The human tide too big to be turned

Few Australians would be aware that the so-called Pacific solution for dealing with unauthorised boat arrivals might have had a model in one element of the United States border program. Quietly, the Americans have been intercepting Haitians and Cubans on the high seas for more than a decade, either bundling them directly home or taking them to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay for processing.
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The Melbourne legal academic Azadeh Dastyari (sister of the NSW Labor secretary, Sam) has researched the US scheme in depth and believes it may even have inspired the Howard government's offshore processing scheme. She says it reached its height under George Bush senior, when more than 50,000 Haitians were stopped on the high seas and sent back in the early 90s.

''The reason most people don't know about it is because its happening to very small numbers now, only 40 or so a year,'' Dastyari says.

She believes the scheme had only a marginal deterrent effect and that the drop in arrivals usually reflected periods of more stability in Haiti. ''Its push factors rather than pull. Every time there was an incident [in Haiti] the numbers would soar again.''

Britain under Tony Blair also flirted with the idea of ''transit processing centres'' external to European Union borders, teaming up with the Danes to float the idea in 2002-2003. It eventually sank under a fierce barrage of European Union criticism.

Around the world, none of the industrialised countries has found a foolproof way to keep desperate people seeking refuge confined within official channels.

In Europe, they drown in the Mediterranean and they drown in rivers.

A recent Greek Council for Refugees report, looking at illegal border-crossers entering from Turkey over the Evros River, made the chilling finding that ''there are high numbers of children found dead either from drowning in the Evros River or from hypothermia. Most of their bodies remain unclaimed''.

Greece is now building a fence across the land section of its border with Turkey and this year has launched a series of crackdowns on migrants and asylum seekers.

Italy tried towing boats back to Africa but was shot down by the European Court of Human Rights, and the courts also stepped in to stop Belgium returning refugees to Greece because Greece was no longer deemed safe for those claiming asylum.

Europe-wide, a pact known as the Dublin Agreement, in which rejected asylum seekers can be sent by one country back to the place where they gained entry to the EU, is under strain.

Arab Spring turmoil has sent tens of thousands into Europe, many entering through Greece and Italy.

Italy's Immigration Minister, Sonia Viale, complained last year Italy was being left to cope alone with the tide of human misery.

Europe is struggling to come up with a common asylum system it had pledged to bring in this year.

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Australians lead in fitting solar panels on homes

Shining homes ... about 392,500 new household solar systems were switched on last year.AUSTRALIANS put more household solar panel systems on their roofs than anyone else in the world last year, new data from the Clean Energy Regulator and the International Energy Agency show.
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The statistic astonished many in the solar industry, given Australia's small population compared with renewable energy market leaders such as European Union countries, China, Japan and the United States. About 392,500 new household solar systems were switched on last year.

Australia still generates far less solar electricity than those countries, but the nation's preference for small, individual panels mounted on detached, owner-occupied suburban homes means a greater number of systems were actually installed.

''It took me by surprise that we were first, because Germany and Italy are so big,'' said Ric Brazzale, the president of the REC Agents Association, a body representing traders and creators of renewable energy certificates.

''Australian support for solar has had a lot of support at the residential level, and all political parties in the country have supported residential solar. Elsewhere in the world, most policy is geared towards much larger-scale commercial projects.''

Altogether, 785 megawatts of solar power was installed in Australia last year, virtually all in the form of small-scale panel systems on homes and businesses.

This meant Australia just scraped in ahead of Japan and Germany, which deployed about 759 megawatts of small-scale solar power - although that represents only about 10 per cent of total German solar production. Similarly, in other big solar nations such as the US and China, government incentives emphasise big solar power plants, and only a small proportion of renewable energy comes from household rooftop panels.

The end of generous state feed-in tariffs, such as the NSW Solar Bonus Scheme, had created a late rush to get panels on roofs, said Nigel Morris, the director of market analyst Solar Business Services. Mr Morris analysed the data, which was then scrutinised by others in the industry and found to be accurate, after cross-referencing with International Energy Agency figures for last year.

''In terms of total megawatts, Japan and Germany still beat us,'' he said. ''In Australia you have a combination of factors, but especially the renewable energy certificate system that's optimised for [rooftop solar] systems of 1.5 kilowatts. Our market is designed to favour small systems.''

Based on an average household size of 2.5 people, nearly 4 million Australians now live in a house or work in a business with solar panels on its roof.

The amount of electricity generated by rooftop panels has increased almost tenfold between 2009 and 2011, and continues to grow despite rebates and tariffs being wound back.

Altogether, renewable energy made up about 7 per cent of Australia's total electricity generation last year. Much of that came from hydroelectricity in the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the federal government's most recent Energy in Australia report shows.

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Slipper withdraws allegation over release of diary extracts

THE Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, has formally withdrawn the allegation that James Ashby ''unlawfully'' sent extracts of his diary to a political rival and a journalist.
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In the Federal Court yesterday, Ian Neil, SC, for Mr Slipper, said the decision was made in response to Mr Ashby's claim that he was justified in leaking the extracts under the implied freedom of political communication in the constitution.

Mr Ashby's barrister, Michael Lee, SC, said Mr Ashby had a duty to expose any wrongdoing. Mr Neil said in withdrawing the allegation, the ''time, trouble and expense'' of exploring the merits of the constitutional argument would be spared.

In granting leave, Justice Steven Rares criticised Mr Slipper's lawyers for changing their case after the evidence had closed.

Justice Rares said Mr Ashby had foreshadowed using the defence, known as an iniquity, yet Mr Slipper continued to pursue the allegation. He ordered the Speaker to pay Mr Ashby's costs related to yesterday's hearing.

''It's not rocket science that an employee accused of leaking material would say it's an iniquity,'' Justice Rares said. ''Now that you have closed your case, you seek to pull back from it. Why shouldn't I make an order for costs?''

In a statement, a spokesman for Mr Ashby said: ''After repeating numerous times his allegation of unlawful conduct by us in releasing extracts of Mr Slipper's diary relevant to his alleged misuse of taxpayers' funds, Mr Slipper has now finally unconditionally withdrawn that allegation in these proceedings.''

Justice Rares also ordered Mr Ashby's team to hand over notes taken by a clinical psychologist, Louise Morrow, during consultations with Mr Ashby in April and June by close of business today.

The Commonwealth also won the right to inspect communication sent by Mr Ashby's lawyers, Harmers, to clinical Associate Professor Jonathan Phillips on June 27.

Justice Rares expressed frustration with the way the case had progressed. ''This case has taken up an inordinate amount of court time. I haven't even got to hearing the case,'' he said.

Mr Ashby, Mr Slipper's former media adviser, is suing the government and Mr Slipper under the Fair Work Act and for breach of contract.

Mr Ashby accuses Mr Slipper of ''unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome sexual comments and unwelcome suggestions of a sexual nature''. He claims loss and damage for the ''offence, humiliation, distress, anxiety and stress … and dislocation to life''.

The Commonwealth is being sued as it could be held responsible for the Speaker's conduct because Mr Ashby was employed by Mr Slipper on its behalf.

Mr Slipper, a former Liberal MP turned independent, has stepped aside as Speaker to defend himself against Mr Ashby's claims.

The Commonwealth and Mr Slipper's application to have the case thrown out as an abuse of process will be heard in October.

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Secret tapes reveal church reluctance to report abuser

A SECRET police bugging operation caught a senior Catholic figure on tape saying it was not up to him to report a paedophile priest and encouraging a victim not to go to the authorities for fear of bad publicity.
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Abuse victim Peter Murphy has told the Herald that police wired him up to record a meeting between the church leader and victims as part of a 1994 investigation into the paedophile priest Father Peter Chalk in Melbourne.

Murphy, who was abused by Chalk, said he met the head of Chalk's order, Father Brian Gallagher, and the victims to discuss what the church was doing about the allegations.

The existence of the tapes, which have remained a secret since the 1990s, comes as the Church faces allegations in NSW and Victoria of failing to assist in bringing paedophile priests to justice and as a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into abuse of children by religious orders and other organisations gets under way.

Chalk was accused of abuse while working as a priest in Melbourne for the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, an international Catholic order that operates schools and parishes in Australia.

Mr Murphy said during the meeting the missionaries' then head, Father Gallagher, told victims that Chalk had admitted to abusing up to eight Victorian children during the 1970s and early 1980s in the outer-east Melbourne suburb of Park Orchards.

Despite Chalk's admissions - which Mr Murphy reported to senior leaders in 1987 - neither Father Gallagher nor anyone else reported the priest to police.

Mr Murphy, who has a clear recollection of the meeting independent of the recording, said he and two of Chalk's other victims asked Father Gallagher to report Chalk to police in 1994.

But he said he and the other victims recalled Father Gallagher telling them to ''try and work out some other way of resolving it without having to go to courts and all the publicity and exposure''.

''I remember the day … I asked him [Father Gallagher] if Chalk had admitted doing what he did. Gallagher said he had,'' said Mr Murphy, who was 12 when he was abused in his home by Chalk.

In a written response to the allegations, Father Gallagher said he did all he could to support Mr Murphy and other Chalk victims.

Asked last week about the recollections of Mr Murphy and other victims of him expressing a wish for police not to be involved, Father Gallagher admitted ''I would say that sentence quite differently now''.

Police did not pursue Chalk, who moved to Japan in 1981. However, his details were given to Australian immigration officers so he could be detained if he returned to Australia. He left the order in 1995, changed his name and became a teacher. He died in 2010 after being confronted by media about the allegations.

In the late 1990s Cardinal George Pell, then the archbishop of Melbourne, apologised to three of Chalk's victims who also received compensation after their complaints were upheld by the Church.

Father Gallagher said he first learnt of Chalk's abuse of children in 1993. He told the Herald he offered every support, including financial assistance for counselling, to victims, including Mr Murphy.

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Male, presumed dangerous

Battling stereotypes … preschool worker Craig d'Arcy has set up the Males in Early Childhood Network Group.As a young man eager to get into a boom industry with a robust future, Craig d'Arcy spent several years as the only male studying childcare alongside more than 100 women at TAFE and university in Newcastle.
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Early in his career, his childcare centre boss told him parents had highlighted in yellow on their child's enrolment form they wanted no male worker to go near their offspring. Two decades on, as founder of the national Males in Early Childhood Network Group, d'Arcy has heard about centres that ban men from changing nappies and is used to people thinking those who want to work with the young are either gay or have evil intent.

So he easily recognised the vein of fear about male contact with children that popped up when two men went public recently about their embarrassment over airline staff moving them away from unaccompanied minors.

''The stereotype is that men are predators who are looking for opportunities to abuse young children,'' says d'Arcy, who is co-ordinator of a Mullumbimby preschool and has six children of his own. ''There seems to be that automatic assumption.''

Most of the 2900 men who make their living caring for under-fives butt up against these assumptions regularly in a way that their 100,000-plus female counterparts do not, he says.

''It's a very common story,'' d'Arcy says.

Most paedophiles are relatives or trusted family friends but, as more perpetrators are caught awareness grows and, with it, a fear that can become out of proportion to the danger.

A Newcastle University lecturer on family issues, Richard Fletcher, knows of a school principal who wanted to cancel a program allowing grandfathers to run playground activities for children when one of the men had too much to drink, spooking the staff.

An underlying attitude that ''men are dangerous and we can't manage them'' also grips staff on some maternity and neonatal wards, where fathers ask to sleep near their partners and newborns, says Fletcher.

Anecdotally, in at least one Sydney babysitting co-operative, parents made it clear that they did not want a father to turn up alone to care for their children.

Predator fear has been woven into numerous airline policies. Virgin Australia's was revealed when a flight attendant asked firefighter Johnny McGirr to move away from two young boys, saying it was policy that men should not sit with unaccompanied minors. McGirr said he felt stripped of respect.

Nurse Daniel McCluskie said he felt he had a sign above his head that said ''child molester'' after he was shifted from his seat on a flight from Wagga Wagga to Sydney because of Qantas policy. He must pass annual checks on his suitability to work with children, but the policy apparently does not take that into account.

When the Herald asked Qantas about the origins of its policy, the company re-issued a statement saying its policy was consistent with those of other airlines around the world, is designed to minimise risk and that it reflects parents' concerns and the need to maximise children's safety.

Virgin Australia, which introduced its policy seven years ago, has now employed an organisational psychologist to conduct a review. It will include, in quaint Virgin-speak, ''researching guest feedback''.

''I understand why airlines have policies, but there is a more subtle way to enforce them than to march up to a guy and make him feel like a paedophile when he just sits in a seat,'' says crime novelist Michael Robotham.

As the father of three daughters aged 12, 15 and 18, he blames the 24-hour news cycle for the heightened perception that males are inherently dangerous to children.

''Only a month ago, I had a pool party for my 12-year-old's birthday. She had all her girlfriends there. There were 11- and 12-year-old girls jumping around the pool in bikinis. I wanted to take photographs, but in the back of my mind I was thinking: Can I take photographs?''

He no longer pulls out the camera at the beach: ''I feel I should be able to but I think society is saying I can't.''

Robotham's latest novel, Say You're Sorry, about two 15-year-old girls who go missing during their summer holidays, connects to deep fears about violated children. But he does not agree with helicopter supervision of children or the men in their lives.

''Even though I write the sort of novels that involve young girls in jeopardy, I am a complete realist when it comes to the crux of the matter. Crime statistics show that per head of the population, there is no marked increase in violent crime, child abuse and other attacks than there was 10 to 20 years ago. When there is an incident where someone tries to pick up a child, there is saturation coverage. Twenty-four hours a day, the stories dominate the headlines and the public has the perception that every second child will be snatched off the street and we have to be ever vigilant [because] our child could be next.''

Thus, when he found a four-year-old girl lost in a shopping mall, he quickly looked around for the first woman who could help because of the possibility that he would be considered a paedophile, he says.

At his Mullumbimby preschool, d'Arcy ensures a colleague is watching while he assists any child who has a toileting accident, or comforts them following a fall.

''Over time, I've learnt how to protect myself. Whenever I meet a new family my standard spiel is: I am married. I have my own children. I'm saying to them: I'm normal. I'm here for the right reasons.

''It's about being aware of that. It's something your female colleagues don't have to think about. You have to prove yourself as a male and build up trust.''

He is lobbying the federal Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs to work on lifting the proportion of men working with very young children above the 2.6 per cent it is now.

It is good for children to see men nurturing, caring, teaching and working with their female colleagues, he says.

And eventually men might be spared the experience of the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, whose account of a past flight was recalled by Forbes magazine writer Joshua Gans this week.

Johnson was delighted when the British Airways flight attendant announced he had to move away from the two restless, difficult children beside him.

''A man cannot sit with children,'' she declared.

Whereupon the children stymied his escape by declaring: ''But he's our father.''

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Searching for a light to dispel the darkness

Maryclaire Andrews describes herself as ''by nature a cynical person … if something sounds too good to be true, it certainly is.'' But the Perth woman's reflexive scepticism has met a big challenge this year.
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On February 28 she flew to Boca Raton, Florida, with her long-time partner, Basil Renolds. The following day Renolds, diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease three years ago, had the first of eight treatments he would receive over two months at the Institute of Neurological Recovery.

As he was tilted backwards at a 45 degree angle, an immune system drug called etanercept was injected between the bones at the top of his spine. The rationale is that a combination of gravity and the rich blood vessel supply in the area known as Batson's plexus will carry a concentrated hit of the medicine right into the brain, evading the filters that prevent such large molecules entering brain tissue when drugs are delivered by mouth or intravenously.

''He became less anxious, more sure, able to sign his name the way he used to,'' Andrews says. The benefits persisted and on his return to Australia, Andrews says, Renolds's score on the mini mental state examination - a test used to benchmark the condition of dementia patients - had improved.

He now flies monthly to Queensland to receive top-up doses of the drug, sold under the brand name Enbrel, from a doctor understood to be the only one in Australia trained to administer the therapy by its originator, Dr Ed Tobinick. The Queensland doctor would not allow the Herald to know his identity.

But despite Renolds's experience and that of hundreds of others in his situation, the combination of drug and delivery technique, over which Tobinick holds dozens of well-guarded patents, has never been scientifically proven through the established protocols of clinical trials in which the drug and a placebo are compared in carefully selected patients.

Tobinick's work is not without a scientific track record, but he is the author of most papers about it. His most recent publication, in the journal Current Alzheimer Research, seeks to explain the central puzzle: how the technique can achieve such dramatic results so quickly.

The drug - which targets tumour necrosis factor (TNF), a cause of inflammation - diffused into the cerebro-spinal fluid if the two were maintained in proximity by the effect of gravity, according to the paper.

This fluid, Tobinick wrote, was in direct contact with some brain cells, and it appeared these could respond to the drug without it having to pass through the blood vessels of the brain - in opposition to medical dogma.

His paper cited other scientists' findings that TNF levels were abnormally high in the spinal fluid of Alzheimer's patients, but not in their blood, arguing that the drug's direct administration into the affected region was the most likely explanation for the sudden recovery.

Ian Clark, from the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University, where he studies the inflammation factors targeted by etanercept, said Dr Tobinick was ''doing exactly the right thing. He's worked out a way to get [the drug] in that's novel and perfectly legitimate … it's not remotely a crackpot thing to do.'' Why, then, would the companies that market etanercept not want to test it extensively in their own clinical trials - the usual way new treatments are brought into the mainstream?

Enbrel, created by the US biotechnology company Amgen and marketed internationally by Pfizer for conditions including rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, already earns the companies $3 billion a year. An extension into Alzheimer's before an anticipated tsunami of new cases as the population ages could be a much bigger bonanza.

In Australia alone, the number of people suffering the currently irreversible disease is expected to double to more than half a million by 2030, according to projections by Deloitte Access Economics.

Tobinick told the Herald he believed the pharmaceutical industry was wary of the unusual and invasive route of administration that his technique entails.

''It's much easier to [deliver drugs] intravenously, subcutaneously or orally,'' he says.

''Even epidural is a more standard method of delivery. But none of those have the same effect.''

Pfizer's only investigation of Enbrel in Alzheimer's is a study through the University of Southampton in Britain, in which the drug is injected under the skin. Tobinick said it was doomed to fail.

''Only about half of 1 per cent of these large molecules will penetrate'' into the brain if the drug is administered that way, he says.

As well, Tobinick says, companies were heavily committed to a different therapeutic approach - developing medicines to remove the sticky plaques of the protein beta-amyloid that clog the brains of people with Alzheimer's - to divert to an older drug with less future patent protection that might nullify their investment.

Tobinick says he would welcome an industry-sponsored investigation of his techniques, and in the meantime hoped to conduct a study in primates to demonstrate whether and how Enbrel infiltrated the brain. He has already conducted a similar experiment in rats, radio-labelling the drug so it shows up using positron electron tomography scans.

However, Henry Brodaty rejects Tobinick's assessment of the lack of formal research, calling it a ''conspiracy theory''.

The Scientia Professor of Ageing and Mental Health at the Dementia Collaborative Research Centre, based at the University of NSW, says the industry has been open to trying new ways of giving Alzheimer's drugs - as witnessed by a successful small scale trial announced last week of Gammagard, derived from human blood by the US company Baxter International, which appeared to halt progression of the disease. Gammagard must be infused intravenously.

''I think drug companies are into making money,'' Brodaty says. ''If they thought [perispinal Enbrel] was a winner, they would back it.''

Just last week, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson pulled the plug on a trial of a drug called bapineuzumab, an antibody treatment that attempted to dissolve the protein blockages in the brain.

The trial, in patients with mild to moderate forms of the disease, found no benefit to those taking the treatment compared with a placebo. It leaves only one beta-amyloid drug contender - Eli Lilly's solanezumab - in active late-stage study.

Sally Chege, a healthcare neurology analyst at the US market research firm GlobalData, said the failed bapineuzumab trial, which follows other unsuccessful beta-amyloid studies, was bad news for drug companies, which were ''redirect[ing] resources towards [cancer treatment] where endpoints are clearer and drug approval is less difficult''.

It is also, clearly, bad news for patients, who are out of options. Existing treatments Reminyl, Aricept and Ebixa improve some symptoms in a minority of patients but do not slow the underlying progression of the disease. Nothing effectively intervenes in the devastating one-way journey of Alzheimer's, which robs not only memory but ordinary daily functioning and personality, and is invariably fatal if the person does not die first from another cause.

Desperate for anything that will hold back the relentless disease even temporarily, patients clutch at straws.

An editorial last week in The New England Journal of Medicine reflected on the possible reworking of yet another old drug - the cancer treatment bexarotene - as Alzheimer's therapy. Its stunning effect in clearing beta-amyloid plaques from mice genetically engineered to develop them meant doctors would inevitably field requests from patients, wrote Justin Lowenthal from the US National Institutes of Health's Department of Bioethics.

But he concluded that even though such prescription would be legal, because of the lack of human safety and effectiveness research, ''even if patients and families are willing to take the risks for the potential benefit, the physician's answer should be no''.

Henry Brodaty fears the quest for effective Alzheimer's medications will be a much longer haul. The mice treated with bexarotene, he points out, regressed a few weeks later. Besides, mice bred to mimic a human disease may not really be a good clinical model of it. ''We've had so many promising studies in these transgenic mice but Alzheimer's is a much more complex disease than just the amyloid,'' he says.

Despite the clinical trial failures so far, beta-amyloid could still be an important drug target, says Brodaty, pointing to the discovery last month of a gene mutation that slows its production and protects against Alzheimer's - even in people otherwise at high genetic risk.

''Maybe you need multiple therapies,'' Brodaty says. ''It may be that once the iceberg has risen above the water line it is too late,'' and treatment may need to be given before any symptoms appear. But that, he says, raises its own risks, if seemingly healthy people were to undergo testing and find they were on course to develop an incurable dementia.

For Basil Renolds, it is immaterial that Tobinick's treatment - which has so far cost about $12,000 - is unproven. It does not restore all his functions, Maryclaire Andrews says, but it lets him walk the dog and confidently make a cup of tea.

''If I can keep him with no deterioration, that's a plus,'' she says. ''It's not a cure by any means but if it keeps people in a more stable state, it's got to be the way to go until something better comes along. When you look at the ballooning cost of dementia … holy smoke! Why do you just not look at this?''

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Rich fellow my country

A picture to behold ... lying under azure skies and bathed in warm 30-degree temperatures, Darwin serves an ideal antidote to the rip and rush of southern life.Even in this dry season, with its generous parks and open space browned off by months without rain, Darwin is a picture to behold. Looking out over the Arafura Sea, towards an Asia that increasingly is its natural economic fit and bathed in unfailing 30-degree temperatures and azure skies, Australia's most northern capital projects a calm nonchalance, a sort of manana without the sense of urgency, an ideal antidote to the rip and rush of southern life.
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It's a picture that belies reality, however. The Northern Territory, and particularly its capital, is being asked to make its most dramatic shift since cyclone Tracy flattened Darwin on Christmas Eve, 1974.

The lifestyle for which so many Darwinites chose to eschew points south and to take up residence remote from family, friends and past is under challenge by resource-mania, a headlong rush to grab some of the spoils lavished for decades on the neighbours to the west and the east - Western Australia and Queensland.

A $34 billion investment is in progress to pump gas condensate 885 kilometres from the Browse Basin off the Kimberley coast to Darwin, where it can be converted to liquefied natural gas (LNG) for shipping to Japan.

The Ichthys project, by its Japanese owner Inpex, comes on top of the existing ConocoPhillips onshore processing of gas from the Timor Sea, and is the heftiest addition to a grand plan to make Darwin a rival to the North West Shelf as a gas hub.

For all of Darwin's false starts, for all the hype over three decades, that Darwin was about to score a future beyond the roles of northern administrator and defence bulwark (it's biggest employers), Darwin's time in the economic glow of what Australia does best may eventually have arrived.

Now, that's not disconcerting to most Territorians. Jobs that earn income rather than spend revenue have always been short. Individuals reckon they can prosper, although just how many of the 20,000 jobs being talked up by the government will be occupied by Territorians or by fly-in, fly-out workers is unclear.

Collectively, too, there's dignity and pride in paying your way rather than having to wear the condescension of southern paymasters who prop up the Territory with annual GST payments equivalent of $12,200 per Territorian (compared with $2200 nationally) and 25 per cent of federal specific purpose payments for education, health and so on even though the Territory has just 1 per cent of Australia's population. Sixty 60 per cent of Darwin workers are on the public payroll.

The tone of acceptance, even enthusiasm, for the new Darwin, however, is not universal. Philip Nitschke, for instance, is in a quandary over whether to stay at Humpty Doo, a settlement outside Darwin. "There's been massive change to accommodate the gas and military influx," says the medical practitioner and euthanasia advocate.

"A lot of people come here to find a place that was quiet, tropical and idyllic. That's less so every day, leaving people apprehensive because Darwin is just becoming another sprawling urban development, with infrastructure and planning never catching up. It's very much one of several capital cities now."

Nitschke, who arrived 39 years ago, is contemplating a shift to Adelaide River, 100 kilometres to Darwin's south, although he says "I don't know what I'm going to do".

Perhaps the monsoonal wet season, and its oppressive precursor - what Territorians call the Build Up - will deliver a inverted relief. "The caravan convoys (which clog Darwin camping facilities in the dry) will return south, and you'll be able to get a car park again in Cavenagh and Mitchell streets (in the city). But you can't go about your business walking around in stubbies and thongs any more."

That's the thing with the Top End: it is back to front. The rain buckets down while the rest of the country watches cricket; when the heat most calls you to the beach, the nasties keep you out of the water.

The contradictions, from a southern perspective, flow through politics, too, and will be put to the test next Saturday at the polls.

Labor's bedrock vote since self-government in 1978 has been the third of Territorians who are Aboriginal or Islander. The natural ally of business has been the Country Liberal Party, which held the reins for the first 23 years and has been out of the saddle since.

Both these assumptions have been turned on their heads. For the first time, four prominent indigenous candidates are standing for the CLP. Labor copped a thumping from indigenous voters at the 2010 federal election and is still on the nose with some who support the Howard Government's 2007 Intervention and some opponents of this firmer management of Aboriginal communities who blame the ALP for extending it. Labor paternalism has come to equate with patronisation and the encouragement of indolence and dependency.

Another sore point is the Territory government's abolition of Aboriginal community councils and their replacement by so-called super shires, which lack skills and funding and, in the eyes of angry Aborigines, deny them self-determination.

If the CLP can secure the "bush" seats contested by its new black alliance, Labor - already a minority government with 12 of the 25 assembly seats - would seem doomed. After all, the Labor contagion seems to have reached the Territory. The Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, has done as much as he can to quarantine his government, rebranding Labor as "the Henderson team" and keeping Julia Gillard out of the picture.

The problem in forecasting election results is that the Territory genuinely is quirky, Labor has established itself as a business ally - it lured Inpex and is building an impressive marine supply base in Darwin - and the bush seats aren't polled even though each of the 25 electorates has only 5000 enrolled.

Small numbers give incumbency a potent advantage. "If you're a sitting MP and don't know most of your voters, you are doing something very wrong," says former CLP leader and now a political consultant Jodeen Carney, who spent 10 years as an MP. "This is going to be a very close election, except in Alice Springs (a CLP stronghold). The question is whether the opposition is credible and whether the government has done enough."

By most accounts, the CLP leader, Terry Mills, is a good bloke but an ineffective politician. Most people know his job is in the sights of Dave Tollner, a bluster merchant who represented the Darwin-based seat of Solomon in federal Parliament but now is nipping at the heels of Mills from within.

And has the government done enough? Henderson, a onetime marine fitter, has an abrasive manner and a propensity for projecting the government as a manifestation of himself. When he proposed a public-funded music event to be called Hendo's Big Bash, Territorians thought he'd gone far enough.

Henderson dumped his predecessor Clare Martin - who delivered Labor from the wilderness with a surprise victory in 2001 - and then called a snap election at which it lost six seats. A year later, Labor lost its one-seat majority when Alison Anderson quit and joined the CLP as its first indigenous MP.

Gerry Wood, a conservative-leaning independent, was left the kingmaker. He told the Herald this week he threw Labor the lifeline because three years ago, "Inpex was on the way and sources told me the Japanese didn't like unstable government." Labor had been elected with a one-seat majority and the surest way of securing stability, Wood said, was for him to back the government on the proviso Henderson's leadership not be challenged. "This made them all pull their socks up and they have."

That, though, depends on whose opinion you seek.

Darwin incomes have a healthy premium above the national average but housing affordability is every bit the nightmare of Sydney and other costs of living reflect its isolation and lack of competition.

Henderson concedes the government has been tardy in its planning and land releases. But he knows, too, that to flood the market with cheaper housing - if that was achievable - would push down the value of existing homes. And that can mean political death.

Darwin has always been costly but development brings its own pressures, applying the dual speeds of disparate economic opportunity. "There's an old cliche that you can't stop progress," says Jack Ah Kit, 10 years a Labor MP and 20 years involved in Aboriginal politics. He's seen Darwin grow from 3500 in the 1950s of his childhood to 127,000.

"I love the new Darwin," he says. "You can pine for the sleepy town … but inevitably we had to grow. For the last 20 years, I've watched people come to the Territory to get an experience, and it grows on them, because they come back."

Chris Delaney shifted from Melbourne for two years to practise law and for his wife, Lynette, to teach. That was 22 years ago. A Vietnam veteran who serves in Norforce, a mostly Aboriginal reservist outfit, he argues appalling indigenous living conditions will remain while education in remote communities sticks with priorities not sensitive to cultural need. But his experience is positive. "My wife describes it as a Victorian country town with palm trees. It's got a vibrant social life, emphasising the outdoors, and it's a great place to raise kids,'' he says.

"A dining experience here used to be a lump of steak, but international cuisine influences are now everywhere." Darwin has 56 nationalities. It's where the first boat people arrived and where many asylum seekers are incarcerated, and it was the destination for many fleeing East Timorese.

Perhaps Barack Obama's visit to Darwin last November, when he saluted the arrival of the first of 2500 US marines, aroused a sense of Darwin's national significance.

Or perhaps it was the summit last month with the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who joked Darwin was a fitting venue given that most Indonesians' impression of Australia was formed watching Crocodile Dundee.

But individual appearances don't make a city, any more than catastrophes can snuff it out. In 1942, at least 243 people were killed in Japanese air raids on Darwin and Tracy, 32 years later, blew down 70 per cent of Darwin's buildings and killed 71 people.

Change is not always for the best, but it brings promise and opportunity, and sometimes relief. "You don't suddenly reach a nirvana," says Clare Martin, now living a quieter life on the staff of Charles Darwin University. "It's a work in progress. People talk nostalgically of times without air conditioning and electric fans, or without traffic jams, but I doubt they'd go back to it."

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Sisters at close range

Director Lynn Shelton, left, on set with Emily Blunt. Mark Duplass, Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt in a scene from the film.
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FILMMAKER Lynn Shelton knows all about working on a small scale, but she is also very certain about the possibilities it offers. Your Sister's Sister is, she says cheerfully, the third film she has directed that is basically ''one location with three characters''. It's also a movie made in the way she loves to work: in close collaboration with her actors. They are intimately involved in the development of their characters, and that's why her three leads are credited as ''creative consultants''.

The film begins with a wonderful, disconcerting scene at a wake. It's where we meet Jack (Mark Duplass), whose brother has died and whose response to the expressions of mourning takes people by surprise. Also present is Iris (Emily Blunt), the former girlfriend of the deceased.

She sends the numbed Jack to her family cabin in the Pacific north-west, where he can have time to himself. She plans to drop in on him. Neither is aware that Iris's half-sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), will also be there, wrestling with uncertainties of her own. From this emerges a tale of alliances, expectations and observations, with some thoroughly surprising twists, which are comic, melancholy, meandering, poignant and awkward, often all at once.

It was Duplass who came to Shelton with the germ of the story, although his idea involved a mother and daughter, rather than two sisters. He had starred in her previous film, the equally lo-fi and confined Humpday, about two straight male friends who decide to make a gay porn movie together.

Until the last minute, the sisters were to be played by Blunt and Rachel Weisz. Then scheduling conflicts arose and Weisz had to withdraw.

Shelton was thrown at first. Everything was locked in for the shoot, she says, and she didn't have any leeway. Replacing Weisz at short notice didn't seem possible ''because I had built this character with and for her''. But when she found DeWitt, the extensive preparation meant she could offer her something solid on which to build. In a short time, Shelton says, ''we had to figure out how to get her stamp on the character''.

DeWitt - who played Don Draper's artist girlfriend Midge in Mad Men and Toni Collette's sister in United States of Tara - underwent intense preparation. She was handed what Shelton calls ''a scriptment'' - halfway between a script and a treatment - and a ''backstory bible; the story of these three people's lives up to the moment of the film taking place''.

Shelton, like director, writer and actor Duplass, is associated with a low-budget filmmaking aesthetic known as ''mumblecore'', which includes a commitment to improvisation and a sense of heightened naturalism. She wants her films to convey the feeling that the characters exist before and after the events onscreen.

Duplass is an effortless, inventive improviser, Shelton says. And Blunt's breakthrough film, Pawel Pawlikowski's My Summer of Love (2004), about a relationship between two teenage girls from different backgrounds, was based on improvisation. ''It was a film she loved working on,'' Shelton says. ''She had great memories of it and she wanted to work that way again.''

Improvisation, for her, involves certainties and possibilities, and ''having a map of the emotional dynamics of a scene''. The actors understand what the scene needs to convey, but have the freedom to explore ways of reaching it, ''and I'm the one that gets to pick''.

To Shelton, asking actors to plunge into improvisation means she prefers they speak in their own voices as much as possible - that they don't assume an accent, at any rate. Weisz and Blunt are English, but DeWitt is a New Yorker, and audiences might have been distracted by the fact that the sisters appear to come from different countries. However, Shelton says one of her earlier decisions turned out to be serendipitous. When she cast Weisz and Blunt, she decided that the characters were half-sisters. They are close, but there's a history of friction from childhood tensions about their parents' break-up. This point of difference, she says, became even clearer, without being unduly emphasised, when DeWitt came on-board.

Just before Your Sister's Sister, Shelton took a very different kind of creative assignment: she directed an episode of Mad Men, titled ''Hands and Knees''. It was a fairly momentous instalment that involved pregnancy, a panic attack and a visit to the Playboy Club. For Shelton, it was a wonderful experience that seemed utterly new, yet surprisingly familiar. ''I couldn't believe that I was working on my favourite TV show and I still pinch myself that I got the opportunity.

''It was my first time with a union crew, on a sound stage, in Los Angeles. So many new things, and yet I discovered that it was still exactly the same job.'' The scale was different: instead of a production designer, she had a team. ''We were making the same kinds of decisions about what was in the frame and how we covered the scene,'' she says. ''But in TV, as a director, you're trying to channel the creator's vision. I'm the captain of the ship, not the admiral of the fleet.''

She also directed an episode of the Zooey Deschanel sitcom New Girl and is set to do a couple more of them, as well as a new Fox show, Ben and Kate, from the producer of New Girl. She had wanted to do TV, she says, ''because I thought it would be a nice way to continue to make the kinds of movies that I really want to make''.

For now, she is in the editing suite working on a film called Touchy Feely, which she shot in April and May. It has a bigger cast; as well as working with DeWitt again, it also stars Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Josh Pais, Ron Livingston and Scoot McNairy. It's something different, she says: ''I was shooting on a tripod, ensemble cast and multiple storylines and it's really more of a drama. It has some laughs, but you wouldn't call it a comedy by any stretch of the imagination.''

Even then, she found herself ''fantasising about going back to the bare bones of three people and a room''.

■Your Sister's Sister opens September 6.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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In search of the real Thring

MANY have sought the ''real'' Frank Thring. The man in the devilish black outfits, the bling around the neck and the enormous sunglasses concealing the expression in his eyes - the legend goes that he was always putting on a show when in public; that the big, camp fellow with shuddering jowls and plummy diction was someone else when home alone, unguarded.
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Thring died in 1994 and his father, Francis Thring, died in 1936 when the boy was only 10, yet the two had much in common, including the tendency to elaborately present themselves to the world.

It was, therefore, a great frustration to the man who wanted to write their life stories - Peter Fitzpatrick, an honorary professor in performing arts at Monash University - that neither man left behind significant written records. To find them for his book The Two Frank Thrings, Fitzpatrick had to do seven years of research and interviews, and although much fascinating fruit was borne, many questions remain, mainly to do with the Thrings' ''true'' selves.

We might look at the photos of them for clues, insights. There is the younger Thring - better remembered than his father - in visual records that give the impression he was more successful, famous and talented than he was: on his float as a King of Moomba, in his satanic guise on talk shows and ads, or in many shots of him playing ''tyrants in togas'' for Hollywood blockbusters such as Ben-Hur, El Cid and King of Kings (alongside Laurence Olivier, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Jeffrey Hunter), among others.

Then there are the photos of Thring snr, born in 1882: sideshow conjuror, impresario, speculator and legendary founder of Australia's first ''talkies'' studio, Eftee Films. He looks suave, confident and successful - just as the world believed him to be.

We can put pieces together with these pictures, yet forget biography is a tricky business, even when there are diaries and letters to inspect. Such records, Fitzpatrick says, are unreliable because the writers perform for an intended audience, biographer or historian. They overstate some things and understate others.

Fitzpatrick was struck that although Thring jnr had little to do with his father, they resembled each other physically to an astonishing degree, made their paths through life with similar strategies, and the boy was as ostentatious as his father was reserved.

''They both were clearly constructing the narratives of their own lives - Frank snr by being secretive and covering his dealings and constantly pretending to a respectability that he didn't really have, and his son by performing this extraordinary, flamboyant self all over the place,'' Fitzpatrick says.

''That kept people at bay from asking anything that was personally intrusive or revealing.'' As one journalist wrote on interviewing Thring jnr in the months before the performer's death, there was only a glimpse of ''the warm Frank Thring that people who know him talk about''. Otherwise, his persona was a deliciously waspish and entertaining artifice.

For Fitzpatrick, it was important in his 564-page book not to oversimplify the distinction between the performed self and the ''real'' self. As he writes in The Two Frank Thrings: ''The roles that we play are rarely so neatly separable from the selves that we are, and those selves are ambiguous and shifting, too; 'inner selves' can be as hard for us to know or acknowledge as they are for others to read in us, even if we can be certain they are there.''

To try to understand the Thrings, Fitzpatrick's book melds established facts about these two men's lives with small, fictional interludes that separate each chapter. These imaginings try to take us inside what Fitzpatrick suggests is the interface between their public and private selves.

As he says, along with careful historical research and interviews (with people such as Thring jnr's former wife, Joan), the fiction is based on ''informed supposition''.

''That's about as close as anyone's going to get.'' How, though, does one actually sum up another person's life?

''How would you identify the key points - what are the significant things of a life?'' he asks. ''Is the thing that makes a person a suitable biographical subject - which is usually some kind of distinction - is that where the weight falls, or does it fall on the hypothetical psychological forces that prepared them for that sort of choice and the ways in which they lived it?''

In The Two Frank Thrings, psychological forces are possibly the main character, if somewhat shadowy and submerged. Take, for example, the year-long marriage in 1955 of Thring jnr to Joan Cunliffe. It was the elephant in the room that Thring was homosexual - everyone knew - and there are many stories about the wedding and what did and didn't happen on the wedding night.

Fitzpatrick writes: ''Rumours about the circumstances of the Thring marriage were there from the beginning, multiplied hugely when it ended, and have kept growing ever since. Anyone who tries to disentangle fact and fiction, even at a distance of half a century, risks hurting some feelings or spoiling some good stories or both.''

Cunliffe (still going by the name Joan Thring) told Fitzpatrick that she and Thring truly loved each other; that he wanted to be married and have children. Frank's deep distress at the failed, childless marriage, Fitzpatrick says, ''passed into folklore as a comic turn'', the actor's ''self-directed humour'' part of a pre-emptive strike strategy.

As he says, the sorrows of life perhaps form us more decisively than the happiness, true of father and son. ''Any biography is likely in some way to have a revelation of regrets, unfulfilled ambition, unrequited love - but what makes biography interesting is often the resources people have drawn on to deal with that fact of their lives.''

Fitzpatrick brings such characteristics into detailed relief. For Thring snr, there must have been much internal wrangling about his personal life - a wife from whom he was estranged, the daughter he scarcely knew whose guardian he became, the overbearing second wife and the interesting son.

For Thring jnr, there was the inability to form an intimate relationship with someone appropriate. Elaborate flirtations with young proteges were, for him, largely about sentimentalising the beauty of youth, Fitzpatrick says.

''You could read it as someone whose own maturity had been arrested in some way, so he could never form a fully equal relationship with a person of his own generation. He had these very mentoring, paternalistic kinds of affairs which enabled him to behave a bit like his father in terms of being free with his money. He would lavish it on whoever the young man was he was taking out for a cherry brandy.''

Sadly, Fitzpatrick says Thring jnr ended his days with multiple illnesses, chronic insomnia and alcoholism, and dealing with his depression by being savage towards others. ''He was, fundamentally, a pretty lonely man.''

■The Two Frank Thrings, Monash University Publishing, $49.95. 

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Edwardian premise endures

Upmarket Brighton builder Nick McKimm is probably best known for his sleek, contemporary designs, but his portfolio does include period-styled projects, too.
Nanjing Night Net

So when it came to his family home, he saw the chance to combine old and new, deciding to transform a two-storey Edwardian-Federation period house in Brighton, which he bought from friends in 2007. The house, just 200 metres from the beach, had already undergone one makeover in the 1990s.

While Mr McKimm ended up building his family of five a house five minutes down the road in Yuille Street (where he has built seven houses), he saw the Park Street project through, completing the job in mid-2008.

Mr McKimm has largely retained the shape of the period facade, rendering the brickwork with a grey finish, replacing the terracotta roof tiles with a more sophisticated black and, most noticeably, replacing a left-side front sitting room with a three-car garage. He also added a balcony to the protruding upper storey, remodelled the supporting columns enclosing the porch and landscaped the front garden.

While significant sections of the original footprint have been retained, the inside has been gutted. To the right of a wide entrance sits a formal living room (originally the formal dining room), which leads to an L-shaped open-plan family, dining and kitchen area. Carpet has been used to separate subtly the formal and casual living rooms from the distinctive parquetry floor in the hallway and dining-kitchen area.

The warm tones of the timber floor help retain a period sensibility in a modern environment. The part-stone, part-timber island bench in the kitchen captures the same feeling.

Encased in full-height glass doors, the whole back area overlooks a north-facing deck with built-in barbecue and stone-clad outdoor fireplace, with a lawn on the east side of the garden. On the west side, a pool abuts a squat cabana with entertainment station, bar and bathroom, as well as bluestone decking and day beds.

From the back, the house roughly mirrors the front with a pair of traditional pitched roofs and timber-strip balconies. This mix of old and new almost gives the house a European alpine chalet look.

The first floor has been rebuilt rather than just renovated, as Mr McKimm planned, because the underlying structure was in poor condition.The back half has been raised and extended - replacing the original dormer - so the pitched upper level now covers the ground floor, creating a much larger footprint upstairs.

''I didn't go the flat roof or use Alucobond out the back, as so often happens,'' Mr McKimm says. ''Rather, I replicated the [existing] roof line, so it felt more traditional.''

A funnel-shaped skylight provides a modern touch above the American oak staircase. To the left at the top of the stairs, there is a cinema-rumpus room at the end of the corridor, and an extra storage area and balcony have been added. Two large bedrooms, either side of the landing, are much as they were, but now each has a walk-in wardrobe and en suite.

The corridor to the right leads past a third bedroom, with balcony and shared en suite, to the main bedroom. While not the largest main bedroom you've seen, it does have a huge dressing room, en suite and north-facing balcony. These areas are all part of the addition upstairs.

More than just a bigger footprint, the cathedral or vaulted ceilings upstairs - where the ceilings follow the rake of the roof line - make each of the rooms feel spacious and airy.

''It does sort of reinforce that feeling of living in a European-styled villa,'' Mr McKimm says.

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