Three lives: Part 1 – Bennelong time

bennelongHuman dignity has always played a key role in political action. It is a central tenet of Christianity yet both Protestant England and Catholic France established colonial empires by force because they rated the dignity of Asians and Africans lower than their own. Aboriginal dignity was rated lowest yet is grounded in culture and religion. For two centuries Europeans stripped them of dignity, calling them ‘savages’, ‘wild myalls’, ‘ignorant blacks’, ‘niggers’, ‘coons’ and ‘drunken Abos’. Restoration of dignity is now central to Indigenous peoplehood. When Bob Maza was attempting to create Koori awareness in the 20th century, his appeal was based on dignity: “The white man can look back with pride and honour at the history of his people. So you who are black must also search and find that pride and dignity which lies in your ancestry.”

The next three posts examine how dignity shaped the lives of three Indigenous Australians from different eras. First is Bennelong from the period of encounter, who leapt across the frontier to lead an ‘Australian’ and ‘British’ life. Second is Bussamarai, a Mandandanji warrior from colonial times. This little known frontier fighter was an impediment to the British land grab for 10 years and had startling ideas for communicating with Europeans. The third is Noel Pearson, a complex modern day warrior for postcolonial times and his Guugu Yimithirr people. Pearson sees dignity as an important tool of peoplehood, ahead of a day he hopes the vast majority of Australians will agree to the ‘unfinished business’, a constitutional treaty with its Indigenous people.

There was no talk of treaties when James Cook took possession of New South Wales in 1770. Cook saw fires along the coast as a ‘Certain sign that the Country is habitated’. His naturalist Joseph Banks saw fishers who ‘scarce lifted their eyes’ at their strange visitors. Cook and Banks started a tradition of an inoffensive people that hinted at innate weakness. Banks told a 1779 parliamentary inquiry NSW was a good place for a colony, because it only housed ‘naked cowardly savages’. Banks was wrong on all three counts. Indigenous people have lived in Australia for 60,000 years and had plenty of time to develop a sophisticated lifestyle. They quarried for stone and ochre and mastered firestick farming which transformed the landscape. Bradley in the First Fleet saw how they had sophisticated fishing techniques and how they also used mathematics to make calendar calculations. They traded with ‘sea gypsies’ – Muslim trepangers from Sulawesi and other islands. Possibly 750,000 people lived in Australia in 1788, networked by songlines, kinship, reciprocity and law. Most needed five hours daily to gather food. That left plenty of time for rest, sociability, spirituality, and development of dignity.

Britain’s conquest of Australia was unrelated to the ‘natives’: it was a claim against European powers and the colony would absorb, in Colonial Secretary Evan Nepean’s words, ‘a dreadful banditti’. Governor Arthur Phillip wanted Indigenous relationships but had no instructions for a treaty and offered none. Echoing Dampier a century earlier, John Hunter thought the Eora, smeared with animal fat and covered in dust and ashes, “abominably filthy”. Watkin Tench was sympathetic but trusted British guns: ‘Our first object was to win their affections and our next to convince them of the superiority we possessed,’ he said, ‘for without the latter, the former we knew would be of little importance’.

Anthropologist Bill Stanner said the seeds for the unequal relationship between black and white were sown during Phillip’s ‘muddy and incoherent’ rule. The Eora mistook Phillip’s missing front tooth as a sign of initiation and offered respect but kept their distance. Just as the Dutch did in northern Australia in the 17th century, Phillip resorted to kidnapping to establish communications, claiming it necessary to swap languages so ‘redress might be pointed out to them if they are injured, and to reconcile them by showing the many advantages they would enjoy by mixing with us’. His first victim Arabanoo died of smallpox. Judy Campbell says smallpox swept down from the north coast but it seems an extraordinary coincidence it arrived within 15 months of the First Fleet. Whatever the cause, it decimated the Eora and left an infant colony facing starvation.

Phillip kidnapped again and snared Bennelong who stayed for five months and became a ‘personage’ in the colony. Bennelong recognised how clothes marked status and swiftly adopted British manners. Tench judged Bennelong as ‘of good stature and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance which bespoke defiance and revenge’. His casual violence towards women shocked the British. Bennelong laughed while telling Tench of a wound gained while he beat a woman ’till she was insensible and covered in blood’. Bennelong’s escape after five months was likely due to the need for sex but it also allowed him time to plan revenge for his kidnapping. Phillip’s spearing at Manly was a ritual payback punishment for Bennelong’s abduction. Inga Clendinnen says Bennelong directed an elaborate performance as the ‘hinge man’ for proper compensation from ignorant invaders. Bennelong would insist Phillip visit him ten days later, despite Phillip’s serious injury. As the first Indigene to eventually formally “come in” to Sydney, he insisted his house be built on what would become Bennelong Point. It was a de facto Eora embassy where people came as they pleased to British bewilderment. Tench said Bennelong had become a ‘man of so much dignity and consequence that it was not always easy to obtain his company’.

Bennelong used reciprocal obligations and kinship to manage the British, calling Phillip ‘father’ and insisting his wife Barangaroo have her baby at government house. Bennelong would accompany Phillip to England as someone ‘very attached to his person’. After three years abroad Bennelong was homesick. Hunter described his condition: ‘He has for the last 12 months been flattered with the hope of seeing again his native country… but so long a disappointment has broken his spirit and the coldness of the weather here has so frequently laid him up that I am apprehensive his lungs are affected’.

On his return Bennelong fell on hard times as his 1796 letter to England reveals: ‘another black man took [my wife] away… he spear’d me in the back, but I better now”. He died in 1813 and his Sydney Gazette obituary noted his insubordinate drunkenness and damned him as a ‘thorough savage’. The Gazette was uncharitable. Bennelong was a dignified ambassador for his people and the first to offer a glimpse of how Europeans and Australians might exist on equal terms.

Franz Ferdinand and the end of the 19th century: a time for thought

Archduke FerdinandYesterday 100th anniversary of the death in Sarajevo of the heir to Austria-Hungary’s throne Franz Ferdinand provides an apt moment to consider history’s turning points. His death ended the 19th century, and led to the great carnage and chaos of the First World War. There is a good primer on the ABC on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, why he was killed and why his death was so important. Britain’s Duke of Portland invited Ferdinand to shoot pheasant at his estate in November 1913. One of Portland’s men loading the shotguns tripped over and accidentally discharged the guns narrowly missing the two dukes. Portland later said, “I have often wondered whether the Great War might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the archduke met his death there and not at Sarajevo the following year.”

As the word ‘postponed’ hints, the First World War was always coming. Franz Ferdinand’s death was the excuse, not the cause. German militarism had been on the rise for 20 years, the delicate European balance of power was tottering and individual leaders were reckless and stupid. European nationalism was a demon the great empires could no longer control. Franz Ferdinand, the imposed Hapsburg leader of a patchwork of Slav nations, was especially vulnerable. There were six assassins waiting for him in Bosnia on the day of his death. Gavrilo Princip shot the archduke and his wife after several failed attempts that day.

It was only time before a Slav nationalist would take out their grievances on a Hapsburg bringing down the delicate house of alliances that European monarchs built.

It was fitting an Austrian’s death brought the greater 19th century to an end, as it was another Austrian, Prince Metternich, who started it one hundred years earlier in 1815. Europe was emerging from the chaos of Napoleon’s hegemony. Metternich hosted the Congress of Vienna where diplomats could decide borders in salons not on battlefields. As Europe industrialised and a growing middle class became prosperous, the patchwork peace enabled the major powers to concentrate on building colonial empires in other parts of the world. Those powers got together again in genteel surrounds of Berlin in 1878 to re-adjust world borders on European terms.

The fate of Bosnia was a key plank of the 1878 Berlin Treaty. A de jure part of the tottering Ottoman Empire, the powers agreed it would be de facto part of the Austria-Hungary Empire which occupied and administered Sarajevo. Bosnian Slavs were unhappy to have their masters changed without their say, especially as the Treaty recognised the independence of next door Serbia. Serbia had its own designs on Bosnia, with its strong Serb minority. When Bulgaria declared independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1906, Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia. The powderkeg erupted again in 1912, as Montenegro, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League to end Ottoman interests in continental Europe. An alarmed Austria-Hungary pushed for a continental war to resolve the matter but German generals were not ready to mobilise until the summer of 1914.

The Balkans was the matchstick for war. But the desire was Europe-wide. Fukuyama said an “intangible but crucial factor” was the dullness and lack of community in European life in 1914. The Archduke’s assassination was greeted with frenzied pro-Austrian demonstrations in Berlin. Modris Eckstein’s Rites of Spring quoted a worker in the Berlin crowds who said they were all seized by one earnest emotion, “War, war and a sense of togetherness”. Eckstein quotes an anti-war German law student, drafted when hostilities broke out in September. The war was “dreadful, unworthy of human beings, stupid, outmoded and in every sense destructive,” the student said. Yet he willingly enlisted. Duty was a moral imperative regardless of reasons to abstain. “The decisive issue,” the student said, ” is surely always one’s readiness to sacrifice and not the object of sacrifice.” This notion of Pficht was echoed across Europe and across British dominions around the world. A sense of duty and excitement for action proved a potent brew.

If the Archduke’s death was the end of the 19th century, the First World War was a bloody interregnum, where as Churchill wrote, the life-energy of the greatest nations were poured in wrath and slaughter. Hobsbawn said the shorter 20th century spanned from the 1917 Russian Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But it effectively began with the Peace of Versailles, a treaty as cynical (despite Wilson’s 14 points) as the Congress of Vienna 100 years earlier. France’s Marshal Foch summed up Versailles: “This is not Peace. It is an Armistice for twenty years.” Similar hopes for the end of all wars were held in 1946 and institutions like Bretton-Woods seemed to keep an entente cordiale at least in the western world. Then when the Wall fell, hopes again rose of ending all wars.

Writing in 1991 Fukuyama, following Hegel and Marx, hailed what he called “the end of history”, a period where the dignity of democracy would rule triumphant. But the new world order didn’t last long at all. China and Russia adopted capitalism without the democratic trimmings while Versailles creations like Iraq began to fracture. Bosnia and the Balkan map looks familiar again to Franz Ferdinand while 1930s style ultra-nationalism has returned to a frightened and lost Europe. Religious zealotry has made many parts of Asia and Africa no-go zones for moderates. It is crucial to seek answers from the past, to understand our present. Arnold Toynbee may be right in saying history was ‘one damn thing after another’ but that is no reason not to understand its consequences. Anniversaries like Franz Ferdinand’s death provide a time for thought.

Peter Greste is not guilty but Al Jazeera is

As an Australian journalist I am outraged by the imprisonment of Peter Greste and his colleagues in Egypt all manifestly innocent of the charged that convicted them. However, the same cannot be said about their employers Al Jazeera. Their employees are paying a heavy price for the Qatari media organisation’s meddling in Egyptian politics. Reporter Peter Greste, bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and producer Baher Mohamed are victims of Middle Eastern energy politics, pawns in a long game between Egypt and Qatar with significant roles for Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Al Jazeera broke the back of western dominance of world news reporting and have a formidable global news reputation branching out in every direction from its foundation of excellence in Arab affairs. Founded in 1996 with a charter to overcome censorship, Al Jazeera is bankrolled by Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar until he abdicated for his son Tamim in 2013. But Al Jazeera has a growing blind spot as the network becomes more important.

Qatar’s massive oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the richest country in the world per capita, wealth it now pours into influence in world affairs. Al Jazeera is one of Al Thani’s pet projects and despite its influence it has been unable to turn a profit independently. It dares not bite the hand that feeds it. Matters off limits to Al Jazeera include the 2022 World Cup or Qatar’s place in Gulf politics. The relationship between Qatar and Egypt is particularly problematic. Al Jazeera are not just reporters of that relationship but players.

This dangerous game dates back to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak who was backed by the Saudi government. He viewed the Qataris and Al Jazeera as regional troublemakers. Following the Arab Spring, Al Thani put Qatar’s billions into the new governments. Mubarak was toppled in 2011 and replaced in elections by Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar swung into action to prop up Morsi.

Qatar supplied oil and liquefied natural gas Egypt needs to fulfil export contracts. Egypt has state-run energy companies but allows foreign firms to exploit its gas reserves which the government subsidises for the domestic market. The foreign companies recoup costs by exporting gas for higher prices. But as Egypt’s demand increased and supply declined, there was less gas for the foreign market. Qatar filled the gap, selling the gas to Morsi’s foreign clients. Qatar also signed a deal to deliver an LNG import terminal. This was a powerplay against the Saudis and UAE. Both had a long standing enmity to the Brotherhood and both supplied energy to Mubarak’s economy. Al Jazeera also enthusiastically threw it weight behind the new Islamist regime to the disquiet of its journalists.

The army deposed the Brotherhood government in 2013, to the quandary of the western leaders, who quantified their hatred of coups against their hatred of elected Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood again became officially Egyptian public enemy number one, but Qatar became number two. Those few Brotherhood powerbrokers who escaped the crackdown mostly ended up in Qatar. Al Jazeera is alleged to have paid for hotel suites in Doha for the exiles.

Egypt’s new master Abdel al-Sisi was left with a big problem of how to replace Qatari energy. He turned to the Saudis, UAE and Kuwait. Those countries showered Egypt in petrol and diesel products but could not supply al-Sisi with LNG for his power plants. No other Gulf state has the gas capacity of Qatar, and Egypt owes $8 billion to the oil companies. Al-Sisi had to increase the domestic price. With natural gas supplying 70% of local electricity, cutbacks are inevitable, possibly leading to more domestic discontent. Al-Sisi moved to avoid possible blackouts by contracting Norwegian HOG-Energy to anchor an LNG unit in the Red Sea. That won’t be online until autumn past the critical month of Ramadan when people fast during the day.

Al-Sisi does not want to risk becoming the third leader deposed in three years and management of the message is crucial to his success. He closed down Islamist news channels in 2013 including Al Jazeera’s Egyptian station Mubashir Misr. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar were arrested in December accused of “damaging national security.” The government said the journalists held illegal meetings with the Brotherhood which had been declared illegal the previous week.

Greste’s letters from prison admitted he knew the dangers and had discussed them with Fahmy but they decided to press ahead anyway. He said they was doing what journalists across the world do: “recording and making sense of unfolding events with all the accuracy, fairness and balance that our imperfect trade demands.” Greste said he did not support the Muslim Brotherhood. But he does not acknowledge Al Jazeera’s role in Egyptian politics. Greste, Fahmy and Bahar are scapegoats and cause celebres for press freedom. Telling the truth is not terrorism – but the truth is rarely simple. Greste and his two colleagues deserve our support, but this is about geopolitics as much as the right to report. Worldwide pressure should be applied to Doha as well as Cairo.

Thailand’s long dance with democracy

Democracy Monument, Bangkok. June 17, 2014

It’s easy to believe democracy is overrated when you walk the streets of post-coup Thailand. Business is brisk, the place is flourishing and there is no sign of crisis. You have to hand it to the Thais, they have perfected political coups. They have been doing it for the best part of a century, usually with little more than a stern finger-wagging from the rest of the world, before going on as normal. It was striking how normal this latest iteration felt, as I found out this past week in Bangkok and elsewhere. You couldn’t call the atmosphere peaceful – nowhere this hot, busy and intense could be called peaceful – but the army was invisible and there was a quiet sense of people getting on with their lives after the distractions of years of street protests. There was very little anger, and some palpable relief that this particular party is over. Bangkok moves so fast perhaps they need the occasional coup to slow it down.

I often walked past Democracy Square with its towering four-piece monument the epicentre of colour-coded street protests for five years. Thaksin’s red shirts gathered here when their enemies were in power and here too the yellow shirts roared when Thaksin’s mob got back in. Neither side accepted the validity of the other’s governance and there was no solution in sight acceptable to both sides. Perhaps inspired by events in Ukraine, matters deteriorated this year with yellow shirt protesters threatening to take power by force. That was a step too far for the army and they moved in May, sacking the government and ending all protests.

Any military can seize power from its own civilians at gunpoint, the question is how do you govern afterwards. Sacking a government means sacking not just the prime minister but the 30 or more government ministers. Luckily the Thais are practiced at this. In the 1890s Englishman H Warington Smyth was hired to run the newly created Department of Mines. Smyth recognised there were many Bangkoks including underground ones of stealing, drinking and gambling but of these, he said, officialdom was all-devouring. That officialdom was in evidence at every ministerial office I saw, bristling with uniforms and guns.

Elsewhere it was the market that ruled. The signs have been removed from Democracy Square and its centre cordoned off. Instead of tanks, there are taxis, trucks and tuk tuks. Food stalls have returned to the square selling their wares in Thai and English and next door the lotto sellers do a thriving trade with hundreds of people desperately scanning newspapers to see if their numbers have come in. All around are giant pictures of the king Bhumibol, a bespectacled mild-mannered man who has been on the throne longer than Elizabeth in Britain.

Politicians are fair game in Thailand but the king is not, and along with love of parents and love of religion are the three taboo things you cannot criticise in Thailand. In the 1930s the dictator Phibul led the first coup and dismantled the absolute monarchy. Yet he kept the trappings of the king. Phibul had the power but could see the value in royal reverence, something today’s leaders also understand.

Thailand was one of the few countries in Asia and Africa to avoid colonisation and it was the venerable monarchy that kept the western powers out. Long before, the Burmese did invade and destroyed the ancient capital of Ayodhya. The Siamese kings built a new capital downstream on the Chao Phraya. Founded in 1782, just six years before the birth of Sydney, they called it Krung Thep ‘the city of angels’ but the Portuguese gave it the more earthly name Bangkok.

The new capital was left alone as the west was beset by the Napoleonic Wars. After 1815 Europeans started making demands to open the Thai economy to which successive kings warily agreed. Most were well-educated with a deep knowledge of the west but also suspicious of the intentions of ‘farangs’ (foreigners). In 1855 Britain sent Hong Kong governor Sir John Bowring to Bangkok. Bowring was not strong enough to make direct threats. Instead he and the king signed an early free trade agreement the Anglo-Thai Treaty of Friendship and Commerce which became known as the Bowring Treaty. Bowring was so struck by his hosts, he eventually switched sides and in retirement represented the Thai king in British and European courts.

The Treaty led to similar agreements with France and Germany. But they also fortified the capital against possible invasion. King Mongkut (who met “I”, British nanny Anna Leonowens) corresponded with the Pope, Queen Victoria and Napoleon III, but ruled absolutely until his death by malaria after seeing a total solar eclipse in a disease-ridden rainforest. His son Chulalongkorn had to deal with the French as they raided Indo-China. Their navy blew up two forts at the mouth of the Chao Phraya and landed at their Bangkok consulate. To get them out, he gifted them the Angkhor Wat region. The French still respected the Siamese monarchy and 14 royal families from across Europe were represented when the next king was crowned in 1910. Prince Wilhelm of Sweden put his finger on why Siam had survived: “I have never seen a crowned head sustain his dignity better than Maha Vajiravudh.”

Maha, crowned as Rama VI, was educated in Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst and was an ardent Anglophile but sensibly steered clear of the First World War. By 1932 son Rama VII was struggling to keep Thailand out of the depression. Educated ministers were getting tired of absolute royal rule. The Wall St crash reduced government and military salaries and the middle class were showing disgruntlement in newspapers, magazines, books, films and cartoons. British barrister Gerald Sparrow was in Thailand when the coup rumours festered but the king insisted on moving out of town for the summer. While he was away, the army imprisoned the entire royal family. Field Marshal Phibulsonggram, known as Phibul, emerged as the strongman but a puzzled Sparrow asked the chief justice why Phibul agreed to keep on the king. The chief justice thought a minute and said  “everyone behaved a little better when the King was there.”

Rama VII was addicted to divine power. He wanted everything and got nothing. He went to London and abdicated in 1934 (two years before Britain’s own abdication). Phibul was in charge but anointed 10-year-old Prince Ananda as king. Ananda was in Switzerland studying and another World War would keep him there to 1945. Ahead of that war, Pribul changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand “land of the free”. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill looked at a new map of Asia in 1941, he asked why was Siam buried under the name of Thailand. He was told it was a market device for Thai nationalism. The Siamese kings ruled over Thais, Burmese, Malays, Karen and all others within their borders but Phibul was making a statement for a single ethnic identity known as the Thai.

That nationalism faced an existential threat from Japan but Phibul quickly ordered an armistice. It included a secret protocol to aid Japan in return for territories lost to the Europeans including Cambodia. Phibul escaped retribution from the west at the end of that war. King Ananda returned to Thailand in 1945 to a joyous reception from his people. But within a year he was murdered in mysterious circumstances. He was found dead in the palace with a single gunshot wound to the forehead. The official version was accidental death but three palace employees were executed. A veil drew down over the incident which has yet to be lifted. The winner was younger brother Bhumibol Adulyadej who came to the throne. He remains there today.

Bhumibol is venerated (and failing to do so is a crime) but the real power rests with the oligarchy of generals and police commanders. Phibul dominated until 1957 and he was firmly on the side of the Americans in cold war politics. Phibul built the Democracy Monument in a moment of 1939 fascistic optimism but as his version of democracy deteriorated into authoritarianism, the monument became an embarrassing reminder of what might have been. In 1973 students inspired by western events gathered around the monument to protest military rule. Troops opened fired from helicopters and scores were killed. Bhumibol intervened and there was a brief interregnum of democracy. But the soldiers returned and the students were back in the square in 1992 to protest an unelected prime minister. Again troops opened fire and democracy flickered out.

But what value is democracy in Thailand today? The Chinese have proved authoritarian rule is no barrier to economic success. Thailand has recovered from the 1997 “Thaitanic” economic collapse and is a nation in a hurry towards prosperity. Party politics is not a necessary part of that equation. Modern capitalism prefers political stability over choice. The generals have proved that yet again. But looking again at the ever-present pictures of Bhumibol, you are reminded he is approaching his 90s. His death may cause a crisis that even the army’s M-16s cannot solve.

Four more years: A life in World Cups

As a near life-long football fan, the world cup always comes round as a sort of speeded-up 7 Up documentary, forcing me to remember where I was in space and time every four years. I turn 50 in the coming weeks and I have memories of the last 10 world cups, each bookmarking my life at regular intervals. All going well I’ll be in a cafe or bar somewhere in Rangoon on my 50th enjoying this year’s version with local football fans. With any luck I’ll find out the Burmese word for offside.

I’ve been alive for 12 world cups but England 1966 and all that passed me by as a two-year-old. And as much I desperately want to remember Pele and 1970, I have no recollection of the day Brazil beat Italy playing football from the gods. My first memory of any football match is at my grandmother’s house in 1971 watching black and white TV as Liverpool lost to Arsenal in the 1971 Cup Final. This defeat turned a young Irish lad with no Scouse connections into a lifelong Liverpool fan. It didn’t hurt that Liverpool were successful in the years that followed.

In 1974 I was 10 and looking forward to watching my first world cup in Germany. I was still in Waterford, Ireland but our new colour television put me touch with the action. My abiding memories are of a rainy German summer and Der Bomber Gerd Muller. The day of the final was a Sunday and it was a beautiful Irish summer’s day. All my family headed to the beach at Woodstown but I was dropped off at my uncle’s house where we watched the final together. I wanted West Germany to beat the Dutch despite the brilliance of Johan Cruyff. English ref Jack Taylor awarded Cruyff a penalty in the first minute. It was an electrifying start to an electrifying game. The Germans came back and Der Bomber scored the winner. I probably went to the beach the following Sunday, rain or shine.

In 1978, I was 14 and old enough to stay up late for the games from South America. Der Bomber had retired and Cruyff refused to play in Argentina for political reasons I did not understand. The Dutch did well without him but Mario Kempes imprinted his name in my consciousness with two goals in the final. Argentina had their first ever win and I understood they were a proper football nation, whatever their politics.

Much had changed by 1982. Aged 18 I’d left Waterford and was earning money in Dublin. Free to my own barely adult devices I discovered booze and drugs (women were harder to come by) and Dublin’s dual night-life. I would spend the first half at some pub till they kicked you out before midnight and the second half was finding a party to kick on. Despite no TV in my share-house, I watched almost all of this Spanish world cup. I left work early to sit in the pub next door and catch the late afternoon games over a pint of Carlsberg (I didn’t touch Guinness until after I left Dublin). I was particularly taken with England’s 3-1 win over France. It was the first time I saw England playing in the world cup finals and I was a rare Irishman who favoured them because they were usually packed with Liverpool players. France was their high water mark and England went out without losing, outsmarted by the Germans, not for the first or last time, the Germans beating Spain when England couldn’t. A workmanlike Northern Ireland had qualified which annoyed me as a southerner while great players like Giles and Brady missed out. I was further riled when Billy Bingham’s men did well also beating Spain as England couldn’t. 1982 produced two all-time classic games. Zico, Falcao and Socrates were wonderful players but Brazil somehow lost to Italy in the game of Paolo Rossi’s career. The French midfield was just as pleasing as Brazil’s but they were hunted down by the remorseless Germans in that most memorable of semi-finals. I watched from a Dublin pub, as Italy beat Germany in a tense decider thanks to more Rossi brilliance.

In June 1986 I was 22 and had moved again, this time to London. Unlike Ireland, London’s pubs had the world inside them. I met many people from many nations that month. Because the tournament was in Mexico, there were plenty of late night games and London, even more than Dublin, liked to shut up shop before midnight. There was a buzz about England again until it ran into Diego Maradona. Whether he was scoring goals with the hands or feet of god, he was an irrestible presence and the best player on the field by some distance (at least until John Barnes came on to almost rescue the game). The French beat Brazil but capitulated feebly to the West Germans again who seemed just makeweights to Maradona in the final. But on a warm summer’s day in London I watched the best world cup final of my life. The Germans came back from 2-0 down with Lothar Mattheus marking Maradona out of the game. Well almost, one breathtaking shimmy, a pass and it’s 3-2 to Argentina. The little maestro didn’t score in the final but no one was in doubt who owned the trophy.

Four years later my life was turned upside down in more ways than one. I was 26 and engaged to be married in Melbourne, Australia. I had a three month leave pass to travel back to Ireland and see the 1990 world cup in Italy. It was Ireland’s first world cup and my blessed mother had scored me tickets for all of Ireland’s group games. It remains the only world cup I’ve attended. Ireland were drawn to play in Sardinia and Sicily and first up was England. It was the same match-up two years earlier in Euro 88 which I also attended. That 1988 game which Ireland somehow won 1-0 remains the most draining football experiences of my life. But Germany was easy to get to compared to the south coast of Sardinia. It took three boats and several trains to get from Waterford to Cagliari. I stayed a lovely day in Olbia in the north and remember travelling down the spine of Sardinia with another Aussie-Irish ex-pat. We talked of Sydney and Melbourne on the way down. To my horror I found my ticket was for the English end of the stadium and I somehow conned a happy-looking English fan at the Irish end to swap. This time they played out a draw, which was deserved and left us crowing “You’ll never beat the Irish”. As the tournament developed the Irish couldn’t beat you either. Draws in hot Palermo (and dry, with few bars open any match day) against Egypt and Netherlands put us through. The Dutch paid for this by losing the coin toss sending them to a death match with Germany while Ireland got the easier draw in Genoa versus Romania. The Romanians had Hagi but had lost Caucescu – I remember their fans tore the hated symbol of his regime from the flag, but they had few fans there. 30,000 Paddies made it feel like a home game and for once we found some bar open to celebrate after Ireland hung on to win on penalties. The quarter-final against Italy in Rome is the most intense game I ever witnessed and it felt like relief to lose. The Germans beat the English as usual and then won the tournament. I watched the dull decider against Argentina in a hostel in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany where locals clapped their team politely to victory. I went home to Melbourne, Australia to marry.

In 1994 I was a married father of a two-year-old daughter and I watched USA94 from my Melbourne home. I snuck out of bed early one Saturday and had the TV on low to watch Ireland play Italy again to open their second world cup. My Australian wife didn’t understand European football but she recognised the joy on my face as I told her Ireland had won, their first ever win over the Italians. The loss was Italy’s lowest ebb, they would reach the final while it was Ireland’s high point. Ireland squeezed through the second round before being easily beaten by the Dutch. The Dutch lost to Brazil who started the tournament brilliantly and slowly got worse. They were still just good enough to beat Italy in possibly the poorest final I remember. I went back to sleep after keeping difficult hours watching my first world cup in Australia.

It was all change again for me in 1998. I was divorced but followed my ex-wife and two young daughters to Brisbane. This was my first winter in Brisbane and I was finding a very hospitable climate. The time difference for European football was 9 hours and in these pre-Internet days I would get up for the late game at 5 or 6am and watch it with the sound off, while fast-forwarding through the earlier game I’d taped. I had usually caught up before the end of the second game so could watch the last bit with the sound on. Ireland were missing this time but 1998 was all about Michael Owen before England imploded again. Hosts France with 10 brilliant midfield and defenders were slowly catching fire. Brazil were like Argentina in 1990, poor but still respected enough as holders to make the final. I got up at 4.30am to see them be taken apart by two Zinedine Zidane headers (not the last time his head would feature prominently in a final) and Arsenal’s midfield.

I was getting used to this world cup in Brisbane thing by 2002 though it helped this one was in Japan/South Korea. Japorea was only two hours behind Brisbane so I could watch matches at drinking time for the first time since 1986. Ireland were back and doing dramatic draws again. Their comebacks against Cameroon and Germany launched long boozy evenings. Again it was a case of you’ll never beat the Irish, they went out on penalties to Spain, undefeated. With the adrenalin rush of Ireland gone, it was time to enjoy the tournament. England’s Michael Owen was world class again and so was Beckham who got revenge against Argentina. But neither couldn’t beat Brazil. Ronaldo had the silliest haircut on the planet but there was none better at football and teammates Ronaldinho and Rivaldo were number two and three. I watched the final at the end of a big weekend at friends’ house in the Sunshine Coast hinterland at Kin Kin. None of my friends followed football but I enjoyed the game in what remains the only time Brazil have played Germany in the world cup. Brazil dismantled the Germans as Ronaldo put his 1998 demons behind him, if not his stupid hairstyle. I went to bed and got up four hours later on Monday morning to listen to the dawn chorus of Australian birdlife for the two-hour drive back to Brisbane and work.

Germany in 2006 threw in a new variable. I was still in Brisbane watching matches in the middle of the night. But there was a good reason to do this publicly rather than in front of my own TV. Ireland were missing again (and they have yet to return) but their place ever since has been taken by Australia. As much as I hate the nickname “Socceroos”, Australia’s football team has scarred me forever. I was at the MCG in 1997 when Australia were 2-0 up against Iran and heading to France. Then that idiot broke the crossbar – I still haven’t forgiven him – Iran came back to 2-2. The Aloisi penalty against Uruguay to secure qualification in 2005 was an outpouring of Aussie football emotion pent up over decades of failure. The pub was packed for Australia’s opener against Japan and it was doom and gloom with 8 minutes to go with Japan 1-0 up. Then Tim Cahill took over and Aloisi chipped in again. I was covered in beer and dancing with strangers as the pub descended into mayhem in a 3-1 win. Brazil was the inevitable defeat but Kewell did his bit against Croatia to put Guus Hiddink’s side through to play Italy. The Aussies were good but Fabio Grosso was brilliant to draw the foul from Lucas Neill for the penalty. Italy did not look back. Zidane was past his best but somehow dragged France past Spain and Brazil. I went to a mate’s house for a 4.30am early start for the Italy v France decider. They couldn’t be separated but Zidane eliminated himself from the shoot-out with the most public head butt in history. Italy deserved the penalty win. I was grumpy, the extra time and penalties deprived me of a sleep-in before work.

Four years on in 2010, the tournament was heading to a new continent and I was in a new town too. While footballers dealt with a mild South African winter, I was in Roma on the western Queensland plain where overnight temperatures in June regularly went below zero. I was now an ambitious journalist having quit a life-time of IT a year earlier. With long hours to put in my paper and very cold nights I saw hardly any games. It didn’t help SBS had lost the rights to most matches and I had no access to Pay TV. I did have the Internet and I caught up with most matches, or at least the goals in the morning after. Australia were there but were poor compared to 2006 and made an early exit. I watched England lose to Germany yet again. Germany cruised to a 2 goal lead before England scored. Then Lampard hit the underside of the crossbar and was ruled incorrectly no goal. At 2-2 it was anyone’s game, but at 2-1 and this injustice, England were psychologically gone. I went to bed and was unsurprised to wake up to a 4-1 result. Germany looked like the most exciting team in the tournament but they were worn down by Spain’s tiki taka. Their final versus the Netherlands seemed promising but I wasn’t up for it – literally. On a cold Monday morning after a late night working to deadline on Sunday, I slept it out and missed it all. I caught up with Spain’s dour 1-0 win on the Internet. I wondered if my love affair with the world cup was over.

Yet a few days out from another tournament in 2014 and I am again excited. Partially it’s because I’ll spend the first couple of weeks of it watching games in Thailand, Cambodia and Burma. Then I’m back in Brisbane but still on holidays so will head north to warmer climes and Indigenous issues. Will they be watching the world cup in Palm Island or Yarrabah? I’m sure like Rangoon I’ll find somewhere. Despite the worst efforts of corrupt FIFA, the world cup remains a primal cultural experience, and one that is wonderfully global. Bring on Brazil, and likely, their sixth title.

Quandamooka versus Queensland: A tale of law, PR and Stradbroke Island

quandamookaI was coming from Roma St Station towards Kurilpa Bridge to the Queensland State Library yesterday thinking about my Aboriginal studies final assignment due on Monday. I was trying to figure out how crucial dignity was to three Indigenous ambassadors from different times, Bennelong, Bussamarai and Noel Pearson. Suddenly, out of nowhere, appeared two men with an Aboriginal flag. The timing seemed extraordinary and they were heading the same way as me. I followed them to the Commonwealth law courts in front of Kurilpa bridge. Indigenous people were putting up signs and waiting outside the court, while others got ready to do a traditional dance. There were television and other media present. There was the promise of a peaceful protest and street theatre. The State Library could wait, this was a media event and I was media.

This was also Indigenous people acting out their own dignity. Young men put up banners while others handed out kits to waiting media. I asked for a kit and read their story. The High Court case was about sand mining rights on “Straddie”. Straddie is North Stradbroke Island, or Minjerribah, to Indigenous people. They were here to appeal to Canberra to stop Brisbane from making laws about their island without their permission. Labor’s law enacted in 2011 permits mining to 2019 – with Indigenous consent – but the LNP introduced a new law in 2013 to push the end of mining to 2035 and also increase its size. Federal law says they should have consulted with the traditional owners, something the Queensland government didn’t do. The constitution says that when State and Federal law clash, the latter prevails. But the unconsulted Straddie Aboriginal people had to take it to the highest court in the land. It was blatant lack of regard, something that has happened time again across the country since 1788.

Straddie is close to Brisbane but bridgeless, much to the delight of most residents black and white. Visitors are not new. Straddie has been home to humans for over 20,000 years. We don’t know their original name but their descendants became the Quandamooka people. Straddie was annexed by Cook in 1770 and again by Phillip in 1788 as part of New South Wales but the islanders remained ignorant of British rule for another 36 years. When another penal colony was needed for those that needed further punishing, Moreton Bay fit the bill. The British felt no permission was necessary to establish this colony, enforced at the butt of a carbine.

They first landed on Straddie, the same year – 1824 – as they landed in Brisbane. At a place the islanders called Pulan, they built a pilot station overlooking the strategic exit to the ocean. Whites renamed it Amity Point. Moreton Bay was opened to free labour and from 1859, Straddie would be ruled by Brisbane, not London or Sydney. A church mission named Myora failed to win converts. The earliest Brisbane rulers were pastoralists who had financial reason to support “the opening up” of territory for agriculture. Later regimes were heavily paternal, locking up Aborigines in concentration camps across the state where they could be kept under control. Many Stradbroke Islanders were sent to Cherbourg, Woorabinda or Palm Island.

The first sandmining on Straddie took place in the 1950s. There was no consultation with Quandamooka and no profits to them either. Nothing much changed until two groundbreaking events in 1993. The first was Mabo v Queensland (no 2) where Mer man Eddie Mabo and his friends proved to the High Court they had customary title to the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait. Later that year Paul Keating pushed through a Native Title Act, a brave move that cost him much political capital (giving things to blacks remains electorally unpopular in Australia). Keating’s Act provided for a national system to recognise and protect native title, which would co-exist with the “land management system”. For Straddie that meant co-existing with sand mining.

Mabo had got them a seat at the negotiating table, and also overrode Queensland law. The Quandamooka people lodged their land claims in two phases between 1995 and 1999. The National Native Title tribunal registered both claims in 2000 but the claims were slowed by boundary disputes, needing a 2006 workshop of elders, lawyers and anthropologists to resolve. The main mining lessees expired in October 2007 and two days later lessee Stradbroke Rutile Ltd (owned by Consolidated Rutile) applied for a 21 year continuation of lease. In 2009 both companies were gobbled up by Belgian company Sibelco, a “raw material producer” for the world manufacturing market.

In January 2010, the Federal Court asked the National Native Title Tribunal to facilitate negotiations with the State Government, local government and other interested parties to finalise an Indigenous Land Use Agreement. Sibelco nominated subsidiary Unimin to negotiate a separate ILUA with the Quandamooka. In mid 2010 Unamin’s “offer” to the Quandamooka involved the long-term operation of the mines until 2035 and another in 2050 and they also wanted their support in their lease negotiations with the state government. The Quandamooka came back with a counter offer. They split the ILUA in two, firstly a complex one that would deal with future mining and might take many years to agree on, called “a Future Acts ILUA”, and secondly a simple one to have agreement on the ground once the Federal Court judges the native title claim. They also advised Unamin/Sibelco to sort out the leases with the government and come back to them for consent.

In April 2011 the Bligh Labor government passed the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability Act (NSIPSA Act) which gave effect to key elements of the ILUA between Queensland and the Quandamooka. It approved mining on Straddie until the end of 2019 at which time full native title rights would return to the Quandamooka. The ILUA was signed almost three years ago to the day, 15 June 2011. In a historic year, the Federal Court also handed down its Native Title judgment in July 2011. For the first time, a court had recognised Quandamooka law and customs had survived colonisation. Judge Dowsett said the Quandamooka were a “pre-sovereign society” who had maintained connections with Straddie and the adjoining sea (though not with adjoining islands or the mainland). He also noted Sibelco, Telstra and other big stakeholders were adopting the state’s submissions. The National Native Tribunal ratified the claim on 11/11/11 making it the law of the land.

But Judge Dowsett was too sanguine about Sibelco’s intentions. With a state election coming up in 2012 and a likely change of government they ran a political scare campaign to get their original position back on the table. They focused the campaign in Ashgrove where Campbell Newman was running to become premier from outside parliament. Newman duly proposed to extend sand mining to 2035 if the LNP took power. Newman told the ABC Labor had acted in “a unilateral and capricious way” by bringing forward the end of mining in its 2011 law which was “all about green preferences”. Neither interviewer nor Newman made any mention of the traditional owners and Newman had no contact with the Quandamooka before his announcement. Sibelco’s PR company Rowland would later win a PR state award for excellence demonstrating “achieving environmental and economic progress in an island community”.

Rowland’s other reward was a fat contract after Newman’s landslide election win. Without changing any laws, the new Mining Minister ruled mining would stay to 2035. Still the government had not contacted the Quandamooka. In October 2013 the government brought in the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability and Another Act Amendment Bill 2013. The new NSIPSAAA Bill offered Sibelco security to 2035 with fewer environmental provisions. When the bill went to the agriculture, resources and environment committee, the Quandamooka could finally respond as the native title holders. The committee report admitted the government had not consulted the Quandamooka on NSIPSAAA, which breached the Queensland Legislative Standards Act 1992. Despite this, the Bill became law in Queensland’s unicameral chamber on 20 November. Without consent, it had changed a range of matters previously agreed with the Quandamooka.

In March this year, the fightback began. Elders gave their assent for the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation to launch a High Court Challenge to Queensland’s 2013 Straddie law. They say the law overturning the 2011 law contravenes Keating’s Native Title Act 1993. The section of constitutional law is S109 which says if a state law is inconsistent with a Commonwealth law the latter shall prevail and the former “shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be invalid”. The legal battle will be on the extent of the consistency between the two acts. Whatever happens, the dignified Aboriginal elders outside the High Court yesterday won the moral battle. Their dancers performed a smoking ceremony where they blessed their own people and all other by-standers, including the media filming the ceremony. “It is your job,” a Quandamooka dancer told the media, “to tell the world”. These people are proving dignity very much matters.

On Utopia, John Pilger’s no-place-land

I finally caught up with Utopia, John Pilger’s simplistic but important documentary on Australia’s relationship with Indigenous people. Nuance is not Pilger’s strong point and pitching his film at his British audience (“this is Canberra, capital of Australia”), he misses out on vast swathes of context. Pilger is good at capturing the injustices of colonisation but less strong in dealing with decolonisation.

Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia described an ideal but unreachable society. From Greek roots, Utopia meant either ‘no-place-land’ or ‘good-place-land’. While it now means a perfect state, Utopia itself  is ‘nowhere’. Such sophistry meant nothing to the people of Uturupa in northern Australia ignorant of all matters European for hundreds of centuries. The first settlers came in the 1880s and unable to pronounce Uturupa, they called it Utopia, perhaps as Pilger suggested out of irony, for this no-place-land was hard on black and white.

Pilger begins his film in modern Utopian settings. The Palm Beach penthouse and leafy suburbs of Canberra’s Barton are the drop-off point for a Pilger polemic starkly contrasted against Utopia’s poverty (though the warm sun basked poor and wealthy alike). Barton was named for Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton who ushered in the White Australia Policy keeping coloured people out, while the blacks already here were not counted.

Pilger’s first interview is with former Labor minister of Indigenous health and NT MP Warren Snowden. Snowden defended Labor’s record and denied they should have done more. Successive administrations have been unable to solve Indigenous health problems, caused by 200 years of discrimination and neglect. After Indigenous people were finally counted in the 1971 census, Closing the Gap reports identified the problems compared to the rest of Australia. It will take another 50 years or more to close the gaps. Not that Pilger with his “puerile questions” and demands for instant change, appreciates that.

Pilger is a kid in a toy shop rushing from one shiny bauble to another. Here he is in the Australian War Memorial bemoaning the lack of recognition of the Australian frontier war, there he is recollecting his own Sydney childhood watching poor Aboriginal people in La Perouse, then he attacking Howard’s history wars before heading out on the street for an Australia Day vox pop of white people on what Indigenous people think of the day. A minute later he is touring Rottnest Island’s grisly black penal history. All are important but glossed over in Pilger’s rush to create an atmosphere of condemnation.

He brings black brutality up to date with the 2008 arrest of Aboriginal man Mr Ward in Laverton, WA. Arrested for drink driving and denied bail by a JP, Mr Ward was remanded to appear in court in Kalgoorlie 400kms away. In 1975 WA’s Aboriginal Legal Service complained prisoner transport vans were “ovens on wheels” and nothing had changed by 2008 except the service was privatised. Mr Ward was given a 600ml bottle of water for the four hour journey while temperatures rose to 56 degrees inside the van. When the driver checked his welfare in Kalgoorlie, he was dead on the floor with a large abdomen burn from the hot surface. The coroner said he was cooked to death and the department and contractor 4GS were later fined for their neglect.

The responsible minister Margaret Quirk told Pilger the case would haunt her for rest of her life. His cynicism at her suggestion of departmental cultural sensitivity training was unwarranted, as many public servants have no idea about injustices in remote Aboriginal settlements. Pilger was right to point out high indigenous incarceration rates but on less firm ground with his description of WA and NT as “apartheid states”. Quirk said structural issues in society led to Mr Ward’s death that one well-intentioned Minister cannot solve alone. State politicians’ “law and order” posturing on mandatory sentencing overwhelmingly affects Indigenous populations usually arrested on public order offences.

Pilger addressed the 1960s Gurindji land rights strike. The strike was called when the government delayed equal pay by two years following a court case. White owners sacked their cheap black workforce rather than pay them equally. The Gurindji got Watties Creek but lost their jobs. By the 1970s, a generation of stockworkers were unemployed and homeless, drifting to towns and the welfare system.

Welfare was a well-intentioned but flawed aspect of the Whitlamite reforms of the 1970s. Large amounts of money was spent on community programs that offered no real achievement. It was “sit down money” and led to the perverse situation described by Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Peter Sutton of dysfunctional societies twisted by easy access to alcohol and drugs where domestic abuse was rampant. The Lateline case exposed by Chris Graham and noted in depth by Pilger may have been exaggerated but the problems identified by Little Children Are Sacred were not. The Howard Government had electoral aims for the Intervention but the Labor Government that followed did not dismantle it. As Pearson says, the left are strong on rights and the right are strong on responsibilities, but good Indigenous policy needs to be a mix of both. Pilger shows no sign of understanding this crucial point.

Utopia is an important conversation starter. The best white writer on Indigenous matters, anthropologist Bill Stanner, identified in 1968 the culture of forgetting that characterised Australian views of its Indigenous population. They were written out of the history and they remained a voiceless 2% modern minority. Indigenous people slowly found their voice through the freedom ride, the referendum campaign, the tent embassy, the Makarrata treaty campaigns, and the land rights battles of the 1980s and 1990s.

Casual racism, like casual sexism, remains an open sore. Indigenous Australia needs constitutional recognition but it must come with responsibility. The Stannerite silence is returning and Pilger’s work is deafening in the dark. Let’s hope he inspires a more informed conversation on Australia’s deepest wound.