Thursday, June 30, 2005

A good start

Worrying world of war films

Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg have remade the classic sci-fi film War of the Worlds, and the rave reviews are already in. I’m quite eager to see it, having been a life long fan of the book-come-radio play-come-(now three) films. The 1960s film production was my favourite childhood sci-fi movie, perhaps only eclipsed by yet another alien invasion movie with an unimaginative title.

Despite that, is it just me or is there something grotesquely ironic in all this? We are, after all, talking about a film chronicling the destruction of an entire society by technologically advanced outsiders rapaciously seeking dominion over the weaker party. Call me a kill joy, but you don’t need to invoke science fiction to create such a story. There’s plenty of real world inspiration out there. Tom Cruise and his fellow (mostly white, American) earthlings could easily be substituted for Iraqis, the aliens for American soldiers and the Bush Administration. Donald Rumsfeld wouldn’t require any makeup whatsoever.

War of the Worlds is self-evidently a propaganda film, akin to many other invasion-themed sci-fi movies from the Cold-War era. That the movie will no doubt be a blockbuster reveals a great deal about the novelty of invasion, war and destruction to people who have never experienced it first hand. People like you and I. Yes, Americans have had an experience of invasion of sorts on September 11, and apparently the film echoes that day in a scene where Cruise is covered in New York debris like ash. Australians too may invoke the Bali bombings. But those experiences are, terrible as it is to consider, most notable as exceptions to the general global trend. We simply cannot comprehend what it is like to see our society engulfed in violence and dysfunction, not to mention the emotional effects. Almost as if to confirm this, the War Memorial in Australia’s capital recently refused to include any reference to the clashes between the early European colonists and the Aboriginal population.

Films like War of the Worlds represent another strange contradiction. They are evidence of our never ending capacity to recapitulate collective (and individual) experiences into narratives quite independent of the original inspiration. Hence the litany of war movies in which the aggressor is painted as a noble warrior trying to escape death in a savage, alien land. For example, movies like Black Hawke Down and Zulu, which are both absorbing, brilliantly produced action flicks that happen to be total propaganda, not to mention completely factually inaccurate. With that in mind, repeat the following verses…

There’s only so much you can do
The world's an imperfect place

Worst placed am I to comment
I’m a product of my space
(And time in history!)

PS: I’ve been nominated for an award for the most hyphens in a single blog entry. Wish me luck!

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Meeting Prince Charles at Newman

can be difficult to retain the romance of regional Australia in these modern times. If it isn't the local Blockbuster at Tom Price, it is hearing The Best of Bryan Adams four times in a row on the drive down there from South Hedland. Still, you can't complain about the vistas that confront you from time to time. By road you are confronted by spinifex-covered plains as far as the eye can see. That landscape can quite rapidly transform into anything from gorges to bush gum forests. The sky, even when overcast, always blusters some shade of blue, gradually bleeding into streams of red and grey as the sun begins to set. Even the plains of spinifex that appear monotonous at first eventually reveal texture and variety. Something similar could easily be said about the Aboriginal communities you meet.

Like any other lawyer, land council lawyers need to o
btain appropriate instructions from their clients. This necessitates group meetings with specific Aboriginal groups when matters of significance arise. Meetings can vary in size. Anywhere from 10 to over 700 individuals may be present! Explaining complex ‘white fella’ law during these meetings can be challenging.
The process of undertaking this explanation often reveals Aboriginal communities’ overwhelming sense of frustration with a system which, despite its complexity, unambiguously disenfranchises traditional owners from their land. We are talking here of people who, despite having been affiliated with very specific areas of land and water for several generations, have consistently been ignored. There are constant reminders of this. One of the mountains in the Pilbara is called Mount Nameless. It is so named because the first Europeans to stumble upon it assumed it was a nameless, vacant bit of land. Although Mount Nameless was rich in significance to the local Aboriginal tribes, they were never consulted in the naming process. Mount Nameless may as well be an emblem for a nameless people. The present legal system requires these same people to prove to complete outsiders that they can speak for the land. To say that this occasionally causes frustration to boil over into overt resentment of outsiders, even outsiders who are their legal representatives, is to speak lightly of the situation.

At a meeting in the town of Newman last Thursday, a towering, heavily obese man introduced himself to me as Prince Charles. "...I live in England." Given his age, it is unlikely he heard me reply "I thought you looked familiar." Prince Charles is, of course, a senior elder from the local mob. And his real name isn't Prince Charles. No doubt he had met several lawyers before me, so many other strangers promising to deliver recognition, or benefits, or whatever else. State and Federal law requires mining companies to negotiate with traditional owners before they can mine in their country. Yet the reality is that, at best, the most that can be delivered is a tiny, tiny fraction of the royalties from multi-million dollar mining ventures. In theory, traditional owners can object to a mining project, even if they have been offered benefits in return for the mining. In practice, the tribunal that assesses objections has always found in favour of mining companies. This usually takes the form of a one-off payment or vague pronouncements to build a relationship with the communities upon whose land mining is proposed.

To their credit, most mining companies now offer some level of benefits. A typical example of this is the promise to consider members of the community for employment opportunities. Despite this, the communities I’ve met have consistently complained that the mining companies should train their young adults, not just make theoretical job pronouncements they know cannot be met. More than anything, communities seek enduring relationships with big business and the government. The response from the government and big business is to consider situations on a case-by-case basis.

Earlier in the week I took part in a heritage survey with Freddie Milton*, one o
f the senior most elders in the region. Freddie is one of those iconoclastic old, wise men. With exaggerated pupils leaping out of his large spectacles, increasing his already earnest manner of speech, he explained, walking stick anchored surely into the ground, the significance of one or another ‘dreaming’ site. Remarkably fit for a man in his late 70s, he was not dissuaded from climbing rocky inclines or trudging through heavy bush growth if there was a site there. It is difficult to comprehend a sacred site. The significance is often all too subtle for untrained eyes to notice, but there is definitely something there. You just have to be patient and listen closely. The significance of these sites begins to emerge as much from its history as its physical characteristics.

* Not his real name.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

CEO Pay Still On Steroids

One of the fundamentals of economics is that increases in wages increases inflation, thereby threatening economic growth. And, of course, economic growth is one of the golden calves of the capitalist system. The notion is that unless the economy is constantly 'growing' a society cannot fund its development. That's basically why increases in wages (not necessarily real wages, but any nominal increase) are always so small. Our economy cannot afford significant, radical increases in wages. Despite that, I doubt CEOs are factored into the calculations.

Friday, June 17, 2005

No shame in sorrow

There is no shame in sorrow
When children’s lives do tumble
Falling like leaves in Autumn.

There is no shame in sorrow
When tears refuse to cleanse
The grief in history’s tide.

There is no shame in sorrow
When violence is a virtue
And the only love is greed.

There is no shame in sorrow
When criminals condemn their victims
And the dead mourn the living.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Welcome to South Hedland Posted by Hello

Heading to Hedland

[Note: I haven’t had internet access for over a week. Believe it or not, I survived the ordeal! The following is an entry I wrote on my first night in the Pilbara]

The time is presently 11pm and I’ve been awake since 3am. I haven’t showered or shaved in three days and it feels great (unless I take deep breaths). I am literally having hallucinations which might have something to do with sleep deprivation. The tripiest hallucination I’ve had thus far is mistaking a fire hydrant for a drunken miner. No hallucinations of Rose Byrne as of yet.

Port Hedland is a deal greener than I expected, most probably because of the unusual amount of rain the town’s received over the past few days. The rain’s also helped bring the temperature down to the mid 20 degrees which suits me perfectly. Port Hedland is actually two conjoined towns – the Port and South Hedland – separated by 13kms of freeway and surrounded on all sides by a thread of knee-high bush shrubs which quickly give way to flinty red desert sands the further away from the settlements you go. This makes the landscape pretty unremarkable, but nowhere near as spartan as you’d expect. There is in fact a great deal of colour, from the bright K-Mart sign to the several scrubs of bush flowers that occasionally dot the roads. There’s also a fair amount of infrastructure interspersed with tracts of vacant land to occasionally make you forget how remote the location is. The massive cranes and other earth moving equipment on the Port Hedland coast is the most obvious example of this.

Port Hedland is the hub of the Pilbara, a region of north-western Western Australia that contains 97% of Australia’s iron ore. Western Australia is presently experiencing a mining boom driven primarily by intense demand from China, and the Pilbara has been at its forefront. The mining in the region has generated tremendous wealth for mining companies and the State Government, but the local impression has been limited. There’s clearly sufficient disposable income to warrant the aforementioned K-Mart, a gym, and a range of other shops. But, I am told, indigenous social dysfunction remains high. Already I’ve noticed some tell tale signs. You can find broken bottle glass sprinkled around a number of street corners. The local Coles has three security cameras in every aisle and intimidating ‘This store is under security surveillance’ signs on the shelves containing meat, blankets and other basic goods. A number of security guards patrol the store. In fact, I was followed by a security guard the last time I shopped at the Coles. Maybe he liked my new three-quarters?

Before my ramble gets too long (I know what you’re thinking, ‘Too late buddy!’) I should shatter any myths the reader might have about the intrepidity of my visit. The unit I’ve been given is nestled quite inelegantly amongst a McDonald’s, Blockbuster and Video Ezy which is a tad depressing. It’s certainly shattered the outback romance of the place a little, but it’s not that big a deal. My unit is well furnished, although the shower sprays sideways more than downwards, and any attempt to close the venetian blinds turns them into a cubist monstrosity! Notwithstanding that, and the fact that I was chased by four dogs on the way home tonight, so far so good. I’ve instantly built a report with the people I’ll be working with for the next three months, especially the aboriginal liaison officers. The ALOs are all senior male members of local communities. It’s a subtle thing, but I think being male and coloured has helped. I’d like to think my interpersonal skills have also had a say. Almost the first thing each ALO asked me was where my ‘country’ was. By ‘country’ they do not refer to Sydney or Canberra, where I live, or, indeed, my ‘nationality’, but to the country of my ancestors. Shame my explanation isn't as exciting as the ALOs'!

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Go West!

Today is my last day on the east coast. In two hours I fly to Perth for 3 odd days of training at this NGO’s head office. After that I go straight out into the wilderness… although according to the White Pages the town I’m based in has an indoor sports centre, beauty salon and bike shop. Two out of three isn’t that bad!

This morning the woman who cut my hair was complaining about the amount of advantages Aboriginal people get in Australia. Free legal, free this, free that. I was in two minds as to the appropriate way to respond. On the one hand, I was really just happy to shut up and get my shag trimmed whilst I contemplated breakfast. On the other, I felt obliged to try to dispel one of the more common myths about Aboriginal (dis)advantage. In the end I reached a happy compromise, nodding my head occasionally, whilst occasionally noting that there was a great deal of Aboriginal disadvantage out of sight from suburban eyes. She agreed, and I didn’t even get any cuts!

On matters closer to abroad… it appears one of my contacts in the Occupied Territories has been jailed by the Israelis. And she’s an Anglo-Saxon Australian. That certainly makes things interesting. I don’t as of yet know why she’s been jailed, but I get the feeling it’s one of those standard, politically motivated imprisonments. That’s pretty common in Israel and the Occupied Territories. For example, leading up to the last Palestinian Presidential Elections, the most moderate and progressive of the candidates standing for election, Mustafa Barghouti,
was detained by Israeli police for allegedly assaulting a policeman. He was later released without charge. Thankfully, unlike Barghouti or my contact, I am a complete nobody. Hopefully that counts in my favour (as opposed to my 'Arab' complexion and cheesy grin). Travelling light might also come in handy (read: I’ve decided not to take my ‘Israel out of Palestine’ t-shirt when I visit Israel and the Occupied Territories in September).

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Ode to Canberra DIMIA Graduates

[Here's a poem a friend just sent me. Um, I think you can guess where they work. Maybe we can get Ben Harper to turn out some music for these words?]

A right bunch of twats, resident in the A.C.T.
Thinking they're better, than you or me
Striving hard to find inspiration
Getting aroused, by ministerial directions

Noses upturned, oh how they gloat
Worshipping a woman, as wide a moat
Their goal in life? A posting offshore
How to get one? Become an APS whore

What do I do, despite all that I've said?
Be their friend, or pump them with lead?
Surely I'll know, by the end of next week
If not driven to madness, by some entry-level geek

They've tested my patience, time and time again
Driving my conscience, to the brink of insane
It's only a matter of days, before my tolerance cracks
And I lay to rest, those pompous hacks

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Living in the present

Hello friends, old and new. Welcome to my new blog. It hangs on the coattails of my recent career change.

Last Friday 27 May was my last day in Canberra (and the public service) for the foreseeable future. This after two and a half years in the toilet seat of power. I'm off to a regional mining town to work for an NGO representing traditional owners in negotiations with mining companies. In September I'm going to Mecca on pilgrimage (Umra) and Palestine with my surgeon-uncle (as one does).

I can't say I'm entirely excited just yet everything is still a bit of a haze at present. But I’ll definitely be buzzing when my journey begins this Sunday. More than anything I look forward to the possibility of (relatively) uninhibited creativity be it through my work or by virtue of all the spare time I imagine I'll have. I say that because I've found the Canberra experience particularly stifling on the creativity front. Or perhaps I'm just weird?

Whatever the case, the submissiveness of the public service has taught me a valuable lesson in the virtues of creativity. By that I mean the ability to conceive of issues in ways that are different or antithetical to the dominant paradigm. Creativity requires courage, because it often challenges the most cherished of notions. Canberra's public service has several cherished notions. None of them are particularly creative. Perhaps I can elaborate on that in the future.

For now I'm pretty hectic organising my journeys. In time, I hope this blog will be a space for gossip and comment on all manner of issues. Expect a photo archive and links to other bits of the universe. There’s a space for you to comment too, so don’t be shy!