Category: miscellaneous

Twitch and shout

For a bird-watching exercise, you don’t see a lot of birds on the Twitchathon. If you’ve never heard of this obscure sporting event, it’s a race: teams of birders pile into their cars and tear around the state, attempting to see or hear as many species as possible within an eight or 24-hour period. Because time is of the essence, once a bird’s call is recognised, actually spotting it becomes redundant. It’s on the list: go!

For this year’s Victorian event on 7-8 November, coordinated by Birdlife Australia as a fundraiser for endangered species, I was in one of the handful of 24-hour teams: the Manky Shearwaters. (It’s a pun on a type of seabird, the Manx Shearwater.) Others were in the more civilised eight-hour race: the Lame Ducks; the Filthy Flockers, the Soft Cockatiels. I’m not sure what lends birders towards this kind of self-deprecation.

There’s a hint of madness about the 24-hour version, though, which has necessitated some safety modifications over the years. Once, teams finished at the offices of what used to be Birds Australia, in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. With teams driving around the clock and totals docked by one bird for every five minutes after the appointed time, it was a speed and fatigue-fuelled lawsuit waiting to happen.

Now, with the re-badged and relocated organisation’s offices in the city, teams simply phone in their totals at the Twitchathon’s end from wherever they finish. It all works on an honour system: three members out of a team of four must agree on each species that has been seen or heard. So, too, does the mandatory three hours’ rest and a commitment to rotate drivers.

More than ever, even in the age of digital photography, which can be so easily manipulated, a birder’s reputation is everything. The punishment for those who break the code – such as the observer who confessed to hoaxing a house crow to falsely claim the Victorian “Big Year” record in 2014 – is disqualification, social exclusion, and a lifetime supply of derision.

The trick to the Twitchathon is twofold. The first is covering as many different habitats as possible, for each ecosystem supports its own distinctive array of avifauna (hence the long hours spent behind the wheel). The second is not trying too hard to find rare birds; rather, it’s about not dipping on the common ones. It’s surprisingly easy to miss, say, a rainbow lorikeet when you’re the one on the fly.

Team member Sean Dooley – editor of Birdlife Australia’s quarterly magazine and for over a decade the record-holder for the most number of birds seen within Australia in a calendar year (703, if you must know) – says part of the allure of the ’Thon is the thrill of seeing a plan come together. “I just want that perfect day of birding, where everything falls into place and you don’t miss out on a thing.”

Which, naturally, never happens. But there’s a lot of what’s known in the game as “sussing” in the weeks and months beforehand – checking out locations, finding hot-spots, avoiding dead zones, and crunching numbers: charting distances and times to destinations, working out how many hours (or minutes) to spend in each of them, and calculating how many species can be relied upon to reveal themselves.

The Manky Shearwaters’ quest begins at the Nobbies, which juts into Western Port Bay from the far end of Phillip Island. We’ve got a telescope locked onto a Peregrine Falcon, on its eyrie above Seal Rocks. Behind us, a penguin’s backside sticks half-way out of its wooden box burrow. Cormorants and a lone oystercatcher are visible on the rocks below; around us gulls and terns mill and scream.

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L/R: Chris Watson, Sean Dooley, Steve Davidson

They’re all on the list within seconds of the 4pm start, then we’ve got just a few minutes to scan the ocean. I spot a surprise: the hulking shape of a Giant-Petrel close inshore. Sadly, though, not close enough: where the bill tip of a Southern Giant-Petrel is pale green, a Northern Giant-Petrel’s is reddish. And none of us can confirm which it is before it veers away. Bird identification often rests on such details.

Within an hour, our total is up to 71. But we’re already missing species, too. Observation Point fails to produce either Whimbrel or Eastern Curlew, large shorebirds that can usually be relied upon here. Fisher’s Wetland, which held a pair of Black-tailed Native-hens half an hour before the count, is closed. We won’t see them again. A sick Sulphur-crested Cockatoo sits forlornly on a lump of seaweed in the salt water.

From there it’s off to Bunyip State Park, near Gembrook in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. It feels more like rally driving: at one point we nearly collect a four-wheel drive head-on. We pull up on blind corners with nary a thought for what’s around the bend. It’s wet forest country, and nearly everything we add is heard rather than seen; calls we have to parse from the expert mimicry of the local lyrebirds.

After listening for night birds (unnerving nearby campers with bad imitations of the falling bomb-like whistle of Sooty Owls), we drive to Terrick Terrick National Park, in the state’s far north, taking our designated rest period between 2.45 and 5.45am. Once, the native grasslands here were the Victorian stronghold for the endangered Plains-wanderer; now they’re down to just a handful of pairs.

DSC01018By the next morning, this sense of loss is becoming a theme. Birds are scarce. As we scour the box-ironbark woodlands of Heathcote, struggling to locate previously common species like Speckled Warblers and Scarlet Robins, Dooley reflects on the silence: “Whenever I come into these forests in particular, no matter what I see, I’m just struck with this overwhelming sense of tragedy that haunts the forest.

“I palpably, viscerally feel the loss of the birds that used to be here. It becomes this really bittersweet exercise. You could go through your notebooks, and you probably wouldn’t notice that much of a difference in terms of what species you’ve logged over the years. You’d probably still manage to find them, but what’s not reflected is the lower numbers, and the extra time and effort it takes to do so.”

We finish at the sewerage treatment works at Werribee. It’s a Mecca for waterfowl and waders but, again, numbers are down. We have to search for a Curlew Sandpiper, a handsome Siberian migrant which once occurred in flocks of thousands here over summer. The population using the east Asian-Australasian flyway is now critically endangered due to habitat loss in the Yellow Sea.

A Freckled Duck (on the wondrously named Lake Borrie) is our 200th species as we approach the finish line; we’ll only add one more. There’s a few tame high-fives on the stroke of four but, mostly, the feeling is anti-climactic, like a drawn AFL grand final: players slumped to the turf, not knowing if they’ve won or lost. The results won’t be announced for another two days. We’ve covered just shy of 1000 kilometres.

As it turns out, we could have knocked off at midnight: our total of 201 beats our less experienced 24-hour campaigners by more than 80, but well short of the record of 225, the sort of total only attainable with a lot of luck in an exceptional year. Still, we’ve raised a fair amount of cash towards the protection of mallee birds, some of which are only a single bad bushfire away from permanent obliteration.

Later, once our bodies have sufficiently uncrinkled themselves from the vehicle, talk will turn to 2016 – the extra time we’ll spend sussing out sites; the mistakes we won’t make; what parts of our route we’ll change to save time or potentially add new species to the list. All in search of that perfect birding day which, like a rainbow, seems to recede further and further away every year.

First published in The Saturday Paper, December 19 2015

The forgotten Christmas

“Here, mum.”

I hold the fork close to her mouth. Turkey, cranberry, a little salad. “Here.” She looks around, moving her head from side to side. One hand picks up her knife, holds it back to front, puts it down again. Then she picks up a spoon. “No, no, here. On your fork.” She puts the spoon down, and reaches for her serviette, clutching it hard in her hand.

My brother and mother-in-law are engaged in Christmas conversation and I can sense their chatter is disturbing to mum; she can follow neither them nor my directions. “Can you shush a minute? Mum, here. Here.” I’ve got her attention, but she can’t see what I’m trying to draw it towards.

“Don’t get frustrated,” my brother admonishes softly, but it’s hard, so hard, to quell the feelings of impatience, mingled with disbelief, followed by guilt. Infants learn to understand pointing by 12 months. My mother can’t see, or recognise, the food being waved in front of her face. This is what the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease looks like.

Before lunch, my brother had put in her favourite dangling cat earrings. We took her to the bathroom so she could admire them in the mirror but she barely recognised herself, let alone the jewellery. “Can you see them?” Her eyes were barely open. “Yes,” she said eventually, so we’d stop asking.

I’d picked her up from her facility earlier that day. Her carers had helped to get her ready. “I had no idea it was Christmas day,” she told me, and it was true: all that tinsel amounted to nothing. Any sense of time was obliterated for my mother long ago, but Christmas was the last important date to go, long after birthdays were forgotten.

“Here,” I say gently. Finally her eyes register the food. She takes it into her mouth, so deeply so I’m afraid the teeth of the fork will scratch her palette. She chews slowly. Soon, I think to myself, she will forget to swallow. Forget to breathe. Forget the things that we take for granted as nothing more than life-preserving instinct.

I’d read a Christmas card to her before lunch. “We will remember you long after you’ve forgotten us,” I told her. She is already forgetting. We re-introduce ourselves to her these days. Sometimes she gets cross. “Of course I know who you are,” she says. Sometimes, she does. Other times, it’s obvious she doesn’t.

“I’m Andrew, your son,” I will say, but her face is as cloudy as Melbourne. Our names, our relationships to her are becoming a mystery. “My son?” she says, puzzled. The word itself has no meaning. Later, when the penny drops, she will become distressed. “I’m off the planet, aren’t I?” she says.

“You’re just having a bad day,” I’ll reply. But mum holds onto a residual insight into her condition that increases her suffering. She worked for years in aged care, becoming an expert in the field. She often told me she could not imagine anything worse than Alzheimer’s disease. She resisted seeking treatment for years.

When we sold her house to fund her care, earlier this year, I trawled through boxes of personal effects. Among them was a 2002 letter from a psychologist to her GP, written after she’d taken stress leave from her job in the health department. It referred to problems with memory and completing tasks. She was 55.

Fourteen years is a long time to watch someone you love disintegrate. It’s also about average for an Alzheimer’s sufferer – seven years from onset to diagnosis; seven from diagnosis to death. There are even seven stages of the disease, according to the most commonly used scale. Mum is in stage six.

It took us years to connect the dots. The irrational outbursts of temper (frankly, she was always prone to those). The onset of panic attacks, as her life and career began to fall apart. Her terror of driving – although the greater terror was the loss of independence after we took the keys from her, following her diagnosis in late 2011.

Suddenly her eyes are open, and there’s an flash of recognition. “I know who you’re talking about,” she exclaims, and it seems she does. I shoot a look at my brother. “She’s back,” I mutter. For a few minutes, she is engaged. She even takes the fork from my hand, though as she holds it at such a steep angle that food falls in her lap.

“This is just lovely,” she says. “I’m the happiest person in the world.” And at that moment, perhaps she is.

A couple of days later I visit her. Earlier, she’d called my brother in a panic, hyperventilating, terrified that she had been abandoned. But by the time I get to her she’s lying peacefully on her bed. “Hello, mum.” She looks up, and her faces creases into an huge smile of relief.

“I thought you didn’t love me any more,” she says, clutching on to me.

“Of course I do. We all do,” I say. “Do you remember Christmas, a couple of days ago? You had a lovely time.”

“Did I?”

“Yes, you did. And Mark came to visit you yesterday.”

“Mark?” Fog veils her face again.

“Yes, Mark. Here he is.” I point to a picture of my brother on the wall behind her with our parents, but again, she can’t follow my finger, scarcely raising her head. Instead she points at a soft toy I’d given her as a present. She’s got quite a collection of them now.

She asks me what I’ve been up to. I tell her I’ve been writing; that I’ve just had a piece on Stevie Wright published. “Who was he again?” I explain he was the singer of the Easybeats, a band of her youth. “I remember him!” she says, clapping. I sing her a few lines from Friday On My Mind. Remarkably, she picks up some of the tune.

“How old was he?” she asks.

“Sixty-eight,” I say.

“That’s awful! He was he same age as me. It could have been me,” she says. Despite her own condition, mum’s empathy for others is intact. But I’m more impressed that on this occasion, she’s correctly remembered her own age.

At least she’s calmed down, and she’s tired. So am I, and I don’t have it in me to stay longer than half an hour this time. Once she’s sufficiently reassured, I make my excuses and leave. I tell myself as I drive away, next time I’ll stay longer; take her out for coffee.

Probably, I think to myself, she’s seen her last Christmas – certainly the last one she’ll be sentient for. The thought feels like a relief. It is not fair for anyone to suffer for so long; to lose touch with everything that defines and connects you to others. But then I think of her telling me she’s the happiest person in the world, and I’m not so sure.

First published in The Guardian, 4 January 2016

Poor Ned, the horse that never made it

He was the horse no one had ever heard of. The undistinguished battler who never captured the nation’s heart. Indeed, he failed to capture anyone’s, except perhaps his owners, until they too fell out of love with him; their dreams of riches and reflected glory dashed.

Unlike Kingston Town, Black Caviar or Red Cadeaux, Poor Ned occupies no special place in racing history. He never even reached the track: for all the frenzied efforts of his trainers, no whisper in Poor Ned’s ear or whip on his hindquarters could spur him to go any bloody faster.

No one sent cards or flowers wishing him luck. No ashes were to be scattered at Flemington, scene of not a single Ned appearance. No one ever cheered him down a home straight anywhere. He never grew to be an old warrior. He was just another two-year-old nag who wasn’t good enough.

He wasn’t handsome enough for dressage, and he couldn’t jump to save himself. He was too nervous for kids to ride on. Even professional jockeys found him hard work. The best that could be said about Poor Ned is that no one other than his owners ever lost money on him.

He was, in all respects, a disappointment. So his owners regretfully made the decision that, all agreed, was in their own best interests. After all, he was costing them around a hundred bucks a day. And Poor Ned was high maintenance. He couldn’t cope with the stalls, and he wasn’t much more docile in the stables.

He never gave anyone any joy. He competed with no distinction; in fact he was so lacking in distinction that he never competed at all. He was fragile and cranky, and no one will miss him, because no one other than his owners and handlers knew he ever existed. He served no useful purpose whatsoever.

No one ever turned out in their finest for him. No jewellery was flashed; no top hats or tails were worn; no ostentation of any kind was ever required. At least, being no peacock, he never had to put himself on display either. No one ever cooed their admiration at his perfect physique before he took to the track.

So to the knackery he went, unmourned. They led him to the kill-box and humanely euthanised him with a bullet to the head. Where Red Cadeaux was the third horse in two years to die following participation in the Melbourne Cup, Poor Ned was just another horse that never made it.

There’s more where Poor Ned came from, though. About 15,000 thoroughbred foals are bred each year in this country. Some of them are bought for millions; when they fail, they might fetch a couple of hundred in the saleyards. But gambling is big business. Sometimes you have to cut your losses.

They ground Poor Ned up for dog food, but no one ever got attached enough to him to care. No one outside of his connections knew his name, and nobody in his industry’s governing body recorded his fate. He wasn’t even a statistic, because no official statistics on horse wastage are recorded.

Apparently, though, it’s roughly 10,000 horses a year. Horses that, like Poor Ned, simply didn’t have the necessary fast-twitch fibres. Or they lacked the temperament for racing, or they broke down injured, or were just too much trouble. 10,000 horses that the nation never stopped for.

First published in The Guardian, 23 November 2015

Dying by degrees

Songs don’t have trigger warnings; if they did, they wouldn’t hit us so damn hard. News stories might warn viewers or readers in advance that the content they are about to consume may be graphic but, in art, an R rating or parental advisory sticker shouldn’t protect us from the shock and awe of emotional impact.

Some of the great songs in history cover intensely difficult terrain. Some of them even become fluke hits: Suzanne Vega’s late-’80s classic Luka, a study of child abuse, is one. Archie Roach’s Took The Children Away endures, too, because you didn’t have to be a member of the Stolen Generations to be moved by Roach’s suffering.

About a year ago, I heard a song by Melbourne songwriter Jen Cloher, Hold My Hand, the last song on her most recent album In Blood Memory. It hit me like a truck. The song is a conversation between two old lovers. One asks the other to tell the story of how they first met. He responds:

Well my dear, it was cold,

Shivering, nearly snow

You wore my favourite coat.

But his answer is instantly forgotten, and the conversation, like the song, becomes circular:

Did I dear? I forget,

Did our love begin there?

How did we meet again?

Cloher’s mother, Dorothy Urlich Cloher, died on Christmas Day of 2011. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years earlier. A distinguished New Zealand academic, her last creative act had been an acclaimed book on the famous Maori warrior chief Hongi Hika.

She had written the book quickly, aware her memory was failing, from her desk overlooking the Hauraki Gulf. Jen would write the bulk of her second album, Hidden Hands, at the same desk while her mother remained “upstairs, staring out to sea, losing herself slowly to the disease”.

In a blog post from 2012, she described the scene confronting her: “Her study, once a hub of academic achievement, was now a mess of scrawled notes to self and handwritten instructions furiously underlined with red pen: ‘1. Turn power on at the wall. 2. Push ON button below desk 3. Wait for computer to load 4. Type in username Dorothy password Nunky.’”

Seeing our own stories reflected through the eyes of others can make our own travails both more real and more bearable, because they take us outside the situation and allow us to view them from a distance. They also allow us to feel.

My mother, Sue, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in November 2011, aged 64. The symptoms had been there since at least 2002. That was when she first took leave from her job in the upper levels of the Queensland Health bureaucracy where, in a hideous irony, she worked on devising and implementing aged care policy.

So mum knows more about Alzheimer’s disease than I’ve forgotten. Except that now she’s forgotten she has it, we have to keep explaining to her why she can’t go home. In February, we placed her in long-term care, when her needs became too acute for us to cope with; her house was sold last week to fund her placement.

In the same blog post, Cloher tells the story of a disastrous journey she undertook with her mother to visit her childhood home in the far north of New Zealand, only to see her become disoriented and distressed when she failed to recognise either her relatives or her surroundings. By the middle of their first night away, Cloher felt she had no choice but to take her home.

“The drive back to Auckland was five hours of winding coastal road in the rain and I had moments of feeling insane,” Cloher writes. “Mum stayed awake for the whole journey home, asking every five minutes where we were going and then, upon receiving the explanation, apologising for not being able to remember where we were. ‘What’s wrong with me Jennifer?’ she asked at one point.”

A couple of years ago, aware that opportunities for mum to visit those closest to her were diminishing rapidly, I accompanied her from her home in Brisbane to her old home town, Melbourne, before driving her to visit my father – her ex-husband, with whom she has remained friends – in Wangaratta.

On the plane, unable to comprehend distance or time, she had quickly become confused and frightened. “I didn’t realise how far it was,” she kept saying. “Wouldn’t it have been quicker to drive?”

Later, as we drove the three hours up the Hume Highway, she became more animated as she thought she recognised various landmarks. It felt like being trapped in a scene from Mother And Son. “It all looks exactly as I remembered,” she would exclaim. Seconds later, the fog would descend again: “I have absolutely no idea where we are,” she said crossly.

Love, Cloher concludes in Hold My Hand, is “more than a reward, or a balm we use to soothe.” It’s an ongoing act of supreme patience and loyalty. Alzheimer’s is demanding; grief is a luxury carers can’t often afford as they lurch from one daily crisis to another. It’s only now we know she’s safe that we can begin to let go.

Shortly before the house settled, I took her on a final tour of what had been her home. She lingered in the garden. She’d known the names of everything that she’d once nurtured; now she bent to touch a tiny purple flower, blooming brilliantly, and tearfully asked me what it was. I couldn’t tell her.

Once, she told me she was dying by degrees, as everything that connected her to the world was slowly erased. Sometimes, I think that it’s not until she’s actually gone that we will get our own memories of her back. But, to quote another of Cloher’s songs, she is going, she is not gone. All we can do is remind her we’re still here.

First published in The Age, 15 August 2015

Cowboys of the cab industry get their comeuppance

One thing I learned about the taxi industry, after 15 years driving for it, is that it is unburdened by either self-awareness or shame. Take, for example, the Taxi Council of Queensland’s recent claim that Uber – the ride-share app that’s happily eating its lunch – is a potential haven for sexual predators which the industry rejects.

Pardon? My observation is that it’s next to impossible to get rejected by the taxi industry, at least in my home state of Queensland. Drivers are like gold; keeping bums behind the wheel is all that counts as the cab cartel – once as convinced as Kodak that the digital thing would never catch on – faces up to its own mortality.

It’s not as if the mainstream industry doesn’t have its own safety issues. Just punch “taxi sexual assault” into any search engine. In Victoria, the Institute of Forensic Medicine identified 25 cases over a three-year period. Most of the victims were heavily intoxicated. Two were intellectually disabled.

I have lost count of the number of my female friends who won’t have anything to do with taxis after being scared off by drivers who (a) suggested there might be other ways of paying their fare, or (b) who loitered around their front doors with intent, or (c) upbraided them for being out alone without their husbands.

But the industry is behaving like a spurned lover in need of an intervention order with its illegal/unsafe/uninsured campaigns against ride sharing. Uber has a multitude of issues that are the subject of a separate piece, but what cabbies really can’t cope with is that the public doesn’t believe a thing they say anymore.

Not surprisingly, they’re voting with their wallets, not that they need them in Uber’s cashless transaction model – an obvious winner for safety-conscious drivers, too, who would quite happily do their jobs without collecting the kind of cold hard cash that make them sitting ducks with anyone with a penchant for violence and easy money.

Two weeks before I gave away the game for good a couple of months ago, I read a scathing piece by Wendy Squires giving the one-finger salute to taxis. I checked off each of her points one by one as she reeled off all the ways the industry had treated her, both as a customer and as a woman, like shit on a shoe.

That article should be pinned prominently in every head office of every cab company in Australia and beyond as a laundry list of what the industry needs to change if it’s to step up to the plate of good customer service in the 21st century. It won’t be, because the industry won’t admit it has a problem. And because change is all too hard.

For me, the writing was on the wall for months. The signs were bad even before Christmas, but after the traditionally slow January, it never quite recovered. The return of university students in late February saw little improvement. By the time exams rolled around, I was struggling to take home $100 from a 12-hour night shift.

Seriously, why would any self-respecting student with a smart phone want to take a taxi today? Young people have adopted the new technology (as young people will) because they know a better product when they see it, and they know when they’re getting stiffed.

The only friends the taxi industry has left are the state governments that – after handing out the licences valued more like mortgages – have tried and mostly failed to protect their monopolies, and the businesses that hand out Cabcharge dockets to their employees.

Ah yes, Cabcharge, that racket that still gouges you 10 percent in Queensland (it’s been lowered to five percent in Victoria and New South Wales) for the privilege of using your credit or debit card every time you pay up. They got a “Shonky” award from Consumer magazine Choice for that one back in 2012.

That’s 10 percent of the saving a consumer like Squires makes every time she decides to catch an Uber car, bugger whatever the industry says about safety. As she rightly calculates, she has the driver’s name, photo ID, car model, registration, rating and phone number.

Most sane people would regard that as a safer option than falling into a cab dead drunk in the middle of the night and trying to remember the number of the vehicle. Cameras aren’t a great deal of assistance if you have little recollection of what’s happened to you, much less who took you home. They can be disabled easily anyway.

The cab industry is also a victim of its own business model. Like Uber, its drivers are not considered employees (despite wearing a uniform, driving marked cars and signing up to loosely enforced company policies) but independent contractors, paid a percentage of each fare.

The cab industry is mostly populated by cowboys and Indians. The cowboys own the vast majority of the licenses and have the ears of the relevant ministers. The Indians mostly just drive. There are no retainers for the excruciating hours worked; no benefits like sick pay or annual leave. It is, frankly, an industry built on exploitation: a workforce poorly trained and badly remunerated, governed by a body with no will to clean up its act and no disincentive to cut corners.

First published in The Guardian, 14 August 2015

Blog update: Notes From Pig City

Hello there. This blog hasn’t been updated for a long time. Let me explain. I actually haven’t been idle; in fact I’ve been writing more than I have in years. I’ve got out of taxis; some family stuff has settled down. So I’ve thrown myself back into journalism, and a lot of that work is getting published. I just haven’t been taking care to upload those pieces here.

I should have been, because this was supposed to be an online repository of my journalism – published or otherwise. I just simply haven’t kept up. I’ve finally done a big catch-up by uploading as much as I can on here, as well as standardising formats and tagging everything up. This means that much of what you see below will almost all be months old (in a few cases, years old) but I’ve added the dates and credit of publication.

They say the Internet never forgets, but it actually does, sort of, and I wanted to rescue all this stuff before it disappeared into those Way Back Machines. There may or may not be stuff you’ve missed, but the main thing is it’ll be here. In future, when new stuff comes out, I’ll post teasers with links on the day of publication before uploading the rest later.

Finally, there’s been a change in name, to something more obviously identifiable with me, my work, and the place I’m coming from. Cheers.

Fare game

It’s valued at around $60 billion. It operates, at last count, in 45 countries and over 200 cities worldwide. It’s gone to war with powerful taxi cartels, and the governments who protect them. Named tech company of the year by USA Today in 2013, it has just been given an “F” rating by the century-old Better Business Bureau, the American non-profit consumer protection organisation. Its CEO, a 38-year-old enfant terrible called Travis Kalanick, has wondered aloud whether he should have called it “Boober” – a reference to the pulling power, he claims, it gives him with the opposite sex.

Uber – the ride-sharing application which connects commuters with drivers of private vehicles for hire – is everywhere. After launching in San Francisco in 2010, its ascent has been vertiginous. Its runaway success is the product of a perfect technological storm: the ubiquity of smartphones, GPS technology, and peer-rated social media. It’s also undercut and exposed traditional taxi industries with mostly lower prices for passengers, and seemingly generous deals for its drivers.

Uber arrived in Brisbane in April this year, after roll-outs in Sydney and Melbourne beginning in late 2012. Its establishment in Australia has mirrored its trajectory overseas: it has been embraced by the public, in the face of howls of rage from the taxi lobby, which has leaned heavily on governments to crush the new kid on the block, citing concerns over safety, insurance, privacy, and the legality of allowing private cars to operate as taxi services.

The Queensland government issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber on 21 May. Since then, 62 drivers have been levied with fines totalling more than $170,000 – for driving without the correct authorisation, and for providing a taxi service without the required licence – and Uber is paying them. “The drivers on the Uber platform are our most important partners, I want to stress that,” says Queensland manager Mike Abbott. “I can assure you we are supporting our drivers 100 percent.”

It’s typical of a company that relies on a crash-through approach, rather than compromise, for its success. While Uber claims to be working constructively with the government to find a solution, for now it’s perfectly content to exist in the black economy: untaxed, unregulated and seemingly unstoppable.

IF you’ve never caught an Uber car, here’s how it works. First, you download the app to your phone. You enter your personal information, including your credit card details and phone number, and set your pickup location. You then request a vehicle. At the bottom of your phone’s screen, it will tell you who’s on the way – the driver’s name, photo ID and phone number, the car’s registration number and model, an approximation of how long you have to wait, and the likely fare.

If there’s a delay, you’ll get a call direct from the driver. That, argues the Taxi Council of Queensland CEO Benjamin Wash, should be a cause for both privacy and safety concerns. But riders have the driver’s details, too. Like eBay and Airbnb, both buyer and seller rate each other after the deal is done. It’s a closed, seamless, cashless model – meaning, for the driver, there’s no obvious motive for robbery, or worse.

My first driver is Connie (who prefers not to give her full, or indeed real name). She’s taking me to my 25-year school reunion at the Caxton Hotel, an event Uber has got behind with a slick promotion to attendees. For my first ride, I get $10 off the fare. (I later get another $10 credit for recommending the service to a friend.)

Connie’s car is a white Honda Jazz that only just fits Uber’s criteria that vehicles must be less than 10 years old, but it’s clean, well-maintained and, even better, she has a selection of lollypops on offer. Connie herself is keeping busy after a long career navigating the financial uncertainties of the arts: “I have periods of time where I don’t have employment at all, or I’ve got very reduced employment, so I’ve got to fill in the gaps.”

Uber relies substantially on drivers like Connie, part-timers supplementing their income. Its relentless Facebook campaigns especially target those willing to work on weekends. But they are not tied to any schedule. While taxi drivers can work up to 14 hours before being logged out in the interests of fatigue management, Uber drivers work as it suits them. “I can work 12 hours straight; I can work half an hour; I don’t have to work at all; I can do whatever I want,” she says.

Women are rare in the city’s cab fleets, but Connie says she’s never felt unsafe. “We’re all connected through the app. I’m not picking up randoms on the street. We’re not exchanging any money, I’ve got their name and their phone number. If there’s any problems, everything’s traceable. When you get into a cab, you don’t know who the guy is. Who ever takes down the number of the cab they’re in?

“It kind of feels like everyone’s part of something really new and exciting and everyone’s up for it. It’s like a secret club in a way.”

WASH prefers to describe Uber, its partners and riders as “cult followers”. The company’s only innovation, he says, is in marketing. “Self-promotion is no recommendation,” he says. “We believe there’s a lot of hype and spin around what Uber is doing, and no one’s actually questioning any of their assertions.”

In the run-up to the busy Christmas period, TCQ has erected electronic billboards around Brisbane as part of a a campaign against ride-share services, which it describes as “illegal, unsafe and uninsured”. Of course, it’s also protecting its own turf. An e-petition signed by Wash warns of “cashed up multinational interlopers [that] will seek to sweep away thousands of Queensland small businesses, potentially doing untold damage in the pursuit of profits.”

Wash is unimpressed by Uber’s cashless model, outwardly the most seductive part of its appeal to both drivers and riders worried about safety: “Personally I’d question whether or not they’re breaching privacy regulations by giving out passenger details to the driver, given that [Uber] drivers aren’t put under the same level of scrutiny as taxi drivers.”

Even for the Facebook generation, Uber’s ability to collect and potentially misuse personal information should be of concern. It’s not just the driver who knows where you live and has your number: your movements are tracked and logged, too. Uber’s global vice president Emil Michael made headlines in November when he suggested Uber could dish dirt on journalists critical of the company, after Sarah Lacy, founder of Pandodaily, accused the company of sexism and misogyny (Lacy, in a piece called “The Trickle-Down of Asshole Culture”, had decried a French advertisement, since deleted, which offered a deal whereby riders would be paired with “hot chick” drivers – model hired by Uber for a curious maximum of 20-minute rides.)

There is so much claim- and counter-claim surrounding Uber that, at times, it’s hard to sift the spin from the substance. The taxi industry claims Uber drivers, and their passengers, are uninsured in the event of an accident. Uber counters that its drivers are required to have comprehensive insurance, and are additionally covered by a $5 million commercial choice policy. “We’re doing hundreds of millions of trips now; we can’t afford to let down riders or drivers anywhere,” says Mike Abbott.

Like taxi drivers, Uber partners require a Driver’s Authorisation, subject to a full medical clearance, criminal background and traffic history check, but the TCQ claims they are not subject to the same ongoing monitoring as cabbies. Taxis are also inspected and their roadworthiness certified on a six-month basis; no such requirement exists for anyone using a private vehicle for profit. And there’s no obligation for Uber drivers to service vulnerable members of the community – for example, anyone with an assistance animal.

But the taxi industry, despite cameras and emergency systems and GPS tracking, has issues of its own. Google “taxi sexual assault” and you’ll get a long list of results from all Australian states, including Queensland. In Victoria, the Institute of Forensic Medicine documented 25 cases between 2011 and 2013. In many cases, drivers had tampered with or removed cameras to destroy or obscure evidence, and because victims were typically intoxicated, they were unable to record details of either the cab or the driver. Many more assaults have likely gone reported.

Such incidents may represent a tiny proportion of overall fares, but in the eyes of the public, perception is reality. A quick straw poll of female friends reveals that many refuse to take cabs, with several reporting incidents that had left them feeling scared and preyed upon. Some have already enthusiastically adopted Uber, which they see as both safer and more transparent than the alternative.

BLOW away all the smoke about safety, insurance and inspections and what you’re left with is an industry fighting tooth and claw to preserve its stranglehold on the market. Allan Fels, the former head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission who conducted an inquiry into the Victorian taxi industry in 2011—2012, describes the entry of Uber and other competitors into the marketplace as “revolutionary”. He spares no sympathy for the establishment: “The revolution is even greater than otherwise because the taxi industry for years has failed to progress and innovate due to its self-protectionist attitude.”

The nub of the issue is the value of taxi licences, which change hands for up to half a million dollars a pop. To recoup that investment, taxi fares are necessarily high (if you’re paying by debit or credit card, add Cabcharge’s 10 percent cut, absent from an Uber ride). Whereas licence owners are mostly investors, the majority of drivers lease cabs from their owners under a bailment agreement: they are regarded as self-employed, receive no benefits such as sick leave, and work excruciating hours for a relative pittance.

The Queensland situation, Fels says, is no different to Victoria’s. “The Taxi Council of Queensland and comparable other institutions in Australia and around the world have vigorously opposed competition, and the number one mechanism has been having a restriction on the number of licences,” he says. “The taxi industry has fought tenaciously to stop opening the industry up to real competition. Most other small businesses are not protected in this fashion, and it reflects the political power of the taxi lobby.”

Wash vigorously denies this. “The only way you can improve the industry is through competitive forces,” he says. What he claims his industry is fighting for is for Uber to be subjected to the same standards that cost licence holders tens of thousands of dollars per year. As for the cost of licences, he says: “No more than the cost of purchasing any other small business. I think it’s easy for people to isolate taxis and say it’s inappropriate for a cab to be worth half a million dollars. I can’t buy a newsagency for less than half a million dollars. They’re both small businesses, and the market determines what an acceptable price is.”

Why would a staunchly conservative, free-market loving government oppose a tech start-up that creates jobs and delivers cheaper services to consumers? Initially, the Queensland government gave the green light to Uber, with premier Campbell Newman saying his was a “deregulation-minded government” and that “we don’t believe in more red tape and regulation unless it’s absolutely necessary.” (He did add, however, that he would prefer his daughters caught a “ridgy-didge” cab).

It didn’t take long for the industry to get in the government’s ear. A statement from the Transport Minister, Scott Emerson, echoes many of the same concerns expressed by Wash. “The government’s position has always been consistent and, while we support innovation, we will always uphold regulations that are designed to keep passengers safe,” it said. “Regulation of passenger service vehicles including taxis is undertaken to protect passenger safety and we will continue to crack down on anyone who is breaking these laws.” Pushed on the issue of the cost of licences, Emerson said the government was conducting a review of the Victorian inquiry to determine whether the same issues were relevant to the Queensland industry.

Ken Parry, who drives for Uber around an established limousine business, tells me a story about picking up a staffer from the Premier’s office. Parry, mindful that he was operating against the cease-and-desist order, asked if he was the victim of an entrapment operation. The staffer laughed. “Oh no, we want you to exist,” he said. “How does that work?” Parry replied. “Transport’s killing us and you’re hiring me; is there some internal battle going on?” “No,” the staffer replied. “Just the taxi industry leaning on transport. The minister’s got to be seen to be doing something.”

MIKE Abbott acknowledges Uber is operating in a grey area, where technology and consumers have rushed ahead of the law. “We want ride-sharing to be regulated,” he says. “We are all for having sensible regulations that promote safety. We have been in discussions with the government and the Department of Transport since the launch. Those conversations are ongoing and we’re positive about where they’re going.”

“There is ambiguity, to say the least, about whether [Uber] is operating lawfully or not, but I believe that its arrival is putting very strong pressure on politicians to end many of the anti-competitive restrictions in the taxi industry,” says Allan Fels. “Uber has demonstrated to the public what it can offer, and politicians will find it very hard to block their service.”

I go for another ride with Connie. This time I’m not paying, but observing. Her first customer’s name is Sheldon (though he prefers “Shadz”). He’s a lithe, tattooed young hipster with earlobes stretched by oversized wooden plugs. If Uber is a cult, he is a fully paid-up, card-carrying member. “This is actually my second Uber trip today; I caught one from my house to here before,” he says excitedly.

“The dude on the way here used to be an Olympic weightlifter. That alone was pretty mind-blowing to me. With the Uber drivers, they all have other jobs. They’re like superheroes! You know, the superhero takes off his mask and goes back to his office job. Then he puts on his superhero mask and becomes an Uber driver. That’s how I see it.”

“I think we’ve all grown up with this impression that transport is what it is,” says Abbott. “But it doesn’t have to be. I think it can be a whole lot better.”

First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), December 6 2014

A message for men: don’t be a dickhead

The front page of The Age’s website last Thursday made for truly gruesome reading.

Once you got past the federal election coverage, and the Essendon supplements scandal, the headlines were overwhelmingly concerned with a series of brutal crimes against women, led by the appalling case of a parolee, Jason Dinsley, who had pleaded guilty to the murder and attempted rape of a Ballarat woman in April.

When the pathetic Dinsley couldn’t get it up, he decided to take his frustration out on his victim by bashing her with a cricket bat. Her four-year-old son was in the house at the time. He already had nearly 100 prior convictions by 2007, when he was imprisoned for six years for the violent rape and robbery of a 52-year-old woman.

Scroll down a little further and there, again, was the sad case of Johanna Martin, whom no one in the media seems to be capable of resisting calling by her better-known sex worker’s handle, Jazzy O, alongside pictures of her clad in a few well-placed Australian flags.

On trial for Martin’s murder was one of her clients, who also owed her $13,000. He claims she died accidentally in a “sex game”. But he didn’t report her death. Instead he pawned her jewellery and dumped her body in the street. His defence barrister argues a paltry $13,000 wouldn’t unduly trouble a woman allegedly worth $3 million.

Such contempt.

Later in the afternoon, up popped the case of Michael Pilgrim. In a minutely planned operation, Pilgrim had abducted another sex worker, of whom he had also been a client, and imprisoned her in a house in Gippsland, where he raped her daily in the deluded belief that she might develop Stockholm Syndrome and fall in love with him.

I was starting to feel a bit sick by then, and perhaps ill-advisedly I went back to the election news. What I found was a 24-hour cycle fixated on the federal opposition leader Tony Abbott – long pilloried for his archaic attitudes to women – stating that one of his female candidates might bring a little sex appeal to his campaign.

This was disputed by former Labor opposition leader Mark Latham, who thought Abbott must have had the beer goggles on, as she wasn’t even “that good a sort”. It showed, he said, that the would-be PM had “low standards”. Actually, both men are guilty of that. But not in the way Latham presumes.

To top all this off, we had a long-serving former Prime Minister who thought anyone who felt any of this was a bit, well, problematic ought to “get a life”. Well, excuse me John Howard, and anyone else, if you think I may be drawing too long a bow in all of this. But aren’t our leaders at least supposed to set a better example?

Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay thinks so. In an article for the Herald-Sun just three weeks ago, he said he had something to tell you: it’s all connected. And he challenged us: “When a woman is jeered, groped, bashed or raped I want you to consider the man who did it, and the culture that encouraged it,” he wrote.

He wanted prominent men, he said, to speak about this – both loudly and more often. It had to come from the men – male politicians, corporate and sporting leaders (they are all still mostly men) – to call out the sexism that underlay the violence. And if reducing a female politician’s credentials to her appearance isn’t sexism, what is?

“The casual groping, the sick sense of entitlement, the disrespect – all of it slowly erodes our attitudes towards women,” Lay wrote. “Bit by bit our standards are lowered until this kind of behaviour becomes a form of endorsement of violence towards women.”

What was that about standards again, Mr Latham?

Then Lay gave us the statistics. In the year up to March 2013, there were nearly 20,000 recorded offences of family violence in Victoria. And in the previous two financial years, the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service received more than 50,000 calls to its crisis hotline in Victoria alone.

The aforementioned headlines were all in a single day. I haven’t mentioned the cases of Jill Meagher, Sarah Cafferkey, or how Julia Gillard’s gender and appearance was used ruthlessly by her less evolved enemies to destroy her political credibility – which is not to say she didn’t inflict many wounds upon herself.

Because this is not a left/right issue, and nor is it a women’s issue. As Lay said, it’s actually a men’s issue, and a justice issue. And calling it as a man doesn’t mean forfeiting one’s masculinity, or sense of humour, or sexuality. It just means not turning a blind eye to men behaving like dickheads.

Going the extra mile for the disabled

The same message had been coming up on my despatcher for over an hour, with variations indicating increasing desperation: “URGENT wheelchair booking holding Ransome-Wellington Point. 2 x advantage jobs on offer. Pax waiting. Please assist.”

Good luck with that, I thought. That sounds harsh, I know, but there was nothing I could do; I was in the Albany Creek area at the time, a good hour away from the southern bayside suburbs. And most other wheelchair-accessible taxis, I knew, would be in two places: at the airport or cruising the city, where they had the best chance of finding work. The only way any of them would be making the 45-minute drive to the Redlands would be if another fare took them there first.

And even then they might not want to hang around, 2 x advantage jobs (where drivers are, sometimes, allocated a pre-booked compensatory fare) or not.

The sad, brutal reality if you’re a person with a disability – especially if you live in the outer suburbs – is that unless you want to go somewhere pretty exceptional, it’s often pretty hard to find a cab willing to come to your aid. And mostly, wheelchair-bound passengers aren’t going anywhere exceptional: they’re relying on taxis to take them from home to their local shopping centre, or they’re on a visit to their kids from their nursing facility or respite centre. Basic stuff, which anyone should be entitled to without fuss.

In some ways, working with people with disabilities is one of the most rewarding aspects of driving a maxi taxi. You are providing a badly required community service. One of the best jobs I ever had involved picking up a clearly gravely ill woman from the Holy Spirit Hospital with her extended family – children and grandchildren – a week before Christmas a few years ago. All they wanted to do was drive around the suburbs for an hour looking at the Christmas lights.

But – as anyone who works in community services will attest – it’s poorly paid. And time is money in a cab. There is no baseline retainer. Most drivers make a little better than 50 percent of a 12-hour shift’s take, if they’re good at the job. They bear the cost of fuel, and many other expenses besides. They are not considered employees, so there are no holidays or superannuation or sickness benefits. And rises in taxi fares are invariably gobbled up by the owners, who simply increase the cost of leasing their vehicles to drivers.

It is, as Ross Gittins said earlier this week, a terrible deal, and it’s hardly a surprise that the industry is plagued by high turnover and desperate drivers willing to cut corners wherever they can to make a living. The turnover is particularly high in the maxi fleet. It’s a rare cabbie who will go the extra mile(s) – literally – to pick up a wheelchair passenger in Ransome. Of course we are dealing with people less fortunate than ourselves, but the simple fact is we have to eat, too.

So Campbell Newman’s decision to axe a proposed taxi subsidy scheme (negotiated by the Taxi Council with the previous Labor government) is a disappointment. The scheme aimed to compensate drivers $6.50 for each wheelchair fare. And $6.50 per fare, adding up to about $1.5 million, is minimalist compared to similar schemes in other states.

Of course, Newman and transport minister Scott Emerson have trotted out the familiar refrain that the state is broke. But being broke hasn’t stopped the government from taking a politically motivated appeal against the mining tax to the high court. How will that boost the state’s coffers, either in the short or long term? An unlikely victory would certainly see a bit of extra cash flow into the pockets of a few mining magnates with close ties to the LNP. I don’t think I need to mention any names.

Speaking more broadly, and as Barrie Cassidy has already pointed out, that’s the rod Newman and other premiers have made for their own backs with their decision to turn their backs on a trial (a trial!) national disability insurance scheme, and on this proposal. Every cent they spend will – and should – be measured against their lack of commitment to servicing some of the most disadvantaged members of the community. The money they are being asked to put in is a pittance in state government terms, especially in a state as rich in resources as ours.

They should be ashamed.

Sex in a cab? Not on my watch

For about the last 10 years, I’ve been driving a maxi taxi on the weekends. In the early noughties, it funded my first book Pig City; during the GFC, as the freelance commissions dried up, it kept me afloat. These days, I restrict myself mostly to Sunday night shifts only, and although much has changed in the industry in that time, much of it not for the better, one thing hasn’t changed. And that’s The Question.

The Question gets asked in all sorts of ways. Sometimes people come right out with it, but more often than not it feels like I’ve picked up that hapless idiot from Monty Python’s “Candid Photography” sketch – better known as Nudge, Nudge. A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, eh, eh, knowwotImean?

Say no more!

The question (I’ll put it euphemistically) goes something like this: have I ever picked up in the act of, you know, picking up?

It’s always men who ask it, of course. Never women. Women (at least the nice, polite and proper ones that I mostly seem to meet) don’t generally think to ask such things. Maybe I’m just meeting the wrong ones, at least if the bragging from my colleagues is anything to go by. Let’s take the case of Prabhjit Gill.

Gill has just been acquitted by the Perth District Court of raping an intoxicated female passenger. Gill’s co-accused, Amrit Pal Singh, was convicted. I can’t say anything about the case, with which I was previously unfamiliar, but in its aftermath Gill has made a series of what to me seem quite extraordinary, not to mention lurid claims.

Firstly, Gill says he knows “at least 60” drivers who had been offered sex in lieu of payment. I would love to know how he arrived at this figure. Did he (or his defence team) do a survey? His claim was news to me – and to my fiancée, too.

On top of that, Gill boasts of being offered oral sex by passengers as payment “two or three times a month”: “You drive, you pick up a girl, and they have no money. They offer you [oral sex],” he says. Of course, Gill claims he never accepted sexual favours as payment himself, but “knew of many drivers who did.”

Riiiight. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? His job, after all, depends on it. Otherwise, I can only put Gill’s startling public testimony down to the fact that, unfortunately, many men love only one thing more than sex, and that’s bragging about it – how much they’re getting, who with, in what shapes and forms. I’ve certainly come across other cabbies who, like Gill, seem to fancy themselves when it comes to Business Time.

“Hey, can you take me to Carindale, please.”

Wait a minute, I know what you’re trying to say, baby. You’re trying to say ooh, yeah, it’s business time.

Yes, you are quite correct. It is business time. I am at work. That will be $28.50, thank you very much. Enjoy the rest of your night. With someone else. Make that with someone else especially.

All I can say is this: in a decade, I have never picked up while picking up – not once – and have fielded just two genuine propositions. One was from a gay fellow whom I picked up from a festival at the Wickham. He hadn’t scored, was a bit sad about it, and I was the last guy of the night to (politely) turn him down. He did cheerfully pay up for the fare, though.

The other was a transgender woman, who didn’t have the full fare for me to get her from Fortitude Valley to Woodridge. She offered to show me her new breasts – and started to slide down her top. I looked away, saying only that they weren’t mine to see. She eventually left the cab and tottered away on her six-inch stilettoes. Am I sending out the wrong signals, or what?

Look, I’m sure it happens. Occasionally. To someone out there. Maybe even Mr Gill. But really, I am afraid to tell you that in my experience, the idea of cabbies rampantly getting lucky in their vehicles (do they charge their passengers the $80 cleaning fee at the end, I wonder?) is a big, fat urban myth – one propagated almost entirely by cabbies themselves.

There is, however, one shining, magnificent exception to my story.

I was at the rank at Red Hill, outside the old Skate Arena, when the job came through. The pickup was in Victoria Street. The destination was Roma Street; barely time for a conversation. And yet, in those few minutes, we were getting along so well, she asked me to take her further, on to the airport.

The connection was palpable. What was I going to do? How could I let this opportunity slip? I couldn’t, of course.

We arrived at the airport. Suddenly I was as nervous as a kitten. “Look, I can’t ask you for your phone number,” I blurted. “That would get me into trouble. All I can do is offer you my number. If you want to call me when you get back, I’d love to hear from you.” She tilted her head to one side, grinned, and said OK. I wrote down my number, my hand shaking.

We’re getting married next year. It’s made that decade of driving worthwhile.