Category Archives: Politics

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Great Barrier Reef

In the south of Australia, Queenslanders have a reputation for being a bit thick, a bit dim, a few snags short of a barbie. I don’t know if that’s true, but according to Jon, the guy that drove our boat out to the Great Barrier Reef last week, not many people up there seem to realise the degree to which they all rely on the reef for their livelihoods. It’s not hard really. Drive into Cairns and you’ll notice an array of high rise apartments along the shore. The shiny new marina is packed with shiny new boats, all advertising trips to the reef. Daybreak tours. Sunset tours. Fishing, diving, snorkeling. You name it.
Further up the coast in Port Douglas, another row of resort hotels, day spas, camp grounds, and another shiny new marina, plus a shopping centre, all selling trips, or t-shirts, or fluffy turtle toys – essentially, selling the Great Barrier Reef.

The reef is a delicate, but prolific ecosystem. Snorkelling, immersed in that underwater world, it’s not hard to see why people flock to experience it. Coral blooms floral on the sea bed in columns which have taken thousand of years to form. Colonies of boulders or brains; branches like staghorns protruding up into the clear water.  Angels, butterflies, clowns – so many varied, multi-coloured fish dart about, nibbling on the edges of coral. A green turtle pushes his face into a coral flower bed and comes out chomping. The coral is the bedrock of life here.

So it is good news that the Queensland government has just backed down and said that it is NOT going to dump dredging spoil into the marine park which encompasses the Great Barrier Reef. The question remains whether the coal they want to transport out of Queensland is worth the extra expense of dumping the spoil inland – and whether the taxpayers will wear it.

Latest figures suggest that the Great Barrier Reef generates 6 billion dollars every year, with an estimated 63,000 jobs, but when Jon takes his boat for some repairs, he asks the guy doing the welding at the boatyard about his thoughts on the health of the reef. “Well, it would be a shame to lose it” he says. “But life would go on”. “Would it?” asks Jon. “You’d be out of business, for a start!”. “How come?” says the welder. “Look around you” says Jon. “Where does your business come from? None of these boats would be here if the reef didn’t exist. None of the businesses which take tourists out would survive.”
“Ah.” says the welder. “I see what you mean”.

The same is true for every bar, restaurant, cleaning service, plumber, and retailer. Everyone up here relies on the reef. And if everyone up here relies on the reef, then think of the businesses in other places which benefit from the “also ran” effect. People come to Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef, but then they go on to Uluru, to Sydney, or to Kakadu. But it might just be the reef which is the star attraction.

Plans to build the world’s largest coal port at Abbot Point, just 50 km from the Great Barrier Reef can never be a good idea. The risk to this, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, from prolonged dredging and increased shipping far outweighs any financial benefit.  Australia seems to be hell bent on stripping the land of all its natural beauty and resources. Soon, all that will be left is a vast wasteland fringed by a skirt of caravan parks staring at a gray, lifeless ocean.

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Kate Bush

I was twelve when Kate Bush released Wuthering Heights. Such a precious age for a girl child. On the brink of womanhood, I watched the young singer-songwriter on Top of the Pops and knew that women could do stuff. I was forty eight when, learning that Kate was to perform a series of concerts after a thirty five year absence from the stage, I sat at a computer in Melbourne, Australia and resolved to get a ticket. In the time in between these events, Kate has produced 10 albums, each of which I have hungrily devoured. The covers of these albums, first in vinyl and then, re-purchased as CDs, are as familiar to me as my own family.

It was an entirely engrossing experience to finally see her on stage in London. I went on my own, like so many others who had lucked their way to a ticket within the fifteen minutes that they sold out. But you know what? That was fine. For me, Kate was always a solitary activity. As a teenager, my Mum bought me a t-shirt which declared “I want to be alone!”. She was mocking my tendency to lock myself in my room and play records over and over. A lot of the time, I was playing Kate Bush LPs. Kate’s early work carried me through my teenage years but it is not these songs she plays in stage in 2014. I don’t mind at all. Outside the venue, TV camera crews ask fans which tracks they want to hear, but no-one cares. Really. Whatever she does is fine by us.

As is often the way among fans, Kate’s most famous hits are not my favourites. Babooshka and Running up that Hill are amazing, of course, but give me Army Dreamers or Breathing from her second album, Never For Ever, any day. These songs mark the beginning of my political thinking. Ask me about my opinions on war and you will hear these lyrics in the background. It’s a feminine, pragmatic approach. People die in wars. Every soldier is someone’s son. Oh yes, and we need to take care of our environment, or we’ll have no clean air to breathe.

Kate took control of her musical career early on and I have always admired that strong independence. It seemed that, more than any other female artist, she was in control of her own image, her own story. In a world where women are fiercely exploited, Kate engineered her own destiny. And that, to me, is a political statement too. Not only can women do stuff, but they can do it on their own terms.

As the press review that first concert as a “comeback”, I think, “But she never went away!”. The mystery and enigma of the artist that is Kate Bush is a result of the intrusive and sensationalist nature of our media. In order to keep her integrity, she needed to keep to herself. But she never stopped producing. Never stopped working. Never even took a parenting break. The release of her music has been consistent. Life has been her muse.

I like to think of Kate as a companion. Her music has accompanied me on my own rich journey and her consistency has been inspirational. The morals and values which she holds dear are integral to her art and she has never disappointed me. She has never sold out, never sold us short. This concert is simply the next step in her impeccable track record. And yes, it was worth the wait.

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NAIDOC

NAIDOC

I’m sitting waiting from a call from Auntie Carolyn Briggs. That’s not MY Auntie Carolyn, but the Boonwurrung elder whom I met last night in Footscray. I am cwtched on the sofa, succumbed at last to the niggly sore throat and runny nose which has been hovering around all week. I feel somewhat gratified. It is, after all, winter and this cold only adds to the authentic experience of it.

It’s the first week in July and that means that NAIDOC* week events are happening all over the country. I knew nothing of NAIDOC until last year, when, sitting peacefully in my apartment much as I am today, I heard a racket in the street outside. I am used to hearing traffic, and trams, because Nicholson is a busy street, but today I hear people. Lots of them. And they are shouting. My interest piqued, I grab my camera and rush outside. Past my front gate, the traffic has ceased and a river of faces passes. “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land!“. They shout in that sing song way of protest marches.

I follow the throng of people all the way to the end of the street, where I realise I have not picked up enough batteries or data cards to go very far. “Where is the march headed?” I ask. “Federation Square” is the reply. I rush back home, collect enough camera gear for a long day, and dash out again.

I find them at the top of Bourke street. Another, different protest is staged on the steps to Parliament House. We march straight past and head down into the city. At the junction of Bourke and Swanston, the crowd pauses and forms a large circle. A man stands up and addresses the crowd.

“Our people have been walking this land for thousands of years”. Cheering erupts.

“This place used to be a waterhole, before they came from England, before the concrete.”

I imagine the land without the tall buildings, without the garish shop fronts, without the trams, the pedestrians, the buskers, the quirky sculpture of the three thin city men stopping to cross the road. It looks good.

That was last year, when I followed the march all the way to the edge of the Yarra River, or the Birrarung in the Boonwurrung language. I watched – and filmed – the ‘Welcome to Country‘ traditional dancing and tried to interview some people to find out what it was all about. I felt terribly white and terribly British. The very image of my invading ancestors. It was an uncomfortable feeling.

But I seem to enjoy uncomfortable, because this year, I’m back at a NAIDOC week event, this time in the western suburbs of Footscray. I’ve arranged to meet my friend Pippa at the Arts Centre to listen to some songs and see exhibitions by Aboriginal artists. Now Pippa has bailed on me and I’m left, too early and too white, sitting in the gallery with my camera kit feeling very bulky at my side. Rob Bundle, one of the musicians, greets me warmly. “Hello stranger!”.

I met with him months ago and we talked about him maybe taking part in my film, but to be honest, I’ve never followed up the interviews I was planning. It never felt quite right, or else I’m not sure what I want to ask them. Aboriginal culture is so fraught with opportunities to offend, it seems. I realise again, sitting here, how guilty I feel on behalf of my people. How incredibly sad and hand-wringingly humble I feel before the havoc we have wreaked here. I hate the concrete as much as they must do.

The exhibitions are thought-provoking. In the downstairs gallery, a large possum-skin cloak lies spread-eagled on a central plinth. The furry tails hang cutely over the sides and the markings on the inner smooth hide look familiar. In the traditional way, this cloak bears the markings of a family. Here a wavy river-line, here a spiral water-hole symbol. It strikes me that the practice of making a cloak from possum skins and branding it with family memorabilia is remarkably like making a patchwork quilt, although usually, no beings have to die for one of those. The possum-skin cloak has become one of those things which Aboriginal people regard part of their culture – like spirit dancing and didge -playing. In Australia, possums are now protected, so for pieces like this, they must get their skins from New Zealand, where it is still legal to hunt and kill possums. They are truly works of art and seen as such. Only the other day I saw one on display in a gallery in Echuca, which Sissy, a traditional dancer herself, said her aunts had worked on. Whereas didge-playing is something for men, it seems that creating a possum skin cloak is woman’s work. This one even has digital images of the family, giving it a thoroughly modern aspect.

On the wall in the gallery are a series of photographs of members of that same family wearing the cloak. The background is all white and the people look out from within the cloak. It curls around their heads like a hood, like a shelter, a cave. This part of living culture, this part of a once-living creature. The family wraps itself inside the cloak as if for protection and the culture of the cloak itself offers back something timeless.

It’s always good to read the notes accompanying artefacts in a gallery and in this way, this show is no different. One of the family members, whose face now adorns the inside of the super-soft possum skin, is known as Uncle Roy. He is, to all appearances, a portly, older man, with white hair and a loping gait. He wears shorts and socks and strangely, a possum tail wrapped around his head like a bandana. He looks like a typical Australian red-neck and I can imagine him out on his bush-block sluggin’ back a beer at the end of the day with his cronies. But the story tells me that he is an Aboriginal man. A black fella stolen from his mother during the 1950’s and brought up on a mission. He didn’t know he was Aboriginal until he was 62. A film showing as part of the exhibition re-creates his scattered memories of his mother, whom he only dimly remembers.

In the black and white film, we follow a faceless woman through trees and grassland toward a river. From time to time, she beckons with one expressive brown hand and we almost catch a glimpse of who she is before she turns away again. For Uncle Roy, this is how it must have been. The one thing which seems to stand to alleviate what must be immense pain is that Uncle Roy is clearly now a family man and has embraced his heritage wholeheartedly. In welcome speeches, he is named as a pillar of his community and throughout the evening, he wanders confidently through the crowd in a way I can only envy from my hiding place in the corner.

If you’ve never watched the starkly beautiful film “Rabbit Proof Fence“, you should. Apart from being a testament to the stupidity of the British guy who, it is said, introduced twenty-four rabbits to Australia for sport and caused an epidemic -sized rabbit population, it is the story of the British attempt at genocide. A carefully thought out and followed through plan to exterminate what was left of the Aboriginal race by physically removing children from their families and eradicating all language and culture. These are the actions of a country at war and yet it is never, even today acknowledged that the conflict between the First People of Australia and the invaders was (is?) actually a war. In a country littered with monuments – to war dead, to explorers (however unsuccessful), to politicians and generally dodgy land-grabber types, there remains to monument to a single one of the Aboriginal people who died trying the save their land, their people and their culture.

Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.

* National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee

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Trains not Toll Roads

“NO TUNNEL, NO WAY, WE’RE GONNA FIGHT IT ALL THE WAY! NO TUNNEL, NO WAY, WE’RE GONNA FIGHT IT ALL THE WAY!
WHAT DO WE WANT? PUBLIC TRANSPORT! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!”

It’s 6am and the community picket is underway, blocking the entrance into Alexandra Parade a busy road through inner Melbourne. They are determined that the drill bringing up soil samples for a new road tunnel will not be active today. Two men are locked on to the top of the drill with bicycle D locks, a fitting symbol of their commitment to a sustainable mode of transport. There are police everywhere, surrounding the fence around the drill, surrounding the protesters. Search and rescue have been called in to remove those locked on and with them, have come detectives, police commissioners and riot police. The oddest sight is a neatly dressed blonde woman, with patent pumps, sleeveless flowered top and a gun in a holster at her side. All the police carry guns, which makes it all the more scary when they move in, en masse, to drag people away from the fence. One woman is thrown to the ground.

“SHAME! SHAME! THIS IS A PEACEFUL PROTEST! THIS IS A PEACEFUL PROTEST!”

This argument has been brewing for some time, a century, some may say, as the rail connection between East and West Melbourne was proposed over 100 years ago. As consecutive plans have been shelved, the road network has grown, until now, the inner city is ringed with busy arteries carrying commuters and trucks from one side of this sprawling city to another. The residents of the inner North have had enough.
Since September 2013, they have been gathering in the early mornings to form a picket line at the drill sites, which pop up without warning on residential roads throughout the area. Frustrated with a lack of communication and openness from the State government, they feel their only hope is direct action, delaying the work on the road for just long enough to stop the contracts being signed before the next election. The government is responding by proposing a draconian new law which will make it easier for the police to move on a public assembly and prosecute protesters. It is scheduled for the first day of parliament when it re-convenes after the summer break on February 4th.

The small group of perhaps 40 protesters are steely, rising each day to renew their commitment to this campaign and to each other. As at all picket lines, it’s the solidarity which they say gets them out of bed at 5am, even when the day promises another 40 degree scorcher.

“Tunneling under this road will cause havoc”, says local resident Keith Fitzgerald. His house is earmarked for demolition and he has been approached about a compulsory purchase order. “It will cause years of dust and noise while they dig it, it will destroy the character of the area, it will damage the community. What’s more, the road will not solve their transport problems. Roads never do. The cars will just fill it up just as they fill all the other roads. The government has not done its homework.”

It’s true that there is no business plan for this road and that the current State government – a Liberal government, which in Australia means right wing – does not have a mandate from the people. It looks like they won’t survive to another term, so the protesters want the opposition Labour party to promise not to honour any contracts. They have so far refused.

So today, the picket line is drawn again and the police take shifts to stand with them, setting up a canteen on the grass verge between the carriageways which 100 years ago, was laid down for a railway track.

“A railway link will carry people from the outer suburbs into the city. That’s where they want to go. This road tunnel is being made principally for trucks, to bring goods from the manufacturers in the East to the port in the West. It’s not even for people, but it is public money which will pay for it and then people will pay again to use it. There will be no more money to pay for public transport for decades.” says local resident Mel Gregson.

Melbourne retains the title of world’s most liveable city and the public transport system – the network of trams and trains which make it easy to move about in the inner city – add greatly to that experience. Here is a chance for Melbourne to join the world’s most progressive cities and say “no” to cars and “yes” to public transport.

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Sea Shepherd

While I was in Bellingen recently, I was visiting some friends of mine who, when they relocated from the UK to Australia, decided to travel by bicycle. Yes, that’s right, by bicycle. Their  12,000 km journey was immortalised in the online video series “Bike to Oz“, as both of them are film makers who wanted to highlight the issue of climate change and the damage done by aeroplanes. However, when they settled in Bellingen, what was needed was not films, but food, so they started a wholefood store, (now online) known as Kombu.

Kombu recently packed up a box of dried wholefood to donate to the crew of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Organisation, which I realised I knew very little about. Then, last Sunday, on an outing to Williamstown, we came across a pirate ship…

We arrived in time for a tour of the SSS Steve Irwin (sorry, but we had to be educated as to the significance of the choice of name). This is one of the ships used on Sea Shepherd campaigns to save whales in the Antarctic from Japanese “poachers”. The Japanese say they need the whales for scientific experiments, but the evidence suggests that they are actually breaking the international ban on harvesting whales for food.  Most moving was a film shown to us in the mess room, which showed the Sea Shepherd ship rammed from both sides by Japanese whaling vessels. Scary stuff.

Our guide showed us the helicopter hangar donated by The Red Hot Chili Peppers; the ship donated by Sam Simon (Simpsons co-creator); the gift sent by the Dalai Lama. It’s clear these guys have some pretty high profile support!

We were lucky enough to sight some whales while in Byron Bay on our Big Trip and it’s clear that it’s these very whales, journeying to and from Antarctica, which are at risk. In 2010, Australia instigated proceedings against Japan for “alleged breach of international regulations against whaling”. The case was heard in the International Court of Justice in the Hague in June/July 2013. We await the court’s decision with keen interest.

UPDATE! The International Court of Justice has UPHELD Australia’s bid to ban whaling in the Southern Ocean. Japan was found to be operating whaling for “logistical and political purposes”, rather than scientific and their special licence was ordered to be revoked and not re-issued. Japan have agreed to abide by the ruling and Sea Shepherd Australia Managing Director Jeff Hanson said the court decision vindicated Sea Shepherd for not only upholding Australian federal laws but also international laws in defending the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary ”for the whales and for future generations”.

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