Saturday, 24 September 2011


Surprise surprise. Louie The Fly faked his own death. The announcement only two weeks ago from Mortein that they intended to eliminate Australia’s most famous advertising icon was a stunt all along.
On September 11, the Sun Herald reported that Reckitt Benckiser, the British-based owners of Mortein, had “decided to kill off Louie The Fly once and for all.” Claiming it was a hard decision, marketing director Chris Tedesco said “Louie can no longer showcase the advancements of the complete Mortein range."
Yet on Friday, came an apparent change of heart, as Chris claimed to have “been amazed by the incredible reaction to our announcement.” Like a modern-day Roman emperor, he is now giving the public “the opportunity to decide whether to kill or save the much-loved icon,” adding “Louie has a special place in Australian's hearts… If the public wants to continue seeing their beloved Louie on TV screens then they can vote to save him on his Facebook page."
Emotional blackmail! We all knew Louie was a gangster, but holding the nation to ransom is a first, even for him.
Louie’s Facebook page boasts nearly sixteen thousand people who “like” it. Thumbs up! In social media terms, that is a very healthy result. Louie himself appears to be enjoying the controversy, thanking his fans for “kickin' up such a stink everyone... the latest buzz i'm hearing is that The Boss who wants to kill me might be listening to you!”
Louie has always been a rogue and a scoundrel, which is part of his larrikin appeal. Normally he’s trying to outfox “Mum” and her can of Mortein, but now it appears he’s tried to hoodwink us all.
Such contrived stunts are increasingly common in advertising, where marketers are desperate to get consumers to “engage with their brands” in the relatively low-cost world of social media. Generating free publicity through a newsworthy stunt, and then driving people online, is now a common marketing strategy. What is news? What is real? What is advertising? As we approach summer and the highly competitive “bug season”, Louie clearly couldn’t resist this potent stew of free publicity.
Where most Aussies will be amused by the harmless prank there is always a risk some will not enjoy having been deliberately duped. Consumers are funny like that.
Last May, Matt Moran admitted his “spontaneous outburst” on Masterchef was a hoax designed to generate publicity on youtube for charity group OzHarvest. His fellow foodie Matt Preston was involved the previous year in a similarly faked up “live” episode involving some spilled salmon roe and his own sponsor. Mr. Tedesco, a highly talented marketer who arrived in Australia only last year from the UK will of course be familiar with the famous British hoax campaign for Heinz Salad Cream, where a much-loved brand was similarly “rescued” from extinction by the public. The woman behind the stunt was hailed as Marketer of the Year.
Deliberately courting controversy will always work if you adhere to the philosophy that any publicity is good publicity. But at what point do consumers weary of marketers tinkering with their favourite brands and manipulating their emotions? Vegemite’s recent 2.0 iSnack shenanigans generated heaps of publicity, most of it unwanted, but it is telling that you will find no mention of the entire fiasco anywhere on their website. In the US, Toyota are currently being sued over a creepy online hoax gone awry.
Will Aussies take umbrage that their affection for Louie has been deliberately manipulated? Or will they see it as just another fun chapter in the colourful history of our loveable larrikin fly? 



Advertising icons are dropping like flies. Not only is Louie The Fly destined for the scrap heap, but so are the Paddle Pop Lion, the Coco Pops monkey and the Fruit Loops Toucan.
The Obesity Policy Coalition are responsible for the latter being targeted for removal, on the grounds that such charismatic characters are responsible for one in four of our kids being overweight.
But the demise of Louie The Fly is entirely different. His death is self-inflicted. His owners have decided they no longer have any use for him, despite his proven marketing skills. But no matter how often you kill him, he keeps coming back. He has disappeared from our screens several times before, always to return.
According to adman Tom Moult, who won the Mortein business in the mid 90s by bringing back Louie, “they’re dreaming if they think they’ve got rid of him. Louie’ll be back. Guaranteed.”
Reckitt Benckiser, which now owns Louie, specialize in products that clean or kill things, bugs and germs included. The ‘‘power brands’’ making up over 70 per cent of its profits include Dettol, Nurofen and Harpic.
Mortein, invented in Australia in the 1870s, was one of the first brands to aggressively market itself on TV. Rumour has a former managing director once downing a glass of Mortein before a government inquiry to prove it wasn’t dangerous to humans.
Mortein’s biggest markets outside Australia are India and Brazil, neither of which is particularly fussed about our Aussie icon.
That is a problem for Reckitt Benckiser, which clearly prefers their ad campaigns to be consistent across the globe. Unfortunately for Louie, he is no Paul Hogan. His appeal remains strictly local. There is something unique to the Australian mindset that is comfortable feeling affection for a character whose greatest talent is getting himself killed. Call it the Ned Kelly Syndrome, perhaps.
Popular advertising properties are hard won. The legend of Louie, including his disputed origins – apart from Bryce Courtney, several others claim to have come up with the original idea – are the stuff of which advertisers dream.
I was privileged to be responsible for making the ads marking his fiftieth birthday in 2007. Not many campaigns have lasted that long, which is why Kellogg’s and Streets will resist calls to get rid of the Paddle Pops Lion, the Coco Pops Monkey, the Toucan and so on.
But in all likelihood, they will eventually follow KFC’s example (of dispensing with kid’s toys) and offer up the Lion and the Monkey as lambs on the sacrificial altar of political correctness.
Given the value to a brand of a creative device such as Louie the Fly, it would have been a hard decision for local RB marketing director Chris Tedesco, an ambitious and talented American who only arrived here from the UK twelve months ago, to consign him to the great big dustbin in the sky.
“Mortein is not just about killing a bigger range of bugs, but has continued to innovate beyond fly sprays and we feel Louie can no longer showcase the advancements of the complete Mortein range," Tedesco maintains.
According to Tedesco, getting rid of one of Australia’s most popular advertising icons, and risking any potential consumer backlash, is the right step.
"It was a hard decision,” Chris says, “but Mortein has decided to kill off Louie The Fly once and for all.”
I wouldn't bet on it. Some advertising icons simply refuse to die, no matter what the marketers wish for.
After having been unceremoniously dumped, the classic VB music is now back on our screens. “Which bank?” was successfully resurrected after a lengthy absence, and will no doubt be again at some point. The reason is simple: focus groups. If Mortein sales start to dip in Australia, Louie will find the defibrillators quickly being strapped onto his chest.
It will be interesting to see what Reckitt Benckiser now do creatively with Mortein. Its other advertising campaigns do not offer a great deal of hope for those who prefer their advertising to be lateral, quirky or subtle.
Readers can make up their own mind about the appeal of TV campaigns for Vanish Napisan, Easy Off BAM, Finish, Harpic, and Pine O Cleen.

Sunday, 18 September 2011


The decision by public broadcaster SBS to screen the documentary ‘Man on Wire’ on the tenth anniversary of September 11 seemed at first to be either incredibly insensitive or downright cheeky. Yet this bizarre juxtaposition became irresistible to watch and every bit as poignant and thought-provoking as the many hours of heart-breaking commemorations of the tragedy of 9/11 on other channels.

In the film, one man's peculiar lifelong obsession with the World Trade Centre sees him embark on a madcap scheme involving deception, security breaches and death-defying bravery in order to walk a tightrope suspended between the twin towers.

Philippe Petit, an eccentric juggler and Parisian street performer somehow manages to pull off a most extraordinary feat of human ingenuity and imagination; so that on a brisk morning in May 1974 New Yorkers woke to see the magical sight of a man on a wire seeming to walk, almost religiously, on thin air high above their heads. In the preparation for this surreal moment, we see the story unfold not only of how the twin towers were built, but also the significance the WTC held as a symbol of the imposing power and monumental magnificence of the United States in the last century.

The expressions of awe and amazement on the upturned faces of New Yorkers who witnessed Petit’s illegal feat were in heart-breaking contrast to those more familiar ash-covered, horrified looks of terror and fear we saw on exactly the same sidewalk a generation later.

Some of the footage, filmed long before the horrors of 9/11, eerily predict and evoke the fragility and dangerous vulnerability of the towers. We see the endless stairwells, the sheer height of the two edifices, and the criss-cross metallic structures that would come to epitomize the visual nightmare of Ground Zero, being gracefully lifted into place only a few decades earlier, high above the Manhattan skyline.

The deception and subterfuge involved in getting the trapeze wire into place also have uncanny overtones of the elaborate plotting that went into Al-Qaida’s most infamous act. Months of preparation went into planning the operation, involving fake uniforms, detailed study of the infrastructure of the towers, last minute hiccups and the fear of discovery. Strangely, a primitive weapon – a bow and arrow - is all it takes for Philippe Petit and his ardent followers to straddle the two mighty towers, just as a pair of cardboard box cutters was all it took for Mohammad Atta and his evil gang to bring them down.

Equally, the bravery of the tight-rope walker and his unshakeable determination to conquer the challenges of the ultimate high-wire act and emerge victorious are as simple and as powerful a metaphor as could be found for the bravery and determination of the thousands of individual acts of heroism and self-sacrifice that were performed by the rescue services and countless others on 9/11.

Dubbed the “artistic crime of the century”, the guerilla-like campaign detailed in ‘Man on Wire’ can almost be seen as the beginning of an era where individuals learned that they could capture the entire world’s attention through one dramatic, sensational and headline-grabbing act of daring. Post-modern in the extreme, Petit was selling nothing. No message, no protest, no politics. Just fun and adventure for the sake of his art.

Yet his ability to grab the media’s attention through a visual event and get himself on the front page of every newspaper in the world is also the hallmark of the terrorist outrages that culminated ten years ago in the one of the greatest crimes of this century.

But above all, what comes through so strikingly from the documentary is the depiction of the gloriously optimistic and innocent times that have now been lost. Philippe Petit's extraordinary stunt was only possible due to the trust and complacency of a society living without fear, in a world where human ingenuity and imagination could be harnessed solely for such child-like self-belief and daring. The world of unbridled ingenuity and carefree self-confidence that has always been the hallmark of the West, and at the heart of the American dream. Thank you, SBS, for reminding us – intentionally or otherwise - how sorely it is missed.   


Prince Charles famously fantasized about being reincarnated as one of Camilla Parker-Bowles' tampons. For my part, I wouldn't mind coming back as one of Kevin Rudd's tea-bags.

Last night on the ABC's Lateline, Tony Jones dangled before our eyes the tantalizing vision of Tea with Malcolm and Kevin. His guest, none other than former Liberal leader and current touchy-feely heart-throb Malcolm Turnbull, smiled with amused self-satisfaction when asked “is it true as reported that you and Kevin Rudd occasionally get together to talk about politics?” With a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a self-deprecating shrug Malcolm informed us somewhat primly that “Well we - not - you know, we've got together a couple of times and had a chat, had a cup of tea.”

A cup of tea? Somewhat taken aback, Tony failed to ask any of the follow-up killer questions such a response demanded and that he must surely now be kicking himself over. No wry "who poured?", no witty "did he bring the Iced Vovo's?" And even worse, the demon inquisitor of Q&A failed to ask the obvious glaring headline-begging scoop of the year: "So what on earth did you two talk about?"

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall! Or even better, a soggy tea-bag on the side of the saucer; for surely whatever Mal and Kev discussed of any import would have been done in hushed tones and barely audible whispers in between carefully measured sips of tea.

Enjoying their Earl Grey together were the two men who by all rights - at least in their minds - should currently be Her Majesty's Prime Minister and Her Majesty's Leader of the Opposition. The two men who have the most enviable opinion poll numbers by miles of any politicians in the country, state or federal. The two men who between them command the loyal affections of a vast swag of Australian voters. And the two men who are probably the most ruthlessly ambitious politicians of our era.

The two men who as we speak nonetheless wield virtually no political power whatsoever, sitting calmly having tea together. Uppermost in their minds, apart from the burning sense of injustice and impotent rage that fuels them both, would be the inescapable mathematics of minority government. In Australia, we are still only just coming to terms with what the Europeans have long taken for granted, and what the motley crew of independents instinctively took advantage of: hung parliaments are there to be exploited. No principle is so sacred that it can't be ditched or used as a bargaining chip. Power resides with he or she who is prepared to get off his or her arse and cross the floor.

Because Tony Jones so miserably failed in his duty to find out for us, I'm going to have to imagine how Canberra’s very own Tea Party conversation went.

Kevin: Strange, isn't it? How similar you and I are, mate. And how entwined our fates.

Malcolm: Indeed.

Kevin: Has it ever occurred to you, hypothetically of course, what you and I could achieve if we worked together, in terms of logistical political specificity?

Malcolm: Absolutely.

For several long, drawn out seconds all we hear are the gentle sound of spoons tinkling against porcelain.

Malcolm: In fact, dare I say it we damn well did work well together! We nearly had that whole CPRS thing done and dusted. In the bag.

Kevin: Indeed.

Slow slurping sounds.

Kevin: As I said, hypothetically speaking, off the cuff as it were, the question is this: were I to wrestle back the leadership, would you think about coming over? I could offer you whatever you wanted. Treasury? Foreign affairs? Climate change?

Malcolm: All three, perhaps?

They both laugh.

Kevin: The bottom line is this, to be fair dinkum about it. Would you and I make a formidable team? Yes, of course we would. And let's face it, there's no one else on my side of the fence I could trust! Haha.

Malcolm: Funny you should ask. Because I was pretty much thinking the same thing myself.

Kevin: Australia’s Dream Team.

Malcolm: Tony’s nightmare!

Alexander Downer and Graham Richardson have both already called on Julia Gillard to stand down. Kevin Rudd, it appears, is the only possible replacement if Labor is to avoid a NSW style implosion. He is the only one with the faintest hope of winning back Labor supporters, and of implementing the carbon tax with any credibility. With Malcolm by his side, it would be a walk in the park. Bob Ellis has pointed out Malcolm’s long-standing suitability for membership of the Labor Party, including his spell chairing the Republican movement. He remains extremely popular not only with certain disillusioned Liberals, but with disheartened Labor supporters, too. Having Malcolm on Kevin’s team would give them added economic clout, allow Labor to dispense with the tortuous relationship with the Independents, in particular Andrew Wilkie and his pokies’ ticking time bomb, and would turn Rudd’s possibility of winning in 2013 into an absolute certainty.

Could it be that Australia might soon see a major realignment of the political landscape? If only we could read the tea leaves.


I trust the people of Tamworth take full advantage of their new $43 million dam upgrade, new $220 million hospital, new $42 million cancer centre, new $10 million maternity wing (designed to “make life less stressful for mums and dads”), new $20 million medical school facilities, new $2.4 million disability services, new $4.3 million GP Super Clinic, new $1.6 million youth care program (advice on drugs, alcohol etc), new flying school and – not to be confused with it – new Centacare pilot program.
It’s a hefty bill. And the rest of us are paying for it, every day.
Thanks to these and many others worthy items bestowed upon the electorates of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, such as the NBN start-up (seven customers and climbing) and a new Rural Financial Counseling service (to advise on how best to get money out of governments, perhaps?) the rest of Australia is forced to endure one of the least popular, least effective and least competent federal governments in our history.
Mischievously, Tony Windsor attempted to deflect attention from his role in anointing the Gillard government by claiming that Tony Abbott had offered to “sell his arse” in order to be Prime Minister.
In contrast Julia made no such anatomical offer. Instead she just sold the rest of us - down the river.
How ethical is the horse-trading which saw the two grinning Independents grab a wheelbarrow full of goodies for themselves in exchange for guaranteeing Julia Gillard and Bob Brown the keys to the nation's treasury?
“If a firm were to favour a company owned by a Director,” wrote Alan Moran, Director of the Institute of Public Affairs, “the activity would be recognised as theft from other shareholders. The Director would face jail.”
Yet in politics, particularly where minority governments are concerned, the granting of gifts to the favoured few is as old as democracy itself. Some argue that such trading is in fact the cornerstone of the democratic process. Under this theory, parliament is nothing more than a struggle between different lobby groups or tribes vying to grab as much of the national coin for themselves as possible, like a flock of gulls skirmishing over a discarded bag of fish guts. Indeed, isn't that the role of our elected representatives? To make a list of promises and then gallop off to the seat of power and come back laden with as much loot as they can fit in their saddlebags?
Country Independent and equine enthusiast Tony Windsor clearly thinks so. On his website, he brags: “My use of balance of power is achieving outcomes the Nationals were never able to.” On the ABC’s Q&A program earlier in the year he gleefully spelled out how he had piled his plate high at the Gillard smorgasbord. When a member of the audience asked “if we had a Tony Windsor as our local member, would our streets be paved with gold?” he smugly responded “Would silver do?” He then explained that “country people (have) always had that power and what I've tried to do is encourage people… to use the hung parliament to advantage in terms of this.”
Clearly, what Tony advocates is a system whereby the rest of the country is permanently held to ransom by a group of “balance-of-power” rural Independents. Taken to its logical conclusion, government business would be reduced to seat-by-seat bribery. (Readers more familiar with the corridors of power are probably struggling to think of any other definition of our current parliamentary system.) But again, what are the ethics? Just because "everybody does it" doesn't necessarily make it right.
"A democracy... can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public purse." This quote, attributed to 18th century historian Fraser Tytler, seems to be what Tony has in mind. But you don't have to be a maths genius, or indeed the Treasurer, to recognize that this system is ultimately doomed to empty the coffers. Ethically, it is clearly "wrong."
It is also "wrong" if the upshot of the horse-trading is a government that the rest of the country clearly can't stomach. Those who benefit from the current arrangement are fond of repeating the idiotic claim that "this is the government the country voted for." Er, no we didn’t. Only a measly 2.52% of us put down an Independent as our first choice. There is not a single voter in Australia who coveted a hung parliament with power resting in the hands of Windsor and Oakeshott, other than possibly Windsor and Oakeshott.
The "largesse" Tytler refers to in Oakeshott’s electorate of Lyne includes a multi-billion dollar grab-bag of goodies similar to Tony’s; such as hospitals, road upgrades, bridges and so on. Despite all that, one opinion poll puts his local support at less than 17%.

In exchange, the rest of the country gets lumbered with a government that after less than a year has the lowest polling figures ever, is introducing a tax the vast majority of people - according to repeated opinion polls - do not want, has made fools of us on the international stage over our on-again, off-again exports of both live cattle and live children, has had its flagship policy torn to shreds by the High Court and is so busy protecting one scandal-ridden MP that it is unable to worry about protecting the nation from the gathering clouds of rising unemployment and the next international financial crisis. Hardly a great bargain.        

John Howard recently said that “both Oakeshott and Windsor, if they run (again), will lose their seats.” Hopefully that means Tony can keep his derriere intact.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011


On ABC TV’s The Gruen Transfer, one of the most popular segments is ‘‘The Pitch’’, where rival ad agencies go head to head on a controversial subject. Although it’s a joke, the campaigns often manage to strike at the heart of the issues.
This week, two very different outfits decided to give it a go for real, tackling the vexed topic of coal seam gas (CSG) mining.
First the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) launched a TV blitz to sell us the positives of CSG mining. With a juicy budget funded by numerous energy companies, their ads are now airing nationally.
In the opposite corner, online lobby group GetUp! have made a commercial highlighting the negatives, and are pleading for donations to put it to air.
Both campaigns have a very simple goal. To force us to make up our minds about fracking; the process whereby natural gas (a greenhouse-friendly source of energy) is extracted from rock formations by injecting fluids and chemicals into fractures and splitting them open. Those fluids potentially find their way into the water table and our drinking water, and therein lie major public health and environmental concerns, as illustrated so graphically in the US documentary Gaslands.
Australian opponents claim not enough research has been done on the threat to aquifers. A recent poll suggested two-thirds of us would support a moratorium until more is known about the environmental impacts. In France, they’ve already banned fracking. In South Africa, Shell had to withdraw their ‘‘misleading’’ fracking ads.
APPEA’s Rick Wilkinson wants his ads to ‘‘restore the balance’’ in the debate, which has so far seen – on the ‘‘unbalanced’’ side – a 60,000-strong GetUp! petition, moves by Tony Windsor and the Greens to slow down the industry, a rural movement called ‘‘Lock The Gate Alliance’’ whose aim is pretty clear, a disturbing 60 Minutes feature, a Sydney Residents Against Coal Seam Gas lobby group agitating against mining in the metropolitan area, and Bob Katter’s Australia Party proposing a one-year ban.
“So…” as Wil Anderson says to his Gruen combatants, “let’s take a look at the ads.”
Wilkinson and co decided to feature ‘‘real people who are impacted by CSG and want to tell their own stories.’’ Built around the slogan of ‘‘We Want CSG’’ (I wonder how long it took the copywriter to come up with that one?) the lack of production values in the ads is only matched by the lack of hard information. Unnamed “real people” stare woodenly at the camera and mutter such inanities as “we need CSG” and “bring it on.” Self-interest and evasiveness appear to be the order of the day.
We learn that CSG is “breathing new life into country towns” and that it “means that our young people don’t have to leave town for work.” But the same, arguably, could have been said about asbestos mining. The so-called “facts” are merely descriptions of how much money the industry is spending, rather than a serious attempt to address the environmental, health and property rights issues troubling the community. From a strategy point of view, disappointing.
Still smarting, possibly, from the error of their Cate Blanchett carbon tax ad, GetUp! have also decided to feature “real people”. But unlike APPEA’s real people, these ones are happy to give us their names as they tell their somewhat alarming stories. The ad successfully taps a rich seam of compelling issues: “if they contaminate our water and land, where have we got to go?”; “(gas companies) can walk right over the top of me” and “the whole industry should be stopped until the science is known.”
One thing guaranteed to stir ‘‘Not In My Back Yard’’ opposition, it appears, is when you propose to start drilling against people’s will in their own back yards.
If the coal seam gas lobby is to have any luck reversing this growing community antagonism, their ads are going to have to be more than slogans and obfuscation. They need to be able to communicate that they understand the community’s concerns and are dealing honestly with them, and then articulate a clear strategic message that sells the benefits of CSG – including those that go beyond self-interest.
In the meantime, the GetUp! campaign, with its persuasive message and simple execution, is winning this pitch.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

JUMPING THE SHARK (Spectator editorial)

A fictitious TV sit-com called At Home With Julia has begun on the ABC, starring veteran Gillard impersonator Amanda Bishop and cult comedian Phil Lloyd. No doubt it will generate a few chuckles. But it will struggle to be anywhere near as dramatic, as tragic or even as downright funny as the real thing. Thus far, highlights of the ‘Real Julia’ show have included the Brutus-like slaying of a first term PM, the hanging-on-by-your-fingertips 2010 election results, the suspense-ridden pact with the Independents and Greens, the bare-faced lie of the carbon tax, and the bumbling will-she or won’t-she confusion of banning live animal exports; all spiced up with titillating undercurrents of prostitution, embezzlement and union skullduggery.
But as with all great soap operas, there comes a point when the plotline becomes so ludicrous, the scenarios so unbelievable, and the dialogue so preposterous, that viewers start switching off in droves. In the classic 70’s series Happy Days, it was the moment the Fonz famously went water-skiing in his leather jacket and jumped over a shark that signaled the end was nigh. Viewers could no longer suspend their disbelief; the ratings plummeted and it wasn’t long before the series was axed. Clearly, the High Court’s rejection of the Malaysian solution and the government’s response is equally absurd. Indeed, is this the moment Julia “jumped the shark”? The farce has now gone on too long, and even for the most ardent fans, the whole show has become unbearable to watch.
Labor die-hard Phillip Adams took to the opinion pages of the Australian this week to urge the PM to make way for the very predecessor she knifed a little more than a year ago. (Who killed KR?) Mr Rudd has long been suspected of briefing against the current Prime Minister, and the first weeks of her government were marred by cabinet leaks widely thought to have come from her predecessor. Mr Adams’ column, which gave Kevin Rudd full credit for steering Australia through the first global financial crisis, also questioned Gillard’s ability to do the same when the next round of economic shockwaves hit. Was this article evidence that Rudd is now in full campaign mode to get his job back? After all, Kevin and Phillip are very close, with the former Prime Minister giving his first interview after last year’s party room coup to none other than Mr Adams on ABC’s Late Night Live.
Should Labor panic and decide to replace Ms Gillard, the fact remains that the party is in an untenable position. So long as it tries to straddle both its old, conservative working-class base and its socially progressive inner-city ‘elite’, the ALP will be unable to move forward whilst being eroded by the Greens on one side and the Coalition on the other.
No doubt, the anxious scriptwriters of the ‘Real Julia’ melodrama will hope to drag the ending out as long as they possibly can. As we speak, they are presumably arguing whether to spruce up the roles of some of the duller characters; like ‘Cleanskin’ Smith, ‘Dreary’ Combet or ‘Junior’ Shorten. They may even, in their desperation, attempt to emulate what the greatest soapie of them all, Dallas, so successfully did: resurrect Kevin and pretend that the last 12 months was all just a bad dream.

Monday, 5 September 2011


The three girls sitting opposite can’t take their eyes off us. Eventually it becomes too much for one of them (the pretty one) and she saunters over and shyly introduces herself. To Mark, of course, not the rest of us. Mark smiles and shakes her hand, and that’s all it takes for the other two to rush over, pen and napkin poised for an autograph, mobile phones at the ready for the inevitable photograph.

“We really miss you,” gushes one of them. She even grabs his hand. “You should sooo never have quit. You should be the PM, not her.”  The other two giggle in agreement. Mark smiles bashfully and gives a dismissive wave of his over-sized hand. “Naah,” he says in his unmistakable Werriwa drawl, “I had my crack at it.”

An evening with Mark Latham is an enlightening affair. The pub he has chosen is the Kirribilli Hotel in Tory-town, only a stone’s throw from the large house on the harbour he nearly got to call home. He would have fitted in well. The locals can’t seem to get enough of him. A man who introduces himself as “the Mayor of Kirribilli”, and who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ray ‘Rabbits’ Warren, is just one of the many patrons of the pub who finds an excuse to drift over and tell Mark the same two things: how much they like him. And how much they dislike Julia. “Come back, mate. All is forgiven!” he growls, to the nodding approval of those around him. Even as we attempt to leave the pub, Mark is bailed up by more people on the pavement, echoing the same sentiment. Like the best pollies with the “common touch”, he insists on chatting to each and every one of them in turn while the rest of us wait patiently on the sidewalk, shivering.

Over dinner we get the famous “taxi-driver-with-the-broken-elbow” yarn, complete with a visual re-enactment of the bone-snapping tackle and plateloads of humour and self-deprecation. He must’ve told it a thousand times before, but he makes the story sound as fresh as the tuna sashimi we tuck into. The meal is in a Japanese restaurant, around a low table, with dishes intended to share. Mark takes the beef hot-pot and picks up a knife and fork. “What are you lot having?” he asks, tucking in. It suddenly occurs to me that the “handshake episode” that possibly cost him the election was completely misunderstood. Latham wasn’t trying to intimidate Howard. He was probably quite pleased to bump into him and was just being himself - a brusque, forthright, no-frills Aussie bloke.

Also present are Tom Switzer, Michael Kroger, Janet Albrechtsen and former NSW minister Michael Yabsley. Two safe topics of conversation present themselves. One is Michael Yabsley’s passion for the byzantine inner workings of antique lamps. The other is the byzantine inner machinations of the ABC. Sorry Michael, but we’ll have to do the lamps next time.

Five days later I am standing in the foyer of the ABC, no longer contemplating her inner workings, but rather heading off to lunch in Chinatown with an old advertising friend, Paul Comrie-Thomson, who now, along with Michael Duffy, presents Radio National’s Counterpoint program. Paul and I first met filming a TV commercial featuring a dog called Spot Dixon, whose owner had a unique way of getting the gunk out of the corner of the dog’s eye for its close ups. She’d lick it out.

Paul and I had discussed the carbon tax ads on a previous show, where I’d suggested they were nothing more than (taxpayer-funded) highly polished corporate ads for some mob called Infigen. Today we learn that Infigen had debts of $1.25 billion at the end of the 2011 financial year. No mention of that amongst the beautiful imagery and heart-felt eulogies to the wonders of windmills and solar power.

Having never actually listened to Countdown before my first appearance, I made a point of tuning in the previous week. Paul was interviewing Peter Toohey, an academic, about his book called “Boredom: A Lively History.” I listened for the full twenty minutes, convinced I had stumbled upon the greatest comic duo since Derek and Clive, as they managed to turn a lengthy discussion about “how boredom can be good for you” into something that was achingly, compellingly, and utterly, er, uninteresting. Sheer genius.

Paul and I have been exploring the theme of the Truth Well Told, which is the old McCann’s advertising slogan. QANTAS, in their latest campaign, seem to have turned the idea on its head by delivering Half-truths Poorly Told. We reminisce about the days when a QANTAS trip symbolized a rite of passage for an entire generation, as we all headed off to “do Europe.” Hilariously, you could even smoke on airlines in those days, and the in-flight entertainment involved seeing how many tinnies you could skull before you landed in London. That was the real spirit of QANTAS. I can’t wait to see what the “new” one will be.

Listening to the radio on the way home, it’s clear there’s a new spirit in Canberra. This one’s called “defeat”, and it must be hanging in the spring air as visibly as the pollen from the Floriade. “This is a dagger through the heart of the Gillard government,” opines Graham Richardson, as the news comes through that the High Court has pronounced the Malaysian solution unlawful. Some months ago I wrote a spoof article in this magazine about how people smugglers would be encouraged, rather than deterred, by this ham-fisted policy. But even drawing on whatever meagre satirical skills I may possess, I couldn’t have imagined how farcical this whole shemozzle would become.

Come back Mark, all is forgiven.

HOWARD v HICKS (Spectator editorial)

This week, attractive ABC Newsreader Juanita Phillips suddenly started wearing glasses. But it's her employers who are clearly having problems seeing straight.

It's hard to think of a more myopic sense of perspective than that displayed by the decision to devote an hour’s "special" on Tuesday night to telling the “Australian story” of failed terrorist David Hicks, and only nine minutes and eleven seconds to interviewing former Prime Minister John Howard. Is this the public broadcaster’s idea of commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9/11?

Howard’s brief interview with the impressive and skilled Chris Uhlmann made for compelling viewing. It included as succinct a diagnosis of the problems plaguing the current government as you will find anywhere. On Gillard: “She lacks authority.” On the hung parliament: “The experiment of a new paradigm - this cosmopolitan Coalition - hasn't worked.” On Tony Abbott’s so-called negativity: “None of the big reforms of my government, none of them, were supported by the Labor Party in Opposition.” On industrial relations: “Well, it's blindingly obvious that one of the worst mistakes Julia Gillard has made is to re-regulate the labour market. It is affecting our productivity and it will therefore affect our competitiveness.” On the Greens: “They have a deep anti-Israeli streak in them which frightens and concerns a lot of people.” On the Independents: “I think both Oakeshott and Windsor, if they run (again), will lose their seats.” On China: “America and Australia will always be closer than China and Australia because we have shared values.” There was even a bit of friendly banter, as John laughingly admitted to Chris that: “You haven't lost your touch.”

All in a hurried nine minutes. Followed by a tedious, self-pitying, inaccurate and dissembling hour-long interview lauding the robotic David Hicks, built around such banalities as: “As a child, David was into the more natural side of things.”

It’s about time Auntie got her eyesight checked.