Harry Brown: A journey back into darkness

When Len (David Bradley) asks Harry (Michael Caine) “Have you ever killed anyone?” and Harry responds with “You can’t ask me that”, we see a man who has emerged from the darkness of his time as a Marine in Northern Ireland.

He now spends his life playing chess with Len in his local pub. He has locked all his experiences of Northern Ireland deep inside. We see a glimpse of it in the scene where he tortures the young gang member.

Len and Harry play chess in the local pub

Len and Harry play chess in the local pub

There is long slow buildup in the film that shows the brutal decline of the estate that Harry lives on and its impact, not only on Harry, but also on the lives of everyone who lives there. The estate is dominated by a teenage gang that terrorizes the locals and against whom the local police appear powerless.

Harry is unable to get to the hospital in time to see his dying wife because he is frightened to use the subway where the gang members attack and harass the passers-by. He walks the long way round and arrives to find that his wife is dead. This is the same subway where the gang will later murder Harry’s friend Len.

There has been a period of light in Harry’s life when his wife and daughter were alive. But now all of that is gone. But Len’s murder at the hands of the local thugs and Harry’s confrontation with a mugger, whom Harry kills, finally pushes him to a point of no return.

Harry confronts the mugger. In a struggle, the knife becomes embedded in the mugger's chest

Harry confronts the mugger. In a struggle, the knife becomes embedded in the mugger’s chest

Harry is Everyman and, like Everyman, there is a deep river of violence flowing inside him. Harry’s decision to become a vigilante is a very conscious one. He seeks out local drug and gun dealer, Stretch played brilliantly by Sean Harris.


The visit to the drug dealer is Harry’s descent into hell. In a chilling scene of escalating threat, Harry winds up killing both Stretch and his accomplice.

The scene is pivotal to the film. Harry has mortally wounded Stretch and he stands over the dying man and says:

I don’t reckon you’ve got long. Seen that before. Gut wound. The slug’s probably torn right through your liver. Mate of mine in Ulster got caught in sniper fire. Bullet blew his inside out. He screamed for a good 10 minutes. We couldn’t send a medic in, the section was too hot. So we all took cover… and watched him die. I’ve never told that… to anyone… you should’ve called an ambulance… for the girl…


He then shoots Stretch, as he lies, bleeding to death, amongst his marijuana crop. It’s premeditated and brutal. However angry Harry may be feeling, he doesn’t show it. But he doesn’t take any of the pleasure that is inherent in Harry Callahan’s “Go ahead, make my day”.

Now armed and dangerous, Harry sets out to seek retribution for Len’s death. This is the turning point in the film, which now explodes into graphic violence. But it is at this pivotal point where the film falters. We sympathise with the implacable Harry’s quest for justice but we do this because the gang members are so irredeemably evil.


Harry has now returned to that dark place of the soul and of Northern Ireland.

The interview scene in the police station between the gang members and the police, but most particularly between Noel (Ben Drew) the gang leader and the two ineffectual police officers, DI Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and DS Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles), is a chilling testament to the impotence of the police in the face of such intransigent evil.

We are left with no sympathy whatsoever for Harry’s victims but at the same time we have absolutely no insight into the price that Harry pays for his vigilante crusade.

Perhaps there is symbolism in the final scenes after the violence of the riot and the casual slayings that accompany it. The open areas of the estate, once dominated by the gang, are now safe but completely deserted. When Harry walks into the subway, now free of the gang members, the film goes to black. We fear that Harry may have returned to a very dark place.

Harry returned to a very dark place

Harry returned to a very dark place

Funding for medical research: good policy, dumb politics

Most of us would agree that providing $20b for medical research in the strategy will have benefits that may stretch over many decades.

What I cannot understand is why the Coalition which abolished the position of Minister of Science and uses climate change as a political football that it kicks out of bounds on the fall every time it gets its hands on the ball, is investing in research. This is a profoundly anti-science and anti-intellectual government so it’s difficult to see why it’s investing in scientific research. Investment in medical research is certainly not going to be a vote winner.

What’s even more bizarre is the way it’s going to be funded. The funding is through an extremely unpopular Medicare co=payment: a massive vote loser.

One is even more bizarre is the timing of this particular move. It’s being done at a time when a large proportion of those least able to pay and being heavily slugged to bring the budget back into surplus. This move does nothing to improve the budget position with $5 of the $7 co-payment going to medical research rather than deficit reduction. All it does is inflict pain on the electorate and on the government.

It looks like dumb politics. It’s almost as dumb as Abbott’s belief that people will realise that these harsh measures will be beneficial in the long run. It’s highly unlikely that pensioners who have had their pensions permanently reduced are going to turn round and say at the next election, “Okay, I’m permanently less well off now but I know it’s for the good of the country so I’ll re-elect Tony Abbott.”

In many ways, Abbott’s only got himself to blame. He has painted himself into a corner. On one hand he recognises as to most of us, that government expenditure is running above government revenue. But before the election he cut off a number of options particularly on the revenue side by promising to abolish the carbon mining taxes. He also ruled out increases in the GST, which now appear almost certainly to occur and promised no tax increases.

It appears that the Australian public are not prepared to accept significant cuts to benefits. We all want better education, better medical care, less congestion on roads and action on climate change. We’re going to have to pay for this at some stage and we need a rational debate about how this is going to be done. When the debate degenerates into a slanging match around broken promises, the chances of economic rationality and good policy decisions diminished to zero.

Fixing negative gearing: a massive missed opportunity

The 2014 budget did not address the huge tax inequities and inequalities surrounding negative gearing. The first of these is that the losses from negative geared properties are deducted from an individual’s marginal tax rates. That means that people in the highest income bracket (180k plus) deduct their losses at 45%. Those in the next tax bracket (80k – 180k) deduct their losses at 37%.

If a company makes a loss the deduction is at the company rate of tax 30%. This means that negative gearing, a commercial activity essentially no different from any other company based commercial activity, is treated quite differently.

A good step towards righting this massive inequality would be to require holders of negatively geared properties to incorporate: to become companies and to deduct their losses at company tax rates rather than the marginal rates for individuals.

The deficit levy is designed to raise $1.1b over four years. Changing the deductibility allowances for negative gearing will generate at least $920m per year. This is if we take the most conservative estimate that all negatively geared property owners in between $80k -$180 where the marginal tax rate is 37%.

It is highly likely that a considerable number of negatively geared property owners are in the $180k+ bracket (around 3% of the total population). Using the company tax rate would drop deductibility for the most affluent group in our society, from 45% to 30%: a massive saving.

The advantage of this is that it is an impost on a section of society that is most able to pay. Unlike the deficit levy, it would be permanent, producing an annual saving in excess of $1 billion a year.

A rather more radical plan would be to continue to treat real estate investments is different from normal commercial investments but instead of allowing deductibility is above the company rate to allow them below the company right: say 20%.

This is what constitutes a structural reform to the taxation system. It’s permanent and it’s beneficial to the commonwealth, that is the wealth of the common people.

Joe was the main act but Tony was quite sideshow

Members of the kept federal Cabinet could scarcely contain their excitement during Treasurer Joe Hockey’s budget address.

Ministers Joyce  Truss, Bishop and Andrews wait for their cue to join in another rousing chorus of "I'm so excited."

Ministers Joyce Truss, Bishop and Andrews wait for their cue to join in another rousing chorus of “I’m so excited.”

The Pointers Sisters: glad there is no levy on big hair

The Pointers Sisters: glad there is no levy on big hair

Karen McNamara MP for Dobell Who has more photo opportunities in federal parliament than most people have had hot dinners was, like her Cabinet colleagues, similarly excited.


Joe had a few moments of despair


This was because his boss was photobombing him in the background

Tony Abbott during the budget speech: quite a little sideshow

Tony Abbott during the budget speech: quite a little sideshow

And after this, he had to face the ABC’s Sarah Ferguson on 7.30 who gave one of her best performances ever. It seems the ABC may have finally found a replacement for Kerry O’Brien.

Why we might not need to raise the pension age

Much of the discussion about raising the pension age has ignored the impact that the compulsory superannuation scheme will have on retirement savings. Media coverage has not indicated whether raising the pension age to 70 will mean that contributors to the compulsory superannuation scheme will not have access to their funds at 65.

The compulsory superannuation scheme was introduced in 1992. What many people did not realise was that it would be a full 45 years before workers would have access to the full benefits of the scheme. People retiring in 1993 would only have accumulated one years’ superannuation: 9% of their salary, probably about enough for a couple of economy class air fares to the UK.

The problem with the slow transition of the working population to the benefits of the compulsory superannuation scheme was that, because the retirement sums were so small, people tended to spend them on overseas trips, debt reduction, new cars etc and then go on the pension. This will continue to be a problem although one assumes an ever decreasing one as we approach 2037.

However, it is worth looking at what the superannuation scheme actually does. To simplify matters, the modelling that I have done has kept wages at current levels and has limited capital growth in superannuation to 5% (the average 8% growth in the stock market less 3% for inflation). The model also assumes that the pension will be 5% of the total accumulated fund. While this is a gross simplification it does help us understand what the big picture looks like. It also assumes that the individual will live to be 80.

This first graph shows the basic mechanics. An individual’s superannuation builds up over the 45 years of their working life. After 45 years, they retire, contributions stop and pension begins.

super 1.jpeg

Superannuation with 6% average capital growth and a pension of 5% 

The interesting thing about this graph is that the take-home salary is around $48,000 and the pension is around $53,000. If we assume that the individual pays off their mortgage around the time they retire, then they will have more money in retirement than they had while they were working. By world standards, that’s a pretty good outcome. And under this scenario, the retiree will leave a lump sum of around $800k to his or her beneficiaries.

The final scenario is where the government increases the compulsory employer contribution to 12%.

super 2.jpeg

In this case, a withdrawal rate of 5% maintains a pension well in advance of final take-home pay (FTP = 47k, pension = 71k). This leaves over $1.5m  in the estate after the death of the pensioner.

The caveat to this modelling is that it will only come into effect when the compulsory superannuation scheme is been running for 45 years, in 2037. But that’s the thing about planning for pensions and superannuation, it’s about long-term planning. It looks as if, in the long term, it will be possible to have the bulk of the population, namely those who have had continuous full-time employment, retire at the age of 65.

The language of political denigration: Kevin Andrews and disability pensioners.

Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews’ recent announcement that eligibility for the disability pension was to be tightened was a masterful demonstration of political weasel words.


Full marks to the speechwriter, it was a textbook example.

The first thing that Andrews did was to reclassify those on disability pensions. He did this by saying young people on the disability pension sat on couch all the watching television. The reclassification or label that comes with this description is “lazy” and this combines very nicely with “young”. So the new label is now “young and lazy.” It’s very easy for the idea of “young and lazy” to morph into the idea of “dole-bludger.” It’s also interesting to understand that and that the new labelling stresses the young and lazy idea and de-emphasises the idea of disability.

Once the re-labelling has been done it is necessary to construct a narrative to support it. This is Andrews’ narrative: Young people sit on the couch at home all day watching television because they don’t want to work. It’s seductively simple. The stereotype of lazy young people sitting around watching television resonates well with many prejudices.

The skilful thing about the construction of this narrative is it works so well to support the new labelling of people on disability pensions.

An alternative narrative would be: Because there is no work for them, young disabled people have nothing to do except sit at home all day and watch television.

The technique is quite simple once you understand it: always put the most important idea at the beginning of the sentence. Andrews places the emphasis on sitting at home all day watching television. The alternative narrative places the emphasis on the idea that there is no work for young disabled people.

The other great thing about the Andrews’ messages that fits into the wider context of the economic muscularity of Joe Hockeys’ heavy lifting message. These lazy couch potatoes aren’t doing their share of the heavy lifting.

Marius and Joe show how real men do heavy lifting

Marius and Joe show how real men do heavy lifting

The solution to the problem is to provide incentive for people to work by cutting their disability pensions.

This simplistic message shifts our attention away from the real nature of the problem. The first problem is that there is very little work available for people with disabilities. This is coupled with the lack of employers who are prepared to provide the workplace support necessary to employ people with disabilities. The second major problem is the lack of training for people with disabilities to fill specific jobs in the workplace.

It’s a complex problem and one that the simplistic approach of Kevin Andrews and the government he represents is unlikely to solve.

Amanda Vanstone and why it matters what people wear on TV

Most of the politically incorrect commentary on what people wear when they appear in public and, in particular on television is directed at women. This is probably because women’s clothing has got a greater range of variety than men’s and hence has greater potential to stir public opinion.

Commentary that seeks to denigrate public figures who do not conform to certain standards of attractiveness is at the shallow end of the swimming pool of political debate. However, television is a powerful medium for politicians eager to get their message across to the public and the way they manipulate this particular medium should be the subject of observation and comment. The thoughtful politician is always careful about how they present themselves and particularly how they dress

Tony Abbott is a master of the use of the medium of television and in particular dressing up for the occasion. Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “the medium is the message” describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. Abbott was able to shape the content of his TV message through the clothes he wore. His relentless attacks on both the carbon and mining taxes were dressed up by his appearing as the “ordinary working man.”

 Tony as pineapple man,  policeman,  truck driver,  Iceman, the bomb disposal man, fireman  builder man, mango man, miner man and fish man

Tony as pineapple man, policeman, truck driver, iceman, bomb disposal man, fireman, builder man, mango man, miner man and fish man

In each of these cases, Abbott is very careful to manipulate the message by the way he dresses. He very skilfully blends the medium of the way he dresses with the message. Personally, I think there’s too much emphasis on orange and lime, not his colours.

Amanda Vanstone appeared on the ABC’s 7.30 to discuss the National Commission of Audit of which she was a member. Here are some of the gems:

It’s a bit like a game of pickup sticks, the budget

And I’ll tell you what’s more costly that’s to sit on your backside doing nothing, taking your pay as a minister and not getting on and fixing things

Promises can be a little bit constraining, we almost ask that and the media demands that, what are you going to promise us we say…. It’s part of the political mileu in Australia that people try to corner you into locking yourself in, So that, so that they can come back later and say aha aha. Now all of that is very interesting it could be the subject of a Ph.D. The real issue is where you want Australia to go

Well, everybody is entitled to their view. You see, when I say I don’t care about people’s different views, I don’t mean that I’m not interested, I mean that this is a democracy and there will be different views on a whole range of things

So, as I say, the budget is a package, there will be, obviously, some savings measures in the budget, some spending measures… and maybe some revenue measures

We are all driven mad by endless reporting and overlap and duplication, now if you could get rid of that you would simplify government in Australia. One way to do that would be to raise the GST and give the states the ability to raise taxes…. One set of question is for you and I to answer and much simpler government.

As far as I could see, she gave absolutely no insight into the thinking of the Commission and no insight into the economic rationale of the Commission’s recommendations. From my side of the television, it appeared that despite the best efforts Sarah Ferguson to get straight answers to questions, the whole interview was a disorganised, rambling shambles. Which brings me to what Ms Vanstone was wearing.

Goldfish amanda.jpg

Amanda Vanstone and the riot of goldfish

If we accept that the way politicians dress can be a medium for getting their message across, then this was a wonderful example of the medium of dress reinforcing the message of the interview. Ms Vanstone came dressed as a pond full of very colourful goldfish, a confusing riot of colour. Her appearance reinforced her hopelessly disorganised explanation of the workings of the Commission.

Mind you, in fairness, she has got form in the sartorial stakes.


Her shirts even have their own Facebook page.

The problem for a politician like Amanda Vanstone, whose style could be described as colourful and flamboyant, is that a discussion about the National Commission of Audit does not easily give itself to colour and flamboyancy. It is serious stuff and if you want to be taken seriously, you need to address seriously. Tony Abbott understands this because he is no longer doing joke pictures. Now that he is Prime Minister he has a serious message to get across and he doesn’t want the storyline being stolen by a fish, a pineapple or a mango or for that matter a pond of decorative goldfish.

mango man.jpeg

It may be boring, but it’s not a distraction. And some people manage to get it just right.


Style, class and elegance: Dame Quentin Bryce

Margaret Olley: the interior artist

The internet has provided art lovers with a very powerful tool. Because so many galleries have put their collections online, it is possible to gain a perspective on an artist’s work that in the past would be possible only by visiting numerous galleries. It is also possible to see the two Archibald award-winning portraits of Olley by Dobbel and Quilty on the Internet and there is also a wonderful photograph of her late in her life.

The artist as oil painting: a photo of Margaret Olley. (Published in The July 29, 2011)

The artist as oil painting: a photo of Margaret Olley. (Published in The Age July 29, 2011)

My attention was drawn to two paintings by Margaret Olley: Plumbago and Proteas in kitchen. These two paintings are a wonderful example of what Betty Churcher described as Olley’s “watchful eye” and they reveal Olley’s tremendous talent for the finding beauty in the ordinary and everyday scenes of our lives.

Plumbago (left) and Proteas in kitchen (right)

Plumbago (left) and Proteas in kitchen (right)

Another thing that the availability of internet images allows us to do is to understand that these paintings probably do not represent what Olley’s kitchen looked like. Photographs of the interior of her house indicate that it was far more cluttered and visually rich than even these paintings would suggest.

Photographs of the interior of her house indicate that it was far more cluttered and visually rich than even these paintings would suggest.

Photographs of the interior of Margaret Olley's house

Photographs of the interior of Margaret Olley’s house

In an extremely perceptive piece on Olley’s work, Robert Nelson wrote ” the artist reveals how one can be satisfied working out the just weight of things”

In Proteas, the red tones of the flowers suffuses the entire scene: the wooden tabletop, the cupboards, the shelf and the window frame are all tinged with the red light that the proteas generate as Olley weighs and balances the colours in the kitchen corner. The flowers in the bottom right-hand corner surrounded by a series objects that reflect and modify the red orange tones of the flowers.

In Plumbego, Olley has shifted the colour weight and balance. Here the flowers are blue and the influence of the colour permeated the painting. The blues in the painting have been subtly emphasised, the glass preserving jars had been replaced by blue vases and a glass of water which catches the blue light of the vase has been added. When we turn our eye to the other corner of the painting, we see the subtle influence of the blue tones through the entire painting.

The weighing of light and shadow

The weighing of light and shadow

In Plumbago, we see the blue light of the flowers in the shadows of the mundane objects of the kitchen, a blender, a kettle and a teapot. The scene is still lit from the window. as it is in Plumbago, but it is fascinating to see how the colour is nuanced in the less well-lit aspects of the painting. It’s almost as if Olley is saying, “Come into the kitchen with me, I will show you how I use colour.” And I think she is also saying, “You need to take time when you look at paintings and you need to look carefully and attentively.”

Change: the fourth element

The final element in the Classification-Causation-Context model is Change. Up to this point the model is been primarily useful for analysis, that is what has gone on in the past. The next stage is to examine how the model can be used to bring about change in individuals, in organisations or in the social and political arena.

The concept of Narrative, which is a subset of causation is central to all model. The narratives that people develop for themselves, their organisations or their social and political lives spring from the way that they classify themselves, their organisations or their social and political lives. These narratives are then anchored in, and defined by, their context. In many cases, these narratives are quite static especially when the context is relatively stable and unchanging as well.

Sometimes people wish to change the narrative is interesting to see how this is done. The recent arrest of Gerry Adams in Ireland is an informative example. The people who have arrested Adams have effectively reclassified him as an IRA terrorist. During The Troubles Adams was the head of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA. He always claimed that he was not a terrorist, but few, especially those on the Protestants side believed him. His participation in the peace process in Northern Ireland was an important, not only in reclassifying, himself but in creating a new narrative for himself. His detention has raised tensions among Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government and threatens the hard-won peace process

It is Adams’ position in the government to provide the context for his narrative. His arrest by what Sinn Fein calls “dark forces” strikes at Adams’ classification himself. It’s very clever politics because the narrative that Adams has created must be held in place by his contextual stakeholders: those seeking to maintain the peace in Ireland (both his political friends and his political foes). It seems of one of the stakeholders has pulled out of the deal.

In Melbourne recently, the long-standing head of the AFL Andrew Demetriou has stood down in favour of Gillon McLachlan.

In his first TV interview, McLachlan was at pains to establish his new narrative. It was going to be about the fans, the cost of football and above all about the community. When questioned about recent drug scandals, he declined comment saying he wished to focus on the future. He does not want the drug scandals to become part of his narrative. He looks like he’s going to be a good operator.

More on the Change Model

Farmer Abbott’s barnyard animals (7): Mojo – the rabid budget mongrel

For many years, Mojo had been a pretty amiable dog, wandering round, bumping into things and farting a lot. But as Farmer Abbott began training him to be a budget dog, he began to undergo some quite disturbing changes. To begin with this only amounted to growling a lot and chasing passing cars, mainly nuisance stuff.

But as his first budget roundup drew nearer, Mojo underwent some disturbing changes. The growling increased, he began barking at everything that moved and he began snapping at everyone who wasn’t quick enough to get out of his way.

Mojo has had his sights set on Clarence the carbon tax goose for some time and has taken to chasing Clarence around the barnyard. He had Clarence bailed up in a corner one day when Farmer Palmer from across the road scooped Clarence up and said “Don’t worry, Clarence I’ll look after you.” Clarence didn’t look too convinced but at least he was safe from Mojo for the while.

Clarence was not the only band had animal to become the object of Mojo’s rabid behaviour. He took a sizeable lump out of Priscilla, the paid parental leave show pony’s bum. Priscilla was quite an easy target for Mojo, being fat and slow-moving. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for Priscilla and indeed the mutterings of “pet food” were becoming more audible around the barnyard.

Mojo has a couple of friends in the barnyard. The first one is Coal-fired the flatulent draught horse. It appears that flatulence is a condition that draws animals together in a common bond. A relationship that is much harder to explain is his friendship with Floppy the negatively geared (and non-flatulent) rabbit. Given his temperament, many people expected Mojo to have made a meal of Floppy very early on, but Mojo appears strangely protective and monsters anyone who even looks sideways at Floppy.

Mince the Poodle has taken to following Mojo around but generally Mojo just ignores him feeling that a friendship with a poodle does very little for his macho bulldog image.

Things really took a turn for the worse when he rounded up a group of old age pensioners from the old folks home who were visiting the farm and bailed them up in the toilets. They only escaped when they formed a phalanx and advanced on Mojo threatening him with the pointy end of their umbrellas. The management of the old folks home rang Farmer Abbott and said the pensioners would not be visiting the Barnyard in future and no, he needn’t send the bus round on election day.

The next day there was a visit from children at the local primary school. Everything was going well until Mojo, aided and abetted by Mince, got onto the school bus and ate the children’s lunches. To make matters worse, Mince then peed all over their school bags.

Farmer Abbott appears oblivious to the mayhem that Mojo is causing but it has been noticed that he is spending a lot more time in the pub with his mates