Allan Takes Aim Blog

Archive for April 2010

Firts published in The Chronicle, Tuesday 14 April 2010

Two things brought toilets to my attention: a letter in The Chronicle from a Mr Grant complaining about lack of a public toilet in Campbell, an issue he followed up on Friday, April 9 as he chivvied Chief Minister Jon Stanhope about it on ABC 666 talk back. Then I heard a brief discussion about toilet on By Design, Radio National, Saturday Morning April 10.

With toilets having captured my attention, I decided to research the subject. The research threw up many surprises. For example I learned that Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet. That honour goes to scientists from the Indus Basin who invented and used flush toilets and sewage systems in 2,500 BC. I also found that the Minoans and Romans had flush toilets and sewage systems. However, when the Roman Empire collapsed the technology was lost.

Happily for us, in the twelfth century AD, Al-Jaziri, an Arab polymath who worked at the Mesopotamian Royal Court, re-invented the flush toilet. But not only was Al-Jaziri responsible for reinventing the flush toilet, his mechanical inventions were so many – some are still in use today – that rightfully he is called: Father of Mechanical Engineering. I think too, that the West also owes Al–Jaziri an enormous debt of gratitude: had it not been for him “beware of global smelling” might well be the great shibboleth of today.

Despite its benefits it took some time before the flush toilet became common again in the West. And while the style of toilets has changed since the days of Al-Jaziri, anecdotal stories of some present toilets evoke echoes of the twelfth century.

Although toilet today also describes a human function and the means of its disposal, in Roman times, the room that some people think the most important in the house was not called toilet but lavatory. Eventually, however, as society became more refined (?), lavatory was superseded by toilet, although a minority of people still prefer the Latin term. I have no intention of opining on which word you should use: that’s a decision you must make for yourself.

However, the relief felt by communities when public toilets were introduced was immense. Unfortunately that relief was diminished when public toilets gained a reputation as hubs where activity, but not that for which the toilets were intended, were practiced. I have no intention of offering an opinion about this either.

That said let me return to Mr Grant’s chivvying of the Chief Minister. Although I didn’t hear their conversation I am assured that, during it, the Chief Minister told Mr Grant that he was impressed by the quality of New Zealand’s public toilets. In support of the Chief Minister, I have to say my research of New Zealand public toilets impressed me also if only because they looked better than when I lived in New Zealand.

During my research I also came across a particularly impressive public toilet in the small township of Kawakawa in New Zealand’s North Island. Designed by famous Viennese painter and architect, Frederick Hundertwasser, this toilet with its grass roof, ceramic tiles, bottle glass windows, mosaic tiling, copper handwork, cobblestone flooring, individual sculptures and a living tree integrated into the design structure, is a work of art.

Following Hundertwasser’s death in 2000, not only has the Kawakawa toilet, his last major project and only structure in the Southern Hemisphere become a mecca for his followers worldwide, it has also boosted Kawakawa’s tourist numbers.

And so, with that in mind I’d like to suggest to the Chief Minister that he launch a public toilet design competition not only for a Campbell toilet but also for other suburbs that want a public toilet or want their current public toilet redesigned and/or rebuilt.

If you think I’m kidding I’m not. If thousands of tourists visit Kawakawa just to look at its public toilet, it seems to me that if Canberra’s newly designed public toilets were placed next to some of our recent public art, tourists would come to Canberra in droves, spend a penny, then depart to tell their friends that Canberra has the world’s best public toilets and the world’s best public art gallery.

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First published The Chronicle, March 30

My view after reading the report (Convention centre tenders awarded, page 6, The Canberra Times, Saturday March 27) was that Professor Peter Shergold had been disingenuous about his proposed People’s Forum. What added to my view was that while Powerhouse Museum Director Dawn Casey, Professor Ian Chubb, General Peter Cosgrove, my favourite ABC news presenter Virginia Haussegger and National Gallery Chairman Rupert Myer are all worthy people, I doubt the man in the street’s vision of a people’s forum is the same as theirs. Added to that was: how would the man in the street from Darwin access the forum?

The Professor’s’ later comments made it clear that the professor wasn’t talking about a democratic agora making it unlikely that the man in the street from remote Australian towns would be able to access it. In fact, the Professor was really talking about an International Convention Centre (ICC) an issue that has been on Canberra’s agenda for years and discussed at a Federal level even before Professor Shergold became Head of the Prime Minister’s Department and long before he retired and became Chairman of the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW.

But not to be contentious aren’t existing parliaments people’s forums and places where democratically elected representatives are supposed to do what the people have asked them to do? Parliaments are not separate democracies.

Diana Streak in her Canberra Times Forum piece March 27(A place for the people’s voices to be heard) added further clarified my point about the building when she wrote; “it would be far, far more, than a building –a national meeting place on a grand scale that encapsulates the spirit of Western democracy. The people’s forum – a place to meet, debate, celebrate and, at times, grieve.”

Excuse my cynicism but I am less confident than Diana that the proposed forum will be a place where men in the street from across Australia, including isolated Australian communities, will meet, debate, celebrate and, at times, grieve.

Apparently the people’s forum is to be a “glittering” building, similar to those being erected in other world capitals, where glittering minds will gather to exchange ideas at major international meetings and conferences such as APEC. Clearly this will not be a forum to which all Australians can come and say their piece in the hope that what they say will help change faults in our current democratic system.

So let’s not disguise the true nature of the proposed forum? Lets call it for what it is: an ICC. The latter, of course, is not a new idea but an idea that has graced the pages of the Times on many occasions and also occupied the minds of many in Canberra’s tourism industry for many years.

Indeed during my nineteen years as a Business Council member it occupied mine to the extent that I wrote about it in an opinion article published in The Canberra Times, February 2006. In that article I called for an ICC with facilities and technology that national and international visitors [with or without glittering minds] would expect to find in a sophisticated capital so that when they left after a visit, they did so, not with a sense of relief but of pleasure at having experienced the best the world could offer.

To help achieve that I said the ICC should be a multi – purpose centre with shopping facilities, restaurants, offices and a thirty-storey luxury hotel, able to stage major entertainment and sporting events and seat an audience of at least 5,000. It is a project in which Canberra business, the ACT and the Federal Government should be willing investment partners.

I said also to make it unique aspect the ICC should be of radical design and an attraction in its own right. Today, in fact, many countries have buildings of radical design that are also attractions. As for where to build it, I suggested Lake Burley-Griffin and linking it to the city by mono-rail.

And while I doubt the National Capital Authority will agree with my suggestion, if Canberra is the Capital of a country that prides itself on its adventurousness, the ICC should be a place that reflects this ethos not another building that reflects a conservative image?

Oligochaetology is the science of worms, those highly intelligent animals without which neither gardens nor fields would flourish. Indeed, without worms earth would be desert and most of the human race would starve to death.

Indeed were I a member of the Oligochaetologists’ Society, I would be pressing for action to be taken against Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on behalf of the worms involved in the televised health debate from the National Press Club, Tuesday, March 23, for cruelty to the worms involved. I would also be pressing the Society of Voters to take similar action against both men for wasting their time.

Not only was it obvious to any one watching the debate that the two worms involved were being exposed to serious mental cruelty at having to adjudicate the debate but also that the journalists in attendance and viewing voters could have been employed in doing something more useful than listening to glib words they had heard or written about many times before.

Unfortunately although TV viewers and journalists could have avoided watching or attending the debate the worms couldn’t because they were captives. This, in turn, raises two more questions. 1. Did Channels Seven and Nine gain the worms’ permission to use them in the debate; and 2. How were they paid? If the worms were neither asked to appear nor paid for their appearance they should not be used at the next two debates.

Nonsense you might say but, later when you know the worm’s contribution to Australia you might even come to think it would be wiser to elect a government of worms rather than one headed by either Rudd or Abbott.

That said people who think worms are only good for fish bait should think again. Worms, I’ll have you know, are among nature’s top “soil scientists.” Unlike allegedly top politicians such as Rudd and Abbott who are still fishing around trying to devise a good health system, worms have devised a health system for soils that helps plants keep healthy and productive. It pleases me to know that many worms have decided to take up residence in my garden.

And just in case you didn’t know, not only do worms help increase the amount of air and water that goes into the soil they are great recyclers who break down organic matter, like leaves grass and rubbish, by eating, digesting it and turning it into the fertiliser that helps plants grow. Can the same be said about what Rudd and Abbott leave behind?

In the context of this debate, and from what I can gather, all that Rudd and Abbott left behind was a group of p…d off journalists, viewers and voters who, when the debate ended, were no wiser about health polices than they were when the debate started. On that basis it seems that, unlike worms, Rudds and Abbotts are of little use.

Unlike worms, which “turn” the soil and bring down organic matter from the top to mix with the soil, Rudd and Abbott seemed to drag their politics down into the muck of personal insults, lying, and ambiguous statements that produced nothing except bulls…t. And though bulls..t is usually good fertilizer, when Rudd’s and Abbott’s leavings were examined they were shown to be sterile.

The following also goes to show how worms are more useful than politicians. For example: 500,000 worms living in an acre of soil can excrete 50 tonnes of fertiliser and create a drainage system 610 metres long with a 15 centimetre pipe while 500,000 Rudds, Abbotts and others of their ilk living in a proportionate space will produce thousands of tonnes of sterile bull…t.

Readers, of course, are entitled to voice their opinion. However, I suspect the respective supporters of Rudd and Abbott will say this column is a load of bulls..t and while I respect their opinion, I think most readers will agree with me more than with them.

But it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good so let me say the debate did produce one good thing: Chris Uhlmann as moderator. Not that that surprises me. What else would you expect from an old Chronicle man?

First published The Chronicle, Tuesday 30 March, 2010

What better mirror image of Australia could there be than Canberra? The answer should be none! Yet as I talk to young people it is clear a growing number of them think most of our politicians lack the leadership, management skills and social vision necessary to ensure Canberra will be a progressive capital. And not without reason they think many candidates offering themselves as alternatives to current politicians are but clones of earlier politicians who also lacked the skills necessary to ensure Canberra’s progress.

These young people, some not yet able to vote, think, that in some cases, the interests of the community at large now take second place to the personal interests of some politicians, party interests and the interests of the faction within the party to which the politicians belong. More to the point, some also think that many politicians are addicted to power and will do anything to feed their addiction. Naturally, politicians don’t agree with them. And for the same reasons many young people are condemnatory of some Independents who seek a seat in Parliament.

But young people aside for the moment, many older voters not only feel the same but also opine that some politicians today have lost the values of honesty and integrity they once had and treat them now as commodities for sale in return for favours. I was reminded of these values when an older voter citing many examples said: by their acts you will know them.

It must be said also that a view is also becoming prevalent that Canberra lacks good governance, a situation that if it continues makes the city’s future look bleak.

Is there a solution? The solution put to me is for Canberra to ditch the current electoral system in favour of a system that allows voters to elect 17 responsible and intelligent voters, who, regardless of party or business allegiance, understand that unless they undertake real consultation with the community, the policies of neither will sustain Canberra as a progressive city.

This idea will gain little traction with political parties and certain development interests who think their political and business philosophies contain the cure for every social and business problem. They don’t! Not only do their philosophies not work in Australia they haven’t worked in any country that has given them the opportunity to show that they worked. Had they worked, peace would not still be going abegging or the world be perpetually at war.

Perhaps, too, you think I am being unduly harsh when I say that the major parties merely pay lip service to good governance and that continual dissent is their goal? The reality is, that rather than concentrating on providing good governance they spend most of their time trying to denigrate their opponents in hope of keeping them out of Government. The Rudd/Abbott debacle of debate is a good example

The answer usually given to suggestions of this kind is that we live in a democracy. To answer that, let me ask another question: what kind of democracy? I would argue that democracy we live in has been at death’s door and revived as well as changed many times but only to suit the convenience of politicians.

Indeed in the changes no politicians I know have tried to give people the style of Democracy suggested by Lincoln in his Gettysburg address: “ government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In his speech of just over two minutes, Lincoln also invoked the principles of human equality espoused in the American Declaration of Independence and the new birth of freedom that would also create a unified nation in which states’ rights were no longer dominant (State and Territory politicians please note!).

Unfortunately for Canberra, Lincoln’s hope has been dashed. It could be argued that the current Labor Government is being blackmailed by a minor party into accepting policies that are neither of the people, by the people, or for the people.

Sadly too, when minor parties become arbiters of which major party can take government, it seems they, too, become seduced by power as they talk of holding the balance of power not the practice of democracy.
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