snout we are happy to have in the ABC trough," he wrote.

Fans of the pink pig panicked when ABC managing director Mark Scott warned the corporation couldn't guarantee Peppa's future beyond existing contracts.

"The services we provide depend on the funding envelope," he told a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday.

Some have since pitted Peppa against some of the ABC's more expensive recruits, such as Q&A host Tony Jones, while a Facebook page entitled "Save Peppa Pig on ABC Australia" has also surfaced.

Treasurer Joe Hockey said he wasn't a fan of Peppa, even though some of his children were.

"Given in our household I've watched so many bad episodes of Peppa Pig, I'm not a fan," he told the Today show on Thursday.

He said the ABC had not produced an efficiency dividend for up to 15 years, while every other area of government had.

Under the Abbott Government's budget, the public broadcaster's funding has been trimmed by one per cent over the next four years.

To complain about a one per cent cut was "frankly ridiculous", Mr Hockey said.

It's not the first time Peppa has courted controversy. In 2013, columnist Piers Ackerman accused the program of pushing "a weird feminist line".


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