Sunday, January 31, 2016

Are good intentions enough? The Abbott/ Turnbull Government and mental health reform

Writing in the ABC Online magazine  The Drum, John Mendoza has described the Abbott/Turnbull Government's recently announced mental health reform package as ''the most transformative reform package in a generation".

Mendoza, who was previously chair of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health and CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, is a respected figure in the mental health sector in Australia, and someone who has argued long and hard for radical reform of Australia's mental health systems. He is also someone personally affected by the failures of the mental health system(s).

Therefore, we must take his endorsement seriously. He recently wrote:

What was announced today responds directly and decisively to the core problems in mental health care identified in a continual 10-year public critique and published in truckloads of reports to government. Finally, we will see an end to the sort of "mental health care system" that mirrors the old Soviet automotive industry - the one car, in one colour and only available after an eternal wait!

I hope he is right.
The reform package was announced in late November 2015 by Prime Minister Turnbull, Health Minister, Sussan Ley, the chair of the National Mental Health Commission, Professor Allan Fels and Commissioner Ian Hickie as  a response to the Review of Mental Health Programmes and Services by the National Mental Health Commission.
The key to the new model is that federal funding for  reform will be directed to 31 primary health networks around Australia. The networks will use a contestability model to contract out mental health services locally. Contracting the required local mental health services will cost $365 million from July 2016-17 and rise to $370 million in 2017-18 and $385 million in 2018-19.
Some key features of the reform package include:
  • Locally planned mental health services will be commissioned through Primary Health Networks (PHNs). Under the reform, new integrated care packages would be commissioned through 31 Primary Health Networks (the rebadged Divisions of General Practice/ Medicare Locals) across Australia.
  • The newly-established PHNs will have a flexible funding pool to commission local services, including access to mental health nurses, psychological treatments, vocational services, drug and alcohol services and peer support.
  • People with severe and complex mental health needs will be offered coordinated care packages, similar to packages offered by the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
  • A new digital mental health gateway will be established to coordinate e-health services, including a new telephone hotline to help people find the most appropriate services for their needs.
  • PHNs will coordinate a new approach to suicide prevention by focusing on activities to address local needs.
  • the existing Headspace youth mental health facilities will remain, as will the Headspace head office, but new services for young people will be allocated through the PHNs.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and social and emotional wellbeing services will be integrated.
  • a commitment to national leadership in mental health reform.
Mendoza argues that the reform package provides 'a new architecture' for mental health, which draws from recommendations contained in a recent report by The National Mental Health Commission. Mendoza argues that the new package reasserts the Commonwealth's leadership role and commits the Commonwealth Government to transform the delivery of primary care (delivered by GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists) and community care (largely delivered by non-government providers).

Mendoza applauds this proposed new architecture because it provides individualised and seamless support, to enable the right care at the right time from the right mix of providers to enable people to live fulfilling lives; is locally planned and integrated, and not 'one size fits all'; is focussed on the needs of people, not providers; uses available and emerging digital technologies; emphasises clinical excellence and improved outcomes; foreshadows bundled packages of health and social care for those who have complex needs and entrenched disadvantage and has  a planned and phrased rollout of the reforms.

painting courtesy of Painting by seeds with mental health recovery wishes
As Simon Rosenberg notes the reforms might have the potential to change the appalling state of Australia's mental health systems, but ultimately they will be judged on the outcomes they deliver, rather than the rhetorical promises they make.
There are serious questions about the Federal Government's plans.

1) The level and amount of funding looms as a major concern. Mental health services are not currently funded to a level which reflects the extent of mental illness and mental health problems within the Australian community, resulting in significant unmet need for care. 
Despite this, there is no new money in the reform package just a reallocation of  $350 million of existing funds to primary health networks (or PHNs) to commission — but not deliver — mental health services. 
There are doubts as to whether the intent of the reforms can be achieved within the existing budget. The National Mental Health Commission argued that more than $1 billion over 5 years was needed.

painting by Liz Kelder (story here)
Some of the money is being redirected from hospital based services and alcohol and other drug services. The Government is hoping that money  for the reforms will come from reduced utilisation of services for patients with “lesser needs”, who will be directed to less intensive resources, self-help or low intensity services. This is questionable.
2) There are legitimate questions about the capacity of newly formed PHNs  to develop and organise tailored care packages within a contestability model and concerns that the arrangements will add to administrative costs by funnelling funding through an additional layer of bureaucracy.
PHNs are newly established agencies. There are questions over their capacity to manage these responsibilities  and deliver genuine client centred care. The Primary Health Networks have no history and limited experience and capability to deliver or contract mental health services.

Some health commentators see the PHNs as ideological creations of the Abbott/ Turnbull Government and question the way they were created and their ability to deliver outcomes. Economist John Thompson writes about the creation of PHNs:

Many in the health system are of the view that the whole exercise is a very expensive ideological move that, despite very substantial financial resources and lengthy disruption and dislocation, may not achieve the results that the fledgling Medicare Locals were beginning to realise
Despite the rhetoric, the experience from contracting and contestability models suggests that it is likely that PHN will decide what package of care people can have, based on the services it has chosen to procure.
3) There are concerns about the capacity of a phone and online service to act as a single gateway for people suffering mental illness and mental health concerns, as evidenced by the major problems experienced by people trying to access Centerlink's services through a similar model.

4) There are serious questions associated with the use of a market based contestability and competitive model to purchase mental health services at the local level. 

The reforms aim to use competition and contestability to drive efficiency and increase consumer choice. However, there is a growing evidence that the use of contestability and contracting to deliver social, health and community services has failed to deliver the desired results.

In Australia, a range of systemic problems have been identified with the contestability and contracting of  services. Over 10 years, Australian academic Mark Considine and his colleagues have undertaken an extensive body of work into contracting and contestability of social and community services.
Painting Mumbo Jumbo by Adam Knapper - Winner of the 2015 Mental Health Week Consumer Art Competition, Mental Health Foundation Victoria

They found that contestability and contracting of employment services to not- for- profit and for- profit providers failed to achieve the desired results.  Considine and his colleagues found that contracting processes decrease service flexibility, increase the level of standardisation and routinisation, limit the scope for quality service provision and fail to promote innovative solutions for the most vulnerable. 

They found that rather than drive innovation and responsiveness to individual needs, agencies tended to mimic the behaviour of other large NFP and corporate for-profit competitors.

These findings are replicated in other areas.
The recent debacle of the DSS contracting funding round, documented in the Senate Report Impact on service quality, efficiency and sustainability of recent Commonwealth community service tendering processes by the Department of Social Services is a reminder of the risks and dangers of using contestability to contract human and community services.
The Senate Report found that:
  • the 2014 tendering process was poorly planned, hurriedly implemented, and resulted in a loss of services. 
  • the process was not equitable and transparent, with an apparent inherent bias toward larger providers at the expense of local knowledge and expertise that smaller providers have developed in response to clients’ needs.
  • throughout the process the Department kept providers and peak bodies at a distance and the NFP sector felt the department undervalued their expertise, experience and role.  
  • the process damaged relationships between providers by pitting them against each other and engendered greater mistrust.
  • the outcomes of the contestable process were poor.
5) Contestability processes will open up the mental health sector to large corporate for-profit providers who have previously had minimal involvement in mental health service delivery, but who have a significant presence in other sectors. This includes corporations active in other sectors such as Max Solutions/Maximus, Serco, G4S, BUPA, Ramsays, St John of God, Providence, Healthscope, APM, Ingeus, Virgin Care, ESH Group,  A4e, Medibank Private, Telstra, IHMS, Transfield/Broadspectrum, Health Direct, to name a few.
This agenda to introduce more for-profit corporate and business providers into health, social and community services delivery is a major priority of the Abbott/Turnbull Government's social policy agenda, particularly in areas where there are currently few for- profit corporate providers such as disability (through the NDIS), mental health and welfare services.

In announcing the Government's response to the Harper Competition Review, Treasurer Scott Morrison laid out the Federal Government's agenda when he committed the Commonwealth Government to a radical process of marketization and privatisation of health, education and human services to introduce more for- profit corporate and business providers.
Given the very poor record of corporations in other sectors- employment, vocational education and training, aged care, prisons, health, child care- it is a cause for great concern that people with mental illness and mental health problems will become clients (commodities) and opportunities for corporate profit making.

6) The Government has confirmed that there will be a loss of some services as a result of them losing funding under the new model.

The loss of mental health services, particularly community based services, peer-led services, agencies with specialist expertise or those located in regional areas where there are fewer services, will have major consequences.

Painting from the blog How to juggle glass: surviving mental illness at University
7) Indigenous mental health groups welcomed the announcement and the commitment of $85 million to Indigenous mental health, but called for greater detail about the reforms and urged the government to consult and collaborate with the Aboriginal community.
8) It is unclear how the Commonwealth reforms will align with State Government reforms. Current processes and structures have  been ineffective in joining up mental health approaches between governments.
9) There are no indications of accountability or how progress and success will be measured. As Simon Rosenberg notes, the Commonwealth must establish a new and robust approach to accountability and invest funding in strong and consistent approaches to data collection and evaluation, that provide real information about things that matter.
Rosenberg writes:

Rather than reporting on bed numbers, these processes need to reveal the extent to which PHNs are actually working to help people with a mental illness stay out of hospital, recover from their illness, complete their education, resume employment, avoid homelessness and become healthy and productive members of the community. None of this information is currently available.

10) Concerns have also been raised that the reform package neglects the role of people with lived experience and peer approaches,  and an increased role for peer workers, issues now widely accepted and promoted in the mental health sector as providing a progressive social movement of informed consumers capable of driving reform.

11) Finally, and perhaps even more importantly, other social policy reforms of the Abbott/Turnbull Government are likely to undermine the intent of the reforms
Mental health reforms cannot be seen in isolation from the Abbott/Turnbull Government's wider social policy agenda, which focuses on market driven approaches, austerity measures and cuts to services, more punitive treatment of vulnerable people and greater private sector involvement in the funding and delivery of services. These are having (or likely to have) disproportionate impact on people with mental illness and people who live precarious lives who are forced to bear a greater burden.
Painting from the blog How to juggle glass: surviving mental illness at University
  • As part of its crackdown on the Disability Pension (DSP) the Abbott/Turnbull Government outsourced the assessment of eligibility for the DSP, resulting in 8000 young people being kicked  off  the DSP, forcing sick people deeper into poverty. This includes many people with mental health issues. In addition, the number of applicants for the DSP being rejected is the first place has risen dramatically from a third in 2008 to almost two thirds in 2016. 70,000 new applications have been rejected.
  • The Budget measures of the Abbott/Turnbull Government are  significantly increasing the financial stress experienced by many people with mental illness and creating additional cost barriers to them accessing care.
  • Tax reform proposals, particularly the proposed increase in the GST, will hit vulnerable people the hardest, including people with mental illness and mental health issues.
  • The new Family Payments Bill and cuts in payments to single parents and families  will impact on families affected by mental illness or mental health problems.
  • Problems with Centrelink
There is much still unknown about the proposed reforms, however given the severity of the crisis in mental health systems throughout Australia, the reforms are overdue and welcome, as John Mendoza notes, and it is hoped they make a significant difference to the lives of people affected by mental illness and mental health problems.

However, in light of the underlying concerns raised in this paper and questions about some assumptions underlying the reforms, the fear is that the reforms will go the way of many previous reforms. Well meaning and likely to deliver benefit to a proportion of people in need, but ultimately unable to address the systemic problems and extent and severity of need. We will see.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Big Crock Candy Morrison: Richard O'Brien in response to Scott Morrison's 'gush up gospel'

cartoon by Fiona Katauskas.

Nice work by Richard O'Brien who has written the poem below (see here), in response to ridiculous claims by Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison that increasing the goods and services tax (GST) to 15% while slashing the company tax rate to just 22%, would stimulate economic growth and benefit the poor, the vulnerable and marginalised.

Ah the trickle down theory of economic policy. Make the poor poorer and the rich richer so that some of that money the rich make trickle back to the poor. Yeah that has worked so well for the poor and those who live precarious lives!!

Arundhati Roy calls it the 'gush up gospel' of economic policy:

"Well, trickle down hasn't worked, but gush up has"

Big Crock Candy Morrison
by Richard O'Brien

In the Big Crock Candy Morrison
There's a land that's so far right
That the handouts go to companies
While tax evasion's rife

Where the schools are underfunded
And healthcare gets the chop
 While penalty rates
Have hit the breaks
As the government
Butters up their mates
In the Big Crock Candy Morrison

In the Big Crock Candy Morrison
You'll pay more GST
While major multinationals
Will largely go tax free

Where wage growth's at its lowest
In over 50 years
While worker's rights
Are in their sights
And it all comes down
To a bunch of clowns

In the Big Crock Candy Morrison
In the Big Crock Candy Morrison
The jails are made of tin
And rich folk don't walk outta there
Cos they never go in

There ain't no plans to crack down
On wealthy Super scams

 I'm bound to stay
You'll get screwed all day
By an overpaid jerk
Who does fuck all work
In the Big Crock Candy Morrison -

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The privatisation of Centrelink: a recipe for a bigger disaster than Centrelink already is

'What I am basically saying is that welfare must become a good deal for investors, for private investors. We have to make it a good deal for the returns to be there, to attract the level of capital that will be necessary in addition to the significant injection of capital and resources that is already provided by the Commonwealth.'
Treasurer Scott Morrison
If 2015 was Centrelinks 'anus horribulus', with complaints up 35 per cent in just two years, and more than 62,000 grievances reported through official government channels in the past financial year, then the next few years are only going to get worse for the beleagured agency and the people who are forced to use its services.
The privatisation of Centrelink, long predicted by analysts of the social welfare policies of the Abbott/Turnbull Government and promoted by current Treasurer and former Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, is accelerating, and will only worsen Centrelink's dismal performance and reputation.

In March 2015 Kelly Tranter wrote about Government plans to privatise Centrelink.
As Tranter points out, the 2014 report of the Government's National Commission of Audit recommended the Government investigate “options for outsourcing part or all of the Department of Human Services payments system, including Centrelink.  

The report paved the way for the Government’s plan to move towards privatisation of the Department of Human Services including Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support services.
Aware of the political risks of the outright privatisation of Centrelink,  the Abbott/Turnbull Government has adopted a strategy of  'privatisation by stealth and increments'.

In September 2015, the Abbott/Turnbull Government and the Department of Human Services sought bids from private sector partners  under its billion-dollar, "once-in-a-generation” welfare systems replacement for the software platform to support a new payments engine. 
Outsourcing of Centrelink services is another form of privatisation by stealth.

Since 2012 Telstra has run Centrelink's phone services, after it won a 5 year contract to connect  Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support and provide mobile voice, broadband and support services for over several thousand staff across more than 855 sites. Telstra has lost up to $90 million on the deal.
The losers in this outsourcing arrangement include callers to Centrelink phone lines, who have seen services grow worse since the deal was signed in 2012, taxpayers who have seen little value from the outsourcing and Telstra's shareholders.
A number of Centrelink call centres have been outsourced to corporate operators since 2014 when Telstra took over a number of call centres and there are plans to outsource all call centre operations to Telstra.

Privatisation by stealth also occurs through benign neglect. This occurs when Government runs down and undermines the capacity of  Centrelink to perform its responsibilities, through staff cuts and staff freezes; outsourcing and fragmentation of services to private providers who deliver poorer quality services; constant changes to policy and eligibility requirements; underfunding, funding cuts and restrictions; constant restructuring; failure to address problems and failure to invest in systems, process and technology to meet demand.

The result is poorer quality service, ineffectiveness and the resultant lack of public confidence, which is used as evidence to justify handing over the agency's responsibilities to private sector providers, on the grounds they will deliver services more effectively and cheaper (which is untrue).
The extent to which the capacity of Centrelink is being undermined by the Abbott/Turnbull Government to justify privatisation is evident in the range of problems it faces:
  • An Auditor-General' report in May 2015  found almost a quarter of the 57 million phone calls made to Centrelink last year went unanswered, and Australians spent 143 years waiting in vain to speak to the agency in 2013-14, before simply hanging up. About 13.7 million calls did not make it  to even the point of being put on hold, after they were blocked or received a "busy signal".
  • The Australian National Audit Office’s Management of Smart Centre’s Centrelink Telephone Services Report showed that approximately 40 per cent of all incoming calls result from failed online or self-services and the growth of digital transactions has not reduced demand for call centre services as was anticipated.
  • The department was savaged in a midyear National Audit Office report for its customer service performance and ended the year plagued by serious website malfunctions. In November and December, clients suffered through weeks of disruption to the Centrelink websites used by millions of Australians to manage their payments and report their work activities. The agency was forced to apologise after weeks of "intermittent issues" left many clients unable to log onto their account
  • A New Year’s Day glitch caused 70,000 people to be told they owed up to $800 to the Government.
  • DHS staff wages and conditions have been under attack  The 2014-15 Australian Public Service ‘State of the Service Report’, shows that only 59% of APS staff believe they are paid fairly, down from 67 per cent last year.
  • The Minister has failed to respond to Audit Office and Ombudsman reports which note service delivery failures in customer identity protection, call wait times, online and face to face services.
  • The Commonwealth Ombudsman’s follow-up review of service delivery complaints at Centrelink has revealed that problems have persisted for more than 18 months after his initial report was published in April 2014.
  • Clients are being "shooed away" from Centrelink offices and told to take their problems online, resulting in an avalanche of complaints.
  • Frontline staff are facing a 20 per cent increase in instances of customer aggression, blamed by the opposition and unions partly on frustration at the agency's customer service performance.

The Australian Unemployment Union (AUU)- an organisation of the unemployed, for the unemployed that fights for a fair and humane welfare system for all-  argues that  Abbott/Turnbull Government plans to  hand over the responsibility to make income support payments to local service providers, both corporate and NFP providers, instead of Centrelink, is further evidence of the privatisation of Centrelink. 
The legislation, to be phased in on July 2016 will initially effect around 2000 unemployed workers. 

The legislation will give job agencies unprecedented and sweeping new powers over the lives of unemployed workers.
The AUU currently has a petition** here opposing plans by the Abbott Turnbull Government to privatise Centrelink by handing over to local service providers the responsibility to make income support payments instead of Centrelink.
The full text of the AUU petition is below:
In December 2015, the Coalition Government introduced legislation to reform the rural Community Development Program (CDP) "so that local service providers will make income support payments instead of Centrelink". The legislation will be phased in on July 2016 and will at first effect around 2000 unemployed workers.
This is the beginning of what we have all been dreading: placing the functions of Centrelink in private hands, or in other words the privatisation of Centrelink.
Putting the functions of Centrelink into private hands is a recipe for disaster. Byputting a profit motive into the Social Security System, every Australian citizen's right to Social Security is under threat.
In an ominous press release, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion stated “under these reforms, there will be more local decision-making by providers who know the jobseekers and have closer connections to what is going on in communities. Payments will be made weekly so remote jobseekers have immediate access to their money and feel the financial impact of not turning up to activities straight away – not weeks down the track."
Currently, legislation states that the employment services industry is not able to make compliance decisions as these decisions must be made by Centrelink. It appears that this legislation aims to change that, giving job agencies unprecedented and sweeping new powers over the lives of unemployed workers.
Starting the privatisation of Centrelink in the rural Community Development Program is yet another example of the Government using Indigenous Australians as guinea pigs to test its new cruel and unusual policies towards the unemployed.
The Government hopes that if they privatise Centrelink out in the remote areas of the Northern Territory no one will notice. We have noticed and we think it's disgraceful.
An attack on one unemployed worker is an attack on all workers. We must stand in solidarity with our Indigenous brothers and sisters before it's too late.
Sign this petition and let the Government know we firmly oppose its attempts to privatise Centrelink.
 ** Other petitions by the AUU are here, including one calling for the prosecution of Max Employment over allegations aired on ABC 4 Corners Program in 2015 that Max Employment was involved in systemic rorting, gaming and mistreatment of the unemployed.
Four Corners aired allegations that  Max Employment regularly sends unemployed clients into "irrelevant training courses" offered by its training organisation arm, thereby enabling Max Employment to collect two separate payments from the Government and maximising its profit in the process.
I have blogged about the unlawful practices of Max Employment here and here.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Songs of Renown: Martin Simpson and Martin Taylor's One Day, in memory of Taylor's son.

One Day is a song composed by the UK jazz guitarist Martin Taylor as a tribute to his son Stewart Taylor, who took his own life in 2005, aged just 21.

Taylor composed the tune and melody for the song and write a few words, which he then passed onto his friend, the UK folk/traditional guitarist Martin Simpson, who expanded the melody and wrote the lyrics.

Martin Simpson recorded the full song on his 2009 album True Stories.

Simpson's version is a profoundly moving and beautiful tribute to Martin Taylor's son.

When asked about the song, Martin Simpson said: 

“I’m still kind of reeling from that whole experience, of being asked to do that. It was an extraordinary thing to ask me to do, really. He had faith in me, which was really delightful. It could have been very difficult and might have failed completely. Apart from anything else, finding out about the twin oak trees was really an extraordinary gift.”

The song draws upon Martin Taylor's Gypsy heritage and the lyrics refer to the Gypsy tradition whereby a deceased child is buried with an acorn in each hand.

"The twin oaks in the hedgerow, they grow strong from such sadness,
Grown from the grave of a lost Gypsy child,
The leaves and the long grass they whisper your name, my Romany Chavo
So dear and so wild."

More information on the song and Simpson's version is here, here and here.

Earlier blog pieces featuring Martin Simpson are here.

A live instrumental version by Martin Taylor, prepared for the Japanese's Earthquake and Tsunami Appeal, is here

A home video version of Martin Simpson playing and singing the song live is here:

Another live version of Martin Taylor playing the song on ABC Radio is here

One Day

Well my heart is broken
for I loved you so dearly
you're my romany charl
my dear gypsy boy

But the life that we shared
it was gone in a moment
and with it all pleasure
and with it all joy

You rode a horse like a king
and you sang like an angel
but it bought you no peace
by night and by day

When sunlight burns cruel
and moonlight shines balefully
there would be nowhere to go
and no reason to stay

You rode a horse like a king
and I watched you so proudly
with my heart in my mouth
afraid you might fall
and when the fall came
there was no-one could catch you
no one could help you
no one at all

The twin oaks in the hedgerow
they grow strong from such sadness
drawn from the grave
of a lost gypsy child

and the leaves and the long grass
they whisper your name
my romany chavel
so near and so wild

One day I will hear hoofbeats
and not grieve for the rider
and the song you sing
will bring peace and not pain
and the fields where you rode
on your pushty ride
will bloom with the promise of laughter again

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday's poem in musical mode: WB Yeats The Two Trees

"Evil comes to all us men of imagination wearing as its mask all the virtues.'
William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939)
The Two Trees
WB Yeats

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There, through bewildered branches go
Winged Loves borne on in gentle strife,
Tossing and tossing to and fro
The flaming circle of our days,
The flaming circle of our life.
When looking on their shaken hair
And dreaming how they dance and dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

 Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile.
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
With broken boughs, and blackened leaves,
And roots half hidden under the snows

Driven by a storm that ever grieves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.


W.B. Yeats is considered among the finest poets of the 20th century.

Yeats apparently wrote the poem The Two Trees as a form of love poem  for Maude Gonne, the woman he long-loved and agonized over.  You can read more here.

At another level, Yeats poem exemplifies the respect and reverence that different cultures have for trees and their symbolic, life-giving and mystical qualities.              

Another view of the poem is that Yeats was inviting the reader (the "Beloved") to choose between two paths, as represented by the Two Trees. Yeats seems to contrasts the path of inner spirituality and compassion with that of cynicism and evil, which some claim represents the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This view seems to be reflected in a musical version of the poem created by Canadian singer songwriter Loreena McKennitt, who put Yeats's poem to music in a song that appears on her 1996 album  The Mask and the Mirror.  (McKennitt changed and added some words).

McKennitt's music is profoundly beautiful and compliments Yeats powerful sacred imagery.

McKennitt has put other Yeats poems to music, most notably The Stolen Child, as well as poems by Alfred Tennyson, William Blake, William Shakespeare, Alfred Noyes (Noyes's poem the Highwaymen,  features in an earlier blog piece), St John of the Cross and Archibald Lampman.

Loreena McKennitt's album version of Yeats poems is below.

A live version of the song is here

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Songs as historical markers: Martin Simpson's Jackie and Murphy and the Anzac legend

The myth of Anzac was promulgated to enable Australians to live with the otherwise unbearable carnage of WW1  
Marilyn Lake

Somethings never change Jackie/But perhaps they never will/While the bloodless fools in Whitehall/ They sit in judgement still/
Martin Simpson (final lines from Jackie and Murphy)

Martin Simpson's song Jackie and Murphy is not just a magnificent tribute to John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey Murphy. It is a song that speaks forgotten truths about the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

In recounting the life story of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, the song describes the horror and carnage of the Gallipoli campaign (where Simpson Kirkpatrick was a stretcher bearer for 4 weeks before he was killed).

The song also demonstrates the ways the history of the campaign and the terrible suffering of ordinary soldiers is used to serve political and military agendas.

When I was at primary school the story of Simpson and his donkey was used to indoctrinate us about the history of the Gallipoli campaign and to conceal the truth about Australia's invasion of a sovereign nation and the horror of war. We were schooled into an interpretation of Gallipoli that affirmed a contemporary and conservative view of Australian identity.
As Joan Beaumont argues, this emphasis on Gallipoli and a particular view of the Anzac legend is a distinctive and powerful part of Australia's political culture.
'The Anzac legend today serves particular purposes. One is to reinforce those values which court the Anzac legend such as endurance, sacrifice, mateship. Those values continue to be very important to Australian governments who are trying in a very materialistic and secular and individualistic society to still persuade Australians to be willing to volunteer for war or even to serve as police officers or fire fighters'
 Joan Beaumont also argues that constant commemoration of  Gallipoli and the ANZAC legend works to deflect debate about the legitimacy of war.
'This was very obvious during the Iraq intervention of 2003, when the then-prime minister John Howard made it difficult to criticise the war because it was suggested you would thereby be criticising those who chose to serve. With that goes a silencing of debate about the reasons that those soldiers are being deployed, and that is a concern to a number of commentators.'
Joan Beaumont's brilliant book Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War  challenges the way that Australia's war experience is presented as the predominant historical narrative. 

A review of the book by Marilyn Lake is here.

You can listen to a live version and explanation of Martin Simpson's song here:

Jackie and Murphy by Martin Simpson
(copyright Martin Simpson)

There's a statue of a donkey on Southshield sea front
He's a decorated donkey
and with him stands a man
and the man's name is Jackie he has no decoration
though he was a war hero.
Down on the sands Jackie sold donkey rides
His favorite was Murphy
and they waited on the tide 
to give rides to little children and flirt with the pretty girls.
And he's joined the merchant navy and he's off to see the world.
Well he sailed the wide world all over Jackie
till he came to Newcastle in NSW
he'd had enough of stoking coals, rollin seas and heavy gales.
So you changed your name to plain John Simpson
So you jumped ship and you rambled all down the shore
shearing, droving, larrikin and a new recruit for war.

Give a dog a bad name Jackie
Somethings never change 
a hundred years are almost gone
Not a medal to your name
Somethings never change Jackie
They give a dog a bad name
but your a hero still.

Well I signed up for this army Murphy
Thought I might catch a troop ship home
Maybe change my name again and never more to roam.
But we didn't sail to England Murphy
We sailed right into hell
Now I am a stretcher bearer in the bloody Dardanelles.
Now I don't like taking orders Murphy
That's not the way I am
But now we've got this job to do and I'll do the best I can.
You and me are mockers here Murphy
Down here on the sand
I'll whistle and we sing our songs and we'll march to the beat of the band.

Jesus you know I am tired Murphy
Breakfast wasn't ready today
They said they would keep dinner hot
Come on lads we are on our way
Down to shrapnel gully again
To the land of blood, flesh and bone
You have been there so many times
You can damn near fetch them on your own.

Did you hear the machine guns rattle?
Did you feel those bullets tearing through?
I pray that peace and quiet and dark are the last things you know
You saved 300 wounded men
You and Murphy on their own
You died to save the very last but Murphy fetched him back alive.

Give a dog a bad name Jackie
Some things never change 
a hundred years are almost gone 
Not a medal to your name
Somethings never change Jackie
But perhaps they never will.
While the bloodless fools in Whitehall
They sit in judgement still