I have been thinking a lot about this blog, but not rushing to publish.  With the social media facilitated revolution unfolding on a daily basis in the Middle East, the world seems to have shifted.  It has been fascinating, exciting, scary and unexpected.  This is against the new context created by WikiLeaks: seemingly endless revelations that have confirmed our suspicions, and sometimes our worst fears.  We have lost even more confidence in our governments to govern us effectively, ethically, or with transparency.  And the world has literally shifted, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families, and the survivors of the earthquake around Christchurch, New Zealand.  Is the natural world trying to tell us something?
 
I wonder how the victims of the Queensland floods and cyclone are managing – it is alarming how quickly and easily they have dropped out of the news.  I have been meaning to comment on the still appalling situation for many people in Haiti a year on, after what seemed such well organised promises of aid and assistance.
 
 

Bundeena, Sydney NSW

  

BUNDEENA:  I have been living in Bundeena, a small community on the southern edge of Sydney for several years.  It has beautiful beaches, coastal walks and drives, and is surrounded by the Royal National Park.  There are many varieties of birds (my favourites are the kookaburras), possums, and the occasional wallaby, snake or goanna.  I am aware of the environmental damage cats can cause, and I promise I attempt to bring my very well fed cats in every night.  Bundeena is just over an hour from the city, so I am close – and far, enough.  Originally a fishing village, the community of a few thousand is seeing an increasing gentrification– and Vanity Fair is now for sale in the newsagent.  People like myself are viewed as “city blow ins”.  Bundeena is however low-key, and it is possible to be pleasantly reclusive with no social pressures.  Quite a few artists live here (there is an Art Trail to many artists’ studios on the first Sunday of each month), and some are very well-known.  It has been hot (often in the mid 30s), but it has been very relaxing here over summer, reading, gardening, working on some upcoming projects and exhibitions, seeing family and friends, and of course, just being with the cats.  There has been time to reflect on the world, and try to digest the momentous events of the last few weeks and months. 

  

Grand Pacific Drive towards Wollongong, NSW

 

EGYPT:  Congratulations to the Egyptian people.  Their revolution was more organized than it appeared – by an internet savvy group, and was secular and largely non-violent.  We had not questioned or even thought about their decades of repression and it suited our governments to turn a blind eye for a useful ally.  The USA funded the regime with an annual US$2billion.  The revolution is not complete: the military is not going to relinquish their influence easily. Nor will the US!  No-one can really predict the outcome and the wider implications for the Middle East – least of all me.

The Egyptian revolution appeared to be led by a youthful, educated middle class, supported by a down-trodden and repressed general population.  Leaders are emerging in the vacuum.  Islamic fundamentalists seem a small minority voice at this stage.  I have had a friend visiting Egypt who said Facebook was finally useful.  I urged him to take care and wondered – how would I have responded if I lived there – and would I have had the courage to be in Tahrir Square?  Good luck to the Libyans – Gaddafi will go down with guns blazing (or chemical weapons) on his own population it seems.  The West watches impotently – and the Libyans ask legitimately: “why isn’t anybody helping us?”

LEADERSHIP:  Poor Mr. Obama.  No wonder he is going grey: inherited problems of the GFC, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Republican obstruction of his legislation and attempted reforms.  Now their repressive allies in the Middle East are all vulnerable in a shifting landscape.  The US are trying to juggle their support for their long-term  alliances, AND  be seen to be supporting emerging democratic movements and human rights in the region. Democracy is fine – as long as it doesn’t threaten their strategic interests it seems. Hard for them not to appear hypocritical.  For the record: US annual funding – Egypt $2 billion, Israel $3 billion, Pakistan $7.5 billion.

The SMH Chief Correspondent, Paul McGeough, has been writing comprehensively, and I think insightfully, about the Middle East.  For example, see his article SMH February 21 2011: “Lip service is all US pays in the drive for democracy”.  The US veto of a UN Security Council resolution to examine the legality of Israeli settlement buildings in occupied Palestine would not have gone down well on the “Arab street”, especially at the moment, and is a good example of the USA’s conflicting interests.  However, the unrest has not been particularly aimed at the USA – except in Pakistan at the moment over the presumed CIA operative that has been arrested.  Australia has also just been paying cautious “lip service” in support of these historic changes as well, despite the usual flurry of hyperactivity by our Foreign Minister – the ex PM Kevin Rudd.

I would like to see a very representative and uncorrupted United Nations type body with very strong international powers!  I think many of us have realised our leaders are, well, only human like us after all, but it should make us all the more determined to effect change through our own personal, often local, efforts. 

McGeough has written scathingly about Tony Blair who he likens to a “drowning sailor”.  Blair’s quotes in defence of Mubarek did not look good – or the re-release of those photographs of him helping to ease Gaddafi back into international acceptance in 2004.  Still in denial about Iraq – how has Blair got any credibility left in relation to the Middle East as “special representative” of the Middle East Quartet (UN,US,EU and Russia)?  I would think some of his reported “consultancies” and relationships would normally constitute a conflict of interest.  He is soon to visit Australia to earn even more money on the speaking circuit. Equally shameless it seems, the British PM David Cameron is visiting the Middle East with British arms dealers, looking for sales.

 

Water from the Queensland floods flowing into Lake Eyre, photograph by Kelly Barnes

 
  
POLITICS:  Yes, obviously I’m pretty passionate, which can be very boring for people who aren’t!  Obviously politicians play such a comprehensive role in our lives and futures we can’t just ignore them.  We have to rely on them, for example, to respond to Climate Change, and the formulation and implementation of environmental and animal and wildlife conservation policies.  They are susceptible to complaints from their electorates so I try to keep up the questions and pressure, especially by email.  I try to read as widely as possible and it is often hard to get to the truth or a deep understanding of a subject.  I view myself as a “trying to be informed” average citizen.  I do wonder why some of my more conservative friends and acquaintances don’t read anything much about subjects they have strong opinions about, or care about context. Why is there seemingly much more informed commentary from the Left rather than the Right, and why are “shock-jocks” on radio always from the Right ?  I know I must appear biased, but I promise I try and keep an open mind!  

LOCAL AUSTRALIAN ISSUES: (but with global echoes)

NBN:  National Broadband Network.  This is an example of a subject I find difficult to understand (like GM crops), especially given my own technical ignorance.  I believe in essential national infrastructure, but is fibre the right option – especially as the US has opted for wireless?  From recent articles it seems that a mixture is the answer.  With wireless subject to range limitations, and slowdowns with too many subscribers, fibre should be “the work horse of the data downloads”.

SURPLUS vs DEFICIT:  The Opposition here in Australia has got the government very defensive about financial management – “waste”, “big new taxes” etc.,  but unfortunately their criticism does not extend beyond these few effective but clichéd slogans.  They fail to acknowledge that Australia was the only developed nation that did not go into recession during the GFC, unemployment is at 5%, but they endlessly squeal about the deficit.  The government – already on a knife-edge with numbers, is hamstrung to actually govern and make some tough economic decisions – rather like Obama.  I don’t know why the conservatives are claiming the ascendancy on economic management here or in the US – the GFC developed on their watch, and in Australia the Liberal Party politicians haven’t yet explained the $7 – $11 billion hole in their last election budget.  In an article by the excellent economist Ross Gittins in the SMH February 14 2011: “Fiscal heaven is pollies worrying about deficits”, he traces this relatively new obsession with surpluses.  Our mining boom (and being the world’s largest coal exporter), will take care of the deficit.  But the Liberal Party were good hoarders, even though it was at the expense of infrastructure which was allowed to run down.  Shouldn’t an Opposition be offering constructive criticisms, and  alternative policies?  We are constantly in election mode and a 24 hour media cycle, and the government is too defensive to make any hard if necessary decisions.

“BIG NEW TAX”:  Last year we had people power Australia style when a group of mining millionaires and billionaires actually took to the streets with placards in a demonstration! It was surreal.  They backed this up with a $22 million advertising campaign against a proposed mining super profits tax on our non-renewable resources.  The tax was going to “ruin Australia” – investment would go elsewhere etc.  These people have been made to look ridiculous with the recent publication of their company profits or personal wealth.  Australia’s richest person Gina Rinehart $9 billion, Andrew Forrest $6.9 billion, BHP $10.5 billion half-yearly profits, and huge profits for Rio Tinto and Xstrata.  The tax, which was watered down, will probably now be passed.

“STOP THE BOATS”:  Our scandalously inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees by both sides of parliament has been in the news lately.  This “race to the bottom” as it has been described, has been fuelled and possibly led by the Shadow Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, and his electorate was the scene of the Cronulla race riots several years ago. He seems to think Muslim demonisation is a vote winner, and it has been reported that he recently suggested his party capitalise on public unease about Muslim immigration.  His party has also recently recommended cutting Australian aid to Indonesian schools  – a highly successful counter terrorism scheme started by his own party when in office.  I used to send him critical emails – he has a long and unattractive track record in my opinion, but lately he has been generating enough negative attention of his own.

CARBON PRICE:  I have been trying to chart on this blog the mixed fortunes of the Climate Change debate.  From the heady, optimistic days of Copenhagen and a consensus by a majority of people for urgent action, to leaders being deposed, flaky climate change deniers effectively slowing the momentum, and policies subsequently dumped. Both parties have lost credibility on this issue, and this contributed to the Greens doing unexpectedly well at the last election.  Despite promising not to introduce a carbon tax at the election, with the increased influence of the Greens, the Government has put Climate Change unexpectedly back on the agenda. They are going to set a price on carbon by July next year, which will lead on to an emissions trading scheme in due course.  Many in the Opposition are climate change deniers, and their party has a pretend policy, but this issue which should have bi-partisan support, is going to be, again, a very ugly and divisive debate.  This will test our PM’s considerable negotiating (and compromising) skills.  The Greens want much more ambitious cuts to our emissions, and no compensation as previously canvassed for the worst polluters (power, energy and transport industries).  Those mining zillionaires will be back on the streets protesting!

 

From Penny Tweedie's book "Spirit of Arnhem Land"

Tom Noytuna, photograph by Penny Tweedie

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
  
 
PENNY TWEEDIE:  Penny Tweedie (1940 -2011), an internationally admired  photographer died recently.  I am mostly familiar with her often extremely beautiful and intimate photography in Arnhem Land where she first visited in 1975.  I staged an exhibition of her photographs in Sydney in the mid 1990s.  For the invitation I used the photograph of Tom Noytuna decorated for a traditional ceremony on the telephone (above).  Google her, or look out for her books This My Country (1985) and Aboriginal Australians: Spirit of Arnhem Land (1998).  The Australian photographer, writer and blogger Robert McFarlane has a tribute to her on his very informative photography blog  www.ozphotoreview.com.

MY PHOTOS:  When I was angling for a compliment about some of my own photographs taken in India on my new Lumix DMC-LX5 which I adore, a friend replied: “you can’t miss with a mountain view like that”, “with digital anyone can take a good photograph these days” and “pity you cut the cat’s ear off”. 

  

From Penny Tweedie's book "Spirit of Arnhem Land"

 
  
WHALES:  Congratulations to the Sea Shepherd for terminating the Japanese whaling season in the Antarctic.  Let’s hope the Japanese are losing their taste for whale, and their pretend “scientific” expeditions.
 
WATCHING:  The indefatigable David Attenborough’s First Life documentary series about the origins of life, is starting on television here.
 
CAT NEWS:  I love it when cats or dogs are named and in the news in their own right.  Many others surreptitiously slip into photographs with their owners.  Larry a tomcat has moved into Number 10 Downing Street in London, from Battersea Pound.  The WikiLeaks leaker Daniel Domscheit-Berg, recently wrote that when Assange was staying with him in Germany “Julian was constantly battling for dominance, even with my tomcat….(He) would constantly attack the animal”.
 
CHRISTIAN:   The French edition of A Lion Called Christian, Un lion nommé Christian in paperback has just been released.  I was recently interviewed for French television, and as I had been told previously that our story had been co-opted in defence of performing animals in circuses in France, I was of course anxious to refute this.  I can’t wait to see the footage of the very unexpected cameo of my shyest cat emerging from under the sofa!
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