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.


These are a few of my favourite pings // 9.7

I was at a prime minister’s funeral on my birthday. I watched the sun set over Uluru with a prince and princess and was thrown sideways in a ute next to a sheep sheering display. I’ve climbed masts, thrown axes, driven fast cars, had a police escort, been chased by a dingo, waded through flood water, been patronised by a (living) prime minister and have been ordered to leave a squatters camp. I’ve argued and laughed and charmed and pissed off and mumbled and pushed…and spent many hours sitting, staring at my computer screen, in a grey-on-grey office. But what are some of my favourite products of my working life of late?

Here are my fondest recentish stories, in no particular order:

Why Australia’s free barbecues are a national treasure

Lunch with Maha Krayem Abdo head of Muslim Women’s Association and NSW Human Rights Ambassador

Lunch with Adam Spencer: revenge of the nerds

Lunch with hand surgeon W Bruce Conolly preserves the formalities

Ashley Johnston hailed as Kurds’ hero in Sydney funeral

Good Food on Sunday: The Bondi Hipsters love Faheem’s Fast Food

For the feel of the drive alone, I’m going to include our She says, he says, BMW i3 review

Violent flash flood leaves Dungog residents in shock after friends perish

Ebola’s enduring legacy of trauma

Gough Whitlam memorial: a fitting end to a great, and chequered, career

And, finally, for the video, this ditty: I try my hand at axe throwing


POTUS and FLOTUS, I miss you // 26 April 2012

They are the coolest couple in America. Or at the very least, the coolest couple to grace the ever-multiplying pages of the MailOnline.

Barack and Michelle Obama, I miss you.

I always loved writing about you – and articles focusing on you together are far more fun to put together than those simply looking at you, Mrs Obama, even though you do give brilliantly good grab when it comes to both words and pictures. Indeed, stories write themselves when it comes to you, FLOTUS.

Mobama, you bounced around the White House in a hessian sack with Jimmy Kimmel,  you played tennis and air-fisted in DC, you threw down some solid shapes, dancing on a stage in front of 5,000 kids in Virginia. You chose Jason Wu, you do Target, you wear flats. You can do no wrong.

Together – in unity is where the sparks really fly – there are ass-squeezes, flirtatious looks, raised eyebrows, cocked heads, dances, laughs: the stuff of romance, Hollywood, dreams to include in otherwise down-to-earth news copy. Your chemistry seems to elevate the most mundane story to something of a break from reality, a glimpse into a fairytale.

I’m banging on now, sycophantically outing myself. It’s struck me of late, you see, that I really do miss covering news of the President and his wife. They’re a bona fide power couple, a statuesque pair that I see at once as being in touch, within reach and utterly untouchable. And that’s before we get into the politics of it all.

Then there’s Julia Gillard, Australia’s answer to the President. Questionable and oft-changing hair colour, a shocking wardrobe (though I have it on good authority that her body shape is awkward to dress…) and an aloof coldness that I can’t imagine ever letting up enough to joke with reporters or prance around  with school children.

She’s simply no comparison to Mobama – and she isn’t even the PM’s partner. In her defense, I have read that the Welsh-born lass is a consummate flirt, has a twinkle in her eye and has time for a good laugh, but I need proof. Those working with her say she is a great boss, even-tempered and fair. But I await a flow of positively ice-melting tenderness, genuine (at least to the untrained eye) affection, self-deprecating humility. Strong ideas, a sense of belonging, confidence in her (somewhat poisoned chalice) position.

As American – and, some may say, as utterly irrelevant to leadership – as it is, I want clever ensembles, smart shoe choices, fashion-forward savviness. I want the dancing, the silly humour, the penchant for breaking into song. The pally chuckles between Barack and Dave.

In short, I have become Obamafied. And it’s not just Julia who has fallen prey to my NBC-induced, unfair irrationality. Sarkozy, you are too pinched, Dave, you’re too school-boyish, Angela, I can’t see you breaking into Al Green or slow-jamming with Jimmy Fallon.

This is, of course, pure conjecture. Who am I, who are we, to know what goes on behind closed, security-proofed, doors? What are the Obamas really like on holiday, when angry, when drunk, when embarrassed? Would Ms Merkel out-karaoke Bombama any day?

FLOTUS and POTUS, you’ve set an unreal precedent – a threshold of ideal leadership and general put-togetherness that has me holding up impossible expectations when it comes to other heads of states. I want to be your friend. And, no matter how posed, how honed, how staged it all may be, you just seem, well, more real to me. Sorry, Julia.


A land of opportunity by any other name // 20 April 2012

There’s nothing like a long break – nine months working in NYC this time – to put things into perspective. As ever, there are things that have changed about Sydney and others that have stood still. It is only human, after all.

The lifestyle, the yawning harbour, the beaches with their wide grins of white sand are all in tact and, I’m happy to confirm, as invigorating as ever.

But, where Australia once stood on the sidelines of the global stage, hubristically viewed by Britain, for one, as a backwater when it came to culture, education, business and adroit technology, change is in the air. In fact, change has precipitated and is pounding on the theatre stages of London, sloshing in coffee cups in New York and is bucketing onto many a young backpackers’ once-Down Under-led dreams.

Australia is rich. Australia has never had a stronger, more impressive image away from its shores. It is bold, uniquely poised, geographically blessed and riding a wave of prodigious growth. It is the remora to the Chinese shark and it is going to squeeze every last drop from the surge.

Or is it?

The trouble is that while this country of 22 million sits on vast reserves of wealth – lazy money, if you will – it is also crippled, politically speaking, by a fractured government. The Australian Labor Party has lost its teeth, paying disproportionate lip service to opinion-polls and more characterised by in-fighting, backstabbing and hairdresser quips than it is by strong leadership to match its global image.

Where New York, London and LA are filled with young, entrepreneurial Aussie restauranteurs, coffee dons (Toby’s Estate opened recently in Williamsburg and has been frantically successful) and actors and Melbourne-based Gotye is close to notching up his 200 MILLIONTH play on YouTube, Canberra’s echoey halls and sinfully sexless CBD simply don’t step up to the mark.

Where is the direction, the clout, the gravitas that the country deserves? Where are the balls, frankly, that are needed to steer the nation towards real solutions when it comes to renewable energy, sustainable population growth, becoming a Republic, dealing with climate change and planning for the day that China buckles. Who is harnessing and translating its great talent into future growth?

It feels good to be back and Australia is in a spectacular position. So why does it feel so behind and so petty when it comes to policy and forward-planning? And why, as coal mines persist to prove themselves the new gold mines, is this country not using some of the profits towards aligning itself as a global leader in solar energy development, or a hotbed of biomimetic architecture? (Though Queensland’s HEAT Architecture scheme and the Cairns Institute are making headway towards the latter).

The opportunities far outweigh the facts on the ground – and, indeed, in the ground.

I have no doubt that the cream will once again rise to the top. It isn’t, sadly, in Canberra today.