By David Walsh

Elizabeth tells me Jannis Kounellis is dead. I already knew that, obviously. It demoted Putin and Trump to the second page of the National Enquirer. She wanted me to write a blog. Coz, you see, I like death. And Kounellis, who was alive, now isn’t. But I don’t really like death that much, and even though I’ve only met him twice, and haven’t seen him for years, I would prefer him to be alive.

Untitled, 1991–201, Jannis Kounellis Image: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Untitled, 1991–2011, Jannis Kounellis
Image: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

He came to Mona, and he put a knife and a couple of goldfish in a bowl. People complain incessantly about that. Because the only reason that we should torture animals is for food. Entertainment, or social commentary, or art—that’s just indulgent. Our goldfish go home to a bigger tank, but that isn’t good enough. Our fish atrocity would only be appropriate if we ate them. There is no other way, as we all know, to get calories. No one has ever survived longer than six seconds without eating meat. Did you know that six seconds is the attention span of a floret of broccoli?

Untitled, 1998, Jannis Kounellis Image: Mona/Leigh Carmichael

Untitled, 1998, Jannis Kounellis
Image: Mona/Leigh Carmichael

Kounellis also ruthlessly sacrificed lassos to the temple of art. The aesthetics are irreproachable, and we rarely take that work down. Elizabeth said that work, and the fish and the knife, are free of the ravages of metaphor. Knife constrains fish, rope restrains bull, art maintains ethics. Except when art persecutes goldfish.

Untitled, 1998, Jannis Kounellis Image: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Untitled, 1998, Jannis Kounellis
Image: Mona/Rémi Chauvin

Or meat. Occasionally, when perverse whim pervades, loops of rope are replaced by sides of beef. Few moral issues here. The meat was made to be murdered. A few sides of beef among the millions bred to be cooked medium rare. But hung on the Mona wall carpaccio. Just to show our sophistication.

Kounellis is dead. But he is so recently dead he is still meat. If his body, his corpse, the meat of him, were here, I would hang him from a hook. But it wouldn’t be him, it would be a metaphor for him: his art, his life, his greasy greatness.

There on the hook, not wriggling, not creating. There would be all that remains of a man, an artist, a husband, an adopted Italian, a Greek denier, who taught me to look beyond the superficial. He helped me to see the links in the chain that bind us to iniquity, but are all the more stifling because of their invisibility.

Eat your meat. Dine on Jannis Kounellis’s corpse. But be sure to free the goldfish.

Here’s a story…

By David Walsh

It’s such a funny, awkward feeling
Death’s hollow charisma.
Most captured moments
Are stretched on a canvas of forever.
And then a little trigger
Just now the mother of the Brady Bunch.
A mental triangulation
Forty-five years ago in black and white
That alone – just that one datum –
that means I’m more than halfway there.
An awkward unstructured poetic band aid later
Scab removed
Here I am.

Later, at 4.10am, her name comes to me unbidden – Shirley Jones. I feel strangely placated by my memory. I didn’t like her on TV, but now her death and my poem make us kindred sufferers of the real. So I look her up. But Shirley Jones wasn’t the matriarch of The Brady Bunch – she was the mum on The Partridge Family. And in the world of nearlies – coincidences that seem to be imbued with deeper meaning (but aren’t) – I discover Shirley was offered The Brady Bunch role, but turned it down. That, for her, is a good thing. The Partridge Family was a much better show than The Brady Bunch. In my head Shirley Jones was dead. Now, she isn’t dead. Next time I think of her, she will probably be dead, again.

Someone topples. Musings on mortality ripple, be-muse, be-calm, ripple. Someone else lives. Thrives. Fades. Appears in the wrong blog. It’s just another day.

Just another day later: a real death. Of course, any flame extinguished is singed by sorrow, but the demise of Florence Henderson (the actual Brady Bunch lady) meant little to me except as a marker of my mortality. Fidel Castro’s death isn’t about death (except in the sense of Ozymandias). It’s about the sway of politics in the thrall of personality. One person can make a difference, but when one does, the difference is rarely irreproachable. Utopian ideals immiserate populations, because utopian visions are driven by an individual’s beliefs, and most personal beliefs have little merit. Untested ideas and ideals usually don’t work, and a country isn’t the best experimental subject. That’s not the main problem, though. Individuals tend to appraise their skills too highly due to a cognitive bias called illusory superiority (also wonderfully called the Lake Wobegon effect, after a fictional town in which all the kids are above average). That’s not the main problem, either. The big issue reveals itself when circumstances (or birth right) contrive to make you king, or president, or even president for life, and it starts to look like your illusory superiority isn’t illusory (to you and, often, your subjects). Robert Trivers, who, but for my own ignorance, would have been one of the curators in Mona’s big show, On the Origin of Art, wrote:

When a feeling of power is induced in people, they are less likely to take others’ viewpoint and more likely to centre their thinking on themselves.

That’s Ozymandias, that’s Trump, and though he had a bit more character, that’s Castro.

Despite the fact that Castro’s brand of socialism appears to lack moral probity, I am a little saddened to see another form of social organisation bite the bullet. Nature needs diversity, and we need competing social systems. There aren’t many polities where democracy is undimmed. Churchill said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of Government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ Nevertheless, we seem to have all our eggs in the one basket case.

David Walsh, Earlobe

By David Walsh

My meagre effort to implement Graeme Garden’s scheme to become an Earl and receive an OBE, and thus become an Earlobe, was long ago thwarted when Australia abandoned the English honours system.  However, I have been offered an award within the Australian honours system: an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia. I suspect it will surprise you that I accepted. It certainly surprised me. So now, if I so choose, I can sign my name David Walsh, AO. There are certain connotations of AO that I like – if my life were a movie I’d like to think that it would be rated Adults Only, but that isn’t why I chose to accept. Knowing full well that one’s motives are often unknown to oneself, I nevertheless will attempt to précis my rationale:

It has been awarded while both the local and federal governments are conservative. This, despite my regular vociferous opposition to many of the policies that conservatives hold dear (of course, had Labour been in power, the same logic would have applied).

The citation mentions my training-wheels museum, The Moorilla Museum of Antiquities. I was always kind of proud of that cultural David amongst Goliaths, but until this commendation I thought the stone had missed its mark.

The Officer award, the second highest division, has a dark side. Amongst recipients of this honour are Rolf Harris, Marcus Einfeld and Alan Bond; all, unsurprisingly, have since had their award revoked. Those bastards inoculate me against the insidious infection of self-satisfaction.

David Bowie was once offered a Knighthood, and he turned it down, saying ‘I seriously don’t know what it’s for’. I guess he didn’t need to have his ego stroked. But he was a better man than me. He was also a better man than my wife, Kirsha. She’s American, and she was not aware of the subtle differences between the English and the Australian honours systems. When I told her about my award she said, ‘Does that make me a Lady?’

Nominating yourself for an award and subsequently winning is a lot like masturbating and then declaring it the best fuck you’ve ever had. I don’t know who nominated me, but based on the citation, he or she knows quite a bit about my activities, and approves. Although the citation doesn’t include twice daily feeding, I suspect Christ the cat.

So there it is. I’m now an Officer of the Order Of Australia. An officer, yes, but not a gentleman.

Stuff we are planning to do

David Walsh

There is an old Soviet joke that insists that ‘the future is certain. It is the past that is unpredictable’. Despite my endless rambling about the pointlessness of prediction, I thought I’d highlight a bunch of projects that Mona has on the go, for the self-serving reason that I want to establish our tourism credentials in the light of Federal Hotel’s tactic of promising expenditure conditionally on their pokies licence being extended.

Mona is here for good (in at least one sense). None of these projects are contingent on the casino going ahead (including the casino), but Monaco might make it a little easier to pay for all this. However, they are contingent on many other things, like planning and building approval. And me not shuffling off this mortal coil. (I heard that Rene Hidding, when told that I was planning for the consequences of ‘being hit by a bus’, said: ‘That won’t happen. I’ve had a word with our bus drivers and they are going to be very careful’.)

As an aside, when I first opened Mona, I expected to see some services (coffee shops, restaurants etc.) cropping up in the area. I don’t know why that hasn’t happened, except that there may be some zoning issues, but Local Pizza recently opened in Claremont, and it is exactly the sort of business I was hoping for. I hope it is the vanguard of more quality, consumer-oriented businesses to come. So, start selling stuff in the Glenorchy region. I’m buying.

For us, the first cab off the rank will be an extension to the gallery to house four James Turrell works. As James’ works always are, these will be light works, but not lightweight works. Also in the extension will be a bar and restaurant, possibly serving tapas, which will double as another function venue. The whole thing cantilevers off the tunnel between the museum and the Round House. It would extend about 20 metres over the Derwent. Astute observers might notice from the plan that there is a dead-end tunnel going back towards the winery. That will eventually (five-seven years?) connect to a much larger extension, west of the winery, that will house some offices (our staff is growing, but not our facilities) and a museum gallery extension. This will be a large building, and I suspect it will cost about as much as the original museum. If it never gets built, the tunnel to nowhere might well cause some wild speculation on the part of future archeologists. Aliens will have been involved in some capacity, I’m sure.

An extension to the gallery to house four James Turrell works.

An extension to the gallery to house four James Turrell works.

We are also pretty advanced in designing a hotel for Mona, HOtelMOna, or HOMO. In fact we have now mooted the plans for more than twenty hotels for the site, starting long before Mona opened, but we finally have something that we feel justified in building. I believe a hotel should make exactly the sort of statement that Mona avoided: it should shout where Mona whispered. The building will house a decent library (I think the Mona library isn’t a design triumph, and we have a great deal of rare books and autograph manuscripts that we have never displayed [Stop Press: last night I bought an early edition of The Origin Of Species autographed by Darwin]), function centre, restaurant, bar, a theatre, some retail, and a spa, as well as around 160 rooms. Some of the rooms will be designed by artists: Marina Abramovic and James Turrell have agreed to participate, as well as our own Brigita Ozolins.

HOtelMOna, or HOMO.

HOtelMOna, or HOMO.

The casino is a different beast, or more precisely, a different flower. I’ve engaged a Mexican organic architect, Javier Senosiain, who seems to understand the sort of thing I want, despite neither of us understanding the other. Casinos are closed edifices of steel and gloss. That’s not what I want. I want an open garden. Our customer base could never be that of the standard casino world, but it is a big world, and we need very few customers. And when we don’t have customers, I’d like the casino to be worth a visit, just from an art and architecture point of view. Anyway, it might never be licenced, so it needs to function at a level beyond that of a cash palace. These early models don’t quite intersect with the present hotel, because they were designed for a slightly earlier iteration. The principle will remain, however.



On top of the Turrell extension I am planning a playground from Toshiko MacAdam. Although this isn’t very far along the design path, here I enclose the work that encouraged us to pursue this artist. We imagine something similar.

One of the best works of art I’ve ever seen is the Richard Wilson work 20:50. I liked it so much I wrote about it in my autobiography. And now it’s mine (nearly, I paid a deposit). As yet, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, so it won’t surface for a few years.

Conrad Shawcross featured when Mona opened, and he will feature again when the hotel opens. The centrepiece work for the entrance chamber to the hotel is a giant, asymmetrical rope-making machine. That means nothing to you, of course, but it will be amazing. Conrad has been working on it for quite some time, but he still has nearly a year to go.

The night I met Kirsha, my then wife-to-be, in Basel, Switzerland, I also first encountered the art of Jean Tinguely, and he affected me almost as profoundly. His best works are Heath Robinson-esque assemblages of arbitrariness that expend a great deal of effort to accomplish very little. I recently acquired one of these and it will appear in the gallery one day soon.

The phenomenal highlight of the first Dark Mofo, Spectra, those optical towers of alliance, might come to Mona permanently, but only for a few days a year (maybe for a night each on the solstices and the equinoxes). We are in negotiation with the artist, Ryoji Ikeda, and he seems pretty keen for his masterwork to have a permanent home.

My favourite work from our Matthew Barney show will become part of the Mona collection. I saw this piece in his New York studio a couple of years before the exhibition, and it reminded me he is the real deal.

The Swiss artist, Thomas Huber, came up with a great proposal for us, which consists of a couple of giant paintings and a few smaller drawings and watercolours. This should be completed in a couple of years, and I can hardly wait.

A few years ago I admired the diaries of the noted Australian artist, Donald Friend. His flagrant parading of his illicit sexual congress with young boys made me ponder, as I had before and have since, the morality of art based on, or in, the abrogation of ethics. Most of us are still prepared to visit Chartres Cathedral, built on the broken backs of generations of near slaves, or enjoy the benefits of medicine perfected through the torturing of animals. Does a stunningly illustrated story in a corrupt artist’s original hand constitute good art? If not, would a printed copy be okay? Is my highlighting the moral ambiguity of collecting Donald Friend sufficient justification for that very collecting?

And while on the subject of moral ambiguity, is a Nazi war machine (this is an Enigma machine, used for encoding communications within the German military) an appropriate thing to collect? Is it more appropriate given the knowledge that the Polish/English decoding of messages sent between such machines may have contributed to the Allies’ victory?

Earlier I mentioned a plan for a playground. We are actually planning two sets of artistic play apparatus. The other will be by Tom Otterness, who did some wonderful stuff at Doha airport. Here’s a preliminary sketch of one of the proposed works. He is infamously morally compromised. One of his earliest artworks was a video of him shooting a dog. He is still copping shit about it nearly forty years later, presumably from people who abet the murder of 1.2 billion pigs and 400 million cattle per annum.

When I was about ten we went on holiday to the caravan park next to Mona (now known as Treasure Island, perhaps soon to be known as Moab, unless a better acronym comes along). We went there to holiday even though we lived in Glenorchy, and even though it was about a forty-minute journey. And that’s forty minutes on foot – our family didn’t have a car so we walked to our holiday. We had lots of fun. I hope to preserve its affordability, while enhancing the sense of adventure for future intrepid travellers that visit Mona’s near neighbour.

The planned Mona boardwalk is unique is three ways. It’s the only item on this list that is approved; I don’t want to pay for it since it is mainly a community service and I can’t see an external funding source. So it is the only item on the list that I want financial help for; it is therefore the least likely to be built.

Connecting the boardwalk and the Round House library is this potential commission from perennial Mona favourite, Wim Delvoye. Towers seem to be the flavour of the century in Hobart, and with the proposed light tower for Hobart, I hesitated before publishing it. But we’ve been working on it for years, and it’s kind of beautiful. Maybe Hobart, in the tradition of Tolkien, could use two towers?

The parlous state of the beautiful River Derwent due to heavy metal contamination is something I took for granted. My American wife, however, feels a need to do something about it, and together with many collaborators has instigated a number of art projects in an effort to generate awareness. One of the biggest is a thing we call the Heavy Metal Science Lab, designed by the local architectural firm, Room 11. A walking ring about 50 metres in diameter will (given approval is forthcoming) be constructed, supported by hydraulics, so it can be raised and lowered with the tide. The plan is to keep it just below the waterline, so that the procession around it requires gumboots, or bare feet, to provoke contemplation of the state of the water. A number of sampling experiments will also be conducted.

Once we have a hotel at Mona, we need an efficient way for people to get there, and back to Hobart. Running the giant ferry out of hours makes little sense, so I asked our expert ferry collaborators, Navigators, to consider Venice-style ferries. This is their collaborators’ design for a 25-person, million-dollar motoscafi.

We’ve also got lots of offsite projects: upmarket accommodation (on a very small scale) and facilities, including a cooking school at our farm near Marion Bay, a potential hotel collaboration in Hobart (about which I will say no more), the already announced research for Mac Point, and a recording school for disadvantaged rappers in New Orleans. But I’ll stop now, because I’m going to have a look at the tables that Kirsha and her friends are making for an artist’s dinner on Saturday. They will be full of alcoholic jelly, which will hopefully induce some generosity of spirit in those rich art wankers that we invited, on the off chance that they will contribute to as yet unpropounded projects in Mona’s ‘certain’ future. But maybe peer pressure, or the jelly, will inveigle them to do something different, something wonderful, that no one now can foresee.

Off-site projects Marion Bay

Off-site projects
Marion Bay

O death, where is thy Sting?

By David Walsh

Who’d have thought thirty year ago we’d all be sittin’ here drinking Château de Chasselas, eh?

Monty Python, Four Yorkshiremen, 1974

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon
I hope my legs don’t break
Walking on the moon

The Police, Walking on the Moon, 1979

In late ’79 or early ’80 I first heard Walking on the Moon, at a bar at Wrest Point Casino in Hobart, in the very early, desperate days of my gambling. I was stunned by the song, not the first time that The Police had that effect on me. But I said to my mate, ‘Why would your legs be more likely to break on the moon, just because the reduced gravity makes you take giant steps. It’s ridiculous.’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘it isn’t ridiculous. If you had been on the moon for some time, your bone density would be considerably reduced, so breakages would be more common when exerting the same forces, like the ones that allow you to take normal-sized steps on Earth, and giant leaps on the moon.’ Chastened, I listened to the rest of the song, and from then on paid more attention to Sting’s career.

Thirty years later I name dropped into an alternate universe when I found myself drinking (proverbial) Château de Chasselas with Sting and his wife, Trudie. They came to Mona and asked to have lunch with me. Fortunately, and coincidentally, I had seen Sting in concert (for the first time) about a week before so I had something to talk about. He had something to talk about too – he had read my book. But unlike others who claim to have read my book, he had read my book. In particular, he was interested in the chapter on the organisation and management of capital (‘The evolution of investment’) and he thought I should form a political party based around those ideas. I was gratified, of course. I have thought about entering politics a great deal but decided against it because: I don’t know that I can achieve any more ‘inside the barrel pissing out than outside the barrel pissing in’ (to quote my brother); I don’t like living to someone else’s schedules; I don’t like the idea of living in Canberra; I don’t handle criticism well; and I don’t know what I’m talking about (some might suggest that that last point means I’m ideally suited to politics).

When Trudie suggested that it was time for them to leave I asked, ‘What time is your flight?’ Trudie and Sting glanced at each other but said nothing. Later I realised that they said nothing because the only thing they could have said would have been, ‘Whatever time we want. It’s our plane’, but they were much too polite to say that.

Interval the first.

Donna Smith: Donna was my housekeeper, and my friend. I knew her for eight years and yet never had a reason to be annoyed with her. Conversely, she had many reasons to be annoyed with me, but never was. Three days before she died of breast cancer, I picked up her daughter Celeste so she could spend some time with my daughter, Grace. Donna was sick, but defiant. She had been told the end was near but insisted she could have handled more chemo. My wife, Kirsha, and I were then about two months away from the birth of our daughter Sunday. Donna wanted to talk about that. She told me to have two children, quickly. She thought that that made each child more balanced. She thought a lot about my welfare. Three days before she died she was still concerned about the concerns of others.

Mark O’Rourke: Mark worked for a gambling services company that used to place bets for us. His metal-head, swinging, pill-popping, party lifestyle never interfered with his professional performance or competence, but it may have interfered with his life expectancy.

At one of his swingers parties Mark introduced a colleague to an attractive young lady, who was to become his kept mistress. His wife became aware of his perfidious behaviour, however, because his opportunistic paramour wrote a book about their affair, titled Sugarbabe. (Holly Hill?)

Although he pushed boundaries Mark managed to elude epic failures of this type (until his death), because he was unfailingly respectful of other’s choices.

Interval the second.

Kirsha, an American in Tasmania, was astonished to find that the beautiful River Derwent is contaminated with heavy metals. Unlike locals (me) she could not take the state of the river for granted and she launched into a series of awareness-generating art projects. When the University of Tasmania architecture school failed to give her the support she desired, her response was to contact M.I.T. Her temerity astonished me, but I was more astonished when M.I.T. readily agreed to participate in her project.

I wrote a poem about life and death, and Donna and Mark. I liked it and I sent it to my erstwhile collaborator, Dean Stevenson. He didn’t reply. Embittered by Dean’s indifference, but emboldened by Kirsha’s arrogance, I sent my poem to Sting, the biggest musical name for whom I could conjure an email address, asking if he would set it to music. To my astonishment and delight, he agreed to be my musical M.I.T.

Here’s the poem:

Donna Smith died today
Not in a dramatic way
Gentle into the night she went.
Now she is just chemistry
Yesterday a complex entity
When death has this proximity
Sentimentally, I lament

That something so complex, something so whole
Could no longer be, makes it easy to see why so many
Cling to the notion that they have a soul
Immortal, immutable, incorruptible – indisputably
It just must be so – if it isn’t what’s the point, they need to know.
But there isn’t a purpose, life’s a circus, no one gets a safety net,
And I say all that without regret.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Mark O’Rourke died last week
His death preserved his mystique
Against the night his rage maintained
Now he is just bone and skin
Force of life not within
The times, they sure are changin’ him
And with his end, I’m changed.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

And you’ll die one day soon
Hemingway in the afternoon
Or Agatha, dead, in denial
But until then we’ll live a lie
Act as though we’ll never die
Seasons not in short supply
Never go out of style.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

Why is it that we worry?
Our history makers are not forgotten
Their tombs are grand, their remains are rotten.

Plato, Sappho, and Galileo
Picasso and Caravaggio
Newton’s gone and Einstein too
And millions with Chairman Mao.
People died of influenza
Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
(But not Oskar Kokoschka
He lingered on a little longer.)
Lincoln and London and Lenin and Lennon
The Strength of the Strong to Imagine no heaven.
In World War Two and in World War One
Men lived by the sword, died by the gun
Died like heroes, or on the run.
Jesus Christ was crucified
I wasn’t there when he died
But I believe it’s mostly true
Maybe he didn’t die that way
But he is not around today
Because he was mortal just like you.

But still we worry
Still we resolve
To not die young
But to not get old
To wake up tomorrow
Same as today
To feel some sorrow
Then go on our way
And all we can say for Donna and Mark
They saw the light but can’t see in the dark.

For a while, I get to go
On with the show.

But Donna’s still dead,
And briefly I’ll think about her
Sing a song of a world without her.
And then, instead
Her death will serve as a reminder
That I’m not too far behind her.

Sting stymied me by sending back sheet music. I can’t read music. But I have friends that can. Here’s what Dean, now a willing participant (‘With all due respect, I’m not doing a shit job on a Sting tune’), made of Sting’s delightful gesture (with a little help from his friends):

So, here I am, fortunate to not be dead, fortunate to have had my time on Earth overlap with Donna’s and Mark’s and fortunate to have collaborated with someone I admire who needs only one name. Elizabeth, my blog colleague, opined that having done this, I should never do anything again.

First stone

By David Walsh

Constant access to gaming facilitates problem gambling and, it seems to me, is an invitation to addiction. The US and Chinese model, perhaps inadvertently, places casinos out of harm’s way. Vacationers periodically visit Vegas or Macau for a few days, and drink and shag and gamble their allotted entertainment budget away, and then they go home and save up for next year. I think people should have to travel to gamble.

Me, A Bone of Fact

A Tasmanian politician, Andrew Wilkie, has launched a bit of a crusade against poker machines. I think he’s right. Poker machines allow the punter to control the frequency of the gamble, push a button, get stimulation. Experiments on animal models show that direct stimulation to areas of the brain associated with the anticipation of pleasure cause animals to ignore sex and food in favour of more stimulation. It’s contentious, but predominantly accepted, that similar processing occurs in the human brain. I don’t think gambling is inherently immoral but I agree with Mr Wilkie that pokies are a social evil.

Me, A Bone of Fact

Our casino would be poker machine-free. As I mentioned before, I think they are a moral outrage. Of course, there are those that think all gambling is a moral outrage. Anyway, it would be table games only, high minimums and maximums, and it would be targeted at rich international patrons of the arts. Our casino would need a name, of course, and a Mona name must be an acronym. The leading candidate at the moment is Monaco, a notorious casino destination, and an only slightly contrived distillation of Mona CasinO.

Me, A Bone of Fact

Walsh has said he wants to build a pokies-free casino for high rollers. While that is the intention, it must be acknowledged visions change, finances change and, importantly in the gambling industry, technology changes.

When a referendum was held here in 1968 about whether to permit Wrest Point Casino, it was described as a pokies-free, high-roller, tourist-attracting proposal. Today, along with the Country Club Casino in Launceston, it has become a poker machine barn with 1185 machines spread between the two venues.

Meg Webb (Anglicare), The Mercury

Every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser.

Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

Recently I proposed establishing a casino at Mona to shore up Mona’s financial position, despite an existing monopoly held by the operator of Tasmania’s two casinos, the Federal Group. In the last week or so opinions have been voiced on my proposal in parliament, in the press, and on air. Some commentators pointed out that I may be inadvertently complicit in an extension of the existing monopoly, a scenario that is particularly unappealing in relation to poker machines. This blog expresses my position with respect to these matters, which seem to be of sufficient import to warrant public deliberation.

In the spirit of my proposed new venture let me lay my cards on the table:

  1. Yes, I want to build a casino at Mona.
  1. No, Mona will not shut down if I can’t, or choose not to.
  1. I won’t build the casino if its licence is conditional on the Federal Group being able to operate poker machines without any new restrictions, and with a monopoly extension.

Expanding on 1. I want to build a casino with the following limitations: no Tasmanian gamblers; 12 tables and no poker machines; high minimums and maximums; and did I say no pokies? All revenue would go to Mona and related projects; if Mona becomes profitable then casino revenue would fuel expansion, acquisitions, social programs and anything else we can think of. All of this is contained within my proposal and would be enshrined within legislation. I also plan to build a 160-room hotel, a function centre, and a thousand-seat theatre based on the largesse of Monaco. Each of these will be smaller if Monaco doesn’t eventuate. Beyond that, we are planning a gallery expansion. And before that, we are going to build (assuming planning permission is forthcoming) a wing to house a number of James Turrell works and a new restaurant/function room/bar facility. All up, we are looking to spend more than $200 million.

All that looked to be a winning hand. The plan: take a risk to get some cash from outside of Tasmania. Spend it on Mona. Grow Mona and tourism. Exploit the Mona effect. And although locals wouldn’t have access to the casino facility while gambling was taking place, in the daytime we would have another gallery to tour. Along the lines of Kenny’s ‘daytime friends and nighttime lovers’, the two groups should only suspect each other’s existence. And, of course, Tasmanians would have access to other new facilities generated on the back of Monaco.

But, as is becoming clear, it may not be a winning hand at all. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

I know full well that Wrest Point started out with no pokies and is now a pokie palace. I despise poker machines (see the quote from my book, above) and deplore this transformation. That’s why I suggested the motto for Monaco could be: No pokies, and no porkies. If my casino is permitted and then proves to be unsuccessful, it will be utilised as a Mona facility. We are confident our design will be worthwhile whatever happens within it (just quietly, our preliminary plans are shit hot). And, anyway, I am a gambler – I’m unafraid of loss, and I am empowered by risk.

When I applied for a casino licence I was aware that the government would have to negotiate with Federal Hotels to vary their monopoly (although it is far from certain that that monopoly is legally sound). I specified that I would not support an increase in the number of poker machines in the community. I did not anticipate, unfortunately, that Federal might link their acquiescence to a Mona Casino licence to an extension of their monopoly. The government has not confirmed this is so, and it may not be, but since someone (Andrew Wilkie?) suggested it, the absence of denial looks a lot like confirmation by default.

So Federal may have played their cards very well indeed. And since I could not support an extension of their poker machine monopoly, it looks like I have played my hand like a novice. I have lead into their strong suit.

That Greg Farrell, the boss of Federal, would want an extension to their monopoly is obvious, in hindsight. This is the status quo; they are accustomed to this enormously beneficial position. I’ve met Greg a few times, our interactions were convivial, and he is very charming. Federal even supports ‘24 Carrot’, Mona’s school garden project, by paying for the garden of one of our schools (Springfield Gardens Primary). He is, however, unlikely to see any harm that pokies might be effecting – he has skin in the game.

When I first opened Mona I wasn’t concerned about it surviving in perpetuity. I thought I’d see how it went, and if people bothered to come it might be worth keeping open until I lost interest or capacity. I knew that museums take on new directions when the founder dies, and I saw little reason to plan for my vision being abandoned (this period after my demise, in deference to the Christian calendar, would be known as Mona Anno Domini, or MAD). Then a strange thing happened. People started calling it ‘our museum’, expressing community ownership and pride. A lady, who told me her name was Kirsten, while thanking me for Mona and the Mofos, eloquently précised the community zeitgeist when she said, ‘You gambled and we all won’. This stuff, plus a splash of national and international recognition, and the clear economic benefit that Mona has generated, got me thinking about how to keep Mona open during the MAD period. Monaco is part of my attempt to fulfil that emerging desire.

I want to operate Monaco. But I won’t open it (before 2023 when the cooling down period of the present monopoly could end) if my opening it enshrines Federal’s poker machine monopoly. So I would ask Greg Farrell to continue to support Monaco being granted a licence, even without a monopoly extension. Monaco, in my opinion, would not affect Federal’s business (but if Wrest Point were to establish a bit of a high roller sideline, it’s reasonable to expect that Monaco punters might wander down the river for a look). So support it, and ask for nothing in return. As a favour to me, and the community. Or if you need to accrue a benefit to satisfy your board or your business brain, request a reduction in the licence fee, or some other more palatable outcome.

As I’ve said a number of times, I find poker machines antisocial, unsightly, and insidious. But, unfortunately, they are now a significant source of revenue to the government and our legislators are, therefore, conflicted. That means it’s up to those of us who think pokies are a problem (apparently 80 per cent of us) to give a clear indication of the direction we want. Since I’m the idiot that inadvertently started this process, I should lead it now, even if I’m the loss leader.

With no change to the existing regime Monaco could be operational in 2023, although waiting till 2023 is complicated by the fact that the chosen site will be inaccessible after we build the hotel. In 2023 it would also be possible for poker machines to be put to tender, and the winning bidder would not necessarily need to be the highest bidder, in the event of an enlightened government. Social criteria could include: a lower total number of machines (who knows, if my finances are going well I might bid and nominate zero machines); lower individual take-outs; and one-dollar maximums (which, anecdotally, seems to be an idea with wide support).

I have a non-regulatory idea that might be able to put pressure on commercial operators of poker machines. It may prove to be tricky to explain, but I’m going to have a go:

Operators of exchange betting sites, like Betfair, aggregate bets from punters who nominate a price they are interested in having a bet at (on, for example, a horse race). They can nominate a bet that the horse wins, or they can bet that it loses, in which case, if the price is right, they can be matched with each other. An example might serve clarity here: I want to have a bet on Social Cohesion, and I choose to request a price of 4.10 (return for $1, including stake). The highest price presently available is 4, so my bet sits in a queue, awaiting a match. Someone (or many people) comes along and thinks Social Cohesion is an unlikely winner. They offer the requisite 4.10, after all the 4 available is taken. The long-term effect of all this is to force margins on both sides down. In liquid markets the disadvantage is often much less than one per cent. Compare this to the legislative guarantee in Victoria that poker machine must pay at least 87 per cent, and thus profit a potential 13 per cent of turnover (I don’t know the figures for Tasmanian casinos and hotels. Do you? If so, post a comment, including your source please). One can easily see that a regime like Betfair operating on pokies could apply tremendous downward pressures on loss rates and, perhaps, make the operation of traditional poker machines unviable.

Could this be done? I think the answer is yes, and at various times I’ve thought about applying for a patent on my technique for achieving it. I haven’t done it, and so that no one else gets a patent, I’ll establish prior art by outlining my strategy for achieving this.

On electronic poker machines, a number of payout structures would be available to the punter, and he or she could choose which one to bet into. These payouts (a payout includes, in a poker example, how much to pay on two pairs, or a royal flush) would have a particular disadvantage to the punter that would be calculated and displayed – the punter could choose the lowest disadvantage stream, or maybe a slightly higher disadvantage for bigger maximum payoffs (there is a consistent public preference for high payouts called, in the literature, ‘longshot bias’ – that’s why people will buy lottery tickets that only return 50 cents in the dollar).

On the other side, larger operators would be able to offer payout streams. The punter would nominate a payout stream and the machine would calculate the advantage (or disadvantage) that those offered payouts would give the player. They would need to have enough money in their account to cover the largest payoff on a given gamble, but it’s attractive to these guys to do this, because they can build in a slight edge (since we know punters will take a big disadvantage, but competition will force the edge down on this side). The upshot of all this: I predict that poker machines could operate at less than a one per cent disadvantage to the player (in fact I have many colleagues who would offer that game). To be competitive, holders of commercial poker machine licences would have to offer similar low margin games. They probably wouldn’t be able to, and thus might be forced out of business. Another possibility: in 2023, if the poker machine licence comes up for tender, I wonder if the community could form a consortium to buy it? I don’t know exactly how profitable pokies are to the operators, but say they net $20m a year. That suggests at least $200m would be required to buy the licence, and the conversion, for example, to one dollar bet maximums would massively decrease that value after the purchase, but with the accompanying effect of a huge reduction in harm to the community. It might not be an efficient way to do good, but it would certainly do some good. Compensation might need to be paid to some of the smaller poker machine operators for the loss of their honestly entered business model.

In most areas where financial ‘services’ are provided, we have recently seen the internet disrupt traditional models with lower overhead cost models. Web brokers have reduced transaction costs for share transactions, and we are starting to see on-line art brokers peddling art with a very small cut. I expect this trend to continue – it will move to the gaming machine markets. So even if the scheme outlined above doesn’t come to fruition, the days of operators reaping the rewards of high margin machines are numbered (unless those operators are protected by legislation).

Writing this missive reduces my chances of building Monaco in two ways. Both Federal and the government may now have good reason to oppose it. The government, in particular, had every right to expect me to maintain a studied silence until the licensing was independently reviewed, and I apologise for my precipitate intervention. I have no reason to think the process is anything but completely appropriate, and my dealings with Treasury on this matter have been reassuringly professional. It may well be that the reviewer’s advice would have been to not support a monopoly extension. Or a monopoly extension might never have been contemplated. But, in the event that the monopoly was to be extended, I would have had to pull out at a much later stage, when community funds and time had been committed. And, this way, the poker machine issue is on the table, with plenty of time to satisfy all interested parties, if satisfaction is possible.

And in the meantime, I’ll follow Kenny’s sage advice:

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep.

If needs be, I’ll throw away Monaco, to keep my integrity.


Since I wrote this on Saturday, August 29, there have been a few interesting developments, so my blog is becoming a diary. On Monday, August 31, James Boyce had a few interesting things to say, although he said them with an overabundance of self-certain sanctimony, perhaps. He contends that the government can issue Monaco a licence without too much fear of statuary risk, and he is probably right. I don’t foresee any government taking this position, however. Incumbents see risk in a very different way than commentators. It’s possible a pretender could use this as an electoral device to become the incumbent, however…

Also on Monday I sent an email to Greg Farrell of Federal, and the Treasurer, Peter Gutwein, to inform them of my intention to blog. That precipitated a meeting with the Treasurer and a phone conversation with Mr Farrell. The Treasurer reinforced my notion, not supported by most pundits, that he was taking and would be very likely to follow independent advice (from Deloitte) that would be forthcoming in a couple of weeks. From the government’s point of view, this is the appropriate course of action and I have no issue with this process. However, if Deloitte determines that, on balance, a Monaco licence plus an extension of the Federal monopoly is good for the community (which, it seems to me, is essentially the thing they have been briefed to resolve), then the government might feel compelled to chart that course. However, that doesn’t mean that a Monaco licence and the termination of Federal’s monopoly wouldn’t be better for the community, although I acknowledge that achieving that before 2023 is unlikely.

Mr Farrell confirmed that Federal is seeking an extension to its monopoly. He pointed out (claimed) that ‘only’ 0.5 per cent of poker machine players in Tasmania are problem gamblers (the Tasmanian Council of Social Services research suggests that there are 2,500 problem gamblers in Tasmania; that is 0.5 per cent of the population, but there are many people who don’t gamble, so 2,500 represents a higher percentage of participants. And 2,500, in any case, is a large pool of suffering individuals). He also revealed a planned capital investment in Wrest Point and other assets if the monopoly is extended, a strategy similar to the commitment to Saffire made when securing the 2003 monopoly; a strategy criticised by James Boyce in The Mercury earlier the same day.


I received this letter from the Treasurer:

Mona Casino Letter

While I have to quibble on one point – I didn’t meet with Mr Farrell, we spoke on the phone – this exemplifies my contention that the Treasurer is handling this matter appropriately. I followed up again with Federal, but as will be made obvious in my reply to the Treasurer (below), we were unable to reach agreement. Federal seem to be planning a spending spree in an attempt to convince the Government that a monopoly extension is a good idea.

The Treasurer,

Yesterday I made the following proposal to the Federal Group, in relation to my attempt to secure a licence for the proposed casino at Mona (Monaco).


As you know, I can’t support an extension of your licence monopoly, even though I acknowledge that you might secure it anyway. I do not believe that Monaco affects Federal’s business model (except, possibly, the hotel which I will build anyway).

Here I propose an alternative.

If you withdraw your application for a monopoly until after I am granted a licence, and if I am granted a licence by 31/12/16, I will:

  • Warrant not to attempt to secure, for myself or any agents, a licence to operate poker machines and compete with Federal in 2023. As I’ve outlined I believe there is a low-cost model that can undercut existing business models, while massively reducing costs to the punter.
  • Not attempt to secure a general casino licence that allows Tasmanian customers in 2023.
  • Pay Federal $500,000 upon approval of my licence.
  • Support Federal if they apply for a reduction in the licence fees paid to the Government annually, to an amount of not more than $250,000 pa.

After some thought my present position is that I will build my casino whether or not I have secured a licence. The waterfront placement is problematic, and after I build the hotel I will not have access to the site. I believe it is quite possible that, with a groundswell of community support, that a political party (and thus a potential component of government) could go to an election with a Monaco licence as part of their platform, and thus engage the statutory risk that breaking Federal’s monopoly entails. High level legal opinion suggests this is not particularly fraught, since parliament cannot be bound by its own monopoly, and since the broader business community will see Mona/Monaco as a special case.

If this proposal could meet with Federal’s approval I’m happy to meet with you later today (Wednesday 9/9/15) or tomorrow.

Thanks for your attention,

David Walsh

This morning (Thursday 10/9/15) Mr Farrell called to discuss my proposal. He asserted that a proposal for expansion of Federal Group’s tourism facilities was in play prior to our proposal for Monaco, and that a monopoly extension was to be sought with or without the Federal Group’s acquiescence to Monaco. He had no appetite for acceding to a Monaco licence without a monopoly extension. For this reason, and in response to your request, I wish to withdraw my formal application for a casino licence (unless it can be contemplated outside of the existing monopoly legislation).

As outlined in my note to Mr Farrell, I intend to seek approval to build the structure that would have housed the casino, in any case. I intend to ascertain if the political will exists to attempt to overturn the existing monopoly, and in the event that abrogating the monopoly legislation proves not to be feasible, to seek a licence in 2018 for 2023. I note that, in the event of the Federal Group receiving a monopoly extension, an application for a licence in the future will face the same obstacles as the present application, and I request that the government consider this while processing Federal’s application.

Thank you for your attention (and for your goodwill),

David Walsh

Further, I ask permission to publish, as a component of an explanatory blog, your letter addressed to me. Thank you.

So I have arrived at a place that looks like the place that I departed from. On the other hand, although I hold no malice for them, I do hope that the Federal Group is further from their desired destination than ever. As I stated before, there are at least 2,500 problem gamblers in Tasmania, and for the vast majority that problem is with poker machines. I am not the one who can afford to cast the first stone. But now, for the first time in a long time, our community is within a stone’s throw of having the opportunity to mitigate the stagnant status quo.

A few years ago I read a report concerning a Médicins San Frontiéres intervention in East Timor. With relentless honesty the author, who was an MSF executive, concluded that their attempts to provide medical aid made them complicit in the interventionist Indonesian regime, by making bad look good. I almost made the same mistake. But at least I’ve got Kenny in the background chiding me to learn from my errors:

If you’re gonna play the game, boy
You gotta learn to play it right.

What would Peter Singer Do?

By David Walsh

A note from Elizabeth:

I asked David to write a blog about the refugee crisis because I felt I didn’t know enough about it to do so myself. He replied, ‘I don’t know enough about it.’ We then simultaneously started writing blog posts that included the phrase ‘What would Peter Singer do?’ So, you know, snap.

I’m going to use his, and not mine, because he has a far greater readership and it will reach more people.

You see, the reason I wanted to write something is because I want to share this link – an overview of how you can help, by donating and so forth. (Although after reading David’s post maybe it should be this link instead.) It seemed disingenuous – as my colleague Anna told me – to just post the link to our Facebook page, without offering some sort of explanation of our ‘stance’.

I know she is right in this, and I know, furthermore, I am a victim of my ‘cognitive biases’, exactly as David outlines below.

I’ve been prompted into action by the picture of the dead child. He looks just like my boy looks when he’s asleep, you see.

I turned to Peter Singer for this; what he ‘told’ me is more simplistic than what he ‘told’ David (possibly because I don’t have the kind of technical mind to think through all the implications, as per below). What he told me was that we have to use our ‘cognitive biases’, our ethical weakness – in this case, to care for those like us, and to ignore those who are different – to our best advantage. We have to know ourselves, and use that as a basis, a starting point to reach a higher place of empathy and generosity.

So I feel bad about my ‘cognitive bias’, and not bad, all at once. I was asleep to that suffering, and then I woke up.

I was right, I don’t know enough about the refugee crisis. Why would she ask me to write about it? I live two kilometres from where I was raised. The most adventurous trip I undertook as a child was to the caravan park next to Mona, for a four-day stay. So I said no, after running in circles muttering Monty Python-esque quips about ‘bravely avoiding confrontation’.

Peter Singer recently published The Most Good You Can Do, wherein he advocates effective altruism, the idea that it is incumbent on all of us (at least anyone with the opportunity to read a blog) to live inexpensively, and to benefact causes that spend the donations in ways calculated to do the most good. In the case of human-centric charities, that means saving the most lives (getting the least bangs for your buck, in the case of war charities). One of the meta-charities he supports suggests that saving a life for less than $5,000 is money efficiently spent.

Among Singer’s assumptions are that every life is equal. He introduces a concept known as Quality-Adjusted Life-Years (Qaly). A Qaly is a year lived with no disease burden. Many people would opt for a shorter life rather than suffering. If you would choose to live half as long able-bodied as bed-ridden, for example, then you are giving being ‘bed-ridden’ a Qaly rating of 0.5. Although this kind of analysis of contentious (not least because in a hypothetical scenario people overestimate how many bed-ridden years they would surrender), it does provide a quantitative method for assessing the value of ‘doing good’. Singer advocates (I think) trying to achieve the most Qalys for your donated dollar. I have a long list of issues this potentially raises. For example, effective altruists are directly manipulable by rich sociopaths: I could tell Singer that if he doesn’t start eating meat – a significant abrogation of his principles – I will withdraw donations that achieve more than he achieves by being vegetarian. My reservations (and sociopathic status) notwithstanding, his model is the best presently available, and I’ve tentatively accepted it. Hypocritically, I haven’t accepted it as my life process: sold my museum, and downsized my life to avail me the opportunity to do the most good I can do.

Some of the people Singer lauds in his book choose to pursue potentially unethical (or neutral) careers so as to maximise the money they have at their disposal, with which to be effective altruists. I’ve inadvertently done that in reverse: having made money gambling I felt guilty and tried to do some good. Not much good, Singer would say. A few years ago we asked him to write an essay about Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca (the poo machine). The tone of his reply made it obvious he thought money spent in this way lay somewhere between frivolous and reprehensible; he demanded a ridiculously high fee – which he intended to donate to an effective charity – for his essay. By the seamless logic of his life he had little choice: he had to work out the expectation of his fee (money multiplied by probability of achieving it) such that he maximized the donation he could make. In the event, Delvoye checked him out and vetoed the essay.

In The Most Good You Can Do, Singer analyses the very act of building an art gallery (or at least a wing on one) to see if it’s ethical. Unsurprisingly, he finds it wanting. Let me paraphrase his argument (his text is too long to quote; he would be ethically bound to sue me for copyright infringement because he could do good with the money). But first, a digression:

A gambling collaborator of mine worked on the Deepwater oil spill settlement. The compensation process required people to assess their loss of utility for not being able to go to the beach. There is an assumption that they lost something even if they never go to the beach, because they have forfeited the benefit of being able to contemplate going to the beach. The assessors might go somewhere they see as equivalent, and conduct a survey, asking, ‘How much would you need to be paid a year to give up your right to go to the beach?’ For those who never go to the beach, the amount is, of course, not zero. And the average amount enables an assessment of harm done. This approach caused a few problems for those with a superficial overview. The upshot was that there was more economic damage done to people in Florida, where many beaches were damaged by sludge, and there are lots of people, than in Louisiana, where some suffered a huge amount, but fewer through these indirect modalities. In assessing whether galleries are effective, Singer used this type of assessment, and the same caveats – that people overestimate an assessed value to them in a survey – apply.

I built Mona at a cost of around $75m (ignoring the art). It’s quite possible that Mona will eventually be profitable, and I could use the profits to fund effective charities. Even if it never becomes profitable, Access Economics have assessed its net benefit to the Australian community to be around $70m per year; those making that money could be donating it to charity, although the portion would be tiny. And the visitors spent their money here, when they might have donated it. So we will proceed, as Singer did, to analyse Mona’s contribution as if it were only a benefit to those that visit (and also not those who benefit from contemplating visiting).

Around 350,000 people visit a year. They have all made the choice that it is worth visiting, and some 80 per cent of them actually like it. Many people visit many times a year – they must actually like it a lot. You are a reader of my blog, and are therefore more likely than most to be a fan. You plan to visit this year. But, it turns out, one person a year will be blinded for visiting the gallery (bold art intervention? Likely terrorist attack using chemicals? God hates degenerate art? Peter Singer’s rational intervention to maximise charitable donations?). Would you still go if your chance of losing your sight was one in 350,000? Probably you would: you drive (or are driven), and a life is lost every 250 million kilometres on the road. That costs you about a half a year of life expectancy, but you still do it. If you ride a motorcycle everywhere, you cost yourself about a quarter of your life expectancy. A few of you do that. Smoking – and, astonishingly, there are still some smokers – costs you ten years.

But that was one in 350,000. What if one person per day lost their eyesight as a result of a visit to Mona? That’s about one in 1,000. I’d say you probably wouldn’t take the chance at those odds. So, forty years (say you’re halfway through an eighty year life expectancy) of eyesight is worth more than 1,000 visits to a (potentially) good gallery. The capital cost of Mona ($75m investment annualised plus losses) is about $15m a year. So you think that: a year’s eyesight is worth (15m/(40*350)) or more than $1,000. That’s kind of obvious. But you also think that the opportunity to visit Mona is worth less than $1,000 a year. That might be obvious, too. Another way to look at it: you think that the benefit that 1,000 people derive from visiting the gallery is less than the harm inflicted on one person being blinded for forty years. That assumes, and Peter Singer does assume, that a benefit to one is exactly 1/1000 of the same benefit to 1,000. Sometimes benefits accrue in a non-linear way. Cities become more innovative a lot faster than their population grows. A thousand people visiting an art gallery are clearly more likely to collaborate than one such person, and – who knows? – they might find a cure for blindness. A doctor visiting Mona noticed that the Rafael Lozano-Hemmer artwork that measures heart-rate could be used to construct a test that was a lot cheaper than the existing one, and he launched it as a product, expecting it to prevent many heart attacks. But let’s proceed with Peter’s assumption of linearity, for the sake of clarity, and computability.

It’s hard to reduce all the potential ways to help and harm to numbers. And that’s what you are probably thinking now. This is all so reductionist, and doing good is good, however inefficient it is. As I said, most likely you are a fan of Mona, and that means that you think Mona is good for you, and good for society. Peter Singer’s approach, which is the best mechanistic approach we have, draws the opposite conclusion. Are you prepared to put your wishy-washy emotions up against his elegantly reductionist logic? Am I? If you are, can you expect others’ morality to be congruent with yours? One thing I can say for sure: it can cost less than $1,000 to cure certain types of blindness. And that’s not just for a year, it’s for a lifetime. A WHO study of trachoma treatment in Nepal reached this conclusion:

The societal cost of mass treatment per one percentage point decrease in prevalence among 5,200 children screened was 32,400 NPR (ca US$600).

That was in 1998, so in Australian dollars, now, that might be $2,000. The kind of trachoma that likely results in blindness (intense inflammatory trachoma) has an incidence of about 4.3 per cent in Nepal, or 223 cases that will result in blindness. A one per cent reduction prevents 2.23 cases of blindness, so curing blindness comes to – voila – 2000/2.23, or around $900.

$1,000 for a one fifth of a life. Less than $1,000 for sight. Or a good time for nineteen people (0.8*350000)*(1000/15000000)? Should I close Mona down and give the cash to Peter Singer to do with as he will?

If you have been paying careful attention, you may recall that this blog is supposed to be about the refugee crisis. And it is. All this posturing was to create a framework that allows some sort of assessment of what’s going on, and how to make sense of the way we react to these appalling events.


As many as seventy migrants have been found dead inside a parked truck on a highway in Austria, according to police.


Photo of Aylan and the Syrian refugee crisis

Is it the image that made the world react to the plight of refugees in Europe? There were no images from the truck in Austria, but photographs can’t capture noxious odours. The last person to die in that truck: is his or her life worth as much as this child’s? The reaction to media coverage would suggest the answer is no. Why? (And why, if you were at the beach, is your first reaction to take a photograph?)

From the beginning of 2014 to mid April 2015, 254,000 refugees made it to Europe, while 5,100 died trying. So 2% of attempted entries died (ignoring returnees). So if your Qaly was less than 0.98, then it is worth the attempt. And in war-ravaged Syria, how could that not be so? Further, about 200,000 of 22m people have died in Syria; pretty close to 1%, which means that the damage to your life expectancy attempting to find a better life in Europe is less than one year. Before I did the research I assumed that desperation was the driver of refugeeism, but those seeking a better life in Europe are completely rational. Here’s my entrant in the most contrived statistic competition: since about 43% of Syrians smoke, but 27% of Europeans, if the Syrian refugees acquire European smoking habits, this alone would compensate for the risk they engaged by becoming refugees (and therefore, of course, they should really come to Australia, since smoking prevalence is lower than in Europe).

But that doesn’t explain why we care about the picture.

I was just talking to my mate Mohammed, and he told me he was going to the pro-immigration rally in Sydney’s Hyde Park. I checked out the rally Facebook page and they led with story of Aylan Kurdi, the child in the photo. I’m sure the promoters know what works. But why do we care more about one than one million? And why does Peter Singer’s carefully reasoned abject objectivity curry very little favour with the broader community?

When we were first trying to win on horse races I found that our models, taking into account form and jockeys and tracks and breeding and lots of other stuff, did not outperform the public, even though the gambling public is just a bunch people voting with their pocket and then being aggregated (it is, incidentally, a rousing endorsement of the democratic process). It was only when we included the public assessment in our models that we could win. Essentially, the public is better at calculating the odds than we are, except that they make consistent mistakes that we can exploit. One such consistent error is called hot hand bias, which is exemplified by the fact that when a basketball player makes a few three-point shots in a row, everybody thinks he is going to keep making them. He won’t; he will make his career average. There is no such thing as a streak. But we believe there is. And the reason we believe there is is evolutionary. One hundred thousand years ago in the African Savannah our ancestors foraged. Foragers were better off returning to where they found food than searching at random, and that provides selection pressure in favour of hot hand bias. Bees also exhibit hot hand bias. It’s a good thing near the hive, or in the Savannah, but it’s a bad idea when betting, or thinking. Mistakes of this type are called cognitive biases. And our appalling treatment of refugees, I think, results from some of these cognitive biases (the conflicts that cause people to flee may also have their genesis in some of these biases).

Not all cognitive biases once conferred an advantage. They are heuristics, short cuts which allow speedier processing of complex data. Mark Changizi, in his wonderful The Vision Revolution, points out that the more complex our environment, and the more novelty we face, the more compromises our neural processing has to make. We live a little bit in the future because the brain takes time to do its processing; but if we live too much in the future, our neural forecasts are more often incorrect (that’s when we are deceived by an illusion). So we want to be as quick as possible to make our future forecasting not too distant (it seems to be about half a second) and short-cuts, mental rules-of-thumb, are required to get the job done on schedule. These approximations, in my opinion, account for most of our cognitive biases. The need for dealing with novelty also accounts for our large brains. We could be smart more slowly, and do it with smaller brains, if we didn’t have to deal quickly with situations that we have not, hitherto, encountered.

So let’s look at a few of these things, these biases that fuck us up, that make difference repellent, and bigotry and selfishness attractive. If it could be demonstrated that these traits really are the result of cognitive bias and thus induce systematic error, then correcting for them might set us on a better path, in the same way that, when betting on a horse race, correcting for biases allows a more accurate assessment of the odds.

We identify with those in our in-group, and often reject or even despise outsiders. Prior to the evolution of speech the maximum number of individuals that could cooperate was about 150. Cooperation is useful: a pack of hyenas can bring down a lion, but coordination of large groups is difficult. Chimps attack other chimps as a group, and bonobos in-group activities are well known. Speech enabled larger groups, but that means there may be too many members of a group to remember. An un-counterfeitable way to recognise friends and enemies is needed. Race provides an easy one. It’s hard to fake the colour of one’s skin (or gender, but in-groups and out-groups often have the same gender distribution). Religious affiliation, and political persuasion, and sports affiliation, and parochial leaning are easier to falsify. Unless we commit to beliefs that are so ridiculous or heinous no one would voluntarily fake them (virgin births, Nazi atrocities, team song bonding, Australian flag bikinis). All this means that we commit to the in-group at the expense of the out-group. That might be where headlines like this come from:

Refugees in Europe: Christians welcome – Muslims keep out…

Another bias, out-group homogeneity bias, is relevant here. The name says it all. We tend to assume that the groups we know are diverse, but that outsiders, within their group, are all the same. A few Islamic terrorists make stereotyping easy, provided we see them as all the same. In fact, Islamic countries often have low homicide rates (Iran lower than the U.S., Saudi Arabia lower than Australia). This type of misperception recently gave Donald Trump the ammunition he needed to stigmatise undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

If you are sceptical about in-group identification and out-group demonization, consider some studies conducted by Henri Tajfel. He assigned random subjects in his studies to groups, in some cases by coin toss. Those involved quickly started accepting the group they were assigned to as objectively superior. This, despite the fact that the experimental subjects knew they were allocated to their group at random.

I’m starting to bore myself. But in the unlikely event that anyone is still interested by this point I’ll plough on.

Another significant group bias is the ultimate attribution bias, which Wikipedia explains so well that I will be lazy (as I say, I’m starting to bore myself) and lift the text:

Ultimate attribution error arises as a way to explain an out-group’s negative behaviour as flaws in their personality, and to explain an out-group’s positive behaviour as a result of chance or circumstance.

Relatedly, just-world bias is the view that those suffering fortune or misfortune brought it on themselves because the world is fair. Amongst other things, this yin and yang view enables rich fuckers like me to avoid donating to charities by believing that they worked hard for their money and they deserve it. The poor, of course, also deserve their lot (and that’s not a lot). It also contributes to explaining why seventy-one corpses in the back of a truck doesn’t cause uproar.

But it doesn’t explain the photo.

Most cognitive biases allow us to get through analysis quickly, but some also allow us to avoid the uncomfortable state known as cognitive dissonance. When we have multiple stimuli that are contradictory, we quickly assume that the information which are most aligned with our personal biases is correct. When exposed to suffering, externalising by locating it in an undervalued out-group is easy. Except when that stimulus is baldly biological, and triggers those protection mechanisms that evolution has amplified within us. We need large brains, in part because we evolved intelligence, and in part because of the required speedy response time to novelty. But kids need to pass through the birth canal, and that means their heads can’t be too large. Fifty days ago I watched my daughter, Sunday, emerge for the first (and only) time, and it reinforced my notion of how risky birth is. But small heads mean undeveloped babies, and that means a long childhood, and a great need of nurturing. Children are cute. It must be so, because they are hard to keep alive, and so we need incentives. A suffering child, therefore, sets up a very strong cognitive dissonance. And a dead child doesn’t offer mental exclusion as a solution because the dominant biological impetus is protection. There is no way out but remorse. One dead child makes us all responsible.

What about a million anonymous dead children? The advertisements for charities tell you how many children die each minute of preventable causes, and despite the good intentions of Peter Singer and others like him, we do nothing. It isn’t that the problem is too large. The lack of direct exposure allows us plausible cognitive denial. We can resolve our dissonance by ignoring the stimulus. The children aren’t right there, so our biases can be employed to save us from suffering. But that only makes those who we could have helped suffer more.

In the ten minutes it has taken you to read this far, seventy-five children have had their lives ended by preventable causes. And three hundred people have become refugees. Now let’s have a beer, or watch reality TV, while our biologically biased brains decide that it ain’t so. See if you can remember these numbers tomorrow.

Hansie Cronje, the South African cricket captain who fell from grace after taking bribes (and who later fell from space), had WWJD tattooed on his knuckles. This stood for, ‘what would Jesus do’. I doubt Jesus would have taken the cash. Let’s contemplate, for a moment, WWPSD (what would Peter Singer do)? The strict application of his principles might suggest he would ignore the plight of refugees, since it’s cheaper to save lives that are more directly threatened by disease, or starvation, or nature. It costs more than $5,000 to save a refugee. The off-shore detention centres (prisons?) that Australia employs as staging posts to sending the suffering home to suffer more cost more than $100,000 per year, per person (inmate?). Of course, those who get into the community probably pay their way. In fact, the very people with the balls to take on such high-level risk might be the ones who could get things done in a community. Perhaps it is cheaper to allow refugees in than to send them back. If each new resettled refugee contributes to the community, does it matter if it opens the floodgates? Factoring the long-term return on investment, allowing refugees to settle reduces costs to below the Singer criterion of efficiency. That is: the money must do the most good it can do.

James Newitt, a Tasmanian artist, gave people in the streets of Los Angeles a dollar for their story. He got his money’s worth. Here’s one:

I left Africa because I wanted to go to Europe, because I had dreams. So I went. I never had enough money to leave Cameroon directly to the US, so I left Cameroon and went to Nigeria – the neighbouring country – and worked there for a couple of months, and from there I went to the next country – Niger – and I worked there for a couple of months, and to Morocco, and from Morocco I went to France. From France I saved enough money to finally come to America, my final destination. I’ve been here for three-and-a-half years now, so you count the three-and-a half years back and I was doing that journey.

I used to think that maybe it was different, you know, money-wise. I know I can make money but it seems to be more competition, you know? Not that I’m discouraged, you know I’m still just working hard to make it like everybody and it’s just a matter of time, I just have to keep working hard.

We are all machines processing stimuli. But we are slightly lop-sided machines, and we pick things more easily on the side (geographically or socio-politically) nearest to us. (This is not just a metaphor: right-handed bias is prevalent. The word ‘sinister’ comes from the Latin for ‘left’, and dexterous, from ‘on the right’.) Our short-cut cognition leads to error, and that error leads to persecution of those most different from us, even if the difference is arbitrary. With effort, we can counterbalance and correct. Most of what I’ve presented in this unwieldy blog I’m not too sure about. But I know this: with effort comes understanding, and with understanding, tolerance.

Sincere apologies for the mum-and-pop psychology.