Archive for May 2010

Sorry

May 28, 2010

It was Sorry Day on Wednesday – the day in Australia we remember the sorry business that was the forcible removal of Indigenous children over many generations. We had a festival here in Perth to mark the moment.

Despite its roots being in sadness, it was a wonderful day – beaut music, some storytelling and speeches by some Nyungar elders, a smoking ceremony, and lots of activities for school kids to join in on too. There was a fantastic turn out of schools, which was a real positive of the day – a young generation that is hearing lots of honest talk about some of Australia’s darker history, learning some Indigenous culture – both old and new, and sharing ideas about walking along together and healing hurts from the past. I was struck by the gentleness of many of the people who spoke, people who have felt much pain in the past, but who show an enormous capacity for forgiveness and wisdom.

I was reminded though, that for many Indigenous people in Australia, life continues to be a struggle for all sorts of reasons, and that the ongoing feeling of being shafted, of being treated second best, is still ever-present for many. There is still a long road ahead, and days like Wednesday can be an enormous force for good. These public occasions have their limits though. The everyday actions and words exchanged between us and our neighbours, and whether government policy can be genuinely fair, will determine how well we can walk along together as a society too.

A while ago, I visited a friend in Alice Springs who has a close up view of life in a number of Northern Territory communities, and what impacts the 2008 Federal Government ‘Intervention’ has had on the life of people it was designed to help – from where she sits and especially for many of the Indigenous ladies she knows and works with, it’s been negative.

Like a lot of knee-jerk, politically motivated major policy changes, it just alienated more people, peddled misinformation about the nature of many Indigenous people and did little to provide any help for the many deep rooted problems that these people face. There were lots of new blue signs though, on many of the roads leading in and out of town, detailing the perils of bringing in alcohol and pornography – pity most of the writing was so small you couldn’t read it from the car, and that many of the folks from the communities wouldn’t be able to read most of it anyway.

Long-term, patient projects that are based on listening and respect are sometimes hard to find, and don’t get talked about all that much anyway. A comforting thing is that there are many people, Indigenous and not, who do great work in communities to bring about positive change. If only they were given more support.

Still, Wednesday was one of those special days – a background of sadness, but an inkling of hope. Worth holding on to.

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Part-time work

May 24, 2010

 

watching the waves

 

Recently I found a poem that my then eight year old daughter had written to me for Father’s Day a couple of years ago. Most of it was heart warming and predictable – “he tickles me, I love him, he fixes things.” I remember though, it was the last line that caught my attention the most – “my Dad works part-time and I love him”.

I know people who regularly work at least 60 hours a week, often on Saturdays and Sundays and only ever see their children on occasional days off or for a quick sleepy cuddle at night if they’re lucky.

They are not alone. According to Australian researcher Hugh Mackay, more than one fifth of Australian workers work more than 50 hours a week, and about a third work regularly on the weekend. Australia is second highest on a list of industrialised countries who’s citizens work consistently long hours.

I remember another piece of research, from the Australia Institute a few years ago, which interviewed children about family life and parent’s work hours. They seemed to understand that parents need some paid work, but also expressed a longing for more time together, rather than to be compensated with having money spent on them. The wonderings of a young bloke called Eddie, aged 12, said it best:

 He misses out on seeing us. He wants to see us heaps and heaps and to make up for it … he buys stuff and he can see you feel sad”

 A cycle of pressure to earn and spend, to provide bigger houses, more up to date gadgets and fancier holidays could well play a role in the sad end result. As wealth and income increase across a society, the ability of people to derive satisfaction from their economic gain is reduced – a bit like the way a $100 is worth much more to someone who only owns $100, rather than to someone who’s income is much higher. Therefore, those seeking satisfaction from material wealth need to accumulate more in order to be satisfied – feeding a cycle of acquisition as well as dissatisfaction. In a society such as ours where material acquisition is a major goal and pastime, this rings particularly true, and makes the need to find ways to scale back consumption more urgent.

Just this week, the Australian Institute of Family Studies released a study about the time children spend with their parents. This included research about time fathers spend alone with their children, and it showed that Australian fathers spend on average less than hour a day with their children, and often as little as half an hour. Even on the weekend, the time alone with a father was still fairly low – on average about an hour and half.

There are complications of course, like family structures and changing work demands. However, it is also true that many children are spending less and less time with their fathers, and in many cases they’re unhappy about it.

Not everyone can work part-time. Not everyone can share parenting and household duties. Not all children can have a dad at home. However, there is wisdom in a little girl’s observation that something good is going on when a dad chooses time with them over other pressing demands, and keeps on doing it.

Everything has a biography

May 10, 2010

All commodities have a biography – the coffee and tea we drink, the fuel for our car, the clothes we wear, the toys that children play with, the packaging that is discarded.

The biography of all those things includes what they are made from, how they made and under what conditions, and how they are traded and marketed. What happened to the earth and the sea where the raw materials came from? Who made the things I bought and what is their life like? The end of life for all those commodities is a part of that biographical journey – will they be recycled, added to landfill, or discarded on the side of the road or in the bush.

We could be tempted to see our food and our clothes and the energy we use, as only existing where they are with us, but they have histories and futures and to deny those would be a lie. Environmental degradation, sweat-shop labour, and manipulative marketing are all part of the life story of a great deal of what gets bought and sold.

A news story I was reading yesterday reported on the latest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where still 800,000 litres of oil a day leaks into the ocean from an exploded rig. The report reflected upon the ongoing ramifications of another famous oil spill over 20 years ago. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker leaked over 50 million litres of oil into the ocean off the Alaskan coast. Twenty years on, the ongoing costs are enormous – tons of oil still under the ocean bed, herring and fish stocks that never recovered, local fishing villages gripped by alcoholism and domestic violence that rose along with the unemployment rate as the local fishing industry perished along with the sea birds.

The sins of heavy industry are not the only ones – there are lesser known, ongoing stories, in which we play a part too.

In Cote de I’voire, where a large proportion of the world’s cocoa beans are grown, poverty is endemic, with children, many of them from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, held in forced labour in places where there are no clinics, no schools and no electricity. They know little of the future of the cocoa beans they work long days to harvest. The issue of child trafficking and cocoa is complicated – ingrained poverty, cocoa trading by large transnational corporations, the varying advocacy efforts of fair-trading co-operatives. It is a complicated web of contingencies, often with no clear flows of cause and effect, but laced with plenty of injustice and misery. The chocolate we consume joyfully and readily has a biography too, and it is a shady one.

But must I spend my days wracked by guilt? After all, to function socially where I live, and to earn a living and contribute to society, I need some things – clothes, tools, books, transport. And I need to eat. Constantly researching and worrying about the origin of the things I buy is wearying, and seems almost pointless – a lonely drop in a large ocean. There are other drops but they are never enough to change the tide. Ignorance is easier.

Resignation is an option too. Human history, amongst other characteristics, is one of harshness and exploitation, of one group’s power over another, of earth and sea constantly changed. Perhaps this is life on our lonely planet.

This seems inadequate though. Dissatisfying, lazy, weak even. What if we just resigned ourselves to the fact that if a child gets sick, they might die. What if the East Timorese had resigned themselves to never being free. What if a girlfriend beaten up resigned herself to the fact that it will just keep happening. Resignation is what people do when they’re leaving somewhere, and even though we will all die at sometime, most of us are staying for the moment. If we never sought change, our humanity would be diminished.

I can’t change, know or understand everything. But ignorance and resignation would be too lazy a response.

* I first read about this concept of biographies in a 2005 Arena Magazine article called “After Affluence”, written by Kim Humphrey

Home and away

May 6, 2010

 

 

Last night I read a picture book by John Marsden and Matt Ottley – Home and Away. I suggest that you do too. Borrow one, find it at the library, or buy it and keep it. Read it to your kids if you think they can handle it.

It only takes about 15 minutes to read, but its story and images stayed with me much longer than that.