Sunday, May 25, 2014

Festival of Australia and NZ arts launches in London

I can't say I am much in favour of this sort of thing.  Australian cultural talents do quite well abroad on their own merits.  Emphasis on Australia as a location seems more likely to revive a "cultural cringe" impression. 

And that Australians often need to go abroad to optimize their careers needs no apology.  The Australian population is relatively small and cultural products are very much a minority interest.  So exposure to large potential audiences is needed to achieve a critical mass of income. 

Why does anyone think that English theatre companies regularly tour the despised North?  Because they need the money of the Northeners.  And they won't get that money unless they go to where the customers are.  So even the trickle of cultural interest from the North needs to be grabbed

From time to time, Australia launches little cultural assault fleets back to the mother country.

One year it might be a Leo McKern, who ruled the Old Bailey in his television portrayal of Rumpole, tying a neat bow around the whole convict saga.

Another year it might be a John Pilger or a Julian Assange, doing the journalistic equivalent of selling ice to the Eskimos: a bolder, freer, cooler brand of ice, more sharp and uncomfortable than the usual Fleet Steet sleet.

And of course there are Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer and, uh, Rolf Harris – the Gang of Four whose mega-talents allowed an allegedly indecent assault on swinging London. Indecently successful, that is, m’lud.

Some of these Aussie Vikings settled down, hung up their helmets and became part of the landscape. Others came back home, Patrick White-style, Tim Winton-style, with new perspective or homesick hearts.

Though ... it seems a little unfair. Do we really have to come cap in hand to Europe or North America seeking success and recognition, or some kind of  validation stamp in the career passport?

This month Australia launches a new, full-frontal literary invasion of London.

But the aim is not a reverse colonisation. Instead, according to Jon Slack, it is to demonstrate that no matter how far or how wide our writers roam … etc etc.

"Over here people have a very narrow view of what happens in Australia – the top-level, stereotypical view," he says.

"There’s some truth to stereotypes but there's so much more - writing talent, acting talent, film - there’s so much to show off."

Slack – ex-Adelaide, now a UK resident for just over a decade - is the director of a new, ambitious summer festival in the UK.

This Way Up, the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts, boasts some of the two nations’ biggest talents, supported by some familiar international names, in 60 events over four days.

Tim Winton will discuss his new novel, Helen Garner talks about memory and imagination, Fay Weldon chats to New Zealand writer Paula Morris, other events feature Anna Funder, Greta Scacchi, Kathy Lette and Anita Heiss.

Clive James is doing a new one-hour show about his life in writing, and the festival closes with a new composition by composer Mark Bradshaw set to the biblical poem Song of Solomon, read by actor Ben Whishaw.

I meet Slack on a sunny day in Brighton. He says the idea grew out of a touch of homesickness. "I wanted to work out a way of connecting what I was doing here [in the UK] with back home [in Australia and New Zealand]. I was getting really out of the loop on everything that was happening back in Oz.

"There are so many festivals over here but having a country-specific focus was quite unique … There’s rivalry, affection, understanding [between Australia and the UK]. The more I looked into it the more sense it made."

There is a risk of backfire in attempting this kind of showcase. Last year London’s Royal Academy, to great fanfare, opened an exhibition of some of Australia’s best and most iconic works of art, from pre-colonisation to the present day.

Reviews were mixed. While few were as scathing as those of the Sunday Times, whose critic ended up musing that in Australia the wrong people became artists, some found the whole idea old fashioned. The Guardian said an exhibition whose "aim is the broad sweep of a country, let alone a continent" risked ending up as "potted history and pop-up content".

"I am not interested in what might constitute some sort of Australian artistic identity, because I doubt there is one," the reviewer wrote.

Another critic wrote in the Independent that "more than most countries, [Australia] has carried a baggage of hyper-sensitivity about its place in the world".

Slack says the reaction to the exhibition showed there was a lot of passion about Australia’s representation in the UK. He hopes the multi-event format of his festival will immunise against such criticism.

He does believe there is a character to Australian writing that will emergeduring the festival.

"If you watch a film from Australia or read a book or even just go back home, there’s something very intangible but you can sense it," he says. "There is such diversity … [but] the person who described it the best was Tim Winton."

In a speech in London last year, Winton said he found new perspective on what his home country meant to him when he lived in Paris in his late 20s – his first trip abroad.

He thought the difference would just be language and history, but "the moment that I stepped off a plane at Charles de Gaulle [airport] I knew I was not a European," he said. "[Australia’s] geography, distance and weather have moulded my sensory palette, my imagination and my expectations."

Winton found Europe's land and the sky less beautiful, even saccharine and closed. From afar he recognised Australia as the Neverland of Peter Pan – more wild, a place "more landscape than culture" where the night sky would threaten to suck you up into the stars.

"I was calibrated differently to a European," he said. "Everything we do in our country is still overshadowed and underwritten by the seething tumult of nature."

Slack says the Australian voice can vary widely – contrast Winton with Christos Tsiolkas – but at the same time sound alike.

"It’s very direct, it’s bold, it’s just in the character. Even though there’s a lot of bullshit, there’s no bullshit. That’s what people respond to over here."

Slack says Winton is still a little "under the radar" in the UK, despite the many highlights of his long career.

There is an ongoing question as to whether Australian writers do better if they make a more permanent move to the northern hemisphere, he says. It is even being addressed during the festival, in a "big debate" on whether the cultural cringe is over.

"It’s hard to deny that if you’re based here you’ve got that ongoing presence, it’s easier to have those meetings, do those events, have those conversations you need to have," Slack says. "The tyranny of distance is still a thing.

"There are some people who still make jokes about ‘cultured Australians, oxymoron’ ...People love and respect individual Australians, in films or writers, but I think there is still quite a long way to go. There’s definitely an ignorance of what’s going on ... Unless someone has been to Australia you just don’t get past the beach and the sport. It’s really hard for people to do that."

The festival has a "shoestring budget" in proportion to its scale, but Slack says in planning it became a "controlled explosion" as more people agreed to take part. The event has been part-funded by the Australia Council – which at one stage doubled its support when the project’s ambition grew. One of the council’s aims is to establish a reputation for Australia as an "artistically ambitious nation", says Jill Eddington, director of literature funding at the council.

But the festival is there, in a nutshell, to help the authors find their market, and the market to find the authors.

"The big challenge for all writers worldwide is discoverability in a huge global online market," says Eddington. "No, [writers] don’t need to move to the northern hemisphere. The old boundaries and borders are less and less relevant. The work of great Australian writers is relevant to readers anywhere in the world."

This Way Up is at Kings College, London, from May 29 to June 1.


Principal of Queensland Christian College rejects Muslim student teachers after they wear hijab to school

THE principal of a Christian College has come under fire for transferring two student teachers after they turned up for work dressed in traditional Muslim headwear.

The two women, in their final year of a teaching degree, had started a work placement at Redlands College this year.

In a newsletter addressed to the school’s parents on Tuesday, principal Mark Bensley outlined his reasons for dismissing the pair, explaining he had acted out of a "duty of care".

"I have a duty of care to ensure that those teaching at the College are actively supporting the Christian principles, practices and beliefs of the College," he wrote.

"I see the wearing of the hijab as openly acting in a manner that is contrary to or inconsistent with these principles, practices and beliefs."

The principal explained that he had arranged for both students to transfer to another school to complete their respective field work.

"While I respect their desire to wear a hijab, I feel it’s inappropriate to do so at Redlands College," he wrote.

A statement issued to The Sunday Mail said, as a Christian school, Redlands College "respects and loves all people, from all backgrounds and religions".

"However we don’t hide our Christian values and we provide an important educational option for families seeking Christian education.

"We are not aware that they (student teachers) had any concerns, and it is our understanding that all parties came to a mutual agreement for the benefit of all."

Some parents at the school are believed to be unhappy with the student teachers’ transfer, and leaders in the Muslim community have been left stunned.

Section 25 of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 allows employers to enforce a "genuine occupational requirement that workers act in a way that is consistent with the religious beliefs of the school".

According to Independent Schools Queensland executive director David Robertson, Redlands College was within their rights to dismiss the two student teachers.

But that has done little to calm the Muslim community, with Islamic College of Brisbane principal Mubarak Noor disappointed by the news. "This is not good news, it’s a matter of concern to me," he said.

Redlands College denied moving the students was at odds with Christian teachings of tolerance. "This has nothing to do with religious intolerance, which we condemn outright," a school spokesman said.

Uniting Church Minister Reverend Anneli Sinnko said Mr Bensley’s actions directly contradict the basic foundations of the Christian faith.



Govt planning to fast track refugee claims

THE federal government plans to tackle a huge backlog of asylum seeker claims by introducing new laws to speed up the decision process.  About 23,000 asylum seekers are living in Australia on bridging visas and awaiting determinations on their claims.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has flagged that after July 1, when the Senate changes over, he'll introduce a bill to parliament aimed at "triaging" refugee claims, The Australian reported on Friday.

This means the government will be negotiating the passage of the laws with eight crossbenchers, including three senators from Clive Palmer's Palmer United Party, rather than the Australian Greens who currently hold the balance of power.

The government is also considering changes to the Refugee Review Tribunal, which reviews unsuccessful asylum seeker claims, to allow the government make its own case on appeals and challenge any new information introduced by claimants.

"When our bill gets to parliament ... the resolve of the parliament to support the strong policies of the coalition will be put to the test," Mr Morrison told The Australian.

Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the changes would be detrimental to refugees' safety.  "It's all about sending as many refugees back into harm's way as possible," she told reporters in Sydney.  The current process was rigorous in order to avoid fatal mistakes, Senator Hanson-Young said.


The fruit of Abbott's success: New Zealand is the new destination for asylum seekers

Late on Wednesday night, eight cars full of asylum seekers slipped quietly out of the hillside town of Cisarua and headed for the coast.

They carried 50 desperate men and women who were intending to board a waiting boat and set off into the night.

This movement was reminiscent of hundreds of other people-smuggling ventures in recent years. But in one critical respect it was different and immeasurably more dangerous.

These people — Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Afghans — were not intending to travel the 440 kilometres to Christmas Island. They faced instead an 8000 kilometre journey across one of the world’s most treacherous oceans, final destination: New Zealand.

The trip was thwarted. The cars were intercepted by Indonesian police, whom the smugglers believed they had paid off, and the passengers sent back to Cisarua where they are now waiting for another chance.

A joint Fairfax Media and New Zealand’s Sunday Star-Times investigation has laid bare the desperation and lies behind the New Zealand option, the latest twist in the asylum-seeker story, and the potential disaster that awaits any who attempt the journey.

"No one’s ever got to New Zealand [by leaky boat] in modern times," New Zealand ambassador to Indonesia, David Taylor, says.

"You’ve got reefs one side [Australia’s eastern coast] and the Indian ocean the other side [to the west]. They are long distances, the seas there are very fickle … so it’s a pipe dream".

And yet a number of sources in Cisarua and elsewhere have confirmed that Murtaza Khan, a Pakistani travel agent, and three other smugglers, Khawaja Nisar, Tarik Ayub and a man called Abbas, have marketed this boat as safe. They also say it’s the first of many.

Sources said as the passengers waited for weeks before embarkation day in a villa in Cisarua, playing cards and making flat bread, they were told repeatedly that the boat was safe. They were shown pictures and videos of the alleged vessel, its two large engines and provisions — images obtained exclusively by Fairfax Media.

Murtaza described the boat as metal-hulled, 32m long and 7m high, and said it would sail as far as West Papua (the Indonesian half of New Guinea), with a second, smaller boat, also pictured, travelling behind as back up.

He said they would sail close to the Indonesian coast, not within international waters, for fear the Australian navy would catch them and return them to Indonesia.

(Asked if Australia was legally able to intercept and turn back a boat whose destination was New Zealand, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said he would not comment about on-water activities.)

Once the boat had stopped and reprovisioned in West Papua, the second boat would return to Java and the first one sail alone the rest of the way to the ultimate destination, Kaitaia, in New Zealand’s north-west.  An alternative landing place, if the boat was in trouble, they said, was the rugged and uninhabited Three Kings Islands, which belong to New Zealand.

"It will be a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 12 days on the ocean," Murtaza has told passengers — an absurdly optimistic assessment.

The price per passenger — $US500 up front and a full payment of between $US5000 for the Afghans and Bangladeshis and $US7000 for the Indians — is cheap, barely more than the trip to Australia once cost. The idea at this stage is not to make a big profit; it’s to prove it can be done and open a new way out of Indonesia so that more passengers follow.

"You can be sure if one boat gets to New Zealand, the price will increase," one people smuggler’s agent has told passengers.

New Zealand, he said, "wants people to come".  "They are looking forward to seeing asylum seekers. They need them because the population is very small."

They say that asylum seekers can settle quickly there, after which getting permission to cross the Tasman to Australia is a formality.

Ambassador Taylor says most of these statements are false. There has never been a "mass arrival" in New Zealand (defined as more than 30 people), but Indonesia recently passed laws to deal with them. Taylor says his country may not even be their ultimate aim.

"They know they can’t [get there] and [perhaps] they’re hoping to get to a certain point and then duck in to Australia".

Murtaza has form for lying. A boat he arranged in September last year was billed to passengers as having "dinner and rooms," but it was tiny and open to the elements, and promptly sank off the coast of Java forcing its 44 occupants to call Australia for help.

"Murtaza is crazy for money," says one asylum seeker in Indonesia. "He is making crazy promises because Australia is blocked. If they go to New Zealand, maybe all of them will die."

But the fact that 50 passengers are impatient to make the journey is an expression of their desperation.

More than 10,000 asylum seekers and refugees are waiting in Indonesia and 100 more arrive every week. Tony Abbott’s and Scott Morrison’s success at turning back the boats has stoppered them in a place where they cannot work or get their children educated, and where it may take three years or more to be resettled through the so-called "front door".

Fairfax Media has learnt that among those on board are some who have already faced Australia’s hard-edged response.

At least one passenger was aboard the first orange lifeboat sent under Operation Sovereign Borders in January.  Two others tried in March to get to New Zealand with a different venture but were arrested instead in West Papua. They escaped, made their way back to Cisarua, and are trying again.

Others have run out of money and cannot afford to stay in Indonesia, or have paid all their money in the past to people smugglers for aborted or sunk ships and have been told they only have one choice — to travel.

An earlier attempt to reach New Zealand was aborted in March and another in early April involved smuggler Abu Ali amassing 23 people in West Sumatra on the premise that they could sail even further — 10,000km — around Australia’s southern coast to New Zealand. It was cancelled because not enough passengers were willing to try.

Other smugglers have even tried to sell tickets to the relatively closer Norfolk Island, claiming wrongly that is part of New Zealand — it is in fact an external territory of Australia and its immigration regime is also very unaccepting.


Does language matter?

Last week, the Australian Industry Group called for the federal government to "significantly" reduce the standard of English required for 457 visas. Their succinct argument was that demanding a high standard of English prohibits employers from hiring the best overseas workers. The stringent standards to which they refer, introduced by the Howard government, also neglect the (apparently) multilingual nature of many Australian workplaces.

But here’s the contradiction. Late last year, the Australian Industry Group – the same outfit – released a survey of 400 companies that found English literacy was woeful to such an extent that safety was a serious issue in many workplaces. Nine out of ten employers reported negative impacts on their business arising from the poor standards of language, literacy and numeracy.

So, in the space of just six months, the AI Group has tried to convince us that English language standards in Australia are both too high and too low. Well, which is it? I’m inclined to believe the latter.

The concern raised by employers, that safety is being jeopardised, is one reason. Another is the simpler one of integration. How can new migrants integrate into their adopted country if they’re unable to communicate well enough? From a workplace perspective, how can they interact with customers, build relationships with colleagues and negotiate with employers, if they’re unable to articulate their position using the official language?

Those challenges aren’t hypothetical. The most recent data comparing the job prospects of foreign-born workers is quite telling, but perhaps not surprising.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics analysed the employment success of people who were born in a country where English is not the main language. Of those who can speak English proficiently, 47 per cent are in full-time jobs. Of those who can’t, the proportion drops to just 19 per cent.

The subsequent demands placed on the welfare system are also worth noting. The same data from the ABS shows that one third of those who can’t speak English cite ‘government allowances’ as their main source of income, a rate that’s almost double when compared to their English-speaking compatriots.

Perhaps you can blame racism. Perhaps you can blame the economy. Perhaps you can blame the government. Or perhaps you can acknowledge that moving to a country in which you can’t speak the language is probably not a good idea.

Ah, but what about the skills shortage! That’s the rallying cry from business groups as they urgently press for reforms. The skills shortage argument, though, doesn’t ring true, not when we have over 700,000 people unemployed, many of them eager to be retrained if only there were employers willing to train them.

It’s been a hot issue in the UK over the past few months as it emerged there recently that 800,000 immigrants admit they can speak only a little English or none at all. Most of them are unemployed and getting by on welfare. The result has been that senior politicians have openly suggested that social security benefits should be cut when migrants consistently fail to learn the language.

This culminated in the Secretary of State – himself the son of immigrant parents – declaring migrants "should come to work and make a contribution and that … means things like trying to learn English". The Communities Secretary, too, has said "you can't be a full member of British society unless you speak English ... If you're going to live somewhere, it is beholden on you to learn the language".

Both of those politicians make logical arguments, both of which are easily applicable here or in any other country.

Yes, a sound immigration policy is essential for economic growth. But surely it’s imperative to be wary of business groups urging the government to sacrifice the most basic requirements in pursuit of that goal.


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