July 21, 2013

Keep Left. Safety Zone.

There are two motivations for people at a refugee rally, those who connect directly with a sense of discrimination and injustice, then those who feel directly the plight of the refugees themselves. 

I didn't know what I hoped to achieve by attending the rally in Melbourne, I just wanted to be counted and blurting outrage on social media wasn't going to cut it. Marching in Bourke St felt like real action, even if it it really isn't.

Governments in Australia have a very poor record of heeding protests, and if 600,000 people marching failed to precipitate an apology to our indigenous or a rethink on the Iraq War, then how would a few hundred gathering in the rain lead to any real action?

What took me by surprise was the emotion of the experience. It caught me off guard because my outrage was rational and ethical, not personal. Standing on the edges I could barely hear the speeches, and didn't really care. My mind had begun to wander with contemplation of the people we're here to support, and what their lives are like. 

And it turned out that for me it is personal, I really can put myself in their shoes. I can feel their sense of homelessness, their sense of isolation, their sense of hopelessness. These are people adrift in the world, in every possible sense. 

Until you've been homeless, stateless and lived without a safety net you cannot begin to imagine the emotional journey that your average refugee has undertaken. That doesn't mean you should't try however. Cast into the ocean in search of a new home is far from the worst thing they have faced in life. The more I contemplated their noble desperation the more meaning I drew from the rally.

These rallies will do absolutely nothing to alter the course of debate in Australia, but they will do everything to help us through a dark night in our own lives. Hundreds of people from Melbourne have gathered because they care, because they are custodians of compassion. It was a gathering of humanity and something we can be proud of. 

Our media is filled with the destruction of sanity. But out on the steps of Victoria's State Library, walking the tram tracks of Bourke St and outside the Immigration Dept a chorus of voices came together to remind ourselves that there is a better way to live our lives. A chorus that speaks in the hope that refugees may have a better life too.

Being part of the rally helped me to feel better about the country I live in, knowing that there really are people with morals above those of our current political leaders. If you only saw Australia through our own media this week you would think it was a country where people care more about protecting tax rorts than asylum seekers.

Well the media can go fuck itself. Collectively they are a mob of shameless dolts who put their pursuit of profitable headlines ahead of the nation that feeds them, ahead of their own decency, and ahead of our most vulnerable. Those few examples of reasoned debate are inevitably drowned out by the stupid. 

That battle was lost a long time ago, and maybe the battle for humane treatment of refugees is also lost for now.

At least I have something positive to walk away with today. On a bleak and miserable winters day in Melbourne a cohort of caring souls came out to embrace kindness, humanity and compassion. That's the part of Australia that I love the most, and that I hope to see more of in the years ahead.

July 18, 2013

Cheaper. Kinder. Smarter.

The idea of being able to "Stop the boats" is akin to zero tolerance on drugs, prohibition of alcohol, or teenage abstinence. Governments cannot regulate human behaviour, especially when the humans haven't even reached your shores yet.

There has been a massive rise in displaced persons around the world in recent years. This means more people seeking asylum globally. This means more refugees in boats. We call this "push factors".

All of the policy discussion in Australia for the last decade has been around punitive measures to stop one kind of refugee, the boat people. In 1992 the mandatory detention policy was put in place, with bi-partisan support, as a temporary measure. It's proved expensive and currently is not working. The deterrent simply doesn't stack up against the desperation of so many displaced people.

I want a policy debate that focuses on the needs of these people, not one that focuses on the racist paranoia of a few privileged Australians. So what alternative policies might change the current situation?

The money currently spent on detention is in the order of $100,000 a year per person. Instead of locking up people who have already been through hell what if we spent some of those funds on creating a better way to get them to Australia? Here's a simple outline for a cheaper, kinder and smarter response to the international humanitarian emergency.

1. Increase our intake: Australia accepts piss all numbers of refugees compared to the rest of the world. We need to stop whining about the numbers arriving and get real about the benefits of accepting them into our communities. We are a wealthy nation and most of us here are migrants of a sort anyway.

2. Improve Processing Times: Why does it take years to process refugees in Australia and only months to do it in Sweden? We spend all our dollars on detention instead of a solution. A very small percentage of asylum seekers end up failing our criteria for refugee status, so currently we're punishing the many for the sake of the few.

3. Bring them here safely: People wont jump on a boat and risk their lives if they have a better way to get here, or a better way to apply for asylum. Creating legal pathways for refugees removes the economics of boat smuggling, and stops people from drowning at sea. This is not a trivial challenge, it requires cooperation between nations, but it's a more achievable goal than trying to get Indonesia to stop the smugglers.

My simple equation is not a new one, but I haven't seen these ideas talked about in the media recently. Having just penned my thoughts I saw a tweet from Sarah Hanson-Young on a similar thread. Turns out The Greens have a well documented policy along these lines, as was submitted to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers led by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.

It's very detailed and tackled some of the practical issues around creating safer pathways. This is where our debate should currently be focused. Below is a copy of the submission from The Greens. I know our political leaders and media are not in the habit of reading the details as often as they should, but perhaps a few words can stick in the memory somewhere and maybe stir some motivation to dig deeper on alternatives:

Cheaper. Kinder. Smarter.

Australian Greens submission can be found here. (pdf)

Cartoon from Bruce Petty, The Age (link)

July 09, 2013

730 Pre-Recorded

Dear ABC & 730 Report,

This week the 730 Report aired a pre-recorded interview with Tony Abbott, conducted by Chris Uhlmann.

The absence of any questions regarding the hot topic of the day, the alleged $9400 error in Mr Abbott's expense claims, was quite startling. In fact the entire interview came across as a highly 'managed' process, as though Tony was only answering pre-approved questions.

I am interested to know whether pre-conditions were placed on the ABC before Mr Abbott agreed to appear on the program, and whether there are any restrictions on disclosing the exact conditions agreed to for this interview. The context of any interview is important, and I believe it would be in the public interest for the context of this pre-recorded interview to be made clear to the audience.

Is this possible?


May 03, 2013

The Ultimate Test of an Airline

I've always said that you should judge an airline by how they handle it when stuff goes wrong. China Southern are now in my good books of airlines I can trust when things get sticky.

These guys made a spectacular effort while flying through Guangzhou, turning what could have been a really really bad day into a happy return home. Myself and a travelling companion were checking-in from the far west of China, the city of Kashgar (Kashi), but a rather sultry girl at the counter refused to check out bags through to our international connection. 

We never found out why this happened and at the time it didn't really matter, we just knew that ahead of us lay a 90 minute transfer across one of the biggest airports in the world, a task made nearly impossible by virtue of having to collect our bags at one terminal and check-in again at another. Guangzhou airport is so big it makes Bangkok Suvarnabhumi look like a tin shed. 

Travelling in the far west of China will test the patience of any person and I was already spent of all joy, so this little hiccup struck me as just plain unfriendly. 

7 hours later we arrive in Guangzhou, a little behind schedule and rather low on hope. A little lady named Rain was waiting for us both holding a sign and wearing high heels, but she ran faster than either of us could keep up with. She headed off down the side exit from the air-bridge and within seconds we were standing beneath our aircraft in search of our luggage. It all happened so fast, I felt like a special guest star on Amazing Race. 

While Rain was zippy and efficient, the baggage blokes were stubborn and determined. We dragged one bag off the carts but two others were still hidden under a pile of other luggage. I watched the cart driven off while pointing at my second bag, and we never found my companions suitcase. Our adventure hit a sudden moment of chaos. 

Rain mumbled into her walky-talky and without breaking stride a van pulled up and we stepped right onto it. Through out the drive she's chatting to an office somewhere inside the mega-complex that is Guangzhou International Airport, sorting out which bags were still "in the system" and which one was in my hand. 

What is usually a thirty minute process getting from Domestic to International was reduced to a five minute drive. We emerged inside the arrivals hall and I struggled to keep pace with Rain as she ran ahead of me in her high heels, like a little gazelle dressed in blue with optical correcting glasses. She ditched the walky-talky and started making calls on her smart phone, and by the time I had my rescued bag checked in at the transfer counter she announced that the other two have been grabbed and retagged.

We got confirmation that all the luggage was now aboard the aircraft, 10 minutes before the flight was effectively closed. The bags had made it and it looked like we would too.

In the minutes ahead we ended up with new boarding passes, new baggage tags and an express jaunt through necessary channels. The slowest part was waiting in line for the security check while business class travellers struggle to get their head around the concept of taking stuff out of their pockets and putting laptops in a separate tray. Apparently money doesn't make you any smarter or any more considerate. 

The final thrill ride was in the electric buggy usually reserved for disabled people, with a very lovely Cantonese man improvising the "beep beep" noises because his cart had no horn. He was one of those chaps who talks with a smile, you can hear it with every word, and was probably enjoying the scoot and scurry as much as we were. 

Gate A3 was about a kilometre from the final passport clearance and we arrived just as the plane was being loaded. Rain had slipped on a bit of lipstick while waiting for us to clear security check and had taken a few selfies with her phone already, in preparation for a group shot. The driver took the photo of us together while we stood with Rain and said "Yi, Er, San, Qiezi!"

We made the flight, the bags made the flight, and all ended happily. Better than that, my journeys in the far west of China had been something of a tough ride for me, so this little reminder of what modern China is capable of was well needed to restore my faith in their country. Rain is both exceptional, and typical. 

I fly on a lot of airlines in the course of a year and very few make an impression on me. Most are banal and rather disappointing, and to be perfectly honest there are very few that come close to the consistency of service I get from Thai Airways. Yes, I'm a Thai fan and probably will be for a long time to come. 

But now I know what I can expect from China Southern. Annoying passengers who smoke mid-flight, an extensive network that covers China like no other, some good in flight service from the attentive staff and dreadful meal parcels that wouldn't pass for food in a Los Angeles high school.

But they will move heaven and earth to get you and your bags home on time, and always with a smile.


April 06, 2013

How To Succeed In Publishing

For two decades News Ltd has been successful at one thing, being more efficient. Their entire organisation has been lead by Uncle Rupert towards leaner and more profitable business practices that deliver returns to their share holders.

To this day efficiency is the primary focus of the management. The trouble with this model is that eventually something else comes along that is an order of magnitude more efficient and drastically cheaper. It's called the internet.

The publishers that will survive are those with the ability to produce better quality instead of better efficiency.

I've heard various news chiefs tell their shareholders that they can cut budgets without cutting quality. It's a mantra that you hear in any industry where a race to the bottom has taken over the logic of otherwise rational minds. They honestly believe it's true, as they watch markets shrink and revenue slide.

"We wont be cutting content" is hardly the same objective as "We want to create better journalism and set a new standard for publishing." The two are worlds apart.

The manufacturing industry in Australia has learned that it's a folly to compete on price, the contracts will eventually end up in China or Thailand regardless how hard management push for efficiency or employee discounting. We can still manufacture goods in the Australia, they just have to be quality based products that demand high technology or are very unique.

Publishing is the same. By all means take full advantage of more efficient technology to produce a publication, be that delivering to millions of iPads or using digital offices to coordinate content production. But efficiency should never be the end goal, it's merely the instrument to enable better content and higher standards.

Tossing a bunch of opinions onto a website is no longer good enough. Adding a few "left versus right" opinions into that mix doesn't achieve balance, it just looks like the editorial direction is suffering from schizofrenia.

If your publication's primary objective is anything other than "to publish the best possible content and inform our audience to the highest standard" then you're probably wasting your time. The challenge is to recognise how to improve your publication and to never settle for good enough.

January 27, 2013

Donkey Love

From a Chinese website encouraging the use of Donkey Carts in the city of Turpan. It made me giggle.

"When traveling in Turpan, you can take a donkey car to go around. It will make you feel another world. It will make you feel very romantic if you sit with your lover. Sitting and singing in the donkey car can make you relax yourself to the most. All the busy work and all the boring housework are went off at that moment. Moreover, the price is much lower than the taxi. And you can save your feet and directly feel the people there at the same time."

January 26, 2013

Save The Ice Berg

Yesterday I was lucky enough to listen to the 2011 CBC Massey Lecture on Winter. With Adam Gopnik. Inspiring and intensely thoughtful. Liberating even. It touched on almost every aspect of life on earth and our future ahead. I loved the reference to Elizabeth Bishop, and her poem "We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship."

It works on so many levels.


Elizabeth Bishop:

We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.
We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship;
we'd rather own this breathing plain of snow
though the ship's sails were laid upon the sea
as the snow lies undissolved upon the water.
O solemn, floating field,
are you aware an iceberg takes repose
with you, and when it wakes may pasture on your snows?

This is a scene a sailor'd give his eyes for.
The ship's ignored. The iceberg rises
and sinks again; its glassy pinnacles
correct elliptics in the sky.
This is a scene where he who treads the boards
is artlessly rhetorical. The curtain
is light enough to rise on finest ropes
that airy twists of snow provide.
The wits of these white peaks
spar with the sun. Its weight the iceberg dares
upon a shifting stage and stands and stares.

The iceberg cuts its facets from within.
Like jewelry from a grave
it saves itself perpetually and adorns
only itself, perhaps the snows
which so surprise us lying on the sea.
Good-bye, we say, good-bye, the ship steers off
where waves give in to one another's waves
and clouds run in a warmer sky.
Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible)
to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.

Why Choice Matters

This personal account of why pro-choice is important, and why it is not trivial, is worth a read for anybody. Killing people to save embryos makes no sense. Abortions will exist regardless of law. The rights of the mother cannot be ignored in the debate. Choice means just that, making your decision instead of being forced to follow someone elses.

Freedom to choose is essential to women's rights. Lives are put in peril without it. Mothers have rights too.

"Abortion must remain safe and legal because abortion will never go away regardless of law."

January 22, 2013

Nobody Tweeted Anything Nice

Injustice makes me depressed. Not just sad, but it stops me from doing normal things and feeling normal feelings. Injustice comes on many forms.

A lovely lady who travelled with me last year emailed me this week to share her grief over losing her 19 year old daughter. How do you deal with that kind of loss, how do you talk about the tragedy of young hope replaced by suicide? I also found out that another colleague lost her best friend to cancer after a long battle and an emotional black hole. She died isolated from her loved ones and regretful of her marriage.

An inspiring journalist also published her deeply personal account of what it feels like to suffer a stroke. She was on a flight to Beirut one day and suddenly her world turned to chaos and confusion. I felt nausea passing in waves through by body as I read it.

I can tolerate confronting tragedy in small doses only.

Even more damaging this week has been the main stream media of Australia. As terrible and overwhelming as the other stories of personal trauma have been, having to watch the shoddy state of journalism in Australia is far more harmful to my state of mind. It's not just depressing, it's a source of anger.

Most of us who work in media related industries have an appreciation for the power of the Fourth Estate. Those who care about more than just themselves would love the opportunity to have a voice in the debates that confront our nation. We see immense responsibility to inform readers. We are humbled by such privilege.

Watching staffers in our daily papers abandon that honour is painful. Guys like Joe Hildebrand, Andrew Bolt and Paul Sheehan get paid good money to abuse a great privilege. News is traded for entertainment, facts are discarded for convenience, opinion replaces journalism.

Two things in this world get me mad. People who waste their power to do good. People who get in the way of others who are trying to do good.

Watching arrogant bullies like Peter Reith lecture decent people about the lives of refugees takes things to a whole new low. This man was caught deceiving the Australian people in order to win an election, and he got away with it. Now he gets the privilege of air time on the ABC to spout his aggression, pontificate about the motives of others and shout down more respectful panel members.

It's disgraceful and it's far from anything that qualifies as journalism. And the people of Australia are the ones who are footing the bill for this thug to enjoy "retirement" in the spotlight. He should be in jail, not on television.

The injustice of people abusing their power really hits my raw nerves. It happens in my career that some people like to simply rip off my editorial, steal my photos or copy my design work. Some people are shameless about it, just like Peter Reith and the other white men in suits who fill the pages of our media with misinformation about refugees heading to Australia.

The media makes me angry, tragedy makes me sad. I'm incredibly lucky myself to have good fortune in my life. Some of it has come at a price. It's taken 42 years to feel like I'm getting somewhere in the world.

Little acts of bastardry make me especially angry. Stealing my pencil is the definition of being a shit head. I saw a posting on Facebook today from an independent clothing maker who buys end of stock material to hand sew dresses. Someone walked into a store and stole one of her dresses, it was on consignment. I was angry. It takes a serious loser to steal from a hard working person who has worked their way from nothing into a position of self-employment.

(And if you're that guy who keeps copying my brochure designs and stealing my editorial for your website, you are an even bigger loser than whoever stole that dress.)

Angry is one thing, depressed is another. As the tragic events of suicide, cancer and strokes have reminded me lately; life is short and I've already seen out 42 years of it. I may have to stay away from the television entirely for fear the streams of tragedy and rage will cross.

There was one silver lining to the disgraceful display of Peter Reith on the ABC tonight. His performance drew a broad and damming collection of tweets. Some were rude, some were funny and most were direct and to the point. Nobody tweeted anything nice about the guy, not a single word. His comments were indefensible apparently.

All of which begs the question, why the fuck do you need to put a nasty piece of work like him on TV in the first place?

I bet he stole my pencil.

January 09, 2013

My Myanmar Moment

Last night I ate grilled meat on a stick while a street kid begged for scraps. It was just another moment during this journey through Myanmar that has reminded me how lucky I am.

In a crowded laneway of Rangoon myself and some lovely guests feasted on soft shell crab, grilled fish and tasty bits on skewers. When the beer ran out we ordered more beer. When the sticks ran out we ordered more of them too. As usual we ordered a little too much and struggled to manage the 200 metre walk back to our bus. 


Myanmar is not a third world nation, it's just a country that has been hidden from the west and has developed more slowly under a military regime. Myanmar shares first world problems and third world problems. As we gorged on protein and alcohol a team of prostitutes walked up the laneway, heading for night clubs or bars. I wondered if the little street kid belonged to one of those women.

The contrast in fortune was powerful at that moment, the lottery of life that begins with where you were born and what your parents do in order to live. Back at the hotel a bunch of privileged white American males were screaming on CNN about their right to own an room full of automatic weapons. 

Few people ever rise above their upbringing, it's a failing of our education system in western countries.

We like to think that class mobility is the norm, but in reality the idealistic potential for mobility is offered as a smoke screen for grinding socio-economic factors that begin long before we can talk. Our lot in life is heavily loaded by pre-existing conditions. The achievement of the few to migrate to the next class is mistaken as the promise for all. 

Not everybody wants to move up a class, or even recognises they are in one. The majority of Australians are ignorant of their good fortune. Ignorance is bliss but it does little for sensible voting patterns. As a nation we have squandered our wealth and as individuals we are lazy and underachieving. Watch this space when China doesn't need our minerals any more. Ignorance is a ticking time bomb.

My parents were nut jobs, but at least I didn't have to grow up on the streets of Rangoon like a lost puppy. There was a time when I thought I had it tough. My father was deeply depressed and tried to kill himself so many times that I wished he had succeeded the first time and saved everyone else the grief. My mother made a bid for freedom from a violent marriage and ended up with a violent alcoholic.

A little childhood trauma goes a long way. I rarely feel guilty for having good fortune these days, I figure I've done my time and have earned a little good luck. That doesn't always cut it of course. Increasingly I feel my luck outweighs the hardship and anything resembling a "trickle down effect" is just a cop out when it comes to the genuine struggles of the poor majority on this planet. 

The numbers are staggering. So many human lives are intensely difficult while so few in the west enjoy massive wealth. 

Some people see this imbalance and devote their live to changing it. I have not done that, which makes me almost as bad as those gun-loving idiots on cable TV. I have an ethical awareness about my good fortune, and rejecting corporations who put profits before people, but deep down I am resigned to the fact that inequality is the human condition. I have no expectation that across the fullness of human existence on Earth that life will be any different. 

There will always be winner and losers. What matters most is learning to win gracefully and still be able to recognise your own good fortune.

For two weeks I have travelled across Myanmar with the most wonderful group of people. Some are recent "regulars" to my adventures with the camera, some are so regular I forget how many times we've had each others company. All are unique and different, all are exceptional companions on the road. The very fact that we are here means we are the fortunate ones in life. 

One is our guide, a local fellow of immense charm and kind spirit. He will be one of life's winners, he will continue to be successful and will rise above his childhood too. That little street kid was not invisible to him either.