Mothering, Creativity, Chaos

Inspired by Nancy Jane Moore’s piece last Friday, I downloaded The Baby on the Fire Escape.* I’m working my way through it–it is wonderfully written, dense and thoughtful, with much to digest. As Nancy says, it’s about mothers as creators, about the ways that women have found to do creative work, sometimes in the interstices of motherhood, sometimes by turning their backs on motherhood, sometimes working with support, sometimes going it alone.

When my older daughter was about two, my husband held the fort and I went to see the Kenneth Brannagh Frankenstein. Which was meticulously true to the source material, and which infuriated me, because I find the source material infuriating.  For all its pondering on the nature of creation, Frankenstein is about a parent who creates life, then freaks out, drops the “baby” and heads for the hills. Which he can do because, well, he’s a man. Continue reading “Mothering, Creativity, Chaos”

In Times of War: Gifts

This week’s offering is short due to the conjunction of my 75th birthday and the spring holidays. The war and its personal repercussions are never far from our thoughts. My family celebrates Passover, and the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine came up many times in our conversation. We all saw Putin as a would-be latter-day Pharoah, certainly a tyrant. There’s a part in the ritual where we call out the names of the plagues visited upon Egypt when Pharoah refused to let Moses and the Israelites free. Our Haggadah includes calling out the names of contemporary plagues. We all looked at one another and said, “Putin!”

And yet, the holiday reminds us to have compassion, even for our enemies. There’s a part in our version where angels start singing when the Egyptian soldiers are drowned in the Red Sea. HaShem admonishes them by saying, “The work of my hands is dying and you want to sing hymns?”

I’m not suggesting anyone should pray for Putin. I very much suspect that if he were to keel over from a massive heart attack tomorrow, there would be dancing in the streets in more than one nation. As much as we hold him responsible and abhor his actions, what do we want from him? Certainly, to stop waging war on Ukraine. To pay reparations to make ameliorate the grievous wrongs he is solely or primarily responsible for?

If we say we want Putin to be punished and to suffer for what he has done, the question remains, in what way? How is it possible to quantify the amount of human suffering—not to mention financial loss, environmental degradation, the ruin of cities? How can there be amends for such heinous crimes?

As a corollary: If we focus all our righteous outrage and even hatred on one man, what are we then ignoring? Even if Putin were to be tried in an international court of law and found guilty, even if he were to be deposed or assassinated by his own people, that cannot bring back the slaughtered Ukrainians or restore their once-beautiful cities. For all our focus on the unfolding military conflict and economic sanctions, consider what it does to us to turn away from what we can do, if only in small measure, for those in desperate need of help.

I love home generous Americans and our allies can be when we see the need. This is why I asked friends and family to donate to Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières) instead of birthday gifts. While the $1500 is a small drop in the bucket of need, I know it is part of the effort to save lives and alleviate suffering. I chose this charity because it’s one of my long-standing causes and I believe in the work they do.

I have also found that taking action, no matter how small, helps me to feel less powerless in the face of seemingly overwhelming evil in the world. We’re in a position to make small donations of money. I don’t think that’s necessary. Small actions of lovingkindness can be even more powerful.

 

If this post is meaningful to you, please link to it. And check out my previous posts.

Raised in a Barn: Bats

Originally published in 2011

Last week I went east for my father’s memorial party, and got to see what had become of the house I grew up in.  Which is not a house, but a barn.  The new owners have done simply fabulous things, but I remember it when it looked like, well, a barn.  Growing up in a barn gives you anecdotes, so I’m going to occasionally share one here.

Case in point: we had bats. Many of the rooms (including mine) did not have actual walls for some years–just two-by-four studding. And when your ceilings are 45 feet high and not insulated, bats think this is a cozy place to hang, and they do. Even by the time we gained interior walls (once we’d moved up to Massachusetts full time, when I was 13) we still had indoor livestock, because it is almost impossible to seal off a barn the way you do a standard house. So: bats, and their discontent.

My father, at this point, spent three or four days a week in New York, working, while the rest of us lived in Massachusetts.  My mother, always anxious by nature, was generally poised for country-related disasters to occur when Dad was out of town. One afternoon, just as my brother and Mom and I were about to leave to go into town, Mom spied a bat fluttering around near the ceiling. There was a good 30 feet between the bat and the rest of us, but someone had told Mom that any bat that flies during the day is rabid, and she went into full alert mode. Full alert mode, in this case, meant a determination to kill the bat. Which was 30 feet above our heads. Mom thought fast and improvisationally: we had several cans of wasp spray with a 20-foot range, meant to coat the outside of wasp nests from a safe distance.  Mom had my brother and me spray this toxic gunk in the bat’s direction, and it must have had some effect, because eventually the bat fluttered woozily down from the safety of the ceiling into the kitchen (which was a huge room, open to the hallway) to land, panting, on one of the kitchen windows.

A note about the windows in the barn: they were all custom-made dual pane windows with custom screens, relics of a time when my parents were flush.

The bat, tiny little sides heaving, clung to the screen. My mother, still determined to kill the bat before it killed us, instructed my brother to get the CO2 pistol we kept for target shooting outside. Now, my brother and I had been instructed, on pain of extreme paternal wrath, never ever EVER to shoot the CO2 gun inside. Period. We pointed this out to my mother, but she was unmoved. “Get the CO2 gun,” she insisted. “I’ll handle your father.” (At this point I should have realized we were in trouble.)

My brother got the gun, got about three feet from the bat, and put a BB pellet through the bat, the two panes of glass, the screen, and–I think–nicked some bark from a tree outside. At which point two things happened:

  • The bat expired.
  • My mother freaked out.

Mom had not actually understood the mechanics of a CO2 gun. “I didn’t know it shot pellets! I thought you were going to gas the bat to death!”

Honest to God.

Mom was pretty much useless. She sat at the kitchen table shaking her head. I sent my brother to get a butterfly net and use it to carry the bat outside for disposal (in the unlikely event that it was, in fact, rabid). And I got to call my father. Dad was of the old school, telephone call-wise: he disliked talking on the phone, particularly at mid-day long-distance rates.  Still, the story wasn’t going to get any better for waiting, so I called his office in New York and explained what had happened.

Dad laughed for three minutes at mid-day long-distance rates. My mother had a drink. The bat was disposed of.  Everything went back, more or less, to normal. But it did take seven years for my parents to replace the window; every winter when there was a draft I thought of the bat…

Memories and Ruth M Arthur

Yesterday my new book was launched in the UK. There won’t be any launches elsewhere I suspect, because our lives are still vastly influenced by this interesting world we live in, but Story Matrices is out and I will talk about it whenever I have the chance. Except right now. I could spend an hour writing about my new book, but tonight I feel a little haunted, so I want to talk about the book that helped me find words for such things when I was still in primary school.

Ruth M Arthur was one of my favourite authors when I was under ten. I managed to find several of her books when libraries replaced old books with new ones in the 1990s. This means I have on my desk, reminding me of my childhood, the same edition I borrowed from the Hawthorn City Library time after time. The book is A Candle in Her Room, which was my return-to-over-and-over of Arthur’s mainly because it creeped me out, every time I read it. The illustrator was Margery Gill, and her pictures are definitely part of my memories. From the moment I could read, I read the illustrations along with the story and they were part of a whole. They still are, and I still have favourite artists. If they illustrate the internal pages of a book, then I will try to find a copy of that book for my bookshelf. When one of those artists, Kathleen Jennings, illustrated one of my own books I melted into a puddle of sparkling joy.

A Candle in Her Room is a children’s book, from the days before there were Young Adult books. I’m not sure it would be published today. It’s too dark for a children’s book these days. This is a loss for any child who sees that life has dark places and needs words to identify those feelings. A Candle in Her Room and a story about a ghost that lured children away with the promise of happiness (I don’t remember the author, which is probably a good thing – and I’ve never been able to find the book it was in – all I remember is that it was a Penguin paperback from the sixties, with a blue cover) helped me more than I can say when I discovered that the Shoah was not that far removed from me. Two of the characters join the Polish Resistance. This was the link between the book and the Shoah survivors I knew as a child. I never articulated that link, but the book was there for me, nonetheless. I want to say that it taught me that there was a way out of darkness, but it did no such thing. It let me know that other people experienced that feeling I had when I saw the picture from the day a death camp was liberated. When I knew, age 6, that not everyone survives and that the adults who knew all the answers were the ones I could not ask about the picture. When folks talk about children asking the damnedest questions they ignore the fact that some need fiction to fill the emotional holes for the questions that the child cannot ask.

A Candle in Her Room didn’t help at all with my next door neighbour, Doris. I played with her until she was eight. I was the only other child in the street that she was happy to play with. One day she had tonsillitis and went to hospital for it and never came back. I still miss her. It also didn’t help with Charles, who lived across the road and went to school with me, died in a car accident in Tasmania. Nor when… I will become a very different kind of puddle if I remember these friends.

The simple fact is that stories helped me find words to start handling the death of strangers who might be relatives and whose bodies I saw in a big pile in a picture when I was six. This was only step one in learning words and stories that helped me with the other losses and let me eventually reach the stage where I could find my own words and tell my own stories.

I tell people that I’m a sarcastic Pollyanna and the amount of loss in the first twenty years of my very ordinary suburban existence is what triggered the sarcasm. Ruth M. Arthur’s was important to me, then, and probably always will be.

I never want to own a doll called ‘Dido’. Reading Joan Aiken’s books at the same time meant that the name ‘Dido’ was totally fine. When my Pre-Classical Antiquity lecturer tried to explain what he termed a rare name when we learned about Carthage, I went to my local library and borrowed all the books that had anyone or anything called ‘Dido’ – I didn’t tell him I had disproved his ‘rare name’ theory, but I thought it, forcibly. His few thoughtless words couldn’t obliterate my childhood while I had access to books.

A Candle in Her Room now provokes nightmares, even without me reading it. This is odd, because it’s not really horrific. It’s spiced with darkness. For me it carries all that baggage and is more than the sum of its parts.

I wanted to know if anyone knew of it. It’s not, after all, a new novel. I looked it up just now online and it’s still being read and still provoking emotions. I’ve known this book since it was first released in Australia. The edition I read and now own was the London one, from 1968, which tells you a lot about my early reading habits. And I’m devolving into dullness because I just realise that I’m writing this at bedtime. I need to find something to refresh my mind, otherwise I will have nightmares about malevolent dolls. I know this for a fact, because I have nightmares about Dido whenever I think about A Candle in Her Room late at night.

The books we read as children are important. And I shall defeat those nightmares by finding another book with that musty scent and this book shall be one that brings me good dreams.

The End (I Hope) of an Era

More than two years ago (around the Ides of March) and exactly like everyone else in the US, I was at home sheltering-in-place, dealing with both sudden too-much-time and the anxiety of a rapidly-spreading pandemic. My own way of dealing was to start sewing.

Remember those far-off days when getting N95 masks was a near impossibility, hand sanitizer and toilet paper were impossible to find, and it felt a little like the beginning of a long, uncertain siege? When things are uncertain or scary, I need to do something, and I settled on sewing masks. At the time I was hearing from medical professionals about the lack of PPE–not just masks, but scrub hats and scrub bags (for putting your scrubs in to take to and from work). I asked what was the best pattern… and was besieged with information. And yards of fabric (some of it was autoclaveable Halyard 600 medical fabric sent by a physician friend, but a lot of it was just delightful cotton prints). I started a Facebook group for people who wanted to sew masks etc. (“Coronavirus Hand-Sewist* Mask Makers”), and it took on its own life: patterns for masks, advice, commiseration, and of course, memes about sewing. Continue reading “The End (I Hope) of an Era”

How to vote, Australian-style

A tweet is going round to encourage people to enrol to vote. It suggests that if they don’t, they are fated to be gently mocked by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). This tweet suggests that maybe, just maybe, Australia might be a bit different to other countries. We’re only talking about a small portion of potential voters not enrolled, after all. 97% (and maybe a fraction more) of people who were eligible to vote were enrolled before the election was called. This is a higher % than usual, but not crazy high.

The thing is… Australians vote. It’s compulsory to vote, but, if we really wanted, we could return blank ballots. Nothing’s stopping us. We take an exceptional level of responsibility for government in this way, and the big question is, every election, whether the object of our vote has lived up to expectations. Accountability is that much higher when it’s not 30% of those who can vote, nor 60%, but nearly 100%.

What is at stake this election is whether we live up to our own responsibility and judge fairly. Last election enough people fell for promises (that didn’t eventuate) and trusted that nothing critical was being hidden (alleged rape by a politican turned out to be the thing that was hidden) that we voted in Scott Morrison. On May 21, nearly 100% of Australian voters will be deciding if this is worth doing again or if it’s time to vote differently. The LNP have, historically, been in power more often than any other party, which makes it their election to lose this year.

Given we almost all vote, a lot of the issues that apply in other countries are simply irrelevant. It means I can get straight to the nitty gritty of what we are voting for, how we vote, and how those votes are counted.

Australia is a federal government. The national elections rest, therefore on our regions. We fill in two ballots on election day. Let me walk you through them both.

Lower House: House of Representatives

The Members of Parliament (MPs) are chosen by a really straightforward ballot system. Australia is divided into electorates and those electorates are determined by the Australian Electoral Commission according to population (and to avoid gerrymandering). Candidates nominate for an electorate and try to persuade voters to put them high on the ballot.

The actual ballots contain all the names of the candidates, and we (the voters) have to number each and every box. We don’t chose our favourite person and walk away. We put all the candidates in our preferred order. Parties give out ‘How to Vote’ papers, that help their followers choose an order the party like.

I like to say that how the votes are counted is simple, but that’s because I’ve known it all my life. If a candidate gets over half the vote, then it really is simple: they’re elected. If no candidate gets over half the vote, then the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped from the list and the 2nd choices of those voters are added to the numbers of votes for the remaining candidates. The dropping of someone and reallocation of their votes continues until someone wins. In this system, first preferences are only reliable in some electorates. Quite a few MPs win their position from the distributed preferences of voters who had other first choices. What I love about this system is that more of our votes count, especially in an election like this one where many voters are reconsidering their traditional choices.

Some voters are not as enthusiastic as I am. They do a donkey vote or a reverse donkey vote. A donkey vote is when you start from the top with #1 and simply number down. Because donkey votes can change a very narrow result, the AEC has techniques in designing the ballot that will reduce this effect. (Donkey votes don’t work as well for Senate ballots.)

The leader of the party that wins the most votes in this House becomes Prime Minister (PM). They lead the country.

The Queen is technically the Head of Government and an appointed Governor-General acts on her behalf in the everyday technical things that must be done by the Head of Government, but the Prime Ministership is where the real power lies. The Governor-General can sack the PM, but that doesn’t happen often. Let me give you a video of an important moment in our history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXq056TJhU4&t=2s The moment where Whitlam declared his view of his sacking is now part of our deep cultural selves, and his statement beginning ‘Well may we say “May God save the Queen”…’ is one of the great one-liners in our history. You can buy mugs emblazoned with it, at the Museum of Australia.

Senate

The Senate is our upper house (like the US or Canadian Senate, in that way, and historically, a modified version of them) but its chief role is accountability. It’s very strong on research, on checking budget and on investigating propose legislation and how the practice of government is carried out.

Entirely irrelevantly, when I was a public servant I was never allowed to attend any of the Senate Estimate Committee sessions. Technically I was senior enough, but at that time there was a senator who went above and beyond the call of…something. She investigated private lives of key public servants and when they turned up to answer questions about the portfolio, asked them about their failed marriages. Way more senior people presented that material at that time, and answered those questions – the reasoning was that Sen. Bishop had already done her worst to them. This led to way less effective Senate Estimates than earlier or later, and to different career trajectories for public servants and less interchange between Parliament House and the public service. I watched from my safe desk and decided that ethics were practical as well as being good for all the philosophical reasons.

That’s enough detour!

How are Senators elected? Every State elects twelve senators, and the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory (the ACT is mostly Canberra, the capital) each elect two. Other parts of Australia (we have so many islands!) vote with the appropriate State or Territory. Norfolk Island (which is where the descendants of the Bounty mutineers ended up) votes as part of the ACT, for example.

This is not proportional. Tasmania, with a population of around 540,000 elects twelve Senators and the ACT and its adjunct places, with around 430,000 people elect two Senatorss.

The Senate ballot is fun to fill in but painful to explain. I’m going to send you to the AEC, because they have pretty diagrams: https://aec.gov.au/Voting/How_to_Vote/Voting_Senate.htm

I always fill in below the line. I also fill in every single box even though I don’t have to. I begin at the bottom and put the people I never want to see in a position of responsibility right down the bottom and I work up from there. When I talk about deciding who will get my #1 and #2 for the Senate, it’s misleading, because I investigate all the candidates.

The votes are counted in a way that is just a tad confusing to anyone new to it. The AEC uses a formula to determine a Senate quota (Number of formal ballot papers / (Number of senators to be elected + 1)) rounded down + 1 = Senate quota)

If a candidate gets a quota or more of first preferences, then they are elected. The votes that are over the quota are theoretically transferred ie they will be counted again, towards another candidate. Except that this isn’t fair. It’s impossible to tell which votes to count for first and which to transfer. So everything is transferred… but a reduced rate ie each vote is worth a bit less, but all votes are counted for the #2 choice. Unsuccessful candidates are excluded, exhausted votes are dropped (an exhausted vote is when a ballot has run out of marked choices – they can’t be transferred down the line if there is no candidate to transfer them to). This system continues until the correct number of Senators is elected. If you want to fully understand this system (which I love, but which I admit is complex) then the best place to look is the AEC website: https://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/counting/senate_count.htm

Because we have compulsory voting, voter education is terribly, terribly important in Australia and an important part of the AEC’s role. The above-the-line and below-the-line options for voters for the Senate gives me the perfect excuse to show you how the AEC educates voters: https://aec.gov.au/Voting/How_to_Vote/Voting_Senate.htm

House of Representatives votes are usually counted by midnight on the night of the election. Not always. A complex result can take a few days longer, because some electorates need extra checking and recounting. The Senate always takes longer to count.

Now you know about counting. How about the elections themselves. Here’s a newspaper summary of things, so you can skip reading my undeniably strange prose if you want (this is a long post!): https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/politics/australian-politics/federal-election-2022/2022/04/10/election-called-what-net/

For those of you still with me, the House of Representatives has 3 year terms and the Senate 6 years for State Senators and 3 for Territory. Half the Senate is elected every three years. When there’s a Double Dissolution things are different. Here’s a short paper on Double Dissolutions: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/House_of_Representatives/Powers_practice_and_procedure/00_-_Infosheets/Infosheet_18_-_Double_dissolution The important thing right now is that 21 May 2022 is a normal election – there was no Double Dissolution. This means that the States are only voting for six Senators each. At a normal election, we vote for both Houses: the whole of the lower House and just over half the Upper. That’s what happens on 21 May.

Our elections are always on Saturdays (religious Jews have to do early votes) and are declared no fewer than 33 days before the election itself. There is no year-long campaign trail. It’s generally about six weeks.

21 May is the last possible day in this current electoral cycle: our Prime Minister was cutting it very fine. And he had until this coming Thursday to call it and called it on Sunday, so it’s not the shortest formal campaign, but it comes close.

We are now in caretaker mode, and the government can’t do anything new. The big thing this year is that the Prime Minister made a whole heap of appointments before he called the election. This isn’t typical of Australia (though it happens, it normally doesn’t happen on such a scale) – but Morrison is very influenced by the USA.

We have live vote counting from the moment the polls shut (6 pm) on the night of the election.

It’s a great spectator sport. We used to have tally rooms in Canberra and anyone local could just turn up and run into nervous politicians and stand around behind the ‘rooms’ the TV broadcasts used and read the autocues along with the presenters, then turn around and watch the numbers being manually put up on the big boards. That system no longer operates and I miss it, but you can still watch the whole thing on various free-to-air TV stations. On some stations it’s updates only, but on several the broadcast is from 6 pm until midnight or until the formal speeches are over, whichever comes first. Even on a landslide year, things aren’t over until at least 9 pm, because of the time differences between our east and west coast.

Not all Australians take the elections seriously, but enough do that any count dominates TV viewing on that Saturday night. Antony Green is the expert on the national broadcaster, and representatives of the major parties are called in to give commentary. In the right year and watching the right TV station, it’s possible to see the moment the commentators realise that they have lost their own seat.

Let me leave you with one last page from the AEC. This is the information they gave reporters for the last election. It covers some of the areas I didn’t talk about here. Why didn’t I talk about it here? This post is already 2,000 words long and it’s 2 am here and I am going to sleep!  https://www.aec.gov.au/media/files/aec-federal-election-reporting-guide-digital.pdf

Why the Aussie elections are so important this year: an introduction for the unwary

It’s one of those Mondays. I say this with much care and I’m drinking much coffee. Normally I would give you a book post on a Monday, but Australia’s much-awaited (by us, anyhow) election was called yesterday. This is not just any election. It’s our last opportunity to move away from rabid and corrupt politics. It matters. I asked if that meant I should post about it and Nancy Jane Moore said, “Yes, please.”

I’m doing two posts. The first one is on my Monday and the second is will be posted when Monday finally hits the US. One is about our parties, and the other will talk you through our electoral system. All the cool stuff is in this post, and I introduce the parties. I’m not hiding my opinions – you can see where my vote is likely to go if you read carefully.

First, you need to know that, in Australian popular opinion, our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, belongs in the same crowd as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. When Trump was US President, the two acted as if they were best friends. Morrison is a fundamentalist Christian of the prosperity theology variety and, until a few weeks ago, was publicly a close friend of Brian Houston, the Hillsong leader who is currently on trial.

Until a few years ago, Australia was on various lists as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Right now we’re not even considered close to achieving such an honour. In the last ten years, international influence and local decisions by the ruling party and their allies have pushed us away from our cultural standard.

How did this happen?

Just one example will explain it. In the last three years we’ve not had a week without a disaster of enormous magnitude. The Federal government put money aside to help and didn’t spend the vast bulk of it. In fact, a few weeks ago, the newspapers told us that the government had earned $800,000 on interest on unspent disaster relief. State governments have taken the brunt of getting people through disasters such as bushfires, floods, and the pandemic. Because they were promised Federal help and only a tiny fraction of the promised help came, we still have people who are living in caravans because they received none of the promised help when the 2019-20 bushfires ripped through territory the size of Syria. Some of these people have been evacuated (or even died) when the floods hit their town this year.

This is unheard of for Australia. We used to be outstanding at getting people through natural disasters with ridiculously low death tolls. We now don’t even have proper Federal policies to handle the natural disasters, and the government keeps cutting back support of the scientists who predict them and all the various bodies who normally find ways of dealing.

That’s just a small part of a complex picture. Australia is moving from being a laid-back country that really tries to do its bit, to a somewhat corrupt oligarchy. We still have our base culture, but I don’t think we can handle three more years of this culture being intentionally ground underfoot.

May 21, as you can see, is an important election. It will decide who we are and whether we care about people, about the land… about anything other than a small group of individuals making much money. The current deputy leader, theoretically representing rural Australians, has said quite clearly that money is more important than anything else. Farmers are one of his chief voting blocs, and he makes it clear he doesn’t care.

How we got this way has an interesting and sad history. It follows the same path as the changes in the US Republicans, and some of the same factors are at play. I don’t want to talk about that here. Instead, let me introduce you to who is standing for election. Our parties are not what they look like to non-Australians: their names are, to be honest, not that intuitive.

 

LNP – Liberal National Party, or the Coalition. This is the party currently in power. They are most definitely right wing.

‘Liberal’ in Australia has always referred to the small government (or smaller government) party, but these days it is the party that supports the coal and gas industries and is, to be fair, well-supported by those industries in return. In the sixties and seventies they supported cheap or free education. The free education was brought into play by the Labor party, and is the reason no-one my age ever suffered from university debts. The Liberals kept it when the Labor party was voted out. It was a Liberal leader (Malcolm Fraser) who was in charge when I was an undergraduate, and made sure that I paid no tuition fees. I paid student union fees (less than $100 a year) and for books, and anyone without income got Austudy , which was not quite enough to live on, but Austudy and a part-time job got most students through university with no debt at all. These days students emerge from undergraduate degrees between $20,000 and $100,000 in debt (or even higher) – it’s a choice between education and owning a house, even for most people who come from comfortable backgrounds.

These days the Liberals are, as I said earlier, quite right wing for the most part, despite the name. Even for a right wing party, they are light on addressing climate change, which is why Australia is labelled as bad on climate change – if you poll people’s opinions, dealing with it is important to us. It is not, however, important to our current leaders.

How does the LNP act in Parliament? One of my favourite clips (my least favourite clips make me want to weep): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7UCSpZB5Bo

 

Labor – currently the Opposition. Labor started off from the union movement. Unions are still much bigger in Australia than in the US, and considerably more powerful, though less than they used to be. It was, originally, definitely left wing but has drifted towards the right in recent years. Let me be clear, though – right wing in Australia is not the same as the US right.

The spelling of the name is due to one of their early leaders, King O’Malley. He was very important in the days when Australia became independent and he founded a party and… he was American. This is why the name of the party uses US spelling. Canberra (our national capital, where I live) reacts to this naming in its own way. O’Malley was a teetotaller, so a pub was named after him. I have met friends at King O’Malley’s many times and each and every time someone makes a joke about the spelling of Labor.

The party is now centre left (mostly) and centre right (increasingly often). It’s not a left wing party. If someone from the US were describing it, however, they might call it ‘left wing’, because of the same factors that made the old-fashioned Liberals strong on education and social welfare. Education, health, social welfare, and owning a home are four dreams that a large number of Australians agree on. Almost all of us also agree on doing far more to prevent climate change than we currently attempt. State Labor parties have a (mostly) good record on this.

Federally, Labor haven’t been in power since September 2013, so their record on all issues at the federal level is tangled with the strange politics and voting patterns of Opposition. Labor has a history, in Parliament, of not shouting loudly against things they can’t change ie by voting agreement where nothing can be done, and saving the arguments for places they can make a change. They may be not-good on climate change, then, or they may just be biding their time.

Labor has the electoral advantage of everyone’s favourite politician (OK, maybe not everyone, but a surprising number of us). Penny Wong is wildly popular. She refuses to move to the House of Representatives and become leader and every few months people say, “But why???” She’s probably right on not trying for leadership. Most leaders have come from NSW, Victoria or Western Australia and she’s from South Australia. What’s more, the bigoted parts of Australia hate her as much as the rest of Australia loves her: she’s Malaysian Chinese Australian and gay. She is targeted by many, many bigots and the way she handles these people is one of the reasons she is so popular.

She is also popular because of how she handles difficult issues. We watch her for her facial expressions as much as her words and her attitude. When she looks at someone in Senate Estimates and waits a moment before saying something, a clip will be sent around social media, to illustrate a moment where someone not doing their job was forced to explain. Her ethics matter to us. Clips of Wong are always circulated when Senate Estimates (one of our methods for ensuring government accountability) is at work. Let me show you. First, something very everyday (and actually Senate Estimates, where Wong is seeking answers from a minister for things done): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ein2OPaX4GI It’s not the most colourful of the clips, but it shows the everyday work she does and why she’s liked. It also helps that she does things like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5pxE4RXpjc

 

Greens – the next largest party (mostly). Until recently they were a bit gentler than the Greens in other countries, but these days they are fixed in their policies and have very strong views. They still get a lot of the left wing vote, but some of us would really like it if they listened and were a bit more adaptable.

Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer and other leaders of small right wing parties. We have them in abundance. They get up to 15% of the vote in some states and some elections. They’re a story in and of themselves. They’re important politically, but can also be problematic. The old White Australia is best represented in these parties.

 

Independents: not new at all, but a particular type of independent candidate, based on grass roots decisions in a given electorate, is gaining a bigger voice than previously. These candidates are the main reason this election is impossible to call. Their colour is teal and many of them get backing from groups such as Climate 200 – addressing  climate change is one of the few policies they all totally agree on. Much of this voice belongs to the centre-right and their supporters used to be the core voters of the Liberal Party. This election is going to be one to watch, because if these independents do well, then several ministers are in danger of losing their seats.

The Liberals are so worried about them that two Liberal candidates have shifted the blue of the party in all their advertising to a shade closer to teal and one took his party’s name off some of his corflutes. The Liberals are not just fighting Labor for a majority: an interesting number of them are fighting for previously secure seats. In the 2019 election Zali Steggall (an ex-Olympic skier) defeated the previous prime minister in his own seat. Several of the “Voices of…” (the official term for the new grassroots candidates) are ex-journalists or sportspeople.

In Canberra, I don’t know yet if there are any standing for the lower house (the election was only called yesterday), but there are independents standing for the Senate, and one of them is, indeed an ex-sportsman, David Pocock. He’s not part of the teal people, but he is the leading candidate to challenge our Liberal senator (whose name is Zed, which isn’t nearly as funny in US English as it is in Australian English – for us ‘zed’ is the final letter of the alphabet) and the moment a particular picture of him was circulated, his vote increased enough to make people start to pay attention to him. He now has an audience for his policies, but for such an Australian reason.

This is not a complete introduction, but I’ve run out of time. When I meet a couple of deadlines, I will write you the next post, and you can see why the election is so soon and some of the mechanics behind our system. In some ways it’s very different to the system is the vast majority of democracies. Almost every vote counts here. And we have democracy sausages.

Watch this space.

Raised in a Barn: Blocks

Part of the reason my father wanted to own a Barn was so that he could experiment with it. Try things out. Like trapezes. Or gardens. Some of his experiments worked brilliantly; some of them, not so much. One of the more interesting ones was a floor treatment, if that’s what you could call it. Dad cut one-inch slices of 2x4s to use as tiles in the front entry room, what we called the tack room (in the days when the Barn was a working barn, it was where various animal-related gear had been stored). It was a good experiment, a sort of prototype. Dad had big plans, see. For the kitchen. Continue reading “Raised in a Barn: Blocks”

Going to The Theater

I’m going to New York in June, and just bought tickets to see Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in The Music Man. I am ridiculously excited about it.

The first show I saw on Broadway was Oliver! with the original cast: Georgia Brown, Clive Revill, Jed Allen, David Jones (pre-Monkees). I don’t remember who actually played Oliver.  I was… maybe nine? I already knew the score (we had cast albums by the dozens in my house, and I was sponge-like in my tendency to scoop up songs and commit them to memory). I dressed up to go to the theatre (which is what one did in those far-off days) and went with–my grandmother, I think. Or my grandmother and my parents, and my brother. Aside from the bragging rights and the pleasure of the show, seeing Oliver! marked my change from a pure consumer of theatre to a theatre kid. And while the performances were wonderful (Clive Revill’s Fagin was juicy in his evil glee) what really got me was the stagecraft.

By which I mean: I’d seen theatrical productions before–mostly kids’ shows–but this was full-blown Broadway, and this show did things I did not believe you could do live. Continue reading “Going to The Theater”

Difficult thoughts

Today’s book is a slow read, an absorbing one, and occasionally a very difficult one. It’s Polin, volume 22. Polin is a series of studies of Jewish history from a particular region. Polin 22 looks at social and cultural boundaries, mainly from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. I’m taking a break from it because reading about the blood libel sucks. It always does. If my life were easier I’d not have to even think about it, but I can’t consider space and boundaries without considering those where there is intentional transgression.

Imagine someone making up a nasty lie. Imagine people being killed over it. Other people say “It’s a nasty lie.” People who support those who invented the lie in the first place don’t listen to the proof of it being a lie, but add torture to the questions posed to prove the victims have done the thing they actually didn’t do. The question in this chapter, I suspect, is whether the innocent people who are being blamed for this thing they didn’t do die from the torture or from the punishment.

I’m reading it to understand how the trial could even take place and how it operates. Is there even a modicum of fairness or justice? None. Not a skerrick. This is why I need to understand the trial itself. This is the chapter I need a break from.

The thing that stopped me in my tracks was the way questioning was done, before any torture. The subject was sprinkled with Christian holy water and forced to wear Christian religious items and made to eat some blessed salt and to say a Psalm. This was to defeat any Jewish lies he might tell. All the alleged child-killer (who was guilty only of being Jewish, and who murdered no-one) did was repeat the same simple truth: there was no requirement in Judaism to drink the blood of children, and it was something that no Jew would ever do. Over and over again he was forced to explain this and over and over again it was disbelieved. I’ve seen reports from blood libel trials where the Jew was blamed even when the child appeared, perfectly alive.

The whole blood libel was an invention and still is, today. When I was accused of it in primary school and of eating unleavened bread that contained the blood of newborn Christian children, I brought a whole box of matzah to school, and made the accusers read the ingredients on the box. The ingredients were water, flour and salt. I was told I was a liar, but other children were there and they passed the box around and everyone read the ingredients aloud. Primary school children believe in the printed word and someone (not one of the accusers) took some of the matzah out of the box, ate it, and we began to talk about its flavour. That particular episode was finished for that moment. My trial was very light.

The chapter brought back that memory. There was no way out for the three on trial in this case. Innocence was irrelevant, but likewise so was the concept of evidence.

At first I kept reading, despite the gut punch because I found a piece of evidence I hadn’t seen before (I wasn’t looking for it, to be honest) and I stopped to think. I wondered… how much of the nineteenth century “Keep vampires away” tricks began as “Keep Jews away.” I’m not sure I want to find out.

I have to read it, because it’s telling me important things about what happens when Jews are victimised at a time and place when things were pretty good, compared with other times and places. I’ll get through it and then take a deep breath and, from the moment the next chapter begins, I’ll be less full of misery. Something deep inside me hurts, every time I read a trial record or a description of one where everything is set up to make the innocent look guilty.

The next chapter is by one of my favourite scholars. I’ve never met her, but I read anything I can get hold of by her. I can’t get hold of much, being in the wrong corner of a far-flung globe, but… I want to skip straight to the Carlebach chapter on a chronograph. I want to skip seeing people hurt and enjoy contemplating time and space.

I’m going to return to reading and I’m going to finish the chapter. That’s the fastest way of not carrying the weight of history on my shoulders.