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Abbott cuts Joyce loose

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Tony Abbott’s role model in developing his style as Opposition Leader was Barnstorming Barnaby Joyce. But this week something changed between the two men. It was an important moment for Australia.
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It was Barnaby Joyce who led in developing what’s become the Abbott trademark – the angry, populist, fear-mongering attack on the carbon tax.

Even when Malcolm Turnbull was still Liberal leader, even when Tony Abbott was advising his colleagues just to wave carbon pricing through, Joyce was giving furious stump speeches railing against the “great big new tax” and warning darkly of $100 lamb roasts.

Abbott decided to jump aboard the Barnaby wagon. He rode it all the way to the leader’s job. He rode it to a near-win in the 2010 election. And he rode it to a crushing and persistent poll lead over the government.

Abbott took off his hat to the National Party senator for Queensland: “I think that Barnaby is a uniquely gifted retail politician,” he said as he took the leadership and invited Barnaby onto his frontbench.

But this week Joyce led a new populist attack against the government, and, this time, Abbott refused to follow.

Barnaby, almost single-handed, generated a big wave of controversy over the Gillard government’s approval of a foreign buyout of Cubbie Station, a huge, thirsty, cotton farm in Queensland and the biggest farming property in Australia. He called it a “bloody disgrace” that sold out the national interest.

His point of objection? That the foreign company that dominates the buying consortium was once a state-owned entity and while it had been “nominally privatised” it was still a “state-connected” enterprise.

The decision by the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, to give conditional approval was a “farce” because it gave another nation’s government the right of sovereign ownership “over a piece of our sovereign soil”.

You can see the populist potential of this. It strikes all the old themes struck reliably by populists going back to the 18th century: selling off the farm, Chinese invasion, loss of sovereignty, foreign interference.

The story became one of the biggest in the media this week. It was the fifth most-discussed political story with a total of 6819 reports or mentions in print, on air and online, according to Sentia Media, formerly Media Monitors. It’s a particularly hot topic outside the capital cities.

It might have seemed tempting to an Opposition Leader looking for a new wagon to ride. The carbon-attack wagon has lost momentum as the reality of the tax is nowhere near the advertised Armageddon. The asylum-seeker wagon is growing a bit sluggish too now that it is co-owned by Labor and the Coalition.

But it turned out that Abbott had reached the limit of his range as a populist fear-monger. This time, the master led but the apprentice refused to follow.

Abbott and his Treasury spokesman, Joe Hockey, complained about the timing of Swan’s announcement, made late on a Friday afternoon, the traditional time for companies reporting bad news or governments trying to minimise coverage. The late Friday announcement is known as time to “put out your garbage”.

But not the substance. Abbott yesterday: “We have a very strong policy on foreign investment. We support foreign investment. It has to be in the national interest and there is a process for determining whether the national interest is in fact being advanced.

“It goes before the Foreign Investment Review Board, then it goes to the Treasurer. The Treasurer often will impose conditions on the sale and that is exactly what happened in this particular case.”

Cubbie Station, which produces 10 per cent of the national cotton crop on a small inland sea’s worth of water from the Murray-Darling system and is worked by 170 staff, has been in serious financial strife, in voluntary administration for three years, with reported debts of $320 million, and unable to find a buyer.

A Chinese-Australian consortium has bid a reported sum of something under $300 million. The Australian investor, with 20 per cent of the equity, is Lempriere, a century-and-a-half old family-owned textile business.

The Chinese investor, with the other 80 per cent, is Shandong RuYi Scientific & Technological Group. In turn, it’s owned by a consortium of Japanese and Chinese investors. It has stated assets of $430 million and 30,000 employees across three continents. Despite Joyce’s furious hints and imputations, it is not state-owned or state-controlled.

Swan said that commercial negotiations could proceed on a number of strict conditions. One is that the Chinese partner, RuYi, must sell down its equity to 51 per cent over three years. Others are that the property is managed by the Australian partner; that half the board is Australian; and that the existing staff are allowed to stay on with their current levels of benefits. Further, the cotton must be marketed at arms-length.

The Liberals’ deputy leader, Julie Bishop, remarked: “Having the certainty of the injection of funds into the station to secure its profitability and secure its jobs is better than having it in administration. It’s good for the region and good for the nation.”

The Brisbane Courier-Mail agreed: “The alternative, as recognised by the sensible members of the Nationals, that the cotton farm would be closed, 170 jobs would be lost and the water allocations sold off. Where is the local – or national – interest in that?”

The paper took aim at Joyce as not one of the sensible Nationals: “It would be disappointing if Senator Joyce was playing politics with real investment and real jobs for Queensland.”

Joyce playing politics? But of course he is. Joyce is in the career cul-de-sac known as the Senate. He is an ambitious politician and wants to move to the House.

Once there, he would like to take the leadership of the National Party and, assuming the Coalition wins the next election, Barnaby would become deputy prime minister.

But to get there, he needs a seat, and the one he covets is his local Queensland seat of Maranoa. This seat, which covers a land area larger than France, also happens to be home to Cubbie Station.

The problem for Joyce is that the seat is currently occupied by Bruce Scott, age 67. Scott is what the Courier-Mail would call a “sensible” National. He supports the Chinese-Japanese-Australian bid for Cubbie.

So by positioning against the sale, Joyce is also positioning against his own National Party colleague and the man in the seat that he covets.

Abbott knows all about the power of the economic nationalists and xenophobes of Queensland populism. It was Abbott who led the Liberal Party demolition of Pauline Hanson. Her One Nation party opened a dangerous division in the conservative voter base.

Under the right conditions, that division opens up like a gaping wound, red and angry, like Barnaby Joyce himself mid-tirade. And that is exactly the danger that Joyce poses. The Joyce campaign, unchecked, has the potential to split the Coalition and revisit the 1987 Joh-for-Canberra campaign.

That campaign of Queensland populism led by the premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, divided the Coalition vote and destroyed John Howard’s federal election campaign.

That’s exactly why Abbott checked the Joyce campaign. Abbott shut him down and Joe Hockey asserted his authority on Coalition economic policy to support the Foreign Investment Review Board framework. He said the Coalition naysayers were “freelancing” and did not represent Coalition policy.

During his interview on the ABC’s 7.30 on Wednesday, Leigh Sales asked Joyce whether he’d spoken with Abbott or Hockey in the previous 24 hours?

Joyce: Yes.

Sales: And what was said?

Joyce: That’s none of your business.

It’s perfectly clear what was said. Joyce has since limited his criticism to attacking the way Swan announced his decision, not the substance of the decision itself or the framework for foreign investment. Both Labor and the Coalition have working groups looking at improving the transparency and management of the foreign investment regime, looking to tweak it rather than tear it up.

But we can now be reasonably confident that rational policy in the national interest will remain a bipartisan commitment, in this area, at least. Which is just as well.

Australia has deep dependence on foreign investment, trade and immigration, and always has. We need always to be alert to how best to manage these central supports to our prosperity and social wellbeing, and always vigilant against threats to their health.

Australia is about to give birth to the Asian Century white paper in the next few weeks, written by the former Treasury secretary Ken Henry and the ANU’s Peter Drysdale. Barnaby Joyce is set to be the witch at the christening, muttering dark imprecations and curses at the happy event.

But because Tony Abbott has outgrown Barnaby Joyce, choosing a rational policy over a populist one, Australia should be able to embrace the event in the national interest.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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States back Baird proposal to widen the GST net

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Supported … Mike Baird, NSW Treasurer. “If a cost-effective method for collecting the payments can be made, the low-value threshold should be reconsidered” …Victorian Treasurer, Kim Wells.
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VICTORIA, South Australia and Queensland have thrown their support behind a proposal by the NSW Treasurer, Mike Baird, for the Commonwealth to consider lowering the GST threshold on online purchases of goods from overseas.

But the proposal, which could raise hundreds of millions of dollars in extra tax revenue for the states but add 10 per cent to most purchases, has received a lukewarm reception from the federal government and opposition.

Mr Baird has proposed lowering the threshold from $1000 to about $30 to bring Australia into line with other countries such as Britain and Canada.

The move, a recommendation of the Productivity Commission, would catch millions more transactions in the GST net. Mr Baird has said the extra revenue could go towards the abolition of stamp duty on housing or infrastructure and services.

The Victorian Treasurer, Kim Wells, welcomed the proposal.

”Victoria has seen a substantial reduction in GST funding at a time when the Commonwealth expects the state to deliver more services,” Mr Wells said.

”If a cost-effective method for collecting the payments can be made, the low-value threshold should be reconsidered to generate an overall benefit to Australian consumers and businesses.”

The South Australian Treasurer, Jack Snelling, was overseas but a spokesman for the acting Treasurer, Tom Koutsantonis, said the state ”has consistently welcomed measures to improve the collection of GST revenue, including through a reduction, where cost-effective, of the GST-free importation threshold.”

A spokeswoman for the Queensland Treasurer, Tim Nicholls, said as part of its submission to the federal government’s GST review panel, the state had ”supported lowering the threshold if it could be done efficiently”.

The West Australian Treasurer, Troy Buswell, was more cautious.

”There may well be merit in reducing the GST-free threshold for online goods and providing a more even playing field for Australian retailers,” he said. ”However, any decision would have to also consider the impact of increased costs on consumers and the cost and complexity associated with the collection of the GST.”

He said there was ”absolutely no link between this issue and the state’s stamp duty regime”.

Mr Baird’s proposal coincided with the release of a report by a Treasury taskforce showing that, in certain circumstances, reducing the threshold would raise more money than it would cost to collect, a complex process that could involve monitoring millions of incoming parcels.

The report found, for example, that if the $1000 threshhold were reduced to zero, collections costs would be $450 million, which would be substantially more than any extra revenue raised.

If the threshold were lifted to $500, far fewer parcels would have to be checked and collections costs would be just $11 million.

Previously, the federal government and the opposition have ruled out lowering the threshold, saying they did not want to increase prices. But revenue is being lost as online purchases increase and pressure is growing to plug the hole.

Thursday’s report says the number of parcels now entering Australia each year has more than doubled between 2006-07 and 2010-11 to more than 48 million. ”Similarly, the number of low-value goods arriving as cargo was around 10.6 million in 2010-11, an increase of more than 58 per cent since 2008-09,” it says.

The shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, said the Coalition would study the report but had no plans to change GST policy.

The Assistant Treasurer, David Bradbury, warned any policy change would be very complex to administer because of factors outlined in the report.

”The sheer number of parcels means the potential size of border processing tasks, such as identifying goods and entering data, as well as impacts on storage and delivery, render many processes not cost-effective,” the report says.

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Bully tactics came out early in Abbott, says former rival

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WHEN Tony Abbott lost the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council presidency, he allegedly approached the woman who beat him and, leaning into her face, punched the wall on each side of her head.
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Barbara Ramjan, a social work student in 1977, told the author and journalist David Marr she thought Mr Abbott was coming over to congratulate her. ”But no … he came up to within an inch of my nose and punched the wall on either side of my head. It was done to intimidate,” she said.

The allegation is raised in Marr’s article, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, in the latest issue of Quarterly Essay.

For a political leader still struggling to gain traction with female voters, it is a hugely damaging allegation and perhaps unsurprisingly Mr Abbott’s rebuttal was the only comment he was prepared to make when he granted Marr an interview for the article.

”Our talk was off the record. Why? God knows. The one statement he insists I put his name to is this: he can’t remember threatening Barbara Ramjan all those years ago at university and believes to have thrown those punches would be out of character,” Marr wrote.

Yesterday Mr Abbott contacted the Herald with an on-the-record quote: ”It never happened.”

Marr’s previous foray into long form journalism in the Quarterly Essay was his June 2010 article, Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd, in which he skewered the then prime minister’s ”angry heart” on the eve of moves by his Labor colleagues to oust him from the leadership.

In his latest work, with Mr Abbott poised in opinion polls to capture the prime ministership, Marr charts his rise from university politics tyro through a learning curve of political fixer to Parliament and eventually the opposition leadership.

Marr traced the influences on Mr Abbott, including two Jesuits – one at Riverview and the other in England during his Rhodes scholarship days – John Howard and the ALP wrecking ball Bob Santamaria.

Marr said the Santamaria dictum – when you have not got the numbers be vicious – had become Mr Abbott’s hallmark and, time and again, he had shown when there was a choice between values or politics he chose the pragmatic option.

”The joke goes that Abbott would be the first DLP prime minister of Australia,” Marr said.

”He wouldn’t mind us believing that … Ever since he stepped into Parliament nearly 20 years ago he has been invoking God and the Catholic values that drive him …

”How much would they drive Tony Abbott, PM? Which Abbott are we going to get when things are tough, I ask him: Values Abbott or Politics Abbott? I wish I could quote his answer. My sense is we’ll get the Abbott he decides to give us at any particular time.”

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Abbott sticks by question time ploy

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Tony Abbott has faith in Malcolm Turnbull. ” Malcolm is going to be a very good communications minister”.TONY ABBOTT says he has no plans to change the Coalition’s question time tactics following criticism from Malcolm Turnbull that the session focuses too much on asylum seekers and the carbon tax.
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With Parliament to resume on Monday and the government about to start sending the first asylum seekers to Nauru, the Opposition Leader said yesterday that border protection and the carbon price remained the government’s ”two biggest failures” and the opposition would pursue the issues.

Mr Abbott was commenting yesterday after a rugged week in which the Nationals revolted over foreign investment in agriculture and Mr Turnbull, the opposition communications spokesman, gave a provocative speech decrying the deterioration of political discourse.

Mr Turnbull was especially critical of question time. He said that for the past two years, ”questions from the opposition have been almost entirely focused on people-smuggling and the carbon tax”.

He said the limited scope of issues was not a criticism of Mr Abbott or Julia Gillard, but a product of question time in which the Prime Minister was the focus every day.

Figures supplied by the government show that of the 302 questions the opposition has asked the government this year, 137, or 45 per cent, have been about the carbon price.

The next most-asked about topic was Craig Thomson, which elicited 39 questions. There have been 19, or 6 per cent, asked about asylum seekers.

Mr Abbott said he and Mr Turnbull had spoken about the speech, which many in the Liberal Party construed as wilful and an indirect attack on Mr Abbott. Besides the comments on question time, Mr Turnbull lamented the inability to have a mature discussion about climate change science because if the ”hopeless, confused, hyper-partisan nature of the debate”.

Mr Abbott described the speech as ”interesting and eloquent” and said Mr Turnbull had every right to express his views. ”We are not a Stalinist party,” he said.

He has used the same defence when asked abut the Nationals senator Barnaby Joyce, who spoke out against foreign investment in agriculture following the approval by the government and the Foreign Investment Review Board for a Chinese-led private consortium to buy the giant Queensland cotton farm Cubbie Station.

Coalition policy supports the acquisition, but the Nationals will discuss their concerns at their party room meeting on Monday. One option being canvassed is a policy change that would force the public release of the deliberations of the review board.

Mr Abbott rejected any suggestion that Senator Joyce’s outbursts or Mr Turnbull’s speech presented any threat to, or test of, his leadership. ”Malcolm is going to be a very good communications minister in the next Coalition government,” he said.

The Liberals are angry at the Nationals for not toeing the line on policy.

The former prime minister John Howard used a speech in New Zealand on Thursday to weigh in, saying it would be hypocritical to sell goods and resources to the Chinese but not allow them to invest in Australia.

”We benefit greatly from foreign investment. We can’t expect countries to buy our resources and turn around and say, ‘Well, you can buy our resources, but we’re going to discriminate against you when it comes to foreign investment’ – that’s just not on,” he said.

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Flying kangaroo may find itself in the back seat

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The wine and champagne were flowing, and smooth-talking MC Eddie McGuire said he felt ”like my daughter is marrying my best friend”.
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Beaming Qantas chief Alan Joyce – who makes it a rule not to drink during the week – looked like a man who in other circumstances would have knocked back a magnum.

A-listers Miranda Kerr and Orlando Bloom rubbed shoulders with fringe celebrities and an apron-clad Neil Perry presided in the kitchen.

It was Thursday night at the harbourside cocktail bar in the Park Hyatt, and Joyce was finally relaxing after four months of frenetic negotiation to lock in a 10-year alliance with Emirates, a pact he hopes will pull Qantas’s international operations out of their $450 million loss-making nose-dive.

Joyce declared it ”the best day of my career – and the best day I think that Qantas will experience for a very long time”.

Emirates’s dapper president , Tim Clark, also reached for the superlatives, calling the new commercial partnership ”the most formidable marketing relationship that the world has seen for a very long time”. Both spoke enthusiastically about the ”buzz” among staff and customers and Joyce told the Herald that Qantas’s major shareholders were ”overjoyed”.

Feedback from Canberra had been strongly positive – a welcome change from the frosty relations triggered when the airline grounded its fleet during last year’s industrial dispute. ”I haven’t heard a bad word about this,” Joyce said jubilantly. ”You know that this is meant to be when you hear everybody being as supportive as they are.”

But as the initial euphoria started wearing off yesterday, there were questions trickling in from sceptics on the sidelines.

Which of the two airlines, the independent senator Nick Xenophon wanted to know, would ultimately stand to get the best of the deal? Would Emirates slowly cannibalise Qantas on international routes and the ”kangaroo” morph into a ”joey”? Captain Richard Woodward, from the Australian and International Pilots Association, said pilots were ”positive” on initial inspection of the deal – but wondered whether Qantas would eventually ”shrink to become a regional feeder” for the relentlessly growing Emirates. And then there was John Singleton calling for Joyce to be replaced as chief executive because Qantas was in the grip of a ”crisis of management”.

The broad outlines of the deal seem simple enough though the devil will, as always, be in the detail, with the arrangement not due to start until April 1 (an ”auspicious” day, Clark reassured Thursday night’s guests) and the regulators yet to run a ruler over it.

In essence, Qantas shifts its hub for European flights from Singapore to Dubai, ditches its Frankfurt run and cuts loose its partnership with British Airways and code-sharing arrangements with Air France and Cathay Pacific in favour of a deeper alliance with Emirates.

The two airlines have agreed to ”treat each other’s customers as our own”, with reciprocal levels of service, meshing of frequent flyer programs and ”integrated network collaboration with coordinated pricing, sales and scheduling”.

The attempt to match each other’s level of service means Qantas will now, like Emirates, offer chauffeur-driven pick-up and delivery for business and first-class passengers on flights more than 12 hours long.

Joyce says Qantas’s signature Kangaroo route to London would remain, just flying through Dubai instead of Singapore, and that Qantas customers would get better access to 30 additional European destinations (on Emirates planes), via one stop in Dubai instead of two through Singapore and London.

The Deutsche Bank analyst Cameron McDonald said the plan addressed Qantas’s ”lack of network reach” into Europe and gives Emirates access to Qantas’s corporate travellers in Australia as a ”feeder”.

Macquarie Equities gave the move the thumbs-up, saying it allowed Qantas to join forces into Europe with the airline that had been ”arguably its greatest competitor on the route”. It also improved Qantas’s ability to shuffle its Asian services so they were better timed for ”premium” travellers, Macquarie argued, forecasting the deal could give Qantas an additional $130 million a year from 2014.

But does getting into bed with one of its chief competitors really hold the key to growth?

”Qantas is expanding operations into Dubai but pulling out of other routes,” Woodward said. ”Once your competitors fill a gap in this industry, you struggle to regrow to take them on.”

A longtime former industry executive told the Herald he believed the deal was a ”Band-Aid” solution on the European route that would not deliver anywhere near the benefits claimed by Qantas. ”Over time, the Emirates brand will swamp the Qantas brand, unless they go to extraordinary lengths to try and avoid that,” he said.

He also questioned the wisdom of operating the European route via the Dubai hub, saying ”every time there is turbulence politically in the region, there is the risk you could end up in trouble”.

Joyce is adamant his latest formula is the recipe for growth not shrinkage. ”We get the benefits of Emirates feeding to us … to support our London operations and making them viable,” he said.

He is still hoping that once Qantas gets its new 787s in 2016 (an acquisition already deferred by two years) there will be more Qantas ”metal” flying into Western Europe.

Consumers, he said, could expect a bonanza when the deal lifts off next year because ”the competition at the start will react to this and I think it will be hugely competitive”.

But it remains to be seen if this is a new beginning for Qantas’s international operations, or, as some observers fear, a temporary fix.

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Champions in the pool – and life

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Matthew Cowdrey might have expected that becoming Australia’s greatest Paralympian – with a haul of 12 gold medals in three Games – would make him the nation’s undisputed star of the 2012 Games.
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And in any other Games it might, but not London, where a young woman from the NSW north coast burst onto the pool deck to demand equal billing.

Early yesterday, Jacqueline Freney became Australia’s greatest paralympian in a single Games, claiming her seventh gold medal. Between them, 23-year-old Cowdrey, who has a congenital amputation of the arm, and 20-year-old Freney, who has cerebral palsy diplegia, have won 11 of the 14 Australian gold medals in the very pool where, less than six weeks ago, the much-lauded Olympic swimmers couldn’t take a trick.

Where the team of James Magnussen, Stephanie Rice and company floundered – winning a single gold medal, in a relay – the Paralympic team fired, unburdened by public expectation, buoyed by packed houses. The natural sporting order was restored. The Southern Cross was hoisted with regularity. And the British reacquainted themselves with Advance Australia Fair.

The national head swimming coach Brendan Keogh feels blessed to be leading a team spearheaded by two extraordinary talents.

”In 2004 we took a team to Athens where the average age was 17.9 years, so it was pretty much a school age team. We knew from there that in Beijing we would be dealing with a youth team, and then, come London, we would have a fully-matured team, in which the core of the team would be about to hit its straps.

”Matt and Jacqui have been phenomenal. And I can’t say enough great things about Matt. He wouldn’t care that he is being overshadowed by Jacqui because for Matt it is all about how the team performs. He is more than happy to see others getting the spotlight.”

That Freney can stand tall on the victory dais – pride of Skennars Head, toast of the world – is due to the single-mindedness of her parents, who refused 18 years ago to accept the gloomy prognosis of a paediatrician. ”He said, ‘I’ll put it this way, your daughter will probably be in a wheelchair.’ And, fair dinkum, then he said ‘And she won’t compete for Australia,’ ” her father and coach, Michael Freney, told The Sun-Herald at the athletes village in London

”That paediatrician knew nothing about me. He didn’t know I was a swimming coach. I was devastated. And angry. So angry that someone could say that, that someone could label my kid and decide her future. He didn’t know what opportunities there were for her, what we could do for her future. I didn’t accept what he said. We took a wheelchair home after seeing him but we never used it.”

Instead, they put their little girl in the pool, and what started as therapy to relieve severe muscle tightness in her legs and an arm soon became a desire to compete, then to win and, after three bronze medals at the Beijing Paralympics four years ago, to conquer the world.

”It is unbelievable. I did not expect six gold,” Freney said before going back for a seventh serve of London gold, passing the record of six gold medals in a single game held by Siobhan Paton, who, in a twist, was coached by Freney’s grandfather, Peter.

Keogh said the individual success of Cowdrey and Freney had inspired the whole team, from the nation’s youngest Paralympian, 13-year-old Maddison Elliott, who, with cerebral palsy, won gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay (34 points), to Brenden Hall, who demolished the field in the S9 400m freestyle, lowering his own world record by nearly four seconds.

”He is quite an imposing athletic figure. He must be a little over six foot four at this time and still growing – and he is only 19. We put fertiliser at the bottom of his bed every night,” Keogh said of Hall, who had a leg amputated after complications from chicken pox as a six-year-old.

”We have had a huge number of PBs [personal best times] at this meet. This team has a saying within it: ‘Our team is our family.’ When someone is succeeding they are there supporting, and when someone isn’t they are still there supporting.”

No one has needed that support more than Esther Overton, who, with an S1 classification, is among the most disabled athletes at the Games. She has arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which affects muscle control throughout her body, as well as brittle bones. She has broken her arms more than 40 times.

As Overton cannot use her arms to pull her through the water, she propels herself with a dolphin-like motion, completing her races by touching the wall with her head. ”Earlier this year in Colorado she gave herself a bad concussion by touching the wall. Since then she has had some pretty severe neck issues. She has gone through a really tough time over here and a lot of the time she is lying on her bed, which is very isolating,” Keogh said.

During the week, she finished fifth in the S2 50m backstroke final. ”She is probably the toughest swimmer we have on the team, when you look at what she goes through,” Keogh said. ”And her swim in that race is probably the bravest I have seen this meet.”

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Venice film festival in the throes of a gentle decline

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THERE is no doubt that the Venice Film Festival’s star is gently fading.
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This year’s festival, which ends today with the announcement of the winner of the Golden Lion, has had a fair sprinkling of past masters: Spike Lee, Takeshi Kitano, Kim Ki-duk and Amos Gitai.

Paul Thomas Anderson was there with a film in fact called The Master that stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor as worthy of that epithet as any, playing a version of Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard.

There was the new – and largely slated – Terrence Malick film poem about a disintegrating relationship, To the Wonder, which starred a beefy Ben Affleck with Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem as a doubting priest.

Pierce Brosnan, still graciously fielding questions about James Bond, fronted a team of middle-aged but still golden Danes for Susanne Bier’s amiable romantic comedy Love is All You Need (a kind of cross, if you can imagine this, between Mamma Mia, Under the Tuscan Sun and Festen).

It has also had more than its fair share of High School Musical heart-throbs, with Zac Efron there early on for the earnest cornfield family drama At Any Price – he plays a character not unlike James Dean in Giant – and Vanessa Hudgens arriving later as part of the starry cast of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Shia LaBeouf did the press rounds with Robert Redford for The Company You Keep, a decent drama about a former Weather Underground activist unmasked by a keen young reporter. It’s not often at this sort of festival that you see hordes of teenage girls hanging over the canal bridges, occasionally bursting into a mass scream.

Even so, there is no fighting the fact that by the end of the first full week, the place emptied out in favour of Toronto. Some films have their prestigious premiere in Venice, but do the grind of press interviews in North America. That really says it all.

The best thing about the big stops on the festival circuit, however, is not their glamour or former Disney teen stars, but the way they throw up their own hits and provocations. Korine’s lubricious, violent and frankly bizarre Spring Breakers, which became the talk of the festival, was a case in point. Four college girls go to Florida on spring break and become gangsta gals, carrying machineguns and wearing matching pink balaclavas. It made Korine, a teenage filmmaking prodigy who had been written off as a spent force, the talk of the Lido.

In Venice, there were also honest, intriguing and courageous films from a Hasidic Jewish woman who had previously made films shown only to women (Fill the Void by Israeli filmmaker Rama Burshtein) and a film by a Saudi director whose temerity in taking up a camera has earned her death threats (Wadjda, by Haifaa Al Mansour).

Documentaries about artist Marina Abramovic (by Robert Wilson) and theatre director Peter Brook (by his son Simon Brook), about Michael Jackson (Spike Lee’s Bad 25) and – with strikingly delightful results – Sophie Huber’s portrait of the actor Harry Dean Stanton together suggest a cultural swirl that extends beyond mere movies.

A couple of days before Redford brought his view of ’70s revolutionaries to the screen, French director Olivier Assayas had presented Apres Mai (renamed Something in the Air for English-speaking audiences), an account of high-school activists in the ’70s that was for many the film of the festival.

Venice faces another rival next month in Rome, where the recently established festival is now under the leadership of former Venice chief Marco Mueller. It, too, may pick up. Venice will certainly survive, but perhaps by taking a different path. Meanwhile, my tip is Assayas to win. We shall see.

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An unlikely project

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“I’m interested in ideas and storytelling” … Cate Shortland.Filmmaker, cyclist
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Success can be magical, a transforming experience after years of struggle. But it can also be overwhelming for the ill-prepared.

For Cate Shortland, who emerged as a filmmaker of great sensitivity and visual style with Somersault in 2004, it brought enough angst to have her quit filmmaking.

”After Somersault, I really felt I didn’t want to make films any more,” the Sydney writer-director says over coffee in a Marrickville cafe, her bike parked outside. ”I think I was just totally overwhelmed by the attention.”

She pauses. ”I just didn’t want the attention.”

Eight years ago, Somersault, Shortland’s first film, made a strong debut at the Cannes Film Festival. The tender drama, about a vulnerable teenage girl searching for love in a ski-resort town, went on to win warm reviews and appreciative audiences in Australia, launched Abbie Cornish’s Hollywood career and won virtually every Australian film award, including a clean-sweep 13 out of 13 at the AFIs.

But as much as Shortland enjoyed making the film, she discovered how much she disliked appearing on television and having her photograph taken. It was as though the sensitivity required to tell the story was at odds with the job as the public face of it. ”I’m interested in ideas and storytelling, not in getting my photo taken,” she says. ”How would you like to have your photo taken every time you talked to someone?”

Also troubling was an industry backlash against the film that included one attendee wearing a ”Somersault sucks” shirt to an awards ceremony.

And when Shortland was reduced to tears at another public event – she won’t reveal the comments that upset her – she wanted out.

”You don’t make films to go to awards ceremonies or critics’ dinners,” she says. ”You also have to have a thick skin and just continue living your life and enjoying the world and not reading what people write about you …

”I just had to get over that and I did. I went into a whole different way of living my life.”

And a very different way it was. After making the TV movie The Silence, starring Richard Roxburgh and Essie Davis, Shortland and her filmmaker husband, Tony Krawitz, moved to South Africa, where he was working on a script, and volunteered in a distressed township, helping sufferers of HIV and tuberculosis.

They also adopted a South African son, Jonathan, now 17, and later a daughter, Rosie, 4.

It was only after an extended break that Shortland was inspired to return to filmmaking when she read Rachel Seiffert’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Dark Room, which features three stories that delve into Germany’s loss of innocence during World War II.

Instead of accepting offers to direct in the US or Britain, she took on the challenge of making a German-language film in Germany, the drama Lore, which is based on one of the stories.

It centres on a teenage girl, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), who leads her younger siblings across the carnage of Europe at the end of World War II, meeting a Jewish youth, Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), and struggling to understand her parents’ Nazi past.

It was an unlikely project for any Australian filmmaker, especially one who doesn’t speak German.

Shortland was the youngest of three daughters. Her father drove and repaired trucks and was passionate about military history. Her mother loved literature. Growing up in a red-brick suburb in Canberra, Shortland discovered a love for film via the Electric Shadows cinema.

”My elder sister, from when I was about 13, used to take me to Andy Warhol retrospectives and French New Wave and German expressionist [films],” Shortland says. ”That was a huge part of thinking that film was a way out, a different world.”

Later in Sydney, she studied fine arts and history at university, worked with Liz Watts – the producer of Lore many years later – in a cafe outside the Valhalla cinema and made short films while applying four times before getting into the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. She also fell in with a Darlinghurst clique of musicians, artists and photographers.

Since meeting Krawitz at a Chippendale party, bonding over a shared interest in history, they have been a filmmaking couple, supporting and collaborating on each other’s work. The duo were the two Australian representatives in the Sydney Film Festival competition this year.

Krawitz, whose Christos Tsiolkas adaptation, Dead Europe, will be in cinemas in November, describes Shortland as ”an incredibly visual filmmaker but, at the heart of it, she’s got a great honesty and insight into people”.

It was difficult to see his partner struggle after Somersault’s success.

”Even getting acclaim can be overwhelming,” Krawitz says. ”You hear about that with a lot of filmmakers and actors. But with Lore and other projects she’s developing, it’s just really exciting to see her work coming out again.”

Shortland says The Dark Room is a beautiful book. ”It’s really visual but it’s also filled with really rich ideas,” she says. ”And it’s such a different way of looking at history and looking at the perpetrators.”

The novel felt personal given Shortland has converted to Judaism and is close to Krawitz’s 96-year-old German-Jewish mother, who lived through the war.

”What I love about it is we could have set it in 1945 or we could have set it in 2011,” she says about adapting the book. ”[Lore] has one set of social mores that she operates in and that’s what she believes the world to be.

”Then when the war ends and she’s thrown into the real world and meets all types of real human beings, that system doesn’t work any more. So it could have been about a girl in a cult or a girl that was in the GDR and went to West Germany or a girl from North Korea.”

Given Shortland’s two films centre on sexually vulnerable girls, it seems reasonable to assume she is drawing on her own teenage years. But raising the subject brings another admission: Lore is not the story Shortland wanted to tell from The Dark Room.

”I fought with [producer Paul Welsh] to make the last one, which is about a man, who’s about 35, and his Turkish wife who live in Berlin. We ended up making the middle one.

”So it wasn’t through me desperately wanting to make another story about a teenage girl. I was actually saying, ‘Come on, the last one has a little bit of a redemptive ending. Let’s go with that.’

”But Paul was great. He said, ‘No, the middle one is much harder. It’s much more ambiguous. The audience is going to really have to struggle with this girl. The politics in it are so difficult.’ He just said, ‘We have to do this one.”’

Although she was won over, Shortland was terrified by the ambiguity.

”Because we’re dealing with issues around perpetrators, it’s not like The Good German, where you know who you like and you know who you don’t like.

”In our film, you don’t know who the good guy or the bad guy is. Rachel says in the book about Thomas, ‘he was neither good nor bad or black or white’ … That was part of our whole rationale for making the film: the audience would have to really think about themselves.”

Shortland, who relied on translators and the luminous Rosendahl to communicate with the rest of the cast, says many more Australian directors will make films overseas.

”Our population is so diverse,” she says. ”Marrickville is 60 per cent non-English-speaking backgrounds. So the whole idea of white Anglo filmmakers is not relevant any more in this country.

”To our great joy, it’s indigenous filmmakers that are proving to be such beautiful storytellers. But I think it’s also going to happen with Vietnamese filmmakers, Chinese filmmakers, African-Australian filmmakers, in the same way it’s happened in America with the whole wave of Mexican filmmakers.”

Shortland says only the advertising industry continues to believe Australia is a white country.

”I just wish they’d wake up and walk outside and look at actually what’s in the real community. Television has exactly the same problem. Why isn’t there a Chinese-Australian family in a soap opera? Why isn’t there a Greek-Australian or a Portuguese or a Fijian family?

”Look at this neighbourhood, look at western Sydney. Parramatta is the centre of it, it’s not St Ives.

”When I worked in advertising and I’d try and cast wider, they’d always have an excuse why they wouldn’t cast the girl with the dark skin. I don’t think anybody cares.

”It’s a big apartheid in this country and nobody says a word about it because nobody gives a shit. It’s comforting for people because they want to think that’s what Australia still is.”

Sensitive she might be but Cate Shortland is definitely back.

Team reuniting

Cate Shortland drew a career-best performance from Sam Worthington as a troubled farmer’s son in Somersault.

They are teaming up again for a Foxtel mini-series about the journalists who covered the Gallipoli landing, including Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, Keith Murdoch and C.E.W. Bean. Worthington, who has described it as ”a different insight into the campaign from Egypt through to the evacuation”, will produce the drama with Penny Chapman, though is yet to decide whether he will play a role.

The mini-series adds to television’s renewed interest in Gallipoli before the conflict’s centenary in 2015, which includes a major drama for the Nine Network.

Shortland is also working on a new film with producer Jan Chapman, which she describes as a contemporary story about a family living overseas.

Lore opens on September 20.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Ornamental summer stunners

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Alliums are gems in the summer garden.THERE is nothing more annoying than yearning for a particular flower in the garden and realising it’s too late to plant the wretched thing. Alliums are a case in point. I adore them and saw many when I visited England and the Chelsea Flower Show in May. Designers used them in their show gardens to stunning effect and landscapers here also feature them strongly. They blend well with other flowers but still manage to be the star turn, especially mass plantings of Allium giganteum, with stems growing to 1.8 metres and 10-centimetre to 15-centimetre-diameter violet to deep-purple flower heads towering over the floral pack.
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At Chelsea, designers used them with Queen Anne’s lace, poppies, irises, hollyhocks and salvias, creating a floral meadow effect, but the alliums always stood out. Another reason to include these ornamental gems in your garden is the leaves die down long before the flowers open, so it doesn’t matter if they’re planted with other showy varieties as their style won’t be cramped. If you forgot to plant allium bulbs in autumn for summer flowering, the ‘Drumstick’ variety, or round-headed garlic, is available from Lambley Nursery so you can plant some for a summer show.

A. sphaerocephalon is aptly named because it resembles a chicken drumstick with its tall, thin stems and egg-shaped flowers that start off green and mature to pink then red-purple. The beauty of this ornamental relative of the onion, leek, garlic and chive family is that as well as creating architectural structure, it is also edible.

Some species are grown for their foliage and starry flower heads, others for their pungent bulbs and foliage – onion, scallion or spring onion (Allium cepa), porrum group of leeks (A. ampeloprasum), chives (A. schoenoprasum) and garlic (A. sativum). David Glenn, who runs Lambley Nursery at Ascot in country Victoria, knows the decorative value of alliums and can’t imagine a garden without them.

The 10 varieties of bulbs he carries are sold out by January, so people can plant them in March-April for late-spring and early summer flowering. Glenn grows them in his dry-climate garden with different salvias and between deciduous shrubs that have been pruned over winter. Glenn says alliums are useful plants and different varieties have different uses: ”’Drumstick’ is terrific in the garden because it’s vertical all the way from the foliage to the stems and flowers, so they don’t take up any horizontal space.” The larger varieties such as the giganteums finish flowering by Christmas but they can be a problem in the garden as they want to ”rot off” in the Australian summer, he says.

Author and gardener Jody Rigby cites the ornamental allium as one of her 150 indestructible plants, not just for the insect-repelling scent they exude (the one that makes us cry when we cut up onions) but for their globe-shaped flower heads and strappy blue-green foliage, which add height and beauty to a garden bed. Rigby says the sulphur aroma also deters animals that like to scratch around in the garden.

A genus of plants belonging to the Alliaceae family, there are more than 700 species within the group, making it one of the largest in the plant world. Most come from the dry areas of the northern hemisphere, which is why they have a reputation for being tough.

You can order them online from Lambley Nursery (lambley重庆夜网.au), Diggers Seeds (diggers重庆夜网.au) and Tesselaar (tesselaar重庆夜网.au).

But whatever you do, order them in plenty of time so you don’t miss out either on the bulbs or a spring-summer floral extravaganza.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Beyond the pale

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The cream, the bone, the off-white, the white, the ivory or the beige?
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The 12th Man’s parody of Richie Benaud’s blazer options is no joke for home decorators picking a shade of white paint. Pavlova, bombe Alaska, clotted cream, cumulus, Mont Blanc or cottontail? With minds racing between desserts, natural formations and underwear, they must choose from thousands of options on the market.

”People just think white is white and it’s not at all,” says Stephanie Souvlis, who is updating her home’s colour scheme.

”It could have a little bit of green in it or blue in it … or a touch of pink that makes each white colour look slightly different.”

Faced with so many options, she turned to a colour consultant for help.

There is a science to choosing the right white, but it is complicated by the fact that people are suggestible when it comes to shades. The American colour guru Donald Kaufman uses numbers instead of names to negate those preconceptions. ”Mint sounds like the colour of a hospital, but call it ‘faded eucalyptus’ and people love it,” he told the Elle Decor website.

Everybody sees colour slightly differently, and the human eye is capable of perceiving incredibly subtle variations. Lighting, surfaces and floor coverings all affect the appearance of the white. The same white might look pink against blackbutt floorboards and yellow against a carpet.

”We tend to find more faults in white than you would in bright, dramatic colours as we see more subtleties in white,” Damien Salomons, a technical adviser for Porter’s Paints, says. He recommends that people test several different shades of white against a purely stark white background.

Lighting is key. ”Essentially, if you’ve got a room which has low natural light … the warmer the white, the more inviting that room will be,” he says. ”Whereas if you have a sunny room, which gets a lot of western light, you might want to try and cool that down so it seems almost like a refrigerator.”

A colour consultant, Renee Henzell, has fielded many distress calls from people floundering in 50 shades of white. Her business, Roar Canvas, scopes buildings for the lay of the light. One client, a bridal retailer, had covered her wall in a patchwork of white swabs to test what background would work well with every dress.

”She had gone through a lot of whites and … got herself terribly confused,” Henzell says. ”We were trying not to compete with the creams and whites of the wedding dresses but still make it look crisp and clean.”

Henzell often prescribes different whites within the same room in order to make the colour look even across different surfaces. The same white will look darker on gyprock than it will on a rendered surface, for example. She always uses a stark, flat white on the ceiling, to make it look higher and mask any imperfections.

The best-selling Dulux whites are ”antique white USA”, ”whisper white” and ”hog bristle”. Paint companies simplify matters for consumers by narrowing their ”white” colour palettes to a mere 50 or so, even though many colours that could be described as white appear elsewhere in their spectrums. But as far as colour options go, the only way is up, with paint companies continually adding to their colour collections in an effort to keep pace with fashion.

Henzell says the latest trend is for mostly white houses with feature walls. This is a departure from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when everything was white, and a welcome one, in her book, from the 1980s, when salmon was ubiquitous.

”If I could, I would paint out Sydney of salmon,” she says.

”I can’t stand it, it’s the most disgusting colour and I’m happy to say I’ve got rid of a lot of it.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.