Douglas Clifford writes: Accepting that the final mortality numbers for the Christchurch earthquake are not yet available, perhaps the Tangiwai disaster on 24 December 1953, which was the worst rail accident in New Zealand, might qualify as New Zealand’s “darkest hour”.

According to Wikipedia:

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An 11-carriage overnight express from Wellington to Auckland fell into the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai, ten kilometres (six miles) west of  from Waiouru.  The bridge carrying the North Island Main Trunk Railway over the river had been badly damaged just minutes earlier by a lahar from Mount Ruapehu.

The KA class steam locomotive, all five second-class carriages, and the leading first-class carriage derailed, resulting in the deaths of 151 of the 285 people aboard the train. Of the 176 second-class passengers aboard, only 28 survived.

Jim Hart writes: Re. “A national emergency: Christchurch’s deadly quake” (yesterday, item 1). So I’m listening to Radio National yesterday morning, keeping abreast of world events and muesli simultaneously, and I’m thinking this New Zealand earthquake sounds pretty serious, but these days there are so many demands on my reserves of global concern that I can’t be totally sure.

Then AM crosses to Canberra for an announcement from our prime minister, and next thing Julia herself, live and in person,  solemnly intones that an Australian has died in the quake. So now it’s official — it really is a disaster.

Yet we can still find positives even in times of grief, for Julia goes on to explain that the tragic Aussie victim was helped by a kind-hearted Kiwi, which just exemplifies the strength and resilience of the bond between our two great nations.

When I heard that a kind of a lump came to my throat but it may have been the toast.

Thanks Julia.

Racism and Australia:

Justin Templer writes: Re. Yesterday’s Editorial. Your lead item contains the usual polemic that taints every attempt to engage all of Australia in a frank debate on immigration.  You write that ” too many Australians (41%) have a narrow view of who belongs in Australia” and that “one-in-ten Australians have very problematic views on diversity and on ethnic difference”. Says who?

And who defines narrow or problematic? By the way, love the Ministry-of-Propaganda wording “narrow view of who belongs” in Australia. I imagine the narrow view you refer to is more over “who should enter Australia”. Not exactly the same thing.

These linguistic gymnastics are also commonly found in references in the press to racist views which allegedly appeal to “the lowest common denominator”. What does this mean? And is it still appropriately dismissive if the lowest common denominator view is held by a majority — or even only 41%? Should we instead only reference the views held by the intellectual super-strata and ignore the uncouth denominators?

Maybe I just mix in the wrong circles but every day I get the bus to work and home again and I seem to bump into that same group that holds these problematic views. Some of these people are BMW-driving wealthy, others are blue collar, some retired. None of them are stupid. But obviously, as denominators, too low and too common to be given a voice.

Dictator Watch:

Tim Deyzel writes: Re. “Dictator Watch: Gaddafi valued in billions … Mubarak rolling in platinum” (yesterday, item 4). Your senior journalist Paul Barry reported yesterday on a document on the Al-Masry Al-Youm website, claiming that Mubarak had 19,000 kg of platinum in a Swiss bank account as far back as 1982. Let’s assume that this suspiciously round number is accurate.

Platinum is trading this week at US$1825 (+/- $5) per troy ounce. There are approximately 32.15 troy ounces per kg.

Hence platinum is currently valued at about US$58,673/kg or US$58,673,000/tonne. So 19 tonnes are currently valued at a little over US$1.1 billion.

I haven’t looked up the 1982 platinum price but I doubt it was higher than it is today. So the claim, via Al-Masry Al-Youm, that the 19 tonnes were worth US$15 billion and Barry’s wild guess that today the platinum “would not fetch more than US$100 billion” are just silly and in Barry’s case wrong by two orders of magnitude!

Still US$1.1 billion is not to be sneezed at. It’s almost enough to buy every adult Australian a subscription to Crikey for a year!

“Sarah D” writes: Dear “Skink” (yesterday, comments) , I’d back Keith Richards as a closer blood relative of Gaddafi over Gene Simmons…

Housing affordability:

H S Mackenzie writes: Re. “Own a house? Don’t bother, it’s cheaper to rent” (yesterday, item 24). Adam Schwab discussed the situation of a Crikey tipster who had earlier in the week bemoaned an inability to get a housing loan at the age of 50. I take no issue with Schwab’s claims that the tipster possibly couldn’t get a loan because of low income and a poor savings record but I do with his statement that “based on Australia’s median property price and median rental, it costs around twice as much to own your own home, as to rent one.”

The tipster claims to have found a house costing $200,000.  If he borrowed that full amount over 30 years, according to the Commonwealth Bank’s mortgage calculator, he’d pay $1442 per month ($332.77 per week) or a total of $517,867 over the life of the loan.  Admittedly the loan rate will fluctuate over the 30 years but it will decrease as well as increase.  To pay the same amount in rent over 30 years as he would pay in buying he’d have to rent a house at $265 per week with the rent increasing by an average of only 1% per year.

According to the Queensland Government’s Housing Affordability Report (SEQ SC04), rents increased by 49% between 2001-2 and 2006-7 or an average of 9.8% per year.  If that sort of increase in rental rates applied over the 30 years of his loan in order to pay only the same amount as he would in buying, his initial rent would have to be $50.60!

But let’s take median prices as Schwab suggests.

In Queensland, where based on his choice of bank the tipster apparently comes from, according to the Queensland Government’s Housing Market Report the median house rental for the September Quarter of 2010 was $330. The median house price in the same quarter was $417,500. If he borrowed $400,000 his total outlay over 30 years to buy the house would be $1,054,307.  His total outlay in rent over the equivalent period (renting at the median rental with an average annual increase in rent of, say, 5%) would be $1,292,297 or over $235,000 more than buying.

Admittedly a house buyer also has costs for rates and maintenance that a renter doesn’t (and these are probably substantially more than the costs of being forced to move at the whim of landlords, key money, foregone bonds and so on that a renter will face over a 30 year period) but after 30 years the buyer will also have the capital value of the house — even if (and I think over a 30 year period that this is far more unlikely than Schwab does) that value has decreased.

Mortgage payments might be twice the cost of rent in the early years of purchasing a house but I totally fail to see how Schwab can claim with a straight face that “it costs around twice as much to own your own home, as to rent one.”

China and Falun Gong:

H. Richard Brinkman writes: Re. “Theatre group raises questions about Chinese Consulate intimidating schools”  (yesterday, item 8). I have see one of these Falun Gong so-called cultural shows in Adelaide and I was appalled by its vehement anti-Chinese sentiment, as were some of the show’s unwitting local sponsors that I spoke to during the interval.

These shows originate in New York and some suggest that they enjoy significant support from US government agencies  Unless you want to witness a barrage of thinly disguised China (PRC) bashing, don’t go. The show creates misguided perceptions in the minds of the politically naive — especially perhaps young children


Jackie French writes: Re. “Pobjie: we’ve all been flipper-whipped — the whales can not win” (yesterday, item 16). Humanity evolved to be one of a myriad of species. Without the world of animals, we would be less.

Jeff Ash writes: This article was hilarious. I wait with bated breath for the lefto uproar…

Climate change:

Kieren Diment writes: Tamas Calderwood (yesterday, comments) would do well to revise his views. If the only thing he has to support his arguments are long discredited, and do not stand scrutiny. Despite being shown his errors on many many occasions that his views are clearly wrong, he continues to repeat them.

The only appropriate response to the anti-science views of him and other climate change deniers is to point out the prejudice in their views. Sparing their feelings seems to me like a wasted effort. Note the distinction between denialists like Tamas and proper sceptics (i.e. the publishing scientists).

An excellent satirical summary of climate denialist views is given in the Climate Sceptic review of the film Jaws.

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Peter Fray
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