Monday, February 27, 2006

Every boy should have a kite

Yes, that's right. Every boy should have a kite. And fly it!

Yesterday I took my son to the Festival of Kites, held by my local City Council. After the tremendous storms that lashed Melbourne on Saturday, the weather on Sunday had calmed enough to be an amazing day for being outdoors, and the wind was perfect for kite flying. Strong, steady winds made it easy to get a kite up, and keep it there.

There was a range of kites
, from more modern synthetic material ones to more traditional Chinese paper kites. My favourite was this long Chinese dragon, which turned out to be made of paper, over 100 feet long, had an intricate dragon's head, and needed two people to keep hold of when aloft!

My son and I were so inspired, we decided to get ourselves one. I bought
a $15 synthetic kite from a stall at the festival. It confounded all my memories of kite flying as a boy. Half the struggle was usually getting it up there for the wind to carry higher and higher, or losing a kite to a tree. (Remember Charlie Brown's kite-eating tree? Well, I had my own, which devoured a beautiful box kite my father had given me.)

The kite
we bought, however, was really easy to get up in the air. (A fair wind did help!) I enjoyed this kite. It was bright and colourful, had a tail that spun in the wind, and could get really high up. But it was hard for a novice like me keep it up there.

Making things more difficult was that so many people were also flying kites that they'd bought that day, we kept getting our lines tangled, and had kites crashing into each other and to the ground. It was a wonder no one was hurt.

The best thing was seeing my son having fun. It was lovely to see him get a kick out of flying a kite – he so wanted to hold on to it himself, to be in charge of it. It was hard for me to let go. What if it got tangled in some other kite? What if he couldn't hold on and let go of the reel of string? There would go $15 and a pretty snazzy kite; and judging by his reactions to when his helium balloons got taken off into the sky, my son would be pretty upset too.

This became a test of how well I could let go – of always holding on to a situation and trying to make sure my son didn't get his feelings hurt. I can't say I passed with flying colours this time, but did well enought to help my son to fly the kite by himself for a bit – before he lost interest in its occasional crashes to the ground and ran off to the playground...

And so it goes. It was fun. Every boy – I mean father – should have kite, and take it and his kid(s) out to a big park on a windy day and fly it. And hopefully, his kid would get a huge kick out of it, forget about TV for the afternoon, and end up with great memories of kite-flying with his or her dad when they're much older – and trying desperately to remember what their dad taught them about it when they're trying to show their own kids how to fly one.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

South Park episode censored

SBS has pulled the final episode of South Park – which evidently takes the piss out of the Pope. They seem to have made the decision after Catholics made angry noises that the cartoon belittled the Pope. So here’s my gratituous Mr Bean as the Pope pic. It had been doing the rounds for so long, it seems almost lame to post it here – but this controversy deserves it.

In a rather lame excuse for the censorship, an SBS spokesperson said:
"Given the current worldwide controversy over cartoons of religious figures, we've decided to defer this program".
I’m bamboozled. Is this the same SBS that showed that Pedro Almodovar’s movie where the nuns run their convent like brothel? (I think it was Dark Habits.) Is this the same Special Broadcaster that has made its name for running programmes and movies that no one else dares? Like Queer as Folk, and Almodovar and kinky Japanese movies… to name just a few…

Fine, the Catholic Church and its Popes have made their names with torturing heretics and burning witches, albeit during the Inquisition a few centuries ago, but surely we don’t expect them to torch and loot SBS offices over a cartoon?
According to The Age report on this:
[The episode] was shown in New Zealand on Wednesday night, prompting a vigil by hundreds of Catholics outside broadcaster TV Works. Despite the protest, 200,000 New Zealanders watched the program, six times the usual audience. February 24, 2006
It doesn't sound that scary, and over so little. In the past, South Park has shown Jesus hosting a TV show and, if I remember correctly, having a fight with Santa Claus (!?). Isn't it odd that these Catholics get up in arms over satires of the Pope, i.e. merely god's representative on earth, rather than over those poking fun at the son of god himself?

No. Don’t be surprised at anything conservative Catholics will pick fights over – from having Piss Christ removed from the National Gallery of Victorian over five years ago, to efforts to have Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ banned, or boycotted failing that.
And to think that the Church’s key teaching is built around the story of the Pharisee and Roman authorities taking extreme steps to stop a nuisance teacher from preaching what they thought were dangerous beliefs about love and forgiveness.

Oh my God! They killed South Park! You b@$#@&*s!

Oh... On whether Catholics torch and burn those they hate these days, note this from Wiki's entry on the Scorsese film mentioned above:
On October 22, 1988, a French catholic fundamentalist group launched molotov cocktails inside the Parisian Saint Michel movie theater to protest against the film projection. This terrorist attack injured thirteen people; four of them were severely burned.

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This is sectarianism, not secularism

Did anyone in the government accuse Tony Abbot of trying to impose Catholic doctrine on Australian civil law through his attempt to maintain a stranglehold on the abortion drug RU486? It may have been a favoured argument amongst secularists and left-feminists during the debate, but I don't remember any government minister condemning Abbot for such.

This is why I'm pretty cheesed at Peter Costello's latest foray into matters not in his portfolio. A furor is growing amongst Muslim community leaders and multiculturalists over Costello’s comments in a speech last night that those who don’t support the rule of law – civil law – should not take the oath of allegiance and become citizens...

Costello pointedly singled out that old bogey – Muslims who wish to impose, or live by, Sharia law in Australia. His comments were condemned (links to the same ABC article) for fanning ‘Islamaphobia’:
"It's creating more fear and Islamophobia, which just adds to the credibility and the strength of the Liberal government, which has survived for so long because its been able to create fear and suspicion around Muslims," [Director of the Forum on Australia's Islamic Relations (FAIR) Kuranda Seyit] said.
Judging from the media reports of the speech, Costello didn’t make any similar conditions on those who aspire to impose Christian doctrine on Australian civil society – such as by banning of abortion, banning homosexuality and preventing the legal recognition of same sex relationships, and even opposing divorce...

Costello has not put his foot in it, but has deliberately stirred a very filthy pot to shore-up his reputation amongst red-necks, monoculturalists and nationalists in Australia. Perhaps another step in his moves to take power from Howard? But PM Howard, the master of dog-whistling politics, was not to be outdone by Costello – according to the same ABC report:
The Prime Minister John Howard and former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson have supported Mr Costello, but Labor and the Democrats have accused him of diverting attention from the Cole oil-for-food inquiry.
In fact, Hanson was delighted. Which says everything there is about to whom Costello’s comments were aimed at. More dangerously, I think these comments were also aimed at capturing the growing constituency of the (Pentacostal) Assemblies of God driven Families First party.

Costello has cozied up to this church many-a-time. He has plenty of time for speaking and worshiping in their churches. But it strikes me that Costello may find it a little uneasy taking his shoes off and 'walking around in [his] socks' in a mosque...

Costello’s latest intervention into multiculturalism is not a true defence of civil law and secularism. Rather, it smacks of a sectarianism that pits whites against non-white Muslims, and aims to capture conservative Christians' support in further isolating Muslims in Australia. Smug bastard.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Live and learn sustainability

The Sustainable Living Festival begins today, and continues this weekend, at Federation Square in Melbourne.

I learned so much from the first Festival I attended about three years ago, before they moved to their current location at Fed Square. I would urge you to go if you're in Melbourne, and learn a lot about how we can live more sustainably and minimise our negative impact on the planet.

Besides the exhibitors flogging everything from solar cells to organic compost, they have a programme of speakers talking about a range of things, from alternative energy to organic food to permaculture to our urban environment. Interestingly, there are a couple of sessions on children, child-rearing and parenting this year.

Sounds good. I'll be there on Saturday. While you're there, catch the re-opened major
exhibition of Indigenous art at NGV Australia.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Government secrecy – it's despicable

It is always enlightening to draw parallels between what is happening in the US and here in Australia, when our governments are behaving badly.

There has been growing criticism of the White House's initial secrecy over VP Dick Chenney shooting (!!!) his hunting pal full of buck-shot, and other secretive behaviour. In response to White House secrecy, editor Jacob Weisberg writes:
For the right to elect leaders to have meaning, citizens have to be able to find out what the people they elect actually do in office. Similarly, the right to criticize the government presumes having something to criticize other than government secrecy.
In Australia, not only are government minister's refusing to answer a Senate Estimates committee questions about the AWB kickbacks to Saddam Hussein, the Howard government had the audacity to also gag public servants from answering questions by the Senate committee on the issue earlier this week and again today.

As the Labor Senator said (or was that Daffy Duck?), that's despicable.

And when you actually have to say, 'There's no cover-up,' does that mean there may actually be a cover-up? I think that the Howard government's been taking lessons from Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister... (for more of an idea of what I mean, Wikipedia has a string of quotes from the series.)

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Beware zealots of all stripes

In India, Hindu nationalists – extremists like those who destroyed an ancient Muslim mosque over 10 years ago and attacked Deepa Mehta's films in recent years – have now turned their attention to artwork:
A painting depicting "Mother India" as a naked woman by the country's best-known artist has been pulled from an auction after protests by rightwing Hindu nationalists.
Remember, religious extremism, hypocricy and zealotry are not limited to just America's Christian right with its creationist censorship of evolutionary biology in schools, or the escalating Muslim extremist militancy over such things as the Danish cartoons, or a Catholic government minister's attempts to retain control over his ban of the abortion drug in Australia.

A rose by any other name is still a rose. Thorns and all.

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Whale meat is being turned into dog food

I have just learned that Whale meat is being turned into dog food in Japan. According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society:
Japan’s stockpile of whale meat has doubled in the past decade as a result of more and more animals being killed each year, and selling the meat as dog food is the latest attempt by Japan to stimulate the market and shift the hundreds of tonnes of whale meat piling up in Japanese warehouses.
Thanks to David for the tip-off. How much more convincing do we need to push the campaign to boycott seafood products from companies that profit from whaling?

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Take the campaign to our supermarkets

Yes, it is time to bring the campaign 'home' and do our bit.

Greenpeace has announced that they're bringing their activists in the Southern Oceans home, and want the rest of the community to take up the campaign against whaling.

They what us to put pressure on the seafood companies that benefit from whaling. In Australia, there is probably only one company connected to Japanese whaling that has products on our supermarket shelves. Find out what you can do at the Greenpeace Petition.

So, the next time you go shopping please stop, look and think before you grab that can of tuna or frozen fish fingers and put it in your trolley.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

For Freedom of Expression

I think that it is very important to make a stand for freedom of expression in the current political climate. Posting this image is part my stand. I want to make a positive contribution to the ongoing struggle for free speech across the globe, and in Australia. With the introduction of Anti-Sedition Laws by Howard's government, the danger in Australia today is not so much whether fringe extremist groups of whatever persuasion will abuse their freedom to speak freely by inciting hatred and terror.

Rather, the greatest danger comes from the increased powers to restrict our freedoms being claimed by a neo-liberal government whose ideology has seen it pursue Aboriginal rights, trade union and workers' rights, refugee rights, gay and lesbian rights,
and the right to cultural diversity into the deepest, darkest corners of despair in this country.

Globally, we have seen the multi-headed Hydra of censorship and self-righteous haranguing by neo-conservatives, the Christian right, Muslim conservatives and extremists, and various extremists from across the religious spectrum. They have pursued an agenda of intollerance and suppression of those they disagree with. Security laws, vitriolic suppression of fr
ee expression and outright violence are their arsenal.

Perhaps it is going out on a limb here, but the reaction of the Islamic radicals to the publications of cartoons satirising Mohammed, and the introduction of Sedition laws here in Australia are two sides of the same coin. They only serve to diminish us, as they diminish our capacity to express ourselves freely, openly and in good faith, as humans.

This image is from a campaign postcard from nearly a decade ago: the Campaign to Defend the Rabelais Editors. When I was a student at University, my friends and fellow activists, who were the elected editors of the student paper, Rabelais, were charged for publishing material in the magazine that was subsequently denied classification – i.e. banned. The campaign ran long and hard. The image is from an action that saw the famous Melbourne statues, Three businessmen who brought their own lunch, gagged. (I've forgotten who took the photo!)

In the spirit of free expression, I encourage you to download the image and post it on your blog/website or email it to friends. Please do ackowledge where you got it from, so that people can see why it's been posted and know its history. Please also drop me a comment to let me know if you have posted it somewhere.

More about Australia's Sedition laws here.

The Brussels Journal, a coalition of journalists have followed the Danish cartoon controversy here (warning, they have republished the cartoons, so be aware of what you're visiting or linking to...)

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Could it get any better?

Originally uploaded by Mark Lawrence.
When I first took it, I thought 'yes!' I got it right. Now, when I look at this photo the more I wonder about all the technical things that I had no idea about.

Still, I'm pretty keen on it. The the more I look at it, the more I am in wonder at Lillypilly Gully in Wilsons Prom.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Australia’s Ethical Atrophy Part II

In a pique of nationalist anti-Americanism, some letter writers to The Age (on Saturday 4 February 2006) have criticised US Senator Coleman for his attacks on the AWB corruption scandal and the Howard government. (He thinks he was misled by Australia’s then Ambassador to the US, who’d lobbied Senators to drop a US inquiry into the AWB kickbacks to Iraq.)

Strange to think where this anti-Americanism is coming from – Howard supporters – considering the popularity of and support for Howard’s pro-American/pro-Bush stance and involvement in the war on Iraq.

One correspondent’s comments particularly struck me: he condemned Coleman as supporting the vested interests of the wheat farmers he represents and thus tarnishing his intervention as mere maneuvering against Australian wheat exports, and condemned the American’s interference in ‘our internal affairs’.

Another letter writer basically said that international business is built on deals that are eased by lots of grease along the way – the real-economic of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. Another writer questioned who the Yanks were to lecture ‘us’ about palm-greasing and dodgy dealings with corrupt regimes.

Hmm. It strikes me that many have missed one of the biggest ethical issues – that the kickbacks were in direct contravention of the US/UN sanctions against Iraq. I think this aspect is not quite in the current public picture of this corruption scandal: it wasn’t just that kickbacks were paid to secure the sale of Australian wheat to another country, or even that they were paid to one of the most brutal dictators (Saddam Hussein) and regimes of the day (Ba’athist Iraq). In short, UN Sanctions were broken.

The AWB paid $300 million to the regime, securing Australia’s wheat sales to Iraq through the now discredited UN Food-for-Oil program. The corrupt practices allowed the Iraqi regime to charge ‘transport surcharges’ and other extra costs on the Australian wheat. It assured Australian exports to Iraq, allowed the regime to skim off the top, and filled the pockets of Saddam and his cronies at the expense of sick and malnourished Iraqi children.

This is why this is not just Australia’s ‘internal affair’ – breaking the sanctions is about breaking international law and undermining the UN. It’s an ethical issue that concerns all of us across the globe.

I remember a time when breaking UN Sanctions was the worst thing a country (or business) could do. When the world was united in condemning South Africa’s Apartheid regime, we believed that maintaining the Sanctions against South Africa was tremendously important; anti-apartheid activists worked hard to ensure the sanctions were maintained in the face of growing resistance and white-anting from business interests and the apartheid government. If my memory serves me, Margaret Thatcher made herself quite unpopular amongst Commonwealth countries for not supporting the sanctions wholeheartedly and convincingly enough in the 80s.

Despite the fact it created a blackmarket of profiteers collaborating with the racist regime, the apartheid sanctions still held us. So much so that my skin would crawl when I started seeing South African products in our supermarkets when apartheid fell and the sanctions were lifted.

But our current concerns with the failures of the UN Food-for-Oil program and the contravention of sanctions against Iraq are not as simple as the struggle against apartheid. In principle, it is important to acknowledge that breaking UN Sanctions is a major ethical and legal failure by Australia.

However, for so many peace campaigners, anti-imperialists and human rights activists through the 90s, the US instigated UN sanctions against Iraq were unjust, unfair and brutal. Sanctions were instrumental in the malnourishment, illness, death and despondency amongst the Iraqi civilian population. They suffered whilst the regime continued to enrich and protect itself. The Sanctions were unethical.

The sanctions were a punishment by the US and its allies against Saddam for defying the nascent ‘New World Order’ of post-Cold War US power and invading Kuwait. They were an expression of US power in the UN, over their European competitors and in the Middle East, and to prevent Iraq from re-arming itself with weapons of mass destruction (and there were no WMDs after all!). And the sanctions clearly were corrupt. The UN Food-for-Oil corruption scandal has shown that.

Here is the ethical conundrum: Australia’s complicity in the corruption of the UN program and collaboration with the Iraqi government to circumvent sanctions should be condemned even though so many – myself included – believed that the sanctions were unjust and hurt Iraqi children the most, and should be lifted.

Huh? How can we hold the Australian government and the Wheat Board (now AWB) accountable for unethical actions against something that was unethical in the first place? It makes my head hurt thinking about it. But, persevere.

It was wrong to flout international law and pay bribes to a corrupt, despotic regime so that we could sell them our wheat, at a time when we were on the brink of going to war with that regime over lies that we told ourselves and the rest of the world.

As the inquiry continues, it remains to be seen whether those who pay the ultimate price for this corruption are those involved or the Australian public – through our failure to think through these issues and call our government and business leaders to account.

More news here.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Wilsons Prom photos

Lillypilly Gully
Originally uploaded by Mark Lawrence.
I mentioned briefly a couple of weeks ago that I was going camping at Wilsons Promontory National Park ('the Prom') with my family.

We camped at Tidal River for a week, did a couple of short walks, which are not so short when you do them with a five-year-old, went to the beach, and sat in the water of Tidal River a lot. There were a couple of pretty hot days!

This photo is from Lillypilly Gully. It was pretty amazing there!

I haven't had time to blog on it, but there are a whole bunch of photos I took, posted on my flicrk site. Take a look.

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Australia’s Ethical Atrophy Part I

We’re on the verge of being swamped by a tide of ethical atrophy and apathy as the scandal of the AWB paying bribes to Saddam Hussein's regime to ease the sale of Australian wheat to Iraq widens. The whole thing poses for us tremendous ethical confusion. I think it is already showing in the public apathy to what the scandal is about and the profound pessimism that Howard will worm his way out of this one.

Even if it appears that Howard and his ministers knew about the corruption used to secure Australian wheat exports to circumvent the UN sanctions against Iraq, the sense I’m getting from people is that Howard is so slippery and loose with the truth; they expect him to squirm his way out of this one. Just as he did the children overboard affair.

This foreboding lends itself to a sense of futility – why fight Howard if the scandal won’t stick. Why care about this if it changes nothing. Here is just one of the ethical delusions: if we don’t care so much about this corruption, it won’t hurt so much when nothing comes of it anyway.

There is also a sense that even if the scandal does implicate the government, Howard will weather it, and the majority of Australian voters will let him off the hook – because he will protect their mortgages/businesses/private school subsidies/ tax-breaks/dreams of having all-the-above.

The Cole inquiry wants to include other companies (i.e. BHP Billiton) in its investigation of the matter. US Senators have come out screaming that the Australian government mislead them by denying such kickbacks were being paid and insisting they back-off from holding an inquiry into the matter. (Two or more years ago! The Americans suspected. Why didn’t we?) (See here for more news on the scandal and inquiry.)

Howard and his ministers certainly haven't started running for cover yet, So far they've pursued the line of 'plausible deniability' – i.e. along the lines of ‘we didn't know therefore we didn't condone’, ‘they always denied it to us so there was nothing to investigate’, ‘we didn’t know so we couldn't have stopped It’, and the old faithful: ‘based on the information given to me by the department, I believe…’

And finally, in weeks to come I’m sure we will hear that beauty of Australian politics: ‘No, I have not misled parliament. No, I have nothing to apologise for.’

Do you see what I mean? It is as if the script has already been written for this. And that’s because it has, numerous times, as Howard squirmed out of one thing after another, making a mockery of the principle of truth in government.

The government is also pushing back, coming out fighting with their claws drawn over accusations by US Senator Coleman that Australia's then Ambassador to US made reassurances that no impropriety was involved in Australia’s wheat exports to Iraq via the UN food-for-oil program. They’ve taken the indignant approach: 'How dare they insult us etc. etc. I demand an apology…’

Here’s a lesson in Australian politics a la Howard: never apologise, but always demand an apology. Make your critics the bad guys and you’ll come up smelling like roses.

The main danger, this time, of this ethical atrophy is not the destablising of business ethics, or even the habituation of lying and cover-up in government. Rather, it is the entrenchment of indifference and apathy amongst us – the public – over the connivance of industry and government in corruption and the lack of accountability by the state, and our loss of faith that we can – and should – do anything about it.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Kong hee fatt choy! Woof.

Oh, yeah, happy new year to you all! Sorry I let this one slip. Last Sunday saw the start of the Chinese New Year - it's the year of the Dog. The Fire Dog, in fact.

Traditionally, those born in the Dog year (like me) are meant to be loyal and have a strong sense of justice and social consciousness. A couple of Chinese bloggers (like these guys) around the traps are hoping that this year of the Dog will see a spreading of social consciousness amongst us all.

Here in Australia, there's a brewing corruption scandal involving the Australian Wheat Board paying bribes to Saddam Hussein's regime to ease Australian wheat exports through the Iraqi food for oil scheme - in contravention of the UN sanctions against Iraq.

If the scandal that is following on the tail of the inquiry exposes Howard government complicity in the corruption, I only hope that this spreading social consciousness we hope the Dog year brings will mean that the Australian public won't be so apathetic and be less prepared to let this government's continue its lies, cover-ups, dog whistling and dog wagging...

Can we do more than hope?

(Note: picture credit:

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First day at school

First day in class
Originally uploaded by Mark Lawrence.
Today was my son's first day at primary school. He started 'Prep', which prepares kids in Victorian schools for another six years of primary school.

We were all very excited, and thankfully there were no tears. He took to his classroom, the toys and his old friend from his former childcare centre like a duck to water.

He is so pleased with his school uniform and lunchbox. The school bag's a bit big for him to carry, though. He will grow into it. Just as he will grow with school.

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