Australian politics, society & culture

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September 2010 in brief

In this Issue: 

THE NATION REVIEWED

“Australia’s borders are more or less impenetrable. It would seem that no single asylum seeker boat has ever arrived unobserved. Yet in this atmosphere, as the drawbridge is raised, fantasies about the breakdown of border security seem to exercise an extraordinary and altogether irrational power.”

In the Monthly Comment, Robert Manne scrutinises Australia’s relationship with asylum seekers. From Fraser’s open arms to Howard’s Pacific Solution, Manne examines the cultural, social and political landscape that has bred a fear of refugees so powerful it has the potential to destroy governments.

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Plus, in “Bread and Butter”, Gay Bilson has trouble digesting scientific ‘improvements’ to our food; and in “Taking Care”, Gail Bell guides us from the comforts of home into an aged care facility.

 

THE MONTHLY ESSAYS

Babcock & Brown had a powerful incentive at the corporate level to grow and grow and borrow and borrow – regardless of whether this was prudent. And everyone who worked for BBL had an incentive to make sure it happened, because they wanted to keep earning their bonuses. So grow it did.

In “The Cult of Green”, Paul Barry analyses the many factors that contributed to Babcock & Brown’s financial implosion. Barry finds that while fingers may justly be pointed at Phil Green, inept board members, a culture of greed and, of course, the global financial crisis, he also highlights a problematic attitude pervasive in the finance community that encourages ingenuity in the single-minded pursuit of profit. 

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It would be very easy to remake Stalker today in an equally baroque and devastated landscape in the Australian north-west – in the Pilbara, at once the grandest, most majestic stretch of country in the desert zone and the most transformed by human hand … And what remains of the wild, the bush, if it endures only on our own terms, in a few delimited areas we lock up? What value do we place on those areas we keep, as against the regions we destroy? What presences are still there for us, in the desert and the remote bush, in the condition we find them in today?

In “The Blast Zone”, Nicholas Rothwell contemplates the relationship between landscape and identity. Rothwell describes how Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker explores a disquieting interplay between wilderness and civilisation, as if they are engaged in a battle for supremacy. Rothwell then considers how this scenario is being played out in the Australian north-west, as the mining industry transforms the natural landscape. Along the way Rothwell introduces a number of characters and communities whose identities are forged by their natural surroundings. "The Blast Zone" forms part of a forthcoming book of linked essays. A shortened version was given as the Indigo journal lecture in Perth.

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“We’ve shown it’s possible to get rich quick through increased coal exports – while masquerading as a leader in the global climate change debate. Still, as the world’s largest coal exporter, on track to export roughly as much CO2 in coal as Saudi Arabia does now in oil, Australia needs company in the coal trade in order to look less conspicuous.”

In “Land of the Long Black Cloud”, Guy Pearse digs up Australia’s dirty dealings in coal. Australia is actively investing in coalmining in developing nations with extra carbon credits up their sleeves, a lucrative investment that won’t increase our own emissions tally. Pearse positions the future of coalmining and its environmental impacts as a global responsibility and urges that Australia be held accountable.

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“Jayne says she would be reluctant to report a workplace assault to the police. ‘Even if something like that happened out of work, I’d think twice,’ she says. ‘The prejudice you get when people find out what you do … It’d have to be something really bad for me to risk all the bullshit from the police and media and everyone.’” 

In “Body Politic”, Emily Maguire introduces the public to the plight of sex workers, and the industry’s ongoing campaign for fair working conditions and the decriminalisation of prostitution. Maguire gives voice to a range of perspectives on sex work and its legitimacy in our society, and allows sex workers a human face often denied them in mainstream media.

 

ARTS & LETTERS

It all leads to an existential quandary: who or what are these mutant creatures – the products of a collective fantasy, alive only if the image of them is on show and on sale, or if they are gossiped and blogged about by the countless strangers who are their confidants and imaginary best friends? They began as human beings like the rest of us. Then at a certain point, by their own efforts or by our abject need, they were exempted from nature, hoisted off the earth.” 

In "Sister Act", Peter Conrad profiles the irrepressible Minogue sisters. Conrad reflects on the public's perception of Kylie as a demi-God, an ever-transforming and generous provider of pop genius, and Dannii as an ambitious and sometimes crass celebrity-list climber, on a clear and deliberate mission to attain fame. This dichotomous interpretation of Australia's most famous sisters, Conrad acknowledges, is undoubtedly shaped by society's pathological obsession with celebrity.

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I suspect [Neil] Armfield’s minutely observed recollections are not simply those of a bereaved relative; they are also the memories of someone who, like a writer, instinctively stores images capable of revival and reinterpretation for an ‚Ä®audience. Armfield’s unblinking attention renders his direction ‘almost like choreography’.

In “The Diary of a Maestro”, Jana Wendt spends a day with Australian director Neil Armfield, as his tenure at Belvoir St Theatre comes to an end. Traversing the day’s busy events, Wendt provides an intimate perspective on the clear-minded direction and the compassionate techniques Armfield employs with his actors. Wendt unlocks the emotional motivations behind Armfield’s work, and examines how they continue to allow him to deliver joy-filled, yet anguished, theatre and opera.

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Plus, in “The Politics of Prose”, Inga Clendinnen discusses the confronting and difficult experience of reading David Grossman’s very personal novel To the End of the Land; and in “Barnsey’s Blues”, Robert Forster reviews Jimmy Barnes’s sixteenth solo album.