Facing the Adani mine with a bang not a whimper

The proposal for Indian mining company Adani’s Carmichael mega-coal mine in Central Queensland were approved in July 2014. Few Australians before then could have pointed to the Galilee Basin on a map, but before long the Carmichael mine had become a divisive talking point.

For those on the side of industry, the mine was a bonanza of wealth and jobs – figures like $300 billion and 10,000 jobs were thrown around at one point (only to be later revealed as wildly optimistic) – as well as the potential for a whole new frontier of remote country opened up to the mining industry. Other mining companies with exploration leases in the region queued up behind the Indian company.

For those concerned about the impacts of climate change, the mine was a carbon bomb – several billion tonnes of coal to be burned in a world that had agreed at Paris Climate Summit we had to phase out fossil fuels to stop catastrophic climate change.

Opposition to the mine quickly galvanised into real action. Environmental activists moved to Central Queensland in an attempt to build a movement for climate action in the very place that would supposedly reap the economic benefits. The Wangan and Jagalingou people, traditional owners of the land on which the mine would stand, had signed an Indigenous Land Use Agreement. A group of them though said the process was a sham. They appealed in court; and began a tour of the world’s biggest banks, telling them not to finance a mine that did not have the blessing of indigenous people.

Other court cases began (enough for Liberal MP George Christensen to label them “lawfare”). The Mackay Conservation Group famously won its case in the Federal Court on the basis that the government approval has not sufficiently taken into account the habitat destruction of the yakka skink and ornamental snake. Unfortunately all they won was the need for the government to reassess, and when it comes to weighing up the comparative values of skink habitat vs billion dollar mines, governments are not known to be reptile fanciers.

A protest camp with the intention of blockading work on the mine was set up in 2015 and by 2017 people were being arrested halting work on mining infrastructure.

The shock victory of Anastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor party in the 2015 Queensland election owed more than a little to their promise to stop the dumping of dredge spoil on the Caley Valley Wetlands for Adani’s port, and to not offer any government support to the mine. In doing so, the Labor campaign was effectively piggybacking on the hard work of activists who had revealed the damage the mine and its infrastructure would do.

That work they have never repaid with any proactive move to stop the mine. The Palaszczuk government had the power to veto Adani’s application for a $1 billion loan from the federal Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund. They did so only under pressure during the next election campaign. They could have rejected the mine’s approval on environmental grounds, either by including climate change in the impact assessment or by applying the “water trigger” over the immense amount of groundwater the mine will use. They didn’t. They sat on their hands when it came to prosecuting Adani over environmental breaches they have already committed – agreeing to do so only at the very last minute after heavy activist pressure. Labor have offered Adani a “royalty holiday” for the first four years to help get the mine off the ground. In 2016, Cairns MP Rob Pyne quit the Labor party, citing the Carmichael mine as one of the reasons. Later that year, when a motion was moved in parliament in support of Adani; Pyne was the single vote against with 87 votes for.

Labor’s failure to move on Adani is certainly not because they have innocently forgotten its climate impacts. They have been relentlessly pushed by a significant number of hard-working people opposed to the mine. Numerous times MPs have said in private that they don’t support the mine, or that it won’t happen because the finance isn’t there. But in parliament or in public, the party has been conspicuously silent when it comes to saying anything critical of Adani.

Partly this can be attributed to Labor’s caucus voting rules, but mostly it just seems like pure spinelessness. While so many people are working overtime voluntarily to try to stop this mine and avert climate disaster; Labor politicians with a mandate to stop it seem paralysed by fear of the Murdoch media, the mining industry and pro-mining unions. They cower in silence while trying to still hold onto favour from environmentalists by reassuring them they’re really on side. It also seems hypocritical given Queensland Labor loves to promote its climate action plan and initiatives (most recently grants for households with solar panels to install batteries). With every media release about the party’s action on climate change, the elephant in the room that is Adani becomes harder and harder to ignore.

All those years of saying the finances aren’t there in the last month have come out as the empty excuses they are. Adani have made a series of announcements about changes to their plan that have the mine looking more likely than ever. First they announced a change to the transport plans. Rather than build a whole new rail line, they now intend to build a spur line onto existing tracks further north. Then Adani announced they would be scaling down the project into a series of stages that makes it require less capital. Last Friday, Adani announced they would be self-financing the project, putting aside all those financial questions. They claim work will start on the mine by Christmas.

This is not to say the mine is now a foregone conclusion. There are still hurdles Adani needs to get over regarding its groundwater management plan, the rail network and the federal court challenge of the Wangan and Jagalingou family council. Plus of course the ongoing public opposition.

The campaign against Adani has been Australia’s biggest grass-roots political movement at least since the Iraq war, except more sustained and varied. Polling suggests that three quarters of Australians who have a view on whether the mine should go ahead are against it. There have been all kinds of actions done against Adani, and even in the last couple of weeks we have seen schoolkids on strike and invading parliament; mass messages sent to Anastacia Palaszczuk; and people in Brisbane and Bowen arrested stopping export coal trains to protest the mine. The “lawfare” it seems will continue from both sides, with the Australian Conservation Foundation taking the government to the federal court over groundwater and rail company Aurizon putting a court injunction on Front Line Action on Coal to stop them encouraging people to blockade coal trains. The protest Camp Nudja is still there mind you, with more people going up there to try to get in the way of the mine’s construction. These actions are only going to intensify if the mine gets closer to construction.

You can’t fault the effort of the movement against Adani and all the people involved. But alongside the businessmen and careerist politicians who care for nothing as much as their own pockets; supportive but inactive politicians are now standing face to face with the prospect of being responsible for immeasurable more emissions on the road to catastrophic human-caused climate change.

In 2007, federal Labor leader Kevin Rudd described climate change as “the great moral challenge of our times”. For all his well-publicised flaws, Rudd did at least finally rouse Australia’s climate conscience and sign the Kyoto Protocol on reducing emissions. He took on the mining industry with his super-profits tax and paid the price. Regarding the climate action of so many politicians since (including Queensland Labor on Adani), I think mostly of that classic line from TS Eliot’s 1925 poem The Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper

Few generations have ever been offered the opportunity we have – to do something of real significance and help save the future of the entire world by taking action on climate change. While so many have had to live heroic lives only vicariously through books and movies, or head off to war in the pursuit of a life of significance; our invitation to do something heroic stares us straight in the face – put aside our self-absorption, apathy and pre-occupation with the daily humdrum; and instead be part of a movement to create a better and more just future.

For those politicians, the opportunity is slipping away. Queensland Labor still could move on Adani, but realistically the best chance for it to be stopped is if federal Labor turns it into an election issue early next year. For the rest of us, the call is still there. You can hear it from the threatened ecosystems, the swathes of the world’s population who did the least to cause climate change but will be most affected, and from our future generations. They are relying on us to get involved and try to stop this mine being built the best we can.

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A history of Australian folk-punk

A couple of years ago, down in Tasmania to play at HOBOFOPO festival, I wrote this guide to folk-punk. I love folk-punk, and wanted to articulate why. Turns out lots of people want to read about this niche genre, and that article has become the most consistently read post on this blog. So, as I prepare to head down to play at HOBOFOPO again, I thought I’d again turn my pen to the subject and write this: a history of Australian folk-punk.

I should start by saying this is not a definitive list. I’ve especially looked to include videos of bands that were pioneers of a style or notably influential. If you like it though I encourage further exploration of some of the other artists I mention. As to what makes someone a folk-punk artist, I’ll admit this can be subjective and all I can do is refer you to my previous article.

I should start by saying that Australia has its own distinctive history of both folk and punk music; both of which have influenced the artists on this list. There was a revival of Australian folk music and culture in the 1970’s often linked to radical politics. That decade too saw bands developing uniquely Australian folk-rock styles – most notably Redgum‘s political folk-rock (even when succumbing to the musical excesses of 80’s arena rock they held on to a folk sensibility), and the rocked-up traditional Aussie folk of The Bushwackers (check out this amazing video of them miming on daytime tv).

Those bands, along with UK folk-punk pioneers The Pogues, would have been big influences on the first generation of Australian folk-punk acts in the late 1980’s. One of those acts was Melbourne’s Weddings, Parties, Anything. They mixed a punky/pub rock with some folk instrumentation; while the subject matter took folk’s story-telling style as well as a folk-singer’s eye for Australian history, places and working class politics. Somewhat cultural archaeologists, The Weddos (as a pub audience would predictably abbreviate their moniker to) would cover old folk songs (most notably Tex Morton’s hobo classic Sgt Small), as well as keeping alive Australian history through songs like this early tribute to Henry Lawson.

 

At the same time in Sydney, fiery Scottish socialist Alistair Hulett formed Roaring Jack. They trod similar territory musically and thematically, though with a sound a bit rougher and the politics a bit more explicit.

 

As the decade changed another significant folk-punk band emerged. Mutiny were similar musically and also looked often to Australian history and radical politics for subject matter. They came out of the anarcho-crust punk scene though, which shows through in the breakneck tempos of their songs and the fact that the politics venture from the traditional class warfare and union songs to singing about squatting buildings and choosing to live on the fringes of society.

 

Meanwhile in Adelaide appeared something different. The Bedridden had a rudimentary level of musicianship and a love for irreverent subject matter – their style was similar to what would later emerge from New York as “anti-folk”. They only ever released a couple of albums, but played on and off for a decade with an ever rotating cast of musicians; plus key member Baterz was also quite prolific as a solo musician until his unfortunate death in 2002. In Adelaide, Baterz and The Bedridden are legends, as proved by an epic tribute album compiled after Baterz’ death.

 

As one century changed to another, that Celtic punk sound became more common as American bands like Flogging Molly and Dropkick Murphys entered the mainstream. In Australia a steady stream of bands emerged in this style, most notably The Go Set (who built a big following playing a very Weddos-style pub rock folk mix). But plenty of others have popped up, including but not limited to: Melbourne’s The Ramshackle Army and The Currency; Sydney’s The Rumjacks (very popular overseas but not always in Australia due partly to the behaviour of their lead singer) and Handsome Young Strangers; Brisbane’s Wheatpaste and The Great Shame. In a style that can at times be a bit generic, one of the most original acts are The Dead Maggies, who formed with the mission statement of “folk-punk songs about historical Tasmanian murders and suicides”.

 

 

Another old form of folk music that worked well when mixed with punk was country. Australian punk and country had definitely crossed paths even early on, in the inebriated “cowpunk” of The Johnnys or the various bands that emerged out of St Kilda led by Fred Negro. Over the years various bands fused the two in different ways – in Melbourne Graveyard Train‘s horror-themed hoedowns, in Perth the boozy epics of The Kill Devil Hills. A bit less punk but unquestionably great was the “subversive homespun bluegrass” of Sydney’s The Lurkers , while a bit more punk (albeit with pedigree from Australia’s country music capital of Tamworth) was the foulmouthed hillbilly thrash of Sydney City Trash.

 

 

Other styles of folk-punk were brewing across the country though. In Queensland Steve Towson appeared Billy Bragg-like with just his voice and a very rhythmic style of electric guitar playing. He sang about radical politics and Australian places; and also toured and recorded relentlessly for a few years, which is also quite a folk-punk characteristic.

Another man with a guitar was Jamie Hay, singer and guitarist of iconic Newcastle crust-punk band Conation. In his quieter moments he recorded a set of acoustic songs as Fear Like Us – prefiguring the later deluge of American punk singers donning flanelette shirts and recording alt-country acoustic albums. Fear Like Us have remained an infrequent but ongoing musical presence for more than a decade now, occasionally turning out to be a pretty fierce rock act themselves.

 

Another Newcastle band with a bit of a thing for alt-country was Like… Alaska.  Where the country-punk I mentioned early had been blokey and boozey, Like… Alaska took the introspective singer-songwriter style of Bright Eyes or Ryan Adams and carved out their own space in the punk scene of the mid-2000’s; again before the sight of punks singing country songs was quite as common as it is now. The lovely voice of Jen Buxton too adds a dash of femininity to a list that so far has been pretty male-dominated and masculine in outlook (working class jobs, drinking, fighting, travelling around).

 

Way across the Pacific Ocean, a new development in folk-punk had been brewing. Florida’s Against Me! emerged playing a style of punk that was completely unplugged, yet bursting with energy and intensity; they took punk’s DIY touring method to a new level with shows in parks, laundromats and wherever could be found. Over the next few years this became the dominant style of folk-punk; from the ultra-positive nerd vibes of Ghost Mice, to the misanthropist gutter folk of Pat “The Bunny” Schneeweis’ various musical incarnations and the intense cacophony of Blackbird Raum.

Most well known of Australian artists in this style is Chris Burrows. First as Asking For It, then The Anorexic Olsen Twin, and most recently as This Is A Robbery; and either on guitar or piano; Chris thrashed out his distinctive songs from chilly and beautiful Tasmania. And within the developing folk-punk subculture he became Australia’s main ambassador.

 

Chris wasn’t alone though. The ease of playing completely acoustic music meant that folk punk bands popped up all around the place, often only momentarily. New venues appeared where it was scarcely possible before; like St Stephen’s Cemetery in Newtown where there were some classic shows. Here is a video of Ethan Del Carmen playing there as Commonfilth!, a couple of state moves and musical projects later he is still playing acoustic music now under his own name.

 

On the burgeoning flannelette singer-songwriter scene, Lincoln Le Fevre started strumming in Hobart, Ben David from Adelaide, and Rachel Maria Cox of Newcastle encouraged more prominence for women in the genre with her label/booking agency Sad Grrls Club. In Brisbane former Sydney City Trash member Paddy McHugh re-emerged singing insightful, funny and powerful songs about Australian people and places.

 

There was a heady point for a few years when a bunch of acoustic folk-punk bands were travelling the country playing shows in all kinds of locations. Glitter Rats played punked up versions of old folk songs. Lordy Lordy were an all-women gutter folk band that emerged out of the forests of Tasmania. Year Of Scummery lived out their name in gigs across the country, plenty of others appeared and disappeared.

One of those who stuck around was Wil Wagner. From his days as a teenager singing Chris Burrows covers, Wil developed his own distinctive style and eventually a full band setup as The Smith Street Band. In a couple of albums (and many tours) they had become one of the country’s most popular rock bands. They had also developed a pop-punk sound that wasn’t exactly very folky. But it did hold on to a bit of the spirit of folk-punk; as well as a narrative song-writing style that has become their signature and means I will still include them under that amorphous banner of folk-punk.

 

The influence of The Smith Street Band on Australian music has been immense. Having been around this tiny scene for a long time, it’s a bit of a shock now to often walk into a venue and see a band playing with an obvious Smith St influence. One of those (who have by now enjoyed enough success of their own to have outgrown the comparison) is Camp Cope. Again, they grew out of the acoustic sets of Georgia Maq. They also brought a bit of punk’s tradition of feminist action to the fore; in their lyrics and in their actions calling out sexual assault at gigs. Songwriter Georgia Maq also happens to be the daughter of one of the members of Redgum – the first band I mentioned in this post. Which makes this seem like the perfect place to end, having travelled a generation.

 

Folk punk though keeps going as strong as ever, with artists of varied styles mixing these two genres and philosophies. The HOBOFOPO festival coming up next month in Hobart is the perfect example to demonstrate the happy present and future of Australian folk-punk.

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The Young Dancer is Dead

In the early evening of November 7th, 1993 (25 years ago last Wednesday); a group of aboriginal teenagers were hanging out in Musgrave Park. One of them was Daniel “Boonie” Yock, an 18 year old who performed around Brisbane with the Wakka Wakka dance troupe.

The boys in the park did something to attract the attention of a police car – according to the police “behaving in a disorderly manner”. The car approached them and the boys ran.

Why did they run? We don’t know. Maybe they were carrying yarndi or alcohol. A later report indicated Daniel had both in his system. Maybe it was just adrenaline. Maybe it was because of a long-standing and well-documented history of police violence against aboriginal people in Queensland.

Whatever reason it was, they took off in the direction of Boundary Street. Even for fit young dancers though it’s hard to outrun a police car; and on the corner of Brereton and Boundary Streets (near where the Coles supermarket is now), the cops caught up with the boys. Two were arrested, but Daniel Yock in particular came in for rough treatment.

Exactly what happened is disputed by different sources. Police claimed Daniel picked a stake out of the ground and threatened them, though the Criminal Justice Commission later concluded “it is more probable than not that Yock did not have a free stake in his hand”. He was definitely tackled to the ground and handcuffed by a police officer. One of the boys present told the Commission his face hit a rock as he went down. Two said they saw a female police officer kick Daniel in the head while he was held down.

Most of the boys kept running, but Daniel and 15 year old Joseph Blair were arrested. Joseph said Daniel was placed face down in the back of the paddy wagon. He said he tried to rouse Daniel unsuccessfully. “I saw spew on the side of his mouth. He was staring at me with eyes wide open”. He called out to the police, but “the policewoman just grinned and lit a cigarette.”

It took police over half an hour to drive the two and a half kilometres to the Roma St watch house. When they arrived, Daniel was found to be not breathing and have no pulse. An ambulance was called, but resuscitation was unsuccessful and on arrival at the hospital he was pronounced dead.

The next day, 250 people gathered to protest Daniel’s death outside the Roma St police headquarters. I imagine it was a hot Brisbane summer’s day. Tempers were running high. One report said police racially abused the protesters. They cordoned off the police station and eventually sent officers with dogs in to disperse the crowd.

The scene turned into a pitched battle, with protesters fighting police. News reports the next day said six police were injured, though a few days later the number being reported was 24. No record was kept of injuries on the other side. Police commissioner Jim O’Sullivan said never again would police “be used as punching bags”. Many years later, I heard local aboriginal leader Sam Watson say “I’m not a fan of violence, but that day we stood up for ourselves.”

The next few days, life went on as normal for many Brisbanites, but tensions ran high between aboriginals and police. There were reports of cops antagonising Murris on the street in Fortitude Valley. Aboriginal policewoman Trish Keddie resigned from the force, saying she had been racially abused by co-workers and that “Aborigines were asked to join (the police) as tokens, to be used as political tools”.

A week and a half after Daniel’s death, 4000 people marched from Musgrave Park to Roma St in silence protesting Daniel’s death. You can watch footage from the march on youtube – it looks like an ocean flooding down the road from Musgrave Park.

A Criminal Justice Commission hearing occurred, but when the results came out in April it concludedthe cause of death was ischemic heart disease, which implied impaired blood supply to the heart; There was no evidence of physical trauma that could have been due to police brutality… The Commission found that the police arrest of Yock for disorderly conduct was appropriate and procedurally correct.

An alternative “workers’ inquiry” came to a different conclusion – that Daniel had died from a lack of oxygen after being left face down, unconscious, and unable to breath. No official response was ever granted to this report. Daniel’s death was the 52nd in police custody in the four and a half years since the federal royal commission into aboriginal deaths in custody.

On the 21st anniversary of Daniel’s death (and less than two weeks before the 10th of the very similar case of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island), a rally was held at Emma Miller Place in Roma St against deaths in custody and police violence. It just so happened that this date fell during the Brisbane G20 – a time when normal civil liberties were suspended to enforce the G20 Safety and Security Act and thousands of police were shipped in from around the country (and New Zealand!) to enforce the act.

It was astonishingly hot, with the thermometer hitting 40 degrees and heat radiating from the ground beneath our feet. Our group of a few hundred protesters were surrounded by as many police. As Daniel’s brother, the poet Lionel Fogarty, spoke to the crowd over the PA; he could hardly be heard over the sound of police helicopters overhead. I had heard about the incidents of two decades earlier, but it never seemed as easy to imagine as it did right then.

Another thing that makes me feel able to imagine it is a song. I don’t know if Brisbane aboriginal songwriter Kev Carmody was there on Roma St that day, but I do know that a year and a half later he released his fourth album Images and Illusions and it contained the song The Young Dancer Is Dead. It’s not one of Kev’s best known tracks; but it is an extraordinary, visceral song that does an amazing job of conjuring the atmosphere of that November day.

When you think of angry music, mostly your mind would go to hardcore punk, maybe metal or hard-edged hip hop. The Young Dancer Is Dead is none of these styles; but it is maybe the angriest song I have ever heard. It is angry like a mob burning with the fuel of years of injustice, gathered on a humid summer’s day.

The bassline pulses unnervingly, the drums like marching feet. The tension builds and builds. Kev’s lyrics don’t really mention anger or violence. They are more whispered than shouted. “His memory and beauty, we carry beyond/How long, how long will these killings go on?” Over the top of it all, a violin buzzes like a mosquito around your face, darting in and out of the song.

The flower of youth, cut down in the night/Dead in the police van and driven from the site/Another young warrior has been sacrificed./His spirit endures, our grieving hearts bled/We still long for the song of the young dancer who’s dead

Sometimes you sit long and hard constructing a song. Sometimes a song seemingly appears from the ether, with your mouth and guitar working merely as an antenna capturing what is in the atmosphere.

To me, The Young Dancer Is Dead seems to be the latter. Kev is a great lyricist. Steve Kilbey (best known as lead singer of The Church) is undoubtedly a great producer. Linda Neil, who plays the violin, obviously a talented musician. But when I listen to it, I can’t help but feel that the crowd outside the Roma St police station wrote that song. That the stares exchanged between them and the police wrote those twitchy violin parts. That the ghost of Daniel Yock was captured in the recording studio that day; and every time the song is played, he makes an appearance.

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An open letter to my fellow Christians (on homosexuality and the church)

Many years ago, I was a young man just out of my teens attending a Pentecostal church in Sydney’s southern suburbs. As often happens at these things, there was a call from the preacher that anyone who wanted prayer could come to the front and someone would pray for them. I noticed a youngish guy come out to the front. I had never met him before, but when no one else went out immediately, I walked out and (as is the tradition) put my hand on his shoulder.

We’ll call him Dave, though that wasn’t his real name. I can’t remember what Dave said he needed prayer for exactly; and I don’t know if my prayer had any effect on whatever it was. But after that, I would always say hello to Dave and go over for a chat when he came to church.

Dave was obviously someone who had encountered his share of difficulties in life. He was nervous, awkward and a bit lacking in personal hygiene. He didn’t make friends easily. I slowly got to know him a little bit. He worked in the city doing IT. One day he told me there was something he really didn’t want to but had to tell me. Could we go out for dinner?

Dave built up this conversation quite a bit. He was even more nervous than usual. But eventually when it came time to cut the small talk, he told me he was gay. That was it.

Now I shouldn’t downplay this. Dave had told very few people this – especially inside churches. He never stayed very long in any church partly because he was afraid of this information being found out. For my part, looking back I’m pretty sure Dave would have been the first (somewhat) openly gay person I had ever known. Only a decade or so later this sounds hard to believe, but you have to understand I came from a country town and my social life at the time consisted mostly of church and sporting clubs – neither of which are known as havens for the out and proud.

But even so, I remember feeling a bit surprised that Dave had built this up to be such a big deal. But I learned more of the story as the evening went on. He had been sexually abused as a boy, had little contact with his family, and had attempted suicide several times (over the years, almost every gay Christian I have met has at one time been suicidal. I think it’s partly an ontological issue – when you are something you don’t want to be, not being seems like an appealing option).

Dave’s relationship with the church was a difficult one. He loved God and wanted to be part of a church but he had been hurt in the past and lived in constant fear of being too open about himself. The idea many have of church as a place where you can feel accepted as you are, and a place where you could possibly meet a romantic partner; were not part of Dave’s experience.

The pastor of the church we attended would sometimes say anti-homosexuality things from the pulpit that would make me cringe a bit, but to his credit when Dave approached him and came out, he responded that everyone was welcome in his church.

Still, Dave didn’t hang around long there. I stayed in contact with him though; we would call fairly regularly and chat. A few years later I came across a church that was openly gay-affirming and found out they were running a conference. I told Dave, he went along and loved it.

At some point though, I stopped being able to get onto Dave on the phone. His facebook profile had disappeared somewhere along the way too. I tried contacting everyone I knew (and some I didn’t) who might have had contact with him. Nobody knew anything. Occasionally I still have a look online to try to find a trace of him, but I have for a long time assumed the worst. Dave was a guy with a lot of troubles, and some of them might have just seemed that bit too insurmountable.

It was a friendship that had a lasting impact on me though. I had grown up immersed in the casual homophobia of boys in our society, and mostly accepted the complicated “hate the sin, love the sinner” theology of the mainstream church. Meeting Dave was a window into reality for many same-sex attracted people. Quite simply, he would have done anything he could to not be gay. He had done the gay-cure prayer programs. I can’t imagine he had ever been in many relationships – his sexuality existed just as a burden around his neck. The idea that Dave, this person whose life had been so unfairly brutal when compared to mine, was committing some wrong by carrying this inclination he had done nothing to cause just didn’t make sense.

I wanted Dave to feel comfortable to make friends and be himself without fear. I wanted him to be free to use his gifts and personality to better the world (he would always ask me how the youth group was going – he did scouts as a kid and would have loved to be a scout leader but said he wouldn’t be allowed to). I wanted him to as, as Jesus promised, have “life, and life to the full” (just one of the two would be a good start). I wanted him to be able to fall in love and have the same kind of deep, caring relationship we all hope for.

My friendship with Dave set me on the path to be an active supporter of the cause of sexually and gender diverse people. Not that I claim any special status or reward for this – it’s just a normal part of what someone who cares for the well-being of those around them would do. I don’t claim it’s very much either, but I hope that in my friendships and my private and public acts of solidarity I have made some positive impact.

Because I believe in the transformative power of the message of Jesus and the value of communities built around his teachings; I have also put effort into trying to make the church a more welcoming place for LGBTI people. Again, I don’t claim to have made a world of difference.

But after discovering an obscure photocopied zine made by gay and lesbian Christians in Australia I took it upon myself to make and distribute hundreds of copies. We had a lesbian Christian stay with us at my house a few years ago. She didn’t come out straight away to us, but she told me later that the first day she met us I was distributing that zine and it made her feel safe.

Once, some kids in the youth group I was leading asked about homosexuality and the bible. I knew a talk on the topic would be difficult but important ground to tread, so I nervously gave it my best. One day later on I was brought to tears when one of the kids present that day came up to me at a marriage equality rally and proudly introduced me to his boyfriend.

After many years of working it out, I sat down one day and wrote in full my analysis of the biblical texts on homosexuality and what we should do with them in today’s world. It’s hard to gauge the impact of things you put out there on the internet, but certainly many people have read it; I hope at least it has provided something to think about. What I really hope is that it has also maybe reached a few people who, like Dave, live in conflict between their religion and their body. People who were maybe feeling on their own and reaching out to the internet for answers.

Last week, the news was full of Christianity and homosexuality. It was the release of details of a government review into religious freedom, which affirmed the rights of Christian schools to reject gay teachers or students. It was one of those times you wonder if all that work has just been swept away like a sandcastle in a king tide. I was hurt (I wish I could say shocked) by the news story and the amount it was shared in the media. And I’m not even gay. I can only imagine how it felt to those people who are gay or lesbian – many of whom are dedicated Christians. Many are caring and dedicated teachers. All were once school students, and quite possibly bear the scars of trying to navigate that difficult age and place knowing that no matter how hard they try they will never just fit in with the other kids.

It hurt because I don’t want to just separate myself from the church and say “I’m not with them”. I know some in the church would probably happily disown me at times, but I happen to believe in this idea we call the Christian church. Not just in theory either. I believe in the power of our churches to be a force for good; for everyday Christians equipped with the extraordinary message of Jesus to change the world.

Yet for all the beauty and power Jesus has to offer, all the very real good things Christians do every day; it seems the only thing Christianity is ever in the news for is to publicly come out against homosexuality in some way. It’s mind-blowing that people can think this is an effective way to show love or pursue justice or stand up for Godly principles.

For the average Australian, the church has zero moral authority. Deservedly so after the horrific revelations of sexual abuse within the church, but not limited to that. What does the church have to offer morally? Those Christian private schools so precious about defending their Christian morals are like fortresses for protecting and enabling the wealth and privilege of the elite in our society. The church is hardly distinguishable from the world around us when it comes to caring about the fact we are destroying our planet (God’s creation), or about the injustice of poverty and immense wealth disparity (“whatever you did for the least of these…”). The social services the church once set up as an expression of love are now professionalised and funded by the government.

The cynical might suggest that the reason Christians seem to be so caught up on the homosexuality thing is because it’s the only “moral issue” where we can actually find any difference between ourselves and the world we are told by Paul “not to be conformed to”.

I know this: no random observer sees the church’s public discourse and thinks “I know they are the Christians by their love”. They mostly just see a bully, using our immense wealth and status to harangue people who have already been abused and cast aside by our society.

The lack of self-awareness is astonishing. Look at that report from last week. This is an institution who has schools we set up to promote our own values, funded by the secular government. We have the lobbying clout to get the government to run an inquiry into “religious freedom”. The Prime Minister is a Christian who speaks in favour of existing laws granting the church special legal powers. Yet the church claims it is us who are being persecuted, while we join the queue of people wanting to inflict psychological trauma on young kids struggling to find themselves in a confusing world of sexuality and social norms. The people who actually do know what it means to be persecuted in 21st century Australia.

I can understand why Christians like Scott Morrison, Lyle Shelton and the many who support their views believe what they do. I’m not one of those people who will shout that they are all bigots. I can sympathise that theirs is not an especially popular position and it takes an element of courage to do what they do. I can even agree that some of the actions of those on the “yes” side of last year’s plebiscite were hardly great examples of love and understanding either.

But I can’t believe that every time an opportunity comes up to show the great love of Jesus (love for our neighbours, love for the outcast, love for our enemies?), many of our most prominent Christians are instead jumping out of their skin to wield state power like a club and show for the world their insensitivity not just to those different to us, but to the many like Dave who are in our church pews every week.

One of the most famous and beautiful stories in the gospels is that of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. In that story Jesus comes across religious puritans intent on hounding to death (or at least threatening with death for their own purposes) a woman with no social power to defend herself (women’s testimony was apparently not accepted in Jewish courts of the time). He intervenes not by overpowering the mob, but by calmly inviting them to see the commonalities between themselves and the woman.

Sometimes I worry Christians have forgotten this story. Sometimes I worry we have remembered it, but forgotten which character we are supposed to be imitating.

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The virtues of blockading

This year I’ve met a number of young people in politically active spaces who have spent time at Camp Nudja near Bowen – the camp set up to try, through various means, to stop the construction of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine and the rail and port infrastructure associated with it. They all have found it an empowering experience and come away keen to be more involved in that and other social and environmental campaigns.

It reminded of time spent at the Maules Creek blockade in Western NSW, as person after person would come out there and talk about how inspiring they found it. Hundreds of people were arrested out there blocking the clearing of the forest and the construction of a coal mine. Many of them have gone on to be heavily involved in different causes around the country, including some for whom it was their first ever political action.

I don’t think this is limited to those two campaigns either. I think about the random people I have met over the years who have told me they were among the 500 arrested at the Jabiluka uranium blockade in the late 90’s. Or how after years of rallies, petitions, etc about Australia’s treatment of refugees, the most exciting and empowering moment for so many was a few days spent camped outside Lady Cilento children’s hospital in 2016 pledging to blockade the removal of the infant known as Asha. Or how campaigns like those at Terania Creek or the Franklin River have passed into Australian political folklore.

After years of being around political campaigns of various kinds, I still think there is something especially enticing and empowering about blockade camps and other forms of direct action.

Not that I think that kind of political action is necessarily the most effective at attaining particular objectives. Sometimes it is, and it can certainly be a vital part of a campaign for various reasons. But the thing I think camps are really effective at is getting people who have not done much political action before and nurturing within them the belief and desire to be active in the struggle for a better world.

I think there are a few reasons for this. One is the feeling of actively doing something. So many of us spend so long angrily reading the news but feeling powerless to do anything about it. Politics seems removed from our everyday life. The ritual of going to the polling booth every few years seems so far from actually having our say about how society should be run.

When all you have ever known is political disempowerment, a blockade camp is an amazing experience. You can lock yourself to some infrastructure and watch the trucks grind to a halt while they wait for you to be cut off. You can stop focusing on the power you don’t have and acknowledge instead the power that everyone has – the ability to put their body in the way of activities you never gave your consent to. You know that even if you can’t permanently stop things, you can at least make your disapproval a tangible thing that must be dealt with. In saying a defiant no, you are saying yes to active involvement in what’s going on.

Another element of the power of blockading is the connection you develop to the issue. In a forest blockade, you are trying to save the forest, but at the same time you are living in the forest – building a personal connection to the issue. You come to love the trees and animals that surround you, feel personally invested in their survival. Same with fragile but beautiful desert ecosystems. Once you have been immersed in the issue it is harder to dissociate and keep going about your normal life.

There’s another way you are immersed in a blockade camp. Living at the camp; the campaign becomes your work, your play, your community. A bit overwhelming at times and not always healthy; but a powerful experience in a lot of ways. It builds skills very quickly, as you are constantly in close proximity with people of different abilities who are happy to share knowledge. The constant on-the-go nature of the camp means you have the opportunity to step up to tasks you never would otherwise. You can go in with no experience and in a short time come out a seasoned activist with a new level of self-confidence.

But it also leads you to a new understanding of living in community. In a camp you cook and eat together, work and relax together, at times go through extremely intense experiences together (and then also act as emotional support to each other afterwards). You form bonds of the type that are so rare in our atomised and comfortable urban lives, bonds that will last a long time even if you rarely see one another in other contexts.

For all these reasons, blockade camps and other forms of direct action work as “peak experiences” – something that can potentially change your worldview radically. Even people for whom the experience is a one-off that doesn’t lead to a life involved in activism; it is a dramatic step to move through the norms of social respectability, of our conditioned apathy, to be active and even willing to be arrested for a cause that doesn’t affect you directly. That is never an insignificant thing, and can influence someone in a variety of ways. For many though, an experience of direct action can be a catalyst that leads to years or even a lifetime of involvement in causes for a better world.

For that reason, I think anyone interested in building movements capable of creating social change should take seriously what direct action campaigns and intentional communities offer. There is a tendency to, for the sake of pursuing widespread appeal, reject that kind of action as too “radical”, likely to deter people from getting involved or put them offside. Or it can be dismissed as not strategic; too far removed from corridors of power where men and women in suits make the big decisions.

I’m not a fan of chasing some mythical middle ground that will suddenly make everyone embrace your cause; and I think that dramatic, creative and confrontational actions can actually be more likely to inspire awareness, sympathy and support. Plus my experience is that in terms of inspiring people to get and stay involved, blockades can work better than more conservative forms of organising.

But I will acknowledge a few limitations of direct action – despite the idea inherent in the name, it can very rarely change an issue long-term without being combined with other tactics to change corporate or government policy. Blockading doesn’t really helped develop a very nuanced understanding or tack of action to social issues either. Also, the simple fact is that while it may work for forests (and more recently mining infrastructure), not every social issue you might want to change can physically be blockaded. It is a tactic of limited effectiveness.

Still, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, I don’t think blockading should be dismissed. And more than that, I think it is worth different causes thinking seriously about the good elements of blockading I have outlined, and asking how can they be incorporated into any campaign.

How can we make political movements spaces where participants get a sense that their actions have a direct impact on the issue? Where people feel a personal connection to the cause that will motivate them to stay involved beyond the glimmer of recognition from reading a headline? Where people’s involvement leads to them developing new skills, new sides to themselves, new understandings of what is possible? And where we are building connections with each other that nourish, encourage, inspire, challenge, sustain us? Connections that mean more than merely passing the time with small talk; connections that demonstrate on a micro scale the kind of society we would like to live in.

These are the virtues that blockading at its best offers to those who get involved in it – as many of us who have will testify. They can also be lessons offered to broader movements for change that can hopefully make our efforts more vibrant, inspiring, and hopefully successful.

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Our first Pentecostal Prime Minister

Since Scott Morrison clambered to the top of the greasy pole that is Australia’s prime ministership, there have been numerous news reports from various angles on the fact that he is Australia’s “first Pentecostal Prime Minister”.

You might think the subject has been worn out. But as someone who spent more than half a decade heavily involved in Pentecostal churches (and most of that in Scott Morrison’s home territory of the Sutherland Shire), I thought I might contribute my thoughts.

What attracted me to Pentecostal churches as a teenager is the thing I am still most grateful to them for – the belief in God not as theory or concept, but as an active force at work in people and the world. The reasons I moved on from those churches are varied, and we’ll get to some of them. But first a bit of history.

Pentecostalism has the kind of origin story religious sects dream of. The man identified as its instigator was William J. Seymour – a black, one-eyed, son of slaves who read the bible and asked why, if speaking in tongues and miraculous healings were so frequent in the book of Acts, were they not a part of normal Christian life?

In 1906 Seymour started preaching in houses in Los Angeles until the meetings outgrew the houses and a crumbling old building in Azusa St. was rented. At Azusa St the meetings exploded; going around the clock, attracting thousands of people, and developing into an anarchistic free-form service of praying, singing and speaking in tongues. Seymour rarely preached and could hardly be described as leading the service. For much of the time he sat hiding behind a couple of boxes. One observer wrote “No instruments of music are used. None are needed. No choir- the angels have been heard by some in the spirit. No collections are taken. No bills have been posted to advertise the meetings. No church organization is back of it. All who are in touch with God realize as soon as they enter the meetings that the Holy Ghost is the leader.

The church certainly caused a stir. And while many reports were favourable like the one above; most of respectable society and Christianity were horrified. One report from a local paper represents what was surely a common feeling: “..disgraceful intermingling of the races…they cry and make howling noises all day and into the night. They run, jump, shake all over, shout to the top of their voice, spin around in circles, fall out on the sawdust blanketed floor jerking, kicking and rolling all over it. Some of them pass out and do not move for hours as though they were dead. These people appear to be mad, mentally deranged or under a spell. They claim to be filled with the spirit. They have a one eyed, illiterate, Negro as their preacher who stays on his knees much of the time with his head hidden between the wooden milk crates. He doesn’t talk very much but at times he can be heard shouting, “Repent,” and he’s supposed to be running the thing.

The worship services at Azusa St were certainly unusual, but so were the values. The multi-racial congregation was completely counter-cultural. More than half a century later Martin Luther-King would still famously say “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning“. But at Azusa St they took as their model the original day of Pentecost in Acts 2, where God spoke to people from all around the world together, each in their own language.

As Pentecostalism rapidly spread across the globe, race wasn’t the only social barrier it broke through. The first Pentecostal church in Australia was started by a woman – Sarah Jane Lancaster in 1908 in North Melbourne. Back in Los Angeles, another woman became the first of many celebrity Pentecostal preachers. Aimee Semple McPherson changed Christianity for the 20th century with her exploration of new forms of mass media (the radio) and her use of huge auditoriums for church buildings. When she began building Christianity’s first “megachurch”, women in the US still did not have the right to vote.

Central to Pentecostalism’s identity was that breaking down of barriers of gender, race and class. Not that you would call it political – politics was part of “the world” that it wanted nothing to do with – but its desire to return to the book of Acts put it out of step with social norms of the day. Plus the fact that it was somewhat the wild west of Christianity meant rejects of all kinds could find a home within its doors.

Pentecostals were rejected by a conservative and hierarchical mainstream church for their radical practices like speaking in tongues and praying for healing; and their radical idea that God spoke directly to lay people. Outside of the church, its not hard to imagine what the reaction was. But as they were shunned by the world, Pentecostals also shunned the world – rejecting the then-new technology of movie theatres, as well as the old classic evils of alcohol and dancing. Missionaries headed across the world with literally nothing – often they didn’t even speak the language, believing (with a bit too much faith) that they would speak in tongues and people of other languages would understand it.

Early Pentecostals were apocalyptic in both senses of the word – they believed they were spoken to by God, and that the end of the world was imminent. And they lived accordingly. But when the world didn’t end, some of the initial energy was lost and the movement became a more rigid set of beliefs and practices with a more insular focus.

But just as it might have died out, Pentecostalism gained an unexpected boost in the 1960’s with the “Charismatic Renewal” – a time when mainstream churches began taking on Pentecostal belief in speaking in tongues, praying for healing and other spiritual gifts. It challenged some of the old standbys (especially when these churches started including the devil’s music of rock’n’roll), but it had a couple of significant effects – it kept Pentecostalism alive when it might have faded out, and moved it for the first time into the mainstream church.

Since then, the trend is that most other Christian denominations have declined in numbers but Pentecostalism has grown – picking up people from other churches who want a more exciting church experience and a more active faith. But as Pentecostalism has absorbed and been absorbed into the mainstream church, it has lost some of its distinctive weirdness. There is much less denouncing worldliness or talking about the end of the world. These days many of the denomination’s most prominent churches have stopped speaking in tongues as part of their worship service.

In their place, Pentecostalism has embraced a suburban middle of the road lifestyle. Its fitted-out warehouse buildings are like fast-food chains in their comforting uniformity (many of them literally have cafes set up inside the church). The music is generic and happy like your local radio station, the sermons like motivational pep talks.

Though the denomination certainly has its share of affluence (where the “prosperity doctrine” has taken hold sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into a business lecture, not a church sermon); it is still resolutely working class and uneducated, somewhere the church pastors are often tradesmen who have never been tertiary educated. While older churches survive in wealthy areas aided by the patronage of elite private schools; Pentecostal churches thrive in the unfashionable and poorer suburbs. The experiential (rather than conceptual) nature of the faith and the emphasis on spiritual gifts (roles in the church are chosen not by formal training but by whether God has “gifted” a person with the ability) make it ideal for uneducated working class people.

These elements also make it ripe for abuse by autocratic leaders and exploiters of desperate faith. Not that it is alone among religions when it comes to that of course (the epidemic of sexual abuse in churches has not been to the same extent in Pentecostal churches, though it still exists, notably including Hillsong founder Frank Houston). In my time in the church I certainly saw my share of petty dictators and theatrical charlatans. A memory that still stings is the episode of Mike Gugliemucci, a pastor at a megachurch who travelled the country for a year falsely claiming he had cancer and was miraculously being kept alive.

Some of the theology heard in Pentecostal sermons is truly extraordinary in its stretching of the bible and selective choosing of passages, but this is somewhat to be expected from a philosophy that believes God reveals things directly to believers. What empowers the average person to believe they have an intimate connection with the creator of the universe also empowers preachers to say things that have nothing to do with the bible and claim it came straight from God.

One of the effects of Pentecostalism’s mainstreaming is that for the sake of its identity it has to find ways to retain its sense of distinctiveness. It once rejected rock music, now its churches are set up like concert venues. It once denounced worldliness, now it runs business courses. The movement has grown stable and comfortable, yet its theology demands a radical faith. What do you do? A solution has been that Pentecostalism has become an enthusiastic participant in the “culture wars”.

I’m not really sure when this crossover happened, though like many things the influence of US culture surely plays a major part. Once politics would have been seen as a waste of time when there were souls to save, or as part of a sinful world. But these days most Pentecostal services will include some railing against The Greens, Safe Schools or other kinds of Godless modernity; and a defence of conservative values and God-fearing leaders.

And now we have a Pentecostal Prime Minister. This fact alone seems to be a symbol of Pentecostalism’s unlikely absorption into the mainstream.

The thing about aligning your religion to a set of political beliefs though is that you can become subsumed. Pentecostalism had once radically put women in positions of power, now it defends traditional gender roles. Where once missionaries trekked to the corners of the globe to bring all peoples to Jesus, now they are against migration. Once it had beseeched believers to change a heathen world, now it finds itself defending “the way it has always been”.

When you look at Scott Morrison’s policies and how they reflect his his faith you can see this. His anti-gay beliefs at least reflect his believe in the bible (even if I would disagree with his application). His love of coal has nothing to do with anything from scripture; while his treatment of asylum seekers is a clear betrayal of biblical values – done seemingly for the political expediency of being able to claim he “stopped the boats”.

In Morrison’s maiden speech in parliament in 2008, he cited the examples of William Wilberforce and Desmond Tutu as people who “stood for the immutable truths and principles of the Christian faith. They transformed their nations and, indeed, the world in the process.” He quoted Tutu: “we expect Christians … to be those who stand up for the truth, to stand up for justice, to stand on the side of the poor and the hungry, the homeless and the naked, and when that happens, then Christians will be trustworthy believable witnesses.

Morrison said that day “For me, faith is personal, but the implications are social“. Yet evangelical Christianity like that of Scott Morrison and much of Pentecostalism has promoted an individualistic notion of faith which is about a personal relationship with God removed from broader social implications. Where morality means personal sin (especially the sins of those conspicuously different from myself, rather than the more widespread sins common to us all); without any critique of whether our broader society or economic system reflects biblical values. I hope Scott Morrison continues to reflect on that Desmond Tutu quote and whether his policies have really worked towards that end.

Scott Morrison may be our first Pentecostal Prime Minister, but it remains to be seen whether we will see anything distinctively Pentecostal in his leadership. Maybe not speaking in tongues (which would be inappropriate), but believing without fear of ridicule in an active God at work in the world to make it better. Or will we see a God defined by traditional social conventions, by financial success, by doing what it takes to win re-election?

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Learning to dance

I had moved (more or less) in time with music before, but I don’t think I had ever really danced until I did it in places you weren’t supposed to. Late nights in abandoned warehouses and empty blocks; or shutting down a road with a joyous mob moving to the sounds of a wheelie bin converted into a sound system. By the time the police close in around the dancefloor, you have already shed all the inhibitions that normally encumber free movement. It’s only momentarily, but for a second (even without drugs) you can glimpse the freedom of losing yourself in the music; of unrestrained connection with the others around you. Whether they are friends or strangers; you move in synchronicity, and in little glances and smiles you communicate the sense that you are sharing something rare – the transformation of ourselves and our surroundings into something that moves to a rhythm other than the tedious beat of normality.

I’d done bushwalks too; and marvelled at the natural beauty, enjoyed the serenity of strolling along at a slower and quieter pace. But that never compared with the feeling of walking where I wasn’t supposed to. Walking through the forest at night to reach a logging coupe we were going to blockade; or using the cover of the bush to get onto a military base and disrupt the “war games” they were undertaking. In those moments I felt like a part of nature, not a spectator of it. The sounds and sights of the forest felt like they were supporting us – covering us up or spurring us on. And each step we took felt filled with purpose – we walked not just from one place to another, but from one self to another – the powerless and passive bystander we were once reduced to into a person who, successfully or not, at least did all they could to influence destiny.

I can go on… no fancy banquet ever tasted as good as the first time I reclaimed food from a supermarket dumpster and served it up on the street for free. I never really got the urge to paint until the night I took a spraycan and redecorated some of the grey walls I would pass on my way around the city. That city never really felt like home until I rolled out my sleeping bag in one of its parks rather than pay for somewhere to stay.

So many of us sleepwalk through our existence for so long – taking life as it’s set down in front of us, making the best choice we can from a limited set of options, vaguely experiencing life in the same way we vaguely engage in the TV shows we watch to pass time on the couch then instantly forget.

Though we often feel like the way things are is just how it is, of course it’s not by nature that the possibilities of the universe have been narrowed down to the choices on the supermarket shelf or the netflix menu. Most of the blame for that goes to a way of organising society that we are born into and forced to accept – a way that says money will be the mediator of all our exchanges. That everything n the world can be bought or sold and if you don’t have the money, then most of it is not for you. With the whole world – and not just property but knowledge and experience – walled off, we are forced to subsist on whatever crumbs we can get rather than creating the world around us.

Which is why transgressing social and legal boundaries can be such a powerful experience. The examples I gave may seem frivolous, but each of them were genuinely new experiences – familiar things but recast in a way that made me imagine what else could be done differently. Maybe my life contained other possibilities beyond what I had experienced or seen around me. Maybe the same was true of my city, or the way we organised society as a whole. More than any book or movie, it was these experiences of dancing through the parameters of social acceptability that made me believe a radically different self, and a radically different world, was really possible.

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