The politics of fear

Once upon a time fear was a gift from nature – it triggered our “fight or flight” mechanism, vital to keeping us alive. Especially when we lived in a less built up world where every day we faced things tht could kill us.

It seems to me though that most of our fears these days have very little to do with “fight or flight” and keeping us alive. In fact, I think that most of our fears these days are completely manufactured to serve particular interests. Like for instance the constant fears that we’re not beautiful enough, don’t own the right clothes or car, fears that other people are having more fun than us, fear that if we don’t insure everything we own and our life, one day something will happen and our entire existence will amount to nothing.

The advertising industry has as long as it’s existed cultivated fear as a way of selling us products that we don’t really need. And it works. So it’s only natural that politicians would take an interest. Add a willing media, and we have the politics of fear.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on this blog about the media witch-hunt for Muslims. Later on the day that I posted it, I discovered that the front page of the Courier Mail was excitedly reporting that a terrorist attack in Australia by home-grown fundamentalist Muslims was “likely”. Since then we have seen non-stop media coverage of “terror threats”, we’ve seen Australia commit to another war in Iraq, new ASIO powers proposed, bins being welded shut at Brisbane train stations, protests against mosques being built on the Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, Jacqui Lambie becoming the inarticulate spokesperson for our deep-seated national Islamophobia, and mass anti-terrorism raids in Sydney and Brisbane.

Every new development has been screamed from the rooftops by politicians (looking very serious) and the media (barely restraining their glee at one sensational headline after another). And we’ve also seen, though certainly not on the front pages, incidences everywhere of violence against random Islamic people (mostly women who are easily identifiable by their scarves and veils).

I can remember the early 2000’s. I remember the post-9/11 hysteria over the dual threat of terrorists and “boat people”. Outright lies from the government (of “children overboard” and “weapons of mass destruction”) were pre-texts for brutal immigration detention centres, the invasion of Iraq, wild new anti-terror laws that set civil liberties back decades. I remember the your-neighbour-might-be-a-terrorist securtiy hotline. “Be alert not alarmed” they said, as they bombed Iraq to rubble. And I remember the culmination of that era – the legacy of the politics of fear. In January 2006 the sleepy beachside suburb of Cronulla was the setting for an uncontrollable eruption of racially motivated violence against anyone who wasn’t white.

The Cronulla riots were a bit of an awakening for Australians – we looked in the mirror and didn’t like what we had become. The end of the Howard era was just around the corner. But as I look around right now, the scenario seems remarkably familiar. An unpopular government (trying to recover from a disastrous budget announcement) seizes upon the opportunity to use fear to try to bolster support against a common (perceived) enemy. Tony Abbott had a go at talking tough about Putin before Islamic State appeared like the proverbial god in the machine. Abbott can position himself as the strong leader holding together a nation under threat, any dissenting voices can be labelled sympathisers with terrorists. And it’s worked. As the byline in The Australian yesterday read: “Support for the Coalition has risen to a five-month high as voters show their approval of Tony Abbott’s handling of national ­security matters.”

I think there are questions that we need to be asking about this national emergency. Questions like: Why is the number of people who have actually been charged so miniscule compared to the number of houses that have been raided? Why is there a total black ban on reporting any details of the evidence used for the terror raids when the media were given full access to (at this stage completely innocent) people’s houses being raided by the police? How is it that ASIO are getting laws passed that protect them from liability for illegal actions they engage in, while people who travel to “no-go zones” will legally be considered guilty until proven innocent? Is it a coincidence that those very public “terror raids” occurred immediately before the government  extends extraordinary ASIO powers that were originally only for three years until 2025? What specific evidence is there about terrorist attacks planned in Australia?

The history of terrorism related arrests in Australia is not a good one. While there have been people found guilty of planning terrorist attacks; there are also incidences like the bombing of the Sydney Hilton Hotel in 1978 – a bizarre episode that was blamed on the religious sect Ananda Marga. Three members of Ananda Marga were first arrested then later acquitted. Meanwhile ASIO, who had at the time been coming under criticism, were granted extra powers. In 2007, Muhamed Haneef was arrested in Brisbane, held in solitary confinement for 12 days before being released (he was later given an undisclosed amount of compensation). Let’s not forget David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib being imprisoned and tortured in US offshore prison Guantanamo Bay. In fact, while we’re at it, let me remind you that there are still 150 men detained in the infamous torture camp. Most of them have been there over a decade now without ever having been charged. In general the “war on terror”, for all the money spent, new laws and human rights abuses, doesn’t seem to have done much besides leave a few foreign countries in a much worse state than they were in before.

Of course the bitter irony is that for all the rhetoric of “emergency’, the very tangible threat to all 7 billion of us earthlings, which is climate change, is definitely not on Tony Abbott’s radar. In a moment of perfect symbolism, Abbott is flying to New York for a world leaders summit on combating terrorism but snubbed the talks on climate change which occurred the day before.

It’s worth remembering too the last manufactured “emergency”. Because all this terrorism talk has shifted from the media focus the fact that a middle eastern man did die an unnecessary death in Australia this month. It was Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Kehazaei, who had a cut on his foot which became infected due to the fact that there is no adequate sewerage at the Manus Island detention centre. He was refused medical treatment to the point where when he actually got to hospital he was declared brain dead from septicaemia. His life support was turned off the next day. And the people responsible for this are telling us that others are “evil”?

If terrorism is the use of fear to achieve political goals, the literal terrorists right now are the Murdoch media and the government, who have intentionally bombarded us with terrorism hyperbole based on very scarce evidence. And what have been the fruits? Increasing reports of physical violence against a minority group in our country, exclusion of the group to such an extent that it will quite possibly lead to more people being radicalised, laws being passed that further deny civil liberties, another war in Iraq. These things are truly frightening.

We need to keep clear heads in analysing what the things are that we really need to be worried about. We need people who will be fearless in standing up for justice in the face of an angry public and heavy media bias. But we also need to keep putting forward ideas that are alternatives to the politics of fear. Love, solidarity, hospitality, caring about others and about the future. These politics don’t help big business at all, but I do think they represent the best chance we have of a less frightening world.

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First they came for the Muslims

I think I first noticed it about a month ago. First it was just a few random posts on facebook – people who are remnants of a conservative christian church past, who I have no real life contact with any more. They were sharing horrible anti-Islam articles with horrible anti-Islam comments posted below. I thought about deleting those people off my facebook, but then I thought that actually I wouldn’t. As obnoxious as I found this stuff, sometimes it’s better to see what’s out there. Know your enemy and all that.

Some of the links that I saw shared were from racist crackpot groups like the Patriots Defence League. But more worryingly (even if unsurprisingly), several were from Murdoch-owned newspapers – supposedly mainstream respectable press. And then the floodgates opened.

A picture of a young boy, reported to be the son of Australian Khaled Sharrouf, holding a severed head was posted on the net to much horror. Suddenly there was a national crisis of Australians going over to fight as Jihadis. Tony Abbott was talking about how Muslims needed to join “Team Australia“. The Daily Telegraph published Tim Blair’s embarrassingly bad article about Sydney suburb Lakemba. Titled “A look inside Sydney’s Muslim Land”, it describes Lakemba as a “monoculture”. Which it possibly is, if you count every culture other than white Australian as one. More facebook posts, and the comment sections on these articles were even more of a no-go than usual.

A new bogeyman had appeared, as Islamic State (IS) brutally made their way through the north of Iraq, country still decimated from the last Iraq war. Like something out of a horror movie they swept from town to town, claiming territory and slaughtering anyone who wouldn’t join as they went.

The Iraqi government had its own problems and was powerless to stop IS. In fact there isn’t really an Iraq government at the moment, US-appointed Primer Minister Nouri al-Maliki having been stood down and talks of a new government stalling amongst all the violence. Maliki’s religious factionalism (he is Shia) had helped to create Islamic State (who are Sunni) in a country that had for decades been religiously moderate and tolerant. The Iraq army in the north of the country turned and fled, leaving IS to claim all their weapons and add them to the weapons they already had from American support of Islamist militia groups fighting against the Assad government in Syria.

As all this unfolded in the news (bringing with it the anti-Islam reaction), it just so happened that we had living with us a family of Muslims. I can never remember discussing with them what was happening in Iraq and Syria. Why would I? They were Australian born and bred, religiously tolerant and really had no more links to IS than I did. Would seem to be common sense really. As we all know though, common sense isn’t always that common. So we had Tim Blair summarising an entire suburb based on two books he found in one of its bookstores, our Prime Minister warning of imminent terrorist attacks in Australia, talk of restricting the movements overseas of Australian citizens, and a meeting organised with Muslim leaders (many of whom, unlike Tony Abbott, were born here) inviting them to join Team Australia.

When I see media trends like this, I ask myself why it is happening. Is the rising ant-Muslim sentiment plain old xenophobia? That is a reliable way to sell papers and get votes after all. Is it an attempt to distract the public from a Liberal government that is becoming increasingly unpopular and hasn’t yet managed to get its budget passed in the senate? But before long a sound in the distance gave another clue. It was the predictable and familiar sound of the drums of war.

The last time I remember seeing anti-Islam media this frequently was at the beginning of the “War on Terror”. Phone lines were set up for reporting neighbours we suspected of being terrorists.  Laws were passed that horrified civil liberties advocates. Australian Mamdouh Habib was locked up and tortured for three years in American offshore prison Guantanamo Bay before being released without charge. The Australian government did nothing to support him. In fact, in a case that could have been modelled on US policy, the Australian government arrested doctor Muhammed Haneef in Brisbane, held him for 12 days in solitary confinement, cancelled his visa, before being forced to admit that he had done nothing wrong. A trail of terror and destruction was left across Iraq back then too. Funny though, the invading army (can we call them terrorists?) back then came from Australia and the US.

It’s amazing really to see the furore over Islamic State in the media and wonder at just how short people’s memories can possibly be. It was only a decade ago that the “Coalition of the Willing” (including Australia) entered Iraq with “shock and awe” tactics that involved bombing entire cities, use of depleted uranium weapons that even now leave babies born with mutations, torture camps from Abu Graib to Guantanamo Bay, and murder on an unimaginable scale.

As terrifying as Islamic State is, it will take them a long time to match the 150,000 killed in the Iraq war (that’s the most conservative estimates by the way. One report counting deaths both directly and indirectly from the war said the number is nearly 500,000). Almost all that number were civillians. It’s also hard to see how decapitation videos from IS are all that different to videos of American soldiers urinating on bodies they had killed, or “trophy photos” of US soldiers with dead bodies in Afghanistan.

While our politicians talk of “unspeakable evil” and the media pretends that IS has appeared out of nowhere, we should be very clear about one thing: the war on terror created Islamic State. Not just because a lot of them came directly from Syrian rebel groups who were armed by the US. Because a generation of Iraqis were radicalised by seeing their country turned to rubble. Because the US overthrew a secular government in a religiously moderate country and put in place a factional Shi’ite regime. Because a country with its population and infrastructure decimated has very little ability to resist a militia group expanding its territory with American guns.

For all the lives lost, trillions of dollars spent and civil liberties curtailed, the war on terror has been an extraordinary failure. The US might have got some cheap oil out of it, but it has left Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya all in a worse state than they were beforehand.

Who could have predicted this would be the outcome? How about the millions of people around the world who marched against the Iraq war before it began? Or the United Nations, who condemned it as illegal. Or the pope, who did the same. Or the majority of voters in Australia, who were always against it. Or the two guys who climbed one of the sails of the Sydney Opera House to paint “NO WAR” on it in red paint.

In short, everyone predicted it. But now, as the war slumps to an even lower point, we see the politicians and right-wing media, who were relentlessly pro-war, execute a perfect blame-shift manoeuvre. On the receiving end, once again, are the Muslims of Australia.

We should always reject the kind of bigotry that will scapegoat an entire religion of people like we have seen in the last few weeks. But also, we should be very wary of the nationalism that we’ve also seen. “Team Australia” is a construct that can change to suit the desires of whoever is powerful enough to define it. It’s a bit like those teams picked by two captains on the school playground – you can never be quite sure who’ll be in and who’ll be out. Iraq’s elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction are proof that our leaders aren’t above telling a lie to justify mass murder when it suits their purposes.

Christians in Australia have shown a lot of concern for Christians being persecuted in Iraq, but only people with no experience of persecution could spout the kind of patriotic tribalism I’ve seen in online comments recently. In Iraq or Australia, a time will come when all of us will have to take a stand for what we believe is right, and it’s worth remembering what Martin Niemoller said about Nazi Germany:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”


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Happy Independence Day

Last Friday to celebrate US independence day I took to the streets of Brisbane dressed as Uncle Sam. I was holding a sign that said “Happy Independence Day! Let’s Make Australia Independent One Day!” and handing out flyers which quoted the declaration of independence and applied it to Australia and our need to free ourselves from the American Empire.

It was all very last minute. I’d spent the week reading Iain McIntyre’s history of Australian agitation “How To Make Trouble And Influence People” and listening to Jeffrey Lewis sing Crass songs, so I was itching to get out and do something. I’ll admit that it probably wasn’t the best action I’ve ever done (I know some people didn’t pick up on the irony), and due to a combination of factors I ended up going on my own, but there were some interesting things that happened and made me think, so I thought I’d write this.

King George Square was a bit quiet to start with, so I decided to wander through the Queen Street mall for a bit until they kicked me out. That process took probably about 5 minutes or so, except this time the council ranger not only wanted to stop for a chat but also to fine me $113 for the offence of “distributing any written material whatsoever”. Apparently holding a sign is a separate offence, but in a heart-warming act of generosity he let me off that one.

Needless to say, I have a problem with these laws. For one, these laws clearly don’t apply to everybody. I mean, in the middle of the mall is a newsagent which does nothing except distribute written material, and the entire stretch is filled with signs advertising endless businesses and products. So obviously this law isn’t for any moral reason since the exact offences are permitted on a mass scale by the right people. Why is it there? To make sure that it’s only businesses who have the right to do these things? Well the mall is public space, I don’t see why a privately owned business should have more rights there than anyone else.

I asked the council ranger if he was familiar with the (successful) campaign in the early 80’s for free speech in the mall. He said he was but wrote the fine anyway, he can rest assured that like those activists back then I won’t be paying the fine nor will I stop exercising my free speech. I lost quite a bit of time being held up by him but wasn’t going to let him stop me doing anything, so after leaving him I walked the entire way around the perimeter he had DSC02202 (1)told me I wasn’t allowed in, continuing to hand out my flyers.

As I walked around occasionally stopping for conversations, a few people asked me why Australia should be more independent from the US. “America,” I replied, “is the world’s biggest terrorist. They invade other countries, overthrow governments, crush dissent and abuse human rights all to expand the wealth and power of their own elites.” To my amazement, several people said “I know that, but doesn’t that mean we want to be on their side?”

I didn’t know what to say. I don’t even agree with that for one – the US is in decline and can only really bring Australia down with it. But more importantly, what kind of reasoning is that? I know that no one ever completely lives up to their ideals, but surely morality is meant to be the basis for our decision making and pragmatism comes in when that is impossible, not the other way around. I wonder how many other decisions people make each day using the same reasoning – “I know this is wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway.”

This world is full of walls and shackles that restrict us, but regardless of any of them, nobody can ever claim to be free while they act against their own conscience. To those people I met, and indeed to the council ranger, I can only hope that the effect of my action was that they saw someone standing up for what they believed was right, no matter how futile and ridiculous it seems.

Which is a good segue into my final observation. Somewhere between the council ranger, the somewhat unenthusiastic response and the fact that I was out there on my own, by the evening I was battling on but feeling a little dispirited. By the time I was ready to go, I still had a small stack of flyers in my hand. Again unwilling to feel like I had been defeated, I went to a couple of train stations and stuffed flyers inside copies of mX that were sitting on their stand.

Obviously my little one-man act was never going to bring down the US Empire. Not even challenge Australia’s support of it. I don’t even pretend that I’m building some kind of revolutionary organisation – the flyer was completely anonymous with no contact details on it. Why even bother?

I guess there are a few reasons. I’ve already mentioned a few times doing small actions just to remind yourself that you haven’t been completely defeated. In my less hopeful moments I think that’s why I do these things. Like Ammon Hennacy said so beautifully, “I might not change the world, but I’m damn sure it won’t change me.”

Or sometimes I think that it’s to honour those whose voice goes unheard, or those who came before me and gave their all for the struggle to make a better world. That when I think of the opportunities I have and others who would wish they had the same, I can’t just do nothing. But mostly I think that doing acts like this one is like broadcasting radio waves out into the atmosphere. Not knowing if anyone is listening but knowing that as long as your transmission is going, others can tune in. That maybe it resonates with what they are already doing or thinking, or maybe it is a message that they’d never heard before but were waiting for.

And once you’ve broadcasted it, no one can stop it. It stays there in the air, keeps travelling, maybe even gets relayed by a bigger transmitter who sees it and is inspired to take their own action. Maybe nobody is even tuning in. But as people scan from one station full of ads and rehashed ideas to another, they’ll catch just a flicker of something different. A frequency you’d never noticed was there. And just hearing that glimpse of it makes you wonder what else could be possible.

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A Wolf in Wolves’ Clothing

The self-proclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort is currently on a world speaking tour, and last night graced us with his presence at Brisbane’s convention centre. A few of us from the Brisbane catholic worker community thought there was another side of the story that needed telling, so we dressed up in our best clothes and handed out this flyer to the attendees. We lasted about three minutes inside before being kicked out by security (who apparently made good on their threat to call the cops), but handed out the rest of our flyers out the front. Then we raided the dumpster nearby and went home.

A Wolf in Wolves’ Clothing

The success of the movie and book “The Wolf Of Wall Street” rides on the back of a familiar scenario in Hollywood – it banks on the fact that while we might be morally against Jordan Belfort’s actions and excesses, we are still seduced by the glamour and wealth.

Movies like this might claim to critique Belfort’s activities, but by focussing on the glamorous spoils of his plunder and not the lives of those whose money he stole, all it does is glorify the notion of getting rich from the exploitation of others.

Belfort may not be using dubious stock market tactics to get rich these days, but the fact that on the back of the movie, this convicted criminal can tour the world getting people to pay at least $125 to hear him speak shows that the glamour of his ill-gained wealth still holds an appeal. Belfort is of course quoted as saying about his speaking tours “this year I’ll make more than I ever made in my best year as a broker.”

The irony of Jordan Belfort’s story is that he was able to con others using the same myth that was the basis of his own wealth – that you can get rich without having to work for it or worry about the consequences on others. Maybe it is this same myth that is at the heart of his continuing popularity.

But Belfort’s pump and dump scheme perfectly represents the inevitable conclusion of this story – our riches only ever come at the expense of others, and every bubble eventually bursts.

While the story of Jordan Belfort and others like him remains our dominant cultural narrative, this is the end that awaits us all – we may get rich, but we will always be wary of others trying to steal our wealth, or the consequences of our actions coming back to bite us. On a global level, the spoils of our pursuit of wealth are plain to see – corrupt governments and businesses, ecological crisis, resource wars and a global financial system on the brink of collapse.

But an alternative story to the wolves of Wall Street exists. A story of possibility where we don’t take more than we need and don’t seek to gain at the expense of others. It might not make for movies as dramatic or glamorous, but it gives us more chance of a happy and fulfilled life, a more equal world and maybe even a sustainable future for humanity.

For this to become our cultural narrative will require quite a shift in our thinking, especially considering who has the resources in our society to tell the stories that make it to our screens. But to transform our own lives is as simple as a decision to seek true happiness instead of ever-expanding wealth, and to acknowledge other people’s lives as just as important as our own. And that step is completely up to us.

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The problem with non-violence

“The only problem with non-violence,” he tells me, “is this: what happens when you’re being attacked and you need to use violence to resist?”

It really, honestly, is a valid question. It’s not his fault we’re constantly force-fed myths of violence in self-defence, from our movie and television screens to our governments and militaries, telling us that violence is only used to protect ourselves.

He’s not the first person to point out this problem with non-violence though. Any time the idea of non-violence is talked about, someone will inevitably bring this up. Possibly elaborated into some hypothetical situation that involves Australia being invaded; or somebody advancing on you with a knife, so out of their mind they can’t possibly be reasoned with.

It’s a flaw of human nature that we almost always, in any conflict situation, can only ever envision ourselves as the innocent party. It’s what makes resolving interpersonal disputes so difficult, and global conflicts even harder.

But the problem with talking about non-violence in terms of hypothetical situations is that it pretends that violence also only exists in a hypothetical realm. Even while Australia was involved in fighting two long, expensive and brutal wars overseas, I would still have people ask how I could defend a philosophy of non-violence if we were to be one day invaded.

This view of violence though is blind to the violence that is happening all around us – that our nation was built on the dispossession and murder of aboriginal people; that our wealth is perpetuated by the exploitation of the labour and natural resources of the developing world; that our lifestyle and the climate change that comes from it is devastating the poorest people in the world, who are most affected by climate change yet did the least to cause it. That our nation has been involved in wars of aggression supporting the inhumane empire that is the United States, that our military also collaborates in training other notorious human rights abusers, like the Indonesian and (most recently) Chinese armies.

Even our most heroic stories of violence are based on pretty shaky foundations – as the fervour builds for the centenary of ANZAC Day next April, far too few people are asking the question of why exactly our troops were invading the shoreline of Turkey to help the British Empire fight a war against Germany.

And we’ve just seen Peter Cosgrove appointed Governor-General (and a knight!), his reputation built on Australia’s involvement in helping East Timor gain its independence in the late 90’s. It doesn’t take a great detective to discover that before then, Australia had been knowingly training the Indonesian army to kill East Timorese for a quarter of a century, or that straight after it gained its independence, East Timor was swamped with Australian companies coming to take its natural resources while the Timorese  people remained in desperate poverty (their GDP per capita still one thirtieth of Australia’s).

East Timor is currently taking Australia to the International Court Of Justice claiming that it was coerced into signing the Timor Sea Treaty in 2002, gifting Australia 80% of the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields. The claims include that while negotiating the treaty, Australia was spying on meetings of the newly formed Timorese government. Australia’s response was to in December send ASIO agents to the office of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer representing Timor, and confiscate the evidence on which they were building their case.

In our context of widespread violence, the call to non-violence is not a hypothetical inactivity while someone beats you up. It is the process of identifying where violence is currently happening in our society, and attempting to resist the tide of violence and build peaceful, non-exploitative alternatives. Not merely the absence of violence, but what Gandhi called “satyagraha”, or “truth force”.

So in answer to my friend’s question that started this article, my answer would be: Sure. If someone attacks you, hit them back to resist if you need to. Kick them in the balls and run away. If we have a movement for justice which (as history would say is probable) is resisted with force by those who stand to lose, then it might be necessary to fight in self-defence. But non-violence is not about hypotheticals. It is about transforming ourselves, our communities and our society away from the cycles of violence and to a more just, selfless and peaceful way.

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The ghosts of Wollar are alive at Leards Forest

I left my hometown of Mudgee at the start of 2006. Within a couple of years, the number of open-cut coal mines in the region went from one to three. While I probably would have considered myself an environmentalist at the time, I didn’t do anything to try to stop the development of these mines. To be honest, I don’t think at that point the thought had ever crossed my mind that you could.

Nor did many around town seem to think there were any problems with the new mines. A lot of people in town already worked at the one coal mine at Ulan, and nobody seemed to see the new mines as something to worry about. Most of Mudgee was apathetic, but unknown to me, the rural communities of Wollar and Ulan (where the mines were to be built) had been locked in a seismic battle – neighbour against neighbour, farmers against mining company, conservationists against government.

Having left town, it was only at a distance that I was drip fed information about the progress of the Wilpinjong and Moolarben mines and their impact on the local community. With pain and disbelief I heard the news that Wollar – the rural refuge for hippies and the place where my friends had grown up – no longer existed. The whole township had been excavated, tossed into the furnace and pumped into the atmosphere.

Then I heard that The Drip, the phenomenally beautiful gorge and aboriginal birthing site in the Bylong Valley, that I had climbed and played in and marveled at as a kid, had been leased to the Moolarben coal mine.

The full story of those mines and their impact on those rural communities is a long and tragic one that I don’t know enough of to do justice to. Sharyn Munro’s book “Rich Land Waste Land” is the best resource for hearing the voices of these and many other communities around the country who have faced the destruction of coal mines.

While I was living away I also heard that the community had begun to be less accommodating to the coal companies. Mudgee was outraged at the news that The Drip had been secretly sold off. A local campaign to save it began. A proposed fly-in, fly-out village for the mine was met with local opposition, forcing it out to the smaller farming community of Turill, who also didn’t want it but didn’t have the people power to stop it. I don’t know how much the people of Mudgee celebrated that victory, but next to a giant hole in the ground, polluted waterways and an entire village wiped off the map, it surely is the smallest of consolation prizes.

Of course, another thing that has happened since then in that region is the Eddie Obeid corruption scandal – where former NSW Labor resource ministers Obeid and Ian McDonald were revealed to have, among many other things, used their insider knowledge in mining tenders in the Bylong region to amass huge wealth through complex company structures that were fronts for the Obeid family. While the Sydney press trumpeted it as “corruption on a scale not seen since the rum corps”, the locals at Wollar and Ulan could only shake their heads. Whatever dodgy deals occurred when these mines were approved by the same Labor government, it was too late to undo them.

Let’s fast forward to a year and a half ago, when I heard that a couple of dedicated environmentalists were camping out in the Leards Steat Forest near Boggabri, NSW. They were trying to support the local farmers in their struggle against a proposed new mine at Maules Creek. For a long time now, climate justice has been to me one of the most pressing issues anyone interested in the future of our planet needs to be standing up for. But it was also the memory of Wollar that drew me out to the Leards Forest.

The first time I went to Leards, there were barely half a dozen of us at the camp while I was there. It was summer and brutally hot. We talked about doing actions but in the week I was there they just didn’t come together. Still, I loved being out in the bush, letting it heal me of all the craziness and industrial sickness of the city. We went on koala spotting missions, to try to prove what would be lost if the forest was bulldozed. I met and talked with local farmers, and with Sharyn Munro, who has traveled the country collecting the stories of those who have been the losers in the mining boom.

It was a year before I got a chance to go back to Leards Forest. I had stayed updated and tried to support the cause where I could, but it felt so good getting back to that camp and that forest, say hello to old friends and new comrades. In the time I’d been away, the issue had grown in prominence and at this point there were at least 20 people who had been brought out to the forest from all over the country to help out.

The bush was still there too, for now at least (there was quite a bit less of it to be honest) – beautiful and rugged, with its rocky soil, box gums and cypress pines, those huge sunsets across the plains, the star-filled skies at night. In the distance I could hear the rumble of a coal mine operating 24-7, but still that bush was working its magic on me again.

A blockade camp is a place of extremes. Even hitch-hiking down there, talking about the issue was measured, taking in all viewpoints and prefacing statements with “yeah, but…” On a blockade there’s no need for that kind of beating around the bush – it’s only greenies and miners out there, on opposing sides. For years I’ve heard police say “I’m only doing my job” as they drag you off or hold you in line at demonstrations. I’ve never taken it as a valid rule of ethics,  but it’s a bit like that in the bush as you try your best to hold up work on the mine. You can look the worker in the eye – you both know where you stand. Both just doing your jobs.

But blockading is much more than what most of us call our jobs. Sneaking around at night dodging security to set up actions, sitting in a group trying to formulate plans. Reclaiming the sense of adventure that in our city lives of routine and busyness we only get to live out vicariously through the movie screen. Strangers become co-conspirators, ordinary people become heroes as we put our bodies on the line, resisting the destruction we normally feel so powerless to stop.

I interviewed a few people who were planning to get arrested for the first time – two women from Melbourne who were locking on to excavators, one guy from NSW who would be sitting up in a tree. In their voices you could sense the excitement. I not only heard it, I felt it too. In our lives where so much of our experience is mediated – the music we listen to, screens we watch, things we own – this time we were at the centre of the action, trying to create the world we dream of.

I went out to Leards again since then too. The camp had been evicted from the state forest, the Narrabri Shire Council’s ludicrous excuse being that it was due to bushfire concerns. But they had set up a new camp on the property of a local farmer, and kept doing actions, often with a wonderful creativity and sense of humour. People had kept on coming out, wanting to be involved.

That time it was only a short stay, and we didn’t have a lot of luck doing actions that held up work, but I still loved it anyway. We did work on the campsite, setting it up to hopefully be there as long as it will take. Before I left I went to a meeting at Narrabri, where 600 farmers met and talked about how they could stop coal seam gas exploration in the region. As I went back up north I was planning when I would next return.

The story of Wollar isn’t unique, there are a number of communities that have been decimated by mining and written off as just another expense. But neither is the story of Maules Creek. Across the country there are people getting together and saying that no matter what our government and mining companies might believe; our communities, our forest, our climate, and our lives are not something that can just be dug up and sold off.


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My top 10 songs of 2013

Another year ends, and all those music lists remind me how out of touch I still am. Still, making this list has come to be something I really look forward to each year. And as always, there was a lot of rad music made in 2013.


Paddy McHugh and the Goldminers – The snowmen

My favourite Paddy McHugh moment of the year actually didn’t involve this song. It was at a show when he introduced his old Sydney City Trash classic “Just The Country Coming Out In Me” by saying “I’m from the country, and I’m fucking proud of it.” I’ve lived in the city a long time now, but my whole body felt a rush of country pride during that song that I knew the people in the room who weren’t from the country would never understand.

Paddy’s album of this year, Trials And Cape Tribulations, is just a magnificent album that shows just how good folk music can be – it tells our history and our stories with heart, compassion and wit. And he is also a lovely bloke.


Year Of Scummery – Wadonga

Advance warning: there is a lot of folk punk in this list. Every year is a good year for people who like folk punk, but maybe my tastes or range are getting narrower these days. Anyway, Year Of Scummery were a folk punk institution this year – hitching and riding freight trains around the country, playing shows and busking with an ever-evolving cast of musicians joining in.

They did an album as well, but it doesn’t really capture the experience that is Year Of Scummery live, which I think this video does pretty well. Every show was great, but my best memory of the year would have to be a show we did in a Brisbane laundromat. Cam was looking like the crustiest man alive, and as he thrashed at his ukelele and screamed out the words, a few people very nervously edged into the room holding their baskets of washing.


Vélociraptor – Up the library bums

One of the highlights of the year for me was in April organising a tour of shows for the first time. My travelling companions, and in fact the inspiration for the tour, were Melbourne/France folk punk duo Vélociraptor. I saw them play 5 sets in a week, so their songs are pretty well imprinted on my mind. I still enjoy their album now though.

It was inspiring for me to hang out with other people doing DIY music and to try to organise a DIY tour myself. It wasn’t quite the epic trek across the country that you read about American bands doing, but it was pretty awesome still. Two of the venues we played had libraries in the room, so it was fitting for the band to play this tribute to hanging out in the library.


Sweet Teens – Hot breath on cold breast

In this list last year I included the song “All Indoors” by Tom Denton. A chance encounter with Tom in Sydney led to me doing a couple of shows with him, where he stunned the crowd with moments of genius. And that’s not just normal music journalism hyperbole. I guess you have to see it to understand, but something amazing happens when Tom picks up a guitar.

A bit later came his album with his band Sweet Teens, which matched Tom’s crazy poetry with catchy, mostly upbeat guitar rock. The result is an album that is fun, moving, smart, funny and deserving to be heard by more people than it has been.


Carrie and the Cut Snakes – We will be forgotten

In January, the long awaited Carrie and the Cut Snakes debut album was launched. In the middle of the year, Carrie left us for the home of country music, Texas. Brisbane lost a great musician and a great person, but she left us at least with this album, and the women’s art collective she worked so hard to start.

Carrie’s music is beautifully honest and deeply personal, and I find this song so moving. She has told me that it means a lot to her as a song, that it expresses a lot of her personal spirituality. Hopefully those Americans are enjoying it as much as I do.


Yes I’m Leaving – Creepyman

Ever since I first saw them play in a Stockton loungeroom years ago, Yes I’m Leaving have been one of my favourite bands. Any new music or chance to see them play is cause for celebration, and this year I got plenty of both, with a new album and their first trip to Brisbane (plus shows in Sydney and Newcastle, naturally).

The shows were predictably great, so is the album, and this song is up there with the best the band has done – that riff is ridiculously huge and heavy.


The Wild – Dreams are maps

Out of a very competitive field, The Wild have always been one of the most posi and enthusiastic of all folk punk bands – like motivational speakers with acoustic instruments. On this year’s “Dreams Are Maps” though, the band’s music has a new found grandiosity (and so many drum rolls!) It’s still folk punk, but folk punk played by people who’ve been listening to a lot of Arcade Fire. The result is an absolutely joyous album to listen to.

It’s a great album where I don’ really have a favourite track. I chose this one though because it’s a good example of the spirit of the album, and I love the lyric about waking in the park.

“When I woke up in a park surrounded by friends,
I knew these felon politicians wouldn’t stop us again.”

It could be written about the Occupy movement, but then anybody who’s ever slept in a park with their friends around them can probably relate a little bit to what they’re saying.


Virginia Sook – Frederic

I had heard that Virginia Sook were good but never heard the music when I contacted lead singer Lindsay about playing as part of the tour with Vélociraptor I mentioned earlier. Two thirds of a year later, I have seen them play loads of times and have definitely become a fan. Their delicate songs and lyrical imagery make every Virginia Sook show great, and the album that came out towards the end of the year was just as good.

I like all of Lindsay’s songs, but I had to pick one so I’ve gone for this one, inspired by the death of a pet, an existential crisis, and author Frederic Beigbeder.


Albion Gold – Bored and braindead

Another new musical discovery for me this year, Albion Gold are now one of my favourite Brisbane punk bands (even though they’re from the Gold Coast and lead singer Laura Mardon is originally from London). There’s nothing too technical about Albion Gold’s music, just speedy, catchy punk with an occasional metal guitar lick thrown in. But it’s fun, and Laura is not just a great singer, but visually transfixing as she jumps, crouches, stomps, paces around and spits out the lyrics.

I actually maybe like Laura’s solo acoustic stuff even more, but there are enough acoustic guitars in this list already, and Albion Gold were definitely a musical highlight of the year for me. Plus how could I leave out a song with lyrics like:

I’m sick of the social order
I’m sick of slut shaming
sick of the patriarchal system
and patriotic tribalism
I heard you telling rape jokes on your lads night out
you ever tell me to get my tits out for the boys
Well, I’ll kick your fucking teeth out


Ghost Mice – House of the undying

Definitely one of my lowlights of the year was getting kicked out of Brother Juniper House, the community/hospitality house myself and a group of others had started in South Brisbane. And then seeing us go our separate ways, taking with us the dreams we had talked so much about.

The same week we packed up the last of our stuff and had one last cup of tea, there appeared on the internet a split release from Ramshackle Glory and Ghost Mice, two of my favourite American bands. And in there, closing the Ghost Mice side , was this ode to punk houses. Brother Juniper House was definitely not a punk house, but there’s still a lot of our house there in the lyrics, like “I heard that someone’s coming to stay, no one knows them but that’s ok”, “the dumpstered bagels are getting hard”, and sadly  “it’s bound to end the same, a failure to communicate.”

Even now listening to the song is a bit bittersweet (not helped by the band’s proposed Australian tour falling through), but I can’t help but have a bit of Ghost Mice’s trademark optimism rub off on me as they sing “this house will never die.”

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