Two songs of Australia

May 06, 2017

Concerts in the park, barbies in the yard
Cricket on the beach, drinking long and hard
A time to sing, to laugh, to play, in searing summer sun
A toast to our success – aren’t we the lucky ones
But deeper in the shadows a defiant spirit stirs
A chant that rises through the chatter, demanding to be heard
And as you grab your tongs to turn some half-burnt snags,
Or you sink another tinnie and wave a plastic flag,
Those voices ring out louder, heartfelt, strong and clear
And no longer can you claim the song they sing is not from here

The dilemma of working at The Australian

November 30, 2015

IN a piece published in The Australian today about the retiring editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, Errol Simper captures one side of the dilemma that is The Australian very well. (The Oz is paywalled but you can read the tribute by googling the headline: “Young Chris Mitchell, you were simply Devine”. In summary, Simper says what a fine editor Chris was).

During my 11 years in the Oz newsroom as a sub-editor, reporter and editor, I can say with all honesty that it was the best edited paper I’ve ever worked on, and probably harnessed the best stable of reporters I’d ever worked with too.

But this is just one side of the beast. The other is the unwavering, often knee-jerk conservative ideology that the Oz trumpets so readily. During my years there, roughly corresponding with the time that Paul Kelly was editor-in-chief, this extremism was usually kept in check by a broad pluralism that recognised its readers were best served by a range of views.

Sadly, this position gradually gave way to the one-sided extremism of the neo-conservatives. The paper began to act more like a propaganda sheet for the right wing of the Liberal Party than a broad-based sounding board for big ideas and public policy. This period roughly coincided with Mitchell’s ascendancy as editor-in-chief.

And therein lies the dilemma. No matter how well written, no matter how well edited, the paper’s right-wing bias is overwhelming. The tone is hectoring and unforgiving, making it frustrating to read and tricky to work around as a journalist.

As a reporter you learn how to navigate your way around masthead biases that don’t fit with your own values or approach to news gathering. It’s a survival technique you have to master to balance the demands of editors with the trust you build with your sources. You have little choice – your reputation is at stake. You learn that if you give a nod to your editor’s views and then proceed more or less as you had planned you can keep everyone happy. If you maintain a strong supply of copy it helps keep the editors off your back. On a good day, this means you can deliver a cracking story, with all the facts checked, with the sources verified that you have dug up on your own and that they can run with some prominence.

Trouble is, this becomes increasingly disheartening when your stories touch on or flesh out some unsatisfactory implications of policies or directions the editors support. Editors react by commissioning stories countering the thrust of your own and running them upfront under 60-point headlines. At some point you start to question whether you might be better off elsewhere.

That’s what I did. But I was big enough to acknowledge what a fine bunch of journalists they had gathered in the Oz newsroom and what a pleasure it had been learning from them and honing my craft. In the end though, they cramped my style too much and I left. No regrets.

Having said that I can’t read the paper anymore. It’s too distressing seeing ideology run rampant because it suits the bottom line of the proprietor and his allies.

Here is the news … in Warlpiri

July 19, 2014

As the ABC begins broadcasting the news in Aboriginal languages, it can take heart from those who went before them.

A report this week that the ABC in the Northern Territory is trialling a news service in two Aboriginal languages took me back to a newsroom in a shack in Alice Springs more than 30 years ago.

It was there in the makeshift studio of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association that the first indigenous language news service in the country originated in the early 1980s. It was my job to get the news program up and running. I worked with a team of highly skilled interpreters in Arrernte, Warlpiri and Pitjantjatjara.

CAAMA went on to spawn the nation’s first Aboriginal radio station, 8-KIN FM, and the indigenous TV network Imparja but in the early 80s, we were a modestly funded and humble outfit. Putting together the news was unlike anything I’d ever been involved in before or since. It was an exercise in journalism that required a creative approach to language and some unique cross-cultural considerations.

To start with, there were some big leaps between the understanding of the world of a journalist from “down south” and an audience that was unlikely to have travelled beyond the Territory borders.

My newspeak was filled with the usual shorthand: “the minister declined to comment”; “the young man died as a result of his injuries”; “the Government cut the funding of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs but defence spending rose by $400 million”.

As noted in Richard Aedy’s story in Radio National’s Media Report, interpreting these nuances is not straightforward. We needed a middle path. Just like today’s producers on the ABC, I would first script our regular English-language news service in Aboriginal English.

I picked up the appropriate phraseology from my bosses, Freda Glynn and Philip Batty, and other colleagues. “Died” was better rendered as “finished up”. “Declined to comment” was a little more tricky. We would say something like “The government man said nothing”. The Aboriginal English scripts would be instantly interpreted, live to air, by our bilingual (and often trilingual) broadcasters.

As for cutting Aboriginal affairs spending while boosting defence, this was not a story I had to write myself. Fraser’s razor gang had done most of its slashing when I was at CAAMA. However, a friend was once required to tell a group of Aboriginal women from remote communities that defence spending had gone up, while funding for community-based projects had taken a cut.

“No more money for women,” she told the women. “It’s being spent on bombs.” Her interpretation of the federal budget made it back to the regional director of the department. A few days later she was asked whether this was the best workplace for her. She soon left and took up a job with the women’s council she had been reporting to.

We weren’t the first generation to struggle with translating complexities into Aboriginal languages but we were the first to do so on equal terms. There was a strong sense of walking together to discover new ways of doing things.

It was rewarding and challenging and frustrating all at the same time. We sometimes had to fish our interpreters out of the pub to get them to work. On other occasions, we helped look after our workers’ kids while their mothers did their shifts on air.

We often felt under siege. The graphic description formed by the words “red” and “neck” captured the dominant cultural hue in Alice during that period. The undeniable troubles with drinking and with violence in the Aboriginal community were everywhere around us. Our despair fuelled initiatives such as Beat the Grog and Rock Without Grog. As well as CAAMA’s broadcasts in several languages, there were many public health messages and airplay for local musicians. CAAMA played a big part in promoting the work of outfits such as the Warumpi Band and Coloured Stone.

Above all, we were acutely aware that our efforts were, for the first time, providing a media voice for Aboriginal people. An outlet for the indigenous townsfolk who were being asked to live somewhere between a pre-contact black life and a modern white one with no role models or certainty. CAAMA was a touchpoint for town campers – fringe dwellers who were either ignored or pilloried by civic leaders. We were buoyed too by the support of a growing number of people from all walks of life who refused to accept the status quo.

It’s heartening to see the pioneering work of indigenous broadcasters being taken up by the national broadcaster a generation later. The ABC was not equipped – either culturally or in terms of resources – to provide Aboriginal language services in the 1980s. That’s why Aboriginal people did it themselves

Now the national broadcaster employs a fair number of indigenous announcers, journalists, producers and interpreters, people are looking on with great interest. The indigenous language news service is a small step, and it has the potential to grow. Just as CAAMA did from that tiny studio in Gap Rd in Alice Springs 32 years ago.

Taking a better route

August 29, 2013

Janet Rice

Janet Rice

Greens Senate candidate Janet Rice plans to ride into parliament on a transport platform

When Janet Rice became mayor of Maribyrnong in Melbourne’s inner west seven years ago she replaced the car that came with the office with a bike.

Much more than a symbolic gesture, it signalled a fresh approach to transport policy and a commitment to lead by example on her mission to reduce council’s emissions. Finding alternatives to the car-dependent model of urban planning that she calls “developer-ment” is one of her top priorities.

“I’m not against cars or driving ­– they’re an important part of the transport mix and I drive when it’s the best option,” she says. “The problem is that they’re strangling our cities. We’ve ended up with transport poverty on the fringes and gridlock along the arteries and throughout the inner city.”

Now the pedalling politician wants to shift gear and take her low-carbon vision to the national parliament. She heads the Victorian Senate ticket for the Greens at the September election and has a strong chance of winning a seat and helping the party to maintain its hold on the balance of power in the upper house.

Trained as a climate scientist, Janet began her working life as a campaigner for forests. During her student days she had been to the 1983 Franklin blockade where she met Bob Brown. Within a decade she became a founding member of the Victorian Greens.

Campaigns in support of community facilities around her Footscray neighbourhood and against trucks on residential roads led to her running for council in 1997. After two close losses, she won a council seat in 2003 and was elected mayor in her second term in 2006.

As a councillor Janet positioned Maribyrnong as one of the first local government bodies to adopt a carbon neutral policy. She got the council to improve cycling infrastructure and pushed for planning models that encouraged walking and public transport.

But after she departed no Greens were elected to replace her and those policy settings were no longer actively pursued. Janet blames the pressure of vested interests ­– the developers, the fossil fuel industry and the political and business networks that support them – and reluctance from the community to accept the unsustainability of our current lifestyle.

“We need to face up to the powers that are aligned against sustainable development,” she says.

During her term on council she also served as chair of the Metropolitan Transport Forum for four years, and this period sharpened her appreciation of a strategic approach to solving complex problems.

“I get frustrated applying bandaids,” she says. “I like to concentrate on what needs to happen upstream to stop the problems from occurring in the first place, and to create different paths, different options.”

Transport, planning, infrastructure and their impact on climate change, jobs and quality of life are critical issues for the Greens. Janet is keen to take on a role in shaping national policy and programs in these areas. She says the urban sprawl created by housing construction on disconnected city outskirts is a glaring example of how badly the system fails us.

“I recently completed 18 months as a strategic transport planner for an outer-Melbourne local council and it was an eye opener,” she says. “Despite the best intentions of local government to provide sustainable development with access to jobs, transport and services, it’s not happening. State government planning guidelines leave too little room for councils to move and the funding for services falls far short of the minimum we need.

“It’s also easier and more profitable for developers to build greenfield estates on urban fringes than it is to infill in existing areas where services and jobs are located. And it’s cheaper for governments to keep building more and bigger roads across greenfield developments than it is to provide public transport.”

Pull these factors together and there’s a powerful coalition of forces protecting the status quo. “The economic pact between government, the development industry and the road builders is to keep providing more of the same, regardless of policy or the long-term social and environmental costs,” she says.

Another factor casting a shadow over planning is the long history in Australia of donations to the major parties by developers. Greens policy is unequivocal: ban them.

Janet believes that fixing this broken model requires national input and can’t be left to state and local government. “Through its national infrastructure funding program, the Federal Government has great influence over transport and urban development. If we are serious about tackling climate change we need a co-ordinated national approach.”

So, what are her transport priorities for Victoria?

“At the moment about 80 per cent of motorised trips are by private cars,” she says. “That needs to come down significantly, and to do that we need a lot more efficient and convenient public transport. Building more freeways like the east-west tunnel is hugely expensive and just shifts congestion to another spot, without reducing emissions.”

Here’s Janet’s list of passenger transport projects she will push for in Victoria:

  •        Upgrade metro rail signals to double train services on existing lines
  •        More metropolitan and regional bus services
  •        Doncaster rail line (instead of the East West Tollway)
  •        Airport rail line
  •        Phase out dangerous level crossings by separating road and rail
  •        Western suburbs train upgrades, including electric trains to Melton and extending the Werribee line to meet the forthcoming Regional Rail Line
  •        Reopen the train link between Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo
  •        Train to Rowville, to reduce congestion on the Monash Freeway
  •        Metro and regional rail extensions and upgrades including Mernda extension, and upgrades to Albury, Warrnambool, Gippsland and Shepparton lines
  •        Metro rail tunnel

Although programs and the policies that guide them are undeniably important, they are not the full picture for Janet. Her experience working as a facilitator has taught her that the greatest success comes with effective collaboration, when all contributions are valued.

“My skills in helping people to work well together are just as significant, if not more so, than the knowledge I bring to a situation,” she says. It’s an approach she believes will come in handy during the long hours of negotiations over legislation that lie ahead if she wins.

Having been on the campaign trail for the Greens many times before, Janet believes voters want politicians who walk the talk. For this campaign she’s developed a pie chart showing the modes of transport she uses to get around. Even with two flights to Canberra earlier this year, a majority of her overall mileage is still by public transport, cycling and walking. She’s pedalling an average of 52km each week.

If she wins a senate seat she plans to get on her bike next year for a long commute. The co-ordinator of Bicycle Victoria’s first Ride to Work event in the early 1990s, Janet wants to go on a cycling “listening tour” all the way from Melbourne to Parliament House in Canberra.

That will certainly lift her cycling miles; it may also strengthen her stamina for the politicking ahead.

Disclosure: I’ve worked with Janet in the Victorian Greens for the past seven years. She brought over a bag of mandarins from her tree the other week when I said I wanted to write about her. 

Team effort

April 02, 2013

Getting Our Act Together: How to Harness the Power of Groups

By Glen Ochre

Groupwork Press, $40


Perhaps, like me, you’ve spent torturous hours in meetings feeling like you’d rather have a tooth pulled than endure more waffle. I couldn’t count the times I’ve watched people drift off to a dream world while the same dominant voices repeatedly fill the airspace.

Meetings, planning workshops, therapy sessions – however we come together to sort things out, the path is strewn with potholes and roadblocks. Whether we gather as work teams, community groups or boards of management, the challenges are remarkably similar: unspoken group dynamics, poor processes, fear of conflict and inadequate preparation.

Part of the problem is that the concept of collaboration is often sidelined in the competitive world in which we live. Think government and opposition. Prosecution and defence. Even the act of voting – for and against – produces winners and losers.

A strong belief in the power of collaborative decision-making is one of the pillars of this guide to group work by Glen Ochre, one of Australia’s foremost facilitators. The process of seeking consensus to arrive at decisions that everyone can live with is in her view worth striving for because “the means we use to get there must match the world we want”.

Echoes of the women’s movement and the peace movement can be felt here – Glen was active in both. Other influences include Quakerism and its offshoot, the Movement for a New Society, pioneers of non-violence and collaboration.

Underscoring these theoretical perspectives is Glen’s breadth of experience – as a social worker and organisational consultant, as well as an activist. She shows how the confidence that develops in a group that is able to hear and respond to all points of view, including those of the least powerful, builds a culture of safety and trust that buoys us to sail through stormy waters.

When this “groupness”, as Glen calls it, is established magic happens. As in any complex organism, the whole is somehow greater than the sum of the parts. The inspiration for Glen’s groupwork model is the natural world, where harmony is achieved in the web of interactions between all living things. In the same way, when people come together with good intentions these healthy interactions achieve a balance that nourishes the wisdom inherent in the group, guiding it to make good decisions that benefit everyone.

The second great pillar supporting her work – driven by the theory of group psychology as well as years of practice – is her conviction that we can’t help sort out everyone else’s stuff until we’ve dealt with our own. This is hardly a revolutionary concept, but an astoundingly powerful one for those who’ve taken the plunge and explored this aspect of self-awareness.

Glen has developed her own model to aid self-awareness called the Community of Selves. Building on the work of Carl Jung and Erving Polster among others, the Community of Selves concept invites us to examine the various voices or Selves that drive our thoughts and actions.

My own community, identified when I was a student in Glen’s course on facilitation, includes some prominent Selves like the Taskmaster, who has an urgent need to get on top of the business at hand. Then there’s the Anxious One, who frets over detail or possible consequences. A host of other players pop up with advice or warnings from time to time. The trick is not to ignore or judge these voices, but to acknowledge their contribution and return to the one Self who should always be in control – the Wise One.

This is not the place to explore the intricacies of the model, but suffice to say it’s been an invaluable tool I’ve relied on many times in groups and in life where one of my triggers has been set off.

The third great pillar that leaps out of the pages of this book is the simplest of them all – compassion. How easy it is to overlook that the love that guides our most important interactions, our friendships and our personal and family relationships, is an essential component of working together successfully.

Whether it’s listening with our hearts, acknowledging a contrary view, or standing by someone who is troubled or feels under attack, it’s our compassion that allows us to reach others and let them be heard. When we approach people from our hearts we build a pool of goodwill that we can always draw from.

There’s a lot packed in to this remarkable guide that bursts with practical advice, troubleshooting checklists, witticisms and pithy observations drawn from a lifetime of experience. The landscape format makes this a workbook you can throw open on a desk and the quirky illustrations by Looolooo bring the text alive with subtle humour.

It’s also a timely contribution to the essential art of working in groups big and small. As we wrestle with increasingly complex problems, including the compounding effects of climate change, the time to strive for better collaboration is overdue.

Jim Buckell is a graduate of the Groupwork Institute’s Advanced Diploma of Group Facilitation. He proofread the manuscript of Getting Our Act Together.

The wrong day, the wrong flag

January 16, 2013

An incident a few years ago caused me to reflect on our national day …


The local supermarket was busy with shoppers fetching last-minute items on one of those hot, lazy Australia Day afternoons. As I wheeled passed the checkouts on my way to locate toothpaste I overheard a bloke asking could he borrow 15c from someone in the queue. He had enough for his bread, meat and vegetables but was a bit short for his carton of milk.

Astonished I saw everyone either avoid his stare or mutter a grumpy “no”. I looked up and realised he was a Koorie. Quick check-in. He didn’t look drunk or drug-affected and showed no obvious signs of mental ill-health. He was just black.

“Are you right mate?” I sang out as I dug my hand into my pocket scrambling for change. But his face had contorted into a snarl. He was arguing with the checkout chick and grasping for his bag of meagre affordables. “Nah, it’s OK mate,” he glanced in my direction before marching off despondent and angry. His abandoned milk carton sweated on the counter. flag tattoo

So it had come to this. No one was prepared to hand an Aboriginal man a few cents towards some milk for his cuppa after dinner. On Australia Day. The irony was lost on the assortment of harried mums and single men waiting in the queue. “What a bunch of racists,” I growled under my breath at my housemate. “They wouldn’t have hesitated if he was a pensioner, a young fella or just about anyone else. Anyone who was white.” My voice rose.

My friend fell silent. Maybe I had over-reacted. Perhaps the unresponsive queuers felt awkward in the way that sometimes accompanies a request from a stranger. But the feeling persisted that these same folk would have reacted differently if that stranger hadn’t been black. We sighed and fetched the toothpaste.

Australia Day, Anzac Day, the Queen’s Birthday. I’ve often puzzled about the days we choose to celebrate and how we do it. Just the night before the guy serving at my local bottle shop offered me a flimsy plastic Australian flag. I declined, saying it would get crushed in my bag, which was true. But it was a polite excuse because I wouldn’t be seen waving a flag for Australia Day. I wouldn’t be able put out of my mind the images of drunken adolescents draped in Australian flags punching anyone with dark skin on Cronulla Beach a few summers earlier. The latest in a vast contact sheet of distasteful images of the flag being co-opted as an accessory of crude tribal jingoism.

And yet as I left the bottle shop I thanked the man for his gesture. For having the flag to hand out in the first place. And there it is. The dilemma. Yes, we live in a country blessed with opportunity; but we are not comfortable in our own skins, with our own black countrymen and women. We are compromised. I liked the gesture of the flag but I shunned its ugly connotations.

A few days later my friend Janet posted on Facebook recalling her days as a mayor in a multicultural inner-city municipality. “I am so ambivalent about Australia Day. I think it is worth having a national holiday to reflect upon the immense good fortune that most of us have in being Australian, and to reflect upon our substantial failings as well – but it’s the wrong day completely. When I was mayor in 2006 I used my Australia Day citizenship ceremony speech to say such things – and it really was seen as stirring the pot!”

I want to stir the pot too, to remind White Australia that its good fortune has been built in part at the expense of others. But I want to celebrate as well. I want to hurl balls down a weedy pitch with the cricket players in the parks, to smile at the teenagers snogging on the beach, to sit with the mums and dads holding their toddlers in their arms as they listen to the entertainment at the council-sponsored events across the country.

But it’s the wrong day. I don’t want to mix up feelings of loss and resentment and anger with those of pride and joy and thanks. Not anymore. I want to be part of an Australia Day that starts off on the right foot. Perhaps it’s the anniversary of the High Court’s Mabo ruling, or maybe a new day entirely. With a new flag.

A version of this article first appeared in 2011 in Platform, a writing journal published at Victoria University.

Rebuilding the house

September 18, 2012

Ilan Pappe
Palestine/Israel: a new paradigm
University of Melbourne 18 September


Ilan Pappe

Ilan Pappe loves a good metaphor. When your academic turf is the Palestine-Israel conflict, it helps to have some homilies to toss over the bubbling cauldron. When asked how the Israeli narrative of an oppressed people returning to a rightful homeland can be countered, his response is frank and steadfast. Building a peaceful society in Palestine can look like “a very big mountain to climb”, he says. “But it doesn’t get any smaller if we just talk about it. We have to start climbing.”

Pappe has been trekking through hostile terrain in the Middle East for some time. The Israeli-born historian is best known for his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), a history of Israel that rips up the meticulously crafted official account of war and occupation. Language is important to Pappe. He calls the 1967 territorial expansion into the West Bank and Gaza a “takeover”. “Occupation,” he tells his Melbourne audience, “is temporary.”

His whistlestop lecture tour of Australia has been busy. There’s been a string of media interviews, a speech at the National Press Club and an appearance alongside The Australian‘s foreign editor Greg Sheridan and Jewish barrister Irving Wallach on the ABC’s Q&A. In the TV studio he bristled while fending off Zionist barbs. The lecture theatre suits him better. He has the space to spread his wings and soar with grace and a sense of purpose.

This lecture is based on his research for a new book to be titled The Bureaucracy of Evil, in which he examines Israeli Cabinet records from 1963-70 to determine the motives behind the Six Day War of 1967, when Israel took possession of the West Bank and Gaza. Pappe contends that rather than marking a new phase in Israeli ambition, the 1967 war was merely another chapter in the continuing push for total dominance of Palestine that began with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

His evidence is found in his reading of recently released Cabinet papers from the time. From these documents he has distilled three crucial decisions made by the Israeli Government during the summer of 1967. First, that the seizure of the West Bank and Gaza satisfied Israel’s territorial ambitions established from 1948 for the “heart” of their homeland, the Holy Land. Paradoxically, this caused a demographic problem … another 1.5 million Palestinians to contend with.

The second decision centred on how to resolve this demographic dilemma, which they did by two different methods. “Incarceration in an open prison”, whereby economic rights remained but civil liberties were curtailed, is one of these methods. The other is the “maximum security” solution, where the slightest resistance or perceived transgression was met with extreme force, imprisonment or death, as in the illegally occupied territories today.

The third decision was to keep up “the charade of peace”. This has allowed Israel to maintain a sympathetic hearing in diplomatic negotiations – and to retain popular support in the West. The carefully constructed facade led to the Oslo peace declaration of 1993, which saw just a brief pause in hostilities before they resumed once more.

Despite the grim reality of the shrinking map of Palestine and the miserable plight of its people, Pappe remains hopeful that change is possible. There are new variables at play, although their impact is uncertain. He believes the growing power of China and the shrinking influence of the United States may shift the regional Realpolitik. The Arab Spring is unleashing new grassroots movements in the region with unclear but hopeful ramifications. The internet and social media provide new platforms for information and for resistance and movements for change. And there is the underlying paradox of Israel, a nation founded on military strength that exhibits an extreme case of national insecurity.

Whatever follows, he is convinced that there is no longer any hope for a two-state solution. Pappe is a leading proponent of a single Israeli-Palestinian state. He is also a pacifist, although he admits to reservations about his commitment to non-violence in the face of the armed Israeli militia. Nevertheless, he believes the only way to build a new country where Arab and Jew, Palestinian and Israeli, can live peaceably side by side, is without force.

“The last thing we want,” he implores, “is to destroy a house that we want to rebuild.”

With these final words, he received a standing ovation.

Our own killing fields

August 10, 2012

PAW Media and Rebel Films
Directors: Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and David Batty
Screening: ABC Television, 9.30pm, January 14, 2013

The mass slaughter of Aboriginal people that started at Coniston station in Central Australia during the drought of 1928 became known as “the last massacre”. For some that epitaph can be read as a convenient full stop on the frontier violence that raged soon after the arrival of the First Fleet.

The Warlpiri and their neighbours never saw it that way. The events of those few months left a bloody stain on their country that will never be erased. The random killing of more than 100 innocent Aboriginal people is a painful enough legacy in itself, but these times were tumultuous for another reason. They also marked the transition from a traditional way of life on their lands to the unhappy experience of government settlements.

This documentary, a joint production by PAW Media and Rebel Films, tells the story of those killing times from a Yapa (Warlpiri) perspective. Most of those interviewed had forebears who were present. They lost mothers, fathers, grandparents when the armed posses roaming their land indiscriminately shot at hunting parties and even ceremonial gatherings.

The challenges involved in retelling this story emerge gradually but forcefully. Descendants of those who were there return to the country where the tragic events unfolded. Some old footage shot by the Warlpiri themselves is also used, revealing that this film has a long provenance. Key players comment on what they are being asked to do, and are then shown re-enacting scenes. In this way, the process of the filmmaking is also documented. We see the Yuendumu community planning to make the film, being led through various stages by veteran Warlpiri filmmaker Frances Jupurrurla Kelly.

In this version of the Coniston story, the character list is dominated by Yapa. Top billing goes to Bullfrog Japanangka, known to his countrymen at the time as Kamalyarrpa. It was the murder of the dingo trapper Fred Brooks by Bullfrog that sparked the killing spree. Bullfrog went looking for his wife after she had spent all day at Brooks’ camp. She was sent there to procure tobacco in return for domestic duties, but as the film intimates, Brooks took liberties with Bullfrog’s wife, provoking the murder. The film steps around the question of whether sexual favours were part of the tobacco deal, but it hints that the encroachment of cattlemen on traditional lands played a role.

Whatever his motivations, Bullfrog achieved notoriety among his people. He is now known as the “white man killer”. In the words of his descendants, Bullfrog was a “cheeky” man, a “fighter”. He was “a good bloke but a wild fella”. That wild streak did not lead to his own undoing – he escaped capture and survived to old age living among his people.  Tellingly, he was never punished for the murder under traditional law.

The back-story told here adds a critical dimension. Tension was building during this time because of the drought and the takeover of the country of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerr and Kaytetye by pastoralists. Brooks had camped by a natural spring on Warlpiri country called Yurrkuru, recently acquired by Coniston station with the granting of a pastoral lease. Bullfrog had taken his family there because there was no food or water further west. The recurring theme of drought and famine in the Australian outback is interwoven here with the dispossession of the traditional owners that was gathering pace.

The memory of this sorrowful time still casts a long shadow over the Warlpiri community and their country. But it’s the desire to correct an injustice rather than to dwell on that sadness that emerges as the strongest sentiment of this film. Intermingled with the quiet determination to set the record straight are expressions of pride in their traditional heritage and law, and in their own contact history.  Fiona Nungarrayi Kitson, who is chosen to play the part of Bullfrog’s wife, says: “I want to act in this movie so I can make my family proud and happy”.

No small part of the traditions evoked are the magical powers that are called upon by senior law men and women to overcome adversity, to outwit a malevolent spirit or, as in this case, an enemy. In sharp contrast to the sombre mood of many who tell their story, is the old man who breaks into chuckles as he recalls how Bullfrog used his knowledge of magic to outsmart his pursuers. “He sang away his footprints … He was a tricky one that old man.”

In a more conventionally Western sense, Yapa have seized the chance to rebalance the one-sided story that the rest of Australia knows something of from its own records: the reams of courtroom evidence, journalistic reportage and historians’ accounts.

The discredited findings of the federal inquiry that followed the court case were clearly a whitewash, a monumental travesty of justice. The inquiry found that just 31 Aboriginal people were killed and that these killings were all justified. No Aboriginal witnesses were even called. This film doesn’t go there, but it does touch on the motivation of the police officer who led the killing rampage, Constable George Murray. One of the storytellers alludes to a tragic sickness in Murray, a World War I veteran. Murray, he says, was a “returned soldier from Gallipoli … a crazy old fella”.  What bitter irony that a survivor of one iconic massacre in our history should perpetrate another.

In contrast to the brutal tale of disputed territory that Coniston evokes, there is another far more positive aspect to the making of this film that is imbued with the modern-day spirit of reconciliation. The joint production houses, PAW Media and Rebel Films, have a long association. Back in the days when PAW Media was known as Warlpiri Media Association, they made the highly successful ABC mini-series Bush Mechanics (2001), but their collaboration dates back much further. PAW Chair Francis Kelly and Rebel Director David Batty first worked together in the 1980s on early versions of Manyu Wana, a Warlpiri children’s series. Batty earned the skin name Jupurrurla, and so became a “brother” to Kelly and the “Jupurrurla gang” who put the series together. The same group made Bush Mechanics, and many were involved in this project.

David Batty says: “In many ways, Francis and I have had parallel lives, and filmmaking is something we do well together. He’s a brother.”

“We’ve always worked together, working things out,” says Francis. “David Batty Jupurrurla on the camera and with me sometimes acting, translating and directing Yapa and directing Jupurrurla too, telling him what to film. We’ve done this for a long time now.”

The progression of these joint productions from children’s tales to young fellas and their cars to one of the great injustices of contact history is also the story of a remarkable and enduring collaboration in Aboriginal media.

Coniston will be broadcast on ABC Television on January 14, 2013.

Kids in the kitchen

July 24, 2012

High Season
Jim Hearn
Arena/Allen & Unwin  

Icons of the hospitality industry sparkle tantalisingly in the opening pages of this insider’s memoir about the gritty world of commercial kitchens.

The action unfolds at Rae’s, a boutique hotel and restaurant on Wategos Beach, just below the lighthouse at Byron Bay.

Paris Hilton has arrived unannounced for lunch with her entourage. It’s New Year’s Day at the peak of the high season. But alongside all the rubbernecking and texting out front as patrons and passers-by ogle, tension is building in the kitchen.

One of the apprentices is off his game, and head chef and author Jim Hearn is near breaking point after years of spending too much time away from his family. Against the odds, lunch ends well but this fateful day does not. Amid the perfect setting and the sumptuous fare it unravels to an achingly sad conclusion.

The celebrity-in-the-house story is the backdrop for Hearn’s personal tale struggling with drug addiction as he skittles from one job to another in the bubbling pressure cooker that is the restaurant business. The two stories intertwine, sprinkled with cooking tips and wry observations about the industry as they tumble towards their own different conclusions.

We meet all kinds of bosses and managers from the demanding and flippant to the straight-up and kind-hearted. Out back slaving over the six-burners, hands buried in the sinks and dashing from the coolrooms to the benchtops are an assortment of wannabe head chefs and youngsters finding their way in the weird and wired world of kitchen work.

Ever present is the demonic duality of a chef’s life – the exhilaration of delivering a perfectly plated feast and the nerve-wracking torture of working with the heat, the constraints of time and the limits of space and equipment.

It’s a close-quarters cauldron where a time-honoured means of survival is taking the piss – out of the boss, the front of house staff and each other. Little wonder the industry is rife with substance abuse.

So it was for young Queenslander Hearn, who fetched up at the imposing and notorious Bondi Hotel in the late 1980s as a junior chef. The 24/7 bars were territorially divvied up by drug-dealing bikies, Kiwis and Islanders. Fights were an everyday occurrence.

“The people weren’t just loose, they were off their fucking chops,” writes Hearn. “This was how I pictured heaven.”

Seduced by the atmosphere, the wild and seedy subculture and the pool tables, Hearn entered what he calls his “heroin period”.

There’s back-story enough to figure Hearn’s early life choices were severely limited. His mother became a prostitute after she left his father. Dad was an altruist who sold the family home and gave away the profits without appearing to grasp the consequences. We get the picture that young Jim’s road to a drug-addled existence was paved with more than a fair share of misfortune.

Not that there’s a hint of self-pity in this story. Quite the opposite. It’s a gut-wrenchingly visceral portrayal of a life lurching towards a miserable mess at the margins. Hearn’s journey as junkie traverses regional Queensland, suburban Brisbane, the gentrified eateries of Balmain and the sleazy side of Kings Cross.

There’s plenty of  humour en route, and a desperately dumb road trip that terminates in a lice-ridden bed in Nimbin. Once he reaches rock bottom he’s ready to detox and emerges from rehab months later to cook again.

It’s a rollicking, candid and often comical memoir, filled with every shade of darkness and tainted with tragedy. Throughout Hearn maintains an illuminating and sometimes confronting authenticity.

Not all Hearn’s co-workers survive – a human cost that doesn’t appear in the closely scrutinised ledgers of this cut-throat industry.

High Season offers a vital ingredient we don’t find in the banal and slick version of cheffing we see on the box: hard-bitten reality.

Jim Hearn appears at the Byron Bay Writers Festival on Sunday, 5 August.