Home » 2019 » February

Flight test: South African Airways

South African Airways will meet all your needs when travelling business class. Photo: South African Airways An Airbus A340-600, which like the Airbus A340-300, flies the Johannesburg-Perth route. Photo: South African Airways

Our rating: 4/5

South African Airways


SA280 Johannesburg to Perth


Airbus A340-300E with 254 seats – 38 business and 216 economy.


Voyager (Star Alliance).


Business, window seat 16A.


A strong tail wind means a shortened 8 hours 35 minutes.


Daily flights to Perth.


A spacious 2-2-2 configuration offers forward-facing flat-bed seats with a generous 185.4cm (73 inch) pitch and 60.1cm (23.7 inch) width. I am in the smaller of two business cabins, in the back of two rows of 12 people. Economy’s bassinet row is just behind the curtain, but all is quiet on the baby front. Some dislike the closeness of front cabin seats (rows one and 15) to toilets and galley. If this is a concern, best avoid.


Four pieces up to 30kg plus an 8kg carry on. A distracted steward checks in our cases (two large/two small), forgetting a large artwork in a cardboard tube. We have to manhandle it on board – no problem in SAA business, an issue for Virgin Australia on the domestic leg.


An exceptionally comfortable seat trumps the beige-brown decor. It has quality padding, mattress, generous duvet and full size pillow, making sleeping easy on this night flight. There’s seat storage for toiletries, books and glasses and more on the seatback in front but that involve heaving yourself up, so best to get organised. You can squeeze past a fully extended aisle seat without mountaineering. A workmanlike unisex amenities bag has socks, skin and lip balm, eyeshade, toothbrush and paste but no earplugs. I have my own, fortunately.


A personal touchscreen, 12-inch monitor with audio and video on demand is in the seat arm. There’s an adequate selection of first release movies, classics, TV shows plus music and interactive games but really, a business class night flight enables sleeping, so why not? Seats have 115V AC power ports but no Wi-Fi.


Four polite and super-efficient business stewards get things done speedily without seeming to rush. We are encouraged to stow our duvets before landing, a slight issue for a short, half-asleep person. It leaps from its overhead locker and attacks me. My kind steward materialises to disentangle.


A delicious Methode Cap Classique is a welcome pre-flight drink – all wines are premium South African – we have shiraz and merlot from Stellenbosch and Robertson with dinner. Canapes precede a super-fresh salad and lovely warm wholegrain roll, then a tender chargrilled chicken breast with parmesan thyme crumble, baby carrots and salsa verde. My partner is delighted with his grilled beef fillet with samp risotto, roasted small tomatoes and rooibos-infused demi-glace. “Artisan” ice cream and brie, blue and provolone South African cheeses follow. Crisp linen tablecloths are always welcome. Breakfast of scrambled eggs with beef sausage, mushrooms, potato croquettes and tomatoes is very good.


I would like water served with meals as a matter of course – none was offered.


Clear and updated flight information from the captain, good food, service and comfortable seats, plus a good sleep mean all needs are met.

Alison Stewart flew as a guest of SAA.

Royal commission into child sex abuse: ‘All I could think about was … killing Father Ryan. I didn’t do it. I should have.’

Vince Ryan was convicted in 1995 for offences against more than 30 young boys. Photo: Ron Bell Bishop Roger Herft did not recall receiving serious child sex allegations about the now defrocked former dean of Newcastle, Graeme Lawrence. Photo: Max Mason Hubers

John Pirona was one of Vince Ryan’s victims. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

Francis Cable, also known as Brother Romuald, leaving Newcastle Court. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

Audrey Nash believes her son was abused by Francis Cable. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

“During the service, all I could think about was running to my mate’s parents’ place and grabbing the biggest two knives he had and killing Father Ryan. I didn’t do it. I should have.

“The damage that bastard’s done to my life, my family, my friends and to everybody else. I feel guilty that I didn’t do it and he went on to abuse other boys,” Gerard McDonald told the royal commission this week.

Four years after the Hunter region campaigned for a royal commission following the suicide of child sex abuse victim John Pirona, public hearings have taken place on how the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese responded to child sexual abuse allegations about a notorious paedophile priest and three Hunter Marist brothers.

McDonald was giving evidence about Vince Ryan, who was convicted in 1995 for offences against more than 30 young boys. Pirona was one of his victims, and his death in July 2012 – and suicide note with the final words “Too much pain” – became the final straw for the Hunter community.

In Newcastle Courthouse this week, two of Ryan’s victims, Scott Hallett and McDonald, gave shocking evidence of Ryan giving them wine as nine-year-old altar boys and urging them to have anal sex with each other in front of other boys, and of the priest having oral sex with the boys.

Both men told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse they wanted to kill Ryan when he appeared at their high school a few years later for a church service.

Scott Hallett ended his harrowing evidence on Wednesday by asking people to “go home today, pull out a photo of yourself and one of your children when they were nine, 10 or 11 years old … and go through a couple of the statements that survivors have provided you here, and people may get a bit of an insight what our world is like”. ‘The church knew an awful lot more than you revealed in this document, didn’t it?’

At the hearings in Newcastle over the past month, senior Anglican and Catholic clergymen have struggled with their memories, stumbled over words, made concessions after documents have been produced and, on occasion, been forced to say they’ve not told the truth about their responses to child sexual abuse allegations.

They have “not recalled” a lot.

On the second day of the Catholic hearing former Maitland-Newcastle bishop Michael Malone admitted he had covered up that the church had known for 20 years that Ryan committed crimes against young boys, after he was questioned about his statements and interviews following Ryan’s conviction in 1996.

Royal commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan: “The church knew an awful lot more than you revealed in this document, didn’t it?”

Malone: “Yes.”

McClellan: “And you didn’t tell the public that you knew that?”

Malone: “I didn’t tell them, no.”

In later evidence he said the “covering up” was because the church did not want people so shocked by knowledge it had protected a paedophile priest for several decades that they would turn away from their faith.

The retired Hunter bishop, who did not attend a World Youth Day service with Australia’s bishops in Sydney in 2008, but walked across the Harbour Bridge with abuse survivors, said he reached a point where “You either had to try to defend the church or you had to try to serve the needs of survivors, and I chose the latter.”

Justice McClellan responded with the question at the heart of the child sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church – “Why was it ever a choice?”

Bishop Malone ventured an explanation how church law enshrined secrecy around child sexual abuse.

“Membership of the church is a bit of a strange beast insofar as the church has its own culture, its own law, its own way of obeying structures within the church, its own sacramental system, and as such, it’s divorced from society, and that has meant the church has gone along parallel lines with society, so that civil law somehow was not seen as impinging on the life of the church, in the past,” he said.

Catholic nun Evelyn Woodward told the royal commission she did not follow up once she reported allegations about Vince Ryan to a senior priest, in part because of “the position of women in the church at that time”.

“We were pretty low in the pecking order, and there was a hierarchical system which I think led me to say ‘I’ve got to hand it over to whoever’s in charge of the diocese.’ If that makes any sense,” Sister Woodward said. ‘No recollection’

One of the Australian Anglican Church’s most senior clerics, Perth Archbishop Roger Herft, did not recall receiving serious child sex allegations about the now defrocked former dean of Newcastle, Graeme Lawrence, in 1995, 1997 and 1999 from three separate sources, including another bishop and a priest, or of speaking to Lawrence on those three occasions and accepting his denials.

“Are you seriously suggesting to the commission that you have no recollection of raising an extraordinarily serious allegation with one of the most senior priests in the diocese?” said counsel assisting the commission, Naomi Sharp, on August 12, before the archbishop was shown a letter, written by him in 1995 to one of the complainants, confirming the allegation and his subsequent acceptance of Lawrence’s denial.

At an earlier hearing into the Anglican Church in the Hunter, during his time as bishop of Newcastle from 1993 to 2005, Herft stated: “No one ever raised with me directly or indirectly any matter that would have brought concern to me regarding the behaviour or otherwise of the dean of Newcastle.”

By the end of his evidence on August 29, after documents showing he received serious allegations in 1995, 1997 and 1999, Herft accepted he had been advised of the allegations, but insisted he had no recollection of those events, or of speaking to Lawrence and accepting his denials.

Two former Newcastle Anglican bishops, Richard Appleby and Alfred Holland, insisted they had never known of any child sex abuse in the diocese, and if they had they would have fought it “decisively”.

Bishop Appleby repeatedly said he had “no recollection” of being told about notorious Hunter Anglican child sex offenders Father Peter Rushton and youth worker James Brown, and denied evidence by others who said they had told him of allegations between 1983 and 1992.

Bishop Holland was repeatedly asked if he was telling the truth during his evidence about Rushton, his denial of knowledge of rumours that trainee priests at St John’s Theological College at Morpeth “might fancy little boys”, or his denial of knowledge that a Wyong priest he wrote a character letter for had been charged with raping a teenage boy.

He also denied a conversation with a lawyer who had “the ear of three bishops”, about obtaining a medical certificate stating the retired bishop was in no fit state to give evidence. Holland also denied being advised to respond to questions by saying he could not recall past events, after the royal commission produced a diocese file note indicating Holland would receive that advice.

The royal commission heard evidence a “gang of three” senior Anglican diocese members – Graeme Lawrence, defrocked priest Bruce Hoare and former diocesan registrar Peter Mitchell – protected Peter Rushton for decades, and Lawrence himself was protected by “a cohort of Newcastle Cathedral practitioners who appear, unquestionably” to have supported him.

Peter Mitchell – jailed in 2002 for defrauding the diocese of nearly $200,000 – repeatedly denied any knowledge of brown or yellow envelopes containing details of child sexual abuse by priests, despite a range of documents showing he was closely involved with the management of the files.

Justice McClellan accused former diocesan lawyer Robert Caddies of leading “co-ordinated opposition” to current Newcastle Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson after a group of senior Anglicans, including Mr Caddies and former Newcastle lord mayor John McNaughton, complained to the commission in April after the bishop spoke publicly in October about being sexually abused by a bishop.

The group questioned the length of time between the abuse in the 1970s and Bishop Thompson’s disclosure.

“Were you seeking to say to the royal commission that because it’s taken so long, the bishop’s credibility should be looked at?” Justice McClellan said.

Caddies denied it.

In the witness box on Tuesday, Audrey Nash, 90, of Hamilton, the mother of Andrew, 13, who hanged himself in his bedroom in 1974, said she believed her son died because he was abused by his Catholic Marist Brother teachers, the now jailed Brothers Romuald (Francis Cable) and Dominic (Darcy O’Sullivan).

Mrs Nash, who said she had committed her whole life to the Catholic Church until recently, was in tears about the impact of Andrew’s death on her family, the sexual abuse of her surviving son by two Marist Brothers, and her uncritical acceptance of the power of Catholic churchmen.

“I feel so stupid that I used to fear and revere these people and that I used to respect them and look up to them,” she said.

Lifeline 131 114; MensLine 1300 789 978; Beyondblue 1300 224 636; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800

‘In time, this world will be China’s’: business anticipates profound power shift

Port in a storm: Adam Giles, the former chief minister of Northern Territory toasts Ye Cheng, chairman of Shandong Landbridge Group. Photo: Sanghee Liu A poster promoting China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative in Hong Kong. The People’s Republic is looking to change the shape of geopolitics. Photo: supplied

In this Xinhua News Agency photo, a Chinese H-6K bomber patrols the South China Sea. Photo: Liu Rui/Xinhua via AP

Cheers: Adam Giles, former chief minister of the Northern Territory, toasts Ye Cheng, celebrating the 99-year lease of the Port of Darwin. Photo: Sanghee Liu

It was in the pursuit for answers from Ye Cheng, the Chinese billionaire behind the contentious Landbridge Group acquisition of the Port of Darwin, that I found myself being bailed up instead by his two brothers, several wines deep into a carousing official banquet on a brisk December night.

I had convinced then Northern Territory chief minister Adam Giles’ minders to allow me to join their delegation touring Landbridge’s bustling port in the north-eastern city of Rizhao. But our Chinese hosts knew I was a journalist from Australia, where inconvenient questions were being asked of Landbridge’s links to the People’s Liberation Army.

One of the Ye brothers draped his arm firmly around my shoulder and beckoned for the waiters to refill our glasses. Only after we quaffed four wines in quick succession was he satisfied that he could relax his grip.

The other brother, a stockier man with an altogether calmer disposition, looked squarely at me and said, matter-of-factly: “In time, this world will be China’s.”

Sentiment in this vein is becoming increasingly pronounced here. Property tycoon Wang Jianlin​, the country’s richest man, says China should have the final say in global affairs and is now directing his energy to “change the world where rules are set by foreigners”.  Olympic swimmer Sun Yang responded to being labelled a drug cheat during the Rio Olympics by defiantly proclaiming he represented the “new world”.

Even a Chinese official, faced with protests from White House staff over security protocol as Barack Obama touched down at last week’s G20 summit in Hangzhou, knew to stand his ground. “This is our country! This is our airport, OK?” he said, an exchange that soon went viral.

The surge in pride and confidence is natural, particularly among the younger generation in well-off cities who have only known a fast-developing, increasingly wealthy China awash with opportunity.

In President Xi Jinping​ China has a leader who, as the son of a Communist Party revolutionary hero, sees it as his destiny to ensure the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

This includes a military build-up and an assertive foreign policy it sees as befitting a global superpower. China’s program of reclaiming and militarising islands in the South China Sea is a strategic stepping stone for military supremacy in its own backyard – provoked, in no small part, by the Obama administration’s signature pivot back to Asia, seen in Beijing as a naked ploy to contain China’s rightful rise.

Elsewhere, the People’s Republic is using its economic clout to rebalance the global order. Fed up with US and Japanese dominance in the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, it countered with the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and savoured the sight of one US ally after the other – including Australia – opting in.

It has aggressively courted other major developing economies, and championed the New Development Bank established by the BRICS countries. Its hold over south-east Asia is already so strong that ASEAN member states have failed to agree on a united stance against Beijing on the South China Sea question. Xi’s signature “One Belt One Road” initiative, meanwhile, aims to reshape geopolitics across central Asia, south Asia, the Middle East and beyond through infrastructure development and trade.

In Australia, China’s short-term game is to buy the government’s silence on the South China Sea, making it clear there would be ramifications if it were to follow the US lead and send warships on freedom of navigation missions in the disputed waters. In the longer run, it aims to see Australia edge away from its trilateral strategic partnership with the US and Japan.

It is in this context that, as ABC political editor Chris Uhlmann​ reports, Australia’s domestic spy chief Duncan Lewis warned of the national security risks posed by political donors acting on behalf of the Chinese government. It is also why Labor senator Sam Dastyari​’s poor judgment in accepting payment for legal and travel bills and then pledging support for China’s stance on the South China Sea proved so damaging to his career.

The concern within intelligence agencies over growing Chinese influence in Australia spans donations to politicians and universities, urging community groups to press Beijing’s cause, increasing control over Chinese-language media and buying space in mainstream media – all of which have been documented by Fairfax Media in recent months.

Over in Darwin, the Giles government is likely to be remembered for scandal and dysfunction.

But it will have another legacy. Following the Port of Darwin sale – and the ensuing furore – the federal government tightened its foreign investment review regime to cover all key infrastructure including airports, ports and electricity networks, whether the bidder is private or state-owned. In a shake-up of the Foreign Investment Review Board former ASIO chief David Irvine was appointed to strengthen oversight. Rejections of Chinese bids for cattle company Kidman & Co and electricity network Ausgrid followed.

Suggestions that the focus on Chinese-linked investment or donations is disproportionate, xenophobic or worse are off the mark. No other country has both the resources and ambition to reshape Australia from within.

Awareness is the key. And the revelations of the past two weeks are sure to have focused the attention of our parliamentarians, from the Prime Minister down to Labor’s “junior senator”.

Philip Wen is China correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Australia to start making military drones ahead of future warfare dominated by machines

Australia is to start making its own military drones, officials have revealed, and former defence chief Sir Angus Houston said he expects that the “vast majority” of war fighting will be done by unmanned machines within half a century.

Colonel Andrew Jones, the Army’s aviation program director, told a major military and defence industry gathering in Adelaide this week that Defence wanted Australian firms to help build a small, tough drone that soldiers can fit in backpacks and send out to spy on enemies on the battlefield.

Colonel Jones indicated it would be just a first step in what he called “sovereign” drone technology – or unmanned aerial vehicles as Defence prefers to call them. He said it could be the “start of something big” that included “more than just intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance”.

Beyond being eyes in the sky for soldiers, drones are most typically used to fire missiles on enemies such as terrorist organisations, and Australia has signalled plans to start using such weaponised unmanned vehicles.

Underscoring the widespread feeling within military circles that drone technology is streaking ahead, Sir Angus, who was Chief of the Defence Force from 2005 to 2011, told the Land Forces 2016 conference that Australia had been too slow to take up unmanned military systems such as aerial drones during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

“If you look forward, 50 years from now … I think all the platforms that will be out there on the battlefield, the vast majority of them, will be unmanned and we need to basically embrace that future with enthusiasm and with a great deal of innovation because if we don’t, we’re going to get left behind and we’re going to be caught short,” he said.

Sir Angus, who now heads the advisory board of the South Australian government’s defence industry organisation, said the Australian Defence Force had not been forward-thinking enough. While the ADF had rented “rudimentary” drones in the early stages of the wars, “I would submit that we were underdone in that area”, he said.

“We need to learn the lessons of what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan because next time the conflict might be much more challenging than the ones we’ve just experienced,” he said.

He said unmanned underwater and land military vehicles were also going to be “crucially important”, and the Army “must get into” drone attack helicopters because to do otherwise would be too dangerous in the kind of lightning-fast firepower of future conflicts.

“When you look at the lethality of the battlefield that we face in the future, you wouldn’t want to be sending people in manned helicopters into that environment. The unmanned vehicle is the way to go … because you’re not going to last very long in the lethal battlefield that we envisage for the future,” he said.

Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne told the conference this week that “remotely operated platforms” – another term for drones – was going to be a priority of the government’s $640 million Defence Innovation Hub.

Colonel Jones said the government was currently operating about 20 American-made Wasp AE small drones, which are backpack-sized, weigh 1.3 kilograms and can fly for up to 50 minutes at a range of five kilometres while streaming live colour and infrared video back to soldiers on the battlefield.

He said the second stage of the same program was aimed at “learning how much can we do in Australia”. It will be the first time Australia has built military drones.

“We think all those sort of things are well within the capacity of Australian industry, with a little bit of focus,” he said.

Currently drones are remotely piloted from the ground. Group Captain Guy Adams, the RAAF’s director of unmanned systems, said there was a “fair amount of work to be done” before drones could be made more autonomous but he said that the Defence Science and Technology Group was working on a “trusted autonomy system”.

Reece Clothier, president of the Australian Association for Unmanned Systems, said: “It’s great to have this coming from the government that there is a desire and a push for industry-based capability in niche areas. There’s a significant amount of money being invested by Defence in this area.”

Follow us on Twitter