Monday, July 26, 2010

Let's be fair dinkum

Last night's debate pissed me off. And I'm being fair dinkum when I say that. When Tony Abbott began by mentioning his wife and kids, it didn't just feel like a dig at Julia, it felt like a dig at anyone who doesn't fit into the conventional mould. Julia herself isn't much better, taking any opportunity to be photographed with children, presumably in the hope that she will appear "family-friendly". I don't give a rats arse about how many children a policitan has, or how many they say hello to in one day, I just want to know what their policies are on parental leave, abortion rights and gay marriage. But, sadly, it feels as if good policy plays a poor second to election victory - a goal made easier by fuelling the fears of "everyday, hardworking, Australians".

And that brings me to the whole border protection issue. It seems that, whichever way the polls go on election day, asylum seekers risk again being treated as illegal terrorists at worst and opportunistic economic migrants at best. The fact that the number of people who sought asylum in Australia in 2009 was way less than 1% of our total population and when finally processed were found overwhelmingly to be legitimately fleeing persecution due to race, religion, nationality or political persuation seems irrelevant.

I wonder whether the latest Government is "losing its way". I was proud when the Rudd Government ratified the Kyoto Protocol, I was proud when they made the formal apology to the Stolen Generations and I felt I could finally hold my head up high in international circles when Australia gave support to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Now I'm feeling almost as despondant as when Howard was in office.

During the Howard era I was friends with asylum seekers who had not only survived torture in their home countries, followed by the soul-destroying experience of detention, but then waited on temporary protection visas for the length of that Government's term in office. With no access to medical support, legitimate employment or housing, they were dependant on the charity of non-profit organisations to maintain their dignity and sanity during the long wait for an answer.

So, what do I want to happen on election day? Well, ideally the Greens win government and we all live happily ever after in our sustainble houses and electric cars, but failing that, I would hope that the next Government is one that is not only able to tackle the challenge of climate change with leadership and a longterm vision, but is also able to put the national interest in perspective and give equal consideration to the interests of the world's most vulnerable people, thereby making me fair dinkum proud once again to be Australian.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Even the vegans

I visited the Vegan Expo last Sunday, and I have to say I was a little disappointed. I had expected that a vegan expo would be a shining example of ethical living on all fronts. Yet, I managed to walk away eating a meal served on a styrofoam plate with a plastic fork, and clutching a vegan cookbook that isn't made from recycled paper, and having heard no mention of locally grown produce.

Maybe I am being completely unfair, but I just assumed that people who chose one sort of ethical lifestyle would also have chosen an ethical approach to other areas of their lives. But it doesn't always happen that way. I remember getting frustrated with the socialists who shared my opposition to war, but thought nothing of contributing to un-necessary logging by printing out thousands of flyers for their cause. There are also those who care passionately about the plight of people in developing countries, but don't worry too much about the carbon cost of flying all around the world in a bid to help. And don't get me started on those vegetarians who happily eat tofu without a care for the impact of soy bean cash crops on local farmers.

But I shouldn't be so harsh. As you can imagine, I have been on the receiving end of all the same criticisms. It's always the smug, meat-eating, petrol guzzling, new wardrobe every season types who question why I might call myself a vegetarian but wear leather shoes, or claim to care about the environment but fly across the world or care about the conditions of factory workers but still buy the occasional garment made in China. Surely doing something we believe in is better than doing nothing at all? So, rather than disappointed, I have decided I am comforted by the fact that even the vegans are not perfect - maybe there is hope for me yet.

Biggest killer

A recent campaign involving 2010 Australian of the year Patrick McGorry highlighted the fact that suicide is the number one killer of Australians under the age of 45. The figure is roughly double the number of people killed on the roads each year, and yet is rarely talked about in public. In the two years since my friend's death to suicide, I have been disappointed by the lack of concern about such a serious nation-wide problem.

I have heard people joke about suicide or dismiss it as selfish, immature or attention seeking. It's none of those things. Depression is a debilitating physical illness that puts people at an increased risk of death and it is not something that they can easily "just snap out of". Medications for depression have their own problems, including some which - and I find this utterly incredulous - increase the risk of suicide. I believe that if my friend had been given better medical care during that final week, his death could have been prevented. 

While doctors cite time constraints, limited numbers of beds, and lack of support as reasons for mental health patients slipping through the cracks, I wonder if lack of understanding  plays a part as well. I am concerned about the number of people who, having taken the brave step of seeking medical help, are not taken seriously enough, or are turned away too soon. Once they are discharged, families and partners don't seem to be given the information or support that would help them identify signs of distress or situations of increased risk. 

Thanks to government funded awareness campaigns we all know that speeding and drink driving increase the risk of fatal road accidents. We draw comfort from the fact that scientists are busy developing cures for cancer, the AIDS epidemic and even the everyday flu. Yet, previous campaigns around mental health have done little to raise awareness about the causes and treatment of suicide. 

So I was glad to hear that this recent campaign resulted in some Government funding being directed towards mental health. I hope it includes not just an increase in beds and further research into appropriate treatments, but a comprehensive mental health education program that better equips health professionals and friends and family to prevent future deaths.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

But for the grace of God

I was at the dinner table the other night when somebody started on a rant about how irritating it is when homeless people ask for money. "Four dollars, he wanted. Who asks for four dollars these days? I mean, how dare he come along and hassle me like that. So I told him to get lost". There seemed to be nods of agreement around the table.

Just a few days earlier I had my own little brush with homelessness. Somebody, who had been sleeping on the street outside the building where I work, did a poo on the doorstep. A situation slightly more annoying that being hassled for money, one might argue. Yet, when I spoke to the man whose job it was to clean up the area, he wasn't angry at all. His comment was that we shouldn't judge for we could be in that situation "but for the grace of god". I looked up that phrase and it seems to mean that none of us is so virtuous that we might not have done the same, given the same circumstances.

With that sentiment in mind, I thought back to the issue of the hassling in the street. While I know that four dollars isn't going to solve the problem of homelessness in Sydney, it's also not a sum likely to make a dent in the pocket of anyone who can afford to take a relaxed weekend retreat with all meals included. I hope I never take for granted my charmed life, full to the brim with employment, shelter and friends. I hope I always remember that I just happen to be lucky... for now.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Samson and Delilah

I finally got around to watching Samson and Delilah a little while ago and I'm not sorry I did. The movie follows a young couple on their journey from a remote town to the city and back again as they face death, homelessness, addiction and disability. Having spent time in remote Australia, I felt that the film accurately captured everyday life in a sleepy town not far from Alice Springs.

I liked that the characters were true to life and that the film just explored the circumstances and decisions of two young people without judgement. If you're looking for dot paintings, traditional language and "going walkabout" they are there, but alongside the harsh reality of being ripped off by art dealers, dealing with health problems in a remote area, and the petrol sniffing and violence that comes from having absolutely nothing to do and no sense of hope for the future.

You would think that a movie about a town where nothing happens and not much is said would be boring to watch, but it's not. I was captivated. A lot is said without words, both in terms of communication between characters, and also in terms of social commentary. If you want a warts and all glimpse into one person's portrayal of the Aboriginal experience, I recommend you watch this film.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Southern loss

I've always had mixed feelings about Australia Day. I already feel ashamed that while non-Indigenous Australians celebrate our ability to conquer new horizons and set up camp in an unforgiving land, our Indigenous brothers and sisters mourn the loss of their land, language and traditions and celebrate their survival for more than 200 years in the face of great adversity.

This year there is another reason to feel ashamed. Ever since the Cronulla riots, displaying the Australian flag has come to represent white supremacy - a symbol of blatent racism tattooed on the arms of anglo-Australians who believe they have more right to be here that more recent immigrants or first Australians. I fear we have become too familiar with these expressions of violence. When I saw a car the other day with the Australian flag flying from its roof, my immediate reaction was "racist".

Sadly, I'm not the only one. Warwick Thornton, who made the film Samson and Delilah, was quoted on AdelaideNow as saying that "Aboriginal people have used the Southern Cross for the last 40,000 years as a beacon guiding them to travel through country for survival, and I'm starting to see that star system symbol being used as a very racist nationalistic emblem - and that is seriously worrying me.''

What to do? Some of my recent migrant friends are immensely proud to be new Australians and to call this beautiful country home. They know how lucky they are. Yet, many of us who grew up in this great southern land seem to take it all for granted. Is there no way for all Australians be proud of our country and flag without excluding others or inciting violence, anger or hatred?