Outside Melbourne Cup time, Australia's multi-billion dollar horse racing industry usually attracts the attention of the wider general public for all the wrong reasons: betting scams, race fixing, money laundering, "colourful" racing identities, horse doping and claims of animal cruelty are the typical narratives.more...
However, 2009 has been a year for rougher-than-usual hand-wringing for racing's bosses, faced with a public outcry over horse fatalities in jumps racing, the disturbing re-emergence of positive swabs for performance-enhancing drugs, cyber-attacks from the Russian mafia on Australia's booming online betting shops, and, taking centre stage at the moment, sweeping changes to the rules regarding the use of the whip in races.
The grand irony to all this negative publicity is that the racing game loves nothing more than a public row, and that's exactly what it's got following the introduction of the new whip regime at the start of the new season on August 1.
Racing NSW Chief Steward, Ray Murrihy, explained the new rules to the ABC: "Up to the last 200 metres they can only hit a horse 5 times. You can't lift your arm up above your head. (We have had certain jockeys who use to use the whip as if they were chopping a log with an axe.)
In the last 200m, you have to give the horse an opportunity to respond. You can't hit it every stride, but only every second stride, and on one occasion in the last 200m you can hit three strides in a row."
The cause célèbre came on August 22, when Sydney apprentice Daniel Ganderton was fined his riding fee and winning prizemoney percentage (about $4000 in all) and suspended for six race meetings after his winning the Group 3 Silver Shadow Stakes at Randwick on a three-year-old called Deer Valley.
Ganderton flouted the new restrictions, riding his mount with the whip right to the line, to win the race over another rival which was ridden within the new rules. Ganderton told stewards the horse wouldn't have won without the extra pressure, however, while the jockey copped the punishment, his mount kept the race, prompting calls of foul from punters and owners.
The Silver Shadow being a coveted event, the "winner" was now a much more valuable stud proposition, while the owners of the runner-up got zilch.
Even Murrihy admits that had the Silver Shadow been run on July 31, there would have been no fine, reprimand or suspension for Ganderton. "No, none at all. Wouldn't have contemplated it."
Jockeys, and high-profile owners and trainers have since gone ballistic, threatening what amounts to the turf equivalent of civil disobedience. "I'll be doing everything I can to win" said leading jockey Peter Robl. "And if that means hitting more than the allowable three strides in succession, then I'll be doing it. You won't find any other rider that won't do it in a million-dollar race when you are neck and neck with other horses."
Adman and racehorse owner, John Singleton, chimed in with advice to jockeys not to "worry about your fine, I'll pay you double the fee, just win the race". Big-time bookie, Robbie Waterhouse complained it was hitting his hip pocket: "Everyone is talking about not wanting to bet unless they see horses ridden out with the whip. I think it is starting to have an effect on betting turnover."
His wife, leading trainer Gai Waterhouse, dismissed the new restrictions as the unwanted handiwork of "do-gooders". Others bizarrely claimed it was all the fault of meddling "greenies".
While such carefree commentary is refreshing in an an age when sportspeople clog up the tube with banalities and platitudes, Robl claimed he'd been "misquoted" when pressed by stewards and said he would comply with the new rules.
The stewards then warned trainers and owners that it was an offence under the Australian Rules of Racing "if instructions are given or inducements are offered by any person that might result in a rider breaching the whip rules".
It may be an offence but enforcement is the issue. The jockeys also claim the new rules "are putting the health and safety of riders at risk", while they count how many times they've hit the horse instead of concentrating on riding naturally. Murrihy counters: "There's been markedly less interference in races. We haven't had a suspension for careless riding in the last 200m since the whip rule started."
It's not like the jockeys didn't know what was coming; the changes were announced in March after a wide ranging public inquiry conducted by the Australian Racing Board, taking submissions from both racing industry insiders, horse and animal welfare groups and the general public. They've had six months to prepare. Now they want the rules changed to allow them unfettered discretion to use the whip in the last 100 metres. The Australian Racing Board will hear their case next Thursday.
It's true that Sydney jockey Blake Shinn would have almost certainly lost last year's Melbourne Cup on Viewed had he ridden to the letter of the new rules.
By my count he hit the Bart Cummings-trained gelding 26 times in the last 200m. A rule punishing jockeys for excessive or improper use of the whip has been in place for more than two decades, however it was rarely enforced and never in living memory when horses are fighting out a tight finish.
"Historically, as long as horses were in contention for a placing, stewards were very reluctant to deem any riding excessive," admits Murrihy. "You could have had two horses fighting out a finish being hit 40 or 50 times with the whip. Now I don't recall ever in my career stewards penalising riders for being excessive when a placing was in contest. These new rules are designed to bring Australia in line with most other countries and with community standards that find it a bit abhorrent that a horse can be hit 40 or 50 times with the whip."
The new regime is more in line with South African rules which came into effect on January 1. In the UK, where animal welfare groups have been very successful in targeting abuses in horse racing, the whip is used very sparingly, and Murrihy says "it's fair to say now around the world the very best riders use a lot less whip".
Australian jockeys historically have an international reputation for being very tough on the animal and that strong whip riding was an accepted practice. Murrihy says people would be outraged today at the style of three-time Melbourne Cup winning jockey Jim Johnson, last week inducted into racing's Hall of Fame.
Australia now is only playing catch-up and many of today's best riders such as Kerrin McEvoy, Damien Oliver, Corey Brown, use much less whip to great effect. The modern jockey is more athletic, with more upper body strength and a propensity to put the whip away in the closing stages and really push their horses to the line.
It's generally accepted that the best "hands and heels" rider in the modern era was Peter Cook, who rode from the 60s to the 80s. Cook was a quiet, kind rider who could get the best out of a horse without the whip and who seldom resorted to it even in the tightest finish.
However punters, if one were to treat them as an undifferentiated mass, still want to see the jockey win at all costs, ideally with a whip in each hand with every last ounce extracted from the animal in a tight finish. To most, the whip is the accelerator.
Murrihy says ultimately it's counterproductive. "If you belt a horse hoping to instil a fear of the whip, chances are you'll make it into a dog. It won't respond to the whip, it gets sick of getting a hiding, it lays down and won't do its best."
The other innovation in force since August 1 is the exclusive use of a "less severe", padded whip which has a bark worse than its bite. Critics point out, if you're hitting horse with a whip and it supposedly doesn't hurt, then why restrict its use at all? Murrihy says the new whip is more accurately described as "a kinder whip, not that it doesn't hurt.
There's a general abhorrence to belting animals with anything, so if you simply say I'll give you a whip that doesn't hurt as much and you can hit it 40 times in the straight with this, I don't know that gets you over the welfare hurdle!"
Lou Reed used to sing about the whip "in love, not given lightly", and PETA believes the whip should be restricted to consenting adults only. However the whip is part and parcel of the relationship between human and the domesticated horse, a bond of master and slave stretching to pre-history.
In the equestrian world eventing and dressage, there are rules prohibiting and penalties applicable for excessive use of the whip. So it should stay in racing, and it will.
New rules in the racing game are always met with resistance by vested interests. When the administering of steroids for racehorses was banned in the early 1990s, many trainers claimed it would be the end of racing as we knew it. For some it nearly was: one leading Sydney trainer didn't train a winner for four months after the ban came into force.
In fact predictions of turf Armageddon have been the rote response when, for instance, whenever a "foreign" horse won the Melbourne Cup, when mobile phones were allowed on racecourses, when the TAB was first introduced and then when it was privatised, when the AJC Derby was moved from the Spring to the Autumn, when female jockeys were first given licences, when Robbie Waterhouse was banned over Fine Cotton and 17 years later when he was allowed back on the track, when cable TV broadcasts of the races began, when betting exchanges were allowed to operate, when night racing started - every change has been met with claims of falling sky.
All I can say is, as a journalist, it sure makes great copy.
Like last year’s return to minimalism on the catwalks, this year’s 53rd International Art Exhibition will reflect global belt-tightening with a back-to-reality motif from Swedish curator, Daniel Birnbaum, who will present "Making Worlds," which he says will emphasize process and materials and will be "closer to the process of production and the venues of creation and training -- the studio, the laboratory -- than traditional museum-style exhibitions”.
Accordingly, we can expect a more muted stanza in 2009 when the four-day preview or 'vernissage' kicks off on June 4, with the official opening two days later, when avant garde totems, Yoko Ono and John Baldessari, will be honoured with Golden Lions for careers that have “revolutionized the language of art”. Displays of unbridled wealth are tipped to give way to a revival of recession chic, and the corporate celebrations aboard the flotilla of luxury yachts, in six-hundred year old palazzi, and at swank already booked out hotels like the Cipriani, or just about any along the Grand Canal or the Lido, will be careful this year to avoid any association with the holders of so-called toxic assets.
Venice is in fact a many-headed “Mostra”, from the art olympics of the national pavilions at both the Giardini and scattered in palazzi throughout the city; to Birnbaum’s curated survey show at the Arsenale, to the ad-hoc independent and satellite shows which simply add to the frolic and ferment.
There will be enough on show to attract more than 50,000 artworld cognescenti to this treasured city to party, play, network or sell. The hard sell in Venice is not restricted to art objects or artists. A growing band of sovereign states turn up to buttress their national brand and draw a reflected glory from their official selections. In 1988, Australia was the last country to secure a lot on the hallowed bohemian Arcadia of the Giardini, one of just 26 elite nations, although our pavilion is widely regarded as a difficult space to present contemporary art, and is often mistaken as the restrooms for the imposing French pavilion which conceals it.
Selection for one’s national pavilion at Venice is often the peak of an artist’s career. While no correlative studies are extant, the attention an artist attracts in the lead up and at the Vernissage always effects prices. In 2007, emerging artist Shaun Gladwell was no exception when the work that appeared in curator Robert Storr’s official survey show, Storm Sequence, later sold at auction in Australia for $84,000, the highest price paid for a digital artwork in Australia.
Clearly the Gladwell phenomenon is still to peak, considering the Sydney-based artist’s selection again for the Australian pavilion this year. Given his 2007 Venice triumph, and his prominence since (he’s been in over 20 group exhibitions since), the perhaps predictable rumblings among Gladwell’s peers have come asking why another artist was not given the opportunity to enjoy the international exposure afforded by being the official selection? Professional development or professional jealousy? We asked Doug Hall AM, commissioner for the 2009 Australian exhibition, what the rationale was for selection in terms of international development of Australian contemporary art.
“Shaun Gladwell was selected because the selection panel thought he was the best fit in terms of the quality of his work, his international profile and career trajectory,” says Hall. “Shaun is a great Australian artist – and that above all was the main selection criteria. His work is fresh, relevant and speaks with an international voice. He was selected from five short-listed artists who submitted proposals to the 11 member selection panel.
“The fact that he was chosen as part of Robert Storr's curated show at the 2007 Venice Biennale wasn't a consideration - only past official Australian representatives are ineligible. We weren’t going to penalise an artist for being successful. The fact that Shaun exhibited Storr's show in 2007 adds to his value in representing Australia in 2009 – it allows a more in-depth exploration of his works by the various curators, artists, and other attending the Biennale.
“It's artists like Shaun, who already have some international profile, that exposure at the Venice Biennale tends to benefit most.”
Influenced by the outback, and Mad Max movies, Gladwell will present a “suite of videos accompanied by sound, photographic and sculptural works”.
The 53rd International Art Exhibition, directed by Daniel Birnbaum, runs from June 7th to November 22nd, 2009 (preview on 4th, 5th and 6th June 2009). Go to: labiennale.org/en/art/
Satellites of Art
The energising art team of Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro get their widely expected big break with selection by curator Felicity Fenner for Australia’s major satellite show in Venice, Once Removed to be held at The Ludoteca, a former convent conveniently located in the sestiere between the main art venues of the Giardini and the Arsenale. Along with works by Vernon Ah Kee and Ken Yonetani, Healy & Cordeiro will present a new installation cut again with the rich vein of irony at play in works like last year’s show in Berlin with former Australian galerist, Gitte Weise. Works like Intelligent Design or Dust to Dust (which presents pulverised Ikea coffee tables in oak and glass vitrines) can be expected to attract critical attention, supported by pair’s judicious talent for incorporating objects and detritus found on site into their works. As we write the pair are preparing a massive installation for Venice at their Sydney studio, using a stack of old VHS cassettes and a caulking gun. Living as artworld intinerants with shows all over the world in recent years, Healy and Cordiero emerged out of Sydney’s lively artist-run space scene at the turn of the millennium and are represented by Sydney dealer, Barry Keldoulis.
Art champions package it up
Australian art bureaucrats consider Venice the premier forum for presenting our contemporary art to the world; a form of cultural diplomacy that brings real commercial benefits to Australian artists lucky enough to be chosen. The Australia Council contributes a base budget of $700,000 towards the Australian participation in Venice 2009. This is supported by a fundraising program (cash and in-kind) which takes cues from the previous two efforts managed by John Kaldor, art patron and 2005 and 2007 Commissioner. Kaldor fashioned the program with both "supporter packages" for individuals and corporate packages, similar in structure to the marketing of headline sporting events. There are two levels of supporter in the 2009 program – “associates” can give $2000 or more and “champions” can give $10,000 or more if they choose. While there are no quid pro quo’s, those that give can then partake in a series of special supporter events both in Australia and in Venice during the Vernissage. They can also receive Vernissage passes – near impossible to get without connections. However, “this is an act of giving for giving’s sake,” as Commissioner Doug Hall AM says. Major corporate sponsors this year are UBS and The Balnaves Foundation. Already in excess of $1 million in cash and in-kind contributions has been generated by the program. Should one suspect that Venice is the sweetest taxpayer-funded junket in the public service, the Australia Council assures us that “all official Australian events are geared towards raising the profile of the artists during the Vernissage period and boosting attendances at both the Australian Pavillion and Ludoteca. The council says maintaining profile during the Vernissage is crucial to attracting leading curators and other thought leaders to see the works. Collectors interested in becoming a supporter can contact the Australia Council on 02 9215 9090.
First published in Australian Art Collector No.48, April-June 2009more...
<Cup Day, and Cup Day only, commands an attention, an interest, and an enthusiasm which are universal and spontaneous, not perfunctory. I can call to mind no specialised annual day in any country, whose approach fires the whole land with a conflagration of conversation, and preparation, and anticipation and jubilation. No day save this one.
When Mark Twain attended the Cup in 1895, Melbourne's population was barely a million and yet 10 per cent of the colony's population turned up that day to witness the event, a remarkable turnout. With Melbourne's population today roughly 3.5m, the Cup is only now again approaching the sort of mass appeal it enjoyed at the turn of the 20th century. Crowds of around 400,000 are expected over the four day carnival, precisely double the attendance in 1993 when Irish champion Vintage Crop became the first internationally-trained entry to win the race, heralding the advent of the Cup's "modern era", an era that coincides with the march of globalisation in trade and communications and in the horse racing business. The success of the event in recent years has been driven in part by the considerable public interest generated by the international contingent that hails typically from UK, Ireland, France and more recently Japan.
So it's Cup time again, and the international horses have arrived in numbers looking to win Australia's greatest horse race, this year worth a hefty 5.65 million Australian pesos. Eight internationals will start in the race and they make up seven of the top ten in the betting market, surprising considering for the visitors, it is no easy feat to win, with just two wins since Vintage Crop's (Media Puzzle in 2002 and Japan's Delta Blues in 2006). Add Australia's strict quarantine conditions to the rigours of travelling a horse across the other side of the world to race two miles, often in scorching heat, then for most the adventure ends up a folly costing at least $100,000.
Still, each year, as the first Tuesday in November doth approach, so crescendos the chorus of whining from local trainers and owners who can barely contain their protectionist disgust at the perceived superiority of the international runners. This Spring His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, was the first to deflate the national ego two weeks back when his classy chestnut All The Good strode away with the Caulfield Cup. This cued locals to bemoan more pillaging of homeland's glory, but they neglected to mention the win was the Sheikh's first Group 1 win in Australia in more than a decade trying.
On cue, the tabloids have been cranking up the emotive language in a brew of envy, gall and indignation: "we" are at "the mercy of the raiders"; the "foreign invaders" are so good they have an unfair "stranglehold" on the Cup; there are "fears" this year that "foreign" jockeys will "blight" the race by engaging in team riding, an illegal practice. And the broadsheets have also got into the act: "Australian racing's defence of the Melbourne Cup from a European blitz took a battering," railed the Sydney Morning Herald when construction tycoon Lloyd Williams' 2007 Cup winner, Efficient, was scratched from this year's event during the week. The nation must be at risk when it's left to a former casino boss to "repel the European Invasion" and save the nation from turf capitulation and global embarrassment.
And then there's Bart. Winner of the race an extraordinary 11 times, every year the old marvel clambers up onto the soapbox to tell why the foreigners should stop coming. This year Cummings said it was a case of "spot the Aussie", prompting a good comeback from Ireland's Aiden O'Brien, Coolmore's private and the world's leading trainer who is here with Cup favorite Septimus and two other lesser lights. Asked why his horse, the highest-rated stayer in training, would win: "Septimus, when you ask him, he gives it all.''
The visitors aren't averse to making their own threats, with UK jockey John Egan facing charges for calling local officials "tinpot Hitlers"! On Sunday Tom Magnier, son of Coolmore tycoon John Magnier, threatened to scratch Septimus, making the extraordinary claim that the Flemington track was "not safe, and we'd rather take the horse home than race in the cup... if the track isn't watered." The visitors always call for the track to be watered to improve the chances of European horses which prefer soft racing surfaces. Officials usually oblige, prompting more push back from the locals that the internationals are getting preferred treatment.
Twain's comment above illustrates the extraordinary popularity the Cup and horse racing held in earlier times in this country. It's not unreasonable to claim that Australians have historically displayed an obsession with the turf not seen among any other people, not even the country which was its cradle: mother England. In fact the thoroughbred is a man-made, in-bred genetic freak which to be eligible to race must be able to trace its family tree back to just three foundation Arabian stallions imported to England in the 18th century. The bluebloods of the turf hold a flattering mirror to the British aristocracy, to which it is its plaything. Breeding is everything, old chap, and the notion that we can breed "the best" with "the best" to realise the equine equivalent of a monarch, the champion racehorse, is the kind of ideology that can launch both a global empire and beget generation upon generation of upper-class twits. With inherited wealth to spare, the poms take their time with their horses, racing them sparingly while young, breeding them to stay the "classic" distance of a mile and half and beyond.
In Australia, it's different. Racing has been a working class and mass entertainment, and we often hear that in Australia the racetrack is the great leveler, where both toff and tradesman are equal before the judge's decision. (Tell that to the 'greencoat' standing guard at the Members' Enclosure gate.) Since the Cold War, we have bred for speed, not stamina, and for a quick return. We buy them as yearlings and race them into the ground at two and three, and then pass them off like a sub-prime loan to the nearest sucker at the first hint of unsoundness. Two year olds scampering with all the precocity of a Chinese gymnast are our go, pounding their baby legs over sprint courses for big prizemoney in races like Sydney's Golden Slipper. As for the Melbourne Cup, its two mile marathon distance has always been an anomaly, and before the era of the "overseas raiders", local trainers used to greet the "Kiwi invasion" of stayers in the English mould with a similar derision.
The Antipodean breed, while technically a thoroughbred, has historically not run thick with the bluest blood of the most influential UK and continental sirelines. Not until the 1990s, when the bloodstock industry went through a period of consolidation and globalisation which has seen the emergence of two dominant global breeding and racing operations: Ireland's Coolmore Stud and Dubai's Darley, owned by Shiekh Mohammed. Following the Shiekh's $400m purchase earlier this year of the country's biggest stable, Woodlands Stud, the two rivals have each established large Australian operations. Coolmore's billionaire owners race Cup favourite Septimus while the Sheikh's big hope, All the Good has been scratched. The racing game as it turns out is a fount of tolerance for the big spending Emir who, along with his brother Sheikh Hamdan build a global empire after rescuing the British racing industry from terminal decline when the local aristocracy were going through a tough patch in the 1970s.
With 24/7 coverage online and on cable TV, racing fans now follow the best horses on a global racing calendar: the Dubai World Cup in May, the Kentucky Derby and Royal Ascot in the Northern Summer, the Arc de Triomphe in October, the US Breeders Cup and the Melbourne Cup in November and the Japan Cup and Hong Kong Internationals in December. The ascension of the Melbourne Cup to the attention of this exalted audience has been due in no small measure to the trailblazing efforts of Weld and Vintage Crop and those that have since made the journey in numbers with, it must be said, not much success.
However the Cup going global seems to have ruptured the proud maelstrom of the Australian turf and the role a horse race plays in the national narrative. In a globalised world dominated by the large developed and emerging economies, "little Australia" must punch above its weight to stay in the game. But faced with international competition in the Melbourne Cup, the locals view themselves as wanting, their bubble of self-congratulation lanced like a boil full of hubris. For the rest of the year they remain convinced that our racing and horses are the best in the world. Except, when one looks at the results of the international horses, three cup wins in two decades, their dominance is also a myth. The key to this conundrum? Anthropomorphism. Thoroughbreds do not vote and are not citizens. Horses are stateless, have no truck with nationalism, couldn't care less about good breeding and have no idea what a cultural cringe is. They win because of talent and circumstance, not what it says on their trainer's passport.
Hutak's Cup tips: New Zealand four year old Nom du Jeu has a regal carriage, a powerful finish, deep wells of stamina and class to spare. Dermot Weld is back again with the classy mare Profound Beauty. With a postage stamp weight of 51.5kgs, and Glen Boss wasting to make the ride, the smart money is on. Melbourne grey Barbaricus has been the local revelation of the Spring. Will race handy and fight on to the finish.
With the world economy locked into open trade and globalisation, and security wracked by terrorism and fundamentalism, you could forgive the planet’s leaders for being distracted. It’s hard to conceive of anything so tumultuous that it could deliver us beyond the post-September 11 era of suicide bombers and chronic poverty, religious fanaticism and rampant militarism, of record profits and jaded celebrities, cosmetic surgery and low interest rates.
Nothing, except a global influenza pandemic. With the conditions ripe and the world overdue for another global outbreak, government and corporate decision-makers have been jolted in recent months to consider the consequences.
Human flu pandemics spread quickly to all parts of the globe and typically infect more than a quarter of the total population. They deliver high levels of morbidity and mortality and cause major social disruption. There were three pandemics in the 20th century: in 1918, 1957 and 1968. In 1976, governments planned for an outbreak that never came. And there have been false alarms, where novel strains of the virus have been identified but have ended in few cases and limited human-to-human transmission. But in January 2004, health officials became alarmed at the outbreak in humans of a new and dangerous strain of the virulent H5N1 virus, better known as avian or bird flu in Asia. Officials believe all the prerequisites for the start of an influenza pandemic have been met save one: the establishment of efficient and sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus.
After H5N1’s first appearance in humans, in Hong Kong in 1997 when six out of 18 confirmed cases died, the spread ceased after authorities culled Hong Kong’s entire chicken population of 1.5 million. But the virus itself did not disappear. It simply retreated to China’s southern Guangdong province, where it had first been identified in ducks. Between 1998 and 2003, H5N1 evolved through 17 strains at high speed, becoming more pathogenic and resilient, hopping hosts from wild to domestic birds, and to mammals such as pigs and, since 2004, to humans again. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation says 140 million birds have died or been destroyed and the combined losses to gross domestic product are estimated at $US10bn to $US15bn ($12.97bn to $19.45bn). Since the first case in Vietnam in December 2003, there have been 111 laboratory-confirmed human cases of avian flu, with 57 deaths in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and now Indonesia. What has virologists worried is the potential of H5N1 to recombine into a virulent new human-to-human strain, capable of unleashing an unprecedented contagion around the world that would kill millions.
With the first official instance of human-to-human transmission reported in September 2004 in Thailand, the World Health Organisation declared the world had now “moved closer to a new pandemic than it has been at any time since 1968”. In February this year, WHO announced it had entered the pandemic alert period – phase three in its six-phase alert scale, where there are incidents of human infection with a new strain but as yet no human-to-human spread. Some experts believe we have already moved to phase four, with confirmed clusters of cases of human-to-human transmission in Vietnam and China and, last month, in Indonesia. More recently, the fact that migratory birds had spread the virus from western China to Russia’s European frontier in just three weeks – spurring five suspected human cases in northern Kazakhstan – have pushed consensus on the near-term probability of a pandemic from “if” to “when”.
How the pandemic would devastate Australia. If a pandemic with an attack rate of 25% (one-quarter of the population affected) were to occur again in Australia and there was no vaccine or treatment available, over a six-eight week period it could lead to:
* 13,000 to 44,000 deaths
* 57,900 to 148,000 hospitalisations
* 2.6 to 7.5 million outpatient visits.
The figures are estimates only and the likely outcomes associated with a pandemic will depend on many factors such as the transmissibility and virulence of the virus, and the availability and success of health and social interventions.
In the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918, 400 million people were clinically infected and more than 40 million people perished, out of a global population of 2 billion. A pandemic of that order today would kill between 180 million and 360 million people within 18 months. World trade and international travel would be brought to a standstill, plummeting productivity would usher in economic depression, and the short supply and unequal distribution of effective drugs, coupled with overwhelmed public health facilities, quarantines and restrictions on the movement and association of citizens, would lead to social unrest that would destabilise governments everywhere, notwithstanding the exponential increase in security threats from insurgents and terrorists. Michael T. Osterholm, an infectious disease expert for the American Department of Homeland Security, writes in Foreign Affairs: “The reality of the coming pandemic ... cannot be avoided. Only its impact can be lessened.”
That’s the worst case scenario we should prepare for if we are to heed the warnings of respected health experts. The messages are getting through. In recent weeks, governments, international agencies and corporations have taken steps to brace for the coming calamity. Scientists, while alarmed, still cannot tell us when the pandemic will occur — it could be tomorrow, in six months or six years. But they have told political leaders it’s time to scramble, to begin planning for the worst and hoping for the best.
Still, no politician wants to risk being called Chicken Little. Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told reporters last week: “There’s a fine line to be trod here between scaring people over something that might never happen and alerting people to something that may very well happen.” The federal government has walked that fine line in recent months, implanting the notion of pandemic preparedness into the public’s brain stem, while emphasising that we’re still in a “no worries, she’ll be right” phase.
Following WHO’s lead, Australia in March went to “Overseas Three” in its own six-step pandemic scale. In June, the government’s “Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza” was launched, along with a new slogan: Prepared and Protected. Abbott laid out Australia’s game plan: “The initial objective would be to attempt to prevent its appearance in Australia for as long as possible. Once there was a case in Australia, we would be determined to limit its spread within this country for as long as possible. And once there was a widespread outbreak, treatment and prevention, prophylaxis, would be our principal objective.”
* 1918 pandemic 40 million
* World War I 8.3 million
With WHO estimating at least a six-month lag from outbreak to the development of an effective vaccine, much has been made of the efficacy of the key anti-viral agent oseltamivir, with the tradename Tamiflu. Recent reports that the government has “cornered the world market” in Tamiflu ignore conflicting evidence that many of those infected with H5N1 who took Tamiflu still died, often from the secondary pneumonias that take the heaviest toll in such pandemics. “In responding to a pandemic,” Osterholm notes in Foreign Affairs, “Tamiflu could have a measurable impact in countries with sizeable stockpiles.” Like Australia. But there is “no evidence” that Tamiflu helps if the patient develops the “cytokine storm that characterises the recent H5N1 infections”. Here the immune system fights the virus with such ferocity that the lungs in a sense melt and the patient suffocates.
Public statements from all sides of politics in recent days reflect a lack of engagement with the nature of the threat identified by experts. Greens senator Bob Brown has called for Tamiflu to be sold over the counter, instead of only by prescription. The distinction is moot if there isn’t enough to go round. If the pandemic obliges by striking when we are ready, there will still only be one dose available for every five Australians. Latest clinical trials indicate the effective dose of Tamiflu is much higher than previously expected, meaning even less of the drug to go round. As for vaccine, Osterholm predicts it “would have no impact on the course of the virus in the first months and would likely play an extremely limited role worldwide”. And the government’s agreements with two overseas vaccine manufacturers may come to nothing should their host countries nationalise vaccine production in the event of a pandemic, as the US did in 1976 when it refused to share vaccine for the swine flu pandemic it was expecting but never came.
In a speech to the Australia Indonesia Business Council on August 1, Labor foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd identified “one of the key challenges in the early detection of bird flu was the reluctance of poultry farmers to report the disease for fear their entire flocks, and livelihoods, would be destroyed”. It may be a challenge in China, but for Australia the more pressing concern is when the human-to-human transmission takes hold and the disease sweeps in like any of the “normal” seasonal flus. In this situation, border protection becomes immaterial. According to Foreign Affairs’ Laurie Garrett, “No nation can erect a fortress against influenza ... national policy-makers would be wise to plan now for worst case scenarios involving quarantines, weakened armed services and dwindling hospital space and vaccines.
“The greatest weakness that each nation must individually address is the inability of their hospitals to cope with a sudden surge of new patients ... the potential for pandemic comes at a time when the world’s public health systems are severely taxed and have long been in decline.”
In this context, last week’s announcement by Abbott and state health ministers that they would stage a “mock outbreak” in December to test hospital capacity will be scrutinised – that’s if we get the luxury of having a trial run. The government’s worst case estimate is that in the event of a pandemic, 2.6 million people would need medical attention, with up to 148,000 hospitalised. We should expect that these numbers will be put to the test.
In the event of a pandemic, the flow of free and accurate information will be more than an ethic; it will be a matter of public health and safety. The last time the spectre of 1918 was invoked was in 1976 when US President Gerald Ford put the nation on alert. Swine flu never materialised, and Ford and confidence in the US public health system were damaged.
Chinese authorities were heavily criticised for suppressing news of the SARS outbreak, and then minimising its seriousness. Now there are worrying signs again from China. In July, a Hong Kong laboratory had its research on the H5N1 strain suspended by China’s Ministry of Agriculture. The ministry also dismissed research by the lab on the recent H5N1 outbreak among migratory birds in western China. The WHO has complained that China is not sharing samples of the outbreak strain.
All this highlights the need for international organisations like the WHO to be free to monitor any pandemic impartially. However, such organisations are critically under-resourced. The WHO has an annual budget of just $400m, and can intervene only when invited by a country.
* H5N1 has found a new ecological niche in poultry in parts of Asia.
* The virus is now more deadly in poultry and in the mammalian mouse model.
* New animals – cats and tigers – are becoming infected for the first time, suggesting the virus is expanding its host range.
* Domestic ducks are excreting large quantities of virus without showing symptoms.
* Viruses from 2004 survive longer in the environment than viruses from 1997.
* The virus is killing at least some wild migratory birds.
* These changes have created multiple opportunities for a pandemic virus to emerge.
First published in The Bulletin
Prominent architect Philip Cox, fed up with snipes from the artworld, has declared he would support tearing down his "temporary" Australian pavilion in the elite Giardini della Biennale in Venice, the official venue for Australia's participation in the world's most prestigious artfair since 1988.
"I would be very pleased if the Australia Council or the Australian Government replaced that building because it is a temporary structure," Cox told The Age. "I am completely behind putting a permanent building there."
Currently occupied by Patricia Piccinini's critically-acclaimed suite of mutant sculptures, Cox's construction clings to a bank that falls away steeply to a canal, squeezed into a backlot behind the leafy, spacious environs enjoyed by the other 25 national pavilions. Australia was the last country to be granted a permanent pavilion.
Cox said the critics who "always moan about why we don't have something of the order of the French or the German or the English pavilions forget that it's a very cheap building put together in 10 minutes".
"They forget the whole project was virtually gifted to the Australia Council. We donated our services and we got BHP to provide the steel and Transfield to also provide materials. And on the record and to be perfectly frank, it gives me the f---ing shits considering we all worked so hard for nothing to put it there."
The 1988 Bicentennial project bears Cox's trademark prefabricated steel tubing, and might have made a luxurious split-level beach shack for a 1980s high flyer. But as a showcase venue for contemporary art, it routinely comes in for a biennial bashing as an almost unworkable space, one that dictates to the artist, not vice-versa. Wall space is cramped and large paintings are almost impossible to hang favourably. This year, Piccinini was praised for making best use of the difficult space by choosing to display three-dimensional work.
Cox concedes these criticisms, but says the artworld has short memories when it comes to the building's genesis. "The brief was - well, there wasn't a brief," he said. "The Venetians made it a case of either you fill the space quickly now or you'll miss out."
Cox then had a seat on the Australia Council's design board and realised that to be completed in time, the construction had to be prefab. The building permit was issued on May 25, 1988, and Arthur Boyd's show curated by Grazia Gunn opened less than a month later, on June 24. It then promptly closed for two weeks to allow builders to finish the roof, fit missing windows and repair the floor that had been covered by tarpaulin.
Several sources in Venice this year close to the Australia Council said official moves were underway to finally do something about the pavilion, however Australia Council chief executive Jenny Bott confirmed that the venue would remain unaltered for the 2005 Biennale at least.
"We need to develop a 10- year strategy for Venice," Bott said. The council spent around $900,000 on this year's Venice adventure, but Bott said "any capital expense would never come out of our budget".
However the Australia Council's temporary lease over the treasured block this year moved to permanent status, clearing the way for a complete rethink of the building.
In alternating years Venice's Architecture Biennale consumes the Giardini. However the Australian pavilion remains mothballed because, says the Australia Council, "architecture does not fall within (our) brief".
Under moral rights amendments in 2000 to the Copyright Act, any substantial changes to the pavilion would have to meet with the architect's approval.
Cox says he hasn't been approached by the Australia Council but would nevertheless give his imprimatur to a new, more suitable structure.
"I would love the opportunity to design it," he enthused, "but you'd need $10 million to do something decent and where would you find that sort of money for a single arts project in Australia today?"
First published in The Age
Women, without exception, said that they “loved” the film. Some reported “feelings of joy” upon exiting the cinema, others hailed it “a creative triumph.” One Bondi-based IT consultant, who can’t be identified, declared it “the chick flick for a digital generation”. Fellow Bondi resident, Suze, claimed the film’s emphasis on “decoration, singing and dancing, tragic fantasy, and cultivating community” all reflect largely, if not exclusively, “chick aspirations.”
“It’s about the triumph of fashion over formula, of largesse over logic,” said Suze, a media advisor for a public agency. “Watching it was like leafing through the pages of a beautiful magazine.” Jodi, a skincare consultant from Bondi Junction, agreed. “It’s primarily concerned with looking good – and you know I can appreciate that.” Her friend Rachel, a photographic agent from Darlinghurst, declared Rouge “a romp” with canny Scotsman Ewan Macgregor oozing the “it” factor.
“Ewan is so dreamy,” sighed Rachel, prompting a loud scoff from her husband, Andrew. “It’s greatest sin is that it’s just plain boring!” said the self-described “tech-wreck survivor”. Like all the men polled, Andrew rejected the film outright, branding it “rococoesque and shallow”. Geoff, a commercial photographer from Petersham, said he simply failed to suspend disbelief: “The few moments of exhilarating spectacle are dwarfed by a maudlin landscape of overwrought sentimentality."
Josie, who actually works in the film industry, told The Bulletin she copped the full brunt of the emerging gender split first hand. “I walked out calling it visionary and the boy I saw it with ridiculed me for the next two days. “But seriously, putting aside the hype, I think if this film had emerged out of nowhere we'd all be calling it visionary,” Josie added. “And for anyone who grew up in the 1980’s the soundtrack is just fantastic.”
“That’s the problem” countered Alister, a print manager from Summer Hill. "It’s just postmodern pap. It’s got nothing to do with the real, historical Moulin Rouge. There’s no real connection with Paris, or the French, or the Belle Epoque!
“And there’s no CAN-CAN! Lurhmann should hang his head in shame,” Alister exagerated.
The only odd woman out in the poll was Catherine, a TV writer from Surry Hills, who vowed to “never ever” see the film. She blamed the climate of conflicting word of mouth for her indifference.
“I’m getting on with life,” she said. “Barring acts of god, I shan’t be going.”
First published in "The Bulletin"more...
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