Tuesday, 19 May 2015

New Refinements of Cruelty

I'm sorely tempted to not write about asylum seekers.  I really don't want to.  It's too awful.  But my conscience compels me.  It seems like every time I write an article about this, the story is worse than the last one.


The last time I wrote, our government was complaining that while the Human Rights Commission was criticising them for holding children in detention and the United Nations was highlighting their failure to respect the human rights of asylum seekers in general, no-one was was giving them credit for the amazing human rights achievement of preventing people from drowning at sea.  Mind you, they have never presented a scrap of evidence that they have done this.  They have prevented boatloads of people from arriving in Australia by intercepting them on the way here and sending them back, but there is no evidence that I have seem about where they end up.

Now we are seeing just how hollow this claim is.  It is becoming clear that something like 8,000 asylum seekers are currently at sea around South-East Asia in leaky boats.  Most of them are Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh.  Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar in particular for years - many settled in Australia before our government turned hostile, but many more simply crossed the border into Thailand where they live in camps supported by international aid agencies.  Others have made their way further south to Malaysia where they are officially illegal immigrants but in practice are tolerated and able to work in the grey economy.

They have plenty of reasons to flee.  The government of Myanmar has been pursuing a slow but consistent program of genocide.  It officially denies they exist, even going to the extent of refusing to attend international forums where they are discussed by name.  It claims instead that they are simply Bengalis from neighbouring Bangladesh, from which it says they have entered the country illegally and to which it says they should return.  However, they are also persecuted in Bangladesh where they are a minority ethnic group.  Meanwhile, most of those still in Myanmar (around 800,000) have been driven from their homes and are living in 'displacement camps' where they rely on charitable donations of food (often stolen by Burmese officials) and are subject to further violence and harassment by the military and extremist Burmese nationalists.

Recently, the Thai government has increased surveillance on its border with Myanmar, preventing refugees from crossing there.  This means that the only remaining avenue of escape is by boat, departing from Myanmar's western coastline and seeking landfall in a safer place.


There are two problems.  The first is that their boats are not seaworthy.  The second is that the governments of the three countries whose waters they enter as they pass down the coast (Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia) are determined to prevent them from landing.  Thai officials will hurry them along the coast towards Malaysia.   Malaysian officials will give them food, water and directions to Indonesia.  Indonesian officials will do the same and send them back again.  Their boats are not fit to head into the open ocean in an attempt to reach India (and in any case, no-one on board has the navigational skill to get them there) and there is little point any more in attempting the marginally less dangerous crossing to Australia.

The result is that something like 8,000 of them are floating aimlessly around, some for as long as four months, begging asylum from one country after another.  If their boats were arranged by people smugglers their 'official' crew have long since jumped ship and gone home.  In the meantime they suffer dehydration and malnutrition.  They turn on one another in desperation and there is violence and murder.  Some try to swim for shore and drown in the process.

This is what "stopping the boats" means.  I dare Mr Abbott to claim it as a stunning human rights achievement now!

He hasn't gone that far, but he still seems a long way from growing a conscience.  The ABC reports the following.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he supported regional countries taking action to stop people smuggling boats by turning them around and stood by the Australian Government doing the same.

"I don't apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary and if other countries choose to do that, frankly, that is almost certainly absolutely necessary."

What else can he say?  He can hardly ask other countries to do what he is not prepared for us to do, and show some basic human decency.  He can hardly say "nothing is worth the suffering these people are enduring, we just have to do better".  He can only stand by and applaud as our neighbours pull ahead of us in the race to the bottom.  Soon, though, he will have to further ramp up Australia's level of deterrence as even permanent detention on Manus Island starts to look better than the other alternatives on offer.

Of course there are other alternatives.  The most obvious and simple is to admit that the whole project is a cruel farce, and agree to accept these people in wealthy, comfortable Australia where 8,000 desperate refugees would merge into the existing population without a trace and within a few years become productive, valued members of our communities.

Upping the degree of difficulty a little, we could work to solve the problem at its source by changing the terms of our engagement with Myanmar.  Over the last couple of years, Australia and other countries in the region have increasingly embraced Myanmar in response to its military junta taking a few baby steps towards democracy.  No matter that these baby steps did not include either relaxing the military's hold on power, or stopping the genocide of Rohingya which has, if anything, got worse.  Of course this is tricky - an invasion would cause untold suffering, and even sanctions would mostly hurt the poorest people in the community while leaving the rulers untouched.  But surely we can do better than turning  blind eye, which is what we are doing right now.

Meantime, there is one bright note in all this horror.  After a boat containing something like 700 Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers was turned around by both Malaysian and Indonesian navies during a journey that seems to have lasted at least two months, they were finally rescued and brought ashore by poor Acehnese fishermen and brought to their village of Kuala Cangkoi in North Aceh .  Many of them had died before the rescue, fighting had broken out between the two groups, all of the passengers were weak and dehydrated and some had suffered from meningitis.  The military and officials may have been able to ignore this terrible suffering, but the fisherman reached out in common humanity.  They did so at some risk to themselves, since bringing them ashore could be seen as facilitating illegal immigration.


Once they were ashore it was impossible to send them back, and they are safe for the present.  What the future holds is anyone's guess but I think the fishermen of Kuala Cangkoi have pointed the way for us.  If they can see that it is just not right to leave people to starve aboard leaky boats then surely the rest of us can too.  If ordinary citizens can act with common humanity, surely our governments can follow suit.

We can always hope.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Noble Sacrifice

I've been thinking about human sacrifice lately.  A lot.  It's not a pleasant subject, but there seems to be a lot of it going around so it's hard to not talk about it, especially with the the Anzac centenary celebrations still ringing in my ears.  On the day after Anzac Day we even had the subject mentioned from our church pulpit.  It was a long time since I had felt so let down by my church.

It was the Australian poet Les Murray who first made me aware of the place of human sacrifice in Australian religious attitudes.  His essay, 'Some Religious Stuff I Know About Australia', was published in 1982 in a book called The Shape of Belief: Christianity in Australia Today although I probably first read it some years later.  Here's what he had to say.

Since the spiritual dimension universally exists in human beings, it has to be dealt with by them in some way or other; a sacramentally-minded Christian would say that it has to be fed.  It can be wrongly fed, though, with dreadful results for the world....  An example of what I mean would be human sacrifice.

Wait on! Human sacrifice?  Surely that's an archaic horror that survives only very marginally in a few Third World groups that anthropologists write about?  Surely the holocausts of this century in what we call 'our' civilisation can only be called human sacrifices in a very metaphorical sort of way?  Surely there's a distinction to be made here between the literal and the metaphorical?

My answer is, there may be, but I don't know of one watertight enough to prevent the blood from seeping through it.  When I hear someone say, as I did yet again the other day, that this country needs a war to restore and cement its sense of community, I recognise that as a call to literal human sacrifice, to be performed for one of the classic archaic reasons.  When I am told that thousands of Australian men died in the First World War so as to prove their country's worth to the world and make it 'come of age', I don't know whether that was in fact their motive (I strongly doubt it), but I see the assertion as one which makes their death into a post-facto human sacrifice, and accepts it as such.  

And this despite not only the Enlightenment we used to praise as our deliverance from such archaic nonsenses, but also despite the much earlier action of Christ in consciously taking the whole deeply ancient human motif of sacrifice on Himself and as it were completing and sealing it, so that henceforth we might refer the whole complex impulse to His action and never again enact it literally on a human victim....

With the decline of traditional Christian observance, things formerly bound have a way of being loosed again on mankind....

This idea has stayed with me through the years and if anything has grown stronger as time has passed.  I think about it every Anzac Day.  People who otherwise believe they are not religious attend dawn services and daylight commemorations.  Thousands even make the pilgrimage to the site of the original sacrifice.  These events are highly liturgical - the 'Last Post' is played, a high status male (usually a dignitary from the RSL) recites part of Laurence Binyon's 'Ode', someone may give a short homily, there will be a minute's silence.  They are not explicitly honouring any god, but they are honouring the young men who sacrificed their lives "for us" or "for our freedom".  The ceremonies are engaging and moving.  It is hard not to weep.

I think of it whenever I pass Anzac Square in Brisbane's central city and see the plaque which is headed "For God, King and Empire".  Which god, I want to know, aligned him or her self with the King and Empire of Britain and demanded the deaths of these young people?  Why would we worship such a monstrous god?

The thing is that we don't notice the deeply religious nature of these sacrifices because we have screened the subject out of our lives.  Even devout Christians fail to notice that when you celebrate a sacrifice you are celebrating a religious act.  A sacrifice is an offering you make to a god.  It involves taking a living thing and killing it in a very public, ritualistic way in order to appease that god or buy his or her favour.

Human sacrifice is a big subject.  I keep meaning to write about it, but hesitate because I feel unequal to the task.  It is so serious, so complex, and I feel unqualified to perform it.  But no-one else is either.  Yet despite our collective silence human sacrifice pervades the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.  It pervades our history, and its dark presence is with us every day.  Millions of lives are sacrificed across the globe each year to the god of progress, the god of prosperity, the idol of Western culture.  They may not look like the sort of gods that the ancients sacrificed to, but the results are the same.  Vulnerable people die - children, foreigners, the poor - and the gods are indeed appeased and continue to bless their worshipers, at least for a time.

The thing is, should we continue to accept this sacrifice passively?  It is hard to give it up, because these gods are not phantoms, they are very real.  If we stop sacrificing to them, they may well turn on us.  Their wrath will not be pleasant.  On the other hand, they are fickle, and they are not as powerful as we believe them to be.  Ultimately they will let us down no matter what we do.  Can we escape their clutches, or will we in our turn be sacrificed before the end?

These are not pretty thoughts.  They may seem cryptic to many of you, but to explain them will take some time.  I suspect I will need to sit down at my desk for extended periods writing about it and thinking it through, rather than shooting from the lip like I usually do.  In the meantime, bear with me, and when you hear someone using the word 'sacrifice' listen closely and ask yourself, 'What is being sacrificed here, and to which god?'

Friday, 24 April 2015

...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

One of the endearing things about Australia is that we are just as bad at national days as we are at national songs.

Our supposed official national holiday, Australia Day, marks the day when the First Fleet landed in Sydney Cove in 1788.  It provides a telling contrast with its US equivalent. Thanksgiving Day celebrates the anniversary of the pilgrim fathers' first harvest in New England, their heartfelt thanks at the progress of their new community of religious freedom far from the tyranny of their English oppressors.

By contrast, very few of those who landed in Sydney Cove in 1788 were inclined to celebration.  Most of them were in chains, with their oppressors on hand and well armed to keep them down.  Nor were the soldiers who guarded them much more enthusiastic, sent on this posting to the ends of the earth to guard dangerous prisoners.  The original inhabitants were none too pleased either at having their best lands taken by these strangers. Our celebrations occasionally rise to an acceptable level of jingoism, but honestly our hearts are not in it.

Sadly we seem to be able to work up a bit more nationalistic excitement on Anzac day and this has increased in volume this year with tomorrow being the 100th anniversary of the original landing at Gallipoli.  Perhaps after this year it will become more acceptable again to be apathetic about the occasion.


Still, it's kind of jarring that a nationalistic celebration of all things Australian and military should be on the anniversary of a huge, multi-faceted military balls-up on the other side of the world.  We were helping with an invasion of Turkey because our British colonial masters demanded it of us, not because there was any particular Australian interest involved.

Nor were the Ottoman Turks particularly enthusiastic about the war themselves.  When hostilities broke out in Europe in 1914 they vacillated for a long time.  Most of the Ottoman cabinet preferred neutrality, and a bit of skillful diplomacy by the British could have kept them out of the war.  Instead, the British government commandeered two warships they had been making for the Turks.  The Germans immediately offered to replace them.  The Turks were worried about the threat from Russia to their east.  Even so, it was some pre-emptive military action by their German-trained military commander that finally pulled them reluctantly into the war.

As for the Gallipoli campaign itself, it was one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time.  Hatched by Lord Kitchener at the urging of Winston Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty, roughly equivalent to being Minister for the Navy), the idea was that the British and their allies (the French, Australians and New Zealanders) would gain control of the Dardanelles.  This strait runs from the Aegean into the Marmara Sea that divides the Asian from the European parts of Turkey.  Control of this narrow seaway would provide easy access to the Ottoman capital in Constantinople and allow the British to link up with the Russians approaching from the East.

There was just one slight problem - the Turks did not agree.  The British commanders underestimated their numbers, their level of organisation and their courage.  Their preparations were too slow, and by the time they landed in late April the Turks were waiting for them in great numbers, holding the hills and ridges as the invaders tried to force their way up the beaches.  Far from being cowards, they fought fiercely.  On the morning of 25 April 2015 the 57th Infantry Regiment ran out of ammunition and fought on with their bayonets until reinforcements arrived.  Every single member of the regiment was either killed or injured, but the line held.

The ANZAC commander, General Birdwood, considered withdrawing his troops within a couple of weeks, but he was encouraged by some illusory naval successes.  In the end, the troops laboured fruitlessly for eight months before the chill of winter forced their withdrawal.  By that time over 112,000 young men had died on that tiny peninsula.  56,000 Turks and 56,000 Allies.  Of the allied dead, almost three quarters were British, while 8,700 Australians and 2,700 New Zealanders lost their lives.  More than twice that number were wounded.  Most of the commanders were demoted and Churchill was banished to the backbench.


The Turks are just as enthusiastic about celebrating this event (which they call the Battle of Cannakale) as the Australians are.  After all, they won.  It was a rare bright spot in a gloomy war, elevating the Turkish commander Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to national hero status.  It also served as a jumping off point for the creation of modern Turkey eight years later, with Ataturk as its first president.  Truly a nation-defining moment!

Australians, on the other hand, are fervently celebrating a massive cock-up foisted on them by their incompetent British allies.

Strangely enough, I've lived through the entire breathless leadup to this years 100th anniversary without once hearing Eric Bogle's classic Gallipoli song, '...And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda'.


The Scottish-Australian singer/songwriter wrote this song in 1971.  Bogle is a prolific songwriter but this is the song that pays his bills in his advancing old age.  It was something of a slow burn.  Bogle himself was a part-time folk singer and full-time accountant in the early 1970s and was somewhat surprised, during a tour of British folk clubs in 1976, to find audiences requesting it following English folk singer June Tabor's solemn a capella recording.  Since then it has been recorded by various people of even greater eminence - The Pogues, Joan Baez, Redgum and John Williamson among a host of others.

In some ways it's not Bogle's best song.  It rambles a bit, some parts are repetitive and it seems to have two endings.  It also takes some liberties with history - the Anzacs didn't land at Suvla Bay (that was the British) but it rhymes with "terrible day".  Nor did they wear tin hats.  Yet all this is overshadowed by the way it captures the unvarnished, gruesome experience of war for the young volunteers who landed at Anzac Cove and were cannon fodder in so many subsequent British battles.  As a bonus, it has depths you can plumb if you are interested enough.

He doesn't labour the point, but a few lines lay out the horror a clearly as pages of purple prose.

How well I remember that terrible day, 
Our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay, 
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, 
He'd primed himself well. 
He shower'd us with bullets,
And he rained us with shell. 
And in five minutes flat, 
He'd blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda, 
When we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs, 
Then we started all over again.
And those that were left, well we tried to survive, 
In that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks, I kept myself alive, 
Though around me the corpses piled higher.

There's no glory, no heroism, no sacrifice, not even any particular bravery, just a dour struggle for survival, ended finally by his being knocked "arse over head" by a Turkish shell and waking up without any legs.

There is a twofold resonance in the loss of his legs.  While his fellow veterans march each Anzac Day he is forced to sit on the porch and watch, his marching days long gone.  From this position he expresses two forms of ambivalence.  When the young people ask, "what are they marching for", they might be asking a genuine question, expressing the fading memory of the battle and the men who took part in it, the sense that a nation is moving in.  This is reinforced by the ongoing death toll.

Year after year the numbers get fewer
Someday no-one will march any more.

His own echo of the young people's question is a lot more bitter.  What was it all for?  he wants to know.  Why celebrate what cost him his legs?  Why celebrate pointless slaughter?  As Bogle says in his second most famous song, 'No Man's Land', "did they really believe that this war would end war?"

In a superficial way, he was wrong.  The memory of Gallipoli didn't fade.  In 2015 we celebrate the day with an over-the-top fervour hardly dreamt of in 1971, with lavish and expensive celebrations, a huge Australian re-invasion of Anzac Cove and commemorations in every suburb and town.  Yet in the midst of this militaristic orgy we are watching a massive forgetting.  Instead of the "mad world of blood death and fire" we celebrate heroism, noble sacrifice, the undaunted warrior.  Meanwhile we continue to blindly send troops to help our colonial masters fight ill-considered wars in faraway Islamic countries and pointlessly sacrifice their lives in the service of some new piece of imperialist folly.

The narrator's amputation is given its second resonance by referencing Banjo Paterson's 'Waltzing Matilda'.  This other iconic Australian song celebrates an older vision of Australia, one that Bogle's narrator is living before the war intervenes - the romance of the swag, Australia as a place of freedom from care, of wandering labourers travelling the vast outback, fighting the elements to carve a new nation out of this arid continent.

No more.  "It's time to stop rambling, there's work to be done", and the old life can never be resumed.  The band might still play the song, but there is no such thing as a legless swagman.  Australia is a different place.  The "free life of the rover" is replaced by this grim, baffled marching, the old men "all bent, stiff and sore" if they are not confined to the porch.  If Gallipoli was a defining moment for our nation it defined our loss of innocence, the replacement of our romantic pioneering spirit with the serious and bloody business of war.

If we must remember Anzac Day then at least we should refrain from celebrating it.  Instead, the appropriate response is a sustained day of weeping, the donning of sackcloth and ashes and solemn vows to stop making the same mistakes.  Until then, I will be staying home.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Tom Petrie

I remember travelling to Petrie as a child to play against the Pine Rivers soccer team.  It seemed like a long way away.  Reading Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland makes it seem even further.  

Tom Petrie was born in Scotland in 1831.  In that same year his father Andrew accepted a post as supervisor of works in Sydney, and in 1838 the family transferred to the penal colony in Brisbane, then a ramshackle affair just over a decade old.  When Queensland was opened up to free settlement a few years later and his position was abolished, Petrie senior refused the offered transfer back to Sydney in favour of setting up his own building business in the younger colony, and the Petries became pillars of early Brisbane society.

All this meant that Tom had a very unusual childhood.  Brisbane in 1838 was not really a community, it was a prison.  Although there were some women prisoners the population was dominated by male convicts and soldiers.  There were virtually no European children.  Even Petrie's own siblings were much older than he was, virtually young adults by the time they arrived in Brisbane.

Young Tom also seems to have had a freedom of movement unthinkable for a child in 21st century Brisbane.  As a result, he sought out the only potential playmates available, the children in the Aboriginal camps at York's Hollow (the current Exhibition Grounds and Victoria Park), Bowen Hills and elsewhere around the settlement.  These were predominantly Turrbal people, the original custodians of the Brisbane area, but there were regular visitors from further afield.  He became an accepted presence in these camps, learned their languages, observed their ceremonies, and even travelled with them as an adolescent to the annual Bunya Nut Festival in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.  

All this made Tom quite unique among the European residents of early Brisbane.  Most Europeans seem to have viewed Aboriginal people with a mixture of scorn and fear.  Nor was the fear entirely misplaced.  A number of Europeans were killed by Aboriginal people, although the killings were far from unprovoked.  Yet Tom rarely if ever had cause to fear, and even worked closely with a number of Aboriginal people suspected of "murdering" Europeans.  His personal friendships and understanding of their cultural boundaries meant he managed to avoid offence and negotiate more cooperative relationships.  

A good example was his decision to settle in North Pine in the 1850s.  A number of previous European farmer/graziers in the area had been killed or abandoned their properties for their own safety.  Tom, however, consulted with the Aboriginal elder D'alipie (whom he had known since childhood) about where he should settle and, with his blessing, set up his station at a place he called "Murrumba", the Turrbal word for "good place".  D'alipie and his family subsequently spent a lot of time at Murrumba, helped Petrie establish the place and cared for it while he was away.

In the early 1900s Tom Petrie's daughter, Constance Campbell Petrie, decided to record some of his stories for posterity.  These appeared first as a series of articles in The Queenslander and later in a more extensive form in Tom Petrie's Reminiscences of Early Queensland, first published in 1904.  

This is a very important document in the history of Queensland, especially for its record of the languages and cultural practices of the Turrbal and other original South-East Queensland peoples.  It includes detailed descriptions of their hunting and gathering methods, food preferences, medical practice, marriage customs, child rearing, initiation ceremonies, mourning practices and the ritual battles which ended many of their large gatherings.  It is appended with a substantial list of Aboriginal place names and other words, although it is not entirely clear which language or languages these come from.

It's also not clear exactly how Constance Petrie gathered the stories and information she uses in the book.  Tom himself was still alive when it was published and it's possible he had some hand in it, but there's not much sense of his active involvement in its production.  I wonder if perhaps he was unwell by the time it was written.  Sometimes the stories are told in his voice as if Constance has recorded them verbatim, but more often they are told in the third person and some of the sections on Aboriginal culture seem to use other ethnographic sources too and read more like a work of anthropology than a memoir.  Did Constance and Tom sit together and work on the book, or is Constance remembering stories he told her in her childhood?  Did Tom write some of this down himself over the years, or is it all from his memory?  Are we meant to take all the stories as fact, or are some of them campfire yarns and classic Aussie tall tales?

This wasn't the reason I felt uneasy as I read this book, though.  You can't expect a memoir to adhere to high standards of scholarship.  

The first thing that made me uneasy was the clear assumption of European superiority.  Certainly Tom treated his Aboriginal companions fairly, kindly and even respectfully, and it seems they returned the favour.  Yet once he is an adult there is no question that he is in charge.  The book tells a series of stories about Tom's timber-getting expeditions to the Maroochy River in the company of a group of Aboriginal men.  At one point 25 of these men ask him to brand the backs of their hands with a "P" using traditional scarring methods.  He complies.  It sounds disturbingly like slavery.  There is certainly no suggestion in the book that his Aboriginal helpers were paid wages.  They seem to be working for rations.  

The second and even more nagging unease was about what happened to them.  The book is vague about dates, but seems to peter out by about 1870.  Where were the characters mentioned in it in 1904?  It is clear that some of them were still alive because Constance Petrie mentions a visit she made to the sanatorium at Dunwich where some of the elders were sent to end their days.  She says they received her very warmly as Tom's daughter and that they remembered him fondly despite not having seen him for decades.  He doesn't seem to have gone with her on this visit.  None of them seem to have been consulted on the stories in this book, or asked to tell their own versions or their own stories.  We don't know if they had children.  If they did where were they when the book was being written?

And this is where I was really squirming.  We know from other sources that there was a strong Aboriginal presence in the area around North Pine right up until the late 19th Century.  However, in 1897 the Queensland Parliament passed the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act.  One of the effects of this Act is that over the following decade virtually all the remaining Aboriginal population of South East Queensland was forcibly relocated to Aboriginal missions like Cherbourg and Woorabinda. This process was under way as Constance Petrie was writing this book.

You wouldn't know it, reading the book itself.  It reads as if the Aboriginal communities belonged to the distant past.  Even in Tom's youth, according to Constance, the strong, athletic and energetic people he first met were turning into torpid, unhealthy alcoholics in the urban camps, courtesy of the alcohol, tobacco and sugar they received from Europeans.  She doesn't quite say it, but she conveys a sense that they were dying out, the few elderly people at Dunwich the last of a once-proud people.  Their demise, she seems to be saying, was sad but inevitable.

It is true that there was much destruction over Tom's and Constance's lifetimes.  People were killed by European settlers, by the Native Police, by imported influenza and other viruses, by poisoned flour, by alcohol.  To her credit, Constance doesn't sugar-coat this, and she makes it clear that many of the European settlers were killed in revenge for attempted poisonings.  Their culture was irreparably damaged by their steady eviction from their traditional land, forced beyond a boundary that kept on expanding.  The 1897 Act finished the process of cultural genocide, forcing the remaining Turrbal, Jagera and Kabi from their lands and splitting them up between the various reserves.  

Yet for all this they didn't 'die out'.  There is a kind of bitter irony in the fact that their descendants are now forced to look up the details of their languages and cultures in Constance Petrie's book.  It's likely that Tom Petrie was the best friend they had in the European community but it seems that in the end his friendship was like that of the king of Egypt, "that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it".  

Friday, 20 March 2015

Lifestyle Choices?

Tony Abbott wants to be the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Australia.  Then again he also wants to be the Minister for Women.  When he was asked what he had achieved in this portfolio he said he had abolished the carbon tax.  Perhaps as Prime Minster for Aboriginal Australians his main achievement is stopping the boats.  Only 227 years too late but I guess there's no use crying over spilt milk.


Now Abbott has flagged another seminal achievement in Aboriginal affairs by supporting the Western Australian Government's decision to stop providing basic infrastructure to approximately 150 outstations - small Aboriginal communities, often remote, that have been set up by Aboriginal people since the 1960s as overflow from the towns and larger Aboriginal communities.  The Western Australian Government says continuing to provide services to these communities is too expensive, and Abbott says that governments shouldn't pay for the people's "lifestyle choices".

"What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if these lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have."

As usual Abbot is historically blind, and on a grand scale. Aboriginal Australians were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands (that is to say, by police and soldiers) over the period stretching from first contact to the early 20th century, and confined to missions in out of the way places.  There they were given minimal education, forced to live wherever the "Protector" ordered them to live, and worked for wages much lower than those paid to non-aboriginal workers for the same jobs.

Because they were in remote areas they were the hardest hit by the restructuring of rural industries in the post-war years and unlike the farmers who could at least sell out to agribusiness companies, they had no assets (even the land they lived on was owned by the government) so had nothing to fall back on. When they finally got control of the communities created by the missionaries they had no economic base. When they moved to the cities and towns they felt out of place and suffered discrimination and extreme poverty.  Add to this the grief of dispossession and destructive "child welfare" policies and you have the cycle of poverty, alcohol abuse and violence that characterises large parts of the Aboriginal community today.

Outstations were one of their ways of trying to break the cycle of destructive behaviours. We see a lot of footage of dysfunctional outstations but rarely see footage of the many which operate as quiet refuges from the larger communities where things have gone wrong and places to recover something of their original cultures. They are an attempt by people to take control of their own lives and reconnect with family and culture away from the dysfunction of the larger communities.  From the government they asked for no more than basic supports - help with housing construction, navigable roads, power, water and basic communication infrastructure.  These were provided but in a niggardly way.  These are not Club Med, they are very basic places to live.


The current move to close a large number of these settlements is the latest step in a policy trajectory which began with the Howard Government's abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2005.  ATSIC was created by the Hawke Government in 1990 as a way of giving Aboriginal people control over the delivery of services in their communities.  It consisted of a heirarchy of elected regional councils which then fed into a national body of elected officials.  This body had control of a substantial allocation of resources to provide services to Aboriginal people - health, housing, infrastructure, legal services, employment, community development and so on.  This was a serious experiment in self-determination.

ATSIC was certainly not without its problems.  In the early 2000s both its Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson were tainted by allegations of criminal conduct, although most of these were never proved.  At the same time, the organisation's effectiveness and connection with ordinary Aboriginal people were questioned.  A large number of critics, both in the Aboriginal community and in mainstream politics, agreed that there needed to be change.

However, not many Aboriginal people think that the changes the Howard Government made are the ones that were needed.  Most wanted to see the blundering ATSIC bureaucracy replaced by a greater level of local grassroots control.  Instead, Howard went for an approach based on the mainstreaming of services.  Health was to go back to the health departments, housing to the housing departments, infrastructure to local and state governments, employment to the Jobs Network,

The result is that a somewhat dysfunctional process of Aboriginal control was replaced by no Aboriginal control at all.  Every part of the system was run by predominantly white bureaucrats.  Like everything else, service provision was either done directly by mainstream departments, or was tendered out to private and non-profit service providers with the big winners being consulting companies and large charities - many of them run by the churches that used to run the missions.

Of course the blame for the complex and deeply rooted problems of Aboriginal communities was placed at the feet of Aboriginal people themselves.  The fact that ATSIC didn't manage to solve these problems could be used as evidence against self-determination.  White people needed to come in and save Aboriginal people from themselves.  This dynamic was ratchetted up with the 2007 Intervention in the Northern Territory, where reports of high levels of child abuse led to a declaration of a "State of Emergency", the imposition of even higher levels of government control (overseen by an authority led, ironically, by a senior military officer) and the removal of more Aboriginal controlled programs such as the CDEP, the sole source of work for many in remote communities.

The next logical step in this process is a major shift from Commonwealth to State provision of services.  Because mainstream health, housing and infrastucture services are delivered by state and local governments, it was only a matter of time before responsibility for the now-mainstream Aboriginal  services went the same way.  There was considerable haggling, because State governments were hardly likely to accept responsibility without extra funds.  However, this process is now pretty much complete.  The result is that cash-strapped State Governments now inherit the problems that neither ATSIC nor the Commonwealth Government managed to fix, in exchange for the pitifully inadequate funds the Commonwealth originally allocated to not fixing these problems.

In the case of the outstations issue, the relevant pitifully inadequate funds are those allocated to infrastructure and housing.  On housing there has, at least, been a serious effort.  Commonwealth and State Governments have agreed to a 10-year program worth about $5b to upgrade existing housing and build new housing in remote Aboriginal communities.  That sounds like a lot of money, but alongside overdue repairs to existing houses the program will provide only 4,500 new houses over a ten year period.  This will barely keep up with population growth over that period, never mind seriously addressing overcrowding.  Apropos of "lifestyle choices", a policy decision was made that none of this money would go to outstations - it is all being spent in the main communities.  As a result, outstation housing will continue to deteriorate while houses in the larger communities are repaired and rebuilt.

On infrastructure, there is no such program.  The Commonwealth doesn't think this is its responsibility so it has simply passed on the money it used to spend and washed its hands.  In Western Australia the amount to be passed over was $40m per year for the whole state in 2012.  Broome Shire estimated that for its local government area alone (which includes five Aboriginal communities on the Dampier Peninsula) the infrastructure needed $125m of capital spent to upgrade it to normal community standards and then $25m per year to operate it thereafter.  This didn't include any spending whatsoever on outstations.

Given these prior decisions, its not surprising that the WA Government has decided it can't afford to spend any money on outstations.  Still it's funny how things become impossible or unaffordable when you don't want to do them.  Since 2008 the WA Government has spent over $5b on regional infrastructure projects under its Royalties for Regions program, but a few measly millions to upgrade outstations is "too expensive".  Pardon my cynicism, but it seems that the drive to give back to the communities that get turned on their head to provide the resources doesn't extend to giving anything back to the country's original owners.

What is the upshot of this?  Aboriginal policy has gone almost full circle since 1970.  The gains in self-determination made between the 1970s and the early 2000s have almost all been undone.  Aboriginal people are now told where they can and can't live.  The services that used to be provided by Aboriginal community councils and community-controlled organisations are now delivered by government departments and outside contractors over whom they have no control,  Programs like CDEP which gave people meaningful work and a stake in their communities have been replaced by passive welfare and pointless training programs while the infrastructure the now idle CDEP workers used to maintain steadily deteriorates.  If they complain about any of this, they are told that the problem is that they are not integrating well enough, not having "the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have".  In other words, they are not white enough.

Aboriginal people find themselves thwarted at every turn.  But worst of all, whenever something goes wrong, it is portrayed as their fault.  It is absurd that we gradually narrow the range of choices they are able to make, then turn the question back on them as if their desire to have a choice was somehow selfish and a drain on the community.  If Abbott wants to be the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Australia, he will have to do better than this.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Future Commodore?

This young girl is my hero.


She appears in an advertisement for Holden Commodore which has been on high rotation on all the commercial TV channels recently.  In it a group of children present their designs for the Holden Commodore of the future.


Holden (the Australian arm of General Motors) announced last year that it would stop producing cars in Australia by the end of 2017.  This is, of course, not a popular move with the Australian public and GM are very keen to convince us they have a future here even if it is only virtual.  What better way than to use children?

The children are asked to create pictures of a future Holden Commodore (Holden's flagship vehicle) and then explain them on camera.  I can't find anything online that tells me how genuine this is.  Did each of the children really sit down and draw their imagined car of the future, or is it all staged and scripted?  But let's assume for the sake of argument that these are real juvenile creations.

Not surprisingly, most of the kids have drawn ideas from popular science fiction - a car that goes at 1,000 km/s, a turbo-charged engine, a car that can fly out of traffic.  Some also have science fiction accessories - hypnotic wheel hubs, alien detection devices....

My young heroine is the only one to buck the trend.  Not only does her vehicle come with its own pony, it also appears to have some kind of wind turbine and its engine appears to have been replaced by a rabbit.  Given that there is no trace of any engine, one has to assume that what appear to be flames coming out of the rear of the vehicle are actually a feather duster.

Of course it could be just that she loves animals and is not very interested in cars, but I like to think she knew exactly what she was doing.

All the super-powered vehicles created by the other children, with their blinding speed, multiple capabilities and high-end engineering, have to use a lot of power.  You can see combustible fuels being burnt in enormous quantities in some of them.  In the others, it is not clear what sort of power they use.  What we do know is that speeds of 1,000 km/s and vertical takeoff are supremely power-hungry manoeuvres, while all those hi-tech extras have to be an extra drain on resources.

Only our clever young horse-lover seems to be aware that fossil fuels are rapidly running out, and are in any case doing immense damage to the planet.  We are in the early stages of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards renewables, and this is likely to mean we will have to build technologies and economies that are less energy-intensive.

Of course some aspects of her design require a little more development.  I'd like to hear some more detail on her plans for a rabbit-powered motor and I suspect it may have animal-rights hurdles to overcome.  It's also not clear in the drawing (or the video) whether the wind turbine is attached to the car itself or is on a hill behind, generating electricity to power a hidden battery.  The latter would certainly make more sense, but then you need to have stations in place to recharge the battery and current versions of this technology only allow for relatively short journeys.  In our post-carbon world there may also not be enough electricity to go around, and if that's the case rationing may limit the use of the battery anyway.

Which of course is where the horse comes in.  When you are using the battery it can ride on a side platform, conserving its energy and sharing carrots with the rabbit (perhaps the rabbit is not intended to power the car at all and is just there to provide cross-species conversation).  When the battery runs out, wherever that may be, the driver just needs to hitch up the horse and get it to pull the car/cart the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, all the fancy super-powered science fiction cars will be rusting in one of those big barns we read about every now and then.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Bible Tells Me So

A few years ago I wrote a series of posts on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and for a while after that I kept coming back to the subject.  I stopped eventually, partly because I ran out of things to say, and partly because it was like shooting fish in a barrel.  The idea of an inerrant Bible just doesn't make any sense once you've read it and realised what kind of book (or collection of books) it actually is.

However, at the risk of going over old ground and boring everyone, I've just read a fantastic book by Peter Enns called The Bible Tells Me So...Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.  Don't bother reading my laboured posts on the subject, just read this book instead.

Enns is an Old Testament scholar.  He currently holds a chair in Biblical Studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania.  His book jacket also tells us that he has taught at Harvard, Princeton and Fuller.  Interestingly it doesn't mention Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1994 to 2008.

In 2005 he published a book called Inspiration and Incarnation, in which he brings biblical scholarship to bear, often critically, on various key Evangelical approaches to the reading of scripture.  He felt that Evangelicals often take a defensive posture when confronted by new ideas and research findings, and that this leads to significant cognitive dissonance.

He had been teaching his students this for years, but Inspiration and Incarnation created a storm among the conservative Presbyterians who run Westminster.  The Chair of the Board of Trustees asked the members of the faculty to investigate whether the content of the book violated his oath to uphold the Westminster Confession, required of all staff.  After a lengthy process and much debate the faculty concluded it did not but the Board, who had never intervened on theological matters before, overrode them and sacked him.

This shows you three things.  One is that his theology is orthodox enough that he was prepared to sign up for the Westminster Confession, and most of his peers didn't think he had strayed from that.  The second is that he is intellectually honest and serious enough about his scholarship to be prepared to take risks.  Thirdly, it's a bit sad that the college felt the need to shield its trainee ministers from his ideas - after all, if your education doesn't challenge you what's the point?

Anyhow the good news is that not only did Enns get another teaching job (presumably at a less conservative college), but he was free to write this book without further censure.

Enns is a serious Bible scholar with a PhD and lots of published papers in academic journals, but this book is very much for lay readers.  There's no jargon, no dense historical and theological reasoning, just a logical flow of ideas expressed in plain English.  It even has jokes - many of them are quite funny.

The heart of Enns' message is this.

Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God's rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual - follow the directions and out pops a true believer, deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.

If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to "defend the Bible" against those anti-God attacks.  Problem solved.

That is, until you actually read the Bible.  Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag - fine as long as it's kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes....

When you read the Bible on its own terms, you discover that it doesn't behave itself like a holy rulebook should.  It is definitely inspiring and uplifting - it wouldn't have the shelf life it does otherwise.  But just as often it's a challenging book that leaves you with more questions than answers.

His challenge to Christians is, do you want a tame Bible that answers every question clearly and simply, or do you want the one we actually have?

To get the party off to rollicking start, he begins at the most obvious point.  In the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua, God is portrayed not simply as turning a blind eye to genocide, but positively requiring it, even punishing his people when they fail to carry it out with sufficient thoroughness.  How do Christians square this away with the view of God as Love, of Jesus dying on the cross for all humanity, with turning the other cheek?

His answer is that, of course, you can't.  It's impossible to reconcile the two.  So how should Christians treat these stories?  Well, for a start we should understand that they come out of a tribal milieu, in which each tribe and nation was at war with its neighbours and each nation had a God who they saw as sponsoring them.  Israel was no different, and its God was Yahweh, the God of Israel.

These stories, then, need to be understood as the stories of a tribal people about their God, expressed from within their cultural milieu.  The evidence of archaeology is that they are not even true in a modern historical sense.  The Bible is written by real, ordinary humans, tied to their moment in history and their place on the globe.  It is not somehow removed from this, as cosmic message direct from God.

This means we are free to approach it critically, to learn from it what we can learn without being required ourselves to adopt this tribal mindset.  God, he says, likes stories and this is how he chooses to reveal himself to us.  Not all the stories say the same thing.  Often they are in tension.

This applies even to the parts of the Bible you might expect to be the clearest - for instance the Wisdom books, intended to provide practical guidance for how to live your life.  He gives the example of two successive verses in Proverbs 26.  Verse 4: "Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself".  Verse 5: "Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes".  So which is it?  Should you argue, or not?

Wisdom isn't about finding a quick answer key to life - like turning to the index, finding your problem and turning to the right page so it all works out.   Wisdom is about learning how to work through the unpredictable, uncontrollable messiness of life so you can figure things out on your own in real time.

Both of these proverbs are good, wise and right - the question is when each is good, wise and right.  And that "when" depends on the situation you might find yourself in.

This variability applies to a lot of other parts of the Bible too.  For instance, what is God like?  Sometimes he is all-seeing and all-knowing, while at other times, like in the Garden of Eden, he seems to be in the dark about our doings and requires explanation.  Sometimes he is so angry he lashes out, like in the story of the Great Flood or, more inexplicably, when he destroys Aaron's sons for offering the wrong kind of incense.  Other times he is "merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love".  Sometimes he us unchangeable, sometimes he regrets what he has done.  All these pictures of God convey something to us about his or her nature, but none is a complete picture.

When we come to the New Testament we can see that Jesus and the apostles understood this much more clearly than we do.  As Biblical Studies Professor Enns puts it, "Jesus gets a great fat 'F' in Bible".  He and his apostles, especially Paul, quote verses out of context, give them meanings no-one would have thought to put in there, and generally fail to treat the Bible like a good Christian should.

The result is that the stories of the Old Testament are given a radical new meaning, something no previous Jewish interpreter would have dreamed of, a re-purposing of the Old Testament stories to provide a universal human message based around Jesus the Christ in place of the tribal message about Yahweh and his people Israel.

Nor does this stop with the Old Testament.  The New also provides us with a collection of stories and points of view, different interpretations of the life and meaning of Jesus.  The Jesus portrayed in John's Gospel, for instance, is significantly different to the way he is portrayed in Matthew, Mark and Luke; and even though the Synoptic gospels are much closer to each other than they are to John they still present us with different viewpoints and emphases.  As Hans Kung said, there are already a number of different theologies present in the New Testament.

You can see, perhaps, why a conservative college wouldn't want their students hearing such stuff.  But then again, this is nothing new.  I didn't read anything much in The Bible Tells Me So that I hadn't read before.  Nor does Enns claim otherwise.  He is not trying to break new ground.  Rather, he is trying to reach out to people like the students at Westminster who study the Bible deeply and with the aid of the best scholarship, find the same disturbing things that Enns himself found, and find their faith (as he did) under threat.

Too often such people find no help in their conservative colleges because teachers like Enns who could have helped them are turfed out and replaced with those who will toe the line.  Bart Ehrmann is a good example of what can happen - the weight of scholarly doubt destroyed his faith and he is now one of the world's best known atheist Bible scholars.  Of course it's not always like that.  Marcus Borg, for instance, describes himself as having been a "closet atheist" for much of his career as a seminary teacher and Jesus scholar before experiencing a late life spiritual awakening.

What Enns is trying to do is leave these things a little less to chance.  He wants ordinary believers to know what they are getting themselves in for when they read the Bible, to be ready for it and to have some tools to cope with it.  His faith is alive and well.  When you get rid of illusions, what is real remains.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Noam Chomsky

I've finally taken the time to read an actual complete book by Noam Chomsky, as opposed to reading the odd article or hearing snippets on the radio.  Chomsky is now 86 and has been publishing books and articles on a bewildering array of subjects for the past 50 years.  What took me so long?

By profession Chomsky is a linguist, often referred to as the "father of modern linguistics".  I'm not very interested in linguistics but he is more widely famous as a political activist and as America's most prominent anarchist.  Ever since the Vietnam War he has provided a steady stream of dissident commentary on US politics and particularly on its international affairs.

Anyhow, I may be slow but I get there in the end.  I've just finished reading Hopes and Prospects, an interlinked set of essays published in 2010 and dealing with various aspects of US foreign policy.

The book revolves around two simple maxims.  The first, from Adam Smith, suggests that "'merchants and manufacturers' were 'the principal architects' of state policy and made sure that their own interests 'were most peculiarly attended to' however 'grievous' the effects on others".  The second is from the Greek historian Thucydides who suggested that "the strong do as they wish and the weak suffer as they must".

The book illustrates these two maxims in essays dealing with the history of American foreign policy in South and Central America, the Middle East and other parts of the globe.  The breadth of his knowledge is truly amazing and he puts it all on show, flitting from subject to subject as one thought leads to another.  The result is that the essays often turn into rants - but enlightening and thought provoking ones.

Through this wealth of detail are some simple and consistent messages.  The first is that American democracy is dysfunctional.  The political system is controlled by corporate interests and politicians do the bidding of these corporations at the expense of the majority of the population.  This can be seen in the way corporate profits soar while wages stagnate, in the way welfare recipients have to account for every dollar while banks receive huge bailouts without even the most basic accountability, in the way health policy enriches insurance companies while delivering poor quality and expensive health care.  It is also shown in the way politicians of both sides are consistently to the right of the vast majority of the population.

This same dynamic filters over into America's foreign policy.  Throughout its history, the US has justified its intervention in other countries with a kind of special pleading, suggesting that the US is the "light on the hill" bringing hope to common people around the world.  It's interventions in other countries are cast as "democracy promotion".

The truth could not be more opposite.  From Wilson to Obama, US foreign policy has protected US corporate interests at the expense of the peoples in whose countries they intervene.  He dwells at length on Chile where in what he calls the "first 9/11" on the 11th of September 1973 the US supported the overthrow of elected socialist President Salvador Allende in favour of a brutal military junta headed by Auguste Pinochet.  In 1991 they supported a similar event in Haiti, where after decades of dictatorship the radical priest Jean-Baptiste Aristide was elected as President and allowed to last less than a year.  And so it goes in Bolivia, Grenada, Guatemala and many other countries in South and Central America.

Despite this, Chomsky sees signs of hope.  The Chavez regime in Venezuela, still intact when he wrote, had managed to survive US pressure and take control of its own oil reserves, pursuing an independent socialist path and providing a rallying point for its neighbours.

The Middle East has followed a similar pattern, with US support for a series of brutal dictatorships in various countries, but in this case the situation is a lot more complex and US policy much more confused.

In Israel/Palestine matters are simple - support Israel in whatever it does.  This means that despite the rhetoric about "free and fair elections", when the Palestinians elected a Hamas regime in 2006 the US and Israel refused to recognise the result or deal with the victors, forcing the Palestinians to accept the continuation of the Fatah regime they had just rejected and causing the effective separation of Gaza and the West Bank.  Meanwhile, Israel is free to plunder Palestinian land at will.

Other interventions, however, have proved more problematic.  In the 1980s, in order to undermine the Soviet-sponsored regime in Afghanistan, the CIA funded and trained militia groups including the Taliban and what became Al Qaeda.  Also in the 1980s they supported the Baathist regime of  Saddam Hussein in Iraq to keep the Iranians in check.  They even supported the Iraqi nuclear program, providing advice and equipment.

The trouble with ruthless dictators and extremist militias is that they just won't do as they're told.  As a result, the US has moved to Plan B in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  First destroy the economy through sanctions, to the point of mass starvation and denial of medical supplies which kill hundreds of thousands of people.  Then invade the country with the aid of alternative militias and warlords (you can always find some pretext), set up a weak central government in place of the dictatorship and allow the country to be divided between rival factions, each with its little territory and sphere of influence.

The result will be terrible for the local population as we have seen in Iraq over the past year (Chomsky predicted something along these lines) but favours US economic interests who are able to control Iraq's vast oil fields and run a gas pipeline through Afghanistan without Russian interference.  US oil companies, and American energy security, must be protected whatever the cost to local populations or to American taxpayers.

There's much more where this came from, but I don't need to go on.  Reading this as an Australian is more than a little disturbing.  On the one hand, it is hardly possible for an Australian to be immersed in American politics the way Chomsky has been for the past half century.  Yet this story is also our own - not so much in South America, where Australia has little involvement, but certainly in the Middle East.  Where the US goes, Australia is among the first to follow.  We followed the US into Korea and Indo-China, helped invade Afghanistan and Iraq, backed the American line on Israel and Palestine.  For the past two decades we have gradually moved our health system away from the successful European model and towards the dysfunctional American approach.  Like the US, our own government is in thrall to big corporations (often the same ones, plus a few of our own) and out of step with its own people on a wide range of issues.

Apart from the injustice of these measures and the suffering they cause around the world, there is a warning here for us.  We make ourselves a target for terrorists, including those who have come here as refugees and then feel betrayed by the actions of their adopted country.  But we should not be too sure of the quid pro quo.  The story of American diplomacy over the past century suggests that America will always act in its own interests.  Its allies will be called "friends" when they are useful, but can be quickly cast off or converted into enemies when they become inconvenient, or begin to show too much independence.

Is such fickle friendship worth it?  Is it enough to justify our complicity in the suffering of millions, in the destruction of whole countries?  I think not.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

World Diagram #1

I've often thought the world can be described in a single diagram.  After all, how complicated can one planet be?

This is not it, but it's a little bit of the way there - a diagram which explains how we need to understand current world events by means of a pyramid.  If I was really clever I'd make it an iceberg with the top item and half the second sticking out of the water but if you want cute and pretty you'll just have to look elsewhere.  (If you click on it, at least you'll see it full size).



The idea behind this diagram is that we spend a lot of time focused on surface symptoms of deeper problems.  Because we spend so much of our effort on the symptoms we often fail to see what lies beneath them, so we opt for superficial solutions too.  We focus on cleaning up after natural disasters, playing with monetary and fiscal settings to smooth out fluctuations in our economy, surveillance and policing to prevent terrorist attacks, "stopping the boats" in response to the global refugee crisis and so forth.  These actions seem to relieve the problems in the short term, but they keep recurring.

Beneath these symptoms there lie a series of more fundamental and intractable issues.  These include things like our ongoing state of war, long-standing ethnic and religious tension, economic inequalities and the perseverance of absolute poverty.  We are generally aware of these issues but we don't necessarily understand them very well and they are often surrounded by mythology.

For instance, when we see Islamic State carrying out religious persecutions we attribute this emergence to Islam.  In focusing on this we forget that Islam has been the dominant faith in Iraq and Syria for over 1,000 years and is only now beginning this religious cleansing process.  Why now?

In the same way, we are aware of poverty as a phenomenon but only poorly understand the dynamics of trade, colonialism and resource distribution that bring it into being, so we tend to act as if it can be solved through things like child sponsorship and community development projects.  We respond to the immediate need, or the immediate crisis, without understanding the root causes of the problems we are addressing.  This means that often our good work can be undone.  We build peace and understanding between communities only for war to break out.  We educate children but then find that they are unemployed.  We build community enterprises only for them to be destroyed by civil war.

Part of the reason that these efforts are so fragile is because there is a set of even deeper issues that underpin them.  These are first, physical and then, beneath these, psychological or spiritual.

Physically, in the 21st century we are reaching a number of hard ecological limits.  Our use of the atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon emissions is causing irreversible climate change.  Oil production has reached its historical peak and will soon begin to decline.  Fish stocks are collapsing in many parts of the world as a result of factory fishing.  Population growth is placing strain on our agricultural resources, and factory farming is depleting many areas of arable land.

The effects of our reaching these limits are behind many of the problems that plague our world.  Climate change drives the increased severity of natural disasters, while population growth and inequality means that they impact more people, more severely.  The struggle is intensifying for access to the world's remaining oil resources, and this struggle lies at the root of much of what appears on the surface to be Islamic militancy, and of our inept responses to it.  Many of the civil wars that plague Africa revolve around control of scarce arable land and water by increasingly poor and desperate populations.

We could leave it there, were it not for one thing.  Our reaching and exceeding  these various limits is not a matter of chance, random fluctuations or inevitable natural processes.  It is caused by decisions made by human beings, often if full knowledge of their consequences.  Why do we go on acting in this apparently foolish way?

I believe at least part of the answer is that we act on the basis of a number of pervasive illusions.  If you like, you could call them forms of idolatry - false and destructive world-views.  We eternalise our nations and cultures, acting as if they were invulnerable.  We worship the gods of progress and unlimited growth, believing we can go on taking more materials from the earth without them ever running out.  We have faith that every problem has a technological solution.  In a sense, be believe ourselves to be gods, in charge of the earth and the universe.  These illusions blind us to our true situation and prevent us from changing course.

The scale of this problem, the complexity of the layers of meaning and the pervasiveness of our illusions can leave us feeling hopeless.  Should we just give up and let what happens, happen?  Should we stop doing acts of charity, or trying to work for a fairer distribution of wealth, and focus purely on the ecological or spiritual plane?

For me, looking at the world in this way in certainly humbling and more than a little daunting.  It forces me to acknowledge that I, and my friends and fellow-travellers on this journey, have only limited influence.  We cannot save the world, hard though we may try.

However, this truth can also set us free.  This becomes more than just a form of words.  Although we can easily be drawn back into the illusions of our time and place, we are also able, at least a little, to escape them.  We are able to act on the basis that our society and its driving ethos are transitory, that the way we live now did not always exist, and will not exist forever.  Our choice is not between change and no change, it is only between better change and worse change.

Our efforts, whether simple works of charity and kindness, political actions to redistribute wealth, ecological actions to reduce pollution, or intellectual and spiritual efforts to unmask illusions and shine a light in dark places, can all make it better, even if just in a tiny way.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Gillian Triggs Episode 2

Sometimes the pleasure I get from being right is far outweighed by the pain of wishing I had been wrong.  This is one of these times.

About a month ago I suggested that the media and government assault on Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs over an obscure immigration case was merely a preliminary skirmish before the release of the Commission's report into children in detention.  I'm deeply sorry to have been proved right.

Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs.

On February 11 the government tabled the Commission's report, The Forgotten Children, which it has been sitting on since November while it engaged in its initial softening up process.  I've only had time so far to read the summary and skim the rest, but it is not pretty reading.

Over an eight month period, teams of Commission staff and assistants, including experts in child health, interviewed over 1,000 children and family members in eleven Australian immigration detention centres.  The Commission also received a couple of hundred formal submissions and held public hearings.

Its purpose was not to determine if the indefinite detention of children was a breach of human rights.  The Commission has consistently held this to be the case for the past 25 years, even though neither side of politics is listening.  Rather, their intention was to investigate the effects of immigration detention on children's wellbeing.

The findings are as predictable as they are depressing.  Detention is extremely harmful to children.  Children in detention suffer high rates of mental illness (often severe), high rates of self-harm, poor general health and are frequently the victims of assault.  Children detained on Christmas Island were denied any access to education for 12 months, and a number of children born in detention are stateless.

None of this serves any useful purpose.  Both the former Labor Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and his Liberal successor Scott Morrison testified that detaining children does not have any deterrent effect on asylum seekers or people smugglers.

This problem is easily solved.  The children - and their families of course - should be allowed to live in the community while their applications for protection are assessed.  Easy to do, doesn't harm anybody, even saves money.

But I have long since given up expecting sensible policy from either side of politics on this question.  Instead Tony Abbott has gone on the attack.  The report is partisan, he says - why did it not take place when Labor was governing?  Ms Triggs ought to be ashamed of herself.  She ought to be congratulating Scott Morrison for his astonishing human rights achievements.  And in any case there are now fewer children in detention than there used to be so this is not an issue any more.

Lets slow down and take these one at a time.

1. The report is not partisan.  It is quite clear that children were detained under both governments, and the period it examines straddles the most recent election, interviewing families detained during both Bowen's and Morrison's tenures.  Both ministers were grilled in public hearings.  Neither came out smelling of roses.  However, the Commission does point out that while both governments detained children (and in fact the Labor Government detained more) the periods of detention have become considerably longer since the Coalition took office and it is only on their watch that children have been detained indefinitely.

2. Ms Triggs has nothing to be ashamed of.  She is doing her job as Human Rights Commissioner, examining the actions of the Australian Government and its agencies and identifying human rights abuses.  The government should be ashamed of itself for knowingly and indeed stridently perpetrating and defending such abuses.

3. Scott Morrison does not deserve any congratulation for "stopping the boats" or for reducing the numbers of children in detention.  For a start, it is not at all clear that the boats have stopped.  Only that they have stopped landing in Australia, and this was achieved by the simple and brutal means of intercepting them and either forcing them to turn around or detaining their occupants at sea and then taking them back to where they came from.   Has any refugee's life been improved by this proceeding?  It seems unlikely.  Have there been any improvements in Australian community life as a result of having fewer asylum seekers reach our shores?  There is no evidence of this.  Meanwhile, people (including children) are being traumatised by the steadily increasing level of inhumanity of our detention regime.

4.  There are indeed fewer children in detention but they are there for much longer and in much harsher conditions.  Part way through the inquiry Morrison made the decision to release all children under 10 who had been detained prior to July 2013.  Perhaps we can thank the inquiry for this strategic reduction in numbers.  Even if we can thank Morrison, it is a very partial measure.  There are still over 300 children in immigration detention and the average length of detention has risen to more than a year.  There should be none.

What's is missing from all this bluster from Abbott is any attempt to actually respond to the issue.  Not a single thing he has said so far even attempts to refute the report's findings.  By his silence he is effectively admitting that they are correct.  Instead of addressing these findings (which would require a change in policy) he has resorted to character assassination and blaming his opponents.

I guess in a sense Ms Triggs is fortunate that she is doing her job in Australia.  In countries with worse human rights records than Australia (and there are still many although fewer than there used to be) someone who highlighted official abuses in this way would be imprisoned on trumped-up charges, or murdered in the night by an anonymous death squad.  Triggs will only be subject to vilification and character assassination.  It just serves as a reminder that standing up to the powerful is never easy, even in a country that is supposed to be democratic.

Meanwhile, it seems that those children still in detention have little to hope for from our government.  The Prime Minister's belligerence is both shocking and frightening.  He implicitly accepts that his government's policies directly harm children, and is determined to keep doing it.  He is even proud of it.

After he nearly lost his leadership, Abbot promised that "good government starts now".  Still waiting.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Life Without Oil

If you're not worried about the future of our civilisation, you obviously haven't been listening.  You wouldn't be alone in that - this is an incredibly hard message for us to hear and we would prefer not to listen at all.  Jeffrey Sachs says that one of the reasons American politics is controlled by big corporate interests is because ordinary citizens are disengaged and distracted.  I suspect a desire to avoid facing our uncertain future is part of the reason.

I've been reading Life Without Oil: Why We Must Shift to a New Energy Future by Steve Hallett with John Wright, published in 2011.  Hallett, who is clearly the lead author, is English by birth, currently associate professor of botany in Purdue University in Indianapolis and also had a stint teaching and researching at the University of Queensland just across the river from me.  Wright, very much the silent partner, is a journalist and I assume his job was to make the work readable for a non-technical audience.  If this is so, he has done a good job.

The foundation for this book is the idea that we are living in a period the authors call the "Petroleum Interval".  This is a period of history in which systems of production are oriented around the availability of cheap, plentiful fossil fuels, in particular oil and to a lesser extent coal and natural gas.

The availability of these fuels has shaped our society profoundly.  It drives our systems of production, enabling us to cheaply produce huge volumes of goods.  It drives our patterns of trade, allowing us to easily transport materials and products around the world in a thoroughly global economy.  It drives food production, pushing us towards agricultural systems that resemble factories with high yields made possible by fossil fuel based fertilisers and diesel-driven machinery, and ease of transport seeing crops grown in huge monocultural zones and shipped around the world.  This process of globalisation has enabled the whole world to be re-oriented in the interests of the great industrial powers of Europe and Northern America (or at least, their corporations), with China and India increasingly getting in on the act in recent years.

The authors have three bits of bad news for us.  The first is that this dependence on fossil fuels is hugely destructive.  The emissions from burning fossil fuels are causing irreversible changes to our climate.  Industrial farming brings large yields in the short-term at the expense of longer term declines as soils are worked out and aquifers are depleted.  This level of damage means that even if these fuels were unlimited the processes based on their use would not be sustainable.

The second bit of bad news is that these resources are, of course, far from unlimited.  They estimate that we are now at about the point of "peak oil" - the point where global oil production reaches its peak and begins to decline.  In the last 100 years we have used about half the world's accessible oil, so it will last at most another 100 years.  However, this doesn't mean we have 100 years to sort it out.  We are using the easiest-to-access oil first so long before we use the last drop extraction will become more expensive and yields will decline.  Coal and natural gas supplies are harder to estimate, but they are subject to the same problem - they can't last forever.

Given the multiple ways our societies are oriented around fossil fuel use, and particularly oil use, the impact of declining supplies is potentially catastrophic.  These problems will be exacerbated by the changes brought about by global warming and by continued population growth.  As it becomes more expensive to generate electricity, transport goods around the world and fertilise our crops we are likely to see chronic economic problems, food shortages, rising unemployment and financial instability.  Along with this will come intensified competition for the remaining resources - more wars and more unrest.  We are, in fact, already beginning to see these events, but because we tend to focus on the short term we fail to link them to the underlying issues of energy and fuel supply.

The third bit of bad news is that there is no ready alternative to oil as a fuel source.  Renewables such as wind, solar, hydro and tidal energy are less reliable than oil, less transportable and will struggle to deliver the amount of energy required.  Biofuels are expensive to produce and compete for cropland with food production.  None of the alternatives can replace the industrial fertilisers produced using natural gas.

The best hope for our energy in the immediate future, the authors say, is a combination of nuclear and hydrogen.  Nuclear power would make up the shortfall in standing generation capacity that can't be met by renewables, while hydrogen fuel cells would fill the gap created by the loss of petrol to power vehicles and ships.  The authors are well aware of the problems with both these fuel sources.  Nuclear power generates wastes which need to be stored for millennia, and carries the risk of catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (not to mention Fukushima, which happened after the book was written).  Nor is uranium unlimited.  Hydrogen fuel still has some technical problems to be solved, not least of which is tendency to explode.  Nonetheless, these appear to be the technologies with the most potential to bridge the gap.

What is to be done about this?  Well the authors are quite pessimistic.  In their view there will not be a smooth, pain-free transition.  We have left the task of adaptation too late, have become too dependent on fossil fuels to extricate ourselves in time.  The transition to a post-oil future will be painful, involving a great deal of suffering and conflict around the globe.  The task, as they see it, is not to avoid the collapse but to do whatever we can to reduce the amount of suffering involved, and to sow the seeds for the recovery that will come after.

This recovery, they believe, will involve us accepting a lower material standard of living than we have now.  However, they don't think this will be the disaster we fear.  All available evidence shows that more stuff doesn't make us happier.  It will involve a return to the sustainable agricultural practices of previous ages, with mixed cropping and rotation systems replacing industrial fertilisers and mono-culture.  It will involve, by necessity, more localism than we have now, with the majority of products sourced from near where we live rather than the other side of the world.

Of course not everyone is as pessimistic as Hallett and Wright about our energy transition.  In 2010 the Australian clean energy think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions published a detailed plan for converting Australia's electricity generation to 100% renewable sources by 2020, and have followed up with proposals on land management, building design and transport.  Their plan mostly relies on solar and wind generation, with a small amount of hydro and biofuel generation.  They view the costs as achievable and the technology as largely proven already.

I'm far from having the technical knowledge to judge between these viewpoints and the many others in the debate.  What both agree, though, is that change needs to happen and, indeed, that it will happen whether we like it or not.  The question is, will we shut our eyes and let it happen to us, or will we do everything in our power to manage the transition in the best way possible?