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Entries in Australia (84)


Heron Island

We just had a wonderful week on Heron Island, on the Great Barrier Reef. I was there for ThymOz, the best scientific meeting on my conference circuit. Top-level science, a very critical and collegiate environment and an atmosphere that is more like a friendship reunion than a conference. This time, as well as the company of my scientific colleagues I had the pleasure of bringing Lydia along, for our first trip without Hayden. The scientific sessions were interspersed with snorkels, dives and long walks around the island. My favourite animal encounter on the island must have been the five tiny squidlings that Lydia and I surprised while snorkeling - they squirted us with simultaneous ink sprays and then swam off a metre. We also had an interesting encounter with a remora (suckerfish) while going on our first scuba dive for five years. The remora attaches to a host (usually a shark, turtle or whale) and filter feeds while it hitches a free ride. This one was solo, and swum around me and Lydia speculatively, considering us as its next host. Another highlight was the turtle hatchlings, of which we saw maybe a hundred over the week were were there, scuttling down to the water while seagulls swooped down and made a meal. A surprise for us was the frenzied shark feeding that happened just a metre off shore, with large sharks swooping in for a turtle dinner. Normally few if any would make it out to deep water, but on our last morning there we saw over a thousand tiny turtle tracks on our morning walk, a quantity that must have overwhelmed the appetites of even sharks and seagulls.

Now one day in Canberra, then we are off back home to Belgium.


Not all turtle hatchlings are eaten by seagulls


The life of a turtle hatchling


Australia - low expectations

So the ultra-conservatives won the election with ease. If taken at their word (not that I see any reason to trust Tony Abbott), Australia will now be prepared to use military force to stop refugee boats coming in from Indonesia, they'll strip away the carbon tax and simultaneously cut aid to Pacific nation neighbours trying to deal with rising ocean levels, they get rid of safety regulations on day-care for infants, block marriage equality, reinstate welfare bonuses to the richest and cut wages for the rest.

All pretty horrific. Yet I found myself shrugging off the loss like I did on hearing the results of the last Canadian election. Yes, it is horrible, but no longer personal. It would have been better for Australia if the percentage of small-minded fools was 45% instead of 55%*, but even if the election had gone the other way, it still means that the majority of Australians today are xenophobic and selfish. That is just not a country I find it easy to emphasize with, and after nearly 10 years living abroad my outrage at the result is only intellectual and no longer also emotional. 


* I'm sure it is far higher than 55%. Sure, anyone willing to vote for Abbott needs to be either a bigot, or selfish enough to ignore Abbott's bigotry. But ALP voters are not ubquitiously progressives - the anti-refugee policies advocated by Labor were only slightly less harsh than Abbott's. I expect that only ~10% of Australians would agree with the combination of i) a compassionate and humane refugee policy, ii) marriage equality to same-sex couples and iii) a tax on carbon dioxide production proportionate to the damage it will cause. 


Australia decides 2013, aka "there is a reason I left"

After careful consideration, Hayden drew an elephant on the ballot paperFor the past 5 years Australia has had a centralist Labor party government. All things considered, they've had a great track record. The major success of the Rudd government was to weather the global financial crisis. Australia was the only country in the developed world not to enter recession, and even the transient deficit used to avert a recession is nearly back to surplus. In any other country this would have been a rousing success, in Australia for some reason the polls pounded Rudd and the Labor party was only returned under Julia Gillard by the narrowest margin (50.1%). Gillard performed extremely well despite having to negotiate every piece of legislation across party lines. She negotiated the first price on carbon and stopped the logging of old growth forests. She started reform of the education and health systems, creating the first national disability scheme. The fact that it was all done by compromise and negotiation with community groups, industry and other parties should have been considered a strength, but the Australian media just shouted "liar" at her until she was gone, with Rudd back to lead Labor to the 2014 election. Labor could have been better, of course, but the only real failure of Labor during their period in office was in their capitulation to anti-immigrant hatred .

So we have an incumbent government that has performed quite well under tough circumstances. What is the alternative? Well the conservative Liberal party ditched leaders three times and came up with the most radical wingnut in Australian politics bar Pauline Hanson - Tony Abbott. An anti-woman, anti-abortion, anti-gay racist who would be more at home in the American Tea Party. How on earth Tony Abbott came to lead a mainstream political party in Australia is beyond me. Actually, even the Liberal Party was surprised, he only won the leadership by a single vote because a key opponent was in hospital at the time. Nevertheless, he got in power and has spent four years pulling Australian politics into the mud. He never accepted his defeat at the last election, calling Gillard illegitimate over and over, refusing to concede that even a 50.1% victory is a victory.

Imagining an Abbott governmentIn this election, Abbott has not proposed any viable alternative policies. We have promises to stop accepting refugees, to stop the expansion of broad-band internet and to drop environmental protection laws, but not one detailed policy. Abbott constantly shouts about fiscal responsibility - but it is one day before the election and he has not had a single policy independently costed. It is a complete joke, he is the worst opposition leader in Australian history - vile ideas and no plans longer than four words. 

And yet. Tomorrow Australian vote, and it looks like Abbott will win. Sadly, there is only one target to blame - the Australian public. Sad but true, tomorrow around half the country will vote for this horrid man. Of those, half will probably vote for him because they share his hatred of refugees. The other half will probably vote for him because of selfish taxation reasons (people who are angry at the Labor government for reducing welfare to people earning $250,000 a year and above).


This is Australia today. A country with a majority who are racist or selfish. A country where you can win the highest political office by pandering to the instincts of people who instinctively hoard all they own even when life is good, people who spit on the faces of those in needs. Obviously this doesn't describe every Australian, but Australia is a democracy and democracies get the politicians they deserve.

I took Hayden to vote yesterday at the Brussels embassy. I hope that one day he has a country worth returning to, so I voted Greens first. But most importantly, I voted Liberal last. Please do the same tomorrow.


The depressing atmosphere of Australian pubs

We introduced baby Hayden to my family over dinner in a pub in Adelaide, the Grand North on Grand Junction Road. With seven young children it was a raucous affair - fortunately there were almost no other customers dining there. This is not to say that the pub didn't have patrons: we frequently saw elderly people in wheelchairs slowly cross the pub to get into the pokies room, where they would spend hours upon hours staring at a machine and dribbling their pension into it. Gambling is a major issue in Australia. It is estimated that 40% of all revenue on pokies come from these "problem gamblers", who are being sucked dry by the Pokies now ubiquitous in Australian pubs. "Personal responsibility" you cry - well that is just being naive. The Pokies Industry has spent decades of research developing the most addictive games possible, with short spin times and massive maximum bet sizes, all designed to ramp up the expenditure rate on the 1% of Australians who have a gambling addiction. With billions to spend on research and development and teams of psychology experts tweaking every aspect of the games to encourage addictive behaviour, the vulnerable in society simply don't stand a chance. The modern machines are so efficient at provoking addictive behaviour that 15% of all regular players become problem gamblers.


Controlling the exponential growth in Pokies has been brewing politically for at least 15 years, when Nick Xenophon made it to the South Australian parliament in 1997 on a "No Pokies" platform. Now, with the Gillard Labor party and independents Xenophon and Wilkie in parliament, a critical mass has formed to actually do something about problem gambling. An independent committee recommended mandatory pre-commitment as a way to allow problem gamblers to control themselves. It still allows everyone to waste as much money as they want on the Pokies, but it stops the spur-of-the-moment "I'll win big if I just keep going long enough" type of spending that problem gamblers get up to. In fact, what it does is allows problem gamblers to assert their "personal responsibility" before they stand in front of the hateful machines. More can be done, but this would be a big step in stopping these vampiric machines sucking the life out of their "customers". 


With the research suggesting that mandatory pre-commitment will actually work, the big beneficiaries from problem gambling have come out in force against it. Australian pubs, once providers of a social atmosphere and cheap meals, have now become simple Pokies Halls, deriving most of their profits from gambling. To be honest, they should admit that they are running on the broken lives of the problem gamblers, but obviously this is not a winning strategy to gain public support. Instead, pubs like the Grand North are littered with Party Political signs saying that it is “un-Australian” to help problem gamblers control their addiction. Personally, I’ll boycott any of these pubs just for using the term “un-Australian”. It suggests that there is some archetypical Aussie somewhere, probably in rural Queensland, that we can all measure ourselves up against to assess our Australianness, like John Howard wanting Bradman’s batting average to be on the Australian citizenship test. And if there is one group of people I don’t want defining “Australian” for me, it is the type of leech who lives off exploiting the pensioners I saw in the Grand North, with an oxygen tank strapped to their wheelchair and a dead look on their face as they fed the insatiable appetite of the Pokies.

Things that made me angry this week

In response to a request from David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, all of the constitutional monarchies in the Commonwealth agreed to change their law on succession. Under the current arrangements, when determining the inheritance of the British Crown, within each degree of relation, men take priority over women, and anyone married to a Catholic cannot accept the Crown. In the words of David Cameron, "The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic - this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become." Yes, it is quite archaic indeed. As is the basic idea that someone should be crowned ruler of a country and the head of the State Church simply because of an accident of birth. Good grief, if we are going to rationally discuss who inherits the Crown in three generations time, perhaps we could have a conversation on whether Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Barbados, Grenada, Solomon Islands, St Lucia and the Bahamas should be endorsing the entire concept of royalty. 


Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, the disgraceful weasel, blamed the Unions for shutting down air-traffic in Australia. Joyce has been ripping Qantas apart for years, outsourcing jobs and cutting real wages. The Unions involved have been trying to negotiate some job security and a wage rise, and what does Joyce do? Gave himself a 75% pay rise, to $5 million / year, and then shut down the entire airline rather than negotiate with the Unions. After the government stepped in to force a negotiation, the bastard blamed the Unions for industrial action, when it was not the Unions who went on strike but the management who locked out all the workers.


The United States massively overreacted at Palestine applying for membership at the United Nations. 126 countries, representing 75% of the world's population, have recognised the State of Palestine. Palestine is now pushing for recognition by the United Nations, and is coming under severe criticism from the United States for doing so. The US is criticising Palestine for acting "unilaterally" and encourages it to take a more diplomatic route. Huh? Isn't asking the United Nations for diplomatic recognition the very definition of mulitlateral diplomacy? The UN (rightfully) recognises Israel, it should equally recognise Palestine, and the world should not have to wait until Palestinian recognition suits domestic Israeli politics. The other criticism from the US is that UN recognition would only be symbolic, in effect saying that there is not much gain to be made from it. Perhaps, but then why expend so much effort to destroy the effort? Now Palestine has been accepted as a member state by UNESCO, the agency which looks after World Heritage Sites. And the response from the US? To withdraw all American funding from UNESCO, slashing its budget by 20%. Israel in turn applauded the US and is considering its future within UNESCO. How is that a reasonable response? UNESCO simply allowed Palestine to join its mission "to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information". One would have thought that US and Israel would support such a mission being extended to Palestine, and UNESCO cannot be accused of being anti-semetic - they run holocaust education programs around the world, they protect holocaust memorial sites such as Auschwitz, and they actively support the preservation of sacred Jewish sites within Israel and around the world. How horrible for Palestine to want to be a part of that!


Despair of the asylum seeker

This story is a rare glimpse into the life of an asylum seeker living in Belgium. With much of the world war-torn and desolate, a rare few brave families risk the unknown in search of a better life, and a fraction of a fraction arrive in Belgium. Once in Belgium the families are safe from immediate persecution, and a few are granted refugee status, premitting them to stay indefinately and integrate into society. Far more, however are sans papiers - those waiting for judgement or those without what is considered adequate written proof of persecution but who come from a region unstable enough that they cannot be forced to leave. 


Legally, the Belgium government is to provide at least housing for asylum seekers, in practice the government has not built any where near enough places. Over and over again, homeless asylum seekers will take a case to the courts and judges will levy fines on the government for not meeting its legal obligations - and the government will just pay the fines rather than increase housing. Without "papers" the refugees cannot find a job and support themselves, they legally have no choice but to be sleeping on the street, begging and eating in soup kitchens. Even for those few who are granted papers life is no picnic, I remember waiting behind an Afghan man, probably in his late 40s, at the Leuven Town Hall, who was seeking permission to work. Over and over again he was denied permission, because his asylum papers said he was born 1/1/2000. He tried to explain that this was the default date because he didn't have a birth certificate (being born in a small Afghan village), they simply shut him down and said that they could not give a work permit to an 11 year old, and if he wanted to change it he would need to provide a valid birth certificate.

 To be sans papiers is to be left in limbo, to have no means to better yourself and no way to regain the dignity of self-sufficiency. It benefits nobody to leave people sitting unemployed in a cramped flat, sleeping out in an abandoned building intermittently raided by police, or freezing at night in an underpass. It certainly harms the most vulnerable members of our society. So who is to blame for this callus disregard for human dignity? Sure, you could blame the bureaucrats who make decisions, but they are only operating under the law. You could blame the politicians who make the laws, but with a thousand pressures on the political class the one issue they can safely ignore is the one which harms non-voters. You could blame the media, for ignoring the issue, but the media panders to populism and knows a dead issue when it sees one. No, ultimately we need to blame the voters, the people who could easily apply pressure for change, but who simply do not care enough about the plight of others to demand a minimum level of human dignity be granted to those who need it the most. 

Still, it could be worse. Mahboub and Rama and their two young children could have landed in Australia. They would have then been thrown straight into a prison (what other name can you call a "detention centre" set in the middle of the desert and surrounded by barbed wire?) and left to rot indefinately. Vilified by the Australian people as "boat people" and "que jumpers", asylum seekers have been condemned to life behind bars for up to seven years, before being deported or given papers. Australian governments of the right and left cite "processing requirements", but the real cause is clear - the racism of the Australian voter. While the idea of being stranded without rights on the streets of Brussels fills me with despair, living behind bars for the best part of a decade due to the "crime" of fleeing persecution is beyond my imagination.



Hummingbird smugglers?

In Australia we often call speedos "budgie smugglers", based on the *ahem* general similarity in size and shape of the enclosed package with that of a budgie (or parakeet, for Americans not familiar with Australian slang).

So what do you make of the smuggler who tried to smuggle humingbirds, the miniture relative of the humble budge, in his underwear?



The effect of the temperance movement on modern Australian drinking culture

Although far less famous than Prohibition in America, Australia had its own temperance movement which was successful in creating a partial prohibition for 50 years. After nearly 100 years of trying, conservative Christians in Australia finally managed a partial ban on alcohol in 1915 (see: Wowser;  an ineffably pious person who mistakes this world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder). Australia already had a long history of drug use and abuse, so it wasn't until the Christians managed to tie temperance to patriotism and war propaganda that they succeeded: "well-ordered, self-disciplined and morally upright home front was a precondition for the successful prosecution of the war."

The main success of the Australian temperance movement was a ban in bars serving alcohol after 6pm, which was in place across much of Australia from 1915-1967. The intent was to reduce drunkeness and enforce Christian "family values". The effect was the six o'clock swill, where men knocked off of work at 5 o'clock, rushed to a bar and then tried to drink as much as possible in the next hour. Between 5pm and 6pm, barmen stopped cleaning glasses and just walked around tables with a hose linked to the bar tap - spraying beer into empty glasses as fast as the men could drink them. They even redecorated the bars in response to the six o'clock swill, putting tiles on the walls and floors so they would be easy to clean afterwards. Then at 6pm the men staggered home drunk, to a surge of car crashes and domestic violence between 6:30 and 8pm.

Just as American prohibition left alcohol with the aura of sin and crime, so has Australian temperance left an impact on our relationship with alcohol. Not until living in Europe did I realise just how uniquely Australian the phenomenon of heading straight from work to a bar with colleagues for some heavy drinking was. 40 years after temperance was repealed, and we still drink in the style of our grandfathers.

An example of temperance propaganda in America

Alcohol laws have left another, darker, effect on Australia. Australian Aborigines were not recognised as full citizens across Australia until 1965 (Federal voting rights were granted in 1962, but Queensland held out until 1965 in State's rights). Even then, the Australian Constitution provided a unique racist loophole, which said that the States had the right to pass and enforce legislation that only affected the local Aboriginal population. This was the Constitutional basis of a whole raft of racist laws, which allowed the State to outlaw inter-racial socialisation and block the rights of Aboriginal Australians to free movement, free choice in marriage and parental rights. These racist laws were not invalidated until the 1967 referendum, which finally removed the States' powers to create race-specific laws.

Institutional racism has had enormous detrimental effects on the Aboriginal people, and unfortunately it has not stopped even today. But how does this relate to temperance? Well, one of the common racist laws imposed by the states was a prohibition on Australian Aborigines from drinking alcohol. Bans on voting and other major violations were severe but infrequent, the inability to walk into a bar and order a drink was a racist slight encountered each and every day. So, of course, when these laws were repealed drinking alcohol became a symbol of equality. While the extent of alcohol abuse among Australian Aborigines is often exaggerated, and the problem stems more from poverty and disempowerment, the historic effect of imposed prohibition lingers even today.