Can Poetry Promote Peace and Creativity Challenge Politicians Effectively?

Lake Burley Griffin Canberra

Over the last few weeks, I’ve struggled to write about Remembrance Day 2018 – or write about anything else on this blog because this anniversary was important and I wondered how I could do it justice and make sense of a lot of the thoughts rattling around in my head – particularly considering the fractious state of today’s world – a fact we are constantly reminded of due to the 24 hour news cycle and social media.

So buckle up – grab a cuppa or read the post in stages:)  ponder the words and meaning of the poems, savour the poignancy of some of the photographs.

Peace does begin with ourselves, our families, our communities…

This year, the centenary of the signing of the Armistice in World War One – 11 November 1918 – signified PEACE at last, after four years of carnage, but as many people have already written, humanity ignored all the lessons learned and we’ve hardly stopped skirmishing or creating full-blown battles ever since.

Six Excuses Not To Write

1.    I was distracted by the Victorian Election and busy working for the return of the Andrews Labor Government as well as Mordialloc’s local member, Tim Richardson MP who genuinely cares about the local community and works hard. I made this a priority and to be honest enjoyed myself and met many interesting people. No encounter every wasted for a writer…

The personal is political. Ever since my involvement in the Vietnam Moratorium Movement as a teenager, I’ve made activism a priority – the community is too important not to care enough to work for social justice and be a peace activist.  If enough people care to speak up, it does make a difference. A change of government in 1972 and Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam brought the troops home.

At a get-together, before the “Danslide” as Daniel Andrews Labor win is described, we met in Tim’s office and I gave the Premier a couple of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies and advised, ‘there is no better way to understand a community than through the poems and stories of its writers.”

I hope he reads them.

 2.    I mulled for hours at how to express the disquiet I feel about exhibits and projects at the Australian War Memorial being funded by arms manufacturers and the millions of dollars the Federal Government has spent on memorials rather than the health and well-being of veterans.

At the Centenary Celebration in Canberra, I saw first-hand elements of concern. Huge guns and tanks out the front (ironically pointing over the Field of Poppies and at the statue of Sir John Monash) as if these harbingers of death and destruction should be celebrated. There’s always going to be arguments about what is glorification and what is commemoration but there should never be a debate about prioritising the welfare of veterans and recent reports indicate we are letting them down. 

3.    I’ve spent my life studying history (a subject I love), travelling to as many places as I can afford, visiting exhibitions and museums, reading widely – I’m a person who tries to join the dots to understand ‘the human condition’ we writers love to explore. This topic has so many dots to join and I have an overabundance of thoughts that don’t necessarily provide answers or coherence. It was easier to procrastinate … but in a case of physician heal thyself – I did ‘jump in and just write‘ and followed the advice I give students!

4.    I read again the poets of the First World War and visited a poignant and confronting art exhibition at Melbourne’s wonderful Shrine of Remembrance. An experience that deserves its own post although inextricably linked to the topic and so won’t get its own post now – please visit and experience for yourself.

5.    The trips to Canberra, and to Melbourne’s Shrine, were to visit the culmination of the magnificent 5000 Poppy Project. The organisers did a superb job and I was keen to see what happened to my contributions.  (As if I could find mine among the thousands of donations but ego being what it is … I should have been more creative and added sparkles or something so they would stand out!)

In Canberra,  several installations were truly works of art and in Melbourne, the knitted tributes spelt out the familiar quote and linked lines from The Ode from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen, and its well-known response. Too many of us probably say the verses without pondering the meaning but I guarantee seeing the words ‘in blood’ sears your heart – especially with the thin red trail linking each line, like droplets of blood and a poignant reminder each poppy represents a lost life.

6.    Maybe the most valid excuse is that the last few weeks of the school year are always manic as I collate and publish class anthologies – and this year, retiring from my position at Godfrey Street after 6 years, I wanted to go out ‘with a bang, not a whimper‘. I cracked the whip for my students and myself and there really is a finite time to sit at a computer and remain healthy.  I crossed that line too often, burning the proverbial midnight oil with bad posture and tension taking its toll on legs, bones, and back.

Poppies At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance

they shall not grow old
they shall not grow old
as we that are left grow old
as we that are left grow old
age shall not weary them
age shall not weary them
nor the years condemn
nor the years condemn
at the going down of the sun
at the going down of the sun
and in the morning
and in the morning
we will remember them
we will remember them
lest we forget
lest we forget

After walking amongst well-tended gardens, I rested in sanctuaries for those broken by experience and memories.  Each secluded ‘garden’ displaying plants of different spheres of war for Australian troops.

I strolled darkened corridors absorbing the important stories we need to remember – depicted in a variety of ways without glorifying conflict. I climbed stairs to have a bird’s eye view and photograph magnificent Melbourne and the sweeping grounds of Victoria and Domain Gardens.

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Skyscrapers and tree-lined boulevards and busy thoroughfares vastly different to 1918. The city those volunteers rushed to defend now remarkably different to what they would have known.

I pondered what Brendan Nelson and Kerry Stokes might learn from the management of Melbourne’s Shrine if they visited. I prefer the way Melbourne presents the story and the stories it chooses to promote. They also have courteous, friendly staff and volunteers.

A young woman approached me when she saw me reading the Memorial Book –

Are you looking for a relative?

Yes, thought I may find my uncle’s name.

Wait a moment and I’ll get the key…

Within minutes, she was back wearing white cotton gloves and wielding a key. She asked for my uncle’s surname, unlocked the relevant glass cabinet, and carefully turned the pages until his name was revealed. She then stood aside so I could take a picture of the page.

It was a busy day for visitors because the poppy installation was being removed the next day, yet the young woman took the time to offer me a service I didn’t know about  – she went above and beyond and personalised my experience! 

Everyman Exhibition

The exhibition by artist Craig Barrett called EVERYMAN is an emotionally moving experience. Craig incorporated poetry into his art.

In 2005, he wrote:

Four men from my family were caught up in the great tides of men fighting on the Western front of the First World War… Great Uncle George remains there… others returned home with their wounds and nightmares.

In recent years I have become aware of the poets of the First World War. These men were artists who conveyed powerful images through words from their camps, their trenches, and their hospitals.

I found myself especially moved by the words of the English poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon… Growing up I knew little and understood less of what these men had witnessed. The poetry of Owen and Sassoon has given me a glimpse of my own family and of the family of Man entangled in war…

These words resonated because I too have an “Uncle George” I’ve written about and it is this exploration and family connection that set me on a path, to learn why a nineteen-year-old relative is buried in Egypt. How did he die? How did his death affect his family, especially sister, Kitty whom we met in 1962 when we migrated to Australia?

I remember, Aunt Kitty’s air of sadness. I was nine-years-old and at night we sat at her feet listening to stories about the Australian branch of the clan, about ANZACS and a war in a land near where our ship had passed when we came through the Suez Canal.

EVERYMAN
Siegfried Sassoon


The weariness of life that has no will
To climb the steepening hill:
The sickness of the soul for sleep, and to be still. And then once more the impassioned pygmy fist
Clenches cloudward and defiant;
The ride that would prevail, the doomed protagonist,
Grappling the ghostly giant. Victim and venturer, turn by turn; and then
Set free to be again
Companion in repose with those who once were men.

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a photograph in War Memorial Canberra

Is Every Generation Destined to Repeat The Mistakes Of The Past? 

Is there a need for us all to look deeper into what causes war, and what prevents a lasting peace?

We had the dreadful attack in the centre of Melbourne and sadly, a Federal Government reaction, we have come to expect – increasingly anti-muslim and anti-immigration dog whistling, and wanting to increase the powers of the security forces and introduce tougher anti-terror laws.

Actions designed to divide rather than unite.

Yet, there have been enquiries and research, backed by evidence and statistics, about the need for more resources to work in the community to combat radicalisation, and the alienation from mainstream society many young people experience. Experts encourage projects to improve inclusiveness and the mental health of those at risk of turning to violence.

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Men who have been caught or suspected of terrorist acts often have a history of domestic violence.  In Australia, more than 72 women and 20 children have been killed since January 2018 because of domestic and family violence. Despite knowing what we must do there seems a lack of political and social will and a lack of coordination and funding of resources to make a national difference to this scourge of homegrown terrorism. 

And then there’s the refusal or reluctance of people to recognise the Colonial Wars and the Aboriginal nations who were here and valiantly fought to keep possession of their land from colonial invaders.

Our First People are still waiting for a Treaty to be signed with peace and reconciliation a work in progress. It should be a national priority but at least the Andrews Government is making a valiant attempt to right historical wrongs. 

As John Lennon so aptly said, we have to make PEACE and do it right!

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Will We Ever See A War to End All Wars?

Armistice Day November 11, 1918, which led to the end of World War One – the war to end all wars – did not herald a lasting peace. A war has been fought somewhere in the world ever since and many historians agree that the conditions of the peace seemed to set the scene for the Second World War.

Today, Australian troops are still fighting a war and are deployed in Afghanistan (15 years and counting) and Iraq. Our drones controlled by the joint installation with the USA at Pine Gap, bomb Syria and in a plan to become one of the world’s top exporters of arms, like the USA, we sell arms to Saudia Arabia –  a country complicit in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist. The Saudi regime is also pounding the people of Yemen to oblivion.

Every day the nightly news brings us footage of soldiers and militarised police forces under fire or firing guns of formidable power somewhere in the world.

In many parts of the world, there are generations who have NEVER known peace. I was a volunteer tutor every Saturday morning to a Sudanese refugee for a year. A young woman in her 40s, with five children and a husband still stuck in a camp in Kenya, Mary had lived in a state of war in her country since she was 14 years old.

No life’s worth more than any other, no sister worth less than any brother.

Michael Franti

Peace requires effort and political will and to suggest no one wants war is wrong – arms manufacturers thrive on war, which is why their influence (even in local elections under the guise of ‘shooters and fishers’ ) is alarming.

They fund public institutions and political parties for a reason. Look no further than the power the National Rifle Association wields in the USA. Working towards peace requires recognition that the Roman poetHorace‘s oft-used quote  Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori ( It is sweet and right to die for your country) encouraged militarism and is indeed ‘The old lie” that WW1 poet Wilfred Owens asserts at the end of his most famous poem.

A poem thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March 1918 after his years of witnessing the horrific slaughter and destruction on the battlefields of France and Belgium:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Wilfred Owen 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots  
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas!Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud  
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

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Can we blame the Romans for our culture of militarism and seeking military solutions?

romes delusions of grandeur

Many of us read the words of these WW1 poets at school but whether we really absorbed their message is difficult to say – unless you had experienced war or grief and could empathise – and that’s difficult for school children.

It’s difficult for some adults, which is why writers must choose words carefully and why poetry, short stories and novels can help with empathy. Here is an interesting extract from a short memoir I read recently:

During my deployments, I only had to fire my gun twice in engagements, and, in retrospect, neither of those firings was likely warranted. Suffice it to say that both times, I could feel my heart shaking, and I came close to wetting my pants.
 
The only film I’ve ever seen that captures this feeling—part terror, part adrenaline rush—is The Thin Red Line, and specifically in this woods scene, where the soldier becomes lost in the dark. He hears himself panting. Soon, bullets whish past him—directionless, it seems—and the only precedent for this, apart from Dante, astray on his path in the woods, might be Camus’s hapless prisoner in “The Guest,” who finds himself stranded and alone on the Algerian plains. What makes war so frightening isn’t the likeliness of death. It isn’t the suffering. It isn’t the inconsequentiality of humanness. Indeed, these are all apparent to anyone who’s reached middle age. Rather, it’s that sense of being alone. And I would hypothesize that it only comes to light in a warzone. After all, one realizes, especially in moments like this, that those who kill do not have any inherent fixed loyalties. Each human is invariably alone, regardless of the colors they wear.

Joshua Bernstein
Lost In The Fog

Each year documentaries are made of the tragedy and sacrifice of a whole generation in WW1, but in the words of singer/songwriter Eric Bogle, ‘… it all happened again… And again, and again …’

recruitment poster

GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE 

Eric Bogle

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart, you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plough
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh, Willy McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest 

peace protestors.jpg
PEACE PROTESTERS AT WAR MEMORIAL 11/11/2018 – their sign said HONOUR THEM-PROMOTE PEACE

The horrors of WW2, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan… we keep adding to the toll, make the words of the poets even more poignant when we realise the average age of soldiers who die in wars are 19, 20, 21, 22…

vietnam-war-timeline
SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT IN VIETNAM WERE BARELY ADULTS MANY WITHOUT THE RIGHT TO VOTE!

ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH
Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Is a Plea for a Change in Priorities to emphasise PEACE too much to ask? 

November 11 is a reminder, not only of the tragedy and futility of  WW1 and many other wars since but a warning of the fragility of peace and the importance of working hard to avoid conflict.

world peace bell 4

The Canberra Rotary Club is making an effort to remind people of the importance of peace and has built an easily accessible World Peace Bell as well as introducing the Rotary Peace Prize.

There are at least 23 of these bells throughout the world with plans for more. Volunteers man the bell at busy times encouraging people to recite an oath as well as ring the bell so the sound carries across the lake.

The volunteer who helped me explained the history and ensured I understood the affirmation, before reciting the lines aloud.

As I walked through Nara Park and visited the National Museum on the other side of the lake, the bell’s beautiful, deep, resonant tone tolled for peace.

The first recipients of the Peace Prize long-term advocates for world peace and activists in raising awareness and requesting an adjustment of society’s priorities:

Dr Sue Wareham OAM, Founding member of ICAN, International Campaign Against Nuclear weapons, and WILPF – ACT Branch, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Women from several nations and members of WILPF gathered in Europe in 1915 and tried to stop the slaughter of WW1 but to no avail. The organisation consistently works for peace and social justice.

peace-symbol-vector

Imagine

Mairi Neil

Imagine all the people sharing all the world‘ – a line John Lennon wrote

Music and lyrics combined to make the song moving and memorable

And I wonder if people do imagine sharing when they listen to his words…

Great oceans of people, happy, sad, warring, peaceful, worshipping, wondering

Individual countries, cultures, nationalities, religions, powerful elites

Nation states, perhaps individual tribes and families.  21st-century social media exposes

All humanity – those not so lucky or ones we are told to fear –

Those trapped in places where war is an integral part of their journey from birth…

In my lifetime, the Middle East a constant muddle of bombs and brutality

Or the African continent with droughts, internecine wars, deadly viruses and famines

Not forgetting our neighbourhood’s volatility in the hands of Rocket Man & Dotard…  

 

A world of sharing, no possessions to kill or die for, a world of peace

No borders! This dream elicits accusations ranging from lunacy to scorn

Dreaming and desiring the impossible…  

 

Dreaming? Imagining a better future – isn’t that what we wish for our children?

Religious fundamentalists and fanatics insist

Everyone believe or have faith in a deity you can’t see, imagining a heaven and hell

And for many acquisitive others, it is land and possessions – they

Mean power, progress, personal esteem. It is difficult, but so important, to imagine

Sharing ALL the world and its bounties – thank you, John, for gifting your dream…

peace-symbol-vector flip

When you flip the peace sign upside down, it’s composed of the ancient rune ‘Algiz’ inside of a circle. ‘Algiz’ represents life, beginning, and protection; very fitting for a symbol of peace. … Add it all together, and an upside-down peace sign literally means ‘endless peace’.

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 I knitted poppies for the 5000 Poppies Project to honour our family’s ANZAC, George Alexander McInnes.

He was 19 years old when they laid him to rest in Egypt and as far as I know, no member of the family has ever visited his grave. His death and the grief that followed changed the lives of his parents and siblings forever – a common tragedy for so many families worldwide detailed in letters, diaries, poems, novels, and memoir.

Dear Mum and Dad
Mairi Neil 

WW1 began in 1914, the fighting lasted four years, but grief lasts a lifetime.

I see you both in my dreams
the image helps suppress the screams
of many mates who have been shot––
This world has really gone to pot!

When I joined up to come and fight
I thought I was doing what was right
But Mum those Bible texts you read
Don’t explain what it’s like to kill – or be dead.

Young Johnny Parker from down the road
Shot on landing. Floats at sea –– a bloated toad.
So many like him, bodies never retrieved
No prayers, no burial, relatives deceived.

If I’m shot soon, or perhaps blown apart
You’ll receive a letter to ease a painful heart
But take what it says with a pinch of salt
It’s madness here -no decency, nobody’s fault.

The cardboard dog tags disintegrated
when a body rots or is incinerated
Identities disappear over time –
whole battalions consumed in lime

So just as I dream of both of you
Hold fast your memories of me too
Because if like snow, I don’t survive
Only reminiscing will keep me alive.

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My visit to Canberra for Remembrance Day to see the Field of Poppies (62,000 of them) and take part in the national ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War, allowed me to take part in a historic occasion but also made me reflect on the past, present and think of the future.

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What stories we keep, how we pass stories from one generation to another, and the relevance and meaning of the stories we choose, whether personal or public.

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In Canberra, amidst the field of poppies, it was sobering to discover people who didn’t know the significance of the flower, and others that didn’t seem to care, like the private security firm that used the field as an opportunity to have a promotional photoshoot – replete with uniforms and guard dogs.

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Two men wandered around on Remembrance Day dressed in WW1 uniforms offering to pose for photos and a volunteer from the poppy project confided she had to chastise a group of young girls who laid down amongst the poppies uncaring of damage because they wanted to pose for pictures on Instagram and Facebook. There were also those who stole souvenirs from the installation, which volunteers spent hours replacing.

The days of the nation stopping for two minutes of silent reflection long gone – apparently the only thing that ‘stops the nation’ now is a horse race, like the Melbourne Cup, yet I remember as a teenager being in Myer in the city and the escalators stopping and people standing with heads bowed.

Parades and displays can be ignored but if everyone’s routine is interrupted – even for two minutes – perhaps it will make people ask why.  Why the carnage, why do we go to war? Is there another way to solve disputes? Should we rely on a few leaders to decide our destiny?

Parliament House, Canberra

There were two displays at Parliament House (270,000 poppies).

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Answers to frequently asked questions about the Poppy project.

The 5000 POPPIES project has left me in awe at how a simple idea encouraged involvement from people all over the world as well as educating about the loss of life in WW1 – and subsequent wars.

If it made people pause and consider the human cost of war, perhaps think of their family and their country’s history, seek information and reflect, then it has been a success.

Always the honour roll of those who died in conflict either at home or abroad confronts and shocks – alphabetical lists that in peacetime are associated with telephone books and thick tomes of the living. 

Australia talks about thousands of lives lost, but for other nations it is millions! When I was in Irkutsk in Russia last year, a guide said to me, ‘In Russia, we list the names of survivors (mainly officers and ‘heroes’, I might add) because there aren’t enough walls to list the dead.’

Throughout the world, we have listed on walls, monuments, and in remembrance books, names while bodies and ashes lie elsewhere.  Many resting in places where loved ones never, or can never visit.

Thousands of blood-red poppies a stunning visual reminder – each one different – representing the individuality of each lost life. The gaps in the field of poppies remind us not every casualty was/is found or identified.

For me, the creative project a chance to DO something and make a practical contribution to remembrance. Others, obviously, felt the same because it fired imaginations and activities in so many places: neighbourhood houses, U3As, schools, churches, numerous community and family groups and private individuals… and hopefully inspired discussions.

putting knitted poppy on GA MCINNES
Placing my knitted poppy beside Uncle George’s name.

1918-2018: 5000 POPPIES – A TRIBUTE

At Parliament House, the forecourt installation of handmade poppies will be there from 9-18 November while the Marble foyer poppy installation will remain until 3 February 2019.

This display of poppies, lovingly created by 5000 Poppies project volunteers – many of whom are descendants of original Anzacs – is a tribute to the thousands of Australians who died in the First World War.

It complements the sea of handcrafted poppies that will carpet the Parliament House Forecourt to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, 11 November 1918. With a direct line of sight to the Australian War Memorial, the display connects with the 62,000 poppies installed on the Memorial’s grounds representing every Australian life lost in the First World War.

Courtesy of traditional and social media we’ve been flooded with information – overloaded some will say, yet it is amazing how even after 100 years, new stories and information surface.

I’ve visited places, met people, and learnt history I didn’t know and fulfilled my love of joining the dots and understanding connections. On a recent visit to Caulfield Town Hall, to their art gallery, an amazing Poppy Exhibition made me pause and read the individual stories of local VC recipients but also drew my attention to the memorial boards that cover every wall of the spacious foyer – 31 large bronze panels with 1,554 names.

Although Caufield City Council first started compiling names of soldiers, sailors and nurses from the Caulfield district as early as 1915, it would be more than a decade before they were publicly displayed… In 1930, Caulfield Town Hall underwent a major redevelopment… which included a colonnade portico opening on to a spacious memorial foyer, with a marble dado surmounted by bronze tablets. Inscribed… were the names of all those who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces from Caulfield… the criteria for inclusion was to have been living in the City of Caulfield at the time of enlistment, and it includes both lost and returned service people… At the time of its construction, the municipality of Caulfield included the suburbs of Elsternwick, Balaclava, St Kilda East, Carnegie, Murumbeena, Glen Huntly and Gardenvale…

There is a lovely Japanese garden at Caulfield Town Hall and I hope people visiting the Remembrance Day display took some time, like I did, to sit and calm their anger (and it is anger we should feel) at what a senseless waste of life wars are, and especially WW1  – tragedies of epic proportions.

Yet, all over Australia, we have sister city relationships with countries that may have been our enemy at some stage of history – relationships that contribute to understanding and tolerance and help make a lasting peace.

Sassoon recognised how violence and war changed men and struggled to get much of his anti-war poetry published. When he wrote, “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” in an open letter to the House of Commons, it took the intervention of poet Robert Graves to save him from court-martial declaring Sassoon suffered shell-shock and needed to be hospitalised. 

Some could argue that it was only the insane who couldn’t see the truth of his words.    

Golgotha
Siegfried Sassoon

Through darkness curves a spume of falling flares 
That flood the field with shallow, blanching light. 
The huddled sentry stares 
On gloom at war with white, 
And white receding slow, submerged in gloom.
Guns into mimic thunder burst and boom, 
And mirthless laughter rakes the whistling night. 
The sentry keeps his watch where no one stirs 
But the brown rats, the nimble scavengers. 

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Sculpture of Barbarian, Rome Exhibition Canberra

While in Canberra for the commemoration ceremony at the War Memorial,  I visited the current exhibition ‘Rome‘ at the National Museum displaying artefacts from the British Museum. There is a marble statue fragment of a barbarian (Ramleh, Egypt, 160-170 CE), which I thought depicted the anguish felt by war’s victims both civilian and military that the WW1 poets captured in words.

This bound captive is looking up at what remains of a larger figure, perhaps intended to depict Victory. He has Germanic facial features, but he is wearing a Phrygian hat of a style worn in the Eastern Mediterranean region. This suggests that he represents a generic ‘barbarian’ or enemy of Rome. Such depictions emphasise how one of Rome’s great missions was to ‘vanquish the proud’.

peace is essential

“From War” an Exhibition by the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum at Parliament House, Canberra

For many veteran artists making art is both an expression of personal creativity and a way of ‘making meaning’.

Veteran artistic practices draw upon, and extend beyond, the individual’s experience of war and service. For some, art is a lifeline and a life force; a way to tell stories and ask important questions about themselves and their place in society.

Representing a diverse range of mediums including photography, painting, sculpture, drawing, textiles and poetry, the artists featured in the exhibition reflect on their personal questions and processes, sharing unique stories of their lived experience.

The catalyst for the establishment of the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum was veterans’ mental health. It provides a creative and multi-faceted approach to supporting veterans and families through the arts, engaging with our veteran history and heritage, culture and identity to bring forward an approach grounded in creative expression and community.

Upending modern models ANVAM uses familiar tools, the arts and place, engaging early to promote validation, identity and purpose reframing the future for those returning from war or service. How do you capture the experience of war and its aftermath and convey that to others so they understand? 

Sassoon’s honesty fobbed off as shell shock, which today we know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – and almost all veterans will have their share of depression as well as other symptoms of PTSD.

Statistics don’t tell individual stories, official documents can be doctored and presented from a particular perspective depending on what narrative governments want to spin. Even letters and diaries from those who were there or those writing about friends and family may have a particular perspective, may have been censored, or may deliberately alter facts to spare feelings.  

I hope all politicians and senior Defence personnel take the time to look at the artwork and read the poetry on display at Parliament House.

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soldiers Afghanistan

A Poetic Honour
Bill Charlton, (2013)


There is no greater accolade a soldier can be shown
Than to have his deeds recorded in the verses of a poem.
For medals tend to varnish and history can be wrong,
And the stories we are left with, can be stretched as time goes on.

But the simple story-telling that’s contained within a poem
Can survive through generations by word of mouth alone.
And the rhythm/rhyming nature of these classics of the past
Are easy to remember and ensure these stories last.

Great books will parch and crumble and epitaphs will fade
And tombstones all will vanish no matter how they’re made.
But the simple little verses that we pass on down the line
Are remembered with affection and have stood the test of time.

So if you have the fortune to be mentioned in a poem
Or you know some-one who has been, on the strength of deeds alone,
Then be sure that it’s an honour, which can rarely be attained
For it makes a man immortal for as long as it’s maintained.

Bill Charlton, born 1943, joined the Australian Army and served with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in the 60s, including South Vietnam. Bill had always been interested in writing verse often sending snippets home to his wife, Robyn, which he never completed. He continued writing snippets for years after his service until he was encouraged to take up writing poetry by his wife and children, then the snippets became poems. His first attempt at poetry resulted in a literary award and encouraged he continued writing and published two books of poetry illustrated by Robyn: A Rugged Bunch of Diggers 1 and 2 and a children’s book Lulu, the Kangaroo. He continues to write individual poems for the 521 soldiers who died during the Vietnam War.

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Sculpture “Unforgiven”

Sleep
George Mansford, (September 2016)


If I could only sleep the sleep of sleeps
To capture sweet deeds I can keep
In the cloak of night greet blissful rest so rare
To dream of peace and even love should I dare

I cannot escape this shrinking smothering room
Painted with spite, hate and terrible doom
I am shackled to the past and never to be free
Deep sleep in pure white sheets is not to be

Oh to be deaf to shrieks and howls spat from spiteful guns
Blind to flitting silent shadows mid the last rays of dying suns
Be gone the shuffling file of haunted faces never to smile again
If only a welcome storm to wash away the guilt and pain

In this lonely bed, to dream of peace, goodwill and love
To walk mid young green forests reaching high above
To hear the joyful welcome calls of feathered birds so bright
To shut out the darkness of yesterday and seek tomorrow’s light.


George Mansford AM, born 1934, served in the Australian Army between 1950 and 1990 including Korea, Malayan Emergency, Malaysia, Thai Border, South Vietnam, New Guinea, Singapore and Cyclone Tracy. Having just returned home from Vietnam 1967, he started to write poetry after his first wife died. On losing his second wife and son, his writing increased dramatically as he discovered that writing was a fortunate distraction from grief and anger of war.

‘I found that promoting peace, love of country and such deep camaraderie was a wonderful sedative. It was what my loved ones and old comrades want.’

George is the author of Junior Leadership on the Battlefield and The Mad Galahs.

 

 

The Progress
Barham J. R. Ferguson, (28 August 2018)

The fog that hugs my legs like a refugee,
Shows the steps of progress towards my own peace.
I have fought for the peace of others
And lost more than blood in the process,
But I know that hope stands not behind me.

See my anguish in the oils,
See my scars in the sculpture,
See my pity in the poetry,
See my failure in the photographs,
Hear my sorrow in the song.

I miss the moment of living the dream,
Of knowing those at home are thinking of me.
Praying for me. Worried about me.
Today however, they only worry about me.
It’s not the enemy that hunts me, nor the
Danger that surrounds me.
It is for the danger within.

My current battle is with doubt. Memories.
Questions I cannot answer.
Images so vivid, I can hear them.

But the fighter in me stands tall.
I can win this war as I have done before.
Not for me, but for others.
This is why I served. This is who I am,
Either in or out of service.
So help me make that step.

And watch me emerge as a similar person
To the one you knew. Similar, but better.
That you can then
See my ambition in oils,
See my skills in sculpture,
See my power in poetry,
See my future in photographs, and
Hear my strength in song.

It is now that I realise,
My child that hugs my legs like a refugee,
Speeds the steps of progress to my own peace.

Barham Ferguson, born 1968, joined the Australian army in 1987 and saw operational service in Papua New Guinea, Southern Thailand, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan. An Ambassador for the Australian National veterans Art Museum and a longtime supporter of veterans’ issues, Barham discharged in July 2018 and lives in Canberra with his daughter. He is the author of Love, Life and ANZAC Biscuits, (2013), and A Feeling of Belonging (1999).


Through The Mirror
Barham J.R. Ferguson, (13 February 2017)

Through the mirror of the past,
I see myself in memories vast.
A warrior, not once outclassed,
This was who I was.

From the dust of duty first,
The last hoorah of machine gun burst,
Wounds of war no longer nursed,
The world knew who I was.

Homeward bound with dreams anew,
Perceptions changed on what I do,
My useful skills seemed less than few,
I defended who I was.

Fighting family, fighting friends,
The war has changed, it never ends.
‘’Is my life pointless?” Now depends,
On knowing who I am.

Where to start, and what to do?
What do I have that pleases you?
There’s things inside that still ring true,
They make me who I am.

Strength and honour. Discipline.
These soldier traits have not worn thin,
Unlike the uniform in the bin,
These traits are who I am.

There’s many more that made me me,
When I was in the military,
But in these threads I now can see,
That made me who I am.

Now it’s time to do what’s right,
To find a mission, and gain insight,
To be the me who can sleep at night,
‘Cause I do know who I am.

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sculpture – Finish

At the Australian War Memorial, there is a Flanders Field Garden planted with poppies and with the words of John McCrae’s poem carved on the walls to remind us that in Ypres, Belgium,  ‘men died in their thousands and the medieval town was reduced to ruins.’

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Unknown Australian Soldier

This year was the 25th anniversary of the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier, who represents all Australians who have been killed in war. At the head of the tomb are the words, ‘Known unto God’, and at the foot, ‘He is all of them and he is one of us.’

“Plans to honour an unknown Australian soldier were first put forward in the 1920s, but it was not until 1993 that one was at last brought home. to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the remains of the soldier were recovered from Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux in France and transported to Australia. After lying in state in King’s Hall in Old Parliament House, the Unknown Australian Soldier was interred in the Hall of memory at the memorial on 11 November 1993. He was buried with a bayonet and a sprig of wattle in a Tasmanian blackwood coffin, and soil from Pozieres was scattered in his tomb.”

The eulogy for the Unknown Soldier was first delivered by the Honourable Paul Keating in 1993. In Canberra, on the Centenary of the Armistice, a recording was played of his speech.

The words are memorable and moving but perhaps the lines that need to be emphasised more often are:

This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later… We have lost more than 100,000 lives, and with them all their love of this country and all their hope and energy… It is not too much to hope, therefore, that this Unknown Australian Soldier might continue to serve his country – he might enshrine a nation’s love of peace and remind us that in the sacrifice of the men and women whose names are recorded here there is faith enough for all of us.’

The current exhibitions in Canberra at the National Museum and National Library add more food for thought as well as steps in the evolution of the ‘nation’ Paul Keating was talking about.

Rome reveals how integral the military was to the Roman Empire’s greatness and an exhibition on Captain Cook and his Voyages touches on the Colonial Wars and Aborigines fighting the invasion of their land by representatives of the British Empire.

The powerful Roman and British Empires now diminished and if nothing else, the tide of history seems predictable but has mankind learnt a ‘love of peace’?

Thank Goodness For Community Initiatives

 While national politicians and governments may let their people down, there are plenty of instances of grassroots initiatives – and therefore HOPE.

Nara Peace Park, Canberra, is a case in point – not only has it the Peace Bell but myriad sections, sculptures and plaques making a statement about peace. 

TOKU 2010 by artist Shinki Kato born 1955

Toku was commissioned to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of Japan’s ancient capital, Nara. The sculpture has three main elements: A five-storied pagoda form which represents Canberra; a floating stone representing Nara; and the form of a small bird symbolising peace.

The bird resembles a Latham’s Snipe, a species which migrates annually between Japan and Canberra. The artist has created Toku to express the amicable relationship and mutual understanding shared by Canberra and Nara as sister cities.

There are tranquil areas to meander through or sit and enjoy the beauty of the gardens and lake. The day I visited, families were picnicking and playing.

 

The Pen Mightier Than The Sword

As you walk through the park there is evidence that we shouldn’t take the beauty, or sentiments, for granted. At the base of several trees are plaques – sadly some were damaged and worn by the weather. The plaques reminders that writers from poets to journalists have lost their lives fighting to express and defend ideas and freedom of speech.

“The spirit dies in all of us who keep silent in the face of tyranny”

The plaques and trees were a ‘memorial to writers who have fought for freedom of speech”  and was conceived through the vision and work of the ACT members of PEN International and dedicated by the Minister for Arts and Heritage, Mr Gary Humphries MLA, on 17 November 1996.

Among the dedications:

  • Kenule Beeson Saro-Wewa, Nigerian playwright,
  • Meena Kishwarkanel, poet and journalist,
  • Russians: Galina Starovoitova, ethnographer and dissident politician, and Larissa Ludina, newspaper editor,
  • Konka Kuris Turkish feminist writer,
  • Robert Walker Aboriginal poet, and
  • the Balibo Five, Australian journalists murdered in East Timor 1975: Greg Shackleton, Brian East, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and
  • journalist Roger East killed in Dili, 1975.

Hopefully, somewhere a memorial plaque will be made for Jamal Khashoggi recently assassinated by agents of the Saudi Government. The plaque, a permanent reminder of those who use words to defend our right to speak and challenge those who think suppression and violence a solution.

However, for every writer silenced, there is always another who picks up the pen to peacefully bring about change. The belief that the pen is mightier than the sword and words can make a difference, a good enough motivation for me to keep writing.

 

Surviving, Existing, Embracing – How Would You Cope In An Australian Desert?

(Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that some of the links from this blog include images or names of people now deceased.)

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NAIDOC Week 2018 

Under the theme – Because of her, we can! – NAIDOC Week 2018 will be held nationally from Sunday 8 July and continue through to Sunday 15 July.

… Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played – and continue to play – active and significant roles at the community, local, state and national levels… As leaders, trailblazers, politicians, activists and social change advocates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women fought and continue to fight, for justice, equal rights, our rights to country, for law and justice, access to education, employment and to maintain and celebrate our culture, language, music and art…

They are our mothers, our elders, our grandmothers, our aunties, our sisters and our daughters… often been invisible, unsung or diminished… For at least 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have carried our dreaming stories, songlines, languages and knowledge … and enriched us as the oldest continuing culture on the planet…

Two Sisters – Ngarta And Jukuna

A True Story – Perhaps the first Autobiography written in an Aboriginal language…

In an ideal world, this book would be in school and community libraries and generate important conversations about culture, language, family relationships, and Australia’s history.

A firsthand account it provides a rare primary source of knowledge and insight into the lives of two amazing and courageous women.

We are all enriched by listening or reading with an open mind when people share their authentic, lived experience from the heart, in their own language.  Especially, when the stories are remarkably different from our own as this story.

The sisters couldn’t read or write their language Walmajarri until it was documented and translated into English by Eirlys Richards, one of the co-authors who collaborated with this book.

Eirleys and Pat Lowe, the other non-Aboriginal author are to be congratulated for recognising the importance of recording the stories, helping translate Ngarta and Jukuna’s words, encouraging the telling and persisting towards publication.

The road to publishing would not have been easy. I’ve spent most of my writing life trying to publish stories by everyday Australians in anthologies for the Mordialloc Writers’ Group and classes in community houses and appreciate the hoops to jump through to achieve a joyful result – especially with what is referred to now as ‘traditional publishing.’

This edition of Two Sisters, by the Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation 2016 and was first published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press 2004 but can be bought from www.magabala.com Email: shop@magabala.com

The book is easy to read and approximately 120 pages and packs a punch.

I guarantee it will remain in your memory! For me, even the timescale is mind-boggling. Ngarta and Jukuna came out of the desert and first had contact with white people in 1961 – the year before I arrived in Australia to live in Melbourne, one of the most developed cities in the world.

United Aborigines Mission from air 1977
An aerial view of the outback Mission 1977 giving an idea of distance

The book includes helpful sections such as pages 83-103 where the story is in Walmajarri. Another singular experience – I’ve not read a book before with the story printed in English as well as an Aboriginal language.

Also included is a Glossary of Walmajarri words and their meaning plus an excellent pronunciation guide. ( Throughout the text some of the Walmajarri words used have no definitive English equivalent because of the 23 different sounds of Walmajarri some are not found in English.)

A potted history of the backgrounds of the authors and how they met also included with helpful historical markers and notes about Aboriginal culture and several maps and photographs.

‘People who lived in the Great Sandy Desert led a distinctive way of life with their own beliefs and customs. In telling their stories, Jukuna and Ngarta took such aspects of their experience for granted, seldom seeing the need to explain what to them was obvious. Because Ngarta’s story is written in the third person, it has been possible to interweave additional information helpful to readers who don’t know the desert or its people…

For most readers there will remain a number of questions arising from both stories, not all of which can be answered with certainty… we have often had to accept that some things are unknowable…’

Pat Lowe

Eirlys moved to Fitzroy Crossing in 1967 to translate The Bible but also establish literacy and reading groups. When Jukuna and her husband Pijaji settled nearby they learnt to read and write their own language for the first time.

By 1980 Jukuna was a fluent reader, one of a small number of people who could read and write the language… her skill in writing did not develop as quickly as her reading did, probably because there was little reason for her to write.’

However, when Jukuna and Eirlys met up in the 1990s Jukuna said,

‘I have written a story about myself, will you read it?’

Eirlys ‘read an account of a young woman leaving her family in the desert to walk with her husband to the unknown country of the white people. I wondered if this might be the first autobiography written by a Walmajarri person in her language.

Two Sisters is about life in a remote area of Australia few will visit, let alone live in. Most of us are not desert or bush dwellers and if we do go there it will be with the support of guides and tourist organisations, or with the knowledge and expertise of technology.

Reading the day to day accounts of hunting animals and gathering and harvesting of plants, the walking from waterhole to waterhole, the hours of digging involved and the setting and packing up of camps is engrossing and exhausting when you imagine the miles, the terrain, the heat, the cold – and the fear!

Underlying the journey of the sisters and the last of the Walmajarri left in the desert is the story of murder and lawlessness by the criminal Manyjilyjarra brothers.

These men were from a family of outlaws, men who lived apart from other people and defied the law, who preyed on their fellows, killing without reason, abducting women and discarding them. Other men feared them, and for a long time they got away with their crimes…

… news of yet another killing reached the scattered bands. No one had the power to control the killers or bring them to puishment. They moved, uninvited into country that was not their own, and eventually they went to Walmajarri country…

This was a time of great change amongst the peoples of the desert. Most of their number had already left the sandhills. Some had chosen to migrate north or west to join relatives on the cattle and sheep stations that had been established in the more generously watered country of their neighbours. Others had been rounded up by white people and brought into settlements….

Desert society had so disintegrated that its normal laws and sanctions could no longer be enforced, and these men were able to intrude with impunity into other people’s country and to prey on the few remaining unprotected inhabitants.

Prologue, two Sisters

Ngarta Jinny Bent and Jukuna Mona Chuguna belong to the Walmajarri/Juwaliny language group. They were children when this mayhem and dislocation happened and the story of fleeing the criminals, meeting up with them and others who suffered and the gradual move north to settlements is covered in their stories.

Ngarta stayed behind with her grandmother to be one of the last to leave country.

‘In the whole of the Great Sandy desert, only a handful of widely scattered groups of people still lived in their accustomed way. Everyone else had gone. In Ngarta’s country there remained just one small band of eight souls: Ngarta, her mother and grandmother, her young brother, Pijaji’s two sisters and his second mother and grandmother…

With so few people to feed… They did not need to travel far with each season to find new stocks of food. Besides they were waiting for their relatives to come back and pick them up…’

page 31

Jilji-a sandhill
Jilji – a sandhill

The little group lived like this happily enough for a couple of years. They didn’t see anyone else in all that time and, but for the knowledge that their relatives were living on a cattle station far to the north, they might have been the last people in the world. Life went on in its age-old pattern: food gathering and hunting, drawing water, making or improvising tools, cooking, camping, firing the country, telling stories around the fire. Everything was the same, yet nothing was the same now that they were on their own.

page 34

waterholes
Searching for water depended on knowledge of where to dig and what jilas held the most or easiest water available

Enter the lawless brothers who killed her brother and beloved grandmother and speared her mother. Ngarta’s story becomes particularly harrowing when you consider she was just a child. She lived in terror and eventually fled surviving on her own for ‘a year or more’… time measured differently by her people.

So I went away on my own, in the afternoon. I went west. I took only a kana for hunting and a firestick. I walked on the grass all the way, till I got to Jarirri.’

Instead of walking on the sand, Ngarta stepped from one tuft of spinifex to another in order to leave no footprints.

She almost reached safety, within sight of Cherrabun hills but ‘… her resolve failed. For reasons she is no longer sure about, she gave up the idea of pushing on to Christmas Creek.’

‘I don’t know why I went back. maybe I was thinking about my country. Maybe I was frightened for kartiya.’ (white people)

Mining company's seismic lines in desert
Mining company’s seismic lines in the desert

…  their country stretches almost as far as the Fitzroy River to the north, but the family of these two sisters came from much further south, from the Great Sandy Desert proper, so that when the first Walmajarri people, the northern groups, were going to work on cattle stations, the southern groups were unaffected… even the bands most distant from one another were linked by marriage and consanguinity… upheavals caused by the settlers of the cattle and sheep stations filtered back along the attenuated communication lines to… the remotest parts of the desert…

Robert Menzies of whom they knew nothing, was Prime Minister when Jukuna and later Ngarta emerged from the Great Sandy Desert… much later… they first heard the word “Australia” and learned that they were not only Walmajarri, but also Australians.

Pat Lowe, contributing author in the introduction to Two Sisters

Ngarta grandmother's grinding stone 1997
Returning to country Ngarta discovered her grandmother’s grinding stone

When Jukuna tells her story she also fills in gaps about Ngarta’s and describes when they were reunited:

‘I’ll tell you about something good that happened. Pijaji and I thought our family, who we’d left in the desert, were no longer alive. So, we pushed the memory of them from our minds, and worked on the station without thinking about them very much, you can imagine my shock when my sister and sister-in-law arrived at Christmas Creek Station. When I heard the news I was overjoyed and we went over to see them and cry with them.’

I know the feeling of joy as a migrant returning to my birth country and meeting kinfolk and friends after many years of separation but there have been letters, phone calls and messages via others.

No such contact for the sisters.

That unembellished paragraph of Jukuna’s about being reunited with family thought dead and hearing their horrific tale of survival such understated stoicism!

Bridging The Cultural Divide

In a chapter titled The World of The Two Sisters, Pat Lowe contributes some helpful information to help non-Aboriginal readers understand the sisters’ stories – especially in the context of the time and reminding us of how isolated the desert dwellers were.

Books like Two Sisters show the differences in culture but also similarities in the development of humankind, the resilience of communities, the dispelling of fears and misconceptions, and adaptations necessary, the contrast between past, present and future.

Both women became artists as well as writers with their paintings exhibited in Australia and overseas. (Ngarta died in 2002)

  • Desert people did not keep track of ages in years, but as stages in life. Children described as newborn, crawling, toddling but as they got older their maturity judged on ability to hunt and the size or agility of animals caught – from small lizards to goannas and pythons, cats to foxes and dingoes. ‘The first time Ngarta killed a cat or a fox was a landmark event.’
  • A girl considered ready for marriage when her body showed signs of physical maturation – menstruation, breast development, pubic hair. Perhaps betrothed since birth to an older man she didn’t cohabit until mature enough and went to live in her husband’s camp. Her husband not allowed to have sexual relations until ‘the right time’ and such restrictions commonly observed. (Unless of course, like the marauding brothers Ngarta encountered men took women and girls and often killed them after rape.) Although Ngarta never talked about it later, she is said to have been taken as a wife by one of the men.’
  • Polygamy was normal practice, maintained by an early marriage of girls and later marriage of men. The presence of other wives, by and large, ensured the protection of the younger girls. It also contributed to complex kinship relationships and in the story, it can become quite complicated when the sisters talk of mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers so don’t read certain tracts when you’re tired! This complex extended kinship and blood relationships, of course, is why the practice of removing children from their family and country is not only outrageous and indecent on humanitarian grounds but a dangerous practice because families lost trace of bloodlines, eligibility for marriage, and ensuring appropriate behaviours and obligations observed. Aborigines will suffer the consequences of  The Stolen Generation for a long time and we must never let that shameful period be forgotten or repeated – no matter what justifications authorities use.
  • A boy’s physical development determined his readiness for going through stages of law and his rank among men and marriageability.
  • Desert people tell stories that may span years. They are not fixated with definitive time the way Europeans are and knowing the age of the sisters at particular times in the story is guesswork.
  • Widows or other grieving females hit themselves on the head with stones until they bled, there is confronting descriptions of this and wailing, tearing of clothes, painting bodies in clay – visible and visceral signs of grief shared by other cultures.
  • Desert dwellers believe in supernatural beings and spirits – some benign others dangerous. They live in hollows and waterholes can enter children and animals, can be helpful to explain good weather or destructive seasons and anything new or unusual like windmills and fences built by settlers and the various types of cattle introduced. They are not the only people to believe in the supernatural or gods that can’t be seen. Men cried when they discovered water in the tank below a windmill having never seen the structure before and always working hard digging for water, they believed evil spirits were at work.
  • Expert hunters and gatherers but living in a sometimes unforgiving environment a great part of the desert dwellers day is spent searching for and cooking food. Most of us would be in awe at their tracking and hunting capabilities and lack of waste – the wisdom of the First People to help us protect and sustain the environment should be a given. But when they first engaged with white people there were many shocks. ‘At Julia Yard, the two men found a drum of tar, used for applying to spayed cows to heal their wounds. They had never seen tar before and thinking it was some kind of food, like honey, they swallowed some of it. It burnt their throats and later they vomited.’
  • Desert and other Aboriginal people drop from their vocabulary the names of recently deceased people. They are disturbed to hear the name or be reminded of someone who is gone. The closer the relationship, the longer the taboo on the use of a name and other similar words in general vocabulary.  “Instead, people usually address and speak of one another by relationship terms, a practice that causes much tearing of hair amongst non-indigenous people trying to follow narratives and identify the actors.”

newspaper article

Epilogue – What About Justice?

The Chapter, Epilogue, became personal in a ‘six-degrees of separation’ way.

A small group of desert dwellers who had never lived under or obeyed ‘white man’s’ law appearing at a remote cattle station and killing stock was news in 1961 but because of language barriers and intense fear and distrust it was some time before teenager Ngarta’s story was listened to – and apparently ignored by authorities.

The two murderers were remanded on cattle killing charges, later reduced to ‘having been in possession of beef suspected of having been stolen,’ and fined fifty pounds or fifty days in prison.

The court case and charges absurd – how would they know about kartiya (white) law and possession or have money for fines!

Tragic too, the public outcry ‘at the perceived unfairness of the sentences’ that followed, which led to the men being soon released and having ‘a happy reunion’ with their group.

The government received written protests from such bodies as the Union of Australian Women, the Joint Railway Unions Committee, the Amalgamated Engineering Union and the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union.

I’m a member of the UAW and worked for the Miscos in the 1980s.  I know these organisations considered themselves progressive and on the side of social justice.

They were at the forefront of many struggles for Aboriginal rights but I wonder if they were able to hear the real story from those desert dwellers in 1961, including the treatment of the sisters, would they still have demanded the men’s release?

The allegations that some of the children had been stolen were never followed up, or the brutal and cruel treatment Ngarta and Jukuna suffered – well not by katiya – but interestingly karma or ‘blackfella way’ seems to have worked! (Read the book…)

Two Sisters and its various chapters with perspectives, reflections and new knowledge, a fascinating read of survival, adaptation and growth. An apt book to study because the focus of this year’s NAIDOC theme is – honouring women’s contribution

BECAUSE OF HER , WE CAN!

 

International Women’s Day 2018 Reminds Us Progress Needs To Speed Up

IWD March 8 2017

#Pressforprogress

The City of Kingston again held a morning tea to celebrate International Women’s Day, and in 2018, the catchcry was #pressforprogress with the speakers focusing on gender equality.

The event, held at Kingston City Hall featured the CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria as the keynote speaker but also two young women from local secondary colleges, a student leader from Westall and a Year Nine student from Parkdale Secondary College.

 

fiona McCormack IWD 2018
Fiona McCormack

 

Deputy Mayor Councillor Georgina Oxley opened the official proceedings to introduce Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, Chair of Vic health, and Co-Chair of the State Government’s Family Violence Committee. Kingston’s Mayor Steve Staikos was also present plus Councillor Rosemary West and several Council staff members.

Councillor Oxley, who is 23 years old shared a little of her journey to show that pressing for progress is not always easy to achieve. Despite it being almost half a century since the first IWD in 1975, when there were amazing steps forward in Australia, many young women’s dreams for change are still crushed.

refusing to shut up sign

She recalled several milestones in her life vindicating that young girls must aspire to whatever they want to be, whether it is a scientist, a CEO, a hairdresser or Prime Minister…

  • at 5 years she was told she couldn’t wear pants to school because she was a girl
  • at 9 years she couldn’t play basketball because that was a boy’s game
  • at 12 years insulted and jeered at for being ‘a feminist’ while riding her bicycle
  • at 15 years she was paid less than her male counterparts as a basketball referee
  • at 17 years she was told science, law, or politics no place for a woman and she should be a hairdresser
  • at 22 years she stood for Kingston Council to challenge a society still dictating to women about what they should do…

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Now she wears pants if she wants, plays basketball, rides her bicycle to the shops, sees feminism as a term of endearment, campaigns for equal pay and is studying Law. She is involved in politics to make a difference. At 23 years she is involved with the working group to reduce family violence in Kingston.

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Equality In The Workplace Two Hundred Years Away?

Women around the globe may have to wait more than two centuries to achieve equality in the workplace, according to new research.

The World Economic Forum, best known for its annual gathering in the Swiss resort of Davos, said it would take 217 years for disparities in the pay and employment opportunities of men and women to end.

The Guardian March 8, 2018

Domestic Violence Australia’s Shame

Fiona McCormack from Domestic Violence Victoria’s address was equally sobering, as she pointed out how important gender equality and pay equity is to stop family violence.

She acknowledged the power of words and language and commended the campaigns #me too, #heforshe: standing together and how the Victorian Government’s Royal Commission into Family Violence was a world first proving the political will to converse and make a change. (click on the link to read the recommendations.)

This IWD, Fiona called for everyone to challenge sexism, but more importantly for men to step up and act now for a significant change. Many male peer relationships emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.

Male culture can be physical, emotional and economically abusive by threatening, coercive, and dominating behaviour.

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Family violence predominantly affects women, 34% are in the age group 35-40:

  • in Australia, woman are murdered every week
  • 1 in 3 women have suffered from intimate partner violence
  • 1 in 5 have experienced sexual assault
  • more than half had children in their care witnessing this abuse

We must challenge rigid gender roles and stereotypes, the constructs of masculinity and feminity that encourages domination and control of decision-making within relationships and limits women’s independence.

Research has shown that family violence cannot be explained away by blaming drugs and alcohol. International evidence gathered by the World Bank, World Health Organisation and several other UN organisations reveal it is how social systems are constructed.

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The Personal Is Political

Men who have strong views on their role as men, as the head of the family, treat women and children as their possessions; women are carers and/or sexual beings.

There are a lot of problems caused by definitions of masculinity – look no further than the One Punch incidents, gang violence and aggressive behaviour in nightclubs where young men feel the need to prove how tough they are over and over again. The necessity some men have to not only prove they are heterosexual but take part in homophobic attacks.

  • We have to challenge the norms of what is masculinity until we produce a healthier community for everyone.
  • Society, the courts, and police must not be ambivalent about acceptable behaviour.
  • We must address the imbalance of power between men and women regarding decision-making.
  • Sexist jokes, disrespect, and unequal relationships must be confronted and exposed.

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There needs to be a cultural shift especially regarding unequal power and entrenched attitudes.

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We can’t point the finger when we continue to discriminate and treat Aboriginal people the way we do. Sovereignty was never ceded and their economic disempowerment and the higher incidence of being caught in a poverty trap contributes to family violence in their communities. Authorities continue the discrimination and abuse leading to high incarceration rates and deaths in custody.

 

We must actively promote leadership positions for all women and pay equity not just allow conditions to flourish and hope that like the discredited ‘trickle down economics’ theory it will somehow work out in the end.

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The United Nations (UN) convention on the rights of the child (CROC-article, 1990) states:

“It is recognised internationally that a child who is capable of forming their own view has the right to express those views.”

Two Young Women Speak Up

(Apologies if I misspelt the names of the young speakers – they were not listed on the invitation and my hearing is not 100%!)

Danielle is a proud Wurundjeri woman and welcomed us to her country in her own language. She acknowledged coming from a long line of working women including her mother, aunts and granny. She has always expected to work and therefore pay parity very important.

She understands that women with dependent children carry a heavy burden when underpaid. Today, young people must work harder to own things like a house and car, but young women not paid equally have to work harder than male counterparts.

She is grateful for the women who have trailblazed but pleaded for the door to be held open for the next generation to walk through and continue to achieve.

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The gender pay gap can begin in the home if boys and girls are expected to do different chores and boys putting out the rubbish bins considered to deserve more money than girls drying the dishes!  All children’s self-esteem must be built and children encouraged to forget past gender divisions.

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Danielle was assured that “a door is well and truly open for you.

Mulyat is a school leader from Westall Secondary College, who began her talk by describing a recent visit to her birth country Bangladesh. She noticed a huge difference between how girls were treated in the city compared to the countryside.

The inequalities she saw in the rural areas and in poor areas of the city were manifestations of poverty and lack of access to education. And although disheartening it also indicated that if some girls in the city can achieve their dreams then change is possible.

However, gender equality and empowerment should not just be for society’s elites!

When she was little her parents bought her kitchen tools and a doll’s house but she always wanted to be an engineer. She saw a different use for the spatula and wanted to experiment with changing the slope of the roof of the doll’s house.

As she grew up, she wondered why young girls stopped playing sports like rugby when they reached a certain age, why teachers always chose boys to carry furniture, why women in positions of power like our first female Prime Minister were called wicked witches and other curse words. She wondered if Hillary had broken the glass ceiling if women could rise…

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The print media and other forms of media headlines pick poor word choices with negative connotations when it comes to women but we must never let anyone make us feel defeated!

We must consider who we are as a collective and don’t be forced to be on the sidelines. Role models are important but the change begins with us. There can be progress to change the future and the echo must go around the world – no barricades and no fences.

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After the inspiring speeches, morning tea was a time to catch up with friends, make new ones, share stories, opinions and plans. I chatted with a woman wearing a lovely knitted Pussy Hat and we reminisced about how quickly women all over the world came together to object to Donald Trump’s obnoxious behaviour and attitude to women.

 

One of Kingston Council’s managers shared his experience of a professional development workshop when he was stunned to hear the fear many women live with daily and how they cope.

The women were asked how safe they felt walking the streets; their responses detailed how they protect themselves.

He remembered being shocked that women accepted the possibility of an attack as a fact of  life and:

  • have their car our house keys in their hand or pocket with the largest key ready as a weapon
  • if walking with earbuds/earphones, or a wearing a beanie, one ear is always exposed so they can listen for footsteps

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Let’s hope that cultural shift that is so necessary is happening and speeds up. Late in the afternoon, I marched through the city on the annual IWD March and again caught up with friends.

Evelyn is 86 years old. We are both longtime members of the Union of Australian Women and have lost count of the number of marches we have joined, the letters we’ve written and the petitions signed demanding gender equality and in particular equal pay.

 

We’ll continue to #pressforprogress!

Left Wing Ladies Still Flying High

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In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly declared November 25 the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (IDEVAW) and the White Ribbon has become the symbol for the day.

The White Ribbon Campaign in Australia is led by more than 1000 White Ribbon Ambassadors. These men are leaders in their careers, sporting code or communities and actively support the White Ribbon Campaign, and encourage other men and boys to become aware and engage in the campaign.

Women also support and expand the campaign through their networks, workplaces and community organisations as White Ribbon Champions, but not all women are happy with the high profile and amount of money channelled into this foundation.

Respect For White Ribbon Day’s Aims, But…

In the Herald Sun online, journalist Nina Funnell gave  “10 reasons why I will ignore White Ribbon day” and although I don’t usually read the Herald Sun, her article came up when I Googled ‘White Ribbon.’ One of her points resonated:

” Since its inception White Ribbon has happily leant on the work done by decades of women’s organisations and in private it still attempts to foster positive relationships with feminist organisations.

But in public, it’s a different story. As Clementine Ford writes the White Ribbon Foundation has done this “in order to align itself with a more corporate, mainstream agenda that ignores the hard work done by underfunded women’s health services across the country”.

Look White Ribbon, I get it. You’re trying to impress your corporate dude-bros. All that corporate slick and polish is important to you and feminist organisations don’t really meld with that image you’re going for.

But just don’t expect us damsels to passively sit by and cop this crap.”

We All Stand On The Shoulders of Those Who Came Before…

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Left-Wing Ladies
The Union of Australian Women in Victoria, 1950 – 2012 (2nd edition)
2nd Edition Published 2012 by UAW  Ross House, Flinders Lane, Melbourne

This book sheds light on the policies and practices of Australian governments, political parties, trade unions, security and intelligence organisations, the Churches and the women’s movement. It has relevance for anyone interested in the politics of the Left, women’s issues and feminism, the peace movement – and how to organise at a grassroots level.

 

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Anna Burke MP and Anne Sgro 2014

 

Last year, the Union of Australian Women was 65 years old.  President Anne Sgro visited the Southern Branch in Mordialloc, to revisit UAW history by referencing the above book and reminding us why it is important we remain resolute in the fight for social justice.

To paraphrase Paul Keating, we continue to be ordinary women achieving extraordinary things!

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Anne reminded us  we need to celebrate and acknowledge our aims of peace, social justice, gender equity and a fair go for women. Aims still as relevant today, if not more so, than when the foundation members began the organisation.

The fight to redress and reduce family violence very much a case in point!

 

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In 1950, communities were recovering from WW2. Women needed equal pay and better housing. Change needed – and women knew what they wanted.

Those women would be amazed we still only earn 82% of the male wage!

The equal pay campaign – equal pay for work of equal value still to be won. Some occupations like teachers better placed than others, but areas considered traditionally women’s work still lacks value. A car park attendant can earn more than a childcare worker. Pay equity still a necessity, despite huge advances basic demands still to be achieved.

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Zelda Soprano

 

The founding women were from the Communist Party, the ALP and Christians from churches working for peace and social justice. The first UAW President, Aileen Dickie, a devout Christian, courageous and tenacious working for change.

Ordinary women with progressive values looking at ways to make change happen. They organised and attended international conferences, forums and community meetings. They challenged a conservative Australia with those in power pushing the message women must go back to the kitchen, housework and home. John Howard’s white picket fence.

Many of the women who initiated radical change came from the southern area – the south-eastern suburbs: Betty Olle, Molly Hadfield, Dot Young, Nola Barber, Eileen Cappocci…

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Molly Hadfield and Edith Morgan featured in the SMH during the 1998 waterfront dispute

 

Over 15-20 years these women trail blazed, fundraised, and lobbied – councils, state and federal governments, corporations and individuals. They understood practicalities and can take the credit for establishing 13 kindergartens, several libraries, countless bus routes, and the election of female councillors and mayors.

Zelda Soprano chained herself to railings, Yvonne Smith and Betty Olle also – drawing attention to UAW demands and ideals. Yvonne Smith achieved remarkable advances in the health field by setting up the DES Society for women affected by the morning sickness pill (Diethylstilbestrol), which led to their children being born ill.

The Nothing on A Plate exhibition illustrates what some in sensible shoes, hats and sturdy constitution can do!  The well-known tram ride, where the activists paid 75% of the fare garnered great publicity, getting the population onside for the push for equal pay.

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The campaigns to expose how drinking in Women’s Lounges in hotels cost more and for women to be allowed to drink where they wanted saw a lot of women chaining themselves to bar stools. It was about the principle of equal access and cost.

The equal pay campaign usually carried out at demonstrations with placards, hiccupped during the Vietnam  War years because of a ban on placards. However,  innovative UAW activists put slogans on aprons and walked single file or in pairs on the pavement – just not in bunches!

The Kennett years saw an expansion of these crocodile marches – making a fuss in small groups: single file, aprons plus a megaphone, stopping in a key area so that 20 activists looked and sounded more like 100!

The Grandmothers Against Detention have adopted similar tactics to ensure they take over the footpath. Aprons in the 60s, placards in the 90s, and direct action still today as UAW activists use their voices to make a difference.

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The UAW wrote submissions for the Arbitration Commission on behalf of women workers in the sweatshop industry, lobbied for affordable, decent, public housing in the post-war era.

It seems like déjà vu with a lot of these issues, but passion hasn’t lessened. Methods of action and of organising have changed. The UAW has kept up with digital technology and social media, recognising young women activists operate differently today.

However, the UAW are effective at putting in submissions and had their say at the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

The UAW has always opposed family violence even although in the 50s and 60s no one talked about it.

They established friendships and relationships with Women’s Liberation in Victoria and supported the movement setting up Women’s Refuges in the 70s. Anne Summers piece in the book, Fury: Women Write About Sex, Power and Violence edited by Samantha Trenoweth explains the setting up of Elsie, the first women’s refuge in Sydney and is a sobering read.

The UAW is proud of the long-standing campaign to free Heather Osland, who spent 14 and 1/2 years in gaol for the murder of her violent husband when it was her son who actually committed the killing.

Anne reflected on how Dot Young spoke at a UAW forum and said, ‘when I was 19 and had a small baby, I shot my father.’  Dot’s father had been a violent abusive drunk and she was protecting her mother, herself and her baby.  

Family violence does not only affect women but the majority of perpetrators are male. Women suffer at the hands of abusive men with on average 2 women a week killed in Australia! 

 

 

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We could do with a sign like this here! 

 

The opportunity presented by the Royal Commission must not be wasted. If these deaths were attributed to terrorism there’d be a public outcry for action; it would be classified as urgent. Ex-police commissioners, Christine Nixon and Simon Overland introduced some good initiatives and Ken Lay has continued their work but so much more needs to be done.

What is wrong with our society that this violence against women and children continues? Not only men must soul search and change.

We need gender equity, society must value women and the work they do, their nurturing and caring roles as well as other contributions. Men are still seen as the breadwinner, blokes considered more important therefore disparity continues.

Men wouldn’t punch their workmates and get away with it, yet they are violent at home.

When Germaine Greer wrote the groundbreaking Female Eunuch in 1970 she said, we don’t want what blokes want, for us the gender equity recognition is about something different.

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Maybe we need to try different approaches to deal with violent men. In Glasgow, they are immediately taken into custody for 24 hours, and there are programs in schools to change attitudes and behaviour. Maybe we should look at making men responsible with compulsory stints in prison.

We have to continue to look at the feminist dream of the 70s and work to create a fairer and more just society.

Wear a white ribbon on November 25, but instead of buying merchandise donate the money instead to an organisation on the front line of family violence because they definitely need it! Here are just a few…

Domestic Violence Victoria

WESNET The Women’s Services Network

Safe Steps (formerly Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service of Victoria)

Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) Forum

Women’s Health in the South East

WAYSS Ltd

No To Violence 

 

The personal is political – celebrating International Women’s Day 2015 and the right to be me!

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Yesterday, I marched in the city with my daughter, Anne and a few hundred others. We were a small, eclectic and vocal crowd who patiently listened to several speeches while trying to avoid the burning rays of a sunny Melbourne Sunday.

I observed and chatted to several fellow marchers and reflected on my early involvement in the women’s movement, the issues that were at the forefront in the 1970s and those still on the agenda today.

It was lovely to share the afternoon with my daughter and know that both my girls are active feminists, not only caring about gender equality, but prepared to act and speak out, loud and proud when the occasion demands.

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The term ‘International Women’s Day’ is important because although many western women in the ‘first’ world appear to be doing very well thank you, there are millions of girls and women in other countries we refer to as ‘third’ world, who are born into slavery, denied education, beaten, raped, and basically controlled, manipulated and abused from the minute they are born till the day they die.

Yesterday, former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard mentioned the denial of education to 31 million girls as an example. In a previous post, I’ve highlighted the epidemic proportions of family violence and its impact on women and children. I’ve also written about another shameful scourge –  the suffering of women and children in detention, their only ‘crime’ seeking asylum in Australia thinking we are a haven from oppression.

There were several signs pointing out that we still have a long way to go even in Australia if we want true gender equality.

There are always politicians prepared to deny what was fought for: abortion has been decriminalised in Victoria for several years – let’s hope it remains a woman’s right to control her body.

But we are still struggling for equal pay for equal work, and for occupations seen as ‘mainly female’ to be as highly regarded and paid as well as those occupations deemed traditionally for males.

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A woman who influenced me greatly in the 70s was Peggy Seeger and her rendition of  Gonna be An Engineer clever poetry (read the transcript), like most memorable songs. I was fortunate to meet Peggy and Ewan MacColl when they were brought out to Australia to tour by the AMWU in 1976 when John Halfpenny was Victorian Secretary and still cherish the double cassette produced on their tour.

I remember mercurial Melbourne played its part that night too with a summer storm. The room at Trades Hall steamed as we dried out, but our enthusiasm wasn’t dampened. To the patter of heavy rain,  we stamped our feet, clapped and roared to the folk duo’s amazing repertoire. A wonderful memory of the joyous feeling to be among like-minded thinkers!

When I went to university in Canberra in 1971, I joined Women’s Liberation. We met at Elizabeth Reid‘s house. This amazing woman became Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s advisor when the Labor Government was elected in 1972. A watershed appointment and one many people didn’t like.

It was the beginning of women being appointed to positions of power – and so began the culture of vilification of these same women.  Australia’s ‘tall poppy syndrome‘ ensures the media still goes into a frenzy when it denigrates women in power. (eg. the treatment of our first female Prime Minister,  Julia Gillard)

It would take decades before the media could handle issues concerning women with maturity, about the same time it took for Reid’s significance to sink in.

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Liz and my bosom buddy for much of my time at university, author Drusilla Modjeska, were great influences on my philosophical and intellectual development. They gave me courage,  helped me find my voice and because of Drusilla, I began to believe I could be a writer – a dream and career still a work in progress!

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The early marches in Melbourne for International Women’s Day focused on equal pay for equal work and health issues such as abortion and contraception. A lot of young women were activists, and the 70s saw the inclusion of the Gay Liberation Movement too – of course, Australia still struggling with the idea of equal marriage rights for all until 2018.

We were noisy and I can remember lots of chanting and singing. We rewrote the words to many traditional songs with our own flavour and enjoyed the dulcet tones of musicians like Judy Small, another influential woman I admire.

Judy’s Mothers, Daughters, Wives, one of the best anti-war songs around, but also an amazing social commentary, as is my favourite one of Judy’s and so relevant now as we suffer the ‘war against terror’ scaremongering and demonisation of refugees – You Don’t Speak for Me. 

 

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I am still active in the Union of Australian Women and equality before the law, at work and in our education and health system is very much on our agenda. Many people may not know about the Human Rights Law Centre, established in 2006 with half a dozen lawyers who care about humanity. It is an NGO relying on private donations from philanthropic organisations, other law firms and private individuals with a small contribution from the government.

Their independence from government important because they work on making the authorities fulfil obligations under the various national and international laws.

Human Rights Law Centre

There is an education component to their work as well as litigation, and they have publications plus a website with an amazing resources page. The copies of submissions under ‘Women’ include equal opportunity, decriminalization of abortion, family violence, and equal pay.

The Centre does a lot of work on refugee rights responding to government policies. They have also tackled Gay and Lesbian rights from the perspective of equality under the law. They do work for Amnesty International to improve Australia’s foreign policy. They monitor police powers and investigative techniques, keep abreast of the UN and other peak bodies and Australia’s compliance regarding international obligations and women’s rights, especially the right to be free from violence.

In September 2013, at a UAW Southern Branch meeting, Emily Christie, a human rights lawyer gave an eloquent and passionate rundown on her work, in discrimination law – particularly discrimination on the basis of disability, sex identity, and sexuality. Emily works for DLA Piper Australia, a global law firm, and is part of a pro bono team handling cases with a public interest aspect,  on behalf of people who may be too poor to go through normal legal channels. Emily’s work and experience cover a broad scope, she chose two areas to share with us:

  1. The story of Norrie who does not identify as male or female and the fact that under the law ‘she’ can’t be protected because there are no appropriate words to describe or protect someone of non-specific sex in current gender and identity laws.
  2. Changes in the law at the national and international level that push boundaries and close gaps in women’s rights, particularly regarding abortion and domestic violence.

Norrie was born male in Scotland with gender dysphoria. Convinced to take ‘the cure’ of sexual reassignment surgery Norrie couldn’t identify as female either. Under Australian law, after surgery, a birth certificate can be changed, but you couldn’t choose to be intersex – or a non- specific gender. Our society has definite gender boundaries. Norrie and others have basic problems like what toilet to use, who to marry and what to put on official forms – especially since so many insist on knowing your gender even if it should be irrelevant.

Norrie applied to have non-specific on ‘her’ birth certificate, which the Registrar had no problem with, but that decision made the news and the Attorney General intervened to insist male or female must be stated. Norrie took the decision to VCAT. Sex is not defined in any legislation – it is just taken as read and although losing the first appeal, Norrie won in the Court of Appeal. Unfortunately, this judgement was also appealed. The High Court case 2014 was successful, mainly because there is a groundswell of supporters for sexual diversity. There was also a change to the Federal Sex Discrimination Act on August 1, 2013, to make discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status unlawful.

The law has to define sex by what is happening in the real world, with categories broader than male or female. Norrie’s case records the first time judges recognised that people may not fit into a predetermined understanding of what they should be. The case is important because once people are recognised in law they can be protected and services provided for them. Gay, transgender, and intersex people now have protection at the federal level. There are new guidelines created for official forms like Passports, Centrelink, Medicare whereby a person’s sex is only asked if necessary, and there has to be the option of “X” (intersex) as well as male or female. Emily noted that the enrolment to vote forms have already been altered to reflect the updated law.

Australia is one of the first Western governments to take this step in law but cultural awareness will take some time. Interestingly, India and the Philippines have a cultural history of acknowledging an intersex community – with 6 million people in India identifying as intersex. Internationally Australia is ahead in laws pertaining to sex and gender diversity but not in marriage equality.

Unfortunately, because the section in UN Human Rights Charter still delineates marriage between male and female it is interpreted as being against same-sex marriage making it difficult to cite a UN convention in any legal argument. However, the UN Committee on Human Rights regarding sexuality may be conservative, but at least they are doing better on women’s rights.

International law has never been good on women’s rights, especially in the private sphere. The laws are written by men focussed on the public sphere with issues such as domestic violence and abortion unaddressed. This is changing with private issues made a public responsibility mirroring changes on the domestic front in Australia.

The UN has legislation about torture and this has been used to change the rhetoric on domestic violence enabling the use of international law to protect women at home. The UN recognises that gender discrimination and violence against women is systemic. Many governments are now forced to address these issues like war crimes.

A recent case in South America used international law to procure an abortion for a sick woman citing the denial would be tantamount to torture and cruel and inhumane.

However, because Australia does not have a Bill of Rights to protect human rights  (one of the few western countries that doesn’t), individuals can’t sue the government if they don’t fulfil their obligations. The best tool we have for change is Federal Government intervention when the States do something wrong: e.g. Tasmania was the last state to decriminalise homosexuality.

A man took the issue to the UN and because the Federal Government makes laws to deal with external issues and obligations under international treaties they can pull the states into line and make state laws invalid.

However, if the Federal government chooses to ignore international conventions there are no real consequences except a loss of reputation and being scolded before a review board as we have seen recently with the report into children in detention.

IWD  and Women’s Rights – Always worth Celebrating

I’m glad we celebrate International Women’s Day and I know we have a long way to go, especially changing cultural mindsets and challenging ingrained prejudices. However, tackling the injustices in the world and society is important – and speaking out for those still voiceless an imperative for those of us who live in a free society.

Last night, the ache in my ageing bones after traipsing through the city was definitely worth it! The right to protest and march in the street one I’ve enjoyed for a long time and to some people synonymous with who I am.   I hope I can still march on IWD next year, and the year after, and many years to come!

My desire a bit like the dream to be a writer. Each day I’ll face the blank page and start writing, editing and rewriting and hope people read my words…

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