Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wrapped in the flag and loving it

Sally Neighbour makes observations below that are similar to the ones I made briefly on Australia day. Note that I was able to explain what she cannot

NOT usually one for patriotic musings, at lunchtime on Wednesday I nonetheless found myself pondering the meaning of Australia Day and how this once second-rate public holiday became the source of such riotous celebration across the land.

At the time I was floating on a giant inflatable plastic thong, clinging to a rope tethered between buoys beyond the breakers at Bondi Beach.

For the record, it wasn't my idea. But there we were, bobbing on the ocean, me and 2067 other patsies, all set to make a world record for the number of people gullible enough to queue for 45 minutes and - get this - pay $30 to promote a foreign brand of rubber thong. The marketing genius who thought that up surely deserves an Order of Australia for services to advertising.

As the hoary strains of Men At Work's Down Under drifted predictably across the sea, our mooring provided a novel vantage point of Bondi Beach, now crowded with tens of thousands of bodies, outnumbered only by Australian flags - on bikinis, board shorts, towels, hats, umbrellas, beach shelters, painted faces and fake tattoos.

I wondered: how had it come to this? How had I been roped into such a commercial stunt? (In short, because my in-principle objections sounded lame in the face of my 11-year-old's protestation: "but it'll be fun". And damn it, it was.) More to the point, when and why had Australians embraced with such gusto an event that, not long ago, was regarded as just an excuse for a day off?

In the 1970s and 80s, having a holiday to commemorate the arrival of the first boats of white settlers was widely regarded - at least among my generation - as passe, an anachronistic nod to a history we weren't sure whether to be proud of or not.

As for the Australian flag, it was seen by many as an irrelevant relic of our colonial past, doomed for the scrapheap come the republic.

We would no sooner have draped ourselves in such a frumpy ensign than donned our grandma's bowling whites and headed for the local green.

For some, a vague discomfort with Australia's national symbols was only sharpened in recent years by the spectre of Pauline Hanson wrapped in the flag and its use as a symbol of ugly jingoism at Cronulla in 2005. "The cloak of racism," one friend calls it.

But such reservations have little traction among generations X and Y. Ambivalence has given way to unabashed pride in all things Australian, not least the flag.

They turn up to the Big Day Out with it tattooed on their skin. The same young Australians flock to Gallipoli each year to mark Anzac Day, and trek in their thousands along the Kokoda Track.

Just why this is so is a question that intrigues social researcher Rebecca Huntley, director of the survey-based market research firm, Ipsos. She has commissioned a study beginning this year called "being Australian", which will examine, among other things, the patriotism of gens X and Y.

Ipsos research thus far shows the things people most typically associate with being Australian are time-honoured values such as the "great Australian dream" of owning their own home, the idea of having a "laid-back" lifestyle, which Huntley says is "a core part of being Australian", and the knowledge that people will pull together in a time of need such as the recent floods. The surging affinity with nationalistic symbols is a more recent trend, most markedly in the past three years.

Huntley is reluctant to jump to conclusions about why young Australians are clearly more comfortable with the flag than the generation before them.

Maybe the young revellers simply realise how fortunate they are. It's hard to know when all you can get out of them is, "Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie, Oi Oi Oi!" It was left to a jubilant newcomer at a citizenship ceremony in Sydney to articulate why being Australian was something to be immensely grateful for. "The opportunity to find jobs here is much better and it's much safer. I do think that Australians who haven't travelled and seen how the rest of the world lives take the freedom here for granted."


The chattering classes are out of step

Christopher Pearson

ANOTHER Australia Day means yet another opportunity to trash national institutions, most notably the constitution and the flag.

It comes as no surprise that the latest Australian of the Year, Simon McKeon, is as disdainful of both as 12 of his recent predecessors. What does continue to surprise is that ignorance about the constitution and eagerness to get rid of a very popular flag still pass for evidence of civic virtue in the mass media.

Even in the pages of The Weekend Australian Magazine, the Heart of the Nation page last Saturday was given over to jejune institution-bashing. It carried a photograph of the interior of the memorial hall at Cambooya, a town on the Darling Downs.

An elderly man is seen draping bunting decorated with the flag over a framed picture of the young Queen Elizabeth , which just happens to be hanging over the door to the men's toilet.

The accompanying text, by Ross Bilton, quotes Dawn Ruming, the secretary of the hall committee, as saying that Cambooya is a conservative sort of place and monarchist feelings run deep.

Would she and her committee stand still for the portrait having a permanent place over the gents, I wonder, or was this a set-up shot designed to parody rather than illustrate the values of rural communities?

Perhaps Bilton's story provides a few clues. His opening line is: "God bless the Queen. Even if you favour a republic, you've got to admit the old girl has been worth her weight in public holidays." As dopily dismissive remarks go, it's not really up there with Thomas Keneally's likening the queen to a colostomy bag on the body politic, but it's certainly callow.

No fair-minded observer could doubt that she has honoured her coronation oath of a life lived in service to her people, or that she has been a model of constitutional propriety. As well, for many she's an embodiment of social stability, the rule of law and Christian civilisation.

Even people who don't set nearly as much store in such values as the previous generation should recognise their utility in an era of tumultuous change.

Bilton tells us to disregard the portrait's placement and the fact that the image is 60 years out of date. "The point is that this satellite town of Toowoomba, with its hotel, post office, general store, school and garage, still feels part of her realm: the same realm that also takes in the frozen wastes of Canada, the beaches of Barbados and the jungles of Belize."

Patrick Hamilton, the photographer around whose picture the story is built, doesn't feel himself a member of this sophisticated supra-national commonwealth. Instead he's an old-school gumnut nationalist and, Bilton notes, "he's a republican. And Australia Day to him simply means barbecued lamb chops, wine and friends."

Forget about our country's contributions to defeating fascism in World War II, a more recent triumph in East Timor or battlefield valour in Afghanistan. It's as though, chez Hamilton, remembering them on the national holiday were somehow anachronistic, perhaps almost in bad taste.

As if, for Bilton, one self-congratulatory banality weren't enough to be going on with, he tells us that for Hamilton, the kindness of complete strangers to victims of the Brisbane floods "says far more to him about our national identity than the Queen, or the flag, ever will".

Far be it from me to underestimate the Good Samaritan instinct wherever it emerges, but I often wonder whether the notion that we're more richly endowed with it than other countries isn't self-serving mythology.


Labor MPs revolt over Julia Gillard's flood tax levy

A new tax is always "courageous", as Sir Humphrey would say

FURIOUS Labor MPs have turned on Prime Minister Julia Gillard over the controversial $1.8 billion flood tax, labelling it one of the "dumbest decisions" by a federal government.

Premier Kristina Keneally publicly criticised the levy, calling for western Sydney to be spared its full effects, reported The Daily Telegraph.

As Ms Gillard embarked on a publicity offensive to sell the $5.6 billion flood rescue package, senior Labor figures were shaking their heads at the lack of consultation with Cabinet. It is understood ministers only received a full briefing on the rescue package a few hours before they met in Canberra on Wednesday morning.

Adding to pressure on Ms Gillard, one of Australia's most powerful unions claimed scrapping the Green Car Innovation Fund would cost jobs. In a direct challenge to the PM, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union boss Dave Oliver said he would lobby key independent MPs and the Greens to retain the scheme.

Labor MPs said they were being "belted" by the public reaction to the levy. "This is one of the dumbest decisions I have ever seen - the feedback is we have made an atrocious decision," one Labor MP said.

The Government will exempt anyone earning less than $50,000 from paying the flood tax but this has done little to quell anger in caucus. "The Labor heartland feels it is being singled out in this levy," a Labor MP said.

Ms Keneally is understood to have consulted senior colleagues before deciding to go public with concerns that the flood tax will place further strain on Sydney families.

The flood tax will cost someone earning $100,000 an extra $5 a week but Ms Keneally believes Canberra should take account of higher living costs in Sydney. "Mortgages are higher in NSW on average and other costs of living are higher than other capital cities," she said.

Ministers were so angry Ms Gillard - who was monstered during several media appearances yesterday - treated Cabinet with "contempt" that some were drawing an unfavourable parallel with the behaviour of Kevin Rudd


Start the revolution with basics of English

QUIS MAGISTROS IPSOS DOCEBIT? (Who will teach the teachers?)

ACROSS Australia, schools are reopening for the start of the academic year. This year also heralds the start of the national curriculum, on a limited trial basis.

In May, students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 will take the fourth round of national literacy and numeracy testing, known as NAPLAN. When those results are released, parents and others will again make judgments about schools and teachers, reigniting the controversy that has marked this component of Labor's education revolution.

In fairness to the children who attempt the NAPLAN tests, whose schooling is directly affected by every change made by federal and state curriculum authorities, and who are dependent on the teachers appointed to work with them each day, it is important to consider this stage of the revolution from their point of view. What is needed to deliver the promised transparency in educational practices and the improvements in teacher quality?

The NAPLAN tests are designed to provide a snapshot of student progress to inform teaching practices and to evaluate the performance of schools. But at least one test, of language conventions (grammar, spelling and punctuation), is demonstrably inadequate for both purposes.

There are three reasons for this. First, the tests are poorly designed. Second, no national curriculum is in place to which the tests can be clearly linked. Third, and most importantly, the longstanding failure to train teachers in these aspects of English means that not only is there no consensus on how language conventions should be taught, teachers themselves are not confident about their professional competence.

The major drawback of the language tests is that they lack order and coherence. The range of questions does not adequately address the common errors that characterise students' written work, and are most detrimental to fluency. Some items appear to be testing multiple points simultaneously. Other questions are written in ways that rely on native speaker intuition, or common sense and logic, rather than a solid grasp of how English works. The language used to frame the questions is inconsistent, sometimes referring to a part of speech by its appropriate name, and at other times asking simply for the correct "word/s". If students are expected to learn and to use the metalanguage in other subjects such as mathematics, music and geography, why is this not the case in English?

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which administers the tests, is developing a national curriculum that appears to place a strong emphasis on accurate written expression. ACARA's National Curriculum Framing Paper (English) states that: "Attention should be given to grammar across K-12, as part of the 'toolkit' that helps all students access the resources necessary to meet the demands of schooling and of their lives outside of school."

ACARA chairman Barry McGaw says: "We don't want to just nod in the direction of grammar and say it should be taught. We need to say what that means."

But as the Australian Association of Teachers of English points out, agreement is yet to be reached on how to teach grammar. The English Teachers Association of Western Australia claims "English teachers are concerned about their ability to teach grammar". The Queensland Department of Education concedes that: "Many of our teachers are young graduates with limited grammar, who realise that this deficit makes it difficult for them to discuss work with their students."

Students rely on their teachers to model best practice and to be able to identify and to explain all language errors. The sceptic will argue that language is dynamic and that those who insist on correct usage are pedants who place more emphasis on the mechanics than on the message. Our response is that students who master the mechanics of English gain the freedom to concentrate on the sophisticated expression of ideas.

As one teacher commented last year, "Every day we ask the students to produce pieces of written work -- narratives, reports, essays and so on -- and we say that they should edit and proofread their own work, but we don't give them the tools to actually do that, and so many of them just don't know where to start and they give up."

The Australian Primary Principals Association insists that "teaching about language is essential at all stages of schooling and is not confined to the primary school". In secondary schools, any focus on basic literacy skills is normally left to English teachers and literacy co-ordinators.

The sort of courses needed to enable teachers to teach correct English usage have been neglected in recent decades.

A language revolution is required. All teachers must develop the capacity to correct their students' work for language as well as subject content. This will create what the Australian Curriculum describes as "confident communicators who appreciate and use the English language creatively and critically in a range of contexts and for a range of purposes".

Australian educational jurisdictions face a significant, long-term dilemma. As is the case in every profession, there are those who resist change. Some are uncomfortable with the NAPLAN tests and the My School website. However, the new curriculum places a renewed focus on language as a foundation skill, and all teachers in all subjects are now official members of the revolution.


No comments: