Rubber Duck by Florentijn Hofman

Rubber Duck by Florentijn Hofman

ART: I was going to try and not do “cute” this blog, although this is often hard in relation to animals.  I was very offended by Rubber Duck (which is 15 metres tall) when it sailed into Darling Harbour as part of the Sydney Festival.  A suitable metaphor for Sydney I thought to myself.  Big and obvious.  Many of us are familiar with the marvellous monumental  installations of the artist Christo (his first major environmental project was wrapping part of our Sydney coastline in 1968/69),  and I thought Rubber Duck made even Jeff Koons and his huge Puppy seem subtle and interesting in comparison. However, the blog is not all about me and when I saw this great photograph in the newspaper, hypocrite that I am, I couldn’t resist using it. The public have loved it – and perhaps it does raise the question – what is art? – or does it matter?

Installation view, Anish Kapoor, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012/2013 Image courtesy and copyright the artist. Photograph: Alex Davies

Installation view, Anish Kapoor, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012/2013 Image courtesy and copyright the artist. Photograph: Alex Davies

Also making often monumental sculptural works, Anish Kapoor is at the Museum of Contemporary Art (until April) for his first comprehensive survey exhibition in Australia.  He is super cool – almost too much.  His works have a clinical  perfection, and are made from the most luxurious and expensive materials.  They are emotionally cold and Kapoor will not discuss their meaning – he just leaves it to us to interpret.  I remain an admirer but I was distracted by a surprisingly awkward installation and children running excitedly around the distorting surfaces of his polished mirrors, or staring into the illusionary concave voids.

Study for portrait of Eddy Batache 1979 by Francis Bacon

Study for portrait of Eddy Batache 1979 by Francis Bacon

Study for portrait of Reinhard Hassert 1979 by Francis Bacon

Study for portrait of Reinhard Hassert 1979 by Francis Bacon

In contrast, Francis Bacon’s work at the AGNSW (until February 24) is very emotionally affecting and engaging.  It is exciting to see the work of a great painter – especially spanning Five Decades. Descriptions of his work range from “depressing”, “joyless” and “haunting” to “beautiful” and “magnetic”!  While I tired of so many paintings given the same “staged” formulaic treatment, his smaller portraits are among the best and most powerful I have seen for a long time, and are poignant and illuminating.  I suppose some people may find the sexual nature of some of the work confronting, but I found the exhibition full of emotional intensity and like life, a mixture of love, anguish and pain.

SUMMER: While many of you in the northern hemisphere are having snowstorms, our summer here in Australia has not been all fun!  Lately, 70% of the country has had temperatures between 40 and 45 degrees. There have been severe bush fires in Tasmania, and many others in other states.  I think there has only been one fatality, although many homes have been lost and there have been thousands of animals killed, especially stock.  Now we have torrential storms and floods in Queensland and northern NSW.

I live surrounded by the Royal National Park and on a particularly hot and scary day recently we had a record 45.8 degrees in Sydney, and because I had to attend to family business out of town, I evacuated my most unwilling cats to my vet.  Although safe and well-looked after, they spent several days in a smallish cage beside yapping dogs, and sulked for quite a while afterwards. I’m only mentioning this as I find care for my cats when I want to go away is a difficult problem that many of us face.  Unfortunately I don’t have cat-loving neighbours.  I  have not liked any of the facilities for looking after animals that I have checked out, but I am grateful that they exist.  No doubt like many of you, I find moving cats at any time quite traumatic for them and me.  When I have moved house in the past I have locked the cats inside for 2 days before introducing them to their new outside world.  A couple in the US lost their cat on a holiday/excursion 320 kilometres away, and miraculously, the cat recently found it’s way home!

'Commander Skyring' Gang Gang Cockatoo 2012. Photograph by Leila Jeffreys. Courtesy Tim Olsen Gallery.

Commander Skyring Gang Gang Cockatoo 2012. Photograph by Leila Jeffreys. Courtesy Tim Olsen Gallery.

USA: It was exciting to see the Obama inauguration. I think we have become blasé about just how historically significant it was that he became President, and then won a second term.  They are such an attractive family, and Obama is capable of stirring oratory – when did we last hear any from our leaders?  It was a real surprise to hear the words “gay rights” or “gender equality” or “climate change” coming from an American President!!!  This was described as “goofy leftism” by a reactionary Republican, and rather than addressing the problem of their shrinking support base, which was apparent in  the election, Republicans will no doubt be as intransigent as ever over many of the very important issues facing the nation.  Let’s hope Obama can deliver.  He inherited a difficult legacy – the GFC, unnecessary wars etc., but he is not beyond criticism.  I am especially horrified by the obviously illegal killing of people by unmanned drones.

GUNS:  It is fascinating, if depressing to witness the power of  the National Rifle Association, with actually very few members. They cleverly monitor, target and threaten politicians to ensure their support against gun controls. Contact your politicians and express your views and encourage them to make a stand!  Statistics indicate clearly that lives are lost – not saved – by having so many guns in the community, or in homes.  I think it is pretty safe to say that the right to bear arms is not God-given!  In Australia we had an Amnesty over guns after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, but apparently there are now just as many illegal guns in circulation. Lately, there have been shootings everyday in Sydney, and whereas before quite minor differences or disputes could result in a punch up – now they shoot each other dead!

'Seissa' Palm Cockatoo 2012. Photograph by Leila Jeffreys. Courtesy Tim Olsen Gallery.

Seissa Palm Cockatoo 2012. Photograph by Leila Jeffreys. Courtesy Tim Olsen Gallery.

NSW: As I have mentioned before, to secure a vote for some particular legislation, the NSW Government is allowing hunting in some National Parks, which will be overseen by the Game Council.  This is the proverbial fox in charge of the henhouse.  It seems some members of the Game Council are now to be charged with cruelty to animals, hunting without a licence and trespassing.  There is growing opposition to the decision to permit hunting, and to the way the government makes decisions and does business in general, and many people now feel it will be too dangerous from March 1 to go into National Parks.

The 2012 State of the Environment report for NSW shows that Sydneysiders are breathing cleaner air, saving electricity, using more public transport and recycling.  While this is encouraging, overall in NSW there has been a steady deterioration of many native forests and wetlands, and biodiversity is declining with more species threatened than ever before.

Cuban Macaw by Ralph Steadman

Cuban Macaw by Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman, made famous by his illustrations for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was asked in 2011 to contribute a drawing of an extinct bird – and 110 works later, has produced a book Extinct Boids.  Most are real birds that did exist, but some he made up like the “needless smut”, “the lesser-blotted bitwing”, and the “blackened thront”.  Steadman was very alarmed to discover just how many species have been lost, and blames sailors, rats and cats for their extinction.

ENVIRONMENT: Our Environment Minister Tony Burke has some tricky problems to manage in the next few weeks. He will have to decide if he will overrule the NSW Government’s permission to expand Idemitsu’s Boggabri coalmine, and Whitehaven’s Maules Creek Mine.  There is quite a backstory here I won’t go into, but there is determined opposition from  the local community concerned about coal dust, contamination of the aquifers, the loss of thousands of hectares of critically endangered forest, and the threat to excellent agricultural land and animals.

The Minister will also be presented with a petition from GetUp! about government inaction over damage to the Great Barrier Reef from the construction of coal seam gas processing facilities, and proposals for massive new coal ports along the coast.

The government usually manage to wriggle out of actually confronting Japan over whaling in the southern ocean – hiding behind ” taking Japan to the International Court of Justice later in the year”.  Our Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who trades off his supposed environmental credentials, did not even raise the issue with a Japanese government minister who visited recently.

After boasting last week in an interview about Australia’s action on climate change and emissions, Bob Carr was forced to acknowledge that the forecast expansion of Australian coal mining and exports, will make us, after China, the second largest contributor in the world to new carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.

Shark fins on a roof in Hong Kong

Shark fins on a roof in Hong Kong

While I have a well-known fear of sharks since seeing Jaws now many years ago, I know they have their role to play and must be protected. This photograph of drying shark fins was absolutely shocking – the scale, the inherent cruelty, and the threat to the species – for soup?

ENERGY: I’m glad I don’t live in western Sydney where up to 66 coal seam gas wells may even be mined under houses!  I have not seen any evidence so far that this is a safe practice, or that the chemicals used will not be polluting the environment, and that water aquifers will not be adversely affected.  It was good to see that Yoko Ono was protesting against fracking in the US.  As previously discussed, bodies and organisations in NSW that do offer the community some advice and assistance against rampant unchecked development (like the Environmental Defenders Office) have had their funding cut after lobbying by the  mining industry.  This is part of a scheme to eliminate any legal challenges to new mining ventures, although it has been described by the government as “greater access to justice for the disadvantaged”! It would be funny if it wasn’t so appalling.

FACT CHECKING  FILE:  We have an election due by the end of the year so I am dreading how wound up I will get.  As we have compulsory voting, our politicians will be pitching to the lowest common denominator in marginal seats in the outer suburbs.

One of the best suggestions of the last few weeks was from Malcolm Turnbull (Coalition/Opposition) who suggested a fact checking website where information could be definitively presented and verified, and people held accountable for inaccurate or misleading statements.  An example could be: is human induced global warming happening?  (Turnbull knows this to be true, yet this was a factor in him losing his position as Leader of the Opposition).  So rather than arguing about is climate change real, we could all see the analysis and conclusions drawn from the scientific data, and actually move on to addressing it – ideally with bi-partisan support.

Another debate in Australia is the ALP Government’s response to the Global Financial Crisis.  From my reading (comments from the IMF, World Bank, a variety of experts and economists etc.)  the government’s quick reaction, and actions, were appropriate.  In the necessary haste, errors were made (and a few inexcusable deaths in the installation of insulation into houses).  Subsequently we have been one of the best performing economies in the world – indeed the “envy” of the world, although the Opposition have effectively scared many of the population into believing we are about to be bankrupt!  True or false?  While aspects of these questions are open to debate, surely at some point there is an objective analysis that can be made?

Another debate is over the carbon tax, although complaints against it have apparently dwindled, which may stop this issue being such a factor in the election. The Opposition have vowed to rescind this tax, with no details of course on what this would cost, or the disruption to the economy, and it has created uncertainty in the business community.  Carbon trading  is “sliding down the corporate agenda”  both here and overseas which apparently should be a “lure” for Australian companies liable to pay for carbon dioxide emissions.  Blackrock, one of the world’s biggest fund managers has recently said that the carbon and mining taxes have had “at most” a “marginal” impact on perceptions of country risk, and our public debt position is very strong.

I was fascinated to see the previous Howard government described by the IMF as one of the most profligate in our history. The profits from the mining boom were not used wisely,  middle class “welfare” was used to buy votes, and infrastructure was allowed to run down.  The much boasted about $20 billion surplus was more likely to have been achieved by selling Telstra (our telco) and Sydney Airport.  I do think the Whitlam Government was very lucky not to be mentioned.  Unfortunately the ALP seems to be unable to construct or sell a narrative of their legitimate economic achievements, and are also dogged by some unattractive scandals.

GETUP!: I was interested to see the make-up of the membership of our effective internet activist organisation.  4 in 10 members are over 56, and fewer than 7% are younger than 25.  GetUp! currently has a survey about what we think they should be doing which you can access here.  I’m going to suggest a Fact Checking File and GetUp! should have sufficient profile for people to have to respond and back up their claims with peer reviewed facts and data. 

LEFT & RIGHT: We are having a debate of sorts here about bias – especially in the Australian Broadcasting Service. I don’t agree that there is bias myself – I see reasonable, well-educated and informed people that give all politicians equally tough questioning, and address the issues of the day. The ABC is tax payer funded so it is legitimate to raise the question of bias, but there are plenty of other opportunities in Murdoch newspapers or on various radio stations for  Right leaning people like Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Miranda Divine etc, who are as objective as Sara Palin or Fox News in the US.

In 2009 we appeared on the same American television program as the precocious Jonathan Krohn.  The year before (aged 13) he had written a book entitled Defining Conservatism. He was astoundingly articulate and of course I couldn’t resist arguing with him (and his father) in the waiting room.  I was thrilled to recently read that in 2011 he openly declared he no longer held conservative views, although, of course, the conservatives turned on him.  He is much brighter than most of us and can no doubt defend himself and will probably have a fascinating career.

 

Harley the dog. Photograph by Monika Laryett-Olson.

Harley the dog. Photograph by Monika Laryett-Olson.

MONICA & HARLEY:  Harley is a most amazing dog and  I love following his exploits.  He even became friends and swam with a swan called James and was heart broken when he was found dead last year. Fortunately Monika Laryett-Olson takes great photographs.  She makes me feel like my love for my cats is…well, normal, as opposed to obsessive!  See a Harley story here, Harley – my Dog, my Hero.  I also loved the photographs of her visit to the Shy Wolf Sanctuary in Naples, Florida. See her album of favourite photographs for 2012  here.

OPRAH: Oprah, too, loves her dogs, and I did watch some of her interview with Lance Armstrong.  I thought Oprah looked great and her make-up was just fabulous. Before we went on her show in 2009  her make-up girls sprayed us with  something that I jokingly called spray botox as my face was sort of flatteringly bronzed and frozen into a smile.  Her program has been described as “confessional”, but we were there to talk about Christian of course, not confess!  Mark Zuckerberg was also on the same program as us, and Oprah asked him rather wistfully is she should be on Facebook and meet some people!

Lance Armstrong carefully stage-managed the interview, (like everything it else it seems), to hopefully clear the way for him to return to competition some time.  The interview seems to have raised even more questions however, and no real remorse was shown.

Our own great champion swimmer Ian Thorpe is also hoping for another comeback after his failure to even gain selection for the London Olympics. Please!  Both he and the openly gay Matthew Mitcham (a gold medal for diving in China) have recently written books apparently discussing the highs and lows of their careers and their depression.  I’d say Thorpe’s second comeback attempt is a recipe for more disappointment.  He actively supports very good causes – just get on with it!

TENNIS: There are tennis tournaments throughout January in Australia in the lead up to the Australian Open. The heat has been nearly unbearable and unacceptable for the players, and some  have even ended up on a drip.  There have been some amazing games and surprises – our young Bernard Tomic beat Novak Djokovic in a warm up tournament. Others, like Sam Stosur, have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  Finally we seem to have some promising younger Australian players coming through.  I played tennis with former Wimbledon champion John Newcombe at school and have watched the dominance of Australia and America be replaced by waves of Swedes, Spaniards, Russians, Serbians and Croatians, and probably now the Chinese as Li Na makes tennis popular in China.  Our 31 year old Lleyton Hewitt is a good commentator with a surprising sense of humour, and Jim Courier is very insightful. My favourite players over the years have been Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, and now Rafael Nadal.  I usually got bored if anyone dominated for too long.  We have been incredibly lucky to witness the truly exceptional tennis over the last few years between Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.  For a variety of reasons I’ve also loved Yvonne Cawley (Goolagong), Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Goran Ivanisevic, and I the fabulous Williams sisters.  Serena’s career earnings are now over $41,797,909 while Maria Sharapova is the top female earner followed by Li Na.

Harley and James the swan. Photograph by Monika Laryett-Olson.

Harley and James the swan. Photograph by Monika Laryett-Olson.

ROSS GITTINS: I felt naive after reading this article by Gittins in the SMH about the 4 “complexes” that run the world.  The article mostly quotes Jeffrey Sach’s  book The Price of Civilization.  It helps to explain why: wars are fought; how the GFC occurred and vital reforms are not implemented, and the “corporatocracy”, unlike many of us, bounced back quickly;  why Obamacare is described and demonised as “socialism”; how climate change is kept off the agenda and why we are seeing a fall in value of the world’s renewable energy companies.  These complexes are obvious but it is good to be reminded of them and see how they all feed into each other, with corporate power translating into political power.  They are: the military- industrial complex; the Wall Street- Washington complex; the Big Oil – transport – military complex; and the huge healthcare industry.

WEALTH: The 1% have got even richer and the top 100 are now worth a combined $US1.9 trillion.  Our poor Gina Rinehart dropped $US1.6 billion (because of softer iron prices, and poor investments in media she hopes to influence) and now has only $US 18.6 billion.  Gina actively campaigned against a mining tax, and last year was insensitive enough to say that African workers are “happy” earning $2 a day.

Think what could be achieved globally with this wealth if many of them followed the generous examples of Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett?

See this George Monbiot article where he explains that contrary to what we are told, the idea that “the less government tax the rich, defend workers and redistribute wealth, the more prosperous everyone will be” has been a total failure.    Monbiot says this “trickle-down effect” as I think it is called, has only led to increased inequality, more unemployment, with consequently less demand, and more debt.  In general, he does not believe that perpetual economic growth is either sustainable or desirable.

ISRAEL: As I said last blog I was waiting to see Obama’s pay-back to Netanyahu for his blatant and miscalculated support of Romney in the US election. It did not take long – Obama’s appointment of former Republican Chuck Hagel as Defence Secretary, who, it seems, dares to treat Israel in an even-handed way, and has said “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here”.

Although cost of living concerns are understandable as a key election issue in Israel, it was very depressing that in their recent election peace (“shalom”) was not even mentioned, and some extreme Right politicians even said they wanted to expand the settlements to ensure there could not be a Palestinian state.

But congratulations to the Israelis for not voting for the Far Right as expected, which resulted in Netanyahu’s “plummet to victory” with fewer seats.  The emergence of Yair Lapid the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party, with the next highest number of seats, is encouraging, and he wants to work with Netanyahu in a coalition rather than oppose him.  He wants to reopen peace negotiations with the Palestinians and said “we are facing a world that is liable to ostracise us because of the deadlock in the peace process”.  This changed landscape in Israel and America, and hopefully a more constrained Netanyahu, gives me some slight optimism.

Meanwhile in the region, people continue to die in Syria, and huge numbers of refugees are swamping neighbouring countries.  Assad’s own mother has left Syria, as have quite a few Russians and their families.  The down-side of the Arab Spring is emerging with the instability in north Africa and the well-armed Islamist terrorist organisations.

Shy Wolf Sanctuary. Photograph by Monika Laryett-Olson.

Shy Wolf Sanctuary. Photograph by Monika Laryett-Olson.

CHINA: While the Chinese Government struggle to control their propaganda and censor the internet, another juggling act is with social media where the Chinese people can now complain effectively, as they did recently with the totally unacceptable pollution in the air in Beijing.  There have also been several mass “airport rage” incidences over cancelled flights. The improved Chinese economic growth of 7.9%  in the last quarter will help to keep many people happy for now, and this has also helped our economic outlook in Australia.

Advising Australia not to be drawn into China’s simmering territorial regional disputes, a Colonel Liu Mingfu recently described Japan as a “wolf”,  America as a “tiger” and he said that Australia should be a “kind-hearted lamb” that should not behave like a “jackal”.

Tourism from China to Australia is growing and up from the 542,000 Chinese that visited in 2011.

R.I.P Pluto

R.I.P Pluto

MAIL: I was upset to be informed by Christian in Italy that his beloved dog Pluto had died at 15.  He was a great companion as we can imagine, and my sympathy is with Christian, and with anyone else experiencing a similar loss.

Thanks to those that emailed me with concern about the fires.  Thanks to Joyce for her comment last blog about where she finds news that is fair, in-depth and free – including Livestation Al Jazeera, France 24, SkyNews, South African, RTI (Russian News) and the BBC.

I am behind in my emails again – both on the blog and the website, and I apologise.  Unfortunately I lost a few emails that  came through mistakenly as Spam and then disappeared into the ether. I am very appreciative of anyone that does email and I intend to respond soon.  I’ve just had a quick look at the emails I haven’t answered yet, and many are from people that have just discovered Christian the lion’s story.  Frankly, I am overwhelmed – by the number, the lovely sentiments expressed, and that  Christian still means so much to so many people.

It is the Australia Day Weekend, celebrating when the First Fleet arrived in Australia in 1788.  Understandably Aboriginals call it Invasion Day, and while a holiday is always nice, I’ll feel much more comfortable when there has been some genuine reconciliation, and compensation for their dispossession.  I’d also like Australia to grow up and finally become a republic.