The drama that is Sydney: elegance, violence and flying marsupials

Victoria St is now a prosperous, gentrified suburb of Sydney. But ’twas not always so. In the 1970s an enormous struggle took place to protect it from developers – one led by trade unionists in the building workers union, and that resulted in the disappearance (and alleged kidnapping and murder) of activist resident journalist Juanita Nielsen.

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Oz's PM goes for broke

Stunning as Sydney Harbour may be, it was the politics that riveted my attention as I flew out of the historic, watery and lively capital of the ‘Lucky Country’. I had spent the morning before my flight indulging in a little tourism. We walked the path named after the good-hearted wife of the 1830s Governor General: Mrs McQuarrie’s Road. It circles a beautiful park and lines the harbour. There, my host, Peter Murphy and I happened upon the vast tanker pictured above.

Commissioned to deal with about 500 asylum seekers that head, it is estimated, each month for the Oz coast (6,789 arrived in 2010 compared to e.g. 1.75 million refugees in Pakistan) it seems big enough and ugly enough for the grisly task of hauling people off leaky boats or out of the sea, and then screening. As Peter noted, naming it Customs and Border Protection is a tautology: Customs is border protection.

Prime Minister Gillard has called a special cabinet meeting for Monday, 12th September, and all the signs are that she is about to do a deal with a rabidly right-wing and racist opponent in order to keep asylum seekers from stepping by boat on to this vast territory she governs precariously. (These refugees are less than 50% of Australia’s annual total. The rest arrive by plane, but don’t seem to invite the same sort of moral panic.) The ‘White Australia’ policy of the past seems to be rearing its ugly head again.

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Making the boom interviews and upcoming talks

It has been a busy week in Australia – I will be posting in more detail very soon. But for now you can listen to an interview with me on ABC Radio National Breakfast:

For any of you in Sydney – come along to the Catalyst event: ‘Making the boom pay… if not now, when?‘. I will be speaking along with others, more details are here:

Australia update - Melbourne, Trade Unions, climate & sustainability

The picture above is not of some Regency building in Brighton, England. It is in fact the oldest (or so I was told) Trades Union Hall in the world – the Melbourne Trades Hall. Sure is impressive, and with a lovely relaxed, unbureaucratic feel to it….

We were up at the crack of dawn to fly to Melbourne from Adelaide…newspapers full of the crisis inside the Labor government.  Julie Gillard looks to be in deep trouble over the handling of Australia’s policy on refugees. And then found the appalling tale of Babcock and Brown – Australia’s biggest ever corporate collapse –  the Ned Kellys of this age…only Ned Kelly could never have dreamed of looting so much ‘swag’.  And Kelly – whose remains have just been unearthed (see here) – was at least caught by competent Aussie cops at the time, and tried by a competent judge.   As the Sydney Morning Herald noted, the Aussie ‘watchdog’ didn’t even sniff Babcock and Brown….

Went straight from the airport to the fine Melbourne university campus for a meeting with climate and sustainability scientists and university trade union officials – to talk about financing the transformation of the economy away from fossil fuels….Not at my best after a night of fitful sleep…Then, after a nap, a wonderful evening at the above mentioned Trades Hall – it was titled Babbling in the Bar -but was in fact a lively discussion of economic policy, the financial system and the policies that Australian trades unionists should be demanding of their Labour government…..From there to the famous Lygon Street,Melbourne’s ‘Little Italy’ – for dinner at – a Vietnamese….times are a’ changin in Melbourne. And finally, after a ride on a tram and train ….sleep!

From Adelaide, Australia

I am staying with my hostess in an old homestead like this one in North Adelaide….

31st August, 2011. G’day from sunny Adelaide. I am here on a short lecture tour organised by the Search Foundation, and supported by the Don Dunstan Foundation,  Catalyst , the think-tank in Sydney, as well as trades unions in Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Sidney.

It’s an interesting time in Australian politics, not only at national level with the controversy around the new carbon tax, and yet another political sex scandal….but also  here in Adelaide, the home state of Don Dunstan, progressive Labour Premier from 1967-79. Dissatisfaction with the current Labour leadership has forced the resignation of Mike Rann, the premier. And today, the Australian Supreme Court has ruled illegal the government policy of deporting refugees to Malaysia…..So interesting times…

But arriving at Adelaide airport, and standing in the slow and long passort queue, more than a little dazed after the long flight from London, I was confronted directly with the crisis back in Europe. There was only one customs official clearing our long queue, and so it moved very slowly….Next to me were a couple with two restless kids, so I handed over my phone and offered to teach them how to play my favourite game: “Angry Birds”. (Although to be honest the reason I really love it is for the sound effects and those had to be turned down in the queue….)  We soon got chatting, and it turned out that they were a family from Ireland. Mum and Dad, they told me with shock written all over their faces, had both lost their jobs in the past few months. Four years ago, they raised a mortgage and built their own home. Now they have abandoned both their home and their families to start a new life in this strange city. The father had found a job, and they had rented a home somewhere in Adelaide – they had no idea where and hoped that the Satnav on the hired car would get them there. They know no-one in this city, and the pain of leaving behind her family was etched in the face of the mother…The teenage daughter looked sulky, and the younger boy grumpy….There was clear anxiety in the father’s face. And incredulity as they discussed the way that private Irish bankers are being bailed out, while they are obliged to pay the cost of the crisis….I wished them well, and hoped that Australians would welcome them….

It’s a bad old world….but great to be among Australians determined to do something about transforming it.