Nope, Nope, Nope

In recent days PM Tony Abbott has strongly reiterated his government’s dis-compassionate stance on asylum seekers and refugees. At least those coming via boat. The ‘nope, nope, nope’ comment came in response to questions about Australia accepting the Rohingya refugees who have been captive to the high seas, with up until recently no country willing to accept them. Last Wednesday saw Malaysia and Indonesia change their stance, saying they are willing to take refugees as long as they are settled or repatriated within a year. Our government, that looks after a country with more ability and space to care for refugees remained steadfast.

I have no evidence to back this up, however I feel over recent years our successive governments have ruled with an increasing hardness of heart. Both sides of politics have sought to keep some of the worlds most vulnerable off our shores a potential safe harbour, refuge and source of new life. Whilst the vulnerable living amongst us continue to be shunned and exiled, often effectively prisoners on their own land as was seen in the Northern Territory intervention. Of course the most recent example being the government cutting funds to essential services for people experiencing homelessness.

Trying to work out the government’s motivation, I heard on a recent episode of Hack someone lament that refugees and asylum seekers use to be a bipartisan concern, above party politics, but that unfortunately the debate has slid and parties now respond to political pressure, rather than a humanitarian conscience. Questions are raised for me about individuals versus party politics. I find it saddening and hard to believe that our leaders are so distant as to give such a flippant response to the suffering of two thousand fellow human beings. I’m sure there are all kinds of rationalities that can be offered about choice and so forth, but I guess I’m left wondering does Tony Abbott go home to a quiet place and cry for the lives of these people on the boats and then feel powerless to move from the position held by his party? Do those in government care, can they see the pain of others or are they simply blinded by power, wealth and the concerns of this wealthy nation that is all around them. I guess compassion fatigue hits us all at some point or another however this government seems to have gone beyond that to a meanness of spirit, that leaves one wondering how we are perceived on a world stage. And as for motivation is it simply political expediency, following the loudest, most convincing voice or is PM Tony Abbott, genuinely scared that these people from across the sea are a threat to our way of life?

Up until writing this blog I’ll admit I was ignorant about the plight of the Rohingya. The ethnic group calls Rakhine state in the west of Myanmar (Burma), home, with the area bordering Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal. They number about 1.1 million and are considered by Myanmar as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Burma does not allow them citizenship, education, to register marriage or to work, the government even encourages communal violence against them. The United Nations (UN) considers them one of the world’s most persecuted people. Two waves of violence in 2012 aimed at the Rohingya and instigated by the majority Buddhists in Rakhine sparked religious unrest throughout the whole country.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) Senior Researcher, Sunai Phasuk states ‘The atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state is a crime against humanity and bordering on ethnic cleansing.’ Essentially the Burmese government want them out of Burma, and will use any measure to achieve their end. They have become a scapegoat for all the country’s poverty and lack of social services.

The survivors of the waves of violence have not been able to return to their homes, forced to live in ghetto-like facilities. And so the motivation to leave for a better life becomes clearer. However the journey they sign up for, hoping to get to the mainly Muslim Malaysia is a dangerous one, and expensive. The people smugglers charge US$5000 and then they have to pay twice more, at risk of death or rape for non-payment to enter either Thailand or Malaysia.

Even if they survive all this, the Thai government is officially seeing the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and they are under threat of being put in indefinite detention, with no access to Un refugee channels. On a brighter note the US has pledged to help the region ‘bear the burden’ of the refugees. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf says, “The US stands ready to help the countries of the region bear the burden and save lives today. We have a common obligation to answer the call of these migrants who have risked their lives at sea.”

The small nation state of Gambia is also willing to help the refugees by offering them a place to land. They believe it is there ‘sacred duty’ to alleviate the suffering of fellow Muslims. They are appealing to the international community to send tents, bedding, household materials and medicines to set up “habitable camps with decent sanitary conditions.”

I can’t help but feel our Government’s response in comparison is juvenile at best and like a petulant child at worst. An article in the Drum by Dr Matthew Davies of the Australian National University, argues our ‘Stop the boats’ policy has helped unravel global norms around refugees, which in part has been the cause of the Rohingya being catapulted around the South East Asian Oceans

The same article points to the wisdom shown by Bill Clinton during a speech at Yale University in 2003. He suggested that American foreign policy should be conscience of the Nation’s eventual decline as a superpower. America sat on a crossroads in 2003, it could enjoy its power and break the international rules it helped to create or it could “create a world with rules, partnerships and habits of behaviour that we (the US) would like to live in when we’re no longer the military, political and economic superpower in the world.”

Davies points out that Australia too has a choice like this to make. Currently we can throw our weight around, and begin to fracture the web of the international regime around asylum seekers, but not without consequences, which some of the Rohingya are paying with their lives. We are again at a point where our professed beliefs around human rights and our actions don’t match up. This contradiction must stop! Australia and Australians have the ability to be a nation that displays generosity, hospitality and offers hope to the most vulnerable around us. There is a sense throughout the Bible that those who are blessed have an obligation to be a blessing. This can be interpreted at a national level but also interpersonally as we think about our interactions with those around us, especially those who aren’t like us.

Perhaps as we do this we can change the heart of the government to see that the humanitarian cost of going down its current path is too high and that there is another way. They cry ‘but we stopped the boats.’ The events of the past week clearly show they have not stopped the boats, merely, like playing classical music at a train station to stop drunk teens gathering, they have just pushed the problem further up the line. After all out of sight is out of mind.

References

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-20/brennan-history-repeats-with-the-rohingya-crisis/6483530

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-21/explainer-who-are-the-rohingya-fleeing-myanmar/6487130

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-21/fisherman-recounts-rescue-of-starving-migrants-off-indonesia/6485330

Melbourne: The world’s most liveable city, but for how long?

According to an article in ‘The Conversation’ by RMIT’s Ralph Horne and Megan Nethercote, Melbourne is in danger of losing its prestigious title of being the world’s most liveable city (https://goo.gl/rbBZsI). Contrary to other major cities, construction in Melbourne is comparatively under-regulated. Latest CBD constructions have been called “vertical slums,” 1-2 bedroom apartments, half of which are under 50 square metres, according to the article, not much bigger that a generous double garage.

Apartments under 50 square metres do not allow for adequate ventilation, and also lack enough storage and living space. Another practice taken on by Melbourne city developers is designing bedrooms with no windows, these rooms need to ‘borrow light’ from shared spaces like lounge-rooms. This practice is illegal in cities with much higher populations like New York, Hong Kong and Vancouver. The article states that a recent report unfavourably compares Melbourne’s high-rise rules to those of other world cities. I guess at one level this is understandable as the inner city growth is only now beginning to ramp up to a new level. However the time is now to put tighter rules in place. Currently we are allowed to develop at four times the density of cities such as New York, Tokyo or Hong Kong, with no obligation for developers to contribute to public infrastructure. This could include leaving space for affordable housing and community facilities.

The issue of developer contribution is a critical one as we consider the wellbeing of communities and the liveability of cities. Similar issues face local councils in outer suburban areas like City of Wyndham (West) and the Shire of Cardinia (South East), where there has been massive growth, with cookie cutter houses going up in their hundreds. Unfortunately much needed infrastructure that enables people to live well is lagging behind. Community consultations in these areas tend to bring up similar issues around access to adequate transport and places for individuals and families to gather and just hang out or perhaps play some games.

As someone with a passion to see people thrive and flourish in the context of the places and spaces they find themselves, the community side of housing developments is of great interest. It’s beginning to shift and Wyndham is a happy example of this, however many councils still believe that community building is about providing space and running events. The truth is much more complex and involves understanding the relational web around people and what happens when it breaks down. Good community building is about fostering a different attitude that recognises the value and worth of everyone in the community, enabling vision and ideas to flow from that base.

The City of Melbourne recognises this in the prelude to their housing strategy document for 2014-18, ‘Homes for People’ (http://goo.gl/yQfbdR).

We support our community members – whatever their age, sex, physical ability, socio-economic status, sexuality or cultural background – to feel like they can be active, healthy and valued. We plan and design for our growing city, including safe, healthy and high-quality public spaces.

Picking up on a few of the housing challenges that the report highlights; more affordable housing, ie subsidised; buying in the inner city is out of the reach of many households; current high level housing supply isn’t delivering a good housing mix or social diversity; quality, amenity and performance are decreasing while density is increasing; mix and affordability impact on long-term community building and support for a vibrant cultural life.

I’m not sure if I can paint the picture adequately, our city is growing, more people are and will be living in the CBD, this is a global trend as cities expand. Currently in Melbourne, what’s being constructed will not meet the needs of this growing constituency. Most apartments do not meet the needs of growing families and thus there will be a stilting in the demographic of those living in the city, affecting the mix, cultural diversity and the ability to build sustainable communities of wellbeing.

This is an issue close to home, literally, as I’ve mentioned before I live in an apartment in an inner city suburb. Apartment living is good! This is the second stint that my family and I have had in an apartment, the first being in Dandenong. Both times we downsized, relatively easily from a four bedroom suburban house. Growing up I never thought about apartments, although I grew up in a relatively small house, it was on the, at that stage typical Sydney quarter acre block. When Mum and Dad sold the land was worth much much more than the house.

Currently Amy, Josh and I live are on the 7th and top floor of our building. We look directly onto a public housing estate and in fact our building is an experiment that brings together public, social and affordable housing options, for that mix of social demographic. However from our balcony you can see a corner of the city to the west and the Dandenongs in the far off distance to the East. Literally million dollar views as they say.

Yet the social mix and liveability of the building has not been a simple one to juggle. The organisation contracted to manage and develop the building have focused on creating a great space to live, yet have lacked the focus, resources and skill to effectively build the community. In fairness there have been factors outside their control, which has meant the task of community building has been made more difficult. The community centre that was initially to be for the use of residents and others wishing to hold gatherings, changed to be managed by the local council who attached fees to the hiring of facilities, making its use unattainable for most in the building. There are no other indoor spaces where residents can easily gather together.

In the beginning of our time here a small group of us attempted to work with management to develop some community building processes, including events but due to personal busyness, shifting priorities and frustration with management this is largely defunct.

For me this highlights the importance of people in the midst of development. Although it helps its not enough to offer well planned and designed apartments, even if they are affordable. Richard Wynne, the current Victorian Minister for Planning has released a discussion paper, ‘Better Apartments’ (http://goo.gl/7Mt9LS), it sets the context, however focuses on the internal design of apartments and complexes and misses the community infrastructure argument.

I agree apartments need to meet standards that make them liveable for people and families with varying needs, however if these are built and people move into higher density living without the proper social and community infrastructure, we will be in danger of creating ghettos of loneliness and despair, lovely ghettos that they may be.

Overcoming Otherness

Thanks to Amy’s love of art and The Art Book Fair at NGV, I’ve been introduced to the Assemble Papers (www.assemblepapers.com.au) a twice yearly publication and a regular e-letter, focusing on the exploration of small footprint living across art, design, architecture, urbanism, the environment and finance.

I’m already fascinated by two articles! The first explores the rise of collaborative consumption and the other, our national identity and the concept of otherness. The theme is explored through an exhibition called The Other Hemisphere, which took place last year in Ventura Lambrate. I’m drawn to the first article as it explores a community response to modern society. The second for its focus on the experience of being other.

The feeling of being other is closely linked with our experience of belonging. In Design by the Lucky Country (http://assemblepapers.com.au/2014/04/10/design-by-the-lucky-country/) author Henrietta Zeffert is an Australian expat living in London, she describes her sense of otherness being an antipodean abroad. “I am seen as other, as a foreigner and a non-citizen, and I am other in my own eyes as an immigrant from my native land. I have observed a similar discomfiture in friends who wrigglingly describe themselves as expats and emigres: words that flash-fires for self-identified otherness.”

The theme of other resonates deeply with me, and perhaps like you I remember times when I felt excluded, on the edge, sharing a perspective with others but not quite being on the same page, or simply not being part of the club. Even in ones own country and community these feelings of exclusion and otherness can quickly spiral to isolation and disconnection. A few years ago I attended a forum of social service workers and the facilitator asked us as table groups to name the single biggest issue we came across in our work. Without exception every table reported back that the biggest issue they encountered was people suffering the effects of isolation or you could say being other. Those effects include loneliness, depression, anxiety and a host of other mental and physical issues.

Of course otherness goes further as I become aware of those experiencing homelessness, those living in boarding houses, refugees and asylum seekers locked up in detention, indigenous men and women being forced off their land, those suffering the effects of terrible earthquakes in Nepal. A challenge for us as a community is will the other be on our radar or will we individually and as a society, simply push them to one side and go on to buy our Louis Vuitton or Armani.

I’ve attended a forum on imprisonment, naming the state of play around levels of incarceration, the causes and response. In the forum I came across the term circuits of exclusion. Many in the prison system come from histories of abuse, self-medication, low levels of education and so on. These things become their identity and then get translated to the next generation. We are now seeing third and fourth generations of families with members ending up in crime and in prison. The point being made by members of the panel was that prison has no hope of breaking this cycle of poverty and despair. The only thing that will make a difference is a change in attitude from all of us that says these people aren’t other. They are part of my community, my people. A member of the panel suggested that we need to create communities of care for ex-prisoners, helping them to own the belief that they have done their time and that they can move on to, with help discover and live a legitimate future.

The idea of the community working together against otherness, points to the second article in the Assemble Papers. Tim Riley writes on crowd funding and co-housing arguing that these trends are leading the way in the rise of collaborative consumption. Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers in their book, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, have written on this trend. For them collaborative consumption is a model through which people can share resources without giving up ‘cherished personal freedoms, or sacrificing their lifestyle.’

Botsman and Rogers See that this trend is driven by people searching for more simplicity, transparency and participation in their lives. Old forms of collectives are being reinvented into ‘valuable forms of collaboration and community.’ At the centre of this movement is:

  • The internet and its ability to bring social networks together
  • A renewed belief in the importance of community
  • Pressing environmental concerns
  • Cost consciousness

Botsman and Rogers are hopeful seeing a trend that society is beginning to shift its focus from hyper-consumption, recognising the limitations of this and moving to a form of consumerism that encourages sharing, aggregation, openness and co-operation.

That all sounds good, but whilst a slightly more open approach is being advocated for, a desire for community beginning to be sought and actualised, will there be room for the other?

Central to the Christian faith is the concept of the other. Firstly that God is other, but yet seeks connection with people. I guess you could say he desires an aggregated life. Then throughout the bible there is the motif of embracing the stranger or the other, looking out for them and making sure that they can participate in the community socially and economically. As I read Riley and his article based on the work of Botsman and Rogers I can’t help but think of the description of the first ‘Followers of the Way’ in Acts. They held everything in common, sold their possessions, gave their money to the other, or the poor and experienced the joy of a common connection and bond of faith.

I don’t sense Botsman and Rogers advocating that we go that far, in fact they don’t see the need for us to give up our freedom, we can have it all, community and freedom. But I fear this is an exclusive community that will reinforce the circuit of exclusion. Our net gets slightly wider than me and my castle and those who reside in its walls. However for those outside the walls I suspect they will continue to be ‘other.’

Forcing us to Think Differently

As with most things that attract my attention lately, this is an incredibly deep and complex issue and in the space of this article I can hope only to scratch the surface.

My son has attended both Stop Force Closures rallies in the heart of Melbourne. He reports them to be peaceful events, using disruption as a way to gain people’s attention. Numbers estimate that 10,000 – 15,000 people turned out to the last rally. I haven’t seen many photos but one that sticks in my mind is an aerial photo that shows the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets completely blocked to traffic with people sitting around a central circle. I can’t help thinking that perhaps if we got together more like this, ie sitting in the round facing each other, prepared to work on positive solutions to the issues we face, we might be in a better place as a society. But I digress.

The core organisers for the Melbourne rally were a group known as Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR). On their Facebook page they describe themselves as a collective of young aboriginal people committed to the cause of decolonization and the philosophy of Aboriginal nationalism – resistance and revival. (https://www.facebook.com/WARcollective/timeline)

 According to their press release in the lead up to the May 1 rally, WAR sees the closures in WA in clear defiance of the well expressed will of the people. They see these closures as another step towards the genocide of the Aboriginal people. WAR believes it is routine in the Australian colonial state for the government to degrade, discriminate and disrupt aboriginal people.(https://issuu.com/blacknationsrising/docs/warmediarelease1may2015?e=0)

Lets stop for a second, this group of young Aboriginals and I’m sure many others feel that the Australian government that is in place to protect them, include them, defend their human rights, work for their economic prosperity and the equality of their opportunity (as they are meant to work for all Australians) are in fact their enemy. That systematically, perhaps since white settlement the government has in fact worked against the Aboriginal people.

Whether you believe the above is true or not, I find it incredibly sad and disturbing that a group of people, feel this way. In Australia, the lucky country, that many see as so open and friendly, we find such a strong sense of disenfranchisement and from our own indigenous young people. Initially as I was reading some of this material, I’ll admit to feeling a little fearful, not sure where the white fella fits with this agenda and indeed the declaration of Aboriginal Nationality. (http://goo.gl/VNbHtr) However as I let the truth of their feelings sink in a profound sadness overtook my fear.

I contrast their feelings with what I perceive my son and his friends feel, they may be disillusioned with the current government or wish some of the conditions with which they live were different, ie aspects of school / Uni, home-life, social life or their part time job, but ultimately for most, I believe if they take the time to ponder would feel there are many opportunities before them and that in general the government and broader society are there to help them. Now please forgive me I am caricaturing and from years as a youth worker I know the journey for many young people is not simple and disenfranchisement can result. However it seems the disenfranchisement that indigenous young people feel is fuelling a new radicalism, which is spreading around the globe.

According to the Stop Forced Closure of Aboriginal Communities in Australia Facebook page (https://goo.gl/X7u8c6) there were 96 gatherings globally standing together in solidarity with the Western Australian remote communities. They took place in every capital city in Australia, many smaller regions and country towns as well as diverse places like the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic of the Western Sahara, Hong Kong, Canada, the US, Germany and the United Kingdom to name a few.

It seems this may have had a positive effect. With an audience of 12 million worldwide, providing the foundation for a good funding base sustainable solutions to power, water and maintenance are being explored for the remote communities.

Perhaps all this is heading in the right direction. As I became more aware of the forced closures I began to think about approaching the issue from a strength base, one that takes into account a form of research called appreciative inquiry (AI). This form of research starts with the strengths of a community. It asks what do you like about living here? What is working in this community? Where would you like the community to be in 5 years? From this basis an asset or strengths map of the community could be drawn up taking into account the skills of individuals, organisations, institutions as well as the power inherent in the connection with the land, dreaming and tradition. Both methods work together to highlight the aspirations of the community and provides for self-determination towards those aspirations.

I don’t for one moment believe this would solve all the issues or in some way right the wrongs that have been done in the name of the colonial government, that will take humility, reconciliation, forgiveness, restitution, recognition… we still have a long way to go till any of this is achieved.

However one thing that could begin to be reversed almost immediately is the effect of generations of welfare that we have forced on the indigenous people, robbing them of the right to live the way that is congruent with their culture. This welfare whilst seemingly well intentioned led to the stolen generation, sit down money and a plethora of other initiatives that were counter cultural to the Indigenous way of life, including of course the Northern Territory Intervention.

The process to any kind of meaningful restitution such as a treaty that recognises the nationhood of Aboriginal people or a change in the constitution is a long one, however on that necessary journey self-determination may be a conduit rather than an end.