Ten dollar poetry

Robert Graves once said “there’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money either”. I think that, like the best poetry, there’s a lot of truth in this quote, but one institution that seems determined to prove it wrong is the Australian mint.

When I was a kid, the nearby town of Gulgong announced with pride on signs at the edges of town that the main street was featured on the old paper ten dollar note alongside a portrait of local poet Henry Lawson. With the change to plastic notes in 1993, both Henry and Gulgong were ditched (those signs are still there, mind you) but replaced with two more poets – Banjo Paterson and Henry’s one-time lover Mary Gilmore.

I appreciate that there’s room for something as fiscally unproductive as poetry (Lawson in particular died broke after a lifetime of alcoholism and interpersonal conflicts) on our national currency, and there are many wonderful things in the writing of all three of these Australians. But the one that got me thinking about money and poetry the other day was the sight of a serious looking Mary Gilmore.

mary gilmore

I don’t know that much about Mary Gilmore. I’ve read a few of her poems, and I know, as one of the many pieces of trivia that float around somewhere in my brain, that she was part of a socialist utopian experiment called “New Australia” which was set up in Paraguay in the last decade of the 19th century.

So it’s a bit strange to squint at those two lines of poetry printed on our ten dollar notes and to note that their tone is distinctly un-utopian and not seeming to have much to do with socialist ideas of “a brotherhood of man”. Those lines, in tiny cursive, read “no foe shall gather our harvest, or sit on our stockyard rail.”

So I went and read a bunch of Mary Gilmore’s poems. They are great. Eve-song is a feminist poem, though it’s not a suffragette rallying cry. Rather than political, the tone and subject matter is personal. Like the best art can do so well, the poem finds the significance in everyday relationships:

I span and Eve span
A thread to bind the heart of man;
But the more we span the more we found
It wasn’t his heart but ours we bound…

He said he was strong. He had no strength
But that which comes of breadth and length.
He said he was fond. But his fondness proved
The flame of an hour when he was moved.
He said he was true. His truth was but
A door that winds could open and shut.

The Waradgery Tribe documents the dispossession and murder of Australia’s original owners:

Emptied of us the land,
Ghostly our going,
Fallen, like spears the hand
Dropped in the evening.

We are the lost who went
Like the cranes, crying;
Hunted, lonely, and spent
Broken and dying.

Old Botany Bay meanwhile, is a reminder of another part of our history we so easily forget – that Australia’s cities were initially built on the brutal and torturous enslaved labour of convicts.

I am he
who paved the way,
that you might walk
at your ease to-day;

Fourteen Men is harrowing, like an Australian version of Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit. The poem depicts 14 Chinese gold miners hung by a racist mob, observed with the dispassionate eyes of a child.

Honest poor men,
But the diggers said ‘Nay!’
So they strung them all up
On a fine summer’s day

Nationality was the first Mary Gilmore poem I ever read, and it is indeed a wonderful piece of writing, in two short stanzas making no dogmatic statements but laying out the contradictions of parochialism and patriotism that all of us in the human race have to grapple with:

I have grown past hate and bitterness,
I see the world as one;
But though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.

All men at God’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

So with this kind of repertoire, how do we end up with the line that we have on our currency? Isn’t its grandiose flag-waving at odds with the subtlety of a poem like Nationality?

No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest was written in 1940, during the second world war. The war presented a challenge for pacifists and communists in the Allied countries (Mary’s socialism wasn’t just youthful folly – even into her 80’s and 90’s she wrote a regular column for the Communist Party newspaper The Tribune). If you opposed the war, it seemed like you were siding with the fascist governments that were spreading across Europe and Asia. Never mind the fact that those Allied governments hadn’t lifted a finger when communists were the early resisters and the first casualties of the fascist regimes. Activists were forced to choose between the lesser of two evils – war or tolerating fascism. Woody Guthrie’s iconic decorating of his guitar with the words “this machine kills fascists” was one response to this dilemma.

Another response, I suppose, is Mary Gilmore’s patriotic poem. At this stage 75 years old, she published the poem in the Women’s Weekly with a note saying she was too old to fight, but writing was her contribution to the war effort.

Fair enough, but the poem certainly seems to sit a little uncomfortably with some of Mary’s other poems.  In response to the first world war she had written a number of poems mourning the deaths of soldiers, and an explicitly anti-war poem in The Measure (which in its “not friend and foe, but man and man” refrain, seems to sit as a polar opposite to the later poem). But beyond that, when did this land become “ours forever”? It seems to forget the dispossession of aboriginal people and the enslavement of convicts that Mary had once written about so passionately. “We are the sons of Australia,” boasts the last stanza; “of the men who fashioned the land; we are the sons of the women who walked with them hand in hand.” What happened to the feminist critique of men “who had no strength but that which comes of breadth and length”? And that delicate paradox between believing in equality but caring for your own that Nationality had laid out for us is seemingly thrown out the window, replaced by the two line refrain that ends each verse: “No foe shall gather our harvest, or sit on our stockyard rail”.

Suffice to say, this is not my favourite Mary Gilmore poem. And not just ideologically. While other poems are full of acute observations and deep with meaning for the reader to unravel, this one’s about as subtle as the machine guns it celebrates. But you know, I’m glad that this is the one that adorns our currency; because I think it says a lot about these little bits of plastic and metal that we carry around in our pockets.

The Australian government could have gone for a line from Nationality to make us consider how we spend our earnings, but maybe that’s a bit too ambiguous. It could have gone for a line from Old Botany Bay or The Waradgery Tribe to remind us where most of our wealth, both historically and presently, comes from. They could have chosen Fourteen Men to warn us what can happen if we get too obsessed with money.

But instead we get No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest, and fittingly too. Because it’s amazing that even in times of austerity, we are always able to find enough cash to keep others out – our recent budgets are perfect examples. While Joe Hockey claimed “the age of entitlement is over” and cut all kinds of social services, nobody dared question the $30 billion a year we spend on the military, or the $2.3 billion on locking up a few thousand asylum seekers.

On a smaller scale, we replicate this by paying for insurance and security. There’s a lucrative industry based on convincing people we need to spend money to protect our money, not to mention the fact that protecting your own harvests and stockyard rails means that we each have to own one of everything, even though our neighbour might have a perfectly good one that could easily be shared.

That one line says something even more pertinent about the function of money. And it’s funny that it actually uses the words “no foe shall gather our harvest”. Because before money existed, the harvest we all gathered would have been limited to what we could actually use, or at least store. Even with a barter system, there are physical limits to how much wealth you can possibly accrue.

But with the invention of money, the metaphorical wealth-measurer, there is no limit to the amount of riches you can hoard to yourself, no matter how much you need or whether, as Mary Gilmore once wrote, “all men at God’s table sit and all men must be fed”. And so we get today’s world, where the gaps between the richest and poorest are unimaginably vast, where the majority of the world slaves away producing luxury products for the richest third, yet barely manages to survive. A world of debts and debtors, bosses and slaves, shareholders reports, structural adjustment.

Even the seeming incongruence with Mary’s other poems I think is full of meaning. Because isn’t it so true that when it comes to money, all our principles and strongest beliefs can so easily be forgotten or dismissed as impractical idealism.

Our $10 notes are remarkably honest, really. The two lines printed on them are an ugly statement of protecting yourself at the expense of others. But maybe, like the best art, they have revealed a truth about this object that we don’t always recognise.

Mary Gilmore wrote poems about Australia. Honest, perceptive poems that invite us to examine who we are and to imagine what we could be. I’m not sure what she would have said had she known that this line from one of her poems would today pass through the hands of millions of Australians each day. But I think that regardless of what these words were originally intended for, they can still inspire us to question and challenge the society around us, just like the young utopian poet would have hoped. That is, if we stop and try to see the poetry in our money.


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Refugee activist throws shoes at Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in Brisbane

peter dutton

In Brisbane this morning , a refugee advocate threw his shoes at Immigration Minister Peter Dutton as a symbolic protest against the Australian government’s refugee policies.

At a festival for welcoming refugees in Annerley, 33 year old David Sprigg threw his shoes at the minister as part of a long tradition of similar protest actions.

Most famously, Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoe at George W Bush in 2008 as a protest against the Iraq war. But since then over 50 similar actions have happened around the world, including Peter Gray throwing his shoe at John Howard in 2010.

Mr Sprigg said he took the action to protest Australia’s human rights abuses when it comes to asylum seekers. “It is hypocritical for Peter Dutton to appear at a festival welcoming refugees when his government continues to lock up indefinitely asylum seekers who have committed no crime, and turn back boats at sea who are attempting to seek refuge in Australia.

“Not only have Mr Dutton and the Liberal Party’s “stop the boats” campaign made it abundantly clear that refugees are not welcome in Australia, but by continually exploiting this issue for political gain and using language like “queue jumpers” and “illegal arrivals” they have turned the Australian public further against refugees than they would have been.

“If Peter Dutton and the Australian government were serious about welcoming refugees, they would make a concerted effort to accept and resettle asylum seekers, instead of just turning up to a festival.”

The government’s policy of mandatory detention and offshore processing for asylum seekers have for a long time been criticised by human rights advocates. Mental health advocate and former Australian of the year Patrick McGorry described the detention centres as “mental illness factories”, while the human rights Commission earlier this year described detention centres as a “toxic environment” and called for a royal commission into detention of asylum seeker children.

More recently, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quoted as saying there was “no way” Australia would accept Rohingyan asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Burma, while last week there were reports that Australian officials paid thousands of dollars to people smugglers to turn around boats full of asylum seekers.

Mr Sprigg said “under our obligations in the UN refugee convention and out of respect for our shared humanity, we should be accepting asylum seekers into Australia and giving them opportunities to live lives of freedom and dignity.”

“Australians actually mostly are welcoming of asylum seekers in our communities, and refugees have shown that they can contribute significantly to our country. But this is in spite, not because, of the policies and actions of the Labor and Liberal governments.”


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They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore (part 2)

As someone who has come to believe that a better world will be one where people have less control over others and more control over our own lives, I have to admit that I have a bit of skepticism when it comes to heroes.

Partly this is because, as I wrote in the first part of this article, I believe heroes are sometimes constructed for us, not to inspire others to acts of great heroism, but instead to reinforce the values that keep certain people or systems in positions of power.

I used the example then of the mythologisation of ANZAC soldiers. But I think that it is much more widespread than that. Look at the examples in our society of “heroes” – the fables we tell are of macho action heroes who violently struggle against evil foes for the sake of some noble cause. Or our real life heroes are either celebrities who through some kind of talent or lucky accident have become iconic figures and now have their every thought and action reported to us; or sports stars who because they have excelled at their sport are seen to be examples of the virtues we believe in.

Now disregarding (though it surely is a worthy question) whether these are people who deserve to be singled out as important, we should ask what relevance do these heroes have to our actual lives? If these people are role models we wish to emulate,. How do we do that when our lives are so rarely about having shootouts with bad guys or being able to run/catch/hit a ball well?

If you are a woman, it is even less relevant. For those without a penis, your heroic role is to be a beautiful romantic interest for the male, inspiring him with your good looks to achieve great deeds.

Basically, the heroes exalted by our mass media have nothing to do with improving ourselves. If we ourselves were living heroic lives, then we would probably no longer be watching TV or reading magazines to get our fix of important people. And that is the opposite of what these media companies want. The purpose is escapism, or substitution – to make up for the lack of heroism in our own lives we become passive consumers of hero stories.

For this model of vicarious heroism to keep growing, two things need to happen – the storytellers have to keep coming up with heroes who satisfy our desires, and we have to keep living lives that are less heroic. But if that’s our trajectory, what kind of people do we expect to become? What kind of world will we be living in?

An interesting question is this: to create a world where individuals take more responsibility for it being a better place, do we first have to tear down the hero myth?

In the late 1970’s, punk bands around the world were championing the idea of Do It Yourself. Anyone can be in a band, they said. Anyone can put out a record, be a music writer. Mark Perry, one of the early fanzine writers, famously printed a diagram of the E, A and D chord shapes. “Here are three chords,” said the caption. “Now go start a band.”

the clash 1977

With this new democratisation of music, most saw it necessary to tear down the heroes of another generation that were taking up space on bedroom walls and turntables. “No Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones!” sang The Clash on one of the early punk anthems. Of course, breaking down rockstar mythology is not that simple and before long The Clash were the new rockstars of a new commodified style. But that’s another story. (You may at home be questioning the relevance of these whole last two paragraphs. But I just really like punk music, ok?)

I think at some level, encouraging a world where people take personal responsibility means deconstructing the myth of heroism and knocking down a few pedestals. To make something new, you have to break something old. But possibly the idea of heroes is something too ingrained in us to do away with entirely. And as I’ve already said, heroes can be a part of what inspires us to take action. It just depends on who that hero is and what message they are sending.

In the last few years I have certainly used the actions of a few remarkable individuals, for instance courageous whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, to try to inspire myself and others to action. A group of us recently commemorated the centenary of Gallipoli our own way by showing a “Field Punishment No.1″, a film about conscientious objectors from New Zealand who in that war were sent to the front lines and tortured but refused to fight or even hold a gun. It is an incredible story, and there is no shortage of people around the world today or through history that have done amazing things that can inspire us.

I think a new paradigm of viewing heroes is possible. Where we hold up a person as an example, but only relevant to how much they inspire us to heroic acts ourselves.

Straight away, we can stop fussing about every detail of someone’s life, either out of obsession with them or a need to discredit them by finding faults. We can also discard hero myths that are built on simplistic notions of good and evil, since by and large that is not the world we live in (sorry Mad Max). A healthy amount of skepticism is valuable in analysing the merits of actions and also whose interests are served by elevating any person to hero status. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be cynical, because the actions of any person around us are potentially inspiring to others and so we should support people where we can.

But most importantly, we should be thinking that any virtue is only valuable in the way that we live it out. Courage, sacrifice and comradery might be great, but if war is the only way to live out these values, they are only ever going to get people killed. There must be another way to live them out (William James  suggested “voluntary poverty” – and that was even before World War One), otherwise they are useless. The same applies to any virtue. What matters is not whether it makes for a great film character but if it can help us to make our lives and the lives of those around us better.

So basically, what I’m trying to propose here is a world where we spend less time admiring heroes and more time trying to do heroic things ourselves. Which surely can’t be a bad thing? I mean, everybody wants to be a hero, don’t they?

The question is, what do we want out of heroism? Is it to be loved and admired by the masses? Deep down most of us would like this at some level, but even supposing that superstars weren’t something constructed to sell ideas or products, logically we can’t all be this kind of hero – there just isn’t enough room at the top for everyone. But to break the shackles of apathy and conformity to do acts that embody the values we believe in? That we can all do, and we don’t even need a stage, let alone an arch-nemesis or damsel in distress. Most likely it will actually win us friends and maybe a few admirers (though probably a few enemies too to be honest). They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore, but our best chance of a better world might be us becoming the heroes we’ve always wanted.

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They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore (part 1)

In the first Mad Max movie, there is that classic scene where Max is trying to quit the police force. Fifi tries to convince him to stay by telling him of the need for heroes. “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them Max, we’re gonna give them heroes.”

Two massive, hard to avoid mel mad maxadvertising campaigns have recently reminded me of this scene. The sight of Charlize Theron’s dirt-smudged face looking out from bus stops around the city tells me that Mad Max is back, while the government’s $330 million remembrance campaign for the centenary of the Gallipoli landing makes me think that somebody still thinks that the people need a hero.

The concept of heroes is interesting. On one hand you could see the proliferation of heroes as a response to our own shortcomings – unable to accomplish the things we wish we could, we love stories of superhuman figures who help us believe that there is some kind of messiah figure who can intervene for good and that everything will work out alright.

On the other hand, you could link it directly to our actual desires to change ourselves and the world around us. We all have attributes that we find desirable, and it’s seemingly natural then that people who epitomise those virtues we would put up on a pedestal as some kind of ideal.

Either way, you could speculate that maybe heroes are something that is an intrinsic need for humanity. Certainly you can find heroic figures in many ancient mythologies, from King David to Heracles to Cu Chulainn.

But then again, maybe heroes are less natural and more constructed. In more recent history we can see examples of this – Stalinist USSR used the semi-mythical superworker Stakhanov and countless other “Stakhanovites” as a propaganda tool; Hitler co-opted Nietzsche’s idea of the “ubermensch” (early English versions translated this as “Superman”!) to push ideas of genocide and eugenics. Various cults of personality either on large or small scales can be seen to do the same.

It’s simple enough to see how this works – most of us want to better ourselves, aspiring to follow a hero is a common way of doing it. So if you want to shape people in a particular way, you can do it by constructing a “hero” with the values that you prefer, then encouraging people that your hero is someone worth following.

Given the sheer amount of money involved (how can it possibly cost $330 million to just commemorate a war? Even Great Britain and France, whose casualty numbers and involvement in the war was far greater than Australia’s, are spending a fraction of this amount), I have to say that the centenary of ANZAC campaign has a strong scent of constructed heroism.

So what are the characteristics of the ANZACs that we are being encouraged to copy? We are told that it is “mateship” and “sacrifice”. Certainly those soldiers would have looked after their mates and given of themselves for a greater cause. But any kind of close inspection shows up that the way these values are portrayed now is very limited.

ANZAC mateship is very selective – if people are on your side they’re your mates and you should go to great lengths to help them out. If they’re not on your side they deserve to die. Of course, which side you are on in war is extremely arbitrary. The mere fact that you were born within a certain geographical area means you are expected to be willing to go to war and kill those who were not. This kind of mateship is looking after people who are “like you”, always at the expense of everyone else. The opposite of this mateship is empathy – trying to love and help others, whether they are like you or not.

What about “sacrifice”? Politicians love this word, but what does it mean? Again it seems pretty selective – compare the glorification of the ANZAC’s nationalistic sacrifice to the typical Australian response to the extreme threat of climate change. In the face of potential worldwide destruction on an unprecedented scale, we heroically refuse to sacrifice our lifestyle.  Again, the ANZAC sacrifice is only for “people like us” – our nation, our own self-interest. Fair enough I guess, but I don’t know if you can honestly call it “sacrifice”.

Part of the ANZAC legend is the contrast of the brave diggers against the foolish generals – English aristocrats who callously sent men to their death through their incompetence. Another part is to recall that Australia had the highest casualty rate of any country involved in the war. What kind of heroism is this? One that will follow orders no matter what? That would prefer death (mostly it seems your own, or in the best case someone else’s) to challenging the ideas of those giving the orders?

It’s my belief that this is exactly the kind of heroism that some who push the ANZAC legend are talking about. Blind obedience to your nation and your leaders, subservience to the mob mentality, acquiescence to the status quo. In a pointless war between brutal European colonial powers that killed 17 million people just to do it all over again 20 years later; those who refused to fight are still derided as cowards, the women who shamed them with white feathers portrayed as heroes doing their patriotic duty.

The very idea of heroes would seem to represent individuals of great courage or values who rise up against established power structures and conformity to the status quo. That was the idea of Nietzsche’s “ubermensch”.

But in a world where the stories that spread the furthest are the ones told by those with the biggest budgets, that is rarely the example of a hero that we are given. Instead; from our celebrities, to popular movies or books, to the way we tell our history; the individuals who are exalted very rarely offer any challenge or critique to the dominant values of our society. Those people who do attempt that are shunned and demonised.

Still there are people who do it, people who truly believe in sacrifice and in the mateship of all people. These people deserve admiration and respect for their actions, though that would rarely be their motivation. Just as well really, because they are unlikely to be lifted up by those who are committed to giving heroes to the people.


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May 27 – International ‘Tell The Truth’ Day

Missy Higgins once sang that “lies will lock you up, with truth the only key.” She’s not often given credit as a wise sage, but anybody who has ever been stuck trying to cover the tracks of lies they have told can tell you the relevance of this line.

Someone with slightly different viewpoint, but who I’m sure also appreciates the lyric, is Chelsea Manning. Five years ago today, the Private First Class in the US Army then known as Bradley Manning was arrested after leaking to the public thousands of classified documents. It would be several years, including nine months of harrowing solitary confinement, before Chelsea was eventually charged and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Chelsea had found herself trapped in a web of lies. Stationed in Iraq as an intelligence analyst, it was her job to collect information but she found that the army wasn’t interested in information that didn’t say what they wanted to hear. Struggling already with the truth about her gender identity in a less than supportive atmosphere, Chelsea was presented with a choice. Either go along with the lies, or risk telling the truth – whatever the consequences might be.

In an internet chat that would later be used as evidence against her, Chelsea confided: “If you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time and you saw incredible things, awful things, things that belonged in the public domain… what would you do? … I want people to see the truth regardless of who they are. Because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

The truth can be hard, and nobody knows this as well as Chelsea Manning, who still has 30 years in a military prison left to serve. In those same chat logs she said: “I’m not so much scared of getting caught and facing consequences at this point… I prefer a painful truth over any blissful fantasy.” In the time she has been imprisoned, she has maintained that she does not regret the consequences.

Though in chains, Chelsea is more free today than she would have been had she gone along with the lies and deception of the US war in Iraq, covering up atrocities in a war based on fictional “weapons of mass destruction”. Thanks to Chelsea’s sacrifice, we are all more free – able to know the truth about that war and also able to see the reality of what happens to those who dare to speak uncomfortable truths in our supposedly free and democratic society.

Untruths are so common for most of us that we don’t even think about it. We are lied to every day by advertising’s false promises, we have come to accept that our government lies to us, we even portray ourselves in idealised versions on social media. But at least for one day, it’s worth remembering the liberating potential of telling the truth.

Using Chelsea Manning as an inspiration, and to continue her legacy, take time today to tell the truth. Tell the truth to your friends and loved ones. Tell the truth to your workmates and boss. Tell the truth to those in power and the truth about the society we are living in.

George Orwell said many years ago, though it is as true as ever today, that “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”



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Two and a half years on the front lines against coal

I wrote this from Maules Creek in February for another publication. Since that publication still hasn’t come out, I thought I might as well put it up on this blog. Hope you enjoy it.

In August 2012, two people set up camp in the Leard State Forest near Boggabri in Western NSW. They were trying to stop the clearing of the forest and the construction of the Maules Creek coal mine. That camp has survived and grown through the last two and a half years. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, 300 people turned up to a six day festival of music and action called Bat Attack; and talked about starting Front Line Action on Coal (FLAC)  groups in cities all over the country.

An estimated 4000 people have come through the camp in that time, with over 400 people arrested disrupting work on the mine. It has survived evictions, corporate spy infiltrators, tragedy, and the harsh conditions of the Australian bush. Considering this is the first ever direct action blockade camp against a coal mine in Australia, it has been an extraordinary success.

It has carved out a space in the media and the nation’s consciousness that radical politics rarely can, turning tree-sits and lock-ons into everyday concepts. It has mixed conservative farmers with forest ferals, old with young, city folks with country. And for a lot of these people it’s been their first introduction to the politics of direct action.

Not that we should get too carried away. Despite all the opposition, the Maules Creek mine is now operational and shipping out coal. A huge gash has been bulldozed and excavated out of the Leard Forest. If we measure the success of the campaign only by whether it stopped the mine it set out to, it has been a failure. Yet few people who have been out to the camp could ever call it that. Besides all the other things I’ve already mentioned, the Front Line Action on Coal campaign at Maules Creek has changed the landscape of public opinion in Australia when it comes to mining. As huge overseas-owned corporations Adani and Shenhua prepare to set up mines in the Galilee Basin and the Liverpool Plains, they are being met with promises that there will be resistance.

In a country where people in radical politics often complain about the apathy of everyday Australians or the ineffectiveness of protest, we should be studying the campaign at Maules Creek to see how it has achieved all this. The answer of course is broad and has many facets. But as someone who has been out to Maules Creek many times and has followed the campaign virtually from the beginning, I’ll try to share a few points.

One of the reasons is the broadness of the issues involved, which has allowed it to resonate with many people. Climate change is perhaps the most pressing political issue facing the planet today, and one which is able to mobilise all kinds of people from all walks of life to feel a need to take action. But also at stake at Maules Creek is the protection of a critically endangered ecosystem, protection of aboriginal culture and the right to practice it, and the loss of farmland and water.

Another factor is that FLAC has always been a very media-savvy campaign. Helped immeasurably by a very brave (if also not exactly planned) action regarding Jonathan Moylan and a hoax press release, the camp has never been too far away from the media. Some canny and experienced activists have played a massive role in this, but a lot of it is the unintended by-products of sticking around long enough and building a strong movement. As the blockade has grown so has an extraordinary story that has captured the imagination – from that opening outrageous action, through mass walk-ons (82 people arrested in one day in March 2014), a 92 year old war veteran being arrested, 5th generation local farmers speaking out, a saga of corporate spy infiltrators hired by mining companies, footy players and country music stars locking on and much more. It plays out like an epic novel or a hollywood movie, with as many twists and turns.

The decentralised, non-hierarchical nature of the camp has been a real strength. While there have been some concerns over the involvement of environmental NGOs, the people on the ground at the camp have retained control over what happens there, with consensus decision making no less. It is this model that has made it the activist breeding ground that it is, because when people come out to the Leard they aren’t just told what to do and where to lock on. Skills have been shared and developed; from bush skills to action planning, media, artistic creativity, political organising. I’ve met so many people who have arrived at the camp with no history of activism yet are now experienced organisers. And always with a belief that skills shouldn’t just be kept at the camp but should be spread back to the cities and towns from which people have come.

But I think the greatest assets of the camp, the things which have turned it from a protest camp into a movement, have been the empowerment that comes from taking direct action and the community that comes from living, working and organising together.

FLAC is built not on the politics of words (there are enough of them), but on deeds. This has inspired and caught the imagination of people both at the camp and across the country. So many of the so-called apathetic, self-centred Generation Y have come to the Leard (sometimes just for a party) and discovered that politics can be something that you do. That your response to the greed and destruction of our society can be more than just throwing things at the TV. I’ve spoken to so many people out here that have told me the same story: “I’ve always cared about climate change (or the forest), but I didn’t know you could do anything about it. Then I came here.” In a society where so often activism is just another commodity you consume, the blockade camp has shown countless people that social change is something you can create, not just spectate.

And that it’s something you do together. Yeah, FLAC has a facebook and a twitter and all that, but the real action has always been at the camp, where you can meet people from across the country who have been brought there by the same things as you. All it takes is one mission through the bush to go from strangers to comrades. But there’s also the camp life – cooking and eating together, sharing stuff, talking around the fire, going through the highs and lows of chasing an improbable dream. It’s this sense of community that has connected people from across the country. As now FLAC action groups are being set up in cities all over the place, we see how valuable that sense of connection is. You leave the camp feeling invested; committed to this cause, this forest, these people.

You can talk about a world beyond fossil fuels, and you should. You can lock yourself to a bulldozer and try to bring it a little bit closer. But that world really starts to become tangible when you are experiencing the generosity, inspiration, loyalty and interdependence of a group of people working together for a better world.  Front Line Action on Coal is expanding from its base at Maules Creek. As we’ve already seen, it will be quite a challenge trying to slow down coal and fossil fuels in Australia. But its influence could potentially spread far beyond that single industry and open up new possibilities for radical politics in Australia.


more info at http://www.frontlineaction.org

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The war we didn’t notice

Years ago, when I was involved in much less activism than I am today, I used to play footy with a number of guys who were in the Australian army. One of these guys missed a chunk of the season when he had to go to Afghanistan on service. When he got back, I asked him what it had been like over there. He told me he didn’t want to talk about it.

I instantly realised what a stupid question it was. Of course he didn’t want to talk about it! I was genuinely interested in what the situation was like in Afghanistan, but I had asked him as if he was getting back from a holiday, completely ignorant of the trauma and mental struggle that a soldier in a warzone has to deal with.

I still cringe when I recall that moment, but I also think that in that environment I can’t completely take the blame. In fact, while the first and second world wars virtually shut down societies around the world (even to the point where the Olympics and all other sporting competitions stopped running); while the defining images of the 60’s and 70’s are of mass resistance to the Vietnam war; if history tries to record how our society was affected by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it will have to note that it was overwhelmingly the war we didn’t notice.

Several years later, I was arrested protesting the still ongoing war. As I was taken into the station, a policeman there asked what I was there for. When he was told it was an anti-war protest, he responded by making a joke that went something like: “What? There’s a war going on outside? Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t have explained why I was doing the protest better if I had tried. Of course there was a war going on outside. It’s just that it wasn’t our towns that bombs were being dropped on, wasn’t our family who were being killed because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was our taxes that were paying for the bombs and guns.

Of course, many people will remember that the beginning of the Iraq war was met with millions of people taking part in protest marches around the world – possibly the biggest mass protests in history. But they were ignored by governments, and the protests didn’t last. Before too long it was possible to forget that the war was even happening.

And that’s pretty much the way it remained, despite huge death tolls, despite the sheer length (the Afghanistan war was longer than the first and second world wars combined, and even that stat is assuming that it actually ever finished), despite the legacy of PTSD and radiation poisoning from depleted uranium weapons, the war was the furthest thing from most of our minds as we went about our daily lives.

Now it should definitely not be claimed that this is just the result of people’s apathy. There were powerful forces who did their best to make sure we didn’t hear too much about what was happening – a military that kept a tight hold on what information could be made publicly available, and a mass media that rarely showed much interest in trying to dig deeper.

For the world to actually find out what was happening in Iraq required brave whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning risking life in prison to leak classified information to the public. When she leaked those files, Chelsea said she hoped they would bring “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

I think that these leaks were phenomenally important for showing us both what was happening in the war and what lengths our governments and military would go to ensure information remained secret. But unfortunately, Chelsea Manning is now serving 35 years in a US military prison, and it’s hard to argue that those things she hoped for have come to pass.

I thought about all this last week. As the media was entranced by stories of the first world war and the ‘centenary of ANZAC’, the Australian government announced that we would be sending infantry troops back to Iraq, that place we had supposedly left triumphantly having turned an evil dictatorship into a healthy democracy.

Given the respective media coverage of these two deployments of Australian troops to the Middle East, you could be forgiven for mistaking which one happened last week and which one happened 100 years ago. I guess with the passage of time it’s easier to make a good story about Gallipoli, one based on virtues of courage and sacrifice, where a military defeat can be viewed as an act of heroic bravery.

Of course, there are things we forget in our stories of Gallipoli too – while it might be mentioned that the ANZACs were sent to the slaughter by foolish British generals, rarely is the question asked what we were doing invading Turkey anyway. Nor is there much mention made of dissent to the war at home, despite the fact that two separate referendums to introduce military conscription were defeated (they learned their lesson for Vietnam and just skipped the referendum). And rarely do we try to draw links between that war and the one we are still fighting a century later, despite the fact that the nation of Iraq only came into existence in the post-war carve up of the Middle East by the colonial powers who emerged from World War One victorious.

Not paying close attention to the wars we are involved in means we can avoid tricky questions about our involvement – the reasons why we’re there and what the consequences might be. It means we can look at things like terrorist attacks or refugees and think that they are completely isolated issues in which only other people are responsible, not us. It means we don’t have to empathise with those who are on the other side of the conflict, that we can keep the morality black and white.

But unfortunately it means hiding from the truth. It means not seeing the part ourselves and our lifestyles play in the story. And it leaves us no closer to avoiding the next war, one where we possibly won’t have the luxury of being able to forget it’s happening.

These days I don’t claim to know everything about the wars that Australia and our allies are fighting. I don’t claim to hold a perfect moral position. But one thing I try to do is to not be ignorant or inactive about what our military is doing and what my role is in it.

Unfortunately this has at times meant that I’ve offended people, or been seen as starting conflicts with others (probably including some of my old footy mates, though I don’t see them much any more). But there’s still a war going on after all, and I don’t want to just forget about it. I want to play a role that I can be proud of, both today and in the future. Because not doing anything about it doesn’t mean you’re not involved in the war.


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