Commentary

30 March 2020: Walls

I live in a compound in the Johannesburg district of Fourways, a favourite location for expats, the white middle class and the growing black and coloured middle class. Our compound is surrounded by a 2.5-metre wall topped with a ring of metal spikes and electric fencing. Our townhouse abuts the north wall. East of our house, and still in the compound, is a children’s playground and a tennis court; before the current lockdown, most weekdays I heard small children laughing and shouting in the playground, supervised by parents and nannies. I like that about where I live: it’s a community, with all age groups.DSC07154

When I call it a compound, I’m sometimes corrected by locals. ‘It’s a complex, not a compound,’ someone will say. Or, ‘It’s a gated community.’

I get that. ‘Compound’ sounds like a kind of prison, except in this case it’s built to keep people out, not keep people in. Having said that, there are times when it feels like we are being kept in, especially early in the morning when I look out north and east and see glimpses of what appears a less restrained city draped across the Gauteng landscape.[i]

But whether you call them compounds, complexes or gated communities, they are small villages separated from the rest of Johannesburg by walls and wires and gates and guards. These compounds have, as Lynsey Chutel wrote in Quartz Africa, ‘created pockets of development – ranging from middle class suburbia to opulence – walled off from South Africa’s socio-economic reality.’

Compounds are not as old as apartheid, and nor is it true to say they are the spatial descendants of apartheid geography[ii], but as Chutel points out there is a direct link in the mentality behind the construction of compounds and their popularity as places to live in cities such as Johannesburg: ‘The prevalence of gated communities may also reveal what South Africans think constitutes middle class life. As it did under apartheid, it often means avoiding the poor unless they are servants, nannies or gardeners.’

As more and more black and coloured South Africans join the country’s middle class, compounds like the one I live in can be seen as the expression of economic rather than racial division, where the better off are made to feel more secure by being separated from the poor, the unemployed and the underemployed. The fact that a large number of well-off South Africans are white can blur the distinction[iii], but compounds are ultimately the concrete expression of an economic divide, and an expression of what I think is the single biggest stumbling block to a more united, more progressive and ultimately wealthier society: the unwillingness to tear down the walls. I don’t see this simply a physical problem, but more importantly, a deeply psychological one.

When I lived in Phuket, one of the things that struck me about Thai society was how the rich and poor lived cheek by jowl. A drive along Thepkrasatree Road would have us passing a palatial estate sandwiched between a two-bedroom concrete box and a refugee camp filled with tin shacks, all of them spouting television aerials and satellite dishes. It wasn’t that the family living in the palatial estate liked living next to a refugee camp, or for that matter that the refugees in the camp liked being constantly reminded of how little they owned, but that there were no 2.5 metre walls and electric fences reinforcing the division. The rich, the aspiring middle class and the desperately poor tolerated each other.

Thai society isn’t without its problems, including crime and violence, but the different classes seem more willing to share common ground, and more than willing to accept the poor becoming middle class and the middle class becoming rich. In Phuket, unlike Johannesburg, divisions aren’t fanned by a history of oppression on one side and fearful insecurity on the other.

Compounds are most common in Gauteng Province, especially its two main cities: Johannesburg and Pretoria. Divisions certainly exist in cities like Cape Town, but I didn’t see many examples of whole communities being fenced off from the world outside.DSC07729

What strikes me most about South Africa and its people is its sheer potential. South Africans I have met are hardworking, smart, confident and optimistic at heart. The country has natural resources aplenty and for its size a large but not excessive population for Africa (around 60 million people in a state somewhat larger than New South Wales). The people genuinely value democracy, freedom, education, initiative and creativity. It seems to me that all the important elements of a successful society are in place; the fact that it is not yet a successful society speaks to its recent history and the scars it’s left behind.

I have to stress that these are impressions on my part, and I’m an interloper. I come from a wealthy, predominantly white middle-class background from a land far, far away. I am a member of the most privileged class of human beings that has ever lived. I have no right to give advice to anyone who lives here, to all those who have struggled through decades of repression and fear, let alone to the new generations that came after the end of apartheid – the ‘Born Frees’. I also know how hard it is to talk about a society as rich and complex as South Africa’s without making generalisations, some of which are unfair to all those who struggle every day against any division, racial or economic.

But I cannot help feeling that greater progress in South Africa cannot be made until there is genuine social and economic freedom for everyone, and I cannot help feeling that will not occur until the walls come down.

[i] The thing you notice most of all about Johannesburg is all the trees. For a city that has grown in South Africa’s Highveld, dry rolling plains that resemble the dry rolling plains around Canberra and Yass, there’s an awful lot of perpendicular vegetation. It’s sometimes claimed that Johannesburg is home to the world’s largest artificially created forest, and I can believe it. A lot of the trees are introduced – eucalypts, lillipillies, jacarandas – but the city still manages to look very African, as if at any moment the traffic weaving along the streets inside the forest could be replaced by herds of wildebeest.

[ii] Where ‘apartheid willfully set out to beggar the Black community for the benefit of the White.’ https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/johannesburg-segregated-city

[iii] https://mg.co.za/article/2016-08-04-00-figures-suggest-sa-has-the-highest-concentration-of-wealth-in-the-hands-of-a-few/, and see https://businesstech.co.za/news/wealth/133164/south-africas-skewed-income-distribution-when-measured-by-race/

17 October 2017: Walking statues, colonialism and free speech

I am a white male living in a society largely designed by white males for the benefit of white males. As such, I am a member of history’s most privileged group, a group that numbers no more than a few hundred million in a world inhabited by over seven billion human beings.

What got me here, together with every other member of that group, was a toxic mixture of imperialism and colonialism. Not toxic for me, I hasten to point out, but toxic for billions of other human beings.

It’s not necessary to point out how many first peoples suffered because of European expansion from the 15th through to the 20th centuries. Nor should we defend that expansion by referring to the benefits brought by the introduction of ‘Western’ inventions such as double-entry bookkeeping and modern farming methods, as if they were handed out by the Conquistadors and Australia’s first settlers at the same time as the distribution of smallpox and musket balls.Imperialism

Imperialism and colonialism also transformed slavery into a global business. The fact that Europeans didn’t invent slavery shouldn’t stop us acknowledging that developments such as double-entry bookkeeping helped Europeans perfect it, in the same way the musket ball helped perfect total war.

In a very roundabout way that brings me to the topic of walking statues. Specifically, Rapa Nui’s moai – the monumental statues of Easter Island.

Rapa Nui has been used as the example par excellence of ‘ecocide’, what happens to a society that selfishly exploits its own environment beyond recovery and thereby destroys itself. I swallowed without questioning this explanation for the island’s depopulation and deforestation, promoted in books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.

But it may not be true.

University of Bristol researcher Catrine Jarman explains in her article in The Conversation, that many decades of archaeological research on Rapa Nui ‘paints a very different picture’.

As Jarman writes:

‘The ecocide hypothesis centres on two major claims. First, that the island’s population was reduced from several tens of thousands in its heyday, to a diminutive 1,500-3,000 when Europeans first arrived in the early 18th century.

‘Second, that the palm trees that once covered the island were callously cut down by the Rapa Nui population to move statues. With no trees to anchor the soil, fertile land eroded away resulting in poor crop yields, while a lack of wood meant islanders couldn’t build canoes to access fish or move statues. This led to internecine warfare and, ultimately, cannibalism.’

Essentially, there is no convincing evidence that Rapa Nui’s population declined before first European contact in 1722. Furthermore, recent evidence suggests that the island’s population successfully sustained itself for centuries despite deforestation occurring soon after the island’s initial settlement by humans, deforestation caused by the accidental introduction of the Polynesian rat which ate palm nuts and saplings.

So what did happen to the people of Rapa Nui?

Again, in Jarman’s own words:

‘Throughout the 19th century, South American slave raids took away as much as half of the native population. By 1877, the Rapanui numbered just 111. Introduced disease, destruction of property and enforced migration by European traders further decimated the natives and lead to increased conflict among those remaining.’

The disaster that befell the people of Rapa Nui came about because of the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, itself a result of European imperialism and colonialism. Effectively, the victims of that depopulation subsequently were found guilty of the crime.

If the forests weren’t cut down to move the moai, how did the islanders transport the statues from where they were made to where they were eventually sited?

Moai

Rapa Nui moai

It turns out they probably moved them in the same way you or I would move a heavy washing machine or refrigerator … they walked them. Admittedly, this involved a great deal more human muscle power and coordination than two people clumsily angling white goods through a narrow corridor. Recent experiments show that this was perfectly possible.

(For a full explanation of how this was done, and the true story of how Rapa Nui became depopulated, check out The Statues that Walked, by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo.)

I can’t argue that imperialism and colonialism had no benefits. It benefitted me, for example. Without them I wouldn’t be here now, a middle-aged male living in middle-class splendour in Australia, a collection of ex-colonies. Nor can I argue against the proposal that the modern world is a direct result of those movements. Nor can I argue against the proposal that industrialisation and modernisation, two direct products of those movements, hasn’t improved the lot of billions of human beings over the last two centuries.

What I can’t argue, however, is what Portland State University’s Bruce Gilley suggests in an article recently published in Third World Quarterly. An associate professor of political science, Gilley proposes that ex-colonies that develop their Western colonial legacy do better that those that reject that legacy. One of the examples he uses is the modern nation of Singapore.

I suspect Gilley is wrong, especially in the case of Singapore where its success is almost entirely due to the self-created ‘Singapore model’, a mixture of democracy, authoritarianism and meritocracy that has delivered remarkable growth and one of the world’s highest standards of living. But I strongly believe Gilley has every right to express his academic opinion in an academic journal.

Singapore

Singapore skyline

As reported by Andy Ngo in Quillette, both Gilley and the journal’s editor-in-chief Shahid Qadir received threats of violence after the appearance of the article on 8 September, and the publishers of Third World Quarterly have withdrawn it. I recommend reading Ngo’s piece to get the full story.

I do not think hate speech or speech inciting violence should ever be published, whether it is an article written for a journal, an opinion piece in a newspaper, or an enraged Tweet by an American president. But I do not think it is right to censure someone’s research because you disagree with its conclusion. In fact, that kind of thinking encourages hate speech and incites violence. Worse, ultimately, it shuts off debate, dialogue and intellectual curiosity.

The problem for those who think that the evils of colonialism are so great that any defence of it is anathema and should be closed down is simply this: it allows history to be written by those who shout the loudest. It establishes a precedent, a precedent that may one day lead to the censorship of articles that explain why colonialism was wrong, and how the moai of Rapa Nui came to walk.

(NB Jared Diamond has responded to some of the claims made in Hunt and Lipo’s book, The Statues that Walked. You can check that out here. Thanks to friend, physicist and fellow-writer Rob Porteous for the heads-up.)

17 May 2016: ScoMo’s slowmo

Budget

Comme Sisyphe by Honore Daumier (Brooklyn Museum)

Treasurer Scott Morrison’s mantra on budget night was “Jobs and growth”.

Much of the political narrative surrounding the 2016 Budget was about creating jobs, creating pathways to jobs, filling jobs, training people for jobs. It was about jobs for the future, jobs for Australia.

It was about getting Australians back to work.

But what about getting Australia itself to work?

What about getting Australia working as one nation, one people, united by fairness and equity rather than divided by injustice and poverty?

Listening to the speeches of many of our country’s politicians, and the commentary that follows in the media, I can’t avoid the feeling they’re talking about an imaginary Australia, an Australia that exists only in an ideologically-created fantasy.

It’s an alluring fantasy, too, for many conservative Australians. It involves a world where the better angels of our nature materialise in the board rooms of the largest companies, and where paternalism – here called the “trickle-down effect” or “supply-side economics” or, more damningly, “voodoo economics” – is genuinely concerned not with self-aggrandizement but the betterment of all humanity.

But this is a world constructed from the thin and rapidly unravelling fibres of neoconservative economics, a febrile dream of a world with resources that would never run out feeding a market that would never stop growing.

This is a dream that Australia is only now slowly rousing from. We are opening our eyes and seeing what we have wrought: a broken connection between what makes a society wealthy and what makes a society liveable.

Families, particularly women and children, are increasingly worse off and dramatically vulnerable to domestic violence. Affordable housing is in short supply. For many, a world-class education is now unaffordable and world-class health care increasingly unobtainable. The majority of Australians now look forward to a retirement hindered by the threat of poverty and shortfalls in aged care. Unemployment in many parts of the country is entrenched and multi-generational.

That any of this is happening in Australia, for the size of its population one of the wealthiest countries in all history, is unbelievable.

No. Sorry. It is believable because it is happening. It is a tragedy, and a tragedy that at present has no prospect of catharsis because it does not seem the political will exists to turn things around, to realise that Australia is made of 24 million human beings rather than the companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Let me say that I’m not against business. I’m not against the accumulation of wealth and capital. I’m not against free enterprise.

What I am against is inequality and injustice. What I am against is a free enterprise system untrammelled by regulation that is both efficient and enforced, and without a system to redistribute equitably a portion of wealth so that the whole of society benefits.

Free enterprise cannot properly operate in a society that itself is not free but imprisoned by poverty and division.

The good news is that there is a solution.

First, we need to look over our shoulder.

We need to look back to the past and see how previous generations of Australians made huge sacrifices so that those who followed did not suffer from hunger, from despair or from fear, but instead inherited a nation with great promise, great ambition and great hope.

We are no longer making those sacrifices for those who come after us. We have forgotten what it is like to struggle for the generations to come instead of just for ourselves.

Second, we need to look out to the far horizon and not down at our feet. As a nation we are failing to future-proof because we have forgotten there is a future. We cannot afford political decisions made today simply to be about today, or the next news cycle, or even the next election. Every time the government chooses the short-term over the long-term, the future is diminished.

Third, investing in Australians instead of in huge companies whose management and majority shareholding live far from these shores, will make a dramatic difference, bringing benefits not just to society but to the national economy.

Fourth, politicians must not only comprehend that social justice and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand, but understand why the link exists. An IMF report from 2015 on the causes and consequences of income inequality  will provide some of that understanding. In part, the report reveals there is an inverse relationship between income accruing to the richest and economic growth. A rise of 1% point in the income share of the top 20% leads to lower GDP growth. A similar increase in the bottom 20% is associated with a higher GDP growth. A similar increase in disposable income for the middle class also leads to higher GDP growth.

As Per Capita’s Stephen Koukoulas pointed out in The Guardian, “ … the government could have aimed to reduce inequality in the economy by skewing the income tax cuts linked to low-income earners [where the] marginal propensity to spend is higher … The cost to the budget of skewing tax cuts to lower-income earners could have had the same impact on [the] bottom line but with the benefit of faster GDP growth and jobs than what is currently projected.”

In other words, Scott Morrison’s budget is a slow motion crawl to growth and jobs. The problem is, the longer we delay taking action, the more the country’s options are whittled away. The longer we delay taking action, the greater the cost and the repercussions we let fall on the shoulders of our children and their children after that. By not acting now, we are implicitly shrugging off our responsibilities as good citizens.

By not acting now, we are failing to make Australia work for all Australians.

14 September 2015: Taking ‘the strangers case’

Thomas More

Sir Thomas More. Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1527.

Tragically, when it comes to human behaviour there is little new under the sun. Despite all the evidence that immigration and the settling of refugees is good for a country’s soul, not to mention its economy, many people give in to bigotry and fear and make victims of those who are already desperate and vulnerable.

In 1517, young male apprentices rioted against foreigners living in London. Ultimately, large numbers of the rioters were arrested, and though most were pardoned a handful were executed.

The riot started on the evening of 30 April and carried over to the early hours of the next day. The event has since been known as Evil May Day or Ill May Day.

One of those who attempted to forestall any violence was Thomas More, who confronted the rioters and urged them to return to their homes.

Two playwrights, Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, celebrated this act of courage in their play Sir Thomas More, written sometime in the early 1590s.

The play was revised by several writers, and it is now generally accepted that one of those was William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare rewrote Moore’s speech to the rioters when he implores them to take ‘the strangers case’, to imagine what it must be like to be a refugee facing at best a lack of compassion and at worst outright hostility.

“What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.”

In 2015 there are many people – and some countries – who do indeed take on ‘the strangers case’, and open their hearts and homes to those fleeing terror and persecution.

But not all of us, and almost none of us all of  the time.

[The extract is taken from the text put up at Project Gutenberg.]

17 June 15: Bribery and corruption

Embed from Getty Images

The campaign to ‘Stop the Boats’ by successive governments has stopped the boats reaching Australia, but at the cost of human dignity, national integrity and political accountability.

It is no longer possible to maintain the charade that the program is beneficial either for this country or for the refugees.

Recent accusations that officers working as part of Operation Sovereign Borders bribed people smugglers to return their vessels with their human cargo to Indonesian waters, demonstrates how political opportunism corrupts and distorts governments.

Considering the tide of human refugees faced by nations in Southeast Asia and Europe, Australia’s refugee problem is almost insignificant, and our response has been repressive, inhumane and ultimately self-destructive, leading to Indonesia’s vice-president to accuse the Abbot government of bribery and questioning Australia’s ethics.

Australia, together with the US and the UK, has a policy of not giving in to terrorist demands because we know it only encourages further acts of terrorism. Why would people smugglers, paid to return refugees to Indonesia, not continue to bring them in the hope of more money?

My wife, a teacher with over 25 years of experience, is struck by the way Operation Sovereign Borders punishes the victims of conflict and poverty who turn to people smugglers, and draws a comparison to the way the victims of bullying were once treated in Australian schools.

In times past, the victims were often blamed for being victims, and sometimes were ‘moved on’ to other schools whilst the bullies remained in control and often in favour. Schools are changing. Schools are expected to do all in their power to provide support for the victims of bullying, to assist students at risk to be resilient, and to combat the behaviour of the bullies. Instead we see our government blaming the asylum seekers, ‘moving them on’ to other countries, and paying the people smugglers. If the charges of bribery prove to be true it is akin to paying a bully to keep bullying.

Furthermore, we should not be deceived for one moment that ‘Stop the Boats’ was anything but an act of supreme political opportunism by both political parties resulting in children being incarcerated behind barbed wire because their parents committed the sin of fleeing repression and poverty.

Australia is, for the size of its population, one of the wealthiest nations in history. We can, and should, do better.

06 February 2015: Price-signals

Medicare[This is the second of two articles I wrote during my stint with the South Coast Register, and put up here with kind permission of the editor.]

In light of recent problems suffered by Tony Abbott and the federal Liberal Party (not to mention the state Liberal Parties in Queensland and Victoria), it’s ironic that senior cabinet ministers are arguing the chief problem is a failure to properly explain their policies. They need a better ‘narrative’ to get the message across.

In other words, Australians are stupid for not getting the message the first time around.

The truth is that Australians understood the message very well indeed, and have on the whole rejected it. Taxing and punishing the poor while the rich get off virtually scot-free is not considered fair or workable.

No one denies that measures need to be taken to control government spending.  But as NSW state member for the South Coast Shelley Hancock said, “The Federal Government has to make tough decisions, but these tough decisions are impacting on the poor.”

While Australians ponder possible changes to Medicare that will penalise them for being sick – what the Government calls a ‘price-signal’ – extraordinarily wealthy mining companies such as Swiss-owned Xstrata reap billions in fuel rebates for the privilege of taking our non-renewable resources such as iron ore. To make matters worse, some of these companies produce their own petroleum products. It’s like the Government giving someone money to buy carrots they already grow in their garden.

Xstrata might argue that since their trucks and diggers and earth movers don’t run on publicly funded roads and highways, the rebate on the fuel excise is only fair. But if that argument is solid, people without children should also deserve a rebate for that portion of their income taxed for schools and universities, and people who don’t suffer illness should be able to renege on the Medicare levy.

This is not the only example of our Government’s largesse towards those who need it least.

The Abbott government won power in part because it promised to abolish the carbon tax. While not the most popular Julia Gillard initiative, it at least had the virtue of punishing polluters for polluting – what the current Government might refer to as a ‘price-signal’. Abbott’s scheme to counter climate change, Direct Action, forces Australians to pay polluters for reducing their carbon emissions: in effect, a new tax. This from a government that swore it would not introduce taxes that “are yet another hit on the cost of living of struggling Australian families”.

There are changes the government could make right now that could save them billions in spending – including cutting the diesel rebate to miners, most of them businesses with a majority of overseas’ shareholders, and using cheaper drugs in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Just these two actions could save the budget $3.3 billion a year.

It does seem that the present government’s budget plans involve transferring what little wealth we have to those who have wealth aplenty. In effect, we’re being punished for the privilege of not being rich.

04 February 2015: Who is responsible?

overseas workers

Overseas workers leave Manildra’s Bomaderry site with, from left, CFMEU state secretary Brian Parker and reps Dave Curtain and Dave Kelly. Photo courtesy South Coast Register.

[This is one of two articles I wrote towards the end of my three-week stint as a casual journalist with the South Coast Register in January. The editor decided not to use either of them and has kindly given me permission to put them up on my blog. This story was written on Monday 26 January, and although there have been minor developments since then, they do not in my opinion answer any of the questions I raise. An official government investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman is still underway.]

The most contentious question about the discovery of 29 seriously underpaid overseas workers on the Manildra-owned site in Bomaderry and who lived in appalling conditions in south Nowra, is this: who is responsible?

The best candidate is Chia Tung, a Taiwanese-owned company.

According to Alan Sinclair, who represents Chia Tung in Australia, the Taiwanese company was responsible for employing the workers, their contracts, and the conditions under which they lived.

“Instructions and directions come from Chia Tung,” Mr Sinclair told the Register.

While Mr Sinclair’s claims may be true, he cannot so easily brush away his own responsibility as the company’s local representative. Why wasn’t he on top of the situation? Why wasn’t he aware – at the very least – of their living conditions in what effectively was a dosshouse?

We wish we could ask him, but last we heard he is only speaking through his lawyer.

And guilty at the least of being delinquent in the supervision of its own site is Manildra. Despite the fact that 29 workers were building a pellet feed mill for that company, their initial response – given to us by a local politician who had been in touch with Manildra executives – is that the responsibility belongs with the company contracted out to supply and install the structure.

Despite repeated attempts by the Register to ask Manildra questions about the issue, their only official comment is that they are taking the matter seriously and “are making enquiries of Chia Tung as to the allegations.”

Allegations? The workers’ contracts and living conditions have been sighted by the Register. After five days, surely any information forthcoming from Chia Tung would have been collected, analysed and absorbed, and a full response released to the media?

The Register has also attempted to contact the ministers responsible for the departments of Employment and Immigration and Border Protection: Eric Abetz and Peter Dutton, respectively.

On Friday 16 January, only five days before the Register broke the story, Eric Abetz said, “Contrary to some media reports, workers on 457 visas are not a low cost option to avoid the costs of employing Australian residents.”

Well, contrary to his ministerial opinion, workers on 457 visas are being used as a low cost option to avoid the costs of employing Australian workers. Despite repeated requests from the Register for a comment in light of recent developments, we were informed that one would be coming from the office of Senator Michaelia Cash, the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection.

While no comment has yet been received from the office of Senator Cash, we have discovered a media release from her office dated January 9 concerning a “substantial fine recently imposed against a Launceston takeaway.”

The takeaway was fined a total of $100,000 for underpaying its Chinese chef by $86,000 over four years. Given the business the chef must have generated over those four years, not to mention the savings in not paying $86,000 in wages, the government’s “substantial fine” barely registers as a slap on the wrist, and hardly a discouragement for other businesses contemplating doing the same.

The official reply to our enquiries from the Department of Immigration is that the department is investigating the matter and “appropriate action” would be taken if a sponsor was discovered to have failed its obligations. Appropriate action could vary from imposing “administrative sanctions” to “applying to the federal court for a civil penalty order”.

South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris said the issue illustrated the gap in the compliance and policing of Australia’s industrial and workplace laws.

“The federal government is so obsessed with restricting the activities of trade union members that they are missing the main game – that this gap creates the environment where the alleged conditions for the 29 overseas workers can exist,” he said.

“What happened at the Manildra site tells us some employers can get away with almost anything, and they believe the federal government will do their dirty work by tying the hands of trade unions which otherwise would be in a better position to uncover these sorts of abuses.”

The reply the Register received from the Department of Immigration also stated that the matter had been referred to the Fair Work Ombudsman. When asked for a comment, spokesperson for the FWO replied that indeed the matter was under investigation, but because it was operational it was not appropriate to comment further.

Fair enough.

But is it fair enough that three senior government politicians, Eric Abetz, Peter Dutton and Michaelia Cash, cannot after five days issue a single pertinent comment? If they are not responsible for their respective portfolios, who are? And can the Register please have their telephone numbers?

02 December 2014: Go west, young man!

Embed from Getty Images

This is about latitude and longitude and the different way humans think about geography.

In making Wanderers, Erik Wernquist used the voice of Carl Sagan from an audio recording of his book Pale Blue Dot. At one point in the voice-over Sagan says Herman Melville “spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians”.

The phrase stuck in my head as an example of wonderful writing. I could live to be a hundred and never come up with words that so aptly and concisely express a single thought. And then I realised that even if I was as smart and knowledgeable as Sagan, and could turn a phrase as adroitly, I would still never use the world “meridian”.

Australians – I suspect – tend to think of their country from north to south. We all know there is a Western Australia and an east coast, but when most of us think of the Australian continent what we conceptualise is a tropical north, an arid centre and a temperate south. Australia lays south of the equator, and most of our cultural cousins lay north of it. Europeans did not occupy one coast and work their way across to the other side. They first occupied the margins of the continent, circling the landmass like a halo, and then sent expeditions into the centre.

Compare this with the way Europeans and North Americans seem to think of their respective geographies. There’s the Russian Bear in the east, the Middle East, the Far East, the Western Hemisphere. There’s Western Europe and Eastern Europe. There’s Western Civilisation. There’s the orient and the occident. To the best of my knowledge, no Englishman referred to France as the Near South and no Italian thought of Scotland as the Far North. The greatest navigational difficulty for early trans-Atlantic explorers was determining meridians of longitude, not parallels of latitude.

In the US, New York editor Horace Greeley exhorted young Americans to “Go west!”. Of course, if you live in America there is the South and the Bible Belt (with its hint of latitude), but American mythology expresses the urge to go west, to explore and settle new lands, to link the US not from Grand Forks to Corpus Christi but from New York to Los Angeles. Lewis and Clark didn’t make their way along the continental divide, they crossed it, east to west, and the great example of 19th century American industry and technology was the transcontinental railroad finished in 1869.

I’m not sure this says anything about our respective psychologies, but I think it says something about our history and geography.