Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Budget boo hoo

Last night Joe Hockey announced the budget. You all know what happened. There were cuts to health, education, overseas aid, and welfare, and except in some cases it really seemed to be the most vulnerable who are being robbed to subsidise the rich. The winners were big business, medical research, the military, road infrastructure and subsidies for fossil fuels. There was no mention of renewable energy, climate change or innovative transport solutions like high speed rail. The offshore detention of refugees on Manus Island alone will cost $8.3 billion while there will be $7.9 billion cuts to overseas aid. I felt very sad.

Then another thing happened. This morning I went for a walk along the Cooks River. I feel better when I am near water. On the way I passed an elderly man. We nodded and smiled. On the way back, there he was again. I nodded again, and this time he wanted to connect. He called out to me after I had passed him by and asked me my name, and I'm ashamed to say that I paused, looked at him, then kept walking. I had panicked, and decided not to engage.

After a few paces I started to feel really bad. What if his wife had recently died and he just wanted to connect with another human being? Maybe he had something really important to tell me. Would it have cost me so much to stop on my day off and talk to somebody that I didn't already know? What was I really afraid of? That he would rape me in broad daylight? Or that he might ask me a favour? I started to weep with shame as I walked.

So, what's the connection between my non-interaction with this stranger on the path by the river and the budget from hell? I think the link is that we've lost touch with our common humanity. One friend was saying that anthropologically we can only accommodate a certain number of people into our immediate circle. And sometimes I think we are more able to empathise with those who are in our immediate circles.

I wonder how many of the socio-economic groups that will lose out in this budget Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have had meaningful interactions with? How many of their close friends are ex-soldiers who struggle daily with the psychological and emotional scars of fighting wars on our country's behalf and can't hold down a job of any kind? How many grew up in housing commission arrangements? How many have struggled throughout life due to disability or mental health issues? How many fled war and persecution, torture and rape and then lived in poverty stricken conditions in refugee camps before ending up on our shores? How many currently live in countries that have been aid partners for the past few decades, with limited opportunities for basic health services, free education or employment opportunities? I can honestly say that I count all these groups amongst my friends, and maybe that makes it easier for me to understand their circumstances and why we need a budget that is just as well as sustainable.

But it's not just me and my bleeding heart friends who think it's important to be compassionate as well as fiscally responsible. The United Nations has set out standards for countries to follow when it comes to refugees, Indigenous Peoples, development aid and action on climate change. Australia already falls embarrassingly short on all four accounts, yet the rhetoric that is believed by many Australians is that our finances are in a mess, there is no urgency on climate change, we already take too many refugees, Aboriginal people have been given too much already, and that our own backyard is more important than those of our neighbours. Yet, if the SBS program "Go back where you came from" tells us anything, it is that even the most poorly educated, hard-hearted, red-neck is capable of changing their mind when they come face to face with another human being who tells their story.

So, what do I think we should do? I think we should organise and we should start to engage. While the Government might not be changing its mind any time soon, I think we can educate those who voted for them, introduce them to the facts and the real people who might open their minds and give them a broader perspective. We can provide examples of other countries that have great high speed rail, renewable energy programs, and recognise their international human rights obligations while still managing a stable economy. We can encourage the other political parties to get their act together and provide real policy alternatives at the next election. We can encourage one another to speak up about what it is we don't like, so that we can move towards a country that we're all proud of.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Lost and found

This is the story of my long lost brother.

The tale of how he came about really begins with two teenagers in the summer of 1963, but as far as I was concerned it all started with a 7 year old girl twenty years later and her unwavering wish for an older sibling.

You see, I had been wishing for siblings since I was about 3. When I was 5, I got two younger ones, and since that worked out so well, I decided it would be nice to have an older one too; somebody to stand up for me, to advise me, and be in solidarity with me during those difficult teenage years.

When I was 12 my wish was granted. An older brother had materialised and wanted to meet us. When dad told me the news, that he'd had a son when he was 19, and this person had been in touch, I burst into tears. Partly sadness that I hadn't known about him before,  partly happiness that I had an older brother after all, and partly a knowledge, as far as my young mind could comprehend, that this new information was big and complicated and was going to change how I saw the past and the future.

Andrew on a visit to Sydney,  circa 1992

My new brother was 24 years old - positively ancient as far as I was concerned, and already had a mum and dad who had raised him and a sister. He also had a new biological mother to get to know. Plus he lived in Melbourne. None of these factors were conducive to the instant solidarity and closeness that I had been expecting. But I retained an open mind.

I can't remember much of what we talked about that first meeting. We probably shared family photos, he must have mentioned his work as a librarian, and I think dad made plans for him to meet the grandparents. I suspect us kids were asked to give a short violin recital. I do remember him telling me that he used to really annoy his sister when they were teenagers, and I filed that away as evidence that maybe I had gotten the best of both worlds after all. Everyone thought he looked more like Uncle David than any of us, although he did share dad's strong dislike of capsicum, which gave a certain validity to dad's claims that it was a genuine health condition.

Overall, dad was just stoked that his son hadn't turned up as some tattooed bloke on a motorbike. That seemed to be his main fear, so it must have been comforting to see that Andrew is undecorated and prefers 4-wheeled transport. The other fear was that Andrew and I would meet, fall in love, then discover we were related and end up on "The Oprah Winfrey Show". That was thankfully no longer a concern either. We also learned that he is incredibly considerate, sociable, thoughtful, tells a great story and has an exceptional memory for people and places. None of us could have asked for a more delightful long lost relative.

And so began the getting to know you process. He sent us birthday cards, and if he was in Sydney or any of us were in Melbourne, we would meet up. He gradually became part of our lives, not wanting to intrude too soon, and for many years was something between a cousin and a good friend. Since we never lived together as siblings, I still think of myself a little bit as an eldest child. And besides, his sister in Melbourne has the only legitimate sibling claim over him because of all the teasing she put up with during adolescence. We have to respect that, but I did feel extremely proud introducing my new brother to friends and relatives at my 21st. He and Richard had flown up 'specially, which meant a lot to me.

In my twenties during a visit to Melbourne I asked Andrew and Richard about the secret of their relationship success. It was a tentative request for brotherly advice. They celebrated 20 years together just last year, and are one of the happiest couples I know. "Oh, I think it helps that we're boring" Richard offered, after a longish pause. "Yes" agreed Andrew. "I like looking at open houses and Richard likes seeing planes take off. We do those things together". I have yet to find a direct application of this advice to my own life, but was very glad to receive it.

Six years ago, Andrew and Richard moved to Sydney and bought a house just a short walk over the creek from mum and dad's place. While they were house hunting, Andrew stayed with my parents, and he and Mum bonded over beautiful sunsets, chats over a morning cuppa and a love of books. Since then there have been plenty of opportunities to connect more. At family get togethers Andrew and I enjoy entertaining others by carrying on a conversation in pidgin English or giggling and gossiping about the antics of each other's friends and family. When we reminisce about the early years, Andrew will remind me that when we met I was 12 whereas the twins were only 6, and I feel like one of "the older ones". We have the solidarity thing that I always wanted. It's turned out very nicely.

Well and truly part of the family, 2013

So, here we are 25 years later. Am I glad he wanted to find us? Only on a daily basis! Would I have liked to know about him earlier? Kinda! Just like Tom Cruise's character in "Rain Man", I sometimes feel it just would have been nice to know that I had a brother. But over time the lost years diminish in proportion to the found years and it matters less. Instead of regretting what we missed, or how things could have been, I am just so glad he is in my life now. And it is a reminder that even the most unlikely of wishes can come true!

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Do you hear the people sing?

I spent a lovely weekend at the National Folk Festival over Easter this year. It's become a bit of a habit for me. I catch up with friends who perform, those who sit with me and enjoy the music, and those who are kind enough to have me to stay. I also get to see some of my favourite performers live. This year a highlight was seeing Archie Roach in concert.

Archie Roach in concert
One folk festival veteran, who is also a life long activist, was complaining to me that the new generation of folk singers (as in my own generation) don't touch on political issues in the same way that their parents did. They have veered away from the radical themes that their parents would bravely sing about in the '60s and '70s like the Vietnam war or Apartheid, she says, and only sing about mundane, safe things like going for a walk or odd socks.

I started to wonder about the official definition of folk music. After a perusal of wikipaedia, it seems the exact meaning is not altogether clear. Some say folk music is anything sung in the oral tradition, like folk tales. Some said it was the music of the uncultured class, which is probably still accurate if you think of the high number of folk festival goers in animal onesies, pyjamas or blunstone boots teamed with tie dyed rainbow skirts! But one widely accepted definition appealed to me: "folk music is what the people sing".
"Charlotte Raven" creating beautiful personalised poems
I guess this final definition comes closest to explaining what folk music is for me. Some of my favourite performers use music (or poetry or art) to express their passionate feelings about subjects that affect us as people; love, loss, war, injustice, and racism. Many of these themes are the songs of angry women and men; of activists. After all, wasn't jazz born of the struggle of African American people for their civil rights? Didn't the Irish sing about oppression by the English and doesn't Archie Roach sing about the racist policies inflicted on his people by us newcomer Australians?

While Archie Roach could never be accused of not being political, he is of an older generation. Thankfully, there is evidence that our generation is not completely apolitical. The Riff Raff Radical Marching Band is pretty politically radical and made up of at least three people that I know, and who are around my age. Many of my friends who perform sing of their anger about local, national and international issues; the wastefulness of a 50 metre pool in a town of 350 people, the destruction of the Jabiluka Uranium mine, shame at living in a racist colony, and reconciling feminism with the bible. But they also sing of love, friendship, loss and laughter.
Riff Raff Radical Marching Band
So, while I agree that some of the folk music of today might seem trivial and less radical than that of earlier generations, I think our radical, political themes are there if you look. We should encourage those folk singers of our generation not to be afraid to explore the political and social themes that make us angry these days. But I hope they don't stop singing those delightful ditties about everyday matters like wondering about the things one's guitar has seen, choosing to wear yesterday's clothes again or drinking too much gin. They are as much about the people that we are today as is our anger about modern manifestations of slavery, injustice and war.