Archive for April, 2019

A brush with better design

At last the toilet brush is out there as a fashionable signifier of rebellion. Earlier this year in Hamburg, Germany, protesters – largely members of the Pirate Party – began taunting police by brandishing toilet brushes, like warriors rattling sabres. The Hamburghers’ objection? Random police searches in the city’s danger zones. And they didn’t mean its bathrooms.

Online, cheeky German culturejammers tweeted mock-heroic posters: Harry Potter casting a bristled wand. A doctored Banksy bandito hurling an incendiary brush. And Braveheart’s Mel Gibson screaming out that what’s at stake is FREEDOM.

Not since Philippe Starck redesigned the Excalibur toilet brush in the mid-’90s has the quotidian product had such bad-boy cachet.

Perhaps it’s time to make it a poster boy of product design – to stand up and say ”I’m glad as hell”.

Toilet brushes rarely if ever win awards. Yet they are further confirmation that everything is designed. They are the utilitarian tool. The epitome of functionality.

Ironically while they are the product we love to hate – a begrudging purchase for a loathsome task – millions of brushes are sold each year. Surprisingly, sales spike at Christmas. Not for reasons of gift giving. People want to make sure they have pristine porcelain when guests arrive, says industrial designer Paul Charlwood.

The award-winning designer of the Commonwealth Games torch, among dozens of other products, Charlwood’s consultancy has for the past nine years designed brushes of every stripe for venerable Australian manufacturer Oates. His brooms recently featured in Melbourne Now’s design wall – but you can view them on any supermarket rack.

Charlwood modestly downplays the attention. ”It’s not rocket science,” he says. Maybe. Nevertheless, failure is not an option. Consider for a fleeting moment the full horror of a product malfunction. Bristles that fold, flick or fail to release residue. A handle that isn’t long enough or snaps because it’s too thin. A receptacle bowl that doesn’t air and retains smelly run off.

It’s a tough job, but someone with a cool head has to consider it.

When Charlwood and the Oates poobahs test their products in a disabled toilet the Kenny jokes are kept to a minimum. It’s a ”deadly serious” business, says Charlwood.

Just what sort of bristles work the right magic? As it happens it’s the same material our food containers are made from, polypropylene. It’s a long way from pig and horse hair stuck into a block of wood.

The biggest factor in the evolution of the toilet brush is that toilets themselves have changed over the past decade. Modish commodes that adopt squarer geometries make it difficult to delve into tight corners. More significantly, sustainable toilets use less water, but narrower ”throats” create problems for cleaning. With this in mind the ball of bristles undergoes some topiary. ”It’s like doing hair cuts,” says Charlwood.

While there is an appreciable difference in quality between the budget ball brush and the Oates stainless steel petal canister, people don’t tend to spend time looking for it. ”It’s an impulse buy,” says Charlwood. ”It’s not something people do a lot of research on.”

And yet, every so often, toilet brushes become fashionable; the de rigueur item for designers to fiddle with.

”It’s one of those funny things – a bit like with dildos,” Charlwood muses. ”You’re surprised how many big-name designers have done vibrators. It was one of those must-do type things.”

Alongside Starck, star designers to turn their hand to the brush include Ross Lovegrove’s exotic Istanbul range from 2006 and Michael Graves’ offering for Target. Marc Newson has also entered the bathroom arena with a colourful Caroma product, which Charlwood hopes will ignite the industry and see a return to colour. ”It’s been white and stainless steel for years,” he says.

Today bathroom palettes are more reminiscent of day spas, says Kim Chadwick, managing consultant at Colourways, Australia’s leading forecaster. ”Grey and charcoal will continue to be popular in floor tiles. The ideal or obvious thing is to mimic the floor tile. The more camouflaged they could be, the better.”

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In tune with the times

Helen Marcou, Quincy McLean and Mahnya Smith at the courtyard garden. Photo: Joe ArmaoAll gardens have constraints, but the one at the Bakehouse rehearsal and recording studios on Hoddle Street has more than most. It is in an internal courtyard-cum-passageway that has limited direct sunlight but loads of musicians bustling through juggling drum kits, guitars and heavily laden trollies. Affixed to one wall are three airconditioning units that blow out cones of hot air all summer. Visiting dogs dig out the odd pot, and almost everything is donated or found on the street.

The gardening budget does, however, extend to employing Mahnya Smith, a visual artist who for two years has been propagating, re-potting, feeding, arranging and rearranging to come up with a leafy, cocooning space that now immerses the visitor in greenery. Plants are running over the ground, climbing the walls, and hanging from the ceiling.

What Smith started with was an uneven concrete-paved space in the middle of a two-level rented building and a vast quantity of plants and pots that Bakehouse owners Helen Marcou and Quincy McLean had been collecting for about 15 years.

The begonias and staghorn ferns came from Marcou’s aunt, the jades and a lilly pilly from her brother and sister-in-law, a chain of hearts from her cousin. McLean found the jacaranda tree when it was half-dead and thrown out on the side of the road. He has also found discarded lilly pillies, a magnolia, a fan palm, ginger lilies, loads of succulents – including several agaves – geraniums, bamboo and spider plants. The spathiphyllums were leftover props from a film shoot, the elkhorn fern was thrown out by a neighbour, and the ponytail plant was found discarded behind an apartment block.

McLean found all the vessels they are growing in, too. The rusty milk pails, 44-gallon drums, watering cans, concrete, terracotta and ceramic pots and wire baskets have all been picked out of skips or off footpaths and ferried here in McLean’s Honda hybrid.

The trick is to make it not seem like a hotchpotch of whatever is to hand, but a deliberate, unified collection. While there are still lots of small pots, Smith has made a point of incorporating much bigger ones as well. She has now ”totally rearranged it several times” and is very strict about grouping like with like. All the salvaged birdcages hang above the stairs, near a cluster of black ceramic pots. Elsewhere, there is a grouping of ragged concrete pots, somewhere else again the different-coloured glazed ones. A particularly shady spot has been reserved for terracotta.

While some of the like plants are collected together as well – the variegated ones, for example, or the begonias – she is not so strict about this, and is happy to weave jades and ferns, for example, throughout the space. And while Smith did buy a bougainvillea for a wall that catches the light, and a wisteria to train above a table and chairs that McLean picked out of a skip, she is otherwise content to grow only what he collects off the street.

”I turn up to work and there is something ridiculous – like that milk pail – to incorporate. It’s collaborative in that way, and a challenge.”

McLean doubles as the garden’s ”structural engineer”. Because the ground is so uneven, he secures unstable pot-stands to pillars. He fixes broken pots with cable ties, and – above one of the tables – has secured a rusted piece of steel mesh from which hanging baskets can be suspended. He also has an eye for discarded bluestone, pieces of which Smith has positioned to prevent musicians running their trollies into pots. She also protects the plants by sitting them on the hubcaps, wheels and bricks McLean finds.

What Smith does lash out on, though, is quality potting mix, liquid fertiliser and pea-straw mulch. Everything is watered by hand and she is always looking for ways to better maintain moisture.Smith, who has worked in fashion styling and performance art and whose childhood hero was Edna Walling, says she wants the courtyard to feel like a leafy, serene oasis.

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PM must persuade the motormouths

Little is known about Senator-elect Ricky Muir, of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, beyond his self-evident enthusiasm for motor vehicles.

Since last year’s election, Muir has made one public appearance, when he announced he would form a voting alliance with the senators-elect from the Palmer United Party. There are three PUP senators – the Brick with Eyes, aka Queenslander Glenn Lazarus; Tasmanian single mother and Hanson-esque battler Jacqui Lambie; and Dio Wang, a polite Chinese migrant who will quit as managing director of the majority Clive-Palmer-owned Australasian Resources to take up his Senate gig.

This means that come July 1 when the new Senate is formed, Tony Abbott’s government will have to deal with a four-person Palmer power bloc on any of its legislation not supported by Labor and Greens senators.

Abbott is in an eccentric position – despite his resounding lower house election victory, this first-time prime minister will have to deal with the largest Senate crossbench in Australian history. There are 18 cats to herd, and he needs six on his side to achieve anything. Abbott, the great pusher-through and pugilist, will need to negotiate.

Presuming the 10 Greens senators vote (mostly) against the Coalition, the PUP bloc will be integral, but only if they stay as a bloc. The government will do everything to ensure they don’t, and Clive Palmer will do everything he can to make sure they do. The result will be a magnificent battle of wills.

The first clash between the quixotic Clive and our hard-headed Prime Minister came in 2012, when Palmer was still a member of the Queensland Liberal National Party. The two had a heated argument in a Brisbane restaurant over an issue that now seems rather poignant – lobbyist influence. Palmer wanted lobbyists banned from holding executive positions in the party. Then opposition leader Abbott disagreed. Anglo-Saxon language was deployed by both men, and a few months afterwards, Palmer quit (possibly just as he was about to be expelled from) the Liberals to form his own party.

(Abbott, of course, has recently come around to Palmer’s point of view on lobbyists, announcing a crackdown on party officials who lobby government).

The two men clashed again this week. First, Palmer demanded the government scrap its plans to cut a welfare payment to the children of war veterans, or else he would direct his PUP power bloc not to support the repeal of the mining tax.

A second and more intractable conflict came when Palmer announced he would not support the Coalition’s “direct action” carbon emissions reduction scheme because he believes it is a waste of money.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt says direct action has its legislative basis in the budget (which he believes the PUP bloc would never dare block), but this is far from settled.

How the gods would smile if Abbott were forced to stake his leadership over a carbon emissions reduction scheme. If Palmer digs his heels in, how hard will the Prime Minister fight for it?

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s most controversial policy, the paid parental leave scheme that compensates working women on salaries of up to $150,000 a year, will most likely pass the Senate with the Greens’ help.

None of the other crossbenchers support it but the Greens have indicated their willingness to wave the scheme through as long as the cap is reduced to salaries of $100,000.

Such is the serendipity of the Senate – Abbott, great nemesis of the left, could team up with the hemp-wearing hippies to deliver a scheme that horrifies both economic dries and labour types alike.

The government’s best hope in dealing with an unruly Senate will be to split the Palmer power bloc, the motley crew of interests, eccentricities and political inexperience that will roll into a curious Canberra on July 1.

Muir will surely be the first target – he is completely inexperienced, lacks friends in Canberra and seems out of his depth. He has been more or less mute since the election, save for a brief television doorstop near his home in country Victoria, in which he came across as sweetly shy.

The main impression the 30-something Victorian has left on the public is his reputation as a roo-poo thrower, thanks to a home video-gone-public that showed him engaged in some backyard horseplay with his brother. (I tried and failed to contact Muir at work and home for this column. Keith Littler, media liaison for the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, did not return calls.)

Such is the intrigue around this missing Senate puzzle piece that a month ago Muir was photographed, paparazzi-style, by a Victorian tabloid newspaper, as he reported for duty at the sawmill where he works, in the Gippsland town of Heyfield.

It was a precise portrait of a working class bloke – high-vis vest and steel-capped boots, his only accessories a wedding band and a pair of sports sunnies resting atop his short-back-and-sides. Littler told the newspaper: “At the moment he’s not a senator, he’s just an ordinary Australian.”

Muir might be the protagonist of a Gippslandian version of Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But nobody knows how the story will end. Little is known about AMEP’s policy stances on most parts of the government’s legislative program, from direct action and paid parental leave, to its proposed changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The one area where the non-Greens crossbench senators are open to supporting the government is on the issue of lowering penalty rates. All except Democratic Labour Party senator John Madigan, who opposes lowering them, and Muir, whose position is unknown.

What an irony, then, that this is the one policy area Abbott has said he will not touch in his first term.

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Factional menace has potential to rear its head again

Balancing act: O’Farrell organised a “round table” to hammer out a peace agreement between the NSW Liberals’ warring left and right factions. Photo: Chris LaneOne of the keys to Barry O’Farrell’s success as a leader of the Liberal Party lay in an extraordinary meeting he organised not long after Peter Debnam’s disastrous attempt to tip Labor and Morris Iemma out of office at the 2007 election.

It was a period of intense factional brawling within the NSW division, which had already contributed to the tearing down of its former leader – and one-time great hope for premier – John Brogden. In short, the Libs were tearing themselves apart.

One of O’Farrell’s first moves as new opposition leader was to organise a “round table” with warring left and right factions. Behind closed doors and away from the glare of the media, they hammered out a peace agreement to provide the stability to win government.

O’Farrell recognised that if the Liberals were ever to earn the confidence of the people to run NSW, they had to get their own house in order first.

Watching the extraordinary events of a week ago, when O’Farrell fell on his sword after giving false evidence to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, it’s hard not to recall the achievement – and recognise that the same menace he tamed might have played a significant role in his downfall.

As has been well covered, O’Farrell told the ICAC under oath that he did not receive a $3000 bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage from businessman Nick Di Girolamo.

Di Girolamo was lobbying O’Farrell and others over a potentially lucrative government contract for the company of which he was chief executive, Australian Water Holdings.

The next day, Di Girolamo’s barrister presented the ICAC a handwritten note from O’Farrell thanking Di Girolamo for the lavish gift.

It later emerged that two News Corp journalists had been tipped off about the gift to O’Farrell before it was raised at the ICAC, but both failed to publish the story. Quizzed over who might have been the source of the leak, counsel assisting the ICAC, Geoffrey Watson, SC, asked Di Girolamo if he had passed the information to journalists or former energy minister Chris Hartcher. Di Girolamo said he had not and the next day Hartcher emphatically denied any knowledge of the Grange.

Without evidence to the contrary, we must take Hartcher on his word. But the reason Watson asked the question is clear: Hartcher had motivation.

Motive one: Hartcher was humiliated in December when ICAC officers raided his office in relation to a forthcoming inquiry into illegal political donations. He did not just step aside; he resigned from cabinet altogether in a strong indication O’Farrell had demanded it.

Motive two: the reason Hartcher will find himself in the ICAC witness box in coming weeks can be traced back to a factional skirmish on the central coast.

The $5000 donation that sparked the inquiry was revealed during 2011 preselection interviews with a local builder, Matthew Lusted, who wanted to stand in Dobell. Liberal senator Bill Heffernan reported his concerns about the legality of the donation to head office. They were passed on to election funding authorities and the ICAC by O’Farrell’s director-general.

In 2012, Heffernan clashed spectacularly with Hartcher forces over preselection decisions for Dobell and Robertson, forcing then opposition leader Tony Abbott to intervene.

Supporters of Hartcher – then a leader of the right faction – have long claimed the decision to refer the donation was an attempt by Heffernan to smear Hartcher, with whom he had a poor relationship. Hartcher will be given the opportunity to repeat his denial under oath in the course of the donations inquiry, which starts on Monday. Whatever happens, his political career has been irreparably damaged.

As Mike Baird monitors proceedings, he would do well to remember the history behind them – especially given the eruption of disquiet from the right wing in the days before he named his cabinet.

Senior right sources claimed the faction had been sidelined under O’Farrell. Baird seems to have delivered by elevating leading right-wingers Dominic Perrottet and Jai Rowell to the important finance portfolio.

The bigger issue is whether the factional genie – blamed by O’Farrell for keeping the Libs out of power for almost two decades – can be kept in the bottle.

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Good journalism ruled by head not heart

Attacking journalists is hardly a new phenomenon.

It’s been a blood sport since the 19th century, when, not coincidentally, the rise of the press coincided with the rise of democracy in the West.

But after too many months of bitter accusations of bias, prejudice and lack of “batting for the home team”, it’s time to recall the forgotten figure of the mugwump. The non-partisan observer of politics. Most journalists are mugwumps, though you might not know it from the way we are often described as ideological warriors salivating over opportunities to pursue foes. (A prospect as exhausting as it is fictional).

This does not mean they do not have private views – journalists do vote – but that journalism is a profession and bias is unprofessional. As ABC journalist Jonathan Green put it: “Journalism tainted by conviction just isn’t. That’s the simple truth of it.”

The name mugwump originated with a group of US Republicans who refused to support their candidate, James Blaine, in 1884 because of financial corruption and instead supported the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland, who went on to become president.

Mark Twain was a mugwump. He described them in his autobiography as “a little company made up of the unenslaved . . . We were not a party; we had no candidates; we had no axes to grind. . . . When voting, it was our duty to vote for the best man, regardless of his party name. We had no other creed.”

Excellent, right? Now it means a person who acts independently, observing politics with a cool, practised eye.

Most journalists who spend any considerable period of time immersed in, and reporting on, politics are mugwumps. Mugwumps know there are fools, narcissists and decent people on both sides of politics. That the best of intentions can warp. That, under the full glare of scrutiny, some men and women wilt, some bloom and some morph into something, or someone else. That power does very peculiar things to people. That corruption flourishes in dark corners and spreads when questions aren’t asked. That extracting truth can be like a bloody-fingered archaeological dig. That the process of politics can be farcical, brutal and absurd. That, once or twice a century, a brilliant leader can miraculously emerge.

Mugwumps are also data driven. So what does the data actually tells us about bias?

In 2012, economists Joshua Gans and Andrew Leigh published a detailed study of media bias in Australia in The Economic Record. Using several different metrics for media slant, they found “most media outlets are close to the centre position”. Only one of nine newspapers – The Age – was found to be not in the centre and it was to the left. But here’s the crunch – in the 1996-2007 period, 36 out of 44 election endorsements favoured the Coalition. Media proprietors also donated far more to the Coalition, with a skew as high as three to one.

They also found ABC TV news was slanted towards the Coalition. (Leigh says since this study The Australian has shifted right. He is now a Labor MP but he is not alone in this view.)

A recent study from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism at the University of Technology, Sydney, found a strong skew towards climate sceptics in the Australian media.

Last month, an independent audit of the ABC – by former 60 Minutes executive producer Gerald Stone – found 93 of 97 stories about asylum seekers did not show bias. A second audit into radio interviews conducted during last year’s federal election also cleared the national broadcaster of bias. The conclusion was that the ABC overwhelmingly meets its professional standards.

Other studies show while a majority of newsroom journalists have liberal leanings, a majority of management leans right.

So why the ferocity about an alleged leaning to the left? We seem to have confused interrogation with prosecution. We should not need to spell out journalism involves relentless, uncomfortable questioning.

Why don’t we discuss instead the fact that the media are still mostly run by men who are white and middle class?

Of course, not all journalists are fair, balanced and accurate. But those who aren’t are not the lions of our profession; not who we aspire to be or respect.

Mugwumps recognise strengths in both parties. And weaknesses. Both, for example, have been fiscally sloppy, poll-driven and shameful on asylum seekers.

Which takes me to a final point. Are we really to imagine that the only people in this country who care about the fate of asylum seekers are on the left? Both major parties agree on offshore processing. It is a severe indictment of us all to suggest the word “compassion” is inflammatory and not one of the most important of human virtues.

If we have got to the point that to ask how a person was killed or injured while in our care, if pregnant women have access to adequate medical facilities in detention and if locking children up for years behind wire has a lasting psychological impact on them, then we have lost sight of our basic responsibility as human beings. Now there are fresh allegations that guards on Nauru assaulted children; hitting one girl so hard she fell to the ground.

It is not bias to care for the stateless and vulnerable. It’s decency.

And it’s a question of good government. And that’s why we need mugwump journalists.

Julia Baird is a co-host of The Drum on ABC24.

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