Christine Milne – the URGENT case for zero carbon budget

Christine Milne’s speech on 27 April 2015 is an articulate and accurate picture of the current climate situation in Australia: the reality, the politics, how to progress.

This is real and extremely urgent.

It is ESSENTIAL reading/watching.
“Getting to zero pollution by 2040 is not the tale of woe, laden with costs, lost-jobs and heartache as the Minerals Council of Australia and the echo chamber of the Murdoch press will tell you. Rapidly decarbonising our society is an opportunity to address what we don’t like about the way we live. Nobody likes pollution and the health impacts associated with it. Nobody likes sitting in traffic for hours and hours due to congestion. Nobody likes the fact that our community is full of anxiety, our community is worried sick about the future. We can replace what we’ve got with what we want and the jobs to go with it. It’s going to take everyone. We can rethink every system we have got because we need to, and in doing so we can bring this incredible innovation and imagination that people have got to those problems. Business as usual is over. This is the opportunity to draw a line under it and say now we can do it differently, and if we could do it differently how would we do it.”
Christine Milne

“They’re polluting the planet for free, and you’re paying the price”
Christine Milne


27 April 2015
I acknowledge that we meet here on land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present — and in so doing acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are already suffering the impacts of global warming. When people talk about the fact that we’ve had a temperature rise of 0.8, they don’t realise that that is not uniform – that in Central Australia, in the Torres Strait and other places, there is a disproportionate effect on those communities. And it would be ironic if we tried to restore title to Aboriginal land and recognition in the Constitution but drove people from their lands because we failed to act on climate.

But I wanted to mention right at the start that we are here at a critical time in the history of our planet and our civilization, globally and locally. Never before has one cohort of people been able to determine what life will be like for every generation and species that comes after us.

Local, or even regional civilizations, have been decimated before from the Euphrates through to Easter Island, South American contexts, but never before on a planetary scale. But that is the power we now possess. This is what makes it the age of the Anthropocene.

The key question facing us all is whether the world’s political systems, nationally and globally through the United Nations, are capable of addressing the global warming emergency facing us all on a scale and in a timeframe that gives us a chance of avoiding an unliveable planet.

There is an almost complete disconnect between the physical reality of the world we now live in and the political and economic constructs we have created to govern ourselves. We live on a finite planet, with a population set to be 9 billion by 2050. There is a physical limit to the capacity of the oceans, rivers and atmosphere to absorb waste while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can sustain life as we know it. There is a physical limit to the extraction and burning of non-renewable fossil fuels if we are to maintain a safe climate – and you might have seen Professor Will Steffen coming out last week saying that the latest research says 88% of Australia’s coal reserves need to stay in the ground for a 50/50 chance of constraining global warming to less than 2 degrees. But politics and economics actually deny these realities. Instead, we have meeting after meeting and the world’s political leaders and we’re all off to the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. For 21 years we have been talking about this and when we get to Paris this year, we’ll talk about what needs to be done and then find every excuse for not doing it.

Paris is set against a backdrop of accelerating global warming. The Totten glacier in east Antarctica is melting from underneath – and when it melts, three and a half meter rise. We don’t know when that will occur but it’s already under way. The West Antarctic ice sheet is disintegrating and the retreat of the sea ice in the Amundsen Sea, for example, is irreversible. The Arctic ice is thinning and has reached the record lowest winter extent ever. Craters are opening in Siberia as the tundra melts spewing methane to atmosphere. Recent research is telling us the thermo haline ocean conveyor is slowing in the Atlantic. And, only a few weeks ago latest research showed that the Amazon is slowing in its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. Extreme weather events are more and more intense with floods, fires, droughts, cyclones, typhoons, and heat waves killing more and more people. The oceans are becoming more acidic and the capacity of microscopic creatures to form shells is diminishing, threatening the marine food chain and coral reefs are dying. We are living, right now, in the 6th wave of extinction.

That’s something we really have to take on board – and all of this with only 0.8 of 1 degree of warming. But we’re on a path to 4 to 6 degrees of warming. Tipping points are being reached and they’re irreversible. So why would anyone fly to Paris, like Prime Minister Abbott is doing this week, with a briefcase full of notes on how to frustrate action on global warming on the premise that action is not in the national interest?  Why indeed.

The answer is simple. Whereas it is not in the national interest of people or nations to undermine action, it is in the interests of vested corporates who are making billions in the short term from spewing greenhouse gases to atmosphere. It is in their interests to buy governments with political donations and entrench the revolving door between politics and boardrooms. It is especially so in Australia where there is a disproportionate number of resource based vested interests. That is why I have reached the conclusion that we will not win on the climate, here or anywhere, until we take our democracy back from these vested interests that have bought it. We are no longer living in a democracy in Australia, we are a plutocracy. A political system ruled and dominated by the small minority of wealthy citizens and corporations. That’s a shocking thing to say but from my perspective in Canberra that is precisely how the government runs.

The Abbott government is the wholly owned subsidiary of the coal industry- it’s torn down carbon pricing, attacked the RET, abolished the mining tax, maintained fossil fuel subsidies, attempted to abolish ARENA and CEFC, promoted the return of environmental protection powers to the states rather than the Commonwealth, promoted Carmichael and Galilee basin coal mines, promoting CSG and most recently approached Bjorn Lomborg to come to UWA dangling a $4m carrot. And at the same time running around with Peabody coal’s public relations materials saying coal is good for humanity.

So the first thing we need to do to secure serious action on the climate is to restore our democracy by taking back the power for people from corporations. A prerequisite for action and a fundamental part of a framework to address global warming is political reform. We need proportional representation, we need political donations reform, stronger freedom of information and whistleblower laws, greater transparency in corporate reporting and disclosure, a national ICAC, restored funding to the Environmental Defenders Offices and a stronger public service not constrained by short term contracts. We need budgets from a Federal Government that are internally consistent and designed to deliver planned outcomes for emissions reduction.

At the same time we need to inspire people with a vision of what is possible, with the idea that the wave of innovation that will be necessary will touch everyone and is a huge opportunity. Just as JFK inspired America with his call to put a man on the moon in a decade in the 1960s, we need to inspire Australians now to put all of our collective intelligence, creativity and innovation to work. So I put it to you, let us as a nation secure net zero emissions by 2040. We can do it. The average age of Apollo 11’s mission control team was 28 years old. The youth were really engaged. They transcended the ordinary limits of human existence on that mission as it was known in 1961. They put that man on the moon, and so too it needs to be on climate.

So what level of ambition is needed to avoid catastrophic climate change? The world decided in Copenhagen to cap global emissions at a level that would not exceed 2 degrees. To achieve that at a 67% probability, the Climate Change Authority tells us that our global budget of emissions is 1,700 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent between 2000 and 2050. Now that sounds like a lot, but in the first twelve years of this fifty year budget we have already used up 36 per cent of that budget, making the job we have to do in the out years harder and harder. And that’s with 67% probability. What if you were to try for 90% probability of actually securing 2 degrees – you would have to say we’ve already run out of the budget.

The independent Climate Change Authority concluded that Australia’s global responsibility should be 1% of that entire budget, which translates to a remaining budget for Australia of 10.1 billion tonnes from 2013 onwards. On our current pollution levels, Australia will use up its entire allocation by 2030, twenty years too early.

Unlike the government’s budget pantomime, this is the very real budget emergency that Australia faces.

Translating this budget into national targets and the gradient of the trajectory to meet the budget is the next critical consideration. This week the Climate Change Authority has plotted this trajectory and said that our 2025 target, just 10 years away, has to be 30% below 2000 levels and our 2030 target has to be 40-60% less.

But that will not happen if the Labor Party and the Liberal Party stay in furious agreement that our 2020 target should be just 5% below 2000 levels, meaning an additional 25% gap has to be bridged in just five years. This is frankly unachievable with our current political settings. It is very poor foresight and very selfish. It is so frustrating because we have known since the Stern Review in 2006 that an early planned transition is so much cheaper than radical dislocation later.

Each year that we delay is a direct transfer of a greater and greater burden upon future generations. You heard Joe Hockey talk about intergeneration theft, well I say what the Abbott Government is doing on climate is a classic case of intergenerational theft on a grand scale. Ironically history will show that the people doing the most to delay action are the ones who are undermining our economic system and our way of life into the future.

And while I am proud to have established the Climate Change Authority, and its solid contributions to informed public debate about our national aspirations to prevent global warming, the Greens do with great respect, take issue with some of their underlying assumptions. We do not challenge the scientific data that sits behind their work, but we do challenge the level of probability we are aiming at to avoid tipping points which trigger dangerous feedback loops in our climate system.

The work of the Climate Change Authority is based on achieving a 67% chance of avoiding runaway global warming. The Australian Greens want targets that would provide a 75% chance of stabilising global temperatures at two degrees and a 50/50 chance of stabilising at 1.5 degrees. This is especially so given the latest science and the likelihood that the IPCC will reduce the carbon budget even further and they will do so not only because of the science but also the political sense that smaller, least developed countries are the ones pushing for a global agreement that is set at 1.5 because they recognize that they are the countries set to drown and effectively that’s already happening in some of those small island nation states. So we’ve got a situation where the science is hardening, the maths needs recalculation – and that’s why we should err on the side of fast and dramatic action now.

The Climate Change Authority have also based their targets on what they considered was Australia’s fair share of the global pollution budget and they said that was 1% of global emissions. This is down from the 1.3% it is now. Why would any other country accept that is Australia’s fair share at a time when we are pushing fossil fuels upon the world with our Prime Minister out advocating coal as being good for humanity and poverty reduction?

Why would they accept a 1% contribution is not enough for a rich nation like us especially as we are the world’s highest emitter on a per capita basis? On a per capita basis every Australian is responsible for 26.6 tonnes; it’s 8 in the UK. We are three times the emitter that they are. We are just 0.3% of the global population but we are the 13th biggest polluter out of 247 countries.

Add to that the fact that 4/5ths of the coal we dig up here is exported to other countries where it ends up on our customer’s greenhouse balance sheets. If we owned up to these harmful products that we are pushing, then by 2020 our sparsely populated continent would be responsible for 4% of global emissions. We have a huge global responsibility to do our fair share.

And the rest of the world is starting to ask serious questions. The EU, United States, China, France have all been asking questions about the adequacy of Australia’s targets, asking what is the difference between direct action and the emissions trading scheme, how does Australia justify the claims it is making, are they going to use the land use, land use change and forestry provisions again to their effect. So nobody is taking this seriously.

A final component in setting targets is based on the international principles of historical responsibility and ability to finance our contributions. Given that a great proportion of our historical (and current) wealth has derived from emissions intensive activities and the export of fossil fuels, we are a wealthy nation well equipped to leverage the opportunities of the new low carbon global economy – we have to do more.

For this reason, we want 75% probability of achieving 2 degrees if not 1.5, we’ve got a small population and a high per capita emissions rate, we’ve got big historical responsibility and we do have the human resource capacity to act and so that’s why the Greens are now announcing much more ambitious emissions reduction targets.

So to lift our ambition in this crucial global contract, and to provide enormous economic opportunities to new industries and innovators, the Greens post-2020 targets are for 40-50% by 2025 – that’s 10 years away, halving our emissions levels by 2025 – and 60-80% by 2030 taking us on a steady trajectory to reach net-zero pollution by 2040. The next decade is the decade for heavy lifting. These targets are achievable. Already we’re seeing other nations submit their targets. Their aspirations have to be compiled and analysed in preparation for the Paris Summit to see whether each individual country’s proposals when added together meet our global budget. And I can tell you now, they won’t. There’s no doubt about that.

Australia has signalled it will announce its post-2020 target about the time of the UN meeting in Bonn, Germany in June. When this occurs, be ready for all sorts of accounting trickery which Australia is capable of. You will know about the “the Australia Clause” in the first Kyoto protocol which allowed our total emissions to increase by 8% on the basis of halting land clearing that Peter Beattie’s Queensland had already announced they would do that.

When they eventually do announce our post 2020 target there will be many more tricks.

Firstly, they will move the baseline year. Up until now the baseline year was 2000. Australia will suddenly decide we’re going to compare it with 2005. Why? Because that was the year of maximum emissions, so comparing a 2020 target to 2005 makes it look much bigger. 5 to 13 at the stoke of a pen.

Secondly, they will repeat what the Labor government did by offering a range based on conditions being satisfied. But the point is, they will never agree that those conditions are ever satisfied. Now if you remember, the conditions Australia laid down – 5% and up to 25% if conditions were met. Well they were met. They have been met post Cancun. But Australia has never conceded it. So any talk higher than 5% has been completely rejected by the media and by both the old political parties and that is a real deceit on the population.

The Greens targets are ambitious, 40-50% by 2025, 60-80% by 2030, and net-zero pollution by 2040, but they are achievable and they are essential. We spend billions on foreign wars allegedly to keep Australia safe when the greatest challenge to our security and well-being is runaway global warming. That is where we should be investing in Australia right now.

Getting to zero pollution by 2040 is not the tale of woe, laden with costs, lost-jobs and heartache as the Minerals Council of Australia and the echo chamber of the Murdoch press will tell you. Rapidly decarbonising our society is an opportunity to address what we don’t like about the way we live. Nobody likes pollution and the health impacts associated with it. Nobody likes sitting in traffic for hours and hours due to congestion. Nobody likes the fact that our community is full of anxiety, our community is worried sick about the future . We can replace what we’ve got with what we want and the jobs to go with it. It’s going to take everyone. We can rethink every system we have got because we need to, and in doing so we can bring this incredible innovation and imagination that people have got to those problems. Business as usual is over. This is the opportunity to draw a line under it and say now we can do it differently, and if we could do it differently how would we do it.

But it’s not enough to just have a destination, a goal, you have to have a pathway to get there and the Greens ambitious targets are accompanied by a clear pathway  that will deliver not only emissions reductions but more resilient ecosystems that protect our fresh water, plants, animals, forests, reefs, wetlands, rivers, that give us fresh water, clean air, uncontaminated soils. Plus it enables better educated, healthier, happier, more productive, connected jobs rich communities. You’ve got a community coming together to face a huge challenge. What’s not to love about that? Instead of isolated people worrying themselves sick about the way they’re living, people will embrace a goal and come together.

Transforming our economy will be the biggest driver of economic prosperity, job creation and innovation over the coming decades. Fighting global warming now, creates prosperity now.

The Greens pathway to achieve our national targets can be best described against those areas where highest levels of pollution occur. 50% of our 547 million tonnes of pollution each year come from our energy sector. So this is obviously where we will start. That’s where we will make the most gains the fastest.

We need to keep the RET at 41,000 gigawatt hours by 2020. This would deliver 26-28% of Australia’s energy and lift it massively into the future to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2030. As this new renewable energy supply comes on line, we can take more of the old coal generation offline. With such a staged, well-planned transition, we can prepare the transition from coal jobs of the last century, to 21st century jobs of the future. Already solar jobs outnumber coal jobs across Australia. The energy revolution has been won by renewables and solar has won within that.

We can immediately close down the 9000 megawatts of coal fired power that Australia’s independent energy market operator has said that right now we don’t even need. The Greens have a plan to remove our most polluting and redundant coal power stations. Hazelwood and Alcoa’s Anglesea power station in Victoria, Callide and Stanwell in QLD and Lidell and Wallerwarang in NSW. All of that is possible now and won’t make a difference to the security of the energy system.

The Greens support an emissions trading scheme which would send an economy wide price signal to drive investment towards cleaner activities and away from dirtier ones. But on its own, an ETS is no panacea to all the problems we face. The words “Emissions Trading Scheme” have been devalued and should not be seen as stand-alone code for climate action. The devil is in the detail and the extent to which it is effective relates to the severity of the cap, i.e. the target, and the generosity of the exemptions and the extent to which it drives transformation here at home through restriction of overseas permits. A trading scheme is one part in a policy mosaic that includes regulation, incentives and penalties as well.
We also need to make sure that there is consistency across policy. No political party can be serious about climate action, support an ETS to reduce emissions and at the same time support expansion in the coal and coal seam gas mining industries, maintain fossil fuel subsidies and the logging of native forests.

The National Electricity Market is a case in point. It was designed for a previous era and is broken. We need new legislation. Firstly, it needs an environmental objective in line with our greenhouse gas reduction target so that it is a tool to deliver Australia’s agreed targets in international agreements. Secondly, big financial incentive for companies to build more and more infrastructure driving our bills up with transmission and distribution costs must go. We have spent $45 billion over the last five years on this – more than what the NBN was expected to cost. This has happened at the same time as we are all using less energy – so this gold-plated infrastructure will never be needed. The era of centralised power being carried hundreds of kilometres to its customer is coming largely to a close. The rise of locally generated, stored and distributed energy is inevitable and the electricity market must change.

The fastest growing area of pollution in recent years has been in fugitive emissions created from coal mining and coal seam gas, now at 8% of our total. There must be no new coal and CSG. We say no to opening Galilee Basin. For existing mines, we need to put a price on pollution for the dirty fuels we use at home, end fossil fuel subsidies and put a price on the pollution we export. Last election, the Greens said there must be a $2 per tonne levy on fossil fuel exports with the money raised directed into a National Disaster Resilience Fund to cover the loss of community infrastructure and adaptation measures from the extreme weather events already occurring. Coal is driving intensity of events. Coal barons should pay!

The citizens movement worldwide to take action against fossil fuels is gaining momentum especially as economic projections add to the case that fossil fuels are not only bad for the climate but bad for drive investments towards clean energy solutions and away from dirtier ones. However, the ETS is not a panacea. And please, when you hear the words Emissions Trading Scheme do not believe this is code for action on climate. It is only a tool and it is effective ness depends on the severity of the cap for a start, the level of exemption and free permits associated with it and thirdly the extent to which it drives change at home and the extent to which it is limited by overseas permits. So when you hear people say that they believe in climate action and it has to be an emissions trading scheme, just recognise that that is a political statement that needs unpacking.

We need to reform the national electricity market. It was designed for a previous era. It is broken. We need a national electricity market that has an environmental objective up front – that the goal of the electricity market is to facilitate the reduction in emissions that we have set down in global treaties.

Also we have to stop new coal mines and new coal seam gas. The fastest area of growing area of emissions is fugitive emissions from these fossil fuels. We can end fossil fuel subsidies and we can put a $2 levy on the coal exports that go out of this country and put it into a national Disaster Resilience Fund which would enable fund to be put up front for adaptation now and help fund the response to disasters later.

Divestment is something that we can all be engaged with and I really congratulate the university for the work it’s done. ANU’s divestment caused a bit of a stir to start with but it’s already paid off. ANU were vindicated when the shares they sold started to fall and the University realized a strong “return on divestment.” And here at the University of Sydney there is work going on with divestment.

We need that to be the same with the Future Fund.

In terms of energy efficiency, we need a National Energy Efficiency Target and a white certificate scheme so we get the built environment to change so that it’s a healthy built environment but one that reduces emissions, one that has better amenities for the people who work in it; and of course all the jobs – whether it’s in architecture, urban design and planning, public transport is another major area because it is a big area of emissions and with such low interest rates at the moment, it’s the perfect time for governments to borrow and invest in massive public transport infrastructure around the country and especially high speed rail actually linking the states. That would make a massive difference.

But so too in our landscape.  We have to stop logging native forests. Our native forests are massive carbon stores. They store a fantastic biodiversity but knocking them down makes no sense whatsoever. We need to protect carbon in the landscape and make sure we do that as a matter of regulation.

This will take everything – not just emissions trading, not just regulation, it will need financial incentives; it will need the whole package of tools to bring about the changes we so desperately need.

We also have to recognise that it’s up to governments and their procurement policies, and President Obama has just done this recently with his procurement policy to go out there and say we need to use government money to get energy productivity and retrofits in buildings, to contract renewable energy projects, to lift vehicle fuel efficiency standards – and I’ve had legislation in the Senate to legislate Australia into the highest fuel efficiency standards to meet those in the EU and that would immediately start to bring down emissions. That is of course before we have a massive roll out of public transport and electric vehicles.

The thing that I think is amazing in my lifetime, I never imagined really we would get to a point where electricity and petrol were two things that went from being fixed costs in a budget to potentially generators of cash for families. If you can imagine, we’ve gone from cars being a cost to cars in an electric vehicle system going from being a transport component to being an energy component – where electric cars can download their batteries at the time of highest peak and shave off the peak in your electricity system. I mean these are extraordinary changes. Where you go from a household where you used to have no choice and now you do and of course battery technology is going to be a massive game changer in terms of enabling people with their solar panels on their roof, their own batteries, their batteries in their car, and they are away! They are able to do what they want to do.

Now in terms of where we go from here – there are all those things to be legislated. It might seem arduous and overwhelming but actually it’s exciting. And Australia is really well positioned to do this. We’re smart, we’ve got great natural resources with renewable energy, we’ve got a fantastic commitment from Australia’s youth to get on with this, we need to invest in education that is essentially, absolutely the basis of getting to a low carbon or zero carbon economy. It means harnessing peoples’ brains to create the change that we need.

We know what’s at stake with global warming. We’ve got the courage to say what needs to be done. We’ve got the support and the focus of the generation who understand what’s at stake.

“The stone age did not end for lack of stone” Nor will the fossil fuel age end for lack of fossil fuels. But a political rethink is necessary. Those institutions, including political parties based on the vested interests of the past are not capable of delivering the changes that are necessary. That’s where the Greens come in. The future is here, let’s embrace it. Let’s rise to the challenge. Let’s walk out of here tonight and say “Net Carbon Zero 2040 – here we come!”


A nation of barrackers

Australian politics has become a battleground where warriors loyal to death raise their political colours to support their chosen party or ideology. The battlelines have been drawn according to political party, or just simple left/right divisions.

This might be a jolly bit of fun if it were merely sporting teams involved, and the real future of Australia as a nation weren’t at stake.

The political discourse lacks nuance, intelligence and informed judgement. Evidence-based policy with a clearly articulated goal has been trampled for populist uninformed initiatives. Shooting sharks, for crying out loud! The treachery dispensed to asylum seekers has no basis in law or policy.

Long-term initiatives to address the challenges of the future, climate change being the most pressing, are ignored in favour of short-term [again] populist actions. Where is our 10/50/100/500 year plan? What do we see for this nation in 200 years’ time? 20 years?

Who does this serve? Certainly not democracy. And that is why I’m deeply concerned by this new phenomenon of political barracking. Democracy is only served when citizens are informed and able to discriminate between self interest and community interest; between short-term outcomes vs long-term benefits. In most cases, a coherent analysis is needed to understand the purpose and impacts of government policy. Only an educated population can do that. Not just educated in vocational and professional skills and knowledge, but also as citizens. As citizens in a democracy we all have the right to protest and make our views known. Genuine civil disobedience is a democratic right, even though there may be judicial consequences. Many a protestor who has been able to demonstrate their actions were of concern for the public good have been acquitted.

Where there is a vacuum it will be filled, and when democracy starts to fail, those with power that would otherwise be contained will fill that void.

Make democracy stronger not weaker

The horrorshow that is the Abbott government is undermining the reputation of democracy itself. And the Liberal/Labor parties too.

A constant stream of lies is touted as truth. Over and over again.

Stupid antics by Abbott as opposition leader and now as PM degrade the position of PM to – what? – class clown? Minister after minister demonstrates a complete lack of policy and consistency of logic. And so on and on and on…

Meanwhile childish revenge is waged against any and every fundamental pillar of Australian society that may have a whiff of Labor or Greens. What’s best for the Australian people in general and Australia as a whole is irrelevant. We are nothing but grist for the corporate mill. Not corporate in general, but corporate mates – fossil fuels in particular.

Right wing commentators are already saying that democracy is broken; it doesn’t work. This is the very worst outcome possible. And there’s every chance it has been orchestrated. Via the US Tea Party at whose feet the IPA and Liberals worship. The Liberals have been the [initially, at least] unwitting Trojan Horse of the extreme right wing ideology; an ideology that is actively putting in place systemic barriers to poor and middle class people voting. And that prevents citizen engagement in our community and politics as is required by a healthy democracy.

Those leading the campaign against democracy are deliberately undermining our confidence and faith how our democracy works.

Many young people do not register to vote – they don’t see why they should.

While we have some idea how rule of law protects us from violent person-on-person crime like murder and robbery; but few of us realise how much we are protected from exploitation and oppression by our democratic system.

The extreme paranoid right-wing ideology imported from the US that presents government as the enemy fails to mention that, without government, we would be weak and without any means of resisting oppression by the most evil forces that have no desire but to exploit and harm us.

Let there be no mistake: when democracy is weakened a power vacuum opens up and the psychopaths swarm in. They have already infiltrated government (Liberal and Labor). Without actively strengthening our institutions and functions of democracy, we are in very grave danger as an egalitarian and free society.  Democracy is our best and only protector, whether it’s socialist or capitalist is irrelevant. We must work to make it better and stronger, and make governments far more accountable.

Actors and their bodies

I’ve never been a consumer of celebrity mags, but it’s sometimes hard to ignore those headlines about who’s showing cellulite, got a bit thin/podgy etc.  It was none of my business and I just wasn’t interested anyway.

However, after I’d edited a number of actors’ CVs, I had a revelation about the role of an actor’s body  in their profession. An actor’s body is his or her tool of the trade. It is what they make their living from. An accurate and almost clinical description of their dimensions and appearance is an essential element of their “skillset”, as much as their acting abilities.

I found this unsentimental and functional relationship with one’s body completely liberating. If it needs to be thinner, just do what it takes to make it thinner. Or fatter. Or stronger. No whingeing. No resistance. No argument.

Acting is whole-of-body, physical work (working in radio maybe not so much). An actor is never separate from their body. So when they are acting, their whole body is part of that work.

The celebrity mags assume the on-screen body is as “real” as the off-screen body and judge accordingly. But this isn’t so. Actors can be as flabby/hairy/cellulitey etc as they like in real life; there is no obligation to be “perfect”.

Another myth arises from this use of the actor’s body as a work tool: the celebrity diet. Actors may diet (for gain or loss) for a role, usually quickly and often do so in ways that are not advisable for the population as a whole. These diets are not meant to be sustainable. They may result in quick loss but only for the duration of the shoot or performance schedule. To promote celebrity diets for the general population is duplicitous if not outright fraudulent.

It seems clear that some actors have bought into the celebrity hype, and lose the ability to distinguish between work and self-promotion. Sad.

For the rest of us, I think our relationship with our bodies should be far more pragmatic, and less sentimental and self-indulgent. Our body is our only and indispensable vehicle. It has to function well in every way for what seems to us to be forever.

And finally; a wish more than advice I’d expect anyone to take: don’t bother with celebrities. Ignore them and they really will go away and back to doing what they do best – their work.

PS: now I’m thinking about how this works for  professional sports folk. There are similarities and differences. Pain is likely to be more of a factor in sports. And how much acting is involved in sport?


The new atheists

As a third-generation atheist who has spent almost my entire life as a lone atheist outside my family, I was thrilled to pieces when the new wave of atheism arose. Finally, I would have like-minded fellow non-believers!

However, it didn’t take me long to be thoroughly disappointed with those who had “converted” from some form of religion. Most of these (but not all) were angry at and obsessed with their former religion and held many of the distorted values and beliefs they were supposedly liberated from. It seemed they were just as much hostage to their religion in their non-belief as they had been in their belief.

In addition, many (not all) of these new atheists turned out to be concrete thinkers, with a very simple, mechanistic view of life, existence, consciousness and our place in the universe. The reality of science is infinitely more awe-inspiring than any concept we could have of a god (because reality takes us way beyond our imagination). But much of that science is as esoteric as any religion. And is based on concepts, models and ideas from the flimsiest of evidence itself. There is so much we don’t know – we must just honour this fact. Instead, many new atheists are as dogmatic as any religious zealot, and insist that if there is no evidence then there is nothing.

When I was in my early 20s travelling in India, whenever I had to give my personal details for some bureaucratic purpose, in response to the question “religion?” I’d say “none”. This always upset my Indian hosts – they couldn’t fathom that someone couldn’t have religion. Their overwhelming response was one of great sadness and compassion. After a while I began to tell them I was Christian. Although it was a lie and I felt (still feel!) uncomfortable about saying it, in one sense it was true. Although I was an atheist, I had been brought up in a Christian culture. It is in India that this becomes starkly (but not unpleasantly) apparent.

I am grateful that my parents were not dogmatic atheists. They were gentle philosophers with minds open to all possibilities, and active ability to reason.

Through my life, every now and then I will meet an “old” atheist – non-belief inherited from parents or grandparents. These people have always held strong moral positions on personal and social issues, and have worked passionately for the benefit of those less advantaged than they are. I salute you!


Religion is as religion does

I’m a third generation atheist on my mother’s side and second generation on my father’s. As a young child living in then working-class Brunswick my mother and her brother were pulled from religious education classes by my grandparents. As a result, both children were the victims of merciless brutality by their Christian fellow-students. Both wore the scars until their deaths; ashamed and silent on all matters religious founded on an indelible deep fear and sadness.

My father elected to be an atheist through his blossoming political awareness as a student at Brighton technical college. He was always comfortable with and outspoken about his politics and his atheism.

As a young child, my parents gave me both sides of the story (science vs biblical) when I asked about the origin of this world. I chose the family tradition of an evidence-based approach, but have deliberately kept an open mind on the range of possibilities. Strangely, they sent me to a church school – renowned for its science education and music programs, and its social justice values. Somehow, nothing about Christianity entered my consciousness (it is a total mystery to me!) I was stunned as an eleven-year-old when, during a religious education class, I asked the girl sitting next to me whether she believed what the teacher was telling us. She admitted that she did. I was gobsmacked!

I experienced discrimination and bullying from a few teachers in my early teens, but didn’t realise it was due to my politics and atheism until decades later. How could fully-grown responsible adults behave so badly towards a child who behaved at least as well as any other child? I puzzled for that long!

As a result of my particular life and heritage as an atheist, I am much more relaxed about religion than many who seem to be obsessed with religion. I have come to conclude that religion is as religion does. We all have beliefs, motivations, values and principles (whether we are aware of them or not) that drive our behaviour in the world.  Some of the most generous, radical, loving, socially progressive and effective people I have had the privilege to know have been religious (not just “spiritual”).

We need look no further to see the sinister side of religion in our most prominent religious politicians: Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, Kevin Andrews. Men who appear to share the characteristics of psychopaths due (in part) to their demonstrated lack of compassion, and infliction of unnecessarily cruel policies on the most vulnerable of society. To say nothing of their breathtaking dishonesty!

Whatever a person believes drives their actions. Whether you believe in karma ,in reincarnation, in eternal damnation, or in virgins awaiting you in heaven – you are likely to act in accordance with the most strongly-held beliefs, consciously or not.

I advocate choosing your beliefs on the basis of desired outcome. For example, I have chosen to believe that the biblical depictions of heaven and hell are in reality here on earth now. And that we have the choice to create either – in our own lives and in the lives of others. Who cares if there’s a basis for this in fact – it serves to improve our little tiny miraculous and spectacular lives!

This brings me to reincarnation. It’s a two-edged sword. On the one side, it gives permission to excuse suffering that has the potential to be alleviated, on the basis that improvement will be gained in the next life (karma is part of this process too). On the other hand, it does mitigate against a frenzied desperation to make the absolute most of this one life. This can result in detriment to others, now and in the future.

If we truly believed we’d be re-born randomly into the world we’re creating right now, how different would our current behaviour be? Huh?

It  doesn’t matter what we believe, as long as it actually results in a better world for everyone – especially the poorest of the poor –  in the here and now and into the long-term future.

Funerals of others (aren’t they all!)

Many of us just don’t know what to do when a friend, associate, acquaintance, colleague or neighbour has a death in the close family.

Your first priority is your friend/neighbour/colleague and their loss and grieving process. The fact that you didn’t know the person they are grieving is not the issue.
Funerals are for those who remain – they serve the grieving process and are the final ritual that puts the closing bracket on a life.

Your support at this important ritual for those grieving a  close relative provide important support and acknowledgement of the process they’re going through.

So I urge you to attend funerals in your role as a member of your communities – neighbourhood, work, social, sport, professional and so on. You don’t have to have known the one who has died – you’re there for the one you do know. To take part in an important part of their life.

You may also wish to bring or send flowers (unless instructed otherwise) and/or to give a card to express your sympathy with their sorrow. It means a lot when a person is at their most emotionally vulnerable.

In my own experience, when I’ve missed the funeral of a friend’s parent, I’ve found it difficult to recall that they’ve died. I’ve never actually asked “oh, and how’s your mum?” but I’ve come close.

So don’t be shy – go to funerals (unless for some reason it’s really not appropriate). They’re also great reality checks for the living.

The currency of fear

Is fear the currency of Australian political, economic and social interactions?
In one of the most secure and wealthy nations blessed with great natural assets, fear seems to dominate our decision-making from the personal to the national levels.
How did we get this way?
How does it manifest in our daily actions, even with our loved ones?
What is the long-term effect of living this way?
Those in power fear that power will be taken from them. Those with wealth fear that too will be taken or lost. We fear change – even positive change; we fear the unknown. Conservatism is based on fear.
The current Australian government fears its own people – the people who did (or didn’t) elect it into power. While the US system was built on mistrust of government, our Australian system was not.
We therefore have systems built around us that generate fear;  if we lose our job there may be no “safetynet” to prevent us from destitution. We can be coerced into fear through our desires. The Abbott government is going to extremes of cruelty to engender fear in potential asylum-seekers; many refuse to succumb and take the journey anyway. Ruling through fear and hate – what’s that about? It’s a choice, and a particularly abhorrent one. We have fought wars in the past to prevent this sort of oppression.

Fear of death is the grand old existential fear and religions have best harnessed that fear for their benefit. It [arguably] underlies all our fears. Not the topic for this short post. Today I’m talking about the psychological and emotional fears that are largely constructed rather than physical fears arising from activities such as driving a car, or walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon etc.

Our immediate emotional response to fear is anger. And we Australians seem to be more angry than ever now.
That said, we have overcome the worst of our fears around, for example, being an unmarried mother, being gay, being confined to a mental asylum by one’s husband and so on.

Travel is a great eye-opener; it changes our perspective from the myopic claustrophobia of habitual living. We can see new ways of living with more courageous, open and generous values informing cultures.

We DO NOT have to submit to fear. To be conscious of your fears – to explore and challenge them – can be a form of civil disobedience and certainly a life-changing liberation. However, revolutions of any sort demand courage!

I have learnt a lot about fear from my scaredy cat. She misses out on some great stuff because of her irrational fears. The same applies to us all 🙂
The tricky bit is working out which fears are irrational and which aren’t. And what the cost is to us. As individuals and as a community. Short term and long term. Sometimes there’s just no value in being fearful.

Conformity is enforced through fears generated purely for that purpose – by churches, governments, families, friends, and many others. Social conformity isn’t necessarily a bad thing – however, it is by far better to encourage desirable behaviour through positive reinforcement.
Recently I heard a neighbour call to her toddler girl child to “get away from that shed! There are horrible spiders in there!” This had nothing to do with spiders (soooo maligned) and everything to do with the mother’s laziness and need to control the child. The easiest course of (in)action was to instill fear that could be used long into the future. A little tug here… a little prod there…

Where does the fear of catastrophic climate change fit in? Deniers offer refuge from fear in their lies. Many take comfort from their distortions in spite of clear and unassailable scientific evidence. Maybe the deniers are right – climate change as an issue is religion. The fear is on the scale of fear of death and the deniers take the role of religion.

Chill folks; just chill!

Not “Not in My Name”

This morning I signed a petition to close Manus Island detention centre.

There was no way I wasn’t going to sign.

But I passionately disagree with the “not in my name” slogan.

My reasons are somewhat inchoate, but I’ll do my best to express my rejection of this approach.

We are, all of us, the Australian community. Together. Even if we don’t agree with each other. It’s clear there are members of the community who believe it’s absolutely fine to lock up the most vulnerable in inhumane conditions. Accepting or changing that view is the responsibility of all of us. We cannot walk away from that or pretend these people are not part of the body politic in this country.

We are ALL responsible for the government we elect. Democracy is not a spectator sport (although it is currently being played out that way). Voting is the most passive aspect of democracy and being compulsory doesn’t just attract those who are passionate or even interested. Some are positively disgruntled at being forced to vote. And punish the rest of us. Democracy is an ongoing involvement in the debate and its progress. It is about engagement in your community, how it develops, the decisions it makes, the ideas that are being considered and debated.

The “not in my name” slogan is an attempt to disown the decisions made by government. This is pure hubris, and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the functions of government and the role of democracy. It seems, in fact, rather childish. Petulant even. Elitist – “that’s a Western Sydney policy, not for my educated, middle-class sensibilities”.

If we really don’t like the way government spends our taxes (in a kazillion different ways), then conduct a civil disobedience exercise by going on a tax strike. Certainly peace protestors have attempted this in order to not fund the defence forces.


Government or community? The dilemma

I’ve been exercised by this issue since many thousands of us leapt in to fund the Climate Council after it was almost instantly de-funded when the Abbott government took office.

The response from the government was something like” well there you go. It didn’t need government funding because the community was able to do it after all”. This of course was duplicitous and showed an apparent lack of understanding of the role of government.

What is that role?

First, and most prominent at this time of deregulation, is to mitigate or moderate the exercise of power by the powerful to prevent “unacceptable” disadvantage to those without power. What constitutes “unacceptable” is a decision made by the community in a democracy. Such decisions are made through elections, but also through ongoing community debate. And made ultimately by governments for the long-term good of the community as a whole.


The role of bodies such as the Climate Council (and many of the others that have been de-funded, including the advisory council on the ageing population) is to interpret science for government and the community, and to provide expert policy advice so that effective evidence-based decisions can be made.

The community already pays for these essential functions of good government through their taxes.

This morning Jon Faine on Melbourne’s ABC 774 local radio was proposing that the community help the LaTrobe Valley community clean up after the dreadful fire that’s been plaguing the region for months.

One listener objected, saying the government should conduct or fund it. While a blame analysis might justify such an approach, there are great advantages to the Victorian (and broader) community coming in the help clean up. It brings people together in a time of difficulty, and underlines and reinforces our humanity.

If we become passive and expect the government to rescue us we become helpless in our lives. We are much better off if we join as communities to solve our problems than stand as separate individuals waiting for external help that will almost certainly be inadequate.

That said, there is a role for government to facilitate and support such community actions in a variety of ways. It may be to provide or subsidise accommodation, set up or fund coordination groups so those who need help the most receive it first and so on. Where government has been part of the problem (for example, where essential regulatory functions have been absent or inadequate) then certainly compensation is a longer-term solution to the disadvantages inflicted on the community.