Friday, November 27, 2015

Eulogy for Nana Joyce

Within short walking distance from Joyce Gullick's house at Riyala sits a vertical wooden stump with a small flat surface on top. This is the place where Lorikeets’ feed.

Each morning and evening when Nana Joyce was able, she prepared bread, honey and water inside a large plastic bucket. The honey and water soaked and seeped into the bread. This was the Lorikeets’ meal.

From afar the colourful Lorikeet birds soared high in the sky and across the landscape in search of Riyala. As they arrived their wings stretched for a soft landing. One by one they flew in and took their place on broad branches in tall trees. Watching. Waiting.

The bread, honey and water sat in an old and used honey bucket. There were no decorations. No resplendent designs. The old labels on the side were used and worn. The bucket was large and had a handle, and so it was useful. It was simple, practical and served its purpose.

In the kitchen, as she prepared the meal, Nana Joyce could see and hear the Lorikeets arrive. They made their presence felt.

With the handle in one hand Nana Joyce made her way to the place where the Lorikeets’ feed. Her bare feet walked on cold concrete, then dirt and hard pebbles, around the bend and under the shade of trees, and then on lush, green grass. On hot days when the grass was wet it would cool her feet.

As she walked the Lorikeets called in loud, pitched squawks. They each braced for position. High amongst the trees and all around there was anticipation and excitement – a gift of service had arrived.

Nana Joyce placed the meal on top of the flat surface. And when her job was done, she stood back. Watching. Waiting.

In this moment we can picture Nana Joyce standing, looking on.

The Lorikeets also watched, squawking at each other and waiting for the first to fly in. As one did, so did another, and then another, until a mob flew in all at once.

Nana Joyce’s eyes moved frantically at the flutter of wings and activity. Against a green and brown backdrop of plants and trees was a colourful array of bright blues, oranges and greens. Light flickered with rapid movements. The body of one Lorikeet floated motionless in the air as its wings fluttered at lightning speed to keep position. Then another. Her ears were attuned to what she saw and the sounds of fluttering wings and activity. What a magnificent and glorious sight to behold.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"We are not an island" - reflections of Hawai'i

A photo I took at Waikiki beach
In 2011 I visited several cities in the United States as part of a leadership program.  This post includes my observations of my visit to Honolulu, Hawai'i.

Intro and history

I spent about five days in Hawai'i, mainly the Honolulu city area and some time at Waikiki.  The cultural exposure of the islands to the world, expressed mainly through surfboarding, flowers (lei) and 'Aloha' (hello, love), is a phenomenal story.  Like many people of my generation I came to know these things from a young age and Hawai'i deserves credit for its marketing and tourism success.

The success of the islands from a tourism perspective is partly attributed to the sheer size of the US economy and its consumer base (Hawai'i is truly unique and has been able to capitalise on this as a State of the US).  Exposure globally, though, shows credit should go beyond this fate in history.  Experiencing Hawai'i in person and seeing, hearing and feeling the sense of place, culture and beauty certainly re-enforced the strength of its US and global appeal.  In the middle of a vast ocean it is very much isolated but so well connected.  It's sense of 'awayness' - of being close to nothing and so different to what many other people commonly understand - gives a sense of mystique and nostalgic romanticism from the grind of life.  

Hawai'i as a State also has a fascinating history.  What interested me was the fact that in 1959 a plebiscite was held to determine the peoples' desire to become the 50th state of the US (I learnt that the choice was either admission to the US or not, there was no option leaning towards independence).  According to official records 90% of people voted in the affirmative.  Coming from an area of the pacific, I thought about how other pacific countries went through a period of de-colonisation and self-determination expressed through independence.  When I talk to people from these other pacific countries their message is the direction for independence came more-so from the respective mother countries (for want of a better description) and their internal political and media systems rather than the counties we now know as independent Pacific States.

Why was Hawai'i different?

Perhaps part of the answer is the powerful influence of the American citizenry in the original Hawaiian state (and their economic and political interests).  Could it be that the vast depths of the American democratic experiment ventured so far west to these tiny islands in the pacific?  Another answer could be the story of Pearl Harbor and its war history and how it touched so many other Americans who came to learn of these islands of Hawai'i.  History shows that the referendum was held after legislation was passed in Congress, so perhaps the way it was done held some sway.

Perhaps, on the other side, the gradual independence of many other pacific countries sprung from the dominance of 'self-determination' as an ideology as a preferred political thought in mother countries during the 1960s-1980s.  Could technology have served a part in this period of technological globalisation?  Perhaps there were other reasons.  Without researching these questions, these thoughts emerged as I reflected on the position of Hawai'i when compared to so many other pacific countries I am more familiar with, and feel closer to home (Australia).

In any case, the present day high cost of living for Hawaiians reflects an attractive and vibrant economy and, along with it, all the other contradictions of America (and the world).  I was reminded of this by the trip from the airport to the city where, not far from towering buildings jotted along a stretch were houses and units looking run-down and in need of repair, much like any other city on earth.  I was reminded also of this by the efforts of the Indigenous peoples for formal Federal recognition pursued through Congress in order to overcome contested court cases (self-determination, recognition and localism are strong characteristics of American life and history generally but are the contemporary challenges of Hawai'ian Indigenous groups, just as it is for our own).

Hawai'i's influence on the current President

Michelle Obama once said that to know Barack Obama you must first know Hawai'i (where he spent his middle to later childhood to young adult years).  My experience showed this to be true (at least on the face of it and what one could glean from a brief visit).  What struck me was this sense of a broad Hawaiian identity inclusive and embracing of the Indigenous culture and what it entails.  The richness of this identity and the extent that it was practised by non-indigenous people (for example, 'Aloha') was an experience rarely found in the developed world.  It was as if the American dream for all immigrants found space and worked in tandem with the seemingly difficult task of acculturation from an Indigenous-borne influence.

A prized children's book
Hawai'i is populated by minorities: no single ethnicity makes up a majority.  This does much to shape the body politic.  In my conversations with people the observation was that this went some way to creating a horizontal structure where power is not held by ethnic oligarchs, but across the spectrum.  Perceptions to do with race, sometimes heavy, were seen to be real, just as they are anywhere, but on the islands were detached from the notion that democratic governments are a manifestation of race based politics.  A commonly bound identity did not hold the overwhelming sway and power.  The fact of power resting with many minorities perhaps went some way to influencing the different ways people interact and the ways they portrayed (and continue to portray) themselves and others.

There were divisions between people of different groups, which was briefly explained to us, just as there are anywhere in the world.  But in comparison to many parts of the US (and indeed the world) Hawai'i stands as a testament to how diversity can co-exist effectively, or at least a bit better.  Hawai'ian society appeared at face value to be a beacon for how a cultural state can be embedded across a population and in the positive sense.  This is what came across to me, at least on the surface.

This is what I understood to be the meaning behind Michelle Obama's observation.  And, like the experiences of my (then) town of Alice Springs and region, where descriptions in blogs (such as this) and other writings from only short trips goes only so far to telling the whole story, the connect between Obama's political style and persona and that of the Hawai'ian culture somehow resonated.  The notions of how Americans in Washington portrayed their national identity: of the 'American dream', of opportunity, of a country of immigrants, existed on the islands just as it did across the mainland.  I was reminded of the old saying that politics 'is the art of what is possible' but somehow the threads of what exists and thrives and makes the islands so different helped weave a narrative of the first black President of the US.

I thought about what our world would be like if it were to emulate what I interpreted to be the Hawai'ian experience.   

Walking toward Diamond head

Mount Gillen, Alice Springs
Diamond Head, Honolulu
On my final day I walked from my hotel in Honolulu to a place called Diamond head.  From the beach I looked up and saw a shape which resembled the Mount Gillen / Larapinta Range of Alice Springs.  The head was crouched between the ocean on one side and a row of tall hotels and buildings on the other.  In landscape view this picture began with an endless seam of blue ocean across to a diamond shaped escarpment and along to a row of modern white and silver buildings.  (Initially I thought the shape gave the old volcano its new name but later learned that it was the mistaken views of early visitors who thought its rocks were actual diamonds).

As I set off, my morning mission was to trek up Diamond head (I never quite got there).  My first destination was the famous Waikiki beach.  As I walked closer I was amazed at the number of people, the atmosphere and general beauty of the area.  Tall coconut trees planted between lanes of green lawn stretched high into the sky.  Stand alone shops dotted the beachfront: surfboards, standing boards, kayaks, paddles, canoes, and so on.  Male and female volleyball competitions were taking place.  Bikes rode up and down the path.  At some parts the sand was met by lush, green grass comfortable enough to lay on.  Local families, many of them Asian-American or Pacific-American, were having BBQs with their numbers in 40s and their communal tents and cooking facilities suited for large families.  Smaller groups were sitting around talking, catching up on gossip for the week and enjoying the atmosphere and surf.  I thought what life would be like for these families and how a simple travel down to the most famous beach in the world could end with such a glorious day.  Many locals looked as comfortable as anyone like they were on holiday.

At one stage I came across a statue of Kamehameha.  I was to learn that his fascinating story was part of the family of the original Monarchs of the islands.

The Kamehameha dynasty

Sign to the statue near the palace.
One part of the legend of Kamehameha was his role unifying the Polynesian people of the Hawaiian islands.  His time was at a point where traditional culture played a more prominent role.  Although it is hard to say it appears during his own lifetime that traditional culture would be threatened by the influence of the dominant culture and especially from the strict rules of colonial migrants, an experience similar to our own in Australia and across the western world at that time. 

The legend of unifying the people of the islands continues to be a powerful message.  Kamehameha's life was a century ago.   His knowledge and practice of traditional culture gave him authority amongst his people.  This status, combined with the fact that Kamehameha was from the ruling Monarch, adds to the mystic and nostalgic nature that is Hawai'i.  This appeared fitting: his legend is old enough to be a ruling pioneer steeped in traditional culture yet modern enough to have a recorded and detailed history.

Indigenous identity & education

The state of Hawai'i has an indigenous population from the Polenysian group of people who share cultural characteristics separate yet related to the indigenous peoples of New Zealand, Samoa and other pacific islands.  In my travels from the eastern and western States of the US and then to Hawai'i, this was an unusual experience.  The Polenysian people I met who are first or second generation immigrants to Hawai'i were more familiar to me with the islanders in Australia I know than other Americans I met on the mainland.  Their accents were slightly different, more nuanced to the daily reality of interactions with the mainland, but there were elements recognisable from my own experiences back home: appearance, familiarity with pacific cultures, a general easy-ness contrasted to the intense grind of corporate life on the mainland.

A notable observation I made of our interactions with Indigenous Hawai'ians was the sense of hope.  In reading the promotional material provided I was struck by the many stories of development and advancement.  A past Governor of the State was a native Hawai'ian.  The significant investments produce profit which is put back in the community by way of programs.  This is not to say that there are no challenges - we were told that life expectancy and educational attainment were well below mainstream averages - but I did get the impression that the path towards progress had been more easily travelled than back home.  Some of my research from home showed that arrest levels by police are comparable to other sections of the population (but incarceration levels are higher) and whilst native Hawai'ians make up about 25% of the population they comprise about 14% of University students.

Identification of Native Hawaiian is faced with similar challenges to that of home in Australia.  Some programs require at least 25% of 'any blood quantum' of Native Hawaiian.  This type of language is not used in Australia.  (Some of the most restrictive programs in Australia will require statutory declarations and support from established Aboriginal corporations demonstrating community support, but none, to my knowledge, measure quantum).

in my research I also came across eligibility to take part in governance mechanisms set up specifically for Native Hawai'ians by the State government.  The three-way test requires a person to show they are a descendant, that they continue to 'maintain a cultural connection to the Native Hawaiian community', and that they are over 18 years old.  Reflecting on the Australian experience I note the similarities between maintaining a 'cultural connection' and the legal test applied, for example, to native title (in native title the court is able to interpret what is a 'sufficient' connection for a claimant group and determines the existence of native title - a very contentious test).

In Hawai'i I was amazed to read about the Kamehameha Schools, a private school set up in 1887 to benefit native peoples by the terms of the will of a wealthy Monarch.  The 'about' section of the website reads:
Kamehameha Schools (KS) is a private charitable educational trust endowed by the will of Hawaiian Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop (1831-1884), the great-granddaughter and last direct descendant of King Kamehameha I.
During her lifetime, Princess Pauahi witnessed the rapid decline of the Hawaiian population. With that decline came a challenge to preserve the Hawaiian language and culture she held dear.
The princess knew that education would be key to the survival of her people, so in an enduring act of aloha, she left them a precious gift upon her passing – 375,000 acres of ancestral land. She instructed the trustees of her estate to use the land to educate her people. Today, her endowment supports an educational system that serves thousands of Hawaiian learners in Hawai‘i and across the nation.
What a fascinating contrast to home!  Some of the wealth of the Monarch in Hawaii more than 100 years ago was transferred to a trust which was to benefit native Hawaiians and this, in turn, and many years down the track, established an institution which continues to serve its people remarkably well today.  Imagine this happening in Sydney, or Darwin, or Broome, or Perth at the dawn of settlement?  Imagine the Aboriginal language groups in Sydney receiving payment in the 1800s for the transfer of possession of their lands and, with those payments, setting up a trust for educational institutions in which, today, rival that of the best colleges in Australia?  The contrast in history and circumstance between Hawai'i and Australia (and many indigenous groups across the world) is remarkable.

In Hawai'i we were told that Indigenous peoples are undergoing a kind of cultural revival/renaissance.  The Indigenous language and customs are being revived.  Without being exposed to this I imagined the pressures and community politics at play: Polynesian immigrants from other pacific islands buoyant about their own culture which may be more in-tact and resemble tradition than the native Hawaiians; groups within the native Hawaiian population whose descendants were subject to laws and pressures where they had to denounce their cultural heritage and values; disputes as to who should have the authority to identify and re-learn knowledge and how this connects to other programs.  Many of these dynamics are at play in Australia as groups struggle to find their place and position in a complex social web.

A poignant observation 

In one conversation with a native Hawaiian the question was asked about the social challenges facing their people.

'Social challenges are an issue', she replied. 

'Our people are seeking to elevate themselves above the current state.  And it is a developmental process'.

'Substance abuse is a big issue'.

Another person local to Hawai'i but not 'native' felt the contemporary struggles had some connection to dispossession and to the past legacies of not being able to speak the language (and continue culture).  Our friend didn't pick up this point but diverted and said '[it is] us who are the ones who need to step up'.  There was a brief pause.  Then she admitted that she may not be the person to explain it all and what the reasoning and solutions are.

This struck me as a very powerful statement (and admission).

In Australia and the political fray dominated by opinions and media I realised how our politics is so polarised and divided.  Our key opinion-makers appear to be not only confident about what the solutions are but also the diagnosis.  These opinions are often capitulated by powerful segments of the media each with its own constituency, and in many ways is projected at a national level and beyond the realm of those who are the subjects of policy.  Threads from the dominant Australian political voices hatch onto select Aboriginal individuals.  The opinion-makers are both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal and appear focused on delivering a perception that they have the answers (this, in many ways, justifies the media's use of their name and opinions as Aboriginal advocates).

In my brief exchange with this native Hawai'ian leader I realised that the soft voices away from the limelight of media-fuelled opinion can bring a situation right back to its roots - 'I may not be the person to explain it all and what the reasoning and solutions are'.  Here I was, in the most powerful economic and tourist hub of the pacific, hearing from a person I perceive to be knowledgeable in local developmental issues saying by inference that the challenges indigenous people face are multi-faceted and multi-pronged, and that the actual precise causes are too complex for simple de-construction.  Such statements helped to liberate my thinking - to give it freedom - because they helped disconnect the assumptions that are held from being within my own system back home and without experiences to counter.

Legal matters and politics

In our talks and research back home I came across how legal issues are treated so differently.

For instance, the Apology Bill signed by President William Clinton on Nov 23rd 1993 was an apology to the Native Hawaiians on behalf of the Unites States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai'i.  The nature of this 'overthrow', we were told, continued to affect many people who saw it as an illegitimate use of power.

In relation to mechanisms set up for native Hawai'ians to vote a report, Reconciliation at a Crossroads, noted:
The US Supreme Court ruled in Rice v Cayetano that a voting procedure allowing only native Hawaiians to vote for members of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs violated the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits race-based exclusion from voting...The Rice decision has occurred during a flourishing movement of self-determination and self-governance, fueling feelings of anger and frustration within the native Hawaiian community.
In other research I came across political disputes where the State legislature was pressured to pay unpaid Public Land Trust revenues amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.  In Australia we don't have similar cases because Aboriginal land ownership is not recognized in the same way (but we do have disputes over monies owed as part of stolen wages).

As in other areas of the US I regularly came across the word 'sovereignty' in the context of governance, which is seldom used back home.

A challenge of claiming sovereignty are the misconceptions of the general public.  The word 'sovereignty' has become synonymous with the independence movement, whereas from my observations native Hawai'ians interpret 'sovereignty' as leverage for negotiations between the US Federal level and native Hawai'ian level (for the purpose of resolving previously unresolved tensions).  The manner in which the Hawai'ian Monarch was overthrown is one part of this tension and in a way helps justifies the 'sovereignty' movement.

I reflected on the fact that the English language is imperfect and words evolve to take on new meanings (and, in some cases, some meanings take on new words).  What I came to understand as 'sovereignty', and used for this specific purpose of resolving unresolved tensions within a State, is interpreted in a technical and legalese sense and, in turn, is misinterpreted (and misunderstood) in general conversation, and on the mainland US.  I suspect it has been difficult bridging understanding from afar when the cultural, social and political affiliations are so different and so far removed from the land upon which the questions and unresolved tensions rest.  (Further, I assume that proponents of Hawai'ian 'sovereignty', and probably a few Republicans, often play on these misconceptions and find no reason to clarify the meaning of 'sovereignty' as put by most native Hawai'ians).

An example of a successful social enterprise

For one meeting we met two individuals involved in a community housing program, a more senior lady and a young man.  We watched a 10 minute DVD (not available online) which documented the story behind an old government-owned complex of flats which used to be swamped by negative self-perceptions, drug abuse,   buildings

I reflected on our own experience in Alice Springs, where many of the town camps were the result of fringe camps set up by surrounding groups which were later recognized leases in perpetuity vested in housing associations.  Unlike the experience we came across, the town camps (and housing associations) were the result of community empowerment, but had later disintegrated into posits of significant social challenges .  

An example of a successful social enterprise

In one session we visited a center responsible for assisting immigrants to engage in enterprise.  The center had a number of kitchens which could be let out.  Whilst most of these were used by different ethnic groups for selling food at market, a key idea was that sharing and liking each others food helped overcome conflict.  The letting out of kitchen facilities had reduced because of the economic difficulties.

A word of interest to me put in the discussion was 'acculturation'.  I asked what it meant.  The kind lady speaking to us said that it was divided into two parts: (1) systems; (2) values.  'Systems' referred to what was required to live and included things like accessing government agencies, bus timetables, identification, etc.  'Values' referred to what the people believe and value, and how it is different from the immigrant's original home: not eating turtles, cultural practices.


Not long after returning home the Andrew Bolt decision was handed down by the Federal court, sparking a media furor.  Regardless of the arguments for or against the case, the fact that there were so many skewed and misleading interpretations displayed so easily in prominent newspapers, airwaves and social media across Australia played into the oppressive (and depressive) state of how we as a nation spotlight Aboriginality.

Free speech allows this, and in the U.S. free speech is a cornerstone of society, but in my country when it is carried out in such a benign way and at the same time so ill-willed and without consequence it understandably makes people retreat.

Back home I was reminded that despite the many challenges in Hawaii its Indigenous peoples face, their position among the islands and the conscience of all Hawaiians struck me as a world away from the kinds of debates, feelings, personas, apparent lack of drive for truth and honesty which permeates too many dominant sections of my own country.

Maybe it was the 'Aloha' experience.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 & what I'm grateful for

This post is to highlight what I'm grateful for in twenty twelve.

Above all, I'm grateful for my family and the time I've spent with them this year.  In recent years I've been involved in a few things and found myself too stretched.  This year I re-adjusted and am better for it.

I remember some years ago a parent of adults telling me that all ages were enjoyable for raising children.  As she told me I remember the pleased expression on her face as if all her memories of this time flashed before her.  In other conversations I hear of the difficult transition one faces when they raise children and then they leave home.  As my children get older I appreciate this, and as my own work through the 'middle' childhood age I anticipate the final stages of childhood before them.  I am grateful for being able to spend more time with them and my wonderful wife, Anita.

Photo courtesy of Justin Brierty and the Centralian Advocate
This year I was admitted to the roll of legal practitioners in the Northern Territory.  A few years back I decided to pursue law because, having studied it when I was younger and ventured into other things, I decided I enjoy it and want to dedicate myself more fully.  I gained invaluable experience working with the talented and dedicated team at the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Services.  My year in the role has been very fulfilling and I've enjoyed immensely the challenges and growth.  I am grateful for the opportunities in the profession and the chance to work alongside great people.   I also look forward to contributing to law in future years and diversifying my knowledge base.

A tool I've found incredibly useful for my children is the Khan Academy.  The program has improved its profile and systems and in my direct experience this has made it more appealing and attractive for my children.  The consistency of their work over time has been patchy but I am grateful for the usefulness and versatility of the program.  Generally, I have great confidence in youth development when such tools are accessible and consistently used.  I'm grateful for the genius and dedication of Sal Khan and look forward to reading his book in twenty thirteen.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Review - Barack Obama: the making of the man by David Maraniss

Although I have read only a few Obama books, and within the range of middle-of-the-road authors (as far as can be), if ever there was a book which could delve into the narrative and detail of Obama's life pre-politics, this is it.  Nearly 600 pages long, this book offers a forensic account of each stage of his life, starting with his grandparents from both sides and across two continents to the honest and open accounts of family and friends.

What impressed me most about this book was the research.  David Maraniss uncovered direct stories of people who knew and experienced Obama's various connections and brought it together in a single piece.
Maraniss travelled to each location where Obama lived - Chicago, New York, LA, Hawaii, Indonesia (and Kenya where his father is from) - and went to great extents to learn of the history stretching back generations.  To understand Obama this is important, because the strands of his thinking and persona, like all of us, find common threads in generations before.  A certain trait will have links to a certain forebear.  A particular style or approach can be linked to a particular experience growing up.  Maraniss, remarkably, at times is able to pinpoint this as people connected to Obama reflect and share their knowledge and history.

Where the book is effective is where it finds synergy between the contradictions and moulds that shaped Obama's personal and political life.  Maraniss reaffirms that his struggle for identity is a central tenet and worth sharing.  Context is important, and the book is filled with easy-to-read character and content.  Such accounts, the randomness nature of parts and stories, and the way Maraniss describes the detail makes more appealing the intrigue and mystic of Obama's life and his achievements.

Where the book disappoints is the relentless search for supposed mishaps in Obama's recollection of his life, as told in Dreams From My Father.  Maraniss acknowledges the introduction to Dreams by Obama: 'for the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I've known, and some events appear out of precise chronology'.  Maraniss tries to argue that through his research he's uncovered events that go beyond this, and so puts forward a personal opinion about what is ultimately a subjective matter.  There is nothing wrong with this, but the repeated reference to this case detracts from the core motivation which should have been to share the research, knowledge and accounts and let the reader decide for themselves.  (Further, that Obama gave context and an admission at the introduction of his book strengthens my point about this.)   

Writing this review some time after I read it, what I recall most are vivid descriptions of particular events: the sad stories of Obama senior and, ultimately, his death; the teenage-like life growing up in Hawaii and how at times it reminded me of my life growing up in Darwin; the scale and depth of Obama's involvement at College and his community activism work; the different worlds of generations before and what life was like for them; and so on.  This book is full of so many interesting stories retold in a simple and effective way.

After reading the book I came to appreciate more Obama's personal struggle for identity and how, upon owning it, he was able to build a platform for a political and transformative shift.  Through the diversity of growing up such as he did, to that of his friends at various schools, to his journey on the south side of Chicago, and to the time before entering politics this book time and time again gives context and shape to this central notion and idea: finding and owning identity amongst complexity.

Indeed, that Obama, yesterday, was to secure a second term as President in the face of significant national economic challenges gives credence to the view that the mysticism of this journey does not substitute for the capacity for leadership.  His victory was substantial.  It was an endorsement of Obama's capability to make technical decisions at a Presidential level.  The danger of mystifying his journey as remarkable should not, and does not, in my view, truncate the importance of this capacity and the trust of the people.  And so it is 'hope', and how this spreads across and impacts society, that makes this personal account of Obama's life pre-politics such an important and compelling read for anyone.

One excerpt as an example of what I enjoyed:
Obama was the central character of his letters, in a self-conscious way, with variations on the theme of his search for purpose and self-identity. In one letter[he wrote]...'caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me...the only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and all the] classes; make them mine, me theirs'.
Here, at age twenty-two, was an idea that would become a key to later understanding Obama the politician and public figure.  Without a class meant that he was entering his adult lief without financial security.  Without a structure meant he had grown up lacking a solid family foundation, his father gone from the start, his mother often elsewhere, his grandparent doing the best they could, but all leading to his sense of being a rootless outsider.  Without a tradition was a reference to his lack of religious grounding and his hapa status, white and black, feeling completely at home in neither race.  Eventually he could make a few essential choices in terms of how he would live out his personal life, moving inexorably toward the black world.  But in a larger sense, in terms of his ambitions beyond family, he did not want to be constricted by narrow choices.  The different path he saw for himself was to rise above the divisions of culture and society, politics and economics, and embrace something larger - embrace it all.  To make a particular choice would be to limit him, he wrote in the letter to Alex, because 'taken separately, they are unacceptable and untenable'.
Looking back on that period from the distance of the White House, Obama recalled that he was then 'deep inside my own a way that in retrospect I don't think was real healthy'.  But the realisation that he had to 'absorb all the traditions' would become the rationale for all that followed.  'There is no doubt that what I retained in my politics is a sense that the only way I could have a sturdy sense of identity of who I was depended on digging beneath the surface differences of people', Obama said during an interview on November 10, 2011.  'The only way my life makes sense is if regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hopes and moral precepts that are universal.  And that we can reach out beyond our differences.  If that is not the case then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life.  So that is at the core of who I am'.  - page 452.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Reflections of Washington D.C. part 1

Last year I was privileged to be able to travel to the US with a group of young leaders from Asian and Pacific countries as part of the International Visitors Leadership Program^.  Many of the meetings and sessions were organised by local volunteers and the content and context chosen by invited guests.

This post* is part 1 about my experiences in Washington D.C.

Introduction - one year on

Washington D.C. was my first city to explore.

Following the gruelling trip from Sydney to LA, and then across the vast width of the US, I remember arriving late at night at an airport where arrivals catch a tram to the luggage area.  The airport was new and crisp, its walls white and ceilings high.  All the shops were shut, and at one point I was unsure of where to go as our group of arrivals caught elevators down a story to wait for the tram.  Seeing no signs or people to point me in the right direction, I simply followed them.

It was put to me the day before by a taxi driver in Sydney that the taxi driver's in the US were rude and arrogant, and that I had to watch out for them.  I remember late at night at Washington waiting only moments for a taxi and being greeted by a very polite man with an Indian accent.  'Yes sir, very much sir' he would saw as we talked.  Although it was late, the road seemed to stretch some length as I looked out the window for my first glimpses of the US.  I saw large block buildings, some 6 to 10 stories high, scattered for miles.  I was reminded of sections of Melbourne, such as St. Kilda, where bustling commercial centres joined buildings end on end, only this cities stretch seemed to go much further.

I arrived one day before the program's official start so was able to explore the city.  Having first visited cities such as Melbourne and Sydney as a young adult, I recall being struck by the differences and peculiarities of structure and landscape: Sydney with its beautiful harbour and select sections of the city; Melbourne with its trams and close surrounding suburbs, eateries and laneways.

Previously, I had been to Sydney a number of times but only really set out around the Darling Harbour area.  On one trip I went for a cruise through the harbour and spent time at the north shore, across the bridge.  Another time I found myself walking during the day in the cities parks in the centre and the bustling commercial centre.  Suddenly, I came across this green area, having thought I knew much of the city, and was awestruck by the vibrancy and richness of a city park.  I walked through the commercial hub of the city, having previously thought that the breadth of the city itself was a commercial hub, and came to find sections of wealth divided by geography.

In Melbourne I stayed at hotels at the docklands end, and so made an effort to walk throughout the day and at night across the city, north to south, to truly feel the place.  The architecture of old buildings; its attention to detail; its effort and toil representing the habits of a time passed, struck me as vocal points of history and place.  The bustling walkers through the city, of all ages, of all different attire and all on different missions, reminded me of what is talked about up north where I'm from - where city life is busy and you don't get time to stop, think and reflect.

With these experiences and the newness of each journey I was eager to set foot in the US.

A place I'd like to revisit

A memorable place I visited in Washington was a cafe called Busboys and Poets.  I remember vividly the set-up: the corner bookstore of marginalised and eccentric books stretched to the high ceiling; the cafe and lounges which looked familiar and like the ones back home yet occupied by Americans (many glued to their devices enjoying the free wifi); it's busy waiters moving and serving as if those who were there should know the rules of human traffic and its ebbs and flows; the side room with its murals filled with creativity, politics, history, activism.  Fortunate for us, we were there to hear from a Professor who had written books about America's position in the world.

The website of Busboys and Poets reads:
Busboys and Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted...a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body and soul...a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide...we believe that by creating such a space we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.
tribal statement
A highlight of our trip was to meet and hear from the owner, Andy Shallal (see this Washington Post piece here).   Shallal talked about what was behind the concept and his vision and passion as an artist and activist.  We talked about freedom, what it meant to him and what it meant for America and American history.  (This concept - freedom - was to become a key focus of my trip which I will write about later)

I remember revisiting Busboys later in the night at the suggestion of Shallal.  It was poetry open-mic night.  Our small group waited at the bookstore exploring the many books that cannot be found in mainstream stores (the US is so big that it has a little of everything for everyone, as an Australian recently reminded me).  The event was already booked out and we were eager to get in and get a seat.  One by one different artists approached the stage and gave their version of whatever they liked.  I was awe-struck at the depth of talent and diversity of the many artists in the audience.  There were poems about politics, identity, love, race, belonging, sexuality, history and so forth.  Just by seeing each artist you could see the richness and difference in histories and position.  At one point, a man delivered lyrics aimed at his partner but shared with the audience.  Another young woman shared her views of the world including dark moments of her history, and what this now meant to her; she was met with boos of disdain from the crowd.  Another shared his feelings of race, his anger and poise coming through strongly as he projected a voice that appeared to go through many trials and tribulations, including drugs.  The emcee, a flamboyant gay man, reflected on each piece with controlled judgement and sparked laughter from the audience with his jokes.  One year on, I have vivid memories of the night and am grateful for the experience.  To me, this type of event typified what a large and prosperous country can offer in all its diversity and talent.  The underground nature of it - a simple night out - gave authenticity to its voice and the freedom of those to choose to come and share their stories and gifts.  

Later, the next day, I caught a taxi and the senior black American driver recounted the days when Martin Luther King Jr was killed.  "People rioted all along these streets.  People were out in the streets and they were angry".  Apparently, the location of Busboys was a central part in this story.

Back home in Alice Springs I mentioned the place to friends.  Two people I knew were aware of the place. One was an American citizen who was a co-worker.  The other, a young Australian who worked in activism, had also been there.  She told me she was there at the time Obama was elected, and recounted how the streets were lined up with people wanting to get in.  The air of buzz and excitement at the thought was obvious.

Memories etched in my mind: the Holocaust museum

A powerful experience was my visit the Holocaust museum.  I went there twice: first on the day I arrived when Hurricane Irene travelled up the east coast, and secondly with the group I was travelling with.  On the first day rain was pelting hard.  The museum, built with bricks and construction similar to the buildings of old Germany, was grim in appearance and darkened by the mood of the distant Hurricane.

I remember vividly one section at the top, where visitors need to cross between two different sections of the building through a tunnel with glass windows and thick, cold steel (see the picture below at the top).  The rain pelted as I walked through.  I remember being stung by the images and horror I had seen, thinking about them as I saw rain pelt and hit the glass above and to the side of me.  Because the Hurricane was close I was one of the only visitors, a fortunate experience given the personal space and un-busyness that I am used to where I live and grew up.

The second visit allowed me to absorb bits of information that I missed on the first trip.  On this occasion I saw old women with stark white hair helping at the counter - volunteers - and survivors of the holocaust.  In my mind now I picture them smiling with visitors and helping them with directions, glad that their experiences and the experiences of their loved ones can be remembered and acknowledged with purpose and regret.

My photo from the outside and rear of the museum.
At the top you can see the tunnels that connect sections
(I remember the rain pelting on a day when the museum was virtually empty).
In the museum there were many impressionable sections.  Hallways displayed photographs of family portraits of those who were lost.  These displays were in mixed frames, close to each other, as they rose high and above the height of the wall and around the platform directly above me until they disappeared.  Because I could not see where the wall met the roof the impression was that they went on forever.  The portraits were of individuals and families like the millions of portraits around the world.  At another section an actual door with markings and signs was displayed. At one part an extensive cabinet with thousands of figurines showed mostly women and children lining up to go down to a lower level for what they were told were showers. At the other end of the building were operating tables where jewellery and gold were removed.

On the second occasion I saw others crying as they walked through.  They were middle aged and senior people, and I imagined them to be directly affected by the experience sometime in their life and along their family lines.

I saw video footage about surgeons performing all kinds of tests. I saw that what was done was not only Jews but disabled and gay people. At one stage was a pile-up of burnt out shoes. I learnt about the international response and how dedicated journalists and radio announcers constantly gave updates of what was happening.  The Olympics were held and were hailed as a success (propaganda by Germany to show that nothing bad was happening).  Some Western countries went from dealing with the issue of mass migration of Jews (even turning back boats) to intervening.  I learnt about individual stories of people who, by luck, escaped extermination and were never to be reunited with their family.  At the  end section of the museum I was surprised to come across a familiar image - a section for young people based on a book a journalist in Alice Springs had given to me as a gift for my children some years back.  The book sought to teach young children what had happened.

I had always been struck by the history of world war II.  This time I was able to see the many images and stories; some personal, some of the logistics and organisation of a collective craziness, some of the events as they unfolded leading from one to the other.  I was interested to learn of the early days of Hitler's rise; the resentment following the first world war, the defeat and his jailing, the political tensions and dynamic, the initial dismissal of a far right political figure by the mainstream majority, the drastic events of the election that saw him first elected, the swift response and later the horror.

On the walls and throughout the museum are words etched in stone:
First they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
(From wiki - “First they came…” is a famous statement attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.)

A unique experience

On one occasion in D.C we watched a famous speech by Barack Obama when he was a Senator: A More Perfect Union.  The Philadelphia speech was penned by Obama himself, rather than a speechwriter (a rarity in politics at a senior level).  In many ways the speech reflected Obama's political philosophy and approach as reflected in his previous writings.

As with any campaign, the depth of content in his writings was known to the politically astute, and mostly those on the democratic side of politics, but to the larger population this depth was invariably unknown.  The events leading to the Philadelphia speech was to then turn attention to these matters at a crucial point in the campaign.

The context was at a pivotal time in his campaign for the Presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton.  Video revelations of Pastor Jeremiah Wright went public and viral.  These videos showed Rev Wright condemning America and saying words in tones and words which reminded every viewer of anti-American sentiment and feeling.  I recalled watching it on TV in Australia at the time and being shocked and surprised at what took place.  The predicted response was to feel anxiety towards a nation polarised and pressured by such issues, and at a time where these pressures were building in a crucial election.

During our session one person reminded us that at the time nobody knew if this would destroy Obama's campaign.  The campaign between Obama and Clinton had been drawn out and was highly contested.  Obama's response had to be honest and go to the heart.  So much was at stake.  The speech had to be honest and transformational.

The contents of the speech, consistent with Obama's earlier writings in his books and public speeches, demonstrated his ability to inspire.  It was unlike anything a candidate had presented before.  At the time I remember it as a speech reflecting his political and policy narrative to date and, on this occasion, as I looked around the room and some people were emotional watching it.

For those who have been fortunate to experience the journey of watching Obama go from Senator to President, and to (after this post) observe the years that will follow his Presidency, the speech will stand as one of the greats in history.

Here's a closing story to the speech and one of my favourites in political history:
There is one story in particularly that I'd like to leave you with today - a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King's birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta. 
There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there. 
And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat. 
She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too. 
Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice. 
Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley." 
"I'm here because of Ashley." By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children. 
But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.


^ I am grateful for the opportunity presented by the US Consul-General office in Melbourne and, on the ground in the US, the support of the US Department of State and partners.

* (In line with what is appropriate, I have not set out to write about experiences where a person can be attributed to comments because the discussions took place in an environment where people could be free to discuss matters without being publicly misconstrued.  This is why some of the descriptions are generic.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Words, meanings, context, understanding

In the book, the Social Animal by David Brooks, the author draws on the experiences of a central character and writes:
On his wall, Harold had tacked another quotation, from Benjamin Disraeli, 'the spiritual nature of man is stronger than codes or constitutions.  No government can endure which does not recognise that for its foundations, and no legislation last which does not flow from this foundation'.
Everything came down to character, and that meant everything came down to relationships, because relationships are the seedbeds of character.  The reason life and politics are so hard is that relationships are the most important, but also the most difficult, things to understand.
In short, Harold entered a public-policy world in which people were used to thinking in hard, mechanistic terms.  He thought he could do some good if he threw emotional and social perspectives into the mix. 
As Harold worked his way through the process of discovering how this basic supposition applied to the world of politics and policy, he came to lament the fact that the word 'socialism' was already taken.  The nineteenth and twentieth-century thinkers who had called themselves socialists weren't really socialists.  They were statists. They valued the state over society.
But true socialism would put social life first.  He imagined that the cognitive revolution could foster more communitarian styles of politics.  There would be a focus on the economic community.  Did people in different classes have a sense they were joined in a common enterprise, or were the gaps between classes too wide?  There would be a focus on the common culture.  Were the core values of society expressed and self-confidently reinforced?  Were they reflected in the nations institutions?  
This led me to reflect on a recent discussion with a doctoral student focusing on remote education.  We talked about the political priorities expressed through our leaders.  One leader continually emphasised school attendance as the key priority.  Time and time again, the importance of full attendance was honed in.  This was re-enforced by countless media reports and references.

Whilst important, I was told that even if full school attendance was achieved this would not be sufficient.  The 'socialisation', as was put to me, was so vastly different between the students and their future world, and between the Aboriginal and 'other' world, that the capabilities and tools which are ordinarily learned in schooling held value which looked different to the way we perceive it.  The act of discipline, for instance, is structured very differently.

To me, the complexity of remote education became apparent.  The distance between the understandings of a nation looking 'in' and the experiences of a person with interest looking 'out' appeared wide.  I was struck by the reference to 'socialisation': how it is not commonly used, how I initally (mis) interpreted it, how it means different things to different people (and contexts), how its meaning finds traction to other associations and patterns of thought.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reflecting on a previous post about Pearson's analysis of Obama

Recently I had the privilege of meeting the US President Barack Obama.  This made me reflect on a previous post from 2008 which I've copied below...

Post of 15 May 2008:

Noel Pearson’s essay in the Monthly offers an intriguing analysis of Steele’s insight into contemporary race relations in America. There are several compelling paragraphs that refer to responsibility, opportunity, and how uplift occurs in dominant-minority populations. After reading the essay I was disappointed at what I saw as deficiencies in Pearson’s core argument.

Pearson argues that Obama has not pursued strongly enough the radical centre that integrates core notions (or a contemporary understanding) of responsibility. Pearson contends that Obama should ‘radically revise’ his account of such issues at the Democratic National Convention in August.

Obama is being misrepresented. My observations are that he has pursued the radical centre by offering a style of politics that is untested at the national level in the United States. This necessarily involves merging notions of opportunity (that inevitably give rise to questions of race and equality) and responsibility. Promoting notions of ‘black responsibility’ (as Pearson refers) is why Obama has been able to attract such strong support amongst the African-American Democratic base, many independents and a number of Republicans (this strategy is more difficult to pursuit for a non-African-American candidate).

Pearson holds that ‘the main shortcoming of Obama’s philosophy is that he does not recognise, as Steele has, that the nature of black Americans struggle changed fundamentally after the civil rights victories of the ‘60s’. A reading of a number of Obama’s work, whether it is his original Dreams of my Father or The Audacity of Hope, or a number of speeches would reveal that he does. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Statehood, the constitutional convention and regions

The Centralian Advocate printed this letter to the editor:
If the Australian constitution is to acknowledge Aboriginal people as the first Australians then this will likely be a symbolic gesture. Symbols and acknowledgements can be important; it can lift peoples’ hopes. Going beyond symbolism will be very difficult because changing the Australian constitution requires broad bi-partisan support from across political parties. This support exists now, and only to the point of acknowledging the ‘first Australians’, but there is still a long way to go.
Putting the Australian constitution aside, what is more important to us is Statehood because we have the opportunity to design a completely new constitution. We start with a blank canvass. A planned convention in late 2011 intends to involve delegates from across the Territory to do exactly this.
What a number of us on Town Council have said, and what we are calling for others to support, is for the new constitution to actively protect and empower regions. We want a debate at the convention about how infrastructure funds should be spread across the regions, and how people at a regional level can have more of a say as to how they are spent. The ‘royalties for regions’ program in Western Australia has proved significant for their regions, and we want a similar program built into the new constitution so that it can’t be changed by politicians. This would benefit Alice Springs, but also those around us.
One main reason (there are many) is that under our current governance structure the increasing population of Darwin, Palmerston and the new city of Weddell will see a substantive increase in political power. Regional seats will be swallowed up by the growing capital centre. To put this in perspective, recently a Minister of the Northern Territory said that 73,000 additional people are expected to live in Darwin and Palmerston by 2025. Imagine what this will do for the political power of Alice Springs (and the regions)?
It is clear that the local Alice Springs community will be divided about whether to change the Australian constitution, but focusing on our once-only opportunity to design a new constitution as part of Statehood should not be an opportunity wasted. I urge all to get involved, to be part of the debate and stand up for the rights of our town and our regions.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The politics of a blanket youth curfew

The post over the fold offers my views of the politics of a youth curfew for Alice Springs.  These views start before the debate resurfaced and positioned itself as one of the most controversial for the town in 2011.  That my observations were predictions of actual events which occurred is not surprising but adds to my disenchantment with the nature of politics and the media cycle (which is a debate in itself).

Saturday, September 4, 2010

A true privilege: leadership lessons

Recently the Alice Springs Desert Leadership Group had the privilige of so many experiences as part of a Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne east coast retreat. One powerful experience was hearing directly from the US Ambassador as to his thoughts and insights of leadership. A picture of our group (Official U.S. Embassy photo by Travis Longmore):

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Statehood and regionalisation

An issue I feel passionate about is Statehood and the possibility of designing a modern constitution for a new State. Constitutional law was an interest during law school. The potential we have during this important time in history is, in my view, often overlooked, and to our detriment. With such a complex issue many Territorians are asking questions. In one sense there is simply too much information – many questions cannot be answered because we aren’t in a point of time in our history to provide an answer. What can follow is uncertainty masked as confusion. Whilst this happens there is the chance for leadership and for those showing leadership to coalesce around some core principles that define us.

Dave Richards from Alice Online kindly posted this piece about Statehood and regionalisation – a speech I recently delivered to the LGANT general meeting. The Alice Springs News printed a modified version. The NT News (online copy unavailable) printed a modified version over two pages in the most recent Saturday edition.

This direction builds on a previous motion passed by Council, posted here. There are many constitutional models for devolving infrastructure decisions closer to the regions, to the bottom-up, and many constitutional models for the distribution of infrastructure resources equitably across the regions – our call is to enshrine these principles in the new constitution and discuss various models in the convention that will decide a new constitution. More to come on this topic.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Marechal Rondon

Recently I read The River of Doubt about President Theodore Roosevelt’s journey on an unmapped river in South America, also called the Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition. A friend lent me the book. It is a fascinating account and coming from the desert the detailed explanations of the river, the amazon environment and its adaptive nature was intriguing given the stark contrast to my own environment.

My friend who lent it to me said that Marechal Rondon, the Brazilian Military Officer who led the journey with Roosevelt, was a remarkable figure so prominent in the history of South America. In that region his name is recognised extensively. The book gives account after account of Rondon’s philosophy and approach towards the indigenous peoples; how he refused to support confrontation despite being in the face of danger and hostility; how his practice was to leave food and goods as gifts; how his discipline and honour and strong sense of nationalism was highly regarded. My friend asks why we don’t have similiar figures recognised by our own Australian history?

Judging by our own account of history during the 1800s it seems Rondon’s philosophy and approach would have been quite a departure from accepted opinion. His was progressive in the sense of accepting pluralism but different from many established opinions (such as responding to hostility with strength and force). The fact that Rondon received such widespread recognition accounts to the fact that this position and philosophy was recognised as central to the development of general identity and recognition in South America. My friends question opens up important thoughtlines!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Letter to editor: 6 months on

A letter in today’s Centralian Advocate:

It has been about 6 months since I quit alcohol. As a young adult my main reason was to send the right message to others in my generation.
I can confidently say that my challenge has been well worth it. I never drank regularly, a weekend wind-down was always on the cards, but as more than 4 standard drinks on any single occasion is considered a health risk I was in the camp of many in the odd occasion of over-consumption. Quitting alcohol meant that I could talk about it more and its place in our community.
If alcohol is consumed responsibly then this can be a good thing, it can be a good way to wind down and socialise.
Alcohol becomes a problem when relationships are harmed; when the amount of money spent dips too much into disposable income; when violence or abuse no matter how benign is dished out; when it is seen as an out to whatever personal or social problems persist. For some people the response to any of these experiences is to have another drink.
The problem self-generates. For some, alcohol is a pitiless addiction. For too many in my generation and younger alcohol and its misuse is a social contagion. We egg each other on and poke fun at the hapless incidents.

Abstaining from alcohol is not a solution for everybody. I set myself this challenge to see what it was like. Because alcohol was a weekly ritual it was difficult at first. My mind relied on its calming effects after a long week and mentally I had to adjust. Because I am a busy person it was easier for me to quash boredom without it (having boredom and no purpose is a big issue for many in Alice Springs).
Exercise helped me, as did a healthy addiction to coffee. What I realised from quitting is that there is so much to life and its abundance that other interests can easily replace alcohol, so long as a kind of semi-dependency caused by years of use is overcome. Without the after-effects my mind and body is better without it.
To others in my generation I hope these messages resonate.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Op-ed, Alice Springs and alcohol

My first printed opinion piece was published in the NT News as a follow up to my commitment to quit alcohol for one year. I was grateful for the opportunity. The piece suggests three policy ideas concerning alcohol in Alice Springs.


As the first from the Generation Y (those born 1980-1995) to be elected to a municipal Council in the Territory I was honoured in March this year to be elected Deputy Mayor of Alice Springs. My generation lives within a specific set of circumstances and I am obliged to advocate reform with this in mind. In my new role my first decision was to quit alcohol for one year.

My main motivation is to set an example. If the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends no more than 4 standard drinks on any single occasion then excessive alcohol consumption in the Territory is commonplace. Too often we leave the task of finding solutions to policy makers without realising that it is also us who can build a social and cultural intolerance of alcohol misuse.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A possible inclusion for Statehood

At the Full Council meeting on 28th October the following motion was passed unanimously:
That Council prepare a discussion paper for Statehood.
That the discussion paper examine, amongst other possibilities, recognition of Local Government including its powers and responsibilities and an equitable formula for the distribution of funds to be embedded in the constitution that evokes Statehood.
That this paper, if necessary, utilise funding allocated in this years budget for further analysis of population figures and mobility with a view of ascertaining an accurate formula.
That this paper consider the unique position of regions within the Territory.
That Council give impetus to the Mayor to consult with Local Government across the Territory,
particularly the regions, with a view of seeking support for the principles embodied in the paper.
Moved: John Rawnsley
Seconded: Jane Clark
This motion calls on Council to actively contribute to the direction of Statehood by promoting the
principle of regionalisation. The aim is to embed this interest in the document that evokes

Regionalisation holds two aspects.

First, less populated regions must have access to the same level of opportunities and services, per
capita, as the metropolitan centres. This is particularly so for regional centres where the mobility
between more isolated regions is high. This aspect concerns the equitable and strategic
distribution of resources.

This motion aims to promote this first aspect by preparing a discussion paper to examine ways of
equitably distributing resources consistent with the principle of regionalisation. Because Darwin
as the capital centre has more opportunities and services due to natural market forces, the
consolidation of resources and other factors it is necessary, in my view, to embed in the State
constitution either the principles or a formula pertaining to the distribution of resources. This is
necessary also to curtail the political power of the capital centre – power that can potentially be
used by a government of any persuasion in the self-interests of the capital.

The second aspect of regionalisation concerns decision-making capacity. Regionalisation holds
that this capacity must be entrusted to the greatest extent possible to the people affected by its
decision. This aspect concerns localism and a sense of community empowerment.

As the third tier of government – closest to its elector base and local services – Local Government
and its already established structure performs set powers and responsibilities. Most of these
powers and responsibilities overlap with other levels of government. Some are clearly discernible.
Categorically setting out these powers – whether they include the power to create by-laws
consistent with Territory and Federal laws – deserves constitutional consideration.

The precedence of other States demonstrates that explicit recognition of powers and
responsibilities is achievable. Furthering these aspects with a more modernised and innovative
constitution is, in my view, ideal.

In our present political climate there is potential for the Statehood discourse to centre on issues of
protecting indigenous rights. Whilst this topic deserves examination my view is that there is
greater potential to direct political capital towards the principle of regionalisation. The reason for
this is that those living in regional parts of the Territory are as inter-dependant to each other as we
are to the capital centre. We would all benefit from regionalisation by advocating greater equity in
the distribution of resources and local decision-making capacity where relevant.

This motion further creates the impetus for our Mayor as leader of this town to consult in
partnership with regional Local Government across the Territory. The Shires and our regional
Town Councils have an important part to play post-Statehood. There is a broad consensus
throughout the regions for the principle of regionalisation and the timing for drawing this
consensus towards Statehood is now.

I provide my full support for our Town Council to take a leadership role in this regard.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Rawls philosophy and contemporary equal opportunity

Wikipedia outlines philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) attempts to solve the problems of distributive justice by utilising a variant of the social contract. He does this by two core principles of justice: liberty principle and difference principle, and calls it ‘Justice as Fairness’.

Writing in A Theory of Justice (1971) Rawls outlines a simple definition of the ‘first principle’:

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

Contemporary equal opportunity policies generally conflict with this principle. In attempting to solve class injustice contemporary policies recognise exclusiveness based on certain categories: race, gender, disability. Information and data that pertain to these categories establish a scale where socio-economic outcomes can be readily defined.

Where this principle finds conflict with components of contemporary policy is with the ‘compatibility’ requirement put by Rawls. That is, basing policy exclusive to certain groups must find balance with the compatibility of enabling a ‘similiar system of liberty for all’. I would argue that contemporary policy is inadequate.

Take, for example, indigenous policy.

If we are to view positive discrimination and affirmative action policies then we can say that contemporary policy is based on opportunities exclusive to race: if you are indigenous you are entitled to certain educational, work and other opportunities. Contemporary equal opportunity seeks to justify these policies by recognising that indigenous peoples, as a group, are lower across all socio-economic outcomes than the broader population. The problem is that these policies are subjective – they do not account for individual circumstance. An urban Aboriginal person who is entitled to such a program can have more opportunities prior to accessing such programs than the non-Aboriginal person living in the same community. In my view such a circumstance negates the ‘compatibility’ requirement of Rawls principle.

I support a political direction that accommodates the pluralism of Aboriginality, and seeks a significant re-alignment of priorities in terms of access to opportunities. Current policy appears to uplift the Aboriginal middle class whilst the lower class continue to face spiralling challenges. This is a direct result of policies that categorise opportunities exclusive to race, as well as failures in other areas of policy.