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Will someone please turn on the lights: Why have TV dramas literally become so dark?

Game of Thrones: ‘Let me give you some advice, bastard: There’s a sale on at Beacon Lighting.’Halt and Catch Fire is one of the most dimly-lit dramas of recent years.
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Over the years, Home and Away, and many other Australian dramas, opted for darker lighting.

A scene from the critically acclaimed HBO drama True Detective.

To many fans, Game of Thrones is too dark. Not figuratively – they literally can’t perceive what’s happening on screen. so many scenes in game of thrones are too dark and I can’t see what the hell is going on— just ty (@tysechler) May 16, 2016

In fairness, GoT’s characters don’t have cheap lighting solutions at hand. (And most are pre-occupied with bigger problems.)

But the show symbolises a bigger problem: modern TV drama is too dim. Too inky. Can someone please switch on a lamp?

There is now a whole cohort of under-lit American shows, as Kathryn VanArendonk writes in Vulture, including Mr Robot, a “murky”-looking The Americans, and Halt and Catch Fire, set in “the darkest, gloomiest California imaginable”.

Here in sunny Australia, we’ve followed suit.

High-brow thrillers such The Code on ABC opted for a grey, washed-out palette. But even our soapies have toned themselves down.

When Lynne McGranger blew into Summer Bay in 1993, taking over the Home and Away role of Irene from Jacqui Phillips, she was a peroxide blonde – and the show was equally bright. But now, Irene’s diner is lit with all the moodiness of a dive bar.

Over in Erinsborough, Neighbours producers have also ripped out the high-wattage bulbs. Even dramas such as House Husbands – while not exactly dark – can seem muted at times.

All this is especially noticeable in contrast the reality genre, which prefers bright, bold colours.

But when – and why – did TV drama kill the lights?

A lot can be traced The Sopranos – itself modelled on the moody look of The Godfather, as Matthew Dessem explains in Slate.

Compared to more recent shows, The Sopranos might not strike you as dimly-lit. But, inspired by its success, others tried to replicate its look. “Dark” became synonymous with “quality” – then everyone got carried away. Now, we need to close the curtains and squint when we watch Hannibal, True Detective or Marvel’s Daredevil.

VanArendonk argues the dark = quality device has been over-used. Besides, Mad Men was awash in brilliant colour at times and even Breaking Bad, with all its moodiness, used colour effectively.

In contrast, she says, the determination of Halt and Catch Fire producers to mute everything lends a “weirdly gloomy” feel to the series. (She singles out a scene in which a family eats breakfast in an obviously sunny kitchen that is also inexplicably grey.)

Of course, dim lighting isn’t the only technique to have its moment in, erm, the sun.

Several years ago, as hand-held technology improved, film-makers went mad for the “wobble-cam” effect. Any script with a whiff of gritty realism had to look as though it was filmed in an earthquake. But for viewers, there’s a difference between “raw” camera work and needing motion sickness pills.

Technology has also been the biggest enabler of dark TV. Indeed, the reason TV was so dazzlingly bright, for so many years, is because it needed to be.

Our old 20-inch cathode ray sets had a clarity intolerable to modern eyes. To make images seem sharper, producers filmed everything under blazing lights.

It was safer that way, too. With digital cameras, a director can instantly review her work – something that’s impossible on film. And a poorly-lit scene was damn hard to fix in the editing suite.

But one show, above all others, defined the look of 20th century television: I Love Lucy.

Bright and low-contrast, that look was invented by Metropolis cinematographer Karl Freund to solve a problem. The program’s stars, Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz, wanted to shoot on film – with a studio audience, no less. Except film was tricky, as was keeping an audience in constant laughter.

Freund found a way to allow multiple 35mm cameras to film together, without spoiling the lighting. He hung overhead lights from catwalks, hiding the cables, and attached others to the cameras themselves. Dessem explains: “The result was a show where everything was plainly illuminated, with very little shadow, and characters popped cleanly from the gray background thanks to backlighting.”

Until the explosion in high-definition TVs a decade ago, there was little motivation to play with lighting. On an analogue screen, an under-lit scene would look invariably awful.

Of course, just because a scene appears dark, it doesn’t mean it was shot that way – advances in post-production have also tinged our dramas.

Still, results vary.

Watching Game of Thrones on a 4K set, in a darkened room, is vastly different to seeing it on a glossy-iPad, on a plane, as your neighour’s reading light intrudes onto your screen.

Cheap televisions can have terrible reproduction. Poor eyesight makes a difference. And some of us are just over our favourite characters wandering around in near-blackness.

VanArendonk puts it best: “So-called ‘serious’ TV has so many tools to communicate complexity and bleakness … If the goal is to make a series hard to watch, there are lots of ways to do it. It does not also need to be hard to see.”

Twitter: Michael_Lallo

Soccer: NPL outsiders Oakleigh hoping to shock powerhouse South in grand final

Steve Pantelidis during his Melbourne Victory days. Photo: John DoneganPut it down to the impact of the FFA Cup if you like.
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But in the 11 years since the first FFA chief executive John O’Neill coined the phrase “new football” to differentiate the A-League from the “old soccer” that had been its predecessor in the NSL, the links between the two sides of the same game have become closer.

These days many of the so-called “traditional clubs”, those who now play in the various state-based National Premier League competitions, enjoy a higher profile than they did a decade ago when it seemed everything was being done to whitewash them from Australian soccer history.

The FFA Cup has had a lot to do with that, given that clubs such as Victorian NPL sides Hume and Bentleigh Greens have reached the semi-final of the tournament in its first two years, only bowing to A-League opposition at the penultimate stage of the competition.

More and more A-League scouts are trawling the state leagues looking for diamonds in the rough, young players who were perhaps discarded or overlooked by A-League teams in their formative years but who are rebuilding their careers one level down. Melbourne Victory signed Jai Ingham from Hume City after he impressed Kevin Muscat in last year’s FFA Cup, and Ingham has since played in the A-League and the Asian Champions League .

The NPL Victoria is regarded as one of the strongest leagues below the top tier and two of its best teams, South Melbourne and Oakleigh, will contest the grand final this weekend.

It is a fascinating clash between two clubs who were established by Melbourne’s soccer-loving Greek community, South in the 1950s, Oakleigh in the early 1970s.

South Melbourne need little introduction. Oceania’s team of the 20th century, the club from Albert Park was a powerhouse of the old NSL, where it won four championships: Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou is one of their famous old boys.

Oakleigh is a minnow in comparison, the team from Melbourne’s South Eastern Suburbs never having won the Victorian Premier League or its NPL successor.

“We have come close on a number of occasions, ” general manager Aki Ionnas said. “In 2006  we won the minor premiership by 13 points but lost our two finals games. We were beaten in grand finals in 2011 and 2012, and in 2014 we finished runners-up when there was no finals system that year.

“Winning the championship this weekend would be a fantastic boost to the club. It would help with publicity and sponsors, but more important would be the sense of achievement we would get from winning the title. It would be a great reward for all the people who contribute to the club and the players and coaching staff who have turned things around so well during the season.”

Peter Tsolakis, who took over as head coach with Con Tangalakis at the start of this season, is looking to succeed where predecessors Stuart Munro (in charge during that tremendous 2006 campaign) and former Brisbane Roar and Gold Coast United coach Miron Bleiberg just failed.

Tsolakis, who took a two-and-a-half-year sabbatical from coaching after parting company with South Melbourne in 2013, believes the key to Oakleigh’s unexpected success this season has been the squad’s togetherness, along with consistent performances from key players such as goalkeeper John Honos, former Melbourne Victory championship defender Steve Pantelidis, striker Dusan Bosnjak and attacker Dimi Hatzimouratis.

Pantelidis is a link between all phases of the Australian game in the past 15 years. Now 33, the former Young Socceroo defender played for Altona East in the old Victorian Premier League, Melbourne Knights in the NSL and was a part of Melbourne Victory’s first squad, winning an A-League grand final with Ernie Merrick’s team in 2007.

He also played in the A-League for Gold Coast United and Perth Glory (where he was in the losing grand final side in 2012) and, reflecting Australian soccer’s closer engagement with Asia, had spells in Indonesia and Singapore before coming back to Melbourne with Oakleigh.

“It’s great having a player of Steve’s experience here to help out. He’s dedicated and very professional and I will often run things by him in training or tactically. His knowledge and leadership has been important in getting us to this stage of the competition,” Tsolakis said.

“John Honos, too, our goalkeeper, is excellent at playing the ball with his feet and he has a lot of experience after playing in Greece earlier in his career.”

Statins harms exaggerated, benefits underestimated, major Lancet Journal review shows

ABC Catalyst’s statins program – presented by Maryanne Demasi – was found to have breached the broadcaster’s editorial standards. Photo: ABC The numbers of people who avoid heart attacks and strokes by taking statin therapy are very much larger than the numbers who have side effects, the review’s authors said. Photo: AFR
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Misleading reports warning patients off taking their statins have exaggerated their harms and underestimated their benefits, a major review says.

Claims that the cholesterol-busting drugs cause high rates of serious side effects had dealt a “serious cost to public health”, and had convinced some patients to stop taking their medication, the scientists in the Lancet-published review said.

In a move the review’s authors hope will put an end to the notion that statins cause more harm than do good, the research published Friday outlined the plethora of evidence collected over the past 30 years that backed their efficacy.

“Our review shows that the numbers of people who avoid heart attacks and strokes by taking statin therapy are very much larger than the numbers who have side effects,” said Professor Rory Collins at the Clinical Trial Service Unit at Britain’s Oxford University.

Patients who experience side effects – which include muscle pain, nausea and liver problems – could reverse them by stopping the statin, while the effects of a heart attack or stroke “are irreversible and can be devastating”, Professor Collins said.

Periods of intense public discussion about statins were followed by rises in the proportion of people who stop taking the drugs, and by falls in the number of prescriptions for them, the authors wrote.

The stoush erupted in 2013 after papers published in the British Medical Journal claimed up to 20 per cent of users get side effects. The 20 per cent figure was later retracted after the BMJ said it was based on flawed data, but this and other reports affected patient confidence.

In Australia, a two-part series on ABC’s Catalyst that aired in October 2013 was found to have violated the broadcaster’s standards and was removed from its website.

Presented by Dr Maryanne Demasi, the program claimed the causal link between saturated fat, cholesterol and heart disease was “the biggest myth in medical history” and cholesterol medications, known as statins, were toxic and potentially deadly.

A large numbers of people stopped taking statins without consulting their doctors after watching the  program in 2013, a GP survey found.

Lancet editor Richard Horton compared the harm of statins misinformation to that of the notorious – now discredited – research paper that linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism.

“We learned lessons from that episode and those lessons need to be widely promulgated. They are lessons for all journals and all scientists,” Dr Horton said, whose journal had originally published the MMR paper.

Once among the biggest revenue generators for drugmakers such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca, most statins are now off-patent and available as cheap generics.

Cardiovascular disease accounts for an estimated 31 per cent of all deaths and claims 17.5 million lives a year worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation.

Associate Professor David Sullivan at the University of Sydney’s Central Clinical School said the review was “wonderful news” and restored a balanced perception of statin therapy.

“The review establishes that statins prevent large numbers of fatal or serious irreversible heart attacks and strokes with very little in the way of side-effects, Associate Professor Sullivan said.

He said the treatment, which would prevent 500 to 1000 such events per 10,000 patients, would only result in a handful of serious muscle problems, most of which would be reversible.

Monash University Emeritus Professor of Medicine Mark Wahlqvist said the review did not canvass the reasons the billion-dollar statin industry was needed to begin with, and the need for head-to-head studies that considered environmental, personal and socio-economic factors of cardiovascular disease.

“This population-wide risk is a serious omission from the Lancet report. Without these caveats, the next we will learn is that we are all expected to take statins from a younger and younger (and older and older) age, irrespective of our food culture, personal behaviours and medical history. Let’s know for whom the statin bell tolls,” Professor Wahlqvist said.

With Reuters

Malcolm Turnbull anniversary: One year on, another leadership tragedy could be unfolding

Many have concluded Malcolm Turnbull simply wanted the job of prime minister more than he wanted to implement an agenda. Photo: Sanghee Liu Malcolm Turnbull faces dangers at every turn. Photo: Nic Walker
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The big question after Malcolm Turnbull toppled Tony Abbott, this time last year, was simple enough: what did the new Prime Minister plan to do with the opportunity and the power he had seized?

In the weeks after the coup, there was an avalanche of advice on how to spend his seemingly bottomless bucket of political capital, from making big symbolic gestures to backing radical reforms. “Use it or lose it,” was the mantra.

Turnbull’s response was to bristle at the impatience of those who expected prompt action on the causes they assumed he would champion, from gay marriage and global warming to economic reform and injecting a dose of humanity into Abbott’s harsh border protection regime.

He was going to weigh the pros and cons of propositions very carefully, came the response, and consult widely before taking decisions. This would be a traditional cabinet government.

But the longer not much was seen to happen, the more disillusioned his supporters became.

What many took time to appreciate was the extent to which Turnbull had committed himself to Abbott policies to secure the support of conservatives in his cabinet and on his backbench.

When the penny dropped, many concluded Turnbull had simply wanted the job more than he wanted to implement an agenda.

But there was another factor that shaped Turnbull’s initial period in power and it went to the last time he was leader of the Liberal Party, when his impatience, impetuosity and arrogance alienated his colleagues. This time he was going to be more inclusive.

“He let the hares run, but let them run for too long,” says one colleague.

Now the political capital bucket is near empty and many of those who invested so much hope and optimism in the Turnbull ascension fear they are witnessing the unfolding of a tragedy as epic as the one that destroyed the careers of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

It is, of course, utterly premature to predict Turnbull’s downfall, not least because of the absence of a challenger, but there can be no doubting the level of cynicism and disappointment in the electorate, or the potential for sudden upheavals.

There will be no round of media interviews to mark Wednesday’s anniversary of Turnbull’s first year in power. Rather, the occasion will be seized upon by critics to chronicle the missteps (and there have been quite a number) and to highlight the absence of achievements.

Already, at the prompting of Andrew Bolt, Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin and the media-shy Jeff Kennett have struggled to nominate a single success, aside from winning the election by a whisker.

That is unfair, given the likelihood of defeat had Abbott remained in power, but the common temptation is to compare Turnbull’s standing now with his own standing in the first few months, rather than Abbott’s before the challenge.

As veteran poll analyst John Stirton puts it: “Mr Turnbull is less popular now than any prime minister starting their second term for the last 40 years – less popular than Paul Keating (who was thrashed at the next election); less popular than Julia Gillard (who was torn down by the man she deposed, Rudd).

“Across the spectrum, few people are happy,” says Stirton. “For conservative voters, Mr Turnbull is the outsider, the leftie who should never have been given the job in the first place. For progressive voters, he is the great disappointment, stymied by the right wing of his party and captive to the deals he made to unseat Abbott.”

It wasn’t so much the lack of grace that has stuck in the minds of voters, when Turnbull addressed his supporters after midnight on election night, neglecting to offer commiserations to the fallen and blaming the closeness of the result on Labor’s systematic “well-funded lies”.

Rather it was that, in the weeks and months since the election, there has never been any acknowledgment that the government failed to meet expectations and needs to do better.

“There’s a history of leaders who get an electoral shock acknowledging that they have heard the message, but not a hint of it from this government,” says social researcher Hugh Mackay. “They were crowing as if they’d won the Olympic gold medal and it didn’t matter what the margin was.”

Now the question of just what Turnbull plans to do with the prime ministership remains largely unanswered, but the degree of difficulty is much, much higher.

Unruly behaviour and ill-discipline from disaffected and recalcitrant backbenchers is one thing, and Turnbull has more than his share of them; direct attacks from the man he tore down are another altogether.

Having increased the pressure on Turnbull to act on donations and clashed with Scott Morrison on the Coalition’s superannuation changes, Abbott upped the ante on Friday by suggesting the Prime Minister acted “in panic” when he announced a royal commission into the Northern Territory juvenile detention system.

“They think he’s wounded and they’re going for him,” is how one MP loyal to Turnbull sums up the dynamic.

Faced with such internal insurrection and external disaffection, Turnbull’s response has been to concentrate on implementing the platform he took to the people and the “fundamental moral challenge” of budget repair.

The problem with this approach is twofold. Firstly, the agenda is inadequate, as the election result demonstrated. He needs to either recast it in more compelling terms or enlarge it, or both.

The second problem goes to the other issues vying for attention, like same-sex marriage and the case for root-and-branch reform of political donations. The danger in both is that Turnbull fails to lead the debate and that the result is shaped by Labor, the Greens and/or the crossbench in ways that leave him exposed.

The reality is that Turnbull faces danger whichever way he turns. A continuation of the risk-averse approach that ended the honeymoon invites the description of this government singer-songwriter Neil Young gave when introducing one of his songs: “It sorta starts off real slow and then fizzles out altogether.”

The other path is to be bold, to set down what he wants to achieve, make the government his own and be prepared to take on the internal critics. Young had a line for this approach, too; that it’s better to burn out than it is to fade away.

The Shadow Game reveals more about the secret city of Canberra

Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis at Parliament House. Photo: Andrew MearesCanberra is a city of secrets. And when Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann first began writing their series of books back in 2011 they had a plan to reveal a few of them.
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On the surface they wanted people to view Canberra, the city, in a different light. To realise it’s not the cold, bland, city of roundabouts that many outsiders think it is. That it is an architecturally stunning city, with landmarks worthy of recognition, a city of sweeping vistas and pockets of hidden beauty.

But they also wanted to reveal some of the secrets that go on behind closed doors in this city of decision makers and  dealers.

And with the release of the third book in the series, The Shadow Game, their vision has been fully realised.

The first two books, The Marmalade Files  and The Mandarin Code, were turned into the highly successful Foxtel series Secret City. Whether The Shadow Game prompts a second series is yet to be seen. Production company Matchbox has the option but no decision has been made. You’ll have to read the book to imagine what might happen next.

In the meantime, revel in all things Canberra. From the top of Mt Ainslie on a murky evening, to the rooms of Old Parliament House, to the secrecy of the Chairman’s Lounge at Canberra Airport.

It’s not just the Canberra places, it’s the Canberra people that have made this series special. The transgender character Kim Gordon was based on a real person. The politicians cut close to home. Harry Dunkley could be based on any number of journalists up on the hill.

And while Lewis and Uhlmann insist that it’s all fiction, you know they’ve had some fun doing it.

But when it comes to the fact, the authors have also found Canberra willing to help.

“Canberra is a great resource, it’s its own research library and you can find just about anyone in this town or you can find people who can lead you to people,” says Lewis.

Lewis first realised this about three years ago when, after driving home from an early morning run on Mt Ainslie, he heard Alastair MacGibbon, now the first Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security, talking on NewsRadio.

“I thought to myself back then, this guy sounds really interesting and when I heard he was from the University of Canberra I just reached out to him,” says Lewis.

“He’s become a great source of information and he actually launched The Shadow Game for us at Paperchain.”

Lewis also names Hugh White as another valuable source, the Australian National University Professor of  Strategic Studies with an expertise in Asia Pacific security issues.

“Just to be able to access these people is a privilege.”

More generally he also mentions “all the characters at Parliament House”, defence personnel, “talking to snipers or people with actual experience in a particular area that you don’t have”, to help you “write as accurately as you can within a fictitious setting.”

Lewis says it hasn’t been hard to sell the idea of a book on the back of the television series.

Fans who have only seen the series may be confused that Harriet has reverted to Harry and ASIO operative Charles Dancer makes a miraculous recovery from having his head splattered all over the forest floor at Mt Pleasant, but you quickly get back onto the plot.

In The Shadow Game, an amount of time has passed since the end of The Mandarin Code. Harry has fallen onto hard times, there’s been a change in government, but several of the key characters are still about.

“We wanted to provide a bit of a back story,” says Lewis.

“You want people to be able to pick it up, not having read the first two books and hopefully have a reasonable idea as to what’s been going on.

“But this one is lot darker than the first two, there’s less satire, we had to close the circle on a lot of things. We thoroughly enjoyed the plotting in this one.”

Does the darker tone, reflect our darker times?

“You know I’m walking into Parliament House as we do this. I look around and there are guys just over there with assault rifles,” says Lewis.

“I can remember when I’d come up to Parliament with my kids when they were young and you could park outside the senate entrance for half an hour and you’d walk through and if you forgot your pass the guard would say, ‘Just remember it next time, mate.’

“Nowadays you’d be bloody locked up.

“A darker time? I don’t know, it’s just a different time.”

The Shadow Game, by Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann.   HarperCollins. $29.99.

Litbits September 10, 2016

Simon Armitage Photo: Paul Wolfgang WebsterAWARD-WINNING WRITER ANTHOLOGISED
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Philip writer C.H. Pearce,  who won the Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award for her work Torvald’s Year, is being featured in the  national anthology, Award Winning Australian Writing 2016, which was launched in Melbourne recently and is available in bookshops or via melbournebooks上海m.au.

PENS AGAINST POVERTY

The Pens Against Poverty school writing competition 2016 is now open, aimed at ending poverty in Canberra. This year, participants are invited to write a short story or poem up to 500 words on the theme of “Playing Fair”. The competition is open to students in grades 3-10 with a $200 main prize. Entry is free with a deadline of September 19.  pensagainstpoverty上海.

What’s on

September 10-16: Poetry on the Move continues with Simon Armitage joining the festivities as poet-in-residence. The week concludes with the announcement of the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize. All events free, but please book at poetryonthemove2016.eventbrite上海m.au.

September 11: The National Portrait Gallery hosts Geoff Page, Jessica Wilkinson and Benjamin Laird discussing Poetic Biography. The event also includes Subhash Jaireth reading from his new book, Incantations, accompanied by David Pereira (cello). At 3pm, part of Poetry on the Move: poetryonthemove2016.eventbrite上海m.au.

September 12: In an ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event, Anthony Albanese and Karen Middleton will be in conversation with Alex Sloan on Karen Middleton’s new biography: Albanese: Telling It Straight. Copland Lecture Theatre, 6pm. Bookings at anu.edu.au/events or 6125 8415.

September 13. In an ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event,  writer Don Watson will be in conversation with Professor Bates Gill on Watson’s new Quarterly Essay on American Politics in the Time of Trump. Manning Clark Lecture Theatre 3, 6pm. Bookings at anu.edu.au/events or 6125 8415.

September 14: Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow by Suzanne Falkiner will be launched in the National Library Australia Conference Room, Level 4,  at 6pm. Free admission. nla.gov.au.

September 14: The next Poetry at the House reading at University House at 8pm will feature Geoff Goodfellow from Adelaide and Nigel Roberts from Sydney. Dinner is available from 6.30pm. Admission $10 waged, $5 unwaged. Bookings: [email protected]上海.au.

Sept 15: David Marr will talk about the key challenge of modern biographers – what do they do with themselves in their writing? – at the National Library of Australia Theatre, Lower Ground 1, at 6pm. Admission free. nla.gov.au.

September 16: Dr Chris Kavelin’s book Nudges From Grandfather introduces some Indigenous ways of being. It will be launched at Harry Hartog Woden at 6pm.RSVP:  6232 5832.

September 19: In an ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event, Graeme Simsion will follow his two Rosie Project books with his new novel The Best of Adam Sharp. Manning Clark Lecture Theatre 2, 6.30pm. Bookings at anu.edu.au/events or 6125 8415.

September 22: A team of young writers from the youth-led journal Demos will present free creative and academic readings and a Q&A at 7.30pm at Tuggeranong Arts Centre as part of the Lakeside Literary Lounge series. The journal is online at demosproject上海.

September 23: Rock star Jimmy Barnes will be signing copies of his autobiography Working Class Boy at Westfield Woden Centre Court, hosted by Harry Hartog Woden, at 12.30pm. Phone 6232 5832.

September 24: Meet Craig Cormick as he launches his new picture book Valdur the Viking at Harry Hartog Woden at 11am. The book and event are suitable for children six and older.  Phone 6232 5832.

September 25: At Muse Canberra at 3pm, genre fiction writers Sulari  Gentrill, Kaaron Warren and Sean Williams will talk. Tickets $10 includes a drink. musecanberra上海m.au.

 September 29: Fantasy writer Garth Nix will discuss his new novel Goldenhand at the National Library of Australia Theatre, Lower Ground 1 at 6pm. Tickets $15 includes refreshments and book signing. nla.gov.au.

October 3: In an ANU/Canberra Times Meet the Author event, Hannah Kent will be in conversation with Professor Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research at the University Canberra, on Kent’s much anticipated second novel, The Good People. Manning Clark Lecture Theatre 2, 6.30pm. Bookings at anu.edu.au/events or 6125 8415.

October 8: Indonesian author Leila S. Chudori will talk about her  novel Home at the Asia Bookroom, Lawy Place, Macquarie at 4pm. Admission by gold coin donation to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. RSVP to 62515191 by October 7.

* Contributions to Litbits are welcome. Please email [email protected]canberratimes上海m.au by COB on the Monday prior to publication. Publication is not guaranteed.

‘Doomed from the start’: The flaming out of Labor’s backroom powerbrokers

Mark Arbib quit politics in 2012. Photo: Jacky Ghossein Paul Howes went to the private sector after hopes of a seat in the Senate were dashed. Photo: Anna Kucera
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Senator Sam Dastyari quit after a week of sustained pressure. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long. It’s a phrase attributed – somewhat ironically, given the events of this week – to the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi, father of Taoism.

It certainly describes Labor’s backroom wunderkinds over the past decade. Karl Bitar, Mark Arbib, Paul Howes – once leading luminaries of the NSW Right, their political stars rose quickly and fell even faster.

Now Sam Dastyari, a successor to Bitar and Arbib as NSW Labor general secretary, has crashed and burned just months into his frontbench stint. And the question has to be asked: why are these bright flames burning out?

“The culture they come from is intensely corrosive,” says one Left MP intimately familiar with Sussex Street. “If you’re not grounded in values, you’re doomed from the start. You don’t have anything to fall back on when you hit adversity.”

Much is made of the so-called “NSW disease”, a sort of morally degenerative condition rooted in the “whatever it takes” philosophy championed by Graham Richardson. But Richo, who was 26 when he ran NSW Labor, may have been the last to practise the dark arts successfully (though controversially).

Bitar, head NSW honcho through 2008 before taking charge of the party nationally, presided over a run of disasters that rendered his name political poison. He relentlessly pursued NSW premier Morris Iemma, sparking implosions that led to catastrophic defeat for Labor in 2011. Federally, he was instrumental in convincing Kevin Rudd to dump the planned emissions trading scheme, which might stand as the most ill-judged political decision in recent memory.

Enjoined in these machinations was Arbib, Bitar’s predecessor as NSW general secretary, who was by this time safely ensconced in the Senate. Having sunk Rudd’s credibility and approval ratings, they set about having him overthrown. Under Julia Gillard, a much-maligned campaign saw Labor almost lose government after just one term. Arbib abruptly quit politics hours after Rudd’s unsuccessful leadership challenge in early 2012. He declined Fairfax Media’s invitation to comment.

Both men ended up taking lucrative jobs in James Packer’s Crown empire. And Howes, another key faceless man of the era and a career unionist from the age of 17, left the Australian Workers Union after seven years at the top to work for KPMG soon after being passed over for a Senate vacancy.

Enter Dastyari, boy wonder with an impeccable CV. He stacked branches in high school, was president of the Sydney University ALP Club and NSW Young Labor, and became NSW general secretary in March 2010 at 26. After an inevitable electoral drubbing in 2011, the young gun began the daunting task of rebuilding Brand Labor. By the time Dastyari graduated to the Senate in 2013, he was being touted by his mentor Richo as “probably better than me”.

“He could have a dramatic effect federally,” Richardson told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. “The national Right has broken down to a very large extent in recent years and he’s the one bloke with an opportunity to put it back together.”

With Dastyari in the deep freeze after barely five minutes on the frontbench, that prediction is looking shaky. The cause of his demise – outsourcing a $1670 travel bill to a Chinese donor – smacks of the same careless, sleazy, wheeler-dealing antics that have tainted Sussex Street for so long.

“Everything is seen through the prism of short-term tactical advantage,” the Left MP tells Fairfax Media. “That’s how they rise through the Labor Party. That then continues into their political career.”

Not that it’s confined to NSW. Victorian powerbroker David Feeney became general secretary in that state at age 29, then held backroom positions in the Bracks government, South Australia and on the national executive. He was elected to the Senate in 2007 before moving to the lower house seat of Batman, which he battled to retain this year after a series of stumbles such as failing to declare a negatively geared property and accidentally leaving confidential briefing notes in a TV studio.

He too now finds himself on the outer, and certainly off the frontbench.

All signs are that Dastyari will recover from the bruising that befouled him this past week, with everyone from Bill Shorten down implying he will be back. But he would take little comfort from the fate of his predecessors.

“These characters are mirror images of one other,” says a senior interstate observer. “There’s clearly a problem with how politics is conducted in NSW. It’s an entirely different culture.”

Racing: Darren Weir looks for more group 1 glory while Daniel Moor pleased with live chance

Another Saturday, another group1 race, another field studded with Darren Weir contenders.
Shanghai night field

In recent years we have got used to leading handlers fielding multiple chances in the major events as a handful of big stables consolidate their grip at the top of the training ranks.

In Sydney, Chris Waller will often send out half the field or more in thinly contested weight-for-age contests, as Gai Waterhouse once did before him. In their day as champion trainers Peter Moody, David Hayes (who often still does) and Lee Freedman would regularly field a number of gallopers in the big races in Victoria.

That mantle has nowadays passed to Weir, whose Ballarat and Warrnambool bases seem to grow on a weekly basis as more owners seek to benefit from his magic touch.

At Flemington, Weir tackles the main Melbourne feature, the group 1 Makybe Diva Stakes, with three of the 13 runners for the 1600-metre event.

The Weir team is headed by hot favourite Black Heart Bart, a horse who has been a revelation since coming east to join the champion trainer’s team. The former Perth-trained galloper is on a Cox Plate campaign and boasts a tremendous form line since joining Weir less than a year ago, with victories in the group 1 Goodwood in Adelaide and the Memsie Stakes at Caulfield in his past three starts, sandwiched only by a narrow loss to Under The Louvre in the group 1 Stradbroke.

Regular jockey Brad Rawiller is suspended, so champion rider Damien Oliver takes the mount on the six-year-old. The only concern that Weir has is if the forecast rain comes down in bucket loads and turns the track heavy.

But whatever the weather, he will run, says his trainer.

“I think soft ground is all right but he will run no matter what,” says Weir. Asked if the step up to 1600m would be an issue, the trainer laughed. “No, that won’t be a problem. If it had been 1600m at Caulfield, he would have won by further.”

Weir also saddles Australian Guineas winner Palentino, the mount of Mark Zahra, and last season’s history-making Melbourne Cup winner Prince Of Penzance, who this time will be partnered by accomplished horseman John Allen.

Palentino has still to prove he can make the transition between being a leading three-year-old and taking on the older gallopers as a four-year-old, while Prince Of Penzance has to put aside an indifferent run on his reappearance in the Memsie Stakes.

“Palentino is coming along well, although I am not sure about him on wet ground. He’s never run on it, but I don’t think it will worry him. Prince Of Penzance, it [rain] would be a plus for him.”

The Makybe Diva used to be known as the Craiglee Stakes and is usually a reliable guide to the spring: in the past few years gallopers such as 2014-15 horse of the year Dissident and a couple of Caulfield Cup winners in Fawkner and Southern Star have won it.

There are several contenders here with cup aspirations, including last year’s Caulfield Cup placegetter Our Ivanhowe from the Lee Freedman stable, who will be a rare opportunity for Daniel Moor to ride a horse in a group 1 race that is not starting at a long price.

The 31-year-old lightweight rider has been placed twice in the Oakleigh Plate on longshots but rarely gets the chance to climb aboard live chances in group 1 events.

Our Ivanhowe will probably need the run – this is his first start since winning the Doomben Cup in June – but Moor is hoping for a forward showing.

“I understand that I am filling in for Kerrin McEvoy [who won the Doomben Cup on the ex-German galloper], but it’s definitely one of the better chances I have had in a group 1 race,” said Moor.

“I look at it that I have a job to do in the short term on Saturday and then in the longer term to ensure he goes well and is tuned for his spring campaign. I am very happy to be playing a role in his preparation and, of course, it would be great to win.”

Worried Thailand prays for its king to feel no ill

Bangkok: The world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws prevent me writing much about Thailand’s royal family.
Shanghai night field

Like the other foreign correspondents living in Bangkok I would face years in jail if I wrote or said anything deemed to insult, defame or threaten the king, queen or heir apparent.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is not himself a great fan of the laws. On the occasion of his birthday in 2005, he cited the historical British phrase that “the king can do no wrong”.

“But the king can do wrong,” he said, arguing that when the monarch is not subject to criticism he is “in trouble”.

Successive Thai governments – the king’s extraordinary reign, stretching back to June 1946, has spanned 29 prime ministers –  have however maintained the laws that provide for 15 years’ jail for each lèse-majesté offence.

The laws are interpreted broadly and scores of Thais have been convicted and jailed in recent years.

What I can say is that a pall of anxiety is now cast across the country of 64 million people over the declining health of the king, the world’s longest-ruling monarch, who is 88.

He was last seen in public in January.

Medical bulletins detailing his ailments are read with concern.  The Royal Palace announced on Wednesday that the king’s kidneys are still not functioning properly but that infections he had been suffering have eased.

Worrying news from the palace often sees a drop in the Thai stock market, reflecting the concern people feel for their monarch.

Some Thais are praying for the king using a Buddhist rite normally used for terminally ill patients.

Anxieties over the king’s health and the succession have formed the backdrop to more than a decade of bitter political division in Thailand that has included military takeovers and sometimes violent street demonstrations.

In his 70 years on the throne the king has presided over the revival of a faltering centuries-old royal institution, growing in power and influence as he helped direct Thailand’s social and economic development.

His picture hangs in many Thai homes and offices, and Thais stand in respect when a video of him is shown in movie theatres. They prostrate themselves before members of the royal family.

Some Thais see the king as semi-divine. Schools teach respect for the king and the notion of his near-infallibility and beneficence.

The heir apparent is King Bhumibol’s only son, 63-year-old Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, a military officer who trained in Australia. The king designated him crown prince in 1972.

Under the Thai constitution, a princess could accede to the throne in some circumstances, including the king’s second-born daughter Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who is linked to royal charities, arts, education and religion.

Thailand’s Privy Council, a body comprising elderly counsellors appointed by the king, will nominate the successor to cabinet and parliament. It is a choice that will shape the future of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy and the nation itself.

Religious shift on same-sex marriage: Anglicans should vote ‘according to conscience’

Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier says Anglicans should vote with their conscience in a gay marriage plebiscite. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui “Christians have not always shown the respect or perspective they should”: Archbishop Freier. Photo: Jason South
Shanghai night field

Christians should vote “according to their conscience” in a same-sex marriage plebiscite and the Church “must accept” the result, Australia’s most senior Anglican has told followers.

In what gay marriage advocates have welcomed as a significant blessing, Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier told the nation’s Anglicans they could support same-sex marriage “in good faith”.

“If the plebiscite does happen it will be important that Christians – and others – vote according to their conscience and their view of what is best for society,” he wrote in a letter to Anglican bishops.

“Should the vote be in favour of same-sex marriage as suggested by the opinion polls, the Church must accept that this is now part of the landscape.”

In the letter, the archbishop maintained that the Anglican Church was unlikely to change its view that, according to scripture, marriage is the union of a man and a woman.

But he also set out the view that civil marriage is “wider” than holy matrimony, pointing to the state’s endorsement of de facto relationships with legal protections.

Archbishop Freier echoed the concerns of LGBTI advocates, Labor and the Greens in declaring himself “very concerned” that the plebiscite campaign would involve vilification and hate.

“The Church also understands the desire of two people to express their commitment of love and self-sacrifice to each other, and that Christians have not always shown the respect or perspective they should,” he wrote.

It came days after the Australian arm of the Quakers society broke ranks with other religious group to call on the Turnbull government to legislate same-sex marriage and ditch its planned plebiscite.

Parliament returns on Monday and it is understood Attorney-General George Brandis is preparing to take a plebiscite proposal to a cabinet meeting on Monday evening.

But the plebiscite could still be blocked in the Senate, with Labor waiting to see details of the government’s proposal before deciding whether to support it.

Fairfax Media reported this week that a “self-executing” plebiscite, which would automatically legislate gay marriage following a majority “yes” vote, could win Labor’s backing, subject to other conditions.

Tiernan Brady, who led the “yes” campaign in Ireland and now heads the campaign vehicle Australians 4 Equality, welcomed the archbishop’s pronouncement as “hugely significant”.

“What you see in this statement is actually a real reflection of what the members of the church actually think,” he said. “It’s real leadership to make this move and say clearly that it’s OK to vote ‘yes’, and you can do in a way that’s consistent with your belief.”

Mr Brady said the statement mirrored a very significant decision by the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland to instruct their congregations to vote according to their own conscience.

Lyle Shelton, director of the Australian Christian Lobby, agreed “everyone should vote according to their conscience” but said it was a policy debate, not a theological one.

“I would look forward to briefing the [arch]bishop on the consequences that flow from this public policy change,” he said.

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