CANWin Community Forum declares Climate Emergency

On the last Sunday in November this year I attended a local Southern Highlands, NSW, Australia, Community gathering, hosted by Climate Action Now – Wingecarribee (CANWin). (Wingecarribee is the council that takes in the Highlands towns of Mittagong, Bowral, Moss vale, Bundanoon and Berrima, amongst others.) CANWin had hired the local Memorial Hall in Bowral, a country town at about 700 metres above sea level (2,250 feet). Its population is 13,000 with a demographic older than Australia’s average of 38 years of age, at 54 years. According to the National Census of 2016, 34% of the population is over 65.

Five minutes prior to the start, queues still filled the entrance as people registered

I mention these statistics because on the face of it one would not expect this relatively quiet country town to be full of activists. This is a community that is experiencing many more days over 30 degrees C than just two decades ago. The 6-months humidity of Sydney which many had consciously left for a cooler higher altitude abode is fast appearing around Christmas and hanging on for months rather than weeks. The Highlands are now in their fourth spring/summer where rainfall has been down over 30% or more in each of four seasons.

Packed house greeted CANWin’s speakers in Bowral

Appearances can be deceptive. Because four hundred and forty people crammed in to attend the CANWin event. Of those, seventy people were left with no alternative than to stand for the whole two hours so they could hear the two keynote speakers. And they had some people very much worth listening to. Ian Dunlop is a former oil and coal industry senior executive with Shell – now a staunch climate action advocate. Dr. John Hewson, is a former Federal Opposition leader, an economist and now at the ANU Crawford School for Public Policy in Canberra. 

Keynote speaker Ian Dunlop addresses CANWin Community Forum November 2019

Mr. Dunlop very quickly cut to the chase. His talk was entitled Climate Change: An Immediate Existential Risk to Humanity requiring Emergency Action. Based on all the evidence of actual steps taken to reduce carbon emissions since the original UN climate agreement 22 years ago in Kyoto in December 1997, far from achieving the 2050 goals of a 1.5°C mean global temperature rise, mankind is more likely to arrive at a 4°C increase.

Thinking of all the pronouncements from political leaders, that include the promise that Australia will achieve it’s 2030 agreed targets “in a canter”, this was an alarmingly different story. With announced Australian plans for further development of the North West Shelf gas fields, the approval of a modified Adani coal mine in Queensland, and substantial increases to fracking gas volumes, by 2030 Australia will find itself in the top five fossil fuel energy producers in the world. For a fuller exposition of all Mr Dunlop’s points, including many of the graphs he shared on the day, read What Lies Beneath, to be found on the website. The latest publication, by Paul Gilding is entitled Climate Emergency Explained.

Effectively the ONLY way to achieve a 66% chance of success of 1.5°C temperature rise is to cease all new fossil fuel activities, strand the assets in the ground and accelerate renewables and the infrastructure required to accommodate this more tricky energy source when it comes to poles and wires. We have already used up our entire carbon budget for coal mining if we want to have any chance to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C. This applies in Australia and around the world. It’s just Australia keeps increasing its planned fossil production!

Ian Dunlop urges Emergency thinking

Mr. Dunlop outlined the cumulative impacts from climate changes already observed, on security within societies. This derives from more extreme weather events, with greater frequency. This will result in the displacement of tens of millions, then hundreds of millions from low-lying urban coastal cities, especially within Asia. He noted the recent public announcement by the Indonesian government that Jakarta would be relocated and a new capital city would be established. The current site of Jakarta is sinking, rapidly, causing ever more frequent flooding and inundation, making habitation unviable in the next fifty years. Added to which smoke haze each year in Jakarta is making habitation ever more risky to health. To Jakarta he added varying risk in Bangkok, parts of Tokyo and Yokohama, the low-lying lands of the Bangladesh delta, and even cities such as New York, Miami and Sydney.  The displacement resulting from sea rise will alter societal stability and accelerate mass movement of peoples. Civil unrest, competition for fresh water and insurrection will all become acute issues and ever more frequent.. 

He went on to describe the observations of temperature and climate change we see today are the direct result of steps taken, or not, thirty years prior. This is because the effect is cumulative. Even the positive and successful steps to eliminate chloro-fluoro-carbon  aerosols in the eighties and nineties has had a temporary benefit worth about 0.3°C. But there will no temporary let-up from a full increase in temperature from any actions or increased emissions made from now on. 

He is of the view that Australia must take responsibility for the emissions of carbon gases resulting from fossil fuels we dig up and export. By 2030, based on public statements of intended production by oil, gas and coal companies, Australia, together with its own domestic production of greenhouse gases, will find itself  in the top 3 emitters by 2030, contributing 13% of global greenhouse gases.

Ian Dunlop concluded a stern message. Climate change is a local, national, global emergency. Nothing short of declaring it as a national emergency in Australia and putting in place wartime-like authorities and actions are likely to accelerate the actions now needed, given the delays and inaction of the past 25 years. “Winning slowly is losing,” he stated.

The next two speakers were both associated with the School Strike for Climate movement: Maddie Clegg who is concluding university studies into Human Impact on Climate, and Steph Jedrasiak, a student from local Highlands school, Chevalier College. Both are involved with School Strike for Climate Action. They talked about their future, their concerns and fears, their hopes and their actions. One was very struck by both of these courageous young women that their generation, who will be the first to really see the consequences throughout their adult lives, are determined not to waste any further time. Quiet, reasoned, fact-based, but also women of ‘steel.’ Encouraging and impressive.

Steph Jedrasiak addresses Community Forum November 2019
Maddie Clegg speaks to Community Forum November 2019

Next at the podium was local council executive, Barry Arthur. Barry heads the Wingecarribee Council Environmental unit. He displayed several noted achievements of actions taken by Council with measurable results in lighting, solar energy, waste treatment and many more successful positive environmental initiatives, despite an 8% increase in population over recent years. It was noted that apologies had been received from invited councillors and the Mayor. The messages from the day’s seminar are messages Council leaders NEED to hear, and act upon more.

Wingecarribee Council’s Environment Manager reports on solid local progress.

The second keynote speaker was former Federal Opposition leader, Dr. John Hewson. “Climate is a Moral Issue,” Hewson said, as he opened his remarks. “This is an Emergency.”

Former Federal Opposition leader, Dr. John Hewson.

Somewhat ruefully he noted that in his failed bid to win government as leader of the Liberals in 1993, their manifesto committed to -20% in CO2 emissions by 2020.  He stated that back then Climate was not a major political area of difference between the major political parties. He called for a 50% emissions reduction target by 2030, stating that once prices became more affordable, possibly with government subsidy, the transition to electric cars will be much quicker than we think. He reminded us that the United States switched from horse-drawn carriages to internal combustion engine cars within roughly a ten-year time frame. He said he believed the same would occur again with electric cars, especially if fossil fuel subsidies were removed at the same time.

Dr. Hewson proposed a Climate Transition Authority, which drew the first applause of the day. He advocated taking each sector that generates emissions, such as static power, transport, agriculture, manufacturing etc…, and draw the best people to accelerate actions to reach aggressive emissions reduction 2050 targets. He was at pains to make clear that the inevitable dislocations for some workers must be handled sensitively and that people could not be left high and dry by these new actions. He proposed a reframing of the Minerals Council to become the Resources Council, embracing alternate forms of energy and addressing issues of stranded assets. 

Dr Hewson advocated a Climate Transition Authority, recognising the urgency of Action

John Hewson said he found it ironic that on the same day former UK Prime Minister Teresa May declared a Climate Emergency, the various Australian governments of Queensland and Federally approved the go-ahead for the Adani Mine. He recalled the polarised bitterness of the coal miners’ strikes under Margaret Thatcher, but pointed out that Britain was almost totally out of coal today or soon will be. Many more jobs in wind and solar energy had been created than had been lost from the very dangerous occupation of coal mining. Even in Australia there were only 12,000 CMFEU members, out of a population of 25 Million!

Emma Heyde, Hornsby Greens Councillor, and MC for the day

Emma Heyde, who had MC’d the afternoon, closed the formal presentations. Emma is a former Southern Highlander, now a Greens Councillor in Hornsby, New South Wales. She noted that the people she represented were traditionally very conservative, but she had persuaded enough people that climate was a real issue and got elected. She refuted claims that the fires had little to do with Climate Change and asserted that they were intensified by climate change. She advocated a six-part philosophy to get politicians to listen.

  1. Scare people! Get their attention! Sound the Alarm!
  2. Realise that we are part of the tipping point and can contribute to change.
  3. Politicians should not accept any donations from minerals resources companies.  
  4. Stand for election yourself on a climate action platform.
  5. Find your friends; find your tribe – such as the Climate Action Now Wingecarribee group (CANWin).
  6. Tackle Human Climate Actions.

Emma restated points made earlier in the day. Every system needs to be as strong as we can make it, so treat it as the emergency it is because the
individual response is critical. It WILL make a difference.

Once the presentations had concluded, Lyndall Dalley, a key local, proposed the motion that Wingecarribee Council declare a Climate Emergency.

Lyndall Dalley proposed the declaration of a Climate Emergency

The motion was passed overwhelmingly. Together with the signatures gathered on the day, she promised to deliver 3,500 signatures to Council supporting that initiative, gathered over recent weeks.

The afternoon concluded with a variety of written questions, addressed by various members of the panel in turn. The session was hosted by Clive West, the convenor of the meeting from CANWin. One questioner, a farmer, stated that regenerative agriculture alone could more than resolve CO2 emissions targets.

Panel addresses Questions and Answers at the Community Forum, led by Clive West

The panel agreed that regenerative farming, crop rotation, changed farm animal practice, especially with ruminant cattle, could go a long way to assist in reduced emissions, lower chemical inputs and improved land quality. But that is only part of a multi-0faceted approach. No sector alone can carry the load. It was noted that celebrated regenerative agricultural advocate, Peter Andrews was in the audience, but due to time limits it was not possible to give him the chance to speak. One felt this was an added opportunity lost. I have heard Peter speak on his subject several times. To see more on Peter Andrews, you can see Australian Story.

The audience acknowledged the contribution of the speakers with warm applause, suggesting attendees would be acting on what they had heard. As attendees left, a crowd gathered around an e-bike, where it’s proud senior Australian was explaining its virtues, how easy it was to ride. The CANWin attendees are clearly about action in meaningful ways.

For further reading, sources and viewing: 
– CSIRO’s current climate report 
– School Strike for Climate Action  
– Papers on climate Change from ANU, Canberra.  
– Reports on Climate Change  
– Peter Andrews, ABC Australian Story film (28 minutes) 
– The Climate Council’s Report Page.
– The Australia Institute refutes Australian Prime Minister’s UN claim on renewables per capita
-The website of The Rocky Mountain Institute, home of co-founder Amory Lovins, who co-authored the environmental bible Natural Capital

This is a summary of two hours of compelling information sharing by people who have studied the science. Every effort has been made to correctly report what each speaker said. I regret any errors made, but they have no ill intent and will be unintended if so found.

I have been involved with various environmental initiatives for some twenty-five years. The politicisation of climate science and the influence of certain media and interested mining and energy groups to mis-inform is in parallel with the emergence of other sometimes sinister extreme conservative views. In Australia Climate is, today, all about Politics. As a result both Labour in Queensland & the Federal Liberal-Nationals Coalition government endorse Big Coal, leaving it, for now, to citizens to fight for a better way. Time has almost run out. My contemporary Oxford staircase student, the remarkable Amory Lovins, later of The Rocky Mountain Institute, has been showing the way forward for nearly fifty years. There are none so deaf as those who chose not to hear.

In a further blog on climate, I will be examining the impact of drought on two continents on opposite sides of the world. In the northern summer of 2019, I recorded images in central France were feedlots replaced fresh grass and normally green fields were already straw-like by early August. Now in the late spring and early summer of South Eastern Australia I am again observing the same critical absence of meaningful rain. The piece will examine cause, consequence and through images and words describe observations that may help in understanding the universal issues in water shortages, increasingly a global security and survival threat.  

– John Swainston, November 2019

All Rights Reserved. Images and Text are subject to Copyright
© Copyright John Swainston, 2019

46 Anglican Cathedrals in England & Wales

The Story Begins
I think it may have been looking up at the ceiling in St. Peters in Rome in 2012. Unique. Replete with history. A remarkable artistic collaboration. Scale and History, all in one place. Remarkable!

Or perhaps it was my many years as a young choirboy, fifty decades earlier. Staring at the ceilings of many English churches and chapels, but especially my own school chapel, trying to pass the time, while earnest and well-meaning men of the cloth preached The Word. Unfortunately this young person did not understand much about the deeper message of The Gospel; not until six years later, when I sat for a Divinity A-Level, and then got a passable B, much to most people’s surprise, not least my own. Perhaps I had taken in more than I realised.

Image: Copyright Andrew Powers, Old Wykehamist, Creative Commons

Or was it an innate fascination in architectural form itself. After all, I had started to produce a pattern of personal photography of architectural elements involving symmetry and tonal abstraction about five years earlier?

In any event in 2016 this quiescent fascination with symmetry produced a body of monochrome images titled Looking Up, as part of the St. George Leagues Club Photographic Society Group show, for that year’s Head On Photo Festival in Sydney. It had started as studies of modern buildings on the outside. Peer review and great coaching by Professor Des Crawley, formerly of Western Sydney University, had helped greatly in the journey, as did the opinions of my fellow Society members also embarked on their own creative journey. Images included monochrome photographs of Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney, Gaudi’s home in Barcelona, the Queen Anne staircase in Greenwich, London, The Queen Victoria Building centre in Sydney, and the heritage ceiling in the Block Arcade in Melbourne. They were all presented with a point of view which the eye would seldom see, or which only the camera lens, suitably managed, was able to create. The pictures took the subject beyond reality through abstraction and tone. They were intended to make the viewer dwell awhile as he or she decoded them. I offered them for sale; no takers from the audience in Kogarah library in which they were displayed. I felt rebuffed, unvalued.


Gallery & Cupola of Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney

First attempts
As an Australian born in England I have travelled back quite regularly, mainly for business. In July 2016, knowing I was to be in Europe in September that year, for the bi-annual Photokina Expo in Köln Germany which I had visited since 1972, I applied to five Anglican Cathedrals and St. George’s Chapel Windsor in England, to make photographs of their interiors. I had visited St. George’s Chapel the year before, but was disappointed that photography was only possible if applied for. I was told firmly that only a few would get through to acceptance. I wanted to focus on the varied ceilings of each building, to see what I could make of them. Permission, after some reminders to some, was, I was somewhat surprised to see, granted. Over 4 days I made photographs of Chichester, Winchester, Salisbury, Oxford and Norwich.

Vaulted Ceiling of Winchester Cathedral

In October, two weeks later, after Photokina, I returned to Windsor. I started this project, using the highly regarded Nikon D750 camera, Tamron 15-70mm and 28-300mm lenses, and a Samyang 8mm Fisheye lens, on a Velbon carbon fibre tripod, chosen for lightness when travelling. I learned that the sun is not your friend if its brightest spots fall on the wrong places. I learned too that absolute precision in placement and alignment of camera equipment is essential. I also learned that a ‘pan-tilt’ tripod head is no match for the precise placement required to obtain the symmetry effect I was seeking. Nonetheless, reasonable images were made. They can’t be shared in social media under the terms in which most of them were made. But my idea was realised, I was interested in future possibilities. But no sooner had I returned to Australia than a new commercial client emerged and work completely swamped my next three months.

The Bug Bites
It was not until Christmas Eve, of December 2016, the initial English Cathedral project almost now out of mind, when my daughter Nathalie gave me what has become a very proud and extremely informative book, as her Christmas present to me. It was a first edition of the 1902 An Illustrated Guide to the Cathedrals of Great Britain, published by Dent, written by the Revd. P.H. Ditchfield, of Barkham Rectory. Ditchfield, it turns out, was a prolific author, covering The English Village and many other subjects. He lived to a ripe age, writing until 1930. You can even purchase this book today as an Amazon Kindle download for under $4.00. Wonderful that modern technology brings these fine volumes back to life. The treasure for me, truth to tell, is in the physical book. Its fading green cloth cover, the almost invisible gold top-edge printing remaining, and the roughly cut pages of this 452 page masterpiece connect me directly with the era of its authorship.

P.H. Ditchfield’s Guide to The Cathedrals of Great Britain, (1902 – Dent.)

As I read through the opening pages I was mesmerised. Could I perhaps entertain the thought of recording the rest of the Anglican Cathedrals? There were 37 listed in Ditchfield’s 1902 book. I checked the current listing in the Anglican directory of the Church of England on the Internet. There are 46 today. I felt additionally that both St. George’s Chapel and Westminster Abbey should also be included, and the glory of former Cathedral Bath Abbey surely should also make the cut. Now there were 49 buildings to be considered, should I proceed.

I tried to find a logic to also include King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. It’s a Royal Foundation, started by Henry VI in 1446 and completed in the reign of Henry VIII, the first Defender of the Faith. “FID DEF” it says on British coins – that’s what it means! Henry VIII was effectively founder of the Anglican Church, as he wrenched it from Rome, over a personal divorce issue, and the resistance of the troublesome and recalcitrant Thomas Moore as Archbishop. Well, it’s a fair stretch! There is no doubting the glory of the building at King’s, made famous in the 1950’s by the Decca recordings of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols under then Master of Music, Boris Ord. In fact the author of The Cathedrals of Britain, – David L. Edwards (1989) who was a curate at our local parish church in Hampstead in the fifties, was Dean of King’s, Cambridge late in the 1960’s and Rector of St. Margaret’s Westminster, in which I was married, in the 1970’s. So perhaps there really were compelling reasons that it be included, even if many of them are very personal. And it would make a neat and tidy fifty remarkable church buildings, all with great history and most of wonderful beauty. Oh well, I thought: I can but dream. But the idea was well and truly born.

In July of 2017 my wife and I travelled to Europe largely for a holiday, with some business thrown in. I also could not resist adding St. Paul’s and Southwark Cathedrals to my collection of Cathedral ceilings, again by prior appointment and licence. I was beginning to see some possibilities for an exhibition. I discussed it with a few people who I respect, who stated the idea had merit, but they’d have to see the work. In the case of St. Paul’s the sun once again was a challenge. But so much pressure did I feel under, I also made a significant technical error, failing to turn off the anti-shake feature of my lens, which resulted in many defective images, with the camera mounted on a tripod. Only the next day did I work out what had gone wrong. I almost gave up, so desolate was I at my own stupidity. But I sat down and developed a written checklist as a practical solution, to prevent recurrent error, just like pilots use checklists to operate airplanes safely. So do medical teams in surgical theatres. Now I check off every item on the pre-shoot list, and the remainder on arrival at the venue and during and after the shoot.

As we also visited Prague and Vienna during our July visit, I was able to make pictures in St. Stephan’s in Vienna and the great St. Vitus Cathedral, up on the hill, in Prague. Though not of the same considered kind of images I was making in England, they reinforced in me that all these buildings merit much greater examination by visitors when it comes to observing the remarkable vaulting, construction and architecture of the roof above their heads.

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech.

It is Decided
While still in Europe in July, I resolved that I would make a complete body of work of the ceilings of all Anglican Cathedrals of England and Wales. I had seven done, so that only forty left to complete the work, and the three others I felt worth adding!

I knew I couldn’t get away for more than two to three weeks at a time. Growing grandchildren, important commercial clients and other directors’ duties would preclude doing it at one stretch. And besides, planning 40 visits in one stretch suggested an exhausting process that would most likely suffer through fatigue, illness or both, reducing the quality of work. It would also prevent me enjoying some of the fine liturgical music that Evensong and Matins produces in these Cathedrals.

And so it was that October 11th 2017 was deemed to be the start of the major push to break the back of the work, over two weeks, averaging two Cathedral sessions a day. If I had actually measured the miles of travel involved, rather than using Google to tell me how long each journey would take, I would not have been so ambitious. But there it is, and so, that’s what I set out to do.

The journey was planned: 20 cathedrals over a 15-day period, including four days of weekends, in which photography is not possible. Much correspondence over the weeks that followed, much of it substantially later than intended, due to family illness and work pressures. But the trip was booked.

In Part Two of this Story – my next blog next week, – I will relate Week One of the 15-day journey, just concluding.

\ To be Continued!

© All Images and Text, Copyright John Swainston, 2017, except the image by
Andrew Powers, of Winchester College Chapel.

The Natural State of Balance – Why Polarisation is destroying Our World! – July 1st, 2017

Australia, amongst nations, enjoys a remarkable number of inherent natural advantages. Resources in iron ore, agricultural land, energy and sunshine. A multi-ethnic society that largely co-habits and is evolving into a new integration of peoples.

Paradise? No!

Overall Australia has many ingredients for continued success. It has as its rock one of the oldest cultures in the world, with millennia of Aboriginal history that informs modern societies, amongst other things, of the holistic connection between the people, the sun and their land, and how fragile environments can be maintained to sustain life in the most drought-prone Continent on earth. Australia has become home to some 25 million people, almost doubling in population since 1975, the year I was first fortunate enough to tread its shores.

And yet, because of a phase in history in which many of the early European settlers were of convict stock, there is an in-built “them and us” culture that knocks down tall poppies, begrudges success and reverts to prize-fighting bully-boy tactics when certain parts of society don’t get their own way. Whether it is the CFMEU flagrantly breaching workplace laws, or bankers riding roughshod over the norms of common fairness, or politicians who put personal aggrandisement above the greater good, the logic of the rightness of collaborative efforts gets over-ridden. Australia seldom quite gets its whole act together. It punches above its weight, but falls at the last fence more often than is seemly!

Sometimes it’s the seemingly tiniest of matters. The removal of music from Australia’s national network, ABC Radio National. Whole swathes of small remote populations now have no resource of musical enlightenment. Their Internet connections are almost non-existent and economic rationalism drives the decision making above all else. Important in the realm of things. Hell yes!

The latest episode of lemming-like self-delusion is the head-long destructive behaviour of yet another toppled Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, who can’t accept that his narrow 1950’s view of a world of belching power stations fuelled by black gold from the bountiful earth no longer fits a world now trying to sustain 7.5 Billion people. More specifically; a nation of 25 million people who need water and food that must come from a nation probably better suited to one third of that number. According to polls, when less than 10% of the population are reported to support his views on marriage equality, global warming and the treatment of refugees, he battles on, seemingly more interested in toppling his successor and plunging his party into headlong oblivion, as well as the nation into turmoil, rather than be party to moving ahead as the nation adapts to a fast-transforming new world.

For that new world is rapidly waking up to the reality that the imbalance of excess population, diminished water quality, pollution of our oceans with micro-plastics, disappearing species from climate change and excess land-clearing, have brought about an almost irreversible self-destruction.

The imbalance in incomes between the seriously wealthy, the injustice of large corporations seemingly immune to all normal behaviours of paying their fair share of taxes and dues (through legal webs of behaviour that make a spider’s web look like a model of elegant simplicity) bring that imbalance into stark reality. The streets of Australia’s cities become more and more crowded through the night with the homeless, sleeping in packs, but moved on by City burghers who find it inconvenient and incompatible with their bleached view of a pristine modern City. Another facet of “An Inconvenient Truth.” Al Gore was certainly right about the consequences.

Of course, Australia is not alone in these imbalances of fortune or fairness.

The turmoil in the Middle East since the start of the Twentieth Century has transited between the suppression of religious freedoms and the fight for energy access. The developers that created Aramco and the Sheiks who then formed a nationalised enterprise to assert their influence and power, have led to a constant to-and-fro of failed States, in some cases destroyed through war, in others wholly dependent on imported labour, who enjoy few freedoms of political expression or permanent status in those societies. The current impasses involving Qatar, Iran and other Kingdoms is highly unpredictable as to its outcome.

In the 1960’s and ‘70’s we saw potentially similar partitions in European society, with Germany’s ‘gastarbeiten’. But, over the decades, temporary workers were allowed to stay, and European expansion of the EC re-set the status of many as more permanent, with rights of abode. In Germany we saw such huge changes in the late 1980’s, followed by reattachment to the Eastern bloc. Now a German Chancellor from that Eastern sector welcomes more than a million refugees, often to loud protest from those that fear change. When people don’t like what they see, whether they represent the majority or not, the battle is often for power above all. A view of Islam that enshrines suppression of women and in more extreme cases, the overwhelming of the Infidel to a tied-bound compliance with a single view of society, is sweeping the world. Under threat is the freedom of individuals to their own right to explore faith in their own view. The immediate response of some reactive sectors of society is just to punch back, to defend the status quo or seek return to times that have long since gone. Dialogue or listening just goes out of the window. On both sides of the argument.

The transition to more modern societies in many Asian nations in the last fifty years has also seen successive periods of military authority, autocratic “democracy”, blatant power abuse and maverick power-grabbing, with countless periods of ‘emergency rule’ that suggest the successes gained are precarious and fragile at best in many countries. Little by little countries that were a model of post- colonial tolerance are hardening lines. Malaysia is tightening Christian freedoms, despite clear evidence that decades of accommodation have brought widespread benefits to millions.

The hope expressed in South Africa after the long march to freedom, saw the genuinely conciliatory and noble vision of Mandela, complete with forgiveness and reconciliation, rapidly replaced with injustice, alleged life-threatening political manoeuvring and apparent improprieties with the national purse. The imbalance in wealth and educational opportunities in that land had but a brief glimpse of a new order of accommodation between peoples of different colour and race, before the opportunity to abuse power and line pockets became so much more attractive for those who had trampled their way to power following the Mandela window.

In Europe, a new vision of one Community was established in the mid fifties, -The Six, in which hundreds of years of Wars between the French and Germans, of civil wars in Spain and Italy and the fragility of the Low Countries, were overcome to form, initially, a single economic bloc. French President Charles De Gualle saw to it that Britain was not included, despite his accomodation there in the latter part of the Second World War!

The EU has grown into an imbalanced grouping of twenty-seven nations, one of the most reluctant of whom has now almost suicidally voted to extinguish that hope of a cohesive future. Of course there is much that can be faulted in the bureaucratically overblown European Community. Sadly, in the view of this writer, it seems inevitable that Brexit will lead to a follow-on breakdown of the very unifying forces that have thus far successfully prevented outright wars between most nations in the bloc. Now through selfishness and rearward vision there is very real danger conflicts of the economic, military or electronic variety re-emerging after seventy-five years of largely unbroken peace. And all because the populace believed the lies of self-inflated politicians, who, when handed the responsibility to follow on from the referendum success, squibbed the task and walked away, devoid of any sense of responsibility for the consequences of their actions and their mis-truths. Or were they simply lies?

The Great Russian Bear was once ruled by the Czars, until 1917. Then, after that fateful October day, the liberated proletariat saw its hopeful revolution rapidly descend into rule by an elitist and vicious Politburo. After five decades as an expansionist grabber of lands into a quasi-Commonwealth of nations subservient to the Moscow power-wielders, it has once again returned to a new imbalance. The very rich, and rather ruthless, economic Czars and the new political titan, Vladimir Putin, have once again steam-rollered the population into subservience to a new autocratic rule that serves themselves and their lust for power rather than the populace overall. Rattling a few sabres in the name of the nation stirs up the populace in adoring adulation. Rigorous stamping out of alternative perspectives is the tool for retention of the prize.

Enough has been written about the tragedy that is today’s American politics. It’s born of extremism, science-denying and a fear of ‘creeping socialism’. The people of Florida, as just one example, may even be able to contest the teaching of science in schools, if it does not fit with their creationism view of the world.

I leave it to the reader to round up in their mind the consequences of a move to erect walls of exclusion and put the equivalent to the population of Australia, – 25 million people, in a situation without the supporting cradle of available and affordable health-care. How can people of supposedly Christian principles condone such behaviours? How are the millions of hard-working noble people of a nation as great as the USA in this situation? How did they allow a few unrepresentative voices in media and commercial interests subvert their views and their rights so that a precious few could enjoy untold riches and wealth of such disproportionate scale that millions simply live in all but powerless poverty, without hope, healthcare or even their social security fully ensured? And in a country with Trillions of dollars of debt, payment of which is put off ever longer?

In the world’s largest nation, China, on the weekend of June 30th, 2017, we have seen video footage of the elected ruler of 1.4 Billion people parading down the streets of the former colony of Hong Kong largely unwinding the very freedoms set down in a written treaty between the people’s Republic of China and the former Colonial Power, Great Britain. That treaty guaranteed the freedoms of Hong Kong’s 9-million population for fifty years. ‘Two Chinas’ policy – it trumped. That document is seemingly inconvenient to those who now rule. It therefore is increasingly ignored, or as the Peoples Daily newspaper reported, no longer relevant. We also witness jackbooted police pulling protestors to incarceration, even if temporary. Despite being a signatory to various global conventions set down by the UN, the establishment of Chinese occupation of disputed Territories in the South China Sea has occurred with a blind indifference to rulings against them, indicative of simply bullying their way to occupation. To quote the true words of Lord Acton from nearly 150 years ago: “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

China is not the first to do this. The British, Dutch and Portugese did this for centuries with impunity as they colonised the world. So it’s hypocritical to say China is abusing power. All prior Powers of consequence have done much the same over the centuries, as long ago as the Roman invasion of Europe. Send in the gunboats!

And if Eastern Asia was not already challenging enough, we have the imbalance of a starving populace in North Korea, with a complicated leader who rules by inheritance, and who spends what little the country has left economically to prove that they can eliminate any major threat of their choosing, even by nuclear destruction, if he deems it necessary or desirable. Naturally America steams threats, and both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping sit on their hands, at least publicly, ensuring further anxiety and instability.

For this writer the tragedy of all this is how long this list of abuse and imbalance seems to be. In a few paragraphs one can touch but a small scrap of those global imbalances that these observations represent. The more you investigate the detail of how societies actually operate, the more you see that influence peddlers, those with large cheque books and people who are simply bloody-minded through the filter of their own self-image, have gained the ascendant in the world. Perhaps now more than any time in history. Is it worse now than before?

It is certainly hugely troubling, unjust and destined to cause massive dislocation in coming decades, should the trend continue. Ongoing “Peace in Our Time” is a fading hope. The leaders of multiple nations just never seem to address the bigger picture. Instead they eye the election cycle and the door-stop interview as the only prize.

And yet, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. The recent French election, where more than half of the deputés elected were first-time elected representatives (and without political backgrounds or tutoring .) They were also 50% women. Surely such people will behave more beneficially to their nation than their predecessors? Perhaps this IS the turning of the tide. A lot is riding on the hope of a young President macron and his Parliamentary deputés.

As the earth sends ever more visible warnings of protest at excess population consuming the air and polluting our waters, at a rate that Gaia cannot support, our societies may take personal power and wield it through holocausts hard to imagine. Ultimately, at its worst extreme, the aftermath will force a complete re-set. Such a reassertion of balance would of course enable a new form of equilibrium to arrive. But at what cost to life and humanity, what little is left of it? Such observations, born of history and science, are largely unspoken today. The power despots and the bullies in the media don’t want to admit that their behaviours have unthinkable consequences and outcomes. The counter to that is that ideas as generated by indivduals and diffused through the Internet may ultimately gain traction. If you are reading this it’s a product of dissemination not available to earlier generations. It’s a power for good, and sadly also for bad.

So when you open the papers, more often than not on-line, and you see reports of another politician grand-standing in a largely irrelevant and hedonistic speech, giving out curb-side 10-second video grabs or blurting out yet another three or four-word staccato slogan, be wary. Wake up. In fact be very wary!

It’s yet another step towards imbalance, in a world that is flinging itself apart as populist slogans outweigh science, logic and humanity. The greater good becomes subservient to abusive power-mongers, whether political or financially self-interested. The natural balance that our nomadic Aboriginal forefathers in the land of Australia and their descendants understood so intrinsically and holistically, is trampled under in the name of progress.

If we are to avoid the fate of the Gadarine swine, running wilfully over the edge of the cliff as recounted in The Bible, it is up to each and every one of us to make a stand and be counted, in the name of balance and fairness.


All Rights Reserved.    © Copyright John Swainston, 2017.

Why Trump’s Exit from the Paris Accord may actually accelerate Renewables Globally! – June 4 2017

History shows us that it’s often seemingly unrelated or minor incidents that lead to the greatest turn of events or changes in our society. Think assassination of the Great Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the succeeding Great War in 1914. Or a Tsuname in West Aceh privince in Indonesia which left tens of thousands of dead and homeless in Sri Lanka and South India hours later. Sometimes it’s humans, sometimes it’s nature.

(Autumn Mists in the NSW Southern Highlands, May 2017. )
Image © John Swainston, 2017

You might say that the USA, the world’s second largest CO2 emitting nation in the world, is hardly a minor player in Carbon Emissions. But if we roll forward to 2030, nations such as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil will have much larger economies than today, with far greater needs for energy. The Paris Accord calls for each of those nations to achieve emissions reductions while their need for energy continues to outpace the developed nations of North America, Europe and Australia.

The very direct and critical responses from two of Europe’s principal leaders, – France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, make clear that they will simply lift their efforts to transition to a renewables economy even further, as yet in undefined ways. These independent reactions are the first truly significant breakaways from acceptance of de-facto US leadership of Western democracy since the end of World War II in 1945.

But just as important are the clear declarations by US State Governors, Mayors and some of America’s most wealthy individuals that they will continue their shift to renewables, regardless of whether The US Federal Government is in or out of the 2015 Agreement. In any case as the US cannot leave the Accord until 2020, there is in fact a good chance that it may be a much less severe loss to the cause of cleaning up the environment than is first seen. There might be a new President in the White House! In the meantime Michael Bloomberg through The Bloomberg Foundation has offered to pay the UN any shortfall of the promised US$14-15M that the US Government is committed to contribute, so the UN work on Climate Change can continue uninterrupted by this US Government planned withdrawal.

In the 18 months since the COP21 Agreement of 2015 several indicators of accelerated Climate Change have become more evident. Australia’s Climate Council summarised very clearly what is needed within Australia to achieve a maximum temperature rise of the agreed 1.5° to 2ºC.  There is some doubt as to whether Australia currently has done enough to achieve its agreed 26-28% emissions reduction. The government claims it will make changes to settings if there is any sign the country will fall short. Some of these are  contained in the current review of the Australian RET (Renewable Energy Target.)

Preventing the establishment of the world’s largest coal mine proposed by Indian conglomerate Adani would certainly be a help. If it does proceed, as approval in Queensland on June 6th suggests, it may well become the world’s largest ‘Black Elephant’ in mankind’s history! It potentially might make almost every other coal mine in Australia uncompetitive in unit cost, thereby losing as many jobs elsewhere in Australia as it claims it will create. And, on completion, there may be few markets left for its output, especially as India’s government affirmed a redoubled commitment to its renewables push following the Trump announcement. Indian leader Narendra Modi has taken his country to a leadership position in recent years, despite concerns vested interests of coal-fired energy producers had sway.

What is very clear is that action has a ‘Must Be Done By’ time horizon. And its dangerously soon.

The Southern Hemisphere summers of 2015-16 and 2016-17 produced temperatures over 1 degree above long term averages. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology Climate page reads like a book of broken records over successive seasons. These hot summers resulted in successive episodes of coral bleaching in The Great Barrier Reef, a phenomenon that has never occurred previously in recorded history. The frozen Arctic permafrost of Greenland has melted at such a rapid rate that the condition is now irreversible, say leading experts. The ten hottest years in recorded hsitory have all occurred since 1998, the most recent being 2015 followed by 2016!

In an article in the New Yorker magazine in October 2016, Elizabeth Kolbert describes the streams of melting 115,000 year old ice from the very highest points in the glaciers so frightening. In 2016 The melt started in April, earlier and at a rate never before seen.

The same can be said for the permafrost melt in Russia and the ever more frequent opening of the southern route of the NorthWest Passage between the Beaufort Sea around Greenland and Baffin Bay north west of Alaska. In a WIRED Magazine article in December 2016, writer Chelsea Leu summarises the risks and possible outcomes of the huge melt going on in the steppes of Russia. The methane release level and potential for pathogen escape are uncharted territory. Of course natural warming and cooling has occurred throughout history, as do quite long-cycle weather patterns. But recorded climate history has no record of all these changes occurring so fast or so continuously.

At the opposite end of the world, down on the Larsen C ice shelf, a 5,000 square kilometre iceberg is ‘hanging on by a thread’ as of early June 2017, according to scientists studying ice formation and melt in the Southern hemisphere,  The Guardian newspaper reported this week. While Professor Adrian Luckman, of Swansea University is cautions that this may or may not be due to global warming, he says, “What happens to these ice shelves [of the Antarctic Peninsula] is in some ways a lesson for what might happen to the larger ice shelves that actually hold back ice from the main ice sheets – and that is potentially very significant into the far future.” Given all the events we are witnessing that ‘far future’ may be sooner than even the most pessimistic of forecasts have previously suggested.

Sea rise observations and predictions are not a recent phenomenon. In 2001 a study was released for Greater New York, prepared among others by The Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University and The Goddard Institute for Space Studies, amongst others. It illustrated the required mitigation efforts required for various sea level rises and the predicted reduction in intervals between 100-Year storm events. In a more recent study, released in 2009, a sea-rise map for the United States in multiple States and Cities shows a variety of outcomes, all of which show major, disruptive changes to habitable coastline areas, involving millions of residents. But even these estimates will vary considerably if the predicted changes in weather patterns, resulting from between a 1.5º and 2º average temperature rise, escalate major storm or cyclone/hurricane events.

So the future path thus far is one of fewer viable coral outcrops on the Great Barrier Reef, melting ice caps in Greenland, accelerating permafrost melting in Siberia, and ice-shelf breakdown in the Antarctic, with millions disrupted by rising sea levels over the next hundre years. It suggests something very major is happening. It coincides with the world tipping over 7 Billion inhabitants, a level 7 times greater than at the start of the Industrial revolution around 1800.

Despite the Trump decision, 189 nations of the world remain committed, even if Syria and the USA don’t. And Nicaragua, a non-signatory to the Paris Accord is actually even more committed. They simply felt the Accord falls way short of what the world should be signing up for. The digital-era news outlet Heavy quotes Dr. Paul Oquist, the Nicaraguan delegate to the COP21 Paris meetings: “We’re not going to submit because voluntary responsibilities are a path to failure,” Oquist said at the time.

Dr. Oquist continued, “It’s a failed mechanism that’s leading us down the road to 3 degrees Celsius, 4 degrees Celsius, 5 degrees Celsius. It’s a mechanism to let the target float. It’s like if you have a fixed interest rate and a floating interest rate and this will float according to whatever comes out of the INDCs. We don’t want to be accomplices to taking the world to 3 degrees Celsius to 4 degrees Celsius and the death and destruction that that represents.” It’s a view held by many smaller nations. Nicaragua reportedly contributes 0.003% of the world’s carbon emissions.

Perhaps encouragingly we have a US President who acknowledges that human population is influencing climate change, according to US United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. But he wants to operate “without the constraints of Europe.” In fact the agreement is voluntary and unenforceable, which is hardly unfair. One gets the feeling that perhaps Trump and his immediate circle might not realise this. But, as a business person Trump would know that what you don’t measure is much harder to manage. Without goals few businesses achieve sustainability. And it’s just the same with the environment.

The decision by the US will not stop the innovative strides being taken for more efficient creation and use of energy, already on an unstoppable path, being seen around the world. In large part many of today’s major leaps forward can be traced back to some of the innovative work from the Rocky Mountain Institute, under co-founder and chief scientist, Amory Lovins. RMI has for three decades preached about improved energy efficiency, using less and improving the economy nationally and in the home. RMI’s achievements with the US Military and Walmart to mention just two clients have massively reduced oil demand through improved process and technology. The US has achieved over 17% oil import reductions over the past 2 decades, in part through local production, but mainly through reduced demand resulting from fleet efficiencies. That while the population has grown by over one third in the past 30 years.

The Trump decision will not stop the continuation of a trend that has led to the cost of Solar panels falling by 80% over the past 15 years, or the efficiency and costs of wind energy that have improved over 40% in a decade. It will not stop the innovations of university researchers such as those at the University of Newcastle, Australia, who have come up with a printable solar film. Under Professor Paul Dastoor they have a product that may only be currently 2% efficient versus the 14-18% of photovoltaic solar cells. But it’s also only $10 a square metre and requires very simple and known production capability. Nor will US government withdrawal from the Paris Accord quench the passion and idea gathering of WWF Australia, as evidenced in the Panda Labs initiative announced the day after Trump’s announcement. Their paper Can Technology Save The Planet? raises many related technology issues that may contribute to accelerated climate stbilisation solutions.

In China the adoption of renewables is gathering rapid pace – the country with the fastest uptake of renewables in the world, pro-rata to population. It’s also the world’s largest emitter of CO2, and the country with the most frequent violations of safe WHO (World Health Organisation) air pollution levels -from coal dust, vehicle particulates, factory chemical output and photo-chemical smog. By contrast, in 2015 Energy Post online reported that China has now become the Number One publisher of Scientific papers in Climate Science and Renewables. This pace appears to have accelerated as Beijing experiences successive days of severe polluion requiring government bans on factory operation and more.

To understand how this emphasis is driven: Just look at the Chinese government leadership – technocrats, scientists and engineers. It starts at the top, but is supported by a depth of skill and understanding of the complex issues of climate science in the laboratories and universities across China.

And in the US and around the world there’s more good news. Companies are more and more vocal about the economic benefits of renewables. With over two million employed in the US Renewables industry alone, it’s creating far more jobs than will be lost in the underground or Open-cut coal mines of the USA. Globally the figure is over 9 million, according to CNBC. Employment in Solar and Wind alone has doubled in the past two years. That’s real job creation, and cleaner air and lower emissions. With battery storage now a reality a stable base-load electricity generation system becomes more and more practical, as well as affordable. Since President Trump announced withdrawal from COP21, city leaders across the USA have countered with re-commitments to meet targets. Pittsburgh, a city that Trump stated he was representing, reaffirmed its intent to achieve 100% renewable energy gneration by 2035, if not sooner. Mayor Bill Peduto Tweeted, “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”

And as for leadership elsewhere? Well, France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, (someone almost half Trump’s age, and who will likely experience many of the effects of Climate Change in his lifetime, long after Trump is no longer alive,) – used Twitter to create the most re-Tweeted message in history in any 24-hour period. He took to the air in English to get his clear message across. He even invited disappointed and potentially unemployed American scientists to come to France, to help ‘Make the Earth Great Again.’

“You will find in France a second homeland. I call on them [American Scientists]: Come here with us to work together on concrete solutions for our climate.”


All Rights Reserved. © Copyright John Swainston, 2017, Australia.

[This article has been progressively updated in the days since initial publication, as the world dismissed President Trump’s statement and reaffirmed redoubled efforts to achieve goals committed to in Paris in November 2015.] – John S.


Opertus reveals shadows and patterns in the real and imagined world

(This is the text of an address I gave on May 14th, 2016 at the Opening of Opertus, – an exhibition by members of Nebuli Arts, at Gallery Lane Cove, Sydney, Australia.)
See below for opening details of this Head On Photo Festival Associated Exhibition.

Some 192 years ago, a French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce exposed a specially chemically-coated pewter plate to the light outside his window for about eight hours. By using some remarkable chemistry he fixed what his camera saw. So it was that in 1826 or 1827, the first surviving photograph was made in the lowly French village Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, in Burgundy. It followed decades of attempts to create what we know as photography.

It was not until Niépce showed the way, that others like Daguerre and Fox Talbot could follow. The rest is photographic history.

In an Australian population of 23 million people, there are more cameras in daily use than people; it’s not the special wooden box with a large brass mounted glass lens, but rather a slim diminutive electronic sensor with a plastic aspherical lens assembly, embodied in our phones. They say that today anyone can be a photographer. Actually few achieve greatness just by recording what’s in front of them. Fortunately, from the great mass of camera phone users and a sea of mediocrity, there ARE some who apply a seeing eye, who think creatively, who view the world as it is and make statements visually that reveal more than most of us see. Fact is most of us hardly even look; so perhaps it’s not surprising that we do NOT see what THESE photographers see.

In the Opertus exhibition that we are enjoying here today, we have the work of four photographers who have revealed that which is not obvious; that which may to the rest of us be obscure. In making their pictures they have startled us into seeing something, – freshly. As the invitation to this event so concisely and clearly states: “An exhibition of photographs discovering and sharing the richness of shadows and patterns in the real and in the imagined world.”

You see the work of these four people, Jan Glover, Maureen Rogers, Christoph Mueller and Des Crawley, has taken something, or somewhere, or an idea – that we could all have visited or seen. But WE didn’t. They have given us new light, new insight, new expression, new focus. They have made pictures. In doing so they follow hundreds of years of artistic expression where those who drew, or painted or sculpted or carved, or potted – artists of the then-available media, – brought to the viewer or audience, something fresh, something provocative, something that tests our perceptions of reality.

Please read the artists’ statements about their work. I won’t repeat them here, but I do urge you to read them. Each has found joy in their ability to find something that was Opertus – concealed, hidden, obscure – and make it less so, or give it new meaning – it reveals that which was hidden and is now seen.

The work comes from a broader group of image-makers, called Nebuli Arts. This is the fifth year that the group, with different combinations of artists showing each year, has participated as an Associated Exhibition within the Head-On Photo Festival. The name for this show came from someone who was originally going to be part of this show, Dawn Zandstra, another Nebuli member. And it’s thanks to a strongly supportive camera club, Northside Creative. I’d like to commend the support of Northside’s Susan Buchanan and on top of his own work, to mentor and guide, Des Crawley. Both Susan and Des must take much credit for inspiring this creative energy over many years.

Jan Glover has used the patience of a saint and the observation skills of a hawk to capture minute and fleeting moments of nature that disappear as fast as they are created. Maureen Rogers has used that wonderful dreamy Lensbaby to make common flowers into exquisite forms and tones that challenge our pre-conceptions. Christoph takes what any of us may glance at and possibly notice. He sees different forms and records his own perception, his own reality. Des extracts patterns and portraits from graffiti and reveals art within art, by adjusting tone and changing our ability, or sometimes in-ability to focus.


(L to R: Maureen Rogers, Des Crawley, Jan Glover, Christoph Mueller, John Swainston.)   Photo: © Charles Sutton, 2016.

Sadly we live in times where art is once again under threat as a priority in our society. We learned yesterday of the consequences of $90 million of losses to Australia Council funding. The Australian Centre for Photography here in Sydney, and the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) in Melbourne, are no longer on the Australia Council’s funding lists.

Indeed, Some 48 other leading arts organizations have also seen funds cut or ended. What does THIS reveal about us as a society? Do we just accept it and tighten our belts and man-up? Art has always had to fight. Opertus reveals the inner workings of the creative minds of Christoph, Des, Jan and Maureen. No they didn’t have grants to make this work. But some of their inspiration may have come from the fluttering of butterfly wings in those galleries that caused a tsunami of creative endeavor in Northside Creative and the Nebuli Group. Our lives are richer because of their work; if we really value their work, and the other 500 or more photographers exhibiting in Head-On this month around Sydney, you as the viewers and members of the community that value creative endeavor, will consider carefully the quality of society we seek to be or might become and hopefully influence others in some positive way.

Before I close, let me give you another example of subliminal artistic influence. I saw this week that the program for the 2016 Australian World Orchestra concerts has been announced. They will be held in September. Picked from the top orchestras around the world, it’s a festival of Australia’s best classical musicians gathered in a scratch orchestra for just a week. These Australians enrich music on every continent. Only through our national support through their long years of study is this possible. And that’s why arts funding is so important. Not necessarily directly; but through osmosis, through propagation, our culture is strengthened and blossoms.

I thank our four fine artists for their work, I hope you’ll read of how they made the work and I hope you will really think about the impact this work has on YOU, and your response to it What does it make you feel? What questions does it provoke in you? Above all I hope we will start seeing many red dots appearing, signifying your support tangibly, with a sale! Because if you do, Opertus will have revealed in you something new, something fresh, something that has in a small way been part of your growth as a thinking human being.

It gives me great pleasure to formally open this exhibition, Opertus, which runs until June 4th. Congratulations to you all, and thank you for your fine work.


Opertus is at:
Gallery Lane Cove, Upper Level, 164 Longueville Road, Lane Cove.
Phone +61 2 9428 4898
Opening Hours: Monday to Friday 10.00am to 4.30pm,
Saturday: 10.00am to 2.30pm
Closed Sundays and Public Holidays.
Open until 4th June, 2016.  This is a Head On Photo Festival Associated Exhibition.

 © Copyright John Swainston, 2016.

For the benefit of online readers, here are the Artist’s statements. I urge you to try and see this fine work.


“There are many secrets to be found along our coastline. I have discovered special places where the rocks are glorious colours – not just grey, but blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Sea snails make art as they weave their way through the sand on the bottom of a rock pool. Delicate jewel chains of seaweed hide in narrow cracks in the rocks. The high tide sweeps over the pools causing mini streams and waterfalls. Sunlight catches the ripples and every moment is different.

The day has to be just right for photography – a gentle trickle of water over the rocks, a very slight breeze, and a clear sky to avoid the reflections of the clouds.

This is what I try to capture in this series – those secret moments that only I have seen, and are now gone forever. Hours can be spent peering downwards, looking for treasures. I look for colour, textures, movement, and abstract patterns, which reveal themselves momentarily.

I am a beachcomber, but I collect memories rather than the tangible.”


“As a legacy of my working life as a dermatologist, I have always had an eye for shapes, patterns and detail and this has led to a particular interest in macro and close up photography, especially of nature subjects. I find I am inspired by Zen artistic philosophy, which stresses simplicity, allusiveness and restraint aiming to give my work a meditative quality.

The use of a Lensbaby lens in this series gives an abstract quality to these images of common flowers so that the exact nature of the subject may be hard to discern. Hence the emphasis is on form and shape and small details that could be hidden from casual viewers of these flowers as they glance at them quickly in the middle of their busy lives.”

“Opertus – concealed, obscure, hidden

chairs 3
chairs 3

A photographer is a person with a camera reproducing a copy of reality. Is this it? A recording of what happens at the very moment the button on the camera is pushed and the shutter opens and closes. Is this all there is to photography? Image = reality!

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see – Edgar Degas

My intention when taking a picture is to record what I ‘see’ which is more than just the reality that presents itself to me.

The images I select for this exhibition present my reality, my view of the world, my experience, and my interpretation.”

“My work celebrates the “faces on the wall” to be found hidden within wall art/graffiti. Often these faces have been defaced, over painted, rendered within and across architectural features or allowed to decay because of environmental factors. Each image here was found. Originally hidden within an environment that is/was classic urban art. The images come from Madrid, Granada, Cordoba, Paris, Rome, Salamanca, Montreal and Melbourne. They speak to the other ‘hidden’ and that is the universal and often controversial expression of ‘people speak’ –the vernacular. The images have been modified to highlight particular qualities that make them original statements albeit from found work, that is discovered work in public places made by wall artists who remain anonymous or unknown to me. Perversely these studies have discovered them, which is so fitting for the exhibition theme –opertus.”

These statements and images are the Copyright work of the artists credited above.

Imagined Emotional Landscapes is on the wall in Kogarah

Imagined Emotional Landscapes is on the wall in Kogarah
– The making of a Group Exhibition at St. George Leagues Club Photographic Society!

This is the story about the making of pictures. As such the story is one of words. The heroes of the story are the pictures now on the walls of Kogarah Library until 22nd May 2016. This is the story through one person’s eyes, of how they got there – mine!

One of the joys of the changing chapters of life is that at certain points in a lifespan you choose to try something you’ve never done before. I spent more than four decades working in the sales and marketing area of photography. I had started to make pictures with a camera on my eighth birthday. It took me three wasted rolls of film before I could even load the film properly. In my gap year between school and university I acquired a movie camera and, travelling in southern Africa, made a mini-documentary on the lives of Rhodesians (now Zimbabwe) living under a unilateral declaration of independence. Looking at it now it was more like a travel promotion than any form of photo documentary. I had no concept of visual story-telling. It was but a tentative first step up the ladder of picture making, a ladder that had many missing steps and several falls through the years.

I tried a bit of harder-edged reportage later that same year, during the heady revolutionary days of 1968 at an Oxford Conservative Association rally when the visiting speaker was the controversial Enoch Powell. Just weeks before he had made the famous ‘Rivers of Blood” speech in his constituency in Wolverhampton-South West, England. The staff photographer for the Oxford Mail and I were the only two people to come with cameras. His image made the front page of the Times the next day. Mine was poorly focused, even less well-purposed and the negatives are long lost with multiple country and house moves.

I was deeply fortunate to marry into a family of three generations of expert portrait and landscape photography. My late father-in-law Philippe Halbwachs, from Mauritius, had a way with people that produced magic, intimate and engaged portraits. His landscapes, painstakingly prepared in trying humid conditions in tropical Mauritius, were black-and-white tonal marvels that didn’t need colour to express the great open spaces and bright beaches of this special Indian Ocean Island. Try as I might, my efforts were but a shadow of his outstanding images. But there were some tiny forward steps, nonetheless as I followed some of his guiding principles.

The thought of exhibiting my own efforts was something I spent decades shying away from. I worked with Australia’s leading picture editors in our sponsorship of the Nikon Australian Press Photographer of the Year Awards. I was only too conscious of the gap between my pictures and the award-winning excellence that is Australian press photography. Working with Commercial and Wedding Photographers too, in various associations with the Australian Institute of Professional Photography, I began to get a glimpse of some of what it takes to make a picture as opposed to taking a picture. I learned from great story tellers such as the late David Moore, and sat with picture editors as they judged the national press pictures of the year each December.

A long-standing colleague in my service team, an expert opto-mechanical craftsman, Ken Forbes told me about his black and white images that he was showing in his camera club, St. George Leagues Club Photographic Society. I asked him to bring in some prints to the office. They were absolutely fabulous pictures. Ken told me about the club President, an academic, a man who had helped build on the Club’s founding father’s vision, to produce one of Sydney’s finest camera clubs, with over 100 active members, whose pictures were so well seen and with that extra edge seldom seen in camera clubs at that time. The Club President was a gentlemen named Des Crawley.

From time to time some of the club members would come into the office. Lionel Howes was one such member. He was the club’s second president, in 1965. He got re-elected seven more times. Sometime in the 1990’s I chanced upon him in Sydney when I was doing some shopping, something I do as rarely as possible. Lionel was standing in a bit of shade in a Sydney street, having been walking all day, recording the life of our fast-changing city, along with a colleague and close friend. He emphasised to me the importance of the document, of recording life that was changing and a city that was disappearing, whose character was only glimpsed fleetingly, such was the pace of change. Over the years we became firm friends. His pictures stand the test of time and are of immense historical importance.

I asked Ken Forbes if there was some way I could meet the club’s president, Professor Crawley. Perhaps I could give a talk about this new thing called digital photography. We duly met, and found we surprisingly to me had much in common. Given I never completed my academic studies, I found this man to be wonderfully inclusive and non-judgemental. The club’s members were much divided – Film proponents sat on one side of the aisle. The revolutionaries who entertained a digital future, sat on the other side. For my talk I had decided to take a huge personal step forward and print some of my own pictures, some scanned from film, others shot with a high resolution 2.74 megapixel Nikon D1, costing $13,000! I mounted them all on the same matte boards and exposed them to similar lighting and asked members to identify which was film and which was digital. They couldn’t consistently do so. Inside I was dying a thousand deaths. I was sure everyone would say something like, “well the image quality is interesting as it’s hard to tell film from digital but it’s a pity about the pictures themselves.” But they were either too polite or perhaps they were even of acceptable quality. Another long-standing member, Joy Klein, came up to me after the talk, expressed gratitude and said she was sure the future would be digital, regardless what some of the more traditional members said. That she made that remark early in her seventh decade was both encouragement and life-changing. This was a club I’d love to be associated with. But with a work schedule that prevented any form of relaxation I just could not commit to membership.

Over another decade I spoke several times to their packed meetings, on a variety of subjects, mainly technical. We provided some prizes at annual awards. And then one year I was asked to be a judge. I had never judged within the camera club movement. I had no skills. I had never myself entered any photo competition. And I was being asked to judge at a top club! I was quite terrified, but believed if they were asking me I had to give it a go.

The club used a long-time friend, Bernard Graves, as messenger. I’d had the pleasure of introducing Bernard to the Club when he expressed enthusiasm for developing his skills in photography. We’d been golf partners for a decade. On the day I worked through with two other judges, one old school but open to the ideas of others, and one with a more progressive view of photography. In the end we reached consensus. The winning image that year was a dreamy image of ‘a lady’ heading down stairs, filled with emotion and drama, misty subject movement and outline form rather than distinct location. The image was by Sue Robertson. (I only learned today that the ‘lady’ in the picture was in fact Sue’s husband, filling in as model for the shoot.) Yet it was clearly a standout image amongst many other fine pictures. And when, a month later at the annual awards night the winner was announced the club embraced the decision to nominate a picture that was not sharp, not a classic club winning image, but one that stood out for expressive emotion, movement, energy, drama, mystery. St. George had crossed a chasm. The Club’s images would never look back.

Fast forward to the late winter of 2015: By now I had been the honorary Junior Patron of the club for three years under the Senior Patron, Des Crawley. The club wanted to apply to exhibit members’ work in the annual Sydney Head-On Photo Festival. Des would lead and mentor a group with 7 monthly half-day meetings and in April 2016 we would put on a show as part of the Festival.

We had, as a group a huge diversity of interests, passions and skills. We represented families from over ten different countries of origin. We numbered 17. We needed a venue capable of exhibiting ninety images. Our 2015 president, Ilona Abou-Zolof negotiated with Kogarah Council, and secured Kogarah Library’s community arts space. We collectively filled in the formal application form to be an associated exhibition. Meantime we joined together in sharing our initial ideas, showing some possible themes or examples. We followed the rigorous guidance from our mentor Des on how to develop written expressions that could inform our work and how we might execute it. That’s if Head On would have us! After some weeks of nail-biting we got the good news. Now create the work!

In my case I was pretty certain it would be architectural – I had travelled to Europe in the northern summer of 2015 and had developed a style of symmetrical image expression that I thought could make a good portfolio of six images. I had my six pictures by late November, and showed them in the December meeting. Others showed their evolving ideas, some quick in their execution, others showing big shifts in creative execution and a couple determining that they would not complete for personal reasons. We were now 15 potential exhibitors, with defined ideas, perhaps 50% of the targeted pictures done, and Christmas holidays to further develop our thoughts and make some more work.

The late January meeting resulted in a review and feedback from fellow travellers. I brought a couple of interior images I had made over summer, as well as my selected six exterior pictures. The interiors seemed to resonate much more strongly than my building exteriors. Two of them were European and I resolved this was the start of a new body of work. I would completely change creative direction. Two others also felt their initial work needed to change. The pressure was now on. I had the idea of applying to shoot the interior of Elizabeth Bay House, built by an ancestor on my mother’s side of the family, the celebrated Colonial Secretary of 1835 and great amateur scientific collector, Alexander Macleay. To my great joy Sydney Living Museums agreed to let me have access one lunchtime, when the house was otherwise not open to the public. I made a ‘recce’ visit in public opening hours and shot off a few frames, using a new lens unlike anything that I had seen used before in the many well-known images of this remarkable colonial house of 1838. When you are shooting and your predecessors were Harold Cazneaux and Max Dupain, there is just a bit of pressure.

When I saw my initial results later that night I felt I had made a major advance. I ventured into Sydney the following week and made a series of images of the Queen Victoria Building, one of which was almost perfectly structured. But on closer examination it was just not precise enough. I returned and re-shot it, this time lying flat on my back in the middle of a busy walkway, for a slightly wider and steadier shot. Two protective friends prevented other shoppers from tripping over me. Two security guards looked on giving me 30 seconds and not a second more, they warned. I knew what I needed to do, had rehearsed it over and over in my head and had seven frames done in 20 seconds. This time I had what I had imagined in my mind’s eye.

March was now upon us. I needed just one more picture. I applied for permission to shoot in Melbourne’s historic Block Arcade. To this day I have never had a reply. So on a business visit to that city, where I also made some unusual images of the Melbourne Central Clocktower, I boldly walked in, moved among the public and created an unusual image that had a resonance in the other five images I had selected. Later that month everyone reviewed everyone’s work. Mostly we were all finished. A few suggestions in toning, discussion about size, lots of practical stuff about bump-in and set up, rosters, sharing the supervision of the work in the three weeks it would be open 7-days a week, framing and countless other issues. I then went on two weeks holiday/work to West Australia and Mauritius, as if I was all done. I wasn’t.

I missed the final briefing meeting, used email to get up to speed and did my assigned task of preparing the picture labels to hang next to each image. With frames obtained, mattes cut and artist’s statement written, I duly joined my colleagues at Kogarah Library the day before our opening. By then I had also agreed to act as MC for the night, to be opened by our Senior Patron. Regrettably due to a conflicting Council event, our planned opening day of 2nd May had been deferred, which meant the entire Head On program now had a conflict and our opening would conflict with one of the biggest events in this season’s exhibits. All this work and now perhaps no audience?


We had a clearly-defined wall layout plan. But when we got there the hangers were fewer in number than we needed, and the hanging wires would only hold two images, not the three we had believed was possible. Our frames distorted due to the unusual method of suspension. Every frame had to be removed from the wall taped up and strengthened invisibly. It took all day.

All the care to have labels individually cut, was wasted. The pictures were now much closer together than expected. As the sunlight moved across the work on the wall as the day progressed the images and their long wire suspension systems moved in the heat. New labels of a completely different style were done overnight, and after another full day, leading to the opening at 6.30pm on Tuesday May 3rd, with preening and minute adjustments, the work was on the wall. With only 3 hours sleep I was almost a walking zombie. But the show must go on.

By 7.10pm the 15 artists had their work to admire, their families and friends had started arriving. Councillor Stephen Agius, Mayor of Kogarah kindly arrived, and offered to speak, which he did in a wonderfully genuine and supportive manner. Even the Kogarah Concert Band, under Geoff Dickie, turned up with a woodwind trio, which created real atmosphere, and reduced my tensions and nerves as MC. The crowd was hushed, the evening proceeded and our mentor reviewed our work for the audience, describing the journey of creating each of these works. We celebrated. This initial journey together was over. The first red dot went up. Others followed. People wanted to buy our images.

some of the pictures-stgeorgeBut a much bigger journey was just beginning. With a Head-On exhibition on the wall for 2016 of our making and our own curating, we were already planning for something even more ambitious. The juices of creative energy were beginning to conceive of new projects! St. George as a photographic club of energised like-minded friends and colleagues had crossed into new territory – tentatively at first, decisively by the end, all wiser, more confident, more expressive. Much had changed. We were no longer just camera club members of a progressive photographic society.

st george-heads-on_JDS5138

The cast, in alphabetical first name order:

Anatoli Zehalko, Barbara Seager, Christina Brunton, Fiona Brook, Frank Dannaher, George Komatas, Geraldine Lefoe, Ilona Abou-Zolof, John Swainston, Marianthi Karadoukas, Sue Robertson, Suzanne Prouzos, Tony Naumovski, Yong Wei Ruan, Yvonne Raulston, together with Des Crawley, Course Convenor.

Thanks to our mentor Des Crawley, and the collective will of fifteen fellow travellers we had started a new artistic journey, the results of which may well be many years more in the making. That’s my journey to the walls of an exhibit.

There are many paths; the joy is being open to following your heart and allowing yourself to enjoy the journey.

Exhibition at Kogarah Library, NSW, May 3rd to May 22nd, 2016

Opening Hours: Monday to Friday 9.30am – 7.00pm, Saturday 10.00am – 4.00pm, Sunday 10.00am -1.00pm


Text and pictures are subject to Copyright. All rights reserved.

© Copyright John Swainston, 2016

A Tiny Dot in the Indian Ocean: Mauritius – The Very Different Island

If you read the advertising publicity for the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius you’ll see the words ‘The Unspoilt Island’ more than once. It’s accompanied by pictures of limpid aqua waters lapping onto glistening beaches, with palms wafting in the gentle breezes of trading winds. And indeed, for many visitors Mauritius fulfils that promise, perfectly.


(Hotel Telfair, Mauritius – Image Copyright John Swainston, 2007.)

Continue reading A Tiny Dot in the Indian Ocean: Mauritius – The Very Different Island

Celebrating the Centenary of Boeing Aircraft: My 50-year contribution

2016 is the Centenary Year for the Boeing Aircraft Company. It’s now headquartered in Chicago. But for decades it was a product of Seattle and for many Seattle is Boeing town, not just Microsoft. From their remarkable first pressurised Stratoliner 307 of the 1930’s to their creation of the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing, the company with the unique name, was special. For me it always will be. 2016 brings up my 50th anniversary of flight. Despite many iterations and glamorous new inventions by companies such as Airbus and Bombardier, I always feel most comfortable when a Boeing pulls up at the gate for my next flight.


Continue reading Celebrating the Centenary of Boeing Aircraft: My 50-year contribution

Summer in The City

Was it the rain last week? Perhaps those clouds that flitted past yesterday afternoon without the cleansing and refreshing benefit of a change to go with it? Or perhaps it’s those onshore winds that are driving the moisture off a swollen ocean into this city?

No matter! Today Sydney is back to sultry, overcast and H U M I D.

Chances are, for the next four months, it will be variations on a theme, interspersed with occasional sunshine, or a clearing cool change, along with attendant variations of rain, hail, storm and cyclone.

It’s one reason we decided that we would seek respite in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, settling on an ample garden and the cool breezes through tall eucalypts for our twilight years sometime hence. Later this week we’ll own our new home, away from the madding crowd. We look forward to warm evenings sitting out on the verandah (stoop, if you are South African) – enjoying the hum of evening insects, chanting birds and distant calls of cattle in the fields not far away.

It is of course holiday time for many. The streets of inner city Paddington were free from horns and hard-pressed commuters this morning. The insistent calls of Mynah (or sometimes Myna) birds are just a bit more intrusive than usual. Pests though they are, their calls give a semblance of present nature.

Children, as they amble along next to weary parents and grandparents, seem to tug reluctantly at the caring hands just a little more impatiently than usual. Elderly gentlemen complete with walking sticks and cream-coloured hats, with belts around their waistlines half-way-up their chests, pause for restorative breath rather more often than usual. And they glance up across the top of their tortoise shell glasses frames.

The sunglass-covered faces of the A-List would-be’s from the Eastern Suburbs have just a little bit less spring in their step or enthusiasm for that second skim-soy-latte coffee as they feel their discomfort in overly tight clothing, facing the inconvenience of actually parking their smart cars instead of double parking as is their wont, and, you know, like, actually walking!

When I was growing up in London, we’d have days like this. Instead of it being the 32°C it is today with 85% humidity it was a steamy 24 degrees. Oh the heat. Immediately London would be full of men who had rummaged through their wardrobes to produce generations old linen jackets, crumpled and shapeless, but light in colour and great breathable fabric, whatever the look.

It was enough to make exhausted office workers from stifling smoke-filled offices rush out to their local park – Hampstead Heath in my case, or Regent’s Park in later years, – both wonderful London parks, – and roll up their long grey trousers and fold their handkerchief into some quaint headgear with twisted corners, turning their prostrate bodies toward the searing heat of the sun. In less than their lunch hour a certain tell-tale reddish hue would adorn their faces. That was the life. But as they commuted home there was, in the sixties and seventies, an indefinable odour in the Underground. It gave life to a long-running ad campaign in Tube trains. A self-satisfied gentleman staring out from the advertisement on the wall of the train, in seeming contentment, while two pained faces looked in at him from either side, catching him unawares. “Someone isn’t using Amplex,” preached the message.

It was the first the Brits had heard of deodorants.

That was the era of council house bathroom techniques applied weekly, when the copper bath was taken out and set amidst the kitchen for the whole family to progressively have their weekly bath. Britain and bathing were not words once tended to use together. When I arrived in Australia some four decades ago the standard line was, “There’s nothing dryer than a Pom’s towel.” Of course such a claim would be regarded as racist and offensive today!

Margaret Thatcher put an end to that era as she sold off more than half a million council houses, all of which had to be upgraded for sale and brought to a minimal government-determined standard. Thirty-years-on the debate looms large again in London as council sell-offs continue. But rather than the tenants buying, it’s wealthy landowners and investors buying up and leasing back to an ever-more disenfranchised group of Londoners. Many of that Thatcher aspiring middle class will never be able to afford to live where their roots are in their community. Home ownership is not for lower or middle class people any more, it seems in Britain.

And so it is in the Cities of Australia. Housing affordability has reached the point that many of today’s ‘thirty-somethings’ won’t own their own home until their parents die and vacate the family home. Over 50,000 families currently await social housing at the start of the housing ladder. With interest rates mostly rising in coming years, chances are things will get worse before they get better.

With society moving in the next decade to develop strategies to combat climate change, the capital costs of individual homes will rise, as solar energy investments add between $16,000 and $20,000 to the capital cost of homebuilding, even though they will lower running costs. Air conditioning will take on new thresholds of affordability, as households progressively have to meet emission targets in the next couple of decades, an inevitable consequence of finally having to do something to combat ever-warmer temperatures.

So, as we ‘rug-up’ this coming winter in temperatures some 7° to 9°C cooler than Sydney, and snuggle under a couple of extra layers of blankets, it will be with some satisfaction that we know the following summer’s heat will be a so much more palatable than Sydney’s sweltering sidewalks, and humidity much lower to the point that air conditioning is all but unnecessary.

We’ll also rejoice in the fact that our Southern Highlands home cost us just half the price of the wonderful apartment we enjoyed in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Paddington. And as we tuck into the beats, broccoli and spinach of our autumn/winter crop of home-grown vegetables, we’ll also know that any waste is suitably composting away in the bottom corner of the garden, strengthened by the vigour of the adjacent worm farm. Country town living has a lot to commend it.

As you mop your brow from the sultry grey air of the metropolis tonight, steel yourselves for the hot muggy days ahead. If you are slugging it out in twenty-below temperatures of the US mid-west, comfort yourself that in just five months, on the Columbus Day holiday weekend, you’ll be able to go down to the edge of Lake Michigan, pop your toe in the water and know that your three months of summer is just around the corner. That’s if your house hasn’t been blown away by the ever-more-frequent tornadoes powering through from the storm-filled skies of Texas, Missouri and Illinois.

No matter where in the world you are, the weather always gives us something to complain about. But if you make the time to be present in what you have, life may not seem so bad. In fact being this side of the turf is indeed heaven on earth! Never was that more evident than today, as the world mourns the loss yesterday of 4-decade musician extraordinaire, David Bowie, who died of cancer after an 18-month battle.

As the inimitable words of the Steve Boon and John & Mark Sebastian song put it,”

“Hot town, summer in the cityBack of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity, Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head.…” 

For some, the heat is gone, snuffed out. Yet conversely, the power of the heat  lives on, in music.

(The Storm that wasn’t – Video (Time-lapse on 11.January, 2016 in Sydney:)

All Rights Reserved. © Copyright John Swainston, 2016,
excepting the words from Summer In The City, quoted above,
(© Carlin/SONY-ATV Music, 1966 – Loving Spoonful.)

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is – How an Australian Public Company failed this week

The collapse into Administration and Receivership of Dick Smith Holdings Limited, and several associated entities on Tuesday 5th January, is a repeat of a story of failed retailers in Consumer Electronics around the world. We have heard it many times before. But as is the case in many corporate failures, the warning signs were there for anyone who cared to ask even basic questions, or read the public documents. They were there in the Prospectus. They were there in the Annual Report in August 2015. They were there in October and November, just a few weeks ago.

The November 2013 prospectus, underwritten by no lesser corporate luminaries than Goldman Sachs and Macquarie, detailed how the business, acquired from Woolworths for effectively $94M by Anchorage Capital Partners, was now worth $2.20 a share for a total market capitalisation of $520.3M.

Many are blaming Anchorage Capital. Private Equity makes its money by buying cheap, trimming hard, and selling at the top. In the case of Dick Smith, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ Yes not pretty, but having re-read the prospectus, nothing really misleading there. Just very carefully worded! The promoters (Anchorage Capital and directors of the DS Holdings Ltd entity) duly identified multiple risks of consumer preference changes, supply chain, currency and much more, as any prospectus is obligated to do. By the letter of the Corporations law, their texts are faultless. Society will decide if it was morally transparent. The most accurate and prescient risk identified was this, found in Section 6.2.4 on Page 79 of the 160-page document from November 2013.

“If Dick Smith misjudges customer preferences or fails to convert market trends into appealing product offerings on a timely basis, these may result in lower revenue and margins and could adversely impact Dick Smith’s future financial performance. In addition, any change in customer preferences may lead to increased obsolete inventory risk.”

So the promoters clearly understood the issues, specifically stating at the start of that section 6.2.4: “Dick Smith’s revenues are almost entirely generated from consumer electronics related products…” The shareholders who bought, if they had read this and understood its weighted importance, might have thought twice.

But once the business was away, trading as a Publicly-held business, Anchorage became just shareholders. Big ones, mind you. That understanding led, as it now appears, to a clear decision once the August 2014 Annual Report was out. Confidence in the continued value of their shareholdings after the float had clearly waned. Those risks had become clearer from actual operational results. Remember the company was floated after just a few weeks actual trading under the new structure. All the forecasts were pro-forma. There was no history of actual comparable results offered.

Anchorage took until just September 16th 2014, (9.5 months since launch, 30 days after that first ‘Annual’ Report,) to unload their remaining 47 million shares at $2.23 a share, just $0.3 cents above float price. A debate as to whether promoters should be forced to hold shares longer is a separate matter. So, despite Statutory EBITDA (Earnings before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortisation) of $43.9M, the effective negative cash flow had been around $16M in just 7.5 months. Payables in that first year had increased $119M, or over 80%, as the company started to rebuild stocks. But much of that was on new extended trading terms.

Whispers started around the local industry-supplier corridors. In meetings with Dick Smith in which I was either directly or indirectly involved, (and a minor supplier at best) significant increases were demanded in both discounts and payment terms. That on top of Woolworths major intensification of pressure the prior year. In my own company’s case most of this was rejected, and promised orders didn’t come as a result. However other suppliers acceded. This was gradually reflected in public documents showing extended payment and improved GP. The die was cast.

These improved trading terms, it now appears, were then used, to significantly fund Private label stock. – funded by the very suppliers’ money with which this Dick Smith private label stock would now compete. As is often the case, higher GP rates for retailers seem instantly attractive. But it’s the appeal of the product to the consumer that counts. And it didn’t. Or not enough.

In the Annual Report for Fiscal 2015 stock holdings were reported at $293M as of June 30th. COGS (Cost of Goods Sold) were $993M. So, stock turns were down to just 3.38 turns. That’s a terrible figure for any retail business. But in Consumer Electronics it’s death. The annual accounts suggested to anyone who runs a retail or wholesale CE business that stock was some $70M to $90M in trouble at June balance date. That assumes stock turns of a modest 4.25 turns a year would have been acceptable. For most retailers I know in this game, 6+ is their goal. And it wasn’t just timing. But the Directors took until November 30th 2015 before they took a stock write-down of 20%, or some $60M.

By then more Dick Smith Private Label stock was on its way. And it would most likely have been paid for before it was shipped from Asia. This further impacted cash flow. Those payments to local suppliers were now becoming due, or overdue. Because sales were not there, payments to local suppliers were not all paid on time. So supplies started getting held back. More whispers. The right stuff was not in store any more. It became the death spiral of retail. Sales were falling short of plan.

The cash drain of $60M use of funds from investment costs, tax payments and dividends of 65% of earnings, plus the catch-up of now having to pay for goods deferred earlier through one-time trading terms advantages, forced a rapid draw-down on bank facilities. That drawdown rate appears to have been $75M in the year to June 2015, and a further $50M in just six months, from the figures available in the public domain.

By Christmas two weeks ago, it was clear sales promises from management had not been achieved. A week later on New Year’s Eve Management’s focus on growth and private label had failed. At this point non-bank creditors might be as high as $250M, up from the $230M at balance Date in June. With the banks refusing to add to their unsecured exposure, it was time for some phone calls by directors to accounting firms. The rise and fall of Dick Smith Holdings was at hand. It was over.

The equity at June 30 was reported to be $160M. Combining the $60M stock write-down and the effect of slower sales on reduced profitability, even earnings had flipped from $46M positive for a year to some $70M+ negative for six months. After writing down stock by $60M in November and failing to move anything like enough of the $230M of existing June 30th stock, they simply ran out of bandwidth, even while making a trading profit. As the old saying goes you can go broke very easily making a profit if you have negative cash flow. And that’s what happened.

The broader issue of dressing up the balance sheet for the float will no doubt be subject to legal investigation by ASIC and possibly other bodies. So I won’t add to the conjecture. The rest of the media has had a field day already in a feeding frenzy of wise-after-the-event scribes.

But the facts are these. Woolworths had failed to make a trade sale after 15 months of trying during 2011 and 2012. The Dick Smith division was eventually sold to private equity, after over $420M of impairment in Woolworths 2011-2012 accounts for just $15M. A later performance payment of a further $79M or so made that $94M. It stretches credulity that a turnaround of such a claimed fundamental nature had enhanced its value by a factor of 5 in just 15 months.

You, the reader, would know that the CE category has been subject to price decline throughout all this time of about 15% a year. So if inventory had grown, as it appears, by more than half in the first 14 months as a public entity, then annual impairments or reserves should have been set aside and recorded of at least $15-18M annually since the float. Nowhere do any of the accounts show that. Over three years there was therefore most likely $45M of unrecorded degradation of value that the November “non-cash” impairment appears not to have covered. This was a miss by management, and by the Board.

The Directors, only some of who had retail experience, started catching up. They acted appropriately in October and again in November and in calling in Administrators. But they believed their Management for too long. And now, as Receivers try to work out the full list of creditors and real liabilities, let alone the worth of the inventory and lease exposures and the like, it would be hard to see the business having any continuing viability. Their costs of doing business are some 450 basis points higher than JB HiFi, the industry leader. The business has none of the diversity of Harvey Norman, or its resilience from over $2 Billion in Property holdings, as well as a solid if as some perceive, old-fashioned management. But Harvey Norman is a management that has weathered multiple storms as well as some of its own major inopportune investments and come out remaining strong viable and most important, relevant.

It would seem there are few potential buyers; Dick Smith and their hapless 3,300 employees will most likely be gone. Some hard-working suppliers may be taken down by this, or at least massively weakened. Dick Smith will be added to the list of Australian CE brands now departed: Palings, Brashs, Clive Peeters, Clive Anthony’s, Digital City, Megamart, Wow Sight & Sound, – to name but a few. The long-anticipated arrival of Amazon, which has disrupted the European and US retail CE businesses, has yet to occur. It will only get tougher.

A $420 Million impairment charge for Woolworths in 2012, a $515M loss of equity to current shareholders, and an estimated $380M profit for Anchorage Capital, is the wash-up. It’s not pretty, but it’s the reality. Manage cash and your offer to the public, and everything else will fall into place as a retailer. Dick Smith managed neither well: Anchorage did – brilliantly, much as one hates to admit it.


This article was prepared exclusively for PhotoCounter, Australia, based on publicly available data from Investor documents published by Dick Smith Holdings, Anchorage Capital and Woolworths Ltd.

 © Copyright John Swainston, 2016. All rights reserved.