The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'australia'

2017/11/15

LGBT+ Australians and their allies can breathe a cautious sigh of relief as one prolonged chapter of the national culture-war pantomime comes to a close, with 61.6% of Australians voting to legalise same-sex marriage. Sorry, did I say voting? It wasn't a referendum, or even a plebiscite, but a non-binding postal survey, whose sole purpose was for Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Prime Minister to pander the alpha-males of the hard right, putting the human rights of part of the population to a survey and declaring a legal gay-bashing season, giving bigots carte blanche to gather their best arguments on why those people are disgusting and shouldn't be allowed, and shove them into every letterbox in the nation. LGBT mental-health help lines have, as expected, been busy.

Anyway, it turns out that most Australians are happy to let gay people marry. Which is to say, LGBT+ Australians can be somewhat reassured by knowing that, out of any five Australians they might see, statistically, more than three are happy for them to exist; which, one supposes, is progress. So now, a marriage equality bill will soon be debated in parliament. We can probably expect to see the LNP hard right, abetted by the Australian media's right-wing commentariat, use the fact that they have just under ²⁄₅ of the population opposed it to rationalise larding the bill with amendments effectively legalising all forms of discrimination and vilification against sexual minorities, as long as it comes from religious belief or deeply-felt visceral disgust. Hopefully, such amendments will get smacked down, as moderate Tories vote them down or abstain, though this is complicated by the fact that the electorates which returned majority results against marriage equality were predominantly Labor electorates with large ethnic-minority populations; and while this might not put them within easy reach of the (right-of-centre, big-business-oriented) Liberal Party, its more reactionary/traditionalist offshoot, the Australian Conservatives, not to mention the handful of religious fringe parties that cluster around the bottom end of Senate results, may be salivating at the prospect.

It is a good thing that the campaign is over, and that (hopefully) this issue will be sorted before the end of the year (after which, Australia may, slowly and painfully, have entered the civilised world where centre-right parties have realised that they have more to gain from affluent, established gay couples who can be persuaded that they should pay less tax than from a handful of burned-over religious zealots and the embittered and fearful). However, that is not the same as saying that this is a good result. For one, the legitimacy of a survey into whether a minority should be given fundamental human rights is, to say the least, deeply questionable. (Imagine, if you will, a survey on whether women should be allowed to own property in their own names, or if non-white people should be considered to be human for legal purposes.) Human rights should not be a matter of public opinion, and, if this has demonstrated anything, making them such serves only to embolden bigots.

Beyond the impact on the question, this episode may have other consequences. For one, the highly unorthodox way it was organised may have set a problematic precedent. Not being an election, a referendum or a plebiscite, the survey was not organised by the Australian Electoral Commission; instead, the Bureau of Statistics, until now a quiet, apolitical bureaucracy concerned with gathering data and tabulating it, was transformed by fiat into a parallel electoral commission, only without the responsibilities of one. From this, it is not hard to see it being used as a political football, and made to trot out an endless succession of surveys designed to bolster populist arguments and beat up on scapegoats. (Perhaps some year, to get One Nation's support at passing something in the Senate, there'll be an official ABS postal survey on whether Muslims should be allowed to enter Australia, and a 30% “no” result will be used to legislate for a ban on the sale of halal snack packs to under-18s, or something similarly idiotic?)

Secondly, and more immediately, in agreeing to this exercise, Turnbull may have inadvertently doomed his own party to losing the next election. While they have been polling badly recently, they have a history of scraping through with narrow victories. However, one thing that a referendum plebiscite survey on whether gay people should have human rights has achieved is a record surge of younger Australians, who vote predominantly left-of-centre, registering to vote. Many of these young people will be living with their parents, in marginal LNP seats, what with the traditionally left-leaning inner cities becoming unaffordable; when the next election comes around, they will vote. The LNP has reasons to be nervous about this, and the ALP probably shouldn't sleep too easily, given how poorly its rightward triangulation on various policies (particularly Australia's harsh deterrence policies against refugees) plays with younger voters.

australia culture war gay human rights politics 1

2016/5/15

Eurovision 2016 has been and gone. This time, much of the weirdness apparently fell by the wayside in the semifinals, thus arguably making watching the finals even more essential for fans of the Old Weird Eurovision. Further weirdness was lost when Romania failed to pay its EBU bill and was unceremoniously disqualified, depriving audiences of a few minutes of dependable gothic oddity (to their credit, Poland tried to fill that gap, though they didn't quite manage it; Poland, after all, is not Romania). And, for the second time ever, Australia was invited to compete; this time, they almost ended up winning. Also for the first time ever, the event was broadcast to the United States, undoubtedly causing mass confusion there, though perhaps not as much as it would have some years earlier. Also, this year, the voting system was split: first came in the votes of the nations' juries of experts, and then the aggregated public phone votes, a system apparently designed to maximise suspense, something in which it succeeded.

As for the songs themselves: Sweden appeared to walk the tightrope of showing competence whilst avoiding the risk of having to host it twice in a row (something that almost bankrupted Ireland in the 1990s), and sent in a hair-gelled teenager singing something unmemorable. Cyprus brought the hard rock, or at least hard-rock-flavoured dance music, and Georgia went landfill-indie (and got douze points from the UK, the spiritual home of landfill-indie, for their efforts). France, I thought, were decent, and the two Baltic states that made it through were as well. Australia entered with a very competent minor-key electropop ballad about intimacy at a distance, with lyrics about FaceTime and cyberpunk-style visual projections, and for a while, looked like it would win, running away with a commanding lead in the jury vote; but it was not to be: the night belonged to the geopolitical faultline between Russia and Ukraine:

Russia, it seems, tried very hard to win, throwing vast amounts of resources at it, as if it were a matter of national prestige. Their song was, by Eurovision standards, first-rate, and the setting was helped with some impressive projection-mapping effects. It was as if Putin himself gave the directive that Eurovision 2017 was to be in Moscow, and instructed everybody to do whatever it took to make it happen, up to and including having the performer, Sergey Lazarev, butter up the decadent liberals of Euro-Sodom by having gone on record criticising Russia's anti-gay laws and the annexation of Crimea. As such Russia had been the bookmakers' favourite to win, geopolitics notwithstanding. When the votes came in, though, the juries largely snubbed Russia, with them getting nul points from 21 juries. Even the torrent of phone votes, which overwhelmingly favoured Russia (and again, that could be anything between overwhelming apolitical approval of the song and/or Russia's formidable internet spammers taking time out from bank fraud to do their patriotic duty) couldn't reverse this; Russia only made it up to third place, coming behind Australia. To add insult to injury, the winner was Ukraine, whose song, 1944, was a sombre, harrowing and pointedly political number about the genocide and expulsion of Crimea's Tartars by Stalin (and, indirectly, alluding to Putin's annexation of Crimea, sailing close to the EBU's rules against political gestures). Set to skittering dubstep beats à la Burial, it was a decent song, though standing on its own, not overwhelmingly the best in the show. Had it not also served as a middle finger raised at Putin's Russia, it might have languished in the middle of the rankings; but geopolitics is geopolitics. (See also: the Israeli entry, which should probably have also done better. Their song wasn't bad, but voting it down was a chance for the cosmopolitan liberals of Europe to signal virtue and tell Netanyahu where to stick his security wall, so it was doomed from the outset. I imagine Dana International had the benefit of a period of relative calm and optimism when she won.)

Geopolitics may also have a little, though probably not a lot, to say about Britain's dismal result. Their song was not abysmal (the UK has done worse in previous years; there was the jaunty number performed by a crew of saucy flight attendants, or the middle-aged bloke playing a teenage hip-hop gangsta-wannabe, or various times when they barely made the minimum effort. Perhaps Britain lost points because the Frogs and Krauts and their wine-drinking garlic-eating buddies are sick of our ongoing national tantrum about wanting to leave the EU. Perhaps they don't like our aloofness and smug sense or superiority (though, were that the case, how does that explain Sweden consistently doing so well?) Or perhaps we just don't get it; when everybody else does minor-key anguish soaring to triumphantly defiant choruses on a wave of synth arpeggios and key changes, we remain terribly British and aloof, tossing off a cheery singalong, all the better to shrug off as no big deal when we inevitably end up in the bottom five.

After all the contestants had performed and the votes were coming in, there was the usual entertainment. This year, they had Justin Timberlake to perform a medley of his hits, in an event referred to by some as Justin Toiletbreak; this was done either to welcome the Americans tuning in for the first time, or as a showcase for the Swedish pop songwriting and production industry that powered Timberlake's musical career. Sweden's musical history was also showcased in a medley of international Swedish pop hits since the days of ABBA (I had forgotten, for one, that synth-led hair-metallers Europe were Swedish; for some reason I thought they were German). The highlight of the break, though, was this deconstruction of the formula for a Eurovision hit, bringing in everything from bare-chested drummers to little old ladies baking bread and incomprehensible folk instruments.

So: Eurovision 2017 will, it seems, be in Kiev. It'll be interesting to see what happens: will Australia (which, not being in the EBU, has been there on suffrance, though managed to do impressively well) come back for a third time, or take its seat as the Sweden-equivalent of the Asia-Pacific song contest being planned? (Will Eurovision itself, in a few years, pivot away from being merely Europe-plus-a-few-neighbours and become a set of regional contests, culminating in a global final?) Will the Russians compete in front of what can only be expected to be a hostile away crowd in Kiev, or will this strengthen calls in Russia to turn their backs on it set up their own “Eurasian” song contest, one without all that problematic gayness? And if Britain, by then, has voted to leave the EU, will it also take its ball and go home?

australia eurovision geopolitics russia sweden uk ukraine 1

2016/4/27

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia's national broadcaster, is in the process of developing a unified visual identity for its properties; and in doing so, has commissioned a new typeface for use across its online properties; it's named OneABC, is a modern sans-serif , and this is what it looks like with a selection of headlines reflecting the Australian zeitgeist circa 2016:

the war on cycling can be won in our time

The ABC stresses OneABC's true-blue dinky-di Aussie pedigree and characteristics; it was developed locally, by an outfit named the Australian Type Foundry, and is said to be characteristically Australian in its design:

First was the connection to the land with a coastal and outback feel. The open spaces of a wide brown land played a significant role. A sense of contrast that is simultaneously austere and rich. A true sense of inclusiveness that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism. And finally that special larrikin mentality that does not take itself too seriously.

Which are some fine words, though I'm not sure how they relate to the actual typeface, which looks as if it could have just as easily emerged from Berlin or Amsterdam; I can see a bit of FF DIN and Erik Spiekermann's Meta in its heritage; meanwhile, the distended 'k' resembles earlier versions of Google's Roboto. Perhaps, at a stretch, the rounded tail of the ‘y’ could count as “Australian”, feeling a bit more casual than the sharp angles of more geometric typefaces. As for “special larrikin mentality”, I'm not sure I see it, but that may not be a bad thing: the idea brings to mind some kind of Ken Done-themed Comic Sans, with serifs modelled on Dame Edna's glasses or something.

Could one make OneABC look more distinctly “Australian”, rather than generically modern? Perhaps increasing the x-height to be equal to the height of capitals would embody the spirit of “mateship” and the “fair go” (and prompt the typical accusations from the Liberal Party and the Murdoch press of being subliminal Marxist propaganda, thus keeping with the ABC's reputation). Other than that, short of having boomerang-shaped descenders or other tourist-shop kitsch, I can't think of how one would design an “Australian” typeface.

abc australia design oneabc typography 1

2016/2/23

Australia's ongoing, rolling culture war has recently converged on the idea of gender and sexual orientation; this is perhaps inevitable, after the previous iteration of the country's conservative (“Liberal”) government used the threat of gay people being able to marry as a political football, and committed the country to a vaguely-defined plebiscite at some time in the future on how much of that sort of thing should be acceptable (possible question: “Do you hate poofters: ☐ Yes ☐ Maybe a little ☐ No, but they make me uncomfortable ☐ They're OK as long as they don't hold hands in public or anything ☐ Not at all, I live in Newtown/Brunswick"). In the Liberals' defence, the country needs a scapegoat to unite against, and with death-cult Islamist jihadists being a bit thin on the ground there and the public starting to feel awkward about sending babies to gulags, it'll have to be the gays, and the transgendered people, and boys who wear their hair long, and girls who play football, and trendy-lefty parents who let their daughters play football and their sons play with dolls, and other such deviants and transgressives.

Now the culture war has moved into the schools, with the Liberals' new “moderate” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordering a review of an anti-bullying initiative after MP Cory Bernardi (a star of the Liberals' Putinist wing, who had previously compared homosexuality to bestiality) raised concerns that the program, by teaching that non-heterosexual/non-cisgendered identities exist and are valid, “indoctrinates kids with Marxist cultural relativism”. (Bernardi was referring to the trope of “Cultural Marxism”, emerging from a McCarthy-era anti-Semitic dog whistle, once confined to badly laid-out flyers from the swivel-eyed fringe of the far right, but now gaining mainstream acceptance, not least of all in Rupert Murdoch's Australian flagship, The Australian.)

The programme Bernardi is attacking, Safe Schools, was brought in by the previous Labor government in response to the plight of LGBTI teenagers in an environment where being anything other than heterosexual and cisgendered was to be a legitimate target; the result of this is that LGBTI kids in Australia are six times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. And anti-gay bullying is not an isolated phenomenon in today's Australia: domestic violence is rampant, and heterosexual gender relations are defined by an almost Victorian paradigm of male forcefulness versus female resistance, where women who let on to enjoying sex on their own terms are “sluts” who “deserve what they get”. Australia has a long way to go, and it's not clear which direction it's heading in.

Anyway, it looks like Australia will now have an inquiry into this programme, and whether the poofters have it too good in Australia. At best, it'll turn out like the inquiry into “wind turbine syndrome” (a peculiar culture-bound syndrome affecting only conservative Australians), pissing taxpayers' money up a wall to come to the conclusion that, no, the Communists aren't fluoridating the water supply trying to turn our kids gay (replete with exhaustive references to writings about the Frankfurt School of Marxist thought, carefully checked for proof of a conspiracy; in other news, it's probably a good time to be a German translator in Canberra). Though there's a real risk that it will result in changes such as bans on references to sexual orientation or gender identity, reducing the programme to a “bullying is bad, okay” motherhood statement, and once again allowing open season on gay kids (or those perceived, in the sadistic logic of the schoolyard, to be “gay”, an epithet having as much connection to sexuality as “Cultural Marxism” has to the writings of Karl Marx). Though one person's bullying is another person's “community-minded citizens' enforcement of shared cultural values” or something, and only a dirty commie would want to get rid of that.

Meanwhile in Newtown, one of the pockets of a bizarro-world progressive Australia, a school has allowed students to wear the uniforms of either sex without seeking permission to do so, much to the condemnation of religious bigots. I wonder how long it will be until the Christian Fundamentalist-dominated Baird government (which has recently strangled Sydney's nightlife with onerous regulation) tables a law mandating distinct male and female uniforms in all New South Wales schools.

australia cultural marxism culture war gay lgbti rightwingers 0

2015/10/26

The Lego company has placed a worldwide ban on sales of bricks to the artist Ai Weiwei, on the grounds that they “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works”. Ai was planning to use the Lego bricks for an exhibit at his upcoming exhibition in Melbourne. The nature of the exhibit is not known, other than it was to concern free speech, though it could have upset officials in the Chinese government, and thus threatened Lego's profits in that billion-strong market. And so, a company from ultra-liberal Denmark, and one which has sponsored public art projects with no political censorship there, helps China export the Confucian-Communist authoritarian ideal of “harmony” to the democratic world, all guided by the profit motive.

After the news went out, Ai has received numerous offers of Lego bricks from private individuals, and has confirmed that he will proceed with voluntary donations of bricks.

So one could conclude that Lego have lost this one; an attempt to discreetly neutralise a liability having instead Streisanded them spectacularly, revealing the bastion of Scandinavian liberalism to be willing to kowtow to dictatorships in the pursuit of profits? Yes and no (though, in reality, mostly no). While Ai gets to complete his work, and a few leftists, liberals and civil libertarians (as opposed to the more common uncivil variety, to whom the freedom to pursue profit is supreme) may vow to not buy another Lego brick as long as they live, realistically that stands to hurt their bottom line about as much as the 30-year baby-milk boycott against Nestlé; i.e., not at all; and even if it did, the prospect of increased profits from the vast Chinese market (which would otherwise have gone to numerous knock-off brands) Lego can expect as a reward for its loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party will more than compensate for any loss of prestige among the small number of people in the west still inclined to vote with their wallets.

The moral of this story is that the Reaganite ideal of trade and free markets dissolving dictatorships and spreading liberalism and democracy in their wake is a non-starter when the most powerful players in the market are profoundly anti-liberal dictatorships (of which China is one; another one is Saudi Arabia, recently elected to chair the UN Human Rights Council (with, it turns out, the discreet lobbying efforts of countries like the UK behind it), and about to crucify a young man for blasphemy; Saudi Arabia's major initiative in human rights to now has been to push for the global criminalisation of the insulting of religion).

ai weiwei art australia censorship china lego neoliberalism 0

2015/9/15

And in Australia, there is a new Prime Minister—the fifth in a decade—as Malcolm Turnbull wins a Liberal Party leadership spill, ousting Tony Abbott.

On one hand, it must suck to be Abbott right now, having become the shortest-serving Australian prime minister since Harold Holt (and yes, shorter than That Woman), and, more to the point, missing out by a few days on the generous pension former prime ministers are entitled to. It's particularly wretched timing for him; one wonders whether he chose it to escalate any disloyalty from his underlings into a personal attack on his livelihood, or whether he became so unpopular that those who deposed him decided to teach him a lesson in the process; a condemned despot so unpopular that a firing squad of his peers, without a word said between them, unanimously decided to “accidentally” aim for the wrong side of his chest. (Having said that, there is a limit to how much pity one can feel for him, given that he is bound to land, quite comfortably, on his feet. After all, the coal industry takes care of its own, and if anyone was its own, it would have been Abbott.) In any case, here's the relevant First Dog On The Moon cartoon.

On the other hand, while Malcolm Turnbull seems like a breath of fresh air compared to Abbott (a small-minded reactionary authoritarian evoking, more than anything, the demented bush patriarchs of outback gothic films like The Cars That Ate Paris and Welcome To Woop Woop), he is hardly progressive or forward-looking in the grand scheme of things, and has made clear that there will not be a sudden change of direction. There will be no carbon price, no same-sex marriage, no renewal of environmental or research funding, no reversal of restrictions on wind turbines, and no review of the mass surveillance and “national security” laws rushed in; there's even money that the federal government will keep trying to restrict environmental challenges to coal mines, and push Los Angeles-style freeways onto an unwilling Melbourne as well, because we don't do socialist public transport here in 'straya. And, of course, Australia will keep torturing refugees, but then again, that is bipartisan policy, so that is to be expected. There is the possibility that, in the fullness of time, Coalition policies will gradually drift towards pragmatic moderation, or at least that future policies won't be littered with unhinged “captain's calls”, but that's probably as much as one can hope for.

One thing Turnbull is more likely to do, however, is lead the Coalition to victory in the next election. Over the past few months, the opinion polls were looking disastrous for the government, with each poll getting worse. Had things kept going as they did, then come the next election, the Labor Party could have nonchalantly bumbled to victory through the wreckage, all but unnoticed. Now, it looks like the ALP won't win without actually convincingly arguing its case to govern, which means that, short of the Coalition imploding again, it's unlikely to win.

The current leader of the ALP is Bill Shorten, a man without qualities who's mortally afraid of showing any difference from the government. Shorten, who came out supporting Abbott's massively unpopular paramilitary stop-and-search operation in Melbourne after the government actually called it off in the face of protests. Shorten, who spent four hours drafting a tweet in response to Abbott's ouster. Shorten, whose party rubber-stamped every bad Coalition policy passing through the Senate, as if afraid of what the Murdoch press would say if he didn't. Shorten, who put the “loyal” in “Loyal Opposition”.

Were Shorten to face his own spill over the next few months, it is not clear that things would change; none of the other potential candidates acceptable to the factions seem to show any more promise. Beyond that, it is not entirely clear what the Labor Party actually stands for, other than wanting to win elections. It is not the party of a mass industrial proletariat, because no such thing exists any more. It is not a new progressive party or a radical libertarian free-market party or an old-school socialist party, or, indeed, any other specific kind of party, because the interlocking stand-off of factions preempts any commitment to any direction or other. It is, quite simply, an enterprise which has outlived its original reasons to exist, leaving only one goal: its own self-perpetuation, the ultimate sole purpose of any bureaucracy. A pointless, self-perpetuating bureaucracy riddled with warring factions: the Ballmer-era Microsoft of politics.

Perhaps Labor's electoral loss will, in the long run, be for the best, especially if it is by a large margin. A resounding defeat for Labor could hasten the old party's euthanasia, and, with that, perhaps increase the likelihood of a progressive alternative government more fit for purpose emerging. Of course, the price of that would be more years of uninterrupted Tory rule, though, in the current situation, can that be helped?

australia politics 0

2015/6/28

The rumours coming from Australia recently have been of preparations for an early federal election; Tory MPs have been sent offers to get updated photos with Team Australia Captain Tony Abbott, and the tragicomically misnamed Liberal Party have launched attack ads against the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, whilst insisting that an early election is not on the cards. Of course, it could well be that these are merely contingency plans, and the election is still over a year away.

But whenever it happens, it's probably safe to call the outcome: Abbott will secure a second term, quite probably with an increased majority. He will do so comfortably, even if Lynton Crosby declines to lend his election-winning campaigning genius, instead opting to spend more time swimming, Scrooge McDuck-style, in his massive underground pool full of hard-won pounds sterling. Even if Rupert Murdoch suffers (heaven forfend!) a massive coronary beyond the abilities of the best in American private health care, and his editors, bereft of their helmsman's guiding hand, phone their election coverage in. Even if the Silent Majority Of Suburban Battlers stop being scared shitless of Islamic State jihadis arriving on waves of refugee boats to slaughter them in their beds, aided and abetted by lefty traitors in the ABC, with only Captain Abbott to protect them. Abbott will win, because the ALP, in its current form, has abandoned being an actual opposition, and there is no reason to vote for them other than a vague hope that they may, at some point, be a perceptibly lesser evil. Because the one thing more shit than voting for a bully is voting for the nonentity who hides in his shadow and cheers him on.

Somewhere along the way, the ALP seems to have accepted the Murdochian mantra that it is unfit to govern. As such, its present role in parliament is not so much in opposition to the Tories as in apprenticeship; following the leader, rubberstamping his decisions, putting the boot into the Greens and the remaining small-L liberals, and mastering the art of downward-punching, dog-whistling and general neoliberal authoritarianism, seemingly in the hope of proving itself to be worthy of one day graduating and taking the master's place; by then, “ALP” having changed to standing for “Alternative Liberal Party”. Over the past week, the ALP has voted with the government to implement an extrajudicial internet censorship system (ostensibly for blocking pirate web sites, though once the infrastructure's in place, a sufficiently authoritarian government can find its own uses for it), to criminalise the reporting of child sexual abuse which is endemic in the refugee detention camps (guess what, fellow Australians? There are rape camps run in your name to deter brown/Islamic people from even thinking about coming over), gutted the renewable energy target (and allowed the felling and burning of native forests to count as renewable energy, alongside solar and wind power) and joined in calls for an inquiry into the ABC being insufficiently loyal. Earlier, the ALP had rubberstamped the government's internet surveillance regime and draconian national security censorship laws. And if the Trans-Pacific Partnership comes up for a vote, the government can undoubtedly count on the ALP's loyalty, but we all knew that already. These days, the ALP is most reminiscent of one of those pseudo-opposition parties that exist in places like Singapore and Russia to give the illusion of multiparty democracy; a bunch of clowns who know what their job is, and are aware, in no uncertain terms, that should they ever cross the boundaries of what is expected of them and start posing an actual challenge to the government, they will get smacked down, hard. The tragedy is that they do not actually live in a one-party “managed democracy” where going for the throat would result in them being sent to the gulag; it's pure learned helplessness.

And so, the actual Liberal Party will almost certainly form the next government, and resume ruling with an iron fist and a mandate to reshape Australia in its own image. We have seen a preview of this: policies based on dogmatic neoliberal ideology (austerity economics as a moral imperative, attempts to phase out universal health care, and an opposition, in principle, to public transport, seemingly inherited from from US free-market ideologues intent on ruling out the very possibility of a common good, lest it inexorably lead down Hayek's Road To Serfdom) and a fetishisation of fossil fuels, all book-ended with disturbingly authoritarian rhetoric, not least of which is Abbott's reframing of Australia as “Team Australia”, a body moving in a unified direction under the leadership of its captain, and a contrast with actual liberal ideas of a pluralist society; there is, after all, no room for dissent or difference in a team. Beyond that, we have seen the government aggressively politicise formerly impartial sectors, gutting an independent arts fund and diverting the money to a new government-controlled one, and most recently, calling for sackings in the ABC, and, tellingly, referring to it as a “state broadcaster” (which implies a duty to present an official government line) rather than a “public broadcaster” (a more liberal institution). Abbott's vision for the country is an authoritarian one, and it is likely that in his second term, he will ease further into the role of an Erdoğan-style strongman, and the memory of the old liberal Australia will recede further into the past.

Electorally speaking, this victory will be at the expense of the Labor Party, whose support will crumble as voters start asking themselves what the point of it actually is. In electoral terms, at least the Greens (who are emerging as the actual opposition) will do well, though whether an opposition party under an authoritarian system can be said to have “done well” is an open question. In the longer term, perhaps it will make sense for the ALP and the National Party to trade places. The National Party, a largely rural socially conservative party, has been in coalition with the Liberal Party since time immemorial (and the two parties even merged in Queensland), though is starting to shed rural voters to the Greens in some areas, as the Liberals' monomaniacal support for mining and fracking alienates some in its (hitherto captive) traditional base (a problem the rightward-triangulating ALP has had in inner cities); a post-coalition National Party (or offshoot thereof) could be a right-of-centre ally to the Greens on some issues. Meanwhile, given that the current ALP is intent on brown-nosing its way into the Coalition, perhaps that is its natural place after all?

australia politics 0

2015/2/4

Apparently Finland's school system is scrapping cursive writing lessons in favour of typing. In other news: apparently, in the 21st century, children are still taught cursive writing in schools:

"There's research shows us that a child will have a better concept and better memory for what a letter is and what it represents if they actually handwrite it ... [but] the argument is really against those pages of cursive, joined-up writing exercises which, in the end actually don't change many people's hand writing styles... Cursive writing is cute, and nice, and decorative if you've got a leaning towards wanting to do it ... just like you might like to learn to crochet or knit.
"The handwriting exercises that we do are really based on very old technology," she said."So when we teach kids particular downstrokes and where to start their letters, it's really based on how you had to use the technology of a fountain pen and ink."
Cursive writing is a funny thing; it's not quite practical (who writes an essay under exam conditions cursively, and who finds that more legible than neatly separated printed script?), and it's not quite decorative (it stops well short of anything that could even generously be called “calligraphy”). Its sole raison d'etre is tradition (that teaching children fountain-pen-era techniques is in some ways useful), if not an authoritarian, vaguely punitive disciplinary mindset (idle hands are the devil's plaything, and those little hell-apes that we call children must have their rebellious spirits broken with laborious exercises lest they get up to mischief). Perhaps killing it off as a mandatory part of the curriculum could be the best thing for it: once it's no longer compulsory, and is as alien to the average person as film photography or slide rules, some subset of artisanal crafters and/or hipster contrarians will take it upon themselves to revive this vintage skill and take it further than it would have otherwise gone?

The article, on ABC News, speculates on the possibility of Australia following the Finnish lead and removing cursive writing from its schools. I expect that will happen somewhere around the time of them ditching King Charles III as their head of state and abolishing Imperial honours for the second time in history. I can imagine the ultra-conservative establishment running the country wouldn't have a bar of any such proposal, and indeed can almost read the column in The Australian denouncing the very idea as proof that the Marxists have taken over the teaching profession.

australia culture cursive writing education finland 0

2014/12/16

Yesterday, Australia awoke to the news of what appeared to be a terrorist siege in the heart of Sydney. ISIS terrorists had, it seemed, seized the Lindt Café, a retail outlet of the Swiss confectioner and popular tourist destination, and were holding a few dozen terrified hostages, some of them forced to hold up a black flag with Arabic writing in the window. International terror had struck home, and the Lucky Country's innocence was shattered forever, the hard dawn of the Long Siege breaking with the pitiless intensity of the Arabian desert sun. Rumours abounded: of sweeping police raids across Lakemba, a desperate hunt for the unspoken nightmare scenario this could be merely a distraction for, the diabolical plans of an invisible enemy who is everywhere, his dagger at our throats like Hassan ibn Sabbah's fabled Assassins. Awful videos of beheadings, lit by familiar Australian sunlight, were sure to follow.

But then the fog cleared and it turned out to be somewhat less than that. Far from an organised, tightly disciplined cell of fanatical death cultists, it turned out to be a lone individual with a gun and possibly an (actual or fake) bomb. The fearsome ISIS flag, that latterday skull and crossbones breathlessly reported by the Murdoch tabloids, turned out to be just a piece of black cloth with the fundamental tenet of Islam, the statement “there is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet”, written on it, much as it is on the Saudi Arabian flag; superficially scarily terroristic-looking, though on deeper inspection, more like lazy set decoration than anything else. The siege dragged on through the day and well into the night; neither the gunman nor his accomplices managing to get their message into the media, partly because he didn't actually have any accomplices. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, the police stormed the building; at the end, three people were dead; two hostages and the gunman.

Details soon emerged of the gunman; it turned out that he had been a somewhat odd character, to say the least. An Iranian refugee who had sought asylum in 1996 from the country's Islamist dictatorship, who had imprisoned his family. At various times, he had styled himself as an Islamic cleric, peace activist and spiritual healer. It is in the course of the last vocation that he seems to have incurred several dozen charges of sexual and indecent assault. Whilst doing this, he was apparently also writing harrassing letters to the relatives of Australian troops killed in Afghanistan. Furthermore, last year, he had been charged as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife. As he awaited trial for this, he maintained his calling as an Islamic cleric, despite finding little support in the actual Islamic community, and seemingly came to the conclusion that the community was wrong, corrupted by the “new religion” of moderate Islam. His one-man ministry became increasingly radical; a week before his last stand, he posted to his website, pledging his allegiance to ISIS, the aforementioned mob of bloodthirsty attention-seekers in Syria. It is not clear whether anybody in this group acknowledged his pledge.

There's a lot in that profile, and it's not flattering; it's like he's one part Martin Bryant (the mass murderer from Hobart) to one part Fred Phelps (also a self-proclaimed religious leader whose currency was hate); a deeply unpleasant troll and attention-seeking psychopath who escalated into possible murder. (It is not clear whether he killed either his ex-wife or any of the hostages, though it doesn't look good in either case.) Of course, a key difference between him and Bryant, Phelps, and indeed, any of the high school shooters of the past few decades, is that he was not “white”.

Much has been said about white privilege recently, especially in the wake of the killings of black youths in the US whose only crime was that it could not be exhaustively proven that they weren't about to pull a gun. White privilege, it seems, can involve being able to behave normally, rather than erring on the side of proving one's unthreateningness, or avoiding situations where a jury might rule that Whitey could have reasonably considered one to have been a clear and present danger. And now, it seems, it can also involve being judged on one's individual circumstances, rather than as an exemplar of a homogeneous, pathological Other, should one flip out and kill some people.

One can imagine how this would have been reported had someone from a white, Anglo-Celtic background been the perpetrator: a bingo-card of adverse circumstances (“broken home”, “failed marriage“, perhaps substance abuse and several possible types of mental illness); in and out of trouble with the law, the antihero turns to religion in an attempt to get his shit together, going from church to megachurch, but finding them all to be shallow phonies and leaving them behind, treading his own lonely, uncompromising, and increasingly narrow path. Then, one day, he snaps, and—surprise, surprise—nobody blames Hillsong.

The hostage taker was clearly an unstable individual. He was also an unstable individual from an Islamic cultural background, and his pathology was coloured by Islam, by the currents of extremism on the fringe of Islam and the perception of the Islamic Jihadist as the bête noire of our age. However, it looks like that was all he was; there seems to be no evidence of him having been part of a larger terrorist conspiracy, or even having had much of a plan. Some are referring to him as “self-radicalised”, which is another word only used for the scary Other; one is less likely to see this word attached to, say, the failed pick-up artist in California who decided to shoot some women to avenge having been repeatedly rejected, despite the fact that, in both cases, we are witnessing a similar phenomenon: toxic resentment buttressed by ideology. It's just that, in one case, the ideology is not from here.

Fortunately, with the exception of Murdoch's Daily Telegraph screaming terrorism, Australia has mostly kept its head on. Mindful of the posibility of a Cronulla-style backlash against conspicuously Muslim-looking bystanders, offered their solidarity on Twitter, with the #illridewithyou hashtag soon trending worldwide. Meanwhile, civic leaders have rejected the Murdochs' claim that everything had changed forever, framing the siege as an isolated incident. One does wonder how long this will hold; whether this will be used as justification to pass a new tranche of sweeping police powers or restrictions on civil liberties. (The government's planned mandatory data retention regime is coming up for debate soon, and could be rubber-stamped through parliament, even though it would have had no effect on this case, with the perpetrator having been very well known to police.)

australia crime islam sydney the long siege 0

2014/10/21

Gough Whitlam, that lion of the Australian Left who shook up a sleepy, conservative backwater and made it, for at least a few decades, into a modern, forward-looking player on the world stage, died yesterday, aged 98.

Whitlam's brief period in office began in 1972, when the Australian Labor Party which he led won a landslide victory, sweeping aside the arse-end of a decades-long period of conservative rule and cruising into office under the slogan “It's Time”, soundtracked by a groovy rock'n'roll jingle. Whitlam and his party didn't slow down; soon they had abolished conscription and the death penalty, brought in free university education, state-funded health care and arts funding, recognised Aboriginal land rights, passed the world's first no-fault divorce laws, replaced God Save The Queen as the national anthem with Advance Australia Fair (which, though admittedly somewhat turgid-sounding, was at least ours), among other accomplishments. He also had a gift for witty retorts.

This spring was not to last, though, and after winning an early election with a narrower majority in 1974, Whitlam failed to get a budget passed and was dismissed by the Governor-General in 1975, in what some of the more paranoid types still say was a CIA coup. (Interestingly, the Pinochet-figure brought in to replace him, Malcolm Fraser, has, over the past few decades of retirement, drifted considerably to the left of Australian politics, and was last seen endorsing a Greens candidate in the 2013 election; or perhaps he has just stood still, with the political landscape drifting rightward around him.)

Whitlam's accomplishments, however, stuck; by CIA-installed right-wing dictatorship standards, the Fraser government was somewhat of a damp squib, and kept things much as they were, until the ALP's Bob Hawke took over keeping them more or less as they were. It was not until into the first term of John Howard, with his obsession with his idol Robert Menzies, the conservative patriarch of the pre-Whitlam Australia, and the lost father-knows-best arcadia of white picket fences and children who are seen and not heard that he had presided over, that it started to look like what we had thought of as the new, modern Australia was merely a thaw. Howard's successor, Tony Abbott, meanwhile, seems to look even further back; his model of Australia seems to be closer to the authoritarian penal colonies and military outposts of virtuous Empire than to the “relaxed and comfortable” 1950s, dangerously close to outbreaks of rock'n'roll, feminism, male long hair or similar degeneracy.

It's not yet clear which of Whitlam's achievements will be the last to be systematically rolled back by the current government; free education is on the way out, and payments for medical appointments were floated (without any economic planning to make a case for them, but that's not the point; it's the principle that counts, and, to a certain mindset, the very existence of free health care is fundamentally immoral). If Abbott succeeds in unlocking the Strong Wartime Prime Minister achievement, conscription might be on the agenda (though, then again, Australia may take a hint from the US, and eschew outright conscription in favour of, say, making university funding or unemployment benefits contingent on military service). The death penalty may be harder to sell to the public (Australia's regional neighbours threatening our bogans with it should they bring some weed with them tends to do that), but if anyone in Canberra would push for it, the current lot probably would. As for restoring God Save The Queen as the national anthem, for a government that brought back Imperial honours, that would be, if anything, too obvious.

australia gough whitlam obituary politics rip 0

2014/4/29

The impeccably economically rational minds in Australia's Productivity Commission has denounced artisanal food producers, “international style” bakeries and small winemakers as a drag on Australia's productivity and economic efficiency:

“Bakery product manufacturing is likely to have contributed to lower measures (or productivity),” the commission says ... “Lifestyle considerations, tax arrangements, and alternative sources of income may have reduced the incentive for small wine-makers to leave the industry.”

If one looks at it from a certain perspective, they have a point. Certainly, spending $5 on a loaf of artisanal bread when a $1 loaf of Tip-Top will provide the same amount of calories is an expensive frippery which isn't doing Australia any favours when competing in the Global Race that one keeps hearing about. After all, while we're demanding the money and leisure time to savour a sourdough ciabatta washed down with a nice glass of cab sav, the developing world has billions of people who are willing to work 90-hour weeks on a bowl of gruel a day and be grateful for it. That's to say nothing about the establishments in which these decadent luxuries are consumed. Taking up valuable space all over inner urban areas, these squander resources on quirky décor, and not only neglect but actively sabotage their throughput by encouraging the patrons to linger, rather than quickly getting and consuming their food and going back to productive work. Replace them all with McDonald's-style drive-throughs and not only would Australia's workers be able to get more work done, but, paying less for their lunch, could do so for more competitive wages. Think of all the extra iron ore we could load onto ships, and the higher profits remaining at the end of the day.

But why stop there? While pointing out the grotesque inefficiencies of small-scale foodstuffs and gratuitous luxuries (and, implicitly, wages high enough to create demand for such fripperies) drives a point home, it misses the broader point implied in such economic-rationalist (or, as they call them these days, neoliberal) critiques, that of what Australians should and shouldn't be doing. Australia, it would seem, has one core business: digging Australian ore and coal up and shipping it out; it's the one thing we do better than anyone else in the world, and everything else that doesn't tie into that or its support industries is superfluous, and thus, by definition, a drag on the national economy. (With the exception of cricket, of course; panem et circenses, as they said in Rome.) If you divert resources to baking artisanal bread, or, say, building cars or televisions (which the Chinese can do far more efficiently), those are resources which cannot be used for digging up every lump of coal that can be sold.

Another example: if you go to any of the aforementioned inner-city cafés with their inefficient ciabattas and fairtrade flat whites, you are likely to find several people in their 20s and 30s with fashionable hairstyles and MacBooks; some of them will be working on mobile games or social websites, editing short films, writing novels, mashing up phat beats, or doing other things atypical of the inhabitants of a mining colony. Given the high Australian dollar (due to the world wanting our iron ore and coal, which we can't dig up fast enough), it makes no economic sense for anyone in Australia to be doing these things, given that similarly fashionably attired MacBook owners in Berlin or Brooklyn could do the job for less (that's to say nothing of the DJs and designers of Beijing or Bangalore). Nonetheless, the young and hip in this mining colony maintain the pretense of being part of a “Creative Class”, one of limited economic purpose and often importing its symbols and touchstones, from trucker caps to taco trucks, from bars named after parts of Barcelona to the very idea of using bicycles to get by (itself a pretentious, and un-Australian, affectation according to a significant segment of the population). Meanwhile, tonnes of iron ore remain tragically unmined and unsold.

So the question posed by the critique seems to be: perhaps it's time for us to, as our heroic Prime Minister would put it, stick to our knitting, put aside all these foreign lifestyle pretensions and concentrate on what we do best: digging stuff up and shipping it out. After all, we all want to live in an efficient, dynamic economy, don't we? Those who don't fit in with the country's business, who can't find a job as a minerals engineer or contract lawyer, can try their luck with the US visa system or see if they can wangle a European passport through where their grandparents came from.

Of course, that's one point of view; that from the top of the pyramid, from where everything is a resource to be managed efficiently (which is to say, profitably), and the profits are to make their way to the top of the pyramid, unmolested by the little people's economically irrational desires for artisanal nutrition, or the notion that Australia might be a complex society rather than, as that other metaphor used by the current government goes, a team with a single national focus. But increasingly, this is the point of view which counts.

a modest proposal australia economic rationalism neoliberalism 0

2014/4/6

Yesterday, Western Australia held its Senate byelection, after it turned out that the Senate election last year had been botched. Now the results are mostly in.

The major parties did poorly, barely getting more than 50% of the vote together. The Liberal Party suffered a -5.5% swing (which is hardly unusual for a government in a byelection), and their coalition partner the Nationals only got around 3% of the vote (about 1/4 of the Palmer United Party's vote), not coming close to a Senate seat. Meanwhile, Labor also fared poorly, suffering a -4.8% swing. Some of this could be remaining uppity-sheila-hate, but it's more likely to be due to the ALP having kicked an own-goal, deciding that given that the Mining State is uniformly right-wing in tendencies and heading up their ballot paper with an ultraconservative loose cannon and former student-union comrade of Tony Abbott, who, in an address to a Christian group, said that Labor's too full of "weird lefties" and Abbott could make a great Prime Minister. Ironically, as he was at the top of the ballot paper, his seat is assured, whereas whether the ALP's second candidate, Louise Pratt, will get up is a very open question. Back to the focus group, boys...

Meanwhile, among the winners of the night are the Greens; Scott Ludlam, the savvy digital-rights advocate whose seat hung on a handful of votes in the last election, is definitely in with a solid margin. This is undoubtedly partly a result of the Greens' solid campaign and partly the ALP having decided that they don't need progressives and that they should concentrate on becoming a more watered-down Liberal Party. The progressives, it seems, have taken the hint and gotten behind the Greens, and there seems to have been more of them than the ALP's wonks expected.

Another winner, or at least a high-roller in the casino that is politics, is Clive Palmer's Palmer United Party, who bagged a seat for less than A$20m. Palmer's candidates are hard to find, being not so much parliamentarians as conduits of their employer's will, bound by contract to vote as the boss says. Australia seems to be on its way to having proper oligarchs, in the Russian sense of the word.

There is still some question over who will get the last seat; whether the Liberals (who had three seats before the election) will win it again or whether it'll go to the ALP. The word on the street is that postal votes tend to lean right, so the Liberals might end up getting it.

If I were Tony Abbott, my priority right now would be to seduce Joe Bullock into crossing the floor and either joining the Liberals or sitting as a (conservative) Independent. Given that both Abbott and Bullock are men who, in an earlier time, could well have joined the DLP, that may be a viable proposition, or at least easier than negotiating with a panoply of minor parties.

australia greens politics western australia 0

2014/3/25

The Australian government announced it is scrapping a section of the Racial Discrimination Act which had been added by the Keating government in 1995; coincidentally, the one under which right-wing demagogue Andrew Bolt was successfully prosecuted for insinuating that fair-skinned Aborigines were liars and benefits cheats. In defending the government's about-face on this issue, the Attorney-General declared that "people have the right to be bigots". And while the government is, of course, firmly opposed to racism, the dog-whistle is that, as a nation, we're perfectly relaxed and comfortable with a spot of casual racism between mates, as long as it doesn't escalate into a public order offence or anything.

As if to top that, a day later, PM Tony Abbott announced that Australia will be bringing back imperial honours, with those honoured being given the title Sir or Dame (based on biological gender, of course; there will be no funny buggers in Abbott's Australia), overturning one of the Whitlam government's key symbolic achievements; back-handedly, the first recipient was the immediately outgoing, and staunchly republican, governor-general, Quentin Bryce, who is hardly in a position to decline. It's not clear who will be next in line for honours, though there probably won't be a Sir Rupert Murdoch, given that he renounced his citizenship. It may well be that the editorial conference of The Australian will look like the court of Camelot by the time of the next election.

So there we have it; an Australia where the sentiment "haters gonna hate" is actually enshrined in law, and the respect Australians were once obliged to show to those from different backgrounds can now go to their social superiors.

On one level, this looks like a planting of the LNP's unapologetically conservative flag, and a slamming of the Overton window hard to the right; on another level, it seems almost calculated to create a lot of smoke. Which makes me wonder: is this a prologue to more substantial conservative legislation (perhaps a ban on abortion, the privatisation of the ABC, tougher censorship laws or something), or a distraction from something that's decidedly not culture-war red-meat and would give the Silent Majority of (Occasionally Casually Racist But In A Mately And Acceptable Way) Suburban Battlers little to celebrate? Like, say, harsh industrial-relations laws to go with the symbolic feudalism in the imperial honours system?

australia culture war dog whistles politics racism 0

2014/3/4

An article looking at the hypermasculine, testosterone-pumped vocabulary of Australian politics today, in the post-uppity-sheila age:

This past week, such figurative phalluses have been flying with particular prominence, with Tony Abbott suggesting that you don’t want a wimp running border protection (it is uncertain what that says about defence minister David Johnston), The Australian asking its readers to judge who is the “better man” between General Angus Campbell and Senator Stephen Conroy, and Conroy being accused of not being able to “man up” and apologise to Campbell for accusations of a cover up.
There is an element of conservative thinking that joins these dots. Professor of cognitive linguistics George Lakoff talks about the fundamental underpinnings of what he loosely defines as “conservative” and “progressive” mindsets. The conservative mindset is framed by the “strict father” model of thinking - that children learn through reward and punishment, and that the parent, particularly the father, is meant to mete out these. The idea of male, fatherly competence is central to this system of thought. It goes to the larger sense of the man as the strict, authoritative father figure, the competent provider. It goes to “adults” being “in charge”, being “fiscally responsible” and having “operations” rather than “policies”.
Manliness is no longer necessarily stoic and stolid, it must also be virile and athletic, preferably with explosions. Thus, when a naval error occurs near Indonesia, it’s a “missed tackle”, it’s why the process of dealing with desperate refugees becomes Operation Sovereign Borders, which couldn’t possibly be run by a wimp. It’s why the Abbott election pitch was all about “real action”, and the response to climate change is all about “direct action”. It is why, when a young kid gets whacked in front of a nightspot, it’s a “coward punch”, somehow implying that to punch someone square in the face is an ennobling act for all concerned.
(Earlier: Australia, the steroid-soaked neighbourhood bully of the Pacific.)

Meanwhile, Australia's shift to conservatism in gender roles has extended even to the realm of ceremonial anachronisms, as Australia is the only Commonwealth country which has not yet passed amendments to royal succession laws favouring male heirs.

And here is a take by Cathy Wilcox (who, aside from Michael Leunig, is probably progressive Australia's finest cartoonist these days).

australia conservatism culture culture war gender machismo 0

2014/2/7

Australians all let us rejoice, for Schapelle Corby, Ostraya's own People's Princess, is to be released on parole, after serving nine years of a 15-year sentence in an Indonesian prison. Corby became a cause celebre of bogan Australia after being arrested in 2005 for smuggling 4.2 kilograms of prime weed into Bali in a boogie-board case (which, of course, makes her a "legend"). This happened at around the time of the Asian tsunami, and resulted, among other things, in true-blue Aussie bogans across the country angrily withdrawing their tsunami relief donations, on the grounds that if the Asians are going to lock up One Of Us (especially one who's a hot chick), well, fuck Asia then. Also, if you were wondering about the sprinkling of eight-year-old Schapelles across the primary-school classrooms of today's suburban Australia, alongside the ubiquitous Jaydens and Kaydens and suburban kids whose faux-biblical names were imported from America with Oakley Thumps, Jersey Shore and gangsta EDM, there's your answer.

australia bogans culture rant sarcasm schapelle corby 1

2014/1/22

An article looking at the state of the neo-Nazi extreme-right fringe in Australia today; in short, there are a number of small, fractious groups who identify with Nazism, tend towards violence as a mode of action and are often influenced by groups from abroad. These are distinct from, and not to be confused with, the somewhat less batshit far-right groups, with neither side wishing to be associated with the other:

Thankfully, while accounts of less serious forms of harassment typically go unreported, reports of assaults such as that committed against Minh Duong are rare, neo-Nazi violence having peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. Further, collaboration between openly neo-Nazi groups and white nationalist or neo-fascist political parties like Australia First is generally low-key, with neither camp wanting to be associated too closely with the other. Other far-right groups are split on the subject of whether "The Jew" or "The Muslim" poses the greatest threat to White Australia.
While Australia's neo-Nazi skinheads may have little to do with its common-or-garden fascists and "racial nationalists", they have found acceptably zealous comrades abroad:
Australia First has declared itself in political solidarity with the neo-Nazi Greek organization Golden Dawn. In December 2013 in Sydney, it helped to organise a rally outside the Greek consulate in order to protest criminal charges against the organization. In Melbourne, Golden Dawn has recently opened an office, though its precise location remains a secret. While generally low-key and currently enjoying little support among the local Greek population, the group has had a presence at several Greek rallies. Local Greek antifascists understand it has also been engaged in fundraising, with the money raised being used to help finance Golden Dawn’s violent activities in Greece.

(via johnsafran) australia extremists fascism greece neo-nazis politics racism rightwingers 0

2013/12/2

High-speed rail projects may be facing controversy in the UK and US, but have gotten a boost in two unlikely countries. Iceland, a country with no railways, is looking at building a high-speed railway line from Keflavík airport to downtown Reykjavík; the line would either be conventional high-speed rail or a maglev line (as seen in China), would cost ISK100bn (about £500 million), and would get passengers from the international airport in Keflavík to the BSÍ bus terminal in 20 minutes or less.

The Icelandic railway network

The entirety of the Icelandic railway network as it stands today.

Meanwhile in Australia, the conservative federal government has committed to safeguarding a corridor for a Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Brisbane high-speed railway network, and raising the priority of the project (first proposed by the Gillard Labor government, after pressure from the Greens). This was somewhat surprising, given the Australian Right's hostility to public transport, passenger rail , infrastructure spending (it's socialism, you know, and if there's demand, the free market will step in; besides, the money would be better spent on lowering petrol taxes or given to voters in marginal seats to buy plasma-screen TVs with) and anything with a whiff of the latte-sipping inner-city trendy-left's concern about carbon emissions (because, you know, once you acknowledge the problem, it's only a matter of time before ordinary Aussie battlers may find their 4WDs and cheap flights to Bali taken away from them, and before long their diet of rump steaks is replaced with organic lentil stew and they find themselves being lectured on checking their privilege by a woman named Rainbow with dreadlocks and a nose ring or something).

Anyway, credit where credit's due; I tentatively laud the Abbott government's maturity at being able to get behind something like that, despite its un-Australian pedigree and the massive concession in the culture war it must have been, though, of course, the proof will be in what actually gets built and when.

australia high-speed rail iceland infrastructure railway 0

2013/9/8

The good news: The predicted collapse of the Greens, with the Tories preferencing Labor ahead of them and Rupert Murdoch declaring them a cancer to be cut out of the Australian body politic, did not happen. Adam Bandt was comfortably reëlected in the seat of Melbourne and online liberty champion Scott Ludlam might just have scraped into the last Senate place in WA (though it won't be known for weeks), despite the Wikileaks Party kicking him in the teeth in their preference card, after a clusterfuck of right-wing minor parties coalesced into a seat for the Australian Sports Party.

The bad news: The Coalition won by a landslide. Tony Abbott, a reactionary religious authoritarian who believes that climate change is “crap”, is Prime Minister, on a platform that can be summed up as “we'll have none of that here”.

The good news: The Coalition didn't manage to get control of the Senate, so they'll have to negotiate to have their reactionary platform passed into law.

The bad news: It looks likely that the Coalition plus the Religious Right (Family First and DLP) will, together, have a majority in the Senate. The main upshot of this is that the internet censorship system that was dismissed as a “gaffe” in the election is likely to materialise as a negotiating tactic (“Mr. Abbott, your industrial relations plan is anti-family. However, we could pass it if you give us a national mandatory internet filter blocking porn, homosexuality and blasphemous content.”) The other option, of Abbott striking a deal with the sizeable Green presence in the Senate, is, of course, utterly out of the question; one does not deal with un-Australian extremists.

So, yes, basically, Australia is fucked, at least to the extent that one was expecting it to be a modern, progressive country; at least for the next 3 years, probably the next 7, odds-on to be the next decade, and quite possibly however long it takes for the Greens to transmute into a party of alternative government. From now on, 2013 is pronounced “nineteen-fifty-sixtythree” in Australian English. The past has vanquished the future, and here comes a victory of shit.

Inner Melbourne, which reelected Bandt and almost sent a few other Greens to Canberra to join him, is a light in the darkness; a bit like Austin, Texas, or Barcelona in Franco's Spain. And as such, it can probably expect collective punishment; one part of that will be the razing of homes and parks to build freeways for outer-suburban Liberal voters to drive their 4WDs on. (Incidentally, all federal funding for public transport is to be scrapped, because “we don't do urban rail in Australia”. Which makes perfect sense, given that global warming is a load of black-armband Marxist crap, oil will be cheap forever, and if you start getting traffic jams, you can always build more roads and widen the existing ones.)

australia politics terriblisma tories 2

2013/9/5

As Australia enters the final 48 hours before its election, a ban on electoral advertising has now come into force across the country. And, by coincidence, the Tories (who look almost certain to form the next government) have released their full policies and costings, and it's a doozy. Out goes renewable energy funding.. On the infrastructure front, there's a distinct back-to-the-1950s theme again, with the government scrapping public-transport programmes and replacing them with a road-building spree not seen since Grandpa got his first Holden. (It's a good thing that oil will always be cheap and global warming is nothing more than a lie spread by a conspiratorial elite of jealous inner-city leftists who can't afford 4WDs because they're losers, because otherwise we'd all be screwed.) Science and education funding are being slashed as well, with the Australian Research Council budget being cut by at least $103 million, and Abbott seems to have taken a leaf out of the Canadian government's book, introducing plans to control research funding on political grounds, because of, you know, we can't have politically-correct Marxist climatologists pushing un-Australian black-armband theories such as “global warming”. Oh, and if that wasn't good enough, a proposal for an opt-out internet censorship regime (i.e., “Stop the Bytes”) have somehow made it into the proposals, meaning that Australia's nobbled 20th-century broadband will now be even more useless. (The government-in-waiting soon started claiming that that announcement was a mistake, without elaborating on this.)

This, truly, is the bouquet of shit that just keeps giving.

australia censorship politics stupidity tories 0

2013/9/3

Rupert Murdoch's star may have fallen slightly in Britain, but in Australia, it seems, he's still the boss. As the Tories coast towards victory on the back of press coverage, provided by Murdoch's near-monopoly in crucial states, that straddles the line between hagiography and fellatio, the First Mate's influence is being felt not just in what's being said but in what's not being heard: Australia's three commercial TV networks have refused to air an ad criticising the Murdoch press's election coverage, put together by progressive activist group GetUP. Whether it took phone calls from News Corp. to get the ads banned from the mainstream media, or merely the hint that the boss would be displeased, and there'd be consequences, it's clear that one does not challenge Murdoch in his fiefdom.

Meanwhile, Murdoch's tabloids seem to be sitting on reviews of a satirical play about the magnate's rise to power; a minor thing, to be sure, but emblematic of the entitled arrogance of one who claims ownership of public discourse.

(via Zoë, David) australia media murdoch politics 0

2013/9/2

Barry Jones (one of the more thoughtful and forward-looking figures from the past three or so decades of politics in Australia) writes about the decline of rationality in Australian political discourse, and its replacement by knee-jerk populism and a wilful, even proud, ignorance and short-sightedness:

Party spin-doctors, on both sides of politics, work on the assumption that by this stage in the election cycle about 80% of voters have already decided how they will vote, and that short of some major event (cabinet ministers charged with felony, perhaps) nothing that is said or done in the campaign will change that. The 20% who are uncommitted, profiling suggests, are neither interested nor involved in the issues, do not much care about the outcome, are largely voting because they are obliged to do it, and will make up their minds on the day – perhaps as they stand in line waiting to receive their ballots.
Geoff Kitney wrote an important article for the Australian Financial Review – Vote for Abbott, and vote against politics – describing Abbott as the anti-politics politician, who puts a heavy emphasis on appealing to those (many?) reluctant voters who say: “I can’t stand politics, and don’t even pretend to understand it”. This does not just discourage debate on complex issues, it kills it. There may be even a bonus for non-involvement, to be told: “don’t feel badly about knowing so little – celebrate it”.
Despite Australia’s high formal levels of literacy, politicians are increasingly dedicated to delivering three word slogans (“stop the boats!”) – now degenerating even more to the use of one word, repeated three times (“Cut! Cut! Cut!” or “Lie! Lie! Lie!”).
Of course, the fact that, in many states (most notably, the more right-leaning ones like Queensland), News Corp. has an effective monopoly on the media, which it runs in a nakedly partisan fashion resembling more Cold War-era Pravda than anything in a pluralist democracy, doesn't help.
The Murdoch papers are no longer reporting the news, but shaping it. They no longer claim objectivity but have become players, powerful advocates on policy issues: hostile to the science of climate change, harsh on refugees, indifferent to the environment, protective of the mining industry, trashing the record of the 43rd parliament, and promoting a dichotomy of uncritical praise and contemptuous loathing. Does it affect outcomes? I am sure that it does, and obviously advertisers think so.
A recent example of this would be a moment from the current-affairs TV show Four Corners, in which a Liberal candidate said that asylum seekers increase traffic congestion in the suburbs.

Speaking of (ir)rationality in Australian politics, the Rationalist Society has published its scorecard of the political parties. Both major parties fail (the Liberals by a slightly greater margin than the ALP), with only the Greens, Secular Party and Australian Sex Party getting top marks. (The Pirate Party, however, have been omitted from the survey for some reason.)

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2013/8/26

Continuing on from the previous post about Australian Senate how-to-vote cards and who really is preference-swapping buddies with whom, I have spent some time playing around with the D3 web-based data visualisation library, and have managed to build an interactive visualisation of the Senate voting sheets (and, more specifically, the various parties' affinities for each other).

As such, I present to you: the Australian Senate Preference Navigator:

It requires a reasonably modern browser (or at least one with SVG support).

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2013/8/24

As the Australian election approaches, the ABC has published the various parties' and groups' Senate how-to-vote cards, i.e., the order in which your preferences are distributed to other parties if you can't be bothered to vote below the line and, instead, tick the convenient box by the party's name at the top and hope for the best. Though whether one can be bothered to fill in the hundred or so boxes or not, knowing how each group distributes its preferences can be very telling about their philosophy and world-view and/or what deals they hammered out in lieu of having a philosophy. So, I decided to examine the numbers more closely.

I wrote a small Python script to go through the parties' tickets, calculate the average preference each party gives to any other party, and then rank them in order from most- to least-preferred. Soon, patterns started showing up: clusters of left- and right-leaning groups soon made themselves evident, and parties with seemingly neutral names showed decided slants.

To further simplify the classification of the parties, I decided to analyse them on where in their preferences they place a handful of marker parties: the three major parties (Labor, the Liberals and Nationals), the Greens and, as a proxy for the far right, the One Nation party (now largely ineffectual, though once seen as the bête noire of the racist fringe). Soon, a handful of fingerprints made themselves visible.

Conventional thinking places these five parties on a linear scale from left to right: the urban progressive Greens on the left, followed by the ALP (managerial centrists with a trade-union socialist heritage, which can also appeal to those of a populist bent), the Liberal Party (pro-business centre-right shading into DLP-influenced social conservatism), the Nationals (a largely agrarian God-and-Country party) and, finally, One Nation. (This isn't the entirety of the Australian political spectrum; the line extends further, with Trotskyists on the far left and white supremacists and conspiracy theorists on the far right, though those parties are on the fringes.)

  • Parties which, from the basket of five marker parties, chose a left-to-right progression (Greens, ALP, the two Coalition parties and finally One Nation) were mostly left-wing and progressive issue parties: the (pro-privacy, anti-censorship, anti-surveillance) Pirate Party, Bullet Train for Australia, Socialist Alliance, Future Party, the Secular Party of Australia, and a few groups of independents.
  • There were considerably more strongly right-leaning parties going the other way, preferencing One Nation above the major parties, then the Coalition, the ALP and finally the Greens; these included various religious parties (Fred Nile's Christian Democrats, Australian Christians, the Democratic Labour Party, the Pentecostal anti-Muslim Rise Up Australia and internet-censorship wowsers Family First), as well as lifestyle groups such as Smokers Rights, Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party, Outdoor Recreation Party (Stop The Greens), Australian Fishing and Lifestyle Party, the Climate Sceptics and Bob Katter's Australian Party. Also showing an unbroken right-to-left pattern were the Building Australia Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Non-Custodial Parents' Party and something called the Australian Voice Party. The Shooters and Fishers were also among this group, though put the ALP ahead of the Nationals. Meanwhile, the Carers' Alliance put the Nationals and Liberals first, followed by One Nation, the ALP and the Greens.
  • A few parties chose a populist bent, preferencing One Nation, the ALP, the Coalition and then the Greens: these were the Australian Protectionist Party, the Bank Reform Party and the Australia First Party.
  • Similarly, a few parties went from left to right, albeit promoting One Nation above the Coalition: the Voluntary Euthanasia Party's preferences followed a GRN➡ONP➡ALP➡LIB➡NAT path, while Help End Marijuana Prohibition's went ALP➡GRN➡ONP➡LIB➡NAT, clearly seeing the Coalition as more hostile to the rights of pot smokers than One Nation. The other drug-issue party, Drug Law Reform, seems to differ in their assessment, casting their preferences GRN➡LIB➡ALP➡NAT➡ONP.
  • The various personality-led parties that have cropped up stood in various places; Bob Katter's party, as we have seen, took a right-to-left path. Nick Xenophon's group did similarly, albeit putting One Nation last. And eccentric mining magnate Clive Palmer's party threw a curveball, putting the Nationals first, followed by the Greens, the Liberals, One Nation and, finally, the ALP.
  • Of other random parties: Senator OnLine (who apparently promise to vote as instructed to by voters on the internet) went ONP➡ALP➡LIB➡GRN➡Nat (so, vaguely populist then?), the Australian Democrats (who were sort of like a primordial, rudderless version of the Greens) went GRN➡LIB➡NAT➡ALP➡ONP (i.e., vacilliating between left and right, as in the old days). Perennial candidates the Citizens' Electoral Council (followers of American conspiracy theorist and convicted tax fraud Lyndon LaRouche) put One Nation first from the basket, followed by the ALP, the Greens and the Coalition parties. Meanwhile, the Animal Justice party (could their name be a Brass Eye reference?) went ONP➡GRN➡LIB➡ALP➡NAT.
  • And then there were the anomalies: the (ostensibly ultra-liberal) Australian Sex Party putting One Nation ahead of the others, Wikileaks putting the Nationals first (though they seem to have disintegrated since), and, most perplexingly, the Socialist Equality Party putting the two coalition parties first. Perhaps they're hoping that three years of Abbott will bring about a revolution or something?
Anyway, watch this space for further analysis.

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2013/8/8

There's a piece in BBC News' Magazine section about the bizarre upside-down world of the Netherlands, where the bicycle is king and cars are grudgingly tolerated; where bike lanes and bike parking are ubiquitous, cycling safety is a compulsory school subject, cyclists have priority at roundabouts and roads are labelled “fietsstraat: auto te gaast” (“bike street: cars are guests”). Consequently, near everybody cycles, and nobody wears a helmet or lycra like some kind of extreme-sports nut whilst doing so:

Cycling is so common that I have been rebuked for asking people whether they are cyclists or not. "We aren't cyclists, we're just Dutch," comes the response.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world (both geographically and culturally), there is gradual movement in Australia towards the acceptance of cycling as a normal activity, with infrastructure being slowly provided for cyclists. However, not all are happy with this; after the Melbourne City Council opened a bike lane on the Princes Bridge, right-wing shock jocks and the Murdoch press have launched a campaign against bike lanes, arguing that they take away the motoring majority's roads to pander for a tiny fringe of (radical/politically correct/trendy) inner-city hipsters in lycra.

Indeed, the limits of how bike-friendly Australia can become may be fairly low, as long as motoring is the default (and, in most places, the only practical) means of transport (one could, indeed, reverse the Dutch formula to “we aren't motorists, we're just Aussies”), and elections are decided by car-dependant marginal seats. They don't want large numbers of cyclists getting in their way and slowing them down when they drive to the supermarket, and certainly don't want some politically-correct latte-sipper lecturing them that they should leave the 4WD at home and cycle to the shopping centre, and they decide elections, so policy is designed partly around the goal of suppressing the rise of cycling as a non-fringe phenomenon. Take, for example, Australia's near-universal and strictly enforced mandatory bike helmet laws, which serve the purpose of raising the economic and psychological barrier to entry from cycling, marking it out as a moderately dangerous extreme sport that requires special safety equipment, and is only for the hardcore.

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2013/6/26

Australia's community radio sector, facing the onerous costs of switching to digital radio, got a reprieve today, in the form of a $6M government funding package, passed in the last moments of the Gillard government's last parliament. The funding boost came after an earlier bill which left the stations several million dollars short, and following a campaign which attracted more than 43,000 signatories.

Which is just as well, because community radio cannot expect any sympathy from the incoming Abbott government; the best it could hope for is indifference, and the worst, active hostility. Community radio in Australia leans towards an urbane, university-educated and mostly left-leaning audience, all considered with deep suspicion by Liberal Party strategists and the predominantly right-wing commercial media; in the views of the Australian Right, it would be a nest of “un-Australian” opinions, such as empathy for refugees, support for depraved and immoral art, and anti-business sentiments verging on “Cultural Marxism” being part of the same neo-Whitlamite crypto-Communist conspiracy as the Greens. Indeed, its very existence outside of the purview of the Free Market is anathema; why should a bunch of latte-sipping trendies and subversive degenerates who don't share the values of the Silent Majority Of Suburban Battlers have a slice of the radio spectrum reserved for their esoteric interests, and protected by law from the democracy of market forces? Were community radio left to the Abbott government, any solution would probably look like a radical Thatcherite big-bang of deregulation, abolishing the distinction between community and commercial licences and “freeing up” community stations to sell advertising, enforce playlists mandated by advertisers, lose the uncommercial niche shows and chase the commercial mainstream, or just get bought up for their spectrum by existing radio networks. Such a move would, in the views of the Right, drain the stagnant pond of un-Australian opinion that has been fermenting in the inner cities since the Whitlam era, once and for all. (In fact, I wouldn't be too surprised if there had been an editorial in The Australian advocating that very course of action.)

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2013/6/15

The Australian Greens have a fine line to walk; maintaining an integrity of values whose lack doomed the third party which preceded them, the now-defunct Australian Democrats, whilst avoiding becoming a single-issue party (as their name suggests), or allowing themselves to be tarred with the brush of extremism. So far, they have succeeded modestly; having some of the most scientifically literate MPs in Parliament and a commitment to evidence-based policy helped, though could only go so far when the Murdoch-owned 70% of the press vilifies them as witches Stalinists and the remaining Fairfax papers deny them the oxygen of publicity, making it easy for people who don't read New Matilda on the tram in between cycling to their favourite vegan café to joke about them as a bunch of dippy hippie rainforest mystics. Gradually, though, with the internet, and the effort of party workers, they have been making slow inroads towards mainstream acceptability.

That is, until the New South Wales branch (why does it always have to be the NSW branch, in every party?) called for an inquiry into fluoride in the water supply, at the behest of the tinfoil-hat community having lost a court challenge to water being fluoridated. As yet, no plans for inquiries into chemtrails, UFOs or whether or not world leaders are shape-shifting reptilians have been announced. But still, despite all their hard work and generally impeccable rationalist credentials, Tim Ferguson's caricatures of the Greens looks slightly less ridiculously inaccurate.

I can see this possibly costing the Greens seats in the next election. The ALP has been faced with a drain of educated, progressive-minded voters to the Greens in recent elections, which has cost them inner-city seats such as Melbourne (where the Greens' Adam Bandt will be fighting off a challenge from Labor). The threat of a sweeping landslide in favour of a hard-right Abbott government, whose promises not to feudalise industrial relations, ban abortion and generally drag Australia back to the penal-colony era via Howard's white-picket-fence father-knows-best 1950s have not convinced everyone completely, could compel the proportion of the electorate who don't understand how preferential voting works to vote Labor first, bleeding votes from the Greens. If the Greens manage to keep up the momentum, the appearance of leaflets, quoting their NSW MP John Kaye about fluoride and suggesting that a parliament with Greens in it will be tied up with chasing moonbeams at the taxpayer's expense, rather than (as has been the case) holding the two old parties to account on issues such as health care funding, schools and renewable energy, could swing the vote against them. So yes, nice work, Mr. Kaye.

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2013/6/11

More dispatches from Australia's culture war, where a raid on an art gallery, and pending charges of child pornography production against one of the artists, signal a new climate of rising censorship and a the return of a narrow-minded, provincial prudishness, now riding within the mainstream of the Liberal Party:

The opposition to Yore's work has been spearheaded by a group of local figures. Minutes from a City of Port Phillip council meeting on 28 May show that Chris Spillane, a Liberal party candidate for the council, "stated that while he hasn't seen the exhibition himself, from what he has heard about the exhibition it is offensive and pornographic in nature".
Spillane has previously claimed the council "wastes considerable sums of money" on projects that promote "socialism and multiculturalism". He has been supported in his stance against the Linden centre by councilor Andrew Bond, who called Yore's exhibition "complete smut", and by resident Adrian Jackson.
As Australian historian Manning Clark (who himself has fallen posthumously out of favour in the new age of muscular conservatism, partly thanks to the Murdoch press's attempts to paint him as a Soviet agent of influence) said, Australian history has been a battle between the “enlargers” and the “straighteners” (a somewhat more nuanced paradigm than the “larrikin/wowser” nexus; after all, Australia has no shortage of rowdy, flag-draped xenophobes vigorously defending their freedom from the rules of decorum whilst attacking anything outside of their narrow view of what belongs in Australia). The straighteners were the wowsers, the provincial prudes and authoritarians, drawing the boundaries and punishing those who dare cross them, whereas the enlargers, the liberal-minded cosmopolitans, were those who aspired to push the boundaries back.

The enlargers were initially a minority but have had a home in the artistic and intellectual world of Australia's bohemian enclaves (as described by Tony Moore in Dancing with Empty Pockets) since the mid-19th century, gradually extended their influence as the nation's culture matured; this reached its peak during the great thaw, which began when the boundaries of the old conservatism, inherited from imperial administrators and shored up by the great patriarch of the Right, Menzies, broke, culminating in the sweeping in of the Whitlam government and a quarter-century of progressive change, creating the illusion of a forward-looking, broad-minded country. Now, after eleven years under the stern paternal gaze of arch-conservative John Howard and five more in an interregnum, governed by a Labor government keen to avoid breaking from the conservatism of the day and keeping the seat warm for the triumphant return of Howard's successor (Tony Abbott, a spiritual and cultural heir of Catholic ultraconservative Bob Santamaria), it becomes more apparent that that was an illusion; mere window-dressing over the small-minded authoritarianism of the penal colony and the military outpost of Empire. Leading the charge is a reinvigorated Liberal Party, having shed the ambiguity that its name suggests, sidelined progressive elements (such as deputy leader Malcolm Turnbull, who once led the push for Australia to abandon the monarchy) and firmly, unapologetically carrying the banner of a specifically Australian conservatism at all levels of government. Their Australia is a nation of God-fearing muscular soldier-sportsmen, standing proudly in the glow of imperial glories and singing in unison from the same hymn sheet, a nation in which there is no room for anything that is un-Australian, be it black-armband history, black-armband climatology, Godless Communism, uppity sheilas, uppity poofters or immoral or indecent art.

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2013/6/4

In the latest conflict between contemporary art and Australia's socially conservative morés, an artist is facing charges of producing child pornography after Victoria Police raided an exhibition and seized an installation titled Everything's Fucked, which allegedly depicted sexual acts with children's faces superimposed on them.

On Saturday Yore described the police seizure as "completely absurd". "The work, I feel, has been taken completely out of context because they're very small fragments of a collage of a much larger work that constitutes literally thousands of different objects I've found in society - basically junk I've been collecting,'' he said.
If convicted, Paul Yore is likely to end up with a lengthy prison sentence (and one knows how much respect “rock spiders”—convicted paedophiles—get in Australian prisons) followed by life on the sex offenders' register. Possibly a better deal than Pussy Riot got in Russia, but not by much.

If the various tiers of Australian government are so keen to draw a firm line and authoritatively declare what is not allowed in our society, wouldn't it be cheaper for them to introduce a new series of arts grants, consisting of one-way tickets to, say, New York, Berlin or Amsterdam (or perhaps even New Zealand, which lacks the undercurrent of penal-colony authoritarianism that's never far from the surface in Australia), to be disbursed to potential troublemakers who have issues with our relaxed and comfortable way of life?

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2013/4/22

Sad news: Christina Amphlett, frontwoman of post-punk rock band The Divinyls, inspiration to many, first crush to many more and arguably the archetypal Australian Rock Chick, has died in New York, aged 53. The Divinyls are best known outside of Australia for I Touch Myself, though in their career had many more hits, including Pleasure And Pain, Back To The Wall and Science Fiction, through the 1980s and until their generation was displaced by the JJJ Grunge Revolution (many of whose key players, like Adalita from Magic Dirt, were inspired by her).

It's fair to say that Amphlett lived the lifestyle. Born in industrial Geelong, she left home in her teens and spent time busking in Europe, at one point being imprisoned for three months for singing in the streets; she was born at the right time to be there when punk broke, and her artistic career embodied its values—aggressively forward, unapologetically raunchy and cuttingly honest, expressing both toughness and vulnerability; her voice certainly did.

Amphlett was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006 and breast cancer in 2010; had it only been one of the two, she'd probably had more of a chance, but apparently the MS made radiotherapy impossible.

There is more coverage, including quotes from other musicians who knew her, here

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2013/4/10

Meanwhile in Australia, the right-wing opposition (and, at this point, almost inevitably the next government come September) has launched its alternative to the Labor government's National Broadband Network policy. It's an improvement on their previous policy (“rip it out, fill in the trenches and let the free market provide”), but nonetheless still falls well short. While Labor's network would bring high-speed fibre-optic connections straight to the home, giving 100 megabits per second (increasing to gigabit speeds), the Coalition's cut-rate plan would extend fibre only to boxes on the kerb, relying on a largely deteriorating copper infrastructure for the “last mile”, topping out at a theoretical 25 megabits per second (though that would be in ideal conditions; as with ADSL, distance from the node and cable condition would affect this). It would achieve this at about 2/3 of the cost of the all-fibre NBN. Or, the Pareto Principle: You're Doing It Wrong.

And while 25Mbps is an improvement on what we have now, and good enough for the sorts of things people do today (watching videos, shopping online, playing games), to say it will be good enough betrays a lack of imagination, or a deliberate narrowing of horizons that is all too familiar in Australian politics. Australia has always been the lucky country, borne at first on the sheep's back and now on Chinese demand for iron ore, which has led to a sclerotic apathy in terms of any sort of forward planning, in particular infrastructure and development. Combined with the stultifying conservatism of the Australian Right from Howard onwards, with its quasi-edenic visions of the conformistic white-picket-fenced utopia of the golden age of Menzies, the implicit message is clear: we are not Korea or Finland. We don't have a Nokia or a Samsung. We're a simple country. Our place in the world is to dig stuff up, put it on big ships and send it to China, and then to go home and relax in front of our big-screen TVs with a tinny of VB. That is all. It's a comfortable life, but we shouldn't get ideas beyond our station. All we need from the internet is to be able to shop online, pay the odd bill and download last week's episode of Jersey Shore a bit faster, and two rusty tin cans and a length of barbed wire fence is good enough for that. Well, that coupled with the sort of facile, nihilistically short-sighted anti-government rhetoric (infrastructure investment is “waste”; you can't prove it's not, so there) that the Abbott government-in-waiting has been borrowing from the US Tea Party.

The Coalition's policy has been roundly criticised by experts and mocked online as “fraudband”. However, all that means zip to the average outer-suburban swinging voters who get 100% of their information from the Murdoch press, right-wing shock jocks and/or 30-minute TV news programmes which are mostly sport, celebrity gossip and wacky human-interest stories, and who actually decide elections. So it looks like Australia, a country which coined the term “tyranny of distance” and was an early adopter of everything from telegraphy to mobile phones, will be stuck behind, paying off a 20th-century system and living much as the generation before them did, just because the bogans hate Julia Gillard.

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2013/3/21

As Australia's Labor government confirms its inability to win the next election, we begin to see what the Abbott government's legislative agenda might look like. Until now, Abbott's handlers have been mindful about not scaring the swinging voters and careful to keep him sedated and making reassuring noises about not imposing his religious beliefs on the public (as, for example, he did when he used ministerial powers to ban morning-after contraceptive pill RU486 from Australia, effectively deputising Australia's medical regulatory system into an arm of the Catholic Church's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith), now as victory becomes more of a certainty, the mask has started to slip, revealing radical policy ideas like eliminating unemployment benefits for people under 30, instead requiring them to go work in the mines. A bit like the British Tories' Workfare, only with a truly Australian sense of scale:

The Opposition Leader made the controversial remarks during a two-hour meeting with about 15 senior resources industry leaders in Perth on Monday night. Mr Abbott told the roundtable briefing he believed stopping dole payments to able-bodied young people would take pressure off the welfare system and reduce the need to bring in large numbers of skilled migrants to staff mining projects.
To be fair, the remarks are not currently Coalition policy, though the fact that the likely future Prime Minister can suggest them with a straight face, and not as some kind of Swiftean modest proposal or reductio ad absurdum, gives one a foretaste of what is to come. Herding young people into labour battalions at the command (and for the profit) of the Gina Rineharts of the country: Howard may have wanted to take Australia back to the 1950s, but Abbott seems to have his sights set on the penal-colony era.

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2013/2/6

The House of Commons voted today to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales; the bill passed by 400 votes for to 175 against. About a third of Conservatives voted for it, with slightly more voting against and the rest abstaining; a handful of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs voted against it, though most voted in favour. (Aside: according to accounts of the session, there are surprisingly many openly gay Tory MPs in Britain, a sign that the country has moved on since Tory electoral materials openly carried homophobic dog whistles and Thatcher tried to push through Section 28.)

The bill now needs to pass through the House of Lords; in theory, this should not be too much of a problem for a bill with this degree of support. Assuming it makes it through, it will become law and gay couples will be able to marry and have equal status to opposite-sex married couples.

The public acceptance of homosexuality has been one of the greatest social changes of the past half-century. It is scarcely to be believed that there are still men alive who went to prison for practising it. The real breakthrough may come only when gay people cease to demand the exceptionalism of a "victimised" group, when they can shrug off the intolerance of a few, having won the acceptance of the many.
A few residual anomalies will remain, however: it will be impossible for a same-sex couple to claim adultery as grounds for divorce, as adultery remains defined as an opposite-sex act (illicit hanky-panky with one of one's own sex falls under “unreasonable behaviour”, and barring a change in the law, will continue to do so even when one's spouse is of one's own sex), and nor is there any legal definition of non-consummation of a same-sex marriage. Also, while same-sex couples can marry, opposite-sex couples who dislike the idea of marriage still may not obtain civil partnerships, though those remain on the table for same-sex couples. What eventually happens to these anomalies remains to be seen.

Meanwhile in Australia, not only is there still bipartisan opposition to gay marriage in parliament, but the nominally progressive government is moving to allow religious groups broad exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, for example allowing Catholic hospitals to fire employees who are gay or have children outside of a marriage.

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2013/1/22

A landmark of 20th-century Australian experimental architecture faces demolition: great ocean road the Fairhaven pole house, which stands on a platform atop a 15-metre concrete pole near the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, is scheduled to be torn down this week, despite calls for it to be placed on the state heritage list:

''The Dixon pole house is one of the most striking and unusual examples of an 'experimental house' which takes risks and which may serve as a design prototype,'' Mr Lewis said. ''The design of a dwelling on a pole is unique in Victoria, and rare elsewhere,'' he said.
But the Heritage Council rejected the application, saying it was ''not of importance above a local level'' and should be included by the local Surf Coast Council in its heritage overlay.
The house, built in the 1970s, will be replaced by a new house of roughly the same size, which is intended to remedy design flaws in the original, such as the fact that none of its windows would open, making it less than comfortable.

Through the four or so decades of its existence, the house has survived three bushfires, including 1983's devastating Ash Wednesday fire, and attracted considerable attention; some from tourists, and some less favourable attention from the common Australian feral bogan:

Mr Dixon, who conceived the house while recovering from a surfing accident, said it always attracted interest from passers-by. ''Even at 2 o'clock in the morning they'd walk around the balcony on the outside and make comments that wouldn't be printable.

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2013/1/15

The latest refugee in Australia's archipelago of detention centres: an Iranian heavy metal drummer, fleeing persecution by the theocratic regime:

The man wrote that he abandoned his beloved drums after authorities began to increasingly target music fans.''In an underground concert more than 60 fans were arrested, charged and locked up. Players were taken to Intelligence. Two teachers of mine were arrested also.''
He panicked. He sold his drums, moved to a new location and changed his phone number, cut ties with everyone but family and sank into depression. ''I deleted every history of my music from my life because of my fear of being arrested by the government who were intent on stopping this music. During this time six musicians that I knew were arrested in their training place. After that no one contacted each other, even on Facebook.''
The Iranian regime's war on popular music is old news: a documentary from 2009, Nobody Knows About Persian Cats, recounts the travails of an underground twee pop band in Tehran. If anything, heavy metal musicians would be singled out for particularly harsh prosecution, possibly even executed for religious crimes, as the unnamed drummer suggests. (Metal bands in neighbouring Iraq haven't fared well either recently; the country's one and only well-known band, Acrassicauda, fled via Turkey and sought asylum in the US.)

(It's interesting that Facebook is (a) not blocked inside Iran, and (b) avoided by those fearing persecution; which suggests that the regime has the means to monitor it, possibly using those forged SSL root certificates it is speculated to have, enabling it to carry out man-in-the-middle attacks on any SSL connections.)

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2012/12/18

Australia's mainstream press landscape has, for a while, been a somewhat depressing sight. For one, most of it is owned by Rupert Murdoch, and is nakedly biased in a way that the Times and the WSJ would never dare be. The major non-Murdoch papers are owned by the Fairfax group, and have spent the last few years trying to boost their circulation by ramping up the tabloid sensationalism; a cursory glance at the front page of The Age reveals a surfeit of celebrity/sex-life/body-image stories more worthy of a free commuters' daily. (Fairfax' other titles hardly fare better; a few years ago, the top article on the WA Today website was “Man gets penis stuck in pasta jar”). And there's always the spectre of Australia's right-wing mining oligarchs, concerned that they may, at some point, stop getting their way, buying up the remaining non-Murdoch papers.

Which is why the recent rumour of The Guardian, the centre-left-leaning British quality daily of note, setting up an Australian joint venture has me excited. The Guardian already has a US online-only venture, which publishes US reportage and columnists (some of whom started off online in the 1990s, like former suck.com writer Ana Marie Cox) from a broadly progressive perspective, and, of course, the UK newspaper's output is readable for free on its website. If anything, there is probably more need for such a publication in Australia than in the US, where that space overlaps with existing titles such as the New York Times.

The Guardian haven't confirmed this rumour, though the article in the Evening Standard suggests that it will be headed by Saturday Guardian editor Katherine Viner (who is moving to Australia to run it) and will be a joint venture with Australian philanthropist Graeme Wood (who has set up a non-profit media site, the Global Mail.

The big hope will be that the Guardian's brand as a media outlet, and experience with running a mainstream paper, will be act as enough of a catalyst to forge a progressive media voice with broader reach than the various eddies and skerries of the inner-urban online commentariat (think Crikey or New Matilda), which are easy to dismiss by people who don't live in Fitzroy or Newtown as something you have to vote Green or own a bicycle to read. There are quite a few journalists and commentators in Australia whom such a venture could recruit from such media. And if Gina Rinehart does fill the Fairfax papers with right-wing demagogues, there may be a ready audience willing to jump ship.

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2012/11/9

More good recent political news: Australia's Labor government has finally put a stake through the heart of its internet censorship plan. The plan, to establish a mandatory Chinese/Saudi-style national internet firewall blocking access to sites on a secret list (which would have not been limited to the worst of the worst but have included anything illegal in Australia, potentially blocking anything from nude images of small-breasted women to sites advising on suicide methods or graffiti, or, given its unanswerability, anything the powers that be or loud wowsers wanted swept under the carpet) had been adopted into the ALP's platform to appease the Christian Fundamentalist party Family First, whose votes they needed, though seemed to be supported a little too enthusiastically by then-ALP leader Kevin Rudd (himself a God-botherer cut from the same cloth as Tory Grand Inquisitor and current PM-in-waiting Tony Abbott). When Family First returned to a well-deserved obscurity, the ALP kept the national firewall as part of its official platform, though put it on the backburner, pending reviews and studies. Now, it seems, common sense has prevailed and it is finally dead.

The national firewall will be replaced by legislation requiring ISPs to block sites on an Interpol blacklist of child pornography sites. This list is organised by IP address, and would not slow down access the way the more comprehensive filtering proposed would have, and is apparently more transparently organised:

The Interpol process for identifying websites for the banned list is transparent. A site must be reviewed by authorities from two countries before it can be listed. Australian users trying to access banned sites will be redirected to a ''stop'' page.
Of course, the devil is in the details; one should hope that being nominated by two national authorities is not a sufficient condition for a site to be banned. If, say, Saudi Arabia and Iran, or Malta and Vatican City, nominate a site on, say, homosexuality or abortion for inclusion in the index prohibitorum, hopefully that doesn't mean that ISPs in Australia (and the UK, and elsewhere) will block it. Or, indeed, that this doesn't expand into a general-purpose mechanism for shutting down things that threaten vested interests. Though at least that's progress.

Of course, not everyone's happy with the end of the Great Firewall of Australia: the fundies still want tough laws imposing their views and values on the rest of society, for the common spiritual good of all, of course, and have reiterated their call for a national firewall. For now, though, the public mood is not on their side.

australia censorship internet politics religiots 0

2012/8/19

An argument that the Australian ideal of the “larrikin”—the unruly, mischievous underdog thumbing his nose at authority and propriety—has devolved into a US-style anti-intellectual right-wing populism, and a fig-leaf for mining oligarchs to claim to be “ordinary Australians” (i.e., of the people) and say that it's not they but rather the inner-city latte-hipsters and stuck-up university-educated book-readers who have inherited the mantle of "the elites" from the despised British penal-colony administrators:

It is on that basis that certain pundits claim anyone with a whiff of intellectualism about them is an ''elite'' and therefore opposed to the interests of ordinary Australians. It is also on the basis of the myth of larrikinism that a number of super-rich Australians are able to present themselves as egalitarian.
Forget about the fact that Singo is more notable for his support of Gina Rinehart than for society's underdogs. Because the larrikin ideal works the way it does, it allows powerful Australians like him to gloss over the fact of their own elite status and to pretend that the real elites are elsewhere.
Ironically, the original larrikins weren't reactionary heroes of the ordinary battlers but violent, socially disadvantaged young men who drew the short straw during a period of precarity.
The first larrikins emerged at a time when the underdog was stigmatised in Australian society. No one would have dreamt of calling themselves a larrikin in the late colonial years if they wanted to be held in regard by the broader society. Now something that even billionaire mining magnates can make their own, our ideal of larrikinism has changed substantially since the era in which the term was coined.
The fact that its history was characterised by social inequity and violence, however, should make us pause before making too much of our ''larrikin streak''.
Australia does not have a bill of rights; in its place is an informal piece of customary law known as the “larrikin-wowser nexus” that constitutes Australia's cultural system of checks and balances. This is the assumption of harsh laws and an equal but opposite contempt for authority, dating back to convict codes of honour in the penal-colony days, evolved to a system where, once the copper's One Of Us, there's a tacit understanding that the laws will be selectively enforced only against those who are not One Of Us—witness, to wit, Australia's tough film censorship laws letting through populist Hollywood entertainment untrammelled whilst cracking down mostly on poofterism with subtitles that only Green-voting hipster elites would want to watch anyway, or PM-in-waiting Tony Abbott's emphatic support for freedom of speech, but only when it is used against those who are not One Of Us—Aborigines, Muslims, the “un-Australian” and such. Maybe, just maybe, the larrikin-wowser nexus isn't a viable substitute for a more formal system of checks and balances in a mature democracy.

australia culture culture war history larrikinism politics 2

2012/3/15

Australian comedian-journalist John Safran (think of him as a gonzo Australian version of Jon Ronson, if you will) has started writing for VICE Magazine's web site, covering, as he does, readers' “racial, religious and ethical quandaries”. His first column investigates (apparently at the behest of a Greek-Australian correspondent wondering if he could get away with attending a neo-Nazi music festival) the complex dilemmas facing today's white supremacists when faced with the question of whom to hate:

During Australia’s 2005 Cronulla riots, shirtless boys circled not a brawl, but a debate. A Croatian had turned up to fight. He thought he was one of the whites. He’d come to punch up Lebs. But the "whites" thought, as a Croatian, he was a wog, which is pretty much the same as a Leb. The Croatian couldn’t believe it. He looked really hurt.
The tangle for pro-white Aussies is this. For the global white nationalist movement Greek culture is seen as the cradle of white civilization. It’s what the movement uses to argue its case. Look at that marble Parthenon built in 438 BC! Compare it to the shithole huts the Africans came up with! And what about the philosophers, the statues, the art? Doesn’t it say it all about the races? However in Australia, Greeks were the non-whites, the wogs, the thick eyebrow’d folks who floated over in boats after World War II.
Homegrown white nationalist group Australia First Party is run by Dr. James Saleam. He was thrown in jail for orchestrating a shotgun attack on an African National Congress representative in Australia. Jim is Greek. But it gets better. There are rumors Jim’s faking he’s Greek to cover up his true lineage—Lebanese.

(via johnsafran) australia culture john safran neo-nazis racism stupidity whiteness 0

2012/2/25

The (Melbourne) Age has a piece looking at the history of the long-running rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney (which is sort of like Australia's equivalent of the rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow), and the layers of values attached to those two points on the map by generations of their advocates and detractors:

Some contend that it is based on the foundation stories of the capitals. Sydney was set up as an open-air jail in 1788, whereas Melbourne was founded in 1835 by independent settlers seeking new farmland.
By the 1880s, writer Marcus Clarke sought to share the spoils by pointing out that Sydney would probably evolve as “the fashionable and luxurious capital”, while Melbourne would become the intellectual and cultural capital.
The article discusses the usual stereotypes (Sydney: glamorous if ditzy, with breathtaking harbour views; Melbourne: Europeanised, full of pretentious people who read a lot and watch art-house films), debunks a few others (Sydney apparently gets twice as much rain as Melbourne, though, of course, being Sydneysiders, they take theirs in spectacular thunderstorms) and states that the coffee is better in Melbourne. That may well be so (it's hard to go past Atomica or Jasper), though the last time I was in Sydney, they had excellent coffee there as well. (If I recall correctly, Campos in Newtown is pretty good.)

australia coffee culture history melbourne sydney 1

2012/2/5

Australia has a new media oligarch: super-rich mining magnate Gina Rinehart has just bought A$192m of shares in Fairfax, the newspaper company which controls most of the non-Murdoch papers in Australia and has, until now, mostly straddled the political centre to centre-left. It is likely that the purchase, which gives her a seat on the board of the media group, was to allow her to gain more influence over public discourse in Australia, which given her reported views, could be alarming news indeed:

Rinehart inherited more than father Lang Hancock's mining company; she took on his politics, too. Hancock was described by one journalist as "a swashbuckling right-winger who believed people and governments should bow to his will". On workers' rights, WA secession and special deals for mining, Gina is her father's daughter. John Singleton, who has been close to both, said ''a conversation with Gina was a conversation with Lang. They both had the same fanaticism.''
Last year she helped fund the Australian tour of Lord Christopher Monckton, who argues that climate science is a communist conspiracy to establish centralised world government in Europe. Monckton is a fantasist whose repeated claim to be a member of the House of Lords prompted the sitting Lords to write a public letter demanding that he "cease and desist". He also claims to have won the Nobel prize. He is better known in this country for putting a swastika next to a photo of Ross Garnaut. None of this dents Monckton's credibility in Rinehart's eyes. So she invited him to give the Lang Hancock Memorial Lecture in Perth last year.
This isn't Rinehart's first foray into media ownership; last year, she bought a slice of the Channel Ten TV network; shortly afterward, Ten gave hard-right demagogue Andrew Bolt (think Australia's answer to Glenn Beck or Bill O'Reilly) a talk show.

Meanwhile, GetUp has a video of the aforementioned British climate-denialist Christopher Monckton advising mining industry insiders that Australia needs a Fox News-style right-wing propaganda channel:

"That is the way to do it," Monckton continued. "You have to capture the high ground on what are still the major media and I think will remain so for some time and until we crack that one both in the UK and Australia, we are going to suffer from a disadvantage over and against the more libertarian-minded right-thinking people in the US who have got Fox News and therefore have got things like the Tea Party movement and therefore have at last put some lead into the pencil of the Republican party.
It'll be interesting to see whether Fairfax editorial policy changes, and how. Will there be a purge of left-leaning commentators? A raft of nakedly propagandistic articles? Will the propaganda be limited to things that affect the mining industry's bottom line (i.e., denouncing and destroying the Greens, cutting taxes and environmental regulations, rolling back workers' rights, removing those pesky aborigines) or will they attempt a broader programme to transform Australian society in a reactionary, conformistic, Bjelke-Petersonian direction? In any case, Australians may soon wake up to find the Murdoch papers at the leftmost extent of their public discourse.

While this is happening, the Australian Government is in the early stages of an inquiry into media diversity. If you're an Australian citizen, you can write a letter to the communications minister, urging him to prevent further media concentration.

australia gina rinehart media politics rightwingers 2

2012/2/2

In the 1930s, an African wild grass known as gamba grass was introduced to Australia as food for livestock, its attraction being that it grew quickly in the less than ideal Australian climate. Unfortunately, it was a little too good for its new environment, and started spreading rapidly, displacing native grasses, and growing too large for kangaroos or cattle to keep under control. Oh, and it also burned far more intensely than the native grasses. Now one ecologist has proposed a solution: introduce elephants and rhinoceri into Australia to keep it under control.

Australia, geographically isolated from much of the rest of the world's ecosystems, prides itself on its extremely stringent quarantine regime, as anybody who has ever taken anything made of wood or straw through an Australian airport will know, so the idea of introducing any new species (especially elephants) is bound to be controversial, to say the least. Professor David Bowman (the proponent of the scheme, not the astronaut in 2001) says that the elephants and rhinos wouldn't be allowed to roam freely and reproduce, but would serve as a carefully monitored "machine" for pruning the grass, with each being tracked with a GPS transmitter and otherwise meticulously accounted for. Other scientists, however, are sceptical about whether elephants are necessary or whether introducing them, even in a tightly controlled fashion, wouldn't lead to more unintended consequences.

australia elephants environment unintended consequences 2

2012/1/24

The Bleeding Obvious: A sociological study from Australia has showed that people who fly national flags on their cars are more likely to harbour xenophobic attitudes, with both exclusionary views of who belongs in their society and hostility to those outside of the circle:

Professor Fozdar said 43 per cent of those with car flags said they believed the White Australia Policy had saved Australia from many problems experienced by other countries, while only 25 per cent without flags agreed.
A total of 55 per cent believed migrants should leave their old ways behind, compared with 30 per cent of those without flags.
"Very clear statistical differences in attitudes to diversity between those who fly car flags and those who don't, show that flag waving − while not inherently exclusionary – is linked in this instance to negative attitudes about those who do not fit the 'mainstream' stereotype'," she said.
The study also revealed more young people flying flags than older people; perhaps a sign that a more liberal older generation who grew up in the wake of the cultural struggles of the Sixeventies and the Whitlam-era progressive consensus is being supplanted by the children of Howard, Hanson and Hillsong, whose views on what belongs in Australia are a lot narrower?

The study was done in Australia, surveying people flying the Australian flag on their cars in the run-up to Australia Day, though I imagine they'd find similar findings on people flying the flag in other circumstances (such as wearing it as a cape at Big Day Out), or in other countries (I imagine those flying the Cross of St. George in England are more likely to vote UKIP, have uttered the phrase "bloody Pakis" at some point in their lives, to have an aversion to eating "foreign muck", and complain about foreigners coming here and stealing our jobs and not working").

australia culture culture war racism society 0

2011/12/9

Over the past decade or two, a wave of Britons had moved to Australia, tempted by made-for-export Australian soaps, whose English-speaking, lager-drinking inhabitants seemed happier, healthier and less beaten down by life than those on Eastenders, and facilitated by the Australian government's Anglo-friendly immigration policies. Now, it looks like a lot of them are moving back; for some, the Australian reality is not the idyll of beachside barbecues, but something more alienating, and even in the age of Skype and Facebook, the distance from friends and family is great:

"If they live in a bungalow in the suburbs of Adelaide, it gets lonely. There isn't a culture of going for a drink after work and the TV is terrible."
"It's not about living by the coast in the sun - it's about living in a dull flat in suburbs that don't have any real infrastructure."
One complaint is lack of cultural amenities and history, especially from those who ended up in the sticks:
Some British people complain about a lack of culture and history, he says, but that depends where you live."Sydney and Melbourne are world-class cities with plenty of great things to see and do, but outside the big urban areas life is definitely less colourful and probably more of an acquired taste."
Some Poms, however, are staying behind and making do with the lack of real ale, quality newspapers and/or cheap flights to Spain.

alienation australia culture uk 1

2011/11/25

Since taking office, Victoria's conservative government has pursued a war on indecent language. First it instituted on-the-spot fines for swearing in public, and now, it has unveiled changes to the liquor licensing laws which allows venues' licences to be revoked for tolerating "profane, indecent or obscene language", or not promptly removing indecent graffiti.

“What this means is that if someone swears inside your venue Police can penalise your venue with Demerit Points. The concern … is that this gives Police unprecedented authority over an already over-regulated legitimate business sector that contributes strongly to the local economy. Vandalism is also mentioned. Does this mean that if someone has graffiti-ed in the bathrooms that police can issue Demerit points?”

australia authoritarianism culture war melbourne wowsers 0

2011/8/21

Dispatches from the global battle against socialism and Cultural Marxism: As a Tea Party-style convoy travels across Australia to put an end to the wicked queen's socialistic, carbon-taxing reign and restore the One True King to the Lodge, Exiled Online profiles the "true blue Aussie battlers" who constitute this movement. Not surprisingly, it's a lot less of a spontaneous grass-roots movement than the Murdoch press (which seems to be backing it in the way that Fox News backed, if not created, its US inspiration) would have you believe, apparently being run largely by a hard core of a few dozen people who met on a climate-change-denial message board long before Gillard was PM.

That’s because a typical Teabagger spectacle consists of a small nucleus of professional Astroturfers and a large nebula of weirdoes and mutants who’ve just rocked up. Some of the mutants are there to proselytize; they hope they can convince other mutants that Lady Gaga is an Illuminati puppet or that Lyndon LaRouche predicted the GFC. Other mutants appear because joining a mob helps their self-esteem. But miracle of miracles, the muties are never the ones who get interviewed, especially not by News Corp reporters. In fact, they’re really little more than film extras – their job is to stand in the background while the Astroturfers take questions and make the corporate libertarian viewpoint seem more widespread.
The article looks at the opinions of the views of the organisers—the "ordinary battlers doing it hard" the Murdoch press would have you believe they are—and their fellow travellers, and finds some ugly things, from the mundane (pig farmers pissed off with the temerity of the little people complaining about the smell) to the more sinister (praise for Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile and claims that the same struggle as in Chile is taking place in Australia, conspiracy tracts published by think tanks run by mining firms), and the bizarre (peddlers of legalistic sophistries claiming that the Commonwealth Government doesn't really exist, presumably making anoyances such as tax law and pollution regulations invalid), and then takes a ride with the motley crew of teabaggers:
Didn’t take long before the ginger-haired guy started ranting about boat people, “gooks,” and immigration quotas, which he claimed was all part of a wider conspiracy to dismantle Australia’s constitutional monarchy. The reason so many Asians were being allowed into the country was so they’d vote to turn Australia into a republic, which, to Ginger, meant that “all our rights, rights we never even fucking knew about, would go down the drain.” Australian republicanism was a scheme by some shadowy organization to establish a World Government – Ginger went on about the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Rothschild dynasty… I asked if he really thought someone was trying to form a World Government. “What do you think the carbon tax is for?”
Meanwhile in New South Wales' state parliament, a Liberal Party MP has struck a blow against the Communist menace of traffic lights:
"Traffic lights are a Bolshevist menace... Traffic lights are things which are set up to try and control traffic to try and control individuals on the roads," Dr Phelps told Parliament.
"Roundabouts. Roundabouts represent freedom. Roundabouts represent democracy at its finest," he said.

australia libertarianism politics psychoceramics rightwingers 0

2011/8/4

The Australian federal government has published its phase 1 report (which may be found here) on possible routes for a high-speed rail line in the eastern states, connecting Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. The report evaluates several possible corridors joining the cities, as well as the locations of stations, taking into account growth predictions, construction costs, challenging or environmentally sensitive terrain and proximity to facilities such as universities, hospitals and tourist areas and came up with a (somewhat broadly drafted) potential route, or rather a short-list of route segments.

The route will go up from Melbourne along a path similar to the existing Countrylink line and the Hume Highway, passing through Albury, Wagga Wagga, Canberra. From Canberra, it will either follow the Hume Highway or diverge via Wollongong and the coast, on its way to Sydney. From Sydney, the line will follow a fairly straight line to Newcastle, whence it will go either along the coast or slightly inland, with a recommended route taking in the Gold Coast on the way to Brisbane. The journey will take one hour between Sydney and Canberra, 1:50 between Canberra and Melbourne, and 3 hours between Sydney and Brisbane. Journeys are expected to cost between AUD99 and AUD197 for Melbourne-Sydney (in 2011 dollars) or slightly less for Sydney-Brisbane.

As far as stations go, some likely sites have been identified. In Sydney, the obvious one is Central, though pressure from wealthy NIMBYs in the northern suburbs may necessitate moving the terminus to Parramatta (which, despite being talked up as "Sydney's second CBD", would negate some of the advantage that high-speed rail has over air travel, i.e., directly connecting city centres). In Melbourne, the trains would either terminate at Southern Cross or at a new terminus in North Melbourne, with Southern Cross looking better. In Brisbane, the likely terminus is Roma St., whereas in Canberra, there is likely to be a through station, either in the centre or by the airport. For what it's worth, the report assumes that the system would be built to European specifications, and consist of trains running at 350km/h on lines capable of a theoretical maximum of 400km/h.

For what it's worth, there is a history of Australian high-speed rail proposals here. So far, no true high-speed services have been built in Australia, though systems linking the eastern capitals have been proposed in the past. The current proposal was commissioned by the Labor minority government, under pressure from their Green coalition partners, though now has nominally bipartisan support.

australia brisbane canberra high-speed rail infrastructure melbourne railway sydney 0

2011/7/8

A journalist from US progressive magazine Mother Jones travelled to India and signed up to work in a call centre, going through the cultural training employees get to teach them to pass as Westerners:

Next is "culture training," in which trainees memorize colloquialisms and state capitals, study clips of Seinfeld and photos of Walmarts, and eat in cafeterias serving paneer burgers and pizza topped with lamb pepperoni. Trainers aim to impart something they call "international culture"—which is, of course, no culture at all, but a garbled hybrid of Indian and Western signifiers designed to be recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one. The result is a comically botched translation—a multibillion dollar game of telephone. "The most marketable skill in India today," the Guardian wrote in 2003, "is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else's."
The article goes on to descibe how the Indian call-centre workers' received knowledge of America (described as a land of stupid, greedy people awash in money) comes up against their interactions with the American underclass, whom they're meant to be squeezing for unpaid bills:
Nishant, now 26, moved to Delhi at age 18. His first job was tracking down Americans with delinquent bills. "In training they told us, 'It's easy. These guys have the money, they just don't want to pay.' They told us, 'Threaten their credit score, Americans can't live without good credit.'" On his first day, Nishant donned his headset, dialed the number on the screen and was connected to a 60-year-old woman in Tennessee. She had an outstanding hospital bill for $400. "I told her, 'Just pay this, what's the problem?' She told me, 'You don't understand, I can't pay.'" They talked for 45 minutes, and the woman cried as she told Nishant about the Iraq War and its toll on American families. "By this time I'm crying also," Nishant said.
The same day, he was connected with a man living in a trailer. "I told him, 'What's a trailer?' He told me, 'It's this tin shed; it gets 90 degrees; we don't have our own washroom.'" Nishant learned more about America that first day, he told me, than he had in his whole childhood.
Elsewhere, the call centre workers were trained in the basics of Australian culture:
"Just stating facts, guys," Lekha began, as we scribbled notes, "Australia is known as the dumbest continent. Literally, college was unknown there until recently. So speak slowly." Next to me, a young man in a turban wrote No college in his notebook. "Technologically speaking, they're somewhat backward, as well. The average person's mobile would be no better than, say, a Nokia 3110 classic." This drew scoffs from around the room. "Australians drink constantly," Lekha continued. "If you call on a Friday night, they'll be smashed—every time..."
"Well, for one thing," Lekha said, "let's admit: They are quite racist. They do not like Indians. Their preferred term for us is—please don't mind, ladies—'brown bastards.' So if you hear that kind of language, you can just hang up the call."
(The thing about most Australians having ancient Nokia handsets sounds apocryphal—from what I understand, Australia has one of the highest iPhone adoption rates in the world—though there may be some truth in Australia lagging behind India in terms of telecommunications infrastructure.)

The article goes on, describing fraud operations that call centre workers were hired to work on (""All it is," Rohan explained, "is you call American clients. Tell them, 'US government is giving away free money!'""), the reactions of angry people from different countries (the British are reportedly sarcastic, whereas the Americans are more free with their anger), and a sense of alienation experienced by the call centre workers, trapped between their conditioned, deracinated, generic-Western personas and the more conservative, deeply rooted India they've culturally left behind:

In a sense, Arjuna is too westernized to be happy in India. He speaks with an American accent, listens to American rock music, and suffers from American-style malaise. In his more candid moments, he admits that life would have been easier if he had hewn to the traditional Indian path. "I spent my youth searching for the real me," he says. "Sometimes I feel that now I've destroyed anything that is the real me, that I am floating somewhere in between."

australia culture globalisation india usa 0

2011/7/1

Australian playwright Ron Elisha has written a play about Julian Assange and the Wikileaks affair. The play, Stainless Steel Rat (named after an anarchist antihero devised by scifi author Harry Harrison, whose name Assange chose as his OKCupid and Couchsurfing pseudonym), is playing at the Seymour Centre in Sydney, and seems to be more about Assange-the-cipher than Assange-as-known-to-his-friends:

One problem for Elisha and for the director, Wayne Harrison, comes when big international figures make their entrances. Dmitry Medvedev, for example, who wants to give Assange the Nobel peace prize for exposing America's secrets, comes across as an overpowering Russian oligarch figure. While it works in terms of the comedy, his character seems more like Vladimir Putin than Medvedev.
Elisha's pithy one-liners are delivered with brilliant timing. At one point the Assange character is in Wandsworth prison, once also home to Oscar Wilde. "This cell is reserved for people who have been careless with their genitals," his character says.
It is not clear whether the play will be performed outside of Sydney.

australia julian assange theatre wikileaks 0

Sydney's status as one of the world's most liveable cities has recently been threatened by spiralling rents and property prices. In an attempt to turn this about, the New South Wales government has announced that it will pay Sydneysiders to leave, with eligible residents standing to get AU$7,000 to move to the countryside:

The one-off grants to move to country areas will be payable to individuals or families provided they sell their Sydney home and buy one in the country. The country home must be worth less than $600,000 (£390,000), something that won't be hard in most rural areas. It will cost the taxpayer up to $47m (£30m) a year.
As much as boosting regional areas, the scheme is also about making Sydney more liveable. The city's population is 4.5m and predicted to grow by 40% over the next 30 years, putting unprecedented pressure on infrastructure and housing.
The government reportedly considered increasing the building density in Sydney to something approaching European levels for almost five minutes, before it was pointed out that doing so would be fundamentally un-Australian, and would violate Australians' rights to a house on a quarter-acre block with a two-car garage, which, much like Americans' right to bear arms, is sacrosanct and not negotiable.

It's not clear whether Melbourne (which is about as expensive as Sydney these days, making up for its lack of a spectacular harbour with a thousand funky laneway bars) will follow this lead and offer people money to move to Geelong or Moe or somewhere.

australia infrastructure society sydney 8

2011/5/26

The Guardian looks at whether intellectuals get as little respect in British culture as one is inclined to think:

Britain is a country in which the word "intellectual" is often preceded by the sneering adjective "so-called", where smart people are put down because they are "too clever by half" and where a cerebral politician (David Willetts) was for years saddled with the soubriquet "Two Brains". It's a society in which creative engineers are labelled "boffins" and kids with a talent for mathematics or computer programming are "nerds". As far as the Brits are concerned, intellectuals begin at Calais and gravitate to Paris, where the fact that they are lionised in its cafes and salons is seen as proof that the French, despite their cheese- and wine-making skills, are fundamentally unsound. Given this nasty linguistic undercurrent, a Martian anthropologist would be forgiven for thinking that Britain was a nation of knuckle-dragging troglodytes rather than a cockpit of vibrant cultural life and home to some of the world's best universities, most creative artists, liveliest publications and greatest theatres and museums.
There are various theories attempting to explain the British disdain for intellectuals: that Britain, because of its temperate cultural climate and historical good fortune, has not had to evolve an intelligentsia as more fraught countries such as France and Germany have; that Britain (or at least England) in valuing the empirical over the theoretical (or, conversely, being a "nation of shopkeepers", as Napoleon put it), has little room for the kinds of florid theorists who flourish across the Channel, preferring more practical thinkers, or (as the article suggests), that Britain is every bit as governed by ideas as the Continent is, and the supposed disdain for intellectuality is actually a disdain for blowing one's own horn or being too earnest. Or, perhaps, a combination of these.

And while English anti-intellectualism (the Scots may well argue that it is strictly a south-of-the-border phenomenon) may disdain the more abstract and less market-ready areas of thought, the colonial strains are considerably more virulent:

Marginson thinks there is a particular problem for science common to most English-speaking countries except Canada, which has a strong French influence. He says that in Australia, particularly in working-class cultures: ''Not all people think it is smart to learn; some feel it is not going to help them much and they think people who do well at school are wankers. It is a view pretty commonly felt and is not terribly conducive to having a highly educated population.''
To be fair, I've seen the same argument said about British working-class culture, though combined with nostalgia for an age when self-improvement was a widespread working-class ideal, now sadly replaced by acquisition of bling.

anti-intellectualism australia bogans class culture society uk 0

2011/1/25

With it being Australia Day/Invasion Day, here is an article about the state of Australian English today.

The gist of the article seems to be that Australian English's main defining characteristic is its wealth of earthily witty similes, metaphors and turns of phrase, a testimony to the locals' mischievous frankness and street-smarts.

Then there’s euphemisms and similes – that is, those excellent little sentences which draw on comparative comic images to tell an evocative story. Such as the bloke at the pub who dodges rounds, who wouldn’t shout if a shark bit him. Or the unfortunate lady with the face like a dropped pie. Whose husband is as ugly as a hatful of arseholes.
Many of these terms don’t use exclusively Australian words at all but are characterised by an Australian way of assembling words. Regardless of his politics, Paul Keating must be regarded as one of the great creators of Australian phraseology in our public life. When Malcolm Fraser’s lip trembled upon conceding defeat in 1983, Keating described the outgoing Liberal Prime Minister as “looking like an Easter Island statue with an arse full of razor blades”.
That and the fact that the pattern of Americanisation differs from that in British English (unlike Britons, Australians still wear jumpers rather than sweaters; however, they're likely to be shod in sneakers rather than trainers).

(One thing I've been wondering: when software is localised to both Australian and British English, do the localisations ever differ?)

australia culture english language 4

2010/12/9

A few items, in no order:

australia censorship irony julia gillard politics usa wikileaks 0

2010/12/5

Australia's federal government has backed a proposal to add an 18+ rating for video games, legalising games not suitable for 15-year-olds. Currently, such games are illegal to sell in or import into Australia. This has led to some anomalies: games are banned because the classification board considers that they might encourage illegal activity, however tenuously (one shooter was banned because medical kits one could pick up to boost one's life force looked like syringes which could encourage intravenous drug use), while elsewhere, the censorship board gives games which would get 18+ ratings elsewhere MA15 ratings (after all, you don't want to ban everything this side of Little Big Planet, do you?)

Of course, it's not a done deal yet; any change would need unanimous support from state attorneys-general, and until recently, South Australia's AG, a right-wing Christian authoritarian (and Labor Party member), has been vetoing it.

The government's hand was possibly forced by its tenuous coalition with the Greens, who are far more progressive on these issues than the major parties; the Labor Party who lead the coalition still officially support a national internet censorship firewall, after all. The conservative opposition coalition have not made any statements on an 18+ rating for video games.

australia censorship politics videogames 0

2010/11/26

This Saturday is the Victorian state election. For those wondering what's going on there is a summary here:

State politics is a strange, sad, almost cute realm, where those ambitious, energetic people gather who are, on the one hand, far too inept and devoid of personal magnetism to succeed in federal politics, and on the other hand, far too inept and devoid of personal magnetism to succeed at anything else either. Oh the dilemma of the state politician: caught so exquisitely between the pincers of their dual incompetencies. But then, that is the life they chose when they decided to make no useful contribution to the world for their entire lives.
The combatants provide a fascinating study in contrasts. For example. John Brumby graduated from the elite Melbourne Grammar in 1970, whereas Ballieu graduated in 1970 from Melbourne Grammar, which is quite elite. So the sharp ideological differences began early on... And then of course there is the difference in their choice of parties. Whereas Brumby chose Labor because of its strong commitment to social justice, Baillieu chose the Liberals, because he believes in a just society.
What is important to focus on is the potential consequences of voting Green, which have been spelled out for us by trained investigative journalists from the major newspapers, who "went the extra mile" to unearth and expose secret Greens policies by cunningly visiting their website and then sniffing a bunch of glue. Basically, the Greens’ policy platform consists of three major planks:
  1. Forcing everyone to be gay
  2. Murdering old people
  3. Criminalising electricity
So we’re not saying don’t vote Green, we’re just saying, think long and hard about just how stupid you are.
And here is a profile of the inner-city seat of Richmond (where your humble correspondent last lived in Melbourne), which the Greens are hoping to take (though, with the Tories putting them last, that may not happen). It's interesting to see that all the candidates are fairly socially liberal; the religious parties have given up on this seat, and even the Tories are running a gay bar proprietor as their candidate, and jumping through a lot of hoops to balance appealing to affluent small-L liberals in the city whilst not alienating their conservative core:
McFeely is not your average Liberal candidate, being an openly gay man from a working class family in Scotland. He also runs one of the best-known gay venues in Melbourne, the Peel Hotel in Collingwood, though the Liberal party website just refers to it as a 'busy Collingwood hotel' and also skips over issues of his sexuality. McFeely previously came to prominence in 2007 when he won a Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal ruling granting his hotel an anti-discrimination exemption so that he could exclude heterosexuals. This infuriated radio talkback callers, most of whom wouldn't have actually wanted to visit the hotel in a pink fit. He is opposed to gay marriage (because of its religious connection) but supports civil partnerships, and in 2006 tied the knot with his partner of 18 years at the British Consulate in Melbourne. McFeely briefly withdrew as candidate after a dispute with Liberal headquarters over his campaign, including a dislike of the photo that the Liberal Party suggested he use. The Liberal Party finally relented, McFeely the only Liberal candidate with a non-standard photo.

australia greens politics satire victoria 1

The Hummingbirds, arguably the greatest Australian indiepop band of the 1990s, are reforming for a one-off set at Sydney's Big Day Out on the 27th of January. Well, so far it's a one-off set; perhaps they'll do some other Australian shows. I imagine that them playing Indie Tracks or the Gothenburg Popfest would be a bit of a stretch, though.

Meanwhile, Mess+Noise also has a two-part retrospective on the Punter's Club, the legendary Fitzroy music venue which closed its doors in 2002 (1, 2), interviewing many of the people involved, who went on to work in other Melbourne live music institutions.

The Punters Club closing was so final, though. We knew it was going to happen and that another business was going to move into the building, so it couldn’t be saved. It might have indirectly inspired the SLAM rally and all the outrage about The Tote, because it proved that people actually give a shit about music venues closing. I actually think The Punters Club was more loved than The Tote, but over the years, people came to realise that they didn’t want to lose another venue.
In hindsight it’s sad, and we miss that venue, but Brunswick Street really sucks these days anyway. I’m pleased that I don’t have to go and see gigs in that area anymore. Johnston Street and The Old Bar is about as close as I want to get. I don’t want to be with all the hipsters there. It’s like the gentrification of St Kilda. I remember when Brunswick Street only had three or four cafes: Bakers, Rhumbarella’s, Mario’s and The Fitz. That said, Melbourne has an extremely strong live music scene, so for every venue that closes, a new one opens somewhere.
This weekend, for those in Melbourne, there is a series of Punter's Club reunion shows at the Corner Hotel in Richmond.

The spectre of closure, usually driven by gentrification and the increased rents coming from it, is seldom far away from live music venues; recently, Melbourne's favoured ex-neo-Nazi haunt turned band venue, Birmingham Hotel ceased putting on gigs, due to it losing money. Meanwhile, in London, increasing costs have forced the Luminaire to close at the end of the year. The Luminaire was one of London's better medium-sized venues; it will be fondly remembered, particularly the hand-painted signs on the walls informing punters in no uncertain terms that it is a music venue not a pub, and instructing those who wish to talk to their mates to leave.

australia gentrification indiepop london melbourne music the hummingbirds the punters club 0

2010/11/20

Let it not be said that the far right are not a diverse bunch. While in Australia, Christian authoritarians flirt with Islamic-style prohibitions on female nudity, in Denmark, the anti-immigrant People's Party wants to show all immigrants videos of topless beaches, to weed out those unsuitable for Denmark's liberal culture:

A documentary film on Denmark that is shown to immigrants as part of the test for entry should include topless bathers, said Peter Skaarup, the party's foreign affairs spokesman. "If you're coming from a strict, religious society that might make you stop and think: 'Oh no,'" he told the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. "Topless bathing probably isn't a common sight on Pakistani beaches. I honestly believe "
Meanwhile, an anti-immigrant party in Switzerland has launched an online campaign featuring an image of naked, distinctly Aryan-looking young women standing in Lake Zürich, contrasted with an image of women in Islamic headscarves in filthy water. Stay classy, SVP.

Why the right in Australia and the right in Europe take different sides in a hypothetical Islamism-vs.-liberalism argument is an interesting question.

australia denmark rightwingers sex switzerland 0

2010/11/14

Google's Open Source blog has a video interview with Australian open-source developer Rusty Russell, who has contributed to gcc and the Linux kernel, in which he puts forward a possible explanation for why there are disproportionately many Australian open source developers; and explanation based upon that ubiquitous factor within Australian culture and society, the tyranny of distance. Russell contends that the fact that Australia is so far away from the centres of technological development means that young Australians with a talent for coding are more likely to express that by getting involved in projects on the internet, and, more often than not, open-source projects.

I wonder whether this means that areas with high concentrations of technological companies and startups (such as the Bay Area, London and Berlin) contribute less to open source than (internet-connected) places in the middle of nowhere.

australia culture geography linux open-source 0

2010/10/20

British branding expert Simon Anholt, who specialises in advising governments on national identity and reputation, has said that Australia has the image of the "dumb blonde" of the world, seen as attractive but shallow and unintelligent. Which is good when convincing people to fly over to see world-class beaches and koalas, but not so good when Australia's international image takes a battering over something like the wave of racist attacks on Indian students, which has apparently taken a toll on one of Australia's larger non-primary-resource industries, international education.

Mr Anholt said Australia was ranked best in the world for natural beauty and as a place to visit if money was no object. But he said the success of Australia's tourism promotion campaigns had produced an ''unbalanced'' view of the country. ''What you have is an image of a country that is considered to be very decorative, but not very useful,'' he said.
Anholt also said that Australia relied too much on "logos and slogans" for promoting itself on a superficial level, and was unique among developed countries (not counting the US, for obvious reasons) for not having an organisation devoted to promoting its culture abroad, like Germany's Goethe Institut or France's Alliance Française. (Though the austerity-age UK may soon be joining the Aussies in this respect; wasn't the British Council one of the quangos scheduled to be abolished?)
Mr Anholt said the US did not have such an organisation, but arguably did not need one because of the global reach of its entertainment industry. ''But Australia has Les Patterson, and I don't think that's enough.''
Given the fact that Australia's economy is doing rather well, but is almost entirely dependent on the inherited wealth of primary resources (mostly mining), rather than skills, culture or intellectual capital, does this make Australia the Paris Hilton of countries, i.e., a bubbly heiress who can get away (for now, at least) with being a bit dim by virtue of being loaded?

australia culture stupidity 1

2010/10/11

Doing nothing to kill the stereotype of Australia as a spectator sports-centered society, seven footballers are running as candidates in the upcoming Victorian state election. Tellingly, six of them are running for the right-wing Coalition (four of those for the National Party, the coalition's more conservative party). Could this be another sign of the Australian Right having embraced anti-intellectualism (which could be argued to be a traditional Australian value) as a core part of its identity, and conceded the very idea of engagement with culture and ideas more sophisticated than a gut sense of tribal belonging (or, as John Howard called it, "mateship") to the leftward end of the spectrum?

(via folded) australia culture culture war politics rightwingers 0

2010/9/29

As Australia's tenuous Labor government foolhardily presses ahead with its internet censorship scheme, more evidence of its epic unpopularity comes to light; this time, from analyses of Senate election results, showing thousands of voters placing the minister responsible, Senator Conroy, last, or second-last to barking religiot Steve Fielding, whose loyalty the plan had originally been intended to buy.

There are several points of interest here. For Senator Conroy, his largest spikes by far were at 2 and 8. This suggests that a large chunk of people are voting Labor first or second, probably after the Greens. Similarly, the spike at 57 would coincide with voters putting Labor last. Senator Fielding sees a similar pattern, the spike at 1 being people putting Family First first on their preferences, the group of spikes at the end would be Family First being voted towards last, the final spike at 56 being a large group of voters putting Family First as the last party on their ballot. Far more interesting, however, are the last few places on the ballot. If people were voting by party, this should drop off significantly. Instead, we see both candidates having a significant proportion of voters putting them last or second last.
Senator Conroy, #2 on the ALP's above-the-line list, was placed last by 7% of the electorate; notably, this happened without any sort of centrally driven campaign coordinating it. Perhaps less surprising is the fact that Fielding, who could generally be expected to be unpopular with the thinking set, was placed last by 8.9% of the electorate.

(When I voted, it was a toss-up which of these distinguished gentlemen to reward with the honour of last place. In the end, I gave it to Conroy. While Fielding, a simple man of unbending faith, could hardly be expected to be anything but what he was, Conroy's disingenuous defences of authoritarianism, above and beyond the call of political expediency, merited a special honour.)

australia authoritarianism politics psephology religiots 0

2010/9/19

Internet memes (once described, perhaps unkindly, as "like in-jokes for people who don't have friends") aren't purely an American or Anglosphere phenomenon. Cracked has a list of seven quite peculiar internet memes from foreign countries.

The Russians have two entries: PhotoExtreme is an offshoot of live-action role-playing games, as one would expect in the sort of hardcore place that Russia is fabled to be. In this meme, one person comes up with a bizarre scenario, and others act it out, take photos and post them online. The scenarios are acted out in public, without anybody being informed in advance, so bystanders are likely to be confronted with surreal, often violent (ontologically, if not literally) spectacles.

The other Russian meme is a more innocuous one, not unlike LOLCats, which originated from a rather naïve American drawing of a bear, and involves photoshopping said drawing into images. In Sweden, meanwhile, they do something similar with an image of a guy with a horse's head; this meme is named "Snel Hest" ("Nice Horse") and often involves horse-related puns. Meanwhile, the French go in for sarcastically 'shopping their self-aggrandising president Sarkozy into various historical scenes (it seems to be akin to the "Al Gore invented the Internet" meme of the 1990s) and in Australia, a video of a racist bogan chick went viral (the great Australian public doesn't really go for highly conceptual, it seems). The Kenyans, meanwhile, have a supercool tough-guy hero named Makmende, whose name comes from a mangling of Clint Eastwood's famous line "make my day".

australia bizarre bogans culture france internet kenya memes russia sweden 0

A new study has raised the possibility of a high-speed railway connecting Melbourne and Sydney in three hours The study, commissioned by a lobby group named Infrastructure Partnerships Australia (not connected with the right-wing thinktank of the same initials) and undertaken by the consultancy also involved in France's TGV network and Britain's HS2 plans* claims that the train link, built with state-of-the-art technology, could achieve the time by running at 350km/h, at which it would become competitive with airlines (Melbourne/Sydney is one of the world's busiest air routes), and forecasts an 86% chance that such a link would be needed by 2030 (presumably the end of cheap oil would make $60 Virgin Blue flights a thing of the past). While such a route would take a while to build, starting with a line from Sydney to Canberra would be immediately economical, as it would save the $15 billion cost of building a new airport for Sydney.

The government has made noises about being supportive of a high-speed rail link, having committed $20m to a study. The question is whether any action will emerge from it. The report strongly suggests safeguarding land corridors now before the price of the land rises.

In any case, I can't say I'm confident anyone alive today will see a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney; Australian politicians and planners have a tendency to take a lackadaisical, short-term view and muddle through with band-aid fixes, so it wouldn't surprise me if nothing happens until it's too expensive to build the link, and when air travel becomes unaffordable, the bulk of Melbourne-Sydney traffic is taken up by convoys of 11-hour trains saturating the current (low-speed) rail link. But hey, perhaps they'll at least install power points and WiFi on the trains once they're used by business travellers and not just backpackers and the rural elderly.

* Presumably they mean the New Labour HS2 plans, which have now been scrapped, to be replaced by an as yet undrafted plan which doesn't adversely affect wealthy Tory boroughs and which terminates at Heathrow.

australia infrastructure railway 4

2010/9/10

The rumours of the Australian Labor government's mandatory national internet censorship firewall being dead may be premature: the government is still planning to put the legislation forward in parliament. Of course, the numbers seem to be against them: the independents who hold the balance of power in the lower house will oppose it, as will the Greens in the Senate.

The Coalition, which has among its number many social conservatives who would welcome such a scheme (not least of all its leader, an authoritarian paternalist of the first water), has opposed it, vowing to whip its MPs to vote against it as well. However, now that it no longer needs to woo Labor voters, there is the possibility of the party changing its mind, and either supporting the filter or leaving it to a conscience vote. In either case, a whipped Labor government plus a handful of Liberal/National social conservatives could be enough to get such a filter through both houses, regardless of what the Greens, those uppity independents and the majority of the Australian public have to say.

Of course, the question remains of whether Labor would keep its faith in censorship after it no longer had to deal with a religious fundamentalist in the Senate. One theory is that Labor's pro-censorship zeal is all an act to keep Fielding on-side and get its budgets through, though in this case, it's an act which is approaching its use-by date, if not past it already. (Fielding does not have a vote on any supply bills, which won't appear until the new Senate, with Greens holding the balance of power, is in place, and while he could be petulant and uphold other legislation, it would be a bit pathetic.) Others speculate that the Great Firewall of Australia has now got a purpose beyond placating a few cranky wowsers; one theory is that, while it's ostensibly going to block illegal pornography, suicide instructions and content banned in Australia, its real purpose is to block sites used for sharing copyrighted materials. Though given that the US Government, which is pushing for a War On Copying on the scale of Nixon/Reagan's War On Drugs, has criticised the filter might count against this theory. Any others?

While we're in Australia, News Limited (roughly one half of the oligopoly which controls the Australian media) has declared open war on the Greens, with the Australian vowing to destroy them at the ballot box; the culture war against the progressive elements in Australian society is on again, if Rupert Murdoch has his way. And, with a fragile minority government in power, some are predicting all sorts of hijinks, including possibly a Murdoch-sponsored Tea Party-style right-wing protest movement.

australia censorship culture war media murdoch politics rightwingers 0

2010/9/5

The Belgian government has proposed a law requiring all cats to be sterilised, with the exception of a few very rare (and expensive) breeds, from the start of next year.

Initially, all cats in shelters will be sterilised. The next phase imposes neutering on cats from breeders and sellers. Finally, all cat owners will be obliged to have their pets sterilised and registered, costing about €130 (£108) for a female cat and €50 for a tom. Breeders and owners of Siamese, Abyssinian and other special pedigrees will be exempted from the new regime.
I can see such a law making sense in Australia, where feral cats are an ecological problem; Australia, also being far from other countries and having a famously strict quarantine system, could also prevent the importation of cats causing F. domesticus to become extinct within the country. Perhaps, if a government with authoritarian tendencies needed to burnish its green credentials and "cat people" fell on the wrong side of a politically expedient culture war (in the way that "inner-city latte sippers" and enthusiasts of foreign arthouse films did in the Howard era), it might happen.

australia belgium cats culture war politics 0

2010/8/21

I'm watching the Australian election count: it's a tight one, and looks like a hung parliament is all but inevitable. The Coalition have a slight margin, though who actually forms a minority government is down to the independents (three disgruntled rural ex-conservatives and a former Green).

The Greens did spectacularly well in this election (some, in fact, are using the word "greenslide"); they have won a senate seat in each state (annihilating the right-wing religious parties; goodbye national internet firewall), and have also won the lower-house seat of Melbourne, formerly a safe-as-houses Labor seat, with a 10% swing. (Your humble correspondent, a former North Fitzroy resident, has the minor satisfaction of having played a tiny part in this triumph.)

The big question is who is going to get to form the minority government. That's still up in the air (as we speak, several seats are too close to call). If Labor makes it to a strong position, they may be able to count on the Greens to support them (though, if the Greens have been paying attention to the coalition government in the UK, and the Liberal Democrats' spectacular loss of support since going into government with the Tories, they may think twice about coalition with an unpopular party (i.e., either of them)). The Coalition could have an edge at persuading the rural independents that they have rural Australia's interests at heart, though apparently there is little love lost between the ex-Nationals and their old party.

I'd say that a Coalition minority government would be more likely (though by no means certain). And while the prospect of Tony Abbott, a religious authoritarian with a penchant for imposing his own paternalist values through the apparatus of government and the source of much of what was unpalatable about the Howard government, being the next Prime Minister is not an encouraging one (at least to this short-black-drinking inner-city type), one should keep in mind that the government will have to contend with a Senate in which the Greens hold the balance of power. If that is the case, while Labor's positive policies (the National Broadband Network, vague hand-waving about thinking about high-speed rail) may be off the agenda, the Tories are not going to have an easy time of bringing back WorkChoices (which Abbott has ruled out, in the same way that John Howard ruled out a GST in 1995), or turning the government into a hammer of the culture war against the latte-sipping rootless cosmopolitanists (as the Howard government did). And neither party will have to pander to Family First and their ilk.

australia politics psephology 0

2010/8/16

Australia may soon be the land without iPhone and Android games, as the government is making noises about requiring all games to be classified by the national censor prior to distribution. All games sold in shops have to be classified, a process which costs A$470 to A$2040 per title; until now, Apple and Google have been distributing games through their online application stores without them having passed through the Office of Film and Literature Classification; Apple have their own (largely voluntary) classification regime.

Perhaps pragmatism will win out at the end of the day and the government will realise that a mass-media-style classification regime cannot be imposed on apps without modification, and perhaps they'll come to a compromise (such as accepting Apple's voluntary ratings and liaising with Apple's enforcement officials). Though, given the extraordinary efforts to force through internet censorship against both expert advice and popular opinion, I'm not sure one can count on the Australian government to exercise common sense.

(via folded) apple australia censorship 4

2010/8/7

According to GetUp, the Great Firewall of Australia is dead(ish); the Coalition have now committed themselves to blocking it in the Senate, should Labor try to force it through, meaning that there's no way it can get through. Mind you, the national firewall plan was written off as dead a year ago, before making a remarkable recovery, so I'd want to see it staked through the heart and its ashes scattered to the four winds before I break out the champagne.

Whether it rears its ugly head again depends on the makeup of the next parliament. While much has been said about Kevin Rudd's genuine religiosity and wowserism, the plan was as much a bargaining chip with the Christian Fundamentalist party Family First, who held an important vote in the Senate, as anything else. If the Religious Right retain their position, or gain the balance of power, in the next senate, it's likely to be back in play; however, if they lose their influence (as some say is likely; keep in mind that the half of the Senate that Family First inhabit was elected in the more conservative times of Howard's culture war, and is now outgoing), it looks to be pretty much dead. (Which is not to say that, in three or four years' time, someone won't introduce something similar, but if they did, they'd hopefully have a harder time convincing anyone that it's not a terrible idea.)

australia authoritarianism censorship politics 4

2010/8/4

Melbourne now has a bike sharing scheme. Melbourne's new bike sharing scheme It consists of rental bikes (apparently the Canadian model used in London, not the French Vélib), which are rentable from docking stations scattered around the CBD and immediately surrounding areas. (Melbourne University and the Docklands are covered, but the programme stops short of, say, Fitzroy, Richmond and such.) In other words, it's much like the systems in Paris and London, albeit with one crucial difference: it's actually illegal to use unless you happen to be in possession of a bike helmet. These are not supplied at the docking stations, and the police aggressively target those flouting Victoria's mandatory helmet laws.

The helmet laws have had an effect on takeup of the scheme: apparently only 70 trips a day are being made on it, despite the 600 brand new bikes made available; i.e., the system is running at 0.5% capacity. The cycling lobby has been organising protests against the helmet laws; at one such protest, the police came out in force and fined everyone. The law is harsh, but it is the law.

It's not clear what the designers of the scheme were thinking; it's less than useful for tourists, who tend not to bring bike helmets with them or want to spend money on them. As for it being intended for long-term commuters, the fact that the bikes are all in the city centre makes that somewhat less than ideal. Anyway, unless the bike helmet laws are amended (and, with Australia being a car-centric society, this looks unlikely), it's likely that the scheme will be scrapped due to poor patronage. Meanwhile, those wishing to borrow a bike around the inner north may be well advised to go to the Little Creatures Dining Hall on Brunswick St. and borrow one of their fleet of Kronan fixies. They're free and come with helmets, though you'd want to get there early in the day as they tend to get snapped up quickly.

australia bicyclism cycling fail melbourne stupidity unintended consequences 0

2010/7/25

Fresh from its triumph with the national firewall (now a bipartisan commitment, due to appear some time after the next election), the Australian government is planning a proposal to require internet service providers to record certain details of all users' access to the net. The proposal itself is secret; while a document about the plans have been obtained through freedom of information laws, in the finest traditions of a well-managed democracy, 90% of the document was blacked out, to stop "premature unnecessary debate", or, in other words, to keep the subjects from sticking their noses into matters they have no business with.

australia authoritarianism censorship irony managed democracy surveillance 0

2010/6/24

Australia has a new Prime Minister; after losing the support of the government, Kevin Rudd has declined to contest a leadership vote, and handed the reins to his deputy, Julia Gillard, who is now Australia's first woman prime minister.

Rudd's departure is probably a good idea; Rudd was the right man for the job in 2007, being slightly more progressive than conservative hardliner John Howard but not enough to scare a public that had grown used to "relaxed and comfortable" paternalism. He courted the religious-Right groups who flourished under Howard, and kept his faith to them, offering to impose a Chinese-style national internet firewall, backed by Australia's already prudish censorship criteria, on the country. (Rudd's social conservatism wasn't an act; at one point, he upbraided a PhD student for shirking her reproductive duty to society.) Meanwhile, by all accounts, he didn't make many friends in the Labor Party, having an autocratic style, but without the glib Tony Blair-level charisma to pull it off. In any case, we saw the unprecedented situation where, despite the conservative administration having been effectively decapitated in the last election, and the government having presided over Australia being one of the few countries to avoid the recession, opinion polls were pointing to the conservatives—led by a hardline religious conservative popularly nicknamed the "Mad Monk"—being poised to win the next election. Perhaps Gillard, by all accounts a competent, measured player, will manage to steady the ship of state?

Of course, nobody can tell how the next election will unfold yet. Labor's new, more competent, helmsperson may help them; the change of leadership might have harmed them, but the conservatives are in no position to criticise it. Labor will have to move towards the left, at least on social issues; they will have lost some of the wowsers whom Rudd so assiduously courted just by virtue of his no longer being in power, and some percentage of the reactionary rump of the electorate would take issue with the party being led by a woman (especially one with trade-union sympathies and no children). So Labor loses the wowsers, but picks up the inner-city voters thinking of deserting them for the Greens, who now have to wait another decade or so for a chance to grab their first lower-house seats. Meanwhile, as the wowsers come home to the Coalition, Abbott's somewhat unconvincing mask will slip, and the moderates who were flirting with the idea that maybe the Tories are the lesser evil jump ship back to Labor. The cat's cradle of politics untangles itself, and we end up with a moderate/centrist Labor Party (socially progressive on some symbolic issues though largely managerial in style) and a coalition frantically dog-whistling at the global-warming deniers, religious foamers and xenophobes.

australia julia gillard politics psephology 1

2010/6/22

What on earth is going on in Australia? First came the internet censorship firewall plan (which may be on hold until the next election, but is still Labor Party policy, and while the Coalition have been strategically holding their tongues about it, reading between the lines, it seems like Tony Abbott (a known religious hardliner) would take it even further), then the plan to require ISPs to record what websites all users visit and whom they email, a record of which will be linked to users' identity details including passport numbers. And now, a parliamentary inquiry has proposed requiring users to run government-mandated "cyber-security" software on their computers to access the internet. A proposal which sounds a lot like China's "Green Dam" spyware.

Of course, if implemented, this would lock out anybody who uses an unsupported operating system for which the government hasn't made available a version of its Green And Gold Dam software, not to mention the scope for abuse. Imagine that, a year later, a law is quietly passed and the software updated to search users' hard drives for images that might be pornographic and forward them to the police, in the guise of hunting down paedophiles, or for text documents that might conceivably be "terrorist materials". Other than a few people being raided for possessing nude images of small-breasted models or similarly suspicious materials, all of a sudden, the police have a copy of everyone's private photos and other files; it's a good thing that the Australian police are renowned for their incorruptibility, and neither individual officers nor the police forces would ever abuse such sweeping powers.

Of course, once the software is, by law, on everyone's machine, the possibilities don't end there. In the age of the Long Siege, it's not unlikely that security agencies would have special powers to use this in a targeted fashion to go after persons of special concern (which, in the eyes of the Murdoch tabloids and their readership, means bloodthirsty paedoterrorist extremists who should all be locked up, but in reality is likely to mean environmental protesters, social-justice groups and anyone who looks suspicious). If ASIO or the AFP can surreptitiously modify files on computers at, say, Greenpeace or the Greens, think of the COINTELPRO-style hijinks they could get up to; changing the plans of protests, planting evidence that key organisers are informers, or just disrupting campaigns at key moments. And so, as if by magic, protests fizzle, media campaigns fail, opposition groups disintegrate in acrimony, and Australian democracy becomes a lot more efficiently managed. Confound their politics, indeed.

Of course, the Green and Gold Dam is by no means a done deal. Perhaps it's a proposal which will die, recognised for its heavy-handedness and unfeasibility. Or perhaps it's an ambit claim, to make the government's existing plans (the national firewall and ISP-based surveillance infrastructure) seem more moderate by comparison.

australia authoritarianism censorship surveillance the long siege 1

2010/5/17

As Britain faces the question of replacing its first-past-the-post electoral system with the Alternative Vote (i.e., the second most conservative electoral system, also known as preferential voting), veteran Australian psephologist Antony Green examines the effect of preferential voting in Australia. The main effects were: the emergence of a stable right-wing coalition representing two distinct parties (the metropolitan Liberals and the rural Nationals), the rise of the Democratic Labor Party (a Catholic anti-Communist party which mostly existed to funnel preferences to the Coalition between the McCarthy era and 1972; since resurrected in zombie form in state elections), and, more recently, the rise of the left-wing Greens. Other effects include increased numbers of candidates per seat and an increased incidence of candidates (typically major-party ones) winning on preferences; the major parties, however, remain entrenched, and few lower-house seats (elected by alternative vote) are won by minor parties.

(via Richard) australia electoral reform history politics psephology 0

2010/4/29

Melbourne City Council workers have painted over a Banksy rat stencil in Hosier Lane, after the council neglected to tell them that the graffiti in the laneway (famous for its aerosol and stencil art) contained a priceless artwork among the graffiti.

Alexander said the city council would rush through retrospective permits to protect other famous or significant artworks in Australia's second-largest city. "In hindsight, we should have acted sooner to formally approve and protect all known Banksy works," she said.
I wonder what's happening there. Have anti-street-art factions seized control of the council and decided to whitewash all of Hosier Lane as a declaration of a Rudy Giuliani-style zero-tolerance policy? What would they have done had they known that the works of an internationally renowned (and valuable) artist were there? Would we have seen the bizarre spectacle of a white-painted laneway with a solitary Banksy rat in one corner? Of course, one of the quickest ways to condemn street art in Melbourne is to bless it with the imprimatur of official approval; Australian graffiti artists are, by and large, larrikins who have only contempt for the approval of officialdom:
Vandals created another outcry in 2008 when they poured paint over the artist's stencil of a diver in an old-fashioned helmet and wearing a trenchcoat. That work was afterwards protected by a sheet of clear perspex, although vandals struck again and poured silver paint behind the barrier, tagging it with the words "Banksy woz ere."

australia banksy larrikinism melbourne street art 3

2010/4/27

There are renewed calls for a Melbourne-Sydney high-speed rail link. The Greens are pushing the Federal Government (which announced in 2008 that it supported such a link, though has, as yet, not committed any funding towards it) to allocate A$10M to a study into the project, and are also pushing for a northward link from Sydney, through Newcastle and on to Brisbane.

It's presumed that a Melbourne-Sydney high-speed railway link would mostly follow the corridor of the Hume Highway and the existing, low-speed, railway link, going through Albury; there are also proposals for a high-speed railway link between Sydney and Canberra (on which a journey would take only 50 minutes), and as sych, it may make sense to combine the two proposals and have the link go through Canberra and on to Albury and Melbourne.

The socioogeographic consequences of such high-speed rail links in Australia would be interesting; were all these lines constructed, Newcastle, Sydney and Canberra would become one mutually commutable conurbation; one could see people commuting to Sydney from Newcastle, politicians and public servants commuting to Canberra from their Sydney residences (and there's no reason why powerful politicians shouldn't use high-speed rail; the service will surely have first-class compartments of the sorts British and European politicians use). Meanwhile, further south, Seymour could become a new patch of Melbourne's commuter belt.

A Melbourne-Sydney high-speed rail link is said to cost about A$40bn, and would cut travel times down from 11 hours to some 3 or 4. Australia, its economy buoyed by demand for resources, is better placed economically to commit to such projects than, for example, the US or UK (who are pushing ahead with their own high-speed rail projects), though there remains a lot of inertia. As such, I'd be pleasantly surprised if Australia gets high-speed rail before, say, Sudan.

australia railway 0

2010/4/14

The latest frontier of Antipodean coffee culture: New York, where Melbourne-style cafés, and even a barista college, are opening:

''The New York coffee scene is similar to Melbourne in 1985. When I moved here about six years ago, there was virtually nowhere that served quality espresso coffee. I originally planned to pick up an idea here and then move back to Melbourne to cash in. But I realised there was a huge opportunity here because nothing in New York compared to our cafes,'' Mr Hall says.
Though wasn't Melbourne's coffee scene at a fairly decent technical level, if not yet acclaimed around the world, in 1985? After all, Australia had mass Italian immigration in the 1950s, resulting in the establishment of Italian-style cafés catering to patrons who expected quality. (This is not to be confused with places where handfuls of immigrants trickled in and opened cafeterias or diners, making whatever the locals were already used to; this is the case in the UK, where there are plenty of cafeterias run by Italian immigrants, most of them serving the greasy fry-ups and mugs of builder's tea the locals feel comfortable with. It seems to me that a country only assimilates a culinary tradition if it takes in enough migrants from that tradition to not only act as producers but also as discerning consumers.)

australia coffee culture melbourne nyc 0

2010/3/29

As China expands its high-speed railway network and even the US, ideological home of the automobile, starts planning its own, people are once again talking about the prospect of high-speed rail in Australia. This article, for example, points out that the distances between Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney are comparable to distances in Spain, whose high-speed rail system has been spectacularly successful, and that the costs of building such a system would be a lot lower than the intimidating figures tossed around by naysayers:

But the best model for Australia to follow is Spain's, which has built two HST lines of 1161 kilometres linking Madrid to Seville (540 kilometres, opened 18 years ago) and Barcelona (630 kilometres). These distances, and as it happens the total population, served by the trains is quite comparable to the Australian SCM axis (see graphic). Based on the current French estimate of Euro 10 million/km ($A15 million/km) to build those lines today would be about $A17.4 billion; even allowing several billions more for stations and train sets it would be a struggle to spend even half the fictional $60 billion, perhaps $20-25 billion.
Contrary to misinformation concerning high speed rail in Australia, it is logistically, economically and even politically feasible. Australians are now receptive to such nation-building infrastructure, if only our politicians had the courage to sell the vision and could think beyond one or two electoral cycles. Economically it stacks up against continued spending on highway projects or hugely expensive airport upgrades, or the interminable wrangling over Sydney's phantom second airport. Dismissing the strategy of an expanded Canberra airport or a new one shifted closer to Sydney served by a 30-50 minute HST journey to the heart of Sydney and Canberra, is the same tired defeatism we have had for decades.
The high-speed rail route would follow the existing Melbourne-Sydney route from Melbourne through to Albury, thence diverging eastward, passing through Canberra and Goulburn. A one-way trip between Melbourne and Sydney would take under five hours. (An eventual extension to Brisbane would theoretically take another five hours to traverse, though I imagine that they'd have to straighten the route out considerably from the existing one to achieve this; part of the high-speed rail formula is straighter tracks than conventional railways have.)

One interesting effect of high-speed rail in Australia would probably be the development of a commuter belt outside of the major cities, and corresponding relief for housing shortages (which are particularly acute in Melbourne these days). If Albury is 90 minutes away from Melbourne by train, it is just about conceivable that people might commute in from there. (The town of Seymour, on the existing Melbourne-Albury line, would be a mere 30-40 minutes from Melbourne by high-speed rail, and would be well poised to become a base for commuting to Melbourne.) Goulburn (and, eventually, Newcastle) could do the same for Sydney. There are precedents; one effect of the TGV lines in France is that towns on lines going to Paris have become parts of Paris' commuter belt.

Australia is probably better poised to develop large infrastructure projects than recession-hit Europe, currently floating on the (largely Chinese-fuelled) resources boom. Of course, knowing Australia (a place where short-termism and apathy rule even more than elsewhere), chances are high-speed rail will remain in the too-hard basket until the price of oil suddenly puts and end to $65 Virgin Blue flights, taking everybody by surprise because, while they might have known that oil prices were going to rise, they didn't expect it to actually affect them.

australia infrastructure railway 0

2010/3/21

The possibility of Australia legalising video games not suitable for children moves a little closer, now that the main obstacle, South Australian Witchfinder-General Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, has resigned from his post, in the wake of a poor election result. Atkinson, a religious conservative, was exercising his power of veto over the possible introduction of an 18+ rating for video games, and was on record making statements comparing video gamers to motorcycle gangs. He also tried to pass a law banning anonymous speech on the internet prior to the election.

australia authoritarianism censorship politics videogames wowsers 0

2010/3/20

A study by the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism has revealed that more than half of news stories in Australia were spin, driven by public relations. The Murdoch tabloids were the worst, with 70% of stories in the Daily Telegraph being PR-driven, while the Fairfax "quality" papers are as good as it gets; only 42% (only 42%!) of stories in the Sydney Morning Herald were PR-driven.

These statistics probably say as much about the Australian media landscape as anything else. Australia's media is quite homogenised and uncompetitive; a handful of proprietors have the mass media sewn up (there are two newspaper proprietors and about three commercial TV networks). The lack of competition has resulted in low standards of quality; for example, the Fairfax papers (The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald are the biggest ones) are generally regarded to be the "quality" papers, but compared to the British equivalents (such as The Guardian and The Independent), they come out poorly, heavy on the sex, sensationalism and celebrity gossip and light on content and analysis. (The effect gets worse as one moves away from Sydney and Melbourne; for several weeks a few years ago, the most-read story on the front page of Fairfax's Perth paper was "Man gets penis stuck in pasta jar".) Or compare The Australian (Murdoch's "serious" paper in Australia) to its UK equivalent, The Times: The Australian is more nakedly biased.

The Australian press, controlled by an incestuous oligopoly and not subjected to the indignity of competition, has become a stagnant pond. (Australian television, mind you, is much worse.) This is bad news for the kind of discourse required to sustain a mature democracy; a public fed simplified half-truths leavened with gratuitous doses of sensationalism will be in no state to engage on a meaningful level in debate about where their country is heading, leaving all that boring stuff to technocrats and vested interests. The internet provides some competition, but the alarming open-ended censorship firewall plans (all content "refused classification" will be filtered; this includes sites advocating euthanasia, illegal drug use (including offering safety advice) or video games unsuitable for children; the list itself will be a state secret, giving plenty of scope for other sites to be "accidentally" banned if convenient to do so) which look set to become law before the next election, leave a lot of scope for rival sources to be nobbled. (Not surprisingly, the Australian press has been quiet about the plans, echoing the official line that the plans are to "combat paedophilia" and are opposed only by some anarchistic extremists.) As such, it doesn't surprise me if Australia's press oligarchs make the most of their privileged position and cut costs by bulking their papers out with press releases to a greater extent than in more competitive markets.

(via Boing Boing) australia censorship democracy journalism media spin 0

2010/3/19

Australian architects and urban planners are pondering the challenges of adapting to population growth and climate change

Australia survived the global financial crisis, due largely to China buying its resources, and while resource exports will continue to bolster its economy for decades, future prosperity may be threatened by a growing, ageing population, according to an Australian government report released in February.
Australia's post-World War Two sprawling suburbia is under strain due to inadequate transport and public facilities. "We're at risk of seeing increasingly dysfunctional cities ... we're starting to see sort of fragmentation and breakdown of the transport systems and increasing frustration for the residents of those cities trying to get around," said Jago Dodson, urban researcher at Griffth University.
A number of problems loom on the horizon: Australia's urban planning uniformly follows the post-WW2 American model, with sprawling cities of quarter-acre blocks, large "McMansion"-style houses, near-universal car ownership and a neglected public transport system half-heartedly run as welfare for the carless poor (though, to its credit, without the sort of neo-Calvinist contempt America manages for its have-nots). Most of Australia's land mass is desert, and its arable land, being geologically older than other continents, is less fertile, needing more fertiliser (typically petrochemical-based). Fresh water supplies are scarce; farmers are affected by drought and cities hit with water restrictions. The bulk of Australia's population is located around the coasts, with the country's largest cities being coastal. If global warming results in rising sea levels, this could result in flooding of populated areas. Moving inland is, for obvious reasons, not an easy solution.

With the population set to rise, some key assumptions about life in the Lucky Country are being reconsidered, from the ideal of owning a huge house on a quarter-acre block in suburbia to the right to drive anywhere in your own car. However, as in the US, there is considerable resistance to a change in these values.

Demographer Salt questions whether Australians will give up the "Neighbours" dream, citing the worldwide TV hit about life in a suburban Australian street. "Neighbours...is absolutely integral to the Australian psyche," said Salt, a partner at KPMG.
"Despite concern about climate change, road use in our cities is predicted to grow significantly in the next 20 to 30 years," said Transurban in a 2009 sustainability report. "New road projects will increasingly be part of integrated transport solutions for entire cities or transport corridors."
Despite this resistance, demographers are predicting Australia's cherished sprawl being replaced with higher-density urban planning (some are even talking about "Manhattanization"), and there are already proposals for European-style mass transit projects (such as an underground rail network for Sydney). Whether the kinds of multi-billion-dollar sums get spent on subways, high-speed trains and other infrastructure that routinely happen in Europe remains to be seen; until now, public transport has been the red-headed stepchild of state governments, with billions spent on freeways (which, after all, serve the outer-suburban motorists whose votes swing elections) and public transport getting mostly empty promises, with the occasional bus service being extended from 6:30pm to 7:00pm on weekdays. (In Melbourne, there doesn't seem to be enough money to keep the existing service, as patchy as it is, from falling apart.)

(via Infrastructurist) australia culture society urban planning 0

2010/2/15

Journalism researcher Nina Funnell recounts her encounter with Australian PM Kevin Rudd:

At that point one of my friends introduced me, dropping in that I am completing a PhD. At this, Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that is the "excuse" that "all" young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families. Since then I've come up with numerous one-line retorts, but in the moment I just froze in shock.
It would appear that, in post-Howard Australia, there is an increasing tendency to treat women who shirk their childbearing duties as demographic bludgers of sorts, freeloaders who are cheating society of what they owe it.
Similarly women who do not wish to have children should also not be punished or labelled non-maternal. As a young woman I find it frustrating to see women like Gillard constantly attacked and ascribed derogatory labels like ''empty fruit bowl'', as though her worth is a sole function of her ability and inclination to reproduce.
This is not unprecedented across societies; other states have, in the past, rewarded fertile women and punished those who shirked their reproductive duty to society. Mind you, those other states have included Ceaucescu's Romania and Nazi Germany, and are probably not a club Australia should seek to join.

(via Richard) australia culture war gender kevin rudd society 4

Australian far-right politician Pauline Hanson, who founded the rabidly anti-immigrant One Nation party and later ran separately on right-wing populist tickets, has announced that she is leaving Australia and plans to emigrate to the UK. She cited as her reason disappointment with the way Australia has changed.

Had she invented a time machine and gone back to the UK circa 1950, she might have a point, but these days, the UK is not so much the cradle of the white British race as another cosmopolitan melting pot, only with better curry and worse coffee. I wonder whether she'll end up joining the BNP.

Now if Pauline Hanson wanted to move to a place populated entirely by people of pure White British stock, there is one candidate: it's named Tristan da Cunha, located in the south Atlantic, accessible only by two ships a year, and its population is comprised of the descendants of British settlers. Everybody's white and either Catholic or Anglican and you can't get a decent pad thai noodles for love or money. It doesn't get much better than this, Pauline.

australia hypocrisy politics racism rightwingers stupidity 5

2010/2/11

The Australian government asked Google to block Australian users from accessing YouTube content which would be illegal in Australia, which would include material promoting euthanasia, graffiti and safer drug use, on the grounds that they already do similar things in China. Google, thankfully, tells the government to go jump.

University of Sydney associate professor Bjorn Landfeldt, one of Australia's top communications experts, said that to comply with Conroy's request Google "would have to install a filter along the lines of what they actually have in China".
"What we're saying is, well in Australia, these are our laws and we'd like you to apply our laws," Conroy said. "Google at the moment filters an enormous amount of material on behalf of the Chinese government; they filter an enormous amount of material on behalf of the Thai government."
The government is set to introduce laws forcing all ISPs in Australia to filter all internet traffic, which, unless something unexpected happens, will be law before the 2011 election. (There is plenty of opposition to it, but it all falls into the easily-ignored basket, and psephologists say that internet censorship could only become an issue in two electorates—the inner-city seats of Sydney and Melbourne.) The problem with this is that blocking YouTube altogether would be a bridge too far (the Australian public may be legendarily apathetic, but if you take away their funny cat videos, there'll be hell to pay), and selectively filtering traffic to YouTube would slow it down unacceptably.

Let's hope that Google stick to their guns here.

(via Boing Boing) australia censorship google youtube 0

2010/2/2

The state of South Australia has long been at the vanguard of Australia's lurch towards authoritarianism; the conservative state's veto is keeping video games unsuitable for children illegal in Australia, and the state recently required R-rated films to be displayed in plain packaging; now, Australia's Deep South continues its position of leadership by banning anonymous online comments about the upcoming state election, a law supported by both major political parties.

I imagine that once such a law becomes established in South Australia, it will most probably spread federally, expand into a general mandate for online communications to be labelled with the sender's legal identity, and be hard to eradicate; after all, a law making all internet content legally trackable would be a boon not only for the plan to eradicate pornography (for a broad definition of that word) from the Australian-viewable internet but would also be welcomed by Big Copyright, who would undoubtedly have hefty electoral donations for politicians favouring it. And the fundamental ideas of liberalism—that it is unacceptable to restrict the rights of individuals unless they actively harm others—are looking decidedly shaky in post-Howard Australia.

Update: the law has been retroactively repealed, after mass opposition, and after South Australia's Attorney-General and Wowser-In-Chief, Michael Atkinson, went on air claiming that an online critic, Aaron Fornarino, didn't exist, after which the website AdelaideNow posted a picture of Fornarino.

(via /.) australia authoritarianism censorship politics 2

2010/1/29

The Australian censorship authorities are now banning nude images of small-breasted women, on the grounds that they "encourage paedophilia". From now on, both porn models and sexual appetites in Australia must be traditionally built.

Australia is expected to have a national internet firewall in place before the next election; I wonder whether there's a team at CSIRO working on an image analysis algorithm for detecting unacceptable breast sizes as we speak.

australia censorship paedoterrorists wtf 3

2010/1/18

South Australia has led the fight in keeping Australia a censorious society; the wowser-state's Attorney-General's veto has been the main stumbling block to legalising video games unsuitable for children. Now, state laws have come into effect requiring R-rated films to be displayed in plain packaging, with nothing more than the title:

Adults aged over 18 seeking to buy or borrow a copy of Mad Max, the acclaimed desert war drama Three Kings, starring George Clooney, the Brad Pitt classic Fight Club or the 2009 Blu Ray release of Sasha Baron Cohen's fashion parody Bruno will now find them in plain packaging displaying nothing more than the film's title.
Under changes to the state's classification act, which came into effect on Sunday, businesses will face fines of up to $5000 for displaying a "poster, pamphlet or other printed material" for films classified R18+.
The law was announced by the office of South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson, whose conservative campaigning is well known to the film industry.

(via M+N) australia censorship culture war film wowsers 1

2009/12/26

The Overland's Anwyn Crawford gores one of the sacred cows of middlebrow Australia: the smouldering, wrathful god of post-punk turned national artist-laureate, Nick Cave:

Cave now occupies a curious position in Australian culture. Rather than the Black Crow King of his own imagination, he’s more the Monarch of Middlebrow. His likeness hangs in the National Portrait Gallery; his journals displayed at the National Library. His headline appearances bankroll summer music festivals and arts festivals alike while his early solo albums have been reissued in deluxe packages. You can buy his lyrics as a Penguin paperback. He is a cover star of weekend newspaper supplements and most recently of the Monthly, that over-earnest, reliably dull bush telegraph of all that is causing mild consternation among the nation’s opinion columnists.
And for Cave, as for his predecessors, women are both far better and far worse creatures than he – but whether they’re saints or sluts he has to kill them. Over and over in his songs, Cave performs this murder. On the one hand because murder puts female perfection eternally out of reach and therefore renders it perpetually desirable, on the other because women’s particular filth – their blood and milk and mucky cavities – represents all that is most base and abject about human existence.
Crawford looks at the deep torrents of misogyny running through both Cave's work and his public statements (his attitude to women is an "idealised hatred", she says), examines the oft-cited belief that Cave saved Kylie Minogue from obscurity by allowing her to play his murder victim (when, in fact, it's more likely that the massively commercially successful Minogue propelled Cave, until then a semi-obscure rocker listened to mostly by Goths, into the view of mainstream Australia), and then turns her attention to the present day, to Cave's recent projects and his ubiquity as a national icon:
It’s his transformation into an antipodean Elvis Costello – growing old, mild and respectably bourgeois along with his audience – that really makes me mad. Not because I believe that Cave has sold out or betrayed his musical talent – he had precious little to begin with – but because the deference paid to him and to his work grows in inverse proportion to its increasing mediocrity, to its juvenile silliness and self-parody. Witness Grinderman, a mid-life crisis thinly disguised as a Bad Seeds side project, with ‘No Pussy Blues’ or, even more crudely, ‘Go Tell the Women’, which loudly complains: ‘All we wanted was a little consensual rape in the morning/ And maybe a bit more in the evening.’ Consensual rape, eh? Happy thought, indeed.
One might then turn to Cave’s new novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, on which much of his ascendant reputation as Australia’s Renaissance man has been staked. It is, in a word, putrid (though Cave himself would doubtless prefer ‘graveolent’). The word ‘vagina’ makes its first appearance three sentences in and continues to reappear, with wearying regularity, for the duration of the book. I’m no prude – it’s not the word that offends me, but rather Cave’s joyless genital fixation: the same bored, reductive, anatomical attitude towards sex that distinguishes hardcore pornography. Here, women really are nothing more than a series of interchangeable holes and sex like a trip to the ATM: stick your card in the slit, then take it out and walk away. To the sleazy salesman Bunny Munro, the novel’s title character whose wife commits suicide early in the book due to his philandering (but then again, we are reminded many times over, she was crazy), women are either begging for it with their legs apart or, if not, they are bitches and possibly dykes. Cave has nothing remotely interesting to tell us about the complex pleasures of sex or desire: such insight is beyond him as a writer, both on a technical and – if this is not too strange a word – spiritual level.
Ah, but Cave’s defenders like to point out, you are forgetting about the man’s exquisite humour! His delicately honed irony! He is a moral satirist without peer! (The subtext to this defence often being, ‘Lighten up, bitch!’) The notion that Cave is being ‘ironic’ has been used to excuse many of his worst indulgences, up to and including his pimp’s moustache. It is simply not true. As anyone who bothers to look up Cave’s press history will discover, the man takes himself seriously, very seriously indeed, and will threaten to break the legs – or worse – of any writer who dares suggest that his work is not nearly as good as he himself is convinced that it is. His snobbery and towering ego both feed into our lingering cultural cringe: we think he’s smart because he’s popular in Europe, and we admire him because his bullish self-confidence is so different to the ritual self-deprecation that marks many Australian artists. He reads books! He lives in Brighton! The man’s a genius! In reality, Cave’s cartoon profanity is no more sophisticated or evolved than the bump’n'grind of gangsta rap which, I would hazard a guess, Europhiles like Peter Conrad love to hate because it supposedly lowers the tone.

(via Greg) australia culture nick cave sacred cows 5

2009/12/17

Australia's communications minister Stephen Conroy has announced that the government will go ahead with its mandatory internet censorship firewall, pushing through the legislation before the next election. This is despite a lack of public support for such a scheme (except from fringe religious groups), opposition from child-welfare and civil-rights groups, and a broad consensus that the firewall won't achieve its stated aims and will be prone to abuse. (Under the legislation, ISPs will have to block access to any sites on a secret blacklist. This will nominally include any material that is "refused classification", which could be anything from illegal pornography to information on euthanasia or safer drug use or material pertaining to sexual fetishes, though as the list is secret, there will be little in the way of a future government adding things to it for political advantage.)

In the past, the legislation would have been unlikely to have made it through the Senate (religious wowser Fielding, whom the government courted with the proposal, was all for it, but the other independent, Nick Xenophon, was against it). Now, with the Tories fronted by religious-Right culture-warrior Tony Abbott (whose ascent the government themselves have compared to Joh Bjelke-Petersen's 1987 Prime Ministerial campaign), perhaps they can count on the Opposition to vote for it.

And so, at a fork in the road, Australia turns its back on the cosmopolitan, dynamic 21st-century society it has evolved into and moves to reembrace the small-minded, punitive values of the string of authoritarian penal colonies it was formed from, in the process, joining the club of nations that includes Iran, Burma and China. Say goodbye to the "clever country". Of course, if you're displeased with this, you can let your MP know here. (If you want the government to actyually notice you, read this.)

australia authoritarianism censorship politics 1

2009/12/14

The Australian government is finally moving to discuss the possibility of legalising video games unsuitable for children. Currently, there is no 18+ rating for video games, with anything the censors find unsuitable for children either being banned outright or cut for the local market's prim sensibilities (for example, the graffiti-themed game Mark Ecko's Getting Up was banned for promoting illegal activity (presumably because graffiti is more plausible than running over cops and prostitutes or what have you), and one first-person shooter was knocked back because it included images of morphine syringes, and thus sent the wrong message about evil drugs).

Anyway, for what it's worth, the government's discussion paper on a R18+ rating for video games is here. It's currently a discussion paper, though I suspect that common sense will prevail and the 18+ rating will be added. Of course, Christian Fundamentalist groups could mobilise to swamp the discussion with arguments against, but the people who want to be able to shoot realistic zombies tend to be well placed to respond.

australia censorship videogames 0

2009/12/11

Fact of the day: while both Britain and Australia have drinking cultures, Britons drink about 25% more alcohol than Australians. I wonder how much of that is a function of the function of a drink as a social prop and British pint glasses being larger than the ½- and ¾-pint glasses commonly used in Australia.

alcohol australia culture uk 5

2009/12/1

Decapitated by the election defeat that ended its 11-year reign, Australia's conservative Liberal Party has spent the past two years floundering without much direction. The party has just had a leadership election, which was won by Tony Abbott a hardline culture-war conservative from the Howard government, who ran on a platform of climate-change denial, defeating the incumbent, the younger, more centrist Malcolm Turnbull. And so, it appears that the Liberal Party has been infected by the prions of the degenerative disorder that is devouring the US Republican Party.

australia politics rightwingers tories 0

2009/11/25

Australians work some of the longest hours in the developed world, mostly through unpaid overtime. Now, a progressive group calling itself The Australia Institute has designated today to be Go Home On Time Day, urging employees to leave the office exactly at leaving time:

Each year, Australians work more than 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime.
Around half of all employees work more hours than they are paid for. On average, a typical employee works 49 minutes of unpaid overtime per day. For full-time workers, the average daily amount of unpaid work is 70 minutes, which equates to 33 eight-hour days per year, or six and a half standard working weeks. Put another way, this is the equivalent of 'donating' more than your annual leave entitlement back to your employer.

australia society work work-life balance 0

2009/11/6

The latest addition to the "Things ___ Like" genre is Things Bogans Like, looking at the common Australian bogan.

18 – Petrol Consumption as Recreation
13 – Misspelling Their Kids’ Names
11 – Ruining Music Festivals
6 – Prefacing Racist Statements With ‘I’m not racist but…’
(Bogans, for those unfamiliar with them, are sort of like the Australian equivalent of chavs (except without the quasi-civilising influences of the more drugged- and/or thugged-out sides of Balearic rave-techno and hip-hop) or rednecks (only without the religion and guns). The MetaFilter thread explains it better than I can:
Bogans are just bogans. You don't really get the equivalent overseas. Take the awkward upward social mobility of a chav, mix in the fierce anti-intellectualism and tribalism of your redneck, the utter lack of self awareness of the frat boy, baste it in cheap beer and abandon it on a prison island, hidden in the summer for a million years. They're nice, very unusshual, verry unikwe.
That my friends, is a bogan.
Of course, they tend to have broad senses of humour, strong loyalty to friends and family, no matter what the friends and family do, and a certain code of honour that you do not break. Don't fuck with kids or old ladies, share your hospitality, and help folk out if they're in trouble. A bogan may start a fight, but they'll often break them up, too. They may have their rough sides, but most bogans are okay people.
And here is a retort from the bogan side, slagging off the "inner-city tossers" who go to Laneway music festivals and bars with retro furniture, travel to obscure countries, spend their weekends reading newspapers, browsing independent bookshops and having deep, depressing conversations, typically using unnecessarily large words. Alternatively, here's Stuff White People Like: the Melbourne Version.

(via MeFi, Lachlan) australia bogans culture hipsters white people 5

2009/10/5

Melbourne is set to host the biggest ever atheist convention next March, which will feature speakers including Richard Dawkins (referred to, somewhat facetiously, as the "High-priest of atheism" in the article's headline), Peter Singer and A.C. Grayling, as well as Australian commentators (mostly from the media) such as Robyn Williams and Phillip Adams.

atheism australia melbourne richard dawkins 0

2009/9/22

Australia's government has rolled back some of the more ideological requirements in the citizenship test (which was set by the right-wing Howard government). People wishing to become Australian citizens will no longer have to know cricketers' batting averages or South Australian wine regions. However, they might still be asked about the "national gemstone" and the uniquely Australian concepts of "mateship" and a "fair go".

One piece of Australian tradition remains, though: the equation of sporting success with national identity. To wit, while regular immigrants have to live in Australia for four years to apply for citizenship, elite athletes only have to for two:

Minister Chris Evans recently defended lowering the residency requirements for elite athletes and others (to apply for citizenship) from four years to two: ''The revamped requirements will create a fairer system for people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are currently ineligible for citizenship. These changes will lead to more gold medals for Australia at sporting events, as well as providing a real win for the national workforce.''
Though, other than those points, the test (judging from the article) seems as practical as these things get, covering things like democracy, rights, responsibilities and basic English. This is in contrast with the UK government's "Life in the UK" test, which has questions like:
How much of Britain's population is under the age of 25?
  1. 10 million
  2. 13 million
  3. 14 million
Which would be all very well on a TV quiz show, and acceptable (if a bit boring) at a pub trivia night, but is unfit for the stated purpose of the test, i.e., ascertaining whether the respondent is fit to be a British citizen. Unless, of course, Britain is trying to attract good quiz show contestants.

australia cultural cringe culture war uk 0

2009/9/16

Telstra, Australia's telecommunications backbone quasi-monopolist, is going to be broken up, into separate wholesale and retail arms at least. Which sounds like good news for Australian internet users.

australia business internet politics telstra 0

2009/7/8

It has been a long time coming (I was still living in Melbourne when it was announced, more than five years ago), but Melbourne post-punk cult film Dogs In Space is finally seeing a DVD release. The 2-disc edition, with extensive commentaries, videos and a fly-on-the-wall making-of documentary made at the same time, ships on 28 August. JB HiFi have a pre-order page here.

(via M+N) australia dogs in space film little bands melbourne new wave post-punk 2

2009/6/25

Various Australian states are selling their wares in London, with the New South Wales government constructing a somewhat ridiculous simulacrum of Bondi Beach on the south bank of the Thames, and South Australia sticking to a more sensible wine tasting. It's not clear what Victoria's entry, showcasing the "sights and sounds of Melbourne" will be like; perhaps they built a laneway somewhere, covered it with stencil art, set up a street café (staffed by authentic Melburnian baristas flown in from Carlton or Fitzroy) and set up a tram line running back and forth outside it?

australia london melbourne uk 1

2009/4/7

The Australian government has announced the formation of a company to build a national broadband network, after being unsatisfied with private bids to build it.

The proposal goes much further than the Government had previously planned as fibre-optic cables will now run all the way from telephone exchanges to homes and businesses. It had previously planned to lay cables only from exchanges to cabinets at the end of street corners. In a major blow to Telstra, Mr Rudd said it was time ''to bite the bullet'' after years of neglect of the telecommunications sector.
''Years of failed policy have left Australia as a broadband backwater," he said.
The network will include fibre-optic connections to the premises with up to 100 megabits per second, and presumably will include mandatory content filtering at the infrastructure level. Construction will start in Tasmania around the middle of the year.

australia business internet 0

2009/3/23

A high school in Texas has a novel way of dealing with troubled youths: putting them in a steel cage and letting them fight it out with their bare fists:

One employee overheard Mr. Moten tell a security guard to take two students who had been at each other for days and “put ’em in the cage and let them duke it out,” the report states, and the practice was so embedded in the school’s culture that one student remarked to a teacher that he was “gonna be in the cage.”
Meanwhile in Sydney, rival motorcycle gangs went on a rampage at the airport, and one man was bludgeoned to death with a carry-on bag measuring frame steel bollard.

(via substitute) air travel australia bizarre education texas usa violence wtf 0

2009/2/27

Some good news from Australia: the Labor government's controversial internet censorship firewall plan appears to be all but dead, as independent senator Nick Xenophon has announced the withdrawal of his support for the scheme. Of course, it could be that he's just angling for some sweeteners and will come over given enough pork for his constituency, though the plan doesn't look too healthy.

australia censorship politics 4

2009/2/24

I just caught the overnight sleeper train from Sydney to Brisbane. The Sydney to Brisbane passenger railway service is operated by Countrylink, an arm of the New South Wales government, as a subsidised public utility, essentially targeted at rural and regional areas; these services include two trains a day, in each direction, between Sydney and Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane.

In general, I was quite pleased with the service. They don't do economy-class sleeper carriages on Countrylink, so my choice was one of booking a first-class seat and a sleeper bunk or spending 14 hours in an upright seat. (I once did this going from Sydney to Melbourne; it wasn't enjoyable.) Anyway, I shelled out for a sleeper; it didn't cost much, about A$216, or less than £100. When I arrived, the train attendant (a friendly young woman named Shannon) informed me that, while I had been going to share a (2-bunk) cabin with someone else, they had been moved to a separate compartment, giving me one to myself; I'm guessing that they didn't have enough passengers to fill up the entire sleeper carriage. This was a pleasant surprise; the compartment, consisting of three seats and transforming into two bunks, seemed quite luxurious, in an unostentatious way. (There were none of the standard signifiers of luxury— no leadlighting or wood panelling, for example—it was all utilitarian melamine and carpeting.) The sense of modest luxury was rounded off with a complimentary package containing Arnott's crackers, Bega cheese, a tomato-and-curry dip, mineral water and a Tim-Tam biscuit. The compartment had a power point, though it was explicitly for shavers only. (This is another difference from trains in Britain, where one is encourage to plug in one's laptop or charge one's phone.) The power point turned out to be suitable for charging a laptop, though didn't yield enough power to actually run one; when I tried to run my MacBook from it, it thought it was running off mains power, though actually depleted its battery until it shut down. Needless to say, onboard wireless internet access was absent and is unlikely to be coming any time soon; the fact that most of the passengers ranged from their 50s to advanced old age, with a backpacker contingent in economy class, is probably further disincentive to spending money on such new-fangled fripperies.

Countrylink, unlike most railway services these days, is state-run, and not entirely at the mercies of market realities. Because it is considered a vital piece of infrastructure, it receives hefty subsidies, and consequently, their prices are quite low. (Economy class from Melbourne to Sydney can be as low as A$70, if you take advantage of a special offer.) Unlike in Britain or Europe, their fares don't change; rather than selling a handful of ridiculously cheap tickets and gouging those without the foresight to book months in advance, they charge the same fare whenever you book. The food is cheap and not very exciting; $8 or $9 gets you what's essentially a microwaved meal, and the complimentary breakfast consisted of a bowl of cereal, two slices of toast and a cup of warm water and a teabag. It is, however, forbidden to drink any alcohol one hasn't bought on the train (an offense punishable by a $400 fine, and enforced by roving transit officers in uniform; I imagine one could get away with it in a private compartment, though I didn't try it), and the only beer sold onboard was a rather ordinary light lager named Hahn.

All in all, the sleeper train is a pleasant way of getting from Sydney to Brisbane; the first-class compartment was quite comfortable, and the daytime portion of the journey was, in places, quite scenic. The one major flaw, though, was the timing. I suspect that Countrylink, much like Amtrak in the US (a similar state-subsidised passenger rail service), is near the bottom of the pecking order for access to tracks, and basically gets what the freight operators don't want. Which would be the only explanation for why the sleeper train to Brisbane leaves Sydney at 16:20 and arrives in Brisbane at 5:20 (Brisbane time; 6:20 Sydney summer time), with passengers being woken at 4am for breakfast. Also, unlike other services (the Caledonian Sleeper, for one), there is no possibility of staying onboard and sleeping until a reasonable hour; the same train is used as the daytime service, and goes back to Sydney within an hour of arrival. Which is undoubtedly convenient for the operators, though less so for their passengers.

australia countrylink railway travel 2

2009/2/11

As bushfires swept across south-eastern Australia, wiping out towns and killing hundreds, people asked why. Some pointed to climate change, the lack of backburning in recent years or flawed town planning. One man, however, has a different theory. According to Pastor Danny Nalliah, former Family First political candidate and friend of the former Howard government, the bushfires were God's wrath for Victoria having recently decriminalised abortion:

The evangelical church's leader, Pastor Danny Nalliah, claimed he had a dream about raging fires on October 21 last year and that he woke with "a flash from the Spirit of God: that His conditional protection has been removed from the nation of Australia, in particular Victoria, for approving the slaughter of innocent children in the womb".
He quoted a headline describing the fires as "The Darkest hour for Victoria". "A few months ago the news media should have reported 'the darkest hour for the unborn', but unfortunately the 'Decriminalisation of Abortion bill' went through parliament and was passed, thus making many people call Victoria 'the baby killing state of Australia,' " Mr Nalliah said.
Had Victoria not passed the bill, the bushfires would presumably have been God's wrath for something else, such as permitting divorce, suffering homosexuals to live or wearing clothes of mixed fibres.

Of course, Pastor Nalliah doesn't speak for all Christians or theists; far from it. The Age's religious editor, Barney Zwartz, points out that, actually, that's not what God is about, citing Bible verse to back up his point. Needless to say, he cites different Bible verses to the ones the Pastor does. That's the marvellous thing about scripture; it's so ambiguous that one find things in it to back up wildly divergent positions.

God, meanwhile, could not be reached for comment.

australia christianity natural disasters religion religiots rightwingers stupidity 3

2009/1/28

A retired Australian police detective has claimed that anti-monarchists attempted to assassinate the Queen in 1970, by derailing her train in a cutting near Orange, New South Wales with a log.

They had been aware of the service's schedule and had managed to avoid a "sweeper" locomotive that passed through the area a short time before.
But the log failed to derail the train carrying the royal party and became stuck under its front wheels, bringing the train to a stop at a level crossing.
Det. Supt. Cliff McHardy (retired) was involved in the investigation of the incident, but was hampered by a ruling keeping the incident secret. To this day, it's not clear who was behind the plot; in fact, their description as "anti-monarchists" seems more tautological than anything else. (It could have been anyone. One of various flavours of Communists, perhaps, or some fifth-generation Irish-Australian still angry about the potato famine, or some troubled individual just wanting to make the mind control rays stop, or perhaps none of the above.)

assassination australia history monarchy railway republicanism 0

2009/1/7

Atheist bus ads roll out across the UK. Having raised £135,000, the Atheist Bus Campaign has broadened its scope considerably, and rather than the original 30 bus ads in London, they're rolling out 800 across the UK, with interior ads giving quotes from famous atheists including Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson.

A similar campaign has run in the USA, not a country typically associated with atheism. However, when the local atheist society tried to run one in Australia (not usually a religiously strident place), the advertising company knocked them back, considering promotion of Godlessness (with the scandalous slogan "Celebrate reason", no less!) to be a bit too much for Australian morés.

atheism australia religion society uk usa 0

2008/12/31

Today's heartwarming display of ecumenical outreach between religions comes to us courtesy of Australian Christian-right parliamentarian Reverend Fred Nile, who has tabled a bill to ban toplessness on beaches, to protect the sensibilities of Muslims and Asians who are not used to such licentiousness:

The Reverend Nile has rejected allegations that prudishness is behind a bill he has prepared to ban nudity, including topless sunbathing, on the state's most popular beaches.
Australia's reputation as a conservative but culturally inclusive sociery was at risk of erosion by more liberal overseas visitors, he said.
Of course, Australia has only been a "conservative society" for some 11 years. Well, and all the time up to the Whitlam government in the 1970s, but that was a long time ago. Now, it's gradually and haltingly inching its way back towards a Western secular-liberal consensus. (Not at any great rate, mind you; video games unsuitable for children are still outlawed, film censorship is still handled by the Howard government's conservative appointees, and there is that national firewall proposal that keeps lumbering forward, zombie-fashion, despite not being remotely viable; but still...) Some people, though, don't want to abandon their dream of Australia as a spiritually pure Kingdom of Prester John in the South.
"Our beaches should be a place where no one is offended, whether it's their religious or cultural views," he said.
No-one? I wonder whether this extends to the Wahhabi Muslims who would be offended by the exposure of naked female ankles and elbows, or even faces, on Reverend Nile's modesty-enhanced beaches. Or even by the fact that men and women can be on the same beach in each other's company. Unless Reverend Nile is prepared to mandate full gender segregation of beaches and the full burqa for women, I suspect he is being a wee bit hypocritical.

australia hypocrisy religion religiots wowsers 5

2008/12/12

The Australian government's plans for a national internet censorship system seem to be running into trouble. Firstly child-protection groups condemned the plans, then ISPs refused to participate in live trials, and now, the proposal has been blasted by an ultra-conservative pro-censorship senator for being too draconian:

In a post on his blog, South Australian Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi expressed concern that the filters would inadvertently block legitimate content and be expanded to cover other controversial material opposed by the Government of the day, such as regular pornography.
"Already we have a filter on the internet for all parliament house computers. It blocks some political sites, alternative lifestyle sites and other sites that, while not to my personal taste, are hardly grounds for censorship," he wrote.
"Imagine if such censorship was extended to every computer in the country through mandatory ISP filtering. Who would be the ultimate arbiter of what is permissible content?"
Bernardi, who tried to censor Gordon Ramsay by calling for a Senate inquiry into swearing on television in March, is known for his conservative views. The pro-life Senator has questioned whether global warming is caused by human activities, has opposed therapeutic cloning of human embryos and protested against proposed laws prescribing equal treatment of same-sex relationships.
With any luck, the whole scheme will disintegrate sooner rather than later.

australia censorship fail politics rightwingers 1

2008/12/4

Members of the New South Wales parliament could soon face breath tests before voting on legislation. The move was prompted after a number of reports of bad behaviour by apparently inebriated parliamentarians, including a frontbencher shoving a female MP after a Christmas party and the police minister having to resign after dancing in his underpants at a drunken party in his office.

The move is supported by the state's transport workers' union, on the grounds that if rail workers have to suffer the indignity of random alcohol tests, so should politicians.

alcohol australia drugs larrikinism politics 1

2008/11/19

Melbourne's community radio station 3RRR now has a new website. The new site appears to look somewhat more polished than the previous one, both visually and in terms of the design. (The URLs, for one, are clean, rather than being PHP scripts with CGI arguments tacked onto the end.)

The playlists linked from the program guide now go all the way back to the dawn of time (or 2004, in any case). (They had those playlists online in the old site, but the only way to get at them was to manually try different numbers in the aforementioned CGI arguments; here, they're indexed in nicely paginated indices going as far back as necessary.) Here is the first International Pop Underground playlist they posted online; it's interesting to note that Carew played My Favorite's Homeless Club Kids and various Stephin Merritt-related projects that week.

Also, RRR's website will have a subscribers-only section, which will apparently include expanded audio archives. Not sure what exactly this will entail, or indeed what Australian copyright law will allow.

australia culture melbourne music rrr web 0

2008/10/24

A 21-year-old Australian call centre employee is facing unspecified disciplinary action after taking sick leave and bragging on Facebook that he was absconding from work due to a hangover. Kyle Doyle's undoing seems to have been that, at some earlier time, he had added his boss to his friends list, which suggests that he might not have been the sharpest knife in the drawer; if you're looking for a partner to pull off the perfect crime with, he's probably not your man.

Heaping irony on top of stupidity, the snapshot of his profile that is circulating with the damning admission lists him as a supporter of the "Liberal Party of Australia", the right-wing party which introduced harsh industrial relations laws which, among other things, allow employers to demand medical certificates for as little as one day of sick leave.

australia deception facebook fail irony risks schadenfreude stupidity tories 0

2008/10/20

The Independent, a British newspaper, sends a journalist to report on Australia's heart of darkness; or, more specifically, the Bathurst motor races, and the petrolhead culture around it:

In the past, families steered clear of "the Hill", where old bangers were crashed into trees, flipped and set on fire. "Burnout" and "doughnut" competitions were staged, lavatory blocks were blown up. One year, an ice-cream van was fire-bombed, sofas were torched, and battles were fought with missiles including beer cans filled with concrete. It was reported that campers had played cricket with live chickens.
At Mount Panorama, often referred to as Mount Paralytic, fans set up rival camps and hurl abuse – and sometimes flaming loo-rolls – at each other. But relations between the red (Holden) and blue (Ford) tribes are mostly good-natured enough. Trevor Dunn and Rebecca Wynn, diehard Holden supporters, drove up from Canberra this year and pitched a tent next to their friends, Ford fanatics Janine Winnell and Kenny Woodcock. Janine sprayed Kenny's hair blue. Trevor and Rebecca brought their 16-month-old son, Bryce, barely able to lisp his own name but already a Holden boy. "You drill it into them, so they've got no choice," Trevor explains.
So sweet is that sound to Ford and Holden fanatics that one Australian car magazine produced a CD featuring a selection of V8 engines revving up. The previous night, Phil and his friend Colin had put it on the stereo in their tent. "We played it really loud and there were heaps of people gathered round," he says. "But we turned it up too high and fried the stereo."
At Bathurst, the idea that gas-guzzling V8s are an anachronism in a time of environmental responsibility cuts little ice. Holden sold more V8 cars last year than ever before, with some buyers saying that they thought it might be their last chance to own one.

australia bogans car culture culture heart of darkness sport 1

2008/10/16

Details have emerged of the Australian government's internet censorship scheme. Under the system, Australian internet users will be placed by default on a connection which filters out adult content, though will be able to opt out to a second feed, which only filters content which is illegal in Australia (which includes things such as video games unsuitable for children and advocacy of euthanasia, for example; Australian governments are rather fond of banning things, and the general public are apathetic enough to let them, leaving the puritanical wowsers of the socks-and-sandals brigade as the sole voice lobbying for policy):

“Users can opt-out of the 'additional material' blacklist (referred to in a department press release, which is a list of things unsuitable for children, but there is no opt-out for 'illegal content'”, Newton said.
“Illegal is illegal and if there is infrastructure in place to block it, then it will be required to be blocked — end of story.”
Online libertarians claim the blacklists could be expanded to censor material such as euthanasia, drugs and protest.
Of course, this isn't going to do much to help Australian internet speeds (already lagging behind the rest of the world; for example, a 2-megabit ADSL connection in Australia costs more than an 8-megabit one in the UK).

(via Boing Boing) australia authoritarianism censorship 4

2008/10/14

Melbourne new-wave/post-punk cult movie Dogs In Space has been out of print for a number of years. A DVD (with a few hours of bonus material, including a making-of documentary shot at the time) was meant to come out some four years ago, but there is still no sign of it. However, some enterprising soul has cut it into 12 fragments and posted them to YouTube. At last, you can view Dogs In Space in worse quality than the standard well-worn VHS tape.

(via M+N) australia dogs in space film new wave video youtube 0

2008/8/26

The Age has a piece on the Goggomobil. The original was a microcar built in 1950s West Germany by a Bavarian company which first ventured into motor scooters (hence, presumably, the pseudo-Italianate name). It is known in Australia because a local businessman managed to obtain a licence to make them locally (as there were severe tariffs on imported cars at the time), substituting a fibreglass body for the metal one. The diminutive, independently made car, which looked like a jellybean and supposedly drove quite well, did quite well in Australia for a few years in the mid-1950s, until competition from the Morris Mini killed it. Though most Australians only have heard of it because of a television ad for the Yellow Pages phone directory mentioned it.

australia cars goggomobil history media microcars 0

2008/8/23

Veteran British music critic Everett True, one of the founders of Plan B magazine, has recently moved to Brisbane, Australia, and is not impressed with the Australian music press:

Australians don't have much respect for the music press - it runs counter to their culture. Australian rock is all about "Good on ya, mate - well done for getting up on stage and switching that amplifier on". The idea of anyone actually daring to criticise musicians for the sound they make is almost heresy. Everyone is treated equally, which means no knocking anyone back, however great the temptation. (That'll be why Australian rock is best known to the outside world for such musical abominations as Silverchair, the Vines and Savage Garden.) Sport is the predominant culture here, and music is similarly viewed as a leisure activity - it's all about "work rate", "dedication" and "goals scored". Unsurprisingly, Australians get the music press they deserve.
Recently, I was interviewed by a handful of street press writers to promote a show I was playing in Brisbane with ace pick-up garage band Young Liberals. The first question out the blocks every time was, "What do you do when you have to interview a band you don't like?" Excuse me? I don't understand the query. You're getting paid less than a pittance (if you're getting paid at all) for writing for a crappy free magazine given away on the streets of your city ... and you're interviewing bands you don't like? Why? What is the point? These magazines are free: their financial stability and continuing existence have nothing to with sales figures. Why not feature who the fuck you like? "Ah..." the "journalists" bleat. "It's because of the advertisers ..."
Simply, there are two types of advertiser. The first thinks that appearing in shitty free, badly-designed publications that nobody bothers to read and everyone throws away after glancing through the live ads is the best way to promote their clients' wares; basically, by supporting what amounts to paid-for advertorials. The second realises that their clients are actually far better served by appearing in "cool" (passionate/hip/intelligent) magazines because this coolness reflects back upon their client, and makes their wares seem far more attractive to the casual consumer.
Mind you, the Australians seem a bit unamused by True's prononcements, in particular a throwaway line rubbishing local Seattle-sound institution Silverchair and landfill-indie rockers The Vines. Whether it's the case that Australians are a bit chippy about Poms rubbishing their local boys, while it's acceptable (and indeed the done thing) for Australians to lop down their own tall poppies, they will circle around them and defend them if an outsider comes in and tries it, or just that True was pontificating from a position of ignorance (JJJ is not Melbourne-based, or at least it wasn't last time I checked), with no small measure of cockiness, is open to interpretation. And here is the Mess+Noise (i.e., a bit like a local Drowned In Sound, only with extra lolcats) thread.

australia culture media music music journalism 3

2008/8/6

Google adds Australia to Street View, meaning that large segments of road in Australian urban areas have been given the once-over by Google's camera trucks, producing panoramic images. The images are quite close together, meaning that you can take a virtual tour of various streetscapes.

The coverage seems quite comprehensive; Google's vans managed to trundle down most of the streets in the inner cities, some of those in the outer suburbs, and vast stretches of highway along the outback. Not only can you see inner Sydney and Melbourne, but unimaginable expanses of suburban cul-de-sacs (I imagine there are quite a few Britons who'd be excited by the fact that Pin Oak Ct., Vermont South, has been photographed), and sweeping expanses of outback and desert (they got most of the highway across the Nullarbor, for one). Everywhere from the CBDs and funky lattelands of the inner cities, to towns with one pub, two churches (Catholic and Anglican) and a war memorial, from golden beaches to the unforgivingly majestic landscapes far from anywhere where the idea of the "tyranny of distance", so key to understanding why Australia became what it is, is viewable and scrollable, in increments of ten or so metres. Most of these views will, in all statistical probability, never be looked at by a human being (other than Google's editorial staff).

Personally, the first places I visited when I found out about this were my former homes and old stomping grounds in Melbourne. It was reassuring to see that everything's still there (the flats I was living in in North Fitzroy still look as they did, the Tin Pot and Piedimonte's are still there, Brunswick Street's still unchanged, and even the Lord Newry Hotel looks like it might still serve as a pub, rather than upmarket apartments). A flat I lived in in Carnegie, and a childhood home near Caulfield Racecourse, were also faithfully recorded. The outer suburbs of Melbourne, however, fared somewhat more patchily; the two houses in the outer eastern wilderness where I spent my adolescence had both been passed over by the Google recording angel. Though the major roads were all there, as were the scenic routes leading out of the city.

Australia has stolen a march on much of the rest of the world with Street View. While the technology was, infamously, pioneered in the US (with the usual outcry about the privacy of scantily-clad sunbathers, porno-theatre patrons and housecats in windows being violated), coverage in Europe is presently limited to a few swathes cut through France. (Though, to their credit, the Street View mannequin rendered on French maps does appear to be wearing a beret.) Apparently Britain is on the way, though, as Google's vans have been seen on these shores.

australia google personal 0

2008/8/1

In the wake of Starbucks' Napoleonically epic retreat from Australia, The (Melbourne) Age has a piece on Melbourne's indomitable coffee culture, which apparently goes back long before mass Italian immigration in the 1950s and the resulting espresso boom:

In his entries on coffee and coffee palaces in the Encyclopedia of Melbourne, [historian Andrew Brown-May] retells the beginnings of Melbourne's coffee culture, traced back to the street stalls of the 1850s that offered caffeine hits to rushed city workers, then re-emerging as continental coffee houses in the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s.
By the 1950s, the influx of Italian migrants had helped redefine coffee for Melbourne once again, serving it up in espresso cups instead of percolators. Yet two of the key proponents of the espresso bar were father and son team Harry and Peter Bancroft, Anglo-Australians who in 1953 secured the rights to manufacture Gaggia coffee machines and set up a cafe in St Kilda.
I didn't know that they actually made Gaggia machines in Australia. You learn something new every day.

The article then points out that narratives framing the vanquishment of Starbucks in simple plucky-Aussies-vs.-Yankee-imperialists terms aren't entirely accurate; rather, it's a case of Starbucks sowing the seeds of their own defeat by not acknowledging that the café-culture experience they were trading on is essentially one of differentiation from the mainstream, and that a Starbucks in every suburban shopping mall destroyed a lot of the cachet behind the brand; it's the "nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded" phenomenon that poisons cultural trends (from musical genres to fashions—think the trucker hat, the "Hoxton fin" haircut, or anything labelled "indie" in the UK) as soon as they become successful.

Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Temple University historian Bryant Smith argues that when Starbucks began, it offered Americans an entree into a status-filled world with is own language of ventis, grandes, Tazo teas and special-blend coffees, all stamped with the company's distinctive green logo.
But by becoming too common — Starbucks first opened in Australia in 2000 and expanded to 84 stores in eight years — the company "violated the economic principles of cultural scarcity", Smith says.
One cause, of course, doesn't exclude the others. Starbucks never became the all-conquering juggernaut in Australia it became elsewhere, due to the sophisticated local coffee culture, and while its recent misfortune has been global, it would have hit particularly hard in a relatively inhospitable market such as Australia.

australia coffee culture history melbourne schadenfreude starbucks 2

2008/7/31

The Australian government is apparently planning to search MP3 players for illegally copied content at airports, with violators facing criminal penalties. It is not clear how the authorities would determine whether a file was illegally copied, especially since Australian copyright law allows format shifting. The proposal may be part of a new "anti-counterfeiting" treaty currently being thrashed out, which promises to give Big Copyright an even bigger stick in the War On Copying.

(via Wired News) australia authoritarianism copyfight 0

2008/7/30

The Exclusive Brethren sect, an ultra-conservative Christian separatist group, praised as pillars of the community by the previous right-wing Australian government (with which they had some kinds of dealings), and which, incidentally, also gave the world Aleister Crowley, is facing allegations of high-level criminal activity, including kidnapping, money laundering, fraud and bribery, in Australia, New Zealand and India.

Three sisters, from India, who say they are on the run from the sect, allege they can link it to numerous crimes.
"We've got 3000 pages of evidence … and now we're going to expose this whole thing," one of the sisters told reporters in Canberra.
Of course, at this stage, these are merely allegations, and may well be without substance, though it will be interesting to see what emerges in the Australian High Court.

australia crime cults exclusive brethren fundamentalists religiots rightwingers skulduggery 1

2008/7/29

Multinational coffee chain Starbucks have announced that they will close 61 our of their 85 Australian outlets. That's just under 72%.

What surprises me is that they had 85 outlets in Australia in the first place. Thanks to large-scale Italian immigration in the 1950s and 1960s, Australia has very high standards for what constitutes a good cup of coffee. The inner cities of Australia are full of cafés with espresso machines and baristas who know how to use them well, to the point where cafés in the UK advertise their staff's Australian training, and the locals' expectations of coffee is at a level well above Starbucks' ability to compete, even with their resources.

Who could possibly have patronised all those Starbucks outlets? Surely there wouldn't have been enough risk-averse American businessmen passing through to justify 85 of them.

australia business coffee schadenfreude starbucks 5

2008/7/9

The Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification has banned the postapocalyptic war game Fallout 3 (which is rated M in the US), not because of the realistic gore but because, in allowing the player to use the painkiller morphine, it promotes drug use.

australia censorship videogames war on drugs wtf 4

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