More featuring Robert Haupt»

1. Robert Haupt, “Do your penguins stick? If so, you’re a winner,” The Sydney Morning Herald, April 7, 1984, p. 34.
2. Robert Haupt, “The birds show us all about the politics of envy,” Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, January 11, 1986, p. 16.

Robert Haupt, “Do your penguins stick? If so, you’re a winner,” The Sydney Morning Herald, April 7, 1984, p. 34.

A penguin is free to fish all day in the deep fathoms, but at dusk he must run the hazards of the beach.

Students of politics ought to study this landing, for penguinfall is a supremely political moment. It shows the one admirable political quality, courage, in true relation to its neat cousin, funk.

A penguin arriving on the beach with a bellyful of fish is in every tribal essential in the same predicament as a well-meaning politician with a good idea.

Their problem is this: how to cross the beach without being picked off. Here is how the procedure works with penguins.

Just before dusk, the first bird appears on the beach, and immediately plunges back into the water.

The first bird is always too early.

As the sky darkens, this display of fright is taken up by groups of birds, as fine a collection of nervous nellies as ever graced a party room.

Again and again they test the land, only to discover their preference for the water.

When it is almost completely dark, small squads of penguins land and form up. When you watch these squads closely, you see how closely they resemble committees. As everyone knows, a committee is an arrangement for the collective avoidance of responsibility.

Penguins are masters of the form and every Canberra-watcher would recognise the signs.

First, there is the characteristic bunching and jostling as members of the group compete for the desired positions: near, but not at, the front.

The platoon is not yet moving, but there is bumping and flapping as the birds at the rear, trying to move up encounter those from the front pushing back.

This is positioning, which makes up about 50 per cent of committee politics.

Eventually, platoons form, and the long march begins, to some River Kwai of instinct. Staggering under their fish-load, falling down and getting up again, they make a stirring yet pathetic progress.

What we have, from our view high above these struggling birds, is not simply perspective (being able to see the difference, which an ant cannot, between the Great Wall of China and a house-brick); we have the ability to see into the future: no eagles, so no eagle attacks.

The penguin cannot know this, but must trudge ahead with a tingling nape, waiting for the one fell swoop.

The regular troops of politics would know the feeling.

Stress can play tricks with one’s sense of time. As these bands of 15 or 30 penguins waddle laboriously up the beach they appear to lack all notion of how long they have been walking.

It is nothing for a group to be hit by a crisis of confidence four-fifths of the way to safety.

How it works is highly instructive.

All the way up the beach there has been continual rotation of the leadership, as the huddle for the coveted second place pops a bird out into the front line.

But something can happen to the pressure inside a platoon when, for quite a while, a sort of competitive dithering occurs. If no leader emerges, the group comes to a halt.

Funk strikes suddenly.

It is not a matter of: but those behind cried “forward” and those before cried “back” — the tail is just as eager to flee as the leadership.

And what a rout. All dignity to the winds, running, falling, sliding and slithering all the way back to the water, they surrender in a few seconds the distance it took long minutes to acquire. And no eagle in sight.

Sometimes a group that has begun to dither will get a grip of itself and resume. Somehow the jostling begins popping out reluctant leaders before desertion sets in, and the squad moves off again. Sometimes the tail flees but the leadership soldiers on, apparently oblivious to the mutiny.

Like many committees, the penguins are poorly led.

If their leaders were human you would say they were proof of the maxim that bravery is only the fear of cowardice.

Oddly enough, there are individualists in penguinland, Edward St Johns of the species who toil up the beach alone, making a movingly quixotic sight.

These birds do not turn tail. No doubt they are regularly picked off by the eagles, but they are the ones you cheer on. They are natural leaders in every respect but one: they have no followers.

So that’s the picture.

By the time the last laggard is back to his burrow with dinner for the family it is quite dark.

Eventually, courage did not desert them and if I knew the numbers I could log them in and out like a BBC commentator during the Falklands war: 367 out, 367 back.

Could I do the same with the penguins in Canberra who hit the beach armed with the idea of an assets test on pensions?

You can go a fair way in politics with a good idea, as long as your penguins stick.

But heaven help you if someone cries: “Look out for the eagles.” Then it’s back to the water, devil take the hindmost. Or, as a British Prime Minister once cynically put it: “I must follow them; I am their leader.”

Robert Haupt, “The birds show us all about the politics of envy,” Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, January 11, 1986, p. 16.

Beside a lake in South Australia. A pelican has just dropped in for breakfast. I have a book at hand. The spectacled pelican, it says, with the long and clumsy take-off, found throughout Australia but only accidentally in New Zealand. Not so clumsy, I’d say; I, too, am found in New Zealand only by accident.

But the air of the faintly ridiculous in the description is right: no one today would get the pelican past a design standards board; it would never be licensed to fly and it’s even doubtful it would be declared seaworthy. But when it is riding at anchor with its spectacles on, what a sight! It looks like a maiden aunt on a bicycle. And coming in to land, with the ponderous aspect so reminiscent of the Sunderland flying-boat, the pelican reminds you that it is a bird with an undercarriage.

This column, as you see, is on holiday. Like the rest of us, it needs to get out and about a bit — fresh air, new sights, stretch the limbs and all that. After a year of observing politics and other varieties of human folly, the fresher the air, the newer the sights and the more stretched the limbs the better.

Birds give you a new view of humans. In groups, they behave politically — a point I made in a column a couple of years ago when I showed that the much admired amphibious landing of the fairy penguin was an exercise in collective funk; the perfect illustration of the battleground truth that, under fire, those at the rear cry “Forward!” while those at the front call “Back!”

It caused bewilderment, that column, among those — some colleagues in the Canberra press gallery among them — who couldn’t see the connection between matters political and ornithological, even though the bird lexicon shouts the connection in names such as the chestnut-crowned babbler (why do so many birds bring Gareth Evans to mind?) and its well-known, er, cousin with the, ah, white brow. Now that he’s on the beach and under fire himself, John Howard could do worse than spend an evening of penguin-watching at Phillip Island: though perhaps the ducking, dodging and backsliding would be too painful for a Liberal leader to be expected to witness.

A similarly bleak human truth is displayed every day by the wretched seagulls who hang around here like beach bums. They are regularly thrown crumbs — seagulls seem to exist to be thrown crumbs to — and their response is instructive. Long before the first crumb is picked up, the birds turn on each other and fight for position. And when the crumbs are at last being eaten, it seems as important to the seagull to deny a crumb to his fellow as it is to get one himself.

Anyone familiar with the business of hand-outs should recognise the syndrome: it’s the politics of envy. But the really interesting thing is this: the nasty fighting begins only after the crumbs are gone. Then, the ground where they lay becomes the patch over which raucous squabbles are fought, as if possession of that territory were the key to future hand-outs: a sort of Crumbo-Cult mentality. Birds will be found defending these positions long after the enemy has left for fresh crumb-fields further down the beach.

At various stages through the day here, reconnaissance patrols are conducted by flights from the Black Swan Squadron (South-Eastern Lakes Command). These are truly impressive displays: tight formation, steady engine revs, impeccable altitude. You imagine the dawn briefing, the weather report, the lodging of the flight plan, the rolling of the swans out of the hangars, fuelling-up, engine-start, chocks away, take off.

Sometimes they are high, sometimes low; sometimes they are on a southerly bearing, sometimes northerly; but always they are the same striking sight: cockpit up forward, long, narrow fuselage, engine compartment and hold. All the long-distance black swan needs is a tail-gunner.

When the patrols report back to base and are de-briefed, the real mission begins. In a line, sailing with immense dignity, comes the fleet: five capital ships, followed at about 25 lengths by a sixth. In a steel-grey light the other evening, they looked like the Russian fleet off Scapa Flow. They were accompanied by cygnets, fledglings that looked bound one day to grow up into corvettes.

Returning after dark, I noticed swift, lethal action: water churning, heads ducking, dinner under way. A swan at supper sacrifices elegance to appetite.

A point to appreciate about the swan is its absolute contempt for we humans. I know there are swans in parks that have been trained to accept welfare — birds on food stamps — but here in the wild it keeps admirable distance from all proffered help.

Its service motto might be: We Catch Our Own. I wish the seagulls would follow suit.

It’s busy here at lakeside — it’s a sort of bird’s Bourke Street — and there’s always something new turning up. A glittering, swirling mass of birds just swept past, settled, then raced off again at a brilliant pace. The book says oystercatchers, which again suggests the human comparison.

Our oystercatcher is a bird of an altogether different feather: red-faced, bibulous, short of breath if forced to run 20 paces to catch the bus, the Great Lunching Oystercatcher is singularly short of elan. He loves catching his oysters — always a dozen, on the half-shell, with a wedge of brown bread — and after he’s caught them he loves to wash them down with a chablis on the flinty side of dry,

I’ll be back catching oysters myself before too long. When I do, I’ll have the lakes in mind: pelicans, swans, wrens, terns, the wretched gulls and — particularly — those scintillating oystercatchers. They will, as the poet said, Flash upon the inward eye. But I must go now. It’s time to not feed the seagulls.