Caring for carers

Old man with walker –

He wakes from the slender sleep of the hyper-vigilant to hear the front door close. He slips out of bed, quickly dresses and walks outside, down the garden path and through the front gate. There’s Mother, dressed in a smart suit, best walking shoes, hat and handbag. A suitcase sits beside her on the footpath. It’s 3am and a crescent moon slips between clouds as if to say ‘she’s over here’.

“Mum, what’s going on?”

“Bob’s coming to pick me up. We’re going on holidays.”

Some people would recommend you remind Mum that Bob’s been dead since 1989 and she needs to come back to bed.

The hyper-vigilant son puts his arm around his mother’s shoulder.

Change of plans, Mum. Maybe tomorrow.”

He picks up the suitcase, expertly manoeuvres Mum through the gate and coaxes her inside with promises of chocolate muffins and a glass of warm milk.

After he’s helped Mum get undressed and back into bed, he stops by his son’s bedroom. The doona has slipped off the bed where the six-foot son with a mental age of eight sleeps the sleep of the just. He covers him up, gently closes the door, sighs deeply and goes back to bed.

His wife, gently snoring, arm flung over her eyes, sleeps the sleep of the day shift. He’ll sleep in and she’ll be in the kitchen, making sure Mum doesn’t set fire to the house, leave the taps running or wander off outside, looking for Bob.

An extreme case maybe; fictional, probably. But a fair picture of a night in the life of what’s known as a ‘co-resident primary carer’.

Carers Australia trots out a huge figure – $60.3 billion – to describe the replacement value of what carers, their partners and significant others contribute to the welfare of the nation. There are 2.7 million people in this country who care for people who, to one degree another, struggle to take care of themselves. Carers include the parents of adult children, children of aged parents, partners of disabled people and a range of carers who do not fit any of those categories.

You may wonder where this subject came from, and unless you are one, you probably got through the week without knowing it was dedicated to Carers. The Story Bridge was lit up for the occasion and various organisations held conferences, functions, picnics, and other social events where carers could meet and mingle.

The parents, partners or significant others who look after a disabled adult at home are saving the welfare system a small fortune. True, they may be getting a Carers’ Pension, Allowance or Supplement, but it is chicken feed compared to the cost of, say, institutionalising a wholly dependent person with a disability. So $1.2 billion a week is what the government would have to find if the 2.7 million volunteer carers threw up their hands and said ‘Stuff this – I want a life.

Sure, there may well be people who have made sacrifices to care for someone and at some stage withdraw their support. But clearly most people who have accepted the role do so with absolute commitment.

It is estimated that carers provided 1.9 billion hours of unpaid care in 2015. Carers Australia says the estimated replacement value of unpaid care equates to 3.8% of Gross Domestic Product, quoting a 2012 Deloitte Access Economics study and an Australian Bureau of Statistics report.

Of the 2.7 million carers, 770,000 are primary carers who provide the most informal assistance to another individual.

In 2012, 38.8% of primary carers reported spending 40 hours or more per week caring, while 19.5% spent between 20 and 40 hours.

Of the 1.9 million described as ‘co-resident carers’, 45.5% were the partners of the person they cared for. Another 20% cared for a parent, 23.4% cared for a child and 4.2% cared for a sibling.

If there’s a word that describes the combined experiences of carers, it is frustration. It can be infuriating when friends and even relatives just don’t get it. They know you are caring for a parent with dementia, they know your 26-year-old son has a mental age of eight and by all reports will not improve any time soon. But they don’t empathise, don’t offer to help and may even choose to express survival of the fittest notions.

“She ought to be in a home, your Mum. You’ll wear yourselves out – it will wreck your marriage.”

While there may be more than a speck of truth in this unsolicited advice, it does not help. We all have misconceptions about people with disabilities and it takes an assertive person to dispel the myths.

A woman who cares for her wheelchair-bound husband after he survived a serious stroke submitted an item to a regular feature in The Australian called “This Life”. Ruth wrote this succinct summary, published in May 2015, about a little-understood condition.

When my husband says ‘Captain swimming underwater’ I struggle to guess what he is saying so earnestly. After many failed attempts, I ask if he needs to go to the loo. “Yes’ he says in desperation.  ‘I’ve asked you five times’. Aphasia – the scrambling and breakdown of language due to a brain injury – was a new word to me three years ago when he suffered and survived a big stroke. I did not know this could happen to someone. I did not know that he would never again use my name, or anyone else’s, for that matter. I have learned that his intelligence is intact, that he knows everybody who is familiar to him and even the cricket score but he can rarely convey the simplest of phrases. His favourite daily expression is ‘It’s maddening’. It is indeed.

Carers are a mixed bunch – they include someone like Ruth, thrust late-life into the role of ‘co-resident primary carer’, a dizzying world of juggling hospital stays, rehabilitation, respite and daily chores for two people.

Others have been caring for a wholly dependent disabled child since birth. The most frequent cry for help as these carers age is “Who will look after him when I’m gone?”

Caring for someone who needs care is not always this constant or confronting. It may amount to reminding mentally ill adult children to take their medication, have a shower, and tidy their room. But it is a 24/7 commitment when anything can happen.

Professor Robert Bland of the Australian Catholic University says the caregiving role is a useful but limited description of the family response to illness. He reminds carers that the caregiving role can overwhelm other roles such as parent, spouse or sibling.  “Family members need to learn new ways of coping with the crisis, to find a balance between the demands of caregiving and meeting their own needs.”

He told a mental health carers’ conference organised by Arafmi and Aftercare that families do other things associated with protection, identity and resources.

“They provide a predictable and safe living situation for people who would otherwise be dependent on hospital, hostel, or the streets.  They keep order and routine, lend money when needed, and offer encouragement.  They persist, they remember, they open the door when you knock – unlike many mental health services that give up, close down, move on.  Families are open all hours and they’re there on the weekend.”

Yes, even at 3am, when a crescent moon slips between clouds as if to say ‘she’s over here’.

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Bipolar disorder and gout

Empty chair at Baroon Pocket Dam – Photo by Bob Wilson

This may seem an odd way to approach an essay about bipolar disorder, but I had forgotten that lithium was at one time prescribed for gout. Not that I’ve ever had gout, but a couple of relatives who do have it tell me it is not something you would wish upon your worst enemy – or even Donald Trump. Gout is a painful inflammation of joints caused by an excess of uric acid which forms needle sharp crystals in the joints, hence the pain.

The conventional solution is medication and avoiding rich, fatty foods. Traditional medications are allopurinol and colcochine although some GPs and naturopaths recommend low doses of lithium combined with vitamin C to make uric acid soluble and easier to expel from the body.

The point being, very few people would stigmatise gout-sufferers for taking medication to ward off the acute pain that comes from an attack. Yet lithium is the drug of choice dispensed by psychiatrists when diagnosing someone with bipolar disorder. The latter is very much a stigmatised condition. However, as we will see, some famous people are working to ‘normalise’ it through documentaries and speaking tours.

Author Edward Shorter traced the history of lithium in an article published by PubMed Canada and archived by the US National Library of Medicine:

A London internist, Alfred Baring Garrod, recommended lithium treatment for gout after discovering uric acid in patients’ blood. This was in 1847, 12 years before Garrod wrote The Nature and Treatment of Gout and Rheumatic Gout.

Lithium, a naturally occurring mineral, was used to treat mania in the 19th century, particularly in Denmark, but did not emerge as a mainstream treatment until 1949, when Australian doctor John Cade was credited with re-introducing lithium to psychiatry.

Despite the development of pharmaceutical alternatives (valproate, lamotrigine, carbamazepine), it is still regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for mood stabilisation and treatment of major depression.

The gout sufferer, meanwhile, simply has to cut down drinking beer and avoid purine-rich foods (such as red meats, offal, some seafood and Vegemite). His or her sanity is unquestioned. If asked (say at a barbecue with friends and neighbours), they will freely talk about their swollen joints; knobbly elbows and inflamed big toes may even be shown.

No such empathy for the approximately 727,300 Australians (about 3% of the population), with some form of manic depression/bipolar disorder.

In 1980 the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), changed the classification system to bipolar disorder, a more clinical and less emotionally loaded term than the stigmatised ‘mania’ or ‘manic’.

Stigmas die hard. There are hard-to-shake myths, worst-case scenarios magnified in the press and on current affairs TV, which focus on the tragic cases that fell through the cracks in the system. We form fixed ideas about the mentally ill, shying away from people we see as ‘odd’.

I started exploring the subject (it’s Mental Health Week after all), after watching Stephen Fry’s Not So Secret Life of a Manic Depressive 10 Years On. Fry, originally diagnosed with the less disruptive form of bipolar (cyclothymia), made a controversial documentary series a decade ago where he interviewed well-known bipolar sufferers including actor Richard Dreyfuss. The psychiatric profession was generally dismayed with Fry’s (then) stance against taking medication.

In this update, Fry is diagnosed with bipolar 1 (the more serious type in which sufferers may have psychotic episodes) and he starts taking medication, although confessing to self-medicating (as many sufferers do); in his case with alcohol, diazepam or sleeping pills. In the hour-long ABC documentary, a range of people with bipolar disorder are interviewed and the nature of their disorder is laid bare. There’s a young woman who became a paraplegic after jumping from a balcony (in her manic state she thought she could fly). There’s a chef whose wildly swinging moods are endangering his job and his home life who finally decides to stick with lithium.

Although bipolar disorder afflicts only 3% of the population, the odds are that only 50% of these people will be able to hold down a job.

People who plainly don’t understand mental illness may react badly on seeing an apparently healthy 20-something man wandering around in the middle of a working day. Because he is taking medication to quell the various strands of his illness, he is not talking to himself, acting oddly or accosting people. But he is still (invisibly) unwell.

“He’s got two arms and two legs hasn’t he? Tell him to get off his arse and find a job,” some might say.

Ah yes, so he’s a ‘leaner’ not a ‘lifter,’ a polarising notion recycled in 2014 by former Treasurer Joe Hockey (borrowed from the lexicon of Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies).

As Fry’s documentary shows, some bipolar sufferers have ‘normal’ friends who support them through the worst of their illness and stick around during the well times.

Others not so fortunate retreat into their own heads while their friends may drift away. Fortunately, there are support groups which can help people struggling with the feeling they are on their own.

It is easy enough to find long lists of famous people who have ‘come out’ and declared themselves bipolar and one would hope this helps to push stigmas and myths into the corner.

Surrealist painter Edvard Munch (who painted “The Scream”), is on this list, so too Beach Boy singer-songwriter Brian Wilson. The late Spike Milligan owned up to it, as did former NRL star Andrew Johns and a long list of composers, writers, comedians, actors and celebrities.

Margaret Trudeau, mother of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travels the world speaking out against the stigmas and myths surrounding this admittedly confronting disorder. If you are my vintage, you may remember reading about Margaret in the popular press, hanging out at nightclubs with famous rock stars and generally not living as one might expect of the first lady of Canada (then married to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau). In hindsight, those florid 1970s reports of Margaret jiving at Club 54 with Mick Jagger and the Stones typify a person in the throes of a typical bipolar manic phase: disinhibition, impulsive behaviour, risk-taking, spending sprees and so on.

In a lengthy interview with Will Pavia in the Sydney Morning Herald, Trudeau, now 68, at one point began to talk about her passion for bringing mental health issues into the spotlight. From February to June she travels, campaigning about brain diseases, depression and her experiences of living without the medication she now takes. Trudeau says she is helping to break the last great taboo – “The thing people are most afraid of talking about”.

At which point Pavia observes: “She is certainly not afraid to talk about it. She talks at a rate of knots…if this is Trudeau on mood stabilisers, what must she have been like, for all those years, when the mania struck?”

Great question, Will, one which reminds me of an older chap I know who was diagnosed with bipolar in the 1960s.

“I took the lithium and after a few months I felt great so I said, Doc, I don’t need to take this anymore. At which point he looked at me and said: “Don’t be a f***’ng idiot!”

(What I wrote last year):                    

rainbow-lorikeet-02And on an entirely different note, Bird Week starts on Monday 17th October- you’re invited to spend 20 minutes one day next week to count (and name, if possible) the birds in your backyard- check it out at this website. To get you started, this is a Rainbow Lorikeet – common, now that the Bottlebrush is flowering. (Ed.)


Not good with crowds

Photo by Laurel Wilson: Chilling out in Kowloon Park, Hong Kong.

It was the sight of the  crowds – 83,625 screaming footie fans at Sydney’s ANZ stadium that set me thinking, looking at that roaring sea of blue – it’s the last place on earth I’d want to be. Players interviewed after the Cronulla Sharks beat the Melbourne Storm 14-12 said they could not hear the referee’s calls, could not hear players calling to them and had tinnitus for hours afterwards.

I’m not good with crowds or noise. So I should have known better than to pick a four-day stopover in Hong Kong last time we travelled overseas. On the third day I went in search of a quiet place with as few people as possible around me. Luckily, our hotel was close to Kowloon Park, a 13 hectare green space with public gardens and aviaries, surrounded by some of Hong Kong’s most striking 19th century British buildings.

I found a spot under a tree, its leaves dripping with humidity and lay down for a spell. On a lawn near me 30 or so older Asian people spread themselves out for a spot of Tai-Chi. You could still hear and feel the city hum and strum, but the impact was muted by the tranquillity of this well-tended spot; well-tended because there is almost full employment in this island nation, now governed by mainland China. People have all kinds of jobs and walking around with a pole spiking trash and wind-blown leaves and putting them in a garbage bag is just one of them.

Those who have visited the former British protectorate (returned to Chinese rule in 1997), will know what it is like for an Aussie to visit Hong Kong, where 6,400 people share every square kilometre.

Some of the land has been reclaimed from the ocean; to build a new airport, but also to build yet more apartments in this vertical city.

Hong Kong apartments on average comprise 14.86sqm of living space. Compare that with your standard Aussie ‘McMansion’ with its five or six bedrooms, three or four bathrooms and two or three-car garage (around 241.54sqm).

So if being one of over 83,000 people doing the Mexican Wave in a tiered stadium gives you the jim-jams, don’t have a holiday in Hong Kong, Singapore, London or Manhattan.

One thing world travel does to a man brought up in the sparsely populated and wide open spaces of Australasia is to appreciate how quiet things are when you come back from New York, London or Tokyo. As my pal Ed said, on returning from a three-month stay in Mexico City: “The air here is so sweet and fresh – hey, do you know a place that does good burritos?”

So where do you go if the weight of people is getting to you?

The least populated country on earth is Greenland, though that may change as arctic ice keeps melting and exposing more living space. Greenland’s ice-free population density is 0.03 persons per square kilometre, which is about one person to every 3,350 hectares, if you really needed to know.

As it happens, Australia also ranks among the least densely populated places on earth, but as in many such examples, this is misleading. As we know, the majority of Australia’s population live in a narrow coastal belt between Cairns and Melbourne. Some also live in Tasmania.

All sorts of anomalies and oddities arise when you start looking at the world’s most densely populated countries in terms of people per square kilometre of land area. The World Bank’s list (as of 2015) ranges from Greenland 0.03, Australia 3, New Zealand 17, China 146 and Japan 348, to Bangladesh 1,247 and Hong Kong 6,958.

Small island nations like Malta (1,348) and the Maldives (1,264) suffer from a lack of physical space rather than too many people. The most crowded of all is China’s 25.9sq/km gambling mecca, Macau, with 19,393 people to the square kilometre.

Those who have spent a splendid week or two roaming around the sparsely populated South Island can attest to the southern half of New Zealand’s population density of 7 (not counting sheep). Stewart Island (0.4 persons per sq. /km) is also nice at this time of year.

Seriously, though, the world’s population distribution is seriously out of whack. The herd mentality takes over when humans move about.

The Chinese government spent billions creating vast new urban cities in the interior where they planned to resettle people, taking the pressure off Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Officials created the “Dubai of northern China” in Ordos, northern Mongolia in 2010 (Ordos is 700 kms from Beijing). The city has a capacity to house 300,000 people yet only 20,000 to 30,000 people have moved there, hardly a satisfactory return on a $161 billion investment. The answer according to this blog is that the government has failed to persuade people to move there.

Amid many such examples, China’s population remains concentrated in three key cities the population per square kilometre being: Beijing (11,500), Shanghai (13,400) and Shenzhen (17,150). Capital city population densities in Australasia look well contained by comparison: Sydney (2,100 per square kilometre), Auckland (2,000), Melbourne (1,500), Adelaide (1,350) and Brisbane (950). The above figures are a few years old but they still paint a vivid picture.

Our most under-populated state is South Australia, with 74% of its 1.67 million people (including 8 FOMM readers), living in Adelaide. SA’s population density is just 1.62 people per square kilometre.

South Australia is dry, flat and exposed to the elements. The state is surrounded by the 100km-long Bunda Cliffs (the Great Australian Bight), the Nullarbor Plain and the Simpson Desert.

If you really want to get away from it all, becoming a Jackaroo or Jillaroo (ranch hand), on one of SA’s vast cattle stations (up to 24,000sq/km) is the way to go. The climate is unforgiving in the interior, however, so much so that many residents of outback mining town Coober Pedy live underground.

No doubt their air-conditioning packed it in when last week’s storm event (SA Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis equated it to a category five hurricane), took out 22 electricity transmission towers. The ensuing seven-hour state-wide power outage (some lost power for up to three days), should hardly have been a surprise. Some politicians used the crisis to give renewable energy a good kicking although exactly why has not been satisfactorily explained.

Australia does not have a national electricity grid as such and much of its transmission business has been privatised so there is a user-pays mentality.

After the SA crisis, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt called for a “more integrated system of providing consumer and investment security”. In an Australian Financial Review column Mr Hunt said: “This means that the states will have to consider new or upgraded interconnectors between Tasmania and the mainland, and South Australia and the eastern states.”

As always, the squeakiest wheel gets the most oil. The New South Wales government has invested $30 billion in energy infrastructure to ensure its 7.54 million residents can keep their porch lights on. Meanwhile, the SA Government, knowing the Port Augusta coal-fired station had just been decommissioned, made an ironic decision in the July State Budget.

Tucked away in the $209 million provided for infrastructure was this lone item for energy: $500,000 towards a feasibility study to explore options for greater energy inter-connection with Eastern states to allow for more base load power. A necessary part of the equation, but not much help when the transmission towers (and the lines between them), are out of action. Any electricity experts out there with a theory?


Bread and circuses

Photo by JunkByJo (How quickly faces change in the NRL: Broncos vs Raiders 2008 (l-r) Carmichael Hunt (AFL), Michael Ennis (Sharks), Darren Lockyer (commentator), Denan Kemp (Australian Sevens), Dane Gagai (Newcastle), Nick Kenny (retired)

Not for nothing did the Roman Empire invent the phrase ‘bread and circuses.’ This unbeatable public policy formula was coined by a Roman scribe in an attempt to arrest the decline of heroism among Romans. It means a government soothing its anxious tax payers by providing food and grand spectacles, in this context, the footie grand final.

In Roman times the serfs gathered in vast public arenas, encouraged to give the thumbs down to beaten gladiators. Today we have the less life-threatening ‘Mexican Wave’ and the lone dickhead yelling something incomprehensible during a minute’s silence to honour a fallen comrade.

At a base level, keeping the people dull-witted by swamping them with heroic spectacles (the Olympics, the Ashes, the Melbourne Cup, the World Cup, the State of Origin, the Tour De France, Wimbledon, the Australian Open, the FA Cup, the Grand Prix…) can and does work.

Some might say it stops us analysing what is wrong with the world and how best to fix it. It might even be where a lot of the money that could be used to fix what’s wrong with the world is spent.

There’s nothing like Grand Final weekend to focus the mind on just how much money is spent organising, promoting and playing professional sports. We’ll talk about the Australian Football League (AFL) final in a bit, but for purely parochial purposes, let’s look at the National Rugby League (NRL) grand final.

There’s a reason 4.4 million people tuned in to Channel Nine last year for the 80-minute plus overtime contest between the Cowboys and the Broncos (the Cowboys won 17-16 in the ‘golden point’ overtime period, remember?). It comes down to the cost of actually attending the game. Tickets at Sydney’s Olympic Park this year range from $45 to $375. If you drive there, a standard parking fee of $25 applies. So even if Mum Dad and the two kids drive to the game and snag the cheapest tickets, it’s still a $300 day out by the time you factor in petrol, pies and burgers, chips, beer and whatever memorabilia is sold to you on the way in (and out).

Bu that is small beer compared to the Victorian Government’s decision to declare a new public holiday for the AFL Grand Final. An economic impact study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimated the costs of the two new public holidays (the other adds Easter Sunday to Good Friday as a gazetted public holiday), at between $717 million and $898 million. But as The Age reported, the Grand Final Eve holiday accounts for up to $852 million of the costs. PwC estimates the new public holidays will result in increased public holiday wage payments of between $252 million and $286 million.

Notwithstanding, this weekend offers a veritable feast of footie, especially if you follow both codes (AFL and NRL), and you can watch the games live on TV for nothing. Last year’s AFL final between the West Coast Eagles and Hawthorn drew 3.9 million viewers for the Saturday afternoon game. At $180 to $399 for a reserved seat at the Melbourne Cricket Ground you can understand why.

Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Footie finals means enduring saturation level advertising. At $130k minimum for a 30-second TV ad, advertisers nevertheless throw buckets of cash at the time slot to ensure its viewers know that their brand of car, beer, burger, mobile phone, betting app or hipster beard styling product is the best.

The stars of the show get well looked after. The 34 Melbourne Storm and Cronulla Sharks players (including four interchange players from each team), collectively earned about $7 million this year. That includes $4.27 million to most valued players in both teams; the highest paid (Storm captain Cameron Smith, $1.1 million), has a 72.3% success rate for kicking goals – more on this later.

I cite these more than adequate wages ($205,882 p.a. on average), not to irritate musician friends who customarily play four-hour gigs for about $100 per band member. No, footie players at this elite level deserve to be well paid for keeping themselves in top notch physical and psychological health and for learning how to stick to the script in after-match interviews:

Just happy to get the two points, mate’ or ‘we stuck to the game plan and saw out the 80 minutes’ or ‘Thanks to (sponsor) and (sponsor) and can I just say g’day to my Auntie in Cairns.’

So did you know that 53 NRL players earn more than $400,000 a year and a handful of those earn more than $1 million? Give them a break. It’s a short-lived career – 15 years at best. For those who invest and take the time to plan an after-footie career, it’s a good financial start.

Former Bronco turned sports commentator Gordon Tallis once famously said (amid a heated discussion about whether someone was offside or was that a forward pass) – “Guys, it’s just a game of footie.”

As is our custom, we will have friends over for pies and vegies and a good old fashioned yell at the television set. People in our village are sharply divided into (a) footie fans (the kind that own season tickets and belong to tipping clubs); (b) secret footie fans (those who would like to stay friends with (c) people who think there is something acutely wrong with our otherwise satisfactory level of mindfulness.

Mind you, I have seen hippies come out of the chemist shop clutching Lotto tickets, so nobody’s perfect.

She Who Yells at the Television says footie is great escapism and better, there’s a beginning, middle and end.

One’s level of interest in the Grand Final (if one has an interest at all), is predicated on whether the team you follow made it into the match.

This year our interest is academic – the highly accomplished wrestling team (the Melbourne Storm) versus the western Sydney outsiders, the Cronulla Sharks. As the late Jack Gibson once said: “Waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt.” (Thanks to Roger the dentist for reminding me of this gem SWYATT)

Last year 82,000 people came to Olympic Park to watch the grand final and this year will be no different. A sold-out stadium is good business for those all-essential broadcast media deals. The NRL annual report detailed the five-year deal signed on 27 November 2015.

The Australian Rugby League Commission, Nine Network, News Corp Australia, Fox Sports and Telstra signed agreements to provide free to air television, pay television and mobile coverage of Rugby League for five years from 2018. The deal is worth $1.8 billion to the NRL, which makes gate takings of $57 million in 2015 look relatively modest.

I was going to write about (live) betting on footie but She Who Edits says no, it is stupid, immoral and leaves players open to temptation.

But, did you know you can get odds of 151-1 on no try being scored in Sunday’s match? Imagine!

The Rugby League Project records show that in 1986, the Parramatta Eels beat the Canterbury Bulldogs 4-2 in the only try-less Grand Final to date. Michael Cronin (Eels) kicked two penalties from four attempts, Terry Lamb (Dogs) kicked one from two.

Take the two, Cameron, take the two!




Racism hurts everyone

Photo Alisdare Hickson A lone Dover resident bravely leaves her home to confront a right wing anti-immigrant march

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly at one time waxed indignant about how political correctness was intruding into comedy.

“How dare they,” he fumed, on somebody’s talk-show. “Funny is funny.”

No Billy, not really. Not if you’re the butt of somebody’s bad taste joke, be it about religion, gays, people with disabilities, migrants from non-Christian countries or our indigenous people, who had the misfortune to be colonised in 1788 and not officially recognised in the Census until 1967.

What, you don’t think people make jokes about Aborigines? Try Kevin Bloody Wilson’s “Living next door to Alan”. I’m told this spoof song about a family of Aborigines moving in next door to Alan Bond, which in totality may be more about mocking big business than anything else, is a favourite amongst indigenous peoples in WA. But you can’t generalise like that, and herein lies the central problem with racism and xenophobia.

One cannot know the private thoughts of the racist who never verbalises or the indigenous person who feels persecuted but is too afraid/shy/humble to speak out.

In New Zealand, the Race Relations Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy, launched the nation’s first anti-racism campaign. Her open letter asked Kiwis to tell their stories about ‘casual racism’ – to go beyond the 400 written complaints received last year.

‘That’s Us’ is the first campaign that asks people to start sharing their own stories about racism, intolerance and hatred.

In her letter Dame Devoy says the overwhelming majority of people never complain or go public when a car drives past and the people in it scream a racist obscenity.

She cites other casual or ‘quiet’ racist encounters “that never feel casual or quiet when you and your family are the ones being humiliated.”

Dame Devoy told The Guardian that overt racism is not as widespread as it is in, say, Australia, but she felt that New Zealanders need to reassert their position as a world leader in race relations.

“We just need to look around the world right now to see what happens when racial intolerance and racism is normalised. We think New Zealanders are better than that and we hope you do too.”

But returning to Billy Connolly’s assertion that ‘funny is funny’.

When I was growing up in New Zealand the most popular entertainment group was a Māori group, the Howard Morrison Quartet, closely rivalled by a Māori/Pakeha comedy duo, Lou and Simon.

The latter were known for parodying popular songs, e.g. West Side Story “I like to be in a Maori car” using gentle, self-deprecating humour.

The Howard Morrison Quartet had a hit in 1960 with ‘My old man’s an All-Black’ based on the Lonnie Donegan tune about a dustman. The song was a protest about the decision to exclude Maori rugby players from the 1960 tour of South Africa.

It contained comic asides such as:

“Fi fi fo fum, there’s no Horis in that scrum.”

Crikey, you wouldn’t get away with that today. The urban dictionary and others define ‘Hori’ as a racial slur, but it was in common use in the 1960s. I recall Dad cuffing my ear (as that generation of Dads were prone to do), saying: “Don’t call Māoris Horis – it’s disrespectful.”

I may have asked, risking another ear-cuff ‘Why do some Māoris call themselves Horis, then?’ and he replied that if a negro (before they were known as African American) called himself a Nigger, that was OK, but it was not OK for us to use the N word, its origins steeped in racial hatred, slavery and oppression.

Wikipedia defines ‘Hori’ as a derogatory, racist slur, but the term (like Nigger in the US) has to some extent been “reclaimed” within the community it was originally intended to insult. Like those epithets used by rappers and hip-hoppers – ‘Wazzup, Nigger?’ Hori is used today as a term of endearment amongst Māori or as a signifier of ‘keeping it real’.

Whatever age I was in 1960, that discussion led me to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Black like Me, Go tell it on the Mountain and at least five of the 15,000 books written by or about Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile in the UK, present day, five 15-year-old boys and one 16-year-old boy have been arrested on suspicion of murdering a Polish man in Harlow, Essex. A subsequent assault on a Polish man in Harlow is being investigated as a hate crime, as is the murder a week earlier.

There was a noticeable rise in hate crimes after the June 23 Brexit referendum, with more than 3,000 allegations of harassment and threats filed with UK police.

Nothing on this scale to report in Australia, but the seeds have been sown and Pauline Hanson’s anti-Muslim rhetoric just shovelled a whole lot of fertiliser on that particular garden.

Adding potash, if you will, is a new Essentials Media poll showing 49% of Australians support a ban on Muslim immigration. Economist George Megalogenis dug out some historical evidence that 58% of Australians were opposed to taking part in a worldwide plan in 1947 to resettle Jewish refugees from Europe. Just because a survey saying half the people apparently don’t want something to happen doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t.

The 1946 Census revealed that 35,000 Jews lived in Australia. Historian and author W.D Rubinstein said at least 17,600 Jewish survivors reached Australia between 1945 and 1954 – the largest single increase in Jewish numbers in the country’s history.  In 2011 there were 112,000 Jewish people in Australia, the vast majority residing in Melbourne or Sydney,

So then to the Australian Greens who this week urged me (via a ‘personal’ email from Richard De Natale), to support the party’s walk-out during Senator Hanson’s anti-Muslim speech.

I thought the Greens could have served us better if they had stayed. Despite the parliamentary tradition that it is forbidden to heckle or interject during a Senator’s maiden speech, the Greens could have done this (one by one), until all had been ejected.

What headlines would have ensued then? Nevertheless, they walked and this is what De Natale had to say:

“After we walked out on Senator Hanson’s racist speech, my office was flooded with hundreds of calls of thanks. Then in just a few short days over 11,000 of us signed a pledge to stand united against racism. This is an opportunity to bring our communities and voices together with a message of unity that cuts through the noise of parliament. It’s hugely ambitious but I think we could reach 50,000 by the end of this year.”

That seems a small target when the Race Relations Commissioner of a nearby neighbour has pointed out that overt racism is thriving in Australia, even if the NZ Commissioner admitted:

“We’ve always had a problem with racial intolerance in New Zealand – Māori New Zealanders know it is not new.”

Dame Devoy’s Australian counterpart, Tim Soutphommasane, waded into the debate this week.

The Race Discrimination Commissioner argued in a speech at the ANU that racism at its core is about an abuse of power. He appealed to Australians not to be complacent about racial intolerance being some kind of “initiation rite” for new arrivals.

“While we may never eradicate racism and bigotry, it isn’t good enough to say its targets must grin and bear it, or that there’s nothing we can do. Doing so amounts to normalising racism, to suggesting that it should be tolerated.”


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