Australia’s Golden Sun

Australia, Australia, the land of golden sun.
But what of our forefathers?

Not the “privileged whites”, but the “chinks”, “wogs” and “abos”,
Did they bathe in the diamond sun’s light?
Did they feel the freedom bell of life?

Scalpings, slave labour, death in prisons…
Our past a past of bravery yet sadism.
A past where moral decency was usurped
By fear of other.

Have we learnt yet?

Reclaim, Australia, the golden sun.
But not at the expense of history.

Remember, apologise, make recompense, and forgive.

For until we are one, of equal status,
No true freedom bell can ring for any.

Magical Venice

I’ve recently had the pleasure of visiting Venice, a stunning and shape-shifting city with ever changing waterways and an intriguing feel to it. It has to be one of the most curious places I’ve been to, and I fell in love with it immediately. What do people do there? I see people disappearing through narrow doorways into beautiful but slowly crumbling Venetian terraces and I imagine torrid love affairs in a city built from passion and decadence.

As I wandered the streets I kept remembering Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Of course there are many other fabulous books written about Venice, but none fire my imagination quite like this one. I loved having the opportunity to experience Venice in both sunshine and flooding rain, and to imagine the exciting life of Villanelle.

Listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in an old church turned concert hall was a definite highlight of the trip; however, the best few minutes of thewhole evening where when a truly inspired cellist played a Paganini solo and wowed the audience with his wit, humour, gestures and tremendous skills.

The food, cathedrals, Guggenheim museum,alleys, canals, music, Palace, and my morning trips to buy breakfast donuts and croissants at the local bakery have created beautiful memories I will carry with me into the future. It was a wonderful experience

shared with family, and I thoroughly look forward to another opportunity to wander the meandering streets of Venice. Though that

next visit had better come fairly soon as rising tides threaten to submerge the truly unique and magical city of Venice.

Aurukun, Cape York, Queensland

A couple days after arriving in Aurukun I was invited by the school teachers to present to the kids on the Olympics. I did two presentations on Friday morning, one to a small group of teenagers, one to a big group of kids. Although the teenagers were quite shy and didn’t engage much, it was so beautiful to see their faces light up as I showed different pictures and videos, and wonderful to experience holding their undivided attention for the 30 minute presentation. The younger kids were a completely different ball game! They had questions upon questions, giggled at the video of me boxing in my toggs (they wear bordies and singlets when they swim), and got really excited to get in a group photo. One boy down the back said his uncle is Patrick Johnson. Clearly I didn’t need to teach him anything about the Olympics!

We then headed off on a drive to Weipa, which meant 2 hours of 4-wheel driving on a red dirt road each way. It was awesome! We saw a brumby on the way back, and had wonderful chats. We were dropping off Scott the beekeeper so he could get back to NSW, and were picking up Aurukunian George’s grandson from the airport. While waiting at the airport Gen and I asked George about totems, as we were both very interested to learn more. We discovered that totems (this is specific to Aurukun, I don’t know if it applies elsewhere also) are passed down through the father, unless paternity is in question. George said one of his totems is fire, and he has two, but his young grandson has only one: the rainbow. He personally didn’t know how totems initially came about, so I’m still on the hunt for more information.

Sunday meant a wonderful day out fishing in the most pristine and picturesque environment possible: white sandy beaches,amazing aqua water, deep blue sky, lush green foliage, and bright red rock cliffs. It was magical! There was SO much sea life present in the Cape of Carpentaria also. We saw dolphins, turtles, sharks, loads of fish, and some giant blue fish that half jumped out of the water in the distance. We only kept what we could eat, and feasted that night on a gift of fresh fish from the days catch.

Monday meant I was leaving Aurukun, and my trip back to Cairns was slightly, ummm, interesting? Ok, maybe that’s an understatement. For starters, check-in went something like this…

Steve the check in man, who I’ve never met or seen before: “Michelle is it?”

Michelle: “Yes”, while thinking “How the hell did you know that?!”

Steve: “Weigh the bag. 12kg. Ok, here’s your ticket.”

Michelle – starting gobsmacked at the handwritten ticket: “Thanks”.

I later found out that Steve also doubles as a councillor, and hence knew who I was because I was the only person he didn’t know! There is no security in Aurukun airport, understandably given the airport is really only a little room and a covered concrete space. Baggage claim is a trolley where everyone just claims their own bag, hopefully. I liked it, back to basics.

However… just as our little plane got to the back of the runway ready to take off things got really interesting. One of the ladies down the back of the plane shouted out that the wing was leaking. And it was! It was leaking hydraulic fluid from a busted tube, which could have meant the landing gear wouldn’t have engaged when we went to land in Cairns. Not good! We were all told to head home and wait, and Steve the check in man would drive around to let up know as things developed. What service! As it turned out we spent the next three hours waiting for a new plane to arrive, which finally got off just in time to fly through lightening and bounce all over the place. Needless to say all aboard were very pleased to land safely in Cairns. Over a hundred locals came to wave us off, giving us the famous Aurukun farewell.

I can’t wait for my next opportunity to go to Aurukun. I’ve told everyone that I’ll be back once they get the pool sorted and filled, and will happily teach the kids swimming lessons. Gen asked one of the boys if he thought he could beat me in a race. Fairly he said no, but he was keen for a race if he got a head start! Bring it! I can’t wait J

Cape York, Queensland

It’s amazing up here in Cape York, but also very confronting. En route to Aurukun we stopped off in Lockhart River to pick up some more passengers (and drop a few off). Just before we boarded the miniscule plane for the final flight to Aurukun, I watched a little girl being taken to a plane by child protection. It was really raw. The mother was screaming and shouting profanities, and the daughter was handcuffed and resisting being taken on board. In the end the daughter ended up coming off the plane and going back in the vehicle with child protection. I have no idea why or what happened, and certainly can’t comment as to the circumstances behind what happened. But as a mere bystander, and someone new to child protection issues, it was confronting. I hope whatever the issue was can be worked out, but I also think that’s perhaps a naïve and overly optimistic thought. Nonetheless, if we lose hope, we lose our humanity, so I hope they can find peace and closure.

My experience in Aurukun has been completely different. I’ve been welcomed by such lovely people from the local community. Everyone has been so incredibly warm and open, and I’ve felt really – well, welcome. I had the opportunity to chat with Beady, Dorothy, Carmen and Jessie, all of whom were so kind and treated me as a friend. My friend Genevieve is based out here, and that’s how this opportunity for me to spend time here has come to be. She’s working with the government in sport and recreation, and has introduced me to her workmates, all of whom are absolutely lovely. Aurukun is meant to be one of the most dangerous places in Australia, and I’ve been told that within community there are a lot of issues, but I haven’t felt anything but warmth and kindness.

The other night Gen and I went to a practice house-warming event.

House warmings happen after a member of community passes and everyone moves out of the house. Once enough time has passed there is a house warming, where (I haven’t had it fully explained as yet) but I believe the spirits are engaged, and the house becomes a home again. I felt so privileged to be invited, even if it was just the practice session before the real event (which didn’t end up happening but I still had fun playing with the kids, and experiencing some traditional song and dance)!

Today was quite relaxed, but I got out on the mountain bike and cycled around town a bit. It was awesome to cycle down to the landing, and through the bush. The bush here has such a strong presence, it’s tangible. It’s amazing. Tonight we’re heading snake and croc spotting… how cool! The lovely guy who’s taking Gen and me out used to work with Steve Irwin. Exciting stuff!

To eBay, car boot, or donate?

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether or not someone could make a living on eBay and from car boot sales, I would probably have laughed and said no way. Of course, I was naive and completely unaware of the potential of both!

Although eBay charges a fair whack through final purchase fees, it offers an opportunity to selle the slightly more expensive items safely and confidently. Since I’m in the middle of moving from Cambridge to London, my partner and I have been doing a clear out of all the things we like but can’t or shouldn’t keep because we’re having to downsize in accommodation (way less space for our ££ in London!!).

So far we’ve sold a mini-fridge, shoes, clothes, and exercise equipment. It’s been a mostly fabulous experience (aside from two suspicious bidder alerts and cancelled transactions by eBay – but I’m happy they were there as a watch dog!) and has certainly helped provide a small cushion for the moving costs.

eBay works great for those slightly more expensive items, but what about the knick-knacks that have a minimal cost attached to them, if any cost at all? Car boot sales all the way. I went to my first ever car boot sale this past Sunday outside of Cambridge. For a small fee of £7 we were able to set up a 4m stall with two small tables and rugs laid out with items on top. It was an early start, but over the course of the morning we made over £140. Again, a lovely cushion to assist with the move.

It was an all round fun and pleasant experience. There were all sorts of buyers ranging from the serious car booters who recycle quality goods at their stalls, to those out looking for items to use in a raffle. It was great fun! Average item cost? Maybe £1. We had a couple ‘big’ sellers costing over £10, but the majority were around the 50p mark.

Although I will happily continue to donate lots of loved items to charity shops to assist in their fundraising programmes, I will also now mentally mark items that are no longer needed as car boot or eBay friendly. It takes a bit more effort, but reaps the sometimes necessary financial reward, and re-homes a much loved item.

6th great extinction

In my last blog post I was discussing some of the human rights abuses that are very likely to be exacerbated as a result of climate change. The issue of climate change doesn’t stop with obvious and direct human rights abuses though; it extends to all aspects of our livelihood and the livelihoods of the millions of species around us. If we think about how fragile and complicated our ecosystems are it concerns me greatly how blasé our governments continue to be regarding the implementation of strong green legislation. If we consider the recent article entitled “Over 25% of flowers face extinction – many before they are even discovered: Scientists say human activity could spell the end for a quarter of all flowering plants, with huge impacts on food chain” written by Juliette Jowit in the Guardian on July 7, it certainly gives food for thought!

In a report written by the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN) two quotes jumped off the page at me. The first was regarding an unprecedented investigation into collapsing bird life in Victoria, Australia. Deakin University ecologist Andrew Bennett said “In this case it’s birds. What is concerning is that we don’t know what’s happening to other groups – to reptiles, to mammals, to invertebrates.” Even though we have developed rather amazing industries and tremendous ways to manipulate genes and grow life in petri dishes, the fact remains that we depend on ecosystems and the environment. If we think about the fauna and flora surrounding us as the canary in the coal mine, well…. it’s not looking quite so healthy anymore and we are at risk of snuffing it out completely.

The other quote that jumped out at me was also by Bennett. He quite aptly states “when we have a financial crisis we put vast resources into it. But we have a biodiversity crisis, and nothing is happening”. This crisis Bennett is referring to is not isolated to Australia. We are presently facing history’s 6th great species extinction; only this one is man made and to a large extent still preventable.

To help those more vulnerable, and to save species from a great extinction, it’s us who have to change. We need to pressure our governments to invest in sustainable energy, and we need to reduce, reuse and recycle on a grand scale. We desperately need to stop logging our precious old growth forests, as continues to happen around the world, and insist that our friends, families, offices and governments buy 100% recycled paper and use FSC wood.

Civil society is certainly getting stronger and louder about these issues, and that supports the notion that we will eventually see positive change – but will that change come too late?

Time for Change

In all seriousness, what the hell are we doing – or rather, not doing?

600 million people will face malnutrition due to climate change, 500x more people die annually from tropical cyclone hazards than died from the same hazards in the 20 years from 1980-2000. Climate change will significantly and disproportionately effect hunger, food and water insecurity for people in the developing world, with a “particularly negative effect on sub-Saharan Africa” (IPCC AR4 Synthesis Report). It is projected that the health status of million of people will be affected negatively through malnutrition, increased disease (including vector borne disease), injury due to extreme weather events, and also diarrhoeal, cardio-respiratory and infectious diseases.

How are people going to have their human rights upheld under such conditions?  Their right to life? To health? To adequate food and water? What about the human right to adequate housing or the right to self-determination? Both are in jeopardy considering climate change, not least because some islands may be under water within this century with sea levels rising. With climate change and the erosion of rural and indigenous livelihoods we are seeing an increase in urban migration. With the increasing number of people living in often fragile or unstable urban slums (already an estimated 1 billion people live in these conditions) their human rights are gravely at risk.

What about the right to self-determination? To Citizenship? As well as the right to claim status as a refugee? These questions all give significant cause for concern with increasing climate change as: 1) it is not their fault, and they are entirely the victims leaving them unlikely to halt climate change in time to save their homes, and 2) current treaties concerning citizenship and refugee status fall short of discussing such circumstances with regard to climate change as these treaties were enshrined before our awareness and acceptance (I use that term loosely) of global warming.

In discussing these rights I’ve not really delved into the rights of indigenous people – people who are regularly marginalized under the ethos of development and growth. They risk losing their homes as they often live in marginal lands and fragile ecosystems, their distinct connection to the land if they are forcibly displaced, and the irreparable loss of unique and vital cultural, religious and social knowledge.

All of these rights will be acutely at risk with increasing climate change, and I personally find it rather depressing when I think that we (the developed world) are able to do something about it. We are in a position to make changes to mitigate the effects and halt global warming within 2°C, and invest continued support to help the victims of climate change adapt.  With the Committee on Climate Change saying that the UK will miss carbon emissions targets unless government takes urgent action, and with governments internationally focusing on old fashioned financial growth rather than true investment in a green and sustainable future (recessions can hold opportunity even though they impose challenge), things are not looking good. We have the opportunity to do the right thing. It’s not always easy, but it’s right.

Much to contemplate

With the election of Australia’s first female PM, Julia Gillard now has a big task ahead of her. Not only does she need to convince the public that Labour is up to the job and will act on election promises (and get re-elected in a few months time), she must now follow through on some of the challenges that the Rudd government simply wasn’t able to meet. Given how climatically challenged Australia already is; with desertification, raging floods, inconsistent rain and hurricanes, all depending on which part of the country is being discussed, Australia is certainly a country facing significant risks with increasing climate change. Is she up to it? What about human rights issues? Will she ensure a true democracy by enshrining minority rights in law? Will she ‘Close the Gap’? Will she legalize homosexual marriage? Will she support the rights of refugees and asylum seekers? Australia certainly has a poor record on all these issues.

That leads me to my next point of contemplation.  I had my second interview and 1.5hr written test for a campaigning role with Amnesty International Secretariat focusing on Sudan. I felt it went well and was pleased with what I wrote… but I couldn’t help wondering both during and after the experience what devastating effects climate change will have on the future stability of Sudan. Sudan is already a country experiencing a humanitarian crisis, already receives biggest international aid allocation of the World Food Programme, and already is having the logistical challenge of aid delivery hampered by excessive rains in South Sudan. What will happen in Sudan as the climate changes and rages? North Sudan, presently an arid environment, is likely to experience further desertification. Will that lead to increased attacks on civilians and theft of grazing land in Darfur? Will the January referendum be risked by North Sudan desperately needing to keep the more lush South unified for agricultural lands and other resources? It’s a scary and very possible reality.

Although we must continue to support the victims of warfare, genocide, famine, climate change, and other causes of humanitarian crises on every level from grass roots campaigning to political lobbying, we also need to focus significantly more energy and pressure on the developed states and government to ensure we reduce the possibility of runaway climate change; thereby reducing the future disproportionate impacts felt by the developing world. We’ve already seen people from Tuvalu and Kiribati seek refuge in developed nations, and face challenges in that experience. At present we’re talking about a reasonably small number of climate refugees. What when that numbers becomes 10s-100s of millions? It’s very likely, and leaves much to not only contemplate, but to also act on.

May 2010

This month has seen lots of exciting and interesting change. The election campaign reached it’s climax on May 6 – polling day. It was a particularly interesting polling day as many people made their decisions on who to vote for actually inside the polling station. Voters were faced with choosing between a heart felt vote and a tactical vote, whether to support a hung Parliament, or to back a majority government.

In Cambridge voters were tactically in favour of a hung Parliament, and electing a party that would fight for proportional representation. On Monday, May 10, a new coalition government was formed between the Conservatives (Tories) and Lib-Dems. Unfortunately proportional representation has not been a deal breaker, but we may at least get a chance at a referendum at some stage in the future. Hopefully that referendum will allow us to support a positive form of proportional representation (there are many, and some are a complete farce!)

Where to for me? I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coordinating the Green Party campaign here in Cambridge, getting to know so many wonderful and like-minded people, and forming friendships that will last a life time. It was an exciting campaign, very interesting, and very intense. We were successful in our campaign and increased our local vote share by nearly 300%! We also were successful in electing a new City Councillor. Unfortunately we didn’t get our candidate elected as an MP, but we certainly laid the groundwork for the future.

The fact that Caroline Lucas was elected in Brighton has also changed the face of British politics. I’ve had the extreme pleasure of eavesdropping on many a conversation on the train where people are discussing politics and regularly mentioning the Greens. A much needed and very welcome addition!

It looks as though I’ll be spending the next stage of my life in London as my partner has already begun the move down. I’m excited to get to know a new city, though will certainly miss Cambridge a great deal! It’s only 45 mins on the train, so I’m quite certain I’ll regularly head back north. I’m actually also applying for jobs in Cambridge, so I may be commuting between the two!

Thanks to everyone for your kind words of support and encouragement, and for your interest in the campaign. Wish me luck please with my job applications!

I’d like to give a specific thank you to Nicolas Messer who kindly has redesigned my website for me. Thank you!!

A second specific thank you goes to Corrina Gordon-Barnes for the great article she wrote about me for her website.

Update March 2010

Tony Juniper and Michelle Engelsman
Tony Juniper and me outside the Cambridge Corn Exchange right before Thom Yorke of Radiohead did a benefit concert for the Green Party (which was amazing!)

Things have been incredibly busy here, especially recently given the the now close proximity to the General Election in the UK. I’ve spent the last 9 months working with the Cambridge Green Party to get Tony Juniper (ex-director of Friends of the Earth and special advisor to the Prince of Wales) elected into Parliament. We’ve been running a full and serious campaign, and it’s been very exciting!

We’ve been having some amazing results, and I’ve been thorougly enjoying the experience of political campaigning for the Greens. Things are looking very positive! The General Election hasn’t been called as yet, but it’s widely assumed to be May the 6th. We’ll just have to wait and see though.  If you’re interested to learn more please visit www.TonyJuniper.org.uk.

Regarding the General Election campaign, DIVA magazine is doing a General Election section in the upcoming May edition (due out April 8). I wrote the piece for the Green Party – please do have a look!

I’m continuing my work with BODHI. The new website has been up and active for a little while now, and looks fantastic. www.bodhi.net.au, please click on that link and take a look! I’m still working towards raising funds and awareness for the Mitini Nepal campaign, and also have been involved on the CHT campaign.

More locally, I’ve been really enjoying this Cambridge spring and am thrilled that it’s finally warming up! It was a brutal and long winter for an Australian living in the UK, and I’ve certainly been desperately awaiting spring! Give it another month or so and I hope to get out punting again.

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