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Australia is a “nation of victims” with citizens unable to properly protect themselves with weapons, pro-gun crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm has said.
The Liberal Democrat said he wanted a calm, measured discussion about the right to “practical self-defence” in the wake of the deadly Sydney siege.
The Senator goes on to claim that: “What happened in that cafe would have been most unlikely to have occurred in Florida, Texas, or Vermont, or Alaska in America, or perhaps even Switzerland as well.”
I stayed up until 3:00am London time watching ABC24’s online feed of the Sydney cafe siege with a mix of unease and fascination, and followed it further at work the next day as it unbelievably dragged on for hours and hours. I also watched with contempt as a number of Americans with a political axe to grind descended on the Twitter hashtag and proclaimed that such a thing would never happen in America, with its prevalent gun ownership; a sentiment one of our politicians has decided to adopt, even before funerals are held for the two Sydneysiders who were murdered.
Put aside, for a moment, the notion that America is never visited by mass shootings or terrorist attacks. At the same time the siege was unfolding in Sydney, a gunman in Pennsylvania killed three times as many people. Rarely does the world provide such a stark, timely example that perhaps people should reconsider the logic of their beliefs.
The concept that armed citizens are the best way to stop gun violence has become a popular argument in America in recent years, despite the fact that in the extensive annals of American spree shootings, it has literally never happened. Someone came close during a shooting in Las Vegas earlier this year, but was instead killed by one of the perpetrators.
I’m slightly off track when it comes to Australia’s gun laws, which have broad community support, whatever libertarians like Leyonhjelm say. I believe people have a right, within reason, to own weapons for self-defence; the concept of the state removing that right makes me uneasy. But not as uneasy as I would be to live in a country in which 30 people die from firearms violence every day.
Since drastically tightening gun ownership laws after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, Australia has had no further mass shootings. It’s worth mentioning, however, that in 2002 a mentally disturbed student entered Monash University and shot and killed two students (this limited death toll is apparently why the incident is not generally considered a “massacre” or “mass shooting.”) He was prevented from killing any more because a lecturer and some students tackled him. He had six handguns; the Virginia Tech shooter only had two. If it wasn’t for the bravery and quick-thinking of those in the room with him, the incident could have been far worse.
I mention this not to say that our gun laws are ineffectual or useless or that they should be repealed, but as an example of how random mass shootings are – as we all know, the worst in history didn’t take place in the US at all, but in Norway, a bastion of liberal, left-wing gun control. There are more factors involved than the accessibility of firearms, and while we can control them to some extent, we can never truly prevent them.
But gun control isn’t about mass shootings – or at least, it shouldn’t be. The issue is always viewed through that big, lurid prism of body counts and police stand-offs, which make global headlines and bring the pundits into the studios to talk about how this might be a catalyst for change. But the vast majority of America’s gun violence victims don’t go down at the hands of a crazed mass shooter. They die in ones and twos, on street corners in black neighbourhoods, in botched armed robberies, in domestic disputes or arguments that turn violent.
Those are the facts of the matter. Senator Leyonhjelm doesn’t want “a calm and measured discussion” any more than the Americans on Twitter who saw a hostage crisis unfolding, attached it to one of the only things they know about Australia, and decided it was a good time to push their own political agenda. Leyonhjelm is a libertarian purist who bases his beliefs on abstract philosophy rather than real-world facts; what he wants is guns back in people’s hands, irrelevant of the plain statistics which prove that Australia’s gun laws have saved lives.
Like so many Americans, Leyonhjelm wishes the statistics told a different story. But they don’t.
A few weeks ago the New York Times published a travel article called “Catching Perth’s Wave in Western Australia,” a gushing puff piece you could be forgiven for thinking was financed by Tourism WA. Amongst the article’s more amusing claims were that Perth is “eco-fabulous” (it is the least sustainable city in Australia), that it has “spotless subways and free public buses” (Perth’s terrible rail network is entirely above ground, and the buses are only free in the CBD) and that sometimes it seems “as if everyone in Perth was under the age of 30” (I would argue that it seems as if the city is controlled by the elderly, who dislike noise and disturbance and would like to be in bed by 9pm.)
I’ve lived in Melbourne for the past three years, and came back to Perth this summer to relax for a while and see my family before moving on to the UK. I am something of a Melbourne snob now, but I still don’t hate Perth as much as I used to, because I know that I can leave now; I no longer feel trapped. I can understand why it appeals to a certain type of person, particularly older British migrants who want peace and quiet and warmth, or young Australians who don’t care about the isolation or lack of culture, and just love the hot weather and the beach. Whatever floats your boat.
Many people – usually people who have never lived elsewhere – have been keen to tell me that Perth has changed, by which they usually mean that the liquor licenses have been relaxed somewhat and there are some small bars now… but they still have to close at midnight on Friday. The CBD is still a ghost town on a weeknight after 6pm, it’s still near-impossible to get a restaurant meal after 9pm, and public transport is still virtually non-existent. It’s still a worst-case scenario in terms of suburban sprawl, stretching nearly 100 kilometres from Port Kennedy in the south to Alkimos in the north.
But I’m not interested in bashing Perth anymore. It’s a suburban wasteland, sure, fine, whatever. Some people like that. “If you don’t love it, leave,” as they say, and fair enough. I did leave. What I want to do is point out that the local media frenzy about a single NYT travel article is evidence that Perth still hasn’t outgrown its inferiority complex; its anxiety about its place not just in the world, but in Australia.
A rose-tinted travel article is not proof that Perth is now the equal of Melbourne or Sydney or, as the NYT writer on the all-expenses-paid junket says, Brooklyn. It is proof that travel writers have a certain number of column inches to fill each year, and need to attract a certain number of eyeballs. When writing about an Australian city, you can either churn out another article about Sydney or Melbourne, cities every foreigner has heard of, or you can look a little further, find a lesser-known city, and talk it up a bit. It’s the same reason Lonely Planet listed Adelaide in its top ten cities for Best In Travel 2014: not because Adelaide is genuinely a better destination than Sydney or Melbourne, but because Lonely Planet needs to keep things fresh and avoid repeating itself so that it can sell more books. That’s how the travel writing industry works.
Working yourself up into a lather about a travel piece – whether you’re local media gushing excitedly, or a self-congratulatory expat sneering at it – is silly. Perth was not praised in the New York Times because it has become a great city. It was praised in the New York Times because such articles serve as good clickbait.
After three years in Melbourne, today I flew back to Perth for a summer sabbatical before moving on to the UK. I learned in my early 20s, first with Korea and then with backpacking, that life doesn’t always turn out to be as wonderful as you expect it to be. But I moved to Melbourne with zero expectations, having never been there before, based solely on the other people in my life who’d decided to go there. It turned out to be an absolutely amazing city, one I was proud and happy to call home, and genuinely sad to leave. I hope to live there again one day.
Until then, here are some of the memories of Melbourne that stick in my mind – some important, others random, all part of a self-indulgent reminiscence you will likely have no interest in:
Riding my 250cc Kawasaki dirtbike up the freeway from Geelong, the end of a two week roadtrip from Perth, and glimpsing in the summer dusk my first sight of Melbourne – a peachy sky, some wispy clouds, a full moon rising fat and ripe above the skyscrapers.
Listening to The King of Limbs the day after we arrived, sitting on the back porch of a townhouse in Brunswick and looking over the overgrown jungle of a backyard.
Seeing flying foxes everywhere, for the first year or so, winging their way across the stars, until the council moved their habitat further up the Yarra.
Riding out to a pub one night to hang out with Jamie and his friends, who called me a FOB, for “fresh off the boat.” The pub was somewhere in the inner north, an old Victorian building with an attached tower. I cannot remember its name, and although I’ve probably driven past it a dozen times now, I will never be able to remember exactly which pub it was and where it was.
Driving down Mount Alexander Road from Essendon in Kristie’s car to pick her and Susie up from work at the Joint Bar at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, parking across the road in Flinders Lane, sitting in the dark behind the wheel and listening to Triple J.
Playing all the way through Time Crisis 4 at an arcade on Bourke Street, costing Jamie $50 in coins, before drinking the afternoon away at my first visit to Rooftop Bar on Swanston, which would become (and remains) my favourite bar in Melbourne and probably the world.
Working at the airport up in Tullamarine. “Meeting” (serving) a raft of C-list Australian celebrities – Lara Bingle, Bert Newton, Chopper Read, Bob Katter. Standing behind the counter at the Qantas business class lounge watching the sun rise over the hills north of the terminal and the planes touching down from Malaysia and Hong Kong and India. Waking for an early shift one morning at 3:30am, midwinter, to find the street shrouded in fog, and riding my motorcycle up the freeway in -1 degree temperatures, wearing business pants. Running my hands under warm water once I got there for twenty minutes before I could feel anything in them.
Moving into the 1960s brick shithouse Jamie bought in Sunshine West in the middle of winter with the electricity company shutting off the power due to a clerical error, leaving us shivering our way through a candlelit settling-in period. The ragged old vinyl couch, soon replaced by the corduroy sofa set that Jamie and Dave purchased while visibly high, but which nevertheless served us well for two years.
Living in Sunshine West. Smoking not that much weed and drinking not that much beer, but probably mixing the two enough that it wasn’t particularly healthy. Our love-hate relationship with Geoff the dog. Watching Archer and Seinfeld and Breaking Bad on the plasma flatscreen. Cranking the living room heaters in winter, warming the one room in which we spent all of our time, shouting at each other to “SHUT THE DOOR!” whenever one of us ventured outside to take a leak or get a beer. Pissing in the backyard and looking up at the stars. Falling asleep on the couch watching Chris replay Final Fantasy IX on my ancient PS2. Coming home from a late shift at 10pm, crossing the West Gate Bridge and leaving the city behind, droning along the freeway in lashing rain, soaking wet and freezing cold, and arriving home to peel wet clothes off and stumble into the shower, becoming warm and dry and finally arriving in the living room, where Chris and Jamie would already be reliably comfortable and baked, sitting down in my armchair next to the bookshelf and yanking back that tab to make the seat fall back and the footrest kick up, the hassles of the working day washing clean, whiling away the rest of the evening with my two best friends drinking, smoking and watching TV, not realising until long after I moved out that this would be one of the happiest times in my life.
Buying a Triumph Bonneville, my first big bike, from a dealership on Elizabeth Street. Parking it nearby and then having lunch with Chris and Jamie at a tiny cafe with three little seats at a counter table looking out the window, a cafe which, like that inner-north pub, I’ve never been able to find again.
Spending my first Christmas Day in Melbourne at home with Chris and the dog. Making a roast dinner and playing video games. In the midafternoon a hailstorm passed over the western suburbs and coated every lawn with white ice, leaving us with a brief White Christmas in the half-hour it took to melt.
Getting my first speeding ticket because I was racing Chris home on the West Gate from a gig in Brunswick. Proudly putting it under a magnet on the fridge.
Riding out to the Grampians with Jamie and Maya. Eating ice cream by the creek. Fumbling around on the back trails as the sun went down, finding a place to surreptitiously camp just before the light leaked away.
Attending the 2012 beer festival at the Royal Exhibition Building, a magnificent, regal World Heritage site in which the Australian Constitution was signed in 1901 – a building which Jamie and I then got spectacularly drunk in, eventually taking a leak in the gardens outside before taking the tram up to Fitzroy and stumbling through the rain to Kristie’s house in Brunswick with a plastic bag full of pilfered beer festival “memento” pint glasses, which I still have.
Riding up into the Dandenongs with Chris in August, up to Lake Mountain where snow was covering the ground like it was no big deal. The mountainsides were still ravaged from the Black Saturday bushfires from three years ago, the trees dead and leafless, so it looked almost like a European winter.
AFL, a sport comfortingly nostalgic given my own Western Australian boyhood, the most recognisable Melbourne suburbs being those that had rattled around in my brain since childhood because they supported teams – Essendon, Collingwood, St Kilda, Richmond. Becoming more acquainted with the game than I ever thought I would be by having to cover two seasons of it at work. Going to Fremantle games with Kristie, drinking Pure Blonde out of plastic cups, perching up high on those vertiginous seats at Etihad Stadium. The MCG always seemed so small on the inside. Feeling genuinely excited when Fremantle made it to the 2013 Grand Final, only to be slaughtered by Hawthorn.
Sitting on the roof watching the sun go down on my last night in Sunshine, then drinking heavily all night so the next day I was abysmally hungover while dragging my furniture into a rental van.
Coming close so many times to winning Tuesday night trivia at the Great Britain Hotel with Adam. Drinking jugs of Piss and drunkenly playing pool until 1:00am. Taking a cab into the city to get oil-dipped bread at Siglo on an unseasonably warm night or, if we were feeling more local, wandering up to the Vine on Bridge Road and playing pool until 4am with morbidly obese alcoholics and sleazy middle-aged restaurant owners.
Wandering around the CBD until 4:00am with friends from Perth who had the good fortune to show up on a particularly warm summer night for the inaugural White Night Festival. Sitting at the edge of the Yarra texting love messages dedicated to each other’s mums to the Spheres of Love.
Shoving open my creaky old window in Richmond to sit on my bedside table, stick my head out into the rain, and smoke a joint. Finding that it wasn’t quite as pleasant as sharing one with two friends on a reclining armchair in Sunshine.
Having a heart-wrenching evening conversation with Kristie about the future of our relationship, then having my motorcycle break down on the Bolte Bridge on the way home. Spending an hour leaning against the concrete wall in the emergency lane, pulling my coat up against a biting August wind swooping in from the port, feeling miserable and waiting for my mechanic to come pick up me and the bike in his ute.
Drinking most of a bottle of gin while covering election night at the office, all of us shouting at the TV. Getting angry enough at Tony Abbott’s smirking face during his victory speech to punch a dent in the soundproofing panels on the wall.
Trams – something I’d always thought of as hokey and touristy, but which are surprisingly useful and an indispensable part of the city’s aesthetic. The dinging of the bell, the skating of the tracks, the squeaking of the doors snapping open. The cat’s cradle of electrical wires above each intersection. The sudden blue flashes sparking off the overheads.
Walking to work from Flinders Street Station, through the smell of chlorine from the fountains outside the NGV and the Chinese busker with the violin. The last 1am tram rumbling down Swan Street, audible from where I was tucked up in bed, followed an hour later by the humming of the street-sweepers. The reliable excellence of breakfast and coffee from cafes anywhere in the metro area. AAMI Park sprouting out of the grass by the Yarra like an enormous mushroom. The MCG lit up at night like a meteor fallen to earth. The bright night-time colours of 120 Collins Street, imitating its Manhattan forebear. Gelato on Lygon Street on a summer night. Rowing teams on the Yarra near Richmond. Widespread disdain for The Age going tabloid. Breakneck taxi drivers. Volatile weather. Autumn leaves.
Riding my motorcycle across the Bolte Bridge at night and always risking that lingering glance at the city lights, before begrudgingly turning my attention back to the road.
I could add my outrage, disappointment and weariness to the collective gnashing of left-wing teeth across Australia today, but we don’t need to see any more than that. What I do want to do is address the perception of “stable government,” since Australia’s perceived lack thereof is partly what led to Labor being ousted from office despite keeping us out of recession in 2008 and continuing to deliver an economy that Europe and the United States can only dream about. (I also believe, by the way, that we live in a society and not an economy – but this is how the debate is framed these days, for better or worse. Well, worse, obviously.)
Tony Abbott’s promise to bring us “stable government” and his attacks on Labor as being a government of “chaos” and “mismanagement” stem from two things: Labor’s leadership changes and the hung parliament of 2010. The leadership knifings were absolutely Labor’s own fault, but arguing that two leadership changes in six years of government constitutes “chaos” is ridiculous. Gillard knifing Rudd and Rudd knifing Gillard did not make us lose our life savings, did not dramatically increase the rate of soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan, did not result in the rolling blackouts across major cities. It made us roll our eyes. That’s all. If you want an insight into chaos and mismanagement, go speak to the people of Greece or Spain or Ireland.
The notion that a hung parliament resulted in an unstable government is even more irritating, given that it reveals the extent of Australians’ misunderstanding of our political system. Although the papers and nightly news bulletins treat us to unlimited images of our glorious Prime Minister and Opposition Leader under the barrage of photo flash bulbs, arriving or departing from endless photo opportunities at small businesses, this is not America – and no matter how much the press wants it to be, this isn’t a presidential campaign. The Office of Prime Minister is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution; neither are any of the Cabinet positions. This is why there was a lot of sneering in certain circles at the widespread outrage after the first knifing, when Australians believed the faceless men of the Labor Party had robbed them of their democratic right. This sneering was misplaced, because while we may not directly elect a prime minister, we walk into the booth knowing full well that whether we vote for a Liberal or Labor candidate will determine who becomes prime minister, and that’s what most people are really thinking about when they put a number next to a box, regardless of whose name is next to it.
So, yes, your vote does elect a prime minister. But more importantly, what it does is determine which party will control the House – a democratic body of representatives who vote on the passage of legislation. An insistence on “stable government,” and distaste at a hung parliament, suggests that Australians have been bewitched by American elections into thinking that individual candidates matter more than a party’s policies. Labor received a bounce in opinion polls of almsot 10% after reinstalling Rudd in June. That’s a big number. 1 in every 10 Australians apparently decided to change their vote based purely on a personality. There was not a single policy difference between either leader; whereas the differences between Labor and Liberal, despite narrowing under Rudd and Gillard’s stewardship, remain stark.
In a hung parliament, the balance of power is controlled by minor parties and independents, and the passage of legislation is dependent on debate, discussion and compromise. In a majority government parliament, the ruling party will rubber-stamp whatever legislation they want through the House. Which sounds more democratic to you?
Australians seem to understand the concept of checks and balance, and why it can be a good, tempering influence for a minor party to hold the balance of power – that’s why the Greens historically do much better in the Senate, and have held the balance of power there for the past decade. When it comes to the House, though, Australians don’t like that, because the make-up of the House determines who’ll be the faux-presidential figure to “lead the country” – and never mind something as boring and trivial as, you know, legislation.
The House of Representatives is the heart of our democracy, not the office down the hallway where the Prime Minister sits. We are not at war. We do not require a figurehead to make critical, immediate decisions for us. Belgium went 18 months without a government a few years ago, and the earth did not open up and swallow the nation. The trains still ran, the grocery shops were still open, you could still apply for a passport and you still had to pay your taxes. The Labor government of the past six years was no more “unstable” than John Howard’s was or Tony Abbott’s will be. If you want to see instability, go to the Middle East.
What it ultimately comes down to, beyond ignorance, is that Australians don’t like change. We hadn’t had a hung parliament in living memory, and the populace recoiled from this new experience like a vampire emerging into daylight. Australia is a deeply conservative country that wants things to stay just as they always have been – which is why we now have a prime minister who is going to halt any efforts at stopping climate change, dismantle the work that had begun on a badly-needed national broadband network, and continue the deeply racist immigration policies of his forebears.
Australia is currently patting itself on the back for having a “discussion about race.” This shallow, vapid “discussion” revolves around a few recent events. To sum up: at last Friday night’s AFL game, Indigenous Sydney footballer Adam Goodes was called an ape by a 13-year-old Collingwood fan. She was ejected from the grounds, Goodes was too upset to continue the match, and was approached in the Sydney rooms afterwards by Collingwood president Eddie McGuire to offer a personal apology. Goodes asked the media not to vilify the girl herself, but to think about how she was a product of the casual attitude towards racism that exists in Australia. McGuire, whose conduct was similarly exemplary, then fucked it up by saying on breakfast radio that Goodes could promote King Kong the musical.
Most of the coverage revolves around whether the girl knew “ape” was racist, whether McGuire’s apology was good enough, whether he should he step down as Collingwood president, etc. This is how racism controversies always play out in the Australian media: we behave as though racist comments are mere insults that reflect poorly on the character of the person making them, rather than symptomatic of the deep and persistent racism this country was founded upon. We pretend that racist remarks are the cause rather than the effect. This is why there are thousands upon thousands of comments and tweets and letters to the editor voicing opinions ranging from genuine confusion about why Goodes was so upset to sneering remarks that he should “toughen up.”
It’s all well and good to call out public figures for making racist remarks, but the entire affair is pointless unless people are told why it’s wrong to make racist remarks. This seems obvious, but apparently they need to be. Plenty of white people will compare being called an ape to being called a Pom or a sheep-shagger, either oblivious or willfully blind to the social and cultural context that separates Brits and Kiwis from Aboriginals. A visitor from a foreign culture or an alien planet could be forgiven that thinking Indigenous Australians are on the same rung of society as white Australians. Because, contrary to the narrative of Australia’s Big Conversation About Race, the issue is not “Aboriginal person called name by white person.” The issue is “Aboriginal people still suffering the consequences of a white empire that occupied their land by force.”
Sam de Brito, hardly Australia’s most articulate or thoughtful columnist, is one of the few I can think of who has pointed out the elephant in the room over the past few days:
…That hurt is proportionate to the suffering, malevolence, violence, cruelty and indignity that men and women experienced during slavery in the US.
This is an experience to which we have never given full acknowledgement in this country. We do not understand the anger, the shame, the frustration, the bitterness and sorrow of what was taken from indigenous Australians…
…We said “sorry”, but for what? Crippling your culture? Raping your women? Murdering your children? Ingraining shame into your upbringing? Alienating you from contemporary culture to the point there is not one indigenous TV personality regularly seen on our TV screens?
White Australians say “harden up” and “get over it” about racist jokes because that’s what they really want Aboriginals to do about the dispossession of their land and the continuing marginalisation of their people. Harden up. Get over it. Stop complaining, stop drinking, stop being unemployed. Stop making me feel guilty.
Until the Australian media can link these regular racism controversies together into what they are – a reflection of racism in our society, and an acknowledgement of the fact that we fucked Aboriginals over and we’re still fucking them over – then this scenario is going to play out over and over again like an Escher drawing.
Australia hates athletes. Apparently.
I don’t care about sport, so I don’t care about the Olympics, beyond viewing them as a sort of vague historical milestone that rolls around once every four years. The Leading Media Story of this first week has been a bitter divide over Australia’s success and failure: one side furious with our athletes for failing to win gold, the other side telling them to the shut the fuck up and take a chill pill. I cannot begin to imagine the kind of psychopath that would pen a piece like this:
I have zero interest in hearing some tearydeary tell me that she had nothing left in the tank. Or, worse: “I don’t know what went wrong.”
That’s the job. Coaches. Athletes. Officials.
Stop whining. Start winning. Or find another job.
I’m surprised this latest furore is what it took for some voices to call for restraint. Even before the Olympics started, I was noticing, for the first time, the strangely passive-aggressive manner in which we treat our Olympic athletes. It started with the ludicrous “scandal” of Nick D’Arcy and Kendrick Monck posting jovial photos of themselves on Facebook, holding pistols and a shotgun, in a licensed gun store, in the United States. There were outraged calls for them to be penalised for undertaking such perfectly legal behaviour, and they have in fact been sent home after competing. (The Australian Olympic shooting team, strangely, suffered no such penalties.)
There was John Steffensen’s allegations of racial abuse, to which he was told “put your head down and your bum up and you just concentrate on your job.” There were the photos of Liesel Jones that led the media, completely unfounded, to spark rumours that coaches were concerned about her weight. Then there was the sleeping pill thing. I can’t even remember what that was about, but here’s how the Herald Sun spun it:
This is the same tone the Herald Sun uses for convicted felons, welfare cheats and unruly kids – a bold, stern warning from an authority figure, reassuring the law-abiding mums and dads of the mortgage belt that Something Is Being Done about the latest Threat To Civility. Only in this case, the line-up in Villain’s Row are the athletes that we allegedly admire, adore and respect. Apparently they’re only worthy of that if they “deliver” us gold, like couriers, or indentured servants hacking away at a rock face deep underground.
I must have missed a couple of steps along the way. First of all, why do we – the Australian public – need gold so badly? Is Treasury bankrupt? Is the fiat currency system about to fail? Are we constructing some kind of diabolical war machine fuelled by smolten Olympic medals and greased with the tears of our swimmers? Ah, the gold is a metaphor for sporting success. I see. My confusion remains. How does the athletic prowess of another Australian in any way impact the life of Davo Dickhead in his McMansion in the western suburbs?
The other thing I don’t understand is this: even if we, the people, have an insatiable lust for gold, how is it that the Australian athletes owe it to us? I don’t think it’s the taxpayer funding. I’ve barely seen that mentioned at all. Many Australians seem to feel on a deep and visceral level that the athletes personally owe them gold, whether they have a monetary stake in the battle or not.
I was going to write this before the Games started, during all the creepy outrage about the gun photo and the sleeping pills and Liesel Jones’ weight. The reaction of the press and the public to our lack of immediate, effortless dominance has only confirmed the uneasy feelings I had about the whole affair. It reminds me of nothing so much as an overbearing parent pushing their child into sport – not caring about why they might fail, not caring about how good the opposition is, not caring about them, really – just demanding success so they can live vicariously through them. The pushy, demanding parent at junior teeball may be a stereotype and a myth, but apparently the fickle Australian public isn’t.
Maybe, since I don’t care about sport, I don’t get to have an opinion on this weird, unedifying barrage of criticism. But I’m still puzzled by the ferocity of attacks aimed at world-class athletes by people sitting on their couches at home. What have you accomplished?
The Prime Minister has outlined the Government’s plan for an early troop withdrawal from Afghanistan which could see the majority of Australian soldiers return by the end of 2013.
The Government had been working towards bringing Australian soldiers home by the end of 2014, the date set down by the NATO-led international forces.
But Julia Gillard says security has improved in Afghanistan and it is likely the majority of Australian troops will leave next year.
“This is a war with a purpose, this is a war with an end. We have a strategy, a mission and a timeframe for achieving it,” she said in an address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“PM confirms expedited Afghan exit,” ABC News, 17 April 2012
The national discourse surrounding this announcement – surrounding this whole war – pisses me off. First is the assumption that anybody in Washington or London or Berlin or Kabul gives a flying fuck whether Australia’s meagre token force is there or not. The Taliban will see it as a symbolic victory, the ISAF as a symbolic loss. Australians should be questioning the fact that their contribution is considered merely ‘symbolic.’
Second is the Prime Minister’s rhetoric-laden speech about how this isn’t a defeat or a withdrawal, but rather a transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces, who will maintain the current status quo of peace, prosperity and stability for which Afghanistan is renowned across the globe. (Imagine what it will be like if they lose any further control.) But nah, I’m sure it’s fine, we’ve been training these guys for nearly a decade. They must be nearly ready now, right?
Third is the ludicrous notion that this is all according to plan, all going swimmingly, a perfectly reasonable and logical step in the itinerary. A five-year-old child born years after 9/11 could point out to our Prime Minister that this is actually a frustrated and hasty political manoeuvre, part of a grander tapestry of hubristic defeat for Western forces. Put quite simply: we are losing this war. Our aims are vague, our forces huddle inside fortified compounds, and our mission has gone from rooting out al-Qaeda to creating a stable democracy to withdrawal by 2014 no matter what the cost. Since Australia’s stake extends no further than supporting US foreign policy as part of the ANZUS alliance – no matter how fucking stupid, badly-planned and frankly naive American wars might be – it’s in our political interest to be the first to leave the party. I mean, hey, we did stick around for eleven years, which is pretty late. But, you know, we’ve got work in the morning, so we’d better get going. Nice seeing you, though!
Countless left-wing commentators will talk about how the military-industrial complex controls this (and every) war, and how it’s not supposed to have clear goals or resolutions, but exists merely to make money for certain sections of Western society. I have no doubt that the relationship between military manufacturers and the interior of the Beltway has been a prominent geopolitical force over the last decade, but right here, right now, in Afghanistan? Their calls are clearly no longer a priority. Our mission in that country has morphed into nothing more sophisticated than a frantic dash for the exit. There is no more damning indictment against our alleged noble purpose than hearing Julia Gillard, David Cameron and Barack Obama talk over and over and over again about how we will be sticking to our scheduled departure date of 2014, apparently with the iron-clad certainty that the security situation will improve by then. How do you think it makes Afghans feel to know that we’re bailing in two years, no matter what? How do you think it makes the Taliban feel?
Here is the plain truth. The public has grown weary of this war, the military has grown weary of this war, politicians have grown weary of this war, and it’s evident to everyone that if we stick around in this static misery we will be in precisely the same situation in 2022 – an endless baton relay, the Afghan runner sprinting ever further ahead of us, never willing or able to take the flame. We went into a foreign country with zero understanding of its culture, background or context, and we are paying the price of our own arrogance. Or, rather, the Afghans are paying the price, and will continue to pay the price. Western leaders never once cared about the people of Afghanistan. For John Howard, Tony Blair and George Bush, Afghanistan was an irritating nest of terrorists to be exterminated; for Julia Gillard, David Cameron and Barack Obama it’s an irritating geopolitical swamp to extricate our armies from. There’s a common viewpoint which says that national leaders care about nothing but getting re-elected, but even the most altruistic of national leaders observe the world through the prism of their own nation’s interests. Never ever forget that when you’re watching Gillard or Cameron or Obama banging on about “the people of Afghanistan.”
So, here’s what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. We’re going to hang out for two more years, get a bunch of Afghans killed, get a lot of our own soldiers killed, waste a lot of money, and leave with the
South Vietnamese Army Afghan National Army being judged capable of handling its own security. Within the next 1-3 years, the government will be overthrown and the Taliban will be in control again, which will be an appropriate amount of time for the West to save face and argue that it was the Afghans’ fault. For however long the fall of the government goes on – likely no more than two or three weeks – it will feature between page 5 and page 10 of the newspapers, and receive third billing in the 6pm news bulletins.
Every soldier who died in Afghanistan – American, Australian, Dutch, Canadian, any of them – died for nothing. Don’t get on my case about that. Don’t accuse me of disrespecting the troops, who sacrifice their lives for our countries. It’s exactly because the troops sacrifice their lives for our countries that they deserve honesty. They deserve to know precisely why they’re sacrificing their lives, and what that sacrifice will accomplish. They deserve to know why we’re going to war, whether we’ve thought it through properly, and what difference it’s going to make. They don’t deserve to be treated like chess pawns, maneuvered throughout Central Asia in a 21st century reboot of the Great Game, paid off with the sickeningly childish refrain of “this is a war with a purpose, and a war with an end.”
Julia Gillard is making the right decision for the wrong reason. Whatever. We lost this war a long time ago. Bring our troops home, because they sure as fuck aren’t making a difference there. And if you really want to help Afghans, and save Afghan women from the brutal rule of the Taliban? Increase the refugee intake.
The Lucky Country by Donald Horne (1964) 256 p.
“The lucky country” is a phrase any Australian is familiar with, one often applied with beaming happiness to things like Vegemite advertisements or Australia Day speeches. Yet few Australians would be able to quote the sentence it originally appeared in: “Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.”
Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country in the early 1960s as a stark assessment of a nation he felt had lost its way. Australia possessed fabulous natural resources and enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world; yet, unlike other advanced nations, he felt it had done little to earn its success. It rested on its luck and was unimaginative, uninspired and unexceptional. It was almost a dependency, looking to Britain and the United States to tell it what to do and unable to shake the feeling that it was an unimportant backwater, albeit a pleasant one. It reminded me of an assessment by Ted Simon in Jupiter’s Travels, when he visited Australia in the early 1970s:
Like most people everywhere they spent most of their time just getting by, but there was no collective dream or mythology that told them what it was they were supposed to be doing.
Now, The Lucky Country was written half a century ago and much of it is irrelevant today – the influence of the Australian Communist Party, the White Australia Policy, and the tension between Catholics and Protestants, to name a few things. But a larger portion of the book is surprisingly relevant. The most striking thing to a modern reader is how little has changed. Horne knew Australia was at a tipping point in the 1960s, like much of the world, and that if it was ever going to seize its own destiny, that was the time. And indeed, the 1970s saw the election of Gough Whitlam, a prime minister who stood up to Washington, engaged with Asia, introduced universal healthcare and began the process of recognising Aboriginal land rights. But he was dismissed after only a few short years, and Australia sank back into a swamp of lazy complacency. And now here we are in 2012: still not a republic, still looking to America and Europe for guidance in cultural, political and economic matters, and still relying entirely on our natural resources to maintain our economy. Australia was renowned in 2008 for being the only OECD country which did not enter recession, but virtually the only reason this was so was because our economy is centred around selling ore to China. How lucky.
And our current leaders hardly inspire confidence – indeed, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott regularly poll in the 30% range as preferred prime ministers, among the lowest ratings of all time. Say what you will about John Howard and Kevin Rudd, but they were both titanic figures who led with vision (my vision of hell, in the case of Howard, but vision nonetheless) and imposed themselves mightily upon the Australian psyche. Gillard and Abbott, on the other hand, feel like understudies thrust into the spotlight. They might make able politicians, but in the grand narrative of history, they will never go down as great leaders.
So the Australia of today is strikingly similar to the Australia of The Lucky Country. It reminded me of what Nick Bryant, the BBC’s Sydney correspondent for many years, wrote upon leaving the job in 2011:
The anger and hostility [in Australian politics] is currently being compared with the mood in 1975 during the Gough Whitlam dismissal crisis. But it also has a late-60s feel – a post-Menzies, pre-Whitlam interlude when the country appeared to be treading water, and waiting for something to happen.
The curious thing when reading The Lucky Country is that Horne seemed to be optimistic, to believe that change really was around the corner, that the next generation – John Howard’s generation – would prove to be far less stagnant and conservative than their predecessors and lead Australia into a bold new future. (He seemed particularly convinced that a republic would happen any year now.) That didn’t happen. And while I myself am optimistic that Australia might grow up a little in the coming decades, in an era of global connectivity and an emerging Asia and a rising Green Party, I can’t help but feel that perhaps we’ll just see a repeat of the last 50 years.
The question is whether this time our luck will run out.
Melbourne was recently voted the most liveable city in the world by the Economist, whose liveability rankings have long been a joke because they obviously equate liveability with speaking English (there is no fucking way Perth is the seventh most liveable city in the world.) Monocle’s more opened-minded survey ranks it #5, and last year Mercer ranked it #18. So clearly it is a pretty neat city – as long as you don’t go more than ten kilometres from the CBD, beyond which it becomes the same bland Aussie suburbia that can be found from Bunbury to Bundaberg.
The Age recently conducted its own survey to see which is the most liveable suburb in “the world’s most liveable city.” Of 318 suburbs examined, my suburb of Sunshine West comes in at 233. Crime, lack of trees, poor public transport, distance from the CBD and the bay, and lack of shops and restaurants all hurt it.
There are two factors the survey didn’t take into account, which Sunshine West would rank poorly in anyway, but which I think were serious omissions. The first is pollution. Sunshine West sits at the edge of the largest industrial estate in the metropolitan area, and the smell is quite often “noticeable” (if we’re being polite). There is a pollution measurement station on my street, aerials and instruments humming away, which is kind of like seeing regular police patrols in your neighbourhood. It’s good that the authorities are concerned for your welfare, but the fact that they need to be is worrying.
The second is architectural aesthetics. By the standards of the study, an old-established suburb that has existed for hundreds of years has no benefits over one in which every structure was erected in 2010. Apart from trees, topography and distance to the city and bay, the study makes no allowance for things unrelated to infrastructure. Although it admits that “liveability” is a nebulous notion, it seems to argue that a vibrant city and a liveable neighbourhood could be scientifically designed and built.
Compare Southbank and Docklands to South Yarra and Collingwood. Compare Canary Wharf to Bloomsbury. Compare Atlantic Yards to Greenwich Village. Which of these areas are indisputably the heart and soul of their respective cities? Which of them, on the other hand, feel like generic committee-designed redevelopment projects where everything, even the roads and footpaths, was built from scratch and is unsettlingly new? A Ballardian landscape of skin-crawlingly clean modern architecture?
Architecture is something I’ve been thinking more and more about in the past few years. It’s a field in which I have no education or experience, merely a bundle of deep-seated feelings I find difficult to express. I instinctively lash out against brand new apartment buildings and McMansions, with their maroon-and-purple colouring and interior design dominated by straight lines and white space. It’s boring and ugly. I see more beauty in a run-down brick factory with graffitti stencils and broken windows than I do in a white Mirvac Fini apartment building in Docklands with a thousand identical balconies.
Why is this? Are new things objectively less beautiful? Buildings in bygone eras – Victorian, Edwardian, whatever – had a tendency to add decoration. The spires of the Forum Theatre, the brick pyramids atop each storefront along Sydney Road, the splendour of Flinders Street Station, the cornices and cupolas that adorn the buildings of the central city. Modern structures seem to be built with cost in mind – ease (and therefore cheapness) of assembly, of maintenance, of cleaning. The walls of Southbank’s towering structures are lined with plain white slabs; they remind me of China’s grown-overnight white-tiled cities. But surely capitalism was no less entrenched in the Victorian and Edwardian eras? Have we entered hyper-capitalism? Has the almighty dollar become even more vital than it was in times gone by? This is the intersection of two completely different sciences, neither of which I know much about.
Roger Ebert, in an article on the decline of architecture far more articulate than mine, seems to agree that finance is the one and only factor these days:
I walk around Chicago, and look up at buildings of variety and charm. I walk into lobbies of untold beauty. I ascend in elevators fit for the gods. Then I walk outside again and see the street defaced by the cruel storefronts of bank branches and mall chains, scornful of beauty. Here I squat! they declare. I am Chase! I am Citibank! I am Payless Shoe Source! I don’t speak to my neighbors. I have no interest in pleasing those who walk by. I occupy square footage at the lowest possible cost. My fixtures can be moved out overnight. I am capital.
Eureka Tower obviously shows some more thought and imagination than the rest of Southbank – perhaps a concession that, as the tallest building in the country, it was going to draw the eye, so they should at least put in some effort – and it’s not outright awful. But does it compare to an Empire State Building – or even a Rialto, or a 120 Collins Street? Stylistically it’s in line with Federation Square or those jutting sticks on the north-south Citylink. Modern architecture, when it does try to show flair or individuality rather than the cheapest available option, seems to embrace whatever looks the most garish or unnatural.
Yet I can’t help but feel that perhaps I’m biased, and in one hundred years’ time people will be doing their damndest to preserve the buildings I hate now, and decrying whatever monstrosities the architects of the day are putting up. Is it the newness itself that causes my dislike for these buildings and places? When the Age interviewed Robyn Annear for the liveable suburbs coverage, she had this to say:
If I were adding indicators, it would be something intangible about the past and a sense of what happened in a place before, and being able to see that authentically, not through plaques. There are still some really old, left-alone things among the multi-storey townhouses, some weird gargoyles, places that offer evidence that there was something quirky going on in the minds of the people who built them. There are these layers that speak to me about what the place was once like.
This reminded me of something William Gibson once said, regarding Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner vision of a realistic future city:
The simplest and most radical thing that Ridley Scott did in Blade Runner was to put urban archaeology in every frame. It hadn’t been obvious to mainstream American science fiction that cities are like compost heaps — just layers and layers of stuff. In cities, the past and the present and the future can all be totally adjacent. In Europe, that’s just life — it’s not science fiction, it’s not fantasy. But in American science fiction, the city in the future was always brand-new, every square inch of it.
Southbank and Docklands may be rich and desirable neighbourhoods, but there’s a certain stigma to them for their newness. More judgemental Melburnians look at them as they do Sydney – being all about glitz and money, lacking some certain vital aspect that makes old neighbourhoods like Carlton and Fitzroy more appealing. I can’t speak for everyone, but if I had a choice between a townhouse in Fitzroy or an apartment in Southbank, I know what I’d choose. Some places lack stories, legends, a past. They’re designed by committee, funded by private investors out to make as much money as possible or government bodies trying to “re-develop” areas to get re-elected. They are neighbourhoods created from scratch, by people who should not be in the business of creating neighbourhoods. Perhaps because nobody should, or can, be in that business. Neighbourhoods should create themselves.
Gentrification is an inevitable and not entirely negative process. But it bothers me when developers move into an old neighbourhood and demolish old structures. In Footscray they are tearing down factories and warehouses from the 1930s to make way for ugly, identical, brand new apartment blocks (you can have your choice of white, grey or maroon). In Fitzroy I once visited a warehouse apartment, with brick walls and catwalk balconies. It’s not necessary to throw away the past to repurpose the present. It can be preserved, and it is better to do so. Maybe not cheaper, but better.
I think the disconnect I feel with modern architecture is a combination of both factors. I think modern architectural design is objectively ugly. Even when something is clean and neat and not particularly offensive, it’s boring. White cubes are boring. Big glass windows, if they only give a view of a hundred identical Mirvac Fini apartment towers, are boring. Clean blank space is boring. And a neighbourhood in which absolutely everything was built a few years ago – no matter how well designed, no matter how many cafes and restaurants and bookstores it has – will always feel a bit too much like a hospital or a government office. Utilitarian, sterile, lacking that vital connection to what came before it.
And I am surely not the only one who thinks that. I’ve quoted from several above, and the existence of preservation groups and the price of 19th century townhouses in Melbourne must be evidence that this opinion is, if not majority, at least widespread. Why can we not build old buildings that look like new buildings? I see the refurbishments and conversions of old, dilapidated buildings into new apartment blocks, which is good, but when something is built from scratch it’s either a McMansion or a glass and steel Southbank rectangle. Where has the vision gone? Have we lost our ability to design beautiful things? Or do we just not care?
Given the recent national hysteria about the carbon tax, which is going to cost people earning less then $100,000 a year a devastating +20 cents, I thought I might mention a few things about climate change. You may have heard of this. It’s been big in the media in the last few years. The media is also big on talking about the climate change “debate,” which does not exist. 97% of people qualified to hold an opinion on the matter concur that it is happening, which is why it grinds my gears when the Prime Minister has to say on national television that she “believes” in man-made climate change.
I don’t. I can’t “believe” in climate change any more than I can “believe” in my scarf or my laptop or my nose. It exists. It is happening. We caused it, and the only question now is whether we’re going to take action to reverse it, or whether we’re going to collapse into a tangle of squabbling idiots while the atmosphere is ruined around us. Smart money is on the latter.
Yet you’ll see a lot of talk in the media about the “debate” on climate change, which they’ll usually express as giving equal airtime between an esteemed climate scientist and an English aristocrat with an undiagnosed mental disorder, or between a representative of the Commonwealth’s official scientific agency and a representative of the mining industry. It’s utter bullshit and I am going to appeal against it based not on empiricism but on rationalism.
The ironic thing about the climate change debate is that it is, by and large, a subject of faith. Like most people, I can only grasp the fundamentals of any given scientific issue, and that includes climate change. I take the scientific community at their word, because I cannot personally verify their information. It’s all out there, and you or I could go look it up. I could even reproduce it here. I’m not going to, because graphs and charts and scientific studies exist beyond the realm of my attention span, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to try to understand them. Few people do. So it comes down to trust, and whom you choose to place it in.
On the one hand we have our elected Prime Minister, CSIRO, and 97% of the world’s climate scientists. On the other hand we have Lord Monckton, Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and – the man behind the curtain – various lobby groups and alliances associated with the mining industry.
Which of those sides stands to benefit from the status quo?
It didn’t take long after the government announced its carbon tax policy for an ad campaign to be released by the Australian Trade & Industry Alliance, producing a series of misleading “facts” objecting to the government’s decision. The ATI did not exist prior to the carbon tax hysteria. It was formed solely to combat it, and one needs only click on their “about us” section to get an inkling of what this alliance consists of. The Australian Coal Association. The Mineral Council of Australia. The Australian Steel Institute.
Is a lobby group of polluting industries, formed during the announcement of a tax on polluting industries, really the organisation you want to listen to for unbiased information?
There is absolutely nothing unusual about huge corporations distorting the truth and pouring millions into propaganda in order to preserve their own profit margins. Unethical, yes, but not surprising. Corporations exist to make money. (They can even claim that they must distort the truth and create propaganda, because they have an ethical duty to give their shareholders a return; to keep their promises.) The climate change debate is a struggle between the national interest and the vested interest; the interest of a few powerful people who meet at the intersection of polluting industry, politics and media. It is completely unremarkable that such people would exploit their influence to deny climate change and protect their wealth.
What is remarkable is that ordinary Australians – people who stand to lose from climate change, who gain nothing from corporate profits – believe them. Andrew Bolt’s column is the most widely read in Australia. One only need skim the comments on any given article there, or on The Australian or news.com.au or The Drum, to wonder if wilfully blind climate skeptics comprise a majority of our population.
Some of them are diehard partisans who will criticise anything the Labor Party does. Some of them are diehard tribalists who will believe anything Andrew Bolt writes. Some of them are simply naive, and believe that because mining corporations provide us with jobs, they must love us and have our best interests at heart.
Yet I think most climate skeptics – and this includes many people I know in real life – believe climate change isn’t happening because it’s easier that way. It would be so nice, wouldn’t it, if we could go on the way we are? Chugging along in our cars, using our coal power plants, not having to change one tiny whit of our lifestyle. Say what you will about Al Gore, but the title of his film could not have been more perfect. Climate change is inconvenient, and when Australians suffer inconvenience they squeal like stuck pigs.
To return to the faith comparison, this is similar to the reason I think many people believe in God and an afterlife: it’s easy. It’s nice. It’s comforting. They shut out the evidence and the facts and their own nagging doubts, and embrace the myth, because it makes life so much easier.
And so we have this ludicrous “debate:” our elected officials, national science agency and leading researchers vs. shock-jocks, right-wing journalists and mining companies who stand to lose money if we take action on climate change. All because Australians are self-centred skinflints who are happy to let our planet slide into environmental ruin because they don’t want the price of groceries to go up a few dollars.
It’s all really depressing. I’m not the kind of person who looks back on “the good old days” or “the greatest generation” with misty-eyed fondness – the 1940s were, after all, a time when women couldn’t hold real jobs and Aboriginals couldn’t vote – but the last time an Australian generation had to face down a dire threat, they were asked to sacrifice a lot more than a few extra bucks a week. Some might think it specious to compare war with climate change. I almost think it myself. That’s because our brains are still, fundamentally, primate brains. They react to sudden, shocking things like bombs and gunfire, and are complacent about gradual threats like climate change – which will ruin us, financially and physically, more than any war could.
So, as usual, the problem isn’t the media or the government or even big corporations. It’s us. It’s the fact that most of us haven’t learned to critically assess claims, to scrutinise the motives of the person making them. Most of us suffer from normalcy bias, which means we’ll gladly listen to anyone who tells us it’s not really happening, so we can go back to driving our 4WDs and watching The Biggest Loser on our plasma flat-screens. Most of us, even if we do believe in climate change, will scrounge around for reasons why we don’t need to do anything – because it’s not happening as fast as they say it is, or because our contribution wouldn’t make a difference, or because Juliar’s Great Big New Tax won’t immediately solve the whole problem. The Herald-Sun has a higher circulation than the Age not because Rupert Murdoch is an evil Sith Lord who exerts eerie powers over the populace, but because most people are happier to read an oversimplified, sensationalist story that stokes their anger than they are to read in-depth, unbiased, fact-based journalism. It’s not stupidity or even ignorance – it’s just laziness, and an unwillingness to think laterally about how and why people tell you things.
Stop doing that. You don’t need to bury yourself in the last ten years of scientific journals, spend all your free time examining the different carbon pricing schemes in countries across the globe, or fly to Antarctica and take your own ice core samples. Just think for a moment about who Andrew Bolt’s largest patron is, and why mining industries are opposed to the carbon tax, and whether CSIRO is a more reputable source on scientific matters than News Ltd and Lord Monckton.
But I know that any climate skeptic or Boltite who reads this isn’t going to do that. They’ll dismiss it as leftist-warmist-Nazi-fascist crap, and go on listening to their propaganda, and claiming that the real propaganda is the scientific evidence, and 150 years from now our planet will have warmed, our arable land will have been decimated, our economy will be in ruins, we will be wracked by drought and bushfires, and the descendants of today’s climate skeptics will be howling with indignant rage that the government of today didn’t do anything to stop it.