Here and there – Submission to Banking Royal Commission

[The following submission was made to the Royal Commission before hearings started.]

Auf wiedersehen, Fraulein Longmuir

I refer two letters to NAB, my previous banker, that are set out at the end of this note.  Those letters refer to acts of what I would describe as misconduct by a bank – and I don’t think threatening to renege on bank cheque can be dismissed as mere discourtesy.  I offer the following observations, based in part on the conduct referred to in the letters, but mainly on a lifetime in dealing with banks – and acting for and against them.

  1. My father and mother, Mac and Norma Gibson, had banked with a NAB predecessor, CBC, throughout their married life. Miss Longmuir at Queen Street looked after them in my lifetime until I married.  Those days are long gone, and my two letters to Mr Clyne were in large part a lament for their passing.
  2. Shortly after the incidents referred to, I wished to change my will. Before the bank produced it, they demanded payment of arrears of storage.  So much for two generations of patronage.  This was too much for me, and I terminated the connection.
  3. I now bank with Bendigo. Although I do a lot on computer (and COMMSEC looks after my super), I enjoy going to the Kyneton branch of the Bendigo Bank, and talking to real, live human beings.  I actually got to speak to an account manager who knew what she was talking about – and who wasn’t stitched up by parroted bumpf about bank ‘products.’  Too many bank employees soon convince you that you have arrived at the perimeter of their safe knowledge.  And, if you are a lawyer, you might then wonder just how forensically vulnerable they may be because of their lack of understanding.
  4. My super fund has shares in Bendigo and the big four – except for NAB. I first got into them because a mate who was a stockbroker said to me that banks might generate returns to shareholders by doing the very things that so annoy us as customers.
  5. The truth is that the big four are a kind of oligarchy or protected species. They’re like koalas, but they’re not loveable.  The government protects them by a regime that would surely provoke anti-trust inquiries elsewhere.  And you and I get to stand behind them as de facto   You would therefore expect them to have a decent sense of community, if not gratitude.
  6. Although I am reasonably happy as a bank shareholder, I feel very squeamish about being a party to the payment of huge salaries – say, twenty times what we pay High Court judges – to people who earn about 100 times what they pay their tellers, and whose bonuses may turn on how many of those tellers they sack. On reflection, ‘squeamish’ is not nearly strong enough.  I am revolted.  It’s like being a resident of Dachau in 1936 and looking the other way.  (And when I went there in 1966, the residents were still skittish about acknowledging that they knew where the concentration camp was.)
  7. I was initially against conferring another Christmas bunfight upon lawyers with an inquiry like this, but one thing in particular changed my mind. People in the financial press were fond of talking about the ‘culture’ of banks.  Some, including those who should know better, said that the culture of a bank was a matter for the CEO.  They were incandescently wrong about that as a matter of law.  The board of directors may be able to delegate powers, but they cannot absolve themselves of their legal responsibility.  I got an uneasy feeling that too many bank directors didn’t know what they were there for.
  8. The fallacy about the responsibility for culture is in my view related to the shift in powers in major corporates over the last generation or so. The law says point blank that the ‘business of a company is to be managed by or under the direction of the directors.’  As best I can see, too many boards now act as glorified audit committees and leave the running of the bank to the CEO and management.  They need to be reminded – in neon lights – that they, the directors, are as a matter of law responsible for every aspect of the management of the business of the bank.  They are not there just to pick up their pay cheque, and check their insurance policies.
  9. I am told by someone who has been much closer to banks than me that the problem is compounded when too many bank directors do not know enough about the business of banking. Smart managers can then sell them pups.  If you see a lawyer on a bank board, ask them how they would feel about a bank manager running a law firm.
  10. But one fallacy should not lead to another. The directors are not answerable to their shareholders alone, and the bottom line of profit is not their ultimate aim or justification.  People succeed in business when other people want to do business with them.  When we speak of the worth or value of a business, we often refer to ‘goodwill.’  In substance that is the willingness of people to keep doing business with that entity.  That goes for fish ‘n’ chip shops, service stations, hairdressers and banks.
  11. We know that the term ‘goodwill’ can be difficult for accountants and lawyers, but most of those difficulties are avoided in public companies. A market value is put on each item of ownership of the company or each loan instrument that it issues as another way of raising capital.  In the result, the market sets one way of looking at the value of a publicly listed bank.
  12. That may lead to a sense of security in the directors of banks that is misplaced. How much actual goodwill do banks have with or from their customers?  How many of us enjoy doing business with our banks and want to keep going back to them?  In my experience, very few of us would happily say ‘yes’.  My impression is that the standing of banks with their own customers and with the community at large has been on the slide for at least two generations.
  13. On any view, the low opinion that most Australians hold about their banks should suggest to the directors of those banks that they have not been managing their business properly. Perhaps those directors might stop being sated by figures, even whoppers, and concentrate on intangibles.  In colloquial terms, there is more to being a bank director than counting beans.
  14. May I give an example of how distrust of the big four banks operates? My super fund is in part invested in four banks.  I only hold shares.  I will not deal in bonds, in part because I accept the advice of Mr Buffett not to invest in something I don’t understand, and in part because dealers in bonds seem to me to be the worst of a bad lot.  Nor would I go near bank hybrids.  Why not?  There is too much gobbledegook in the fine print, and frankly I would not trust one of the big banks to do what I would regard as ‘the right thing’ if things turned sour.
  15. As it seems to me, one fundamental question facing the directors of our banks is as follows. In the year of Our Lord 2018, can you acquit yourselves of meanness to your staff, indifference to your customers, and a failure to give back to Australians by saying ‘But we are making buckets of money’?
  16. There are many reasons why the duties of bank directors extend well beyond looking after the bottom line. As I mentioned, these banks are owned and guaranteed by millions of Australians.  They are protected by our government.  These facts of our communal life have allowed banks to lead a sheltered, even cloistered, lifestyle which may well have soothed their directors into apathy.
  17. But community attitudes to large corporations have changed in the space of one generation. The GFC properly put the fear of God into a lot of people, including me.  Many people, including me, are angry that more of the malefactors are not doing time for their role in bringing the whole world to the brink.  We were told that some of these constructs of greed were too big to fail, and that we, through our governments, had to intervene to save them.  For this relief, we don’t appear to be receiving much thanks.
  18. This apparent immunity of those directing what should have been failed businesses is another aspect of the lesion of inequality that corrodes our community. After the GFC, many people feared and distrusted big corporates in equal measure.  This fear brought to mind something that the late Mr Justice Smith told me about what ordinary people thought about judges.  His Honour said that the average bloke looked on judges as being not far removed from coppers – they were people who had power and who might, unless you were careful, do you some kind of harm.
  19. It’s not just that people pay less respect to big business – paradoxically, they now expect much more from it. We saw it with the willing participation of many corporations in the marriage equality debate (even if this was above the pay level of some of our thicker politicians).  We see it now in the guns debate in the U S where, as with climate change, some corporates are accepting responsibility for communal welfare, in default of decent government.  We can see it with the #MeToo movement.  Mark Shields of The Boston Globe (and PBS) said that corporates are learning that they can no longer be morally neutral.  I think he’s right and that the change is fundamental.
  20. And all that’s before you get to the legal obligations of banks as employers, and as institutions that hold positions of trust and confidence with their customers. Here, too, things are much in flux.
  21. About thirty years ago I was acting for a bank with the late Brian Shaw, QC in a matter that got to the High Court. I think it was one of those cases where a farmer had borrowed in Swiss Francs and taken a huge hit.  As best I can recall it, the trial judge had taken a shine to the cocky – but certainly not to us.  In talking with Brian, whom I greatly admired, I made a mistake that I wouldn’t make now.  ‘Brian, the banks get very jittery about being lumbered as fiduciaries.’  I got one of those angular, quizzical looks.  ‘Do they deny, then, Geoff, that they owe obligations of confidence and secrecy to their customers?’  That served me right for using a weasel word that is attractive to people who like going round in circles.  (And after all, even Swiss banks learned of the price they were paying for aiding and abetting crooks.)
  22. Two points come out of that case. The law says that directors and other employees owe their companies duties that are described as fiduciary – such as obligations of good faith, and avoiding conflicts of interest and duty.  The time is I think coming when that traffic will cease to be so one-way.  I am aware that there is some dispute about this in the cases, but I think that the arid rigour of the syllogism will soon surrender to what Oliver Wendell Holmes called ‘the felt necessities of the time.’
  23. One example might come when a bank learns that an employee poses an unacceptable risk as a predator to other employees. Another will surely come when the bank accepts that an advisory service it offers puts it, and its staff, in a hopeless position of conflict.  It is in my view likely that big corporates will find themselves under a legal obligation not to leave their staff compromised.  I will deliberately leave the language as loose as that.  The corporates are liable for the wrongs of their employees but, at least for the most part, the employee may have a personal liability to the victim.  There may also be an issue of moral responsibility.  People who think that the law has nothing to do with morals are dead wrong.
  24. There have already been marked changes in the general law relating to the duties of banks. Take the Swiss Franc cases in the eighties.  At one time or other, I acted on different sides while these cases were in vogue.  Customers of banks, many on the land, complained that they had been lured into borrowing in Swiss Francs by bankers who had not adequately explained the risks inherent in such a course.  Many of those borrowers got badly burnt.  They then sued the bank.  At bottom, one business person was saying to another: ‘When we entered into this contract, you knew more about this kind of transaction and the risks inherent in it, and because of your superior position, you owed me a legal duty to inform me of those risks before signing me up.  Had you discharged that duty, I would not have gone on with the deal.  It’s therefore only right that you should bear the loss.’  When such a proposition was first uttered, it sounded heretical – and not just as a matter of law.  Capitalism is built over the graves of dead competitors.  But most of the time, the farmer got up, either by verdict or compromise.
  25. There were I think two reasons for this. First, most litigation falls to be determined, thank heaven, by what lawyers call the merits.  If you go into a court room where a bank is confronting a man of the land whose life work it has written off in a deal that now looks as dodgy as Bitcoin, it will not be long before you detect which way the breeze is blowing in that court.  Banks rarely get to kick with the wind.  The best that they can do is take solace, if that’s the term, from the gorgeous nicety of the language of Lord Devlin.

The fact that juries pay regard to considerations which the law requires them to ignore is generally accepted…It is, for example, generally accepted that a jury will tend to favour a poor man against a rich man: that must be because at the bottom of the communal sense of justice there is a feeling that a rich man can afford to be less indifferent to the misfortunes of others than a poor man can be.

  1. Secondly, counsel for the farmer was often able to say to counsel for the bank, something like: ‘Having seen your branch manager’s diary notes, I have no doubt you will not be calling him to give evidence. Nor will your people want to see any of it on the front page of the local paper.  The poor bloke didn’t know what he was doing.  He wouldn’t know the difference between a Swiss Franc and a Swiss tart.’
  2. This kind of problem suggests a vulnerability of big corporates generally. Those at the top know how to look after themselves.  They are trained in various techniques involving what might be called massaging.  Those who actually deal with people over the counter are far more vulnerable.  As I indicated above, you can often see this if you get to talk to a fellow human at a bank.  You sense that they are all at sea as soon as they go off script about the ‘product’ that they are trying to flog.  I referred to some examples in my letters to Mr Clyne.  Such people could undergo real pain and cause real hurt to their employer in the witness box.  You don’t have to be a member of the Smorgon family to know that the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
  3. The late Neil McPhee, QC had a better nose for the currents of the law than any lawyer I have known. I was talking to him about the forensic susceptibility of the banks that had let people down, and he shared this insight with me.  ‘Geoff, I have been involved in a number of cases for and against banks.  I have examined and cross-examined economists and other experts about fluctuations in currency markets – what’s called volatility.  These experts have established, to my complete intellectual satisfaction, that there is no rational basis on which anyone, no matter how smart or wise, can predict fluctuations in currency markets.  But I cannot help thinking that many of the promotions of the banks to their customers are somehow premised on an implied assertion that some people can predict such fluctuations.  Any such assertion must be false.’  It seemed to me then, as it does now, that such an argument must have weight.  And woe unto the lawyers who are charged with framing, and then defending, the disclaimer.

They are the issues I would to raise for the consideration of this commission.  I am sorry that this letter is so very long.  I can only say that the issues appear to me to be of substance.

I hope that this commission will encourage the directors of banks to seek to recover the trust of their customers and the respect and decent careers of their staff.  Mac and Norma are long gone, but is it too late to aspire to the return of Miss Longmuir?

We may not get the Domesday Book from this royal commission – but neither will we need the great F W Maitland to decipher it.

Yours truly,

Geoffrey Gibson

14 Breakneck Road,

Malmsbury

Victoria, 3446.

  1. I am known to the commissioner, but I don’t think that fact precludes my making these comments to the commission.

ATTACHMENTS

23 March 2012

Mr Cameron Clyne
Chief Executive Officer
National Australia Bank
Reply Paid 2870
MELBOURNE, VIC.  8060

Dear Mr Clyne

SALES TEAM D

You don’t know me.  Neither do any of your employees.  Since you have been my banker for 60 years, I think that that is very sad.  Don’t you think that is very sad, Mr Clyne?

When I bought my present house, I was subjected to treatment by some of your operatives that in part caused me to write the attached paper on ‘The Decline of Courtesy and the Fall of Dignity.’  You will see that your bank has the misfortune there to be compared to Telstra and Qantas.  That is not good company to be in, Mr Clyne.  The part that really got me was the threat – that is exactly what it was – to pull the pin – that was the phrase – on a bank cheque.  Your staff could give a customer a heart attack threatening to do that to them on the day that they are settling on a house purchase.  A bank threatening to renege on its own paper?  It is hard to imagine a better example of how banks have lost their way – how once respectable business houses have now become unrespectable counting houses.

Being minded to move home, I thought I should confirm my leeway with your bank before making an offer.  I drew Sales Team D in the lottery.  I said I was happy to go to your Kyneton Branch and talk face to face, but, no, Sales Team D told me they were on top of my case.

Your staff can fill you in on the sad results, Mr Clyne.  I had to prove my identity – at least twice.  Sad after 60 years, is it not?  The property I am looking at is worth under half of a city property that I can offer for security.  The increase to the existing facility is modest.  For any bank that knew me as its customer, and wanted to look after me, the proposed transaction would hardly raise a query.  Not so with Sales Team D, Mr Clyne.  I was required to produce tax returns, and then told I would have to surrender one credit card and submit to a reduction on the remainder.  I began to feel for the people of Greece.  Now, Sales Team D wants to go beyond the tax returns, and I now have two accountants wondering just what has got into Sales Team D.

How would you or your fellow directors like it if they were treated like this by someone they have been doing business with for ten minutes, let alone 60 years?  In the course of more than 40 years’ legal practice, I have held various statutory appointments, including running the Taxation Division of the AAT, later VCAT for 18 years.  Some people – including Her Majesty the Queen in right of the State of Victoria – therefore felt able to take me at my word.  But not Sales Team D.  Do you know why, Mr Clyne?  My bank does not know who I am.

Perhaps they are worried about my recent expenditure on credit cards.  Let me assure you, Mr Clyne, so was I.  Very worried and very annoyed.  I bought a CLK Mercedes about six months ago at a very good price.  I just needed to extend a borrowing facility by six thousand to get the $26,000.  I got handballed around four operatives, having to prove my identity along the way.  I got referred to various teams.  Most asked my occupation.  (Sales Team D the other day asked if I was still a member of a firm I left about ten years ago and which ceased to exist the other day.)  I was told my case was difficult because the facility was secured.  Then I was asked to produce tax returns to support a request to extend a secured facility by six thousand dollars.  That is when I gave up, and used the credit card to buy the Mercedes.

I do not blame any of the few employees you have left.  They are trained – programmed – to be automated and not to think.  They also know that the market, which can never be wrong, values their contribution to the bank at about one hundredth of yours.

Do you know what I think, Mr Clyne?  George Orwell was wrong.  It is not big government that is tearing up the fabric of our community by Big Brother – it is Big Money, and Big Corporations.  I think that you and your fellow directors should be ashamed of yourselves.

If it matters, I hold shares in the bank, and I am not a happy shareholder either.

Yours sincerely

Geoffrey Gibson

 

3 April 2012

Mr Cameron Clyne
Chief Executive Officer
National Australia Bank
Reply Paid 2870
MELBOURNE, VIC, 8060.

Dear Mr Clyne,

SALES TEAM D

Well, they did it for you.  Sales Team D – may we just call them STD for short? – stopped me from buying the new home that I wanted.  It was not perfect – it was just ideal.  Ideal for me, Mr Clyne.  But, then, what is a mere home to someone like me to a great Australian banker?

How did STD manage to pull it off, you may ask, Mr Clyne?  Quite simply really.  They did not know me, and they did not know what they were doing.  This all became sadly but inevitably apparent when a roaming STD cell-commandant opened his phone talk with me after my first letter to you with the gambit that my problem was that I had overstated my income.  Really, Mr Clyne, your attack-dogs and flak-catchers would want to be on the highest level of dental insurance if they want to go around behaving like that.  No wonder you forbid them to meet your customers in the flesh.

But I suppose that the ADs and FCs of STD kept you safe from my letter.  You would prefer to stay like Achilles gleaming among his Myrmidons, except that you would not stay sulking in your tent – no, you would be glowing over all that lucre.

You and the people at STD are a real threat to business in this country, Mr Clyne.  You should be helping the flow of capital.  The big Australian banks are doing just the reverse.

And you should really stop those ads that tell the most dreadful lies.  Lies like your people are free to make decisions, or that the big banks like competition.  Nothing could be further from the truth, Mr Clyne.  The people at STD know that they are forbidden to think, much less make decisions, and STD shut up shop completely, and have been in a surly sulk ever since I told them I was talking to another bank.  (Although they did ring the other bank to inquire – without my consent – about what I was doing.)  The major Australian banks are just a collusive cartel operating sheltered workshops that rely on the people of Australia to bail them out whenever they balls it up – and then they pass on their guilt and paranoia to those same people by refusing to lift a finger for their customers when they need a bank.

Those people do not hold your staff responsible for the shocking fall in the standards of our banks, Mr Clyne.  They hold you and your like responsible.  You do after all get paid about one hundred times as much as the folk of STD.

If you and your board step outside your cocoon of moolah, minders, and sycophants, you will not find one Australian – not one – that has a kind word for any of you.  What all those people should do to the big banks is to take their business elsewhere.  That is what I will do.  You never know, Mr Clyne, I may meet a real person in the flesh, one who might know what they are doing, and who will even know who I am.

Yours sincerely,

Geoffrey Gibson

No answer came the firm reply.

Passing Bull 90  –  The Validation Fallacy

 

Does the election of Donald Trump entail that his policies have been validated in some way?  No.  His winning the election means that he did well enough, without winning the popular vote, to be first past the post.  Even if he had won the popular vote, that would not in some way validate his policies.  His win means that more people preferred his case to that of his opponent.  It is like the result of a civil action heard by a jury.  Their verdict does not say what happened in fact – it says that on the balance of probabilities (say, 51 to 49)  they preferred the case of one side to that of the other side.  For this purpose, the jury represents the nation, and in each case the verdict is inscrutable.  We do not enquire about what passed in the jury room, and we have only the haziest notion of what went through the minds of some voters.  For example, we don’t know how many people voted for Donald Trump or against his opponent, but he doubtless got a lot of votes from people who disliked both him and his policies but who disliked even more both his opponent and her policies.

So, Trump has what is called a ‘mandate,’ which the Compact OED says is ‘the authority to carry out a policy regarded as given by the electorate to a party or candidate that wins an election.’  If he has the numbers in all the right places, he can turn his policies into law; if he does not, the mandate evaporates.  The process can get muddy where there are two houses of parliament, or where the executive branch is completely separate from the legislative branch, but in any event the result of an election does not say anything about the validity or goodness of the policies of the winner.  For example, the policies of Adolf Hitler were evil before he became Chancellor, and they remained evil after he became Chancellor.  If anything, they were more evil, because he then had the power to implement them.  But otherwise, the result of the election does not bear on the worth or validity of the policies, and it is wrong to say that people objecting to or protesting against those policies are rejecting or casting doubt on the results of the election.  If you believe that abortion is morally wrong, it does not become morally right just because your side loses an election.

Questions about the legal validity of the election process are of a different order.  An election may be invalid as a matter of law if a mandatory legal process has not been followed.  But the election does not become legally invalid just because the discussion was disturbed undesirably – by, say, the covert action of a foreign power, or the overt action of a government office, either of which obviously helped one side over another – unless that disturbance is itself unlawful, and the law entails that any breach of that law makes the election invalid.  If that extreme case arose, it would not be a case of awarding the win to the runner-up – there would have to be a new election.

These distinctions have not been observed by either side of politics here or in the U S.  People want to say that the policies of Trump are beyond criticism because he won.  That is just wrong for the reasons given, and its wrongness is now demonstrated by the fact that Trump fervently spruiks it.  Trump is what is called a populist who was popular enough to get enough of the popular vote to win.  People can then make their own assessment of the contribution of this exercise in populism to Western civilisation.

In 1936, the two most popular leaders in the world were probably Adolf Hitler and F D Roosevelt – although Hitler, like Trump, did not I think get to 50% in a straight out election contest.  Hitler probably had a higher approval rating than Roosevelt, but both he and his policies remained what they were.

While Trump gets less presidential every day, his assault on truth, sense and courtesy is disorienting the best.  The Wall Street Journal savaged the Muslim ban bit said this:

The larger problem with the order is its breadth. Contrary to much bad media coverage, the order is not a “Muslim ban.” But by suspending all entries from seven Muslim-majority nations, it lets the jihadists portray the order as applying to all Muslims even though it does not. The smarter play would have been simply to order more diligent screening without a blanket ban.

 Is the argument that if there are 15 Muslims in a room, and you only ban 10 of them from leaving it, then you have not imposed a Muslim ban?  That is a simple non sequitur.  And what do the last three words ‘a blanket ban’ mean?

No wonder the bad guys think that all their birthdays have come at once.  A declaration of war on Islam is a gift to them beyond price.

As to the infamous phone call, where the spoiled child became a rabid dog, there are three questions.  If I do a deal with BHP, that is what it is, and a change in governance does not affect it – why is it not the same with a deal with the U S?  Secondly, if the deal is open to renegotiation, will Trump, who doesn’t go for win/win, want troops or warships from us?  Thirdly, what does it tell you about the White House that they think this leak would be good for Trump, including the nonsense about the vote and the crowd?  What does it say about their view of their base?

Well, as Carlyle said of the French Revolution, ‘every dog has his day, even a rabid dog.’

This month’s poet of the month means that the poems of my colleague Chris Wallace-Crabbe have been sandwiched between the poetry of Virgil and Dante.  That’s my doing, not his.

Poet of the month: Dante, The Inferno, Canto 1.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

But after I had reached a mountain’s foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders
Vested already with that planet’s rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.

Cambridge –a big night out

 

It was like a Breughel painting.  A graphic Hades.

The last time I came to Cambridge for one of these summer schools, people were invited to arrive on the Sunday, since courses start at 9 am on Monday, and some bastard forgot to open the bar.  There was ill feeling.  There was serious ill feeling, and some very rude remarks about the English.

Today, Sunday evening, I was assured by the porter at Selwyn College that the bar would be open at 6 pm.  A Presbyterian sense of determinism led me to the off licence to buy some insurance.

Sure enough, as I got near the bar at the appointed time, the porter told me that the bar would not be open tonight.  She suggested that I show for dinner at half six.  I repaired to my room and consoled myself with the insurance of the bottle shop.  I was annoyed.  One of the reasons I have gone to Oxford and Cambridge – the choice of tense is not accidental – was to enjoy the company of people who know they have a lot to learn.  I have done about half of a dozen at each, and I know something of what is on offer.

So, at half six, I approached the appointed place at the college hall not expecting grace in Latin, or at all, as I used to get at Maddingley Hall, but a reasonable meal with reasonable wine in good company.  My heart miss-gave as I heard a racket emerging from the hall.  I could recall eating in the hall.  It is one of those stately halls garbed in timber, but it has some modern portraits of people who look frankly fascist, and a column embraced proscenium where you think some impeccably dressed white gentleman might do something unfortunate to a goat.  Tonight the hall could have hosted a pregame function for Man-U.

It was choc-full, like a footy crowd, with cafeteria service.  Start with the pudding, Dear, then choose between ravioli and roast chicken, and you can add chips, and one of those little bottles of sham red with little round glasses that you used to get on TAA in the fifties.  Which you pay extra for – remember, Ducky, the bar’s shut.

I bore my tray to a spot where I spied some room for my plate, and wine, as unworthy as they both were, and I sat down.  When one of a group of aquiline matrons told me that there was no cutlery in my spot.  I recall now it was the end of the table.  I was – really – minded to ask whether she had adored Jefferson to utter such a self-evident truth, but I was morbidly preoccupied by wondering whether the excision under her bottom lip had been transposed to the top of the nose.  Before she moved away – not without ostentation – she told me that that since I had been to Cambridge before, she might tell me that people had previously been seated in the hall by reference to their standing, or words to that effect, but that that rule had been recently relaxed.  She just wanted me to know that I was in a state of grace.  But that I should know better.

I fled.

Now, this kind of balls-up happens.  And we chuckle about it after a few drinks, and we try to put the outrage to good use.  That which does not kill us makes us better, some say.

The whole overturn now going on in the West refutes that silly saying.  As does the decline and fall of the Roman Empire – or anybody that whose time is up.

This balls-up at Selwyn College was an outrage.  This insolence of office is not good enough.  And it is a terrible symptom of our times.  People who should know better are just failing us – and the revenge of the losers looks frightful.  If this kind of insult can be put on us at Selwyn College, Cambridge, what hope have we?

My late father – God bless him – told me that he was used to being insulted, but that he preferred to be insulted by experts.  Tonight I learned again what Mac meant.

Passing bull 49 – Et tu, Gove, and Nordic noir

 

There is so much bull in the UK fiasco, but Dante would have to have created a new circle at the very bottom of hell to accommodate Michael Gove.  It is too distressing to talk about, so I will mention some bull of a lighter nature.

Nordic noir is fashionable.  One competent exponent is Anne Holt.  She lives in Oslo.  I just read her thriller Dead Joker.  The lead character is a woman in the police of high rank who lives with her partner.  At a critical time in an investigation, and in the lives of various parties, she goes to bed with one of her officers – who happens to be a man.  He has already generated a number of bastards from prior unions, but he is about to marry the most recent mother – who is also a police officer.  His boss was slated to give the speech of the best woman.  It may have caused something of a stir if she had had to confess that she had been made pregnant by the groom.

They apparently got themselves into this frightful fix when at least one of them became entranced by music.  It was a piano concerto.  It was said to be by Schubert.  The trouble is that so far as I know, Schubert never wrote a piano concerto.  I bet that the author was thinking of Brahms’ second piano concerto, the third movement.  It is as beautiful a piece of music as I have heard.

Whether it is powerful enough to achieve the effects here described might I suppose be an accident of history.  But if you want to test the issue get the version by Claudio Arrau with Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  It is a recording of surpassing beauty.  I’m due to visit Stockholm and Oslo shortly, but I will leave that recording home, for fear of unsettling the natives.

Poet of the month: Keats

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific – and all his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise –

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Finally, the people of Victoria get a chance to vote tomorrow for the CFA in what is clearly a federal issue.  I urge all people – whether in the bush or not – to vote to save the CFA.  And like the O’Connells of old in Richmond – vote early, vote hard, and vote often.

Passing Bull 42 – Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Refugees and Us

 

Many people outside Australia want to come to it because they are threatened or oppressed in their own country.  They are prepared to risk death to do so.  We say that their attempts to come here are illegal – unless they can afford to fly – and we use our navy to stop them.  We then justify our stopping them by saying that we have saved them from the risks of the voyage.  We are doing these people a favour.  Then we lock them up in lands that are brutal or corrupt or both.  We employ private institutions to do our SS work.  And we wait for the refugees to start burning themselves to death.

Have I missed something or is this why I will be again reminded in Cambridge that Australians are pariahs in Europe?  This is not just bullshit.  It is not just an offence against the mind.  The offence is against humanity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer made the following remarks at the beginning of 1943 after he had been many years in a Nazi jail.  They look to me to apply to Australia word for word in its attitudes to refugees in 2016.  Has ever such a rich country been so utterly mean?

There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity.  We know quite well that we have no right to do so, and that it would lead us into the most sterile relation to our fellow men.  The following thoughts may keep us from such a temptation.  It means that we at once fall into the worst of blunders of our opponents.  The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of him.  Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves.  We often expect from others more than we are willing to do ourselves.  Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability?  We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer…..

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical.  Are we still of any use?  What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.  Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?

When I look with disgust on the sloganeering dope and the dull thug who have been in charge of this cruelty to people worse off than us, I am deeply ashamed of my own complicity.  What is the difference between me and the citizen of Munich who preferred to look the other way when Dachau was mentioned?

Poet of the Month: A D Hope

The Pleasure of Princes

What pleasures have great princes?  These: to know

Themselves reputed mad with pride or power;

To speak few words – few words and short bring low

This ancient house, that city with flame devour;

 

To make old men, their father’s enemies,

Drunk on the vintage of the former age;

To have great painters show their mistresses

Naked to the succeeding time; engage

 

The cunning of able, treacherous ministers

To serve, despite themselves, the cause they hate,

And leave a prosperous kingdom to their heirs

Nursed by the caterpillars of the state;

 

To keep their spies in good men’s hearts: to read

The malice of the wise, and act betimes;

To hear the Grand Remonstrances of greed,

Led by the pure; cheat justice of her crimes;

 

To beget worthless sons and, being old,

By starlight climb the battlements, and while

The pacing century hugs himself for cold,

Keep vigil like a lover, muse and smile,

 

And to think, to see from the grim castle steep

The midnight city below rejoice and shine:

‘There my great demon grumbles in his sleep

And dreams of his destruction, and of mine.’

Why is Telstra so cruel? Another capitalist nightmare

 

I am writing this on my third attempt to tell Telstra that their service has failed yet again.  I am without email or the internet.  I tried late last night but after twenty minutes the connection – with Telstra – just failed.  I tried again at 6.30 this morning.  The computer said that the wait time was fourteen minutes.  After forty three I had to give up to keep an appointment.  This time, the third, the computer said that the wait time was more than twenty minutes.  At least the computer has given up lying.  It is more honest than the dreadful bastards who run this rogue outfit.  Telstra has succeeded in being ruder to its customers than Qantas.  That is a fearful indictment.

As the butcher at Castlemaine said, if we ran a business like this, we would not have a business.  It is not just a business matter – decent people would not inflict this kind of vulgarity if not cruelty on other people because that kind of conduct is just plain immoral.

How are Telstra permitted to get away with a cruel indifference to people that reminds me so much of the cruel indifference that Communist regimes show to their people?  The only answer I can think of is that they have inherited a virtual monopoly that enables them to do what they like.  And overpay themselves massively.  They are the archetypal 800 pound gorilla.

Those dreadful galahs that pose as directors of this rogue outfit, and line their pockets as they go, should be required to make at least one of these calls a day.  They would then cure themselves of their own criminality within a week.

You have to wonder what it is about Australia that allows us to breed and raise people who are prepared to be so rude and cruel to other Australians.  Our love affair with mediocrity is one thing – but this is downright bastardry.  And what happens to people who have to be able to rely on these crooks to run their own business – as I do?  Must we all just get sucked down into their gutter?

And now here is the worst part.  I own shares in these bastards – I therefore get ripped off at both ends.

If you ever get to read this note, normal service will have been restored.  This call – the third – is past twenty minutes and climbing.  If we stay on the graph, it could be well over an hour – or I may just be despatched to oblivion.

Why ever did we give up those decent honest people at the PMG?  At least then we could complain to our local member.

PS After about thirty minutes, I got through on the third attempt.  I will not reflect on the man who sounded a long way away – gone are the days when NBN calls were taken at Townsville – for fear of reprisals, but he said a technician would have to call.  I explained I needed to be connected urgently for business reasons, and after another unconscionably long delay, he said that a technician would arrive this afternoon in a four hour window.  He would ring first.

Well, how silly would you have to be to believe anything these bludgers said?  I had mentioned to my overseas consultant, whose English was as shaky as his grasp of technology, that there had been grievous delays in my getting help.  He apologised and gave me a reference number to quote and said that he would enable me to duck the queue if I needed any more help.  My heart sank a bit when he said he would email me – my inability to get emails was the reason I was speaking to him. That might give rise to what some might call an ontological dilemma, or existential quandary.  We agreed that SMS might be more efficacious.  Things were looking up.

In fairness to Telstra, they rang at 4.25 – 35 minutes before the window closed – to say that because this was the weekend, they would not be able to get someone to me today, but would I like to see one tonight or Monday?  I explained that I had just fixed the problem.

How had I pulled that miracle off?  I recalled that I had made a note in my little black telephone book of a technique taught to me, I think, by the people in Townsville.  Even idiots like me start by switching everything off.  They had told me, as I found I had noted, to switch off the NBN connection at the wall, turn it back on, then insert a pin into the reset access point at the rear of the modem until all of the lights go out – and then go to your knees and pray.  Fervently.  I did that and – Lo!  After some Hithcockian sputtering, it spun into life, and I was back in touch with the world!

It would of course be silly to suggest that that simple advice should have been given to me shortly into my first call by someone whose tone commands confidence.  No – first the mug buyer has to endure another nightmare.  Alternatively, why as a shareholder should I have to foot the bill for a technician to call after hours when the problem could and should have been dealt with on the phone within ten minutes of my picking it up?

Perhaps we might set up a charitable refuge –

REFUGEES FROM TELSTRA.