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Twenty years ago my wife worked for a law firm in New York that considered itself the best on Wall Street. It was not an immodest boast. When we set up house together, I quickly learned that the kind of work she did involved a lot of partners, a few of whom seemed to be glued together with high stress fractures showing. She told me that they were under a lot of pressure. One mistake could mean millions.

Her job, as an associate, was to do whatever the partners thought needed doing and make sure the “deals” went smoothly. There were days she went to work and didn’t come home at all. I knew she was at the printer, tortuously reading the proof of some prospectus letter by letter. I never harbored any feelings of jealousy because I knew that for the partners, work was sex.

During the time that we were together in the Big Apple, I created pictures in my mind that took the place of those elusive personalities known as “partners.” At the time, with very few exceptions, they came in only one color and one sex. Suffice it to say, I could pass. They were smart, driven and sometimes very, very demanding. But they called the shots and made the critical decision that determined upward mobility. “Making partner,” becoming one of the anointed, was the whole point.

From the outside, it looked to me like the partners were wage slaves as much as anyone else. It’s just that the wages were very high. My wife insists that this is far too simplistic. But, to me they were phantoms, brilliant workaholics who were aging prematurely, and heading for early graves.

My wife and I were not yet married at that time. I don’t know what we called each other, but it was certainly not partner. Probably something along the lines of “significant other,” that absurd term of endearment that must have been dreamt up by a pop psychologist for a T.V. interview. Partners were other people.

Not long ago we attended a reunion for the alumni of that law firm. It was held in one of the cavernous halls of the Museum of Natural History in New York City. A full-size reproduction of a blue whale hung overhead and it did not seem disproportionally large in that room. We had booked into a shabby hotel off Union Square that catered to merchant sailors. We were downwardly mobile.

Since the event was black tie, I threw a raincoat over my tux to sneak out of the hotel inconspicuously. It had been awhile since my wife worked in New York and there were a lot of new faces. The photographer who was taking pictures may well have thought i was the illustrious partner, my wife the insignificant spouse. There were hundreds of handsome lawyers milling about like penguins underneath the giant whale with glittering spouses and others at their sides. The food and drink were fine and we enjoyed the evening.

the Wall Street

Little did we know that we would soon be heading down under, to partner land. In this sunburnt country the designations common to North American English do not apply. For some unfathomable reason, no one is known as husband, wife, fiancee, live-in boyfriend or girlfriend, spouse or significant other. Exes do exist. As if by common agreement, Aussies seem to insist that everyone you live with in some romantic relationship is a “partner.”

According to my pocket Oxford Australian dictionary, a partner is 1) one of a pair of people who do something together, 2) either member of a pair of a married or unmarried couple. I am dying to know how this peculiarity came about. If any of my Australian readers can enlighten me, please do.

As usual, your faithful correspondent remains completely in the dark. But he’s a happily married husband all the same.

There was a wacky and delicious moment in “Rainman” when Charlie’s autistic brother insists that they if must take an airplane from Chicago to L.A., they have to fly Qantas. By this point, Charlie, who is more than a little exasperated with his idiot/savant sibling, demands to know why they have to fly on that particular airline. Charlie’s logic is impeccable. Qantas doesn’t crash. The fact that they don’t fly from Chicago to L.A. is not his concern. He won’t get on a plane that doesn’t have a spotless safety record.

Many North Americans have warm and fuzzy feelings about Qantas that Australians don’t seem to share. Familiarity breeds contempt, and Australians have had 88 years to get overly familiar with the airline that began service as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited. Here, it is affectionately known as “The Flying Rat.”

Despite the ups and downs of the aviation industry, which has gone through more shake ups than a mob of kangaroos, Qantas has benefited enormously from a protectionist policy with regard to routes and landing rights. The collapse of Ansett Australia in 2001 saw the market share of Qantas shoot up to 90%. Only the entry of Virgin Blue, perennial labor disputes, fuel costs, and the increasing strength of the Australian dollar have dampened the outlook.

In response to Virgin, the company started a successful low-cost subsidiary of its own, JetStar. Qantas now flies to 81 destinations on 5 continents and has announced plans to expand to South America and Dubai. Since its privatisation in 1993, Qantas has been one of the most profitable airlines in the world.

So, why isn’t the CEO happy?

It’s a labor thing. There have been a baker’s dozen of labor disputes since 1989 alone, pilots, baggage handlers, flight attendants, maintenance workers, catering staff, more maintenance workers, still more maintenance workers and now, finally, engineers.

The recent threat of industrial action by the Australian Liscenced Aircraft Engineers Association seems to be the last straw for tough-minded Geoff Dixon. He’s not calling out the dogs, but he is, apparently, trying to do a Ronald Reagan on the Union. The company hired Newport Aviation to find replacement engineers, offering up to $100,000 for six months work. Strikebreakers.

ALEA is pursuing a wage claim of 5%, citing inflation. Qantas insists it can’t afford more than 3% a year. The airline currently commands 80% of the market share on flights between Australia and the U.S. In February, it doubled its first-half profit, posting a tidy $618 million, putting it on track for a record 1.4 billion. But Dixon has warned that the fuel bill for the 2008-2009 financial year could rise by more than a billion dollars.

Dixon makes no secret of his desire to move maintenance jobs offshore. Only government “blackmail” in the interest of saving Australian jobs has prevented him from doing so. Yesterday, the union backed down, calling off the threatened action. Dixon, who has run the company for eight years now, said that “he and Qantas are holding firm.”

Stay tuned. Qantas hasn’t crashed yet but there’s still time.

Even the briefest visit to Australia will make one thing blindingly obvious to the visitor: the most colorful people in this country are not rap musicians, artists, gay activists, pimps or drug dealers; they are the men and women who work with tools and trucks.

Anyone who drives a ‘ute” (utility vehicle), works at a construction site, paves a driveway, plants trees or darts up the sidewalk on a motorbike delivering the mail, (delivering anything for that matter), must be dressed in a shade of yellow, orange or green that would make a butterfly blush.

It’s a safety thing.

I’ve been told by one of my eccentric cycling companions that some tool users are very, very touchy about their tools. So, the colorful plumage may also be one way of saying, “back off, mate.” If the Aussie equivalent of Homer Simpson was in the middle of a nuclear meltdown, he could get very annoyed if a nuclear engineer attempted to plug his finger in the radioactive dyke. Working fingers only need apply. Preferably middle digits that have been used graphically on picket lines.

Not being a member of the working world, I am something of a loss when it comes to a topic such as this. It it does appear, however, that unions with a capital U have much more clout here than in in North America, where they have been decimated. Despite his increasing clout as a filmmaker and ballooning budgets, Michael Moore’s most powerful film is “Roger and Me,” which documents the devastation of of his hometown, Flint, Michigan, when General Motors moved its plant to Mexico.

Skilled, even unskilled workers in Australia have to be valued. There simply aren’t enough of them. Australia doesn’t share a porous border with a conveniently impoverished country, so it can’t count on cheap, expendable laborers to do the dirty work. To open up the country to willing workers from Asian countries would mean raising the red flag of immigration. We all know where that leads. One Pauline Hansen a decade may be more than enough, even for insular Australians.

But I’m getting off topic. Visibility and workplace safety are good things. When I am out on my recumbent bike in traffic I want to be seen by the driver on his mobile phone who may be completely oblivious to my presence. However, it does seem that the Workplace Safety people may have gone a bit overboard with the phosphorescent thing.

Could it be that the sheer numbers of workers wearing fluorescent clothing may, in fact, be having exactly the wrong effect, desensitizing the population through sheer overexposure? Can the collective retinal rods and cones of the Australian population absorb all this loud luminescence without tuning it out?

To me, grey flannel is starting to look good. Comments, anyone?

I’ve never plugged anything in these pages before, but I’m going to have to make an exception. The name of this post is the name of a film that I am “spruiking,” right here in River City. It came out last year and is available on DVD. Based on events that actually happened, even if they didn’t transpire the way a screenwriter would have wished. This is the sort of story that could have been easily ruined with a ham handed approach to character and plot. As it actually unrolls, there is magic in it.

It’s 1990 and an Indonesian fishing boat abandons a dozen Iraqi and Cambodian refugees on a remote Western Australian beach, promising them that a bus over the sandhills will soon come and take them to Perth. When the fishing boat sinks on its way home, the two people smugglers also end up in the empty outback. Most of the men are quickly caught, except for two of the asylum seekers and one of the fishermen. The three, Arun (Kenneth Moraleda), Youssif (Rodney Afif) and the fisherman Ramelan (Srisacd Sacdpraseuth), with nothing in common but their misfortune and determination, escape arrest and begin an epic journey through the deserted landscape. Laconically pursued by an army reservist unit, they bicker amongst themselves as they try to find a big town – like Broome or Perth – without the slightest idea of the distances involved.

Review by Louise Keller:
“It’s a buddy movie without buddies; a road movie without a road; a chase movie with nowhere to go. Lucky Miles is a unique Australian story, bringing together three fish-out-of water characters thrown together out of necessity. While the story about asylum-seeking refugees is political in nature, the result is compellingly entertaining as filmmaker Michael James Rowland injects wry humour into the dramatic situations. Striking remote Australian settings and diverse, engaging performances make this a film like no other.

When we first meet the group of Iraqi and Cambodian refugees who swim to the promise of a new life on the pristine sands of Western Australia, we have no idea what their future will hold. Central to the story is the plight of three outcasts who find their fates intertwined when the merciless desert offers no option. Iraqi engineer Youssif (Rodney Afif) who comes from Basra, a city of gardens and fountains, finds himself figuratively handcuffed to Arun (Kenneth Moraleda), a Cambodian in search of his Australian father, and to Indonesian fisherman Ramelan (Srisacd Sacdpraseuth), whose boat has sunk. Each is an outcast and together they battle the heat, isolation, lack of water and their constant irritation of each other. Their plight is fraught with misadventure, as is the plight of their pursuers (the army reserve crew of Kangaroo 4), and the two remaining crew from the boat.

Geoff Burton’s cinematography is outstanding as it immerses us into the wild grasses, the desolate sands, the rocky terrain and the flame-coloured skies. The tone projected is one that sardonically reflects the often tragically amusing plight of all the characters. We become involved in all of their lives as refugees, army reserve patrol members and boat crew find themselves at the mercy of the harsh Australian sun and the elements. This is a film worth discovering – just as its diverse characters discover their fate in a new country.”

Despite the desolate backdrop and the desperate characters, this is one that needs to be on your list. You may not be Down Under or have access to the quixotic Quikflix, but it is a must see film. I loved it.

This city is going through an existential crisis at the moment, but my last post was so heavy with angst I don’t feel like taking it on. The gist of it is, like all attractive, thriving destinations, Melbourne is being loved to death. It is growing at a rate of 1200 new people a week. It now has a population of 3.5 million. By 2030, it will approach 6 million, probably surpassing Sydney.

And this is a very, very, very spread out city, with a population density of just 1500 people per square km., compared to Paris at 3400 or London at 5100. It is rapidly eating up the surrounding countryside, generating new suburbs without the transportation infrastructure to support them. The Economist just named it as the 2nd most livable city in the world (right behind Vancouver), but it carbon footprint is that of Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The expansion on the outer edges is turning the metropolis into a bifurcated city of haves in the inner city (with access to the transport that is already in place), and have nots in the outer suburbs, reliant on increasingly expensive petrol to get to work. And so on.

But I was not going to write about that. I was going to write about Australians you have heard of, but probably don’t know are Australian. Errol Flynn, for example, born in Hobart, Tasmania in 1909. His early career as a gold prospector, plantation owner, slave recruiter and womanizer was nothing to brag about, but probably enhanced his stature when he hit Hollywood.

A photograph in a newspaper caught the eye of an Australian movie maker, who cast Flynn as Fletcher Christian in the 1933 epic, “In the Wake of the Bounty.” The success of that role led the Tasmanian to London and a role as Captain Blood, then his triumph, “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

He had the looks, the cocky attitude and a stunt man’s fearlessness to make his mark as a matinée idol. Onscreen, it was period pictures and a pairing with the lovely Olivia de Havilland. Offscreen, it was Don Juan in the flesh. Parties, orgies, drugs and alcohol. He set the lowest possible standard for all young hunks in Hollywood to follow. “In like Flynn” was coined to describe his innumerable erotic conquests.

His last great role was no stretch for him as an actor– he portrayed an alcoholic in Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” He died of a heart attack at the age of fifty.

Counterpoint– another very physical matinée idol, Jackie Chan. I’ll bet you thought he was from Hong Kong. He is, actually, but the Australians don’t mind claiming him as a native son. He was born in 1954 in Hong Kong, where his father worked as a chef at the French embassy. In 1962, both parents were offered employment at the American Embassy in Canberra.

The son remained behind for a few years, studying martial arts at the Peking Opera School. In the mid 70’s he came to Australia to live with his parents. He attended school, then worked on building sites, where he picked up the nickname that stuck with him for life, Jackie.

He had already caught the eye of film makers back in Hong Kong, however, He returned to the colony and made his breakout film, “Drunken Master.” In 1994, he made “Rumble in the Bronx,” and the rest is kung fu cinematic history.

Jackie made two films in Australia in the late nineties, “First Strike” and “Mr. Nice Guy,” and has often used post production facilities here to finish pictures. His mother died recently, but his father remains a resident.

Hugh Jackman, Heath Ledger, Toni Collette, Nick Cave, Bryce Courtenay, Peter Finch, Colin Friels, Rachel Giffiiths, George Miller, Morris West, Naomi Watts, Dame Joan Sutherland, Percy Grainger, Dame Melba, Helmut Newton, Guy Pearce, Havelock Ellis.

Just a sampling of Australians who found their way into the global awareness, at least in the West.  More power to them. It is time for bone dry antipodes to bloom.

I was driving back on the highway when I spotted the sign overhead. The words were big enough to be unmissable, followed by an 800 number. It was as if I temporary amnesia and woke up in a non-English speaking country at 110 kms an hour.  Dob a hoon?

Fortunately, there are any number of ‘strine’ (Austalian slang) dictionaries to consult, so I jumped on the computer.  Dob means to inform on somebody. A hoon is a hooligan. In this particular case I’m guessing that it refers to a guy who has recently been indicted for driving 250 kms an hour on the Hume highway.  In a Subaru, believe it or not.

It is odd that the authorities here feel that they have to encourage dobbing dangerous drivers, but then, this is an odd place, not dissimilar to Montana, the place I spent my early years. Montana has always been very attractive to outlaws, or ‘bushrangers’ in Australian terminology. Montanans do not ‘dob’ their neighbours, even if they know they have broken the law.

The man who came to be known as the ‘Unabomber’ holed up in Montana. He was turned in by his brother, not his neighbors. There is a deep-seated suspicion of authority, of anyone who wants to break the spirit of a man or put him behind bars. They call it ‘the last, best place.’

Like Americans, who transformed killers like Jessie James into heroes in the popular imagination, Australians have deified outlaws like Ned Kelly. In so doing, they have imbibed a dangerous mythology, one that almost encourages violence. The one redeeming difference is that in this country, at least, every man, woman and child does not own a handgun.

A young, Indian taxi driver was stabbed the night before last. The incident led to a protest by cabbies outside Flinders Street station, tying up traffic in the city for most of a day.

By mid-afternoon, the public transport minister agreed to the drivers’ request for safety screens. Half of the taxi drivers hail from India or Sri Lanka. Many are students, and it may be the only job they have in Australia. Drivers interviewed by the ‘Age’ reporter said they were robbed as often as once a week by drunk, belligerent passengers. Assaults are not uncommon. Many cited racism as a factor, but high alcohol intake is at its core.

A culture of binge drinking is the issue. It has been a serious problem since colonial days and continues to plague the land, especially among the Aborigines. Although natives of Detroit would find the level of danger in Melbourne trivial, the bars and clubs downtown have seen a troubling escalation in violence of late.

Authorities are finally attempting to tackle the issue. On April 28, a tax on the ready to drink alcoholic beverages known as ‘Alcopop’ was doubled, targeting the liquor that appeals mostly to young, female, underage drinkers. In June, a 2 AM lockout on pubs and clubs (covering four inner-Melbourne areas) will help put a stop to ‘venue hopping’, which seems to be a trigger for the surge in assaults.

I will surprised if it turns out that alcohol was not a factor in the tragic deaths of six young people in Sydney Harbour. Young people will always believe that they have to get drunk to have a good time. It’s time for their elders to stand up and say it simply isn’t so.

I think it is time to change the culture.  Too many lives have been lost already.

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