Saturday, January 09, 2010


In his latest offering, conservative Australian cartoonist ZEG is aggrieved that Kevvy won't save either the whales or Peter Spencer

The loss of a poetry education in Australian schools

Knowing great poems can be a lifelong source of pleasure, satisfaction and wisdom but that knowledge is being withheld from many young people today

It is a welcome if rare event to see poetry on prime time television. The ABC's Bush Slam is an attempt to put poetry front and centre in the national consciousness. If we believe that 19th-century bush poets such as Henry Lawson and A.B. (Banjo) Paterson were representative of a golden age of wordsmiths, then Bush Slam at least gives word nerds an opportunity to enter our living rooms. And don't we need it? ...

Unlike Britain, Australia has no national poetry day. We no longer have a national search, sponsored by the ABC, for the most popular Australian poem. The website was archived in 1999.

The pity is that schools are generally not teaching much poetry. Don't hold your breath that poetry will undergo a renaissance in the new national English curriculum. Besides NSW being prepared to teach canonical works, including poetry, this is more the exception than the rule.

It is no accident that 18-year-old student Laurie Wallis topped the NSW Higher School Certificate extension 2 English course with a suite of Japanese-inspired poetry, Water Sounds. Such work would not have been possible in any other state. Here's why.

Responding to the draft of the English national curriculum, the West Australian government has not made any defence of the place of poetry, and in fact has asked for a broader definition of literature to include "spoken, non-verbal, visual and aural texts".

Meanwhile, the Tasmanian government has argued that any study of literature needs to embody "the critique of the attitudes and values underpinning the text" -- this sounds like the codling grub of critical literacy in the Apple Isle. Tasmania is marked by a core of poor school literacy results and the lowest adult literacy figures in the country.

The question is whether there needs to be a mandatory requirement in the national English curriculum regarding poetry teaching. The new chairman of the Australia Council's Literature Board, Dennis Haskell, thinks there is room for this. In September last year, Haskell saw the black hole of Australian literature in the nation's schools, saying it's about "getting it taught at all, the canon or otherwise"...

What must change is that Australian children need to be introduced to the rich heritage of the nation's verse. The ideological angst that the mere mention of the word "canon" creates for some teachers needs to be seen for what it is. Such a position actually prevents children from knowing their literature. They are denied discovering the voices of Thwaites, John Shaw Nielson, Judith Wright, A.D. Hope, Les Murray and others.

The blunt reality is that today, in the majority of classrooms across the country, few children could name two Australian poets, and few teachers could either. I know this to be so. Having taught in Australian schools, I have been shocked at how little poetry is taught, never mind the awareness of Australian verse.


Hunger strike is a desperate response to a Greenie-motivated injustice

On Tuesday I visited Peter Spencer, 10 metres up a wind monitoring mast on his property in the high country south of Canberra. Spencer lives there these days, inside a tent on a small platform. State laws restricting the clearing of native vegetation have helped make his land unviable. Some years ago he was unable to meet his mortgage repayments and his sister and brother-in-law took over the debt from the bank. Spencer has been unable to repay them, and soon the sheriff will be arriving to arrange for a forced sale of the property. There are important political issues here, but it is also a family tragedy, and a personal one.

Spencer has talked a lot in recent weeks about climate change and carbon sinks, but the root of his problem with government lies in the native vegetation laws that have prevented him from clearing - and farming - much of his land. In 2004 the Productivity Commission produced a report on the impact of the laws. It recorded how many farmers had lost income, their property had been devalued, and they had received very little or no compensation, and said the worst affected "often suffered serious personal stress in the face of the resultant marginal viability, or even loss, of their property".

The effect on Spencer has been greater than on most, because of his unique personal circumstances. He's now 61, but in his younger days worked in the hotel and tourism industry in Papua New Guinea. Apparently he was successful there, and ended up owning some hotels. He sometimes stopped fights between tribesmen and at one point had his nose pierced so he could wear a bone through it on festive occasions. (You can still see light though the hole if you catch him in profile.) ABC television made a documentary on him in the 1980s.

Spencer's long-term dream was to return to NSW and become a farmer in the high country, where his mother's people had lived for generations. From 1980 he began buying adjacent blocks of land as they came up for sale at Shannons Flat, just south of the Australian Capital Territory. It took him about 15 years to put together a holding that was big enough, and to build a house. He finally had a farm of 5600 hectares, of which 60 per cent was cleared. It was his intention to keep the other 40 per cent uncleared, and to log its alpine ash and mountain gum in a sustainable manner.

During this period he was still working in Papua New Guinea, so he did little farming, and vegetation grew on much of the cleared land at Shannons Flat. In the mid-'90s he was hired by the office of the PNG prime minister, and wrote a paper on corruption and law and order that didn't make him many friends. He says one night some men knocked on the door of his home, dragged him outside and tried to shoot him with a homemade gun. It misfired and Spencer escaped in the dark. Shortly after, he hopped on a plane and hasn't been back. He settled at Shannons Flat, with the intention of spending the rest of his life as a farmer.

A pressing task was to clear the saplings that had grown over much of the previously cleared land on his property, but with the clearing bans he discovered his farm had been turned into a vast nature reserve. He ran sheep on the small proportion that was still cleared, but was unable to make a living. Land clearing was not his only problem. His farm was not good grazing country on the whole, and like many farmers he was affected by the drought and by low wool prices. Opinions differ as to how important these various factors were to his financial failure. Some of his family believe he was undercapitalised and not a good farmer. A rural counsellor who tried to help him says much of the blame lies with the land-clearing regulations.

Spencer could have walked off his farm, but he was too attached to it to do this. He protested for years about what had been done to him. This included complaints to politicians, unsuccessful efforts to motivate the NSW Farmers Association, and many court cases, where he often represented himself. A passionate and intelligent man, although without much formal education, he spent a lot of his time learning about the law. After a while his third wife, Anna, left the farm and took their young sons to Europe to live with her parents.

Meanwhile his sister and brother-in-law were looking to recover the debt he owed them. They felt he was turning to political argument and legal action when he should have been more concerned about repaying them. Maybe government had hurt him, but that was life: it was time to sell up and move on.

Spencer's legal actions failed. One of them involved a government offer, made many years after the land clearing restrictions came in, to buy the farm. The price was based on the property's present value, but Spencer argued it ought to be the value had the land clearing bans not been in place.

In 2008 Justice Stephen Rothman in the Supreme Court rejected this claim, but expressed some sympathy for Spencer's situation. He noted: "The State Vegetation Acts had a crippling effect … on the business of Mr Spencer … it is an extremely disheartening and sad occasion that a person, whose life and resources have been placed into rural property for the purposes of conducting a grazing and farming business, has been required to resort to this action." He further observed: "While all members of society must accept that there will be restrictions on their activities for the 'greater good of society', when those restrictions prevent or prohibit a business activity that was hitherto legitimate, because of the area in which it is operating, and assistance is offered which does not fully compensate for the restrictions imposed, society is asking Mr Spencer, and people in his position, to pay for its benefit … it is a most unfortunate aspect of the operation of the scheme that a person in Mr Spencer's position is effectively denied proper compensation for the restrictions imposed upon him by a scheme implemented for the public good." However, he concluded, "that is a matter for government [not the courts]".

Peter Spencer is a complicated and volatile character. Most of us would regard going on a hunger strike as extreme, and he has shown a propensity for self-harm in the past. There was an occasion about 1970 when he went up a hill in Canberra and shot himself, as part of an effort to get attention during a dispute with his first wife.

Some of those who deal with him have described him as obsessive, and this is certainly my limited experience. I stayed in touch with him after writing a column on land clearing five years ago, and on one occasion when I wasn't displaying enough sympathy he hung up and didn't speak to me for a year. He can be a thoughtful and articulate human being who draws on a considerable experience of life, but he is also a righteous man given to monologues and high emotion.

Spencer's siblings are upset about what has happened, and believe politics has clouded what is essentially a family dispute over a loan. This is understandable, yet there is a genuine political issue here. The land clearing bans have played a big role in what has happened to him.

Spencer has now been without food for 48 days. He spends the time listening to animals and reading the Bible. On Thursday night he said he was losing strength and would give no more interviews.

How should politicians respond to the action he has taken? They should not change laws because of a hunger strike. But it might give them pause to reflect on those laws. Others are already doing this: in the past week there has been a lot of media coverage here and some overseas, and much discussion on the internet. In a poll on Today Tonight, 14,000 people (98 per cent of those who voted) wanted Kevin Rudd to meet with Peter Spencer.

This level of response is a reminder of the moral ambiguity of a hunger strike. On the one hand it allows people to question the mental health of the person engaged in the strike. On the other, it can attract attention to an important injustice: if Spencer hadn't embarked on this action, no one today would be talking about land clearing. His action has been effective precisely because it is unusual, and unusual things tend to be done by unusual people.

Mr Rudd has been much praised for making public apologies to Aboriginal people and to those who suffered as children in state care. These apologies are welcome, but in a historical sense they are (as I'm sure he would agree) regrettably late. With farmers and land clearing, we could say sorry while there's still time to do something about the suffering that's been caused.

But if anyone's going to say sorry, it ought to be the Premier of NSW. After all, it was the State Government that brought in the native vegetation laws.


Victorian government still looking useless in the face of bushfires

The thermometer read 41C on New Year's Eve as the Ferguson family pulled into a wild and windy Casterton. All around us, the rolling Western District hills were covered in dust fuelled by a baking summer northerly that brought back unpleasant memories of Black Saturday. And the official fire warning on the town's dated billboard? Low. In fact lower than low. Someone in the state's far west had assumed responsibility for pointing the arrow as far from reality as possible.

Further down the road, there was no mobile reception (thanks again, Optus) and the radio crackled so loudly even the local ABC updates were barely audible. We were, in every sense, on our own.

The experience tends to support the view of Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin, who made it very clear this week that no Victorian should rely on technology alone for bushfire warnings. "It's really important that people keep in touch with their environment and step outside and feel the temperature, smell for smoke," he said.

It's sound advice, but not necessarily what John Brumby's backbench would want to have heard. They woke on Wednesday to this paper's front-page story of another bungled warning, this time leaving fearful residents in and around Benalla with a 12-day-old message on the Victorian Bushfire Information line. Acting Premier Rob Hulls was furious (rightly) and the Opposition (rightly) went to town on a fundamental error, apparently caused by training deficiencies, even though the CFA's training is generally exhaustive and exhausting.

The system that failed this week dated back to before Black Saturday and the problem has been fixed. But in terms of public perception, it was a howler. Deficiencies in the information line were among the first things mentioned in the Bushfire Royal Commission's interim report, along with the performance of the websites. (On December 16, during an unsettling hot day, the CFA's website server crashed. That problem has apparently been dealt with as well).

The commission noted that often on Black Saturday "the information available through these sources was incomplete or out of date". And yet shortly before Black Saturday's first anniversary, Victorians have been delivered some rather underwhelming news on both systems.

What does this tell us? The measured analysis is that Victoria will be vastly better prepared to fight any disaster in 2010, but the effort is, manifestly, a work in progress.

In their first report, the royal commissioners noted the challenges of righting the wrongs of Black Saturday in time for this year's fire season, but still urged the State Government to do what it could.

The Government has worked overtime to implement a new phone emergency alert system, it will have implemented the new fire danger rating system, radically expanded the number of emergency broadcasters, overhauled planning, showered cash, brought in new water-bombing aircraft and started what will be the biggest shake-up of the CFA in its history. One warning system was rebuilt in just seven weeks. All the while the Government was embarking on the rebuilding phase after the horrific results of Black Saturday.

John Brumby's premiership will be defined by his handling of the disaster and so far the opinion polls suggest the community is behind him. But those who read the political winds for a living will know that there is no finish line and that both perception and reality will drive the electorate's judgment.

Wednesday's Herald Sun splash will have been nothing less than what the British describe as a "marmalade dropper". That is, a story or issue that leads the reader to drop their toast at the breakfast table. Senior insiders make the valid point that there will inevitably be glitches, but at the same time the Government is operating in an environment where the community will give it little latitude.

Built into this dynamic is the fact that the Government really has only as much time as the next major fire. If there is another disaster this year and there are deficiencies in the fire-fighting effort, then it will be all but game over for the Brumby Government. Victorians will not forgive another disaster. This is particularly the case if the warnings are again deficient.

The royal commission will be crucial in assessing how far the Government has gone and whether it has done enough. On March 31, the commissioners are due to deliver another report, this time assessing in detail how far and fast the Government has gone in implementing the interim recommendations. Brumby has his critics, but he has opened up his Government to scrutiny.

The next debate that needs to be had is how much Victorians are prepared to spend on firefighting. The time for a fire tax to dramatically increase CFA resources was probably February 8, 2009. The Government has allocated $700 million to firefighting, but when you consider the effort put in to reduce the road toll, it is a small price to pay to save lives.

Behind the scenes there are indications that the process of reform has only just begun. It seems likely that the CFA will head further down the path towards greater professionalism, with a heavier emphasis on paid staff rather than volunteers. Volunteers will always be the backbone of the authority, but the obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the better resourced the CFA is, the better equipped it will be to fight fires.

One option that has been raised is merging the Metropolitan Fire Brigade with the CFA, although the MFB is a markedly different beast with different equipment and objectives.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be in changing the CFA's culture. The volunteers are the north, south, east and west of the CFA. But how do you enforce private sector accountability on an authority that exists in large part because of the efforts of free labour? Maybe it's time more of them were paid for their efforts. This, of course, wouldn't guarantee a perfect service, but it would benefit the firefighters at the same time as providing de facto promotions.

One of the many lessons from Black Saturday - and the most recent bungling - is that reforming firefighting in Victoria is a long-term project. In the short-term, however, Victorians have a right to expect that basic warnings will be delivered in a timely and accurate fashion. That didn't happen this week. It didn't happen last month. It didn't happen on Black Saturday.

The time for excuses has passed.


Australian dollar buoyed by favourable interest rates

A WEAKER gold price took a little shine off the Australian dollar yesterday but the currency held near the 25-year high hit this week against the British pound.

The performance of the two currencies illustrates their nations' disparate economic fortunes. The pound is depressed by severe recession, zero interest rates, threats of a government debt downgrade and uncertainty over the timing and outcome of an election. "Question marks about the credit rating, alongside the ongoing political debate, are playing into the presumption that sterling is going to struggle to maintain gains," said Jeremy Stretch, a senior currency strategist at Rabobank International in London. He said there was "very little reason" to expect the pound would make gains after Britain's central bank this week left rates unchanged.

The Aussie dollar is buoyed by favourable relative interest rates, a better commodity price outlook and improving investor risk appetite. The British pound was at the peak of its powers versus the Aussie dollar in late 2001, when one pound equalled $2.99.

On Thursday, as stronger than expected Australian retail sales data raised the chances of an imminent official rate rise, the Aussie dollar touched 57.655 British pence, the most since March 1985. It was at 57.4p in trading late yesterday. The Aussie dollar's surge brings pain for local exporters by eroding dollar-denominated export earnings but it can also help by lowering their input costs. It also puts a squeeze on pensions Australians draw on from Britain.

Jonathan Cavenagh, a currency strategist at Westpac Banking Corp, said: "If we can make a clear break above 58p, people have got to start thinking about the 60-level as a realistic possibility."

The Aussie on Thursday rose against all 16 major currencies, hitting a two-year high against the euro after the Australian Bureau of Statistics said retail sales climbed 1.4 per cent from October, much higher than economists had expected. The dollar has been the second best-performing currency against the euro in the past three months among the 16 most-traded currencies. Demand for the euro has waned on speculation that Greece's fiscal problems may also engulf Spain, Ireland and other nations that share the common currency.

Demand for Australia's dollar was also boosted on Thursday after minutes of a US Federal Reserve meeting released on Wednesday showed policy-makers debated extending stimulus measures in the US, meaning no rate rises were on the horizon. Whereas most traders expect Australia's Reserve Bank will increase the official cash rate when it meets on February 2, which could set up another surge in the Aussie dollar against the US greenback.


1 comment:

Paul said...

"Four women....with 26 children between them......HMMMM. And the fathers are.....?"

Reread that story and then tell me how Gay adoption could be any worse.