Bushfire Christmas

Image by Scott Marsh: http://scottmarsh.com.au/ This image, originally a mural finished on Christmas Eve, has been turned into a T-shirt. The original was painted over on 27 December.

This page is the beginning of an archive of messages, post and reports about the 2019 Christmas season. I’ve created it so that people do not forget, once the smoke finally lifts, this unprecedented natural disaster and the extraordinary community response. I hope it will help to galvanise the national debate about global warming, sustainability and what sort of future we want.

To make it worthwhile, I need your help. Please contribute to the archive, which I propose be published under a Creative Commons license. This means that users are able to reuse, remix and share the content legally but always with an attribution of the original creator. If you wish to submit a message sent to you privately by someone, and which is not in the public domain, you need to seek their permission to share it. They own the copyright of their creation.

Messages from firefighters and their families

A post on 10 December by Meg McGowan went viral: she set out in frank detail the lot of the volunteer firefighter.

No, Scott Morrison, my husband does NOT want to be fighting fires this summer!

Thank you for sharing

Dr Geoff Goldrick, a deputy captain with the NSW Rural Fire Service in Northern NSW, catalogued the year’s extreme climate events

A Christmas message from the NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, started: 

I have truly struggled with what to write this year so I think a simple reflection on the events of this season so far is best.This season has been unprecedented to date and unfortunately we still have a way to go. Temperature records are breaking, the State is experiencing an extraordinary and long phase drought period with 100% of NSW currently drought declared/affected. Fire danger ratings have been extraordinary and the associated fire behaviour likewise.Since the 1st July, we have had 8,240 fires which have burned an area of 3.41 million hectares…We also experienced for the first time, concurrent Catastrophic Fire Danger ratings across Greater Hunter, Illawarra/Shoalhaven and Greater Sydney Regions. There have been, 39 Section 44 declarations, 111 days of consecutive Section 44 declarations, 45 days of Total Fire Ban (including 8 days of State wide Total Fire Bans), 2 State of Emergency declarations of which one remains current, 272 Emergency Alert campaigns successfully delivering 153 409 voice messages and 1,134,447 SMS messages.

Shane Fitzsimmons
Dec 21
So many cards, notes, drawings, poems, etc. from kids these recent months, filled with such heartfelt, innocent & beautiful messages, that truly lift spirits and keep all our teams going in these difficult times. This lovely bunch today, from The Paper Factory. Thanks all #NSWRFS

Messages from friends

I posted this posted this picture on Facebook on 5 December. Since then, the dominant conversation among my FB friends has been the bushfires. The atmosphere, literal and metaphorical, has been infused by smoke, fear, anger, care, hope for rain and for leadership.

Here are a couple of the reactions to that post:

    • Come visit me at office if you want a mask. I have a stock and I’m using them
    • Isn’t your house in the danger zone?
      • FB Not yet
    • Hope it stays that way. [Ed. It’s 30 December and our cars are packed.]
On 28 December 2019 our community in Bundanoon received a very frank briefing from the RFS: the fire will come. Be prepared. Here’s the tenor of the responses I received: 
Other responses to the fire

On 24 December, my Bushfire haiku was published in Pearls and Irritations. I called there for others to contribute to this archive, and I repeat that invitation now. Please leave a comment or send me an email at <fbeddie@makeyourpoint.com.au>  and share this with others.

The first response was from Dr Geoff Davies: 

As I write I breathe the nearby forest and its creatures. Except they are no longer trees, or animals, or fungus:

Read more at Dr Davies’ blog 

On New Year’s Eve Katrina Kittel, a NSW historian, penned this reaction to the South Coast inferno:

What’s on my mind, you ask, Facebook? A yellow-orange moon, a dusty murky night sky, a Family Fireworks broadcast distracted by emergency fire warnings at the bottom of the screen, grief for by people and places and bush habitats, and an elderly widow* of Tomakin (not far from Mogo Zoo) who recently gave me (with pride) her hand-knitted garish-green, purple and lurex-threaded …  baubled tea cosy. Phones are out down Batemans way. She struggles with the fire-smoke these days. A handmade Xmas rum-soaked Xmas cake she mailed us is unopened. Her cash arrived with a lottery ticket today – her most recent payment for books – in recent weeks she’s bought 33 copies of Shooting Through (which includes her late husband’s account as told to me) … Phones are out…She loves GREEN. Too much green has gone. Rise up if you’re feeling green, moving into green. Blast the climate-change, greenhouse effect, demon denial madmen.

The Golden Country: review

I follow migration matters closely, so Tim Watt’s survey of the White Australia Policy and subsequent immigration policy was familiar territory. For those who don’t, there is much to recommend in the story he tells and his demonstration of the economic benefits of skilled migration. But his analysis has flaws.

Watts is a Labor MP married to a Chinese Australian. They have two children. This gives him a personal interest in how Asian Australians see their country and its history. In The Golden Country (a reference to Australia’s changing complexion), he takes us back to the 19th century. He uncovers tales of the Chinese on and off the goldfields and on the front during World War One that were absent in the history and myths he learned as a child. This biographical thread runs through the book, which traces the creation of the “Australian Legend”. To understand how a sense of Australianness comes about, Watts draws on anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s idea that nations are shaped by “an imagined political community” with a shared history, culture and values.

Australia’s national identity was forged as explicitly white and Western. The East “was seen to be home to immortality, irrationality and psychological weakness, whereas the West was the home of virtue and rationality, discipline and physical strength”. We are living, Watts says, with the hangover from that dichotomy, which saw a century of nation building defined by the exclusion of Asian Australians. He uses statistics to show how such exclusion still pervades our political institutions, the nation’s boardrooms and top echelons of our public service and universities.

Now that 13 per cent of Australia’s population, over three million people, has Asian heritage – more than the percentage of African Americans living in the United States – this bamboo ceiling must be dismantled. Before suggesting how, Watts says this change in demography is primarily the result of John Howard’s immigration policies. He has evidence to back this up. The emphasis on importing skills during the Howard years doubled the total permanent-migrant intake. Even more significant was the increase in temporary migrants deployed to address skill shortages in a booming economy.

Watts focuses on the contradiction between this policy and Howard’s insistence that Australia was neither an Asian nor a racist country and his refusal to condemn Pauline Hanson’s anti-Asian vitriol. That’s a fair observation, as is Watt’s conclusion that, by allowing the anxieties Hanson stoked to enter the political lexicon, Howard reshaped the electoral strategies of both conservatives and progressives. The latter came to see “race, immigration and national identity as dangerous political terrain”. Nevertheless, as Watts shows, most Australians have not been much influenced by the shrill, offensive “ethno-nationalism” of recent years, with the political debate about migration being fuelled by “unrepresentative conservative political parties”.

This being so, Watts goes too far when he says Howard’s culture wars “hindered our collective ability to talk openly about the implications of the societal shifts he set in train”. That has meant, he asserts, governments haven’t invested in the urban infrastructure needed to cope with more people nor anticipated problems like foreign interference with diaspora communities. He can’t shaft these unresolved matters of public policy home solely to Howard or to one side of politics.

Where Watts stays silent on John Howard is the latter’s decision to take Australia to war in Afghanistan and the Middle East and the ramifications this has had on immigration, namely the influx of refugees from Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and North Africa. This silence has two possible explanations: Watts’ focus on Asian migration; his own party’s shameful record on asylum seekers and offshore detention.

Benedict Anderson’s imagined community turns out to be more than an explanatory tool. The concept shapes Watts’ ideas for today’s multicultural Australia. He wants to reimagine Australia, starting by arguing that racism in Australia is untypical. With a nod to Noel Pearson, he wants a set of contemporary Australian values that include respect for difference and inclusiveness but otherwise embody those in the Australian legend: the fair go, egalitarianism, mateship, pragmatism and irreverence. Watts wants everyone living in the golden country to embrace these values.

Our community, he thinks, is already there (although he does concede there are significant differences between multicultural urban areas like the one he represents in Melbourne and the bush). It’s the national political imaginings that must catch up. This needs leadership but can also happen by injecting new Aussie stories, for example about Chinese Anzacs and Indian traders, into mainstream history and by elevating Asian-Australian talent into the top echelons of Australian political, business and cultural circles. Watts should also have made mention of voices from other corners of the world.

When it comes to his policy prescriptions, Watts changes his analytical hat for one full of nostalgia for Anzac, with an Asian twist. And he doesn’t do enough to link his desire to see skilled immigration continue apace for the sake of productivity with other pressing domestic problems. These include environmental sustainability, inter-generational disadvantage among Indigenous Australians and the long-term unemployed, persistently poor innovation and management in Australian enterprises.

Nor does Watts properly factor in the impact of changing patterns of labour mobility. His justified concerns about current problems in immigration – the exploitation of lower skilled temporary migrants and underfunded settlement programs – prevent him from imagining a new global citizenry who embrace not one nation’s values but who thrive by being connected across the planet.

[This review first appeared in The Weekend Australian.]

Towards cosmopolitaness

In April 2019, the American Society for Editing decided to drop hyphens in expressions denoting dual heritage, like ‘Asian-American’, ‘African-American’ and so on. ‘American Indians’ refers to those hailing from India; the first people of the American continent are called ‘Native Americans’. While a hyphen is a small thing, its use can be a sensitive matter when it touches on a person’s sense of self, especially now when public discourse revolves around ethnicity, gender and other self-selected groups rather than the -isms that used to dominate politics: socialism, liberalism, humanism. 

Writing in 2010 (when hyphens were still de rigeur), Tony Judt said:

today we are all hyphenated—Irish-Americans, Native Americans (sic), African-Americans, and the like. Most people no longer speak the language of their forebears or know much about their country of origin, especially if their family started out in Europe. But in the wake of a generation of boastful victimhood, they wear what little they do know as a proud badge of identity: you are what your grandparents suffered. 

I saw that sentiment on display at the Sydney Writers Festival  last week. A panel of successful writers lamented their split identities. What a pity they had to put themselves into boxes! What a shame not all had learned a second language!

I know the awkwardness a ‘foreign’ name can cause: how do you spell ‘Francesca’? Where do you come from? I always say just Australia, even though my mother was a Pom, one grandfather a German and one great grandmother a Spaniard. That heritage has enriched me, because we are, to quote Stan Grant, ‘a human symphony, the songs of so many lands’. Grant argues in his new book, On Identity, that it’s time to leave identity behind and to embrace cosmopolitanism. Perhaps dropping the hyphen is a step in that direction.

Teaching + research = tertiary education

In the new world of work, which heralds machines doing routine tasks and people solving problems, learning the how without the why is not enough. In other words, inquiry and evaluation must be integral to all tertiary teaching and learning. This is precisely the time not to break the teaching-research nexus. Good teachers are scholars.

This is a quotation from Francesca’s response to the Productivity Commission’s five-year review, Shifting the Dial.  Read the full article in Pearls and Irritations

What does MBS stand for?

The world loves acronyms – abbreviations from the initial letter or sometimes syllables in phrase or a word. How much easier to text three letters than spell out three words? But will the reader know what MBS stands for? Melbourne Business School, Mind Body Spirit? It depends on the context, of course.

In this case, it is neither. MBS is the nickname of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman. I prefer MbS, following the use of upper and lower case in the spelt-out name (‘bin’ meaning ‘son of’) but the Style Manual says  initialisms, which are not pronounced as a word as are acronyms (for example, OPEC*), should be all capitals. That said, I don’t think they had Arabic names in mind when they made this ruling.

So what does The Crown Prince stand for? To read more on this go to Peter Rodgers’ blog post Mohammad bin Salman – Saudi Arabia’s reformer or wrecker? in Pearls and Irritations.

*Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (note the ‘z’ in organisation: in proper nouns following the preferred spelling of the entity or person)


Are the cicadas deafening you this spring? Where we live they are out in force, causing people to talk. Some mention ‘si-KAH-da’, other say ‘si-KAY-da’. Why the difference, I wondered. And here, in an extract from the Boston Globe, is the explanation. It’s all about evolution, not of the species but of the English language.

In classical Latin, “cicada” was pronounced as “ki-KAH-da,” with hard c’s. The first “c” changed to a “ts” sound around the fifth century A.D., and the consonant further softened to “s” in Old French. When English speakers began importing Latin words, they looked to the French model, so words beginning with “ci-” like “circle,” “civil,” and “cicada” all took on the initial “s” sound.

But why would the second syllable of “cicada” be pronounced like “kay”? For that we can blame the Great Vowel Shift that marked the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Words with the stressed “a” sound, including borrowings from Latin, shifted from “ah” to “ay,” which you can hear in countless words like “table,” “radio,” and “stadium.”

For centuries, the “ay” pronunciation ruled for stressed “a” words regardless of their source. It even applied to words brought in from Spanish like “armada,” originally pronounced in English as “ar-MAY-da.” But eventually, “armada” fell prey to what the British phonetician John C. Wells calls “continental vowelism”: “Ar-MAH-da” displaced the older pronunciation because English speakers thought the “ah” sound was more appropriate for a Spanish import.

… By the turn of the 21st century, most British references gave “kah” as the primary variant, with “kay” still holding sway across the Atlantic.