Saturday, December 27, 2014

Interstellar - movie review

(Spoilers yada yada...)

Cards down: I don’t know much about quantum physics, black holes, wormholes or how differing gravities affect the way time behaves. I guess I was sick the day we covered all that stuff in Mr Webster’s physics class circa 1985. I certainly don’t know much about the fifth dimension – I have enough of a struggle navigating the three I can experience first-hand.

But this much I do know: if I were a retired astronaut/the last chance for humanity and had been asked to pilot an against-all-odds lifeboat mission to another part of the universe, and knew that I would really need to understand how wormholes worked, mainly because a crucial part of said mission was piloting a spacecraft through a wormhole, I’d probably ask the eggheads at NASA to explain that stuff to me before I took off. I certainly wouldn’t want to have that stuff explained to me using a pen and a scrap of notepaper mere moments before I gunned the throttle and blasted through said wormhole. You know, because boy scouts.

So that’s a good concern, I think. Quite reasonable. However, for me this concern is much less of a problem than a symptom of the several much larger problems Christopher Nolan faces in Interstellar.

But first here’s what I liked.

Matthew McConaughey. I was never much of a fan, at least until I saw Dallas Buyers Club. I always found him a bit smug. Cocky. Too pretty for his own good. Plus it’s always seemed clear that he’s allergic to whatever they make shirts out of. But it turns out he can actually act. I mean, really act. So that’s something. Yay for epiphany!

The girl who plays his daughter, Mackenzie Foy; she can act, too, as can Jessica Chastain, who plays his grown-up daughter. Anne Hathaway is never given much to work with in this project, but we know she’s a good actor because... Les Mis? Michael Caine can act as well - it’s just that we don’t get to see it in this performance. ("Do…not…go...gentle…into…eurgh…beeeeeeeeeeeep…” Please.)

Oh, do you see what’s just happened? I’ve already digressed from the bits I thought were good. Fortunately I don't have much more to say in that vein anyway. The visual exploration of the fourth and fifth dimensions is mind-bending in a good way, the sound editing is dynamic (if a little too loud for the dialogue), Hans Zimmer plays the hell out of that pipe organ, and much of the cinematography is very good, although not to the standard that was set by Gravity. The science is…well, not my bag, as I pointed out at the top, so in that regard I will have to defer to greater minds than mine and stick with what I do know, which is storytelling.

So these are my main concerns.

Length. Yes, it’s just too damn long. The pacing around the beginning is all right, but the bit between him learning about the mission, making the decision to go, pissing off his kids and then actually being in space doing the mission is ridiculously rushed. And after than…more slow bits, punctuated by a couple of less-slow bits. Christopher Nolan is a seasoned film-maker, so I’d assume that he should be able to count to three. That is to say, the number of acts most movies need and/or manage to make do with. But if the experience of making Inception taught Nolan nothing else, it should have been that just because you can have the standard number of acts, then have another, doesn’t mean you should, even if you’re the writer, director and producer. But evidently Inception didn’t teach him this at all, because he counts to three then, like Guy Pearce’s character in Nolan’s best film, Memento, forgets where he’s up to and decides to start over. Sidebar: perhaps its the rising price of movie tickets and the resultant fear of a decline in multiplex-style entertainment, but it seems to me that movies seem to be getting longer with no real added benefit to the viewer (American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street and The Hobbit, I’m looking at you.)

But it’s not just the amount of film stock Chris Nolan and the other producers allow Chris Nolan to burn through for his own self-indulgence. I question the very premise under which McConaughey’s character Coop finds NASA, which is (apparently) run by a committee in a board room, an old scientist still working on a chalk board, and some teamsters in a concrete silo. In the mountains just near Coop’s inexplicably verdant farm. Undetected by the rest of the world, and accessible by dirt roads. Which (presumably) also serve as the supply route for all the stuff an interstellar lifeboat mission would require. Which is, by any estimation, a lot of stuff, not least of all the ageing Saturn V rocket which, bizarrely, later turns into something vastly more advanced, and capable of getting in and out of the gravitational orbits of roughly earth-sized planets with the ease of a Suzuki Swift delivering pizzas on a Saturday night.

Perhaps the greatest error in the storytelling of this film isn’t the plot holes (Back to the Future is like Swiss cheese, yet remains completely satisfying) or even the over-arching premise, but that Nolan seems unable to decide which story he’s telling. Is Interstellar a science-fiction adventure/thriller? Then plot holes and pacing are a legitimate worry, as is as the implausibility of the requisite science being explained on a scrap of paper (for instance). Is the film about being forced to choose between family, personal legacy, and the survival of humanity? If that’s the question one really wants to ask, it shouldn’t take almost three hours to answer it. Or is this movie a morality tale that asks that most troubling of questions – what happens if we continue to treat our planet like a frat house during mid-semester break?

Let’s assume it’s the latter. If Interstellar is intended as a morality tale, it has, at its heart, a disturbing caveat: that if and when science finds an escape clause for humanity's self-destructive narcissism, our social and moral imperative must be to grasp that opportunity as soon as it appears. In other words, don’t miss the lifeboat when it’s being lowered from the sloping deck. But who amongst us wants to be waiting for a mysterious wormhole to be discovered so a committee can send a reluctant corn farmer, a woman who acknowledges her own level of emotional compromise, and a packet of Mr Fothergill’s winter vegetable seed mix to the far reaches of the next galaxy in the hope we can start over?

Here’s an interesting stat. Interstellar cost almost $165 million to make. In 1979, George Miller made Mad Max for $400,000. Indexed, that would be roughly $1.7 million today. About one hundredth. As two cautionary tales of dystopia borne of environmental neglect and social decay, I know which one made me think twice about the world we hope to leave for our kids.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Stop the train, we want to get off.

It takes no more than a passing interest in history to recognise that Adolf Hitler had a real talent for harnessing public mistrust and dissatisfaction, and using that to cultivate the Nazi brand through the first third of the last century. As a result the so-called ‘War to end all Wars' was followed by an even more devastating global conflict barely two decades later. Or to put that into a timeline with some contemporary context, if the first World War ended when John Howard came to power, the second would be kicking off… oh, about now. 

A brief glimmer of hope shone on Germany during the period between the end of WW1 and WW2. In the 1920s, she shook off some of the deep shame and humiliation of losing the Great War and the pain of reparations and treaties subsequently imposed upon it to enter a period of relative stability known as Goldene Zwanziger, or literally 'The Golden Twenties'. This period lasted from around 1924 to 1929, in which time the economy grew, civil unrest began to settle and, remarkably, Germany started to find her feet.

But in late 1938 came Kristalnacht - the 'Night of Broken Glass' - during which German paramilitaries and sympathetic civilians destroyed Jewish businesses and homes, killed around one hundred Jews, and arrested thirty thousand Jews who were placed in ‘internment camps'.

And we know where those actions ultimately led - to the second global war, and the Final Solution, and of course what is now known as the Holocaust, with those ‘internment camps’ rebadged as ‘concentration camps’, ‘extermination camps’ and ‘death camps’.

So far this is all old news, and mostly common knowledge. Sobering, troubling, even distressing old news, naturally, yet it is somewhat tempered by frequent retelling. Plus there’s the feeling that all of this horror ostensibly took place in the grainy black-and-white of newsreels rather than in the vivid, living colour of HDTV.

So with that said, here’s a thought to ponder: somewhere between Goldene Zwanziger and Kristalnacht, Germany society was in the same place as Australia finds itself today. 

Too much? In my lefty hysteria, have I overstepped some line? Perhaps, but let me finish.

Somewhere on the continuum which features peace, recovery and growing prosperity at one end and murderous fascism, summary executions and gas chambers at the other, there must have been a comparable point to the one on which Australia currently stands as a society. Without wanting to attract accusations of hyperbole, it seems clear to many that we’re heading in the wrong direction along that continuum. We’ve found ourselves on the wrong line, and one of the next stations we pull into will be Press Gagging, followed shortly after by Kangaroo Court. We didn’t spend very long at the last station, but the stench of Mandatory Detention is still funking up the carriage. We can’t get into the cabin or the guard’s compartment to raise the alarm, and the emergency brake isn’t working. But we are being told that everything’s under control.

Many will argue that in young, naive, lackadaisical, larrikin Australia, with our famous ‘fair go for all’ ethos, we don’t need to worry. We’d never let it reach that point, would we? After all, it’s 2014, not 1934! Plus we’ve got all of that history to inform us, and to view as a cautionary tale. It might have happened in another hemisphere, but we’re not idiots. I mean, we can read. And we wouldn’t let that happen here. Not in Australia. No way!

Ah, complacency, tyranny's best friend.

One of the quotes doing the rounds on Twitter of late is by one Hermann Goering - you might have heard of him. At the Nuremburg Trials he said the following:
"Naturally the common people don't want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
I think it’s rather appropriate that this quote is getting such a run on Twitter in particular. In the world of the early 21st century, social media is playing an increasingly important role in political dissent. This is no less true in Australia. The Marches in March and subsequent associated protests such as the 'Bust the Budget’ rallies all around the country were organised and their details disseminated almost entirely through social media. (Sidebar: It also seems likely that the conservative side of the debate has not embraced these techs as well as the left, judging by the fudged numbers on internet polls and the army of troll-bots that emerge whenever Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin get jumpy. Shhh - don’t tell them that we’re onto ‘em...)

At this point I feel slightly hesitant in my convictions, since I am mindful of Godwin’s Law which, in one of its forms, states that in any heated internet debate, eventually someone will accuse the other of being a Nazi. Or of being like Hitler. Sometimes it’s as simple as 'You know, this is exactly how Nazi Germany started.' But you get the idea.

The problem with Godwin’s Law is that by its very nature it can often shame us from making those comparisons. It makes us queasy about drawing those parallels. But here’s something else to think upon: Nazi Germany wasn’t a fictional place, like Westeros or Middle Earth or Narnia. It was real. It happened. Which means there was a time when it was exactly how Nazi Germany started. Which presumably - and tragically - means it could happen again.

Now that I’ve invoked the dreaded Godwin’s Law, I figure in for a penny, in for a pound. So check this… 

Hitler achieved power by infiltrating the legislature and then, bit by bit, persuading that legislature to change the laws to grant him additional powers and, in the end, ultimate power. He also did what Goerring articulated above - he identified a cultural scapegoat to blame for the parlous state of the nation, and denounced anyone who spoke out against said blame-shifting. Meanwhile he encouraged the people to carry on, go about their normal lives, let him get on with fixing the mess. Hitler cosied up to like-minded leaders of like-minded countries. Driven by braggadocio, he engaged in mission-creep. He almost certainly burnt down the Reichstag and blamed the Communist Party so he could crush the Communist Party with full approval of the people who democratically elected him. And perhaps most relevant to the events of the last week, Hitler controlled information, both in terms of using flagrant propaganda through sympathetic news outlets, and by directly threatening the press. 

A few years ago I visited Dachau, and was surprised (and slightly embarrassed) to learn that that camp was never an extermination camp in the style of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka. It was initially set up in 1933 to hold political prisoners - journalists, academics, rabble-rousers, union leaders. By 1945, around 3.5 million such prisoners had been locked up in the 1,500 Nazi camps.* 

Of course you can see the comparison I’m making. And it’s an uncomfortable comparison, isn’t it?

Yet the point does bear consideration, especially in light of George Brandis' recent knee-jerk (or opportunistic, if you prefer) amendments to our surveillance laws. If, on first viewing, the outstanding German film The Lives of Others seemed to be an earnest yet quaint examination of another, simpler time, then I urge you to watch it again without the popcorn. Or if you’re fortunate enough to find yourself in the German capital, visit the Hohenschonhausen Stasi Memorial Centre in the back blocks of old East Berlin. Or, at the very least, read Anna Funder’s Stasiland. Any of these experiences should remind us of what happens when secret police, spy agencies and, by extension, the government overseeing these bodies can watch, report and detain their citizenry with what amounts to impunity. Of course, we are a very long way from Kristalnacht. Except we’re not really. An excellent, savagely beautiful piece by Alex McKinnon over at Junkee lists just a handful of the multiple attacks on unrelated Muslim Australians by non-Muslim Australians in just one week by the press, politicians and, yes, civilian Australians in the wake of the terrible events outside Endeavour Hill police station.

It can happen again. It shouldn't, but it can. Perhaps the case can be made that Hitler and the Nazis would never have gained the traction they did had Twitter and Facebook been around to help inform and forewarn the people in the absence of a free and balanced media. But that such a case need even be considered should be alarming in itself.

Earlier, I alluded to a train. I should tidy up that metaphor. This ‘train' isn’t charging along apace. It’s not a runaway train full of passengers holding one another and mouthing silent prayers as they brace for the impact. No, this train has a driver, and he is being very careful to keep it rolling along smoothly. After all, gently rocking trains can have a profoundly soporific effect, and who doesn’t like to snooze on a train? The driver is also being very considerate of his passengers. He’s frequently on the PA, telling us all that he’s got everything under control. 

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers helpfully suggesting that if we don’t like where the train is going, we should get off. And maybe that’s it. Perhaps for those of us who don't like the scenery or the destination, our best choice is to leap bodily from the doors and windows and take our chances ‘out there’. 

Except most of us don’t want to leave the train. Many of us have been on this train all our lives, others joined at an earlier station. This used to be a nice carriage going to a nice place. With each passing day it becomes incumbent on those who can still see out the windows to wake up the rest of the passengers and find that damned emergency brake. Maybe then it won’t be too late to get things back on the right track. 

 *Yes, you read those numbers correctly.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Who said anything about fair?

Last evening, on a social media site, I was part of a debate around the left's collective outrage in response to the government's asylum seeker policy and "we've stopped the boats" claim, a triumphant claim immediately followed by the arrival in Australian waters (we think, since the government won't talk about it) of two boats carrying around two hundred refugees. This was written by one participant in the discussion:
Ok... So to clarify...are we speaking about illegal asylum boat arrivals? If we are I find it interesting that what you are all advocating is an open door immigration policy where right of passage is granted to the highest bidder. After all, that is exactly what is happening is it not? Those that can afford it pay for illegal passage to Australia whilst those that can't afford it rot in some cesspool of a refugee camp somewhere while they wait for their spot. Hardly sounds fair to me...
First, I don’t know anyone credible who is advocating an "open-door immigration policy". No one - not Labor, not the Greens, not even the asylum seeker advocates I’ve spoken with. What a great many are saying is that the off-shore processing should end, on-shore expedited processing should occur forthwith, and that having unattended kids (or in fact any kids at all) in detention is unacceptable. Now, Labor has disappointed many by not voting against offshore processing, myself included. But you can oppose the govt’s approach without aligning with the ALP’s approach.

The greater concern at this stage is that it seems clear that the government is using the harshness of the conditions under which asylum seekers are detained as a disincentive to seeking asylum. This suggestion seems to be reinforced by the stern tenor of the recently-leaked Scott Morrison video message to detainees on Manus. This is further reinforced by the incidents mentioned above - the kids taken from school, and the detainees at Villawood being moved in the early hours of the morning, clearly to avoid detection and protest from concerned citizens.

Furthermore, we have an Immigration Minister who is saying that unless a person's chances of being tortured or murdered on their return are 50% or higher, they'll be returned, all whilst not telling us anything about the operations being undertaken by our navy in our name, while boats of up to 150 people, down to 20ml of water per person after two weeks at sea, and with sick and vomiting kids on board, basically disappear. In other words, policy and politics trumping kindness and compassion. Not to mention “there are no boats to report” despite several journalists and advocates having actual conversations with people on board those boats. Unless they’re all lying, but this govt is daily proving itself less and less worthy of being believed, so for now (and until proven otherwise) I’m going to throw my hat in with the Fairfax journalists and refugee advocates.

Oh, and meanwhile, we have a prime minister who, in a piece of political sleight-of-hand that would make Howard and Reith proud, is quite happy to draw a loose but clear connection between jihadists and boat arrivals, despite having no evidence of any such link, in the most cynical of dog whistling exercises.

And finally, we have the oft-repeated “all they’re doing is paying Indonesian people smugglers while the real refugees are languishing” line trotted out by Bolt/Devine/Jones etc. Which might have some merit, except that one of the two boats from the weekend originated not in Indonesia, but India, and according to the "passengers" spoken to, no people smugglers were paid. 

So is it fair? Of course it’s not fair. No one is saying it’s fair, and no one is saying it’s easy. But when you’re genuinely scared for the life of yourself, and your kids, you’ll do anything. You don’t give a shit about fair. So the onus is on Australia, as the more fortunate party in this drama, to find a way to handle things that doesn’t require punishing people who have done nothing wrong apart from “jump" a non-existent queue, and find a way to get their families to relative safety.

Once again, no one is saying it’s simple, and no one is saying that it’s fair. But do we have to be cruel? Or is that the actual point? Because there must be a better way than that. Doesn’t there? 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Why I'm not embarrassed to read YA

So then there’s this, an article by Ruth Graham on Slate titled Against YA, with this tagline: Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.

I won’t lay out every argument Graham makes – you can go read it for yourself – but suffice to say that the tagline is exactly representative of the rather superior position she takes.

In her article, Graham makes many points with which I take issue, but I’m going to focus the convergent beam of my disagreement upon a couple of her more general points, precisely because that’s what they are – extraordinarily generalised.

As far as I can tell, all books written for adults are about people having affairs. Or people being missionaries. Or about surviving cancer, then not surviving cancer, then saying goodbye to the rest of your family as they watch you fail to survive cancer. Of course this is an absurd claim, and to make such a claim is to make it abundantly clear that I’ve only ever read books about affairs, missionaries and people failing to survive cancer. 

This from Graham’s article:
Most importantly, [YA] books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with 'likeable' protagonists.

This is a little like saying that all country music is simplistic and sentimental. One can make a strong case, using myriad examples both prominent and obscure, for precisely this assertion. Except it’s not true. And it can be demonstrated to be untrue by anyone with a more than passing familiarity with country music. 

Okay, I think that’s enough of that. That point needn’t be laboured, except to quote Graham from later in her piece:
I do not begrudge young adults themselves their renaissance of fiction. I want teenagers and ambitious pre-teens to have as many wonderful books to read as possible, including books about their own lives.
To acknowledge the breadth of variety within YA in one breath, but to then generalise so bluntly in the next feels lazy at worse, dishonest at worst. But to then double down by characterising John Green’s juggernaut The Fault In Our Stars as 'a nicely written book for 13-year-olds' as she does is at once arguably true and unarguably narrow. Add to this her suggestion that YA is all about 'escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia' (apparently we “defenders” of YA fiction “admit” this) followed by this quoted line from Jen Doll: 'At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable'; and you have a wilfully restrictive view of what is not so much a genre as an entire market. Restrictive and, in many, many cases, downright wrong. Demonstrably so.

But even that’s not my greater concern. My greater concern is touched on ever so slightly by Graham, when she opines: 'There’s of course no shame in writing about teenagers; think Shakespeare or the Brontë sisters or Megan Abbott.'

I’d go considerably further than that. I would argue that a great many of the books and stories now considered classical mainstays would, if published today, find themselves on display in the young adult section of our bookstores. Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickelby, Oliver TwistTom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles are all about young people finding their way in the adult world. Finding a place of belonging, if you will, or an identity beyond that of their childhood. Romeo and Juliet, published and premiered today, would be YA. Even the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet, calmly and systematically checks off many of the tropes often associated with the YA 'genre'. We can list them: 
  • Hamlet is an “emo”; 
  • his father is dead; 
  • his mother is in a bizarre rebound relationship; 
  • his best friend is so cool that it hurts; 
  • his girlfriend is so crazy she ends up face-down in a pond; 
  • he’s suffering from suicidal ideation; 
  • he’s talking to himself a lot
  • and in the end, pretty much everyone dies.

So Graham is right – there is no shame in writing about teenagers. As I hope I’ve pointed out, there is a long history of doing just that to be found amongst the work of some fairly handy writers. But even in making that point, I think a greater point is at risk of being missed: that there is no shame in writing as a teenager. And I don't mean teenagers who write, necessarily, but adults who write from the teenaged part of their experience.

You see, while I can’t speak for any one my YA-writing colleagues, writing as a young adult is what I see myself doing. All the time. Finding those stories that resonate so strongly with the fourteen-year-old James that the forty-five-year-old James has to tell them.

If you'll indulge me, let me offer a tiny slice of my own history. I grew up in a missionary family, and every two or three years our parents would announce that we were moving. Friends, relatives, everyone was going to be left behind while we headed off to do our Christian duty. As a result of this, I got to grow up in some fairly remarkable places. But the down-side was a crippled sense of identity. A kind of arrested social development. An itch between my emotional shoulder-blades that even now I sometimes struggle to reach. The only way I’ve found to scratch that itch with any kind of satisfaction is through my writing, so as a result, that 'trauma' (a dramatic word, I know, but it’s the best I’ve got) has also been one of the great blessings of my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be doing this, right now. Writing for a living. And I love this. 

Graham, in her Slate piece, says: 'I have no urge to go back and re-read [the books I read as a child], but those books helped turn me into the reader I am today. It’s just that today, I am a different reader.'

In response to this, I would say the following: I’m happy for you. I’m happy that the books you read as a young person set you up so neatly for all those 'real' books you now enjoy. But for every 'literary' reader such as yourself, there’s at least one of me. You see, I couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about someone’s affair, or the search for the code to the identity of the Illuminati, or a glass cathedral floating down a river, or Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power. I'm not saying you shouldn't either – if you want to read about an Indian sweet-maker defying the odds to become a successful businessman, I say fill yer boots! But no, I’m much more interested in a story like that of Arnold in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Because I’m a native American kid from a reservation in Washington State? Of course not. Because I was – and in some ways remain – a kid who, like Arnold, is trying to find my place in the world.

And while I thank you for your concern, I refuse to be embarrassed by that.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dear Mr Abbott...

Dear Mr Abbott,

I’d like to tell you a story.

The football commentator Warren Ryan tells the story of a player who marched up to a referee he believed to be biased. ‘What would you do if I called you a cheat?’ he asked.

‘I’d send you off,’ the referee replied.

‘What would you do if I thought you were a cheat?’ the player asked.

‘I can’t do anything about what you think.’

‘Then I think you’re a cheat,’ said the player.

Mr Abbott, we’ve all seen what happens when someone in the press says something nasty about one of your team. Your friend Joe Hockey has just this week filed papers against Fairfax for suggesting that maybe he was selling his influence. Maybe. You know, because of the evidence. It’s a little like the words Joe himself tweeted in July last year to suggest that Kevin Rudd was for sale. What were those words again? Oh yes – Access to Rudd, at a price...FACT.

But I digress. As I say, we all know what happens when someone criticises you or one of your team. That’s right – you file papers against them. Because, like, it hurts real bad, you know?

Right now I’m actually not in the best place financially to defend myself against saying bad stuff about you, Mr Abbott, and with Joe needing the lawyers to get heavy with one of the three independent mainstream media outlets in Australia, I doubt that you want the trouble either. That’s why I’m going to save us both some trouble by not actually calling you anything.

That’s right. I’m not going to call you a liar, even though I think you are. I think you told everyone one thing before the election but had no intention of following through. I think you and Joe confected this entire ‘budget emergency’ so that you could pursue your long game, which is to help the big end of town get bigger without interference from those pesky peasants. I think you deliberately denigrated the economists here and overseas who tried to tell us that the budget emergency wasn’t. And I think you lied when you told us that John Howard’s poll numbers also fell after his first budget when, in fact, they did the precise opposite. Likewise, I wouldn’t dream of saying that you’re an ideologue, but I do think that. Nor would I say that sometimes invoking Godwin’s Law is exactly the right thing to do.

Something else I’m not going to say is that you definitely found it funny when that retired lady called you at the radio station and told you that she has to work on a sex line to pay the bills. But I think you found that distressing and degrading story quite funny, mostly because of the smiling, and the guilty look at the camera when you remembered what a camera does, and I think it made you look creepy because I think you’re creepy. I also think you found really odd parts of Joe’s budget funny, because I saw you laughing and grinning during the sad bits, which was most of it. And I think you looked like a petulant jock when Bill Shorten was giving his budget reply speech.

And Mr Abbott, I wouldn’t dream of saying that you’re definitely a coward for not turning up at Deakin University because you were frightened of the students. But I definitely think you are, just as I also think you don’t give a shit about students or Australia’s higher education system as a whole, or in fact education in general. Again, just to be clear, I’m not saying that you were happy to take your free university education thanks to the reforms brought in by that awful socialist Gough Whitlam (even though you weren't actually an Australian citizen at the time), only to be equally happy to make this generation of students pay more. But I do think you were happy to take your free education, and I think you’re a complete bastard for making it so much harder for young Australians to get educated enough to land a good job and eventually join you in your leafy, beachside electorate. 

Some of the other things I’m not saying about you, (because lawyers), are these: that you’re scared of gay people; that you are either oblivious to or willfully ignorant of the overwhelming evidence in support of the idea that climate change is being caused by people; that you want to undermine state health and education so you can blame the state governments for the inevitable GST hike; that you don’t care all that much for women, indigenous people, asylum seekers or the disabled; and that you keep knocking back invitations to be on Q&A and 7.30 because you’re between skins, and it takes so much time to rub against the corner of the desk before peeling off that last layer. But I do think that all of the above might be true.

That’s right, Mr Abbott. I wouldn’t dream of saying that you are quite possibly the worst Prime Minister we’ve ever had, a man who is a terrible leader and a gormless, cowardly, hypocritical bully. But be in no doubt that I do think each of those things.

I also think you should read something other than the Murdoch press, accept that your personal numbers are now unsalvageable, and resign. But you won’t. You definitely won’t. And that much I do know.

Thank you. I shall waste no time reading your reply.

James Roy

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mean, mean bastards.

This won't be a surprise to anyone who knows me, but today, the day after Joe Hockey's first budget, I'm thoroughly pissed off.

Why am I so angry? I could provide a long and exhaustive list which includes but is not limited to cuts to the ABC/SBS, the increase in the retirement age, the 6 month freeze-out of Newstart applicants, the smack-down of the arts, and the half a billion dollars cut from important Indigenous programs.

But in the interests of my own mental health I'm going to limit myself to two of the new tax/levy/surcharge increases.

So, a thought experiment. Imagine you're a single parent. You have three young kids. You're already finding things to be a bit of a struggle, but you're getting by on your minimum wage. Just. But then one of your kids gets sick. It's nothing life-threatening - just an ear infection - but a visit to the doctor is required.

Now, I bet you think you know what I'm about to say. An extra $7 to see a doctor, even a bulk-billing one, right?

I know, it's only seven dollars. It's not really such a big deal, and besides, now you can get in to see a doctor more easily, since the time wasters have been scared away. Sometimes Andrew Bolt does make sense!

But there's more to this story than finding the price of two coffees in order to get your sick child to a doctor. Because hidden in the less fashionable corners of the 2014 budget is the extra five dollars per PBS script. So that single parent is now up for an additional twelve dollars on top of the cost of those antibiotics. And the ear drops, so that's actually nineteen bucks. Nineteen dollars MORE out of pocket than would have been the case. Chris Bowen is right - this is not what Medicare was set up to be. This is not universal health care. This is a clear and cynical move towards adopting the US health system. Mind you, considering how well it's worked for them... Oh, wait, my mistake - it's been an utter disaster.

But for the single parent we met earlier, a shift in public health philosophy is the least of their concerns. They're too busy trying to decide what they'll do without so they can get their kid to the doctor and pay for those meds. Unless they hit the local emergency department... Oh, wait, that's being headed off as we speak, with talk of adding the co-payment to emergency department visits.

This is a real issue, not a fanciful "extreme example". This exact situation is going to be played out many, many times over if this budget passes.

Now, based on past experiences I fully expect a number of rather strident responses to these, my bleeding heart ravings. If you think you might be tempted to do this, take a hard look at yourself before you post, and ask whether you're responding out of ideology or a place of kindness. If it's the latter, then let's talk. But if it's the former, don't bother. I'm really not in the mood.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Kylie - a tribute

This is a tribute to my friend Kylie, who passed away last Friday. She was one of the kindest, coolest, sweetest, toughest people I ever met, and she will be greatly missed.

I remember meeting Kylie for the first time within my first couple of weeks on Wade Ward, the adolescent unit of the Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Cystic fibrosis kids spent weeks on end on our ward, usually having a “tune-up”, sometimes fighting infections, and all too often spending their last days with us. Over the years, as treatments improved, less kids were passing away at the kids’ hospital, since they were transitioning over to adult care, and having transplants.

Photo of Kylie by Stephanie Kent
Kylie was cheeky. Tiny and cheeky, and we connected immediately. She had a laugh like an ewok, all giggly and manic, and a quick smile. But she also had toughness and directness like you wouldn’t believe. On more than on one occasion she had to call me into her room to read me the riot act. ‘Listen, I know you’re having a shit night out there,’ she told me one time, pulling her oxygen mask to one side, ‘but at least you can breathe. So why don't you take a breath, shut the f*** up and get on with whatever it is you gotta do, because no matter how bad your shift is, you get to go home in four hours. Now, I’d appreciate it if you’d hand me that magazine on your way out – I’ve got boys to fantasise about.’

I remember the day I accessed her portacath for the first time. It was high on her chest, next to her collarbone, and as I was doing my thing, her top slipped down. I slid it back up in the interests of modesty, but it slid back down almost straight away. This happened again and again until, sensing my embarrassment, Kylie dead-panned, ‘It’s just a boob, James.’

We were still laughing about that about a year ago, when I last saw Kylie, all grown up but just as cheeky. We had a few private jokes, Kylie and I. One was more absurd and ridiculous than the others. 'Knock knock,' she’d say.

'Who’s there?'

'Fire extinguisher.'

'Fire extinguisher who?'

'Stand real still while I hit you with this fire extinguisher.'

It wasn’t always a fire extinguisher – sometimes it was a chair, or a pot plant, or a medication trolley, or a 'cappa-cheeneo machine' in the worst Texan drawl she could summon. Some nights, in the middle of a hellish shift, she would phone the desk from her room, and when I answered it, she’d just say, ‘Fire extinguisher!’ and hang up. Then I’d hear that crazy cackle from her room down the hall, and it always lifted my mood.

And you could always bring a smile to Kylie’s face, no matter how much pain she was in, by adding the word ‘wang’ to any other word. The original idea came from a mitchell and Webb sketch, but we stretched the joke to the limits of its usefulness, and far beyond. 

But there was so much more to Kylie than toughness, directness a
nd laughs. She was so incredibly kind. Long after she would have been forgiven for curling up on the couch with a stack of movies, long after her countless post-transplant complications, she was still dragging herself out to speak at events, to support kids with chronic illness, and to improve her counselling and youth work skills. She once told me that since she was one of the last standing from her generation of CF kids, she felt the burden of responsibility to speak on their behalf. It wasn’t always a burden that sat comfortably up her little shoulders, but she accepted it nonetheless.

A year or two back Kylie asked me for my advice on writing a memoir. ‘I want to tell my story,’ she said, ‘but I don’t know what to write about.’ When I asked her what she meant by that, she said, ‘There’s so much. Should my book be about living with a chronic illness, having transplants and spending most of my life in hospital? Or should it be about my family having to accept that I won’t be around forever? Or should it be about my friends who’ve died, like Rachael and Lisa? Or maybe it should be about Ben. I guess there must be other people like Ben out there who love someone like me. Maybe there’s things that they need to know. All I know is that this book needs to help people.’

‘Can’t it just be about you?’ I asked. ‘You’ve got quite the story to tell.’

She just shrugged. ‘I’m just me,’ she said. ‘I’m not that exciting.’

I disagree, Kylie-wang. I thought you were fascinating.


Cystic Fibrosis Australia can always use more support – please go here to find out how you can help.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Noah" - a movie review

(Spoilers - most of the cast dies.)

The release of Darren Aronofsky's CGI pre-apocalyptic juggernaut raises all manner of interesting questions, not least of all being this: where does this film squeeze into the whole religion/atheism debate? Come to that, does it even need to? Is it so far removed from Biblical accounts of a Great Flood that it is rendered utterly irrelevant in that context?

It seems likely that the answers to these questions – and how any one individual feels about the movie – will depend in large part on where that individual is positioned on the religion/atheism spectrum. But an even more nuanced question is the effect your personal level of ambivalence will have on your opinion. In other words, do you even care whether this retelling of the Noah’s Ark myth accurately follows the Biblical record (it really doesn’t) or whether it takes such liberties with the implausible story of an old man building a floating zoo in order to preserve the entire animal kingdom that it becomes its own rather silly piece of escapist nonsense (it does). And in the case of the latter, is it made well enough to even fill that brief?

In a word, no. But more on that in a moment.

I suspect that one can’t help but bring one’s own understanding of the Noah story to any showing of this movie. If your exposure to this story is predominantly from colouring-in books, birthday cards and Fisher-Price toys, then you’ll possibly see this as the forgettable piece of noisy fluff that it is. But like many raised as devout Christians, I can’t do that. I grew up believing that the creation story, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the talking serpent, and the Great Flood were all literally true and accurately recorded in the Book of Genesis, and as such literally took place within the last six thousand years. I no longer believe those stories, preferring to see them as what they undoubtedly are – one of our earliest attempts to explain the natural world in much the same way that Native Americans and Indigenous Australians constructed their own creation myths. And yet I found myself sitting in a dark cinema becoming increasingly agitated by the ‘inaccuracies’ in the movie. Noah couldn’t have known how to forge steel! His wife wouldn’t have had a home herbal pregnancy test! Methuselah wasn’t a magical hermit! And I’m damn sure that if Noah and his family really built the ark, they’d did it without the assistance of granite-encrusted fallen angels, stomping around the place and reducing the heathens to dust like villains from a Jerry Bruckheimer bad acid nightmare. And corrugated iron? Really? (Yes, I’m completely serious about the corrugated iron.) And steel bear traps. And gunpowder. Besides, the Old Testament clearly states that there were two of each of the ‘unclean’ creatures, but seven of the ‘clean ones’, rather than the traditionally held ‘two-by-two’ scenario. What right do the makers have to take such a liberty? Yes, I did find myself scoffing at these – and many other – gross ‘inaccuracies’. But then I’d pause to remind myself that not only was this version fictitious, but so too was the original.

"You're gonna need a bigger boat."
All that said, the holes in this movie and the lazy, stupidly convenient explanations to many of the glaring narrative questions raised by the original tale are, in my view, ridiculous beyond measure. How did Noah get all those animals to behave themselves on a big shared boat for a year? How did he feed them? Well, it turns out he didn’t have to, since he had knowledge of a special soporific incense to which he and his family were immune, but which could knock out a sizeable cross-section of Africa’s fauna in mere seconds. How did he make fire? Well, he had these little glowing nuggets which, when hit with the handle of a Bowie knife, flared into very useful barbecue heat beads which somehow made damp wood burn instantly. Perhaps most impressive of all was the giant gimbal on which the interior of the ark was presumably fixed. This can be the only possible explanation for external shots showing the vessel being tossed like a cork on tempestuous waters while within the ark we see Noah and his family sitting around the fire, calmly drinking soup from a cup. 

And on it goes, with a kind of bizarro-Ockham’s razor taken to most of the social and anthropological questions raised by the original story. Who did the kids mate with once the waters had receded? Each other? Mum? Some of the surplus livestock? Noah’s son Ham, in a poignant confirmation that the middle child syndrome isn’t a new thing, wanders petulantly into the wild yonder, either to die alone or, if the early Mormons are to be believed, to somehow spawn dark-skinned children. Alone.

I readily confess that my issues with this retelling are almost certainly due, at least in part, to my deeply ingrained ‘knowledge’ based on a literal reading of Genesis – that God wiped out all of humanity save for the one righteous man. Perversely, after seeing Noah I now have a certain sympathy for the uniformly batty Ray Comfort, who is protesting because of how ‘inaccurate’ this movie is, and how, when the account given in Genesis is read as a literal historical record, the story is rendered almost unrecognisable from the original.

Trying to approach it with the eyes of a a non-believer isn’t much more helpful. Can this movie be viewed as a stand-alone work of apocalyptic fantasy, perhaps a story staged in a parallel universe? If we agree to approach it as a good yarn, a tense drama of one man’s struggle against the forces of evil, of an honourable man torn between love for his family and duty to his God, does Noah stand up? Can we forgive its shortcomings?

"Hold the boat! Hold! The! Boat!"
In my view we cannot, since most of these shortcomings are anathema to good film-making of any stripe. The pacing and the attention to the chronology of the story is desperately uneven. Characters drift in and out of the narrative with seemingly little connection to one another, and certainly scant underpinning in back-story. The acting is, in some cases, solid enough. Russell Crowe reprises his role from Gladiator, all steely glares, curt responses and makeshift javelins. The kids aren’t bad, and Ray Winstone is, as ever, arresting. But Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah is completely wasted (sometimes literally, it would seem), reduced as he is to a doddery grandfather who spends his twilight years in a kind of DIY bronze-age opium den, able to pull himself together only long enough to hypnotise his great-grandkids to facilitate a private conversation with their father, or to perform healing miracles in the style of Uri Geller. 

Sadly the women miss out on most of what few good lines there are, despite having fairly pivotal roles in the story. Emma Watson, playing Noah’s adopted daughter, seems to have lost all the acting ground she made in the transition from Harry Potter to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and is back to doing Hermione Granger, but without the range. And Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife is given very little to work with, and as such delivers very little. Very little indeed. Repeatedly.

Make no mistake, as pure spectacle this movie has its moments. Watching the entire world engulfed by ‘the waters below’ made the ocean scenes in A Perfect Storm look like ripples in a bath. But that simply highlights one of its greatest flaws; at no point does this feel like a depiction of a global flood. As a hundred or so of the doomed victims cling to the last remaining peak like extras in a medieval chapel fresco, it’s hard not to be underwhelmed. In fact, the flood depicted feels much more like whatever actual event spawned the original myth, probably a prehistoric flash flood that wiped out a village, ultimately leaving nothing but a sad, bedraggled goat stranded on a hillock.

More than once I wondered if that mightn’t have been the more interesting story.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

12 Years a Slave - film review

(This review contains numerous significant spoilers. You have been warned.)

Some years ago a friend who is a very fine amateur photographer showed me one of his favourite images, of a woodpecker clinging to the trunk of a tree as it pecked away at the bark. He showed me two versions of the same photo. The first - the original - had the tree positioned on the left of the frame, with the bird on the right. The second version was simply reversed, so that the woodpecker was now facing right, hammering away at the dark shape that ran down the right side of the picture. 'The second one is better,' Mark said, quite correctly. By why? Other than being mirrored, the images were identical. 'The tree trunk on the right stops the eye,' he explained. ‘Since we read from left to right, our eye approaches images the same way. The first version allowed the viewer to linger briefly on the bird before "escaping" out the right-hand side of the frame. Reversed, the eye comes into the picture, and is then blocked from leaving by the tree.' Such is the psychology of the visual.

Consider now the poster for 12 Years a Slave. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the New York free man kidnapped and thrown into slavery in the deep South, is running. Escaping, presumably, at full sprint. To the left. Back into the arms of the slavers rather than the arms of his family. To present him running to the right would be to offer him freedom, liberation. Hope. To the left lies utter hopelessness and despair.

This is a review of a film, not a poster. After all, we don't pay our hard-earned to stand in the foyer and admire the artwork. So why the focus on the poster?

To me, this is simply one sign of the attention to detail the director and producers of this film have shown. Miss-steps? There are few, if any. The sudden jump to Mistress Shaw, a black lady of means we had hitherto not met had me briefly wondering if the projectionist had spooled the wrong reel. (But since 'projectionist' isn't a job any more, that couldn't have been it.) Of course, it wasn't a miss-step at all. On reflection it is jarring in precisely the way it was intended to be. (Read about the screenwriter's take on this here.)

Jarring moments are many in this film. Each is good for the way the story is told, most not so good for the characters. The extended scenes of violence, sparing nothing, do not feel like torture porn. Mel Gibson could learn a thing or two from director Steve McQueen about using cruelty and violence in a deeply troubling, 'please make it stop' kind of way, rather than rejoicing in the gore and splitting flesh. In the way it should be used. At no time does the violence in this film feel gratuitous. Excessive, yes, but then, slavery was nothing if not an excessive use of violence.

In one scene that had me practically hiding behind my hands, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the beautiful, delicate young slave girl and reluctant lover to the slaver owner Epps is being lashed for possessing soap. Egged on by his stony, jealous wife, Epps is determined to lash her to death, to strip the flesh from her back. Except he hasn't the guts to do it himself, so he hands the task to Northup. What follows is one of the hardest things I've ever watched. In the end, as her cries turned to whimpers, I actually found myself hoping that she had died, in much the same way that we hope a badly injured animal will soon breathe its last and feel no more pain. 

'A badly injured animal.' There it is - in one scene McQueen had managed to make me deeply sympathetic to a character, whilst forcing me to adopt some of the distorted psychology that allows the powerful to dehumanise the weak. It's powerful film-making, powerful storytelling, utterly immersing and involving and implicating the viewer.

Equally impressive were the moments of silence, and the moments of confusion. To deal with the first: in one of the brief flashbacks, Northup is in a store in New York, about to spend a far too much on a travel bag for his wife. Another black man, also well dressed, comes into the store, only to be followed in by his master, who apologises to the storekeeper for the 'intrusion'. Off camera, someone says, 'It's no intrusion'. It sounds like Northup, or perhaps it's the storekeeper. The white master's expression suggests it is Northup, but before you've a chance to be certain, the black man has been bustled out and normality returned. And you get on with the story, the 'intrusion' forgotten. And again, we become faintly complicit in the world we are watching.

One viewer review I read complained about some of the 'long, boring, pointless scenes where nothing much happens.' Perhaps they were referring to the scene where Northup is being hanged, but is then lowered barely enough for his toes to reach the muddy ground below, just to make sure he learns his lesson. Ankles and wrists bound, we watch his toes scrabble for purchase as he dances a silent, desperate dance. Meanwhile his fellow slaves go about their work around him, too terrified of reprisal to cut him down. He hangs like that well into the evening, and we watch for a full five minutes, maybe more, an eternity in cinema-time. Like the lashing of Patsey, it is long, and excruciating to watch, even from a comfortable cinema seat.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of this film is the way it forces us to re-examine that old question, 'What would I do?' Would I stand up to the SS guard, would I offer sanctuary to the Tutsi refugee being hunted by men with machetes, would I climb into the carriage and ride away to freedom, leaving other black men and women behind to continue to be slaves?

Of course, that is precisely what Northup does when his chance at liberation comes knocking, and it hits the viewer like a sledgehammer, especially as the last thing we see, just as a blur in the corner of the frame, is Patsey fainting and falling to the ground in front of the plantation house. As we wonder how he can possibly go back to his old life with a clear conscience knowing what he is leaving behind, we remember a scene much earlier in the film, where a friend is liberated at the dock and hurries away without so much as a glance back at a shocked and incredulous Northup.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are flawless. Both Ejiofor and Nyong’o were rightly nominated for Academy Awards (Nyong’o won) but equally impressive are Michael Fassbender as Epps, Sarah Paulson as his cold, heartless wife, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the relatively kind slave-owner Ford. But the performance amongst the secondary characters which really stands out is Paul Dano, the vindictive, petty overseer Tibeats. When we first meet him, he sings a chirpy Southern ditty titled 'Run Nigger Run' which, in a sublime piece of editing, goes on to overlay a montage of hard manual labour, gleefully cruel overseers, and a pressed and ironed Cumberbatch presenting a Sunday sermon to his assembled 'property’. The topic of the sermon? The biblical extolment of owning other humans. With the sinister soundtrack of Tibeats’ song, this scene is properly chilling.

As with so much good cinema, it’s hard to say that this is a movie to enjoy, so much as one to appreciate. If there is a weakness in 12 Years a Slave, it is its slightly hamstrung narrative arc, entirely by virtue of being a true story. But if the final scene ends with what feels like something of a cliche, it is rightly followed by an awkward moment as the viewer, along with Solomon Northup, is forced to wonder, ‘What happens now? Does life just go on? Do things go back to normal? And how can they, knowing what we now know?’

Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Hi Pot, this is Kettle" - Miranda Devine screams hypocrisy on behalf of the right

This is the original Devine piece in question, from The Daily Telegraph...

And this is my response...

The temptation with anything written by Miranda Devine is to immediately dismiss it as shrill and unreasoned, based on a long and established history of writing shrill, hysterical op-ed pieces for Fairfax, and now Murdoch. In any other forum she would be labeled a troll, and the best evidence of this is in the dreadful tone of the majority those commenting on her blog. Perhaps they are trolls themselves, but the tone is so uniformly dreadful that one has to assume these people actually think this way.

But, despite this temptation to dismiss Devine’s latest blog post, I will attempt to address a couple of the points she makes.

 First, I find that the use of the word hypocrite is fraught, not least of all because it tends to attract a “tit for tat” series of accusations. “That was only one time, but it wasn’t as bad as when someone else did some other much worse thing.” “Yeah, but what about when this guy said that thing about that other guy?” ”Sure, but remember when you called me this after I said that?”And so on, ad nauseum. Achieving nothing.

But, that said, let’s do some of that anyway, ergo… Devine railing against the Abbott effigy-decapitators and the Abbott-haters on Facebook. Any reasonable person will argue that that kind of extreme protest is unhelpful at best, utterly destructive at worst. As Australians, I would hope we’re collectively better than that. And someone needs to explain this to Andrew Bolt, for instance, or to Larry Pickering, who is adored by a small fringe on the right, but otherwise ignored and dismissed as the rabid loon that he is by pretty much every reasonable Australian. See what I mean? Both sides of the debate can play the indignation game, which leads the concept of hypocrisy into an Inception-esque meta spiral of dreams within dreams, hypocrisies within hypocrisies. So it’s a potentially endless exercise in accusation and counter-accusation.

What is equally pointless as an exercise, be it academic or practical, is to waste time pointing fingers at the previous government and accusing them of causing this mess. The culpability of Labor/Greens in contributing to the failure of Howard’s border policies is undeniable. Lives were lost. Many lives. Contrary to what many on the Right would have us believe, no one was happy about this. No one was crying “crocodile tears”- to suggest such a thing is despicable (if not surprising) on Devine’s part. So yes, under Howard the boats had stopped. The camps were largely empty. However, what this admission doesn’t address is the methods the Howard government employed to develop, enforce and maintain those policies, aided in part by Peter Reith’s proven and willful omission of truth around the children overboard affair (for instance) and the rising tone of public outrage which followed (and ultimately ensured an unlikely election win). But even Howard and Reith in their worst moments were nothing compared with Abbott and Morrison, for reasons I’ll attempt to explore momentarily.

The reason this endless blame game is so pointless is because it doesn’t fix the problem we are faced with now. Right now. Not just locally, but internationally. Not just in terms of actual, skin-and-bone and mental human suffering, but in terms of our international reputation (as if that matters one bit when compared with real personal suffering.) Naval vessels wandering into Indonesian waters up to six times in a month, turning boats around against the wishes of our peaceful neighbours, and a growing feeling overseas that Australians are, well, hypocrites (to quote a teacher here in Hong Kong this very week, who marvelled at our ostensibly anti-immigration stance considering we are, if nothing else, a nation of immigrants.)

Again, none of this is fixed by tossing around accusations of hypocrisy. And none of this is fixed by trying to deny that with the possible exception of the impossibly idealistic Greens, leading into the last two elections both sides of our political scene were entirely willing to exploit a growing xenophobia by endlessly chanting the “stop the boats” mantra.

And certainly none of this is being fixed by Scott Morrison, who is, in my view, approximately 180 degrees from the “competent, methodical” operator that Devine would have us believe he is. Rather, I see him as completely out of his depth. None of it is being fixed by using sneering, snarky descriptors like “crocodile tears” when the concern being shown by the “hypocritical” left. And in addition to not being fixed, it is being exacerbated by Morrison’s steely refusal to tell us anything. When he does tell us something, it turns out to be half-cocked, or just plain wrong, even a barefaced lie. The man who died last week was not outside the compound (and therefore outside of his department’s care) as Morrison plainly told us, but very much inside. And whilst he was not murdered by Morrison (an admittedly inflammatory and mischievous turn of phrase by Milne) he was almost certainly murdered. He did have his head crushed, possibly his throat cut. It’s hard, even impossible to know specifics, since more than a week  later, an autopsy has not yet been performed on the body which is being guarded by the very people suspected of causing his death. And as we know from history, when there is an information vacuum, suspicion and conjecture emerge to fill it. If there’s nothing to hide, perform the autopsy and tell us what happened. Unlike almost everything else to do with this situation, this bit is actually quite simple. Unless there’s something to hide.

On that point, Devine waxes outraged about Angus Campbell being asked if there is a political cover-up. “How dare he,” she shrieks. Well, personally I think it’s a fair question. We’re not at war, and yet we’re apparently on a war footing, at least where information is concerned. A military commander is overseeing a clearly tense situation, but is gagged by his minister, citing “operational matters”. The situation is not allowed to be covered by the press. Parliamentary questions are restricted to Dorothy Dixers without supplementary follow-ups. Cameras and SD cards are confiscated and wiped at the behest of a private security company, apparently acting on orders from the minister. Translators lose their jobs for simply saying what they saw, ministers storm out of press conferences after ducking and weaving… again, if it’s NOT a political cover-up, tell us what we need and deserve to know, so we can understand the real situation. And don’t tell us that the silence is to keep the people smugglers in the dark – the LNP wouldn’t shut up about boat arrivals pre-September 2013, but now any discussion of the situation amounts to “shipping news”.

Part of the remit of the minister is to take ultimate responsibility for what occurs within his portfolio. But Morrison shows no sign of this. In fact, he only seems interested in blaming the last government for this mess, rather than doing anything about it. We get it – the last government’s policies were costly. Terribly and tragically costly. We get it – Morrison didn’t personally murder anyone, just as Rudd, Gillard and Bob Brown didn’t drown anyone. We get it – it’s a complex situation. But while ever it remains shrouded in this kind of secrecy and we accept it, we end up with the odd bloodstain on our own hands.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Who do we really want to be?

Earlier today I promised a rant, and now I'm almost ready to write it. 

But where to begin? With Tony Abbott insisting the a national public broadcaster has a certain unwritten obligation to cut the government some slack, and giving the navy the benefit of the doubt? With the Defence Minister seeing no need to look into significant allegations against military personnel, preferring instead to assert without investigation that there is no case to answer, and that anyway, the ABC is being treacherous, borderline treasonous? With 22 perfectly reasonable questions to Messrs Abbott and Morrison being met with the same ubiquitous catch-all: "In line with the policy of not discussing what happens at sea, the Government has no response on the issues raised"? Or perhaps we could go international with our outrage, and question the political implications of this government treating our sovereign neighbours with the same contempt they show the Australian people who put them in power. Perhaps the apparent ineptitude of naval crews to read a GPS and chart well enough keep their vessels out of Indonesian waters. Or maybe the boast that no asylum seeker boats have reached Australia for x number of weeks, mainly due to them being intercepted by armed patrol boats and turned around.

No, I'm going to keep it simple, and talk about this picture, published by the Guardian a couple of days ago. And rather than a rant, it's going to be more of an appeal to common decency and human empathy. You know, all bleeding heart "small-L" liberal. The kind of thing that gets Sarah Hanson-Young labelled as "evil" by some on the right.

So, to the details as we understand them. 34 people, including children as young as 18 months, were ordered into a purpose-bought orange lifeboat, turned around, and sent back. Not even taken to an Indonesian port, but simply turned around and told, "You have enough fuel to reach Java", after which they had little choice but to do just that.

Now imagine the scene, 48 hours since they've eaten, running ashore on an uninhabited coastline, opening the door and disembarking. What happens then? Where does one go? 34 people standing on a beach in the dark, hungry and lost.

Of course the response from some will be that these people should have thought of that before they paid people smugglers to ferry them to Christmas Island. I imagine that's what the government is hoping - that prospective asylum seekers will think twice. What little information the government has given us would suggest that this is exactly what is already happening. So job done, I guess.

Under the circumstances I think that Marty Natalegawa is being remarkably restrained when he describes the tow-back/turn-back policy as "not really helpful". I would suggest that a better way to describe such unilateral decisions around sovereign boundaries might be "potentially damaging". This has the real potential to cause diplomatic headaches that will make the temporary ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia shrink into utter insignificance. As the Guardian says, "Indonesia's navy held a meeting this week to discuss the boat turn-backs and has decided to boost personnel numbers on Java's southern coast." Does this mean more staff with boat-hooks and fenders to stop the lifeboats from landing? Does it mean having Indonesian navy vessels on patrol and ready to repel Australian ships that "accidentally" wander into their waters? A standoff on the high seas while an orange lifeboat bobs innocuously between them? All real possibilities.

So what is to be done? I don't think anyone considers it an easy problem to solve. (Well, except for those who argue that we should just shell the boats out of the water, but those kinds of nut-bars don't get a say.) For some time now both sides of politics have been culpable in demonising the desperate. I guess it's about playing for the middle ground, but that doesn't make any of the slated policies satisfactory. And it certainly doesn't excuse this bullying approach from the current government, not just towards the asylum seekers, but towards Indonesia, and towards the free press and Australian electorate who quite rightly expect better responses than "no comment". 

I think it's time to ask this question, and to answer it honestly: how do we want to the seen by the rest of the world? What kind of people do we want to be? Who have we become collectively, and are we actually happy with that? Modern Australia is a multicultural country made up predominantly of boat-people, a nation which has always prided itself on how highly it values mateship and a fair go for all. It's kind of hard to make that claim at the moment, wouldn't you say? The way things are going, we're going to have our work cut out to represent ourselves overseas as anything more than a bunch of privileged, whining xenophobes who don't give a shit about how hard things are for anyone else. 

But perhaps worse than that, we'll be seen as a democratic nation that is happy to vote in a government based pretty much entirely on who they aren't, before settling for letting them do whatever they please without expecting any kind of accountability. Are we really that country? God, I hope not.