Ted Bundy and I: Reviewing Ann Rule’s true crime classic, “The Stranger Beside me”

stranger beside meAmong the best books ever written about true crime and serial murder must surely be Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, about the serial killer Ted Bundy.

A former Seattle police officer and then regular contributor to true crime magazines as she struggled to raise four kids, Rule was commissioned to write the book that became The Stranger Beside Me  as the spate of murders of young, attractive girls grew longer and more baffling.

Paid a small advance, Rule was told her book would only be published if the murderer was caught.

No one at first believed that Ted Bundy, the charming, intelligent, good-looking young law student was capable of such horrendous crimes.

This included Ann Rule herself, who by the most incredible of coincidences had worked night shifts with Ted Bundy at a crisis centre in Seattle in the early 1970s.

But by the time Ted Bundy was founded guilty and sentenced to death in a Florida court, she had come to the awful realisation that the man who sat in the cubicle beside her night after night in Seattle,  saving the lives of those contemplating suicide, was also a monster.

If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.

Apart from telling the story of Ted Bundy  and his awful crimes, The Stranger Beside Me, also narrates Ann Rules own personal journey into the ‘Heart of Darkness’.

ted bundy mugshot

Ted Bundy mugshot

The truth, as Rule found out, was that Ted Bundy, driven by a uncontrolable and never quite explained rage had used his facade of good looks and charm to bludgeon, rape and mutilate dozens perhaps over a hundred of young woman across America in the 1970s.

Many victims were attacked as they slept in their beds on college campuses, others were lured into Ted Bundy’s infamous beige VW Beetle as he masqueraded as someone with his arm or leg in a cast, struggling to carry his possessions.

Just before his execution in Florida in 1989, Bundy confessed to 30 murders committed  between 1974 and 1980 But many believe, and Bundy hinted himself, that the true total was much higher, perhaps over 100.

Before that, despite a mountain of evidence linking him to many murders (though much of it circumstanstial) he claimed he was innocent of any of the crimes. Often defending himself at his televised  Florida trial, he was seen by many as charismatic, brilliant and charming, which only added to the myth of his innocence.

In the end Rule, who maintained a sporadic correspondence with Ted Bundy through phone calls and letters from the time he was first arrested in Utah until his conviction and death sentencing in Florida, came to see through the facade, to see that she, like so many others, had been conned.

ann rule

Ann Rule

No one, except perhaps his long-standing girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (called Meg Anders in the book) had a more personal insight into Ted Bundy and in the annals of crime writing there are few who has painted such a three-dimensional portrait of serial killer as Ann Rule.

For she knew both Teds: the kind, sensitive, caring charmer and the psycopathic manipulator.

She describes Ted as “brilliant, a student of distinction, witty, glib and persuasive” who loved “French cuisine, good white wine and gourmet cooking. He loved Mozart and obscure foreign films” and who “knew exactly when to send flowers and sentimental cards” and whose “poems of love were tender and romantic”.

And yet Ted “loved things more than he loved people” who could feel more compassion for inanimate objects than he could ever feel for another human being.

On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted had gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.

There’s a video you can watch on YouTube of Ted Bundy’s final interview with Dr James Dobson,  given the evening before he was executed in January in 1980, when his appeals and luck finally ran out.

In it he tries to explain the reasons for his crimes as being due to the combined influences of pornography, alcohol and violence in true crime detective magazines.

This video and shorter versions of it has been watched millions of times of YouTube, which says something about the public’s fascination with Ted Bundy, who  remains in the news, 36 years after his death at the electric chair. (An article appeared as recently as June 30 about a new  book “I Survived Ted Bundy” published recently on Amazon.com).

Rule says of this final interview that Ted was lying and manipulating to the very end, remembering a letter that he wrote her where he dismissed True Crime magazines as trash:  “Who in the world reads these publications?” he asked her.

“The blunt fact is that Ted Bundy was a liar. He lied most of his life, and I think he lied at the end,” Rule wrote. But, she said, Ted’s final performance accomplished one thing that troubled her:

Sensitive, intelligent, kind young women wrote or called me to say that they were deeply depressed because Ted was dead. One college student had watched the Dobson tape on television and felt moved to send flowers to the funeral parlour where Ted’s body had been taken. “He wouldn’t have hurt me,” she said. “All he needed was some kindness. I know he wouldn’t have hurt me…”

ted bundy trial

The ‘other Ted’: The famous enraged photo  of Ted Bundy at his Florida trial

There is nothing in ‘The Stranger Beside Me that glamourises Ted Bundy or turns him into the folk hero others made him out to be, especially after his daring escape from a Colorado jail in 1977, while facing kidnapping charges.

Rule stresses time and time again that whatever the tragedy of Ted Bundy’s life – who he might have been, what he become in the end – the real tragedy were all his innocent victims whose lives he ended. Indeed, she tells with great compassion the story of each of his many victims, of who they were and who they might have been.

And yet, she could never quite shake the memory of the Ted she knew before he became the serial killer ‘Ted Bundy’ something which became impossible following the publication and huge success of The Stranger Beside Me in 1980.

Ann Rule passed away on July 26 last year, aged 83 taking with her the title of America’s queen of true crime.

She publishing three dozen crime books after The Stranger Beside Me, but it remained her signature work with fans writing to her about it and asking questions about her and Ted Bundy decades later.

In an update to the book published in 2000 (I suggest downloading the Kindle version which has all the numerous updates since 1980), Rule writes:

It has been a quarter of a century since the day Ted Bundy called to ask for my help and to tell me that he was a suspect in the disappearance of more than a dozen young women…time and time again, I have naively believed the fascination with Ted would diminish and that I would never have to think about him again. I have long since accepted that I will be answering questions about him until the end of my days.

 

 

 

One Nation, many cultures: why we should be proud of our multiculturalism and embarrassed by Pauline Hanson

img-7292-2An unremarkable thing occurred on the train last week. A young Asian lady nearly fainted in the crowded, airless rush hour carriage.

Her face had turned pale and it was obvious her legs would give way at any moment.

Immediately, people sprung into action.

The young Australian man standing opposite her offered her his arm to steady herself and calls went out for someone to offer up their seat. An Indian man obliged.

Then, as the train pulled into Kensington station everyone in the train carriage – all of us strangers – seemed to agree that it was best if the young lady get off the train and get some fresh air.

An older man, perhaps in his sixties or seventies, carrying a bag of groceries, said he was getting off at the station and volunteered to help her off the train. We all looked on with relief as she made her way out the train, resting her hand on the old man’s arm, to sit on a bench on the station platform and regain her strength.

As the train doors closed, I suddenly felt this immense sense of community with those people around me, people of as diverse backgrounds as it seemed possible in such a small, confined space. Pride in my fellow Melburnians, my fellow Australians, this multi-cultural fledgling nation.

I say it was unremarkable incident because these sorts of things, these acts of basic decency and kindness by complete strangers happen all the time in Melbourne as they do in Sydney and Brisbane, and as I recall them happening in London and in Johannesburg.

We should be incredibly proud of our multi-cultural nation. It is far from perfect, but it still a community and most of the time we do more than just get along.

All of which means we should be even more vigilant as we face the unfortunate prospective of a divisive figure like Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party, given a voice in the Australian Senate.

The “Australian values” which Ms Hanson and One Nation claim to represent are none that any decent Australian believes in or aspires to make part of their belief system; they are the views of someone who has probably never known a person of colour, or spoken to a Muslim or spend time with a refugee.

These are views derived from fear and ignorance, passed down from others or just lifted piece-meal and selectively from the internet.

We can laugh Ms Hanson off as a pantomime villain – as most South Africans did when the White Supremist Eugene Terreblanche rode into town on his horse, and then promptly fell off it – or we can pity someone so ignorant, but we should certainly be vigilant.

As American society fractures into a broken mess – where police offices shoot people of colour on a daily basis in a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach – as Britain abandons Europe to the sheer horror of its young folk,  we should be ever vigilant of forces like One Nation, the Australian Liberty Alliance and other ironically titled organisations, who seek to divide Australia into an ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’.

We are not strangers on a train, suspicious of our fellow travellers because they don’t look just like us. We are a proud, successful society of many races, creeds and colours. We are a great and glorious, yet imperfect melting pot.

Let’s not break it.

For more on our great nation of many cultures, read these:

Australia’s cultural diversity: www.racismnoway.com.au/about-racism/population/

Our people: www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/our-people

One Nation, Many Cultures: www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/one-nation-many-cultures-20090317-911y.html

In the Boston Strangler’s shadow: Reading Sebastian Junger’s ‘A Death in Belmont’

death in belmontThe front cover of my edition of Sebastian Junger‘s intriguing  true crime book,  A Death in Belmont features a grainy black and white photo of the author as a small child sitting on the lap of his mother, who looks down at him affectionately.

Behind them is a kindly looking elder gentleman called Floyd Wiggins, and next to him, looking directly at the camera is a powerfully-built stocky man in a white shirt, his hair greased up in a pompadour, called Albert DeSalvo.

The photo was taken in mid-March 1963 when Wiggins, DeSalvo and another man Russ Blomerth (who took the photo) built an artist’s studio in the backyard of Sebastian Junger’s Belmont home.

A year later, the same man, Albert DeSalvo,  would confess to being the notorious Boston Strangler, one of the most infamous and violent serial killers and rapists in American history.

Knowing this, turns the photo into something utterly chilling: a young child and his mother with a monster smiling serenely behind them.

This then is the springboard –  a very personal one – for Junger’s engrossing book about the Boston stranglings that terrified residents in the early 1960s.

Of course DeSalvo, who confessed to being the strangler after being arrested for a string of other violent crimes, is a big part of the book, but he is not the central character.

roy-smith

A mug shot of Roy Smith

Instead Junger focuses on a black man, named Roy Smith and one particular murder that occurred near his childhood home in Belmont, which also gives the book its title: A Death in Belmont.

The day before the photo was taken a woman in her sixties, Bessie Golderg had been raped and strangled in her home, just a mile away.

The brutal attack, perpetrated in the middle of the day and by someone who Bessie Goldberg let into her home, occurred during a spate of 13 similar stranglings that started in June 1962 and ended in January 1964.

But this murder was pinned not Albert DeSalvo (who also never confessed to it in jail), but on Roy Smith had been sent by his employment agency to clean the Goldberg house on the same afternoon that Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled.

He was there in the hours just before her death – shopkeepers and neighbourhood kids saw him walking in Belmont that afternoon – and so he became the prime suspect.

Being a black man in a white neighbourhood also did not help, nor did his criminal history or his penchant for alcohol.

Despite this, the evidence was only circumstantial , Smith had little motive apart from robbery and there was nothing in his past to suggest he was a sexual predator. But, a court found him guilty and he was given a life sentence, only narrowly missing the death penalty.

He spent the rest of his life in jail, but steadfastly maintained his innocence during his 13 years locked up, right up until his death, from lung cancer. Tragically – if he was indeed an innocent man – he was paroled on his death-bed. Junger writes poignantly:

“If Roy Smith had not been working at the Goldberg’s residence the day she was killed, the murder would quickly have been added to the list of other Boston Stranglings. It was so similar to the previous eight killings that the police initially thought they had arrested the man responsible for all of them. They hadn’t.”

Junger’s brilliant book, investigates in great detail the lives of both Roy Smith and Albert DeSalvo, the likeable man who built his mother’s studio in their Belmont backyard, but who had another dimension to his personality: a viscious and cruel man who combined an insatiable sexual appetite with sadistic violence.

While Junger does not proclaim Roy Smith innocent, he hints very strongly at the possibility  that he was an innocent man, who tragically found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Albert DeSalvo just after his capture in Boston on February 25, 1967.

Albert DeSalvo, at the time of his arrest in 1967

It’s a highly convincing argument and I finished reading the book almost certain that Roy Smith did not kill Bessie Goldberg and that more than likely, DeSalvo had raped and strangled her  while on his way to Sebastian Junger’s house to complete his mother’s artist studio. Indeed two further stranglings that DeSalvo confessed to occurred during the time he worked in Belmont.

Junger returns time and time again to his mother’s memories of DeSalvo. Most chilling is her memory of a time Albert DeSalvo asked her to come down into the basement of the house to show her a problem with the boiler. She hesistated, noticing a strange look in his eyes. Ellen Junger made an excuse not to go down into the basement, a decision which might have saved her life.  Junger writes:

“Four months earlier (before Bessie Goldberg died)  Al had stood at the bottom of the cellar stairs and called up to my mother with an odd look in his eyes. For a moment at least, our basement was a place where the very worst things imaginable could happen.”

DeSalvo died in prison, stabbed to death by a black inmate, taking many of his secrets to the grave. So there is no easy solution to the mystery of who killed Bessie Goldberg.

There are also many, including Junger, who question whether DeSalvo was in fact the Boston Strangler, or just someone who craved the spotlight. Until recently, there was little physical evidence to connect him to any of the crimes, while DeSalvo’s own confessions were full of errors.

But in 2013 – seven years after his book was published, a DNA match was found linking DeSalvo to the rape and murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan providing proof he was guilty of at least one of the  13 murders he confessed to, though this list did not include Bessie Goldberg.

In the end, there can be no definite answers, only likelihoods and possibilities. Junger himself has come under fire suggested Roy Smith may be innocent with the Goldberg family angrily denying his hypothesis that their mother might have been killed by someone other than Roy Smith.

In 2006, when A Death in Belmont was published, Bessie Goldberg’s daughter, Leah Goldberg Scheuerman told the New York Times it was “full of lies and omissions” including that a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court also upheld Roy Smith’s conviction on appeal.

It’s not the first time Sebastian Junger has been accused of getting things wrong. His bestselling and most famous book, The Perfect Storm (made into a Hollywood blockbuster with George Clooney) was hit by accusations of many inaccuracies.

21 cedar

21 Cedar Rd, Belmont – were Albert DeSalvo built a studio for Ellen Junger in 1963

But, reading a A Death in Belmont, which Junger spent three years painstakingly researching, you do not get the impression that you are being manipulated: the stories of Roy Smith and Albert DeSalvo are carefully constructed by Junger who also masterfully recreates Boston of the 1960s with its immigrant communities, rough neighbourhoods, drinking dens and quiet suburbs.

When as a reader, you weight up all the evidence, it seems hard to believe that Roy Smith, who had no history of sexual violence would have raped and murdered a sixty-year-old woman whose house he was cleaning. If he did, he never admitted it, thus ending any chance of a life outside of prison. What guilty man would do that?

Reading Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: The inspirational story of a president in the making

dreams-from-my-fatherEven if Barack Obama had not gone on to become the first African-American president of the United States, he would have lived a remarkable life.

This much is clear, if you read his superb memoir Dreams from My Father, written after he achieved an earlier historic milestone, becoming the first Black president of the 130-year old Harvard Law Review, the esteemed student-run law journal of Harvard University.

Barack Obama was elected Law Review president, aged 28, in 1990. His eloquent comments made in an interview with the New York Times, following his historic appointment, hint at the higher role that lay ahead:

“The fact that I’ve been elected shows a lot of progress. It’s encouraging,” he told the NYT.

“But it’s important that stories like mine aren’t used to say that everything is O.K. for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don’t get a chance.”

After being elected law review president, he received an advance from a publisher to write his life story (up to that point) and the end result was Dreams From My Father. It had modest success at first, but became a bestseller when he became US President in 2009.

What ever you think of President Obama, as his time in office comes to an end, his memoir which reveals a man of the highest integrity (but with many human failings too) is well worth reading, particularly in light of the awful possibility that a Machiavellian power-hungry loose cannon, 69-year-old real estate mogul Donald Trump, might be next in line at the White House.

It’s certainly one of the best autobiographies you will read about any public figure. It’s beautifully written, rich in detail and painfully honest. President Obama would have made a fine writer had he not chosen a path in politics.

The book charts his life, from his early childhood in Hawaii until just before he entered Harvard University in 1988. It ends with his journey to Kenya to meet his family and learn more about his gifted, but troubled father.

Barack Obama Sr was an ambitious, charismatic and larger-than-life foreign exchange student from Kenya who met Kansas-born Ann Dunham while studying at the University of Hawaii. (Like his famous son, he too would study at Harvard, obtaining a Masters in Economics).

Barack – or Barry as his family called him – was born a year after they met in 1961, but the marriage did not last long. His father returned to Kenya where he became a government official and raised his third family. He made money, but then lost it all when the government changed and he would not support their views.  He later struggled with drinking as he descended into poverty.

Barack saw his father only once again, aged about 10, when he came to Hawaii to recover from a car accident (a fearful, bittersweet and awkward time for a young boy, as Barack Obama describes in his memoir). They stayed in intermittent contact until he learned of his father’s sudden death in another car accident in 1982. At the time Barack was 21 and living in a squalid apartment in  Harlem.

“At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man…as a child I knew him only through the stories that my mother and my grandfather told. They all had their favourites…”

Dreams from My Father is ultimately the story of a young’s mans search to understand his brilliant, but troubled father, who despite his lack of physical presence was the foundation stone for Barack Obama’s acute sense of black consciousness, his early waywardness and rebelliousness and his desire to help others through community organising.

In his memoir, Barack Obama recalls his time spent as a kid exploring the rough and tumble back streets of  Jakarta, Indonesia (where he moved, aged 7, with his mother to live with her new Indonesian husband, Lolo) his return to Hawaii to complete his American schooling,  his teenage years partying, drinking, smoking and drug taking but also searching for himself. Later he attends college in Los Angeles where he makes his first public speech calling for a South African boycott and finds it comes naturally to him and that he likes the experience. From there he moves to New York to live in the Black community of Harlem, where he gets a good corporate job with prospects. But he feels lost and directionless and quits to become a community organiser in Chicago, where a hero of his, Harold Washington, is the city’s first African-American mayor.

Be Like Barack The Pros and Cons of a Career in Community Organizing

Barack Obama, during his time in Chicago as a community organiser

A big chunk of the book is given over to his many years spent as a community organiser in Chicago,  meeting community leaders, religious figures and ordinary citizens, understanding the harsh realities of their lives  their daily battles with unemployment, violence, drugs, poverty and neglect. Barack Obama writes candidly about his own naievety in trying to bring about change in people’s lives, his many failures and some notable successes.

In one moving scene he brings a community delegation  from a neglected, polluted and impoverished housing estate called Altgeld Gardens by bus to demand a meeting with the director of the Chicago Housing Association over fears about asbestos contamination. This after an earlier request was ignored. The delegation refuse to leave. Later a TV crew arrives and films interviews with residents of Altgeld. Amid all the publicity the residents are promised, on camera, that testing would start by the end of the day and that a meeting with the director has been arranged. They celebrate later on the bus ride home with caramel popcorn:

“As I chewed on the gooey popcorn, looking out at the lake calm and turqouise now, I tried to a recall a more contented moment.”

During his time in New York and Chicago, Barack Obama meets his sister Auma, who lives in Germany and another brother Roy who lives in Washington DC. Finally he makes the pivotal journey to Kenya, first to the chaos of Nairobi to meet some of his family and then he travels by train across the vast Kenyan plains to the Port city of Kisumu and onto Kogelo, to the tribal family homestead where he meets ‘Granny’ and hears the stories of his father, grandfather and their ancestors.

“Granny nodded and pulled me into a hug before leading us into the house. Small windows let in a little of the afternoon light and the house was sparsely furnished – a few wooden chairs, a coffee table, a worn couch. On the walls were various family artefacts, the Old Man’s Harvard diploma, photographs of him…”

From here the Young Barack Obama would make his way through the hallowed halls of Harvard and from there all the way to the White House.

It’s an amazing journey about a remarkable man, and its beautifully told.

obama family

A Young Barack Obama with his Kenyan family

 

Meet the Bobroffs: the latest South African fugitives calling Australia home

ronald bobroff

South African personal injury lawyer, Ronald Bobroff

Australia, with apparent open arms, has welcomed Johannesburg lawyers Ronald and Darren Bobroff to its sandy shores.

The father and son pair, are the lastest South African fugitives who have fled to Australia, ahead of likely criminal proceedings in their home country.

They join alleged $1.5bn ponzi scheme mastermind  Barry Tannenbaum (the subject of a book by investigative journalist Rob Rose called ‘The Grand Scam’) who disappeared into the Gold Coast scene in 2009  and was most recently an Uber taxi driver.

I blogged about Barry Tannenbaum on Freshlyworded a couple of years ago.

According to South African media reports, Ronald and Darren Bobroff fled South Africa in late March this year, shortly before they were due to hand themselves into the Hawks, a specialist division of the South African Police that investigates serious commercial and organised crime.

The Bobroff pair also sold off their law firm, Ronald Bobroff & Partners to another Johannesburg law firm, Taitz and Skikne, before heading Down Under.

Their alleged crime: overcharging accident victims for claims against the Road Accident Fund, a public entity which compensates people injured in road accidents in South Africa.

Just how much the Bobroffs allegedly overcharged their clients is not known, but according to a spokesperson for the RAF, R178 million ($16m) of suspected fraud cases were identified during the 2014/15 year alone.

In January 2016, Discovery Health (part of listed financial services giant Discovery Limited, which has market cap R78bn – $7bn -) put out a statement on its cover for motor vehicle accidents and the Road Accident Fund. It included the following:

In 2014, all Ronald Bobroff and Partners (RBP) fee agreements with its clients were declared unlawful by the Constitutional Court. This resulted in numerous High Court judgments being granted against RBP in favour of its former clients, requiring RBP to repay many millions of Rand in unlawfully retained fees.

South African law restricts lawyers fees to 30 per cent of any award paid out by the RAF, but it is alleged that the Bobroffs kept as much as 40 per cent.

Ronald Bobroff told The Star newspaper he had fled the country with his son and daugher-in-law following a tip-off that they were to be arrested. His 68-year-old wife Elaine was not so lucky. She was prevented from fleeing a week later, spent a night in jail and was released on bail of R150,000 ($13,300).

Speaking to Eyewitness News from Australia, Ronald Bobroff said the “allegations were false” and that he would make a “statement in due course”.

It appears highly unlikely that the Bobroffs will be extradited to South Africa to face the charges made against them.  Extradition would require the co-operation of the Australian government and Australian Federal Police which have to date not shown any desire to return Barry Tannenbaum to his native land to face his accusers.

In South Africa, the Bobroff’s law firm is now under the control of the Law Society of the Northern Province with Ronald Bobroff facing the threat of losing his right to practise law in South Africa.

The Law Society of the Northern Province released this statement, published on legal website polity.org.za:

The Council of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces has noted with concern that attorneys, Mr Ronald Bobroff and Mr Darren Bobroff, who are facing serious charges of overcharging clients and related fraudulent actions, are alleged to have absconded from the Republic to Australia. The Law Society had already instituted legal proceedings against the pair and their co-director in the law firm Ronald Bobroff & Partners Inc to have them struck from the roll of attorneys and a curator appointed to the firm in order to protect the interests of the firms’ clients. The judgment of the Court is awaited. The Law Society calls on Mr Ronald Bobroff and Mr Darren Bobroff as senior attorneys to honour their oaths of office and to return to South Africa and to face the charges against them. Clients of their firm, members of the public and all stakeholders are assured that everything possible is being done by the Law Society to ensure that the interests of all concerned are protected.

 

Issued by Law Society Northern Province

Not that either would concern Ronald or his son Darren, who almost certainly have no plans to return.

It’s likely they are well set-up in Australia with Darren Bobroff owning two Sydney apartments in the Eastern Suburbs.

A three-bedroom apartment in Vaucluse was purchased in 2002 for $650,000  while another apartment was purchased in the same block for $309,000 in 1994.

Sydneys eastern suburbs

Darren Bobroff owns two apartments in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs

In a more recent update, National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams said in April: “Of course we are deeply concerned at the fact that Mr Bobroff had evaded justice and had fled to another country, but I can reassure the public that the matter is receiving the requisite attention from my office and that of other law enforcement agencies.”

Chasing Peta: A review of Niki Savva’s book: The Road to Ruin

road to ruin coverThe abiding image, the one that sticks doggedly in my mind having read Niki Savva‘s book The Road to Ruin, about the rise and swift fall of the Abbott Government, is of the then prime minister racing down the corridors of Parliament House in Canberra, chasing after a fuming or teary-eyed Peta Credlin, his chief of staff.

Abbott would invariably catch up with Credlin, console her and then bring her back – with great reluctance on her part – to the meeting room, where whoever had offended her (no matter if they were a cabinet minister or senior staffer) would offer a grovelling apology: “Sorry Peta.”

It’s a recurring theme in the book. Savva, a conservative no less, paints a picture of a well-intentioned (from a Liberal voter’s point of view) prime minister, who was seemingly under the spell of this power-hungry, emotionally volatile and unpredictable woman (Credlin would verbally abuse staff, then bring in a cake the next day) and how their bizarre co-dependent relationship brought down the Abbott government in September last year, after less than two years in power.

It’s a thoroughly engrossing book, indeed a page turner which is no mean feat for a book about politics. Savva, a well-regarded columnist for The Australian newspaper draws on all her vast experience in the Canberra press gallery plus her deep knowledge of the Australian political machine (she was a media adviser to former Treasurer Peter Costello) to weave a fascinating tale of ego, stupidity and ignorance that never strays too far into the banal details of bureaucratic government process.

Across 300 odd pages, it reveals just how poorly suited  Abbott and Credlin were to their respective jobs of PM and chief of staff. Both were brilliant in opposition, hammering away at the dysfunctional Labor government of the Rudd and Gillard years, but in office Savva shows how utterly hopeless they were from the very beginning – Abbott with his dreadful captain’s picks, poor choice of ministers, unwillingness to drop poor policies and inability to read the tea leaves and Credlin with her micro-management, dragon-like temper and deliberate sabotage of the good intentions of those who sought to help Abbott save his government.

Right up to a few weeks before Abbott and Credlin both lost their jobs, the chief of staff – not the prime minister’s wife – was still immersed in choosing the decor for the refurbished lodge….a week out [Credlin] was obsessing about artwork, burying herself in trivia…their lack of preparation on that fateful night would astound even their allies

There were numerous warning signs for Abbott – all of which he ignored or dismissed – foolishly believing that the Liberal Party was not Labor, and would never turf a Coalition Prime Minister out of office, certainly not in his first term after such a resounding electoral victory.

As for Credlin, she seemed to believe her own legend of an invincible, warrior, shielding Abbott from his foes. So much in fact that as Savva reveals, Credlin framed a caricature of herself drawn by The Australian‘s Eric Lobbecke depicting her as just such a sword-wielding warrior (with Abbott hiding behind  her) and hung it in her office.

083887-eric-lobbecke

The Eric Lobbecke cartoon

These sorts of astonishing details and anecdotes pepper The Road to Ruin. They have the effect of taking the reader inside parliament or the party room or the restaurants where Abbott and Credlin dined, including that cringeworthy famous account of how Credlin fed Abbott from her own fork, just one of many similar incidents that sparked rumours of an affair (dismissed by both of them) but which more imporantly framed the bizarre nature of their relationship.

Also particularly enjoyable are Savva’s own stoushes with Credlin over the things she wrote in her column in The Australian, which put a spotlight on all the bad decisions. Savva would receive spiteful, threatening text messages and on a number of occasions pressure would be applied to the newspaper’s then editor, Chris Mitchell to sack her. Mitchell stood firmly by his star writer, to the huge frustration of Credlin and Abbott who must have felt like they were taking friendly fire from a supposed ally in the Murdoch-owned broadsheet.

As for the chief criticism of The Road to Ruin: that neither Credlin or Abbott were given the right of reply, I think it’s a fair call. It’s a basic principle of good journalism that people be given the opportunity to respond to their accusers. This is particularly the case for Credlin in light of Savva’s very unsympathetic portrayal of her, which smacks in part of retribution.

However, there is nothing to suggest that Savva made anything up, indeed many people are quoted on the record, a very powerful aspect of her book.

Savva has strongly defended her decision not too seek responses from her two protagonists, saying she believed both have a big enough public platform to give their side of events, (and which has proved true).

“They can go out there any day, any night, any day of the week and say what they think happened or give their version of history, which, I might add, is completely at odds with almost everybody else’s version of what took place,” she said in an interview with the ABC.

If it’s a flaw, then its a very minor one in my opinion and does not distract much from what is elegantly written, finely paced political saga which is certain to become a classic of its genre.

Cheap goods, expensive real estate and the end of the Chinese economic miracle

bargain storeIt always amazed me how cheap products are in the numerous ‘Bargain’ shops on our busy high street in the cosmopolitan Melbourne suburb I live in.

Just how can you sell pots and pans, knives, gardening utensils and art supplies for just a few dollars and still make a profit?

The answer of course is: Made in China.

The mass industrialisation of China over the last few decades fuelled by a massive inflow of cheap migrant labor from rural villages has created the huge factories (and sweat shops) that produce all these products so incredibly cheaply.

This urbanisation of China has created its 1.3 million Chinese millionaires (projected to reach 2.3 million by 2020) and millions more middle-class Chinese that have helped fuel Australia’s biggest ever housing construction boom as well as push up the prices of prestige real estate in best suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne.

As a property journalist I have reported first hand on this huge wave of Chinese money being spent on Australian real estate and there is of course the many tales of money being flown into the country on private jets to pay in hard cash for multi-million dollar luxury property.

foreign investment in Australia real estate

But it’s these two extremes: mass production of cheap goods and aspirational wealthy and middle-classes that urbanisation has created that have combined, hand-in-glove, to bring about the end of the Chinese miracle and which rightly has Australian economists and global economists so jittery.

How has this happened: well the answer lies in a something called the ‘Lewis turning point’ (named after economist W. Arthur Lewis): a term used in economic development to describe a point at which surplus rural labor reaches a financial zero: in other words when productivity gains starts going backwards.

This is essentially what has happened in China: the wave of cheaper labour that propelled its extraordinary growth for decades  is coming to an end.

China’s population is ageing so there are fewer young workers to carry out the unskilled work plus, with urbanisation many young Chinese people don’t want to work on a factory line for a tiny wage: they want the fruits of economic prosperity – easy, high paying jobs with benefits.

Also impacting on China has been a drop in global demand for its goods, over production and other countries like Vietnam, India and Bangladesh being able to produce them more cheaply.

The end result: factory wages have doubled in the past 7 years, company profits have tumbled and many manufacturers are now looking to shift their factories from China to places like Vietnam  and India, which are much further down the economic development scale, and where they can employ people on much lower wages.

An excellent 15 minute video prepared by the Financial Times tells the story of how China is changing through the eyes of two people:

  • Yang Zonghou, a migrant worker from Hunan province who lost his job in a Japanese toy factory when it closed down last year and is now considering returning to his local village and family.
  • Ha Van Huy, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man who worked illegally for a while in a Chinese factory sewing the fabric layers for headphones and earning twice the salary he earned in Vietnam.

It seemed almost too incredible to fathom that Chinese factories are willing to employ illegal labour from Vietnam but this is indeed happening as “factories that powered the country’s growth for decades are being squeezed by a shortage of workers, rising wages and falling prices” the FT.com video shows.

As Yang Zhanghou explains, whereas in the past Chinese workers were happy to work hard and earn whatever they could, and send a bit back to their families, now  everyone wants easy jobs with benefits.

The factories won’t employ him because he is too old while at the same time the he says the villages are filling up with young people who are “choosing to be at home”.

So where does this leave countries like Australia: staring down the proverbial barrel.

This has already unfolded in the resources slowdown, which was fuelled by China’s previously insatiable demand for raw materials like iron ore, copper and aluminium which drove up commodity prices and generated record profits for Australia mining companies.

With the slowing Chinese economy, demand for these commodities has fallen – and so to have commodity prices as oversupply has set in. In February, the world’s biggest mining company, Australia’s BHP Billiton posted a $7.84 billion loss in its interim results.

Luckily a big drop in the Australian dollar has resurrected sectors like tourism, property and education, though all of them have become increasingly reliant on China’s emerging middle class to fuel their growth.

The FT.com documentary ends by warning that if the slowdown continues, it could force the whole world into a fresh economic crisis.

“If that does not happen, rising labour costs mean consumers will have to pay more for everything…Made in China.”

That of course could spell the end of the Bargain stores on my local shopping strip with their cheap goods.

But it seems an infinitely better option than a world-wide financial crisis.