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Thursday, 29 March 2018

Moschino takes a leaf out of Jeff Koons’ book

These posters I saw on the railway viaduct over Wentworth Park in Pyrmont. There were other posters of the same type in Newtown on the railway bridge over Enmore Road. They show a new brand of scent for men, but the marketing people are here advertising consumer products using tropes made popular in the art world, first by the pop artists of the 1960s, then by Jeff Koons starting in the 1980s. Sublimating a consumer product such as a floor cleaner and repurposing the packaging to sell a high-end product is a part of the cycle of reimagining and borrowing that has been going on in the art world for the past 50 years. You can now buy a bottle of fragrance to use when you go out to bars and restaurants that is packaged to look like a cleaning product. The reverberations of this innovation are endless. "Clean up your image!" "You wouldn't let your new girlfriend see a dirty floor, so how can you go out tonight without scent on your body?" "Get spick and span!" Everyone is familiar with these floor-cleaner bottles, so the new brand is immediately democratised in the marketplace, despite carrying a high price tag. I saw a 50ml bottle being advertised online for over $130.


Wednesday, 28 March 2018

AJ English foists a lame “gotcha” moment on the world

A video produced by Zab Mustafa and presented on-camera by Tabish Talib appeared on the social graph yesterday and was gaining some support of people opposed to Australia’s offshore detention policy. This is a very emotive subject and people take extreme views without much concern about the truth of the information they deploy to support their positions.

This dishonest video provides the media company with what it thinks is a classic case of the “gotcha” moment, but ironically it also serves to underscore the strength of Australia’s claim to be a major mid-level global power. If you want to be taken seriously out there, you have to be prepared for some untruths being told about you. Americans no doubt find this to be true a lot of the time. With Australia it often comes down to the issue of racism.


The video aims to criticise the Coalition government, and especially Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, for extending a hand of welcome to white South African farmers who are apparently suffering persecution in their home country. In order to claim that Dutton is being motivated by racism, the AJ English team contrasts his offer with his treatment of refugees who have been locked up by Australia’s Border Force in prisons on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, and on the Pacific island of Nauru. (The PNG refugees have now been released into the general community.)

The producers found two refugees, including one on Manus Island, Behrouz Boochani, who has been vocal in the past addressing the Australian community through articles in newspapers there. He is a Kurdish journalist. The other person the producers found is living in captivity on Christmas Island, which is located in a remote sector of the Indian Ocean.

At no point did the producers mention the reason for the offshore detention facilities, and neither did they say that the policy that funds them is bipartisan, meaning that both of the major political parties in Australia, the Coalition (Liberal-National) and the Australian Labor Party, own it. This is a damning aspect of the story and represents serious journalistic failure. Once upon a time, I subscribed to the satellite channel that carried Al Jazeera English but I would never go to them for information these days. They have no editorial standard for truth, and merely rely on sensationalism to achieve their editorial goals.

Because the offshore detention policy is bipartisan (actually it was introduced by the Keating ALP government in 1992), it is certain that the majority of Australian citizens agree with interrupting the business of people smugglers, who sell their services to desperate people flying from the Middle East to Indonesia and neighbouring countries, and put their lives at risk in unsafe boats on the high seas. I have written about refugees on the blog before, most recently on 14 August last year, when I suggested establishing a refugee processing centre in Jakarta.

Australia is a welcoming nation and has immigration at levels now that its people have never seen before. From the Australian Bureau of Statistics website:
The Census shows that Australia has a higher proportion of overseas-born people (26%) than the United States (14%), Canada (22%) and New Zealand (23%). What about the United Kingdom, you say? Not even close (13%).
Forty-nine percent of Australians have at least one parent born overseas. The country welcomes over 200,000 every year people (with a total population of 25 million) through its immigration programs, including the refugee program that the AJ English video attempts to criticise.

In fact, immigration levels are so high that there are now debates in the community about their sustainability. What those debates rarely focus on, however, is race. The major independent party that includes racism in its policy platform, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, only got 13 percent of the vote in the 2017 Queensland state election. Queensland is Hanson’s home state. They got one seat in the Parliament there. The issues most people talk about when they think about immigration these days are overcrowding on roads and on trains, and the high cost of residential accommodation (both rented and purchased).

These are much bigger issues for average Australians because they have to cope with them every day, and they are things that Australian cities, particularly Melbourne and Sydney, where most immigrants end up living, will have to deal with.

They go there because that’s where the jobs are. Ironically, in Sydney, it is the “small city” policies of the former ALP premier, Bob Carr, that are making the current Berejiklian Coalition government look so good. In power from 1995 to 2005, Carr had plenty of chances to build new rail lines to serve the city’s growing suburbs but failed each time. Even after he had stepped down as party leader in NSW, the party did not change its policies with regard to public transport. Now, the Coalition, the party of private enterprise, is doing what the ALP should have done all those years ago: build more public transport.

If you want to vote for a party that wants to close down the detention camps, you can choose the Australian Greens, although their support has never got beyond about 15 percent. In the 2018 Tasmanian state election, the Greens won just over 10 percent of the popular vote, and that brought them two seats. The result was down from almost 14 percent in the 2015 election. In South Australia, the 2018 state election brought the Greens about 6.6 percent, again down a couple of percent on the previous election. In the 2017 Queensland state election, the Greens won a seat in the Parliament with 10 percent of the vote, which was up a percent-and-a-half on the previous state election. In the federal Parliament, the Greens have controlled the balance of power in the Senate and that is currently their point of greatest influence in federal politics, which is where immigration policy is decided.

As for South African farmers, if they want to come to Australia, we should welcome them. South Africans have been coming here for years, most notably immediately before and after the dismantling of Apartheid-era government. But they should have to join the queue just like everyone else who wants a better life in a pluralist democracy.

Claims of racism are often still aimed at Australia because of the historical settlement that dated from federation in 1901, when the originary British colonies finally decided to come together as a single country with a single name. One of the first laws passed in the new Parliament that year was the so-called “White Australia” policy, and it remained in force until it began to be dismantled by Coalition governments in the late 1960s. It was finally expunged from the statutes in 1973 by the ALP’s Gough Whitlam, who brought in multiculturalism to replace it as official government policy. The subsequent Fraser Coalition government decided to keep multiculturalism on the statutes, making the policy bipartisan from the very beginning. Australia was only the second country in the world to adopt multiculturalism as official policy.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Book review: The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirahk (2015)

This is a strange book, part comic masterpiece and part fantasy novel, that explores the roots of nationalistic exceptionalism and the forces that power it in society.

The book turns on the life of a forest-dweller named Leemet whose uncle Voortele teaches to speak the language of snakes, which is s skill passed on to most forest-dwellers. At the time the novel opens most of the people living in the forest have left to live as peasants in villages, but Leemet’s mother goes the other way, bringing her two small children back to the forest to live. Her husband is killed by an amorous bear and she raises Salme and Leemet by herself.

Because the history opens at a liminal moment in the proposed historical time, things are changing and Leemet’s life is filled with strange events associated with the exodus of the foresters of Estonia to the towns, where they adopt Christian names and learn how to grow crops to make the bread that they need to survive on. In the forest, on the other hand, the denizens use the Snakish language to immobilise animals that once made docile can then be killed for meat.

One of the forest people who leaves early on is Leemet’s friend Partel, who has already learned Snakish but who abandons all trappings of forest life once he has been welcomed into the village. Leemet will also end up involved with a villager, after Leemet’s wife Hiie is killed, but things never seem to turn out well for the hero of this tale. He is unfortunately haunted by the animist druid Ulgas, who had tried unsuccessfully to sacrifice Hiie to propitiate the forest sprites. Both in the village and in the forest, Leemet is bedevilled by religious types who want people around them to conform to strange rules and practices and to go against their own rational instincts. Leemet has a healthy scepticism for the likes of both Ulgas and the monks in the monastery he listens to while courting Magdaleena, the daughter of a village elder.

The age we inhabit in the book can credibly be approximated to that of the Middle Ages. The German knights have taken over secular government and the monks are in charge of the spiritual lives of the people. Against this backdrop, the few holdouts among the people of the forest enjoy their peaceful lives, untroubled by wars and sacraments, unaffected by taxation, and supplied plentifully with venison and goat. But the old ways have their illogical die-hards as well, and trouble dogs Leemet and his family despite their mastery of Snakish, which allows them to talk with animals.

The book provides a formally complete portrait of a fictional world, in which people occupy certain stations and carry out their tasks in cooperation or in opposition to others. The very nature of history is furthermore examined in the book, especially in the way certain rules – bears are a bit stupid, are amorous, and are greedy, for example – are deployed to further the plot and to furnish material for characterisation.

Leemet’s good relations with the adders of the forest, for example, is used to advance the story at different points, and also serves to underscore how mythology can serve to provide the materials out of which religion is made. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world, and eventually those stories start to guide our actions. In his book on democracy John Keane looks at the extensive tribe of ancient Mesopotamian gods and the way their interactions inspired the people there to concoct originary stories that could be used to explain their world. One thing that Kivirahk does well is to show how such stories are used by the ruling classes in the societies that use them to maintain the status quo, the power structures that favour them personally, rather than to actually provide useful information to the people. This is certainly the case for the village dwellers Leemet meets and we could find any number of such notions in our contemporary world to substantiate the author’s views in this regard.

Kivirahk’s artistic accomplishment is to show how mythology functions but is also itself part of an ongoing conversation that Estonians, you imagine, have about their own cultural roots. The unashamedly self-conscious nature of the narrative is a tonic against the effects of the broader institutions it critiques.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Book review: Saudade, Suneeta Peres da Costa (2018)

Although unfortunately marred by some proofing errors, this is a lovely little novel about an Indian girl brought up in Angola during the colonial period. With a richness of insight and recall that belong to someone beyond her years we are introduced at the beginning of the book to the circumscribed world of a girl aged about three or four, and in successive chapters accompany her through life at different stages of it.

There is the age when she discovers that she is a separate being to her mother. There is the age when she first has to go to school. There is the age when she has her first period. There is the age of her confirmation. There is the age when she finds a boyfriend and makes love with him. And there is the age when political change will take her away from the places that were filled with so many memories.

The book is vanishingly short – I finished it in just a few hours – but the art involved in the telling is rich and deep. You are at one and the same time reading a book and living in the world of a small girl, brought up a Christian, with a father who is a colonial functionary and a mother whose second child, a boy, miscarries. It appears that the mother never recovers completely from this event.

The author is sure of her artistic vision and the way the stories emerge is perfect and absorbing. The imaginative world of youth is given scope to realise many things that otherwise might have been hidden, so that the child can make a credible story out of mere conversations with a school friend, or a chance encounter with a soldier in a cinema can become a source of later experience.

This is a wonderful book that can claim some relationship with the magical realism of the second half of the 20th century, mostly by Latin-American authors. Like the novels and novellas of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, the book is thick with referents and action (Marquez was a journalist before becoming a fictional author). It also uses the ellipsis suggestively to expand the scope of the plausible in a way that reminded me of that earlier work. Here is a scene from chapter one, for example, in which the author talks about a guava the servant, Caetano, brings her mother so that she can make breakfast for the family.
Its skin was green speckled black; it felt cool and heavy and I wondered what would happen if it hit the ground, whether it would split or roll away…
In another scene, the girl is listening as her mother and father talk about a revolt among the Africans known still today as the Baixa de Casanje revolt, and about a German cotton farmer, a client of her father’s, who was killed in a reprisal.
My mother was in the kitchen, standing by the open door and I was playing just outside, turning the large, asymmetrical ears of Crio inside out, watching them flop back when he got bothered with the flies…
De Costa’s use of the ellipsis to point to possibilities that might lie just beyond the actual is suggestive and fascinating. I cannot think of another place in fiction in recent times where I have seen it used in this way. There is something marvellous about this use of a simple orthographic convention to expand the scope of the narrative in complicated and enriching ways, to make the reader think beyond the edges of the intimate story as it is being told, to imagine other possible outcomes where it is used. In the hands of an author focalising her story through the eyes of a child, it fits a pattern set by the rest of the narrative.

The use of the ellipsis furthermore fits the historical backstory of the book, which deals with the diaspora created by Portuguese exploration and global commerce beginning in the 16th century, although it focuses solely on events occurring in the 20th. Things that happen on other continents that lie beyond the horizon are real for these characters in Luanda, the capital of Angola. The family’s origins in Goa, in southwest India, are for example a point of focus in the book, which ends when the girl is repatriated there after her father suicides using a pistol he kept in his office at home.

The novel resembles the classical exponents of magical realism in that it partly relies on such things as hearsay and rumour with their associated implications for character and plot, that are hinted at within the confines of the immediate narrative, to achieve its force.

There is much that is unsaid in the drama that is nevertheless real, such as the rise of revolutionary consciousness among the African inhabitants of the colony, that relies on seemingly incidental details being told at strategic points, making up a complex tapestry of facts that form a completely realised world.

And the end of the book links up with its beginning. In that earlier place, the little girl had kept herself busy imagining the dead who her mother had said would show themselves if they came for her during the night, because they would walk backwards on turned feet. In the book, the child makes herself take care to examine people’s feet so that she will be ready for the creatures if they should appear. At the end of the book, she returns to Goa, to her father’s house, although he is now deceased, thus completing the U-turn the family’s fortunes had traced on the map from the subcontinent, to Africa, and back again.

 “Saudade” is a Portuguese word that has no exact or precise cognate in English but represents a kind of longing or sadness. For me it referred to the lost world of the girl’s childhood in the colony. When I first read the book I imagined it was a memoir but I find online that da Costa was born in Sydney. The book was published in Australia by Giramondo.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Book review: Russian Roulette, Michael Isikoff and David Corn (2018)

Donald Trump doesn’t care what someone like me thinks of him. He communicates directly with a narrow base of support in the electorate that is shrinking but he ignores what people on the progressive side of politics say, except to rubbish any claims of skulduggery they might make. This book will be treated in the same way.

The books looks in detail at the Russian hack of the Democratic National Convention that resulted in a trove of incriminating emails being published by Wikileaks. Trump and his camp knew about the hack a long time before it was even admitted to publicly by the White House. Trump had been involved in Putin’s arc of influence for many years dating from his time staging the Miss World competition in Moscow, and his admiration of Putin, who had long controlled business ties between Russian firms and foreign nationals, dates from that time, around 2013. The links with Trump are manifold and Isikoff and Corn document them in detail.

When you see Trump on the newscasts walking from his helicopter and shouting to reporters “There was no collusion!” this book is what he is talking about. The FBI has set up a team to find cooperation in the Trump election camp prior to the November 2016 result and the Russian government.

The book is a bit boring however, full of insider gossip and Beltway intrigue that has nothing to do with middle America where elections are decided. While the authors suggest that Russian interference in the election process gravely influenced the outcome in 2016, it’s not conclusive (and how could it be?). It’s true that Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump had more carefully scripted his appearances to coincide with the type of disaffection of the middle required to get him over the line. He also had the advantage that he was coming at the contest from the Republican side, after eight years of Obama in leadership.

But there’s no doubt Trump has been soft on Putin, one of the world’s most dangerous demagogues, and the supremo of a blind kleptocracy where money and revanchist sentiment aimed at the West can achieve almost anything. Then again, Trump is a businessman, so Putin would naturally be the type of leader he would gravitate to. They both share the same interests, and the well-being of liberal democracy is not one of them. Trump is more concerned about his private businesses than supporting progressives – noisy, troublesome nonentities – in eastern Europe. The Ukraine? Trump absolutely supports Putin’s political moves in that sphere of influence. Putin is a man Trump can understand and relate to: money talks.

While illuminating, the book is a bit tiresome for the reasons already outlined. I made it just over halfway through before giving up out of boredom.  You wonder when the penny will drop with Americans that their narrow concerns are not shared with populations in other countries in the world. With this kind of political reporting, it’s no wonder they have so many wicked problems in the States: a gerrymandered electoral system, an inefficient healthcare system (it costs the country 50 percent more than the OECD average but mortality strikes Americans on average three years earlier than the OECD average), a chronically-underpaid class of working poor, a criminal lack of concern about the wellbeing of young people, who live all the time with the threat of being shot at school. With problems like these, the influence of the Russian president in the 2016 US federal election shows up on your radar as something like a minor scandal.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Is the 21st century a promising age for autocrats?

Last year we had the 19th party congress rubber-stamping decisions already made about China’s leadership behind closed doors, and this year we have Putin’s “reelection” in a rigged popularity contest where the only viable contender was forbidden by corrupt justices from running. There were staged elections in Egypt. Cambodia’s Hun Sen, in power for the past 40 years, visited Sydney for an ASEAN meeting. In late December and early January there were widespread protests in Iran over official corruption. The only place that has been quiet has been Thailand, where the generals are still in power having ousted the elected prime minister in 2014. Yes, it was that long ago and still no elections there. I’ll have a pad see ew, thanks.

China and Russia are making it easier for petty autocrats like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and General Prayut Chan-o-cha to take and keep power. And the resurgent prevalence of autocracy is being driven by resentment. There is a French term for it: “revanchism”. The term dates from the inter-war years when the German people were mobilised by the Nazis through a democratic process they ultimately dismantled to seek revenge on the allied powers following the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, which formed the full-stop to WWI. In China and in Russia the people are powering resurgent nationalism in order that their countries can lay claim to what they see as their deserved places in the world.

You might say that something similar is happening in the US, but at least there Trump has a limited tenure, although an Australian I know who lives in the US and has done for 40 years, worries about Trump resorting in the end to dictatorship.

China justifies its power grab by claiming that Western standards in the province of human rights are alien to its culture, but the fact is that they are happy to take advantage of everything else that Europe has offered up that is constructive and meaningful, such as technology and science. Even though these things derived from the same Humanist push that resulted in the emergence of representative democracy.

In the beginning, there was no boundary separating the ideals of the researcher in the physical sciences and the struggle for individual fiat. The desire for accurate translations of the Bible from its constituent originary languages into local vernaculars combined with the rediscovery of the classics of Rome to fuel scholarship in northern Europe. The popular journals that published treatises describing new scientific discoveries for the benefit of the broader populace also critiqued imaginative fictions describing injustices righted by sublunary heroes. The men who voted for local representatives in Parliament also ran the companies that converted scientific discoveries into useful technologies. The children of those men formed communities of opinion that helped to dislodge oppressive laws from the statutes.

An ironic twist in this derives of course from the fact that the powerhouse of the Enlightenment project, the Protestant middle classes, were manifestly sustained by revanchism in their personal and professional lives. They were naturally Christians and so relied on a religion founded on a fantasy of revenge over an injustice ultimately corrected through the so-called Ascension. Being Protestants, they were doubly motivated by revanchist sentiment because their breakaway churches were founded on the back of claims of corruption within the preeminent church of Catholicism.

The working classes as well were furthermore motivated to support the leadership in countries like England through the use of othering. Although their wages barely kept them alive and infant mortality was a crushing weight on morale because of disease resulting from poor access to clean drinking water, the men of England freely gave their allegiance to an unbroken line of kings and queens and patriotically lost life and limb in war after war waged against the hated French, and for novelty the hated Dutch. The way that popular culture of the time painted national heroes in hues deeply coloured by nationalistic exceptionalism is a template for how popular sentiment in China is manufactured by the Communist Party at will against the Japanese, for example, or against the Americans in Iran by the mullahs.

You can see where this is all heading. Here are aspects of European history that the leaders of China and Russia can positively embrace because they ideally fit their narratives. They say that the West has for too long humiliated their national pride and it is time to rebalance the ledger, and exact exemplary punishment. So hail to the chief!

Traditional narratives of revenge are easy to come by in any number of secular books in any case – take the fairytale Cinderella for example – and so even though they might profess unease about accusations of autocracy levelled at Putin and Xi the people in those countries still accede to the temptation to come out into the streets to support them. The 21st century promises a rocky ride unless the Russians and the Chinese can be tempted to alter the narrative and force their leaders to surrender temporal power to the demos.

Just as a coda to this little essay, it struck me the other night when thinking about this post that Francesco Petrarca, who launched the Renaissance by writing Italian-language love poetry and reintroducing the letters of Cicero to the popular imagination, had relocated his household to the south of France where he heard the French songs of the troubadours. So the Enlightenment project, from which stems everything that we prize, was begun by an immigrant.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Twitter is becoming more like the world

Facebook might be more in the news lately because of its links to big data firm Cambridge Analytica but Twitter is still chugging along nicely. Yet it is true that it is changing in important ways. In a story at The Verge dated 14 March published to coincide with the annual SXSW conference in Texas, Ev Williams, the founder of both Blogger and Twitter, said:
“Fifteen years ago, when we were coming here to Austin to talk about the internet, it was this magical place that was different from the rest of the world,” said Williams, now the CEO of Medium, at a panel over the weekend. “It was a subset” of the general population, he said, “and everyone was cool. There were some spammers, but that was kind of it. And now it just reflects the world.” He continued: “When we built Twitter, we weren’t thinking about these things. We laid down fundamental architectures that had assumptions that didn’t account for bad behavior. And now we’re catching on to that.”
I tend to agree with Williams, and have written about the polarisation that is tending to characterise social media, notably on 24 July last year. But you often erroneously hear that social media is creating echo chambers where people are only confronted by views that agree with their own. I think the opposite is in fact true. When you subscribe to a hashtag, for example, you get a wide variety of people tweeting things from a number of different viewpoints. Even people you follow will often put up views that disagree with their own, in order, as is always the case, to help create community, to stir up debate and forge conversations.

What is happening, and Williams has talked about this before, as I noted in a blogpost dated 22 May last year, is that we are now seeing a broader cross-section of the world on social media. It’s not just the early adopters any more, it’s everyone. And the quality of the text you read online betrays this heterogeneous provenance. You find people who cannot spell, who cannot use punctuation correctly, who do not know how to phrase things in a logical or persuasive way. Who are just averagely-educated. Or even badly-educated.

And on Twitter you get more of this variety than you do on Facebook, where you have to get people to follow you back in order to be connected. On Twitter, it’s more like the world than it is on Facebook. And it’s a wild place sometimes, a place where you are likely to find yourself confronted in unexpected and novel ways.

These days, Twitter is where I spend most of my time. I might refresh Facebook every few hours or so and spend a few minutes scrolling through the resulting News Feed to see what other people are saying. But most of my time is spent on TweeetDeck. I have multiple channels set up, including a hashtag (#auspol) and a second account I made which mostly follows people who just post book reviews. I can get plenty of content from Twitter on a continual basis, where I might just spend a few minutes on Facebook every two hours or so.

For the book reviews I write, which I publish most days, Facebook and Twitter both give me readers. I can see where the clicks are coming from using the analysis tools provided by the blogging platform. The tail is longer with Facebook, however, because of the way the platform times the release of content in the News Feeds of people you are connected with. With Twitter, the hit is quick and short-lived.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Book review: The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton (2018)

Jaxie Clackton possesses a mouthful of a name but you have to remember that by bestowing it on his hero Winton is making a point. His creation is an unseemly young man, from an abusive family background, and he probably doesn’t know how to conduct himself in polite company.

The name is designed to fit the youth like a skin. It fills out in strange places with crooked rawness but his movements are animated by what is supposed to be an endearing quantity of honest sentiment. Never mind that when he talks to himself he sounds like a criminal. We’re supposed to give the boy the benefit of the doubt, as we would wish the cops would. The police are in the frame because Jaxie finds his father trapped and dead underneath a car the wheels of which the old man had removed, for repair presumably. And so Jaxie hits the road, not waiting around to be blamed for the death.

The book starts out with Jaxie driving a Jeep on the open road, the wind in his hair and a lamb chop that he is eating gripped in his free hand. Jaxie’s father was a butcher and on the night he had found the old man bleeding on the floor of the garage, Captain Wankbag, as Jaxie dubs him, had beaten his son senseless and thrown him into the shop’s bone box, a place for refuse to be thrown away. You can hardly blame Jaxie for skedaddling, but unfortunately the glamour of the bumptious wears a bit thin and you can’t be bothered reading about a gormless fool with an underdeveloped sense of his own worth.

Painting the delineations of disadvantage is a worthwhile task for any writer but Winton has made a name for himself doing so, ever since his first novels came out in the 1980s. His misshapen, awkward heroes live on the fringes of mainstream society and no doubt Winton feels for them with great intensity. But it’s not enough for a novelist just to have good intentions, you also have to deploy art to embellish your accounts of the lives of the disenfranchised and desperate. For Winton, the task is too much for him to muster the necessary resources, at least in this novel, to keep me interested.

There have never been so many novel ways of describing the average Australian, as we see with the ABC’s TV shows ‘Upper Middle Bogan’ and ‘Sando’, both of which manufacture humour that skirts the boundaries between the middle and working classes. The model for such productions of course were the comic creations Prue and Trude of Gina Riley and Jane Turner. These two women belong to the elites but they work in retail, and it is in the gap in their banter between their expectations and the realities of their lives that the humour arises.

Doing the working class in Australia well can be achieved, as Melanie Cheng showed us this year with the story ‘Macca’ in her short story collection ‘Australia Day’. The eponymous character is a member of the underclass and we see him in his occasional meetings with his doctor, Emily Garret. Cheng has experience working with all sorts of Australians as she is a GP herself as well as being a writer. Macca has to stop drinking otherwise the police will put him in jail, so he’s seeing Garret for help with the withdrawal symptoms. One day, he isn’t home when his case worker comes to check up on him, and she calls Garret to let her know. Garret knows that if Macca absconds, the police can pick him up. Then she calls him on his mobile and gets through. It turns out he’s on his way to the Northern Territory. He sounds positive, upbeat even. But the conversation is brief. Cheng leaves us wondering what will happen to Macca. But she also leaves us thinking about the feelings that Garret has for her patient. It’s a complex and interesting snapshot out of the annals of Australian life, an unadorned glimpse into reality of a kind that Winton is signally unable to furnish us with.

The problem with Winton’s book is one of focalisation. If you need to use a focalising subject who has a different education level or set of experiences from you, the author, in order to achieve the artistic objectives you have for the work, then you need to decide how you are going to handle such basics of composition as the use of metaphors. Since James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922) writers have been able to use stream-of-consciousness to achieve their artistic goals. The famous Molly Bloom scene in that book is a good example of how a writer can use a poorly-educated character to focalise his or her narrative to good effect. In Cheng’s case it isn’t a problem because the focalisation in the story is through the GP.

Other writers have been able to do what Joyce did, for example Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, both from the US, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Columbian writer. They gave us credible characters who were from poor backgrounds, significantly at odds from the point of view of education and expressive power from those of the authors, and pulled off the trick.

But Winton seems to be conforming to a different tradition, an early exponent of which was Peter Carey’s awful ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ (2001), where the author used some extant historical documents upon which to base his formulation of the criminal’s verbal delivery. (The book won the 2001 Booker Prize.) Marlon James tried a similar thing in the unreadable ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ (2014) where he focalises parts of the narrative through a character who is barely verbal. The reader struggles to come to grips with reality in any form, and the attempt fails disastrously. (The book won the 2015 Man Booker Prize.)

The problem is where the author totally hands over word choice and control over the expressive machinery of the narrative to the character him- or herself. If you do that you severely circumscribe the limits of poetic scope, and it is within these that the plot unfolds. You basically give up your authorial voice and put the controls of the vehicle in the hands of an amateur. Imagine letting a novice drive a car even though they can’t get out of second gear. The car will struggle to travel faster than 30 kilometres per hour. This is where Winton, Carey and James fall down. They don’t fully realise their intellectually-challenged characters, in the way that Joyce did, for example, or Faulkner. It is a failure of art and unfortunately it is a catastrophic one.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Book review: Shadow Enclave, Steve P Vincent (2018)

This misshapen thriller is the product of a man with no respect either for human life or for his readers. The cruel logic that drives the narrative in the book is satisfied only by blood, and as a result people die like flies without any warning, and without any reason evident.

The characterisation is very thin, with the lead female, Erica Kearns, behaving in such unbelievable ways that she seems to be mentally retarded. One moment clinging helplessly to the rugged frame of Mitch Herron, the main character, the next bucking up and accepting the truth of his superior wisdom. Just in time to get into the car and drive. It’s got that sort of logic, this dreary book.

The action, as in the measured progress of events, is shatteringly devoid of grace or purpose. People and events flicker in and out of focus as invisible enemies appear for an instant one moment and then disappear the next, giving you barely enough time to get your bearings before the next murder, the next car crash, the next busload of passengers incinerated by assassins fleeing on motorbikes.

In this alien environment located entirely outside the law and outside the domain of art people kill and defend themselves without thinking or else they can expect to have a short lifespan. The author has no time or appetite for character development and therefore his plot judders along like an old clunker with a broken gearbox, shuddering to a halt one moment and spastically lurching forward the next. In this maelstrom of incessant violence Mitch seems to function on autopilot, like a robot controlled by an algorithm and cranked up to supersonic speed, and there is no time for poetry of any kind.

It’s a sick world of little feeling and impossible tasks, a sort of childhood fantasy-become-real where monsters lurk behind every door and under every floorboard. It has nothing to do with the world I live in, or with the world any of Vincent’s readers live in. It is a fantasyland as artificial as an overpriced Disney resort, yet the cover says the book is a sequel to a novel that attained best-seller status. People in the broader community are more desperate or less discerning that I ever imagined possible. This book sucks big time.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Book review: The Museum of Words, Georgia Blain (2017)

This dull memoir rambles on relentlessly about the author’s mother, broadcaster Anne Deveson, and about her daughter, Odessa. Any drama a book about three generations of women might have contained has to be provided by the author’s diagnosis of a brain tumour.

The tumour is removed from her skull, but she then has to undergo chemotherapy, and it is in the pauses in the treatment before she is completely well – the diagnosis anyway was terminal, even after surgery – that she dredges up a few hours each day to write in. The pathos is so thick you can cut it with a knife, and I wager the book’s editors were counting on this aspect of the manuscript to drive sales of an otherwise dreary book.

As much as it is scintillating to learn about Anne Deveson, an early Australian talk-back radio host, and about Odessa, who encouragingly demonstrates a penchant for writing herself, there is little that gels into a recognisable theme, although we know from reading the memoir that Blain had come across the fictionalised memoirs of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Blain makes an ambitious claim for her own production purely by dint of mentioning his ruggedly adept and interesting books.

But where Knausgaard manages to shape his material into a credible narrative that follows the boy and then the man through his life, building a character that you can relate to at many different points, in Blain’s case nothing similar happens. Her paragraphs just sort of roll out one after another laden with a collection of banal insights and unrealised stories hanging in suspension like silt, making a sluggish river on its way over the flatlands of the reader’s attention with the occasional loop and morass as she reverts to discussing her precious mother’s career or changes to pointing out the importance of her daughter’s Latin translations. You furthermore sense a lack of fundamental insight into the strength of her own literary powers when she occasionally goes too fast, for example when trying to describe the physical details of the brain tumour. She is not really on top of her material at any point and the mundane plotting and tin-eared pacing betray a lack of control over it.

Some might isolate a few moments of interest in the tales of family drama Blain chronicles with unabashed self-importance, but I failed to find anything universal to relate to. Rather, I suspect that it was probably partly the effects of the illness that resulted in such bland pabulum as she interminably dishes up for the reader. The editors evidently forgave the author for being so unashamedly boring due to her physical ailment.

I want to make a few remarks about the way the book has been packaged, too, including the conspiratorial and suggestive subtitle, “a memoir of language, writing and mortality.” The cover is equally ambitious in its effort to locate the book within the province of the feminine. There was little of interest to me in this ruthlessly prosaic book and I made it about 50 percent of the way through before giving up in frustration.

Monday, 19 March 2018

The man walks out in SA election

I stayed up late on Saturday night to watch to the end of the post-election coverage on the ABC News channel. The South Australian election was the main topic of discussion at the commentary desk but there was also a federal by-election in Batman, a Melbourne inner-city electorate, where the Australian Labor Party (ALP) had been up against the Australian Greens.

Within 25 minutes of the premier, Jay Weatherill, conceding defeat on national television in the SA contest, the incoming leader, Stephen Marshall of the Liberal Party entered the Hackney Hotel, a pub on the outskirts of Adelaide, accompanied by music chosen by organises to embellish and distinguish the event. It was The Killers singing ‘The Man’. The band had been formed in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2001 and the song had a dirty undercurrent of 70s funk mixed with lyrics sung in a loose and raw post-punk style. The lyrics are pure rap-macho, daring the listener to challenge the band’s outgrown sense of self importance.
I know the score like the back of my hand
Them other boys, I don't give a damn
They kiss on the ring, I carry the crown
Nothing can break, nothing can break me down
Such misogynistic chest-thumping and nightclub posturing might have suited neoliberal youths representing the new generation in the hotel crowd, but they led to comments online. There were feels. Many thought them unsuitable. Marshall had just unseated a 16-year Labor government after an electoral boundary reshuffle and a result actually showing a 1.5-percent swing to the ALP. Weatherill had conceded defeat but he hadn’t stepped down as ALP leader. The vast majority of the Liberals due to enter Parliament following the election had never held office before. One Liberal, who sat on the commentary panel alongside the ABC’s anchor Annabel Crabb, had served in the last Liberal SA government all those years ago and by himself constituted the collective memory of leadership for the successful party.

The song stroked many people the wrong way. Why had the state, so strong for the ALP, suddenly gone Liberal? Many were asking the question, but one thing was certain, the transfer of power would be successfully accomplished. The threat of populism embodied by the SA Best party, led by ex-federal senator Nick Xenophon, had been overcome. They hadn’t won more than about 14 percent of the vote in any seat for the lower house of Parliament. But no matter how many people resented the ALP’s loss, the Liberals would take control the following week.

The election was held, as is usual in Australia, on the Saturday. By Monday, the state governor, who reports to the queen in England, would have carried out his remit by acceding to the popular will and sworn-in the leaders of the new government. Deal done.

Why is it so hard for other countries to do this kind of thing? Australia is the world’s fourth-oldest democracy, so we have a lot of elections under our belt. But it can’t be so hard. Russia? China? Egypt? Thailand? Cambodia? Why can’t the old men in power in those countries give it up gracefully and thereby recognise the power of popular fiat?

On Sunday afternoon, ABC psephologist Antony Green was tweeting about the results of undecided seats like Adelaide and Mawson. Votes were still being counted. Weatherill finally announced publicly that he would stand down as ALP leader in the state. The machine was working. Why can’t other countries solve the riddle? The orderly transfer of power without violence. What is stopping the old men in those countries from recognising the sovereignty of their people? What do they fear? That their ill-gotten gains will result in them ending up in jail? They want to enjoy the proceeds of their thievery in old age, like any routine superannuant. The poor things. I feel so sorry for them.

An unsolicited coda to the election emerged on Sunday night when it was reported that bushfires were burning in the town of Tathra, on the NSW south coast. ABC reporter Peta Doherty was on the ground on the cross to Jason Om, an anchor who had written movingly about his conversations about the same-sex marriage debate with his immigrant father last year. Doherty had been evacuated from her house in the town to the nearby centre of Bega and promised Om that she would provide crosses from there later when things settled down. Houses had been lost in the conflagration and the NSW Rural Fire Service was fighting blazes at multiple points. It was just another working day in a functional democracy.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Book review: Off the Record, Craig Sherborne (2018)

A comic novel is a bit of a rarity in Australian fiction these days. This one reminded me of the work of Morris Lurie (1938-2014). I remember reading his ‘Rappaport’ (1966) when I was a very young man and enjoying its sly humour. But even more potently this novel reminded me of Martin Amis’ ‘Money’ (1984) insofar as the main character is highly distasteful and in the end receives his comeuppance. With Sherborne’s invention, Callum Smith, however, the knife finally dropping barely dents his sociopathic instincts.

Callum is 48 and is married to Emma, who is two years younger, and they have a son, Oliver, who is 14 years old and struggling at secondary school. Callum is unfaithful one night with a woman in a parking lot and Emma is told and he is forced to move out of the comfortable family home, to a one-bedroom apartment located above a shop in another Melbourne suburb. Callum continues to come over to do the gardening and make Emma breakfast-in-bed, and to talk with his son. But he finds out that Emma has been seeing a man, whose name turns out to be Gordon Grace, and Callum sets Ollie to spying on his mother to find out more about Grace, who he discovers is the owner of a chain of nursing homes and lives in the tony enclave of Toorak.

Callum’s evil propensities trigger many such bizarre behaviours. One day, he uses a phone box on a suburban street to report Grace to the tax office for fraud, based on nothing more substantial than his own sense of entitlement and the malice it inspires. He also recruits a private investigator he knows named Peeko Mellich to dig up dirt on Grace. Mellich will appear at different times in the novel whenever Callum has plans that need a little extra effort to progress. In the telephone-booth scene we are shown an additional dimension of Callum’s character: he is frightened of catching some unnamed disease from the phone handpiece, which he imagines is only normally used by what Sherborne calls “deros” (short for “derelicts” in Australian slang) and drug addicts. His fussy self-regard is highlighted in this scene: he’s happy to see others suffer but is careful to make sure he gets an easy ride himself.

Callum is employed by a news website named “pry” that relies for its material on deaths and disasters. It’s definitely tabloid in its aspirations, eschewing serious subjects like politics and international affairs in favour of murder and infanticide. One reporter, Mei Tran, is relegated to the court beat, but when she sees a dead body for the first time she is physically ill. Callum thinks she doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude for the job and manipulatively informs two of the other young reporters about it.

The sobriquet “Words” is applied to Callum and has been for some time now. It is short for “wordsmith” because of his facility with language. At the beginning of the book, I wondered a bit about the author’s distance from his creation because of this conceit. From the outset Sherborne uses short, punchy sentences that I was suspicious of in the light of his hero’s nickname, especially since the author himself has worked as a journalist. I almost put the book down at one point early on but relented and I’m glad I continued because it turned out to be a very fine novel.

Professionally, Callum is just as unethical as he is in his dealings with his family. While he threatens an English teacher, named Gumm, with unspecified disaster if his news outlet turns its attention to bear on the private school where he works, in order to get the man to give his son better marks on assignments, at pry Callum ropes in a junior named Katie Brooks to organise a “stoning” at a local church. The ruse involves conscripting a local homeless person (another “dero”) named Alice to enter the church during a service and ask for money. When the congregants throw her out of the church, the journalists plan to jump in and capture the action on their mobile phones. The resulting images would constitute material for a story designed to impugn selfish motives to the church. The journalists think the story would be sure to gain a lot of clicks.

Comically, the fishing expedition fails and the congregants liberally hand Alice money. Other things don’t turn out the way the calculating Callum wants, as well, but to give away too much would be to spoil the novel for potential readers. To sum up, Callum is a manipulative, cruel, egotistical and callow creature and yet he retains the reader’s interest. This is the point where Sherborne’s true art shines through.

Callum’s propensity to create mayhem for this enemies and to smooth the way for his own plans is alarming at face value but we are aware as we are reading that what he does to an extreme degree resembles at least in kind what anyone normally does or thinks in the course of their quotidian lives. (I contemplated saying “quotidian routine” but realised that Words would comment archly on the tautology.) His efforts to succeed, for example to progress his son’s scholastic career, might be devious and unfair at first glance, but many people would do similarly grubby things on a daily basis if they could get away with them. Or at least they fantasise about it. Deep down, we are all a bit like Callum Smith.

I also thought the novel timely, in light of the way the media is dealt with on social media. If Amis’ anti-hero John Self in ‘Money’ is the ultimate Thatcherite shyster and ad-man, Callum Smith is the ultimate journo-on-the-make for the post-internet world. Social media has forever changed the nature of the public sphere, and journalists play a highly visible role in that world. The degree of vituperation aimed at journalists is often alarming, and while on the surface Callum justifies the anger they receive in such short messages, he is also something of a tonic within this matrix of meaning and sentiment where poor spelling colludes with bad grammar to unmask the ignorant and uninformed.

His struggles in life are just as mundane and prosaic as anyone else’s but the difference is that he belongs to the same breed of professional that hacked into the phone account of murdered English schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Given his talents and the opportunities offered by his position, many people in the broader community would readily make the same choices in life he does.

Journalists are on the back foot globally because of the way the internet has disrupted their industry, and because of the US president’s popular “fake news” epithet. They need a little moral support, and the strength of characterisation and quality of plotting that you find in this wonderful book serves that purpose.

Back in May 2008 I favourably reviewed Sherborne’s memoir ‘Hoi Polloi’ (2005) and my reading of the new novel reinforces the vivid impression I received at that time, so long ago now it seems, of real talent. Sherborne was born in the same year I was and he went to Scots College in Bellevue Hill, just up the road from Cranbrook, where I was at school. He also lived with his parents after they migrated from New Zealand in Vaucluse, where I lived with my family. His mother probably visited the gift shop my mother and grandmother operated in Vaucluse shopping centre.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Book review: Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews (2013)

This page-turner quickly proved its value and drew me into a world of pursuit and flight, deception and loyalty, love and hate. At the core of the novel sits Dominika Egorova, a thwarted ballet dancer who was forced to quit dance school because of the unethical and criminal conduct of two other students. This plot device sets the tone for much of the novel, where life in Russia is characterised by forces that operate in the shadows, a place where the vectors of crime and money intersect with disturbing frequency.

Dominika enters Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, after she is involved in an assassination of an enemy of the president, Vladimir Putin, who will henceforth take a special interest in her career. It helps also that her uncle, Vanya, is a senior bureaucrat in the organisation. She is sent to “Sparrow School”, where both male and female operatives are taught the arts of seduction and coercion so that they can be more effective spies.

Her first posting is to Helsinki, where she is ordered to recruit Nate Nash, a young CIA operative who the SVR thinks is running a high-ranking agent, codenamed Marble, in Moscow. To do this, she starts swimming at the municipal pool where Nash swims. There is a lovely passage in this part of the book where the focalisation swaps from one of them to the other as they are both swimming lengths side by side along the pool. The transition is masterfully done and demonstrates that Matthews is in full control of his material.

Action scenes where people are killing each other or making love in the novel however tend to fray a bit around the edges, showing disconcerting gaps in the narrative material and to a degree the reader’s interest lapses at these points, but for the most part Matthews’ technique is adequate for the tasks at hand. There is another nice passage, near the end of the book when Nash contravenes orders and travels from Athens to Estonia, that shows how fine Matthews’ technique can be at times. In this passage, the sentences run together all in a rush, as though the author is struggling to keep up with the drama in Nash’s mind as he negotiates all the obstacles in his path on his quest to reach his destination, and to see Dominika – with whom, by this time, he las fallen in love – once again before she goes back behind the curtain.

Dominika is recruited at the outset by Nash and his colleagues Marty Gable (deputy chief of station) and Tom Forsyth (chief of station), rather than her recruiting him. She is motivated to switch loyalties because of something that had happens to Marta Yelenova, who also worked in the Helsinki SVR office under rezident Volontov. When she appears in the novel, Marta is aged around 50 but used to be a “sparrow” herself, and she and Dominika share stories and build a friendship in the SVR office’s otherwise alienating environment. But an operation the SVR was conducting goes awry and Marta is slated for liquidation and is killed by the SVR using the shadowy assassin Sergey Matorin, who we come across again later in the book. Dominika is wretched in the face of such cruelty and Nash is able to recruit her to work for the CIA, however she is whisked back to Moscow and tortured in an effort to extract the truth about the aborted operation.

The drama follows the unfaltering pace of the novel as it negotiates such plot twists in its onward rush to an anticipated conclusion. But one weakness in the novel is the different ways that the operatives on the two sides are drawn by the author. On the Russian side the higher-ranking officers in the SVR tend to be clumsy, venal and ambitious, keen most of all to please their masters and not very bright when it comes to running agents. This is surprising because it is suggested that it is in Russia that you find in the broader society the kinds of shadowy subterfuges that typify spying operations. On the American side however, the characterisation is richer and each of the operatives takes on a unique identity, one that is carefully drawn to create a varied tapestry where individual enterprise is seen to be valued, although Matthews makes passing reference to careerists in the agency on his side of the Atlantic as well.

Gable, for example, is an engaging character with plenty of experience under his belt that serves to enrich his conversation, and he is especially charming when it comes to talking about the different kinds of food he has eaten in his wide travels. On the subject of food, by the way, each chapter in the book comes with a recipe at the end for one of the dishes served up for the characters in the chapter just finished. I didn’t read these little vignettes after the first few as they don’t add to the plot, but they illustrate the kind of detail that spies work with in their daily work. Knowing how to make something as simple as a cheese fondue, such as Gable makes for Nate and Dominika one night in Helsinki, underscores the kind of curiosity the service values in its operatives.

Like Gable, Simon Benford, a senior operative who is chief of counterintelligence based in Virginia, is richly drawn. Matthews develops Benford’s character slowly and deliberately so that he can be trusted by the reader. Trust is essential for credibility in the spy’s universe of lies and deceit, and is one of the things that motivates Dominika, who the CIA is trying to make sure of. At the end of the book it is still not certain whether she will remain active as an agent for the agency or if she will hang up her boots. The book thus ends up in the air, preparing the ground for a sequel.

Like the little recipes, another authorial device Matthews relies on, this time to furnish material for character development, is Dominika’s synaesthesia. She sees coloured haloes, or mantles, behind the heads of the people she meets that give her information about the person she is talking with. Yellow means the person cannot be trusted, and purple means they can be, and there are different intensities of colour as well. Unfortunately, the device isn’t ever used actively to advance the plot, so it is not intimately worked into the novel’s fabric and remains a kind of tic that does more to distract the reader than anything else.

Central to the plot is the love affair that develops between Nate and Dominika. Given the context within which this happens, it was difficult to do, but the author is successful in delineating a relationship based on trust and a real physical attraction. Nate is a dedicated officer whose first priority is always the safety of his agents. Ensuring that they can continue to operate, provide intelligence, and stay safe, is his sole focus, and it is on the integrity of such relationships that the agency relies as it goes about its business.

The book is going to be turned into a movie, so readers will have another opportunity to contemplate its subterranean world when it hits the screen. There are also sequels available to purchase if this one gave you the satisfying experience you expect when you buy a book. It’s topical furthermore in light of the attempted assassination in the UK with a nerve agent of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal that caught up also his daughter Yulia.

More broadly, the nature of the intelligence services is something that everyone should bring themselves to contemplate. In times of peace these organisations continue to operate in almost total obscurity under the banner of democracy and the freedoms that it embodies, but the lengths that their officers go to to accomplish their tasks are anything but honest and open. And they are operating in our names, but we know almost nothing about them. Books like this one pull back the veil momentarily, allowing us to scrutinise the kinds of activities that are carried out for our sakes, day in and day out, in the communities we live in.

In this regard, one aspect of the book that rang false for me is when an agent, a Californian senator, uses a device given to her by the SVR to suicide when she is unmasked. The newspapers in the story report that she died from a heart attack. I’m not sure that this kind of subterfuge could reliably be carried out by the CIA on American soil. It might have happened, but I have serious doubts about it. It should not happen, however, and this is one reason why we should know more about how our intelligence agencies work. More transparency is needed. Matthews is a former CIA operative, and is almost as good as a novelist – though not quite – as John le Carre, who notably had worked for MI5 and MI6.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Book review: Autonomous, Annalee Newitz (2017)

I gave it a good shot but I regret to say that this genre novel’s dystopian world bored me silly. It just doesn’t drag you in, and relies instead on such standard sci-fi strategies as robots and crime to spark the reader’s interest.

The novel opens with Jack Chen, who is a pirate of an ethnic Asian background who lives in North America and who deals in contraband drugs. She drives a submarine around the globe transporting her cargo from source to market. The most recent cargo was a product named Zacuity, invented by a company named Zaxy, that enhances the user’s work experience. A student in Calgary had been so badly affected by a batch from Jack’s hold that she wouldn’t stop doing her homework. The story hit the news.

The scenes with Jack are interleaved with others that take place in the Sahara Desert with a robot named Paladin. The robot has a human brain at its cognitive core that is wired into an artificial neural network to enhance its operation, but Paladin has no memories and doesn’t know where the brain came from. Paladin is new and is being sent on a mission along with a human named Eliasz, who hails originally from Poland, by the International Property Coalition, to find and stop Jack.

There are opportunities to generate real human drama in the book but the author is more interested in the technologies she is inventing to power the plot. The emotional disconnect you have is total, and Jack is even able to kill an intruder in her submarine with a thrown knife without batting an eyelid. She goes into her kitchen and programs a printer to make herself a set of cement boots with which to dispose of the robber’s body. Threezed, a human indentured into a form of slavery to the robber, enters the story as Jack assesses the damage caused by the intrusion.

Yet there is no emotional bond in evidence for any of the characters. Science fiction often has this problem, but creating plotlines that rely on moments of excessive pathos – the story of the slave Threezed for example – are no substitute for real human emotions. There is nothing here to hold onto if the technological ploys fail to get your pulse racing. For me, it was all just window dressing.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Talking about the social housing model, Common Ground

This is the latest in a series of blogposts on this blog about homelessness. This time, I spoke with Felicity Reynolds, who is CEO at the Mercy Foundation in Sydney. About 10 years ago, Reynolds was involved in bringing the Common Ground system of social housing to Australia from the US, where it had been developed initially in New York City. In this interview, Reynolds mentions another interview which appeared on this blog at the end of October, that I did with Housing First founder Sam Tsemberis. 

This interview took place at the beginning of January, but I held off publishing because it contains information about the number of homeless deriving from the 2016 Census that had not been finalised at the time by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I told the ABS I would wait until their final numbers were published, which happened yesterday.

MdS: Alright, so [the voice recorder is] running. I wanted to ask you about the Common Ground system in Australia. My understanding is that you were involved with this from the very beginnings. Can you give me some background about your involvement?

Yes, sure. In 2007 – and I’d been managing homelessness services at the City of Sydney for some time at that point – I actually got a Churchill Fellowship because rough sleepers and solutions to people who have been experienced chronic street homelessness had become quite a passion. I got a Churchill Fellowship to specifically look at that issue right across the world, to see what were the most effective programs and practices etcetera. And so I had been in touch with Roseanne Haggerty – and by the way Sam Tsemberis as well in relation to Housing First and whatnot – and so as part of my Churchill Fellowship I visited a number of places that were doing good work, that were getting people who were chronically homeless into permanent housing. And obviously a couple of places I went to included Common Ground in New York and included Pathways to Housing that Sam runs (and you know a bit about that because you’ve already interviewed him).

So I guess my interest in trying to create new forms of permanent supportive housing for people who will need that in order to have their homelessness ended, began quite some time ago when I was first at the City of Sydney and realised that we did not have adequate supply of permanent supportive housing for the relatively small group of people experiencing homelessness who will need that – not everyone who is homeless requires support to sustain their housing, it’s a really quite a small group of people – but we certainly didn’t have enough stock for that group of people.

We’ve had programs in NSW for a long time – like, my background’s in mental health – called HASI, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that. It’s the housing and support initiative, and that’s been going I think since the late 80s and that provides permanent housing and ongoing support for people with a mental illness. But it wasn’t necessarily an easy program to access for people who had multiple problems and who had experienced chronic homelessness. I’m not saying they didn’t access it at all, just that we needed some other options.

So I know when I came back from my Churchill Fellowship I very much wanted to make sure that we were able to create some additional supply of permanent supportive housing in Australia for the relatively small group of people who will need it to sustain housing. I’m in favour of all types of models, scatter-site and high-density, and I got involved with a group called the Australian Common Ground Alliance and I was the person in Sydney and there was someone in Melbourne – it was Stephen Nash at Home Ground at that point, in Melbourne – and Karyn Walsh from Micah Projects up in Brisbane. There had already been a Common Ground in Australia in Adelaide which Roseanne had been involved in establishing when she was the South Australian thinker-in-residence, I think that was around 2003 or 2004 that she was thinker-in-residence down in South Australia, and so I’d taken the opportunity to meet her when she was in Australia probably around about 2005 or 2006. So I already had a connection with her. There was a woman from Tasmania who was also interested as well.

And so the Australian Common Ground Alliance kind of came together in 2008 and by then I’d moved to this [current] role at the Mercy Foundation where we fully focus on supporting projects that end people’s experience of homelessness. And so as well as having the national link I established a Common Ground Sydney working group to see if we could ensure that Sydney had at least one Common Ground. And the reason for that is that we need more supply of affordable and social housing. Housing First is wonderful but if you’ve got now housing you can’t do it. And so I still think that we need probably maybe one or two more in Sydney, not that many more.

MdS: Common Grounds, you mean?

Yeah. It seemed to take forever at the time. But now looking back on it, it was probably relatively quick and we had a bit of luck in Sydney in that there [were] the stimulus funds that the Rudd government was able to release, and there was also a Commonwealth-state program called A Place to Call Home that was funding the development of new public housing, plus the states provided the support services. So the Common Ground in Sydney ultimately happened.

MdS: That’s at Camperdown is it?

Yes, that’s right. And it actually opened in 2011, so it wasn’t too bad starting a working group in 2008 and launching a concept to make it happen. Really, when I look back upon it, it was relatively [quick]. At the time it seemed to be taking forever. But we wanted to ensure with the Melbourne one and with the Sydney one and the Brisbane one that the people who were the most vulnerable got into that housing.

I’m not sure if you know about the Common Ground model. It is a mixed-tenancy model, so it’s about ensuring that you don’t fill up a building with a whole lot of people that do have a range of problems, that you ensure that there are people who simply need affordable housing plus people who have experienced chronic homelessness and may have some additional issues. And it has a fairly – what I would hope in most instances – is fairly invisible onsite support to ensure that people sustain their housing.

MdS: No, I don’t know anything about it. I’m open to listening to any description that you want to give about it because I’m coming from a point of complete ignorance.

Well, just in relation to the Common Ground model, it is really about ensuring that people who’ve experienced long-term homelessness do have high-quality housing in which to live. It’s quality, it’s permanent and it’s affordable. It ensures there’s a diverse social mix, so not everyone comes from the same background, there’s also housing there for people who are maybe key workers or something like that, or studying, that need affordable housing close to the city. It has onsite tenancy management and support services for people who might need that. It provides a safe and secure environment and that’s often through ensuring there’s a concierge service in the building – I mean, it’s the sort of thing that really wealthy people in the city have in their buildings, so you know it works – and I think that’s an important part of ensuring that the building is very community-spirited and is able to be a really positive place where people can live.

The other crucial thing about the model is ensuring that there is a separation of the tenancy management and the support services, so just as you and I wouldn’t want our landlord to know a range of personal things about us or tell us when we should be taking medication or anything like that, that’s exactly the case [with Common Ground]. It’s really normalising to ensure that the tenancy management is quite separate [from] the support services management. So they’re kind of the five key principles of the Common Ground model.

And of course it’s permanent, to me that’s one of the most crucial aspects – I’m not a fan at all of transitional housing models. I don’t think they help people to gain stability because, you know, I don’t know about you but if you’re told you can live somewhere for six months or for a year you’re unlikely to put down roots, get connected with the community, all that kind of thing.

And it’s done with the Housing First methodology, so people don’t have to prove that they’re capable of living in a house or anything like that, they are simply offered housing based on the fact that they require permanent supportive housing and have experienced long periods of homelessness or unsuccessful tenancies in the past. So it’s important that a resource that provides that level of support and high-quality housing goes to the people who need it most.

MdS: Who owns the title of the Camperdown property? Who is the actual owner?

You’ll have to talk to Mission Australia about that. My involvement stopped once we had the state government committed to it and running with it. They obviously paid for the building. [And] we had that great relationship with the Australian Common Ground Alliance. Grocon made a commitment to build Common Grounds in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane at cost, so there was significant savings in the building by Grocon making that commitment at that time. And so, once it was established and the state government was funding it they put out to tender for the building, needless to say because Grocon built it at cost they got the tender, and then of course they put out to tender the tenancy management and the support services and Mission Australia Housing run the tenancy management in Sydney and a collaboration of four services initially got the support services management for the one in Camperdown.

Right across Australia, it’s all a bit different, as it should be. For example, in Melbourne it was Home Ground that provide the support services, that’s now become an organisation called Launch Housing. It merged with another organisation a couple of years ago. And Yarra Community Housing, which is now called Unison Community Housing, is the tenancy provider. Up in Brisbane it’s Micah Projects, the support providers, and Common Ground Queensland is the tenancy provider. They actually established a new organisation for that purpose up there. It was something we considered doing down here but decided in the end that we really don’t need to establish a new organisation, there’s plenty of community housing providers that would be able to do that tenancy management without creating a new organisation.

The important thing is that the principles of ensuring that people are supported in their housing as they see fit. It’s important that it doesn’t infantilise adult human beings as some short-term crisis services can sometimes do with their list of rules and curfews and things like that. It very much is about supporting people as they go and ensuring that they are assisted to meet their tenancy obligations.

So it’s simply permanent housing that also has that support attached for those people who want it and need it. I continue to facilitate, and have for the last – it’s probably been about four years – what’s called the Common Ground Community of Practice, and so once a month we have a national telephone hook-up between the support and tenancy managers at Common Ground and I simply facilitate that because they’re obviously busy people. That’s a great support nationally because in all of the cities except for Adelaide they’re loan services, we haven’t had any further Common Grounds built since – I think the last one opened, it must have been Brisbane – and that was in 2012 or 2013.

And every capital city now has one except for Perth and they’re obviously looking at the possibilities over there because I maintain that we do have to create some additional sources of permanent housing in order to get people who don’t need to continue to be homeless on the streets into permanent housing. I firmly believe in housing as the solution to people who are homeless, and some people need support, but not everyone.

MdS: The statistics from the 2016 Census – I’ve been in touch with the Bureau of Statistics – and they’re coming out early this year, in February I think, so it’ll be interesting to see how homelessness has changed. It’s only been since about 2008 that the ABS has been counting homeless people. It’s quite a new thing, really.

No, I think they were definitely counting them before then.

MdS: Were they?

Yeah. They’ve probably got better at it but they’re certainly had a number of counts with each five-year Census. And then they reviewed the methodology for the one before the 2016 one. So that was what, 2011? That was the time at which they reviewed the methodology. Because what they had been picking up – and that’s why I agreed with their need to review that methodology – they were picking up people like, say, some of those folks out in country areas where they’re bought a block of land and they’re slowly building a house but they’re living in a tent or a caravan while they’re building that house. So I can see why one needs to tighten up the methodology to ensure – because those people wouldn’t necessarily self-identify as homeless, but they might be counted as homeless given the nature of the dwelling in which they were temporarily living – but they’re on their own piece of land slowly building a house. And of course it’s a tricky thing to do.

I guess it’s now 10 years old – my Churchill Fellowship report – it might be worth you having a google and having a look at some of the things that I explored in relation to programs that are successful with people who’ve experienced chronic street homelessness.

It’s a difficult thing to do, to enumerate people experiencing homelessness. And it’s important that we do actually understand if what we’re doing is – and it’s one of the reason I introduced an enumeration strategy at the City of Sydney – because otherwise you don’t know how effective what you’re doing is, if you don’t actually understand what the base number is, and then is it going up? Is it going down? What I think we’ve learned over the years – and I’m not sure how deep you want to go on this, because we have a better strategy nowadays – we’re working with communities to do registry weeks, which I can tell you about on another occasion, because it takes a little bit of explaining but it’s quite a good methodology.

What I’ve come to realise over the years is that we know exactly how to end people’s homelessness because everyone who’s homeless requires permanent, affordable housing. And some people – a relatively small group of people – may require ongoing support to sustain that housing because they may have some additional issues as well as their experience of poverty and homelessness. So we know how to end people’s homelessness and what Australia is not yet very good at is actually turning off the tap. There are some big taps that are creating newly-homeless people as you and I talk, and those taps include things like Newstart. It’s literally impossible to live in Sydney if you’ve lost your job and you’re living for any period on Newstart. You live in Sydney, don’t you Matthew?

MdS: Yes.

Yeah, you completely get that, I’m sure. It’s a completely inadequate amount to actually house and feed yourself and whatever else you need to do. And certainly the other Centrelink benefits aren’t that much better.

We’ve been doing some work in more recent years around older women experiencing homelessness and the key reason for that is simply poverty, there’s no other problems involved. We’re talking about women who’ve raised families and given back to the community and done a range of things but they’ve ended up in older age living in poverty simply because they’ve spent time out of the workforce raising children or caring for other family members, and the particular cohort of older women at this point in time – it will change, obviously, in the future – but at this point in time had some fairly systemic discrimination throughout their lives. Like, for instance, back in the 60s when you got married you had to resign your job. And when you became pregnant you couldn’t continue your work. You know, and there was an expectation that women stayed at home and cared for children.

So, if there’s been a woman who’s ended up single for whatever reason, either lifelong or maybe there’s been a late divorce or there’s been a death or something like that, they’re much more likely to be living in poverty and as a result – because of our housing costs right across Australia but probably quite specifically Sydney and Melbourne – are in great housing stress. And they’re a very invisible group because they don’t necessarily self-identify as homeless.

They may self-identify as having a housing crisis, but they don’t necessarily self-identify as homeless because there is this big myth in the community that people who are homeless are those people living on the streets. And you and I both know because we’ve looked at the Census statistics, that it represents around about six percent of the total number of people experiencing homelessness. And that is an incredibly solvable problem.

It’s a very solvable problem. We know how to end it, it’s either with scatter-site Housing First permanent-supportive projects, or with high-density permanent-supportive housing projects like Common Ground. I might just add for the group of older women I’ve just told you about, obviously they’re not the type of people who are necessarily targeted with a model like Common Ground. Older women who are simply living in poverty and don’t necessarily have any additional issues, just simply need access to affordable, secure, long-term housing. That’s the simple answer to that. And then of course just as they grow older will need the same kinds of things as anyone in the community needs to support them as they age in place.

MdS: Do you think that the 2016 figures are going to show an increase over 2011? What’s your anticipation?

Well, I actually know they have. My understanding – I don’t know what the ABS told you – is that the overall count is around about 120,000 and that the number of rough sleepers has gone up to about 8000 or 9000And so I think – I’m not sure because I haven’t actually seen them yet – it’s only what I’ve heard, I think it represents a similar percentage of the total. .

[NOTE: The number deriving from the 2011 Census was around 105,000. The final number published by the ABS in March deriving from the 2016 Census was 116,427.]

And I think we can largely put a lot of that increase down to the fact that we’ve got huge housing costs in places where a lot of people live – Sydney and Melbourne – and we’ve got ridiculously-paltry amounts of Commonwealth benefits for those people who may not be able to work for whatever reason, either they’re simply unemployed or perhaps they’re unwell and on – I guess it used to be called sickness benefit, I’m not sure what’s it’s called now – but the equivalent of Newstart when you’re sick. And then disability support pension, which is the same as the age pension, we already know from the age pension that it’s really tricky for people living on government benefits to be able to maintain private rental housing in places like Sydney and Melbourne.

So we’re talking simply about inadequate supply of affordable housing. And you know about the disinvestment in public housing that’s been happening over the past few decades. I’m not sure how old you are?

MdS: I’m 55.

Oh, we’re exactly the same age! Are you 1962?

MdS: Yes.

Yeah, me too. Anyway, you would recall as I recall growing up and, you know, there was in my mind this pretty major commitment to ensuring that everyone had access to housing in Australia. It was kind of really civil. There were those, you know, the little red-brick homes, or the little fibro homes in most country towns and suburbs, great suburbs in Sydney. I’m not saying some mistakes weren’t made but on the whole, there was a commitment to ensuring that everyone had access to housing and I think Australia has sadly moved away from that. And public housing, you know, the supply has dwindled, it’s not been kept up well [but] we’re giving a lot of housing subsidies to private landlords.

And unfortunately, I don’t know if you know much about the rental tenancy legislation in NSW, it doesn’t help engender long-term housing. We’ve still got the case until it’s changed – and many of us have been arguing for it to change – we’ve still got the case that people can be given notice and [evicted for no cause]. So I certainly have heard stories of, say, older women just getting by in the private rental [market], just getting by – like having to decide whether to take a bus trip or whether to buy a loaf of bread – who are too afraid to ask their landlord to make needed repairs to the place lest they might be evicted.

MdS: The planning minister in NSW seems to be giving out mixed signals. He went to the launch of this organisation called the Housing Supply Association at which he talked about providing housing for critical job categories like police and teachers and paramedics and whatnot…
Key worker type stuff?

MdS: Yeah. But on the other hand he’s on television saying that if you do specify lower rents for some apartments in a development then you’re going to push up the cost of others in the same development. And so he’s giving out mixed signals.

Absolutely. It’s Matt Keenan, isn’t it?

MdS: No, it’s Anthony Roberts.

That’s right. Yeah, because we were involved in some of the public meetings the Sydney Alliance has had last year in trying to get inclusionary zoning as part of the planning regulations in NSW. Because really, that is one of the long-term answers. I think the other part of that jigsaw puzzle is ensuring that we have a reinvestment in public housing because we need to ensure as a civil society that we all have access to housing. I find it disgraceful that this relatively-solvable number of people [are still homeless], because, like, as a general rule, most people experience homelessness fairly briefly.

We have got a better safety net that’s for sure than America where they actually have people who can work full-time and still not afford to be in housing, you know, they’re being paid [a] ridiculous $7 an hour or something and working a 40-hour week and can’t house themselves. But here we’ve got a few better safety nets. I’m not saying it’s marvellous but it’s slightly better and people don’t necessarily experience homelessness for long periods.

But there is that group that I’ve now been really interested in for the past 15 years or so that do stay homeless for long periods. There’s been this increasing tendency – I’m not sure if you’ve noticed it, I certainly have – to pathologise anyone who becomes homeless. Like, “They’re homeless, there must be something wrong with them.” And that’s just not the case. There’s a small group where, yes, that is the case, but it’s absolutely not the majority. And I think that’s about demonising people living in poverty, people who are poor.

And what it also serves to do when you pathologise anyone who becomes homeless, is [that] instead of it being a problem with our society, like we haven’t ensured there’s enough housing for everyone to go around, it then becomes a personal problem. “Oh, look at them, it’s their fault that they’re homeless.” Instead of, “Oh, we haven’t as a community made sure that everyone has access to housing.” Which is what I would argue a perfectly reasonable and basic human right.

MdS: With as you say the problem of rental affordability in Sydney especially but also in Melbourne and other cities, inclusionary zoning has got to be part of the toolkit that government brings to [bear]. I just don’t understand when the minister says on TV that it’s a bad thing but on the other hand he’s talking to the developers telling them to do it. It’s just so strange.

I don’t know what that’s about either. I suspect there’s politics going on there. We know who gets in their ears and it’s often not people experiencing homelessness or abject poverty. And so it looks to me like the developers don’t want it and so that’s why it hasn’t happened yet. But it’s a really basic and obvious thing that can be done.

I feel fortunate, I live in a local government area, the Inner West Council, that has passed what I think is quite a good inclusionary zoning policy. I know [at] the Mercy Foundation, our policy is 15 percent [affordable rental housing] on formally privately-owned land and 30 percent on formally publicly-owned land. I think [at the] Inner West [Council it] is something like 10 and 25 percent. And that was just passed last year. But, yeah. It’s the only way to ensure that over a long period of time we do much better at creating affordable housing.

MdS: One of the problems though is that once a development gets over a certain value then the planning [approval] for that development [is] taken away from the council and given to the state government.

Exactly.

MdS: So [developers] can do what they want, really.

And it’s why we need the state government to commit to it as well. And I believe that the Opposition in NSW have in fact made that commitment, but they’re unlikely to be in government any time soon. I actually think it’s a disgrace that on formally publicly-owned land some kind of percentage is not yet mandatory. I mean, that’s a no-brainer. Don’t you reckon?

MdS: Yeah! I think that inclusionary zoning is the only way to go and you hear stories all the time now and it’s framed in the media as this sort of battle between the Boomers and the Millennials. Every debate comes down to the previous generation getting all the breaks and this generation having to pay much more. The debate is framed in these terms and I really don’t know if it’s very useful. It’s really about proper regulation.

And as a civil community. I mean, I just find it insane that we actually have people who are experiencing such enormous amounts of housing stress while [with] the policies – the federal policies like negative gearing and the discount on the capital gains tax – there are people who find it easier to buy second, third, fourth, tenth homes where people can’t even get rental housing, let alone purchase their own home. It’s just not civil. There are people who are quite wealthy who are getting tax breaks. It’s not right. It doesn’t even strike me as ethical.

And the fact that it’s a completely solvable problem in Australia. I mean, this is a wealthy nation. At times I get terribly frustrated at the lack of progress we’ve made. Common Ground is just one model. We need a range of models. Like, not everyone needs support, they just simply need the housing. Some people might need some temporary support because it can be really traumatising to experience homelessness, so there may be just a period of support that people need along with their housing.

But the answer in every single case is housing. We clearly don’t have the right types of supply. And we need a whole lot of different supply. Some will be public housing. There are certainly some models like – I don’t know where you live in Sydney – but there’s some pretty nasty old boarding houses that you really wouldn’t want to live in but which some people sadly have to live in. But I know there are some newer models now called new generation boarding houses where, for those people who don’t necessarily want to live completely on their own – because that’s not what everyone wants to do, especially those that don’t necessarily have families, or they’re estranged from families – they might want to live with other people but live in a quality environment, not in a horrible one. And be evicted with no notice. Because you know tenancy rights for people in boarding houses have been a problem for a long time. People can be evicted at fairly short notice.

We just don’t do well in Australia for people who haven’t been able to afford to purchase a home. We do really bad for everyone who can’t afford to purchase a home. Because the rental options are so short-term. I know, I rented a long time in Sydney, for many years. I lived in – I can name all the suburbs I lived in in the inner west because people either sell properties or they want to come and live in them again. You know? And that doesn’t create a great community, when people are moving around. I can’t imagine how you’d do it with children.

MdS: They have better laws in some European countries where the tenants have a much more solid tenure especially in places like France and I think Scandinavia too where the tenancy laws are different from what they are in Australia.

Much better. In fact, we did a little bit of background research when we were first looking at the issue of older women experiencing homelessness and I think there’s one country – it might be Poland or [the Czech Republic] – you’re not allowed to evict anyone in winter. Like, no-one. You just can’t do it.

I’ve got a mate who’s German and lives in Germany and I visited his house and they’ve rented it for the last 30 years and raised their children there. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen here in Australia. I think having some institutional investors in housing could be another part of the jigsaw puzzle, could be a help, because when you think about – you hear politicians talk about it all the time – the mum-and-dad investors, when you’ve only got one investment property it’s your one investment property and so – and especially those who are speculating on capital gain – they’ve got very little vested interest in ensuring that renters are happy. What they’re doing is just holding onto it long enough to be able to sell it at a greater [price] than what they bought it [for].

And I must admit, there are people I know I have these types of conversations with, who think it’s less about negative gearing – I know negative gearing was actually invented to ensure that rental housing was more affordable, but it doesn’t appear to have done that – but it was more the issue when Howard introduced the capital gains tax discount, that a lot more property speculation started happening in places like Sydney. And that really created a market that’s made things unaffordable for everyone. Because as the actual prices of houses go up, as do the rents, as do the mortgages, and we’re giving tax benefits to people who can afford to buy more than one home. I don’t know about you it just doesn’t seem right.

MdS: No.

And we’ve got people experiencing chronic homelessness on the streets for years when we know exactly how to solve it. Be it scatter-site or be it high-density, permanent-supportive housing works for people who do have some additional problems. And it’s a relatively small group. Not a huge group at all.

I think unfortunately there’s this sense in the community – I don’t know, I could be wrong – but there’s this sense in the community that somehow everyone who experiences chronic street homelessness is really, really problematic and, you know, it’s such a complex issue and charities year after year ask people to donate money to them. So I think somehow in the public consciousness there’s grown this idea that somehow it’s a really, really tricky problem. Really hard to solve. When in fact we know – because I know there are people in each of the Common Grounds I’m familiar with – who have lived there since they moved in there after experiencing long periods of chronic homelessness. So we know exactly it can be solved.

And also the scatter-site permanent supportive housing where people are simply living in affordable public housing and the support services go to them, like the Pathways to Housing model, like Sam [Tsemberis’] model. That works as well for those people who prefer it that way. And we know exactly how to solve it, we just have not yet had the systemic commitment to making that happen.

MdS: Just before we finish up, do you think there’s going to be – we’ve got one Common Ground now in Camperdown – do you think that there’s any hope of getting another one?

I think there could be because I know Clover Moore has come out in support of the model in recent years. I don’t think it would hurt to have another one or two. We don’t need huge amounts of them. In fact, through the registry week methodology that we do with communities we can identify the numbers in each community. It’s not huge. And not everyone wants to live in high-density so we also need the option of having scatter-site public housing with support services that go to people’s homes. That works just as well, as well.

Some people fail in housing because – you can imagine it, can’t you, and I’ve seen it happen – they’ve been in the streets and there’s a sense of community, a sense of camaraderie, a sense of connection that can be quite [important]. And it’s part of survival, of being on the streets. And then people get housed in a one-bedroom studio in Campbelltown, a gazillion miles away from their social networks, and because they’re not living on a huge amount of money not necessarily able to have a car or anything like that, transport’s difficult, they’re disconnected from the community and then that housing fails because people do need connection.

So sometimes, ensuring that there is housing close to the city and ensuring that people can – that was the main thing I was really adamant about with Common Ground in Sydney, I really wanted it actually in the CBD but Camperdown was the best we could find and I’m glad that that was found because you can walk into the city from Camperdown if you need to – and certainly it’s not very far away from people’s social networks that they need to continue to have, not be disconnected from. I would have preferred it in the CBD to be honest but, look, there weren’t that many spare blocks of land in the CBD.

MdS: And I think with governments of both colours the fear they have of being labelled by the tabloid press as overly generous to people who are experiencing possibly temporary disadvantage, I’m thinking particularly of the Murdoch press and the Daily Telegraph. The columnists there are like attack dogs and if Murdoch points his finger at a politician and says, “Go!” they’ll [attack].

It’s disgraceful actually because I think it makes our society not understand. I often use the example of what happens in Australia when there’s a natural disaster like a flood or a fire. Isn’t it amazing? I mean, I’ve been amazed over the years and you watch people run up and help, you watch people get their needs met fairly immediately and then the assumption is they will as quickly as possible go back into some form of permanent housing. Yet we don’t [have] that same response for people who have their own individual disasters. No-one expected the fire victims down in Victoria – when was that, about 10 years ago? – to go and line up at the Matt Talbot in the hope they might get a bed that night. No-one expected them to do that. Why do we expect other people to do that? Why do we expect people who’ve suffered their own personal disasters to do that? It is about that deserving and undeserving stuff, which I don’t think gets analysed terribly well at all.

It’s why I also think – and this may be slightly controversial, but I’ve certainly observed it – whenever we talk to the media about older women experiencing homelessness and we talk about the fact that they’ve had long periods of systemic discrimination in their lifetimes, and the lack of super and the lack of this [and that], and they spent years raising children, and caring for other family members, the media laps it up. “Oh, these people should not be homeless,” is what I hear.

And they’re right. They absolutely shouldn’t be homeless, but nor should anyone. There’s this sense that somehow they’re slightly more deserving because they’ve raised children. But, no. Absolutely everyone is deserving of housing. It’s just that when you talk about people who are experiencing chronic street homelessness what creeps in is this notion that somehow they’ve chosen it or they’re to blame.

Yeah, and sure, there are definitely some troubled people on the streets, there’s no doubt about that. But who can help that they were born into an abusive family and were taken into foster care at the age of four and went through 16 different foster homes, and then at the age of 16 – like, we’re the same age, so you’ll remember this (they’ve changed it thank heavens) – but years ago you turned 16 and they went, “Bye now.” “Off you go.” I mean, imagine having no-one to – I mean, I spent half of my twenties phoning my parents and asking for help – you know, having no-one to turn to. And so there’s some really devastated lives that are people who have ended up on the streets for a whole range of reasons that may include drug and alcohol abuse and may include mental illness.

But, sadly, one of the things that we found from the registry week project is this thing that has flown under the radar for a long time: there’s a really high [number of people] – it always turns out to be around about 30 percent in all the communities we’ve done it – where people literally have a traumatic brain injury. And when you’ve got a traumatic brain injury no pill, nothing is going to actually change that or fix it. It does mean that you need to work with people differently. You don’t expect them to turn up next Thursday at 3 o’clock. You have to give them a call or go and pick them up, or whatever.

A lot of our homelessness response in Australia is crisis-based and that’s great if you’re in a crisis but it’s not so great if you’re no longer in a crisis and you need to get back into permanent housing. I’m sure when you spoke to Sam [Tsemberis] on the phone he explained the need that you can’t get your life back, you can’t do anything until you’ve got a stable place from which to do it. Like, housing has to come first, not last, because when you are in that small group of people that do have additional problems you’re not going to make it through our current systems. You’re just not going to get to the end of them because you may have some additional problems that mean you need to be supported differently. We’re not yet very good at doing that. We’re getting better.

And it doesn’t help by the fact that the general public (a) hardly ever think about homelessness, but (b) when they do think about homelessness they think somehow it’s some weird choice people have made, or somehow they deserve that, you know, they’ve done something terribly wrong and deserve it. But why should we expect people with a mental illness to be homeless? And that gets widely misunderstood as well.

The reason there is a lot of people who’ve experienced a mental illness who also unfortunately are homeless, has much more to do with the fact that often the very serious mental psychoses occur in later adolescence, early adulthood, just as you’re finishing your education or just as you’re starting a career. There’s not good time to get a mental illness – trust me – but that’s a particularly bad time to get one. And then, if you end up being on the disability support pension because it has stuffed up your life in that way, you’re basically living in poverty. I actually ask groups I talk to about homelessness: what’s the number-one cause of homelessness in Australia and it takes me ages sometimes to get the answer sometimes: poverty! However there’s multiple, multiple reasons for being in poverty. But poverty’s the key reason for homelessness.