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Bentham on my mind

Much of my university study has slipped away, if not out of mind completely, then into its deeper recesses, but Jeremy Bentham’s work somehow defied the status quo and stuck. The panopticon and its modern day applications – ubiquitous CCTV, neighbourhood watch, social media – are all not hidden in plain sight.

The panopticon prison was an idea I came back to again and again during the choking, immensely weighty years of my mother’s time in a secure dementia unit. She was under watch but cared for, locked in but free to roam, feverishly but lumberingly wandering up and down, up and down. Nurses on sentry in their stations did the observing, and, occasionally, the ignoring. I still can’t believe I did that to her.

So, my university lectures mostly feel a long way from the foaming inlets and speckled swamps of Byron Shire. Its roads and its pubs, where constant surveillance is the modus operandi, less so. But what I hadn’t realised is Bentham’s involvement with NSW’s white settler story.

Not only did he find problems in the British colonial approach from the outset (he favoured his own prison design over transportation, arguing to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1798 that it was financially beneficial to the Crown), but he argued the colony had no legal basis, and was, he wrote in A Plea for the Constitution, a “Colossus mounted upon a straw.

As I learnt from Northern Rivers author Julianne Schultz in her uncannily timely The Idea of Australia, he “considered the failure to come to a legal agreement with traditional owners a flaw and predicted it would be ‘incurable’.” His plea and warnings, by the way, were written in 1803. 1803, the year Australia was proved to be an island.

Schultz’s book is timely in many ways (it’s answering so much I’ve questioned, for example, here and here), but also because a recent story I wrote for SBS Voices about the series The Australian Wars won’t slip from my mind. I keep coming back to a quote from Dr Henry Reynolds, with whom I chatted for the story in Munich via Zoom from his home in Tasmania. We talked about the 100 years of bloody wars that formed the shaky foundations for the states and territories of Australia and how so much of that history has been white-washed, forgotten.

Indigenous people were more or less redacted from the story and by the early 20th Century became little more than a footnote in history books. Leaving out First Nations peoples meant, he said, “you left out the violence.”

“To treat Aboriginals as worthy foes would have created a different situation … It would have meant that fundamentally there was that respect for the people who were resisting,” Professor Reynolds told me.

Even as the land’s ancestral people were seen as important enough to fight, they were not seen as human enough to respect. The panopticon was very, very far from those battle grounds.

And, today, as First Nations people make up the largest prison population by far, and are the most surveilled of all Australians, no matter whether incarcerated or walking in Sydney’s CBD, that word ‘incurable’ feels hard to ignore.

I’ve just interviewed a man who helped build the Clarence Correctional Centre, a state-of-the-art prison in the Northern Rivers, and I learnt that it features a stone circle as a place to come together and sit. I presume. Rock and stone circles have for many millennia been part of indigenous cultures around the world, and are a part of Australian Aboriginal rituals and Dreamtime histories. Bora rings are places of initiation, Victoria’s Wurdi Youang rock formation, egg-shaped and in line with seasonal equinoxes, is possibly the world’s oldest astronomical observatory.

There is no getting away from the past. Its arrow is boundless. Today’s prisons borrow from ancient culture while, of course, filling their cells with its people – and Bentham is often long forgotten, although not by me.

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Maid good

Where I live, in Byron Bay, cleaners charge up to $70 an hour. My cleaner has just raised her rate to $50 an hour and about $60 seems quite normal.

To put this in context, a friend has just been offered a role in comms and research, hourly wage $40. Childcarers, $22 an hour.

I say this not to whinge – although my first instinct is to want to rail against it: look at how little childcarers are paid! And what about nurses! And teachers! – but I’m more chuffed for cleaners than I am slightly broken by how much I pay to dodge scrubbing my children’s grubby dirt ring from the bath.

It feels like a mostly unpleasant job is being recognised for what it is – hard and unsavoury work, very often done by women who are loaded with barriers to other career paths. Being a cleaner comes with a social stigma, and in a country where domestic help is rare beyond home cleaning, they are housemaids we choose not to label that way. Anyway, like waiters, whose wages go up and up, cleaners are almost as rare as hen’s teeth in a post-Covid, economically confused holiday town.

So, I report all this in observation but also in reverence for the verisimilitudes of a planet, a society, a culture in flux. For a Byron that, too, is newly attached to its real estate perversion (hence the cleaners) but also tightly tethered to something far deeper, a power that lives beyond the liminal, winding its way through the flows, currents and patterns, around the ebb and dance of nature’s rhymes.

The Bay I know is not the Bay you know. Nor is it the Bay your parents knew or the Bay your children will know. It’s is, like us, forever in motion, shifting like the sandbars that have come to flavour its current surfing fame – or perhaps that’s the fame that came before its celebrity infamy.

As Steve Shearer writes in his perspicacious review of Tricia Shantz’s Neverland, Byron has been many things since sedimentary layers at Broken Head were formed up to 405 million years ago. Mercurial primary produce prices saw a buttery and abattoir come and go and then come again – and whale hunting had its short, bloody and profitable moment in the Byron sun. Magically and improbably, its sand was heavily mined after it was found to contain minerals that the US needed in its space program. Stardust to stardust.

With each iteration of a place and a region – and a world – in neverending movement, the push and pull of celebration and detraction, of loss and love, of boom and bust, will forever shape our lives.

I read, in Clover Stroud’s brilliant book about motherhood, My Wild and Sleepless Nights, that nothing is set in stone, apart from the love she has for her children, which is carved into rock. I feel the same, and I’d add that respect for one another (be you animal, mineral, vegetable or sprite) has to be up there, close to that granite truth, too.

Cleaners will charge what they can now, which will not be what they are able to charge in the future. What can’t be negotiated and must be fought for, is the life force that exists far beyond us and our whims, far beyond all we see and all we judge. That, simply, is not for sale.

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The truth of Australian wars

My latest feature for SBS, and one of the most important topics I have ever covered. Read the story in full below, or over at SBS.

“I was angry that my ancestors were part of the white-washing of history”

As a young girl, Sandy Hamilton held her ancestor, Stephen Partridge, in great esteem. A member of the British Army’s 46th Regiment, her great-great-great-grandfather had arrived in New South Wales in 1814, travelling its rivers with explorer John Oxley and later becoming superintendent of convicts in Port Macquarie.

“During my childhood my father instilled in us a sense of honour that we were somehow better because of our bloodlines to this man,” the educator from NSW tells SBS Voices.

But it was a version of history that turned its eyes from the whole, inconveniently grim, truth.

In fact, Partridge and his regiment arrived in NSW to witness the occupiers meeting resistance from independent, self-governing Aboriginal nations. The response was brutal and indiscriminate.

The fear and the stakes were deemed so high that, in 1816, the 46th was ordered by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to punish “hostile natives” – despite their status as the King’s subjects – by firing upon them and “hanging up on trees the bodies of such natives as may be killed in order to strike the greater terror into the survivors.”

And so unfolded the Appin massacre, when Muringong, Dharawal and Gandangara men, women and children were ambushed in their sleep and shot or forced over the cliff edge by soldiers moments before dawn at their encampment at Broughton Pass, 60km south west of Sydney.

In the aftermath, 14 bodies were counted although it is believed others were not retrieved from the gorge of the Cataract River below. At least three, including one woman, were later decapitated and sold by soldiers.

Far from his sparkling image, Partridge was likely party to a violent attack on women and children.

It is a fact that Hamilton learnt in 2016, when she watched Dharawal elder Glenda Chalker describing the 46th’s involvement with the Appin massacre on TV. Hamilton instantly checked her family records and realised the connection.

Every detail I discovered made me sick to the core, but I felt compelled to find out the truth about him and not just the glorified version

“It was a shock. Every detail I discovered made me sick to the core, but I felt compelled to find out the truth about him and not just the glorified version,” says Hamilton.

“It’s the cover-up that angered me. I was angry that my ancestors were part of the white-washing of history … [My ancestor] was also an instrument in the dark history of the invasion.

“I don’t remember the word massacre used in relation to Australia up until a few years ago. I’m now 57.”

The following day, she drove six hours to Appin and met with Chalker, taking the first steps on what has become a long journey of healing – and a determination to speak plainly about the past where it has so often been obfuscated.

In her new SBS documentary series, Arrernte and Kalkadoon presenter Rachel Perkins explores the “great Australian silence” around Appin and the many other massacres that form Australia’s bloodiest 100 years. The Australian Wars lays out the unpalatable facts: soldiers, convicts and settlers made a grab for land in what many historians agree counts as a war – and yet no war in Australia was ever declared.

Before that fateful dawn raid at Appin, Governor Macquarie instructed his men to avoid injuring women and children wherever possible and to call a command to surrender. But historians claim he would have known that First Nations people lived in family groups, making it impossible to attack male warriors alone. And, “even if there was a call to surrender, that was never, ever going to happen when you turn up at dawn with 30 soldiers with muskets ready. As soon as someone moves, the order to fire is given,” historian Dr Stephen Gapps tells Perkins in the series. “It was always going to turn into a massacre,” he says.

Realising that what happened at Appin was illegal and well beyond the bounds of civilised behaviour, Macquarie sanitised the record, as historian Bruce Scates tells Perkins in the series. “Several natives have been unavoidably killed and wounded in consequence of them not having surrendered themselves on being called to do so,” Macquarie wrote afterwards.

It is just one of many instances of white-washing that served Australia’s settlers and, 200 years on, continue to dominate the narrative of Australian colonisation. As the series notes, even people living in Appin do not know of its barbaric history.

Hamilton’s thoughts about Partridge run parallel to how society is beginning to reappraise Macquarie’s achievements. She has accepted that Appin is in her DNA, but was Partridge simply a soldier following orders?

“Was he a terrible man … was he cold-hearted and lacking in all feeling? He wasn’t trained to run down innocent women and children and old people, so I can’t help but to think that as a human being he was shocked by the situation he found himself in and that he was repulsed and horrified by what he was compelled to do. I hope he was,” she says.

“I don’t know how he lived with himself after that. All I can imagine is that he was in some sort of denial.”

It is likely that, fresh from the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, he would have seen his job in NSW as part of another small-scale war, Professor Henry Reynolds, who appears in the series, explains to SBS Voices. Certainly, the Dharawal people would have seen this as war in its most fundamental of senses – but for the British to acknowledge that would have made a knotty situation yet more complicated.

“To treat Aboriginals as worthy foes would have created a different situation … It would have meant that fundamentally there was that respect for the people who were resisting,” says Professor Reynolds.

Instead, according to Reynolds, Indigenous people were increasingly redacted from the story and by the early 20th Century became little more than a footnote in history books. Leaving out First Nations peoples meant, “you left out the violence,” he says, and leaving out the violence meant swallowing, then promulgating, a convenient falsehood.

Now, asks Perkins, “are we ready to face the past … or go on living a lie?”

Hamilton has faced hers unflinchingly. She attends the “incredibly poignant” Appin Commemoration every year, where, aware of the complex layers of her story, she celebrates the survival of the Dharawal people and its culture, in spite of massacre, abduction, servitude and, ultimately, silence.

“It wasn’t just white settlers defending themselves,” says Hamilton. “Unless we can lay it all out on the table and talk about the details … unless we’re brave enough to actually accept those truths and those stories, then we can’t really understand our history or our present. We can’t make sense of where we’re at right now unless we can look very plainly at what happened.

“There is no reconciliation without truth-telling. The trauma continues every time the truth is not told.”

The 46th was eventually posted to India while Partridge transferred to the 48th Regiment when his wife became pregnant. Today, he is survived by hundreds of living descendants. “Many,” Hamilton believes, “aren’t ready for this moment of reckoning.”

Three-part documentary series The Australian Wars premieres on Wednesday 21 September at 7.30pm on SBS and NITV, airing weekly. You can catch up at SBS On Demand.

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Saunas and the Queen

When she died, the Queen took with her a sense of serene bigness. Bigger than the small things, bigger than the silly things, bigger than so much we’ve chosen to label as important. I was sad and I knew I would be, but what I hadn’t expected was a feeling that an overarchingly powerful, calm, sound voice of reason had disappeared. Amid social media and fake news and Trump and Brexit and the swirling maelstrom of distractions from things that really matter, the Queen appeared to rise above the nonsense, and I couldn’t help feeling many needed that image more than ever.

For all the problems of the monarchy – and this is where I make my case that surely now, please, is an opportune time for Australia to become a republic, thus paving the way for a more equal and just country with a constitution that puts First Nations people at its centre and brings us all with it – the Queen got on with her job.

I was in the UK when she died but I’m writing from Munich, where the winter skidded into the beginning of September, shoving autumn cleanly out of the wings, where it had patiently waited while a gloriously long and scarily warm summer stole the show. Autumn was due to be short – trees would lose leaves in a day or two, as tinder dry as so many were – but it wasn’t given a chance. As Oktoberfest rages, scarves and hats and gloves emerge, muffling the cold, damp ceramic of freshly filled Maskrugs. The Bayerisch know how to drink, but they also know how to do winter, and, besides beer, saunas and warm public swimming pools feature heavily in their survival technique. This winter, though, is different.

Just as summer was a blasting, outlying inferno, so this cold season will be unlike many. Call-ups have spread across Russia and we’re still not sure how we’ll keep Europe running over the next few months, but we’re also four explosions in to a long winter over at Nordstream 1. As fuel prices rise, Munich council has closed all public saunas and dropped its usual 24C swimming pools to 21C. Those three degrees might seem piffling given the Caritas stands welcoming refugees to Munich’s Hauptbahnhof, but they represent the unfolding of a crisis that will leave many thousands shivering in their own homes. In the UK, the BBC’s wall-to-wall narrative, until the 8th September, was unrelenting: eating or heating, which will you chose? That all shifted in an instant as lenses were suddenly trained on Balmoral’s gates and the fuel crisis was dropped for an overwhelmingly tender, if frenzied, media moment.

It didn’t take long to fade. Under the new PM (and the new king), the pound has hit the skids, house prices have been tipped to fall by as much as 20 per cent and the IMF has intervened to point out to the UK that for any economy to work, fiscal policy really needs to complement monetary policy. The fuel price is biting. The news, again, has become what it was before the Queen died of old age and snuffed out a bigness that, for three weeks, pushed everything else aside.

Last week, I flew over Nordstream’s path and when I landed in Helsinki, I was only a few hundred kilometres from St Petersbourg. But in Munich – and I dare say London, although much of its mess is its very own – Russia feels closer than ever. It’s cold, the saunas are off. And this is just the beginning of the winter.

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