Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Carbon Tax? What Carbon Tax?

Towards the end of last year I had a bit of a laugh at the expense of the Commonwealth Government's marketing of the Carbon Tax.  My problem was that they were marketing the tax as if it was a problem.  The purpose of the Carbon Tax - combating global warming by reducing carbon pollution - was hardly mentioned in their marketing materials.  Instead they majored on the details of compensation.  The government gave the impression that they were creating a problem, and then fixing it.

Yesterday's mailbox reveals Stage 2 of this marketing strategy and now it's beginning to make more sense.  My local Labor MP Graham Perrett's Moreton Report lists, in huge bright letters, "6 ways our strong economy is working for Moreton."  These publications are of course approved by the government's marketing people, and Labor members around the country will be distributing newsletters with similar headlines.

He lists "Schoolkids Bonus", "New $600 increases to family payments", "Extra money to help with bills", "Increased Superannuation", "Small business instant tax write off" and "Child Care Rebate and Paid Parental Leave".  Next to these is what he calls an economic report card which gives us 6 reasons why his government is doing a great job on the economy, matching the six payouts people are getting.

Not all these things relate to the carbon tax.  The schoolkids thing is a rejigging of existing tax benefits, the superannuation assistance is funded by that other unpopular initiative, the mining tax (alluded to extremely indirectly), while the child care rebate is part of a longstanding government promise.  However the family payments, the supplementary allowance and small business tax concession are all part of the Carbon Tax compensation package.  A large part of the money that comes in via carbon payments will go out to various people and companies to offset the expected price rises.

How do I know this?  I read the original marketing material.  Graham Perrett certainly didn't tell me.  Instead, he attributes the fact that we're getting these payments to Labor's brilliance as economic managers.  Obviously because the economy is in such great shape thanks to Labor fighting off the Global Financial Crisis (presumably with a magic sword) we can now get goodies in our bank accounts. 

Yes, readers, this is a disappearing act.  The carbon tax has simply been made to go away, leaving behind a trail of financial rewards to win us back to voting Labor in 2013.

This may possibly work in electoral terms.  At least it might stop the kind of carnage we saw in the Queensland election and help local members like Perrett keep their seats.  Yet I find the cynicism of it all profoundly depressing. 

Kevin Rudd, just a few short years ago, said that climate change is "the great moral challenge of our time".  Rudd became incredibly popular saying things like that, and then lost popularity as he failed to deliver on the rhetoric.  In the process, action on climate change went from electoral winner to electoral poison.  This is in part because Labor gave up.  Instead of staying focused on the great moral challenges, they focused on internal politics and the numbers game.  The Greens were left to fight the climate change battle alone, and the field was effectively ceded to the skeptics and naysayers.

There's a chance the government may just survive.  However, if as seems more likely they lose the 2013 election, the Liberals have promised to abolish the carbon tax.  Presumably the goodies will go with it, but that's hardly important.  The important thing is, we will have flunked the great moral challenge of our time.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Riders on the Storm

Last year I wrote a review of The Doors which for some reason is the most visited post on this blog, perhaps because it includes a couple of pictures of Jim Morrison.  Anyway, on the plane home from the Kimberleys I had a read of John Densmore's Riders on the Storm, published in 1990.

For those who missed it, the Doors represent the dark side of the late 60s and early 70s.  Their songs portray a world of despair, confusion and nihilism far removed from the peace, love and harmony of Woodstock, where they refused an invitation to perform.  Their live performances, fuelled by singer Jim Morrison's erratic moods and alcohol addiction, were unpredictable and at times dangerous.  Their brief career ended in 1971 with Morrison's death, apparently from a heroin overdose, in a Paris hotel room.

Densmore, the Doors' drummer, is so far the only member of the band to tell his story.  This may be because the story is not pleasant, and perhaps all of them are more than a little ashamed of what happened. 

This certainly seems to be the case for Densmore.  He is justly proud of their musical acheivements, both in the studio and on stage, and describes both at rather tedious length.  Yet there is a lot more regret here than pride.

Despite years of therapy both before and after Morrison's death, Densmore doesn't provide us with a lot of psychological depth. He sticks with the day to day details. Yet it is easy to read between the lines.   Morrison's dominance of the Doors was not merely for public consumption.  Although he knew little about music he dominated proceedings in the way only a true psychopath can.  When he was at peace, they were at peace.  When he was troubled, they were troubled.  When he was roaring drunk, their performances staggered.  When he was sober, they rocked.  When he died, they died

Not that the rest of them were angels by any means.  The use of LSD was pretty much shared, as were other aspects of the rock star life.  Yet the other three were stable, professional, relatively phlegmatic musicians.  Left to themselves, they would have had serene, low profile lives as session players and night club sidemen.  Add Morrison to the mix, and they exploded, then flamed out with him. 

Take this story from before they got famous.  Densmore has left Morrison at the home of a female acquaintance, gone out for some drinks and then returned.

The door opened as I knocked....  I pushed it open the rest of the way and saw Jim standing in the living room, holding a large kitchen knife to Rosanna's stomach.  A couple of buttons popped on her blouse as Jim twisted her arm behind her back....

"What do we have here?" I exclaimed, trying to defuse the tension.  "Quite an unusual way of seducing someone, Jim."

Jim looked at me with surprise and let Rosanna go.  "Just having a little fun."

Rosanna's expression changed from fear and rage to relief.  Jim put the knife down.

I'm in a band with a psychotic.  I'M IN A BAND WITH A PSYCHOTIC!

I'm in a room with a psychotic.

"Well, I've gotta go....Do you wanna ride?"


I made a hasty exit.  I was worried about Rosanna but I was more worried about myself.  There was definitely sexual tension in the room as well as violent tension.  That's how I rationalized leaving....  I wanted to tell someone, my parents, anyone...but I knew I couldn't.

This story says it all, really.  As Morrison spiralled further and further out of control, Densmore and the others firmly looked the other way and played on.  Now Densmore looks back with regret.  Should he have done more?  Would it have made any difference if he had?  In a number of letters to Morrison he tries to work out this classic survivor guilt, airing both his regret at having done nothing, and his anger at Morrison for being such a dick.

Nor does it stop there.  Densmore's affection for Robbie Krieger is obvious, their friendship pre-dating the Doors and surviving the band's demise.  Krieger provides an endorsement on the book cover.  Ray Manzarek pointedly does not.  The tension between Densmore and Manzarek is hardly less visible than Densmore's anger and grief over Morrison, but its reasons are much harder to find. 

Morrison was clearly a pain in the neck.  Manzarek, on the other hand, comes across as the ultimate professional.  He was the oldest of the four, had a stable relationship throughout the band's career and beyond, provided the musical glue that held them together, and even rescued them by singing when Morrison was too wasted to perform.  So why are he and Densmore no longer speaking?

Densmore doesn't quite come out and say it, but it seems to me that he blames Manzarek for Morrison's death.  He points to him being the one who was closest to Morrison and had brought them all together, the closest thing Morrison had to a father figure once he rejected his real (and it seems probably abusive) military dad.  Why didn't Ray do something?  And why, after his death, did he persist in presenting such a rosy picture of the band? 

Densmore clearly feels let down, but its just as clear that he is making Manzarek bear some of his own guilt.  Because he, Densmore, also did nothing.  Nor did his mate Krieger.  For five years all three played the classic part of co-addicts, aiding and abetting Morrison's self-destruction.  Densmore is torn because he knows he got rich and famous on the back of Morrison's genius, yet stood by and idly watched him destroy himself.  Right from the beginning he saw that something was seriously wrong and he walked away.

When we listen to the Doors, we should remember this pain.  We enjoy, and benefit from, Morrison's genius.  At our distance his dark vision is romantic and challenging.  Yet from close up his addiction and psychosis left a trail of damage which 20 years later had still not healed. 

What happened to Rosanna?  How many other women found themselves alone in a room with Morrison in a similar mood?  If we were Densmore, what would we have done?

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

This is a Cup!

I'm going to stop banging on about the Kimberley after this, but I didn't want to finish on a down note in case you think that I went off to visit some sort of post-colonial dystopia.  There are some hard aspects to life on the Dampier Peninsula but wonderful people, a great place and a lot to like.  So instead I want to tell you about two things - cups and fishing.

First of all, to paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, this is not a cup.

THIS is a cup!

People in the Dampier Peninsula communities do not drink small cups of tea.  If we stayed in a hotel, my local co-workers would despair because their rooms had thimble-like cups which would only just give you a taste.  Any cup of tea smaller than half a litre is not worth making.

And then, of course, no conversation on the Dampier Peninsula is complete without some mention of fishing.  Of course they live by the sea, but more than that, they spend a lot of time on it.  Kids can handle boats before they can walk.  Young men make their own spears and they're not afraid to use them.  One of the reasons people would rather live on country than in the town is because in town if you run out of money you go hungry.  In the communities you go fishing.

They still do it in much the same way their ancestors did, although as a concession to the modern world they use nylon fishing line and tip their spears with heavy gauge wire.  Some things, like stingray, you can catch any time of year.  Others can only be hunted at certain times.  Dugong, for instance, can only be hunted for a brief time in the spring, and only for special occasions.  Apparently it tastes a little like pork and is very fatty, so you couldn't eat it every day.  When they're not hunting them they conserve them.  The local Aboriginal Rangers run a tagging program to identify the migration patterns - although one of them told us with a glint in his eye that they already knew the migration patterns from hunting them over the years, they just needed to prove to white scientists that they knew what they were talking about.  Now they are international experts and some of them have just been to the United Arab Emirates to help tag dugong in the Red Sea.

When we were there, it was turtle season.  One of the younger men had caught one a few days before our final visit.  I would have loved to have taste but I was too late, because along with traditional hunting comes traditional sharing.  If you have a catch, you don't eat it all yourself (there's a lot of meat on a turtle!) you share it with your family and friends.  You will certainly have plenty of friends when there's turtle on offer, especially if it's washed down by servings of tea in proper cups.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Community Development Employment Program

Here's another snippet from the far north-west, this time about something a little closer to my normal field of knowledge - the Community Development Employment Program or CDEP.  This program was once the jewel in the crown of Aboriginal employment programs.  First trialled in 1977, by the early 2000s the program catered for over 40,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander job seekers.

CDEP was basically a "work for the dole" program, introduced on Aboriginal communities at their own request long before there was any such thing in the mainstream social security system.  It allowed communities to convert unemployment benefits into wages and pay unemployed people to work on community projects.  An unemployment benefit is equivalent to a bit under half a full time wage for an unskilled worker, so participants were treated as having a part-time job, 16 hours a week.  It was a creative response to two pressing problems on those communities - extremely limited employment opportunities, and under-funded community infrastructure.  It got people working and engaged in their community, and made substantial improvements to services and infrastructure. 

The program was so popular and successful that it gradually migrated from Aboriginal communities to serve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in urban and regional centres and later served as a model for the Howard Government's "work for the dole" scheme. 

Yet in the bizarre, upside down world of 21st century Indigenous affairs, this program became one of the main targets of the Northern Territory "Intervention", initiated by Howard and his Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough with the support of the then Labor opposition in 2007.  Brough was particularly outspoken in his criticism of CDEP, saying that it trapped Aboriginal people in unemployment.  He wanted to abolish the program and see it replaced by "real jobs" by which he meant mainly jobs in the private sector.  His Labor successor, Jenny Macklin, moderated the rhetoric but implemented virtually the same policy.

The result is that the scheme still exists in name, but the number of participants is greatly reduced and the administrative processes that backed it are in disarray.  One provider I talked to in the North-West told me their participants had dropped from over 1500 a couple of years ago to less than 200 now.  Nor are even those 200 participating as they used to.  The original scheme treated the payment as a wage and the employing body could enforce a "no work, no pay" regime.  Under what is left of the scheme, participants now receive a standard Centrelink payment and participation in CDEP activities is a condition of receiving their benefit.  These people live in remote communities.  Who is going to enforce this condition?

In talking to people about CDEP, it is clear that no-one thought it was ideal.  In a sense Brough was right.  The work ethic involved in the program was fairly relaxed - 16 hours a week of fairly undemanding work.  There was often little training, so people's skills didn't really develop.  For many participants there was no clear career path, no exit strategy into more rewarding or demanding work.  What was revolutionary in 1977 was no longer "state of the art" for 21st century labour market programs.

However, there was a huge hole in Brough's and Macklin's plan.  It was easy to wind back CDEP, but what would take its place?  Brough loved to talk about "real jobs" but neither he nor Macklin had any plan about where these would come from in remote, economically depressed communities.  They had no plan for how people who had worked 16 hours a week in unskilled, undemanding jobs would work full time in the open market.  They had no plan for anything much.  As the cliche goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

So what are those 1300 former participants doing now?  Well of course some, the most able and ambitious, have taken up some of the small number of positions available on their communities, or moved to Broome or Derby and found work.  A few work in the mining industry, raking in great money at the expense of splitting their families.  They probably would have done this anyway, although Macklin will undoubtedly try to take the credit.

However, a disturbing number, including the most disadvantaged of them, are doing nothing.  As one community leader told me, removing CDEP took away their reason to get up in the morning.  They still have the same income, courtesy of Centrelink, but they have nothing to do all day but sit around, drink alcohol and smoke ganga.  If they can get motivated enough they can take part in training, but given there are usually no jobs at the end many could not be bothered.  Depression is on the rise and youth suicide is on everyone's lips.

Meanwhile they watch (and I watched too) while people with white faces drive around their communities in twin cab utes, doing some of the $5b worth of housing construction and renovation being paid for by the Commonwealth Government in remote communities, or delivering essential services like water supply and rubbish collection.  The "real jobs", courtesy of Commonwealth contracting arrangements, are visible yet forever out of reach.

The tragedy is that it didn't need to be like this.  I've met plenty of people in these communities who are bristling with entrepreneurial ideas, and have the skills and drive to pull them off.  The only thing they lack is the capital.  They could easily be delivering these services themselves, and using them as a base to compete with providers in the towns. 

The catch is it would have taken time.  They would have had to build up slowly, walk before they could run.  The housing programs would have been delivered a year or two later.  There would have had to be a holding arrangement for municipal services to allow them to take up contracts.  Furthermore - shock! horror! - the government would have had to intervene in the market to guarantee them contracts as they got started.  It would have been hard.  Brough and Macklin wanted a quick fix.  They did indeed move quickly, but fix it was not.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Living in Two Worlds

Well I'm back home in the cold country after three weeks on the Dampier Peninsula and surrounds.  Still a lot to think about and sort through, though.

One of the things that really became clearer to me over my three weeks was the extent to which the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley are living in two worlds. 

On the one hand, they are participating in the modern Western society and economy.  They wear European clothes (with a distinctive Aboriginal style!) and drive cars, they go to school and university or TAFE, hold down jobs, run businesses and manage large complex community organisations.  A lot of them are very successful at doing this.  One of my local co-workers, in his mid-30s, has half a university degree in marine biology, plus tickets in motor mechanics and construction, and has worked on a number of mine sites as well as in more mundane town jobs.  Others struggle - levels of unemployment are high, there's a lot of alcoholism and mental illness, people are crowded into inadequate housing.

Yet alongside this they also live to a large extent in their traditional world.  Some of this is visible on the surface.  They still speak their own language, although for someone like me it's hard to tell the difference between traditional language and Aboriginal English.  They still largely follow traditional family patterns - their aunts and uncles have the same status as their parents, a man will not be in the same room as any of his mothers-in-law or a woman with her fathers-in-law, care of children is shared between parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles. 

Below this is a deeper level of culture, largely hidden from the outside world.  Despite decades of missionary intervention and multiple dislocations, people on the Peninsula and even those living away from their own country still practice their traditional law.  This law is largely secret, revealed only to male initiates.  I was allowed to know it existed, and was told some superficial information about what it involves, but of course know nothing of the details.  Yet I saw enough to understand that it is not confined to the older people.  The same colleague I mentioned above has "been through the Law" and in turn is now responsible for being jawal to some younger men - a term he translated for me as "god-father", responsible for training them in the basics.  When he is satisfied, they can then be "put through the Law" under the supervision of some of the older men, the "Law Bosses".

All this sounds romantic, perhaps, but it is also difficult.  The Law is not designed for a culture where people travel long distances for work and spend long periods away from home.  It is not designed to fit onto a society where people are required to turn up for work promptly, five days a week.  Some of the older people I spoke to are pessimistic about the future of the Law, and of their language in its pure form.  One gave it only another ten years. 

There are multiple reasons for this.  To some extent, they blame the fact that many younger people are not interested - they have alcohol, ganga and Facebook, why do they need the Law?  Yet this is not the whole story.  The Law requires the senior men to work together to call and organise events, yet disputes over native title and money have split the community and key people are not speaking to each other.  Law ceremonies used to happen regularly, now they are rare events.  Then for some reason which was not explained, the most senior lawmen are not passing the advanced details of the tradition onto the next generation.  They have initiated younger men, but the detailed songs, dances and traditions remain with them.  They are getting older and their health is declining.  One of the most important men had a heart attack while we were there.  It wasn't too serious, he came home and is recovering fast, but how long will he survive, and who can take his place if he goes?

How much does all this matter?  My co-worker is philosophical about it.  The world is evolving, he says, and you can either let it evolve around you, or evolve with it.  He loves the law but hates community politics.  He will keep on training his proteges, but will also keep working in the Western world and is well equipped to be successful there.

Yet for others it is not so easy.  They have not succeeded in the Western world.  They have limited education and job skills.  Many are also without the spiritual and social grounding provided by the Law.  They have the worst of both worlds.  What does the future hold for them?

* Painting is "Searching for Jandamarra" by Mark Norval - click on the link for details.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Beagle Bay

On Monday we paid a visit to Beagle Bay.  After doing our business during the morning, we managed to take a moment to visit the Sacred Heart Church.

Beagle Bay is an Aboriginal Mission, started by the Catholic Church in the 1890s and run by them until handover to a local community council in the 1970s.  The mission history means many residents, particularly older ones, are still devout Catholics and nothing symbolises this devotion more than the Sacred Heart Church, the town's main tourist attraction, built during the First World War.

From the outside it's pretty but not all that special - a whitewashed little chapel in rendered brick.  However, the inside is truly remarkable as you can see from the photos.  Whole pearl shells are inlaid into the window frames, and the altar, stations of the cross and other fittings are intricately ornamented with pearl shell fragments.  The care and effort that's gone into these, not to mention the value of the pearl shells, speaks of a deep love.  It is a love for God and the church expressed in the idiom of a saltwater people.

Yet this love has its dark side.  While we've been up here some of the older people have told us stories about their mission days.  Some of the mission residents were stolen children, living in dormitories and overseen - often harshly - by nuns.  Children educated in the Catholic schools (as in the schools on other missions) were forbidden from speaking their own language either in school or in their residence.  Even now not everyone is happy with the church's way of handling cultural issues such as prohibitions on images and names of dead people.  The policy of the mission for decades, in line with that of the whole government, was to promote assimilation, to prepare Aboriginal people for a European lifestyle, for incorporation onto Western culture.

To some extent it worked, although not completely.  Many of the people we've met here are highly sophisticated in their understanding of Western political and social processes, well educated in the European way, highly literate.  Yet their culture is far from dead.  Despite the historical restrictions they still speak their own language and maintain their traditional law and family systems, although the older people worry that the next generation may not carry these on.

So what place does the church have in the hearts of these people?  Saviour or oppressor?  For many it is wholly the latter and they have abandoned the church.  Yet for others, it continues to provide a spiritual base for their lives, a counterpoint to traditional law.  Forty years after they took control of their own affairs, the church is still maintained in beautiful order. 

Perhaps it can be explained in terms of the picture that forms part of the Stations of the Cross, where Jesus lies in his mother's arms, bleeding.  Jesus does not triumph and lord it over his Aboriginal devotees, like the priests and nuns sometimes did.  If they have suffered, he has suffered more, cast out from his father's country, suffering and dying in his mother's arms, with the hope of the resurrection still to come.