Category: miscellaneous

Dying wish


“Hi Mum,” I say.

I lean over, kiss her forehead and pull up a chair. She’s in a dark-blue nightie and is lying on her side, legs drawn up beneath her like a dying bird, arms held out in front of her, bent at the elbows across her scrawny chest.

She pulls at a thread hanging from the sleeve. “Ny-ny-ny-ny-sh-sh-sh-sh-ny-ny-ny.”

At the same time, she is grinding her teeth, a sound as loud and harsh as a stick being dragged along a picket fence. In the background, a CD of meditation classics pipes from the small stereo on a side table.

I try her name, more brightly, but feel helpless. “Susie,” I call. I stand over her again, forcing myself into her line of vision.

“Yes,” she says flatly, and I’m taken aback by the sudden acknowledgment. For a moment, it seems she’s recognised her own name.

But I cannot be sure, and her grey eyes don’t meet mine, or register my presence. “Ny-ny-ny-ny-ny,” she resumes. Her head lolls back and forth.

Suddenly, a deep exhaustion seems to fall upon her. She raises a hand to her brow, sticks her thumb in her mouth, falls silent, and her bowels open.

Sue is seventy-two. Alzheimer’s disease has chipped away at her for eighteen years. She has been a resident in this facility in Brisbane’s northern suburbs for the last five. She has been bedridden and unable to communicate for twenty-six months.

I have been here for barely fifteen minutes, which is about average these days. I call on a nurse to attend to her, apologise and retreat.

Passing through the lounge on the way out, another woman, probably a little older than Mum but not as advanced in her own decline, looks up at me hopefully from her chair.

I have come to know that look. Her in-built facial recognition software is searching frantically for a match, making me pause.

“Are you here to see anyone special?” she asks.

FOUR YEARS AGO, my mother asked me to kill her.

As she stumbled down the staircase of her own decline, she expressed the wish to end her life many times. On none of those occasions would she have possessed the legal capacity to make a request for assisted dying – had such laws existed in Queensland, and should they have provided for her illness.

What no one doubts is that she wished more than anything for her suffering to be relieved, if not ended.

Partly, it was because she knew too well what lay ahead. She had spent much of her career in aged care, with the Blue Nursing Service (now Blue Care) and later in the Aged and Extended Care Unit as a senior Queensland Health bureaucrat. Many times, she described Alzheimer’s disease as her worst nightmare, years before it was visited upon her.

Her story has led me here: to the most distant, ethically perilous edge of the euthanasia debate in Australia. I am not alone in looking over that edge. “Whenever I have spoken about this publicly, it is the number-one issue raised,” says television presenter and producer Andrew Denton, who founded assisted dying advocacy group Go Gentle in 2016.

This should be no surprise. Our population is growing older, living longer – and getting sicker. Dementia is now the second-leading cause of death in Australia. It is the leading cause of disability for those aged over 65. Nearly 460,000 Australians are living with one of the various forms of the disease.

Without an effective treatment, that number is expected to increase to 590,000 by 2028, and over a million by 2058, by which time the cost to the economy is projected to be over $36 billion. In 2018, it was estimated at $15 billion. This is not to suggest that people with dementia are a drain on the national coffers. It is to say that the issue is not going to go away.

ON 19 OCTOBER 2017, Mary Wilson, a seventy-year-old public servant in Canada suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, became the first dementia sufferer to end her life under that country’s medical assistance in dying (MAID) legislation, introduced by Justin Trudeau’s centre-left Liberal government in 2016.

The case was controversial. Wilson, who suffered from no other illness and retained insight into her condition until the end – her last words were “I’m ready” – had made her wishes abundantly clear. But doubts persisted about her cognitive capacity. After her death, a ten-month investigation by British Columbia’s medical regulator cleared three doctors of wrongdoing.

It set a medical, if not judicial, precedent – the physicians faced no criminal sanctions – with implications for other Canadian dementia sufferers, and the future of the country’s assisted dying laws, which require that the death of a MAID applicant must be ‘reasonably foreseeable’.

Those words were sufficiently open to interpretation for Wilson and her treating team to test the limits of their application. Last year a Quebec court ruled the “reasonably foreseeable” section of the law invalid on discriminatory grounds, finding in favour of two sufferers of degenerative diseases who had their own MAID requests denied.

Trudeau, whose party now governs in a minority with Bloc Québécois after the 2019 election, said before the poll that the laws would be rewritten and expanded in response to the judgment. Such an expansion may also explicitly make provision for dementia sufferers, validating and codifying the Wilson precedent.

The Netherlands, which legalised euthanasia and assisted dying in 2002, is also wrestling with this fraught area of the law. In September 2019, a court acquitted a doctor who had given a lethal injection to an unidentified seventy-four-year-old woman (known only as Ms A) three years earlier.

Her wishes had been documented in an advance care directive, but when her time came, unlike Mary Wilson, she was neither competent nor consenting. According to a report in the London-based Journal of Medical Ethics, she struggled, and had to be held down by relatives.

MORE THAN TWENTY years after John Howard’s government repealed the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, the push for voluntary assisted dying (VAD) in Australia has slowly but inexorably gained momentum. Victoria, under Labor Premier Daniel Andrews, was the first state to enact legislation in 2017, coming into effect on 19 June 2019.

Western Australia followed two years later, with Mark McGowan’s Labor government passing legislation on 10 December 2019, effective in eighteen months. In Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor government, which faces the polls in October, has held its own parliamentary inquiry into the matter. The committee was due to deliver its report as this edition went to press in March.

Recent parliamentary votes in Tasmania (November 2013), South Australia (November 2016) and New South Wales (November 2017) all failed by a single vote – in South Australia’s case, the casting vote of the Speaker. All were moved by private members’ bills or representatives from minor parties, often via cross-party working groups.

The laws that passed in Victoria and Western Australia, however, were moved by the governments of the day, emboldened by years of polls indicating consistent and overwhelming public backing. A Vote Compass poll in May 2019 showed support had jumped fifteen points in six years to almost 90 per cent in favour.

“There isn’t a social issue which is even close to voluntary assisted dying in terms of public support over the last two decades,” says Denton, who became an advocate after watching his father die in unrelieved agony in 1997. “Same-sex marriage was a distant second. And this is universal. It doesn’t matter what poll, it doesn’t matter which political party, it doesn’t even matter which religious denomination. It’s always 70 per cent and up, and now it’s trending closer to 90 per cent.

“That tells you that this isn’t a trendy or a woke moment or anything like that; it tells you that our society feels very strongly that if somebody is terminally ill and suffering, then they should be offered a full range of choices.”

But the surge in support exists in a wider context. The day before broadcast of the first part of the ABC Four Corners investigation Who Cares? in September 2018, the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety was announced by the federal government. It has heard damning evidence of systemic abuse and neglect in aged-care facilities.

Department of Health figures released in September 2019 show more than 120,000 senior Australians are waiting for a government-subsidised Home Care Package. The Royal Commission has heard that 16,000 people on the waitlist died in 2018. Another 13,000 were placed into aged care prematurely.

While demand for palliative care services increases, the sector remains chronically underfunded and inequitably distributed, particularly in regional and remote areas. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and people from diverse cultural backgrounds are the most poorly served. The range of choices for the terminally ill and suffering, therefore, is already limited.

Sarah Winch, head of Medical Ethics at the University of Queensland (and who, early in her career, was mentored by my mother when both were in the Blue Nursing Service), describes the introduction of voluntary assisted dying amid such a state of affairs as an admission of policy failure. “To have choice, you have to look at all the other variables as well,” she says.

Winch is supportive of assisted dying, but says it should never be a cheap and easy substitute. “In an ideal world, we have good aged care, we do have proper care of people with dementia, and palliative care as well. I cannot see why those things cannot be funded adequately in a country as wealthy as this.”

She remembers an exchange with LNP member Mark McArdle, then the acting chair of the Queensland parliamentary inquiry into voluntary assisted dying. McArdle put it to her that “we do not live in a perfect world where in Cunnamulla, in Barcy [Barcaldine], in Winton and other places north and west we have access to the perfect palliative care system”.

McArdle’s point was that people who need not continue to suffer might wait forever before all the problems in aged and palliative care are fixed in a state as vast and decentralised as Queensland. (It is also possible that McArdle was playing devil’s advocate, telling Winch “that is the argument that is going to come back to us”.)

Nonetheless, Winch recalls, “I was deeply shocked by that comment. That was exactly what I didn’t want to hear.” She replied to McArdle: “Morally, that is difficult to defend – it really is – because it is saying, ‘Unfortunately, you live in Cunnamulla. There’s nothing we can do for you, but here’s some VAD.'”

In the background, the federal government is preparing its religious freedom bill. Its second draft allows hospitals, aged-care providers and retirement homes to discriminate to preserve their “religious ethos”. The Catholic Church, implacably opposed to voluntary assisted dying in any form, claims to provide more than 50 percent of all the palliative care beds in Australia.

Here is another, darker statistic. According to the Queensland coroner, 168 people with a terminal illness took their own lives in the years 2016 and 2017: seven every month. It is safe to assume – for such is the way with suicide – that many occurred in traumatic and violent circumstances, and that more would have tried and failed.

David Muir, chair of the Clem Jones Trust (established after a clause in the will of a former Lord Mayor of Brisbane left $5 million for euthanasia advocacy), says many would have been dementia sufferers, desperate to exercise agency over their lives by ending them before their disease robbed them of any remaining autonomy: “They’re taking their lives early to avoid a situation where they may not be competent or have any control over their end-of-life care.”

The Victorian coroner gave similar evidence of suicide among the elderly and terminally ill to that state’s parliamentary inquiry into assisted dying. That evidence was considered decisive in swaying the final vote in favour.

THE VICTORIAN VOLUNTARY Assisted Dying Act 2017 is highly proscribed in its application – so much so that state Premier Daniel Andrews, who boasted on his 2018 re-election that Victoria was “the most progressive state in the nation”, also boasted that the legislation was “the most conservative model of its kind in the world”.

The legislation demands that a person seeking assisted dying must have an incurable and advanced condition causing suffering “that cannot be relieved in a manner that the person considers tolerable”. They must have a prognosis of no more than six months to live – twelve months for someone with a neurodegenerative disorder – and must retain decision-making capacity.

The Western Australian model is similarly restrictive, with two important differences: a patient can choose for a medical practitioner to administer medication (in Victoria, patients must self-administer, unless they are incapable of swallowing), and Western Australian doctors may raise the option of assisted dying with the patient themselves.

While neither model specifically excludes dementia sufferers, in practice they are disqualified on prognostic and capacity grounds. Dementia is incurable, and ultimately fatal. But its long, elastic, unpredictable arc means even the most experienced geriatricians can no more predict life expectancy than divine the length of a piece of string.

Typically, most people in the final stage of dementia are unable to communicate, let alone give informed consent. Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy accepted that the narrowness of the legislation would disappoint sufferers and their families, but that capacity was “critical to the security and protections of the model”.

For Denton, it was a case of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. “I spent hundreds of hours having conversations with politicians on all sides of the debate, and what I saw very clearly was that almost without exception, MPs saw this as the most difficult, the most significant and consequential legislation they would ever be asked to vote on.

“It was very clear, politics being the art of the possible, that it had to be a conservative law to get through. I used to say to advocates that I would rather have 80 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing, because the majority of people that access these laws overseas fall within the compass of the [Victorian] law, which is those with cancer.”

In a submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry, Dementia Australia argued that limiting access to voluntary assisted dying via prognosis effectively discriminated against people suffering from the illness. It lobbied unsuccessfully that sufferers should be able to make an enduring request for voluntary assisted dying via an advance care plan.

Such is the case in Belgium and the Netherlands, which authorise euthanasia for people who no longer have the cognitive and physical capacity to execute their own wishes. The case of Ms A, however, demonstrated the limitations and dangers of advance directions.

For someone in the early stages of dementia, cognitive capacity is notoriously fluid. An advance care plan written after a diagnosis could already be compromised by the sufferer’s decline, and potentially by family members who may have their own, potentially dubious, motivations to assist them, with doctors being left to evaluate the paperwork.

Associate Professor Stephen Macfarlane, chair of the Faculty of Psychiatry of Old Age for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (and also head of Clinical Services at the Dementia Centre in Melbourne), says a dementia sufferer’s words cannot be relied on for end-of-life care, even if expressed previously in writing.

“Sure, some people [react badly] when they get the diagnosis, and they might make a decision that they would like to be binding in ten years’ time,” he says. “But when that time comes, they might have no memory of making that decision, and they’ve got no way of articulating their current position, or capacity to make a decision of such magnitude.”

He invokes the case of Ms A. “[What happens] if they’re voicing their opposition to being strapped down, or administered medication against their will? It really puts them into a bind and commits them to a terminal decision, based on what their idea of a future with dementia might be like. And who’s going to hold them to that?”

Lindy Willmott, professor of law at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), who has written extensively about assisted dying, says: “The standard of capacity required for a decision differs depending on the complexity of the situation. I would have thought voluntary assisted dying [requires] a high threshold to establish decision-making capacity.”

My mind flashes back to an incident a decade ago, when my mother was on the brink of her diagnosis, and when my brother and I – with the aid of her older brother – accompanied her to a meeting with a lawyer to obtain power of attorney over her affairs. All of us were aware the window of opportunity to ratify the document was closing fast.

Mum had been a difficult patient, fearful and prone to furious outbursts as we shuttled her from one medical appointment to the next. But as diminished and distressed as she was by this surrendering of control, she well understood this particular meeting’s purpose and importance – until it was time to put her pen, falteringly, to paper, and her eyes went glassy.

“I have no idea what we’re doing here,” she exclaimed.

CHRISTINE SMYTH, FORMER president of the Queensland Law Society and an accredited specialist in succession law on the Gold Coast, winces when I tell her this story. “If I was in that situation that you described, I would not have witnessed that power of attorney,” she says.

Smyth is conflicted: while personally in favour of voluntary assisted dying, she harbours multiple reservations about the use of advance care plans to communicate one’s dying wishes. When a person has lost capacity, she says, the term “voluntary” loses all meaning.

She cites concerns for medical practitioners: “Killing someone has an enduring impact on the person who performs the act, it never leaves them.” An expert in elder law, she also worries about the potential for coercion, often borne of so-called inheritance impatience, and the grey area between loss of competence and autonomy as people age.

“What I see is a meshing of care with control, and when those lines start to blur, that’s where the real issue of elder abuse starts to occur,” she says. “It’s when the adult child becomes parental towards their own parent, notwithstanding their parent has their own mind and their own views.”

As an example, she posits this hypothetical scenario: an 80-year-old woman still has good cognitive capacity overall, but is befuddled by internet banking, and so surrenders power of attorney to her children. With $200,000 in the bank, she decides to go on a half-year, $150,000 round-the-world cruise, and demands her children book it for her.

“That doesn’t make for a sensible decision,” she says. “But the dignity of self-determination – the dignity to be able to make your own mistakes – is part of the dignity of being an individual, and as long as someone has capacity, you must follow those instructions.”

Then she challenges me directly. “You’ve also got the issue of the suffering of the family, and how much does that suffering infuse the perception of where a person [who has lost capacity] is at? That is very difficult to extract.” How much of my own grief, she asks, has informed – or skewed – my perception of what is in my mother’s best interests?

She is not being unsympathetic. “If I was ever visited with that particular illness, to the extent where I had lost the capacity to manage and control my own life and even my physical dignity, [then] I would take the same view that your mum took – I’d want the Tontine kiss.”

PEOPLE LIVING WITH dementia can lead productive, fulfilling and rewarding lives for many years after diagnosis. More often than not, they may be none the wiser as to their condition and live in a state of relatively blissful ignorance. Others who retain insight into their condition do their best to make use of what functional time they have.

Via Dementia Australia, I’m introduced to Juanita Hughes, a 55-year-old woman with frontotemporal dementia. For Hughes, the link is genetic: her father also has the illness, as did her grandfather, her great-uncle, two other uncles and an aunt.

Hughes’ problem, at least for now, is not her memory. “Memory’s often the last thing that goes, because that part of the brain is still operational,” she says. The more common early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia are “emotional blunting – people might not have empathy – or they become very scatterbrained … You’re not able to do detailed thinking.”

Hughes’ family history meant she was able to receive an early diagnosis last year, via neurological and genetic testing. But while she had already noticed difficulties completing tasks (“very good at planning stuff, it’s the following through,” she says), she appears anything but scatterbrained.

She has a scientific background, with a research master’s degree in bio­analytical chemistry, and, after pulling out of one PhD due to a knee injury that made it difficult for her to stay on her feet for long periods in a laboratory, is now doing a coursework master’s with the aim of embarking upon another doctorate related to her own genetic mutation.

Is she confident of completing? In answering, she is more worried about the durability of her bad knee than her brain: “I think I will. It was an injury to an already problematic part of my body that stopped me from doing it before, and that’s a one-off thing. I’d finished a master’s in the same area without having a problem.”

Hughes is a Seventh-day Adventist, and rejects voluntary assisted dying. “I don’t agree with choosing to stop,” she says. “Seeing how people go, you wonder whether you want to hang around like that. The thing is, how much do you know about what is happening to you? Voluntary assisted dying has to assume you’ve got the capacity to make that choice.”

I also meet Eileen Taylor, a 70-year-old living with Alzheimer’s disease, and her husband Dubhg (pronounced Doug). Like Hughes, Taylor’s link to the disease is genetic: her father suffered from the illness, and she too went through early genetic and neurological testing a decade ago. The onset of symptoms, while early, has been slow.

Taylor was a social worker with the Salvation Army. “I broke down in the office,’ she says about the moment she was told. “‘Not me!’ I’d been very actively engaged my whole life helping other people. But I was able to work the first five years, until I retired. My supervisor was aware of it and he was monitoring me.”

She has acute insight into her condition and is aware of the episodic nature of her own cognisance. “It’s like being in a fog. Mornings are not good for me – it takes a while to wake up.” Usually, she says, she can push through; she’s just come back from a cruise. “Then I was up every morning! Prancing around. There was no thought of dementia at that time.”

The Taylors are now full-time advocates for dementia sufferers, and for assisted dying legislation that includes them. “If you have an end-of-life plan, and your end-of-life plan says that should I deteriorate to this particular level, then I would prefer that my life was ended, then that should be enough,” Dubhg says.

Yet neither have prepared advance care plans. “I keep talking about it, keep wanting to do it. And I’m thinking it needs to be done ASAP,” Eileen says. Dubhg says, correctly, that they have no binding legal force. “But I need one!” Eileen insists. Dubhg attempts to mollify her: “I’m not saying you don’t need one. You do. I agree.”

Traumatised by her father’s passing, Eileen is adamant that she never wants to be placed in aged care. “I think he was chemically restrained, in a locked ward. I don’t think he got the care he needed, and I don’t know if we can get people to give me the care I need at home, so we’re between a rock and a hard place.”

I ask about her final wishes. “I think my wishes would be that when I don’t recognise anyone, and I become bedbound or whatever, then I would not want to live.” Dubhg adds: “We’ve even talked about, if I was to get really ill, maybe we should do it together, or something like that. But anyway, we’ll see how we go.”

She quotes from a favourite Frank Sinatra song, High Hopes. In the song, an ant moves a rubber tree plant, as if by force of will. It’s about not giving up in the face of impossible, even absurd adversity.

DEATH, AND THE spectre of it, can do strange things to those in its orbit, as well as to those facing it.

The Very Reverend Peter Catt, dean of St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane, tells me: “I’ve got this vivid memory of a guy with a set of sunglasses on who had been called into hospital because his mum was dying. He basically said, ‘I wish she’d get on with it, I’ve got to get to work.’ It wasn’t about his mum dying, it was about him.”

Catt approaches the debate around assisted dying in a self-confessed spirit of confusion. “When someone shares with me the agony of watching one of their relatives suffer like this, with dementia or motor neurone disease, I often say to them, well, there are worse things than death, you know.”

“And you, corporeally, are going through that, so your mother is not going through that experience alone. You and she together are going through something that is harder to bear than her just dying.” His point, like Christine Smyth’s, is the difficulty of untangling our own distress, and motivations, in adjudicating the “best interests” of our loved ones.

“We don’t declare the things that shape our subjectivity,” he says. “We have this false idea that we come to these arguments as objective people, and we’re not. The best we can aim for is an informed subjectivity, but we choose often not to inform ourselves of what is making us subjective.”

Catt is not just talking about individual subjectivity. Arguments about voluntary assisted dying and increased funding for aged and palliative care, he says, cannot be separated because we live in a utilitarian culture, which views a person who is no longer economically productive as a burden.

This broader contempt for the elderly is reflected in the way the aged-care workforce is viewed. “Unfortunately, it’s often the job of last resort for many people who can’t gain employment in any industry, and the aged-care staff we have are often poorly trained, certainly poorly paid and often poorly motivated,” Stephen Macfarlane says.

“Most aged-care staff become aged-care staff with no compulsory modules on dementia, so the people we’re expecting to look after people with advanced dementia simply aren’t equipped for it. If you change the training and qualifications, the standard would be a lot better.”

When I see my mother, I see her loss of dignity, her loss of autonomy, and a purgatorial existence that would challenge anybody’s idea of what makes a life worth living. Setting aside all other material and cultural considerations, that is what any philosophical argument about assisted dying ultimately boils down to.

But dignity, Catt cautions me, is also “something we give to each other, and if you recognise the inherent dignity in another person [then] I think it’s a slippery slope to argue that dignity can be lost because of a medical condition and the degrading of our bodies, because that can slide in all sorts of different directions.

“I know people who have been unemployed for a decade who feel like they have no dignity. And on one level they don’t, because our culture and current policies treat them like trash. But I would argue they have an essential dignity that you can’t take away. The same as a person with dementia – their dignity is retained so long as others treat them with dignity.”

He says the Anglican Church has a greater capacity to adapt to whatever legislation regarding voluntary assisted dying may or may not be passed. It is a broad church, from the ultra-conservative Sydney diocese to Father Rod Bower’s rebelliously progressive parish in Gosford on the NSW Central Coast. “If it happens, our priests will sit with anyone who chooses to exercise it. The Church will still retain its pastoral heart, even if it remains concerned about some of the implications.”

In a statement on the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane’s website, Archbishop Mark Coleridge states that “when we talk about so-called voluntary assisted dying, euthanasia or physician-assisted dying, or however else it’s styled, we can’t avoid the fact that we’re talking about the intentional killing of a person.

“As a Church, we oppose the legislation of any direct action specifically intended to bring about the death of a person … Better end-of-life care begins with better conversations about death and dying, and how we can die well in ways that do not undermine the foundational values of our society.”

DR CHRIS MOY, president of the South Australian chapter of the Australian Medical Association, is frustrated. He talks about voluntary assisted dying as “this disproportionately large debate about this little esoteric issue, which it is, to us … Because no matter whether you have voluntary assisted dying or not, you need all this other stuff.”

This “other stuff” is not just sufficient palliative care resources, but higher levels of death literacy in the community. While an advance care plan may have no legal force, he says, “it’s still the single most powerful tool for self-determination at the end. Who cares if there’s voluntary assisted dying if people aren’t writing down their wishes?”

If we don’t, Moy says, “that’s when the disputes happen, and that’s when you get a bad death. And if you think about it, the people who see bad deaths are not the person that dies. The person’s dead. The people that remember a bad death are the people left behind, and they remember the uncertainty, the guilt, the dropped balls.”

He tells me about an elderly woman with end-stage lung disease, who was being flipped back and forth between her aged-care facility and hospital, and still smoked like a stack.

“I said to her, You know you’re going to die from this condition at some stage, don’t you?’ And she hadn’t realised that, because nobody had told her. And the second thing I said was, ‘You know, you don’t actually have to go to hospital,’ and she goes, ‘I don’t? But what would happen then?’

“And I said, ‘Well, we can write down some instructions for the nurses. I’ll prescribe some morphine to give you when the next time comes, and instead of calling an ambulance we’ll give you the morphine to relieve your symptoms, and give you the nice warm fuzzy feeling that morphine does.

“‘It’s not euthanasia, it’s palliative care. And if you make it you make it, if you don’t, you don’t, but you’re going to go out in style, and between now and then you can just break out the Grange.'”

But not everyone is as refreshingly blunt as Dr Moy.

Two years ago, shortly after my mother became bedridden, she developed a urinary tract infection. My brother and I were asked if we wished to intervene via oral antibiotics. We agreed. The doctor hemmed and hawed, but said no more. Later, we realised that we had been shown a door to walk our mother through, and had unwittingly shut it in her face.

Should we have been informed that such infections, like pneumonia, are a common cause of death for people with dementia? “You were expected to read between the lines,” Dying with Dignity Queensland president Jos Hall says. “If you don’t know the questions to ask, you don’t know the answers. You’ve got to know the code.”

Hall’s own mother, Peg, died after being admitted to hospital with an ulcer on her foot. She was 98, and decided she’d had enough. “She said, ‘I don’t think I want to continue, I think I want to go back to the nursing home and just be left alone,'” Hall says.

“And I said to her ‘You know, you can refuse your antibiotics if you want to. You’ll become septic, and you’ll probably die.’ But I also said to her – because she was a tough old horse and very stoic – do not diminish your pain. When they ask you, don’t say that you’re okay, that you can cope with it. I didn’t say any more than that. I was extremely careful.

“So, the doctor comes in and says – this is the code – have you got any pain? And she gave me a little nod and said, ‘Yes – it’s 10 out of 10!’ The nurse gave my mother some morphine, and she died of septicaemia – that’s what’s on the death certificate – 48 hours later. But that’s because I knew the code words, and she was smart enough to pick up on them.”

“It can be perfectly legal to withhold or withdraw if that is in a person’s best interests,’ QUT’s Lindy Willmott says. ‘Legally, as substitute decision-makers – you and your brother – you could [have said], Mum wouldn’t have wanted that, Mum would find this an undignified existence, and it may have been perfectly lawful for you to withhold the antibiotics.”

When Willmott tells me this, I have a horrible feeling of having let my mother down.

WE OFTEN TALK about the “grey zone” between living and dying and, sometimes, the fine line between palliative care and assisted dying. “What are the code words? We make the patient comfortable – we make them very comfortable,” says Bill Potts, former president of the Queensland Law Society. “Palliative care can literally be a sort of chemical oblivion.”

Legally, however, it is a line in the sand. “What you’re talking about is the provision of palliative medication which is designed to address and relieve symptoms and manage pain, and the provision of that is perfectly lawful, even if it coincidentally hastens death, provided the intention of the health provider isn’t to accelerate death,” Lindy Willmott says.

Dr Elissa Campbell, a geriatrician and the president of Palliative Care WA, says: “There is a misconception that making people comfortable at the end of life, and using medications like morphine to treat pain and breathlessness, actually is done with the intention to hasten death, which isn’t the case.”

I ask her whether my brother and I could have been better informed by my mother’s treating team – we could certainly have better informed ourselves – about her options at the time of her infection. “That’s a really tricky one,” she replies. “A lot of health professionals feel very uncomfortable about those conversations.

“I think that death has become very medicalised in Western culture and many people – even a lot of graduate nurses and doctors – have never seen somebody dying before, they don’t realise what those final stages of dying look like. And so that can make those discussions very difficult.”

There is also a misconception that palliative care applies only in the last days or weeks of life. In theory, it applies to anyone with a life-limiting illness from the time of diagnosis. Brutal economics, however, means this rarely applies to people with dementia, who may live for twenty years or more without the necessary levels of support.

For Andrew Denton, arguments about the increased funding of palliative care – which Go Gentle supports – are similar to strategies used to stall action on global warming and marriage equality. “The language of opponents is always ‘we shouldn’t rush this, not now, we’re not ready – anything but this, now.’ They know that delay is their friend.”

But, he adds: “No law, however thoughtful or however necessary, is ever a perfect law, and there will always be difficult situations. There will always be a place for the Philip Nitschkes of this world, there will always be people importing Nembutal, and there will always be people taking desperate and sad measures.”

I REALISE THAT I’ve left my glasses in Mum’s room almost as soon as the secure doors shut behind me.

I buzz myself back in. The nurses are still attending to her and the door is shut. I wait awkwardly, feeling embarrassed and ashamed.

I believe in my mother’s inherent dignity and personhood, although we became strangers to one another years ago.

I try to remind myself that, while her illness may have overtaken her, it does not define her, no matter how long it keeps her imprisoned.

But it is beyond me to stay. When the nurses are finished, I go in, grab my glasses and leave, without pausing or saying goodbye for a second time.

Back at the exit doors, I see the older woman again, the one who had stopped me when I’d first tried to leave.

She’s wearing beige pants that contrast with a long-sleeved pullover as gaudy as a lorikeet, and she is smiling. She thinks she recognises me now, and I decide not to deny her the illusion.

She extends her arms out to me.

“Would you like a hug?” I ask.

“Oh, that would be just lovely,” she says.

I hold her as if she were my mother.

February 18, 2020

The author would like to thank everyone who gave their time to be interviewed for this piece, including Associate Professor Charlotte Hespe (Chair, RACGP); Associate Professor Sarah Holland-Batt; Maree McCabe (CEO, Dementia Australia); Professor John McCallum (CEO, National Seniors); and Emeritus Professor Malcolm Parker (Doctors for Assisted Dying Choice), whose valuable perspectives also helped inform this story.

First published in Griffith Review 68, 30 April 2020

The fig tree

On the east side of my apartment block is a large fig tree. In its halcyon days, its canopy covered the length of the balcony, providing shade from the morning sun. At the base of the trunk, an extensive buttress root system had pushed up and cracked the concrete driveway. This made the tree unpopular with the body corporate, but the tree is a protected species in Brisbane under the Natural Assets Local Law of 2003.

For a long time, that law protected the fig, and much else besides. Every spring, the fruit of the tree provided food for mobs of Grey-headed and Black Flying-foxes which chattered and bickered among themselves all night as they gorged themselves. Brush-tailed Possums ran riot. During the day, Australian Figbirds and Koels were regular visitors. The Koels would shriek their heads off at 4am almost every morning through October and November.

There were butterflies, too. When I started taking a serious interest in them, most of my early observations were from my balcony. I identified members of almost all the Australian families: swallowtails (Blue Triangles), whites and yellows (Lemon Migrants), nymphs (Evening Browns, White-banded Planes) skippers and blues (most thrillingly, a Bright Cornelian, which has vivid spots of orange, instead of blue, on the upperwings).

Bright Cornelian at home, 24 December 2018

Then in the month of May 2016, right after my marriage broke down, the tree was lopped. Not a branch, nor a leaf remained: just the trunk, which was left to protrude a few metres above ground like an exposed nerve that had been brutally hacked off. It looked how I felt. Sunlight flooded into my apartment. The sudden burst of natural light might have been welcome in other circumstances, but at the time I wanted only the cover of night.

There was no question about why the tree had been lopped. It had a habit of dropping large branches on my neighbours’ roof, particularly during Brisbane’s regular thunderstorms, not to mention huge quantities of leaf litter, which the local Brush Turkeys would determinedly rake through. It would only take one stray spark for that house, a decaying weatherboard which was nearly entirely submerged in the 2011 flood, to go up in a big woof of smoke.

Things were quiet for a long time around here after that. I was pole-axed by grief and feelings of shame, failure and loss. Mostly, I isolated myself, but I also felt abandoned. I missed the thump of possums on the roof and the constant squabble of flying-foxes, which had one less mature tree to feed on and disperse their seeds. Birds and butterflies stayed away. The whole block felt radioactive. So did I.

Thankfully, the body corporate didn’t kill the tree, much less uproot it. That would have meant cutting through a forest of green tape, and cost far more besides. They were doing the minimum that needed to be done for the sake of civic virtue and safety. But it stood outside my flat like a crippled metaphor for my life circa 2016. Still standing, but with no foliage for either decoration or camouflage, much less invite company.

After a while, regrowth began to appear. It was pathetic at first: a few thin branches growing out of the top of the stump, sprouting rebellious leaves. Eventually, they spread around the tree, not enough to attract much that I could see, but enough to provide shelter for the things I couldn’t. I accepted that if ever the fig tree was to return to its earlier glory, it would be in decades to come; long after I’d left the building, possibly in a box.

Then, on Christmas Eve of 2018 – another Christmas by myself – a pair of Bright Cornelians appeared. They were joined by an Orange Palm-dart. I grabbed the camera and snapped a couple of quick shots. I didn’t know it at the time, but within a fortnight everything, in Helen Garner’s words, would begin to heave and change. I’d awoken from my own coma, blinking in the fresh sunlight, and an old friend was about to walk into my life in a new way.

This summer, the fig began to bear fruit again. I can no longer see the trunk for the foliage, and the flying-foxes are swinging. A Koel found enough cover to hide (and scream) in. A couple of weeks ago, I was drawn out to the balcony by a gaggle of squawking, pointing Blue-faced Honeyeaters, Noisy Miners and a Grey Butcherbird, and saw a young Carpet Python snaking its way up the tree. Judging by the occasional racket since, it’s still there.

Today I stood on the balcony having a long conversation on the phone with my brother. While we were talking, I watched. A migration of Blue Tiger butterflies was in full swing, and another species, a Varied Eggfly, was dancing in the understory. I suddenly became curious about the identity of the fig. I’d never paid attention to botanical matters, despite my mother having been an obsessive gardener.

The leaves were now just close enough to the balcony for me to reach between the louvres and pull one from its stem, which immediately extruded a thick white sap. The leaf was glossy and smooth and very dark green, rounded at the base, tapering to a fine tip. It is a weeping fig, Ficus benjamina. I had, I decided, taken it for granted, and much else besides. The creatures I loved were coming back, but there was more going on outside my window than I ever realised.

First published on my Patreon page, 29 February 2020; reprinted in the Guardian, 22 March 2020

David Pocock leads sporting charge on emissions

Wallabies flanker David Pocock, along with teammates Bernard Foley and Dane Haylett-Perry, have announced their partnership with a scheme that aims to compensate for the carbon emissions associated with travel.

Earlier this year, musician Heidi Lenffer, from Australian band Cloud Control, launched FEAT. (Future Energy Artists), an initiative that would allow musicians to invest in a solar farm on Queensland’s Darling Downs.

Lenffer was concerned about the carbon emissions generated by her group’s touring schedule and what she saw as her own contribution to the climate emergency. Now, FEAT. is opening up to other sectors and individuals.

When FEAT. was announced, Pocock responded via Instagram – “he was putting enthusiastic emoji responses on a lot of our posts,” Lenffer said – and contacted another songwriter, Jack River, who put the two of them in touch.

Pocock, currently with the Wallabies in Japan for the Rugby World Cup, told the Guardian that “as an athlete, you’re in a somewhat similar position to artists in that there’s no escaping what you do requires travel, and I’m very conscious of my personal contribution.

“To see what FEAT. was doing, and to see people like Heidi getting on with it and trying to harness that energy into actually building the future we know is coming and we all want to see, but need to speed up, that was really exciting.”

Lenffer said that while FEAT. started and would always be identified with the musical community, she was keen for the scheme to expand and be inclusive. “We see allies in other industries as being critical to the success of what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Money invested in FEAT. is being used to buy ownership stakes in a solar farm called Brigalow, near the town of Pittsworth in south-east Queensland. The floor price for investment is low, just $5. The farm will power the equivalent of over 11,000 homes for 30 years.

The former Wallabies captain presented the scheme to his teammates, trying to impress upon them the carbon footprint of a rugby tour. “It’s like any slice of the population. There’s some guys who were interested in it, others didn’t really see it as an issue,” he said.

“I just presented the guys with what FEAT. was doing, giving them an idea of the Wallabies’ emissions this year and suggesting we team with them as a way of investing an equivalent amount into renewable energy.”

He convinced Foley and Haylett-Perry to come on board. “They’re excited about seeing solutions to these problems that we’re facing … It’s ridiculous to think that changing lightbulbs and that sort of things is enough. Those days are over. We need a big system change.”

Pocock has been a vocal campaigner about the climate emergency, and has extended that to direct action: in 2014, he was arrested in a protest against Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine in northern New South Wales.

He extended his support to the wave of school strikes started by Greta Thunberg. “If you look at social change, it very seldom just happens. It ends up taking a percentage of the population actually willing to give up their freedoms and engage in civil disobedience,” he said.

He also highlighted how global heating was already impacting on world sport, with a sharp message for rugby’s governing bodies. “I’m not playing rugby in Australia next year, but round one of Super Rugby is in January next year,” he said.

“Can you imagine, in the last weekend of January, playing 80 minutes of rugby? That’s the way that change is going to happen in sport, when a few players get together – and our player’s unions – and say, hang on, this is an issue that’s going to affect our sport.”

Asked what he would say to those who tell him to “stick to sport” – and many have – Pocock said “first and foremost, we’re all humans, and this is a much bigger issue than sport … It’s an existential threat.”

“Rugby’s a big part of my life and I’m doing absolutely everything I can to be playing at my best to be contributing to the Wallabies working towards us winning the World Cup and taking it back to Australia, that’s what we’re all working for.

“But I really believe that sport is at its best when it’s challenging society to be more inclusive, to be more forward thinking, and hopefully this is an area where sport can play more of a role, because we certainly aren’t getting the leadership from our politicians.

“When young people who are too young to vote tell us their futures are on the line, you’ve got to listen to them. They’re not making it up, they’re listening to the best of the available scientific projections. Ignoring the issue doesn’t make it go away, unfortunately.”

First published in The Guardian, 10 October 2019

Tribute to Andrew McGahan, Brisbane Writers Festival

I’ve said for a long time that Praise was to Brisbane literature what the Saints’ album (I’m) Stranded was to music. In fact, I first made this analogy on the last page of my first book Pig City, a book in which I quoted Andrew at several key points.

Why the comparison to Stranded? It seems pretty obvious to me. The rawness. A voice that blew away all the surrounding bullshit – the boredom and stasis and sweat of Brisbane – with short, bullet-tipped sentences.

Demolition girls, nights in Venice. Paralytic tonight, Pig City tomorrow.

Praise described a town I recognised, but hadn’t been in for very long. I got here on Christmas Eve of 1986 on a Greyhound bus. It took a while to find my feet, and my way around. On the surface, there didn’t seem to be much happening. Underneath it was a different story.

Praise is a bit like that, too. There wasn’t much of a plot, but all the main characters seemed to be in various stages of losing it. That was a good metaphor for Brisbane around that time. Those characters and Andrew’s language were what gave his debut its narrative propulsion.

There was, naturally, a precedent.

“Brisbane is so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely! I have taken to wandering about after school, looking for one simple object in it that might be romantic, or appalling even, but there is nothing. It is simply the most ordinary place in the world.”

That was David Malouf, in Johnno, which I didn’t read until many years later. His book was celebrated, but spoke of a time decades before my arrival in town. I confess I found it harder to connect with, but I suspect that was mainly generational.

In Praise, though, there was this corresponding passage:

“Look at this city. There’s nothing happening. There’s no one on the streets. How can you stand it?”

“Things are happening, you just have to look a little harder. At least no one bothers you. There’s worse places than Brisbane.”

“There’s better.”

To a degree, I was still seeing Brisbane through my Melbourne eyes. After a few more years, I did what so many young people in Brisbane do: I left, this time for Sydney in early 1997, shortly after Andrew’s second novel 1988 was published.

I interviewed Andrew around this time, for a Sydney magazine called Juice. (That would, by the way, be the very same magazine that JB here once paid a personal visit disguised in the character of Jack Podesta, from the Never Fail Debt Collecting agency.)

Andrew was legendarily shy, but that didn’t make him hard to talk to. He was generous with his time and encouraging of my writing. That said, at that stage, he was unsure whether or not he would stick it out as a writer himself. 1988 could have been his last book.

I’d needed to get away from Brisbane, even though it was exploding with new energy. I came back a few years later, my tail between my legs. But I’d also been surprised by my adopted home town’s gravitational pull.

Maybe Queensland, as Andrew wrote in Last Drinks, was an addiction. “Maligned and scorned by the rest of the country – but still, it infected the soul somehow, [demanding] love of those it bore and bred,” he wrote. It got under my skin, too, and I was just a blow-in from the south.

I needed a reason to be back, though, and had an idea centred on the town’s music history, intertwined with politics. Around the same time, Last Drinks came out. Andrew’s book told me I was onto something. Brisbane had started picking at the seamy threads of its own past.

Coming after 1988, Last Drinks proved a few points, perhaps most of all to Andrew himself. He could write a plot, and his dramatic and linguistic range was bigger than anyone realised, himself included.

I wrote about Last Drinks in 2001, in a small UQP journal of new writing called Imago. It wasn’t coincidental, I wrote, that the character of Charlie died in a power station, for the genesis of Last Drinks was in the SEQEB dispute that paralysed Queensland in 1985.

But that, as Andrew explained, was about more than union bashing on Joh’s part. It was about business contracts and big money. Or, as the character of Marvin McNulty put it, “Favours, George. It was all about doing favours.”

A game of mates. A joke. The joke. Marvin was like a cartoon character, but then, Queensland was governed by people who made Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote look like super-brain geniuses. It was a genre-busting mash-up of historical fiction and murder mystery.

That sort of hybrid was a direct inspiration for Pig City.  These days I describe that book, in shorthand, as a book about Brisbane, a love letter to my adopted home town. I’m not sure if Andrew would have regarded Last Drinks as a love letter. You could even read it as hate mail.

But he cared deeply about Brisbane, and this state, even as he describes its shimmer of light and haze and heat and the familiar itch of sweat on his scalp. You had to love Queensland, he wrote, for all its peculiarities and contradictions.

Again, I’m reminded of the Saints. Take it two albums down the line, from (I’m) Stranded to Prehistoric Sounds. Of Brisbane (Security City): “Thirteen hot nights in a row. The cops drive past, but they move slow.”

Like the band, Andrew had expanded his vocabulary. The sentences were getting longer. The writing seethed with atmosphere. The heat, he wrote, “took on a moral quality as well, it sank into your limbs and your heart, made everything slow and confused”.

But there was nothing confused about the prose. Andrew’s vision had sharpened. Time and growing confidence seemed to have given him perspective and clarity on his work, and on Queensland. Last Drinks contained this description of the state’s parliament:

“Queenslanders were always wary of the more sophisticated types – they liked their representatives to be awkward and stumbling. They mistook it for honesty. So much so that the Queensland parliament sometimes bordered on a sideshow collection of the ugly, the misshapen and the incoherent.”

At the time of Last Drinks, Peter Beattie was the premier. Beattie, never one to maintain the rage for long, had encouraged a rapprochement with the state’s history. Federally, though, Pauline Hanson was the member for Oxley, Bill Hayden’s old federal seat.

The prime minister, John Howard, had won power in 1996 on a slogan perhaps many have forgotten: “For all of us”. Liberal historians saw it as a modern appeal to Menzies’ “forgotten people”. Others heard a dog whistle: “For all of us – but not for them.”

Hanson had been disendorsed by the Liberal Party prior to Howard’s election, but her narrative – incoherent though it was then, and remains now – was an early expression of white victimhood, co-opted by Howard to devastating effect.

The narrative goes that the opening of opportunities to those who had been marginalised – women, Indigenous people whose ownership of the land had been recognised in the Mabo and Wik decisions – posed a direct threat to the country’s white colonisers.

And for those who’d come across the seas, our plains were no longer so boundless, and we weren’t about to share them quite so willingly, as Howard made clear post-Tampa: “We will decide who comes into this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”

This was all grist for The White Earth – for many, Andrew’s greatest book. It’s hard to argue, even if the scene of a Neo-Nazi rally on the Darling Downs, country that Andrew knew intimately, seemed to me to be a slight overreach at the time.

Fifteen years later, it looks downright prophetic. We haven’t had a Neo-Nazi rally on the Downs yet, to my knowledge. Instead, we had one on St Kilda Beach.

Not that The White Earth was any kind of polemic. Andrew by then had moved to Melbourne with his partner Liesje, but his language, shapeshifting and subtle, remained rooted in the strange poetry of Queensland. This was some new kind of (Deep) Northern Gothic:

“The great House groaned, a long, anguished sound, the wrenching of timber and stone. And then, with slow majesty, the blazing line of the roof began to sag inwards. For a tortured moment it held, and then thunder filled the air as it collapsed from one wing of the House to the other. Flames exploded from the windows, and a great fireball belched out through front doors and across the garden, black with smoke and flying debris. Then only a great bonfire remained, roaring within the roofless walls, towering up into the night, and defying the rain-drenched sky.”

He eschewed poetry and subtlety in Underground. The book sees Canberra obliterated in a nuclear attack. There was a glee in Andrew’s writing at this point, not just at the idea of metaphorically obliterating Canberra, but pushing the limits of what he could get away with.

“True, normally I’d be wary of being so overtly political with a novel,” he wrote on a website attached to the book. “But this no longer seems the time to be polite or indirect in fiction, or artfully diffident. It’s time to confront the danger of what’s going on here, head-on.”

The book was, he told me in an interview at the time, “a very cartoonish kind of thriller, chock-full of conspiracy theories”. Published in 2006, with the Cronulla riots still fresh, Underground was a worst-case scenario of where a never-ending war on terror might be taking us.

Not that he was Nostradamus. A new values-based citizenship test featuring Donald Bradman was already on the agenda. But how could Andrew somehow predict a scenario where, for a time, no one even wanted to play cricket with us?

That interview was the second and last time I spoke to Andrew. I lost touch with his work after that, as his work shapeshifted again, into science fiction and the Ship Kings series for young adults. And I went back to driving cabs, for a long while.

But my acknowledgement of my debt to Andrew is long-standing. I’m not sure if Pig City would have existed if not for Last Drinks, and I’m not sure I would have started writing seriously at all, particularly from and about Brisbane, if not for Praise.

I couldn’t have imagined, 15 years later, I’d be asked to pay tribute to him here. I’m honoured to, but I also wish there’d never been such a reason to do so. Perhaps we should pay tribute to the living more often.

Quoting the Saints one more time, his work hit me like a deathray, baby, from above.

Speech for Andrew McGahan tribute at Brisbane Writers Festival, 6 September 2019

The pop art legend hiding in the hinterlands

In the lush subtropical hinterlands behind Noosa Heads, 90 minutes north of Brisbane, a short dirt road takes you to the home of one of the pre-eminent artists of the last century.

In a large, bright studio, down a short incline from the home he shares with daughter Zoe and her partner, Peter Phillips – who made his name in the early 60s in the vanguard of British pop artists along with Derek Boshier, Allen Jones and David Hockney – continues to paint.

Along with large, more abstract recent works and some of his earliest sketches, a few of his most famous pieces are here, including the giant Art-O-Matic Riding High (another painting from the same series, Art-O-Matic Loop-Di-Loop, was used as the cover of a 1984 album by the Cars called Heartbeat City).

But Phillips left behind the style which made him famous, and which he helped pioneer, a long time ago. “I definitely don’t favour the early work,” he says. “I am excited about some of the newest pieces, possibly because it is what interests me most at the moment.”

Recently,  Phillips, who is celebrating his 80th birthday, opened his studio to the public as part of the Noosa Food and Wine Festival. And in spite of whatever misgivings he may have, the event was called POP!, even though the work on display spanned his entire career.

Phillips will always be associated with his early work, even if he refuses to be defined by it. But that’s not his concern. “I’ve continuously evolved and done what I wanted to do, not what other people wanted of me,” he says.

Phillips grew up in Birmingham during the Blitz. “I still get chills when I hear the resemblance of an air raid siren,” he says. “I don’t recall much detail from those early years, but I do recollect burning houses.”

Militaristic themes appear in his latest work. On an easel in the studio, a new painting depicts a fighter jet being loaded with ammunition on one side. On the other, a grinning Ronald McDonald holds a microphone; in between, a young woman poses for a selfie. Two men in overalls carry a crucifix; a piglet suckles from its mother; small explosions erupt in the background.

In work like this, Phillips appears to be exorcising old fears. In 1980, he says, “I composed a painting called Mediator 3 which features a rather large python, the taxidermy model of which was in my studio at the time. I had a profound fear of snakes, and thought if I painted one in detail, it would help. It didn’t help. In that same piece, I also painted a burning house. That didn’t help either.”

His early work wasn’t so grim. In the late 1950s, he attended the Birmingham School of Art, where he learned to paint, before moving to London and the Royal College of Art. There, he says, he was told how not to paint.

He rebelled. So did many of his peers. Allen Jones was thrown out, and Phillips came close. “If you were a talented artist at the time, you were expected to paint landscapes, still life, portraits, and so on,” he says.

Instead, Phillips and his friends began creating work that was vibrant, eye-catching and obsessed with popular culture and commercial iconography – a reaction to the stuffiness of the times.

His teachers were aghast. “They couldn’t believe people would be concerned with this stuff. Some were irrationally angry,” he says. Art critic Lawrence Alloway dubbed it pop art “because it was popping off the walls”.

Phillips says “I was very stubborn – still am. I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew I needed to be a good boy and play the game. If you win, you get to make up your own rules.”

By that definition, Phillips has won. In Australia courtesy of a Distinguished Talent visa from the federal government, he ironically now works on large landscapes with abstract features, as though rebelling against his past, even if some of the old obsessions still feature.

Don’t ask him what any of it means, though. “What you see is what you get. Don’t even try,” he advises. Much of its power, though, lies in its ambiguity and juxtapositions of contradictory imagery and information.

Everything on display in Phillips’ gallery is from his own personal collection. Some of it, he says, is sentimental, while other pieces are unfinished. The rest is in galleries and private collections in Europe and America. “This is the first time so much of my art is in Australia.”

Previously, he’s lived in Majorca, Costa Rica and Switzerland. Why Noosa? “The weather. The people. The nature. The food. The clarity of light,” he says. “The older I get the more I like the quiet and prefer nature over cities. And I don’t like neighbours.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2019

David McCormack on being Bandit, Bluey’s dad

As the frontman for Brisbane band Custard, David McCormack was an anomaly in the ultra-serious early-90s world of indie-rock. In an ocean of angst, he was a goofball: whimsical, absurd, childlike and funny.

He can still be all of those things. But McCormack, who turned 50 last year, has two young daughters now, and around a successful soundtrack career as well as occasional reformations of his old band – now more of a hobby – he lives the dad life.

He’s also living it out in cartoon form: McCormack is the voice of Bandit, the dad dog in the ABC Kids animated short series Bluey, which chronicles the adventures of an irrepressible six-year-old blue heeler, her younger sister, Bingo, and her mum, Chilli.

Since premiering last October, Bluey has been a runaway success – with over 75 million plays, according to the ABC, it’s the most-watched show on ABC iView. A series of three Bluey books will be out in time for Christmas, and on Thursday it was announced that Bluey has been renewed for a second season. And it’s brought McCormack a very different kind of new-found fame.

Bluey is aimed at five- to seven-year-olds: that age when kids, like dogs, just want to play all day. Bandit and Chilli (voiced by Melanie Zanetti) are the perennially exhausted but loving parents doing their best to keep up with them.

The episodes are sweet six-minute adventures as relatable for parents as they are recognisable for kids: looking for a lost soft toy (Chickenrat); discovering the natural world (The Creek); making grandma dance (Grannies); a trip with dad to the dump (The Dump).

“How good is going to the dump!” says McCormack. “I relate to that totally, because I do love going to the Refuse Transfer Station, as it’s called now, with the kiddies. They gave me the script and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I don’t have to try too hard to get in the vibe of it.”

Another favourite is The Pool. “The dad takes the kids to somebody’s pool, but in that sort of laissez-faire dad way, forgets to bring all the important things, like sunscreen and flotation devices and thongs to wear on the hot concrete and towels and all that sort of stuff.

“And then the mum turns up and saves the day, she brings all the boring stuff that’s essential. And that’s pretty accurate for my life. My wife is like, do you tell them what’s going on? It’s pretty much like they’ve peered into my life and written it. But it’s universal, right?”

McCormack’s involvement with the show came about by chance, via contacts made with his soundtrack company Sonar. “I thought it was just going to be reading a couple of lines, but I ended up reading all of them for the pilot.”

Initially, he had very little idea what he was reading for. He’s based in Sydney, and voices the part of Bandit remotely, in isolation. The rest of the show is produced in Brisbane, his home town.

“They send me the script, they highlight my lines, and I just read my lines,” he says. “I don’t have to act, I don’t have to change my voice or anything. I don’t hear anybody else talking; all I do is literally read what they tell me to and that’s it. And they do all the animation and all the other voices and the music.

“So I had no idea what it would look like. And then they sent me the pilot and it was like hey, this is pretty good! And it’s a very Brisbane-looking show, it’s all classic Brisbane skylines and architecture and animals, which takes me back to my formative years.”

Another Brisbane band from the same era and with a similar sense of play, Regurgitator, have recently released a children’s album. “When you hear about it you go, of course, Regurgitator would do a kid’s record,” McCormack says.

He marvels at the turn of events himself – “Who would have thought in 1992 that we’d be talking in 2019 about me being the voice of a parent dog?” – but says his parents got the rudest shock. “They’re like, what’s this dog show kids are saying you’re doing the voice to?”

Voicing Bandit, and having daughters of a similar age profile to Bluey and Bingo, has opened McCormack’s eyes to the enormous children’s entertainment market: a world away from the slim pickings available to Custard, now practically a heritage-rock band.

“Kids get involved and suddenly you go, ‘wow – there’s eight different kids’ channels on Foxtel!’ There’s this whole world of bizarre kids’ stuff out there,” he says.

“I’m yet to find out whether it’s the path to riches, but it is the path to being popular at school drop-off time. Lots of other parents are like, ‘Hey! Did I hear your voice on…’ It’s sort of like 1994 all over again, but in the primary-school world.”

First published in The Guardian, 16 May 2019