Sunday, September 21, 2014

Being afraid of the Muslim bogeyman – Australia’s cowardice and double standards

Nine years ago, I wrote cryptically about the legal dubiousness of what has since publicly been named as Operation Pendennis.  I would like to refine my opinion, somewhat, on the advisability and effectiveness of citizen intervention on crimes as they unfold – as opposed to crimes in the anticipation.  And certainly to change my opinion entirely on what we have learned from September 11.  Never mind the apparent cowardice, or more charitably, the rote by-the-book-adherence by the passengers on the first three planes; we are now all firmly on the fourth plane, United 93, as it were – well I am, anyway.  

Inchoate offences are a fraught area, because unless a line is drawn around a small minority class of the surveilled, the only alternative is a total police state, aka a permanent State of Emergency.  But even under the less draconian scenario, defining the unfortunate subject class is, of course, hugely fraught.  The majority can keep living their lives much as before, but the singled-out, intensely-surveilled minority – which in the present case is young Muslim men – will have their lives (and those of their families) turned upside down.  For this reason alone, I predict that the main outcome of Thursday’s raids will be the creation of a dozens, at least, of new terrorists.  And if they are squashed with another pre-emptive raid in a few years’ time, hundreds will then fill the void.  And so on: nice one, Tony Abbott.

Of course, I am not a fan of terrorism, nor opposed to legitimate law enforcement.  What happened on Thursday, however, was abhorrent – if, as was widely reported, 900 police were mainly there to stop a Lee Rigby-style planned public beheading of a (i) random stranger, or (ii) uniformed soldier, that would be filmed, presumably by an accomplice.

Here’s a shocking thought:  two evil-, and You Tube-, minded terrorists, one armed with a knife, and the other with a phone-camera, probably cannot do that much damage in a crowded public place – unless we stand by and watch.  Someone can be easily fatally stabbed, sure, but to slit a throat, on camera, requires a reasonable amount of choreography in the lead-up.  Meaning that there may well be enough time and opportunity for one or more passers-by to (a) jump, or incapacitate the knife-wielder by heavy blow using anything at hand (fatal or otherwise, I think it matters not), and (b) at the very least, jump the phone-camera wielder.  Is mainstream Australia really so cowardly that we cannot see this common-sense approach as a viable alternative, at least, to pre-emptive mass raids of the sort that happened on Thursday?  If so, then I suggest that the terrorists have already won.

Corroborating this, albeit unintentionally, are the words on Thursday of former judge Anthony Whealy (who was the judge in Pendennis), who said that his lot, arrested in 2005 and some still in jail, were mere bumblers in comparison to those recently raided:

So “horror” is no longer a physical thing, apparently, but relates to You-Tube viewer statistics, including whether they are domestic/Australian or international (larger numbers of the latter make for “more horrific” horror, because it is propaganda, see).  And indeed, personally I am shaking my head in horror right now – as to how someone with as limited a set of insights as Wheatly ever became a judge.

There are also two related double-standards that concern me, and may explain why what I term a common-sense approach is not that common, apparently.  One is Australia’s extreme tolerance, in my view, for young, law-breaking bogan men – other than Muslim bogans, of course.  Steal a car, and then die driving the stolen car, at a dangerous speed in a police chase?  Apparently, that death is the police’s fault, unless proved otherwise.  This situation is somewhere between an anomaly and an outrage.  Statistically I imagine that a random, innocent Australian is far more likely to die as collateral damage in the stolen-car chase scenario than in a public-place terrorist beheading, but not only are likely car-thieves not comprehensively pre-emptively surveilled (as far as I can tell), but they are not subject to murder charges, if they kill an innocent stranger, and live to face court.   Personally, I think that if the stolen-car driver is the only person killed, then the cops deserve a medal and this is a win for just about everybody.  Except the owner of the stolen car, now a wreck – but if this was me, I’d be sending the bill to the family of the deceased.     

The second double-standard concerns why we have singled-out young Muslim men only (again, as far as I can tell) for pre-emptive surveillance, while there are other categories of men – non-bogans, this time* – who seem reasonably prone to the mass-murder of innocents.  Forty-four year old farmers, apparently happily married, for instance (44 being the age at which depression peaks for men).   And recently-separated fathers of young children, who have an access visit arranged for Father’s Day.  If our police and intelligence forces are as good at thwarting murderous plots as the generally obsequious media coverage of Thursday’s raids suggests, then eradicating, in the near future and throughout Australia, the murder of children and/or (ex-) partners by men (none or few of whom are Muslim, as far as I can tell) should be a cinch for them. 

Such raids/surveillance would’t get the same applauding, banner headlines, though – and in fact the biggest headlines would probably come from the protests of innocent men, outraged that they have been targeted unfairly, as one of a high-risk minority.  Treated like a Muslim man in Australia in 2014, other words.

* I am trying to be an equal-opportunity offender 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Alice Springs’ first Aboriginal hospital – or concentration camp?

The documented history of Alice Springs’ town camps is patchy as to places and dates, and yet historically sweet, if not downright rich with the recurrent heavy-handed gestures of whitefellas.  Like an epidemiology, there appears to be a pattern, but it will take an expert more than me to translate it to text with some justice. 

The town camps recrudesce with perplexing (to most outsiders, but to me, pleasing) inevitability, but rarely if ever simply so, as in re-forming in the same place after an x-year hiatus.  Indeed, “the same place” – any place, for that matter – is one of the elements that just floats in the town-camp pattern, resisting isolation as a single empirical datum.  Time likewise appears malleable here, surprisingly so – while the camps are, of course, intrinsically mobile “places”, the two I want to reconstruct in words here have been of a reasonable permanence, if not also of bi-cultural historical importance.  Plus, we are not talking ancient history, nor beyond the black stump – 1927 to 1960 is my ballpark date range, and the locations are all well within present-day suburban Alice Springs.

In case it’s not clear, I’m framing this somewhat artfully as epidemiology, rather than epistemology, for a reason – a poignant one, yet one that seems to have escaped whitefella general knowledge.   But I should say now that there is no literal, Ebola-like metaphor or comparison intended.  Indeed, as we will see, the epidemic seems to have long ago declared a truce, of sorts, when the concentration camp was “liberated”.

East-side and west-side camps

As a long-time (but recently, now former) Melburnian, one of Alice Springs’ most pleasing aspects is its east-west (of the Todd) bi-polarity (Melbourne’s is, of course, “north” and “south” of the Yarra).  

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that there were two competing, or at least simultaneous, town camps in the late 1920s and early 1930s – an east-side one, on the bank of the Todd, just (half a mile, or 800 metres) south-east of the present-day CBD (it is unclear whether north or south of Annie Meyers Hill/Tharrarltneme), and a rather more emphatically west-side one about 2 miles (3km) west of town, at or in the general area of a town camp famous in the 1950s called Morris Soak.  

But sorry, west-siders – after that mention, I’m shortly going to snub you for the rest of this post.  I will mention, however, that the west-side/Morris Soak camp was about two miles from town possibly for a reason, as a two-mile radius (from the Residency on the corner of Hartley and Parsons streets) exclusion zone for Aborigines (other than employees going to/from/about work, during daylight hours only) operated from 2 Jan 1930 (Fiona Coughlan MA thesis, "Aboriginal town camps and Tangentyere Council" p 36).  However, the camp was clearly there before this, so the law – as is often the way, although they don’t teach you this in law school – merely codified the status quo, which is turn was a necessary by-product of the geography of apartheid – the underclass live apart (of course), but for practical reasons (whitefella access to a nearly-slave labour force, without private transport), not too far beyond the pale.  I call this the “just outside” shanty sweet spot.

East-side concentration camp?

The east-side camp is a tempting topic for several reasons, starting with its defiance, by its very existence, of the 2-mile radius prohibition law*.  Well within this radius, Aborigines would be doing things other than whitefella work by day, and doing their own business there by night, to boot.  But again, the camp was there first, so perhaps it was “grandfathered” against the letter of the new law. 

Certainly, the whitefellas had a fair reason for some leniency here; with the east-side camp seemingly being a shoe-in for the Central Australian Tidy Town (-Camp) award of 1927. Here’s the breathless “reveal” (as they say on reality TV) of the camp’s makeover, in the words of a government official:

“the camp has been laid out in blocks, subdivided by streets, and the natives have vied one with the other in building up-to-date wurleys.  They cleaned up the deserted camp and now take pride in their new surroundings.” (NT Administration’s Annual Report 1926-27, cited Rowse p 71)
If this is not just official humbug, then it seems to me that the Australian home renovation mania (which always has been personally inexplicable), might have similar deep roots, as AFL football does to marngrook (“Always start with the worst humpy in the best Mission”, anyone?).  And even if it’s just fluff, the phrase “up-to-date wurleys” excites me anyway; it sounds like a jazz-age reference to some fancy lightweight camping kit (the acquiring and/or coveting of which I do find somewhat more explicable than jumping on a treadmill of cosmetically-enhanced ruins that are dated as soon as you finish, aka home renovations).

But in any event, the Central Australian Tidy Town (-Camp) award was not to last (and because it was proverbial anyway, the eastside camp was to be spared that dubious honour of that long-ago Tidy Town award plaque swinging in the breeze at the town limits (It’s time to renovate your “Welcome To X” sign, folks - dare I suggest that houses can age more gracefully than provincial, boastful signs).  1927’s “up-to-date wurleys” were, by 1933, to be no more than utilitarian cells in an isolation camp, or worse, during an epidemic (I note here that – again – it is unclear whether the 1927 and 1933 camps were in the exact same location; however, they were both definitely in the inner-east side, by the Todd).

Tim Rowse, in White Flour, White Power, Cambridge UP (1998) p 77 writes up the “Aboriginal medical hut” in the east-side camp as a very basic proto-hospital.  And indeed, there was absolutely nothing, in terms of medical treatment personnel or facilities available to Aborigines in Alice Springs before this.   John Flynn’s fine stone 1926 proto-hospital building, Adelaide House, which still stands in the middle of Todd Mall, was for whites only.  

However, in his autobiography, Medicine Man (1959), Alice Springs’ only doctor in the early 1930s, FW McCann, places the “Aboriginal medical hut” at the centre of a much less salutary place than a basic proto-hospital.  At the time, there was an epidemic of gonorrhoeal ophthalmia among Aborigines at the east-side camp, a disease of the eye that could cause permanent blindness, with a venereal connection, but for present purposes apparently spread by flies.  The whitefellas’ acute concern, as you may have guessed, was to prevent this spreading to their own eyes.  But I’ll leave the rest mostly to Dr McCann’s own words.  Before doing so, I should stress that he was apparently one of the more enlightened whitefellas in power around Alice Springs at the time, and certainly much less racist than John Flynn.**

“Drastic action was certainly needed urgently, since before long there were more than one hundred cases in the blacks’ camp alone, and it was easy to picture what a conflagration there would be if they decided to wander off into various parts of the country in their infective state.  There was, as well, the ever-present danger of the disease being carried to the white population of the town, particularly by those blacks who were casually employed in various jobs around homes [and who also, apparently, wouldn’t let a spot of serious eye disease, if not casual blindness, stop them from going to work] …

Thanks to the initiative of the district engineer – a well-known Territory character, ‘DD’ Smith, who was prepared to take action without waiting for any formal approval from Canberra – a form of barbed-wire compound was hastily erected and all communication between the native camp and the township stopped.  A hut was built inside the compound to serve as a medical centre, but the best that could be done by way of a nursing service was to install an old pensioner volunteer# as superintendent, matron, and cook combined.”

FW McCann, Medicine Man (1959), p 164.

As you would expect, the disease nonetheless spread – perhaps the flies even jumped the barbed-wire fence to the white CBD/west-side (I may be being facetious here; possibly the disease-thingy could only live on the fly at very short range, like a Bluetooth connection).  Dr McCann's book suggests that it was close proximity, if not person-to-person contact, emanating from an Aboriginal house-maid who should have been inside that barbed-wire compound, which caused a 12 y.o. white boy, “the son of a well-known family”, to get the disease from his house-maid.  Scores of other Aborigines were also infected when the disease spread to “The Bungalow”, then at the Old Telegraph Station. And then – somehow – the epidemic just stopped in its tracks.  A “few” Aborigines did permanently lose their eyesight, while the fate of the 12 y.o. white boy (the only white victim mentioned by McCann) is unknown.

As I said near the start, this epidemic seems to have ended in a vague truce.  It would be nice, of course, to have an account of that happy day when the barbed-wire was torn down, and the isolation/concentration camp was “liberated”.  But I may be dreaming here – that happy day might well have been the same one when the former showpiece camp of only a few years earlier, was unceremoniously torn down, and its residents forcibly moved on (a familiar pattern)

Finally, I will venture to say that this lack of a “liberation” story – as a closing bookend to the strange, short history of the inner east-side town camp – is surely a notable gap; a deep whitefella shame.  And part of a pattern too, of course. 

Even if there was a “liberation” story in general circulation, that would not be the end of it, either. At the conclusion of Albert Camus’ The Plague (1960 translation by Stuart Gilbert), there is a moment of liberation, of mass jubilation, that the book’s ostensible narrator/conscience Dr Rieux can feel part of, on one level.  But he also, more or less alone, knows that the plague is never truly vanquished, and so resolves to “compile this chronicle”.  I hope that the horrors of the inner east-side camp, too, will one day live large enough allow us to see the pattern.


* Pauline Cockrill, Healing the Heart, 60 years of Alice Springs Hospital 1939-1999, p 3 quotes Rowse p77, but also inserts an erroneous gloss that the east-side camp was “about two miles” from town.  This error is logical enough for anyone with the 2-mile law in mind, but when the logic is followed through, it becomes an empirical quagmire.  A camp on the east-bank of the Todd, about two miles from the CBD, would place it near either the Old Telegraph Station, or the present-day casino - but she doesn't specify either site.  Cockrill’s gratuitous extra tidbit here is the tip of an immensely frustrating (for me) iceberg of (often unintentional) misinformation on Central Australia.  Why is it so hard, apparently, for whitefellas to specifically check-off fairly-recently vanished sites with their present-day incarnations? Cockrill, like many others, choses to “camp out” in the data, rather than build a more lasting structure – which is a cultural irony indeed). 

** Charles Duguid vouches for McCann in Doctor Goes Walkabout (1972) p 102 (and more ambiguously, p 104), while John Flynn’s racism is cogently also put by Charles Duguid in Doctor Goes Walkabout on pp 97, 100, 104, 125 and 146.  Maisie McKenzie, in Flynn’s Last Camp (1985) pp 59-61, attempts a defence of Flynn against Duguid’s allegations (without naming Duguid).  However, she doesn’t grapple with what it for me the crux of the matter:  that Flynn’s Australian Inland Mission contemptuously disregarded the donor’s intent in the (Mrs Henrietta) Smith of Dunesk Bequest – to help Aborigines (see Duguid pp 122-123).  This Bequest appears to have provided a large proportion of the early AIM’s funding for its whites-only operations.  In Flynn’s defence, he was far from being the only cynical “nigger (dollar) farmer” with an outwardly respectable occupation in Central Australia at that time, if not also now (especially per the NT Intervention since 2007).       

# Rowse p 77 has him paid 10s a week.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Missing episodes

According to Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews, mental illness is “episodic”, rather than permanent – and so it makes sense for people to work during the “good” times, at least.  Why set the default for the “bad” times; i.e. pay the DSP in both sickness and in health? Yes, but is this quite a glass half full/empty situation?

To answer this, let’s look forward at what happens when the next mental illness “episode” occurs during a work spell.  Quite possibly, the person will be unable to continue working.  Even if the ill person wants to continue working, the employer will likely want them stood down (to use a vague term), for the duration of the episode, at least.

And there’s the rub.  Generally speaking, it is illegal to sack, or otherwise penalise an employee on the grounds of ill-health.  So the employer will dread the prospect of a mental-illness prone employee becoming unwell – they will then either have to be paid for not working, or surreptitiously cut adrift, in a usually prolonged process which just scrapes in on the side of what is legal. 

The former means that the insurance aspect of the DSP is outsourced to the employer.  Which is a win for taxpayers, I guess, but a huge disincentive for employing anyone with a mental illness – the employer knows that they may be writing a blank cheque, that is, underwriting the employee’s wages during their episodes of illness.

The latter means that the employer gets to shift – eventually – financial liability for the person’s support back to the state (after all the paperwork has been done, and the waiting periods served, of course).  The biggest cost here, however, will be borne by the person with the mental illness – having lost their job on vague and/or technical grounds (but well knowing why they really lost it), the “episode” will almost certainly be deeper and longer for this experience.  That is, the end of the “health” phase – which is generally foreseeable as, for all concerned, a nasty HR process – adds greatly to the accumulation of “sickness”.  Put another way, if the person had never got that job, their total “sickness” most likely would have been less.

So what’s the answer? Clearly a person with a mental illness needs an income, from the DSP and/or employment.  Losing the DSP, even if in seamless association with a new job is likely to leave the person much worse off  upon the happening of the next “episode”.  There is nothing that will be seamless about this unravelling.  Perhaps part-time work at most – that keeps DSP eligibility – would be a wise compromise, but this doesn’t appear to be what Kevin Andrews and Patrick McClure really have in mind.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A great deal of warning

The year 2040 as the date when the 70 [qualifying age for the age pension] would kick in was speculated on, but there has also been talk of 2029.  Of course, for us oldies, it is neither here nor there because these new arrangements will not affect us.

The point of giving the youngies a great deal of warning is that they can think about their retirement plans now, about how long they should stay in the workforce and how they might structure their assets”.

-          Judith Sloan, “Age-old question needs answers, and soon”, Australian 26 April 2014

Five years ago, when the increase in the qualifying age for the Australian age pension from 65 to 67 was announced in the May 2009 budget, I predicted that this would be an interim increase only.  Sure enough, a further increase to 70 now appears certain.

There are two kinds of demographic reality at stake here. One is objective reality – we are living longer on average, and that the boomer wave in retiree numbers will be cresting for another 15 years or so, and only break c.2030, when the oldest boomers hit their mid 80s.  

The second kind of demographic reality/“reality” is Boomer-Think – that they are not the problem, and therefore the solution need only slightly involve them.  The generally unspoken corollary to this is that the problem just needs to be moved on by a few years, to become a hangover for the next generation.  How this naked blame-shifting has become an entrenched reality is a whole separate essay, however . . .  

Judith Sloan, who I presume is a boomer (i.e. born before 1/7/1962), has been unusually candid in her above choice of words.  Her gloating that “for us oldies . . . these new arrangements will not affect us” may seem somewhat misconceived, as the 2009 qualifying age increase, phased in between 2017 and 2023, affects those born between 1952 and 1957, so leaving the youngest boomer cohort still subject to an older qualifying age.  But this is small bikkies, or as Sloan says, “neither here nor there”.

The boomer pain is inconsequential because the main pain – as always – falls on us Xers.  Not that Sloan quite needs to spell this out; it’s easier just to forget our existence.  Hence, straight after reassuring her boomer cohort, Sloan clinches her case by pointing out that the “youngies” can hardly complain either, as they’ve got plenty of notice to get their house* in order, so to speak. I assume that Sloan, if she thinks about it at all, lumps in Xers as “youngies” – but as someone turning 50 this year, I am more disgusted than flattered at her dismissive labelling.

If you think about it, financially planning a late retirement is very simple.  You will work until you can afford not to.  But setting even an approximate date for this, decades out from the actual event, is ludicrous for most individuals, as it will depend on well-into-the-future income levels, asset prices, and tax and superannuation laws (which are currently ridiculously generous to over-60s, and so, I would suggest, have zero chance of still being in place when Xers start turning 60 in 2022).  All that a far-forward announced increase in the age pension qualifying age actually means for now is another signal to Xers that their lifetime tax dollars are already spoken for.

Not getting back what you’ve put in seems to me to be a dangerous thing to be legislating, en masse and in advance.  Recent debate around upping the pension age has had its useful distractions. (Manual workers will be worn-out by age 65?  That’s what the DSP is for. On average, Xers are going to live to our late 80s, at least?  That’s why compulsory superannuation was introduced, more than 20 years ago.)  But these skate around the much bigger issue – that the tax dollars of ageing Xers will, for the next two decades, be all used up in subsidising the retirement lifestyles of boomers who are, on average, much richer than the Xer worker bees.  When this party starts to end, c.2030, Xers will not – and could not – look to the next taxpayer generation to write our retirement cheque.  If then we don’t have enough super to be self-funded retirees (and most won’t, see sidebar below), then we’ll have only ourselves to blame, using Sloan’s logic of being a 50 year old “youngie” in 2014, pondering “how long [I] should stay in the workforce and how [I] might structure [my] assets”. 

So do your own math here, Xers – and if you also conclude that you are getting shafted, then it’s time to make some noise, if not revolt. Otherwise, the boomers are relying on you not to even notice what’s happening here until the late 2020s:

“Lifting the pension eligibility age further from 67 to 70 by 2034# [I predict 2035; see table below] appears tough, and may be prudent, but it will have no impact on the budget, or any voter, for more than a decade”.

-          Adam Creighton, “Audit commission prescribes some harsh medicine”, Australian 26 April 2014 (emphasis added)

Sidebar:  Compulsory superannuation is an abject failure

Judith Sloan also notes:

“At the moment, more than 80 per cent of those aged 65 or older collect the age pension, in full or in part.  On the current projections, this proportion is not expected to change much at all, although there is a change to the mix of full and part recipients.

Amazingly, the projections do not envisage much change to the proportion of those 65 or older who receive no pension by 2050 — which is nearly 60 years after the introduction of compulsory superannuation”.

I assume that these figures are adjusted forward for the currently confirmed retirement age (i.e. 67, from 2023), but if not, the real figures are even more damning – or “amazing”, if you’re a by-standing boomer voyeur looking at a demographic car crash, like Sloan.

Until now, the main demographic motif with compulsory superannuation has been that it came well into the working life of most boomers, and so they couldn’t be expected to have as much (and/or “enough”) retirement money as younger generations.  Here, older Xers like myself fell into a similar – if much more silent – boat, having also started our working lives pre-1992.  But anyway, now it matters barely a jot whether you’ve had compulsory superannuation for some, most or all of your working life – YOU ARE STILL GOING TO NEED THE PENSION, in part at least, and ASSUMING THAT IT’S THERE, after the boomers are gone.

For Xers, this is a dirty little secret indeed.   Compulsory superannuation was (and I remember this vividly) sold to my generation in the early 1990s on the basis of our expected higher longevity.  Set originally at a modest 3% of income, the magic of compounded returns was spruiked so that it plausibly seemed a viable vehicle for self-funded retirees, en masse – at least when perhaps supplemented by some voluntary contributions in late working-life, when we had money to spare**.  While the delusion of high returns over patient decades has long since gone (in 2008, if not before), and the compulsory percentage rate has gone in the other direction (“compounded compulsion”, anyone?), compulsory superannuation still has an aura of thrifty benevolence around it.  As though someone older and wiser is finger-wagging at us Xers:  “You may not appreciate the forced saving now, but you sure will when you’re 80”. 

That is, our (mostly) modest nest eggs are going to spare us, at least, from the ravages of needing the full age pension c.2050.  But they will have to, as I’ve pointed out above, and the prospect of even a part age pension c.2050 is looking like a 1980s Moscow supermarket – the shelves are bare, whatever the commissars’ bright rhetoric and stern compulsions may be. 

The bottom line is that Xers will be financially-strapped in retirement – I am talking much worse off than the current generation of full old-age pensioners – because they mistook, until it was too late, the state’s compulsion as some sort of guarantee of a comfortable retirement.  On the contrary, compulsory superannuation is a cynical double tax-grab – a means of ensuring Xers pay for boomers’ comfortable retirements while impoverishing our own future, as we meekly add fresh tokens to our steaming token piles – our token futures.

Update 4 May 2035

Told you so; re the pension age of 70 starting in 2035.  No report, that I have seen, has filled in the blanks, aka the taper, between the 2009 changes and the latest ones - thereby implying that (only) the post-1965 born will now have a particularly high pension-age hurdle to leap.  In reality, this age qualifier is only six months older than the 69.5 years that applies to the cohort 18 months older, and so on.  But "sticker shock" headlines, regarding quite distant dates, usefully hide the real story - that ALL Xers are getting shafted by these changes, whatever specific 18 month cohort they fall within.

*  House – Xers’ home-ownership rates are much lower than boomers’, so there is intended irony here.  The role of home ownership in a financially-secure retirement is also a whole other essay.

** Money to spare.  Since PM John Howard created the loophole, every middle or high-earning working boomer aged over 59 has furiously money-laundered as much of their income as legally possible (generally $50,000), by channelling it into voluntary superannuation “savings”, and then immediately withdrawing it, tax free.  Neat trick, eh?  You don’t actually lock a single dollar away, but you get more spending money now, and for free!  And not a loophole that will be around much longer, I am quite sure. But the putrid (bi-partisan) stench – of voluntary superannuation contributions being a transparent tax-dodge, and not a nest-egg builder – will linger long after, for Xers.    

# Here’s my projection of what the 13 May 2014 Budget will bring, if it continues the taper set in 2009 – the age of 70 won’t be bedded down until July 2035.  Note that the first six-months for each taper increase are “downtime”, when no one will actually become eligible.  Hence, the lucky Xers born on 1 January 1966 will become eligible for the age pension (if it still exists) when they turn 70 on 1 January 2036.     

Pension age for those born on or after 1 July 1952

Affects those born (both dates inclusive)
Pension age
01/07/1952 to 31/12/1953
65 years and 6 months
01/01/1954 to 30/06/1955
66 years
01/07/1955 to 31/12/1956
66 years and 6 months
01/01/1957 to 30/06/1958
67 years
01/07/1958 to 31/12/1959
67 years and 6 months
01/01/1960 to 30/06/1961
68 years
01/07/1961 to 31/12/1962
68 years and 6 months
01/01/1963 to 30/06/1964
69 years
01/07/1964 to 31/12/1965
69 years and 6 months
01/01/1966 to  . . . ?
70 years, then . . . ?

Sunday, March 23, 2014


Songlien (n.) A songline bought on the never-never.

Songlines (n.) Title of a 1986 Bruce Chatwin book that depicted a romanticised, present-day Central Australia.

Never-never (n.).  The sparsely-populated bulk of the Australian landmass, in which a few urban areas and mining settlements aside, the Indigenous population will outnumber the settler.  Also, to buy something on credit, when it is improvident to do so, or it entails paying an excessive interest rate.

I love a good secret business story, particularly when most of the real drama is at the heart of my own culture – educated, urban, predominantly white Australia.

Such is the backstage story behind Nicolas Rothwell’s (itself a backstage) double-story in yesterday’s Australian.*  The about-to-open SA Museum “Ngintaka” show is not something I have any direct familiarity with or stake in.  But its divisiveness, as chronicled by the clearly partisan but factually meticulous Rothwell, is like a newly-installed public sculpture in a prominent place – a cultural disaster ripe for the picking.  I’m aware of how white-fella unceremonious this may appear; when the “unveiling” has yet to happen, it would ordinarily be polite to suspend judgment, particularly on the eve of the opening (which for “Ngintaka” is Friday 29 March).  But it is only the full-frontality of Rothwell’s spoiler that makes it a “long and complicated”** white-fella drama; a post-opening “review” (meaning an opinionated, timely backgrounder) would mostly be just a tale of two Pitjantjatjara factions and which way the white-fellas were lining up.

Reading Rothwell’s double-story, I get the feeling that it was the latter, less incendiary path that was actually his intention, until quite near yesterday’s publication deadline, with his main story apparently written to run on the day after opening, Saturday 30 March, but his accompanying page 1 splash story written later (or if not, just sub-edited) to expressly run six days before the opening.  Some secret white-fella business here then, just for starters.  Maybe Rothwell was corralled by the powers that be pointing out that a Saturday 30 March print date would still be more pre-emptive spoiler than loose “review” – and that since the gloves were going to be off, anyway . . .

Dates are an odd feature of Rothwell’s story, particularly in its cannibalisation of a May 2012*** Stuart Rintoul story (that itself has a large trace of Nicolas Rothwell authorship within it, although Rothwell is not formally credited).  The plot thickens – did Rintoul simply lend his name in May 2012, in order for some flak, at least, to bypass Rothwell – a remote Australia specialist, with apparently impeccable access credentials?

Either way, Rothwell’s recycling of Yami Lester’s May 2012 words seems lazy and uncharacteristic.  Mind-you, some of the recycled words are choice indeed:

“White do-gooders among us need their boundaries defined.”

Ouch!  And rather masterfully, Mr Lester doesn’t say by whom – if you need to ask this, you need to go back to clearer bounded territory, perhaps. 

Never one to miss an opportunity for a scolding chime-in, if I may suggest a coda – one more pedantic than profound – to Mr Lester’s edict: “and white sub-editors among us need their photos of me, Yami Lester, more transparently captioned”.  If you look up the 10 May 2012 story, you’ll see a picture captioned “Yami Lester, in wheelchair, and Mike Williams yesterday at Wallatina, in the far north of South Australia”.  Fast forwarding to 22 March 2014, a strikingly similar photo was captioned “Yami Lester, in wheelchair, and Mike Williams”.  Both were by Kelly Barnes.  While yesterday’s photo didn’t say that it was a recent one, most readers would assume that it was, and it is a puzzle why the caption couldn’t have just added “in May 2012”.  In the body text, Yami Lester ironically invokes Indigenous intellectual property rights; shabby captioning of Indigenous subjects, while not a serious violation, is still a point on a continuum of abhorrent practises, in the recent past, regarding film and photography of Indigenous persons and material culture.   

As I’ve previously written in another context, there is a big problem in how to contain, and then possibly physically dispose of and mentally forget, a mountain of visual (and textual, to a smaller extent) material, the capturing, storage and/or publication of which it can be presumed no informed consent was given to.  Some of this material may be obvious, captioned “secret ceremony” or similarly, and if so, often be found in only in specialist academic, rare, and/or quasi-banned publications.  Most such content, however, is found in generalist publications, and with non-controversial captions.  We (meaning white and Indigenous Australians both) need to do something about this, or, at the very least, talk about it.  Funnily enough, I have a strong hunch that what’s at the bottom of the SA Museum “Ngintaka” show being claimed as a serious cultural violation concerns one chapter of just such a generalist book, and perhaps more particularly, just one photo within.

Certainly, yesterday’s story is oddly unspecific about what the actually offensive “bits” (to use an inelegant term) were (the May 2012 story was also unspecific, but then it was presumably early days as to what might actually end up on display).  I recognise that naming and shaming particular paintings, objects etc may potentially be counter-productive (by attracting a prurient interest), but a couple of clues suggest that it is the attention that the “Ngintaka” show may give to a particular 1948 book that is the biggest problem, rather than the show’s primary content (I am assuming the show makes no more than guarded references to the 1948 book).  If so, I think that this source of contagion has to be identified, despite concerns over attracting prurient interest.

Ominously in hindsight, I think, in May 2012, one of the lead white-fellas said: “[Anangu/Pitjantjatjara] people wanted to tell the ‘open story’ that had been documented”.  The trouble with this approach is that uncontestably “open” stories are, I would have thought, already told to death – or at least would be thin pickings for an expensive major museum show.  “Documented” stories, on the other hand, can be many things, but it would be a clear breach of Yami Lester’s “boundaries”, I would have thought, to conflate “documented” with “open”.

Rothwell yesterday picks up this thread:

“They [the lead white-fellas] pointed out the Ngintaka story had long been public; it had been recorded by an amateur anthropologist in 1948”.    

As well as not naming the particular white “do-gooder”, Rothwell – curiously, I think – chooses not to name the “amateur anthropologist” despite his identity being obvious to anyone with a slight acquaintance with mid-20th Century publications on Indigenous Central Australia. In a probable over-abundance of caution, I am not going to name him either.  I will note, however, that in my opinion he does have a chequered reputation at best, with his magnum opus being a quasi-banned book (that I have held but, duly warned, never opened).  To base the “openness” of an exhibition’s broad premise on the foundations laid by this ethnographer/film-maker/photographer 65 years ago thus seems ludicrous – or a prosaic greedy quest to the Oodnadatta area for fine flour**, at least.

Speaking of Oodnadatta, I recognise that geographical precision is another fraught zone – just as paintings can be sold with their inner meanings encrypted, stories can be told with GPS co-ordinates withheld, as it were.  I would hate to be the putz who naively name-dropped Oodnadatta as a cultural site of significance for anything more than the Pink Roadhouse – and the 1948 book has specific Ngintaka sites only way back west, in the tri-state conurbation.  

Zooming out to the bigger picture, I do think that the Western Desert may have been “sung” enough in recent decades for white-fella edification, clean through to the Indian Ocean, and that going south-east from the beating heart would be a nice change of songline direction, if you like.  Which is to say, a paying back of the songlien.  If the damage of obscenity in the stored visual record is to be undone, first we take Oodnadatta – then we take CM.

Update 1 April 2014 – Ngintaka exhibition off, then on again, and “OMG, I’ve turned into ‘Gym Bore’/‘Kidder’”

Diana James, in a terse reply to Nicolas Rothwell, defends the thorough consultation processes of the Ngintaka “Project Partners”.  But Rothwell  had already conceded that there was an exhaustive such process over recent years – and for all this, for a handful of dissidents at least, still not enough; or perhaps too much.  More interestingly, James details a chain of events, going back four decades, to assert the openness of the Ngintaka  story in general; or in industry-speak, its provenance.

Just as Subhash Kapoor had to invent pre-1972 ex-India provenance for his looted antiquities (from that year, a blanket export ban was imposed by the Indian state), James is aware that there is a time-frame into which her “openness” provenance must not cross.  While the date here is not hard and fast, plainly she can’t go back to the problematic 1948 book.  Neatly, she fixes 1974 as the earliest date in the chain of “good” title – a year by which the Bad Old Days of cultural expropriation by anthropologists and others were implicitly over, and a nascent fine-art industry in Central Australia was giving Indigenous artist-custodians the power and finesse to disclose their stories to whatever degree they chose.   From her 1974 jump-start however, James seems to have to clutch at straws:

This version of the [Ngintaka] story has been used by Anangu to document their artworks in gallery exhibitions since 1974. The story and song have been taught at the [sic] Angatja in the Mann Ranges to tourists and school children since 1988 and is still taught today to Indigenous and non-indigenous children. The Angatja experience is championed as a flagship of reconciliation by Catholic Schools who include the trip in their Leadership for Reconciliation programme.

Thus, many people, mainly schoolchildren, have already seen and heard the story; indeed, it is something of a set-piece.  This should not be taken to mean that the cultural content is relatively trite, although the SA Museum publicity does emphasise that the exhibition is intended primarily for children.  The bigger problem here is the Project Partners’ seemingly reckless presumption of scalability – that a remote community’s in-situ “experience” can be respectfully and meaningfully recreated in a prestigious big-city venue.  The acute danger, of course, is that extra “sizzle” will be needed in the greatly-enlarged version, sizzle of which the SA Museum has plenty in its vaults, including a large number of secret-sacred objects, photos and films that came to it via the “amateur anthropologist”.   

Rothwell’s article made it clear that the SA Museum’s role in the exhibition was mainly as a room for hire, so perhaps there is some consolation in this fact.  Nonetheless, the fact that it is Rothwell, rather than James, making it, speaks volumes.  As do these strong words from a lawyer for the pro-exhibition faction, referring to an unsuccessful last-minute legal challenge# to the exhibition going ahead:

“SA Museum has been accused of ‘caving in’ to the demands of the tribal elders by Graham Harbord, for Johnston Withers lawyers representing Ananguku Arts. Mr Harbord said SA Museum should not even be involved in the dispute”.

-          Tim Lloyd, “SA Museum decides to proceed with opening of Ngintaka dreaming exhibition despite legal threat from some tribal elders”, Advertiser 28 March 2014, 4:35pm

Ah, “caving in” – an English figure of speech that may, I suspect, have an unfortunate (if unintended) set of other meanings in the translation.  But that’s white Australia’s trouble with keeping Indigenous secrets; we feel trapped and suffocated inside that black box.    

Meanwhile, onto Bruce Chatwin’s provenance.   Re-reading Songlines after posting the above (and about 26 years after I first read it), my mind followed a quite different track from my late 1980s self (who would have been on “team Bruce”, all the way). The character of ‘Gym Bore’, or ‘Kidder’ – who Chatwin apparently based on the real-life Phillip Toyne – stood out, and for reasons opposite to the petty-villain role he plays in Chatwin’s book. 

But first, let’s start with Kidder’s rap-sheet:  he’s a rich young man, originally from Sydney – rich enough to have his own plane, the use of which as an (presumably) unpaid taxi to and from remote communities is apparently the only reason that Kidder is tolerated (by white or black) in his job in the Aboriginal land-rights industry.  Kidder’s crass departure from a party at a private house in far south-eastern Alice Springs in February 1983 – in an over-large and new 4WD, shining harsh headlights over all and sundry – is possibly the earliest confirmed appearance of the Yuppie Wanker in a 4WD (in 1983, a species far from the plague proportions they were later to assume).  It may help here to know that Chatwin and “Arkady” had walked the 5km or so from central Alice Springs to the party house, almost in eerie anticipatory negation of Kidder by their most un-Kidder like (and un-Alice in general also, I would suggest) behaviour. 

Chatwin’s basis for calling Kidder a “Gym Bore” is similarly loaded; nowhere in the book does Kidder talk or behave like a vain or body-obsessed man, but we definitely know that any deliberate act of fitness or muscle-building is Not Something That Bruce Would Do.  Chatwin admits to going for a pre-breakfast jog in  Alice Springs once – but he takes care to inform us that this was only because his motel did not start serving breakfast until 8am.  Personally, I would not have forever after condemned Chatwin as “Runner Bore” on the basis of a single instance of a jog, however egregious, but Chatwin has much higher standards than me, obviously.  Such high standards, in fact, that his unnamed motel’s breakfast start time of 8am would make it completely unsuitable for most tourists doing bus-trips out of town (in my experience, which albeit is in recent years and not c.1983, almost all bus-tours will be on the road by 8am).  But no doubt having a breakfast without the clamouring tourist hordes would have been all the better for Bruce’s erudite and considered notebook jottings.  That morning, as Chatwin tucked into his post-jog repast, he may well have thought about how fortunate he was to be naturally lithe – and “Arkady” naturally hunky – in contrast to that horrid, artificially-sculpted colonial, Kidder.  And thus been inspired to write this note for himself:  “Important:  explain that my jog was only because of compulsory late breakfast, and that I normally spend my mornings as languid as Sebastian Flyte”.

Early in the narrative, “Arkady” sums up Kidder as “bad news”.  Unusually for a romanticised “faction” book, there is no later big pay-off to this standard plot device – a single instance of being a Yuppie Wanker in a 4WD is as bad as Kidder ever gets to be.  Other than Kidder’s (possibly drunken) words about Aboriginal intellectual property, that is.  These offend Chatwin to the core, for some genuinely strange reason – they are indeed left-field, and may be impossible to achieve in practice, but their idealism cannot be faulted, I would have thought.  So why does Chatwin so despise Kidder’s idealism, or was it really just what he (Kidder) was wearing (grey marle) that infected his whole persona?

Anyway, I’m going to put up my hand to get me some of Chatwin’s deepest contempt myself, by agreeing with Kidder’s ideas about Aboriginal intellectual property (this may also mean disowning my late 1980s self, but if the grey marle fits . . . ).  The entire corpus of presumptively stolen Aboriginal intellectual property in non-Aboriginal hands, on my guesstimate, could be bought back for a few million dollars (or even better, just donated).  This is small bikkies in comparison to land rights.  This figure does not include physical tjuringas, etc, the repatriation of which are often – for good reason – dealt with under a loose heading of intellectual property.  But there are also meaty issues of proper custodianship to do with any physical property, and, in deference to Chatwin, I prefer to keep the issue here naturally lithe.

Chatwin’s provenance for his best-selling “Central Australian Anthropology for Dummies” is difficult to fault, as befits a man who previously worked in the high-end art trade.  Most of his insights come second-hand, from impeccably credentialled whites like “Arkady”; thus side-stepping the who, why, and for how much issues of the supply of the original story.  Chatwin is no pre-1970s anthropologist, greedily vacuuming up content from the source, and making only token payment for this.  He airily, and in 2014 presciently, takes his content from the “cloud”, and not the cave.        

Further update 2 April 2014

It turns out that earlier media reports that the Ngintaka exhibition opened for business as usual on Friday 28 March were incorrect (or at least my reading of them was).  In fact, due to an injunction, the exhibition opened on a partially-closed basis.  Most of this injunction was lifted yesterday, but “two videos, featuring song and dance” remain off-display, for now.  See Mark Schliebs, “Aboriginal Exhibition to Go Ahead”, Australian, 2 April 2014.

My guess is that these two "videos" are pre-1970s film footage, possibly taken by that ubiquitous “amateur anthropologist”.  The legal proceedings are ongoing, it seems: “Arguments over the consultation process will continue in the Supreme Court tomorrow” (ibid).

* Nicolas Rothwell “Songlines suffering: desert men in pain when secrets on display”, and “Culture war”, both Australian 22 March 2014.

** Quote from 1948 book, Ngintaka story chapter. As ever with this author, “famous first words”. [Second reference is an element, hopefully innocuous, of the Ngintaka story, as recounted in 1948 book]

*** Stuart Rintoul “Songline at heart of secret men's business”, Australian, 19 May 2012 [Note that 22 March 2014 “Culture war” story wrongly dates this as 20 May 2012]

Verity Edwards, “Songline show on after legal assurance”, Australian 29 March 2014

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Andrew Bolt pulls a sickie – SCOOP!

I usually don’t bother reading Andrew Bolt’s opinion columns in the Herald Sun.  They are predictable and, in any event, not at all what I am seeking on the Herald Sun website – which is colourful snapshots of an exotic Other (viz, a Melbourne that I nominally live in, but actually have little or no cultural affinity with).  The Hun is, then, an armchair “holiday” for me, one that will usually produce a wry chuckle or to.  It is necessarily a brief holiday, though, due to the strictures of the News Ltd paywalls.  This morning, however, I accidentally clicked on an Andrew Bolt opinion column (“I swear, M’lud, I thought from the headline that it was genuine, colourful news article, about a suburban battler wronged, or some such”).  And rather surprisingly, the Darth Vader-omniscient paywall then let me through past the headline teaser, despite my full quota of freebie clicks being well and truly spent for the week, by my count.

But anyway, who’s actually counting, out there in Bolt-world?  His is a time and place of what I’ll call the “Dreaming”, for want of a better term.  I suspect that a therapist could actually locate it in Bolt’s childhood, as an Australian-born child of Dutch immigrants, growing up in the backblocks/outback of SA, c. 1970 (Bolt was born in 1959). 

The unresolved issue?  Little Andrew, I suspect, could and did pass for “ordinary” (meaning Anglo-Celtic) white Australian, in places where the colour bar, at the time of his birth at least, was a rigid as any, ever, in the American South.  Of course, young Andrew was always going to be on the right’n’white side of this colour bar, but his home life (and school life, to a lesser degree) must have caused some angst. 

On one hand, he and, especially, his parents were so different from the others (in my experience of Dutch-born people - not so much their Australian-born children, though - they are, and I use this phrase with affection, the “woggiest wogs” of all).  Yet on the other, in outback SA, young Andrew would have been remorselessly assimilated, without any choice in the matter, into the Anglo-Celtic cultural bloc.  No doubt this culture-denial sometimes hurt, and especially so when young Andrew would have felt – with some justification, I should say – that he actually had a fair bit in common with the black kids in this regard (but that said, there was no practical possibility of a consequent Bolt/black-kids alliance, under the mores of that time).  Both were outsiders to the smug dominant culture, but only Andrew Bolt could pass for one of them.  And pass he did – but yet he had to.

His column today you can read for yourself (paywall permitting, of course):  “It feels like I have lost; do I run or resist?”. And sorry, my “sickie” headline is – I hate to admit this, but anyway – a trick of the trade; a teaser.  What Bolt actually details is that he was so upset by comments made about him on ABC’s “Q & A” on Monday evening, by Marcia Langton and others, that he was unable to go to work on Tuesday.  I don’t doubt that he was genuinely unwell when he woke up that morning.  My evidence for this is indeed the very fact that he mentions it at all, when he knows (presumably) that his readership will mostly snicker “diddums” (so meaning that he was still apparently a bit “sick” when he wrote the column, but good on him for soldiering on, like a true Aussie).  And equally, Bolt forgot to mention whether or not he got the medical certificate that is a fact of life these days for many Australians taking a single day’s sick leave (but snarky me for bringing this up, like I was the Herald Sun’s HR-and-payroll killjoy!). 

But you’re OK, Mr Bolt.  It no doubt has been a source of lifelong annoyance to you that “Dutch” is an adjective used in a diverse array of phrases, but with an insulting, if not downright racist thread connecting them.  But I didn’t invent the “Dutch X”.  And by coming up with a new coinage of “Dutch X”, I am not trying to add fuel to the fire (“I swear, M’lud”), but hoping to help you to reconnect with your presumably painful childhood, in which your Dutchness was stolen – yes, stolen – by a xenophobic, steam-rolling Anglo-Celtic outback mainstream, painfully aware that they were outnumbered by their taciturn Indigenous neighbours on the fringe (a stark demographic fault-line that the Bolts no doubt waltzed into, unawares).  So here it is:  “Dutch sickie” – the sick day you spend mulling over the newspaper column you will write about your sick day. 

On a more healing note, to make it better for all concerned, one bright day I am hoping that an Anglo-Celtic (or Indigenous, for that matter) PM will make a brave speech, one that will have tears streaming down many a cheek, containing this historic – and dare I say, overdue – line:  “WE took your Dutchness . . .”

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On being a high-hanging fruit

The High Court decision earlier this month on gay marriage was all that could be expected – a firm and prompt (but not hasty in an unseemly way, mind) “no”, in response to  an ACT marriage proposal cooked up more in present desperation than in the hope of a considered long term future together. 

Some would say that the High Court could have consented to the engagement, at least, at then let the rest harmlessly unravel in its own way (the Commonwealth can strike down any piece of Territory legislation it so wishes).  But this would be against the laws of symbiosis – and the High Court is necessarily ever the forlorn pre-fiancée here.  That is, a marriage between parliament and judiciary would be an indecent proposal, so the two must simply live together in messy ambiguity, or “in sin” as they used to say.  In any event, the never-to-walk-down-the-aisle High Court, while trying its best not to come across as overtly bitter, is structurally an institution which could not possibly be sympathetic to other forlorn brides, in the literal sense.

That’s my reading of it, anyway.  If you prefer to see the High Court as a fallen woman, with the Commonwealth parliament conspicuously chaste in contrast, read Geoffrey Luck’s “Rush to judgment has hidden agenda”, Australian Op Ed  27 December 2013 and
David Flint’s prim letter to the editor, in the following day’s Oz.  They both seem to believe that the 2004 Howard amendments to the Marriage Act needed no constitutional basis, and that the High Court is showing temerity, if not minx-hood, in suggesting that they do (see also Nicholas Ferrett’s letter next to David Flint’s).   “Can no one rid us of these turbulent judges?” asks Geoffrey Luck, possibly rhetorically, but certainly with his hands flapping oh so dramatically, in our minds’ eyes.


In any event, cheer up, Brides of Canberra (now there’s a horror film title, just ripe for the plucking!).  The consolation prize is symbiosis – nature’s grand pairing of the straights and the gays. 

I love this time of year, for its abundance of sweet ripe fruit.  Or, if this ever crosses your mind, the seeds of a parent tree, lovingly packaged up as to be temptingly both removable and consumable, so that the parent tree can spawn far away from its small fixed orbit of reproduction.  Gays, rejoice in being fruit! 

We can start with the boast that we’re highly pluckable – some of us, anyway. (I’m a high hanger, or so I like to think.  Which leaves my plucking: (i) for the birds, or (ii) for the intrepid).  And some fruit – citrus comes to mind – has thorns, but you can always choose scurvy (a straightly-named disease if ever there was) instead.

Not worth dwelling on, perhaps, but still needing to be mentioned, is another sort of pointy end – how the seeds, or the fruit’s payload (from the parent tree’s perspective) get delivered into the soil, so they stand a chance of taking root in a faraway fresh territory. 

We fruit must thus usually be (ahem) spat out or shat out.  Of course, modern rubbish-collection and sewerage systems rather disrupt such natural payload delivery.  Which is possibly why, in a very roundabout way, gay sex came to be viewed as deeply unnatural in Victorian toilet-obsessed times.  That is, c .1870 fruit fruit became divorced from its symbiosis of a reproductive inner and attractively packaged outer, while gay “fruits” similarly fell out of  symbiosis, and into singularity.

So that’s gay reproduction for you – how in unlikely outer suburbs and country towns, far away from the base of the tree, as it were, a new generation is seeded.   Sexuality, if not also marriage, can spring from even “the poorest Methodist chapel”, as Geoffrey Luck so quaintly puts it.  


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