Monthly Archives: September 2013

Welcome to Australia: please turn your watches back 30 years

ilove80sMy cousin Maureen loves telling the story of how she flew to New Zealand in the 1980s and upon landing in Auckland, the pilot announced over the intercom:

“Welcome to New Zealand, please turn your watches back 30 years.”

It was a great line and always made me laugh.

But now it’s no so funny as I suspect Qantas may be forced to play the same message to new arrivals to our shores given the changes that are afoot since the new Abbott government placed Australia “under new management”.

It’s a man’s world

Our new prime minister surrounded himself with his attractive daughters, his wife and other powerful women in an attempt to appeal to female voters during the election campaign, but now that he’s won office its men in grey suits who are running the country. The feisty Julie Bishop is the only woman in cabinet, the rest are all grumpy old men, intent on returning Australia to the conservative values of the king of grumpy old men, John Howard.

Of course the corridors of female power are not assisted by the like of dowdy old Bronwyn Bishop, the Liberal member for Mackellar and someone with the fashion sense of Margaret Thatcher, who said it wasn’t Mr Abbott’s fault he could choose only one women in his cabinet (and just six out of 42 in his ministry), because he had to choose on merit, meaning no other women were good enough to be placed in senior leadership roles.

Give the environment a good kicking

Another swift act the new government was to kick out former Chief Climate Commissioner, Professor Tim Flannery and disband the Climate Commission, an organisation set up as an “independent and reliable source of information about the science of climate change”. Click on any link on the Climate Commission home page and you get this short message:

The Climate Commission ceased operation in September 2013.

With this single act, the new government broadcast its message loud and clear:

We don’t believe in climate change. We’re not interested in the environment.

What it means is that a lot more of Australia’s natural vegetation and eco-systems will fall by the way side to assist the mining industry. Prime minister Abbott is taking his cues from the ultra-conservative Queensland government, demanding that more farmland be given over to coal seam gas exploration. This at a time when even the rapidly industrialising Chinese economy is looking to reduce its carbon footprint alongside that of the US.

The new age of secrecy

Perhaps, most shocking in an age when government’s are being urged to be more transparent and open, that the new government should seek the pull the wool over its own citizen’s eyes. This was most evident in new “go back to where you came from” immigration minister Scott Morrison’s pledge that “there will be no information about whether [asylum seeker] boats are turned around”

scott morrison

Scott Morrison, a “Pik Botha” of his era

“That goes to operational matters that, whether they affect current or future operational activity, you will not be getting commentary from this podium or that podium either way on those matters,” said Mr Morrison in garbled politco-speak that could have come straight out of the mouth of apartheid-era South African foreign minister Pik Botha.

But let’s not kid ourselves – Mr Morrison is no lovable rogue. Old Pik at least had some dour charisma and was happy to give something back under Nelson Mandela.

Mr Morrison has gone to war with asylum seekers and “lefties” who seek to give them a fair go.

These are but three examples in just a few weeks of government, and no doubt more will come (One more example: The Abbott government is attempting to block the ACT government from legalising gay marriage).

Yes, we have a government that’s united. But in what common cause?

To set us on a course for barren shores?

Are we, in the words of Withnail as a nation: “drifting into the arena of the unwell, making an enemy of our own future”?

Withnail, drifting into the arena of the unwell

Withnail, drifting into the arena of the unwell

“What we need is harmony, fresh air, stuff like that,” Withnail goes on to say.

But I fear the air will become clogged with the foulest of fumes.

True “bargains” are only found online

trolleys

It’s hard to see how some “bricks and mortar” retailers will survive the relentless growth of online sales.

And sometimes its hard to argue against it.

A couple of weeks ago my car remote died. No amount of tinkering, application of blue tack or fidgeting with batteries and tiny metal gadgetry could get the thing to work.

So I headed off to Highpoint Shopping Centre in search of a new one – they sell them at those kiosks, where they also repair watches and cut keys.

The affable guy behind the counter quoted me about $110 for a brand new remote and said the best price he could do was about a $95 if he included a 10% discount voucher, which he placed in my hands.

It seemed quite a lot for a little gadget so I said I’d think about it and left, thinking I might get a couple of other quotes.

In the Moonee Ponds arcade, the guy behind the key cutting counter quoted me  $130 and I thought, “Yeah right mate” and left.

Of course it always pays to look online – specifically eBay.

Typing in a few key words into the search bar, I came across an online store selling a brand new remote for $68 in one of those “this is not really an auction – “Buy it Now” deals, including free shipping.

car remoteSo I did some checking as you should always do when shopping online and discovered that they’re a “bricks and mortar” locksmith in Five Dock, Sydney – with an address, phone number and very high seller rating – and so I bought it.

It came in the post four days later and works like a charm.

I walked around basking in that strange warm, enveloping glow that happens when your research has paid off and there’s a couple of extra bucks in your bank account as a result.

It also got me thinking about retailing, specifically – are consumers being taken for a ride every time they buy something in a mall?

After all, I got the gadget for roughly half the price of what it would have cost me to buy it in Moonee Ponds and about 30% less what I was offered in Highpoint, even with discounts thrown in.

Of course, bricks and mortar retailers have to factor in things like rent – which can be very high – the cost of holding stock, staff wages, insurance and many other things which is partly why they charge more.

I say “partly” for good reason.

Recently I came across an article about the float of the Dick Smith electronic stores by the Australian Financial Review’s retail writer, Sue Mitchell.

She writes that Dick Smith chief executive and turnaround specialist Nick Abboud has established a “new sourcing office in Hong Kong and is now sourcing direct products for Dick Smith’s growing private label range”.

“The private label products are cheaper than international brands but gross margins are around 80%,” writes Mitchell.

What this means is that a Dick Smith $396 television is only costing the company $79 before factoring all those other costs I’ve mentioned above.

Even when you tally up those costs, Dick Smith is making a healthy profit on each item they sell under their own brand and continue to do so even after offering as much as a 50% discount.

Clearly not all retailers operate on such wide margins, but still food for thought the  next time you see the words “sale” and “discount” pasted across every shop in your favourite mall.

Breaking bad: father figures in the ‘Golden Age’ of television

It could be argued that the Golden Age of television (that is television far superior to the movies) began when New Jersey mob boss-elect Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) waded into his swimming pool in his bathroom robe, to feed a family of wild ducks that had arrived to live in his backyard.

James-Gandolfini-Tony-Soprano-ducks-550x314

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and those ducks

It was the pilot episode of what was to become arguably the greatest television series of all time,  introducing one of the most terrifying, complex but also most loved characters in modern pop culture – and also a father.

In the next few weeks, two other great shows of the golden television era – Dexter and Breaking Bad – will come to an end with climatic, thrilling episodes.

And both have as their central characters – fathers.

There’s Dexter Morgan, the blood splatter expert working in Miami homicide, efficiently disposing of serial killers in plastic covered rooms for eight seasons, who is also the father of blonde-haired Harrison and stepfather to the hardly ever seen Cody and Astor.

dexter and harrison

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and Harrison

And there’s Walter White, a poorly paid school chemistry teacher diagnosed with lung cancer turned arch-druglord and master crystal meth cooker, who is also the father to handicapped teenager Walter White Jr and infant Holly. He is also very much the “father figure” to his drug lab partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) but rather than guide him away from drugs and crime (as most fathers would do) he leads him deeper into the spider’s web.

walter white

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) isolated from his family

Both are loving fathers and yet dreadful role models.

Walter White starts off as a meek, dying father, deeply attached to his wife and children, who by degrees becomes more ruthless as he becomes powerful, who resorts to murder – including the poisoning of a child – to build his financial fortune.

Dexter Morgan has little time for traditional fatherly duties, palming off his son to a carer or who ever it seems will take him, while he pursues and butchers serial killers, keeping their blood samples on glass slides behind the air conditioning unit.

They are liars, deceivers, criminals and terrible fathers by any standard or measure and yet we love them. Through eight lumpy seasons of Dexter and five faultless seasons of Breaking Bad, my wife and I have taken comfort in “Darkly Dreaming” Dexter and cunning Walter White (though not so much when he’s in his white underpants).

Similarly, Mad Men’s Don Draper hides his true identity from his family. He may be the best dressed, smoothest man ever to appear on television (and most frequent user of brylcreem), but he’s also a serial womanizer who makes Michael Douglas look virginal. He loves his three children, but frequently greets their visits with a frown and can only relate to them as he does to adults. His chief role as father – when he’s involved – is to tell them off.

Don-Draper-Family-2

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) with his two children

And let’s not forget Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) the drunkard, bent cop of that othere groundbreaking television show, The Wire, who also happened to be a father.

But back to Tony Soprano. The late James Gandolfini played him with Shakespearian range as both a terrifying tiger and a soft, cuddly teddy bear – fond of his cigars, two colour bowling shirts, tracksuits, whores, extortion rackets and murder when necessary.

But also a man who loves his children deeply and who is a great protector of his family.

tony soprano and AJ

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) with his son Anthony Soprano Jr (Rober Iler)

This dichotomy of loving father/ruthless mob boss is partly what made the show so watchable.

An episode that stands out is when Tony accompanies his daughter Meadow to visit a prospective college, and in between strangles Fabian Petrulio, a former mobster turned FBI informant. Tony savagely murders him, despite Petrulio pleading for his life. The job done, he takes Meadow to another college interview. Here he stops to ponder a quotation from the writer: Nathaniel Hawthorne :

“No man… can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one may be true.”

This could apply equally to Walter White, Dexter Morgan or Don Draper, fathers whose sense of identity disappears behind the masks they wear, the lies they tell.

It is interesting to note (and Freud would certainly have found it telling) that both Walter White and Tony Soprano’s sons bear their own names – the sins of the father passed on to their children in name and deed.

Perhaps some of the power of these shows, what makes them so compelling and addictive, is the fact that their main characters are so deeply flawed as fathers and family men.

And its interesting to note, that David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, claims his father was “an angry man who belittled him constantly as a child” while Jeff Lindsay, who wrote the Dexter novels on which the series is based, penned a column for the newspapers called “Fatherhood” while raising two daughters, before he struck the big time.