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Fatima Measham was awarded one of last year’s Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowships to work on an essay in defence of her suburb, Werribee. That essay – an attempt to subvert prevailing perceptions of the suburb – has just been published in Meanjin.

In this extract, Measham gives the history of the Western Treatment Plant (second only to Kakadu as one of the most biodiverse areas in Australia, and a mecca for birdwatchers – including Jonathan Franzen when he visited Melbourne in 2011) and explains the dangers of ‘postcode superiority’.

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Image by Flying Cloud.

It was one of those moments of congeniality in a friend’s kitchen. I was narrating the many wrong turns I had taken before arriving at their house, when his three-year-old suddenly asked where I live. Before I could answer, his dad said, ‘It’s where your poo goes.’ The gleeful tone stung for days.

The words were a statement of fact, I suppose, but the tenor felt like an indictment of the place itself and the people who live there, including me. Was I expected to laugh along because it was such a joke? I looked at his son’s face and felt unexpectedly humiliated. This child thinks that I live at the endpoint of his toilet.

All I could do was sputter. ‘Actually, the Western Treatment Plant is one of the most highly biodiverse areas in Australia. Second only to Kakadu.’ My friend hadn’t known that, of course. Hardly anyone does. They’re too busy cackling over poo jokes.

I live in Werribee, west of Melbourne. It is ‘the capital of the New West’, according to a council newsletter, part of the Wyndham ‘growth corridor’. It sprawls east from Laverton to Little River, and north towards Mount Cottrell, south of Melton.

The relative isolation has until recently preserved the rural features of Werribee district. Even in the late 1990s it was a sort of no-man’s-land between the cosmopolitan delights of Melbourne and the surf coast charms of Geelong. No-one really stopped by unless they needed to fill up on petrol. Besides, it hosts the Western Treatment Plant, formerly called the Werribee Sewage Farm.

I’m never sure what people visualise when the sewage farm is mentioned, but we don’t grow poo there. The area features wetlands, mudflats, coastal saltmarsh, estuaries, native grasslands and pastures. It sprawls across 105 square kilometres, three times the size of the city of Melbourne. A lagoon system of thirty ponds, known as Lake Borrie, is a habitat for many waterfowl, including some that migrate from as far as Siberia. Around 270 species of birds have been identified there. It is home to endangered native wildlife such as the growling grass frog and the fat-tailed dunnart.

When novelist Jonathan Franzen was in Melbourne for the 2011 Writers Festival, he made a point of visiting the Western Treatment Plant. An avid bird-watcher, he was reportedly blown away by the size of the area and the diversity of birds hosted there. It holds such high ecological significance that it was recognised under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, an international treaty on wetland conservation.

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Image of swamp harrier at Werribee by Wayne Butterworth.

It is a picture that interferes with people’s shit-driven narrative of Werribee, one that also exposes most people’s ignorance about the historical and scientific basis for the sewage farm. The truth is that Melbourne wouldn’t be what it is now if it weren’t for Werribee.

Prior to 1890, Melburnians conducted the affairs of their bowels and bladders into cesspits, buckets and, if you were a little more civilised, porcelain chamber pots decorated with rosettes. ‘Night soil’ would often be dumped on public roads. All manner of excreta ran down the street. The Yarra became a de facto sewer − a gigantic open conduit for human and industrial waste. British journalists dubbed the city ‘Marvellous Smellbourne’. Not surprisingly, outbreaks of diphtheria, typhoid and other communicable diseases attended the era.

Such a state of malady and malodour would have persisted had London physician John Snow not made the connection between cholera and contaminated water in 1854. While investigating an outbreak in the Soho district, Snow used maps and statistics to trace the source of the disease. It turned out to be a public well pump in Broad Street that had been dug only a metre from an old cesspit.

Snow’s study led to the construction of significant sanitation infrastructure, which did more for public health than anything else before it. It was a scientific triumph that reverberated all the way to Australia, where in 1888 the Royal Sanitary Commission established the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works. Two years later, a British sewerage expert, James Mansergh, recommended land irrigation and soil filtration to the Victorian parliament as the best methods for treating sewage. This involved an underground drainage system that pumped waste towards large tracts of pasture, which clarify and oxidise impurities. The idea was to let nature take its course. The resulting abundance of grass would be dealt with by livestock, which would then be sold to sustain the system financially. It was a neat solution for a modern problem.

Werribee was chosen for the new sewage farm. It was suitable for irrigation, but more importantly, cheaper and further from the metropolitan boundary than the south-eastern option, Mordialloc. It also wasn’t anywhere near Brighton, which even then was a hub of affluence and influence. So Werribee got left with the effluent.

The board bought a portion of the Chirnside family holdings, establishing the sewage farm on 8857 acres. The Metropolitan Farm, as it was later called, was one of the largest public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century. It goes without saying that it was critical to reducing the spread of disease. Its benefits, however, were manifold.

It provided job security for many farmers during the 1890s economic crash as well as the 1930s depression, when it employed more than 400 people. During the postwar immigration scheme instigated by then minister Arthur Calwell, around a hundred men from the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre in north-west Victoria found work there.

The State Research Farm that was established on-site in 1912 was pivotal to creating cereal varieties that could withstand non-English climate and soil conditions. Livestock research was similarly conducted to improve breeds. The agricultural, animal husbandry and dairy practices developed there were implemented throughout Victoria.

By the time the Chirnsides left their properties in 1921, they had turned over a further 25,914 acres to the state government for use as farms under the Closer Settlement Act 1904. Part of this land was used in a soldier settlement scheme, enabling many First World War diggers to reintegrate into the community as farmers. When they moved elsewhere or onto other work, migrants from Italy, Greece and Macedonia took over the farms. About 150 farms comprise the Werribee South market garden industry today, from which a good portion of the produce in Victoria comes.

Given such significant contributions, it’s a wonder that outsiders are still fixated on such a narrow version of Werribee. An unprocessed equivalence between residents and the treatment plant runs through the language used by outsiders.

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Image of sunset on Werribee plains by ccdoh1

I realised as much a few years ago, when I was teaching at a local state school. I took a group of Year 11 media students to the Channel 9 studios in Richmond. We were there for a taping of the now-defunct quiz show Temptation (formerly known as Sale of the Century). It was a terrific opportunity given that we were studying production processes and roles at the time. It was also a chance to escape our outer suburban bubble. I was keen for my class to make the most of the experience.

A handsome young model, whose task it was to showcase the prizes, came over to welcome us to the set. We were mostly a mix of school groups, so he asked each contingent where they were from. He seemed pleased that there were delegates from a certain private school where he had studied.

Then he turned to us. The most confident of my brood told him the name of our school. He asked where it was and she told him. This was met with a brief but loaded pause. I only realised how loaded when my student snapped, ‘Don’t judge us!’ I may have involuntarily clapped. In the space of mere seconds, she had detected the prejudice and confronted it. I was abashed that I hadn’t been as quick, but felt proud that one of us was.

The exchange said something to me about the burden that my students face, going out into a world that assumes so many things about them because of where they live. It underlines the injustice of being judged solely on provenance, which hardly anyone gets to choose.

There are places across the country that prompt similar responses at the merest mention, such as Logan and Inala in Queensland; Blacktown and Campbelltown in New South Wales; Bridgewater and Glenorchy in Hobart; Elizabeth in South Australia; and Gosnell in Western Australia.

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Image of Werribee River, upstream by maccinate.

There is a pattern to these negative perceptions, some sort of code that applies to certain places. It seems to emerge from a combination of observation, hearsay and lore. Perhaps such attitudes are an unremarkable form of tribalism or remnant anxiety over what lies beyond the horizon—a kind of ‘there be dragons’ for our time. We all pass judgement on places for various reasons, some of which may even be valid.

The problem is that we do not only expose our sense of postcode superiority when we use places as shorthand for certain types of people. We also abdicate responsibility. Reducing people to the characteristics of their neighbourhood gives us permission to do nothing about the things that make it problematic. Suburbs are ‘bad’ because the people in it are bad. Prevalent disadvantage and restricted social mobility are thus seen as the outcome of such people congregating, rather than as pre-existing conditions that they must endure.

It is a mentality that keeps us from engaging with the structural nature of social problems. We do not realise that such conditions cluster and entrap entire families, sometimes for several generations. We freely mock these places instead of wondering why they have lower rates of educational achievement and higher rates of domestic violence, unemployment, juvenile delinquency, mental illness and third-generation poverty. Such failures of insight affect the lives of real people.


This is the shorter version of an essay published in the current Meanjin. You call read the full version at Meanjin online, or in the journal.

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01 July 2014

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Tony Birch connects the lack of genuine remorse within Australia’s colonial psyche with our regressive stance on climate change – and our lack of will to protect environment.

In recent times I have been fortunate to have experienced the friendship and wisdom of other Aboriginal people working for the recognition of our culture and history, in concert with environmental protection for both Aboriginal people and the wider community.  

In a recent conversation with my good friend, Bruce Pascoe, he spoke of the absence of any genuine sense of remorse within the colonial psyche. He was not referring to the momentary guilt that some white Australian experience in relation to the theft of Aboriginal land and a history of violence against our people.

I believe Bruce was considering something far deeper. Inhabiting a relaxed and comfortable view of colonisation in Australia requires little thinking at all, let alone responsibility for the sins of the past. True remorse, while asking more of people, would produce invaluable outcomes for all Australians. With remorse comes reflection. With remorse comes recognition – and with will – mutual respect.  This was Bruce’s point.

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Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia

I see strong connections between this lack of remorse, the subsequent absence of thought and Australia’s regressive stance on climate change generally and the degradation of our environment more specifically.  I also see a clear connection between a lack of will to protect the environment and the Australian government’s abuse of Aboriginal country. Equally, an abuse of Aboriginal cultural and sovereign relationship to country is ultimately an attack on all Australians.

The Australian government is currently attempting to reverse the World Heritage listing of 74,000 hectares of old-growth forest in Tasmania, in order to allow logging to recommence. Within the World Heritage area important Aboriginal sacred sites will again come under threat if the heritage listing is reversed. This is a shameful act. Considering the history of violence and repeated attempts of dispossession and extermination that the Tasmanian Aboriginal community have faced, one would hope that the wider community would not allow this violence to continue. If were were a truly remorseful nation, hopefully due consideration and thought would result in a more informed view. But in a country that plays lip service to Aboriginal rights, such reflection is not possible.

Reading the newspaper yesterday morning (Age - 14 June 2014), in an essay by Andrew Darby, I read about the courage of Ruth Langford and Linton Burgess, two Aboriginal people, among many others, who are fighting to save their country and protect the World Heritage listing of the rain forest surrounding important cultural sites. On a visit to the area recently, the couple ‘called to the old fellas … we let them know we are still here.’

We are still here.

Please consider for a moment the deep courage of this act. Consider that the Aboriginal nations of a land that came to be called Tasmania by British colonials, have resisted proactive attempts of genocide for more than 200 years and today stand tall to protect both their ancestors and their children. Ruth Langford, Linton Burgess and the Aboriginal people of Tasmania are heroes to Aboriginal people throughout Australia. They should also be regarded as heroes to the nation, as they are fighting to protect their country and environment. In doing so, they are protecting the planet.

Next week, Ruth Langford will join scientists and environmentalists at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, Qatar, in an effort to stop the Australian government’s move. I wish her, and her brave people, every success - always was, always will be.


This piece was originally published on the Weather Stations blog.

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18 June 2014

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Paul Mitchell wonders why we habitually ignore the second verse of our national anthem … the one that promises to share our boundless plains with those who come across the seas. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to share these days? He calls for those of us who don’t paint our faces with the Southern Cross to sing the whole song … or refuse to sing it at all.

Despite the huge numbers of young Australian men and women wrapped in the Australian flag every Australia Day, Anzac Day, Grand Final Day and Grand Prix, there are some of us who remain skeptical about all this nationalism. We think Australia’s a nice place to be, but so is Austria. And England. And many Asian countries and even parts of the United States and South America. In short, we think the world’s an oyster and Australia is a bit of grit in its shell that, given enough time, might become a pearl of a place.

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Image: Adrian R. Tan

But we’re not going to wrap ourselves in the flag. The most we’ll do is stand up, if asked politely, and sing our national anthem: Australians all let us ring Joyce, etc. Yes, the words are difficult. No one really goes about rejoicing these days. They might be stoked or feeling sick, mate, sick. And no one is ever girt by sea. (There’s sand by the sea, not girt. Everyone knows that much about geology and the anthem.)

And many of us seem to know about our mysterious second verse. The one that never gets sung. And yet it’s on the official Australian Government website as the official second verse of ‘Advance Australia Fair’, our official national anthem:

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross

We’ll toil with hearts and hands;

To make this Commonwealth of ours

Renowned of all the lands;

For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share;

With courage let us all combine

To Advance Australia Fair.

Before I get started on those emboldened lines above, it’s interesting to note that there was a girty battle over many decades about what should be the final lyrics of Advance Australia Fair, a song that ended up having multiple composers, many different and now discarded verses, and a royal brawl with God Save the Queen to become our official song. But, since 1984 (officially), it’s been our anthem. And it has two verses, the Joycey Girty one, and this one above. It’s official. It’s on a Government website with one of those important emu/roo logos on it.

But, as mentioned, we don’t sing this one. If the song is too long to sing at official functions, why not combine the verses into one? Or lop the second verse from our official records officially? It hasn’t happened. We still have a song that, when sung at events, consists of a verse and a couple of refrains. It’s a bit like playing the piano bit of Bohemian Rhapsody, but leaving out the choral and heavy metal bits. Wayne and Garth would not approve.

Yet we seem to approve. And many of us, perhaps not those with the Oz scarf wrapped round our Southern Cross-tattooed necks, point out the irony that our official second verse appears to give a hearty anthemic welcome to refugees, while our official government policy is singing from a different hymn sheet. We titter and tut-tut: “Look at our second verse, but look at our policy!” Then we stand up and sing the young and free verse when we’re told to.

I’m not an expert on official songs. But I played football when I was younger and our theme song was based on AFL club Hawthorn’s song. We sang, ‘We’re a happy team at Belmont, we’re the mighty fighting Blues. We love our club and we play to win …’ The whole thing seemed to be about giving the team a sense of identity and a bit of motivation for how we played. I’m guessing they’re basically the reasons to have a national anthem. But our happy team didn’t leave out any of the verses. We sang/chanted them heartily.

Could it be no accident that we have omitted the second verse of our national anthem? Perhaps it’s that we’re symbolically shy about ‘toiling with hearts and hands’, not too keen on being ‘renowned of all the lands’ … but, hang on, we’re proud of not being bludgers (mate!), and our spending on both Olympics shows we’re keen on being renowned, thanks very much.

No, let’s face it, we’ve likely subconsciously shelved the verse because of those two lines about sharing with and welcoming those who’ve come across the seas. I haven’t seen much of that welcome since Malcolm Fraser toured the country in the early 1980s, telling us how important it was, for compassionate and economic reasons, to take in Vietnamese refugees. Just before the national anthem became official.

I don’t like singing the national anthem. (Not because I’m an anarchist. I also like singing. It’s just a crap song.) Yet I do sing it when I’m asked to. But I think it’s time to stop.

Those of us without the Aussie flag painted on our faces should consider, as a protest, not singing our national anthem until that second verse is reinstated. Until the spirit that compelled us to choose a song that promised to share our ‘boundless plains’ with ‘those who’ve come across the seas’ is strong in us again, and we can sing the whole song like we mean it.


Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne-based writer and poet.

Join us for the first in our new events series, Words and Music, where writers share the music that inspires them and musicians share inspiring writing. Michael Leunig and Katie Noonan will be our first guests, at The Substation in Newport, on 24 April.

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11 March 2014

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highlight Rochelle Siemienowicz has been working in the Australian film and television industry for decades. At first glance, mass-downloading seems like a distant threat to the local industry (where the challenge is to attract audiences in the first place) – but a deeper look reveals that all those Game of Thrones downloads are having an insidious psychological effect that erodes the idea of paying for entertainment at all.

The idea that millions of Australians might be hunched over Pirate Bay, desperately downloading local films and television dramas initially sounds like a twisted kind of paradise to me. If only our own screen stories were that popular. I used to laugh (a little bitterly) at those 2007 anti-piracy ads that suggested we were all downloading Kenny, Wolf Creek and Happy Feet – and thus ‘burning our own industry’. These days, I still wince when I’m forced to watch the newer anti-piracy ads, mainly because they hit you like a crude punch before the viewing of every (legal) DVD. Slashed over the screen like violent graffiti, sirens blaring, are the words: ‘You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. Piracy is stealing!’ Yes! I feel like shouting. I know! That’s why I rented/bought/borrowed this legal copy, so don’t preach to the converted.

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At least the current anti-piracy ads have given up trying to make the direct connection between illegal downloading and the Australian screen industry’s woes. After all, any idiot can tell you our main problems, particularly in the film sector, are not with piracy but with our inability to compete with Hollywood. As film critic Marc Fennell argued at MetroScreen’s 2012 debate on screen piracy, when he looked, he couldn’t find a single Australian film in the top 1000 pirated movies at Pirate Bay. How exactly can piracy be destroying Australian jobs and Australian stories, when the things we most we want to steal are The Hangover II, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones?

The direct effects of piracy on our local screen industry may be hard to immediately discern, but solid research suggests harm. ‘The Economic Consequences of Movie Piracy: Australia’, a study conducted by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft and Oxford Economics, concluded that in the 12-month period up to July 2010, movie piracy alone had cost the Australian economy $1.37 billion in lost revenue and 6,100 full-time jobs – and this was a conservative estimate that didn’t count each pirated view as a lost sale. The people who experienced the direct loss of income were of course film producers, cinema exhibitors, film and DVD distributors, DVD and Blu-ray rental and sales firms and legal streamers, while indirect losses were counted in areas such as legal services, marketing, rent – and lost tax revenue.

Admittedly, this 2010 research is getting a little long in the tooth – and three years later, legal streaming services like iTunes, Apple TV and catch-up television, as well as great online borrowing services like the Australian based QuickFlix, have meant there are far more options for those of us who’d like to do the right thing, as well as accessing entertainment in a timely way so we can join the global water-cooler conversations about our favourite shows and films.

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‘That techie teenage kid who’s downloading Mad Men for his computer-shy parents, The Dark Knight for himself, and The Simpsons Movie for his little sister, is going to think very hard before he ever forks out $15 to go to the movies.’

More than a quarter of us are still pirating, however. According to 2012 research by the Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation (IPAP), 27 per cent of Australians aged between 18 – 64 are regularly accessing illegal movies and television programs, and the majority do it because it’s free, even though your classic pirate is likely to be affluent and well educated.

There’s no denying that a culture of semi-sanctioned illegal downloading devalues content – whatever its country of origin. That techie teenage kid who’s downloading Mad Men for his computer-shy parents, The Dark Knight for himself, and The Simpsons Movie for his little sister, is going to think very hard before he ever forks out $15 to go to the movies or, later in his life, $3.99 for an episode of ABC Aussie drama or comedy on Apple TV. He’s habituated to getting it for free. It’s just so easy – and so easy to rationalise the reasons why he shouldn’t have to pay.

Here in Australia, where Hollywood is seen as a greedy and bullying behemoth, it’s easy to justify pirating blockbusters. Who does it hurt? Well, your local cinema operator for a start, and they’re the ones who need to run a business that makes a profit and spreads risk so they can take a punt on that plucky little Australian feature or documentary that needs a theatrical release to break through into public consciousness. Other favourite excuses we make include the one about Apple charging Australians more for music and films than it does our American counterparts – making it only fair to fight back, while we mouth the tired old words that ‘information needs to be free’. Elmo Keep’s excellent article, ‘The Case Against Free’, over at Junkee should make anyone wary of using that platitude.

Justifying your file stealing by saying that you’re also a big buyer of legal DVDs is another favourite excuse; along with the argument that you wouldn’t have gone to see something at the movies anyway, so nobody’s being hurt.

Australia’s clunky copyright law, dating from 1968, well before the digital revolution, also provides helpful justifications for those wanting to steal. The Australian Digital Alliance – Australia’s peak body representing copyright users – and agitating for copyright law reform – provides some entertainingly stupid examples of current laws at their #CopyWrong site. These include: ‘You can copy music from a CD to a smartphone or tablet – but not to your smartphone and tablet’, or ‘A comedian can remix content for parody or satire, but an artist can’t remix the same content for any other artistic purpose’, or ‘You can copy music from a CD to your tablet – but you can’t copy a film from a DVD to your tablet.’

With laws so silly, a lazy thinker can easily extrapolate that we’re all breaking copyright law in some form or another, so why bother trying to work it all out?

Interestingly, IPAP’s previously cited 2012 study found that 10 per cent of those who used to illegally download have now stopped. Perhaps the anti-piracy ads are working after all. The recent ‘Thank You’ campaign ad by IPAP has taken the soft and fuzzy approach. It’s a welcome antidote to the sirens and graffiti. Beloved Aussie actors like Roy Billing, Susie Porter and Red Dog’s Koko, as well as writers, cinema operators and DVD store clerks, take an upbeat tone to relay the gentle message: ‘thanks – paying for films and TV works for everyone!’

Personally, I have some dodgy downloads in my past, and if it’s too hard to find a legal copy of a film or a TV show, I may resort to piracy. After all, it’s my job to watch things as early as possible so I can write about them, and from a purely selfish angle, I want to watch what I want to watch, and I want to watch it now. I also expect businesses to make it EASY for me to pay for things. Easier than pirating them. The truth is that it is getting easier and quicker to legally follow your bliss. And it feels good to pay for superb storytelling, and to imagine that the creators might be able to sustain their careers to make more of what I love – whether they’re working in LA, France or Melbourne.

Piracy used to feel a little bit brave and subversive – ‘Up yours to the Man!’ But now, it just feels cheap.


Join us for our Intelligence Squared debate, Copyright is Dead: Long Live the Pirates on Tuesday September 24, at Melbourne Town Hall. Bookings now open.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a writer, film critic and former editor at the AFI | AACTA. She has a PhD in Australian cinema and was the long-time film editor for the Big Issue magazine. She currently reports for Screen Hub and reviews for SBS Film online. You can follow her musings on Australian film and television on Twitter @Milan2Pinsk.

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18 September 2013

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By Hugh de Kretser

highlight Whether it’s our treatment of asylum seekers or the current debate around free speech, we seem to be confused -about the notion of free rights for all. Australians care about human rights, but we’re also dangerously complacent about the lack of protections that exist – and conflicted on the question of who deserves human rights protection. Looking back into our rights history to examine today’s issues, Hugh de Kretser outlines a vision for stronger, universal protection of rights in Australia.

Australians care about human rights and making sure they are properly protected.

A major survey conducted as part of the National Human Rights Consultation (2009) confirmed that most Australians think human rights are important and a majority support stronger rights protections, including an Australian Human Rights Charter.

It also confirmed most Australian want to know more about human rights and they want both the government and the courts to protect rights.

But dig deeper and our support for human rights depends on who the humans are.

The survey asked 1200 randomly selected Australians whether the amount of protection given to some groups should be more, less or the same as it currently is.

About three quarters of respondents thought that the disabled, the elderly and people with a mental illness need more human rights protection than they currently get.

A slim majority thought that children and Indigenous Australians living in remote areas need more protection.

Less than a third thought gays and lesbians need more protection.

And more respondents thought asylum seekers need less human rights protection than more. In other words, there’s more community support for stripping back asylum seeker protections than there is for increasing them.

A hierachy of sympathy

The results confirmed what many might intuitively suspect – that when it comes to rights protection, there is a hierarchy of sympathy in public opinion.

But more than that, there is also a perception that our rights aren’t threatened.

For many Australians, human rights violations are something that happens to other people in other places: either to people overseas in Syria, North Korea or the Congo; or to people living in very different life circumstances; in remote Aboriginal communities, detention centres, aged care facilities or psychiatric institutions.

Only 10% of survey respondents reported they had ever had their rights infringed in any way and only another 10% reported that someone close to them had their rights infringed.

This is good news for the 90% who say their rights haven’t been infringed. It should genuinely be celebrated – and it probably leads to the next survey finding, that 64% of people agreed that human rights in Australia are adequately protected.

This, I think, is plainly wrong.

Rights aren’t adequately protected in Australia

The perception that rights are adequately protected sits uncomfortably against:

• the large gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians

• the fact that Indigenous Australians are 15 times more likely to be in jail than non Indigenous Australians

• the 100,000 or so homeless people in Australia

• the fact that less than 10% of directors in the 200 largest publicly listed companies are women

• the fact that around 1 in 3 Australian women over 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence

• the even higher rates of sexual violence against women with cognitive disabilities – mental illness, acquired brain injury and intellectual disability

• the research showing Australians with foreign sounding surnames are less likely to secure job interviews

• the high rates of verbal and physical abuse and discrimination experienced by gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians

• the 1,000 or so children detained in immigration detention

I could go on.

We ran some figures comparing imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men with higher education enrolment.

Indigenous men between the ages of 18 and 34 are more likely to be in jail than enrolled in higher education (and that includes TAFE). In 2010, there were 4530 Indigenous men in this age group in jail – but only 3745 Indigenous men of any age enrolled in higher education.

Compare this with non-Indigenous men and the picture is dramatically different: 10,367 men in this age bracket in jail compared with around 380,000 non Indigenous men of any age in higher education – and that’s excluding international students.

While Indigenous imprisonment rates are getting worse, it is good to see improvements in the rate of Indigenous involvement in higher education.

Looking back to look forward

Relative comfort on rights protections is nothing new.

Former Prime Minister Robert Menzies proclaimed in 1967 that ‘the rights of individuals in Australia are as adequately protected as they are in any other country in the world’. He meant what he said – as did other commentators who made similar statements.

With hindsight, we can look back and point to the gaping holes in these sentiments. The government policies until the late 1960s that caused the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families. The criminalisation of consensual homosexual sex. The White Australia policy. Entrenched institutional sexual discrimination. And the fact that, in 1967, it was perfectly legal to refuse to employ someone because of their race, religion or sex – because there were no anti-discrimination laws or equality protections in the constitution. (Except in progressive South Australia, which introduced the first racial discrimination laws in 1966.)

My father’s family are Dutch Burgher Sri Lankans – the descendants of Portuguese and Dutch colonial settlers who arrived in Sri Lanka in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and who are of mixed European and Sri Lankan descent.

The only reason my father’s family was able to immigrate to Australia in 1949 under the White Australia policy was by proving their European heritage – tracing our lineage back to the Dutch sailor Cornelis de Kretser in the 1600s.

But apparently the arrival of ‘European’ Sri Lankans with non-European appearance caused some consternation. In August 1951, the Department of Immigration issued guidelines to the Australian High Commission in Colombo which advised that it ‘should not authorise the entry of persons who are likely to cause adverse comment on arrival here or be restricted from landing by immigration officers at the ports, as being predominantly non-European in appearance’.

One of the best cases that shows how far we’ve come involved a Victorian pilot, Deborah Wardley, who applied in the late 1970s to become the first female pilot at Ansett.

Ansett refused her application. The general manager wrote : ‘Ansett has adopted a policy of only employing men as pilots. This does not mean that women cannot be good pilots, but we are concerned with the provision of the safest and most efficient air service possible. In this regard, we feel that an all-male pilot crew is safer than one in which the sexes are mixed.’

She challenged the refusal to employ her under (then) recently enacted Victorian anti-discrimination laws; she won and went onto a successful career.

So we can look back in hindsight and be shocked at these attitudes and the lack of protections.

But in a similar way, I have no doubt that in 40 or so years, Australians will look back on today’s society and think, What were they doing?

There was majority support for same-sex marriage yet neither major party supported it.

They locked up thousands of refugees fleeing persecution, arbitrary detention and torture in remote detention camps in Australia or outsourced the detention and rights abuses to former colonies in the Pacific.

They had one of the strongest economies in the world and yet income inequality was increasing, the gender pay gap was increasing and babies born to Aboriginal mothers died at twice the rate of other Australian babies.

Challenging our selectivity

The challenge for us, as human rights advocates, is how to broaden the realisation that while most Australians are doing well, there are some who aren’t.

The challenge is how to change ’human rights for some, but not others‘ to ‘human rights for all’.

Human rights issues impact on all of us, every day. Being stopped for a random breath test or receiving a parking or speed camera fine that reverses the presumption of innocence against the registered owner of a car are two minor, common examples or rights issues – where, I should say, the balance drawn on limiting rights is appropriate.

When we get old, many of us will get dementia. Rights issues then become more acute – what does the law say about when do we lose the ability to make our own decisions about how we spend our money, where we live and what medical treatment we receive? And about who makes decisions on our behalf when we do?

But while rights issues affect all of us, they affect some more than others – and in more intense ways.

Rights and privilege

I had a privileged upbringing: attending a private school and studying at Melbourne University.

I studied human rights in the abstract: studying the Holocaust as part of my arts degree and studying human rights law as part of my law degree.

I went on to work in one of the top corporate law firms where large corporate clients had almost limitless resources to get the best advice.

The law firm generously agreed, as part of its admirable commitment to pro bono work, to loan me for six months to work in community legal centre in Deer Park, in Melbourne’s West. This is where I got my real human rights education.

One of my first clients was a Roma – a gypsy and a real gentleman. He told me childhood stories of being moved, as he said, ‘from pillar to post’ wherever his family went – people complaining to the police about them and then being moved on. They never stayed in the one place for more than three months. He never received an education and as a consequence, he couldn’t read or write. He came to see me because his wife needed dialysis; he’d drive her to hospital several times a week, but couldn’t read the parking signs properly and repeatedly received parking fines.

Another client was a young man who was a heroin addict and ended up in jail, where he was bashed by prison guards. After he was released, I took a statement from him in his mother’s house about the bashing. I remember his mother crying as he told me what happened to him and how he’d now become a hardened criminal.

Other clients were victims of childhood sexual abuse; often I was the first man they ever told what had happened to them. They’d tell me how hard it was to trust people and live a normal life and how they overprotected their own children. One of them, whose stepfather had filmed the abuse, shared her fears that the images of her abuse were circulating on the internet – and how this impacted on her whenever a child pornography arrest aired on the news.

Other clients were victims of family violence or random street violence, or were struggling with debt issues, relationship breakdown or ill health.

I’d see these clients by day, and live my comfortable life at night and on the weekends – and it made me uncomfortable, which is a good thing. The experience perhaps reflects the reality of human rights protection in Australia. Rights, in practice are enjoyed by many of us but for some they aren’t.

For me, my immediate experiences working in a community legal centre brought home the lack of human rights protection in Australia.

For some, this experience is far more personal and comes through their own existence as person with a disability, a migrant or a victim of violence.

For others it comes through proximity to these people – caring for a relative with dementia, seeing a friend discriminated against, working in a sexual assault crisis centre.

We need to communicate this experience, through the media, through social media, through education, through volunteering, through forums like this to broaden the support for tackling these issues.

Majority and minority support

At my first national community legal centre conference in Hobart in 2003, I sat next to leading gay rights activist Rodney Croome at dinner. Rodney played a leading role in the campaign in the late 80s and early 90s to overturn Tasmanian laws that made consensual gay sex illegal – with a penalty of up to 21 years jail.

I’d read about the campaign’s successful complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee, which ruled that the laws violated international human rights protections.

I wanted to talk to him about his success in proving the unjust local laws violated international law. But he wanted to talk to me about how they won over public opinion in Tasmania. How over the course of their campaign they turned minority support into majority support through a mixture of education, advocacy – and the legal cases. How Tasmania is now leading Australia on legal protections against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Majority public support certainly makes rights protection easier.

But the protection of human rights shouldn’t have to rely on majority support.

Human rights tend to matter most when they lack majority support, whether it’s asylum seekers, people charged with terror offences or people in prison and our society as a whole is diminished when the rights of vulnerable minorities are undermined.

Protecting human rights in Australia

The key human rights treaties which bind Australia and over 160 other nations around the world embody the fundamental principle that rights are universal – they attach to all of us by reason of our being human, regardless of popular support.

These treaties stem from the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document forged from the horrors of World War II where the Nazis treated the Jews as less than human.

The two key treaties enjoy bipartisan support: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The Whitlam government signed them and the Fraser government ratified them; both steps were required to bind Australia.

These treaties and the rights set out in them are intended to place limits on government actions. They protect against popular will overriding the fundamental freedoms of a minorities.

Yet the treaties aren’t adequately incorporated into Australian law. International law doesn’t automatically become incorporated into domestic Australian law when we ratify a treaty. It needs to be implemented by legislation passed by the federal or state parliaments.

And the principal way to implement key international human rights is through a Human Rights Charter or Bill of Rights.

Unlike every other western nation, unlike the UK, Canada, the US and New Zealand, we have no legislative or constitutional bill of rights. Instead, we rely on a patchwork of individual pieces of legislation and judge made common law. And the patchwork has holes in it, with key rights like freedom of speech, privacy and freedom from arbitrary detention suffering from inadequate protection.

We’ve come a long way (and have a way to go)

We have come a long way in protecting rights in Australia, but the advances in our rights protection didn’t come easily at the time. Yet, they are easily taken for granted now.

Today, it is clear that there is still inadequate rights protection for some groups – particularly where those groups don’t enjoy majority support.

I’m confident we’re seeing a positive evolution of rights protection in Australia. But if we want to realise the promise of human rights for not just some, but all, we need to do more.

How can we improve rights protections in Australia? We need better education about human rights, a stronger human rights culture within government and the broader community – and an enforceable Human Rights Charter or Bill of Rights.


This is an edited transcript of Hugh De Kretser’s Lunchbox/Soapbox address, given at the Wheeler Centre.

The Wheeler Centre Lunchbox/Soapbox addresses are hosted every Thursday at the Wheeler Centre, 12.45pm to 1.15pm. Admission is free, BYO lunch.

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06 June 2013

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highlight The front page of today’s Age pictures a newlywed Altona couple, aged 25 and 27, as examples of the typical Australian, worried about rising costs of living.

They earn $130,000 a year between them, and ‘have a $420,000 mortgage, a $380,000 Pascoe Vale investment property they bought with another couple in July 2012, and plans to start a family’.

Social media has been buzzing today with reactions to the paper’s implication that the young couple – who have put off having kids due to concerns about the cost of child care – are archetypal Aussie battlers.

Just what constitutes middle class, middle income and genuine ‘struggling’ has been a hot conversational topic lately.

’We all think we’re middle class’

‘I don’t think most people have a sense of what the typical Australian’s income is,’ wrote the ACTU’s Matt Cowgill yesterday. ‘We all think we’re middle class.’

He shares some statistics that do give an accurate picture of ‘typical’ earnings. Among full-time workers, the average wage is $72,800 per year. But of course, the average wage is distorted by extremes at the top and bottom of the scale.

A more accurate picture is provided by the median wage figures. ‘If you earn half the median salary, your wage is in the middle of the distribution – it’s higher than 50% of workers, and lower than the other 50%.’

The median full-time worker’s wage was $57,400 in August 2011 (most recent figures). When you figure in part-time workers, this drops to $48,684.

The ‘privileged poor’

Last week, social commentator Rachel Hills hit a collective nerve with her Daily Life piece decrying the ‘privileged poor’, challenging readers to think twice about their place on the economic scale before crying ‘poor’, or ‘broke’ (as in too poor to take an overseas holiday, or go out to dinner).

‘In our grandparents’ generation, being comfortable meant knowing you would have enough money to eat and pay your bills, and usually enough to save and do some fun things on the side. Now, it seems to mean having enough money to do whatever you want, whenever you want, and never saying no to anything … and still having enough left over to put together a nest egg.’

For the more than two million Australians classified as living in poverty by the Australian Council of Social Services, ‘their challenges aren’t choosing between paying off their mortgage or paying for private school, but choosing between turning on the heating during winter and having enough to eat’.

Defining the ‘ultra rich’

Fairfax writer Peter Martin has recently written about the topic, too. He quotes an outraged reader, responding to his observation that ‘anyone earning more than $210,000 a year was ultra rich, in the top one per cent’:

‘Assuming a $600k mortgage (appropriate to this level of income) and two children in private school plus additional outgoings this leaves a balance of only $21k for holidays and other incidentals and/or saving.’

Infamously, Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon recently claimed that families on $250,000 in his electorate are ‘struggling’. Martin suggests he is out of touch with the realities of struggling families – tax office statistics for his electorate show that the average income there is roughly $60,000.

This tunnel vision isn’t confined to the unfortunate Fitzgibbon, though, he says. ‘None of us get out enough.’

‘We tend to live near people who earn something near what we are earning. If they earn slightly more than us we think we’re behind. If they earn slightly less we think we’re ahead. But we don’t look far beyond them.’

‘Less room in your heart’

Does this tunnel vision matter?

Yes, argues Rachel Hills. ‘It makes it easier to look past the struggles of those who are genuinely struggling.’

‘When you’re declaring social bankruptcy over drinking cleanskin wine instead of $17 cocktails … when this becomes your vision of what “poverty” looks like – there is less room in your heart for those for whom poverty means having no choice at all.’

Peter Martin identifies another problem with our tendency to underestimate our privilege – most are keen to defend the interests of those above us, because of our own aspirations to ‘one day move up a notch or two’.

‘We think others earn more than they do, we aspire to earn more than we do, and many of us have no idea how well off we are.’

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14 May 2013

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By Jill Stark

jill_stark What’s the place of alcohol in our lives? When does fun become a habit too hard to break? And how are the culture, alcohol companies, Australian sports and even our friends lined up to make laying off the booze enough harder? In this edited Lunchbox/Soapbox address, Jill Stark tells all.

Alcohol and drinking are so much a part of our cultural and national identity that it can be confronting to have a conversation about its place in our lives. But the reaction I’ve had so far to my book, High Sobriety: My Year without Booze, suggests that it’s a conversation a lot of people are ready to have. That’s not to say that booze is inherently bad – but I certainly think that as a community, there’s a growing sense that we need to work more on getting the balance right.

High Sobriety came about by accident. It came after 20 years of weekend partying that started when I was an awkward teenager growing up in Scotland – a land where teetotalism is a crime punishable by death – and ended with a hangover that felt like it might kill me. I didn’t intend to stop drinking for a whole year, and I definitely didn’t plan to write a book about it, but that’s what happened and I’m so glad it did. To my great surprise, it was the most rewarding year of my life.

Hello Sunday Morning: Life without alcohol

It started in 2010 when I met Chris Raine, a young man who at the age of 22 decided to give up drinking for a year and write a blog about it. The blog turned into Hello Sunday Morning, an online movement encouraging people to take a break from booze for 3, 6 or 12 months. When I first met Chris there were less than 50 bloggers writing about their experiences of life without alcohol. Today there are more than 9,000 people signed up in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland.

What Hello Sunday Morning and my year without booze taught me is not that life is fundamentally better without alcohol but that you can soar to great heights when you make that commitment to yourself. I learned to run, I found my singing voice, I found an inner strength I didn’t know I had, and of course, I made a dream come true and wrote a book.

highlight I learned a lot too. I learned that alcohol is something I enjoy, not something I need. I learned that my confidence and self-worth can’t be measured in standard drinks, and that taking booze out of the equation forces you to be fearless. And I learned that it is possible to slide along the floorboards on your knees and rock out the air guitar to Bon Jovi while completely sober. Dancing without a drink to loosen me up used to be a terrifying prospect, but now I know that most of the time everyone else is too blind to notice what you look like. I found that knowledge quite liberating.

And I discovered that the liquid confidence I used to rely on to make me socially competent may in fact be little more than a placebo. A number of experiments suggest that the way we act when we’re drinking may have more to do with the expectations we bring with us to the pub than the physiological effects of alcohol. Psychologists have shown in several studies that groups of people who were told they were drinking vodka started to display certain behaviours – becoming more confident, flirtatious and uninhibited – even when they were actually only drinking tonic water. When we think booze is our social elixir – a way to give us a sense of belonging and self assurance – then it’s no wonder it’s easier to reach for the bottle than to fly sober.

When I took it away, I felt naked. It was confronting to realise how much I’d relied on alcohol to get me through difficult situations. But slowly, I learned that the way I’d been using booze was not always conducive to a fulfilling social life. Without alcohol, I could see that sometimes a bad party is just a bad party. And when it comes to the dating scene, sobriety was illuminating to say the least. Some guys, when learning I wasn’t drinking, recoiled in horror, which I think is perhaps instructive of the type of guys I may have been attracted to when I was drinking. Sober, it’s much easier to spot the blokes who are interested in you for entirely the wrong reasons.

Among the other lessons learned in my booze-free odyssey were that being drunk at the footy doesn’t make Hawthorn play any better. The only excuses some people will accept for you not drinking are I’m pregnant, I’ve just come out of rehab, or sobriety is one of my parole conditions.

The truth about binge drinking

While I once used alcohol as a way to unwind after a stressful day at work or to block out difficult emotions, that’s really not a great long-term strategy. Having a few drinks might help take the edge off but the next morning those edges are sharper and cut you deeper. It’s rewarding to realise that without booze you’re a lot more resilient than you’d given yourself credit for.

From a health perspective, I discovered some shocking truths about binge drinking. One in five cases of breast cancer is directly linked to drinking. As someone with breast cancer on both sides of the family and a long history of binge drinking, I realised that I was playing a high stakes game of poker with my health.

But my ignorance of the facts is not uncommon. Cancer Council research shows that only 9% of Australians are aware of the link between alcohol and a range of cancers, despite it being a group one carcinogen – putting it in the same category as tobacco, asbestos and UV radiation. Part of the problem, public health specialists told me, is that we are a nation in denial about our drinking habits. Getting drunk at the weekends is the social norm for hundreds of thousands of Australians. When you opt out of that culture, as I discovered, it can be challenging. I was told that not drinking was ‘Un-Australian’ and that my year without booze would be a ‘year without mates’.

How alcohol companies have cosied up to sport and the Anzacs

Why is drinking such an integral part of Australian culture? It’s a complex question with no easy answer, but in the book I explore the ways that the alcohol industry has helped foster the notion that being an Aussie means having a drink in your hand. Just like the tobacco companies before them, multinational alcohol companies have been quick to associate themselves with every pastime our culture values.

Sport has become a huge marketing platform for the industry. All of our major sporting codes are backed by booze. Whether it’s Australian cricket team captain Michael Clarke wearing VB on his baggy green cap, or the AFL’s 100-year partnership with Carlton Draught, or the Wallabies sharing a rum and Coke with a 7-foot-tall talking polar bear, alcohol is entrenched in our sporting culture. Young people are influenced by that association: this exposure to alcohol advertising from an early age desensitises them, making them more likely to start drinking. This is particularly the case if their sporting heroes are the ones promoting booze. This is the reason that alcohol advertising is banned on television in peak children’s viewing hours, before 9pm. But here’s the rub – live sporting telecasts are exempt from the ban. That’s a pretty big loophole.

The link between sport and drinking is not just at the elite level. Research from the Australian Drug Foundation shows that a third of 13- to 17-year-olds had engaged in unsupervised drinking at their local sporting club, where grog is often the reward for on-field success. Twenty per cent of 18 to 20-year-olds drink more than ten drinks each time they go to their sporting club, and half of all members drank at dangerous levels on each visit. I interviewed young men who had grown up in this boozy sporting culture – for many, getting absolutely plastered after games was seen as an initiation into manhood. They talked of drinking games where they had to down 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes, and footy trips where the biggest boozers were celebrated as the biggest heroes.

It’s not just sport. The notion that Australia is a country built on booze – which when unpacked doesn’t actually withstand scrutiny – is bolstered by the industry. We see it in VB’s annual Raise a Glass campaign, commemorating Anzac Day. There’s no doubt the campaign’s for a good cause – it’s raised nearly $3 million for war veterans since it was launched in 2009 – but you have to wonder how much goodwill these ads buy the brewers. To have your brand associated with the most enduring symbol of nationhood, the Aussie digger, has got to be worth its weight in gold from a marketing perspective. Every time you knock back a beer on Anzac Day, you’re doing it for your country.

Young drinkers and ‘Mommyjuice’ mothers

Alcohol companies have also been shrewd in tapping into potential new markets. We’ve seen it with alcopops – known in the industry as the ‘binge drinker’ category. Some years ago an alcohol marketing executive told me in an extraordinarily frank interview that these sugary, brightly coloured drinks were deliberately designed to mask the taste of alcohol to appeal to the younger, unsophisticated palate. Arguably young people have always been risk-takers and many will drink before they’re 18 regardless of what products are on the market. But how many of them are drinking earlier than they otherwise might have, simply because the industry has made alcohol so appealing and easy to drink?

I interviewed a number of mothers with young children for the book. Although they thought their alcohol consumption would dip once they had children, many of them were using alcohol as a way to cope with the stress of motherhood – even though, for some of them, it was a counter-productive strategy. (Toddlers have little regard for the need to be quiet when you have a hangover.)

Some alcohol companies are now looking to mothers as the next growth market. Online parenting communities are signing mums up to wine clubs, promising bottles delivered directly to your door. ‘No more dragging the screaming toddler to the bottle shop having people look down their nose at you,’ one website reads. And in the United States, not surprisingly, things have gone a step further. There you can buy ‘MommyJuice’ – a range of wine spruiked with the slogan, ‘Tuck your kids into bed, sit down and have a glass of MommyJuice – because you deserve it.’ The battle for the Mommy dollar is so fierce that a rival company, Mommy’s Time Out, recently tried to convince a court, unsuccessfully, that MommyJuice’s use of the word ‘mommy’ to sell wine was a trademark infringement. I’m all for market diversification but it troubles me that women are being targeted in this way. Is drinking really such an intrinsic part of motherhood that mums are being convinced they need a bottle of wine to survive it?

Not drinking ‘social suicide’ for youth

Creating a sense of belonging and identity through their products is very important to alcohol companies – particularly when it comes to young people, who are increasingly being marketed to through sport, music festivals and on social media. And it’s working. A 2008 study from the University of Wollongong showed that 90 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds who were shown a series of alcohol adverts thought the drinks would help them have a good time. More than two thirds felt that drinking would make them more confident, sociable and outgoing, while 70 per cent said that it would help them fit in. Half thought the drinks would help them succeed with the opposite sex and 60 per cent said it would help them feel less nervous.

The young people I interviewed backed up this research. Many of them said they wished they didn’t have to drink to have a good time, but that it would be social suicide not to. Many were getting drunk for the same reasons I was – for confidence, for belonging and to deal with difficult emotions. It’s the only way they know. Yet, we can’t just point the finger at the industry for that. The more I explored the issue, the more I realised that young people are a product of their environment. They have inherited a culture that implores them to drink at every juncture. The headlines might focus on alcohol-related violence and youth binge-drinking but really, this is a problem we all own a part in. For many young people I spoke to the pressure to drink wasn’t just coming from their peers, but from older people. Their parents teach them that having a drink is the way to unwind after a hard day’s work. Their colleagues give them a hard time if they don’t hit it hard at Friday night drinks, and their sporting heroes are backed by booze and their music festivals sponsored by alcohol companies, headlined by pop stars who belt out songs celebrating getting wasted.

In that context is it any wonder they drink in the way they do? What’s heartening though is the number of young people who are choosing another way. The numbers are still small but every year the percentage of young people who are either delaying their first drink or abstaining altogether is growing. And groups like Hello Sunday Morning are becoming more popular. As HSM founder Chris Raine says, ‘It’s easy to get swept up in a drinking culture. Sometimes you just need a rope to pull you back to dry land.’ This is how you change a culture – one person at a time.


This is an edited extract of Jill Stark’s Lunchbox/Soapbox address, My Year without Booze.

The Wheeler Centre Lunchbox/Soapbox addresses are hosted every Thursday at the Wheeler Centre, 12.45pm to 1.15pm. Admission is free, BYO lunch.

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04 April 2013

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By Maria Tumarkin

Maria Tumarkin emigrated to Australia from the former Soviet Union in 1989. She reflects on her memories of ‘being new’, of compulsively doing ‘compare and contrast’ with the old country and the new … and how she eventually fell for Australia, despite remaining unreconciled to it.

mariaA man I was once married to back in the previous century – speaking, some time after the marriage was over, from one of Europe’s megalopolises – called Australia ‘a nation of sunken ships’. And to me, for whom, by that point, he wished little else, he wished an easy and swift escape. Run, he said, Maria, run.

He got to me then. (I got to him too, making sure he missed out on Australian citizenship: my most patriotic, most spiteful, action ever.)

Sunken. Not even sinking.

Ira Glass, from the indispensable This American Life radio show, said in an interview once that many of his fellow Americans had a childhood story at the ready to explain to others, and invariably to themselves – who they are and how they’ve come to be. I have my immigrant stories for that same purpose. Most migrants do. I am bored by mine. Feels ridiculous to pull them out, like hanging out long-since-dry washing. It’s been twenty-two years.

New migrants come – they are new, and I am old; an old dog – and I see them, carless, at bus and tram stops with plastic supermarket bags cutting into their fingers. Last year I saw hundreds, with cars, at the Oakleigh branch of VicRoads the day before their registration was due, coming up to the ticket dispenser in the corner, the one that places you in queues, and peering into its screen like they were newborn kittens, listening hard to the instructions given by the voice in the machine. Not for the faint-hearted, that voice: so patient, so polite. Diabolically incomprehensible too – like this country all round.

I am a professional translator, one with a stamp. New migrants come to me – they are new, and I am old; old at being new – with their birth certificates and degree certificates and divorce certificates, with their recommendation letters from ballet academies and oil rigs. I translate statutory declarations from Russian women whose Australian husbands thought they were procuring themselves model Russian wives, wives unspoilt by all the gender equality bullshit, and the husbands (lovely guys, some of them) on discovering that this was not, or not totally, the case, went all kinds of berserk.

joyful_strains I translate declarations from men too, screwed dry by my female compatriots. It makes me wonder if mixed marriages are doomed, especially when you bring a person in from another place to marry them. I think a lot about mixed marriages, partly because as W.H. Auden said – ‘Any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance’ – and partly because the happy and enduring mixed marriage, the kind I don’t get to see in my little bureau of dysfunction and demise, seems to me the true test of multiculturalism. Can it work? Does it last? Is it for real?

I think a lot, too, about being new, now that I am anything but; about coming to a place where you have no past, no one remembers you, nothing is in its place. That feeling of everything – the distance between earth and sky, the smell of sweat on passers-by, the sound of water lunging out of a tap, the way people spread their bodies on trams – being not the way you’ve always, unthinkingly, known it to be.

Are there five stages of the expat experience, as once believed we had with grief? (A dogma well past its prime, yes, challenged to smithereens by now – but a not entirely irrelevant point of comparison?)

Actually, I have a better question: how come the whole idea of culture shock seems so very beige now, so domesticated, as if the ‘shock’ in culture shock is a piquant little jolt, good for circulation, edifying even?

I see shock – a fish-out-of-water convulsing shock – on new arrivals’ faces. I have been in Australia too long to feel it. But I remember how it feels: looking into your new life is like staring at the sun; it burns your retina. There are moments when half of Australia feels this shock, not the full brunt, just enough to count, to shake us off our chairs – the moment in December 2010, for instance, when an asylum-seeker boat crashed into cliffs off Christmas Island, sinking within our field of vision, and we watched Christmas Islanders watch children cling to bits of boat wreckage, and drown. We – alive. They, children and adults – dead. Have you seen those images?

‘A nation of sunken ships,’ the man who didn’t like Australia called us. Sunken. Not even sinking.

‘Australia is a good place to retire to.’ He said that too. I remember hating him for it. Maybe I even hung the phone up on him. I hope I did. But people, as you know, talk like this about Australia, even people who don’t have many places to immigrate to. They say Australia is slow, smug and provincial – thin on history, too sheltered for its own good, a country without energy, or much imagination. People run from Australia, you know, even first-generation migrants.

A young man from Somalia, a multilingual son of a diplomat, drove me home from the airport in a taxi recently. He said people in Australia can’t drive and turn too aggressive behind the wheel because there are not enough cars on Australian roads. ‘You don’t,’ he said, ‘get a chance to get good because you are never humbled by the flows of traffic, by its self-organising logic, by the lessons it has in store for you. And so you are all impatience and rage and no humility.’ He was new here, this young man from Somalia. He had sharp eyes for this country, and an analytical bent. He made me remember how it was to be constantly itching with bewilderment, to compulsively be doing ‘compare and contrast’, to start falling for this country, loving it, while remaining unreconciled to it.

I am old at being here, very old. I have told my immigrant stories – good old immigrant ‘schtick’ – many times already, have written them up into books, have milked them for laughs, have turned them into tiny poignant fables. Twenty-two years… ‘Come on!’ (Not W.H. Auden this time – Lleyton Hewitt.) I am not a migrant anymore.

I am a post-migrant, even though the beast, the accent, is still there – thick and sticky on my off days, impossible to peel off. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says 44 per cent of Australians are either born overseas or have at least one foreign-born parent. That makes me as statistically average as they come. Nothing to see here. Keep on moving.

Now, it’s only when I see a person who is new to being here that something inside me is triggered, a feeling of not quite being able to arrive. I know in my head that this, right here, is the shore, the coveted firm ground under my feet, but when I look around (and I strain … and strain) all I can see is the otherworldly blueness of the unending sea.


Maria Tumarkin is an author and cultural historian. Her latest book is Otherland (Vintage, 2010).

This piece is an extract from Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home (edited by Kent MacCarter and Ali Lemer, Affirm Press), which was published on Australia Day.

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29 January 2013

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p1934-Hogan-Eleanor Eleanor Hogan lived and worked in Alice Springs for several years. She came back to urban life with a book, recently published in the New South Cities series, a nuanced understanding of issues like the Intervention and the myriad challenges faced by the NT’s Aboriginal population, and a sense of perspective about the things that matter.

We spoke to Eleanor about the process of creating her book and life in the frontier town of Alice Springs.

You came to Alice Springs in search of a ‘desert change’. What was it about Alice Springs that attracted you?

I say in one of the early chapters of my book that I was ‘seduced by the landscape’: the pull of the desert and arid zone country is hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t been there. I still feel a sense of exhilaration on the plane, flying over the ocean of burnt earth to Alice Springs.

highlight I had been working in the ‘Aboriginal industry’, as it’s sometimes laconically called, on the east coast for about six years. Some of the research I conducted took me to Alice Springs to collect information about issues such as petrol-sniffing, family violence and income management in remote areas. Although this research was interesting, it was quite abstracted from the situations at hand and I felt that I would be able to engage more meaningfully with them if I was in central Australia. Remoteness also possesses certain challenges and layers of additional complexity that makes it quite a fascinating context to work in.

However, Alice Springs exerted its own curiosity. Apart from its striking setting in the MacDonnell ranges, I was aware on my early work trips of glimmers of the ‘life’ there: I remember seeing a banner advertising the Cycling Club and attending a torchsong night at a resort. I knew about the history of the Central and Western Desert art movements associated with the Centralian region, and there were clearly lots of hippies, ferals and arty types (‘bush fairies’, as a friend calls them) drifting around town and cafes. Not to mention all the lesbians: how did the country’s largest lesbian community per capita end up in the middle of the outback?

What made you want to write a book about Alice Springs?

I would say the aspects of life in Alice Springs that drew me to live there were similar to those that made me want to write about the place. I was particularly interested in the idea of Alice as a microcosm of national identity and history. It’s not a metaphor that you can take to literal extremes, but there are plenty of conundrums and paradoxes about life in Alice as the premier outback town at the heart of the country that intrigued me.

I like to think that what’s metaphorical or abstract about national identity becomes a reality when you’re living in Alice Springs. It’s the meeting place of battlers, blackfellas and do-gooder urban types such as myself. If you’re an urban professional, you often have a better quality of life than you would in your home town, but find yourself slap bang up against indigenous disenfranchisement, the schism the nation is built on. I felt that both indigenous and non-indigenous populations were to some extent traumatised by the past and present realities of frontier life, and that certain aspects of this – like violence, alcohol abuse, racist attitudes – had become normalised as result.

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How did you feel when your publisher suggested it become part of the New South Cities series? Did that change the way you approached the book at all?

I was thrilled when the book was included in the Cities series, but New South made the decision after I had submitted the manuscript, so it didn’t make a huge difference to my basic ‘take’ on Alice. As far as I’m aware, the publisher still doesn’t think Alice is a city, and included Alice Springs in the series on the grounds that it was an iconic place. Personally, I think of Alice Springs as the capital of the forgotten state of Central Australia.

However, to conform to the length of the books in the series, I had to remove about twenty per cent of the original manuscript (16,000 words), which may have made it more focused in certain ways. I discussed the editorial cuts beforehand with the publisher, and we came to an agreement about what should stay and go. Some of the material I removed was the more hard-core stories about violence and social dysfunction: I was concerned that the parts of the book might be verging on a journalistic genre that’s been called ‘indigenous violent porn’. However, I wanted to include material about the indigenous experience of different aspects of life in Alice Springs, so that stayed across all dimensions.

My original conception of the book was that it would capture the bittersweet nature of living in the place, and I saw art and sport being as two major redemptive forces in Alice Springs. My regret in removing some of that ‘lifestyle’ material is that the book mightn’t have quite as much ‘light’ balancing the ‘shade’ as I would have liked.

You wanted to move ‘beyond the polarities and media debates’ about Alice Springs with this book, to throw light on the everyday texture of the town. What were some of those things you were writing against – and how is the reality more complex and nuanced than they are portrayed?

Alice Springs tends to emerge sporadically in national consciousness, often through dramatic media stories about violence, substance abuse or some form of social dysfunction. Central Australia has historically been a site for metropolitan projections, as the country’s literal and symbolic centre, as the book’s epigraph from Patrick White’s Voss suggests: the explorer’s fantasy that nothing was there except sand, a few flies and some blackfellas.

The Northern Territory Intervention is the most obvious recent example of this phenomenon: when it was implemented, central Australia and the NT suddenly became in vogue as the focus for urban people’s anxieties or aspirations about neo-liberal social policy. Once again, it’s as if central Australia is a giant petri-dish of orange dust with a few blackfellas and flies out there, available in this case for social experimentation.

I believe the Intervention has unhelpfully polarised the discussion of remote indigenous issues and led to some oversimplistic solutions being pedaled. There’s the neo-liberal agenda, one on hand, that all Aboriginal people need to do is get off the grog and the welfare then they’d get a job. And the left-wing denialism, on the other, about the degree of dysfunction that exists in some communities, accompanied by ideas that all that needs to be done is reinstate the RDA in its entirety, scrap the BasicsCard and resource the outstations, and all would be peace, joy and mungbeans for the noble hunter-gatherers. Both approaches contain certain ‘truths’, but the overall situation is too complex to be remedied so easily.

Alcohol consumption is viewed as an endemic problem for Aboriginal people living in Central Australia, but you share figures that indicate alcohol consumption for non-indigenous residents is 52 per cent higher than the national average. And you report drinking more while living in Alice Springs. Why do you think that is?

Drinking is strongly embedded within frontier life: it’s a form of entertainment, brought to the Centre mainly through Anglo-Celtic culture. Its place in local life relates partly to the image Terry Mills is currently trying to evoke of equality for Indigenous Territorians: the right for everyone to relax with a beer at the end of a hard day’s work. It’s also akin to the Irish idea of ‘having great craic’: you sit round having a drink with your mates, telling stories and seeing who can raise the biggest laugh.

Drinking is also a coping mechanism: although the Territory offers a good life, it can be a tough one, physically and psychologically, with a degree of isolation, especially if you’re not a ‘born and bred’ or if you’ve been cast adrift from your traditional country. Drinking provides an escape valve for frustrations and difficult emotions, or a form of self-medication, as it does elsewhere, but there certainly plenty of drivers for all these in central Australia.

Why do we perceive it as purely an indigenous issue?

Aboriginal drinking is more visible in Alice Springs because it’s more public: there are less safe indoor places where Aboriginal people can drink (e.g. dress codes can be prohibitive) and Aboriginal people often lack accommodation (as temporary or permanent residents), so they camp and drink in public places like the riverbed.

There’s a body of research that suggests Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have different drinking styles, but roughly speaking, less Aboriginal people drink per capita than non-Aboriginal people and Aboriginal drinkers tend to consume a higher volume of alcohol. Around a quarter of the Territory’s indigenous population indulge in extreme drinking practices (e.g. round-the-clock drinking), so they experience a higher rate of more immediate, dramatic effects, like hospitalisations for violent assaults (on estimate, one every second day in Alice Springs).

By contrast, the main pattern amongst the non-indigenous population is binge drinking (e.g. extreme weekend drinking), so the effects tend to be more intermediate or long-term. For example, there are high rates of breast cancer across the Territorian population. This could be because of a lower early detection rate due to fewer opportunities for screening, but it could also relate to consistently high levels of alcohol consumption.

The upshot of this history and these differences is that drinking tends to be seen as the problem of the ‘grog mob’, the smaller section of the indigenous population who drink to excess, because of the more public and dramatic forms it takes, rather than an issue across the whole community.

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You write about ‘the guilt and discomfort of living so close to a group of people on whose behalf I claim to be working but with whom I have few meaningful encounters’. How did you deal with that guilt and discomfort?

At a personal level, I often tried to deal with the difficult emotions and issues that arose while living in Alice Springs by going for a mountain bike ride at sunset as stress relief. Many, if not all people I interviewed for the book, seemed to have a substantial creative or sporting interest which provided some sort of outlet for them.

In Alice Springs, we (in the social justice industry) also spent a lot of time at other people’s places, just talking and analysing things that happened in town or at work. I’m still taken aback when I visit Alice by how people calmly discuss over dinner something like a rape or an assault or youth suicide, or some dramatic incident that’s happened in town. Plenty complain, however, that there’s never any escape from ‘work’ in Alice, and that’s all people talk about, or some heavy-going issue like the Intervention. I got to a point where I wished we could talk about shoes or the Kardashians or something frivolous for a change.

When you work in policy and research, you’re one remove from issues that people in the ‘front line’ of service delivery work with. Those in service delivery often say they hope to make a difference by making small changes to people’s lives or focusing on the person directly in front of them.

You don’t have that direct contact in social policy, but you hope that the project you’re working on will make some positive impact on people’s lives and there are ways of assessing programs. The introduction of Opal unleaded petrol, accompanied by diversionary youth programs, is an example of a policy initiative that’s been startlingly effective in reducing petrol sniffing in central Australia. It can be interesting to look back on shifts in policy paradigms, to consider what has and hasn’t been effective (including what’s been effective that’s since been dismantled).

I think what’s galling for those of us who were involved in the self-determination policy regime is the now entirely valid questioning of how effective it was in bringing about social change in Aboriginal people’s lives and how career professionals, black and white, may have benefitted from this regime.

Alice Springs is a patchwork of many different lives and encounters, told through the framework of your own experience. Did you have to consider any ethical issues to do with incorporating the stories of others? How did you decide what you would include and what you would leave out?

When I interviewed people I asked them if they would like to see a copy of the transcript and the final draft of the interview: I encouraged them to read the latter, and I chased them up if I thought there was anything in the interview that might be controversial or that they might be uncomfortable with. There is a fair amount of ‘vox pop’ material in the book, and I changed all the names of people and some places in the conversational material that I used.

Some people, white and black, declined an interview or didn’t answer calls and emails, which is par for the course with journalistic projects but disappointing when you would have liked to hear some significant figures’ views on certain issues. At the same time, I didn’t want to descend into a general survey of the population and end up publishing a palimpsest of quotations so I tried to be strategic about whom I approached. I also tried not to interview people whose opinions were already substantially represented in the public domain (e.g. on Radio National, in New Matilda, etc).

I avoided including commentary on areas where books had already been published: for example, IAD has published several books where traditional Arrernte talk about their culture and spirituality, an area where I would have been entirely out of my depth and which I felt would be inappropriate for me to cover.

You live in Melbourne now. Has living in Central Australia changed your view of urban Australian culture and values at all? If so, how?

One of the good things about central Australia is that it’s a ‘broad church’: you can’t avoid your own ‘other’ and you get used to socialising with people who don’t hold the exactly same views as you. Alice Springs has a certain grittiness that makes it easier to live more honestly. It’s not just the higher density of ‘call a spade a spade’ types in the outback environment: you are thrown back on your own resources and challenged about your basic views, including whether some of your ideological beliefs work – or have worked – in their application.

I’m wary of getting into the ‘first world problems’, holier-than-thou stuff, but living in central Australia made me wonder about some of the issues we prioritise in urban contexts: surveillance by Myki, the perils of shopping for sour dough bread, and so forth.

I want to be careful saying this, because I know people who work in the humanities (and who feel undervalued by the rationalisation of the Australia academy) and I don’t want to discount their work wholesale. However, my time in central Australia led me to think there was a lopsided emphasis among urban elites on media representations and symbolic issues at the expense of a focus on basic need, especially in relation to social justice and difference. The majority of urban Australians are immensely privileged, without really acknowledging it: the country continues to skip like a stone across the stormy waters of the GFC. Yet two million Australians live in poverty and remote-living indigenous people experience the worst circumstances of all.

I would like to say I came back from central Australia a changed and better person – a kind of enlightened, post-colonial Rip van Winkle, who no longer sweated the small stuff. I’m not so sure about that, but I think Alice gave me more of a sense of perspective about the things that matter.

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24 October 2012

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Charlotte Wood is an Australian novelist whose fourth novel, Animal People, set in inner-urban Sydney, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award this year. It featured a character who had featured in her previous novel, The Children, which centres on a family in an Australian country town whose adult siblings return home after a serious accident befalls their father. Charlotte is also the editor of the fiction anthology Brothers and Sisters (featuring Christos Tsiolkas, Cate Kennedy, Tony Birch and others) and most recently, Love and Hunger, a meditation on the pleasures of simple food, well made.

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The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case spoke to her about Australian writing and identity, and how national identity is reflected in our literature, in subtler and more meaningful ways than the clichés suggest.

Do you identify as an Australian writer?

I don’t especially, but I’m often told that I am a particularly Australian writer. I think it’s more a result than from intent; particularly in my last couple of novels (The Children and Animal People), I’ve written about what I’ve seen around me in contemporary Australia.

I think perhaps it’s something akin to having an Australian accent – something you can’t help – rather than a conscious thing.

So, it’s not that you’re setting out to be a particular kind of Australian, or that you think of yourself as an Australian writer?

I don’t even know what makes a writer Australian, apart from working here – but even that is debatable when you think about Peter Carey or Shirley Hazzard. I remember hearing a Canadian publisher at one of our writers’ festivals say, ‘If I’m going to publish an Australian novel, it’s got to be really Australian. It’s got to be identifiably Australian, otherwise why don’t I just publish a Canadian novel?’ And I thought, well how would you know what’s ‘really Australian’? And perhaps you might publish it because it’s interesting.

I once had a meeting with an agent in London, who wasn’t interested in my work. That part was fine, but she said, ‘Look, write something really Australian and then we can talk’. I was completely bamboozled – I thought, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

winton But I think what she was trying to say, basically, was ‘be more like Tim Winton’. I can see why readers abroad might pick him as especially Australian, given the settings for much of his work, but it’s a bit depressing if that’s all they see. He writes very beautifully about a great many things other than landscape and Being Aussie. Like being a son, a lover or father or a brother, about self-destruction, about growing up, about mystery, and regret … just about being human really, I think. Sometimes I wonder what he must feel about being so corralled into being the ‘Aussie story’ pin-up boy. I would find it depressing if I were him.

This agent … I was sort of just sitting there like an idiot, and then she said, ‘Oh, Scots writers are always moaning because we say, we want proper Scottish writing and they say, this is Scottish writing.”

It appeared to me that what she was saying was, ‘unless they’re wearing kilts, it’s not a Scottish book’. Which is irritating, because for example one of the things I absolutely loved about Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me was that he didn’t feel the need to really mark it as Scottish, though it’s set in a Scots town and I imagine explores lots of stuff about what it means to be a Scot. But it’s about much more universal things than a national identity.

So I feel it’s the same with writing about suburban contemporary Australia – on one level obviously it’s very different from suburban London or middle America, but as a writer I don’t really care about those differences – they are there to be found by readers, rather than inserted by me, if you know what I mean.

As you can see, I’m completely bewildered by the whole thing.

Perhaps some writers do identify as really Australian, I don’t know. It seems to be a question we ask ourselves a lot that other cultures don’t. Do Americans say, ‘am I an American writer?’ They probably talk about regionalism more.

If you define Australian as where you live, where you were born, etc, that’s a debate that anyone could have.

children I think things that are immediately, identifiably Australian often seem to my mind to be completely out-dated and sort of sentimental. I’ve noticed that more in film and television than in books, actually: where the country town is always a dusty, weatherbeaten, corrugated iron kind of place. Whereas, in fact, a contemporary country town doesn’t look like that.

That was one interesting thing about The Children, I thought. That you’ve written a country town that looks like the kind of country town you might actually drive through or visit.

I really wanted to do that, quite deliberately, to counteract that romanticised sort of patronising of Australian country towns. I think probably some people think that the town I painted in The Children was not particularly affectionate. But I wrote about what I see of country towns, rather than a kind of lost romantic idea of what they are.

Australian country towns in film and television so often look to me like they’ve been designed by Surry Hills set designers who’ve never set foot outside the city. They want regional Australia to be attractively backward and old-fashioned, when it’s not that at all. Rural Australians aren’t ‘characters’ or ‘townsfolk’ any more than urban ones are.

It is an interesting thing though, when people say, ‘I don’t like Australian writing that’s set in the bush, or that’s rural, that just doesn’t interest me’. I know of one writer who got quite annoyed with a publisher when they put out a call for novel manuscripts saying they were particularly interested in urban writing and they didn’t want this bush stuff …

I have to say, I remember that, and I thought, ‘oh good! Someone’s aiming for something contemporary that – it doesn’t necessarily need to be really urban – but something that’s not nostalgic’. I suppose that call was a reaction against the kind of Australian historical fiction that my husband calls ‘Old Sydney Town books’. I don’t think he has anything against historical fiction per se, but he means those with a wooden, lumpen sort of self-consciousness about their national identity, I think.

the-fine-colour-of-rust Yes, I thought that was really interesting because it had never crossed my mind that you could have a negative reaction to that. But of course you could. I wonder if what people are reacting against when they say they don’t like rural writing is that very manufactured and idealised rural Australia. If you read writing that’s coming from the heart, that’s engaging with something real, that’s a bit different.

I think that’s true. I think of Paddy O’Reilly’s The Fine Colour of Rust – I just loved it, because it is clearly set in a country town, but does surprising things with that terrain. It is gutsy and interesting and real. The rural-ness feels true, not manufactured.

I really like what you said about the accent – the idea that Australian writing is more about the subtleties. Is that what you meant?

Yes. I hope so. When people have said to me, ‘I love your writing because it’s so Australian’, I do like it. I feel gratified by it, even though I don’t fully understand why. If I’m to take that as a compliment, I would hope that means that I have rendered a place, or the contemporary world that I live in, accurately enough that they recognise something of their world in it.

That said, I might be about to shoot myself in the foot because the book I have just started is a much less naturalistic kind of novel, set in Australia but in an imagined remote place in the middle of nowhere. So we’ll see if I end up doing what I have found tiresome in others’ books. I hope not.

I think your work is very Australian too, but in that way that I identify with it. It creates a sense of place where I recognise something in it. And I felt that same way about the collection you edited, Brothers and Sisters, which was really diverse.

Quite a few people have said that about that collection, that they felt it was very Australian. I was really proud they did say it, because the stories are diverse, but obviously there’s some kind of commonality of voice, or a quality of light, or something. The writers in that collection, part of the reason I respond to their voice is that I find that they are truthful writers. That’s why I asked them to be in it. There’s no try-hard Australianism in there.

Yes. Even ‘Trouble’, Tegan Bennett Daylight’s story about young Australians living in London – that’s very Australian.

One of the characters questions herself: ‘Do Australians gaze openly around them?’ Do we look naive or something? She’s probably the only writer in the anthology who made some kind of specific reference to being Australian.

That’s interesting that she made that reference, but it was made from somewhere else.

questions_of_travelExactly. London is where the character’s Australianness was brought into relief. She’d never thought about it before. Maybe this is the time our writers actually think about what it means to be Australian – when they’re away. This is explored in Hazzard’s Transit of Venus, for example, and now in Michelle de Kretser’s wonderful new novel Questions of Travel, which I’ve just begun, the female protagonist feels her Australianness very strongly in London.

Interestingly, there was a great interview with Anna Funder on Radio National a few weeks ago. She is living in New York now and she said this very thing, that while her previous books were almost entirely set in Europe and Britain, she thinks that now she’s more likely to set a book very firmly in Australia. She said: ‘It’s not just a matter of homesickness, it’s a matter of becoming much more aware of what it is to be Australian when you’re out of Australia because you’re foreign … and you have a better sense of how different you are from everybody else here and what component of that difference is to do with your nationality.’

Do you think it’s useful to frame or categorise writing by national identity when presenting it to readers?

I don’t know. I think it might be a disadvantage more than an advantage, but I don’t know. I mean, I certainly seek out Australian writing. But I’m not sure that most readers here do.

Why do you seek out Australian writing?

I like to see my own world explored in art along with other worlds. It’s not that I only read Australian literature – I certainly don’t. It’s not the majority of my reading, but I certainly don’t avoid it like I suspect some people do.

There seems to be some people who do seek it out for the reasons that you say – and others who avoid it for that reason.

I don’t seek out a book based on its being Australian; I seek out a book based on whether it might be good. But I do like to see the world that I live in rendered beautifully, and powerfully, and surprisingly and challengingly. I don’t understand the desire to have Australian writing do a particular thing at all. All I care about is whether the characters in the novel and their lives and the writer’s ideas are engaging to me.


Join us at the Arts Centre for A Question of Identity, a series of events looking at what it means to be Australian today, and how that translates into the art we produce and promote.

The first event, The Australian Moment: What Does it Mean to Be Aussie Right Now?, is next Wednesday 17 October at 5.45pm. Chaired by Phil Kafcaloudes, with comedian Aamer Rahman, playwright Hannie Rayson and Marylou Jelbart, artistic director of fortyfivedownstairs.

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08 October 2012

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It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Lego being sold in Australia – and to celebrate, Lego has commissioned British photographer Mike Stimpson to put together scenes of ten great Australian moments, in Lego bricks.

As voted by an online poll, the scenes range from Cathy Freeman’s gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, to Steve Irwin feeding a crocodile with one hand while holding his baby son in another, to Mel Gibson as Mad Max.

You can see the full gallery online. Here’s a taste of what Lego fans thought were our country’s most memorable moments and iconic figures.

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Cathy Freeman’s gold medal win in the 400 metres at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

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The cast of the 1997 film, The Castle. It’s the vibe of the thing.

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Mel Gibson in the 1979 apocalyptic classic film, Mad Max.

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Steve Irwin and baby Bob, feeding a crocodile.

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Nikki Webster in the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.


Our forthcoming events series, A Question of Identity, asks which iconic images and cultural notions most influence the art we produce and promote. And are they relevant to the Australia we live in?

The first event in the series is The Australian Moment: What Does it Mean to Be Aussie Right Now?, with broadcaster Phil Kafcaloudes, Aamer Rahman, Marylou Jelbart and Hannie Rayson.

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02 October 2012

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Rebecca Starford, managing editor of Kill Your Darlings, writes back to Geordie Williamson’s Long View essay on Australian rural writing and wonders: what does this trend of privileging the rural story say about our culture more generally?

Geordie Williamson’s ‘Our Common Ground’ is an erudite and engaging essay on rural Australian life represented in literature. But I was surprised to find myself quoted within it, and the implication that I do not appreciate this literary tradition.

‘I can only claim to have read three of the books on the list – Silvey, Flanagan and McGahan. But I already see the same patterns in selection evidenced in recent Miles Franklin shortlists – masculine novels that disproportionately focus on events from the past (are we so fearful of examining contemporary Australian society?) as well as bush settings.’

rebecca-starford My comments on the 2012 National Year of Reading’s recommended reading list can be found, in full, in the Liticism post Geordie quotes. They’re neither radical nor particularly original – the debate about the underrepresentation of women in Australian literary prizes has been raging for the last year or so. In the case of the National Year of Reading list, only one woman writer featured; seven were men.

I took issue with the National Year of Reading’s lofty claim to be the arbiter of ‘what it is to be Australian’. I don’t think anyone can argue that a list including only one woman articulates the genuine Australian experience. Nor can a list that has virtually no ethnic representation (with the exception of indigenous Australians).

I have an interest in such questions about Australian literature: I’m an editor and publisher. I’m also a member of the Stella Prize committee, a group dedicated to establishing a prize celebrating Australian women’s writing, as well as initiating research into national reading habits and trends based around gender.

In my comments to Liticism blogger Bethanie Blanchard, I also made note that many of the National Year of Reading texts are set in the past and/or the bush. ‘What do we miss when we mount arguments about the state of contemporary Australian literature,’ Williamson went on to ask in ‘Our Common Ground’, ‘without recourse to its foundation texts?’

I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments – a literary critic must be immersed in the literature he or she aspires to critique. But what does this trend of privileging the rural story say about our literary culture more generally, a genre that has 200 years of masculine, Anglo and heterosexual parameters?

I’m not lambasting our rich vein of bush writing, mind you, and Williamson’s inspiring analysis of some of our finest literary practitioners should send any discerning reader running to their local bookshop. As it happens, I have read a great number of novels located in the bush. I’m a huge admirer of Thea Astley, David Malouf, Kylie Tennant, Elizabeth Jolley, Xavier Herbert, just to name a few (I will never claim to be a fan of Patrick White). Going further back, I count the wickedly subversive 19th-century novelist and short-story writer Barbara Baynton (the subject of my thesis at university) and Rolf Boldrewood two of my favourite writers of all time.

What my comments urged for was a greater degree of reflection about the implications of these lists and prizes, and how they shape our literary culture. With 89% percent of our population living in urban areas, Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world – so it’s not odd to wonder, is it, why so many of these award-winning novels are located in the bush?

Williamson cites the dangers of polarity is this debate, how easily nuance and complexity is lost. I agree with his assertion that the embedded and unexamined assumption that literature from the bush is ‘inevitably conservative, exclusionary and passé’ denies the intricate relationship between the division of rural and urban Australia.

Yet it’s the issues behind this discussion that are most revealing and interest me most. As many of us would agree, much cultural debate in this country is bereft of nuance and complexity – it doesn’t matter if it’s about a price on carbon or football codes. Conversations about the sensitive subject of our national literary tradition are unlikely to be any different.

Increasingly, I’m aware of this apparent fear of examining contemporary social and cultural issues in Australian fiction, and how this trepidation is evidenced in the awards system. The best historical fiction, as we all know, casts a sceptical and interpretive light onto events of the past, often illuminating the contemporary human condition. But are we so nostalgic for the past that it turns our gaze from more recent social wrongs?

We’re not so keen on reading about such squeamish contemporary domestic issues – where are the prize-winning works about the Stolen Generations, the Forgotten Australians, the federal intervention in the Northern Territory, asylum seekers, internment camps, mining and destructive climate change? We’re happy to sing the praises of a novel like The Secret River (and well-deserving it is) but something nearer to our own experiences, to our own time and place, causes us to shy away.

There are some novels that buck this trend, of course. Look at the phenomenal success, both critically and commercially, of a novel like The Slap. Here was a novel of our time that spoke to a particular reader of a particular milieu, the crass bourgeoisie stewing in their own ennui. Occasionally, other suburban novels, like Steven Carroll’s superb The Time We Have Taken, have been given the nod by the Miles Franklin judges. But look carefully at the subject matter of these novels – how deep do they analyse contemporary Australian society, how unflinching is their gaze? And even The Time We Have Taken is set in the past …

Williamson claims a personal interest in bush writing: he grew up on a farm near Grenfell, a small town in NSW, the birthplace of Henry Lawson, the granddaddy of the bush tradition. I was born in Melbourne in the mid 1980s, and I grew up in Williamstown, a small suburb in the west of Melbourne (a town where, incidentally, 19th-century novelist and journalist Ada Cambridge lived for two decades). Like Williamson, my own experiences have informed my taste in literature. I enjoy many Australian novels with a rural setting, have studied and in turn appreciated their literary precursors; but I would like to see the narrow definition of the Australian experience broadened – and more of my world represented in our national literature.

Rebecca Starford is the associate publisher at Affirm Press and managing editor of Kill Your Darlings. She was part of our Critical Failure panel on book reviewing in 2010, which you can watch online.

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03 April 2012

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When the University of Melbourne’s undergraduate course in Australian literature was not offered last year, there was an uproar – not just from the literary community, but from the students themselves, who organised their own Australian literature study group. The university was quick to reassure appalled onlookers that the subject was only resting; it is back on the syllabus this year.

highlightThis year, the university is dismantling its Australian history undergraduate program – and dramatically cutting back its Australian studies program overall. The Sunday Age recently reported that the teaching staff for the university’s Australian Centre will be cut back from 4.9 to one full-time position, a director. It ‘will effectively become a research-only centre, with postgraduate students and no undergraduate students’.

The student response has been noticeably non-existent. Which surprises no one: undergraduate Australian history has recently had the lowest enrolment of all subjects at the University of Melbourne.

La Trobe University has no undergraduate Australian history program either. Sydney University is also struggling to get numbers in first-year Australian history, compared with strong interest in American and European history subjects.

Schools make Australian history ‘brain-deadening’

‘Schools killed Australian history,’ wrote Christopher Bantick (former head of history at Trinity Grammar in Kew) in the Age yesterday. He said it has been reduced to ‘a brain-deadening subject where nothing happens.’

Anna Clark, who interviewed 250 history teachers, students and curriculum officials from around Australia for her book History’s Children, agrees. ‘‘There is a real turn-off that comes out of school education when it comes to national history … It didn’t matter what school they went to or what region they grew up in, kids I spoke with said Australian history was often dull and repetitive,’ she told the Australian.

‘In Grade 6 you sort of study the same things as Year 10 … It’s just like you do the same thing over and over and over again,’ said one typical Year 12 boy.

Military focus normalises war

Marilyn Lake, president of the Australian Historical Association, agrees that kids are put off the subject by learning it at school. She is critical of the way history has been taught, particularly the increased focus on military history over the past 15 years. More money has been spent on educating children in military history than any other field of history in Australia, she says.

She believes this was a deliberative initiative by the Howard government to ‘literally … change the subject’, moving away from the much-debated history wars and 19th-century massacres of indigenous people to the 20th-century wars fought by the Anzacs and their descendants.

‘The line run about Australia having proved its values and identity in war is related to the fact that we now seem to be always at war. In other words, this [has] normalised war.’

But while Lake is concerned that the dominance of military history in our schools is putting students off the subject, Clark found in her research that the Anzac legend is the one area of Australian history kids warm to. The most hated topics were indigenous history, because of the repetitive the way it is taught, and Federation, which even one teacher confessed was ‘sort of mind-blowingly dull’.

National history curriculum ‘progressive and exciting’

The future for teaching Australian history, Lake told ABC Radio National’s Saturday Extra last week, is folding it into global history rather than teaching it as a stand-alone subject. At La Trobe University, where she is chair of the School of Historical and European Studies, one undergraduate subject that has gained rather than lost enrolments in 2012 is Global Migration Stories, which incorporates a good deal of Australian history. The subject, which is four years old, is an example, she says, of the need to think in new ways when it comes to teaching Australian history.

Trevor Burnard, head of the school of historical and philosophical studies at the University of Melbourne, concurs that students are ‘less interested in exploring Australian identity and more interested in exploring Australia in the wider world’.

Lake is hopeful about the future of teaching Australian history in schools, and the new national history curriculum, currently in development. ‘From what I’ve seen of it, I think it looks very progressive and exciting to me.’

And as for Australian history in universities, she says students do come back to it later, after an undergraduate gap year – in second and third years, and when they’re doing their honours.

The Wheeler Centre’s Australian Literature 101 series launches this Thursday, with Ramona Koval talking to Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams about Watkin Tench: A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay. This free event will be at the Wheeler Centre from 5.30pm. Bookings are recommended.

Watkin Tench was one of the texts featured in last year’s popular Must-Read Histories event, which you can now watch online.

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06 March 2012

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Portable patriotism. (Source: Stephen Barnett/Flickr)

Today, ideas of national identity, patriotism, community and equity come to the fore in the Australian imagination (sharing real estate with flags and barbeques, perhaps). Drawing on events held during the past year, we’ve put together a list of viewing recommendations for your public holiday.

Prior to the arrival of Captain Cook and cohort, Australia’s indigenous population carefully managed their environment, making use of fire to rejuvenate the land and manipulate the movement of fauna, historian Bill Gammage explained.

The appearance of European colonialism planted the seed of today’s reconciliation debates. We explored this debate – covering treaty, social justice and opportunity – in our Not Sorry Enough discussion. Larissa Behrendt discussed the challenges of overcoming indigenous disadvantage, while Sarah Maddison presented an argument for how mainstream Australia can move beyond white guilt.

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A South Australian Corroboree (1864) by WR Thomas, from the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. (Source: WikiCommons)

Iconic storyteller Thomas Keneally presented his take on early nationhood and Australia’s regional racism in his Lunchbox/Soapbox presentation in December. Race and Aboriginal politics were amongst the myriad topics addressed in a marathon two-hour interview between Paul Keating and Robert Manne, with some of Keating’s sentiments echoing Manne’s earlier polemic regarding our national political complacency. Also cautioning against complacency, Susan Mitchell spoke of the potential disaster of a Tony Abbott victory.

We held many discussions on the state of our democracy. We asked whether it was broken, dumbed down or going nowhere fast, and for how long we might remain the lucky country. Tim Soutphommasane presented his case for why progressives should embrace National Service, and one of our Intelligence Squared debates focussed on the question of whether our soldiers should be in Afghanistan.

In a series of events, we paid tribute to our country’s literary heritage, whilst writerly alumni of the University of Melbourne’s Janet Clarke Hall celebrated their colleagues. As for contemporary literature, the 21 titles comprising the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist provide a compelling picture of our nation’s writers today.

Finally, in our So Who the Bloody Hell Are We? series we explored the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Doubtless, many such stories are being shared as you read this.

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26 January 2012

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In a nice departure from the traditional Australia Day focus on flags and sporting heroes, The Sunday Age has marked the lead-up to the occasion with an editorial decrying our ‘tendency to anti-intellectualism’.

It lamented the fact that Australia’s ‘great writers, artists, soldiers, politicians and scientists … take second place to footballers, cricketers, swimmers and tennis players’.800387_95688650

‘As we approach Australia Day and make our plans for the beach or the backyard, it’s worth reflecting on what we are losing through this neglect of our classics. They are our stories written in our voices, and give us specific clues as to how we became the country we are today.’

In an opinion piece published alongside the editorial, Michael Heyward, publisher of Text Publishing, argued that while Australia has come a long way in recent decades when it comes to valuing and celebrating our homegrown authors, we ‘seem not to care’ about the great authors and books of our past, neglecting to keep them in print and to consistently teach them in our universities.

‘Those of us who choose and influence what people might read – publishers, professors, teachers, journalists, commentators, editors – have done a lamentable job of curating the primary materials of our literary history,’ wrote Heyward.

He said it will take ‘all kinds of effort’ to change both publishing and academic cultures. Increased adaption of Australian novels to film and television was one proposed solution, while he also suggested that the rise of the eBook ‘may liberate some writers from the dungeons of neglect’.

Making old books new

Text will release a new series, Text Australian Classics, in 2012, featuring titles such as David Ireland’s (currently out of print) The Glass Canoe, winner of the 1976 Miles Franklin Award, as well as earlier works by current favourites such as Kate Grenville and Peter Temple.

It’s not the first time Text has dabbled in resurrecting neglected works of Australian writing. In 2009, Madeleine St John’s debut novel The Women in Black (1993) – never before published in Australia, though set in Sydney – was published in a handsome new edition, packaged with accolades from much-loved Australians like Barry Humphries, Helen Garner and Clive James. The novel, a sharp-witted, affectionate portrait of a group of women working in the ladies department of a store much like David Jones, was embraced by both critics and readers; it was followed by new editions of St John’s subsequent novels.

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Christina Stead’s work has enjoyed renewed interest thanks to some high profile endorsers. Watch our session The Late Great: Christina Stead here.

The endorsement of a popular writer was also integral to the recent renewal of interest in Christina Stead, after The Man Who Loved Children (1940) was given a rave review by Jonathan Franzen in The New York Times. Melbourne University Press published a new edition, with a stylish cover and introduction by Franzen, shortly afterwards. This was followed by new editions of Letty Fox: Her Luck (with a foreword by Carmen Callil) and For Love Alone (with a foreword by Drusilla Modjeska).

Stylish new editions and canny endorsements or introductions designed to lure new readers seem to be an integral (and, it seems, effective) part of the publisher’s bag of tricks when relaunching forgotten or neglected classics – literally making the old new again.

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Another Australian classic, Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961), enjoyed a resurgence thanks to these tricks (an introduction by Peter Temple and afterword by David Stratton) when the 1971 film was restored and re-released in 2009. The film attracted a wave of media coverage and allowed an accompanying film tie-in edition (again, from Text Publishing, who had also published a 1993 edition).

Barbara Creed, head of culture and communications at the University of Melbourne, told The Age that she agreed with Heyward about the need for more Australian novels on the screen. She said, ‘Whenever a novel is adapted to screen … there is a boost in sales of the book as a result.’

Young appetites for Oz lit

Creed also said that a dedicated Australian literature course was back on the university’s syllabus this year. Last year, a group of students had started their own Australian literature studies, in the absence of such a subject. (‘An unusual situation,‘ Creed said.)

This enthusiasm from students so actively keen to steep themselves in Australian writing is, at least, a good sign.

The Wheeler Centre will run a free series of ten events entitled ‘Australian Literature 101' from next month. Details will be released, along with our February-April programme in full, next Friday 3 February.

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24 January 2012

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The year in Australian politics was one characterised by tumult, indifference and a degree of soul searching – but there were big changes, too. Julia Gillard succeeded in introducing the controversial carbon tax, which some argued in our Intelligence Squared debate would have questionable effect on climate change. Facing off against record growth in emissions, the bills' passing marked a legislative defeat for climate change denial and earned Gillard a place in Atlantic’s top 50 Brave Thinkers of 2011.

Leadership

While the PM fended off suggestions of internal party dissent (and the niggling threat of a Rudd challenge), and grappled with the challenges of a minority government, the broader question of leadership took the spotlight this year. In her Lunchbox/Soapbox presentation, Christine Nixon argued that Gillard is a progressive, consultative leader who has been wrongly judged against an outdated model.

Speakers debating the proposition that ‘Both Major Parties are Failing the Australian People’ lamented a lack of ‘real policy debate’ and questioned the ability of Labor and the Coalition to ‘govern for all, but also to govern for the national interest’. And Susan Mitchell courted the ire of the Opposition and its supporters when she criticised Tony Abbott’s ‘narrow worldview’ and ‘political opportunism’.

In one of our biggest events this year, Paul Keating blamed John Howard for throwing Australia’s moral compass overboard, whilst recounting the reforms of his own government and reiterating key concepts of his vision. On his party’s current woes, he offered: ‘Labor hasn’t lost its soul, but it has lost its story.’

Oration

Keating was speaking to promote After Words: The Post-Prime Ministerial Speeches. Former Keating speechwriter Don Watson appeared in a separate event earlier in the year, amongst other things explaining his relationship with his former boss.

You may recall the Keating-Watson disagreement over whose words were spoken by Keating in the 1992 Redfern speech; it was among many favourite speeches reread at our Unaccustomed As I Am event in July. (Elsewhere, some wondered whether Gillard’s woes in the polls were linked to her scripted speech style).

Polls

Speaking of the polls, we invited a formidable political brains trust to examine the effect of the news cycle and polling on the political process in our Greasy Polls Talking Point event. Their assessment somewhat echoed the earlier observations of Lindsay Tanner, who lamented the behaviour of the media and described parliamentary question time as ‘performance art for the six o'clock news’.

Who we are

Amidst the political back-and-forth, we continued to examine our changing national identity. Our So Who The Bloody Hell Are We? series turned the lens on blokes, the quarter-acre block and the fair go. Judith Brett talked about the relationship between city and country, while Guy Rundle explored the essentialist, adversarial racial politics emerging from a crisis of identity in the West.

Finally, Thomas Keneally finished our year of Lunchbox/Soapbox polemics with a presentation about twentieth century White Australia’s relationship with its Aboriginal and Asian ‘others’.

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22 December 2011

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“This year two thirds of all world growth has come out of the developing economies. And we think we can have a debate about the circumstances of someone’s birth and their complexion and how they look. I mean, it’s sick, sick, sick. It’s truly sick.” Paul Keating’s recent conversation with Robert Manne at the Melbourne Recital Centre revealed a man still passionate about the value of conviction politics. It also allowed a born political storyteller space to tell his stories – and there were several major themes.

In classic Keating gladiatorial form, the former Prime Minister reiterated his belief that, were the federal electoral cycle four years rather than three years, he would have beaten John Howard in 1996. “I just needed more time,” he told Robert Manne. Keating blames a Royal Commission involving Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia that took up most of 1995 – at the time he called the commission a political stunt. “By the time I got on to Howard, I had him a blithering wreck … He didn’t know whether he was coming or going. If I’d had another year I would have done to him what I did every other day, was tread on him. He never got on top of him in the polls … and I would have massacred him in 1996 if I’d had another year, but I didn’t have the time. I just didn’t have the time.”

On the issue of illegal refugees, Keating berated the ALP for not having the courage of its convictions. “One of the primary duties of a Prime Minister is to protect a country from prejudice,” he says. At the time of Tampa, Keating recalls having advised the then Labor leader and opposition leader Kim Beazley that the ALP couldn’t hope to outflank Howard’s conservative reaction: “The Labor Party should have stood its ground.” This leads Manne onto the topic of the Labor Party’s mixed fortunes since Keating. He asks, has Labor lost its way? “Labor hasn’t lost its soul, but it has lost its story,” Keating replies. “This is another transition. This is perhaps the biggest transition in 300 years. This is the transition to the establishment of China’s position of primacy again in the international system. A change in the way the world works, from West to East. And … here we are, a primary exporter to this.” The Labor Party, he adds, should be “constructing a story of transition”. The transition “should also be a cultural one”, he says, and thus Keating comes to the tagline that made the papers the next day: Australia should derive its security in Asia, not from Asia.

This is Keating’s biggest theme, one he returns to repeatedly in the course of the conversation. The rise of China is the great story of our generation. “All great states claim strategic space. And if you don’t give it to them they take it.” Keating warns that refusing to accord China the strategic space it demands may lead to catastrophic results. “Accommodating China a new construct is … the most important thing facing Australia.”

Keating concludes his Wheeler Centre appearance with another classic aphorism that summed up his political fortunes: “You don’t necessarily give the public back what the public wants. You give them what the public needs. If you give them too much of it they get sick of you.”

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14 November 2011

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Historian Bill Gammage’s recent Lunchbox/Soapbox event was subtitled ‘How Aborigines made Australia’. In the course of his address, Gammage gave the audience a bird’s eye overview of what central Melbourne would have looked like when Batman and co first arrived in 1835, using eyewitness accounts of the time.

North of the Yarra, the land was ‘park-like’, ‘open grassy forest, rising into low hills’. But it was not all the same. Imagine a line from the bottom of Swanston Street to Flagstaff Hill. Southwest, hill and valley were grassy with scattered trees. Northeast was eucalypt woodland, open but with dense forest patches. One patch east of Swanston Street and south of Bourke Street perhaps shielded a dance ground, while at Fitzroy and Treasury Gardens open forest suddenly gave way to ‘dense gum forest’, mostly manna gum. Hilltops varied. Flagstaff Hill was ‘covered with a beautiful grassy surface … [It] had the appearance of a large lawn’. Batman’s Hill (Southern Cross Station) was grassy but topped by sheoaks.

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A creek down Elizabeth Street separated two hills, ‘rising and picturesque eminences … on the verge of a beautiful park’, one cresting east at Spring Street, the other west at William Street, each burnt differently. ‘The Eastern Hill was a gum and wattle tree forest, and the Western Hill was so clothed with sheoaks as to give it the appearance of a primeval park’. Both were ‘lightly wooded’, which means regular fire, the west topped with mushrooms, the east with a grass clearing between the Museum and Parliament House. Along the river stood tea-tree patches, as you’d expect of a shallow stream choked with debris and flooding easily, but the patches alternated with grass, which you wouldn’t expect.

All this, Gammage argued, was to promote grass and suppress tea-tree to encourage animals such as kangaroos to feed, and all of it was a landscape managed by just a few families. Gammage’s book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, systematically outlines for the first time how the Australia European settlers found from 1788 on was not a wilderness but in fact a continental-sized garden carefully tended by Aboriginal Australians in a mosaic pattern to maximise its natural abundance.

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08 November 2011

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The State Library of Victoria is asking Victorians to help choose a book that describes the Victorian experience and can represent the state in the 2012 National Year of Reading ‘Our Story’ program.

Using reader voting, ‘Our Story’ will select one book from each Australian state and territory to form the reading list for Australia’s biggest book group. An independent selection committee in each state and territory has created a shortlist of six titles which readers can vote for to determine the book which best represents their region.

The aim, according to State Library director Debra Rosenfeldt, is “to create a collection of books that together describe the Australian experience … Ultimately we hope these eight books will give thousands of readers a greater depth of understanding about what it means to be Australian.”

Votes, which begin today, can be registered online at abc.net.au/yearofreading or at participating libraries and bookshops. Voting continues until 6 January 2012.

The list of eight winning titles and the start of Australia’s biggest book group for the National Year of Reading will be announced on 14 February 2012, at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. After that, existing book groups, new groups and individual readers can go online and register as a member of ‘Our Story’, joining in the discussion about the books the nation has chosen.

The Victorian program is coordinated by the State Library of Victoria in collaboration with the Public Libraries Victoria Network.

Our Story Victorian shortlist:

  • Bearbrass, Robyn Annear, Black Ink

  • Sold, Brendan Gullifer, Sleepers

  • Well Done Those Men, Barry Heard, Scribe

  • Unpolished Gem, Alice Pung, Black Ink

  • Radical Melbourne, Jeff & Jill Sparrow, Vulgar Press

  • The Comfort of Water, Maya Ward, Transit Lounge

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01 November 2011

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Detail of an image of Kalgoorlie’s super-pit gold mine (the biggest man-made hole in the world) courtesy Kate Raynes-Goldie/Flickr

Journalist Paul Cleary has warned that Australia’s mining boom can’t last forever. Speaking at last week’s Lunchbox/Soapbox at the Wheeler Centre, the author of Too Much Luck warned that the end of the boom may be closer than it commonly believed and that if the gains aren’t saved and spent wisely the mining boom may eventually leave us worse off.

In his address, Cleary said that the conventional wisdom that the boom has no end date is mistaken. He quoted figures from Geoscience Australia, which has estimated that, on current rates of production, Australia can continue to produce diamonds for another 20 years. Gold production can continue for another 30 years, while silver, lead and zinc production can continue for another 45 years on current levels. Similarly, iron ore production will continue for another 70 years, but Paul Cleary adds the caveat that, as many companies are planning to drastically raise production levels in forthcoming years, iron ore reserves may only last us half that time. The government estimates our reserves of natural gas will last another 63 years on current production levels, although some companies, Cleary adds, are planning on tripling production rates.

Cleary calls for higher tax levels and spending the revenue on infrastructure as well as “polyproofing” these savings to avoid “generational theft”.

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20 September 2011

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Julian Burnside has written on the High Court’s decision overturning the government’s Malaysian solution on the ABC’s The Drum. Here’s an excerpt of what he wrote:

In the past 15 years, most boat arrivals have been Afghan Hazaras fleeing the Taliban, Iraqis fleeing Saddam Hussein, Iranians fleeing the theocracy in that country, and Tamils fleeing genocide in Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, a very high percentage (approximately 80-95 per cent) of boat people ultimately establish an entitlement to protection. […]

It is therefore difficult to assume that anything done by Australia will make any appreciable difference to the arrival rate of boat people.

If things are left as they are, Australia will continue to face the following problems associated with the present system: needless infliction of mental harm on detainees and damage to Australia’s reputation as a nation which cares about human rights. And don’t forget the huge cost: mandatory detention costs us about $1 billion a year.

There is simply no merit in the idea of detaining people indefinitely just because they have arrived in Australia by boat. Asylum seekers also arrive by air: typically they arrive on short-term visas such as business, tourist or student visas. Once in Australia, they apply for asylum. Once their initial visa expires, they are given a bridging visa pending assessment of their claim for asylum. This may take years, but they remain in the community while it happens. Most of these asylum claims fail on the merits (only about 20 per cent succeed). By contrast, about 80-90 per cent of boat arrivals ultimately succeed in their claim for asylum, but they are detained during the entire process.

The arrival rate of asylum seekers who come by air is two or three times greater than the arrival rate of boat people.

A question inevitably arises: what is the justification for detaining boat people indefinitely, at vast expense, when most of them will ultimately succeed in their claim for protection but will be damaged more or less severely by the process? To this question, it seems that the only genuine answer is an appeal to political advantage.

Read the full piece.

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01 September 2011

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“It’s been pretty pathetic all the way through,” said Tasmanian writer Geoffrey Dean, who passed away last week at the age of 80 after half a century of writing short stories. Dean was describing how unrewarding his literary career has proven to be in an ABC television interview promoting the release of a selection of his best short stories, Mysteries, Myths & Miracles by Gininderra Press. As an Australian short story specialist, making ends meet was always going to be a challenge for Dean, who worked in a variety of jobs as a result, including farmer, news cameraman, circus employee and used furniture salesman among them. He claimed these experiences enriched his writing.

Here’s a review of his short story collection, The Literary Lunch.

On his blog, Dean introduced himself to readers in this way: “I’ve published heaps of stories and won heaps of prizes and had heaps of acclaim throughout the fifty or so years that I’ve been writing short stories. I would like to say that I’ve also earned heaps of money and gained heaps of readers outside of my home state of Tasmania. But no, the strait is too wide to send across the message that good things happen in the quiet backwaters of this wonderful country. The little poem I wrote to myself last year sums it up quite well I think: In this long drought, a few drops of rain here and there, but never enough to moisten the soil and grow my literary garden.

“But then my main motivation wasn’t to be famous, or get rich. Both fame and money frighten me somewhat. I write short stories because I like them. I like reading a good short story and I enjoy above all other literary pursuits to write them. They suit my temperament. I like to get in and get out before the story looses [sic] its excitement. If I can’t write a story with a sense of excitement, then how can I expect a reader to be excited when reading it. The fact is I have a need to tell stories. I’ve been writing stories ever since I learnt to write. It’s probably a deep-seated neurosis, but hell, who cares, it keeps me happy.

“I find now it takes too long to publish a story in the conventional way today. It can take up to four or five years to battle your way through the heaps of pink slips that say: The editor regrets … and blah, blah, blah … It’s all too much hassle for someone at my age. I haven’t got the time or the patience to persist in the hard-copy world so I pass them into cyberspace, in the hope that they will be read immediately by someone somewhere who appreciates them before the virtual ink dries and the paper curls at the corners.”

Read more at a tribute page published by Roaring Forties Press.

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29 August 2011

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The Wheeler Centre recently hosted an event in our series, ‘The Late, Great…’, on Ruth Park. Today, as we publish the video/podcast, Marion Halligan reminds us we must preserve the legacy of Ruth Park, and other pioneers of Australian writing.

“One boiling day I was writing in my garret when the murderer knocked on the door below.”

This is the opening sentence of Ruth Park’s second volume of autobiography, Fishing in the Styx. She goes on to describe the murderers who lived in the vicinity, including “the rabbity women who had done in their newborns but got off on a plea of insanity. In those days of the second World War it was widely believed that women who had just delivered could reasonably be expected to be off their heads.” It’s a bit of a worry for the pregnant Ruth. “I was outa me mind,” the women say. “All me milk went to the brain. I suppose it curdles.”

The murderer knocking at the door runs a few girls but is mainly an enforcer, the most feared underworld figure in Sydney. He has come to inquire, courteously, if Ruth’s landlady can put a few stitches in the torn lining of his coat pocket.

This keeps you turning the pages. It is full of energy, is funny, and wonderfully black – like a lot of Park’s writing. She began as a journalist and was on her way from New Zealand to a job in San Francisco when the bombing of Pearl Harbour put a stop to Pacific travel. So she went to Sydney instead and married D’Arcy Niland, another writer. They resolved they would make their livings by writing, a near-impossible task then, as it is today. But they managed it, by putting their heads down and just doing it. Not for them the luxury of sitting in despair in front of a blank sheet or suffering the anguish of writer’s block. Park sat at the ironing board, with children underfoot, at the kitchen table with the onions and the carrots, churning out anything and everything. Articles, plays, radio scripts (more than 5000), serials, children’s programs. When, after the war, the Sydney Morning Herald offered a £2000 prize for a novel, Park knew she had two subjects: journalism and the slums of Surry Hills where she was living. She was afraid she might be sued for libel if she wrote about journalism, so that left the slums.

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When The Harp in the South (1948) won the prize it was a scandal. I was a small child at the time, and I remember it. The problem seemed to be a woman writing about such things, and one from New Zealand at that. Drunkenness, wife beatings, abortions, prostitution, sly grog, all the life of the streets about her, not from a judgmental point of view but as an inmate, the details intimate, comical, forgivable. Slums? said authorities, there are no slums in Sydney, and then proceeded to clear them away and move people out west, which filled her with guilt. The priest of her church preached a sermon against the novel, saying that the Virgin Mary in her lifetime would never have stooped to write a book of any kind, let alone one published in the Herald.

Park made her dream of living by writing a reality. The Harp in the South has never been out of print. She has won a Miles Franklin and an Age Book of the Year for non-fiction. The Muddle Headed Wombat was a long running and beloved radio serial. Playing Beattie Bow has been devoured by generations of children, in print and on screen.

Park was 93 when she died in 2010. She spent her life spellbinding her readers with her story-telling. We need to make sure we are the grateful heirs of her legacy, something we are not always good at in this country. When writers get old we tend to forget them, and when they die they pass from our consciousness. Park showed us our world as it was, and we must not forget either the writer or her subjects.

The next event in our series, ‘The Late, Great…’ is on Marcus Clarke, 16 August.

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02 August 2011

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In this Lunchbox/Soapbox, author and academic Sarah Maddison tackles the issue of mainstream Australia’s unacknowledged, unresolved guilt over the brutality of white settlement over two centuries ago — as well as its poor relationship with the indigenous population now. How can we redress injustice and convert our awareness of the past into a productive force?

The challenge, Maddison says, is an adaptive one — and it won’t be overcome without a painful and uncomfortable process of introspection. But, she continues, “by taking account of past injustice in this work, we may have the opportunity to experience ourselves as truly moral, rather than as defensive and anxious about the past”.

At stake is also the authenticity of our national identity, or “diminishing the gap between the values people stand for, and the reality they face”. In other words, we must reconcile our closely held idea of the fair go with our racist past.

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Do you believe that guilt, evasiveness and awkwardness surrounding our past hinders progress on indigenous issues?

Can we rely on public institutions to lead the way on adapting to moral truth? If not, what’s the best way to address our nation’s brutal beginnings?

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12 July 2011

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“The essay is to prose what the lyric is to poetry; it is intensely personal. It is not a statement of facts, it is not a cold, abstract argument, it is not an inflammatory harangue; it is a quiet talk, reflecting the personal likes and dislikes of the author. It never pretends to treat a subject exhaustively; it is brief, informal, modest.” So wrote Walter Murdoch, as quoted in an Imre Salusinszky profile published in The Australian that describes Murdoch as “Australia’s first public liberal intellectual”. Uncle to Keith Murdoch and great-uncle to Rupert, Walter Murdoch was a popular academic, journalist and broadcaster in Victoria and later in Western Australia – and a master of the familiar essay, a form that seems to have undergone a resurrection of sorts in the past decade or so.

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Image via Murdoch University

Murdoch was invariably photographed with a pipe in his mouth. “To be without a pipe in your jowl,“ he wrote in the days before psychoanalysis was in vogue, "is to be the prey of a thousand petty distractions. The unsolved problem – of the differential calculus, or the butcher’s bill – is knocking at the door, and will be heard. Religion and patriotism, honour and duty and love, each is blowing its importunate bugle-call to your conscience. You must reform the world; or you must reform your neighbour; or, at the very least, you must dine. And so, poor soul, you are harried hither and thither, and have no rest. But put a pipe between your lips, and lo! At a whiff you pass to where, beyond these voices there is peace.”

The offspring of the medieval commplace book and named after the French noun for ‘attempt’, essays are far more than mere stabs in the dark. At their best, such as in the essays of Annie Dillard, they are an unforgettable fusion of poetry and pure thought. In the preface to his Collected Essays, Aldous Huxley noted three different types of essay: the personal and autobiographical, the objective and factual, and the abstract and universal. Many essays, including Murdoch’s, are combinations of the three.

Since his death in 1970, Walter Murdoch’s writing has been all but completely forgotten, which is curious because he is the Murdoch after whom the Western Australian university is named (and not his more famous nephew and great-nephew). The University of Western Australia has published a collection of Murdoch’s familiar essays, dubbed On Rabbits, Morality, Etc, that may well reverse this cultural amnesia.

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04 July 2011

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Manning Clark is a giant of Australia’s cultural landscape. His impact and influence on our history and our way of understanding our history constitute a lasting legacy – which is exactly what Clark would have wished. In Mark McKenna’s new biography, An Eye for Eternity, the self-styled historian-sage emerges as a deeply complex man, riddled with obsessions that included Australia’s national identity and a more personal quest to be remembered.

Mark McKenna is one of Australia’s leading contemporary historians. Seven years in the making, his biography of Manning Clark is his most ambitious project to date. Here, he discusses his work – its burdens and revelations – with Michael Cathcart, suggesting some of the material he uncovered appears to have been left by Clark for a posthumous biographer to find.

Cathcart and McKenna discuss Clark’s parents, his occasional stoushes with the academic establishment, his obsession with Australian national identity, his journey to becoming a public figure, his identification with Dostoevsky, his relationship with Patrick White, and his desire to ensure his own immortality.

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15 June 2011

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According to writer Guy Rundle, in the last couple of years populist attacks on Islam, indigenous Australians, African immigrants and other groups have mutated. After 9/11 it was a triumphalist assertion of Western supremacy over other cultures. In the wake of Iraq, the 2008 crash, and China rising, the focus has become the ‘other’ – from the alleged essential violence of Islam, to immigrant barbarism, to the return of eugenic assessment of indigenous people. Where did this ‘new hate’ come from? And why has the ‘respectable Right’ been so silent about it?

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31 May 2011

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The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, has weighed in on a debate surrounding a proposed development of a house in the picturesque waterside suburb of Watsons Bay in Sydney’s east. Socceroo Mark Schwarzer, who paid over $10 million in 2009 for a house called Boongarre (also known as Stead House, Christina Stead’s childhood home), is planning a $3 million renovation, to which some local residents are opposed. The SMH report has all the relevant details, including this quote from Franzen: “Christina Stead gave the world one of the truly great novels of the 20th century, and although she moved the setting of it to America at the insistence of her American publisher, its heart is clearly in Watsons Bay'‘. Some Australian authors have already issued protestations, including Alex Miller and Nikki Gemmell. Franzen, who has previously tried to resurrect the reputations of novelists Paula Fox and William Gaddis, last year championed The Man Who Loved Children in the New York Times.

We love soccer, and we love the Socceroos. Mark Schwarzer has distinguished himself many times on their behalf, and ours. But consider some of the details of Christina Stead’s life. Her father was a marine biologist and a pioneering conservationist – a man ahead of his time, though with a dark side, if The Man Who Loved Children is any indication. In 1928, at the age of 26, Stead went abroad. In the early 1930s, while working in a Parisian bank, Stead became involved with the great love of her life, William J. Blake, a writer himself, as well as a stockbroker and a Marxist political economist. He was a married man and he was Jewish, at a time of pervasive anti-Semitism. They didn’t marry until 1952, when he finally obtained a divorce from his first wife. Stead considered herself a Marxist although she never joined the Communist Party. As the fog of war descended on Europe, she moved with Blake to the US.

Throughout her remarkable life, Stead earned her living as a writer. She wrote 15 novels and many short stories. During the war, Stead taught writing at New York University. She also wrote for Hollywood, including a John Ford and John Wayne propaganda movie called They Were Expendable. But it was her 1940 novel, The Man Who Loved Children, a novel now often cited as among the greatest novels ever written, that would establish an enduring literary reputation. Based on her own childhood, the novel is one of the most heartrending depictions of family dysfunction ever committed to the page. At the insistence of her US publisher, Stead moved the setting of the novel from Sydney to turn-of-the-century Baltimore.

Many readers consider her 1946 novel, Letty Fox: Her Luck, to be just as good. Australia was the only country in the world to ban the book on grounds that it was salacious, although the Censorship Board noted “[t]he author has a powerful intellect… It is all the more regrettable that she should have used it injudiciously.” The ban was lifted in 1958.

Both novels were largely ignored at the time, but a 1965 reissue revived interest in The Man Who Loved Children. After her husband died of cancer in 1968, Stead returned to Sydney, where she lived until her death in 1983.

The Twitter handle of the campaign to stop the development is @savesteadhouse.

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31 May 2011

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We love a sunburnt country – as long as it stays on the far side of a picket fence. We partition our wide brown land into lots of little subdivisions. We replace the sprawling menace of the Australian bush with the reassuring symmetry of the Hills Hoist. We mortgage ourselves to the hilt. And we call it the great Australian dream.

In our love/hate relationship with the suburbs, do we take for granted the open space and fresh air that others can only dream of? How much should our cities be planned, and how much should they be allowed to unfold organically? And is there such a thing as “bogans”, or are they merely the projected horror-fantasy of inner-city “elites”?

As part of our So Who the Bloody Hell Are We? series exploring Australia’s national identity, we trawl the nature strips and driveways of The Quarter Acre Block.

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19 April 2011

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Image of a storm breaking over Robinson, an outstation near Borroloola in the Northern Territory’s Gulf country, by Peter Nihill via WikiCommons.

Publisher Simon & Schuster Australia has published a translation of Ted Prior’s Grug Learns to Read in Karrawa, an indigenous language from Australia’s Top End. The book – Grug Milidimba Nunga Read Imbigunji – has been translated by Ngingina. It’s been published with assistance from the Indigenous Literacy Project. The ILP will distribute the book among remote indigenous communities like Robinson (see image) and the nearby Borroloola on the McArthur River, where Karrawa is one of several languages spoken. Borroloola, a community of about 780, of which about 200 are not indigenous, is home to the Yanyuwa people.

According to the ILP website, “[i]n the Northern Territory, only one in five children living in very remote Indigenous communities can read at the accepted minimum standard.” It’s commonly believed that at the time of European settlement there were between 350 and 750 indigenous languages spoken in what is now Australia. Today, 150 languages remain, of which all but 20 are endangered.

Karrawa is an alternate spelling of Garrwa. The National Indigenous Language Service estimated in 2004 that the language had between 40 and 200 speakers, although Crikey’s Fully Sic blogger on language matters, Piers Kelly, notes, “Calculating accurate speaker numbers is notoriously difficult.” He adds, “There is a new National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS) report being compiled this year and it’s hoped that the figures will be more reliable.”

The Grug series of 25 kids' books was originally published by Hodder Headline Australia between 1979 and 1992, and have now been republished along with seven new titles.

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18 April 2011

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