Fact check and more factoids

Love the ABC’s Fact Check. The government is closing it. That is itself reason enough to consider putting the Coalition last on Election Day.

The axing of ABC’s fact-checking unit is a disgrace.

In an era of shrinking newsrooms, breathless reporting, and “hot takes”, we need it more than ever…

Fact Check was created in 2013, with a small staff, two months before the federal election. It exists to determine the accuracy of things politicians say – and advocacy groups, and other public figures.

It was funded through a three-year, $20 million-per-year deal with the previous Labor government. (This money was used for other news initiatives, too.) The Turnbull government renewed that deal, but slashed the annual allocation to $13.5 million.

Fact Check is a headache for everyone it scrutinises. Especially politicians. At the time of writing, its main story is about Malcolm Turnbull. It presents evidence challenging Turnbull’s comments about Labor’s negative gearing policy. It concludes the prime minister’s claims don’t “stack up”….

The unit’s verdicts have been referred to an estimated 50 times in the last session of the Australian parliament, and were often mentioned on ABC TV and radio programs. Even rival media outlets used them (when it suited them).

At a recent Senate estimates hearing, ABC officials confirmed politicians have made formal and informal complaints about these verdicts. Though none were upheld.

Now, Fact Check, as we know it, is dead.

Is anyone surprised?

Fact Check can embarrass Labor too, as in the latest one: Fact check: Is Labor’s economic plan the most comprehensive in living memory?

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Finance Minister Mathias Cormann probably likes that one, but he sure didn’t like Fact check: Was Labor responsible for ‘a record deficit’?

Was Labor responsible for “a record deficit”? ABC Fact Check runs the numbers.

The verdict

Senator Cormann is wrong.

This fact check is based on research from a previous claim on debt and deficit made by Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop.

Budget figures and historical data show that Labor inherited a surplus close to $20 billion, but the deficit they “turned that into” was far from a record.

Experts told Fact Check that in order to make comparisons over time, deficits must be measured as a share of GDP, and the largest deficit as a share of GDP in Labor’s last term was in 2009-2010 at 4.2 per cent.

This pales in comparison with deficits sustained during World War II, which were over 20 per cent of GDP, and World War I, which were over 10 per cent….

Yes, Fact Check ought to be cherished as a jewel in the ABC’s crown. Thank God it is still running despite everything.

There are interesting factoids in a side column also. For example, a link to Overseas born Aussies highest in over a century.

The proportion of Australians who were born overseas has hit its highest point in over 120 years, with 28 per cent of Australia’s population born overseas, according to figures released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

“Australia has traditionally had a high proportion of migrants, but we’ve now hit a peak not seen since the late 1800s,” said Beidar Cho from the ABS.

The percentage of Australian residents born overseas has increased every year for the last 15 years.

“The number of Australian residents born in India has almost tripled over the last 10 years and residents born in China have more than doubled in this time.”

The change in our migrant mix can best be observed in the differences in median age of certain groups.

“Migrants born in Italy, for example, had a median age of 64.7 years in 2005. This increased to 69.3 years in 2015 – indicating a drop in recent migration and the aging of existing migrants,” said Ms Cho. “On the other hand, migrants from our Asian neighbours, such as India, have seen a reduction in median age from 37 years in 2005 to 33.4 years in 2015.”

On TV lately – 3 – great documentaries

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That’s from The Great Wall of China: The Hidden Story (2014) – a four-part documentary that finished on SBS last Sunday. I was impressed, though I do see what this reviewer is driving at:

Who’d have thought it? The “secret” in Secret History: The Great Wall of China – the Hidden Story (Channel 4) was sticky rice. Because, according to the documentary, that was the unlikely ingredient ancient builders mixed into their mortar to help the wall last for generations.

Historians have long wondered how the mortar in the wall held up so well. Now, the programme announced, scientists had found the secret: three per cent of sticky rice in the mixture.

This is pretty surprising, so it probably justifies the description, in commentary, of “extraordinary new scientific research”. But that was one of the more low-key superlatives in a programme that kept hammering them home.

The producers did not seem satisfied that “The Great Wall of China” already suggests something pretty impressive. So, the wall was “one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering in history”. It was “the most iconic man-made structure on the planet”. Later, “the world’s greatest megastructure”. Then, slightly bizarrely, “a tremendous piece of hardware”. It was “part of the world’s geography”. “One of history’s most iconic structures”. And it went on. People didn’t just find things out, they discovered “one of the wall’s greatest secrets” or made an “amazing discovery”. It was as if the programme makers felt we had to be convinced.

But at least we also had the genial knowledge of William Lindesay, who has walked the wall’s length, and the rather more manic company of military historian Mike Loades, who showed us how bombs were dropped from the wall on to attacking forces and even rode a horse and fired arrows to show us what attacking forces would do…

Yes, sticky rice in the mortar.

SBS has quite a bit to offer this year. One local production I am rather dreading is:

Hanson: The Years that Shook Australia As the 90s most divisive politician, Pauline Hanson is the woman we love to hate: the blue collar battler who said what some Australians were thinking, and was destroyed for it. Hanson has made an indelible mark on the racism debate. Twenty years after her maiden speech this feature documentary, produced by CJZ for SBS, will reveal how her extreme views have influenced race and racism in politics today. Her rise and fall was remarkable, and Hanson: The Years That Shook Australia will reveal telling new insights for the first time.

On ABC last night a really superb series came to an end. If you think you know all about life before birth, think again. I was sometimes challenged, sometimes gobsmacked by Countdown to Life.

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Mosley met Nell, a seven-year-old who received a double dose of her father’s growth gene in the womb and so towered over her classmates. Melanie Gaydos, a New York model, suffered from a slip-up in the womb which caused catastrophic damage to her hair and teeth. Randy Foye, a top American basketball player, was born with his heart on the right-hand side of his chest, because his embryo had developed wrongly. Fourteen members of one family had six fingers on each hand because there was too much of a particular protein – charmingly called Sonic Hedgehog – in the womb.

This could so very easily have descended into distasteful freak TV. But Mosley treated his subjects with such gentle, scholarly care that you didn’t feel they were being taken advantage of. You never laughed at them; you just ended up thanking God you passed those intensely precarious eight weeks with fingers, teeth and heart in the right place.

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See also Nine things that shape your identity before birth.

Tony Abbott makes one more promise…

…and moans about the media…

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That montage comes from Loon Pond:

The big lie:
I’ve never leaked or backgrounded against anyone. And I certainly won’t start now.

So if you wear rubber gloves and your office does it for you, you didn’t do it?
Makes the pond wonder about that other promise:

There will be no wrecking, no undermining, and no sniping.

And as for the rest of the blather:
The nature of politics has changed in the past decade. We have more polls and more commentary than ever before. Mostly sour, bitter, character assassination. Poll driven politics has produced a revolving door prime ministership which can’t be good for our country. And a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery.
And if there’s one piece of advice I can give to the media, it’s this: refuse to print self-serving claims that the person making them won’t put his or her name to.
Refuse to connive with dishonour by acting as the assassin’s knife…

The deeply coarsened, crude and feverish media circus that brought him to power, and now he complains about it …
So now will the persons or persons who debriefed the Terror on a weekly basis come out of the closet?

Points well noted.

Brings back memories:

Oh wow! VOTING DAY!!!!

Posted on September 7, 2013 by Neil

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Here in West Wollongong people were out early to vote. As was I!  This is around twenty minutes after the polling station opened:

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If you really want to see the main architect of Mr Abbott’s “assassination” look no further than his display of automatic speech on 7.30 on September 9 2015. He done himself in:

LEIGH SALES: Let’s quickly run through some other issues, Prime Minister, starting with the economy. When Labor left office, unemployment was 5.8 per cent; it’s now 6.3 per cent. Growth was 2.5 per cent; it’s now two per cent. The Australian dollar was 92 cents; it’s now around 70 cents. The budget deficit was $30 billion when you took office and now it’s $48 billion. How do you explain to the Australian people that you were elected promising, in your words, to fix the budget emergency, yet in fact, Australia’s economic position has worsened under your leadership?
TONY ABBOTT: Well I don’t accept that. The boats have stopped. The carbon tax has …
LEIGH SALES: We’re talking about the economy.
TONY ABBOTT: The boats have stopped, the carbon tax has gone, the mining tax has gone. We are now on a path to sustainable surplus and we’ve got three free trade agreements finalised. If only the Labor Party and the CMFEU weren’t trying to sabotage the Free Trade Agreement with China. And we’ve got …
LEIGH SALES: Prime Minister, I just ran you through …
TONY ABBOTT: And we’ve got 335,000 more jobs. Now, …
LEIGH SALES: I just ran you through a series …
TONY ABBOTT: … that is the one achievement of which I am most proud, if I may, the 335,000 extra jobs that are there …
LEIGH SALES: Yet unemployment is still going up.

My favourite commemorative cartoon comes from the great Leunig:

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Some truly informative Anzac centenary TV

Yes, there has understandably been concern along such lines as these: Gallipoli 2015: Lest we forget to turn a buck.

Why should we be surprised when the Anzac centenary becomes little more than a carnival of jingoistic schmaltz and corporate opportunism? It just represents our wallowing in the Anzac myth, writes Jonathan Green.

Freed from actual memory, unchained from any linear connection to observed reality, commemoration can be whatever you want it to be…

But full marks to ABC-TV for some programs I have seen in the last few days, and will see later in the week.

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First, Lest We Forget What? Sunday 19 April 8.30pm ABC2; Wednesday 22 April 9.30pm, ABC1.

The real failure in any military is to believe your own myths and legends.

– Major General (Ret.) Jim Molan AO DSC

Kate Aubusson is 27. She grew up in the suburbs of Sydney and she started working as a journalist a few years ago. She is part of the generation that saw the resurgence of the Anzac legend in the 90s as a defining story of what it means to be Australian. For her, it’s all about Gallipoli, the Anzac Spirit. Boys from the bush, sacrifice, mateship and being born as a nation the day the Diggers landed at Anzac Cove. In the next 4 years we’ll spend over $300 million to remember the First World War – more than any other nation. This is important to her. She had relatives who fought in World War One. When she was a kid she would stand for the minutes’ silence and say ‘Lest We Forget’, but in that silence she never knew exactly what she was supposed to remember… and in many ways she still doesn’t. So she is going on a quest that follows the path of the ANZACs. Starting at Gallipoli, and travelling to the Western Front. What she wants to find out is…When we say, “lest we forget” – Lest we forget what?

I have to confess I was irritated by Kate Aubusson at first, but as the program proceeded I applauded what it was doing – very honest, very respectful in the proper way, very useful as a crap detector in these times. From the program website:

There is a huge divide between the military history taught to our Defence Force as opposed to the soft military history we, the general populace, are taught:

There’s lots of myth about Anzac. Everything you know about Simpson is largely myth. The story about how troops went ashore in the face of thunderous machine gun fire is rubbish. The biggest myth about Anzac is that it probably would have succeeded.”
– Dr Roger Lee (Head, Australian Army History Unit), speaking about the Gallipoli Campaign in a lecture at RMC Duntroon

See also Melinda Houston in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I’m of a generation that grew up regarding war – and its celebration – with suspicion shading into revulsion. Kate Aubusson, on the other hand – whose documentary this is – was suckled on Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and came to adulthood in the full flourishing of Australia’s resurgent nationalism. She’s also a journalist, though, and in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, is wondering just how much of her own emotion and sentiment about the event is grounded in fact. Starting with that contemporary Australian rite of passage, the beer-fuelled group tour to Anzac Cove, she proceeds to gently dismantle the various myths…

Aubusson is very likeable and this is completely accessible. But it’s also a powerful, frank, very moving and immensely important contribution to the Anzac conversation.

Earlier ABC1 showed Australia’s Great War Horse, more conventional but very informative. 130,000 Australian horses  served in the war but were never to return home. It included the amazing story of the horse “Bill the Bastard”:

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[Michael] Shanahan persuaded his captain, Banjo Paterson, to let him take Bill into battle when 100,000 horses headed out into the 50C desert for the pivotal Battle of Romani. Both sides desperately needed a win to take control of the wells. “August 5, 1916, should be a date writ large in Australian history,” said Prof Perry. “It was a magnificent effort.”

Spotting others in trouble, Shanahan was able to get four Tasmanian troopers from the Light Horse Brigade on Bill’s back with him, obtaining him a Distinguished Service Order. “Bill went for six hours, his stamina was monumental,” said Prof Perry. “One general went through 17 horses in the night.”

See also Bill the Bastard: the story of Australia’s greatest war horse.

Compass offered a feature on Lieutenant General Sir Stanley George Savige, one of Australia’s most decorated soldiers, a founder of the ex-service family support charity Legacy. This part I never knew before:

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See Australian-Assyrians commemorate life of Lt General Sir Stanley Savige.

Lieutenant General Sir Stanley George Savige, at that time a 28 year-old captain serving in the specially assembled Allied unit nicknamed “Dunsterforce”, was second-in-command of a supply column assigned to re-supply the Assyrians fighting in Persia. Unable to complete the task due to the fall of Urmia he nevertheless persisted in his endeavour to assist the Assyrians by persuading his British commander that he should remain with them.

For six weeks Captain Stanley Savige used all the means at his disposal to protect the refugees against the perpetual onslaught of the Turkish forces. Reasoning that the Turkish commander would concentrate on killing him before harming the refugees, he strategically placed his command at the rear of the refugee procession and deliberately drew enemy fire. By offering his command as a target, even though outnumbered one hundred to one, the captain managed to slow the Turkish advance long enough for most of the refugees to flee. This act of courage and self-sacrifice is far beyond what is expected of a regular junior officer in the field.

Coming up on ABC1 on Tuesday is Why Anzac with Sam Neill: the actor remembers his fallen family.

… “I do sort of have a foot in both camps,” says Neill, a New Zealander who also has a home in Sydney.

The result is a program that crosses the globe from Gallipoli to France and Crete to Australia in an effort to make sense of New Zealand and Australia’s shared history.

At the outset, Neill makes a clear distinction that can be lost among the flag-waving and cheap patriotism that tends to sit at the margins of the Anzac legend. “I hate militarism,” he says. “I loathe nationalism. But I honour those who serve.”

One of those in his own family whom Neill honours in the program is Guy Bridgeman, his grandfather’s cousin. Neill brings Bridgeman’s poignant story to life through a series of letters, photographs and family stories. A “gentle, kind and thoughtful man”, Bridgeman evidently also took seriously his patriotic duty and enlisted in the Otago Mountain Rifles as soon as Australia and New Zealand followed the mother country into war against Germany.

Bridgeman landed at Gallipoli twice and survived to fight at Passchendaele, where he was badly wounded. Incredibly, he was still insistent that he be returned to the front when he succumbed to the flu.

“Of course, he is remarkable, but he is also one of millions of remarkables,” says Neill…

South of the Lake — 2

See also The triumph of moderation, South of the Lake — 1, Continuing my trawling through Trove and family history, What a treasury of family history! and Six rewarding hours. Last night saw the final episode of The Years That Made Us.

I want to challenge the proposition that Australia was born on the slopes of Gallipoli. I see the nation as framed by war rather than forged in war. There are virtues in Anzac mythology but dangers too in the potential casting of Australians as warrior-like. The interwar years figure as an ideal period to examine public measure and militancy. The pressures were acute. Post-war trauma, the Great Depression and the gathering storm of another war. While other nations surrendered to political extremes of communism and fascism, in Australia the great middle held. To me, this story of good citizenship is as stocked with valour and character as anything drawn from a battlefield.

It’s a departure from the investigative work you are known for, but there is a personal link. What is it?

I found the best way to make the story engaging was through tapping family history. My sense is Australians are more interested in their parents and grandparents than premiers and prime ministers, so we try to tell big history through little history. Also it became swiftly apparent that my mother Olga was perfectly cast. Her coming of age exactly matches this interwar period. Mum became a great Australian writer, with her best and most haunting work drawn from these years. Many who ponder their parents’ struggle and sacrifice will identify with a wonderful story.

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A series that can find equal time and respect for historians as diverse as Stuart Macintyre, Joe Davis and Geoffrey Blainey has something going for it, but the delight of the series was its being rooted, without excessive parochialism, in the Masters family and their specific Illawarra experience. Furthermore the thesis — “While other nations surrendered to political extremes of communism and fascism, in Australia the great middle held. To me, this story of good citizenship is as stocked with valour and character as anything drawn from a battlefield” – resonates with my own family memories, many of them in the same area at that time but south rather than north of the Lake.

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Eugene von Guerard’s Lake Illawarra

I had intended to go into the differences between north and south of the lake rather more, but suffice it to say that south of the lake tended to be Ulster Protestant, rural and conservative well into the 1930s, during my father’s childhood and early adulthood and, in 1935, marriage to my mother, Jean Christison.

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The day before – not that my parents knew — Watson-Watt patented RADAR, and a couple of weeks earlier military conscription in Germany had been renewed, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Reading as I am Ben Elton’s Two Brothers (2012) has rather sensitised me to what was happening beyond the Lake, shall we say, at this time but which would have such profound implications for life here as elsewhere. Chris Masters did not ignore this either, of course. But back to the local: north of the Lake was rather more English working-class, and therefore rather more socialist, the coal mines dominating life there.  1930-1935 in fact saw a major change in the region that would shape life both north and south of the Lake in a very major way: the first blast furnace at Port Kembla in 1930 and the merging of Australian Iron & Steel (AIS) / Broken Hill Pty Co Ltd (BHP) at Port Kembla. This phase in Illawarra history is in its turn now virtually over.

Next Sunday a four part series begins on ABC1 in the same slot as The Years that Made Us: First Footprints.

The long-running debate among Australia’s archaeologists, palaeontologists and anthropologists is set to flare again later this month when the ABC screens a ground-breaking four-part TV series, First Footprints. The series tracks the history of the Aboriginal occupation of Australia the length and breadth of the continent, stretching back to when the mainland was one with Tasmania, Kangaroo Island and Papua New Guinea.

Tracing the long sweep of human presence through art works and artefacts, rare archival footage and interviews with experts and Aboriginal elders at field sites around the country, the series takes an unapologetic stand against the thesis that man was the chief agent of the megafauna’s extinction.

Instead, it identifies the key culprit as the coming of the Ice Age some 30,000 years ago, an event which plunged up to 90 per cent of the continent into drought.

Filmmaker Martin Butler, who produced the series with director Bentley Dean, says: ”We believe the Ice Age killed the megafauna, not the people. It could not have been the people, because in our view there is now good evidence that the giant species survived until about 30,000 to 25,000 years ago.” To support this stand, the series assembles evidence from several ancient artworks and preliminary findings from recent sites where massed remains of megafauna have been found…

The series highlights some early findings from a site near BHP’s South Walker Creek mine site in the Bowen Basin, in Queensland, where a rich deposit of megafauna bones and teeth have been found.

Chief investigator Dr Scott Hocknull, of the Queensland Museum, has had preliminary dating for the sediments containing the bones of about 25,000 to 28,000 years ago. But he stresses dating of the bones themselves has yet to be done.

Regardless of where the scientific consensus lands, the series makes a powerful case for better national appreciation of the sheer scale, longevity and richness of the cultural heritage of Aboriginal Australia.

Series consultant Peter Veth, a professor of rock art at the University of Western Australia, says the continent was a giant canvas for earlier Aboriginal populations, whose ancient song-lines and ”dreamtime superhighways” allowed cultural exchanges across thousands of kilometres.

”You go out into the middle of the Western Desert and you find some figures almost identical to those found at Burrup [on the north-west coast of Western Australia] … and you think goodness, we have something extraordinary here. People were exchanging goods and ideas and art repertoires over vast distances.” The Burrup peninsula (also known as Murujuga) is 1600 kilometres north of Perth and has the largest concentration of petroglyphs – or engraved rock art – in the world.

So profusely did Aboriginal Australians chisel images into the hard rock surfaces over the course of 30,000 years it’s thought there are at least a million engravings spread over less than 400 square kilometres….

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And here are some literal footprints. Amazing, but not necessarily mentioned in next Sunday night’s documentary.