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05 Mar

Revamped laws a double-edged sword

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A round of property law reforms are delivering good news for big landlords, but a mixed result for the big commercial agents. Photo: iStockCommercial property professionals are no longer required to hold a real estate agent’s licence for large property transactions under NSW government red tape reforms.
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The winds of change in this area have already blown through Queensland and Victoria and now NSW agents are facing a double-edged sword.

The changes, under an amendment to NSW’s Property, Stock and Business Agents Act, are aimed at

alleviating the costs and compliance paperwork for the vendors and also for the agents, who, if they complete the forms incorrectly, face losing commissions.

It comes at a time when larger vendors, of the ilk of real estate investment trusts, which own about 80 per cent of investment-grade properties in the country, are embarking on asset deals. For the larger acquisitions or disposals, most of them will probably still use an external, independent agent, but the same probably isn’t true for deals worth a lot less.

Under the Queensland law the thresholds are properties worth about $10 million and 10,000 square metres. In NSW, the exemptions are based on the principal/owner, whereas in Queensland they are based on the property or the parties for the relevant transaction/agency agreement.

According to Jodie Masson, partner at the property-exclusive law firm Massons, new exemptions to the act for commercial agents, which came into effect on  August 15, provided a windfall to large property owners but were a double-edged sword for large commercial agents.

Similar rules came into Victoria in early 2014.

“The new exemptions are great news for large property owners who manage, lease and sell their own assets via a separate, but related, licensed entity, which usually charges a fee to the owner,” Ms Masson said. “It means that those internally controlled agency entities no longer have the administrative burden of maintaining a real estate agent’s licence, including paying fees, required signage, managing trust accounts and holding personal indemnity insurance. It’s easy to understand why some large shopping centre owners have been pushing for this change for many years.

“On the one hand, large commercial real estate agencies will no longer need to ensure that they strictly comply with NSW agency law, particularly in the area of having compliant agency agreements, for their large clients,” Ms Masson said. “The courts have been brutal with real estate agents who do not have strictly compliant agency agreements, that is, signed at the right time, containing all of the prescribed terms in the right places, and signed and served properly.

“In a commercial property industry which is largely dependent on relationships, it makes sense to relax the strict requirements so that agents can collect the agreed commission without having to jump through hoops.”

However, Ms Masson said the downside for commercial real estate agents was that they would have to work harder to entice business away from those large corporate owners who manage, lease and sell their own assets.

“If large property owners can now easily internally manage their property management, leasing, acquisitions and disposals, there is now less incentive to outsource this previously troublesome role to an external licensed real estate agent,” Ms Masson said.

“However, there’s always a place for absolute experts and the large commercial agencies are well set up to provide excellent support and coverage for property owners.”

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05 Mar

Storage Wars: The billion-dollar business based on junk

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Penrith Auctions both sells and buys the contents of storage units, when the buyer has defaulted. Auctioneer Arron Caller holds a 1950s Golden Fleece petrol station sign. Photo: Peter RaeVery often it’s trash. But this time the “delinquent” storage unit contained a $37,000 stash worthy of a big reveal on the television reality show Storage Wars.
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“Lo and behold, there was a safe with five exquisite watches,” said Jason Lee*, the owner of Penrith City Auctions.

Mr Lee spotted the locked safe after buying the entire contents of the unit sight unseen. The owner, Lee was told, had defaulted because he had been deported for overstaying his visa.

Each watch was worth $7500. Another unit he bought contained the stock of a sex shop including thousands of “devices” in different colours, shapes and sizes.

As overall demand for storage has gone up, so too have complaints about unfair pricing and the seizure of goods for non-payment.

The number of unpaid storage units for auction on GraysOnline, for instance, has increased by 50 per cent, with around 50 “delinquent” auctioned each week. Bidding on units starts at $9, but can reach the thousands, driven by Storage Wars’ inspired buyers who are looking for treasure.

According to a report this month by IBISWorld, a research company, the storage industry’s 692 players generate $1.1 billion in revenue, resulting in profits of around 20 per cent. As rents and property prices go up, consumers are finding their stuff no longer fits in the smaller dwellings. E-commerce has also created a need for more storage for small online businesses, often operated at home.

No one knows exactly how many storage units exist in Australia, but at best guess there are as many as 700,000 individual units. National Storage, which has 8.5 per cent of the market has 59,000 units, said a spokeswoman for the company.

Occasionally Mr Lee will find himself bidding against a frantic owner, who wants to recover the contents of their seized unit. “You can tell when they bid, a storage unit worth only $500 (and the owner) will bid $2000.”

Auction houses like Mr Lee’s are also contracted by local storage companies to sell and clear out the contents of delinquent units from Sydney sites.

NSW Fair Trading has received 24 complaints this year, mostly relating to fees, charges and loss and damage of property.  Three concerned the seizure or sale of storage unit contents.

IT consultant Laszlo Molnar complained about unfair pricing on ProductReview上海 about National Storage’s policy of increasing prices every nine months on the unit he rented to store furniture for his daughter.

“Every nine months I got an increase of between 12 and 18 per cent. And when I asked National Storage, they said it was their policy to do a rental increase. It was above any rate of inflation or CPI.”

You never know what you are going to find in a delinquent storage unit. Photo: Peter Rae

When the price of the 1.8 metre square storage unit in Melbourne, which he originally rented for $105 a month, was about to hit $150, he decided that was enough and moved out. He said the manager of his storage centre  had written to him that the price increases were company policy, handed down from head office.

A spokeswoman for National Storage told Fairfax Media that price increases were determined on a supply and demand basis, akin to hotel or airline industry pricing. Different centres have different pricing structures, she said.

Mr Lee said he was increasingly competing against consumers who have watched the American television show Storage Wars and believe that they will find a jackpot by bidding on a delinquent unit on GraysOnline.

“They’ve watched the TV show, and believe they will buy a unit or two at auction and hit the jackpot by finding a five carat diamond ring. But you’ve got more luck (of getting rich) on the blackjack table,” said Mr Lee. His auction house Penrithcityauctions上海 specialises in selling deceased estates and unsold units.

Mostly Mr Lee finds “decrepit old stuff” in amongst the abandoned household goods, motorbikes, hi-fi units and suitcases. GraysOnline advertised a unit this week where the highlight was a DVD of the 1989 Julia Robert’ movie, Steel Magnolias. 

Storage units are a billion-dollar business and profitable, generating shows like Storage Wars in the US and shown on television here. But many people default on these units, and the contents are sold online and at weekly auctions by companies like Penrith City Auctions. Photo: Peter Rae

National Storage’s spokeswoman said before the delinquent unit went to auction, the goods are catalogued and lodged with GraysOnline for sale. “Items are detailed and we don’t sell units as unseen lots as they do on Storage Wars.”

The company didn’t sell personal items (eg documents) and these are held for collection by the customer.

“We are not obliged to do this but feel this is the right thing to do in these circumstances,” she said. 

* Lee is not his real last name.

Storage by numbers  Industry revenue $1.1 billion Industry profit $214.8 Number of businesses 692

One of the treasures sourced from an unpaid storage unit, and up for auction at Penrith City Auctions. Photo: Peter Rae

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05 Mar

ASX to start flat ahead of retail, capex data as US rates remain in focus

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Local data returns to the spotlight this week for Australian investors emerging from reporting season, while globally markets wait on employment data from the US to validate commentary from US Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen.
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Markets last week traded in quiet anticipation of news from the Fed’s annual meeting at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, including the hotly anticipated speech from Dr Yellen, which disappointed interest rate hawks on Friday night.

While leaving the option to raise interest rates as early as September open, depending on employment data due on Friday, Dr Yellen also pointed to stimulus tools available should conditions deteriorate, leaving the impression that monetary policy was likely to remain accommodative in the long term.

Fed fund futures moved, albeit not dramatically, from pricing around a 32 per cent chance of a hike in September to 42 per cent. Asian region markets will have a chance to respond to the commentary, in the wake of the US dollar which surged higher, sending the Australian dollar tumbling 1.5 per cent from a high of US76.8¢ to as low as US75.6¢.

The Australian dollar clawed back some ground, sitting at US76¢ flat at the weekend, while sharemarket futures point to a slightly weaker open on Monday morning.

“While the move towards another Fed rate hike will likely cause bouts of consternation in investment markets I don’t see the same degree of uncertainty that we saw around last year’s Fed rate hike,” AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver said.

“It’s clear from the Fed’s actions this year that it is aware of global risks, the impact of its own actions on those risks and any potential blowback to the US economy and of the impact of a rising US dollar in doing some of its work for it and so acting as a limitation on how much it can hike.”

While investors will be awaiting Friday’s non-farm payrolls for the US for a strengthening case for a rate rise at the Fed’s meeting on September 26-27, as well as commentary from four Fed speakers throughout the week, there is plenty of action to keep local traders occupied.

Building approvals data is due on Tuesday, followed by retail sales for July and June-quarter business investment data due on Thursday.

“Industry reports, including those from the current reporting season have been mixed [regarding retail sales],” National Australia Bank senior economist David de Garis said.

“One major market chain had a strike affecting distribution in Melbourne from mid-July, possibly hampering sales through its outlets. Still quite difficult trading conditions were also reported by department stores in July with David Jones having July as an additional clearance month.”

Consensus forecasts expect growth to sit at 0.3 per cent month on month, a slight improvement on June’s disappointing 0.1 per cent figure.

As for second-quarter capex, consensus estimates from Bloomberg expect a contraction of 4.1 per cent for the quarter, following a trend of declines on the previous quarter’s 5.2 per cent fall. The release from the Australian Bureau of Statistics also includes expectations for the 2017 financial year. Mr de Garis said “some normal seasonal upgrade on early tentative estimates is usually evident, and NAB expects some upward revision on this basis from $89.2 billion to $97.6 billion for spending”.

Other data points to watch include the purchasing managers’ indices manufacturing gauges from China, the eurozone, Britain and the US all on Thursday.

This week also marks the tail end of company reporting season, with only a few major companies left to report, including Harvey Norman, Ramsay Health Care and Adelaide Brighton.

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05 Mar

Americans pay millions to whistleblower at BHP; we hound them out of their jobs

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Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a director at Thiess’ parent company, Leighton Holdings (now named CIMIC), and responsible for company ethics. Photo: YouTube The US paid for evidence of alleged bribery by BHP Billiton.
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Separate to the BHP Billiton case, a whistleblower claims he was victimised because of disclosures he made about alleged corruption at mining services giant Thiess. Photo: Supplied

Got a story? Contact us securely via JournoTips or SecureDrop or at [email protected]上海

The US government paid a huge bounty – nearly $5 million – to a former employee of Australian mining giant BHP Billiton in a case that exposes the weakness of Australia’s whistleblower regime.

In Australia, those who flag corruption inside companies receive limited or no protection and are often sacked or mistreated, while in the United States, which paid for evidence that exposed alleged bribery by BHP Billiton, whistleblowers are encouraged to come forward.

News of the bounty comes as the new, more powerful crossbench in Federal Parliament shapes up to pressure the big parties to change Australia’s whistleblower protection laws.

The calls for reform are being made as Fairfax Media can reveal new details of another whistleblower case that suggests serious ethical failings by a top Australian businesswoman and ABC board member, Kirstin Ferguson.

A Fair Work Commission complaint filed by the whistleblower alleges he was “victimised as a result of the disclosures” he made to Dr Ferguson about alleged corruption at mining services giant Thiess. Dr Ferguson is a director at Thiess’ parent company, Leighton Holdings (now named CIMIC), and is responsible for company ethics as ethics committee chairwoman.

Dr Ferguson declined to comment on detailed questions sent to her by Fairfax Media.

Key MPs Nick Xenophon, Jacqui Lambie and Andrew Wilkie, as well as the Greens and shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus have all said they will push in Parliament for stronger whistleblower laws to encourage reporting of corporate corruption.

Australian Securities and Investments Commission senior executive Warren Day also said he backed calls for major whistleblower reforms, saying new legislation and the prospect of compensation should be considered.

Minister for Financial Services Kelly O’Dwyer said the government was looking at strengthening Australia’s corporate whistleblower regime.

Huge bounty

In May, the US corporate watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission, revealed it would pay a bounty “to a company employee whose tip bolstered an ongoing investigation with additional evidence of wrongdoing”.

Legal sources have confirmed that the whistleblower was a BHP Billiton insider, paid US$3.75 million (about $4.96 million). The former employee provided detailed information to US investigators about the mining firm’s activities overseas several years ago.

The allegations remain the subject of an active Australian Federal Police bribery investigation. To protect their identity, Fairfax Media is not revealing evidence of the conduct the whistleblower exposed.

It is the first time an employee of an Australian company has received a US whistleblower bounty. Under the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the SEC can reward whistleblowers by giving them a cut of a fine extracted from a company, with payouts often reaching many millions of dollars.

In May 2015, BHP Billiton agreed to pay $US25 million to the SEC to settle an inquiry into trips to the Beijing Olympics that the company gave to government officials. The officials represented countries where the miner was operating, and where it was sometimes seeking government permits.

BHP Billiton said in a statement that, during that inquiry, the SEC had made no findings of bribery or corrupt intent against the company, and that the US Department of Justice had investigated but took no action.

“The SEC recognised BHP Billiton’s ‘significant cooperation’ throughout the investigation and its ‘significant remedial efforts’,” the company said in a statement.

The company said it was not aware of the involvement of any whistleblower as part of either investigation.

“We respect and fully support protections for all whistleblowers, and the importance of providing confidential avenues for reporting,” the statement said.

Australian whistleblower persecuted

Leaked company and court documents reveal a whistleblower from mining services giant Thiess asked Dr Ferguson to protect him in 2014 in her capacity as director and chair of the ethics committee at Leighton Holdings, Thiess’ parent company.

On July 25 that year, the whistleblower allegedly told Dr Ferguson of Thiess’ involvement in an alleged bribery conspiracy in India. He had told her the company had failed to disclose the allegations to the stock market as required under law.

Records of conversations and text messages between Dr Ferguson and the whistleblower reveal she was told by the whistleblower that he had uncovered “the biggest ethical issue this company [Thiess] has and would be the biggest in Australia”.

“My role is under serious threat,” the whistleblower told Dr Ferguson on July 25, 2014.

Twelve days later, the man was sacked, and forced to go on “garden leave” by Leighton, legal documents say.

Forty-eight hours after that, Dr Ferguson texted the whistleblower and said she was “following up” on his allegations. “I … will be sure to call you when I am done,” her text states.

In response, the whistleblower texted Dr Ferguson that he was being sacked and needed urgent help: “This matter requires urgent escalation … Kirstin, when can I expect to hear from you?”

She did not contact him back.

A formal complaint filed with Leighton Holdings and lodged in the Fair Work Commission states that as a result of whistleblowing to Dr Ferguson, “he was victimised”.

The whistleblower had earlier tried to get the company to fully investigate and respond to allegations of Thiess’ involvement in bribery in India in connection to a multibillion-dollar coal deal. The whistleblower’s complaint details a subsequent “cover-up” of information from the market by Leighton Holdings, which has been renamed CIMIC. The company has never passed the matters raised by the whistleblower to corporate watchdog ASIC or the federal police.

CIMIC and the whistleblower confidentially settled the Fair Work Commission case.

Reform needed

ASIC executive Warren Day believes new whistleblowing laws could provide far greater clarity and protection for employees who wanted to report a range of misconduct, spanning financial crime and environmental or health and safety breaches.

Mr Day says there was merit in compensating whistleblowers, although he cautioned against aspects of the US scheme.

Senator Nick Xenophon has told Fairfax Media that “whistleblowers in the US get rewarded and protected, but here they get punished and ruined”.

Andrew Wilkie, who was recently elected as an independent MP in Tasmania, said Australia had a cultural problem in which whistleblowers were scorned as untrustworthy dobbers, or unhinged: “In the US whistleblowers are celebrated, but in Australia they’re often vilified,” he said.

“Greater whistleblower protection is one of the building blocks of a healthy democracy and … of a healthy corporate culture.”

Senator Lambie, who has taken up the cause of a Defence Department whistleblower, said she wanted “world’s best practice” whistleblower laws which would “strengthen our democracy, prevent and uncover official corruption, decrease government waste, save lives, money and prevent damage to our environment”.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said private sector employees should enjoy the same whistleblower protection as people in the public sector because their information is “just as valuable to our community, and they should not be treated differently under the law”.

“Recently a string of brave private sector whistleblowers have come forward with valuable information, including those who have exposed wrongdoing in our banking sector. They deserve our protection,” Mr Dreyfus said.

Minister Kelly O’Dwyer said that, as it looked to strengthen legislation, the government would “follow usual process, and will consult publicly”.

She said in a speech in July that the government would consider ways to “encourage, protect and reward whistle-blowers whose information reveals artificial tax structures and misconduct”.

“Big business will have to get their house in order, or suffer the consequences,” she said at the time.

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05 Mar

Australian writers’ festival season in full bloom

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Erica Jong will be at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in October. Photo: Bill O’Leary/Washington PostA FEAST OF FESTIVALS
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Writers’ festival season is well underway wherever you may be in the country with the inaugural Canberra Writers Festival on this weekend (canberrawritersfestival上海 and Melbourne Writers Festival (mwf上海.au) sprawling over this weekend and next. Closer to home, Sydney Jewish Writers Festival opens on Saturday evening at Bondi Pavilion, continues all day Sunday at Waverley Library (sjwf上海.au). I will be part of the launch of Rebellious Daughters, an anthology of memoirs by Australian women, along with editors Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman, and another contributor, Leah Kaminsky, who will also join me with novelist Steven Amsterdam and Rabbi David Freeman in a session called “We Need to Talk about Dying”. Other speakers include David Gonski, Arnold Zable, Mireille Juchau and in the children’s program Anna and Barbara Feinberg, the mother and daughter who for 20 years have created the popular Tashi books.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas at Sydney Opera House on September 3-4 (fodi.sydneyoperahouse上海m) features talks by speakers ranging from Alexei Sayle to Andrew Bolt on politics, asylum seekers, fishing, the arts, gender, drugs, sport, sex addiction, suicide and many more topics. Events continue through September, if you want a weekend away, from the large Brisbane Writers Festival on September 7-11 (uplit上海 to tiny gatherings in beautiful locations – Batemans Bay Writers Festival (batemansbaywritersfestival上海m) on September 9-11 and the St Albans Writers Festival on Septembers 16-18 (stalbanswritersfestival上海 You’ll find some of the same writers on the circuit, from international names such as Lionel Shriver and Yann Martel to locals Meg and Tom Keneally, Rod Jones, Nick Earls, Suzanne Leal, George Megalogenis, Tim Fischer and Jane Caro. And each festival has its exclusive surprises. NO FEAR OF SAILING FOR JONG

You might wonder what it’s like to travel with feminist Erica Jong, who made her name with the 1973 erotic novel Fear of Flying. You can find out at the Ubud Writers Festival, which has just released its program for October 26-30. Jong’s bestseller was more about changing attitudes to sex than flying, coining the term “zipless f—“, though it opened with 117 psychoanalysts on a flight to Vienna and a narrator fearful of hijacking. The entertaining Jong, whose latest book is Fear of Dying, will be among 160 writers in Ubud. She will also join 10 guests on a six-day post-festival cruise from Flores to Komodo, along with festival director and cook Janet DeNeefe. Having taken this cruise in its first year with Indian writer Amitav Ghosh and his American wife Deborah Baker, I recommend its combination of sightseeing, cooking, dining and discussion of books. See ubudwritersfestival上海m and seatrekbali上海m. SUPPORT INDIGENOUS LITERACY

Singers Justine Clarke, Josh Pyke and Deborah Cheetham, and writers Andy Griffiths, Richard Flanagan and Alison Lester will join school children from remote communities to celebrate Indigenous Literacy Day at the Sydney Opera House on September 7. Clarke and Pyke will perform a new song, Words Make the World Go Around. Visiting children from Tjuntjuntjara, Mt Margaret and Menzies schools will read their stories from The Goanna Was Hungry, a book they have written and illustrated with Ann James and Sally Morgan. All children can take part in The Great Book Swap at the Opera House or at their schools by taking along a book and a gold coin in support of the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which has provided 150,000 free books to communities across Australia. See ilf上海.au and greatbookswap上海.au to register.

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05 Feb

Life of Pi author Yann Martel in town to headline Canberra Writers Festival

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Author Yann Martel is the headline act at the first Canberra Writers Festival. Photo: Jay CronanYann Martel has a message for the powerful people of Canberra – reading books is important.

The best-selling author of the Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi is in town this week as one of the stars of the inaugural Canberra Writers Festival, with the capital his first stop on a tour to promote his latest book.

The High Mountains of Portugal is a meditation on grief, split into three short stories.

Speaking shortly after landing from a long flight from his hometown of Saskatoon in Canada, he said he relished the chance to meet more readers and learn about Australia’s writing landscape.

The father of four young children said reading was of the utmost importance, particularly for people in positions of power.

“We live in a literate society, so if you’re at the top of it, it strikes me you have to read,” he said.

“A police chief, the head of a hospital, the head of a corporation, a prime minister – to me they should read because I don’t know how else you can know the human condition. Otherwise you only know of your own tight little life.

“I’m not saying a book a week, but you have to have a book by your bedside table that makes you be someone else every night for at least 20 minutes before you fall asleep. That’s enough. It’s like a vaccination.”

Martel has form when it comes to prescribing such self-help: he spent four whole years, from 2007-2011, trying to convince then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to read more books.

He was moved to start a two-person book club with Mr Harper after realising his country’s conservative leader cared little for the arts.

He sent Mr Harper a new book every two weeks, accompanied by a two-three page letter explaining why the book was important and discussing some of its themes.

The books, mostly works of fiction and under 200 pages, ranged in genre and theme.

“I sent everything – highbrow, lowbrow, international,” he said.

“I sent him an Agatha Christie, I sent him a Harlequin romance, a Mills and Boon, everything, plays, poetry collections. I sent him a Virginia Woolf… They were usually under 200 pages, because the usual excuse that people give for not reading is that they don’t have time.”

His efforts – 101 books in all – were to no avail; Mr Harper failed to respond to a single letter.

“He was not willing to engage in a dialogue, which to me reflects who he was,” he said.

“I did this specifically with Harper because he’s a tight, little, narrow man who did great harm to Canada. His record was largely negative, what he did not do rather than what he did do. So that was my little effort to bridge that gap.”

He said Canada’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a former drama teacher with a degree in English, probably didn’t need much instruction when it came to reading.

And interestingly, US President Barack Obama was moved to send him a letter, unprompted, after reading Life of Pi with one of his daughters.

This, and the fact that all 101 letters sent to Mr Harper were eventually published as book, meant his efforts were not in vain.

Yann Martel will be speaking about The High Mountains of Portugal at Llewellyn Hall at the Australian National University on Friday, August 26 at 6.30pm. For bookings and more information, visit canberrawritersfestival杭州 

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05 Feb

The 2016 ACT Book of the Year shortlist has a wide variety of subjects

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Authors Frank Bongiorno, Robyn Cadwallader and Subhash Jaireth have been shortlisted for the 2016 ACT Book of the Year. Photo: Melissa AdamsThe shortlist for the 2016 ACT Book of the Year was announced on Friday at the National Library of Australia by ACT Arts Minister Chris Bourke on the first day of the inaugural Canberra Writers Festival.

The ACT government has promised that if re-elected it will increase support for the Canberra Writers Festival with a financial contribution of $125,000 a year over the next three years.

Dr Bourke said 39 books by ACT authors – ranging across fiction, non-fiction and poetry – had been entered for the $10,000 prize, reflecting the diversity of writing in the Canberra community. He said the subject matter of the shortlisted books tied in well with the festival’s themes of power, politics and passion.

The shortlisted books were: Locust Girl by Merlinda Bobis​ (Spinifex Press); The Eighties: the Decade That Transformed Australia by Frank Bongiorno (Black Inc. Books); The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader (Harper Collins); Moments by Subhash Jaireth ( Puncher & Wattman); and Illicit Love by Ann McGrath (University of Nebraska Press).

Locust Girl – which has won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction – is a political fable about a young woman with a locust embedded in her brow who undertakes a magical journey. Illicit Love by Anne McGrath is a history of love, sex and marriage between Indigenous peoples and settler citizens in the US and Australia from the 18th to the early 20th centuries.

The 47-year-old Bongiorno – who won the 2013 ACT Book of the Year for The Sex Lives of Australians: A History – said, “I was interested in treating a period I could recall – I was a teenager 30 years ago.”

He was struck by how a lot of what happened in the decade, such as the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating government, continued to influence what happened today, as well as other aspects of the era such as the impact of AIDS.

Robyn Cadwallader said her novel The Anchoress, set in 13th-century England, told the story of Sarah, a 17-year-old villager mourning the death of her sister and resisting pressure to marry who chose to be sealed up in a cell in a church.

“She would pray, read and counsel women in the village as a holy woman considered to be wise.”

Cadwallader came across anchoresses when working on her doctorate about 15 years ago. The Anchoress is her first novel.

Moments by Subhash Jaireth is a collection of 11 short stories. Jaireth said, “I write stories in the voice of well-known artists, performers and musicians. There is a story, Bach (Pau) In Love where I try to figure out why Bach wrote the very lyrical, romantic cello suites”.

The ACT Book of the Year has been supported by the ACT government since 1993. It is being judged this year by writer and Muse events manager Nikki Anderson, ANU Emeritus Fellow and writer Colin Steele and 2015 ACT Book of the Year shortlisted writer Sam Vincent and the winner will be announced in December.

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05 Feb

Alec Patric wins Miles Franklin award for novel about Bosnian refugees

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Refugee tale: Alec Patric has won the Miles Franklin award. Photo: Eddie JimAlec Patric was only six or seven when he realised that writing was important. His mother was involved in a poetry competition between Australia and Yugoslavia and he sat holding her hand in a university lecture theatre.

“And her name is announced and she goes down and makes a speech and I see my mother get an award for a poem she wrote. That is probably the most significant moment in my life.”

Fast forward to Friday night and he might want to change that assessment as it is Alec Patric getting the award – this year’s Miles Franklin, Australia’s most important literary prize, for his first novel, Black Rock White City. He has previously published two collections of short stories and a novella.

The prize was presented at the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival at which Maxine Beneba Clarke delivered a keynote address bouncing off her new memoir, The Hate Race, about growing up black in Australia.

Black Rock White City tells of two refugees from the Bosnian civil war, Jovan and Suzana, both writers, negotiating in the late ’90s their new and very different lives in bayside Melbourne, dealing with the traumas of war, exile and loss. Jovan is working as a cleaner in a hospital that is subject to a spate of graffiti attacks that are getting more aggressive and more focused.

Judges spokesman Richard Neville, Mitchell Librarian at the State Library of NSW, said the novel’s urgent narrative “envelops the reader in one of the great issues of our time”.

The Fairfax review of Black Rock White City described it as “formally rigorous and emotionally powerful, (Patric’s) new novel can only add to his stature as one of the most fascinating writers in this part of the world”.

Patric’s parents migrated from Serbia in the early ’70s: “They came to Australia to give their children new possibilities, and for me to win the Miles Franklin, that’s certainly that coming to fruition,” he said.

Patric wins $65,000 while the other novelists on the shortlist – Peggy Frew (Hope Farm), Myfanwy Jones (Leap), Lucy Treloar (Salt Creek) and Charlotte Wood (The Natural Way of Things) – each take home $5000.

Patric was surprised to win the prize, which is given to a novel that depicts “Australian life in any of its phases”.

“Generally speaking, if you look at what the Miles Franklin has been given to in the past,” he said, “it hasn’t often represented multicultural perspectives yet multiculturalism has been a very significant part of Australian life and culture for decades.”

He said the disintegration of Yugoslavia was relevant to Australia because it had been one of the first countries to set up as a multicultural society and its collapse was significant to all such societies. “These people really are part of Australian culture, part of Australian society. They do live amongst us and … it’s really important for us to understand where we really are.”

But he was quick to point out that the book is no political rant. “It was driven by a love of literature, of art, a love of peace, a love of family, of children, a love of all those things that are significant to people simply being able to live happy lives.”

For him literature “is a religion … Jane Smiley said it is an act of humanity; not in terms of saving other people but simply in enlarging ourselves and our sense of self”.

When Patric is not writing literature, he sells it in his day job at Readings’ St Kilda bookshop. So what happens to Black Rock White City?

“You don’t generally sell your own book. If someone said I want a book about Bosnian refugees living in Melbourne set in a bayside suburb, even then I would hesitate to say here’s my book. All I can do is leave the book there and hopefully people will discover it.”

After winning the Miles Franklin, plenty more people are going to discover Black Rock White City.

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05 Feb

Gretchen Shirm: books that changed me

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Gretchen Shirm is a writer and lawyer. She has been published in The Best Australian Stories, Etchings, Wet Ink, and Southerly. She was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her collection, Having Cried Wolf. Her new novel, Where the Light Falls (Allen & Unwin), follows a photographer’s efforts to understand his former girlfriend’s death. Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

I read this novel for my final year of high school on the north coast of NSW, where reading was deeply uncool. Thomas Hardy left a permanent mark on my reading habits. Hardy is criticised for being overly didactic and overwrought, but since I read Tess I’ve wanted books that make me feel. It’s never enough for a book to make me think; I need that emotional heft I found in Hardy at that significant moment in my life.  Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – Peter Hoeg​

I read this book in my 20s and it resonated strongly with me. Although it’s essentially a crime novel, the appeal of the book is really to do with the main character Smilla. It was only after I’d read it three or four times I realised what I identified with: Smilla has the personality of a writer. It’s her yearning for solitude, her need to uncover the truth whatever the consequence, and rejection of all things superficial. The Turning – Tim Winton

When I was still practising law and working in The Hague, I cycled down to the English-speaking bookshop one lunchtime and bought this book. I was at a crossroads in my life: would I pursue law or seriously attempt what I had always loved? So many of Tim Winton’s characters are exploring what acquiescence has cost them. From then on, I pursued writing seriously; that was 2006 and I’ve written every day since. The Summer Book – Tove Jansson​

I read this book when I was pregnant with my daughter (born in February). It’s about a summer a young girl spends with her grandmother on an island off the coast of Finland. I loved its unusual combination of unexpected humour and profound insight. My partner Julien read the Moomin books as a boy and when I finished we agreed to name our daughter after Tove Jansson. At that moment, I crossed a threshold into motherhood.

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05 Jan

Canberra novelist Sally Thorne’s rocket ride

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Canberra author Sally Thorne at her home in Gordon. Photo: Melissa AdamsSally Thorne remembers with shining clarity the moment she realised her life was about to change in a huge way.  “I remember going in to my desk at work [in the public service] and sitting down and just feeling like suddenly an escape hatch had opened in what was a pretty dry, corporate world,” she says. “And I spoke to the guy next to me and I just said, ‘I was given a book deal.'”

This is a story of how the internet sometimes makes dreams come wildly true. In the space of a few crazy months last year, Sally Thorne went from public servant at Customs and Border Protection to landing a two-book deal with HarperCollins on the back of a romance novel which was first written in just six weeks. All from the comfort of the study at her home in Gordon in Canberra’s south, where she lives with her husband and pug. “I’m pretty much still in shock,” she laughs.

The romance novel, The Hating Game, is an office romp about Lucy, a young publishing executive, and her bitter rival Josh, who sits directly opposite her at work. Lucy is short and sassy. Josh is tall and smouldering. There is a lot of rapid fire banter, a swirl of sex, and a plot that touches on the boredom and gloss of the corporate world and the people who navigate it.

Thorne is a Canberra girl through and through. “I was the kid at Rivett Primary that was always standing up to read her short story out loud. And so I always loved writing and it was always my lifelong dream to have a book,” she recalls. But she put that dream aside when she went to university, studied law and entered the APS. She got married (they eloped). “I just kind of forgot about writing as a hobby completely.”

Things changed one dark, cold winter (really, you couldn’t make this stuff up). “I was trying to think of a new hobby… and I thought, creative writing, I could go back to that,” she says. So Thorne enrolled in a course at the Canberra Institute of Technology and started to write fiction for fun. She joined online writing forums, finding her voice. One day, a friend suggested that Thorne write a short story as a birthday gift. Thorne agreed but wanted a challenge. “I said look, you have to give me a prompt word or something to get me started,” Thorne remembers. “She said ‘nemesis’ and straight away I could see these two characters, a man and a woman, sitting in a silent office opposite each other, just completely hating each other’s guts.”

She started writing, with no plan, no outline, no idea of where this idea would take her. Inspiration flowed. Six weeks later, she’d finished the first draft of The Hating Game. “It was the first time I’d completed anything, and I gave it to the friend and she really loved it, which it was nice,” she says. Thorne put the novel on the back burner, revisiting it in her spare time to edit and polish. She thought of it as a project for her own amusement, to learn to write better. Then she turned to another pair of online contacts for more advice.

Thorne had become friendly with Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, the popular  American romance novelists who write under the combined pen name of Christina Lauren.  “I’d known them online for a few years and they said when you’ve got something finished send it and we’ll have a read of it,” Thorne says. So she passed on a copy of her new piece, hoping to get feedback and constructive criticism from two successful authors. Instead, Hobbs and Billings came back with a very different request: they asked if they could send the novel to their literary agent.

This is where everything started to tilt gently into the surreal. “I said, sure, why not, still, like, just completely thinking it will come to nothing,” Thorne says. “I got a call probably a week later from [New York literary agency] Waxman Leavell and talked to an agent who said look this is really great, I’d like to be your agent, are you being represented by anyone?”

Thorne pauses because she’s laughing so much. “And I’m sitting in my study here in Gordon, ACT, you know, trying to play it pretty cool… I said, no, I’m not talking to any other agents. (I’d never spoken to an agent, I’d never done a pitch to an agent.) So I suddenly had this really amazing agent in New York.” At this point, Thorne was still feeling mostly disbelief. She played down her expectations, telling herself that nothing would come of the exercise but useful feedback. While the agent shopped the manuscript around New York in July last year, Thorne got on with her life as a Canberra public servant.

Within a week, she was offered a two-book deal with HarperCollins. “I basically died. So it was, I mean, I’m still in a state of shock.”

A large part of The Hating Game takes place in a slick, shiny office in an unnamed city. Thorne drew on her creatively unfulfilling day job to capture the sense of ennui faced by corporate workers. “I know what it’s like to be in a really silent office watching the clock tick past,” she says. But that’s the only thing she drew on from real life, thankfully for the man who sat opposite her at work in Canberra (“that would have been pretty awkward”).

What else was awkward? Her family and friends reading the novel. The book situation had escalated so quickly that Thorne suddenly had to adjust to the fact that her fun writing project was a real book, on shelves, in libraries, around the world. “I’ve read a few reviews where it’s been compared it to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, that style of rapid fire dialogue,” she says. “I guess I was mainly concerned with – was I actually funny or have I just been writing this, finding myself funny?” Luckily, it wasn’t just her – the novel was featured in People magazine and selected as top summer romance read by the Washington Post.

Thorne also had to start writing her second novel very quickly – completing a draft for the publishers in four months, a task she describes as “insanely stressful and challenging, because I don’t know how I did the first one, so it’s really hard to replicate doing it again!” To devote herself to the task, Thorne took a year’s unpaid leave from the APS to write full time and has nothing but praise for her department. “Everyone was so excited and so supportive. People love a dream come true type scenario.”

That year came up in June. “I found out that me working part time wasn’t going to suit them so well. And I had to make a pretty scary decision – on whether to kind of bank on myself and pursue this dream or potentially go back and maybe slip back into my old life,” she says.  “And so I resigned, which was terrifying because it was great people, really good salary. But I thought, you’ve changed your life already.”

Now she works part time in a bookstore. She goes to yoga, walks her little pug dog. She and her husband still live in Gordon. She writes all night if she has to. She’s polishing the second novel, which won’t be a sequel to The Hating Game but will be a romance. Everything has changed and the dream is real.

The Hating Game is published by Hachette Australia. $32.99.

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