Saturday, November 7, 2015

My war with ‘Wow!’

Plus: The posthumous wit of Oscar Wilde and the curious poignancy of Murder, She Wrote

Barry Humphries

I’m counting ‘Wows!’ Suddenly everyone is using this irritating expletive expressing incredulity, amazement and nothing at all. I’ve heard it from the lips of daughters in law, professors of literature, rabbis and housewives. No doubt at least one priest has said it after a particularly lurid confession. It is spreading like leprosy over ordinary discourse and will, in time, die out like ‘Zounds’ or ‘Gee whizz’. I wonder if it will turn up as an anachronism in Downton Abbey? I saw on television the other night a superb production of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with great performances from David Thewlis, Ken Stott and Miranda Richardson. The adaptation was impeccable and no one said ‘Wow!’ but there was a jarring moment when one actor referred to ‘the bottom line’, briefly wrenching me back into the present.

Another star-studded celebration of Oscar Wilde (his birthday) at the Langham Hotel, hosted by Gyles Brandreth and Oscar’s grandson Merlin Holland. Some ignorant malapert said in the Observer the other day that Wilde never wrote anything when he came out of the slammer. What about De Profundis and the post-vinicular Ballad of Reading Gaol? And what about his voluminous discarnate witticisms, many dictated in automatic writing to Mrs Hester Travers Smith, the distinguished medium. ‘Being dead is the most boring experience in life, if, that is, one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster.’

I’ve lately fallen into the habit of chewing the right corner of my lower lip in moments of scepticism. I know why I do it. It’s an unconscious homage to that great actor Michael Kitchen, who invented this mannerism for his flawless impersonation of Christopher Foyle in my favourite TV show. I’ve watched Foyle’s War countless times and my admiration for the writer Anthony Horowitz, Mr Kitchen, glorious Honeysuckle Weeks and their satellites continues to grow. John Betjeman would certainly have worshipped Sam in her ATS uniform and lyle stockings. If Hester Travis Smith was still with us, I’m sure that Betjeman would send her Ouija board spinning at the mere whiff of Honeysuckle.

Other shows I enjoy late at night on my new TV set are Murder, She Wrote and The Professionals, the latter for its pacey, modern camerawork and its glimpses of old London in the far-off 1970s, when phones rang and characters picked up cordless handsets the size of small cars. Angela Lansbury’s wonderful series set in Cabot Cove — surely the murder capital of the world — is riveting, not just because one can never get enough of Angela Lansbury, but because all the male characters have terrible wigs and the women have hair and shoulders that fill the screen. Some of these late-night diversions have, for me, a certain poignancy as I count the few cast members who are still alive.

Last weekend I was in Nice with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley for their new Ab Fab movie. I played a small but striking role as the sleazy old boyfriend of Patsy at a pool party festooned with Russian babes. My usual theatrical work is rather solitary, so this was a heart-warming tonic. Later, gorgeous Miss Lumley and I dined in a modest bistro, but I noticed a middle-aged couple at a nearby table were staring rather hard at my companion. ‘ENT,’ I whispered across the table. It was my mother’s customary acronym when, during my early schooldays, she took me to one of her ladies’ luncheons in a Melbourne tea shop and noticed a rather conspicuously dressed couple at a nearby table: the woman rather loud and toothy, the man in mustard-coloured corduroy trousers, suede shoes and houndstooth jacket with un-Australian side vents. ‘ENT.’ English Next Table. Sure enough the star of Absolutely Fabulous had been clocked by a British tourist. ‘I’m so sorry to interrupt your privacy,’ he said, husky with reticence. He then politely expressed his admiration for several of Miss Lumley’s achievements; compliments she received with her habitual grace. Oddly enough, I went unrecognised, although on reflection the nice man from Ealing might have been too awestruck to accost me.

On the Côte d’Azur the dead have the best views; it made me think of Gstaad, where the best aspect of the valley is from a hostel for the blind. I drove over to Menton yesterday and climbed the hill to the cemetery to pay my respects at the tombs of Aubrey Beardsley and Katherine Mansfield. A night off last Saturday in the restaurant at the Negresco in Nice, a marvellous belle époque hotel which, alas, has been expensively ‘reimagined’ by a colourblind decorator and kitsch-meister and been utterly ruined. ‘Vulgarity is the rich man’s modest contribution to democracy,’ posthumously quipped Oscar Wilde to Mrs Travers Smith in 1928. Wow!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Food fight : the origins of Australian cult foods up for debate

Forget politics. Or religion. Same-sex marriage? Nuh-uh.

The best way to ensure some robust debate between friends (especially those interstate or international) is to claim ownership of a certain foodstuff.

Don't believe us?

Take the Neenish Tart.

Essays have been written about the origins of the humble staple of country bakeries nationwide and still, the matter is not settled.

Indeed, the Sydney Morning Herald's famed Column 8 has devoted column inches to the contentious matter in a highly entertaining debate between readers over the years. 

Some believe the tasty pastry came from the kitchens of one Ruby Neenish, of Grong Grong, NSW.

Others believe that story, and Mrs Neenish herself, are a fiction.

The earliest recorded recipe of the bi-coloured bite can be found in Miss Drake's Home Cookery, written by Lucy Drake, published in 1929 in Glenferrie, Victoria.

The CWA, for their part, have laid strong claim to the tart, those of German and Austrian descent proffer their own links but we must assume, its true birthplace might never be known.


A Giant Neenish Tart? Controversial. 

So in the sweet spirit of taking a bite out of each other, we bring you our top seven foods claimed to be all-Australian - both contested and confirmed in their beginnings.



The Chiko Roll

The Aussie classic (that, in fact, contains no chicken) was invented by Frank McEncroe, born in Castlemaine but later a boilermaker from Bendigo, Victoria - both towns claim him as a favoured son.

In 1950, McEncroe saw a competitor selling Chinese chop suey rolls outside Richmond Cricket Ground and hit upon the idea of a substantial snack that could be held in one hand leaving the other free for more important business at the footy - opening a cold one, for instance.

The Chiko Roll, debuted at the Wagga Wagga Agriculture Show in 1951 but made a triumphant return to the southern state in 1960s, McEncroe moved to Melbourne with his family and began to manufacture the rolls en masse.



The Meat Pie

Woah Nelly! The meat pie an Australian invention? Many, many countries lay claim to the mighty meat pie, firstly by Ancient Egyptians (9500 BC), Greeks, Romans, the English, Latin Americans and on and on and on.

But, you'd be inviting trouble if you denied Australia fair bragging rights in the invention of the snack in its current form.

One of the most famous was first produced in 1947 by L. T. McClure in a small bakery in Bendigo and was destined to become the famous Four'N'Twenty.

Older still, Sargents Pies can trace their pie making back to 1906, but George, Charlotte and Foster Sargent - before they lit out on their own - had already been selling pies for a penny in a small shop in Paddington, Sydney since 1891.

In South Australia, Balfours and Vili's have both been making pies for more than 100 years.

Which brings us to…



The Pie Floater

The pie floater - an upside-down pie in a bowl of pea soup, topped with either tomato sauce or, sometimes, Worcestershire Sauce (controversial, we know) - was reputedly invented by a South Australian Port Pirie baker known as Ern 'Shorty' Bradley at the turn of the 20th century. Woolloomooloo's Harry Cafe De Wheels deserves an honourable mention for having served the, uh, attractive dish since it opened its shutters in 1938. 



The Lamington

Most of the argy-bargy surrounding the origins of the Lamington concern the name - while most agree it was named after Lord Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901, although some reckon it was for his wife, Lady Lamington. Another account reckons they were named after the Scottish village of Lamington, South Lanarkshire, however this may be pure semantics as the Lord hailed from Lamington and now we are splitting coconut flakes…

It is mostly accepted the treats were first served in Toowoomba in 1900 when Lord Lamington took his entourage to Harlaxton House to escape the heat of Brisbane.



The Dim Sim

Invented right here in Melbourne by Chinese chef William Wing Young for his restaurant Wing Lee around 1945.

But the mighty meaty dim sim really got its cult following at the South Melbourne Markets sold by Melbourne legend Ken (Kuen) Cheng from 1949 until his death in 2006. Vale.



The Iced Vovo 

Kevin Rudd poured a giant cup of cold tea on the Labor Party faithful's celebrations at being returned to power after 11 years in the wilderness in 2007 by suggesting everyone calm down and have an Iced Vovo.

But a greater shock to the system is that the iconic jammy biscuit isn't actually ours.

Or so those dastardly New Zealand types would have us believe. Apparently a Kiwi biscuit company going by the name Auselbrooks, established in the 1860s, were making Iced VoVos well before Arnotts registered the name.

And Arnotts have quietly acknowledged this to be true.

Humph. Enough to make one take a Bex and have a good lie down.



The Pavlova

Ah. The great bone of contention between Australians and our Kiwi cousins.

So the story goes like this. (The real story. Promise).

Inspired by visits by the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova during her 1926 and 1929 tours of Australia, Western Australian chef Herbert Sachse of Perth's Hotel Esplanade created a confection that was "as light" as the prima ballerina herself. End of story.

Except, these origins are heavily disputed by New Zealanders who claim their cookbooks have older versions of the fruity, creamy, light, delicious summer dessert.

Likely story.


Anyway, you can always complement your meal - pie floater, meat pie, Pavlova, anyone? - with a glass or two of "plonk".

It's a term that came from Australian soldiers on the Western Front in France during World War I.

To their untutored ears, vin blanc - white wine - sounded like "plonk".

They adopted it as their word for all forms of wine, and brought it home, where it stayed. So it's a well-travelled term.

And it's ours.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Henry Every: The King of Pirates

Henry Every (or Avery) is remembered for capturing the richest pirate prize ever and also for apparently being wise enough to retire from the business and enjoy his ill-gotten gains. 

He was born in the West Country of England, famous for providing England with a large percentage of its seafarers.  He served briefly in the Royal Navy, and then moved on to the slave trade, where the pay was better although dishonorable. 

In 1693, he was serving as first mate on the Spanish privateer Charles II when the crew became disgruntled and mutinied.  The ship was renamed Fancy and Every was elected captain.  After plundering ships off West Africa, they moved into the Indian Ocean. 

In 1695, the Fancy had reached the Red Sea and joined up with a number of other pirates.  They launched an uncoordinated attack on the Mughal treasure fleet that included the main treasure ship Ganj-i-sawai and the smaller Fateh Muhammed. 

Thomas Tew, commanding the pirate sloop Amity, was killed in an attack on the Fateh Muhammed.  The Mughal ship, though, had incurred significant damage from that attack and was unable to withstand a second attack by Every on the heavily-armed Fancy.  Every then turned his attention to the even larger Ganj-i-sawai, capturing it also. 

The pirate crew was incensed by the damage inflicted by the Indian vessels and promptly tortured and killed most of the Indian sailors and soldiers on board.  They also attacked the Indian women on board, many of whom committed suicide to escape their fate. 

The treasure on the two Indian ships was enormous, with an estimated value of £600,000.  Every’s share made him the richest pirate in history. 

Because Britain was seeking good relations with the Mughal Empire, it launched a worldwide manhunt for Every and his crew.  They had fled to the Bahamas, where they divided the treasure and split up.  Many, though, were eventually captured, tried, convicted, and hanged. 

Henry Every was never heard of again.  Rumors circulated that he had changed his identity and assumed a quiet life back home in the West Country, but there was no evidence to support the story.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Gough Island: One of the most remote and pristine islands in the world

Gough Island in located in the South Atlantic Ocean, somewhat closer to Africa than to South America, being 2,000 miles from South America while a mere 1,500 miles from Africa.  It is about 250 miles south-southeast of the Tristan da Cunha group.  It is part of the United Kingdom Overseas Territory of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha. 

There is no permanent human habitation except for a six-person meteorological team from South Africa that changes out with new individuals each year. 

The island and its outlying rocks cover approximately 35 square miles.  The highest elevation, Edinburgh Peak, rises to a height of almost 3,000 feet. 

The island was discovered by Gonçalo Álvares in 1505 when he nearly bumped into it while on a voyage from Portugal to India.  It was visited briefly by an English mariner in 1675 and then neglected until 3 March 1732 when it was visited and accurately charted by the British merchant Charles Gough. 

During the nineteenth century Gough Island was occasionally visited by sealers.  It was formally claimed by the UK in 1938. 

Due to its minimal human contact and its distance from large landmasses, Gough Island is one of the least-disrupted marine ecosystems in the cool temperate zone.  There are no indigenous mammals and the last rats have been eradicated.  It is home to one of the largest colonies of sea birds and to two endemic species of land birds – the almost flightless Gough moorhen and the Gough finch.  There are also twelve endemic species of plants. The island hosts 22 species of seabirds, including albatrosses and petrels, as well as penguins. 

It is of volcanic origin, sharing the same submerged mantle plume as Tristan da Cunha, but is composed of more ancient material described as of Large Low Shear Velocity Providence (you have to admire the ingenuity of geologists to come up with such a term).

While the volcano on Tristan da Cunha is active, the one on Gough Island is long extinct.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

One Diagram That Will Change the Way You Look At the US Economy

The US is by far the largest economy in the World, with a nominal GDP of $17.4 trillion in 2014. However, it is not the World leader in all economic sectors: the US is a service-based economy, with a smaller focus on agriculture and industry than other countries (though its industrial and agricultural sectors are still the second- and third-largest in the World due to the sheer size of the US economy).

The graphic above (Voronoi diagram) represents the relative size of each country’s economy in terms of nominal GDP: the larger the area, the larger the size of the economy. The areas are further divided into three sectors: services, industrial, and agricultural. The US economy is mostly composed of companies engaged in providing services (79.7% compared to the global average of 63.6%), while agriculture and industry make up smaller-than-average of portions of the economy (1.12% and 19.1% compared to averages of 5.9% and 30.5%).

The next largest economy, China, is roughly balanced between industry and services (though the service sector is growing at a faster rate), with a 9.1% contribution from agriculture. In this sense, China is a bit of an anomaly: other rich countries have service sectors that greatly outweigh both industry and agriculture. Over the past several decades, China has leveraged its competitive advantage and designed industrial policies to incent manufacturing in the country. But as China grows, it will continue to transition to a service-based economy. Similarly, India will see a decrease in agriculture’s contribution to its GDP and an increase in the size of the service sector.

Over time, the service sectors of developed nations have tended to grow relative to the other sectors. But are there limits to this trend? What is the natural size of each sector?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Army Cadets on Campus Forced to Wear Red High Heels and Raise Awareness of Debunked ‘Rape Culture’

Those who did their homework in 2008 knew that when Barack Obama was elected, all aspects of American society would suffer unprecedented levels of  left-wing lunacy, but did anyone think it would come to this?

Patriotic young cadets — America’s future warrior — pressured to walk around in bright red high heels on campus — against their will  – or face retribution.

Via the Washington Times:

Army ROTC cadets are complaining on message boards that they were pressured to walk in high heels on Monday for an Arizona State University campus event designed to raise awareness of sexual violence against women.

The Army openly encouraged participating in April’s “Walk A Mile in Her Shoes” events in 2014, but now it appears as though ROTC candidates at ASU were faced with a volunteer event that became mandatory.

“Attendance is mandatory and if we miss it we get a negative counseling and a ‘does not support the battalion sharp/EO mission’ on our CDT OER for getting the branch we want. So I just spent $16 on a pair of high heels that I have to spray paint red later on only to throw them in the trash after about 300 of us embarrass the U.S. Army tomorrow,” one anonymous cadet wrote on the social media sharing website Imgr, IJReview reported Monday.

The only silver lining to this story is that comments on social media – Twitter, Facebook,  Reddit, and Tumblr –  have been overwhelmingly negative. In fact, I have yet to see a comment in support of this embarrassing nonsense.

“This makes me want to throw up!” said one Twitter user. “No doubt…. Too many mentally ill people have gotten into positions of power who then put their mentally ill friends into power,” said a another savvy tweeter.

In a Reddit discussion thread on the subject — titled, “Okay, who put the cadets up to this?” — a user confirmed that the claims were legitimate and added, “I just don’t understand why [General] Combs would court political controversy like this. Isn’t the military supposed to avoid faddish political movement and religious issues.”

During the Obama years, the military has become a hostile environment for Christian chaplains, and Christians in general. By the spring of 2013 — after Obama had been safely reelected — the hostility became palpable. That April, it was widely reported that an Army instructor in Pennsylvania had labeled evangelical Christians, Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Mormons “religious extremists” alongside Hamas and al Qaeda during an Army Reserve Equal Opportunity training brief on extremism.

Later that month, an Army officer at Ft. Campbell, KY, sent an email to subordinates using similar descriptions to describe two mainstream Christian ministries that were put in the same category as Neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, white nationalists and the Ku Klux Klan. Shortly after that, the United States Army blocked the website of the Southern Baptist Convention from government computers.

Now we see the fundamental transformation of our military taking giant (and high-heeled) strides at ROTC detachments at college campuses.

Said my 14-year-old daughter as she happened by my computer while the photo of the cadets wearing heels was displayed: “Welp — there goes the military.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Kerguelen Archipelago

An isolated sub-Antarctic group of islands under French administration

A desolate group of islands, islets, and rocks in the southern Indian Ocean lie about 2,000 miles southeast of South Africa and about 1,000 miles north of Antarctica.  The archipelago constitutes the highest portion of the largely submerged Kerguelen Plateau, a 1,500 mile long basalt structure formed by gigantic lava flows about 100 million years ago. 

Lying on the Antarctic Convergence, the archipelago’s weather is harsh, with precipitation (rain, sleet, or snow) more than 300 days annually.  Winds average over 60 miles per hour, with frequent hurricane-strength gusts.  Temperatures average 40°F.

Despite conditions that are uncomfortable for humans (or possibly because of those conditions), numerous animals reside in abundance on this land or in the adjacent waters.  Seabirds, such as albatross, petrels, and terns call Kerguelen home, as do four species of penguin.  There are an estimated 12 million breeding pairs of Macaroni penguins regularly on the archipelago.  Southern elephant seals and Kerguelen fur seals, hunted almost to extinction in the nineteenth century, are now well established. 

The archipelago was discovered in 1772 by a French expedition commanded by Chevalier Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec.  When British Captain James Cook landed there in 1776, he called the archipelago the Desolation Islands. 

During the nineteenth century, whalers and sealers (primarily from Great Britain, the United States, and Norway) hunted whales, elephant seals, fur seals, and penguins to the point that the industry was no longer economically viable. 

During the early portion of World War II, the German auxiliary cruiser Atlantis called at the Kerguelen Archipelago for maintenance and resupply. 

Since 1950, the French Government has maintained a contingent of scientists, meteorologists, and soldiers on Grand Terre, the largest of the islands.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Revenge of the Kiwis: the tide turns in New Zealand’s favour

Jennifer Zhu, a former Australian public servant, was writing briefing notes for incoming prime minister Tony Abbott when she hatched her own Pacific solution.

She leans forward so her story can be heard above the rhythmic grunts of the dragon boat teams gliding across New Zealand’s ­Wellington harbour at dusk. “I was in Canberra working on the briefings for the change of ­government [in 2013] when I realised how much the public service was going to be cut [under Abbott],” she says. Her Australian boyfriend, ­fellow public servant Iain McKenzie, 28, chimes in: “We could see that promotions were unlikely.”

“So I looked up a website,” continues Zhu, 27, who now works for ­Immigration New Zealand, “and there were lots of government jobs here. We thought, ‘Why not?’ ” After a year in Wellington, they haven’t looked back. “We both have good [public service] jobs and it’s a much more relaxed culture,” says Iain. “We’re not leaving anytime soon.”

More than 500km north, in the dairy capital of Hamilton, Australian Mark Neal sits under a large tree and listens to his wife Megan talk about leaving their family farm in Taree to move to New Zealand with their three young children. “This is a gem of a place,” says Megan. “Mark has a job he loves and I’ve just got part-time work [as a financial analyst] which was so hard to get in Australia, because there is no culture to support professional women who want to return to work less than full time.” She throws her hands in the air. “I feel like screaming to Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, ‘Can’t you see that the [work- family] culture in Australia is broken!’ They could really learn some lessons from this place.”

Down south, in the Marlborough wine district on New Zealand’s South Island, Jim White strides in from the vineyards wearing shorts, boots and a ruddy-faced grin. “I’m just a glorified farmer,” he says in a broad Aussie twang. But this former University of Melbourne student, now viticulturist for the Cloudy Bay winery, is another refugee who has jumped the Tasman. “The wine industry here is more vibrant than in Australia,” he says, explaining why he brought his wife Nikki and their two young children to live in New Zealand. “When we got here we realised how many other Australians had come over. But we love it and I guess we are helping to reverse the tide.”

For more than 20 years, “the tide” has been a one-way wave that has defined and sometimes even threatened to swamp relations between Australians and New Zealanders. The relentless flow to Australia of some 40,000 Kiwis each year spawned a mythology of its own. They were dubbed Bondi Bludgers who either stole our jobs or sucked up our welfare. In 1986, ­Liberal MP Alexander Downer scurrilously claimed single New Zealand women were ­coming here to give birth just so they could get supporting parent’s benefits. Such was the ­concern, the Howard government in 2001 made Kiwis ineligible for most housing, healthcare and unemployment benefits. Comedian Vince Sorrenti reflected the mood of those times when he quipped on national tele­vision: “To all you New Zealanders, there are only 27 shoplifting days left to Christmas!”

From the Kiwi point of view, Australia was the land of milk and honey, a rich big brother who would help set you up for life. “For about 20 years, wages were roughly 30 per cent higher [in Australia], so you just got on a plane. Jobs were plentiful and you just made money,” says Colin James, one of New Zealand’s foremost political analysts. “It was just an assumption for so long that we in New Zealand were stuck with a net outflow of people so what has now ­happened has become quite a talking point.”

What has happened is that somewhere, somehow, perhaps in the dead of night when no one was looking, Australia and New Zealand have swapped sides. Cocky, confident Australia is now home to dysfunctional politics, yawning budget deficits, rising unemployment and an electorate unwilling to accept tough reforms.

By contrast, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is running the most successful and ­stable centre-right government in the world. Whereas Abbott might not survive his first term as leader, Key, 53, is into his third term and has never been more popular. Key presides over a country that is no longer a dead-end backwater but one that enjoys plentiful jobs, strong economic growth and is on the cusp of a budget surplus. All this despite its second-largest city, Christchurch, being devastated by the earthquake of February 22, 2011, which left 185 people dead, the city centre in ruins and a $40 billion clean-up.

Even the Kiwi dollar, for so long the poor cousin to our own currency, is at virtual parity these days. “I’ve been here for 15 years and I’ve never seen this before,” mutters the woman at the Melbourne airport currency exchange as she hands me fewer $NZ than I gave her in $A. “They must be doing something right over there.”

GDP growth in New Zealand last year was 3.3 per cent compared with 2.8 per cent in ­Australia, while unemployment was 5.7 per cent in the December quarter compared with 6.1 per cent (now 6.3 per cent) here. Forget rugby; New ­Zealand is winning a bigger game. When Abbott visited New Zealand in February, he had to ­concede Key has led “a very successful, a really, really successful centre-right government. There are lessons for ­Australia in what you have done.” By contrast, the New Zealand press pack suppressed giggles when Key told an Australian journalist: “I think it’s a bit harsh to describe it [Australia] as one of the more unstable democracies in the Pacific.”

As a result of this trans-Tasman shift in ­fortunes, we are seeing something we have not seen for a generation. The tide of Kiwis coming to our shores has ebbed while the number of those going back home has flowed. This year the trans-Tasman migration is likely to be in New Zealand’s favour — something that has not been seen since Australia had “the recession it had to have” in the early 1990s.

Sociology professor Paul Spoonley from New Zealand’s Massey University says the net number of Kiwis moving to Australia has fallen from 33,652 in 2013 (53,067 Kiwis coming here and 19,425 returning) to 12,823 in 2014 (37,193 coming and 24,370 returning) to only 2024 in the year to January (28,515 coming, 26,491 returning). “This net loss to Australia in the 12 months to January 2015 is the smallest since 1992,” he says. “These are hugely significant figures.”

James says the trend has killed the so-called “brain drain” to Australia as a political issue. “For the past 35 years ­opposition parties in New Zealand have accused governments of sending Kiwis to Australia, but that sort of talk at a political level has now ­completely died.”

Sitting in his office in the “Beehive” ministerial building in Wellington, Prime Minister Key smiles and points out the window towards the Westpac Stadium, known locally as The Cake Tin. Before he was elected in 2008, Key made a campaign advertisement in the empty stadium pointing to the 34,500 chairs and saying that they represented the brain drain which New Zealand lost to Australia each year.

“If you look at that stadium down the road, The Cake Tin, that’s when we said, ‘Look around, this is the equivalent of how many go to Australia each year’ and now we will say you could have them in a telephone box,” he says. “What you’ve got is a combination of New ­Zealanders not going to Australia, New ­Zealanders returning from Australia and people coming from the rest of the world. I think it is because people are quite pragmatic — if the job opportunities are there, people will gravitate towards them.”

Key says Australia’s mining sector and growth in the big cities has slowed, making the country less attractive. “It is harder; I don’t think the opportunities are there in the same way, while on the other side of the equation there are lots of opportunities here in New Zealand and while they may make less money the cost of ­living is generally a lot lower.”

Mark Kenneally strides to the front gate of his house in Blenheim, the heart of the South Island’s Marlborough wine country, and declares himself “a proud Australian” and “an Adelaide Crows supporter”. He studied viti­culture in Adelaide but his plan to work in the wine ­industry in his native South Australia was soon derailed. “The opportunities were not there that year for university leavers in viticulture,” says Kenneally, 32, who graduated five years ago. “So I got on the net and saw there were opportunities in New Zealand and I got the first job I applied for. My wife Emma is a theatre nurse and so we googled the local hospital here and realised there were jobs there also. We needed to make a call about our future and we did.”

Mark and Emma moved to New Zealand with a two-year plan but now — five years on and with an 18-month-old-son, Jack, and another baby on the way — they call it home. “It has been great,” says Mark, now the vineyards manager and “vintrepreneur” with Matua Wines. “It is such a laid-back place, it feels just like Australia did when I was growing up, it’s really affordable, people are friendly and it’s a great climate.”

“There are definitely a lot more Australians coming out here lately,” says Peter Jackson, who along with his wife Nadine Worley were among the first wave of Australian winemakers who came to Marlborough a decade ago when the New Zealand wine industry was taking off. “There would be at least 50 Australians here now,” says Jackson as he sips coffee in a ­Blenheim cafe with Nadine. “Nope, I reckon more like 100,” she says.

“When we first came here the exodus of Kiwis to Australia was in the news almost every day,” says Jackson. “It would show these Kiwis in their big houses on the Gold Coast talking about how rich they were getting. But you don’t see that stuff these days.”

Australian winemaker Anna Flowerday is shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun as she stands with her Kiwi husband Jason amid the lush vineyards of their small family winery, Te Whare Ra Wines. “I’m really not tempted to go back to Australia,” says the 40-year-old mother of two sets of twin girls, seven and 10. “To be honest, the current government there is not exactly making me homesick, it is too unstable.”

“In a business like ours, stability is really important,” says Jason, who moved to ­Marlborough with Anna a decade ago. “We are up to here in debt,” says Anna, holding her hands up to her neck, “so we need that confidence, that certainty, to keep investing and make the right decisions about the kids’ future.”

Ironically, John Key was mentored in politics by John Howard and Australia was his early template. Key recalls his first meeting in ­Canberra with the then prime minister in 2006 when Key was opposition leader. “He [Howard] said to me, “OK, do you want to know how to win elections, and do you drink tea? He said, ‘Here are some of the things you have to do’ and he knew more about some of the New Zealand electorates than I knew.”

Three election victories later, Key says ­Howard’s “list” of election-winning strategies still holds true. “My own personal view is that Howard is the best centre-right leader in my lifetime. It’s not just that he won four elections but I reckon his innate sense of understanding middle Australia, the Aussie battler, and to be on their side with a very clear sense of what it takes to make their life better is really strong.”

The greatest contrast between the way Key runs New Zealand and how the Abbott, Gillard and Rudd Governments have behaved is that Key does not tend to spring nasty surprises on his voters. He has avoided Australia’s recent political pattern of lavish announcements ­followed by ignominious retreats on issues like the mining tax, carbon tax, maternity leave scheme and Medicare co-payment.

“Key’s recipe for implementing reform is simple — his government spends at least as much time on carefully preparing policy changes as it spends on their implementation,” writes Oliver Hartwich, author of Quiet ­Achievers: the New Zealand Path to Reform, released in December by the Menzies Research Centre. “Patience, preparation and pragmatism are the defining characteristics of Key’s government style. ­Nothing ever hits the electorate by surprise. Changes in direction are flagged well in advance and legitimacy is sought through elections. It is a strategy that could be described as incremental radicalism.” Hartwich believes Abbott needs to model himself on Key to ‘rediscover the art of reform’.”

Key’s personal story is compelling and it says much about the way he runs the country. The son of an English immigrant father, he was raised by his single mother, an Austrian Jewish immigrant in a state-run housing commission flat in Christchurch. From his dirt-poor childhood he became a millionaire, rising through the ranks of financial institutions to become head of global foreign exchange trading for ­Merrill Lynch in London. It is estimated he was worth more than $NZ40 million by age 40.

It is often said that Key runs New Zealand like a CEO rather than a politician and that there are clear parallels in style with another self‑ made millionaire-turned-politician, Malcolm Turnbull. “I know [Malcolm] well and I like him,” is all that Key will say of Turnbull, wary of wading into leadership speculation.

Key is a delegator rather than a dictator and makes a habit of consulting in person with ­several of his ministerial colleagues each ­morning. He holds informal meetings ahead of formal Cabinet sessions so that people can float ideas or shoot them down without undue embarrassment. “Most people realise we are not doing extreme things,” he says. “We try to explain what we are about.” He says he is “unashamedly pro-economic growth” but prefers the path of pragmatism over ideology. “My instincts are very much in the middle so I am not fighting internal demons,” he says. “I am not a secret right-winger who wants to do things.”

He does not accuse Abbott of being a secret right-winger but the truth is that compared with Abbott, Key is much more of a pragmatic centrist economically and is more liberal socially, having voted for gay marriage in 2012.

It says much about Key’s political skills that he managed to usher in an increase in the GST in 2010, a debate that both sides of Australian politics are unwilling to have. Ironically, Key did this despite Howard, the architect of ­Australia’s GST, advising Key over a lunch in Auckland in 2010 that a rise was too risky. “I said to [Howard] ‘I am going to raise the GST and drop personal tax rates’ and he said, ‘Don’t do it’. He said, ‘You’ll have the obvious ­argument that the price of bread goes up and it will be felt more keenly by the poorer person and so you will lose that debate’.”

But in the end Key chose to pursue the reform and succeeded, with surprisingly little political bloodshed, in lifting the GST by 2.5 percentage points to 15 per cent while cutting personal and company tax. As a result, New Zealand’s top personal tax rate is now only 33 per cent compared with 45 in Australia, while the company tax rate is 28 per cent compared with 30 per cent here. Key has also been part-privatising state assets in power, coal and aviation, a path that causes political grief in Australia. Key’s reform record has been helped by ­having a first-rate finance minister, Bill English.

In welfare reform, Australia is looking to ­emulate the New Zealand system, which is saving billions in long-term payments. In 2011, Key adopted a new model of welfare that ­identifies groups at risk of long-term welfare and establishes special targeted programs for them. “We’ve done a lot in what is called the ‘investment approach’ to welfare reform and we have been genuinely investing money up front in people who would otherwise be long-term beneficiaries,” says Key. When social services minister Scott Morrison addressed Canberra’s National Press Club in February he spent most of his speech lauding the New Zealand model and promising to look at what Australia could adopt from it.

Part of Key’s popularity stems from what political analyst Colin James calls his macro- personality. “Key has a remarkable rapport with ­people across the political spectrum and that is unusual. Bob Hawke probably had that but ­certainly Rudd, Gillard and Abbott didn’t.”

Because Australians and New Zealanders are allowed to work in each other’s countries without restrictions, migration statistics are not definitive but they do suggest that far more Australians are now moving to New Zealand to live. While there will always be a flurry of movement because of family ties between the estimated 600,000 Kiwis in Australia and 60,000 Australians in New Zealand, the total number of ­people from ­Australia moving to New Zealand (including New Zealanders returning home) has soared in the past two years to February from 15,355 to 23,571.

Spoonley says the ­number of non-Kiwi ­citizens arriving from Australia to live in New Zealand has jumped by 50 per cent in the past two years, from 5234 in the 12 months to ­January 2013 to 7895 this year.

Job opportunities and quality of life have driven this trend. According to data comparison website Numbeo, apartment rents are on average 24 per cent lower in New Zealand than in Australia and apartment costs per square metre 36 per cent lower. The national median house price has stayed flat at $350,000, according to the Real Estate Institute NZ, and even in Auckland, where the market is hottest, the median price of a house — $675,000 — still ­compares favourably with Australian cities.

New Zealand also enjoys a reputation for better work-life balance, although OECD ­figures suggest New Zealanders only have ­marginally more leisure time than Australians. The downside is that salaries in New Zealand are also around 30 per cent lower on average, although this gap is said to be closing.

Even so, New Zealand is trying to make the most of its moment in the sun, having recently held job expos in Perth and Sydney and another in Melbourne later this month to spread the message that “New Zealand is one of the best performing economies in the world right now and the demand for skilled workers is high”.

“I didn’t think my wife would be in the mood for a trans-Tasman move,” says Mark Neal as he munches a sandwich in his front yard in Hamilton. He and Megan are reflecting on their decision to move from his family’s Taree dairy farm to Hamilton last year. “But the whole dairy industry in Australia has been static for 15 years whereas dairy production in New Zealand has doubled in that time.” Neal, 37, a dairy farmer and agricultural economist, was offered a plum research role with New ­Zealand’s dairy industry body Dairy NZ and decided to grab the opportunity and move across with Megan and their three children aged two, four and six.

“I’m really enjoying the job, Megan has also got herself a good job [at Dairy NZ] and the kids are happy at school,” Mark says. “Kids have an amazing life here, they are barefoot all day at school and they are encouraged to climb trees and do things we once did as kids but which schools in Australia won’t allow. If you shake a tree in their school, eight kids will drop out of it.”

Inside the headquarters of Dairy NZ, on the outskirts of Hamilton, employees walk down corridors with fake grass on the walls and murals of cows everywhere. It is a tongue-in-cheek salute to NZ’s most valuable export industry which supplies a third of the global dairy trade and has been a key driver of economic growth.

Sitting in the courtyard at lunchtime are two of Australia’s PhDs that got away. Callum ­Eastwood, 38, and Cameron Ludeman, 30, are Kiwis who did PhDs in dairy technology at the University of Melbourne, both with the ­intention of staying in Australia to work. In the decade from 2004 they say there were so many fellow Kiwis studying agriculture at the university that they dubbed their department “Little NZ”. Now they say almost all of these Kiwis have returned to New Zealand with PhDs to their name rather than stay in ­Australia. “I was looking for an opportunity [in Australia] at that time,” says Cameron. “But then I heard about a job going at Dairy NZ and chose to go home. New Zealand was looking much better at that time, things were much rosier.”

Both men say that they were lured home by opportunity and lifestyle. They took a pay cut of around 15 per cent but considered it a worthwhile trade-off.

Tears are streaming down Kimberly Kidd’s face as she sits on a leather couch in her cafe in the small town of Thames at the foot of the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand’s North Island. “At first I was so homesick for Melbourne, I just missed everything and everyone,” she says as she and her Australian friend Lauren Haynes open a third bottle of wine.

Kidd, now 31, met her Kiwi husband and chef Rusty, 34, in ­Melbourne in 2005. Rusty wanted to open a cafe but thought the competition in Melbourne would be too tough, so he took Kimberly and their son Jacob back to his home town of Thames. “It was so hit and miss with restaurants and cafes in Australia that we figured we would try it here instead,” she says.

They moved across in 2011 and he got a job as a chef while she looked after Jacob. But by 2013 she was going stir-crazy in the small town of 8000 people and wanted to go home to ­Melbourne. So they hatched a compromise. They would open a cafe in Thames, call it Cafe Melbourne, and try to reproduce the same ­Melbourne cafe culture in rural New Zealand. “I wanted something that reminded me of the good coffee, the food and the service of Melbourne,” she says. “I wanted to feel more at home.”

A blackboard on the wall nearby has ­Kimberly’s favourite hometown streets scribbled across it: “Acland St, Chapel St, Bridge Rd, Lygon St.” On the afternoon I visit the cafe is packed, defying the predictions of some ­townsfolk in Thames that New Zealanders would never eat in a place that reminded them of Australia. “This could have gone so badly for us,” says Kimberly. “It was a big risk, but it’s been awesome.” She wipes away her tears. “And I’m not homesick anymore.”

The trend continues from the small end of town to the big. CEO of the ANZ’s New ­Zealand operations, Australian David Hisco, and his Australian wife Deborah now plan to retire in Auckland. “We really think this is where we will finish up,” says Hisco, who has worked in the country for five years. “The ­people are so friendly, the lifestyle is better and more balanced and people here place a premium on family.”

The current contrasting fortunes of both countries could easily be reversed in years ahead, and the traditional flow of Kiwis to ­Australia could resume. Like Australia, New Zealand is heavily dependent on the health of the Chinese economy and its dairy industry, the country’s biggest export earner, suffered sharply lower prices last year.

In addition, the rebuilding of Christchurch is adding around 1.25 per cent to GDP growth each year but this will tail off as the city nears completion. Even so, a report last month by Moody’s Investor Services predicts continued strong economic growth for at least the next two years and for New Zealand’s budget to return to surplus — a word that Australians can only dream about.

Key concedes that New Zealand has better growth and employment than Australia right now but declines to brag. “We want a strong Australia,” he maintains. “A strong Australia is good for New Zealand. No relationship is more important to New Zealand … there is naturally a bit of rivalry but Aussies are looked at fondly here. Most people, I think, look at Aussies and go, ‘It really is the lucky country even if it has one too many creepy-crawlies and sharks’.”

Key lists several high-profile Australians who have come to New Zealand to live, but his final one packs a punch. “The Australian High ­Commissioner [Michael Potts], who is just about to finish his time here, is not going back to Australia,” the PM reveals. “He is about to live down the road here in Wellington,” he says, pointing out the window. “His wife is a Kiwi so they have made the call they are going to live in New Zealand.”

Key cannot hide his grin. Now even the ­diplomats are defecting. It’s taken a generation, but the Bondi Bludgers are finally enjoying their revenge.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tristan da Cunha, the world's most remote island

Accessible only by a six-day boat journey from South Africa or as part of epic month-long cruises through the South Atlantic Ocean, Tristan da Cunha is about as far from a quick holiday destination as it gets.

The world's most remote inhabited archipelago stands 1,243 miles from Saint Helena, its closest neighbour with residents, 1,491 miles from South Africa and 2,088 miles from South America.

It's just seven miles long and 37.8 square miles in area, and has but one settlement officially known as Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, referred to by locals - less than 300 of them - as The Settlement, located at the foot of the 6,765-foot Queen Mary's Peak.

But despite its unimposing size and formidable remoteness, Tristan da Cunha has a rich history and a plethora of native wildlife that is truly unique.

Oceanwide Expeditions have four cruises that take in three-day stops at Tristan da Cunha, the name given to both the main island and the surrounding archipelago, including the uninhabited Nightingale Islands, and Inaccessible Island and the Gough Islands, which are nature reserves.

Cruises, such as those which leave from Ushuaia in Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, are the most convenient way to see the island.

The other cruise sails annually to Gough Island, run since 2012 by the South African Antarctic Research and Supply Vessel Agulhas II, and carries more than 40 passengers to and from Tristan.

Oceanwide Expeditions' Atlantic Odyssey tours, the shortest and cheapest being the 27-night tour from £3,929 (Euro 5,450), calls in on The Settlement, and aims to land on Nightingale and Inaccessible, which millions of seabirds call home.

The landings aren't guaranteed though, with 30 per cent of attempts via zodiac boat since 1998 having been unsuccessful due to bad weather. Thankfully, tours often factor in a spare day.

On Nightingale Island, the wandering, yellow-nosed and sooty albatrosses all breed, and the Rockhopper penguins that live on all four of the Tristan Islands are also hugely popular with those who manage to make it there.

Even with such attractions, tourism is a minor industry for Tristan, with the majority of earnings coming from their commercial crawfish or Tristan rock lobster (Jasus) operations and the sale of their unique postage stamps and coins to collectors.

However, a range of accommodation is available in the form of home stays with locals - descendants of one of seven families originating from Scotland, England, The Netherlands, the United States and Italy - who also serve as guides and sell craft and souvenirs.

All residents are farmers too, and the entire area is communally owned.

Historically, the island has proven an important stop for sailing ships needing a stopover in the Atlantic, and was annexed by the UK in 1816 to ensure the French couldn't use it as a base to attempt a rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was imprisoned at Saint Helena. 

The Settlement was named in honour of the 1867 visit of Queen Victoria's son Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, when the islands served as a Royal Navy outpost called HMS Atlantic Isle, also said to have been used to monitor shipping movements in the ocean and the radio communications of Nazi U-boats.

Prince Phillip, the second Duke of Edinburgh, also visited there on board the royal yacht Britannia in 1957.

Just four years later, the entire population was forced to evacuate to England via Cape Town when Queen Mary's Peak erupted.

Fortunately, the damage to The Settlement was found to be minimal and most residents returned in 1963.