Sunday 26 June 2011

The Australian has stripes in the game of public advocacy in this country and most media watchers know that its allegiance lies toward the conservative end of the political spectrum, which makes it no surprise that the paper today brought a big gun onside - British sociologist Frank Furedi - in its campaign to ensure that Australia's marriage laws are not tampered with. Furedi says that support for gay marriage is a mere pose, a way to differentiate oneself from the Great Unwashed, a self-serving item of garnish whipped out from the cabinet of the elitist conformist and dabbed on the persona like parseley in a butcher's display, saying "I'm better than you, sod off".

This rant of Furedi's is published after New York State in the US legislated yesterday to allow gay marriage following a period of 30 days.

Furedi's spray is upsetting because it posits the feelings of those who disagree with gay marriage as the point of primary concern. We disagree with you therefore we believe we're better than you, so go back to your suburb and your midday soaps. Queue tears of frustrated rage from men and women in the middle class.

But it's not the whole story. Most people I know who support gay marriage do so because it is an equity issue. The real story behind the news here is the number of - especially young - people who find themselves on the outside of the social compact due to their homosexuality. It's not in the news because of the media's silent acknowledgement of youth suicide. When young people kill themselves, as they do all the time, the story never gets reported. This silence allows characters like Furedi to happily sound off on the issue of gay marriage as though it were merely a neighbourly spat over the back fence about tree litter.

But it's not. It's not about the actor who apologises for a homphobic comment by "coming out as an ardent supporter of gay marriage", as Furedi says. And it's not about "evangelicals ... being more troublesome than Muslims in their attitudes towards mainstream views". One is merely conforming in order to avoid being ostracised by the community that feeds them. The other merely takes the path of least resistance: the Bible says homosexuality is a sin and it's easier to question "mainstream views" than question the Bible, and God. These are inconsequential and venal peccadilloes in the face of the distressing loss of life among our youth who, faced with the bullies that abound in society, take an option that immediately removes them from anguish and sorrow.

A vote for gay marriage is not a vote for the views of the New York elite with their coffees and high fashion accessories and weekend visits to the Off-Broadway theatres. It's not a tug at the cultural forelock. It's a matter of basic human rights. It's an acknowledgement of the realpolitik of the suburban street, where "gay" is a term of automatic disparagement and suffering is real, and happening right now.

Saturday 18 June 2011

With opinion polls hammering Labor under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, some good news was due and it took the form of an announcement of two new utility-scale solar power plants to be built in Australia. The news appeared here and here but it didn't make the Saturday night news, no doubt disappointing the PR personnel in Gillard's battered camp.

The plants will use different technologies. One, to be built in Queensland, secured $464 million toward construction of a 250MW plant. The other, for New South Wales, secured $306.5 million toward construction of a 150MW plant. Both of the deals come under the federal government's Solar Flagships program.

They are due to be completed an in service by 2015 but we've seen other Solar Flagships projects stall due to a refusal by the government to release funding as a result of incomplete execution. But these are details. Most important for Gillard at this point is to push through a dose of good news. In any case, by the time any hold-ups emerge the political climate can have altered a lot and the story may be a dead one, nothing to see here, move along.

Glitches in renewable power projects have usually been too soft to qualify for the feature spot in the media but with the carbon tax continuing its damaging run from the government's point of view, maybe the journos will keep an eye on how these two new projects develop. We'll see if the same sluggish pace that Solar Systems made in pursuit of its Victorian plant eventuates in these cases. Gillard is talking them up, which suggests some sort of commitment on the part of the government to making sure they run all the way through construction, commissioning and full-time operation with effective links to the existing power grid.

Monday 13 June 2011

Yep, that's me in the reflection of this embroidered depiction of a paddle steamer named 'City of Grafton', an artefact the lady at the front door of the museum told me cost $3000 to repair before it was displayed - along with thousands of other objects of historical significance - to the eager public. You can tell that it's me because I need a haircut, and I'll get one as soon as I get back home from this research trip into rural NSW.

I visited the Grafton museum on a day off. It was raining, as it is today, but not heavily. I parked my car in the centre of historical Grafton, down by the Clarence River (that unruly, swashbuckling serpent with its roots south west of Brisbane in what Queenslanders call the 'Granite Belt') outside the post office, and wandered back toward the cathedral of brick where a chorus of some sort was making itself heard. The water sloshed through the gutters and ran off the sodden nature strips into the grey road. A man told me that church is not free after asking me how much the entrance fee was, because you have to "give your life to it". He was a short and slightly grizzled gentleman of the sort you can find anywhere, not as florid as the petrol station attendant in Inverell whose red face spoke of innumerable cold nights.

When I wandered down to the river's edge I could hear the cattle bellowing across the strait. I stood in the drenched green grass listening to the kine low and scream. The grey distance made itself felt. I couldn't see the Grafton Bridge, or hear it. The only sound was the incessant rain and the voices of the cows across the water.  I took some more pictures and then asked a pair of elderly ladies how to find the museum. They told me it was in Fitzroy Street and off I trudged.

There are probably hundreds of such museums scattered across Australia. They have been established by citizens concerned with a disappearing inheritance. There is one in Gympie not far from where I live. Like the one in Gympie, this one contains thousands of items packed together in rough order. So, items that would have been found in a living room are all arrayed in a recreated living room. Items that would have been found in a bedroom are all arrayed in a recreated bedroom. There are tags describing in miniature print the identity of the item and who donated it. It's all very curious.

But not informative. You could easily remove 75 percent of the items from the museum without losing anything in terms of relevance. What is needed more than anything is some sort of curation. You need well-written signs pasted alongside the items you decide to keep. These signs should tell a story. The way things are inside these cabinets of curiosities you must stagger from one room to the next ghasping for breath, overwhelmed by the plethora of material and the paucity of consideration on the part of the designers.

In fact there is no design. Proof, if any were needed, is in the book cabinet off the living room. There, hundreds of old books sit on exposed shelves waiting for a learned nimble-finger to spirit away the choice volumes. Glass facings for the shelves must be given consideration if the running committee is not to end up losing valuable pieces from the city's past.

Friday 3 June 2011

Although born in the US, Martha Gellhorn lived in the latter part of her life in London, and the prize named after her - for "journalism that challenges secrecy and mendacity in public affairs" - is awarded by a judging panel appointed by UK-based organisers. The international nature of the prize is fitting. Gellhorn garnered fame for reporting from all corners of the globe, most notably in Spain during the civil war (1936-39) and in Europe at the close of WWII. Gellhorn earned her stripes through connections to the Roosevelt White House and by reporting on poverty in America but she subscribed to universal values of human dignity and justice. And like Julian Assange, who has just been awarded the prize, she was controversial. She was married a number of times, most notably to the author Ernest Hemingway.

The award of the Marth Gellhorn prize to Julian Assange is good for Assange - it gives him needed support during a difficult period of his career as a journalist - and good for the prize - by raising awareness of it. It seems fitting that Assange should win it. Gellhorn had little patience with humbug and official posturing and created a reputation through grit and by consistently focusing her attention on important global concerns. Gellhorn's reputation is possibly greater than Assange's in terms of the quality of her writing - she pioneered literary journalism techniques that were only widely adopted 30 years after she began to use them - but the two sing from the same scoresheet when it comes to bucking the system.

Assange has recently been compelled by external events to lower his profile, leading to a reduced journalistic output, but new ventures that build on the foundation established by WikiLeaks have emerged in numbers. This means that there will be more radical transparency in future regardless of how the battle between Assange and the US Administration turns out. Gellhorn's reporting set a new standard for journalists everywhere. Assange continues to confound those who seek to blindfold the people and save the status quo. Gelhorn's example fuelled later generations of writers as they explored new ways of talking about the world. Assange is an inspiration to those who would change the world.