Thursday, July 30, 2015

Teams have opponents

"Teams have opponents. Communities have friends." That was the message on the billboard of the Ainslie Church of Christ this month.

Members of its community were trying to send a message to the Prime Minister. They are worried that his oft-repeated use of the phrase "Team Australia" pulls people apart rather than brings them together.

Tony Abbott used the phrase late last year when announcing plans to scoop up metadata as part of the war on terror. He used it again in May when talking about the importance of integrating asylum seekers into the rest of the country. "What we have always said since coming to office back in September of 2013 is that we expect people to be part of Team Australia," he said.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane​ is worried about the term, warning that manufactured integration can "do more to divide than unite".

But what does the term mean?

Keysar Trad, founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, says it's a reasonable way to describe the expectation that migrants join the national "team", especially when it comes to combating the threat of violent radicalism. "The Prime Minister has to use language that even the lowest common denominator can understand," he tells me. Trad reckons it's similar to the language used by Australia's controversial mufti Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly​ between 1988 to 2007. Trad would know. He was Hilaly's interpreter and spokesman. "Sheikh Hilaly, while critical of then prime minister John Howard, used to say: Australia; love it or leave it," he says.

Others were less charitable. "Team Australia is a foil to justify the actions of a government that has broken more promises than most in living memory," said one. "It makes my stomach turn," said another. "Australia is bigger than any one team. The national cricket team has 19 players. We're more diverse than that. The term's just silly."

The problem with the two-word slogan is that reality can never match it. National identity is fluid and dynamic. It is not fixed.

The groups that gathered under the banner Reclaim Australia a fortnight ago make the point. Media reports suggest they were something of a multicultural mix, united, ironically, in their opposition to multiculturalism.

The booing of Adam Goodes makes the point in another way. Was he being taunted because he doesn't fit into so-called Team Australia, or because he is a "real Australian"?

Abbott has never really been asked to explain what he means by Team Australia. Instead journalists have adopted the term themselves. During a press conference this year about foreign investment a reporter asked: "To use the phrase Team Australia, how do you make sure foreign investors continue to play for Team Australia?" It's become a phrase used without understanding.

How better to wrap yourself in the flag? If we don't understand what Abbott means when uses the term, how can we be against it? Much like Howard before him, he literally surrounds himself with flags and takes every opportunity to be seen with men and women in uniform. It's both innocuous and assertive. Certainly stiff.

At times it's like a code for intolerance. While staying away from the Reclaim rallies himself, Abbott didn't stop one of his own MPs from attending. They rallies have fed the view that Australia was under attack and in need of fortifying.

Have you stepped into a souvenir store recently? There's not much complexity. Aboriginals are invariably desert dwellers. Surfers are male and the babes on the beach are fair and well endowed. There's nothing about domestic violence. Nothing on poverty in pockets of our cities and no images of open cut coal mines. Senior women are invisible. There's no one in Islamic dress. Difference is subordinated to a bigger story, the story of what is called "national culture".

It's Team Australia. It shrinks the bigger, complex and exhilarating Australia. It paints us in one dimension. Noise about national identity is turned up as a kind of coercion.

Prime ministers have a responsibility to present complexity. If they don't, who will? The media? There are important stories to be told about who we are and who we are becoming, and the man at the top isn't helping.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 30, 2015

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Hunter Valley shows folly of putting mines in farming country

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt's decision to approve a giant 35-square-kilometre open cut coal mine on rich agricultural land near Gunnedah, north-eastern NSW, has sent shivers up the spines of those who know what's coming.

The Hunter, where I used to live and work, has learned lessons the hard way.

"You cannot have a mine operating on a ridge that has, for centuries, been making a contribution to groundwater," says one Hunter Valley local. "If this starts, it'll be one of many. Most mining applications are extended. Miners apply for more country to wreck."

Jack [not his real name] has seen huge impacts in the Upper Hunter, especially Muswellbrook which has enjoyed a boom and then a bust. The valley has been scarred forever.

Jack is a successful agribusiness person. He used to run cattle. He represents a constituency that is disillusioned by both sides of politics and keen to see a fresh run of independents. "Barnaby Joyce could have done a lot more, a lot sooner. The National Party appears just as compromised as the Liberal Party, in the pay packet of international companies."

He's also angry with former state Labor Minister Ian Macdonald (found to have acted corruptly by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over Doyles Creek mining licences) for granting an exploration licence to Shenhua​ for $300 million – in all likelihood knowing just how rare and magnificent the rich soil and irrigation of the plains around Gunnedah are.

"Someone's got this federal government by the short and curlies to keep the mining industry going," Jack continues. This week's nobbling of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation has added to his suspicions. "The Prime Minister denigrates wind turbines as eyesores. He's effectively saying that any farmer who put up a windmill on his farm 50 or 150 years ago is a clown. But a farmer's stock would have starved to death through shortage of water. There would not have been the rural development that we've had, were it not for wind power."

Jack also shares the skepticism of broad-acre Liverpool Plains farmers and others over Minister Hunt's approval of the mine, with "eighteen of the strictest conditions in Australian history which fully incorporate all advice".

"The conditions are not worth the paper they are written on," he tells me. "By the time these impacts are found out or acknowledged, it's too late and the damage is irreversible."

Now, Jack is no hippy from inner Sydney Newtown or Canberra's Ainslie. In an earlier life he worked in the mines. He says underground mines are modest compared with any open cut, but especially the one proposed for the Liverpool Plains.

"I had to work 45 pumps to keep the water out of one. The water varies considerably. Sometimes the water was so acidic, the life-expectancy of a piece of galvanised pipe was 48 hours. If miners had a wound they had to very careful.

"There'll be another mine just a few kilometres away where the water is so good miners could shower in it. The water will vary greatly, and it varies one layer above the other. You can have bad water at one layer and below that there can be water full of salt. Once you fracture the area, it all returns to the lowest common denominator. This is the stuff ministers are reluctant to talk about."

Liverpool Plains farmers are weighing up their legal options to stop what they call agricultural genocide. Time may not be on their side, as the Chinese owners are itching to get going. Civil disobedience is likely. "I would not take the risk of a mine in a food growing area," says one Valley resident. "We can farm for thousands of years, but you'll only mine once, and the impacts will last forever."

Despite the rhetoric, mining and agriculture can't co-exist well – that's the experience of the Hunter Valley. "Those in the mining industry, and those with family in the industry, seem to have been brain-washed into thinking they can. They don't want to hear arguments about impacts," says a Scone-based business person.

All along the Hunter Valley, grape and vegetable growers have packed up because of coal dust, which can can travel 30km. "The lesson is, just don't take the risk. Mining has affected the valley's underground water systems, but there is an even greater risk further north because it feeds into the artesian water basin.

Those who feel strongly about the approved mine are not anti-mining. They want wisdom from their leaders – less self-interest and more of a long-term view. They appreciate the bi-products of mining, from farm gates to the plastics we all use. But they question why coal is being favoured over agriculture. They know it will create some jobs in construction and related industry, but also create social and economic impacts, as well as worsen the global climate. The risk to national food security is so great, they are preparing the barricades.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 16, 2015

Friday, July 3, 2015

Commodification of education a slippery slope

The daft and radical idea of charging high-income parents for public schooling included in a secret draft of a federation green paper was canvassed by one ABC reporter as an attack on the culture of entitlement. But it might be the opposite.

Many members of my extended family are teachers, among them my husband's mother. Margaret taught maths at an Adelaide girls school. She used to pile up gifts of perfume and soap in her bedroom wardrobe. While education is a right, to her students it was also a gift. Margaret received something other than soap in return: the opportunity to teach emerging adults. The respect and appreciation was mutual.

Entitlement creates neither gratitude nor engagement. This is a key finding of Dr Kerry Howells, a teacher educator at the University of Tasmania. She found that the more students were aware of the money they or their parents paid for education – be it school fees or higher education contributions – the less grateful they felt. The less grateful they felt, the less present and engaged they became. Complaint set in and clouded students' ability to be present in their learning.

Howell found that teachers have been feeling less appreciated over time, as education has become more commodified. They were "seen as someone employed by the parents, rather than someone who was giving something precious". They described being seen as someone who delivered a product, "caught in the grip of an exchange paradigm" rather than a person giving of themselves.

One of the most famous studies in behavioural economics finds that late fees, imposed to encourage parents to pick up their children from childcare centres, have the opposite effect. Before fines were introduced in the childcare centres studied, children were picked up late around eight times per week per centre. Afterwards, late pickups jumped to 20 per week. Parents felt entitled rather than engaged.

Fees turn students into clients. Instead of considering how they should live, students who know they are paying fees are more likely to look for instructions on how to make a living.

As soon as the recommendation in the Tony Abbott's draft green paper came to light he shot it down. Owning it would have been political suicide. But at some level his government must have been thinking about it.

If he was serious about better using public funds he would stop using them to boost private schools and concentrate on public ones.

In any event it isn't right to describe public schooling as free. We pay for it through taxes. Some parents choose to pay more by going private, and others who can afford to give more do so through the public system, voluntary. And they contribute in other ways other than financial. Parents give their time, volunteering in the canteen, at fundraisers, as in-class helpers and so on.

Many families in my part of Canberra choose to work part-time in order to help in their local school and to be available for in those precious pre- and post- school hours. They understand that they are part of a social project, involving parents, teachers, and children. They understand that it takes a village to raise a child.

Students whose parents take part in their schooling in partnership with teachers record better outcomes. They have better attitudes, are more likely to take on more challenging tasks and are more likely do well at them.

Their parents are also more likely to defend and lobby for public schools. If compulsory fees sent high-income parents away to private schools, public schools would have even fewer defenders. Public schools would concentrate on serving poor people with little lobbying power. Private schools would concentrate on the rich, who would lobby for the schools to become richer still. Communities would further fragment.

And perhaps become less soulful. To paraphrase the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, education is more than discipline and ticking off competencies. It is the business of creating people who can participate in inclusive society regardless of their means; citizens who are much more than individual cogs in an economic system.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 3, 2015