A small matter of water, and headless chooks

Grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) woodland, an increasingly scarce ecotype.
Photo Ecolink/Colleen Miller

THERE WAS a revealing interview on ABC Radio’s RN Drive recently. On Friday 24, May, presenter Patricia Karvelas spoke to James McTavish, the NSW Government’s Regional Town Water Supply Coordinator, about the deepening crisis facing towns throughout the State. Mr McTavish told those of us who don’t already know it that towns as far apart as Dubbo and Tenterfield, Bourke and Molong, are facing real problems as water supplies rapidly diminish and restrictions bite deeper.

He told listeners what some of the problems are – the drought figuring significantly – but unfortunately was a bit light on any long-term solutions. To be fair, he was fronting for a government and, generally speaking, state and federal governments have never been too keen on long-term planning that might affect their election prospects.

There was the usual mention of new dams and the sinking of bores to augment water supplies. Carting in water to some places was also mentioned, but as James McTavish pointed out, carting water to a place like Tenterfield would be inordinately expensive and at best a stop-gap measure.

Mr McTavish also reminded listeners that not only farmers and rural towns are affected; industries in the regions are also at risk. He cited the case of Cobar, a mining town that relies on water pumped from the Bogan River at Nyngan. The mines are the largest user of water in the town and both the mines and township will face severe downturns if the supply is restricted.

Strawberry growers around Stanthorpe, a town in the “Granite Belt” just north of Tenterfield and over the Queensland border, are facing financial hardship as water becomes scarcer. During a recent interview, one grower said a solution was to grow the berries hydroponically under cover, a method that uses, and wastes, less water. However, he noted that present returns on the crop don’t justify the expense of such infrastructure. “People will pay $6 for a Big Mac,” he said, “but if the price of a punnet of strawberries goes above $3, they won’t buy them.”

However, neither the grower nor the interviewer mentioned that the horticultural industry regularly ploughs-in or dumps hundreds, sometimes thousands of tonnes of crops if market prices are low.

Just days later, Sydney Water announced that the NSW capital’s water supply – or rather lack of it – was cause for concern.

Again, the bulk of the problem was laid at the feet of the drought. Of course, there is no denying that we are in drought, and for farmer and townie alike it is hard to see past the lack of rain when you are being forced to de-stock or your cherished garden is dying. But is it just the drought and are there solutions, long-term ones?

Drought has our attention because it’s an obvious factor, but there are other things driving the water shortages. Sinking bores to augment water supplies may bring immediate, temporary relief, but in the long term will cause more problems. Most groundwater sources require flooding rivers and good rainfall to replenish them, and they have always been scarce and unreliable commodities in Australia, a continent with the world’s most erratic climate. Groundwater used now may take decades – perhaps centuries – to replenish even if used sparingly. Given the now irrefutable effects of the worsening climate crisis, we have no guarantees either way.

River systems everywhere are suffering badly from misuse, over-extraction and downright mismanagement over the decades and the result is now plain for all to see. What floods do occur are mostly sudden and violent, but long, dry spells are becoming more the norm. The “Bradfield Scheme”, a much-discredited plan to dam tropical rivers and divert their waters into the deserts, is again getting air time – as are proposals to tap “fossil aquifers” in the tropical north.

The lush, sub-tropical north of NSW was in drought until recently, and over the Top End, this year’s monsoon was almost a non-event; This at a time when Darwin authorities are expressing concern over the depletion of groundwater supplies in parts of the city. Our “southern” monsoon has never been as reliable as the rains further north, and even those are now becoming more erratic. In fact, there are fears that changes in Himalaya ice cover and other factors will eventually lead to the failure of the northern monsoon, with catastrophic results for a sizeable chunk of the world’s population, not to mention the global economy and migratory pressures on other regions.

The pity is that the writing has been on the wall for decades, but those who tried to draw attention to it were at best ignored and at worst pilloried and ridiculed. If Australia – and the world – had begun action thirty years ago, then the task ahead would have been easier and the costs spread over a longer period, but that window has closed. Action is required now, and nations are going to have to cooperate as never before in human history. What can Australia do?

The irrigation industry obviously needs an overhaul, along with regulation of the crops grown. It his hard to argue a case for growing crops requiring vast amounts of water – crops such as almonds, wine grapes, cotton and rice – in marginal country on a continent that sits mainly in the Tropic Arid Zone. Yet we do, and in huge quantities. Sadly, the huge increases in plantings of almonds, and to a lesser extent, wine grapes, are, like the national obsession with coffee, in response to a created demand.

Irrigation on the scale at which it is now practiced is unsustainable in this country; dryland cropping and grazing are really the only viable alternatives when it comes to broadacre farming. Aided by scientific research and a growing acceptance of Indigenous land-management techniques, Australia’s farmers and graziers have made an enormous contribution to alleviating, and in some cases almost reversing, the damage done in the past.

Governments at all levels also need to step up; farmers cannot be expected to address the problems of over-clearing and land degradation alone. Reforestation is of vital importance to future drought management strategies and to combat the climate crisis. Remediation projects on an imaginative scale should be viewed as infrastructure projects that would employ many thousands of people. Rather than stigmatising such national efforts as “work for the dole” schemes, they should be promoted as works of national importance.

If we rely on our dryland farmers to produce exports and feed the nation, then insurance must be looked at. Insurance providers are already factoring in the climate crisis and governments must enter into dialogue to ensure our farmers are equitably treated. Funding to the CSIRO must be restored as a matter of national urgency, and the BOM must be adequately resourced.

 And while we wring our hands over dwindling water resources and the plight of farmers, governments continue to issue exploration permits for coal-seam gas exploration and other extractive industries that disrupt or render unusable the water resources on which our agricultural and pastoral industries rely. Political parties praise our “clean green” agriculturalists, weep crocodile tears over the “bush battlers” and “pray for rain” at every photo opportunity, then chide groups such as the Knitting Nannas and Lock The Gate Alliance for trying to protect the resources on which agriculture depends.

The water from town treatment plants needs to be utilised. Adelaide’s “Green Belt” has long been sustained by recycled water, and this is something that should be repeated all over Australia – and not only in the capitals. Smaller centres could be assisted in establishing combined aquaculture and horticulture enterprises based on waste water and other imaginative projects.

Politicians are now carping over the costs of mitigating the climate crisis: “We must reduce emissions but not at the expense of the economy”, is often repeated. If we don’t act now, all else becomes irrelevant. The crisis we are facing is far-reaching and real. Most politicians were silent about the costs of following the USA into Vietnam and Iraq – futile exercises of absolutely no benefit to anybody except perhaps the warlords who control the military-industrial complex – yet it seems that the climate crisis is of lesser importance than the whims of US Presidents.

An apology to Australia’s youth

About fifty per cent of Australia’s adults – if I dare call them that – have just sent you a message: they have told you that your future and the future of the planet on which you live are unimportant. They have told you that their concern for their own wellbeing and way of life overrides any concerns you might have about future employment, education, and a place to live.

They have told you that being able to spend their remaining years on the deck of a pleasure launch – assisted in part by a handout from taxpayers – is more important than contributing to your education and healthcare; more important than fighting to mend the earth you will inherit, an earth so badly damaged by previous generations that your very existence is threatened.

They have told you that education should be only for those who can afford it, as it has been for all but a few years of the last several centuries; that first-class health care is only for the wealthy, and that the environment doesn’t matter. They have told you that self-interest is more important than the good of the nation and the health of our beautiful, ancient land.

They have told you they believe they are more worthy than you.

In a few months’ time, I shall be 79 years old, an age that is beyond your imagining – I know this, because I remember what it was to be young – and I have seen and done a lot of things. Some things I am not proud of, but I don’t regret them; regrets are futile, mistakes are lessons. But one constant in my life has been my love of people and the love of my country.

I love people because they are human, and being human means that they are all different with a different story to tell. One of my grandfathers, a man named George Hamilton, once told me to “never look at the colour of someone’s skin”. That worried me until I was old enough to understand what he meant.

When I was growing up, Australia was a country frightened of difference. The indigenous peoples were different and, having at last become ashamed of our efforts to exterminate them, we tried to change them. We tried to make them whiter by regulating who they were allowed to marry, and when that didn’t work, we used other laws to regulate their lives. The general public just ignored them for the most part.

We were frightened of the Chinese who came to Australia during the great goldrushes and so passed into law the “White Australia” policy. We were frightened of the Italians and Greeks who came here in large numbers after World War II. We were frightened of the “Balts”, the peoples of Eastern Europe who were allowed in as refugees.

Did you know that before these migrants came to Australia, zucchinis, tomato paste, capsicums, egg plant, salami, and a thousand and one other now everyday foods were unheard of? That olive oil was sold in tiny bottles and used as a medicine? It’s true, I know; because it was in my lifetime.

But our country grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s and we became accustomed to different faces and customs. And we came to love different foods and new celebrations. We rejoiced in our diversity.

A Prime Minister named John Howard changed all that. In his time in office, he fought hard to send attitudes back to the 1950s, a trend that continues to this day and has now been reinforced. And like John Howard, many politicians hate the changes that have been made and want us to be frightened of everybody who is not “us”: they want us to demonise people born in Africa and Asia and to mistrust anybody who is a Muslim, regardless of their ethnicity. They would prefer it if we were all white and Christian and certainly not gay or vegetarian.

Conservative governments have always used this fear of “the other” to divide us to their own advantage. But “the other” has broadened. It now includes the unemployed, the less wealthy and those people for whom life has never been easy. For a brief time, the “fair go” was an Australian certainty, it is now a myth.

When the Indigenous peoples indicated that they would like to see a First Nations committee set up to advise government on formulation of any policy affecting them, they were given a blunt refusal. It would, the government said, amount to another Chamber in Parliament. They had become “the other” again; more than 60,000 years occupation of this continent apparently doesn’t entitle them to a voice in government.

When next you attend an Anzac Day ceremony, bear in mind that the men and women whom politicians glorify as wonderful and heroic Australians – particularly those veterans of the two World Wars – are the same people whose votes gave us the benefits that conservative governments are now bent on taking away. Votes for women, health care, free education, pensions, and numberless other things we once took for granted but no longer can. They have become “privileges” not entitlements.

These same politicians are fond of telling you how much they “love Australia”, but what they are saying is that they love it for what they can get out of it, not what it does for them. They really have no concept of the land itself, that mysterious “thing” that sustains both their mental and physical health. They don’t feel its heartbeat through the soles of their feet, for they “have no time to grow; they have no time to waste”*. If they did, they would be in Parliament today and every day, addressing the biggest crisis to face this planet and all creatures that rely on it since the day a hominid first picked up a burning stick.

The people who voted against your future have benefited most from programs put in place by more enlightened governments and it seems those benefits have shortened their memories and made them selfish.

But there is hope. When brave young Greta Thunberg made her appearance on the world stage, my heart lifted; she is, or should be, an inspiration to us all. The door will only be open for a very short time before the processes our politicians ignore become irreversible, and because fifty per cent of your elders – and sadly it seems, some of your contemporaries – refused to put the interests of the nation ahead of their own, this huge burden is now on your shoulders.

Be strong.

My generation and the one just after seem to have forgotten that we took to the streets and stopped a war; we took to the streets and ended apartheid in South Africa; we took to the streets to help our Indigenous brothers and sisters in their fight for dignity. Young people were jailed – and in some countries, the USA among them, killed. But they won. In the end they won. And you can win this fight, you must win, there is no alternative worth contemplating. Fifty per cent of us will be behind you as best we can, but it will be your energy and determination that will save our planet and your future from the barbarians.

*From A B Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow

A letter to Norway


Cliff_overlooking_sea_-_Great_Australian_Bight_Commonwealth_Marine_Reserve

Cliff overlooking the Southern Ocean: Great Australian Bight Commonwealth Marine Reserve —Photo: HeyJude70/Wikipedia Commons

 

Frank Povah
Australia
February 7th, 2019

To the editor, and the people of Norway:

I am writing to you to express my alarm that your national petroleum company, Statoil, has recently taken up a drilling licence relinquished by the petroleum giant BP. This licence is for the right to undertake seismic testing and probably oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight, where southern Australia meets the pristine waters of the Southern Ocean.

The Bight’s coast – 1 160 km as the Wandering Albatross flies – is characterised by ancient, cliffs up to 60 metres and more high; behind them lies the vast expanse of the Nullarbor Plain, 200 000 squ/km of virtually uninhabited karst as flat as a table and absolutely treeless. At the western end of the Bight, “king waves” can break over the tops of these cliffs.

The Bight’s waters are home to 36 species of whale and dolphin and are the world’s largest calving ground for the Southern Right Whale, an endangered species numbering about 7 000 individuals and slowly recovering from the depredations of whaling. The females calve as close to land as they can get – in areas with beaches they will stay just behind the breakers – without endangering their young. The Bight’s shores are Australia’s most important sea-lion nursery.

Its eastern end harbours the spawning ground of the iconic Giant Cuttlefish and its weed beds are home to seahorses, and Leafy and Weedy Sea Dragons, unique to Australia. At its western end is the world-famous Eyre Bird Observatory. The Bight is also an important fishery.

Seismic exploration will harm many marine creatures, lobsters, scallops and tiny zooplankton among them, not to mention the disturbance created in whale and sea-lion breeding grounds. It will also put at risk the Commonwealth Marine Reserve.

With Australia now assailed by the all-too-real effects of global warming – frequent drought, devastating bushfires and massive fish kills – the last thing it needs is the damage wrought by seismic exploration and the very real possibility of oil spills in waters where they would be very difficult to remediate.

I am 78 years old and it won’t be too long before my time on this most ancient and beautiful continent will come to an end. That is as it should be, for I am part of its Dreaming; its cycle of life, death and renewal. But that today’s children, and their children’s children, will never see my country as I have seen it fills me with great sadness. Can we not save them at least something?

Editor, people of Norway: could not your Statoil find other ways to make money, rather than despoil one of Australia’s great wonders? I will thank you, my country will thank you, and the children of my country will thank you.

Frank Povah

Picture above: Southern Right whale calf just offshore
in Waychinicup National Park, Western Australia
Photo: Gregory ‘Slobirdr’ Smith/Wikipedia Commons

Suffer The Little Children

Written at the height of public interest in Australia’s Royal Commission into the institutional abuse of children

For the first couple of lines I wish to acknowledge my admiration of Joe Hill, who influenced them.
Your altars are of marble, your plate of beaten gold,
But your souls are of base metal and your hearts are stony cold;
Your bells are cast of finest bronze and they peal your man-god’s name,
But all the bells in all the world can’t drown out years of pain.

Gentle jesus meek and mild, look upon this weeping child
Please let me die before I wake…

You march to your salvation, with tambourine and drum,
And say you’ll be uplifted on a day that’s yet to come;
On judgment day you will be saved, and bathed in holy light,
While those that you have raped and flogged remain in dreadful night.

Onward christian soldiers, marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus, crushing all before

You took the dark-skinned children, and stole both tongue and mind,
Defiled their bodies and their souls and left just shells behind;
You scoured the streets of England for the children of the poor,
And gave them into slavery, then locked and barred the door.

Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world;
Black, yellow brown and white, they are precious in his sight

At least that’s what your hymnals say, the ones you make them read,
To sing your holy songs of praise, to spread your blighted creed;
But all the hymns and all the psalms, shouted at the sky,
Will not erase the wrong you’ve done, and know that when you die

Washed in the blood of the lamb

Your prayers and praise of jesus’ name, your blinding faith in god,
Won’t serve to straighten out the path, the crooked road you trod;
It seems a pity, really, that one day you will die,
For if you lived for ever, you might just learn to cry.

Your father, who art in heaven;
Blackened is his name

In a past life?

We once swam together, you and I;
In some viscous, tropic sea, aglow
With phosphorescence; corals spread
In vivid chaos, like rumpled bedding
Beneath our naked bodies.

I felt your legs brush mine; soft
As the touch of lapping wavelets and so
I stroked your stomach, watching
As your wriggled, magic sea-thing
Beckoning me to follow as you swam to shore

Where, caressed by wavelets, you took me
Into your being, rising and falling with the sea
And as you came, you cried in joy, to feel
The wavelets lap us, claiming what we’d given…

The moon smiled and earth turned once more.

Drongos, dogs and Depp

DeppJohnny Depp has been generating a lot of free publicity back home in the US. Free for him that is – Australia is paying for it.

You might remember that in April of this year Mr Depp and his wife, Amber Heard – or is it “then wife”, I don’t really follow what passes for the lives of film and TV stars – brought their two pampered mongs, Pistol and Boo, on a little jaunt to Australia where their daddy was filming yet another blockbuster aimed at children and adults under 15. Problem was, Mr and Ms Depp didn’t bother getting the paperwork done that would allow their trend-setting ornaments to enter our country.

They might have pulled it off if their pups weren’t so desperately in need of a grooming after their gruelling flight from the USA in a private jet that they had to be innocently smuggled in a handbag to a dog beautician. And would you believe it? Some lousy Australian provincial dobbed them in.

Enter The Honourable Barnaby Joyce, MP, Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources. Barnaby is also leader of The Nationals, a right-wing minor party with a rural power base, though now increasingly dancing to the fiddles of mining and agribusiness interests and alienating many of the younger generation of farmers, the constituency it purports to serve.

The Hon. B Joyce is not stupid – despite what Mr Depp thinks – though he could be Joycedescribed, and not too unfairly, as about half way between oaf and buffoon on a sliding scale of such things. But he is informed, politically savvy, knows his constituents and most importantly is the Minister for Agriculture charged not only with looking after the interests of what is arguably our most important industry, but also with keeping Australia safe from many of the ills that beset agriculture in the rest of the world. Among diseases of mammals, rabies, foot and mouth disease and rinderpest are absent, while anthrax, next to foot and mouth perhaps the most feared of all, is confined to one small area and there has not been an outbreak in years. That is why we are very zealous about our quarantine laws and swift to act when they are breached.

Barnaby does suffer from frequent outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease, being prone to opening his mouth before his brain is in gear, but in this case he meant well and acted properly, even if his tone was a little florid. He does have the power to order the destruction of animals or plants that might be harbouring exotic diseases, but in the case of the dogs Depp there would, I am sure, have been regard for the fact that as far as was known, they hadn’t been in contact with other animals, Mr Depp aside. A proper court hearing would have been held, a hefty fine imposed, a warning issued, an order to take the dogs from the country immediately, and that would have been that. Neither did the attitude of the Celebrity Depp help.

And here at last I come to the root cause of my outrage. None of this happened. Why? Because Mr Depp is a celebrity and therefore above the rules that govern the poor bastards who made him rich and famous among what appear to be hordes of barely pubescent, Hollywood gossip-website addicted children.

I am not famous and neither am I a celebrity. That is why, when I returned to Australia after five years in the US, the three cats I brought back with me – at a cost of about $18,000 – could not even be picked up from the house without paperwork allowing them to leave the USA, let alone enter Australia. When they got here, they spent three months in quarantine before I could take them to their new home. If the paperwork had not been done, they would never have left the States. If by some chance they had got to Australia without those papers, I would have faced a fine in the tens of thousands and the cats destroyed.

So how did Amber Heard – not Depp, he wasn’t charged with anything – get away with a “three-month good behavior bond”? And, like all true celebrities, when their crime was uncovered (yes, it was a crime, punishable at law) the Disdainful Duo immediately blamed an underling who they “thought had done all that stuff”.

To add arrogance to insult, the Depp/Heard combo made a clip for TV in which they “apologised” and said what a “wonderful place” Australia was. The film was dripping with sarcasm badly disguised as satire, which I doubt they understand anyway.

Ever since, poor put upon Depp has been doing the rounds of the TV channels back home, raising heaps of laughs for his cleverness and wit and his opinion of mere Deputy Prime Ministers of countries who would seek to criticise people of his elevated status.

One replay I saw last night took the cake. The host, proving that his ignorance of the wider world was equally as profound as Depp’s, raised heaps of laughs by noting that Australia’s laws are as stupid as America’s. Depp flashed his wit and scientific acumen by noting that Joyce looked like he was inbred with a tomato and he thought he would explode. Great stuff. Inbred? The result of a cross you mean? Ah, what’s the bloody use.

I hold no brief for The Hon. Barnaby Joyce, MP – in fact I hate his guts in the way that you hate a politician’s guts not really meaning him any harm, but I’d like to put y’all straight here. I don’t know if Depp occupies the same spot on the oaf/buffoon scale as Barnaby Joyce, I’ve never spoken to him, but he is a celebrity – and that’s something that if I had a daughter I wouldn’t want her to marry. He is a mug lair, with a head like a boarding-house cup of tea, i.e. big and weak.

He has insulted me. Despite my dislike of the system and the often mindless authority that greases its cogs, I’m clever enough to know there is need for some of it and so strive to do the right thing.

He has insulted one of my grandfathers – a member of Australia’s Light Horse (mounted infantry) during WWI – and his thousands of comrades-in-arms who at the end of the war had to shoot the horses that had served them so well and faithfully during those terrible years, because they couldn’t take them home and wouldn’t leave them to be starved and beaten in hawkers’ carts.

He has insulted the USA and its people by acting as though he is above Australian law, though I’d like to remind my fellow Australians that he’s probably equally as obnoxious back home.

And he has insulted my country by thinking that it is his part of his own personal fiefdom, to act in as he pleases.

But what makes me really angry is the fact that both major political parties in this country support legislation that treats refugees like criminals, condemning children, women and men to life in what are to all intents and purposes concentration camps in foreign countries. Even if they are proven to have legitimate refugee status, they will not be allowed to settle in Australia, but will be given the “opportunity” to settle in countries such as Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. Failing that, they will be returned to the hell from which they fled – a hell in large part created by military actions in the Middle East in which Australian troops were ordered by their government to participate. We deny these people, but allow the Johnny Depps of this world open access. Hope y’all gits bit by a rabid ’coon, John-boy.

 

A quick guide to Australia’s main political parties and the environment within which they operate

The Nationals is in reality a minor party – it gets many fewer votes than the Australian Greens – but Australia’s preferential voting system keeps it in government in coalition with the Liberal Party, whose name is increasingly an oxymoron, thanks to the influence of the flat-earthers who worship the unlamented ex-Prime Minister, Tony “Mad Monk” Abbott, a copped-one-punch-too-many amateur boxer, failed seminarian, serial groper, misogynist, xenophobe, racist, England-born all-round wanker who favours Lycra and budgie smugglers as informal wear, and reintroduced knighthoods. He only handed out three – one to the Jook-Embruh would you bloodywell believe – before the outraged howls of the vast majority seemed to herald a tar and feathering, causing him to desist. I say ex, because Tony was so hated by Australians of all stripes that the multi-millionaire, Malcolm Turnbull did a Brutus on him in September of 2015 and took over as PM.

Malcolm Turnbull was seen by many – well most – as a breath of fresh air. The Libs were elected after a few years of inner turmoil saw the governing Labor Party voted out of office. As an aside, it was a constant bombardment of vicious attacks on Australia’s first female Prime Minister orchestrated by the Mad Monk and his allies that was responsible for much of that turmoil. Parliamentary protocols were thrown aside, vile accusations and statements were made about the PM which, if she had been a private citizen, would have seen the slobs who made them in court charged with sexual harassment, libel, slander and probably a few other things beside.

So intense was the Monk’s hatred of Julia Gillard that on attaining the office of PM, he scrapped the National Broadband roll-out she had implemented and began a new one. Dubbed “fraud band”, it’s allegedly cheaper (it’s not), and better (it’s not, it’s third rate) and has seen Australia slip from among the best in the world for internet access and efficiency, to below the position the USA held when I was living there. It will not serve us in the future and will be astronomically expensive to rectify. But that doesn’t matter. Abbott got rid of a woman who had the temerity to become PM and to tear strips off him in the best anti-misogyny speech I’ve ever heard.

The Greens? If people could only stop and think, they might come to realise that the Greens are the only voice of reason left in the bleak waste that is Australia’s political landscape. Labor is as deeply in thrall to the giant corporations – miners included – as the Coalition, with the added burden of having to satisfy the trade unions, some sectors of which are as corrupt as any of their political opponents.

Murdoch’s newspapers are shrill, untruthful and downright biased in their support of the Liberal/National Coalition and denunciation of Labor and the Greens, but hate the Greens so much that they actually expressed sympathy for a Labor candidate whom they had previously portrayed in a front page cartoon as a Nazi and against who the Greens are standing. That should tell you something.

Malcolm has turned out to be a dud; “Tony Abbott in a top hat” to quote one politician. He has turned his back on the progressive policies he once espoused and has continued with Abbott’s lunacy for fear that the farther right will rise again and strip him of his position.

Australian politics is Stalinesque in its brutality and, as we the great unwashed have always known but are just being reminded of by the few journalists who have at last decided to kick over the traces, as corrupt as any in the Western World. It has been so since the days of Captain Bligh and the Rum Rebellion when those who owned the rum trade – the New South Wales Corps, the troops charged with policing and protecting – owned the colony and with impunity bought and sold officials at all levels and in all branches from the Governor on down. The owners have changed, but the methods have not.

There is one faint glow on the horizon – there is a sudden and growing rise in the number of those who believe that political donations by vested interests is corruption by another name. Bring it on.

For the non-Australian:
drongo is a backward person, one who never learns or tries.
mong cf mongrel
mug lair a braggart, a show off, an obnoxious person with an over-inflated ego.
copped means to receive and also to accept (as in cop it sweet). Tony Abbott seems to be afflicted by symptoms of boxing-induced brain damage. He has poor coordination, walks with a gait often seen in ex-boxers, and repeats phrases in a way that suggests he has trouble in forming cohesive sentences.
wanker is someone addicted to masturbation. It probably stems from the Victorian belief that “self-pollution” damaged the brain.
budgie smugglers are skimpy swimming trunks, the Speedos worn by lifeguards and some shiny-arsed surfers. Budgies is the Australian name for budgerigar (US parakeet), our smallest native parrot. Wildlife smuggling is a big problem in Australia, our native birds and reptiles are in demand overseas and criminals use all sorts of ruses to smuggle them and their eggs out of the country. Do you get it now?
Jook-Embruh Queen Elizabeth’s husband. The Mad Monk truly justified his nickname when he knighted him.

Depp image: Bidgee. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Bidgee.
Joyce image: Angela George. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Depp#/media/File:JohnnyDeppApr2011.jpg

My Farewell To The USA

This was written as I was preparing to leave Kentucky to return to Australia, and it is with not a little horror that I note that since the Abbott government came to power we are sliding rapidly into a facsimile of those aspects of the USA that so troubled me.

It seems donkey’s years since I’ve put finger to keyboard to contribute, and I don’t really know why. LikeTheDew is always a great read and just as I’ve enjoyed contributing, I’ve enjoyed the many and varied passions of its contributors. But these past few months I seem to have been visited by that come-and-go ennui that seems from time to time to plague anyone involved in creative pursuits, but the packers have been and gone and with them the mood that has prevailed over the past few months.

The packers? Yep, in three weeks or so we’ll be stepping onto the tarmac at Hobart International Airport and walking the 50 yards to the terminal building to wait for the baggage cart to drive into the passenger lounge where Quarantine Beagle will give it the once over before we can grab our gear off the trailer. In other words, I’m going home – not to the state in which I was born, but to the island state I love equally as much.

It’s not without great sadness that I’m leaving. I’ve enjoyed my time here in Kentucky and forged many friendships that I know will stand the test of time – or what’s left to me of it anyway. I think I’m finally admitting to myself that I’m getting older, though a lot of what remains of my brain may still be stuck somewhere between 1960 and 1980. I also feel that I’ve got to know many of you out there; though we’ve never met, you’ve said some nice things about me from time to time.

I’m going to miss the great jam sessions I’ve had close to the source of the music I so much love: the mountain ballits and dance-tunes, and the blues and jug band music that once flourished in the south, all of which appeal to the brooding Celtic genes my forebears passed on to me. I came with eight guitars, an autoharp, two ukuleles, a set of small pipes and a piano accordion; I’m returning with three of the guitars, the ukes, the accordion, the small pipes and autoharp, and a custom-made mountain dulcimer and an open-back banjo bought two months ago and on which I may one day be competent. You’ve got no idea what it feels like for me to put that banjo in sawmill tuning and play Pretty Polly close to the hills that for a century more kept it from escaping back to the wider world from whence it came.

And I’ll be able to boast that I met an old feller named Deward who was once in demand to play fiddle for dances, and how we sat on his porch fronting a narrow road hidden in the woods and I accompanied him with guitar and voice while he played Leather Britches and Handsome Molly on a fiddle whose friction tuning pegs had been replaced with ones made for a guitar because Deward had a “tetch of the roomatics” in his fingers. He would say: “Thisun’s a hay chord,” and he’d start in on her and I’d pick her up and he’d yell, “You got ’er there boy, you got ’er,” and away we’d go, buckin’ and skippin’ over the hills and far away into that bright, gravity-free nirvana that musicians sometimes reach. We’d play Oh the Dreadful Wind and Rain to summon the shades of Celts long dead and then he’d change the mood, the battered old fiddle calling on Old Jimmy Sutton to dance for us, hearing him in our souls as he flat-footed on the ancient boards of the porch.

Always remembered will be the family gathering I attended up in the mountains. Asked to sing a song, I played Crow Black Chicken and was at first taken aback at the shocked faces, relaxing when the expressions changed to ones of delight as some of the guests began dancing.

I’ll also miss the green moistness of Kentucky, especially when I’m back to nursing a vegie garden through yet another Australian dry spell, but I won’t miss the frost and snow, nor the guilt I feel every time I mutter, “All right Hughie, that’ll do for a bit” when the rain gauge is full yet again.

I’ll look back with fondness on the polite way my stories about life in Australia were received. Even though I know a lot of what I said was taken with a grain of salt, people still listened – they were after all the ones who asked the questions. But after nearly five years here, the disbelief is understandable. The other day I told a Good Ol’ Boy that his all the bells and whistles Chevy Silverado would cost him just shy of $126,000 in Australia, and that the repayments on the nifty little V-Dub van I drove back home were nearly twice as much as what I’d pay on a Cadillac here. He shook his head and said, “Lawda mercy,” but I could tell what he really meant: “Pull the other leg, it plays Dixie.”

The talented surgeons who undoubtedly saved my life will always have my gratitude, for not only did they save me, they were incredibly kind to my then wife through a very trying few days. I know that if I had died there would have been no meaningless platitudes but genuine sympathy and that’s comforting. If ever you badly need a heart surgeon you could do a lot worse than Dr Hamid Mohammed-Zadeh.

Oh, there’s lots of nice stuff I’ll miss, but there’s also lots of stuff I’ll be shaking my head over for years. When you’re a foreigner hailing from a country that apparently is only second-rate or at least not the best on earth, you know that the USA Hollywood and Teeveeland like to show you isn’t true. I mean, fair crack of the whip, cobber, I’m not as green as I am cabbage-lookin’. Not everyone lives with five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a swimming pool, two cars, perpetually clean shirts and permanently fixed-in-place hair, but movies and teevee have been telling you most of your life that it’s the land of golden opportunity where anyone can become president and there seemed a ring of truth to that.

You grew up listening to your Dad and his mates, whose first experiences of “The Yanks” were during World War II. They told you how shocked they were when they saw what the GIs ate for breakfast: “Bloody Golden Syrup on their bloody bacon for chrissake!” The fact that a country could be so generous as to feed its PBI bacon was astounding enough, but to see those same footsloggers pour what the Diggers at first thought was Cocky’s Joy over it, well jesus, mate, strike me bloody pink, you just wouldn’t credit it, would yer? Then in the next breath you’d detect thinly disguised awe as your Old Man – who had done his four-and-a-half years in the Forward Field Workshops in the Mediterranean, Africa and the Solomons – describe how if the “…Yanks’d want an airstrip, they’d throw everybloodything at ’er. Our mob’d still be workin’ out if the requisition forms should be in triple- or duplibloodycate and the Yanks’d have bombers landin’ on theirs. Fair dinkum. Couldn’t beat the bastards at that game.” Then the mood would darken. “Their officers did the same thing with their bloody men. Threw ’em at the Japs like there was no bloody termorrer. Bastards. Like the Poms did to our blokes in the first big stoush. Lousy bastards.”

So when you get here you know it’s not going to be like Hollywood or Disneyland, but everything you’ve ever read or heard hasn’t prepared you for the reality that is the USA, the Great Idea, in the 21st century.

It’s the apparent opulence that hits you first, the abundance of everything that makes you want to rush around and buy up the world: autos, tools, clothes, giant meals; all ridiculously cheap and easy to buy on tick at rates so low it’s hard to believe. After a while you begin to slow down to your usual pace and look around a bit more. As you move around in your day-to-day life, the varnish begins to crack a bit, peeling off here and there as the poverty becomes a little more evident. You begin to see the families and older, single people living in decaying trailers stuck on tiny lots right on the road verges in rural areas so beautiful they’d break your heart. You see the evidence of poverty – and its handmaiden ignorance for lack of education – everywhere in the supermarkets where food and drink that’ll poison you is less than half the price of fruits and vegetables shipped in from all over the US, Mexico and China. Not that a lot of this food’s much chop, picked so green that it’ll rot before it ripens, denying many of its benefits. (Sadly, this result of factory farming is now common in Australia. At least a couple of generations have now grown up without ever having tasted ripe fruit.)

After a while you begin to pick up on the “National Mood” – a generalization to be sure, but palpable nevertheless. The contempt in which the poor are held still shocks me – as does the national attitude to welfare and anything else that might suggest a social conscience, the latter seemingly confused with socialism à la the Nazis. On the national news, I may have heard Native Americans mentioned maybe twice in the almost five years I’ve been here and I’ve heard and seen coverage of heaps of protests about the war on coal, but none at all on the social plight of families in Appalachian coal counties. When the mountain folk are mentioned, it’s usually to reinforce the stereotype of shack-dwelling, drug-crazed, incestuous, gap-toothed, banjer-playin’ dumb yokels but nary a word about why their society is in crisis and why it is that the coal counties of Kentucky and West Virginia, producing a commodity allegedly “vital to the national economy” are among the nation’s poorest. As long as I live I’ll not forget a local teevee channel’s 6pm bulletin. The bright young thing opened with: “Three coalminers have been killed in a mine accident in Eastern Kentucky and we’ll return to that soon, but first our Big Story…” then proceeded to rabbit on about the latest doings of the UK Wildcats basketball team.

It’s also hard to believe that anybody with most of their screws reasonably tight would vote for politicians who claim to believe a god created the world and that this should be presented to students as an alternative to evolution. That journalists would treat such people as credible candidates for any office – let alone the presidency – and devote hours of space and time to them hardly bears thinking about.

And I’ll be glad to have my freedom back. Living under a Constitution that insists on a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and freedom of and from religion gets a bit harrowing at times. The number of times I have been chastised in supermarkets for forgetting where I was and slipping into Australian dialect have not been all that many, but they have been unsettling. Sometimes, when looking at prices, an Australian jumps into my mouth and I’ll let slip with “jesus bloody christ” or something like that. One bloke demanded – demanded – of me that: “You fall upon your knees sir, and ask the good lord to forgive you before you are struck dead.” When I told him he’d better rack off out of it if he wanted to avoid the heavenly bolt himself, I thought he was going to call the cops. I once asked a political canvasser if he was aware that the god-bothering bastard he represented was concerned about freedom from union interference but apparently didn’t care about the Peabody rip-off of miners’ pension funds. He told me I was going straight to hell, which to me is a good thing if heaven is populated by his candidate’s ilk. Mention taxpayer-funded universal health care, compulsory wearing of helmets when riding a motorbike or pushbike and a near-total ban on private ownership of handguns, and the response is nearly as bad.

Another great puzzle to me has been the attitude to sex – or anything that suggests it – and anything viewed as profanity. Who sets the standard? I once saw, with my own eyes, on ABC’s 6.30 news, Brian Williams apologize because “children might be watching” and he was about to mention a book title containing the word ‘hell’. PBS is currently airing an English police drama that is sometimes, to my mind, a little too gratuitous with the gore. But that’s seems not to disturb whoever’s job it is to worry about such things. Instead, English vernacular as mild as “tosser” and “arse” are bleeped out and bare breasts and bums are a definite nay sir – even dead ones on a morgue slab are blurred out. Look at the “news” clips on even the upmarket sites purveying news.” ———’s [insert name here] topless bikini too raunchy for San Tropez (pictures)”. No blurring here, just a big black bar straight out of the 1940s. On the other hand, we can turn to cable teevee and watch 4 year olds dressed and acting like, at best, ghastly parodies of Las Vegas showgirls or, at worst, $20 bagswingers moonlighting as 1930s burlesque queens.

Lest I be thought churlish, I am painfully aware that I am returning to a country almost totally in the clutches of the mining industry. Not long ago, the presently governing Labor Party had a rush of blood to its collective head and appointed as Prime Minister someone who should have been held up as an example to the world – the child of working-class Welsh immigrants, irreligious, intelligent, in a caring relationship though unmarried and a woman. Instead she was held up to the same sort of insults, scrutiny and opprobrium that have plagued President Obama and for similar reasons. She wasn’t the status quo and she wanted to change things and industry and the establishment weren’t happy with that.

Despite the fact that Australia is getting ahead of it’s green energy targets, that it has a national debt less than 25 per cent of GDP, that it has experienced 21 straight years of economic growth despite the horrors of universal health care, subsidized education and a reasonable pension in old age, despite all this she was sacked and replaced by the man she herself replaced, a wishy washy Christian who backed down on the carbon tax that will now probably be repealed and who suggested, but lacked the guts to push through the nationwide fibre-optic roll-out that Ms Gillard got going.

It is possible that the Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – laughingly calling itself the Liberal Party and led by Tony “The Mad Monk” Abbott, a charismatic Catholic – may win the imminent election, so in anticipation it has been in talks with Rupert Murdoch to discuss the introduction of policies that have proved popular in the US, e.g. allowing corporations to make covert donations to political parties, changing media ownership laws thus allowing mining magnates to own a greater share of the press, teevee and radio and presumably allowing Rupe to at last accomplish what he has always wanted to do – own a larger share of Australia’s media, previously forbidden him by law and so motivating him to take up residence in the USA and Britain, the consequences of which are painfully evident – and other progressive measures.

I know all this and it saddens me that it’s what I’m going back to, but it’s my country and my fight. I’ll be able to write angry letters to the editor based on my experience of life in the USA and getting up the ratbag politicians for wanting to go the same way. When at political rallies someone claims that corporations have the same rights as individuals, I’ll be able to yell “If America’s so bloody good, why don’t you go and live there?” and have the moral authority to do so.

In New South Wales, near the little farm I once lived on, is a well-preserved and vibrant 19th century gold-rush town named Gulgong, site of the last of “the poor man’s rushes”. It was my watering hole in the days when I drank and I used to sing every year at its Folk Festival. My dear, dear, entertainingly alcoholic friend, the late Jules Sackville lived there and I followed the horse and dray that bore him up Mayne Street to the cemetery where, at his request, I sang “Go To Sleep You Weary Hobo” over his grave.

Gulgong’s facades and most of its buildings have been preserved as National Heritage and among them are two of my favourite things, two wooden facades fronting stores built in the 19th century. One bears the legend “The Wonder of the World” and close by is the “American Emporium”. Whenever I looked at them, for some reason I thought of John Steinbeck and America. To me, John Steinbeck was America and America was the Wonder of the World, the Noble Experiment, the Great Idea, Democracy with a capital D and uninhibited by monarchy and class. Where is the America of my imagination? As an Australian I feel crushed by the dead weight of the religious bigotry and money-based caste system that are holding this country back. You, my dear American friends, may not be able to feel it, but as an Australian born and bred I do, and it scares me.

I was once a fervent anti-monarchist and hoped to see the Old Brown Land at last truly free of the English in my lifetime. Australia’s parliamentary system is a mix of both England’s and the USA’s and now I’m not sure if it doesn’t work better than both of those from which it drew.

I hope that this is only temporary, a blip in the continuum, and that soon the people will rise-up to reclaim their heritage, to stage another revolution, though bloodless this time, to reiterate what the first one sought: equality for all. Even better, perhaps my inborn Celtic love of sweeping, embroidered oratory has so clouded my thinking that all this is mere imagination, the hoop-de-doodle so frowned upon in the Palace Flop-House and Grill. I hope so, I truly hope so, because there is so much about this country and its people that I love. So, if you’ll allow me, when I’m not busy fighting to change Australia’s stupid bloody flag or railing at some other insult to the country that bore me, I’d like to drop you all the occasional line.

Farewell, my friends, and a thousand thank yous for making me feel so welcome.