Will we ever be satisfied with less?

I can’t imagine the old normal returning unaltered after COVID-19 but worry that the rush towards a new normal will entail too much focus on growth and profits and not enough on caring for the vulnerable and the environment. If that happens, we will have squandered an opportunity to reset how we value health, work and leisure.

Anthropologist James Suzman has written a history of work that gives us plenty to consider as we navigate our way out of the pandemic towards that new normal. Here’s my review (which first appeared in The Weekend Australian 19-20 September) of Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, published by Bloomsbury.

Why, in an era of unprecedented abundance, are we preoccupied with scarcity and therefore aspire to more and more growth? Anthropologist Suzman employs the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy, to answer this question. His idea is that entropy – the energy not available to do useful work, like the steam that escapes from an engine – ‘unpicks whatever order the universe creates’. Entropy, Suzman argues, has ‘driven humans to direct energy surplus into something purposeful’. This is the book’s leitmotif but repetition does not make the concept easier to grasp. Nevertheless, most of this history of work is accessible and thought-provoking.

To explain contemporary attitudes to work, Suzman traces the convergence of the way humans use energy with our evolutionary and cultural history. After the hunter-gatherers, whom Suzman knows well from his work with the Ju/’hoansi bushmen of eastern Namibia, came mastery of fire. This began a process of capturing energy that has changed the way people live, produce and value time. I found the chapters about early human endeavour the most interesting and enlightening. They lead to the proposition that, after fire, farming (which triggered population growth) and then the exploitation of fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution have had dramatic effects on work, society and the climate.

What Suzman admires about the Ju/’hoansi is their satisfaction with just the resources available to nourish them. He appreciates their bewilderment at the notion of scarcity, which now drives the pursuit of growth in modern economies, although he also acknowledges that, for subsistence farming societies, scarcity was often a matter of life and death. His critique is that when ‘hardly any of us now produce our own food, … the sanctification of scarcity still underwrite[s] how we organise our economic life’.

Suzman shifts across centuries as he tells the story of how we spend our time. He illustrates his points with references to individuals, some famous, some anonymous, some like Thadeus, an urban dweller on the outskirts of Windhoek, Namibia. Thadeus’s story illustrates an important development: increased urbanisation, with 2008 a landmark year when more people lived in cities than in the countryside for the first time in human history. But the story of cities goes way back, to the communities built by termites and to ancient Rome where the first guilds were established.

The book is a feat of synthesis: Suzman draws on anthropology, archaeology, economic history and philosophy. He humanises many of the thinkers he quotes, offering snippets about their lives that illuminate or just entertain. For example, he tells us that Sir John Lubbock, the person behind introducing the bank holiday to encourage work-life balance, also tried to teach his poodle, Van, how to read. One person Suzman does not mention, strangely, is Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose work on the concentration of wealth and rising inequality, must have influenced Suzman’s analysis.

When he reaches the recent past and discusses the rise of the consumer society and then the dominance of services, Suzman’s opinions and prejudices rather than scholarly insights come to the fore. He hates management consultants and is scathing about bloated university bureaucracies. In the latter case, his criticism is not accompanied by a discussion about the trend towards demand for higher skills and mass tertiary education. This change in perspective raises the question as to when Suzman’s history of work should have stopped? I suggest in the 1980s when his lived experiences fog up the historical lens.

Most of the contemporary analysis is in Western countries, though Suzman does talk about the Japanese phenomenon of ‘karoshi ’: death by overwork. He also mentions those whose health can be affected by boredom at work, and workaholics. Suzman strikes me as one of these, given the enormous breadth of his canvas and his forensic search for interesting anecdotes. He is, however, ambivalent about ambition as well as affluence. Durkheim’s idea of anomie, a ‘malady of infinite aspiration’, caused by people’s sense of dislocation during the Industrial Revolution, is, Suzman fears, becoming a permanent condition of the modern age.

This has resulted in the blurring of work and leisure, with people finding it more and more difficult to be idle. It is a shame Suzman did not investigate further the consequences of this blurring. But his real omission is inadequate discussion about the individual and social effects of unemployment in modern economies, especially in the time of COVID (which he does mention) when work is proving to be an important psychological as well as economic prop. Indeed, the role of work in building social capital and self-esteem deserved greater attention in this history.

Suzman is now the director of Anthropos Ltd, a think tank that applies anthropological methods to solving contemporary social and economic problems. Work does not provide solutions. We still do not know how to reach the Keynesian dream of valuing ends above means and preferring the good to the useful. Nevertheless, this survey of human endeavour gives us plenty to think about as we navigate the post-COVID fourth industrial revolution and try to make better work for all, with less waste, less carbon and more leisure.

 

West Bank annexation – dead and buried or just comatose?: Peter Rodgers

If Trump is re-elected and revives Netanyahu’s ambitions, Australia must have a plan to make the existing “suspension” permanent.

 

In November 1967, the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 242, following the Six-Day War, was accompanied by lively debate about language. For some UN members the resolution’s call for “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” lacked two vital words. Should it not have been “all” territories, or “the” territories, ideally “all the” territories?

Fast forward 53 years and beneath the hoopla of the US/UAE/Israeli Abraham Accords, signed on September 15, also lurk questions of language and intent.

The joint statement issued by the three countries on August 31 said that the breakthrough in relations between the UAE and Israel (and subsequently Bahrain) resulted in “the suspension of Israel’s plans to extend its sovereignty” in the West Bank. The UAE’s ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, said the agreement “immediately stops annexation and … maintains the viability of a two-state solution”.

Yet at the same time, Netanyahu declared on Hebrew-language television that there had been “no change in my plans for annexation, with full co-ordination with the US”.

During an earlier media briefing in Washington, President Trump declared that “right now” annexation is “off the table. I can’t talk about some time in the future”. He then turned to David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel (and an unabashed supporter of Israeli settlement activity), asking: “Is that a correct statement?”

“Yes,” Friedman replied, “the word ‘suspend’ was chosen carefully by all the parties. ‘Suspend,’ by definition, look it up, means temporary halt, it’s off the table now but it’s not off the table permanently.”

Trump’s senior adviser on the Middle East, Jared Kushner, offered more in this vein. Israel had agreed not to move forward without US approval. “We do not plan to give our consent for some time,” said Kushner. It was a discussion that would be had, though “not in the near future”. Asked about “temporary”, Kushner defined it, with Trumpian precision, as somewhere “between a long time and a short time”.

In early September, Reuters reported that differences in the English and Arabic versions of the August 31 joint statement had been “seized upon” by Palestinians to argue that the UAE had overstated Israel’s readiness to drop its annexation plans. According to Reuters, the English-language version of the text used “suspension”, while the Arabic language version talked of “Israel’s plans to annex Palestinian lands being stopped”.

A senior UAE official reportedly attributed the differences to a translation issue. The senior PLO figure, Hanan Ashrawi, countered that it was a “forked tongue” aimed at misleading Arab public opinion.

Whether annexation is truly dead or merely comatose, only time will tell. In the short term, two factors will decide its fate. The first is the outcome of the US presidential election. Democratic contender Joe Biden has made clear his opposition to annexation and declared he will reverse Trump administration actions “which I think significantly undercut the prospects of peace”.

The second factor involves Netanyahu’s legal troubles over allegations of corruption and whether he goes to jail. His trial is scheduled to start hearing evidence in January.

In mid-September, the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, welcomed the normalisation of relations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain and “Israel’s commitment to suspend plans for West Bank annexations”.

There are two things Australia should now do. The first is to use its close relationship with Israel to urge it to abandon annexation altogether, clearly and unequivocally. The second is to consider how it would respond to a perfect storm of a re-elected Trump, an at-large Netanyahu and a resuscitated drive for annexation.

This would demand more than the tardy and featherweight comment by Foreign Minister Payne on July 1 that Australia had “raised its concerns with Israel in relation to indications of annexations”.

Meaningful action could include marshalling an international effort to impose sanctions on Israel, as Australia did with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. One prompt and cost-free action would be to close Australia’s Trade and Defence Office in West Jerusalem.

Opened in March 2019 without fanfare and little real purpose, its stated aim is to complement Austrade’s work in Tel Aviv. Precisely how is unclear, given that Tel Aviv remains Israel’s trade and technology “capital” and headquarters of the Israeli defence establishment.

The perfect storm might not eventuate, sparing the government the awkwardness of taking issue with Israel. Still, the Prime Minister has declared that if need be Australia will “openly rebuke a sincere friend” on issues such as land appropriations and settlements. Australia should work to make “suspension” of annexation permanent. But is also needs a plan B.

First published by Plus61J Media on 2.10.20; published by Pearls and Irritations on 7.10.20

IMAGE: Montecruz Foto, Flickr, Creative Commons

Trapped in the bubble – by Peter Rodgers

This play was first performed at Melting Pot Theatre, Bundanoon, in
July 2020, with Miranda Lean playing Advisor 2 and winning a best actor award.

 

Cast: Minister (M); Adviser One (A1); Adviser Two (A2)
[Lights up]
[Parliament House, the Minister’s outer office, the Minister is offstage]
[A1 and A2 are onstage, A1 standing, phone in hand: A2 is seated at a desk]
M  [yelling, angry, frustrated]
Get in here someone! Now! Can’t find the bloody thing anywhere.
A1  [looks hard at A2; points to the Minister’s office]  Your turn.
A2  But I have my life ahead of me.
A1  You won’t if you don’t go.
A2  I won’t if I do go, by the sound of that.
A1  Come on. It’s a learning journey.
A2  I’m not sure I want to find out.
A1  It’s high time you earned all that money we pay you.
A2  Oh, alright.
[A2 stands, takes a deep breath and exits; loud, angry, unintelligible yelling offstage; A2 rushes back onstage]
A2  You might have warned me!
A1  You have to experience it sometime.
A2  I didn’t sign up for this.
A1  So what did you sign up for?
A2  [dreamily]  To … to do good. To make the world a better place. To always put others first and never play the games that go on around here.
A1  [hand on head]   Oh no, another idealist! What is wrong with the education system these days?
A2  Why are you so cynical? Shouldn’t we aim high?
A1  Now let me tell you a few hard—  [A1 is interrupted by more yelling]
M  Where is that damned thing? I’m surrounded by idiots!
A2  Shouldn’t we help her look?
A1  Nah. It’s hardly the first time she’s lost something. One of the first things to go were her principles. Happens to them all.
A2  I don’t believe you. I just don’t believe you. There’s got to be goodness in some of those we work with. Maybe, many of them.
A1  [shakes head in wonder]  What a romantic you are. Nice in a way. But sad.
Do you know that the basement is chock-a-block with discarded principles. They truck them offsite these days.
A2  [optimistically]  To recycle them?
A1 To take them to the tip, dummy.
[more unintelligible yelling from the Minister’s office]
A2  [points to the Minister’s office, plaintive]  Was she always like this?
A1  Who knows? Who cares? She’s on the inside looking out. Best place to be. That’s where I want to end up. And she’s had a bit of fun along the way. I can tell you that.
A2  What do you mean?
A1  Well, it’s Australia. The 21st century. In the wee small hours, everyone needs a special sort of comfort.
A2 [shocked]  What about the code-of-conduct? The Barnaby Principle?
A1  Oh dear me. Another one who hasn’t read the fine print.
[speaks slowly, carefully] Ministers-aren’t-allowed-to-have … liaisons … with-their-staff.  [smiles, speaks normally again] Don’t you just love that word? Liaison.
But there’s nothing to stop staff having liaisons with ministers.
A2  That’s appalling. Hypocrisy of the highest order. We’re supposed to be setting an example.
A1  And we are. In creative implementation.
A2  Now you sound like a lawyer.
A1  Very kind of you to say so.
A2  I feel sick.
A1  Maybe you’re not really cut out for this life. Be honest though, wouldn’t you just love to be in there? The warm, tingly feeling that power gives you. The fact that you can yell at others without any justification whatsoever.
A2  That’s what my children are for.
A1  Ha ha! Let me give you a bit of advice. Love the bubble – or leave it.
A2  I’ve got a better solution. I’ll start my own party.
A1  Oh no, not the dreaded Third Way.
A2  I can see it now. The crowds gazing expectantly.  Each and every person looking to me, and me alone, to salve their wounds, to lift their spirits, to offer them hope for the future.
A1  And just how will you do that?
A2  By the power of my words. All you ever come up with is cliché.
A1  They’re very useful around here. They have a soothing effect on ministers, and everyone. Helps them to forget.
A2  Amnesia is no substitute for action. I offer a vision.
A1  If you say so. Go on then, give us a taste.
A2  Well, it’s a bit off-the-cuff, but here goes.
[takes a deep breath, confident]
As Bismarck once said, it’s better never to watch laws or sausages being made. So, at the outset, let me be absolutely open and frank for my message is clear and simple. The fact of the matter is we inherited the current deplorable situation from our predecessors but the only thing we have to fear is fear itself as honesty is the best policy and money isn’t everything. Besides, it doesn’t grow on trees. Nonetheless, we’re spending more dollars in real terms – whatever that means – than any other government in the history of the world and when it’s all said and done and the cows come home to roost …
[frowns, rubs chin]
Aw … something went wrong there. It’s only a first draft though.
[The Minister appears around the corner; A2 does not see her]
[The Minister gives A1 the thumbs up then disappears again]
A1  Go on, go on. You’re doing really well.
A2  So my friends, at the end of the day, the ball’s in our court. We’ll go over the top at first light determined to play hard but fair, to make the ultimate sacrifice if need be, so that in the fullness of time and going forward we will maximise mutually beneficial outcomes for all those deserving to share in the riches of this great nation. Can we do it? The answer is inspiring. Say it with me. In just three words.
A1/A2   [looking at each other, they speak in unison, enthusiastic]
Can we do it? Yes we can!
A1  Very impressive. Very. You’re a natural. Bit of a surprise really.
What I like so much is the freshness of the ideas and the originality and the vigour of the language. You’ve definitely got something. Just give me a moment, will you.  [disappears offstage briefly and returns]  I hope you’ll think this is good news.
A2  Try me.
A1  [points to the Minister’s office] She liked what she heard. Liked it a lot. Was very complimentary. She wants you to become her strategic communications adviser. Big pay rise, of course.
A2  That’s definitely good news. But what about you?
A1  No need to worry about me. I’m her life coach, for life.
A2  Well … it’s a very tempting offer. I need to be clear, though. I’m not thinking of myself.  [shakes head, emphatic]  Not for a single moment.
A1  Of course not. Perish the thought.  [rubs hands together]  Well, that’s all settled. Why don’t we go and have a celebratory drink with the Minister?
A2  [hesitant]  But what about the thing she lost? It sounded quite important.
A1  Forget it. You can’t hold ministers accountable for anything they did or said five minutes ago. The place would grind to a halt.
A2  Mmm … am I doing the right or the wrong thing? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
A1  Relax … after a while you won’t know the difference.
A2  Doesn’t that bother you?
A1  Did for a while. But I grew out of it. We all do. Come on! Can’t keep the Minister waiting.
A2  I suppose what I’m doing is in the national interest.
A1  Of course it is.
A2 Well, then, lead the way!
[they exit, lights down]

© Peter Rodgers 2020

Cicada time

People are talking about cicadas, again. That reminded me I’d written  a post about how to pronounce ‘cicade’ in spring 2017:

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

More intersting really is the extraordinary lifecylce of these creatures. The carcas I found this morning tells of the adult cracking through the shell of its nymph to fly off and feast on spring’s vegetation and, if male, to serenade us . This article on the ABC RN website explains the cycle and shows the moment of liberation. 

Bundanoon is a favourite place for cicadas. That’s why the local school has been part of a citizen science program, the Great Cicada Blitz. Australia has the richest diversity of cicadas in the world (350 of around 100 have been identified).  This project is asking people to help with understanding the ecological preferences of Australian cicadas, including how they have adapted to urbanisation.  You can send in photos or sound recordings to add to the database. Now there’s a good way to use social media. 

 

 

Higher education reform: use and abuse of Menzies

by Francesca Beddie

 

When Australia was rebuilding after World War II, then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, recognised the important role of universities in educating Australians to power our economic recovery.

Funding and enrolment growth for universities increased sustainably under Menzies, and more Australians were given the opportunity to obtain a degree.

Australia harnessed its higher education system to drive its recovery from World War II and make our nation stronger than before the war started.

By harnessing our higher education system once again we can drive our recovery from COVID-19.

Like so many nods to the past deployed by politicians, this reference distorts the historical record. Menzies repeatedly made it clear that the value he saw in higher education went well beyond the economic. Take this extract from his 1942 Forgotten People speech:

Are the universities mere technical schools, or have they as one of their functions the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly — the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary.

David Furse-Roberts presented an excellent account of Menzies’ attitudes and actions on education in an essay published last year in Quadrant called ‘A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education’. It should be compulsory reading for all education ministers wanting to recruit Menzies to their reformist ventures. They would see that Menzies was fully aware his plans to expand universities would cost the federal government an enormous amount of money. Nevertheless, he persisted.

Furse-Roberts does not discuss the Martin review Menzies commissioned in 1961 to ‘consider the pattern of tertiary education in relation to the needs and resources of Australia, and to make recommendations to the Commission on the future development of tertiary education’. But it too deserves consideration by contemporary policy makers, who purport to be striving for an integrated tertiary education sector. The principle underpinning the Martin review, which resulted in the binary system of universities and colleges of advanced education, came from Sir Harold Robbins who was tackling the same questions in the United Kingdom of how to expand tertiary education:

tertiary education should be available to all citizens according to their inclination and capacity.

Most regrettably, Tehan’s proposals ignore that vital ingredient for success in both learning and life: motivation.

Menzies supported the idea of a national university that would focus on researching issues directly relevant to the national interest. But he also championed pure learning and ‘the unfettered search for truth’. He considered that these things contributed to a civilised life, the goal of his education policies.

Today’s proposed reform of humanities education, as well as the government’s lacklustre support for arts and culture and for the ABC, suggest our leaders are retreating from the aim of creating a better Australia to one that can produce good-sounding statistics about jobs and growth. The latter are important but without the fulfilment of talent, the creation of social wellbeing and a celebration of beauty, the numbers add up to a nation in decline.

Historians do, sometimes, point out inconvenient facts: Cook did not circumnavigate Australia; Australia did have slave labour (and arguably still does); Menzies believed in learning for its own sake. That is no reason to send a price signal to students dissuading them to study history, which offers policy makers so much if they choose to overcome the presentism of contemporary debate. Were they to champion the humanities and agree with Menzies that progress means embracing not just the utilitarian and profit but also ideas of tranquillity and leisure, we would be heading towards real prosperity.

Surely, in these weird days of COVID-19 we deserve leaders who share Menzies’ yearning for the company of books and conversation with friends, rather than people who selectively quote or misquote him and focus only on the prosaic and the next poll.

[This post first appeared at https://johnmenadue.com/francesca-beddie-higher-education-reform-use-and-abuse-of-menzies/]

 

Australia Day: occasion for collective mourning

In early January, the leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, suggested the first sitting day of Federal Parliament for 2020 be devoted to marking the unprecedented bushfire crisis. That got me thinking about Australia Day.

Why not make it a day of mourning, not just for Indigenous Australians as it explicitly became on 26 January 1938 but for all those heartbroken by the devastation that has swept our land.

26 January 1938 marked the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in Australia. On that day a group of Aboriginal men and women gathered at Australian Hall in Sydney. They moved this resolution:

“WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, we ask for a new policy which will raise our people TO FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.”

After the phrase ‘callous treatment of our people’, that resolution might have carried the words ‘negligent care of our country’. In 2019/2020, that negligence has had horrific consequences.

White people have not been good at heeding advice about the treatment of this ancient land and its first peoples. Before he embarked on the Endeavour expedition in 1768, James Cook, whose arrival on Australia’s east coat 250 years ago will be widely commemorated this year, received a set of ‘hints’ from the president of The Royal Society, James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton. Lord Morton exhorted Cook to remind the crew it was their moral responsibility to do no harm to the Indigenous inhabitants and to respect Indigenous land occupation. The British Admiralty also instructed Cook only to take possession of advantageous positions with the ‘Consent of the Natives’. Cook proceeded without any such consent.

Kevin Tolhurst, whose name became so familiar during the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, has pointed out that, after 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management since 1939, we have also had plenty of advice about bushfire management. The problem lies more with implementing the findings from these reviews. One lesson from the Black Saturday tragedy is that ‘stay and defend’ is often not the best course of action. The ‘leave and live’ option has saved lives this bushfire season.

Other recommendations have not been adequately followed up. In 2012, the Council of Australian Governments signed off on a national policy, which listed 14 national goals. One of those was to ‘further integrate traditional burning practices and fire regimes with current practices and technologies to enhance bushfire mitigation and management in Australian landscapes’. This goal recognised the benefits of widespread, low-intensity, patchy fires across the landscape as a way to build resilience to climate extremes.

Francesca M. Beddie 

Bushfire haiku

Red sun smoky skies
Surely not the new normal
Though it’s been weeks now

Stop checking the app
Blue diamonds are not that close
Can’t just hope for rain

Have a bushfire plan
Know what to take, when to leave
Impossible choice

Life goes on, prepare
Pre-Christmas celebration
Down at the seaside

There too fire invades
Its acrid smell permeates
Nostrils, then psyche

Smoke wakes me at 5
Reach for the phone, Fires Near Me,
No danger here, yet

The sun’s not up but
Turns the sea-mist apricot
An ominous dawn

Whitest sand in world
is grey under smoky sky
The water is still clear

The sea is calm now
An easy swim brings relief
Tiny shells sweep in

Childhood memory
Collecting dozens of shells
Making necklaces

A short-lived respite
Further along the bay it’s
Not shells but embers

Black gum leaf fragments
Mark the pattern of the waves
No escape today

Social media:
Hawaii holiday snaps
ScoMo with Aussies

Cave Beach next morning
Ripples catch the orange light
Burnt leaves fall from sky

Surfing with embers
Finishes the holiday
Pack up, leave early

Hot and dry at home
No more the green oasis
Water gutters, plants

Evening news: fire kills
Two young men, fathers of babes
Where is the PM?

A Facebook call out
Our local firefighters need
Chapstick, lozenges

I can help out here
Drop off a bag of supplies
Add mince pies as thanks

Family of firies
Deputy captain and son
Battling deadly blaze

Smoke in nostrils, dreams,
In every room: cannot sleep
Start the to-leave list

8am, gym class
Keep up the normal routines
Walk dog, exercise

Festive fun-filled class
Christmas yoga, breathing smoke
Downward dog with flies

Catastrophic day
A waiting game: should we leave?
Nerves fray, we are mute

Inside try to work
39.6 degrees
A new fire, closer

Panic scrapes my throat
Finish packing, spray the house
Check the app, again

Papers in the car
Along with clothes, did I pick well?
Plus some precious things

5pm, 20⁰
The fire 20k away
Down to watch and act

Sky is grey, briefly
Teased that it might bring moisture
Now a sallow glow

Variety show
Yes, life must keep going on
Scrooge, angels, bagpipes

Talent, cheer and hope
Hat goes round for firefighters
It’s time for Christmas

Francesca M. Beddie © December 2019

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.]

Israel-Palestine and the Bahrain conference – Jared in wonderland

by Peter Rodgers

Whatever happens with Donald Trump’s presidency, the future of his son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, is assured. A career as writer of romantic fiction is his for the asking.

Finally, there was something in writing, something to talk about. The first part of the long-awaited US plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict revealed by Kushner for the “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Bahrain on 25-26 June.  Never mind that the principals to the conflict were not officially present for the birthing of the “New Vision for the Palestinian People and the Broader Middle East”. Never mind that the glossy brochure was vacuous rather than visionary. Never mind that it was the bribe, not the deal, of the century.

In the world of Trump it’s all about the dream. Imagine a bustling tourist centre in Gaza and the West Bank, Kushner declared. “Imagine people and goods flowing securely throughout the region as people become more prosperous.” Imagine indeed. And how will such a vision splendid be realised? Through buzz phrases and mythical foreign investment of US$50 billion to “unleash” the economic potential of the Palestinians, to “empower” them to “realise their ambitions,” and to “enhance” Palestinian governance. Palestinian GDP would double, a million new jobs would be created.

Fine words flowed about education and training, health, employment, infrastructure, transportation, trade, communication, legal and regulatory frameworks, quality of life, and so on and so forth. A US$5 billion superhighway would link the Palestinian Authority controlled West Bank and Gaza, run by its nemesis, Hamas. A new Singapore, a new Dubai, a new Sweden would rise from the congested alleyways of Gaza and the abraded hills of the West Bank.

Worthy perhaps, but utterly hallucinogenic. It ignores Israel’s asphyxiating hold over Palestinian life, commerce and communication. The word occupation has vanished from the lexicon. The vision proclaims the need for the Palestinians to develop 4G and 5G technology. There is no mention of the role that Israel plays in impeding this. That Israel only lifted a ban on 3G wireless technology for Palestinian mobile services in 2018. In the words of one Israeli commentator, “It’s as if the plan was designed for a Palestinian economy that exists in an imaginary universe or on the moon, without a realistic discussion of how many aspects of the Palestinian economy are linked to Israel”.

The plan mentions governance but steers well clear of the issue that lies at the very heart of this—and the conflict that has split blood and treasure for the past seventy-plus years—Palestinian statehood. Perhaps that will leap out of the cake in part two of the Kushner “vision”. But the Palestinians have already seen the plan for what it is. A grand bribe to persuade them to decouple economic well-being and political aspiration. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, declared the plan dead on arrival. Engaging with it, he said, was tantamount to a Palestinian declaration of surrender. To which, Israel’s ambassador to the UN responded encouragingly, “What’s wrong with Palestinian surrender?”

With the Bahrain conference focused on declaration rather than detail, Kushner hailed it as a “tremendous success.” He reportedly told a Saudi newspaper that his “very detailed and reasonable plan was well received by attendees” from all over the world.

Others, within and beyond the region, had a very different take. An Israeli journalist reported criticism of the plan as “amateurish hodgepodge” which promised “projects that cannot be implemented, funded by money that does not exist and contingent on a peace deal that will never happen”. The economic bonanza was not a confidence building measure but a “con job and insult rolled into one”. It dangled dollars in front of Palestinian noses, implying they could be bought, and set up a chain of events which will lead to the Palestinians being blamed for the plan’s “inevitable failure”.

A former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Dan Kurtzer, now Professor of Middle East Studies at Princeton University, tweeted, “I would give this so-called plan a C- from an undergraduate student. The authors of the plan clearly understand nothing.”

Kushner will probably lose little sleep over this. Dismissing Palestinian criticism of the US approach, he noted that the Palestinian Authority did not “have a great track record of getting a deal done. I’ll keep doing it the way we want to do it”. That “way”, it seems, is to redefine the Palestinian “problem” as largely, if not wholly, an economic one. Forget about contested history, forget about contested borders, contested aspirations. Throw enough money at the Palestinians and they’ll forget who they are. They’ll be so busy basking on the beach in Gaza or strolling through its shopping malls that politics will be a thing of the past. Dream on Jared.

First published in Pearls and Irritations, 4 July

Image: Pixabay

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.