Archive for September, 2010


September 30, 2010

I am embroiled in a trial after my return to Australia and to work, so posting about the Shanghai Ring has to wait.

This is just for the memory – the view from “M on the Bund” where I went (in fact, as it turned out, was taken, which is always nice) for lunch before the second Götterdämmerung, now last Friday. I had to dash away just after 2.30 for a short afternoon nap before the 5.30 start.

Because of the mid-autumn festival, Friday was a Sunday, and lunch was brunch. It is sobering to reflect that on the previous Monday (the night off between cycles) I and seven members of D’s family had a more than adequate (there were takeaway leftovers) meal at a local restaurant near D’s mother’s place for not much more than it cost for each of us on the Sunday for quite a lot less. That’s luxury for you.

Yesterday, in and out of court and perhaps inspired by the juridical atmosphere, I couldn’t dislodge the oath scene from my musical mind (Heilige Waffen! usw). This afternoon, oddly enough, it was the Rhinemaidens at the beginning of Act III. I don’t know why.

Ear Wurm

September 22, 2010

This Wagner stuff is really getting to me.

Each afternoon, I have a nap in the lumber room to ensure I am at my best for the (except for Das Rheingold) longish evening ahead.

The house is full of people, and so full of noises. There are water pipes which knock and, sometimes, sing. You could think of it as an urban type of forest murmur.

Yesterday, as I dozed, the pipes sang. First one note and, as the tap was tightened or (probably) loosened, another, in a descending major sixth. It could have been a C, down to an E flat. The tempo, even if perhaps a little glacial, was minim-al.

In my half-dream I was already carrying the theme on down to the next C then back up the scale to complete the [sometimes so-called] “world redemption” theme (and otherwise known as Siegfried’s love) which first appears in the last act of Siegfried! Here, in four sharps (as it appears in the final scene with Siegfried and Brünnhilde) rather than four flats (as in the first scene between Wotan and Erda) descending from G sharp to B and crotchety rather than minimal:

Remembering Anna Russell

September 20, 2010

By a strange coincidence, Thomasina and I have both been thinking of Anna Russell lately.

In Thomasina’s case, AR has been called to remembrance by an exhibition including a dress made out of old patchwork quilts and Mrs Prendergast’s talk on “how to make patchwork quilts out of old skirts” and the catch phrase “I’m not making this up, you know

In my case, the occasion for the reminiscence is more obvious, even though, as with so many memories, it turned out there was a false element. Last night was the last night of my first traverse of the Cologne-Shanghai Ring. As the curtain rose for the first scene of last act of Götterdämmerung, where the Rhinemaidens accost Siegfried and ask for the ring back, I murmured to my neighbour, “Remember them?” In fact further research on the internets subsequently revealed that this particular scene is omitted from AR’s celebrated synopsis, though the rise of the Rhine from its banks at the end does elicit a similar aside.

More of the Shanghai Ring in due course. But I can’t help reflecting that Anna Russell’s type of comedy belongs to a kind of high-brow-middle-brow nexus (which includes, in its own way, Disney’s Loony Tunes) which has pretty well vanished from the cultural landscape these days. There is probably more which could be said about that from a point of view of cultural history, but just now I am off to buy some stamps to send postcards to those who will be expecting them and possibly a few who will not be.

The lumber room

September 17, 2010

I have travelled to Shanghai to see the Cologne Ring Cycle, conducted by Markus Stenz.  Last night was Das Rheingold

The performances are at the Shanghai Grand Theatre, which is, as its name proclaims, grand.

I am staying in a small room at the back of D’s mother’s quite modest apartment in the former British concession area of Shanghai. The apartment itself comprises the ground floor room at the back of the house plus an additional lean-to bathroom which has been added after the house was divided into separate dwellings. Kitchens for the two ground-floor flats are in a common area in the stair-well. My room, which is opposite the original back outside loo, was probably originally a servant’s room. At present it is nearly full of some family furniture and there is just room for my bed and access to a few drawers of a dresser to stow my things.

It certainly puts even the shakily-founded splendour of Valhalla or the extravagance of a trip to Shanghai to see an opera in perspective.

I had hoped to post a picture, but the Chinese internet has not proved co-operative. [Postscript: obviously there has been a kind of Glasnost since my first composition.]

Chinese internets permitting, I shall post something more concerning the performances themselves and [with a seemly discretion] fellow bloggers met here anon.

$50 a month

September 5, 2010


Legal Eagle has a post on her participation in an SBS Insight program concerning Climate Change which is to be aired this coming Tuesday night.  I take it that participants were screened or selected with some intent for a “balanced” though not necessarily representative group to represent competing concerns.  LE was there as a climate change skeptic on the left.  Well, a little bit on the left, anyway, as she herself recognizes.  (I can’t help thinking that LE’s perspective on her position to the left is slightly skewed by the company she keeps – an observation which is not intended to disparage that company at all, but simply to characterize it.) 

In particular I think it is fair to say she was there because she had two concerns:

1.What about the poor? Or: (to put almost the same question a different way) what about inequality? and

2.What if climate change science is wrong?

Her ultimate conclusion is:

It’s natural that people should wish to question climate change science when it has a large impact on them, but somehow climate change science has become politicised. Generally, as Pearson notes, those on the right are sceptical, while those on the left are “believers”. (As I said above, I am a rare exception to that rule, although I met others on the Insight program – it’s nice to know I’m not alone!)

When an issue gets politicised like that I get very worried. I must confess that I don’t really understand why the Left has decided that it will swallow climate change policy whole (which is distinguishable from the question of science). I know that one of the ideas of climate change policy is the idea that we should consume less and be a less capitalist society (which clearly fits into many leftist ideas). But surely another concern of left-wing people should be the perpetuation of the class system and the deepening of the divide between rich and poor. To me, it seems that anyone who is left-wing or progressive should also be concerned about potential effects of some suggested climate change policies on less privileged members of society, and that they should be concerned about the possibility of an elitist society if we institute the suggestions of commentators such as Clive Hamilton or George Monbiot. If we implement any policy, I believe we have to be really careful that it doesn’t create a more unequal society.

It doesn’t seem to me that this last sentence depends upon climate skepticism at all.  Even if you believe in climate change and the necessity for whatever action is being proposed, you can be worried about the poor.

Incidentally, that reference to “the possibility of an elitist society if we institute the suggestions of commentators such as Clive Hamilton or George Monbiot” is a bit of a shibboleth.  Disparagement of “elites” is these days mainly the territory of the post-Howardite or otherwise populist right.  I have my own suspicions of how it has been stirred up by those with vested interests in carbon consumption in what, judging by most of their other conduct, has always struck me as a very partial solicitude for the interests of the poor, whom they are otherwise so often ready to leave to the mercies of the market and the chances of protection by some “trickle down effect.”

The poor, as has been famously remarked, are ever with us.

[Do I need a special semi-irony notification to go with that?]

But LE is not talking about the very poor or at least the very poor who qualify for state assistance, because at least for purposes of argument, she admits that they can be protected by an adjustment of their assistance.  That must be so, subject to the inevitable way that some people fall between the cracks of such programs for one reason or another.

That is what I saw on the Insight program: ordinary people who would struggle mightily if energy prices were raised by $50 a month. And they were scared. On the one hand, you have this disastrous prediction of what will occur as a result of climate change. On the other hand, you have the certain prospect of having to pay more for fuel which will necessarily have a massive impact on your life. As one woman said, “If we do things about this, it will have a huge impact on the economy and our whole country, so I think it’s really important to know whether it’s really necessary or not.”

She says, taking a cue from Noel Pearson, one of her favourite commentators (though not one of mine):

For a person who is economically secure, an extra $50 a month for fuel and added costs of various commodities isn’t going to be a tremendous burden. It might hurt a little, but it isn’t going to break the bank. Thus, it’s understandable that most people who are middle-class and educated want to take action on climate change — for them, the risk of possible environmental catastrophe is far greater than the risk of paying a bit more for every day items. However, for a person who is less economically secure, an extra $50 a month for fuel and added costs of commodities is going to be a tremendous burden. I’m not talking people on the poverty line here (who would probably be covered by government rebates). I’m talking about working people who are not really well off, but who are not poor enough to be helped by the government. I’m also thinking of people whose business is going to be badly affected by any change in the structure of our economy. For them it’s a balance between immediate incontrovertible financial pain versus speculative future pain. This is why it’s a “wedge” issue for parties like the Labor Party in Australia. They just can’t please everyone.

LE is talking about the people who are too well off to receive state assistance which will provide such offsets to an additional expense for energy which she takes to be $50 a month.  Inevitably, if only because they are just above the cut-off line, there will be people who are sensitive to such an additional expense.

In my opinion, we are talking about the relatively poor rather than the absolutely poor in this case.  It could be couples with 1-2 kids with two below-average incomes amounting to about $70-$80K -between them (I’m guessing at the figures here, but you could easily get to that figure with, say, the father earning $40K and the mother working school hours and working $30K) and paying off a mortgage.  Even they would be relatively well-off compared to those who were renting, and within that group their relative poverty would depend on how much of their homes they already own or, from a cash-flow point of view, how long ago they took out their mortgages (the older the mortgage, the smaller it will generally be because the house will have been cheaper).

The hip pocket nerve is a funny thing.  It’s very subjective.  What seems expensive very much depends on how much you want to spend money on it.  Even then, people have varying capacities for both frugality and tight budgeting (which is not necessarily the same thing, because in particular it relates to the fixed expenses which you are prepared to incur).  Obviously to anyone who reads this blog, as an avid attendee of concerts and operas which cost about $100 a pop (often more; rarely very much less), I am not a frugal person.  On the other hand, I have so far baulked at the fixed expense of a mortgage because (a) I am feckless – I am not even as the hare to the tortoise, but rather as the grasshopper to the ant; (b) I am insufficiently sure of my future income to make the commitment and (c) in my early years as a solicitor I was at the pointy end of enforcing securities against farmers and small business people who were destined to lose their farm or home as a result of either changed economic conditions (including the recession we had to have and the decline of the small family farm) or simply the failure of their own venture for reasons particular to that venture.  I later worked on the other side for borrowers to save what they had by whatever ingenious defence could be devised (the best defences were reserved to farmers under the Farm Debt Mediation Act).  Either way, it made me risk-averse.

So for me, it is difficult to empathise with concern at an additional daily expense of just under $1.70 or so a day for energy bills for a household.  Even when poor (including when I was putting myself through law school at the same time as Noel Pearson when he was able to come to Sydney to attend – in his final years  he was already executive director of the Cape York Land Council), I have not been able to or prepared to cut my cloth so fine as that.  To put it bluntly, so far as the relatively poor who own their own homes or are paying them off are concerned, I think they could find that money to meet the long-term risks posed by climate change, even if the science turns out to be wrong (and the present scientific consensus is overwhelmingly that it is not: that is clear to me from any of the genuinely scientifically educated people I know). 

If the question is really a question of protecting the poor, there are a lot more social adjustments from the left which could be taken to correct the situation (and, as I have hinted, treatment of home ownership versus renting in Australia is probably the biggest single one) before $50 a month ought to be a critical obstacle.  That these adjustments don’t gain much political traction in Australia is because the relatively poor have bought the hope that they may be relatively rich, as they already are compared to the absolutely poor.  They have been sold flattened tax rates; they embrace the favourable taxation treatment of their principal dwelling place; etc etc.

We are talking about democracy, here.  Whatever exactly that is and however mass opinion is vulnerable to manipulation by elites of their own kind in the mass media, that means people are entitled to take their own interests as they see them into account and form their own views. But I certainly don’t feel bad about urging the relatively poor of Australia to accept a policy to deal with climate change that would lead to increased energy costs of this magnitude.


September 4, 2010

The recent ICAC findings [the formal report is a pdf link] that Tonette Kelly, the Acting General Counsel for NSW Maritime:

engaged in corrupt conduct by misusing agency resources and grossly downplaying her secondary employment details in relation to her private conveyancing business which had an annual turnover of approximately $120,000.

intrigue me, even though at the same time the factual circumstances strike me as utterly banal.

The banality is the energy that some people have for earning money. One job is more than enough for me, but some people for various reasons are prepared to take on more. Just as a matter of fact, it doesn’t matter if those reasons are motivated by need or greed – and supposing these two, at least as between each other, cover the field, where exactly do you join the line?

On either greed or need, Ms Kelly is at the very least a statistical outlier.

The significance of the turnover figure is that this included disbursements on each conveyancing practice. The commission arrived at this figure on the basis that from 2003 (in reality as a result of a change which started by some time in 2002) she opened about 100 files a year, and that the current rate of income was about $1200 per file opened. It’s a pretty crude estimate. The significance of the turnover figure is that a business with a turnover of $75,000 or more is obliged to collect and remit GST, which Ms Kelly does not appear to have done.

The turnover figure is gross and includes disbursements. Without knowing the mix of vendors’ and purchasers’ files and how far the matters proceeded, it’s not possible to estimate Ms Kelly’s income from the business. It’s too long since I’ve looked carefully at the disbursements side of a settlement statement (I’m generally only interested in the source of the funds or where they have been paid in my line of work) for me to even make a guess of what the normal figure on a completed sale and completed purchase would be).

Only the failure to declare income or pay tax or remit GST, though undeniably a common-or-garden variety of greed, would for that reason be closer to the middle of the field. I am sure there are quite a lot of people in absolute numbers who do not pay tax which they ought to pay in amounts like that, though as a proportion of the population as a whole they might not even be as many as 1% (maybe more if low-level GST is included). That’s just a hunch based on my exposure to fact of this nature commonly disclosed in litigation, and I could even be setting the number too high because I am case-hardened.

Assuming it was greed in Ms Kelly’s case, subject to the question as to whether doing the extra work was preventing her from fairly devoting her attention and energies to her responsibilities at work, I don’t really see a strong case of corruption.

Any corruption comes from the cover-up and the impunity with which Ms Kelly was able to continue her practice even after she had officially denied this in the inquiry conducted by Mr Clark on a kind of special commission from her employer. That was at the end of 2004. Basically, Ms Kelly denied doing any conveyancing apart from that which she knew, presumably and possibly quite properly obtained by disclosure to her of the evidence against her, was the extent of any of her accusers’ knowledge.

She told Mr Clark:

since receiving an approval from the former Waterways Authority Chief Executive on 18 March, 2003, to conduct
such work I have undertaken a limited amount of paid conveyancing work (2003 – 6 paid matters and 2 unpaid
matters for family/friends 2004 – 9 paid matters and 1 unpaid matter for family/friends).

She made this statement, which is consistent with the relatively low level of activity reported by her colleagues, secure in the knowledge that no one had said otherwise.  She informed Mr Clark that she conducted all her conveyancing work at home, apart from making and receiving fewer than two phone calls per week while at work.

Based on this Mr Clark found that she wasn’t conducting a business to any significant extent and not to any significant extent using the premises of NSW Maritime or with the assistance of a Ms Dacombe, so exonerating a further accusation that Ms Kelly had employed Ms Dacombe irregularly and that Ms Dacombe might be helping her run her conveyancing business from the office.

Some of Ms Kelly’s files were seized by ICAC in the source of the investigation: it seems they were kept at home, and it may be that there was relatively little paperwork being kept or done in business hours. There was some evidence of receipt and possibly of sending of faxes in business hours.

As a practical matter I find it difficult to imagine how Ms Kelly can have run a conveyancing practice opening 2 files a week (even if these didn’t all lead to actual settlements) without somebody assisting her in the office, because things need to be attended to in business hours in real time.

That Ms Kelly got away with her denials and then continued to to conduct her practice in business hours enlivens a justifiable suspicion of an abuse of power. But apart from entirely secret frauds or forgeries, abuses of power within an organisation necessarily involve other people going along with them, as either fellow-abusers or victims and even bystanders, just because they only stood by.

That makes me all the more ready to believe other allegations about abuse of power or mismanagement within the legal services branch of which she was the head and, if only in a general way but necessarily to the extent that Ms Kelly’s superiors were implicated, within and even, as a result, by the organisation as a whole.

The risk of that, which the perception alone poses, seems to me to be the gist of corruption.