Thursday, March 20, 2014

Education always requires more money or does it?

Another long-forgotten document from my files, timely in light of the Gonski reforms.  The new federal government and Tony Abbott.  Will he or won't he come across?

Dear Ms. Leahy (Australian Business Council)

Having heard this a thousand times, I am not surprised by the same old saw (ABC Radio) this morning from you about throwing more money at schools and teachers.
Being a maths/ science teacher I can tell you it is not about money, its about working conditions in a system that is broken, and money has very little to do with it. 

Last week I was at a meeting in which Christine Milne and the local Green candidate (both teachers) were discussing how more money had to be thrown at the state schools instead of private schools because everyone wanted their kids in private schools. I said I put my kids in a private school; having taught in the state ones I wouldn’t send my kids there either.  What a conversation stopper.

Here is a short diary listing notable events in my last three (short) jobs.

________ High relief.  (one day) 

To begin with there is a staff meeting in which principal explains about the ____ sisters who (this is a good news story) were not giving oral sex to ALL the grade nine boys under the bleachers, just two or three, their parents have been notified and are suitably horrified. 

Grade 8 Maths class.
Beside the usual obscenities a large pair of scissors are thrown in anger by one student at another. It is pandemonium. I do a time and motion diary and calculate my instructional cost to the state is three times my hourly rate.  Most of my time is spent pulling the metaphorical monkeys off the chandeliers.

I could sort out these kids in a second, but instead I have to decide whether to give them some kind of coloured card, send a runner or run to the office myself for help.  None of us in the room are so stupid as to misunderstand my options: any such course of action beyond the obligatory card will make me a total loser which I will never live down at this school at any rate.  In terms of my own survival or general educational outcomes the  ___ sister's efforts don't even rate.  Maybe they are even positive. 

 High School relief  (another school)

Day 1 lunchtime

I have mistakenly sat down in an a small section of empty chairs in the staffroom and end up having a conversation with the deputy principle. He is a big strong blonde man in his late fifties and his hand is shaking while he swallows little round yellow pills. The doctor has told him he has to retire because the stress is killing him. But if he does that now he will lose a large part of his superannuation potential. If he stays he will die and lose all of it.

Day 2. First period Grade 7 maths

The children are opening their briefcases at the start of the class. A nice looking, well-groomed little kid at the front row begins dancing around with a sharp fibre point type pen. He thrusts it toward my face, close enough that it disappears under my nose and says ‘You see this?’ swings around and slashes a line across the cheek of a girl standing next to him. Then he is in his seat, wide eyed; my instant reaction having been to give him a light, contemptuous backhand across the ear to remind him of who and where he was, and that dangerous acts would not be tolerated. The class froze.

He hit Edward, ‘ said a girl and they all dove into their cases and began working furiously, silently for the whole period. It struck me that if this had been my class I would have been easily able to treble my effectiveness for the whole year- on the strength of that one small incident. But unfortunately none of them dared ask me for help on their assignment. I thought nothing more of it, a minor thing compared to the scissors.  Of course I was an over-confident fool, I should have sternly asked the kid how he would like it if his parents found out about his misbehavior.  But I did not and  presumably Edward told his parents that he had been assaulted.
The school informed me that I had done the right thing but I had to make a report in triplicate which I declined to do, which meant the end of my career in the state school system.


I was asked to teach a maths class to a group of older welders and boilermakers (because I am one of those too, having gone back to blue collar work after the above) while a friend went on holiday. These guys think they are going to be vaulted into a $100 thousand a year engineering job from their fabrication welding positions on the strength of a high school maths class one night a week.  The program is not very advanced but the syllabus over the time  allowed is punishing; they will have to spend the other nights of the week working at it to learn even this much.  But they don’t and half are unable to get pass marks on their ridiculously easy exams which I could pass with my eyes closed, without having looked at the stuff for years.   

After four weeks of Tuesday nights I am called into the team leader’s office. 

This is an educational institution that aims to provide customer satisfaction.”

(Which means revenue is a function of student numbers)


There have been some complaints. You haven’t been giving enough personal attention to the people who are having trouble so you can finish up tonight. Do you want me to tell them?”

No, I’ll tell them.”

Which I did, including my feelings on their prospects as engineers.  When I went through college an engineering degree was a full-time four year course and a lot of those guys started out bright and then  worked ten or twelve hours a day at it.  And that was the end of my career there too.

The ‘team leader’ did the same thing to another temporary teacher a month later known as ‘Big __’ who came over the desk at him, and beat him up along with a janitor who tried to intervene.   Big ___ was suspended indefinitely at full pay for ages while investigations were ongoing.  I had certainly done the wrong thing.  About the ***head across the desk I mean, but then I don't have a 'Big' prefix on my name. 

When I did my teaching diploma at UNE they made it plain that it was the worst job in the world. 
I should have listened.  But its also to be one of the most rewarding – when you can help someone who wants what you have to offer there is nothing better in anyone's professional life.  And there are some great teachers out there, I am probably not one of them but the world of desperation that exists out there knows no lines of demarcation.  Life is too short to put up with the crap - people with options tend not to stick around  and these are the very ones who should be attracted into the profession.   So I decided not to waste my life cajoling others into humanity because it can’t be done that way.  Perhaps with unlimited manpower but not for any amount of money.

The science or art (call it what you will) of pedagogy did not evolve in a vacuum. For hundreds of years it turned out useful members of society from a varied lot of dubious material. Beyond academic learning - these are just kids; young pack animals - trying to find who they are, where their boundaries are in the world and if you don’t or can’t supply that at least you are betraying a whole generation.  And it was so easy before well- meaning fools intervened to cut off our metaphorical balls.   The kids know that from grade seven, and they taunt you. 

"If you touch ME my mommy and daddy will have you charged with assault and you will lose your job!"  That's a quote. 

My grade- school teacher taught 5 grades in a one- room unpainted weatherboard community hall.  She was a wonderful, thin grey-haired little woman who kept order with a sharp tongue augmented by a 12 inch ruler from which a recalcitrant might get a rare whack on the palm.  Everyone understood these things, even the slowest and already-bigger-than-her farm kids .  Sadism and brutality were never a requirement.  Everyone came out of there both literate and numerate with no more teaching aids than a blackboard and a small library.  Sorry, there was a little wind-up record player, inkwells in every desk, a large barrel heater in the centre of the room and an ancient piano in the corner.   I, my brothers and several others ended up with university degrees.  Maybe more than one even had illustrious careers.  That wasn't me which is beside the point.

Because somewhere out on the steppes and deserts is a hungry race, with nothing to lose who care nothing for our fine feelings, entitlements, moral, spiritual or territorial integrity. That’s how the world works and its not to conjure up the old threat of sampans across the Torres Strait, only that the tides of history flow with little regard for our fashionable indulgences. If we can’t even make easy decisions on the future of our children, like supplying an unflinching quality education, it will be for some other nation to force harder choices upon us.

Best wishes


Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Separation of Powers

     Before I went to work at a minesite up in northern Canada I had met very few Australians. Beside boarding with a teacher trainee from Perth in my fourth year at college, there was a father and son team I met one summer when I worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway on a maintenance crew.  We would see them working on their fences along the right-of way and sometimes we would drop our shovels, claw bars, hammers or whatever for a yarn.  They were two big men with open, easy  manners.  They dressed identically in shorts and black singlets and sat on one heel with the other leg outstretched there on the ballast under the blazing sun (which I have never seen done since even after having lived in Australia for forty years) while they did their sums on the sheep.  Each ewe would have twin lambs, there would be shearings and wool clips and they were to be the pioneers of a lucrative new Canadian industry that the rest of us could never have otherwise imagined.  But way up north in a camp perched above a glacier young Australians were everywhere.  And they talked about their country and travels.
     One day one of the mechanics mentioned his sister was going to have a baby.  One of the WA brothers asked; "Is she happily married and starting a family or just up the stump?"
     The mechanic; taken aback, was silent.
     "Well, then, where are you from?"
     "Up the stump then. They don't teach them about those things in school there.  It's just one of those supernatural phenomena like floating clouds of swamp gas that glow green in the night."
     So it seemed that Queensland was for some reason an especially unpleasant case of regional disparity.  Eight years later I had moved there, up in the tropical north with my Australian wife and it was certainly different.

 It's hard to sort out the web of circumstance and conditions that makes the state what it is but it starts with the heat.  It takes you by surprise - there's no failure of speech or balance like a long afternoon on the grog; you feel ordinary, like yourself until its too late and only afterward; trembling in the shade with a handful of salt and cold water do you realize the unspeakable has happened and your life is ruined.  You have propositioned a 15 year old local girl and driven oblivious through at least two red lights; all in the same hellish hour before you reached a safer condition close to collapse and this will become the stuff of local legend.  These things happen to the natives too, but not often;  they know the signs and happily shirk their responsibilities to while away the worst  of the afternoon doing as little as possible; preferably in the pub where legends are made and retold indefinitely.  And here is also where the real complexities of sex education take place.  Besides the perils of unprotected and anonymous acts, drunkenness or heat stroke, there are important social conventions everyone understands and considers.  For instance a respectable housewife is greeted by a beery passerby with a leering familiarity.  Her response is critical.  If she is too friendly or blushes or cuts him dead, it will fuel an updated retelling amongst his cronies and the rest of the circle at the bar of some youthful indiscretion -long ago when she was dumb and he was attractive.   No male ever wants to forget those things, and every woman does.  So you don't even need to learn to read -everyone knows the ropes by word of mouth and however the syllabus is formulated, that is the kind of thing a teacher would never prepare them for anyway.   One of my workmates claimed to have solved that particular problem by marrying the only virgin in - let's say Bowen and preserve anonymity and male honour.  If that  last is confusing, you probably went through the Queensland school system.

Close beside sex is the problem of politics; seemingly another failure of the educational system.  Democracy all across the nation is treated with contempt or disinterest most of the time except during elections which are assumed to be something like horse racing and the TAB.  Every so often you get to place your bet and hope for 'dividends' which is cynical horsey marketing jargon for some kind of unlikely positive return on your 'investment.'  If the winning horse turns out to be a dog, they shrug, throw their tickets away and hope for better luck next time.  They genuinely believe their candidates are good guys -silvertails from Brizzy maybe but out in the bush they are simple sons of the soil just like them who they feel they mostly know personally.  A wave, a handshake, a shared prejudice is enough or there is the ultimate proof of character -someone came to town and actually 'bought a round.'

I lived up there in the heyday of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and most of my neighbors were farming people. A lot were ardent National Party supporters.  The dairymen had a lucrative monopoly at the time which they associated with Joh's 'free enterprise values'  that he and they believed were the essence of democracy and the Westminster system.  This was a pyramid of delusion, but very comfortable for the beneficiaries.  One day I got a reply to a negative comment.
'Joh is as honest as the day is long'  - to this day I don't know if I was being set right by a supporter or wound up by detractor.  One thing is certain; that back then no local would have imagined that a 'bagman' was anything other than a helper during the potato harvest or that celebrated jolly itinerant by his billabong, waltzing matilda.  And before the denouement he was even going to be parachuted into Canberra as prime minister and thereby save the nation with his commercial acumen.  Afterwards no-one could remember ever having voted for him but I had taken him up on his fractured tirade about 'leaving if you don't like it here' and had gone to Tasmania.  Unprosecuted on account of his age and health, (although he claimed to have been exonerated) this patriot had the effrontery to appear down here amongst us exiles at country shows waving his cane and advocating secession from the federation while promoting a pumpkin scone fast- food franchise involving his wife and local business partner.  And there had been talk of his middle-aged slow-talking hayseed son John succeeding him, whose touted qualifications (beyond dynastic necessity) mainly rested on his purported virginity; proof of an uncompromising integrity; probably the same as his dad.  The family was not just simple, they were shamelessly weird.

So how do his one- time boosters feel about having repeatedly backed the same jackrabbit for the both the Cox Plate and the Melbourne Cup?  No problem.  Shame isn't the province of simple folk.  Like with Joh himself, the driving obsession is about making their way in life and they don't waste time introspecting.  Its all about  'dividends' and opportunities in Queensland had been pretty good.  I had figured that out when I was up there earlier having a look around.  It wouldn't have mattered if the neighbour's dog had taken the helm, Queensland was on the verge of a boom; the dog didn't and Joh got the credit.  When I bought an old defunct dairy farm with a collapsing home on it, I heard local rumours about my stupidity.  When I sold a couple years later for a small fortune, I was told essentially  the same thing to my face - if I had only held on, it would be worth a large fortune.   I then bought a dairy farm in Tasmania.  I had been subcontractor but never had I really taken on free enterprise face to face.  About a year later when I did the books I belatedly discovered my neighbours had been right about me after all, just not on those occasions. 

Queensland looked a lot better looking back,  feeding out hay in those cold wet Tasmanian winters and occasionally some viral clanger from the very top of Queensland's leadership would filter down across all those isobars and lines of latitude to warm the cockles of the heart.  Joh with his famous take on the Westminster system as unfettered capitalism and later premier Bill Gunn was asked what he knew about 'separation of powers' and was quicker on his feet; standing on the socratic defense.  He demanded his tormenter should define his terms which was of course the answer to the question.  No-one was fooled into thinking he knew but it didn't matter.   Because nobody up there can tell you   but everyone knows what it means in a practical, round-about way.  It doesn't work for them.  Its like those insulator things that hold the power lines apart.  The trouble is that nothing ever seems to happen until the wires come together and then all hell breaks loose.

So last winter my wife and I decided to take a sentimental journey during the worst of the Tasmanian winter.  Cairns has grown in thirty years, the Atherton tableland where my kids were born is almost the same as ever, just everyone I knew is a lot older and sadder, some maybe a little wiser and most of the cows are gone.  There's a memorial to the industry in Millaa Millaa, a life-size fiberglass statue of someone supposedly pushing a stubborn cow through a gate that looks from most angles like he is up there to his shoulder doing AI or assisting a birth.  Been there, done that; its nice to have it behind you.

On the last weekend of our trip we had decided to take off early Saturday morning and drive way out in the Gulf country.  I knew there wouldn't be any decent bread out there, and a few minutes before closing time Friday afternoon I went to a local bakery to buy some.  The shelves were full of the usual gunky white fluff and I had given up hope but then, up on the top rack I saw a beautiful long loaf of rye bread, which I took to the lady at the cash register.  She looked at it in astonishment, snatched it up and waving it like she was left at the station, trying to flag down an errant train she turned towards an open door into the back.

"Waaats thiiiiis!! she yelled kind of like through a bucket of gravel, backed by a Marshall amp.

"Waaats waaat!" came the identical response from somewhere in the back.

"This breaad!" /  "Waaat does it say?" /  "Well it saaays its 486 rye!"/ "We don't haave any 486 rye!"/

"Well that's waat it saays!" 

Moments later her clone comes bobbling out the door, and with hands on hips she bends to inspect my prize.  Shaking her head in wonder she silently turns and disappears into the back.  It must be some other customer's quarantined order, I thought, but what the hell, you can only try.

"How much is it," I ask.

"How muuch is it?" she screams into the back.

"Waat does it say on the list!?"

Which was right in front of her.  "Three dollars and aaaaty five cents!"

"Will you sell it to me?" I asked timidly. 

She looked at me with suspicion and maybe a touch of contempt. 

"O.K.," she nods.

And so an executive decision has been made and once again the wheels of commerce turn free, unimpeded by legal or constitutional niceties, committee indecision, or stultifying vested interests.  I am walking out on air, the loaf under my arm and a smile on my face.  This is Queensland, just as I remember it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Day in the Life

The mills of the gods grind slowly,

           but they grind exceedingly fine
-17th century German Proverb
(trans. Longfellow)
Forty years ago I was hitch-hiking down to Mexico via California and going through Ukiah I got a ride with a broken-down old hillbilly in a similar rusty Chev pickup.  It seemed I had to come stay with them at his com-yune and meet the pastor who was a real firebrand.  Years later I regretted my refusal because I could have dined out on the story for the rest of my life.  But my instincts had been correct; I was good-looking then, slim, fit, and clean-limbed; hardly even had to shave.  And the pastor was Jim Jones who didn't trust anybody; man nor woman until he had bedded them. And so the rational mind is betrayed by the rest of the body.  Mine would have been too if it had been some hippy in a Kombi van because everybody knew most of those places were chockers with drug-addled girls who went swimming in nothing but hair all over the place.
But all I ever got from the alternative rides -never even an offer of a place to 'crash' – was silent disapproval or some not-too-friendly tirade about our disparate trips. Obviously being clean cut I was some loyal running dog of the fascist pigs, too fresh and out of uniform to be a narcotics agent but definitely not part of the new wave of  self-indulgent naifs who would bring on the Age of Aquarius. We were all arrogant and highly sensitive about our personae at that age.  I was guilty of the same hubris and had wanted to distinguish myself from all the useless, inarticulate, hollow-chested freaks and used car dealers; which is to say almost everybody by then had grown hair and was advertising themselves as a beautiful soul.  I imagined I had one of these too.  But as Ken Kesey had ominously warned the other free spirits on his psychedelic bus tour  in Tom Wolfes' “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; “You're either on the bus or you're off it.”  

So everybody stuck to the script rather than endure the grim alternative; no more easy girl-flesh, no more adrenaline rushes barrelling along erratically with Ken's ridiculous con-man come Thor-hammer- throwing 2IC at the wheel, no more group stone parties,  and no place in that whole paranoid, vibrant adventure world of the avant-garde; blowing the minds of the uptight yokels and confounding the cops.  From that first summer of love I had always been off  the bus, not on any moral grounds, just that it was so pat and contrived as to be pathetic.  Friends who lived in communes in those days have their fond memories, and a not-so- fond common thread in their reminiscences is endurance of petty tyrannies.

Today I have a very full schedule.  I snatch a few handfuls of grass, throw it in for the guinea pigs, and drag my bony old backside, braces and white beard onto the seat of a rusty Isuzu diesel pickup truck and head off rattling towards town. Normally I use it to do my used oil collections from a couple local restaurants. I convert the stuff to biodiesel, and of my many hobbies it's probably my only contribution to the commonweal as only my wife still works. Can work.  The first stop is an MRI scan at the local hospital to determine whether surgery can undo some of the damage caused by a lifetime of farming and hard blue collar work.  Then I have an appointment to convert our local MP,  an ex-pastor, to environmentalism.  This is not a certainty, for a Tasmanian Liberal member that would be the political equivalent of cyanide; like Jim Jones' trusted and heavily-armed catamites forced on the whole Jonestown community, screaming children included.  And now it's me behind the wheel, and so fares the human grist as the world turns ever back on itself,  consuming youth, diversity and enthusiasm;  ever  generating the same old.   And I am really not looking forward to it; this is another man who is definitely on the bus and doesn't want to get off  and miss out - there is belonging, status, validation, not to mention great money and benefits.  I understand his predecessor called it the 'gravy train.'
And I rattle along hand in hand with hypocrisy, specifically the biofuel revolution driving my aging ute.  Every couple weeks my wife and I use a 200 litre drum made from  worn-out restaurant oil. Peak oil has come and gone and if every other small family in the developed world is using fossil fuel at the same rate, the planet will be scratching long before any major improvement comes to lifestyles in the developing world.  Here its only a freebie for a few under-employeds; all the takeways in Burnie could barely supply ten or fifteen families.  In poorer countries it would be clarified and resold until it was all consumed.   But well-meaning EU legislation has mandated a  percentage in commercial motor fuel.  So Indonesia is being scalped of its primary forest for palm oil plantations, many of those developments are on impossible ground purely to get logging access and the CO2 emissions from the burning forest in the dry season equal or have equaled a third  of western industrial output, choking the Malaysians and Singaporese.   Some of the blends I get  here have palm oil -from Wilmar International, a successful multinational founded by nice,ordinary, folksy, people who have discovered a way into the ranks of the super-rich by destroying the earth.   And George Bush bought swing -state Iowa with a subsidized ethanol-from- corn scheme that would free America from its dependence on the middle east.  Bottom lines were a mere 10 or  15% energy gain after fossil energy inputs and riots in Mexico when the price of maize doubled.  Enough corn to fill your SUV for a weekend outing could feed a Mexican family for a year.  Its like 'The Cars That Ate Paris' but unseen – our beloved freedom machines are eating the world however powered.  

But philanthropist Andrew Forrest from the rich man's forum in Davos has announced an initiative to turn Pakistan's brown coal (too dirty for power generation) into diesel fuel and bring their indentured labour market out of the dark ages.  Two and a half tonnes will make a barrel of diesel.  It isn't really a new idea, the nazis were forced into every option to drive their war machine and the cost of the coal is in the digging but from that 2.5 tonnes of coal I calculate 6 tonnes of CO2 emitted to produce the drum of diesel and that's before you burn the motor fuel.  If you can't do the maths and chemistry you are just another dumb munchkin, however wealthy.  And thus each animalcule of our exponentially growing population has an overlay of an exponentially- growing carbon footprint as conventional petroleum supplies are exhausted.  
Maybe there is a better source of biofuel in algae, which I had doubted on the grounds of having to maintain pure cultures of some high yielding variety.  But recent work shows that by limiting sulfur you can get an oil content up to 40% of dry weight, and that in particular gives me cold chills like when someone is  walking on your grave.

The guinea pigs are another of my world-saving experiments. They are an important protein source in South America, eat grass, birth huge, fully-furred young, are plump, tender and utterly delicious, and double their numbers every four  months.  I have done a guinea pig calculation for humanity.  At an economically essential 2% growth rate we double every forty years leaving standing room only on the planet, one human per square meter of solid ground in 11 doublings, a little over 400 years.   Or maybe they are referring to GDP, but in an age of desperate inflation- inspired capital allocation that would mean you aren't even running fast enough to stand still; unless you are happily in the Chinese camp with whole suburbs of empty but presently appreciating apartments and shopping centres.  Guineas are similarly capable of overrunning the world; all within a human lifetime even if you start from scratch with my own little flock.  They have really taken off in the trouble spots of Africa – unlike a pig or a goat, they can be tended easily by the youngest children, slain in meal-sized increments saving on refrigeration, and a family can grab their daughters, throw the pots and guinea pigs into a bag and make off into the bush at a moments notice.  The bad part is that they (guineas) can chew their own allotted square metre to the dirt in a day or two and not only have I  grown attached to them but their conversion ratio of grass to flesh is pretty poor.  It just takes too much energy to keep those tiny bodies warm, and too much of my time and energy finding grass for them.  Fish or reptiles have to be a better bet.

So what is our delegation going to say to our MP?    Agreement beyond basic topics probably isn't necessary, we won't change anybody's mind.  Will I have to explain the absurdity of exponential growth with the above 'reductio ad absurdum'?  There is the refugee question - the voters want the boats stopped.  But did anyone enlarge the debate to  garner votes with a political beat-up of the vaunted 'front door' with 60% fraudulent student visas and 40 % fraudulent skilled migration? God knows how many business migrations are dubious; people like Marcos' crony Cojuango, having helped rip the heart out of the Philippines was welcomed locally to spend his millions ostensibly putting our donkeys to work - suing journalists takes lots of legal representation.  Will desperate people willing to spend all they have in the world and brave death to get here make better citizens than the sharks and the weasels?  There was silence on that front because this is about big business- migration agents,  tourist enterprises, airlines, serious and dubious educational institutions and iron ore magnates seeking to construct their empires with cheaper, more desperate employees than are locally available.  And they are available.  I had intended to FIFO a bit myself just before I got hurt, but demand for older guys like me was underwhelming.  They get hurt easily and compensation costs drive up premiums.  But are foreigners actually better?  My son was on one of those jobs constructing giant tanks for tar sands oil in Canada. They had replaced a Chinese contractor who had decided to put the top on before the circular walls went up.  It is held up by columns anyway and that gives you a free run underneath but surprisingly there was a windstorm and a dozen or so got killed, thereby bolstering their traditional role in building our nation.  It had taken a less romantic turn more recently; instead of self-sacrifice, demand drove development and housing prices way above the grasp of the locals in Vancouver and Toronto.  

At the meeting we mentioned the refugees and yes, regardless of our member's own feelings he is representing 80% of the populace who want the boats stopped.  I think a similar number want the right to have help ending their own lives if it becomes unbearable.  He is not representing them on that one or abortion.  It is just so one-sided; those of us on the other side of the equation would be happy just to be left alone to mind our own business, he and his can do as they please without upsetting my sensibilities.   Which is really what its about.  Some poor wavering young woman is convinced to give birth and the 'right to lifers' cheer another victory for  life and morality and move on.  She never hears from these folks again when it comes to the nitty gritty of child-rearing for the rest of her oppressed and unhappy life.

But that's the trouble with the right, they always are.  There seems to be some flaw in brain chemistry that can rationalize a pat hypothesis in each little mental box; happily churning through the limited data mercifully free of any embarrassing connections.  Take the arts-  political careers need a lot of props and a sure-fire one is stoking the fires of public indignation.  Yes artists do get the odd contract for public art but is this a shocking waste of public funds?  If you ask anybody they will say 'a lot of the time.'  But it happens to be a highly competitive tender for a specific amount of money; right in line with market-based ideology.  And we get burned by that occasionally right across the board.  Any commissions I ever had must have paid $20 an hour maximum for a very limited period while (connection!) anyone in the political class can receive up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per annum and a wonderful stipend for life after a relatively short period of service that passes on to surviving partners, all on the public tick; no pre-election tenders to the electorate, no indignant finger pointing, no Work Choices legislation for these people.  A normal person might see some incongruity in that and feel ashamed to open their mouth.  

So the world has moved on but it's as if nothing has changed – there is some natural hierarchy of entitlement for the privileged.  Every climber is on a par with the genuinely wealthy; like in a 13th century feudal society.  God made the rich and/or finagled business success/electoral victory for them and he made the poor to fetch and carry; part of the natural order even as the planets wheel in the heavens.   Like the incredible parental leave scheme.  My own wife had two babies and simply quit her job (teaching) for a while.  Maybe they would take her back, maybe not, they got delivered for free, there was an ongoing universal minor benefit for the kids and that was it.  
In industy they insist on picking winners, favouring grandiose schemes with potential photo ops; generally promoted by con men  and they are generally wrong.  After squandering millions of taxpayer dollars on the MIS schemes and the pulp mill it all turned to crap and in the meantime virtually all the small sawmillers, me included were forced out of the industry.  North Forests said I was finished on the freehold, and to get anything from forestry, even access to pull waste out of the clearcuts you had to jump through hoops.  You could tender for 2nd rate wood occasionally against the set rates for top grade wood for your crown-allocated competition but only in a recession when no-one else had any market would they offer you quality sawlogs.  It wouldn't do to upset the logging schedules and leave it stand for a while nor were there any public tears from paid mouthpieces or compensation on my own exit or similar.

So moral hazard around here isn't something to be shunned; if it doesn't involve underage girls  it's embraced and publicized on the candidate's CV.  We have thrown a billion dollars down the rathole in the last decade on Forestry Tasmania, the primary forest is virtually finished, but their accounts list dirt access roading through the desolation as a compensating asset.  That and so many more millions of public dollars wasted is flaunted as 'fighting for  the coast' or 'making jobs, jobs, jobs.'

Of course our meeting was cordial and between time and diplomacy we didn't get to any really unpleasant questions:  If there is a sanctity in human life do the drowned qualify? Or the murdered family members of asylum seekers or even our own heroes of past wars?  My father's platoon on Okinawa in three months took as many casualties as Australia in Afghanistan to date.  He never even got to know most of their names before they were dead or shipped out for good and the US Army and himself  inflicted far worse on the Japanese; especially at the end -  his job was to clean up the beaten stragglers after they had blasted the main Japanese defensive line along the spine of the island from Shuri Castle to smithereens and rolled them up from the flanks.  The Japanese were starving and huddled in their caves along the last rocky beach on the way to the capital, waiting to be incinerated.  He had a POW to interpret so they knew they could walk out, or at least it would have had to be a  good gamble, but for most of them there was no sanctity in their lives, the only remaining human worth was a last  'banzai' for the emperor.   Sometimes a surviving officer would march his men out, relieving them of the dishonour of personal surrender as best he could, then go back inside and there would be a shot.  

We like to think it was a war of heroes, but what does that mean when life expectancies in combat of say machine gunners or second lieutenants was measured in minutes?  It was a war of attrition and it was about resources.  And what kind of candy-arses have we become?  Considering the rate we are divesting those resources, the sacrifices were surely in vain; it couldn't have disappeared any faster if we had lost the war.  Secret ongoing negotiations with our trading partners should move things along even more smoothly.  Natural gas is sold off and shipped out as fast as it can be drilled, uniquely amongst our peers we have virtually no domestic reserves.  Civilization itself depends on gas: agriculture is now dependent on nitrogenous fertilizer which we buy from India; made with Australian gas.  Chalk up yet another own goal, and no matter how fast we expand resource sales,  employment will not keep up with the demands of our own exponentially expanding population because a relative inverse of the same thing relentlessly depresses our job market.  Rio Tinto is going to driverless trucks and big companies are moving any labour-intensive production offshore.  

Regarding the Malthusian dilemma our MP rounded on me.  “Are you going to stop people from breeding?”
Obviously I am not.  Luckily for us in the western world my father's generation was called to inflict death and destruction and its over in the main for maybe another generation if our kids are as lucky as we were.  But the maths of population growth and the chemistry of soil depletion isn't rocket science.   We have also squandered and surpassed peak phosphorous which has horrendous implications for future food supply and I have faint hopes that universal education might convince more people to limit their families.  It won't be enough.  Of so many elected representatives in Canberra only Kelvin Thompson dares mention the elephant in the bedroom- the population factor is the driving force of the ongoing trainwreck that will ensure future resource wars, weather disruption, a series of ecological collapses and the final climate disaster that will see us off the planet.

How can I say this with so much certainty when so many of our best and brightest  like Ian MacDonald and Tony Abbot and all the Howard dinosaurs are climate 'sceptics'?   Well, I trained as a physicist and still am nowhere near being qualified on that one.  So by rights I should also be in the ranks of the sceptics and I don't know, but I'll go with the previous head of CSIRO who said, ”I don't know, but I have confidence in the industry and integrity of my colleagues who have spent lifetimes running the numbers through super computers.”  
And I have also worked in the mining industry.  Its in the Bakken oil that's sidelining the Saudis for the moment; its in the black, greasy shale basement underlying the Tarkine. Its in our 100 million year perfectly reasonable bone- headed behavioural DNA that says 'bog in' and grab what you can today because someone else will step up to take it otherwise.  And thus it is written in stone that the lowly pond scum; having waited patiently over 200 million years for its own day in the sun  will triumphantly cover the dead, stinking, anaerobic sulfur-starved, seething oceans; 30 meters higher than now on an ice-free planet.  And that's the reset button which will re-sequester all our carbon as it sinks to the bottom unmetabolized with its 40% oil content.  There  it will lie for half a billion years along with the world's topsoil and glacial till to be incorporated in the future great deposits of anthropogenic oil; a bonanza for our successors; be they ants or megarodents.

Of course maybe I don't know, but science is really all we have; public funding pays dividends and introduces an objectivity missing when the money comes from the coal or petrochemical industry.   And even scientists don't bite the hand that feeds them. Our representative thought perhaps climate change science could also be skewed on the other side by alternative energy money.  But there isn't enough of that and probably never will be because the wind and sun aren't easily monopolized by corporate giants.
In North America engineers get a fraternal iron ring made with steel from the Tacoma Bridge that famously destroyed itself in the wind.  But if you want a more recent disaster- a confluence of corporatism,  sloth, ignorance, arse-covering and accountant-driven shortcuts,  you needn't look beyond the Fukushima disaster which could still take out civilization all on its own.  Dud reactors lined up like shooting gallery ducks on a beach along a fault line, built by, sold to and managed by sycophants, chauvinists and fools.  The very idea of building a water-cooled reactor is insane.  When something goes wrong, steam becomes a potent metal oxidizer due to heat and high pressure, more like nitric acid, releasing scads of highly explosive hydrogen gas to prevent any cooling water being pumped in (if you even have pumps) and eventually blows the hell out of the containment facility.   So that's how it happened, and back in the fifties and sixties the hype was that such an incident wouldn't happen once in 500 years.  Since then we have had closer to one in fifteen.  

The ocean can dilute the groundwater coming from the melted cores, still somewhere down there burning its way to China -oops-Brazil and polluting the Pacific. But rather than do something about spent fuel rods, it was cheaper to store the thousand plus tonnes of spent fuel rods in EACH of the uncontained and who knows how badly damaged cooling ponds, high up in the broken buildings.  Only one of those need drain or fall or boil dry, and it will burn chemically, in the air – and whether or not the atomic fires light up again,  no one will be able to get close to the others.  In the southern hemisphere we might have a few years to compose our irrelevant obits. Because in the short time remaining for the northern hemisphere they won't have the time, ability or incentive to decommission Indian Point, Hanford etc. and something like 37 similar reactors world-wide of that type alone with similar storage problems that must be managed for generations.   With the doomsday clock ticking only seconds to midnight it wasn't a 1950's style cataclysm of assured global destruction by two crazy world-dominating hegemons we ought to have worried about; the end will arrive boring and banal, business as usual.  Uh.... what's the bottom line here?

So underground storage was another missed Australian opportunity.  Of course nobody wants the stuff rolling through town on its way into our own backyard but the bad news for nimbies is that its a small world and its already there.   Better it was safely buried at the bottom of the garden than washing it off the caulies.  We shouldn't get all moral about it either; we were hot to dig it up and sell it off in the first place making jobs jobs jobs and incidentally astronomic corporate profits and out of self- interest we elected the cowboys we knew were going to do it.
There is a risk abatement strategy called 'the precautionary principle' that essentially means you  don't trust in statistics, Panadol, God or even your GP when you are cutting off your whatsis.

So how is this for objectivity.  I invested in uranium shares a month or so after the tsunami when their prices had melted down by half.   I should have waited longer, the Japanese had lied, it was a lot worse than anyone let on and I could have got them at half that price again. Even so  this was the best investment opportunity I had ever seen since before the property boom in Queensland.  My wife was furious.  I tried to explain there was NO RISK but it fell on deaf ears; she didn't think that was the point.    Quite simply if it is dealt with successfully, existing reactors under construction plus the end of the soviet nuclear arms reduction will create huge shortages of uranium.  If the unthinkable happens my losses will be immaterial and anyway, I have subscribed to a news feed that will get me out a few days before it sinks in, for what that will be worth.

And there is one more risk.   I intend to add to my (very profitable) position at the next broad share market decline.  But maybe a light will come on in the collective human mind, there will be a worldwide move to intentional population control instead of relying on the traditional four horsemen of the apocalypse.  We will stop uranium mining, and embrace renewables.  We might even replace coal-fired generators with  thorium reactors.  Australia would be perfectly placed to design, build and supply these making jobs, jobs, jobs.  The technology worked back in the fifties, and the half-life of the stuff is the present age of the universe.  We have a huge sand mining industry where it is an unwanted byproduct.  It is ALL fissionable without enrichment as opposed to uranium which only contains about .5%  fissionable U235. Thorium cannot melt down and run away, there is enough to supply base load power forever, radioactive waste is relatively minimal with a short half-life.  And it cannot be weaponized which is why it was rejected in favour of uranium reactors.   So are we going to do it?  Does a bear sh** in the forest?  You can bet on it, but that's about all the dumb bastards will ever get up to.