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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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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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Comms down: NSW Floods

I once spent a rainy weekend learning how to report from a hostile zone. 

On the evening the course began, a dozen of us sat around a camp table in a converted shed deep in the Kangaroo Valley, its concrete floor spattered with human blood from squashed leeches. The lights suddenly cut and firecrackers exploded behind us. When we eventually switched the lights back on, one of our number had disappeared – ‘kidnapped’ at the hands of our instructors. 

It was the beginning of a weekend designed to shock, if not convince. We self-consciously fumbled our way through exercises simulating hostage situations, being shot at, dodging improvised explosive devices and midnight dashes through hostile territory. It was all fabulously incongruous with the Porsche parked in the muddy driveway, Sydney a short, easy drive away.  

I did, however, come away with one important lesson: always assume a communications black-out. In war zones and natural disasters, more often than not, the reality on the ground is that phone signal, internet and 3,4 or 5G have been wiped out. I put the theory into practice just weeks later as I reported from flood-hit Dungog after 2015’s massive east coast low. Not only was it almost impossible to reach by road, but no electricity, phones and internet made getting any information in or out doubly tricky.

And here, right now, in NSW’s Northern Rivers, that lesson again rings true. On Monday morning, as reports of Lismore residents screaming from their rooftops for help started reaching the media, Facebook lit up with scores of messages of concerned family and friends pleading for news of their loved ones. People dropped what they were doing to reach the addresses that steadily landed on community pages, updates putting worried minds at ease. But by Tuesday evening, the internet had largely petered out.

SES and emergency services, not to mention community groups, live on social media. But with internet knocked out and patchy phone signals across much of the region, there is no way to remotely check where floods have inundated, which roads are washed away and to connect with communities in danger; there is no way to know who needs what, where and when. 

Beside the urgency of the immediate need – whole towns devastated, thousands without homes and clean water – a comms black-out poses an added layer of chaos across the region, even for those who now face nothing more inconvenient than canned fruit and muddy gardens. 

We are all hugely and overwhelmingly dependent on one thing: the internet. Without it, the systems we’ve created to make life easier end up, well, making life harder.

Where there are shops still open, no internet means no payments by card. Which in turns means a run on ATMs. Non-retail businesses that depend on the internet – most, that is – have gone AWOL. At the pharmacy, e-prescriptions can’t be processed. At the doctor, the Medicare system can’t be accessed. School is closed and NSW’s online remote learning modules sit untouched. Thousands need and want to help, without knowing where to direct that energy. 

We’ve gone from the crisis of the pandemic, which gave us virtual hyper-connectivity, to another that removes that connectivity and replaces it with a strange and quietly unnerving befuddlement. We can’t busy ourselves with work, distract ourselves with Netflix, get bills paid. But we also can’t search for information about donations and fundraising. We can’t check if the motorway has reopened, where fuel is available or which supermarket hasn’t shut its doors because of empty shelves. We can’t WhatsApp relatives overseas – or friends down the road – to let them know we’re safe and dry. As one neighbour said, it is the first time in twenty years that he has not had the internet at his fingertips. 

Instead, the radio plays, non-stop. The local radio station does what it can to deliver vital information. A blind Jack Russell has been found and taken to a shelter in Ocean Shores. St Finbarr’s Church is collecting bedding and nappies. If nothing else, climate change poses a case for saving local news outlets – we saw it with the bushfires, and we see it again, now, as the region depends on radio to deliver news that matters.

And, things turn physical. Neighbours are dropping in on each other to check they are ok, having real conversations. Cafes are feeding cashless locals on trust. Where fuel is available, groups of friends are driving cars and boats to affected areas and taking help to those in need instead of waiting for word to reach them. IRL, the community is taking initiative, bound by its isolation. Where small pockets of 4G are available, word-of-mouth spreads and cars collect, their occupants tapping on laptops in car parks and on curb sides, doing what can’t be done in person – or put off by a mega flood. 

Because what natural disasters show us in scary focus is that we have put all of our chips on the internet being there. Just always being there, dependable and wondrous and super convenient. Until comms are down, that is.

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