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Friday, 30 March 2018

The Beacon at Uluru


Section 25 of the Australian Constitution provides, to this day:

Provision as to races disqualified from voting

For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of that race resident in that State shall not be counted.
In other words, a State can, under the Constitution, disqualify an entire race from voting, and the members of that race will not be included in the quota for representation of that State in the Commonwealth parliament.

You only have to read the Constitution to realise how deeply racist it remains. This represents important unfinished business for Australia.

Our Constitution is the founding document of our nation. Some of its contents may be symbolic, but it is no less important as a cornerstone of our polity for that: symbols matter. Much of its contents have real practical consequences.

We, the community governed by the Constitution, have the right to change it so that it reflects our values. It can be amended by a majority of voters in a majority of States.

In thinking about our Constitution, it is good to consider the type of Australia we want to see in the future.

It is imperative that Australia becomes a republic, so that we are, at least in our forms of government, independent from other nations. It makes no sense to have our head of state a person from a foreign country who attains that office by inheritance.

Pressing though a republic is, it ought not to be accomplished without a just settlement with the First Australians. That must have priority.

After a lengthy and consultative process, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have spoken.

In their Uluru Statement from the Heart, the outcome of the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make a simple request that all Australians should endorse:

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

The Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, after cabinet consideration of the Uluru Statement, dismissed it with the words:

The government does not believe such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum.

He said that the voice to Parliament ‘would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of parliament’ – but provided no justification for the assertion. It is plainly wrong.

Ironically, in the light of s 25 of the Constitution, quoted above, and which allows the exclusion of entire races from voting, he said:

Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights … a constitutionally enshrined additional representative assembly for which only Indigenous Australians could vote for or serve in is inconsistent with this fundamental principle.

Yet another attempt to build reconciliation between First Australians and those of us who have come after has been cast aside with casual contempt.

Our Constitution badly needs an overhaul. The implementation of the Uluru Statement should be the first priority.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

A Violent Joke

George Christensen's post

Last week, George Christensen posted on Facebook a photograph of himself aiming a pistol, with the caption 'You gotta ask yourself, do you feel lucky, greenie punks?'

It was the day after a school massacre in Florida.

Christensen is the LNP MP for Dawson, in Queensland. He caucuses with the National Party.

The Prime Minister described Christensen's post as 'very inappropriate'.

Christensen refused to apologise, describing the post as a 'joke'. It is not so clear that was the original intention.

He edited the caption to read 'You gotta ask yourself, do you have a sense of humour, greenie punks?' A short time later he deleted the post.

The post was referred to police. Queensland police quickly announced they would take no action. At the time of writing, the AFP are still considering the matter.

Following Christensen's post, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young received an email, with the subject 'bullets' that read: 'Hopefully George has one left in the chamber to fire directly into your vagina you hysterical fucking cunt'.



Christensen's post is no joke.

Christensen's gun-pointing threat to 'greenie punks' comes in a context. There has been sustained and serious violence against Greens and environmental protesters over many years. Most has been perpetrated by the very people to whom Christensen appeals for votes.

In March 1986, during the protests against the Farmhouse Creek logging in Tasmania, Bob Brown was walking down a bush road with conservationist Judy Richter and journalist Hugh Maclean. Shots rang out, evidently aimed at Bob. Maclean, with his Vietnam training, immediately dropped to the mud, leaving the other two standing in shock. Later the shooter was arrested. He was charged with discharging a firearm on a Sunday and fined $200.

Bob Brown manhandled by loggers at Farmhouse Creek in 1986. Later he was shot at.

In January 1990 I was present in a conservationists' camp when two shots were fired in the bush close by. The perpetrator made off. Police in Orbost refused even to take a statement.

In 1991 two cars belonging to conservationists were destroyed by gelignite in the East Picton forest of Tasmania.

In the late 1990s an attempt was made to sabotage the aircraft of Vince Jones, the jazz singer. He lived near Buchan, and was vocal about logging. Steel wool was cut up and deposited in his light aircraft's fuel tank.

In December 1998 Adrian Whitehead was assaulted with an axe handle by a logger. He had been conducting a botanical survey at the time. Despite having an independent witness, the police refused to lay charges.

Adrian Whitehead after being bashed by a logger

After midnight on 3 December 1998 a group of loggers smashed up a campsite of conservationists in the Otways, yelled threats, and drove a vehicle into a tent occupied by two female conservationists who feared for their lives. One logger was subsequently charged and convicted in relation to this incident.

In December 1998 Peter Stienke (“Fisherman Pete”) was by himself minding a conservationists’ camp at Goolengook over Christmas. His car was found at the camp with the door open and food and drinks on the passenger seat. Despite a search by police, Fisherman Pete was never found and is missing, presumed dead. He left a 14 year old son.

On 20 February 2000, some 40 to 50 loggers - some with their children - converged from Orbost and Bombala on a conservationists’ camp in the forest of East Gippsland. They trashed the camp and beat up a Canadian tourist who was there. A carload of conservationists drove up. The conservationists were violently attacked and the car reduced to a wreck. The loggers caused severe injuries to two persons, and threatened to rape the women present.

Much of this was recorded on audio, and it makes chilling listening. The out of control ranting of the loggers, the smashing of iron bars against machinery and people – and the futile attempts of the conservationists to calm the loggers down.

Some of the loggers were identified and later convicted.

On 2 April 2000 loggers wielding baseball bats and axe handles attacked a conservationists' camp at Middle Spur in the Otway Ranges. Police and ambulance were called. Some twenty conservationists were injured, five being hospitalised.

In October 2008 logging vigilantes firebombed two cars belonging to conservationists that were parked on the Strathgordon Road in the Upper Florentine Valley.

There is nothing funny about George Christensen's gunwielding antics against Greenies. Exhortations to violence – whether against greenies, blacks, women, Jews, gays, or any other group in society – are shameful. 'Jokes' like this give licence to those who are inclined to resort to violence, and there are too many of those already.

Political appeals based on violence have a way of spiralling into enormous harm. I can only hope Christensen's gun-toting example will not lead to further violence against conservationists. 

I very much fear it will.

External links

Monday, 19 February 2018

Banquet

When the NRA dines a congressman,
Let the wine flow red. May delicacies
Of the finest virtue be spiced with the
Piquant savour of freshly fallen tears.

Summon a bowl of terrified children’s
Eyes, and belch generously before they
Are forked into hungry and grinning mouths.
Perhaps a pâté of suckling livers

To whet the appetite? And then they might
Pick at a roast of tender baby’s breast,
Lovingly warmed in milk, before, with a
Flourish, the waiter raises the domed lid

From the pièce de résistance – the cold, dead
Hands of those who pleaded for help in vain.


Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Poetics of Country

The Poetics of Country: why looking after the land makes us whole


address to the Upper Campaspe Landcare Network

16 October 2016

Yesterday I read with sadness, almost despair, an article that didn’t make the headlines. Something many people might think fairly minor. On a navigation beacon in the Georges River in New South Wales a pair of ospreys had made their nest of sticks – quite rare for them to nest so far south. On Friday there had been a small article in the local paper celebrating this new nest. Over three days from then, jet skiers deliberately targeted the ospreys. They repeatedly sped close to the nest, sending up rooster tails of water that, over days, knocked the nest to pieces. All this was photographed. Each day the exhausted osprey pair frantically tried to rebuild, able to carry only smaller and smaller sticks, but the jet skis returned, until the birds gave up, their chicks lost.

There is something generationally sad about this. We have so much. We are possibly the richest people in history. And yet there are those among us who obtain amusement from this activity. Police are investigating and there may be a prosecution, but should we not see this as a sign that our culture needs healing?

You already care enough about country to work for it, and even to make the sacrifice of coming out in the evening to hear it talked about. Each one of you might have more knowledge to offer about our land than I can offer. I know Sandy has worked for years to protect the owls in the Trentham forest.

What you do in caring for our land is important for many reasons:

It heals the earth in a way that will hand on to posterity this legacy.

It preserves something beautiful.

It aids with conserving and purifying water.

It reduces the risk of fire.

It preserves our wild birds and animals, and natural ecosystems - maintaining the web of life of which we are a part and on which we depend.

These are all good reasons for doing land care. But sometimes it’s worth asking: do we get anything from this?

After all, often there is little financial benefit to us from these activities.

Tonight I don’t want to talk about the environmental problems we face, or discuss political solutions. You will probably already know a good deal about both.

But I thought this might be an occasion to think about what our relationship with nature gives us as individuals and as a culture.

We could spend our short time this evening discussing great Australian art works responding to nature – Eugene von Guerard, Louis Buvelot, the Heidelberg school, Russell Drysdale, Clifton Pugh, Fred Williams, Lloyd Rees, John Olsen - to say nothing of our Indigenous art tradition that celebrates the land.

We could look at our great tradition of wilderness photography – we have an exponent here.

Or film.

Or even music – I was privileged to attend the premiere a few months ago of Hugh Crosthwaite’s wonderful piano concerto ‘Mountain Ash’.

All of these responses have much to teach us about the natural world and our place in it, and about the richness it can bring to our lives and our community.

But tonight I want to look very briefly at poetry, and consider our Australian poetry of place in an international context.

Poems are not going to change the world, perhaps. But as the great US poet William Carlos Williams (who was also a family doctor) put it in his poem Asphodel, that Greeny Flower:

It is difficult
to get news from poems
                        yet men die miserably every day
                                    for lack
of what is found there.

When you are struggling through bureaucracy to get some support, or in gumboots trying to clear weeds from a creekbank, or getting your hands dirty planting trees, you might sometimes wonder whether all this is worth it.

First of all, what is the alternative?

The sorrow of losing nature is something any sensitive person will be alive to.

In 1879, Baron von Mueller, the naturalist and great explorer of Victoria, with a very 19th century view of the natural world, wrote:

On a feeling and sensitive mind a demolished forest impresses unmingled sadness, whereas its primeval grandeur must inspire anyone with immeasurable delight who is susceptible to the beauties of nature… let us regard the forests as a gift, entrusted to any of us only for transient care to be surrendered to posterity as an unimpaired property, increased in riches and augmented with blessings, to pass on as a sacred patrimony from generation to generation.

That same year, in Britain, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote these words:

BINSEY POPLARS

Felled 1879
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve and hew –
Hack and rack the growing green!

Nature also produces deep inspiration.

Listen to the way Patrick White writes of the relationship between people and nature. His profound novel, The Tree of Man, is about a good man, and follows him through his life. The novel is in the dense prose that White uses – really extended poetry. At the end of the novel the good man, Stan Parker, dies, and these words are written
In the end there are the trees. These still stand in a gully on a piece of poor land that nobody wants to use. There is an ugly mass of scrub full of whips and open secrets. But there are the trees, quite a number of them that have survived the axe, smooth ones, a sculpture of trees. On still mornings after frost these stand streaming with light and moisture, the white and the ashen, and some the colour of flesh.
[Then Patrick White describes the man’s grandson coming down to the trees on the day of the funeral. And the boy thinks of the poem he will write. And the poem is beautiful. And the boy is, perhaps, Patrick White himself, who has all this time been writing of his own grandfather. He concludes:]
So that in the end there were the trees. The boy walking through them with his head drooping as he increased in stature. Putting out green shoots of thought. So that, in the end, there was no end.
Being in touch with nature is a way of being in touch with ourselves.

There are many spiritual traditions which reflect this truth.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Lord God fashioned mankind from the dust of the Earth. In many ancient cultures, the Earth is given the embodiment of a mother. These are profound insights into who we are as human beings: the Earth is part of who we are, and the connection is something from which we cannot escape without doing violence to ourselves.

Mother Earth: we could not conceive of owning our mother. It is only because of a distorted relationship with the Earth that we have legal structures permitting ownership of land. 

To do violence to one’s mother is an ethical offence – and hence, for most of human existence, doing violence to the Earth Mother has been seen this way. But today doing violence to the Earth is just good business.

In Ecuador and Bolivia, drawing on the indigenous concept of mother nature, or Pachamama, the law now recognises the rights of nature, and allows anyone to approach the courts on behalf of natural ecosystems. Other countries are preparing to follow these examples.

All too often, we do not see the Earth as our Mother, but as some fantastic cyber babe - ours to exploit without any real relationship. Just as a distorted relationship with our parents can hold us back all our lives, so a wrong relationship with nature is likely to distort and cramp our existence.

In 1900, in California, an anthropologist transcribed and translated the prayer of a Yokuts Shaman:

My words are tied in one
With the great mountains
With the great rocks
With the great trees
In one with my body
And my heart

Being connected to the earth is a profound source of inspiration and refreshment. Some of us obtain this from gardening, or bushwalking – or working for Landcare.

The natural world can help us connect with something deep and good inside ourselves.

When we spend time in nature, we ground ourselves.

The word humility has the same origin as our word humus – ‘grounded’, ‘of the earth’.

It’s not a bad thing to be grounded.

In the north west of the United States, there are extensive conifer forests. For the indigenous peoples of this area, before the advent of roads, rail and lumbermen, knowing how to relate to this vast wild place was a matter of life and death.

Listen to David Wagoner’s poem, which is the advice of an indigenous elder to a young initiate about what to do when lost in the forest:

LOST 
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Being in touch with the natural world is a good way of being very real with ourselves. As Henry David Thoreau put it, in describing his decision to make his home in the woods at Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Spending time in the natural world, relating to country, is a way of completing ourselves.

There is, of course, a long tradition of finding inspiration from nature, from the Bible, to the great Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Keats – through the transcendentalist poets of the US – Whitman, Emerson, Dickinson – to say nothing of Rumi and Hafiz from the Persian traditions, and the Indian, Chinese and Japanese traditions.

Here in Australia, we do have indigenous poetic traditions of land – including in the Songlines - and we have some access to them in the striking musicality of Indigenous place names:
Wandiligong. Murrumbidgee. Patchewollock. Maribyrnong. Kooyong. Yarrawonga. Corryong. Gannawarra.
I thought I should read one of my own poems, and here it is.

Source

here it is forbidden to go
even for the boldest
here where firm ground is hard to find
under rotted logs and tangled green
threatening unwary feet
here where tree ferns funnel runnels to the rushing river
and fresh leaves and old mingle scent of mint and eucalypt
while lyre birds squeal in warning at approaching tread
here where each leaf and frond festoons with dripping water
where wind passes high above
and signs of fire’s blackening seem so old and cold that in this rainsoaked world they challenge all effort of imagination
here where the river’s waters whiten over round rocks
and long logs lodge to bridge its span
here where none go
deep where no news penetrates
with neither road nor path nor radio nor hearth
the secret font of our water’s wellspring
which we know only from its issue
drinking deep and rinsing pure
beyond the cold that aches any who dare touch
here where we are afraid to look
tremble to see
where eyes cast down at approach
where each step nearer grows heavier
here where we would not go
in the stillness
from which all things move outwards
all nourishment arises
here where only those who wait and watch may find a way

I started by talking about what jet skiers had done to a nesting pair of ospreys in New South Wales. I want to return to the theme of birds.

The great Australian poet of place today is the Sydney poet Mark Tredinnick. There are several of his  poems that might warrant reading this evening, and I had considerable and enjoyable trouble choosing, but I want to offer two poems, both about kingfishers,

Catching Fire; or, The Art of Sitting

As Kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame
—Gerard Manley Hopkins

Mid-afternoon, I look up from my desk to see
A kingfisher alight in the water poplar.

For ten blue minutes she sits wrapped in
Her sacerdotal self, murder on her mind,

And I watch her steal her own silent show, doing
Nothing, immaculately, among the silver leaves.

Until, as if my eyes had pinned her, the instant
They drop, she flies: the stillest bird

In Christendom reaches escape velocity faster
Than I can find a pen. And I’d like to learn

To sit so still and to disappear so well, my body
Become a famished thought, my mind become a world.

When in 2011 Mark Tredinnick won the world's most prestigious poetry prize for a single poem - the Montreal Poetry Prize - his poem 'The Kingfisher' was also short-listed:

The Kingfisher

And so each bird throws the idea of herself
                        ahead of herself, up the river
A line of spiritual thought without a sinker
And flies after it. As if the actual could ever hope to reel the ideal in. But so it is
That awareness of the azure kingfisher – a dark electricity, a plump
Trim elegance of intent – reaches you on the riverbank
                        that last warm Sunday of the fall, split seconds
Before the bird; so that when she passes you at light speed, her name
                                    is already a bright blue phrase on your tongue, is already
the unresolved cadence of your second self.

The land and the web of life it supports is important in itself, and important to who we are. I want to finish with a poem some of you may know. Mary Oliver is one of the most prominent US poets today, and much of her poetry concerns our relationship with nature. This is one of her best known poems, and it is in keeping with our theme of birds:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees 
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body 
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.