Monday, June 23, 2008

The Zimbabwe issue

The incessant stories of corruption, violence and ineptitude from the current Zimbabwe government make it impossible to consider that their position is based on anything other than self-interest.

But there's always another point of view. Where would it be? Try listening to the BBC interview with the Zimbabwe information minister Ndlovu. At one point, the interview hectors the minister 'Well, it's practice in our country to asks questions of the politicians!' The tone was so redolent of imperialism, you could understand how the present government is able to sustain its belief that the colonials are still a threat.

There may be many more stories about Zimbabwe that we never get to hear. It makes you wonder if the news blockade is not so much about information getting into Zimbabwe as anything other than the story of chaos emerging from Zimbabwe itself.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Our Other Hemisphere

Below is the original of a slightly edited article for The Age:

Kevin Rudd has spent the last week heralding an Asian century. Now he has returned back to Australian soil, it’s timely to open up Rudd’s narrative to scrutiny. There are some big questions yet to be asked.

Rudd claims that ‘Australia has to make itself the most Asia-literate country in the collective West'. Debate so far has focused on becoming more engaged with the Asian region. But this misses the wood for the trees. There’s a larger assumption in Rudd’s statement that has so far escaped our attention.

‘Collective West’?

Curious, isn’t it, for a country in the South-East end of the world to be part of the West. It’s more politics than geography. The ‘collective West’ is a natural complement to the earlier grouping, the ‘Global South’, which includes countries in the geographical North such as China and India. Our position inside this ‘collective West’, yet located South, should prompt more discussion than it does.

The 'collective West' is conjured today in a number of ways. Positively, it is the bastion of liberal values, promoting democracy, religious tolerance and individual freedom. Defensively, it is the target of resentment by those on its fringes, such as Islamic fundamentalists and ex-communists. Conservative commentator Victor Hansen describes the ‘collective West’ as a ‘wandering Odysseus’ encountering monsters at every turn. It is an epic of progress that we share with the first rank of nations.

But the phrase has a particular meaning to Kevin Rudd. In his 2005 address to University of New South Wales, Rudd described how Christianity has been displaced from its once privileged position at the centre of the 'collective West' to its current status as a marginal faith, returning to its origins.

This concept of a minority belief sets up Australia’s position as a marginal but friendly force within the wider Asian context. Rudd used his Indonesian visit to call for an interfaith dialogue to explore common values of Christian and Muslim societies. Rudd’s ‘collective West’ is no crusading power, seeking to bring the world under its dominion. It can be a key player in someone else’s game.

So why should one of its lesser powers, Australia, be granted this privileged position in Asia? Geographic location seems an obvious advantage, but it is quicker to fly to Beijing from London than Sydney. More likely it is our shared time zones and—as a younger nation—our capacity to adapt to Asian values.

And why should we want this position? For a politician, Asia brings home the bacon. We hope to ride the Asian tiger, feeding its hunger for development with our minerals and degrees. But what does this say about our identity as a nation? Are we anything more than regional opportunists?

The ‘collective West’ ennobles our ambitions. It is heartening to be part of a bigger team. In colonial times, Australia was the 'last outpost of the British empire'. During the war on terror, we proudly wore the badge of ‘Deputy Sheriff’.

Australia lost the first position when Britain joined the European Union. Our position of deputy is now endangered by the emergence of a new Sheriff, China. Rather than continue to be left out of the main game, Rudd offers the hope that we can be at the centre of our own regional grouping, an Asia Pacific Union.

But it’s only one side of the story. Rudd talks about the need for a spirit of cooperation in ‘our hemisphere’. Let’s not forget our other hemisphere. That mysterious title ‘Great Southern Land’ has traditionally identified Australia with the antipodes. Despite these romantic images, we maintain a blinkered vision, only looking north.

We tend to see ourselves alone in the South. Our common boast is to possess the 'biggest in the Southern Hemisphere,’ which can apply to anything from Highland Gatherings to car parks. This South is a kind of B League where we can excel, knowing we would be thrashed in the Premiership Division.

But Australia is not alone in this aspiration. When you look on the Internet, you find that Brazil, the China of the South, has twice as many claims to this distinction as Australia. Our ‘big pond’ mentality blinds us to those across our own latitude.

What about the view to our east, with the emerging economies and creative talents of Latin America? Or to our west, with the trade in our other ‘big pond’, the Indian Ocean? With strengthening democracy and economic growth averaging 5%, the South is a region waiting for our attention.

We have more in common that we realise. It’s with the South that we share the irony of a summer Christmas, imagining we’re in the North Pole while it’s 40 degrees outside. Australia is just one of many Southern countries increasingly dependent on China’s hunger for our resources. And we share the challenge of talent drain, as our best and brightest are lured to the prizes of the North. Aspirationalism alone doesn’t change that fundamental global asymmetry. We need to re-imagine what it means to live in the South.

Regardless of continental shift and rising water levels, we’re likely to remain in the South. We will continue to dwell in that half of the world which the West once chose as its collective mine, farm and prison. We share with other countries in this region a common legacy of repression and similar hopes of reconciliation.

There’s no doubt that our main bets will be placed with Asia, at least for economic reasons. However, we need to complement this northern push with an increased engagement across our South. Finding a place among our southern cousins is just as much part of our journey as doing business in Asia.

As Nelson Mandela says, ‘True reconciliation does not consist in merely forgetting the past.’ Nor should progress consist in forgetting where you are now.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Empire Fights Back at the Empire Writes Back

image Tonight a voice of the new confident India emerged out of the ashes of postcolonialism. The Centre for Postcolonial Writing at Monash University hosted a forum at the State Library with a keynote address by Professor Harish Trivedi on the subject 'An Alternative Postcolonial: Language, Location and Culture'.

His address seemed aimed squarely at one of the panelists, Bill Ashcroft, who thirty years ago is credited with inventing the term 'postcolonial' in the seminal publication The Empire Writes Back. Trivedi's point was the colonialism was a mere 'blip' in India's history and postcolonialism is an anglo-centric discourse which ignores the rich precolonial and contemporary literature in languages like Hindi. He claimed that the field ignores the critical difference between white settler societies like Australia and brown cultures like India.

As an address, it was tendentious and arrogant. But Trivedi did expose an issue within the framework of postcolonial. His insistence points to the need for an academic discourse that can encompass what is loosely called 'world literature', which includes but goes beyond the colonial experience.

The challenge he is to find the critical language to analyse this corpus. For Trivedi, this seemed about the tensions between nationalities and globalisation.

It was wonderful to find a forum where a voice like Trivedi's could be expressed, though how Australian academic institutions respond to this challenge remains to be seen.

Monday, June 16, 2008

From Guam to Brisbane

It's great to see dialogue between Australia and lesser-known communities in the Pacific:

Attend the Public Forum: The Hidden War in the Pacific & Community Dinner
For over 60 years, the United States has held the people of Guam hostage to its military ambitions – US bases cover one third of the total land area of the small Pacific island and there are plans to expand the bases and flood Guam with upwards of 50,000 military personnel and their dependents. The indigenous people of Guam, the Chamoru, have waged a long struggle to protect their land and culture from the effects of militiarisation and colonisation.
Two representatives of the Chamoru people will be in Brisbane to discuss and to build support for their struggle, to strengthen links between the peace movement in Australia and the people of Guam, and to increase awareness and understanding of the role Australia is playing in the militarisation of the Pacific.
Both the special guest speakers at the public forum represented the Chamoru people at the Seventh Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York in April 2008.
Saturday June 28. BBQ: 1pm. Public meeting: 2pm
St Mary’s Church, cnr Peel & Merivale Sts, Sth Brisbane
Community Dinner (Potluck) to welcome both Chamoru activists and Darumbal elders to Brisbane.
Thursday June 26, 6pm at St Mary’s Church house. Please bring something to share.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Winter in the South


Winter begins in the South...

  • Australians read extraordinary news that 'normal rainfall' predicted for this winter.
  • Australian Opposition leader berates the Prime Minister to understand the serious consequences of the variance in petrol prices, which make the difference between whether the family will eat 'processed sausage or chops' that night.
  • The Australian art world tries to take the high ground in response to charges of obscenity, but find it now highly contested territory.
  • In Santiago, Chile, water supplies are cut after 'too much rain'.
  • News of riots in Johannesburg confirms old prejudices about South Africa.
  • No news of the millions of acts of daily kindness that sustain the complex web of ethnic differences in the 'rainbow nation'
  • We look for our favourite old scarf, down South.