A picture is worth a thousand words – some memories from 2018

35 days on the chemin
In May and June this year I spent nine weeks on a wonderful adventure in Europe – the first 35 days walking the Chemin de St Jacques through Southern France followed by three weeks on a singing tour through Greece with our Aquapella choir. The chemin is one of the feeders to the well known pilgrimage Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Last year I had booked a place on the Greek tour and I was discussing a possible trip with  our daughter Lana before our time in Greece. Lana suggested we walk some of the Spanish camino together and after some research we settled on a  walk in France – the chemin Voie du Puy which commences at Le Puy en Velay and finishes at St Jean Pied de Port. Lana wanted to walk ten days – I liked the idea of a longer walk so decided for the full 35 days.
In early May, three of us – Lana, my cousin Stephen and I – met in the French city of Lyon and travelled to Le Puy en Velay. Usually around 200 people set out each day but on the day we started walking there were only 60. Next day we discovered why – there was heavy snow overnight and it continued for four days.

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(Surprised by “la neige” – Selfie in the snow)

The French people walking with us were upset by the snow but coming from Australia we thought it was magic. The first morning I ran around the hostel calling out “Joyeux Noel, Joyeux Noel” and they all thought I was crazy.
After ten days Lana headed back to Australia and Stephen went to Portugal to meet his daughter. I continued on alone and it was the most amazing experience. Unseasonal snow in the first week and record rain and floods in the last week. I did less that I planned – walking a total of 600km not 720km – but I will go back in 2020 to complete my walk and possibly walk some of the Spanish camino.

Facebook Event for chemin
(Images from the chemin – the way, the people and the places)

Singing our way through Greece
Our tour of Greece was also very special. The Aquapella choir brings together singers from Townsville and Magnetic Island separated by – you guessed it – Aqua – and we sing acapella. Our tour commenced with five days in Athens featuring visits to many of the well known archaeological sites and our first concert at the International School of Athens.

choir 6(First concert of the tour at the International School of Athens)

From Athens we went to the Greek islands of Syros and Tinos where we performed in concerts hosted by local choirs. We returned to the mainland and journeyed to Nauplion on the Peleponnese Peninsula where we performed in a joint concert with the Mixed Polyphonic Choir of Nauplion.  We sang in the building that housed the first Parliament of Greece following independence from the Ottoman Turks in 1830.
On the way to Nauplion we stopped at Epidauras, a theatre that is 2500 years old and is still used today for classical performances. The theatre seats audiences of 15000 with no sound amplification required. We were allowed to sing two songs in the amphitheatre and found out later how lucky we had been. No commercial performances are allowed and recently Nana Maskouri had been not allowed to sing there as she was considered by theatre management to be a”pop singer”.

Epidauras

(Aquapella sing the Russian Orthodox hymn Tebe Poem in the 2500 y.o. amphitheatre)

From Nauplion which is on the Greek Peleponnese Peninsula we journeyed to Patros, Volos and Meteora before our tour finished in Thessaloniki. There were so many highlights of the tour – concerts with local choirs, swimming in the crystal clear waters around the Greek islands, wonderful hospitable people, great travelling companions…

Working for human rights
In May I became President of the Amnesty International Australia Queensland Northern NSW Branch. This is my second term – I had been President from 2005-2008 which seems a long time ago now. The photo below was taken at the AGM of Amnesty International Australia (AIA) held in Sydney in October.

Write for Rights
(Participants at the AGM take part in Write for Rights action)

Our local action group has continued to work tirelessly for Human Rights in 2018 and my favorite project has been our Amnesty Human Rights Ambassador (HRA) Program. We recruited students from James Cook University as HRAs to take the human rights message into the JCU community and to local high schools. The photo below was taken at our end of year gathering.

IMG_5475(2018 Human Rights Ambassadors: Andrea, Marisa, Dulce, Sharon, Jacky, Andile, Lisa and Denise)

Where is our humanity?
The Australian Government continues to trample on the human rights of those most vulnerable – the people on Manus and Nauru, and the 20,000 people seeking asylum in Australia who live here on temporary visas with the the ever-present threat of being sent back to face persecution and possible death. The case of Priya, Nades and their two daughters pictured below who face deportation in six weeks illustrates how inhumane our policies have become.

Priya and Nades
Passing of an icon
On Tuesday 16th October 2018, Margaret Thorsborne, one of Queensland’s most revered and beloved champions of our wildlife and natural heritage passed away. There was a wonderful celebration of Margaret’s life held at the House of Prayer and Spirituality in November.

2000s_MT and Wren Cottage_Newscorp

One of the tributes read out at the celebration came from Ngawang Tenzin, now a  teacher of Buddhism living in Melbourne.
He wrote: “Margaret remains for me a sort of guiding light; for her selfless and tireless devotion to conservation in the far north, but also the simple generosity with which she shared that warmth and energy, even to idealistic and impatient PhD students who turned up to her beautiful little cabin in Edmund Kennedy N.P, to drink tea and pester her about cassowaries.
I remember clearly the picture she had on her wall of the Dalai Lama.  I also remember times sitting drinking tea and eating cake on her leafy verandah, surrounded by the forest filled with bird song, and the light and love she had in her eyes when she related stories of visits to her house by the local cassowaries and all sorts of other wildlife, which came and went through her open doors and windows as they pleased.  I remember being amazed at hearing stories of how, frail as she seemed, she would still put on her cassowary suit and visit school children to share with them her knowledge and concern for those ancient and magnificent birds.
I am sure she was a Bodhisattva, a being who had awakened not for her own benefit, but for the love of others, especially those beings without a voice of their own; the wild creatures and forests of the far north.  She will stay in my heart always.”

Follow this link to read more of Margaret’s amazing life.

One in a Billion!
While in Sydney for the Amnesty AGM I visited Bondi Sculpture by the Sea. Townsville’s version of Sculpture by the Sea is our biennial Strand Ephemera. On the plane home I came up with an idea for the 2019 Strand Ephemera – a giant 3 metre high takeaway coffee cup. This is to highlight the fact that every year Australians use then discard over one billion coffee cups!
Together with three others we submitted our plans for our installation entitled “One in a Billion”. On 14 December we received the exciting news that we have been successful – more than 100 applications for 28 places and we got one!

One in a Billion reduced
(“One in a Billion” – look out for our entry in the 2019 Strand Ephemera)

Mum doing well at 94
My mother was living in a granny flat under our house but in August had a fall and broke her hip. For a while after the operation it was touch and go – but she rallied and has recovered reasonably well.
She is no longer able to live independently and in October moved to the Good Shepherd Nursing Home which is around one kilometre from where we live. She has settled in pretty well, all things considering, and is taking full advantage of the wide range of activities available there.
Christmas2
(Mum, Lana and I at our place on Christmas Day)

 

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One in a Billion

“One in a billion” is an artistic endeavour that a group of us in Townsville have been working on for much of this year. This is a photo of the finished product – a 3 metre high throwaway coffee cup. Here is the story of our project so far.

In October last year I visited “Bondi Sculpture by the Sea” in Sydney. I loved the scale of the sculptures and their diversity and it reminded me of Townsville’s Strand Ephemera which was scheduled for July 2019. Strand Ephemera is North Queensland’s outdoor sculpture exhibition held every second year on the Strand in Townsville.

I was on the plane back to Townsville when I started thinking about a possible entry for the Strand Ephemera. One thing that had struck me in Sydney was the number of people I saw carrying coffee in disposable cups. The most common thing in people’s hands were mobile phones but throwaway coffee cups were a close second.

The idea came to me of constructing a giant coffee cup. When I got back home I googled ABC’s War on Waste, and discovered that each year Australians consume more than one billion throwaway coffee cups. One billion represents more than more than 40 cups each year for every man, woman and child in the country. The title of our sculpture came to me then – “One in a Billion”.

Soon after getting back I met with two friends – Therese Duff, a local artist and Dennis O’Toole, a carpenter. Both Therese and Dennis were keen to join the project and we started planning. We used a coffee cup from a local coffee outlet as our model. Dennis suggested that we build the cup out of flexible plywood on an aluminium frame and this determined the height of the cup as 2.4m – the length of a standard piece of plywood. From our model cup we determined that the height of the lid would be 60cm which would result in a coffee cup 3 metres high!


(Photo shows what our completed installation will look like on the beach)

Two other people joined our team – Cam Leitch, a structural engineer and Issara Singtothong, an IT graduate. Cam’s advice was key to getting the structural design right and Issara used photoshop to produce an impression of what the finished cup would look like on the beach. We were ready to get started but first we had to get invited to be part of Strand Ephemera.

We submitted an entry application which if successful would guarantee us a place in the exhibition and a $5000 grant to cover our costs in building the cup. We submitted our entry in late November and were most excited to get the news on 13 December that our entry had been successful. We discovered later that there had been more than 80 entries of which 28 were invited to be part of the exhibition.

Our original intention was to commence work on the project in late January but the record rainfall in early February meant we did not meet to begin planning until early March. We stayed with our initial idea of a plywood skin fixed to an aluminium frame. We added a central steel beam which stiffened the structure. Three steel brackets welded to the central beam would be bolted to a heavy steel frame buried in the sand. This would ensure the cup would be securely anchored in case there were strong winds.


(Project team members Cam, Therese, Peter and Dennis with the completed frame)

Construction commenced in late March. The first thing we needed was a place to carry out the construction of “One in a Billion.” Conor Kersh, owner of ASAP Scaffolding, came to the rescue and offered us the use of space in one of his warehouses at the Bohle. With its high ceilings and access to lifting equipment, this proved to be the perfect location.

Most of the work was carried out by Dennis with assistance from the rest of the team when required. The first stage was to build the base and top of the cup which were made from plywood encased in an aluminium section. The central steel beam was then connected to the base and top of the cup, and five aluminium top hat purlins were fixed in place and formed the frame to which the plywood sheets would be fixed. The brackets that would connect the structure to the support frame were then welded to the steel beam.

Once the skeleton of the cup was completed, construction commenced on the support frame which is a tetrahedron constructed from heavy steel angle sections. On installation this support frame will be buried into the sand and the cup connected to the base by bolting the brackets on the cup to corresponding brackets on the steel frame. During construction of the frame, the skeleton of the cup was lowered into place and the brackets located to make sure that connection will be straightforward in the installation phase.


(Dennis with cup skeleton in place on the support frame)

Once the cup skeleton and the support frame were finished the lid was made from thick foam coated with paper-mache and supported on a plywood base. After a lot of work, we were pleased when the lid turned out to be a realistic copy of the lid on our model coffee cup – only 22 times larger.

The lid complete, the plywood skin was fixed to the cup and then the lid lifted into place and fixed to the cup skeleton. All that was left then until installation was the painting of the cup, which we finished in early July in time for Dennis to head off on a long-planned overseas trip.

What happens when Strand Ephemera finishes on 4 August?
One fantasy is that we will win the $10,000 first prize in the competition and use the money to take the cup on a road trip around Australia. A more likely outcome is that we will find a number of Councils in Queensland interested in displaying our coffee cup and will arrange for the cup to be taken to those locations.

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We are all “prisoners of conscience”

In 1961 when Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson and his friends launched the Amnesty for the forgotten prisoners, they came up with the description “prisoners of conscience”.

For the next sixty years members of Amnesty International continued to work on behalf of the “prisoners of conscience” and what began as a group of friends working out of Peter Benenson’s spare room, has now grown into a worldwide human rights movement. Our mandate has broadened and we now work on a range of human rights issues and the term “prisoners of conscience” is not so prominent in Amnesty literature.

P21-Beneson-800x500
(Photo of Peter Benenson taken in the late 1950s)

This weekend leaders of Amnesty International Australia (AIA) will meet in Sydney to vote on constitutional changes that aim to make the governance of AIA better suited to the environment in which we find ourselves. It is an opportunity to reflect on the challenges human rights defenders face as we advance into the 21st century and how AIA might support us in facing these challenges.

The world was simpler in 1961 when Peter Benenson launched his campaign for Amnesty.  The original action was inspired by an article in a daily newspaper that reported the imprisonment of several people in Portugal for their human rights activism. Initially Peter Benenson and his colleagues thought that this was an isolated case, an aberration, in a world where human rights were generally respected. As their campaign grew they realised that this was not the case and that human rights abuse was common in a number of European countries at the time, and that human rights were not universally respected despite the pronouncement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a decade earlier.

In 2018 I open my computer on any day to find requests to take action on a wide range of issues, many of them human rights related. The task becomes to choose which ones to take action on – to sort out the worthy from the less worthy. Sadly this constant barrage of email requests, twitter feeds and Facebook posts can be disempowering.

Many today feel that whatever they do, it will make no difference. They switch off altogether and live in a world of “infotainment”. Those of us who do struggle to respond to the world around us are in danger of “burning out” – we can end up the same as our fellow citizens who put up no struggle in the first place, disillusioned with the idea that we as individuals can make a difference.

This is one of the great challenges facing movements for positive change today. How do we empower people who strive to build a more compassionate, fair and sustainable future?

Perhaps it is time to revisit the term “prisoners of conscience”. Those of us who work for peace and justice are in one sense all prisoners of conscience – prisoners of our own conscience. We receive a request from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre to phone Scott Morrison’s office to ask him to let the children off Nauru and we do it. Perhaps it is because it gives some relief to a guilty conscience that we are not doing more, or perhaps we welcome the chance to be working with like-minded people on a just cause. Whatever the reason, the important thing is we took action.

Nauru
(Photo – AIA Online action in support of children on Nauru)

When we define prisoners of conscience in this way we see them everywhere – the doctor who speaks out about the conditions on Nauru even though it may mean losing his or her job, the Liberal Party backbencher in Federal Parliament who says is enough is enough and demands that sick children on Nauru and their families be brought to Australia for treatment, or the public servant who blows the whistle on illegal or fraudulent practices. Using this definition our human rights movement becomes a movement of “prisoners of conscience” working on behalf of “prisoners of conscience”.

What can we do to sustain each other in our work for human rights? Perhaps the most important thing to support and encourage each other. After leaving my message on Mr Morrison’s phone yesterday, I sent an email of support to the three Liberal MPs who have spoken out on the issue of medical treatment for the children on Nauru. They may not get to see these emails but it is a gesture, and such gestures are important in sustaining other “prisoners of conscience”.

In the 1960s Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk and mystic, used the phrase “bombardment of the senses” to describe the impact of the popular media. In his diary he commented that he avoided reading newspapers and did not listen to radio or television. All his news came from individuals – he maintained correspondence with peace activists leading the anti-war movement in the US, with civil rights activists in the US Deep South, with Vietnamese Buddhist monks and with ordinary people struggling to live responsibly in a world that was slowly losing its humanity.

Avoiding so-called popular media, Merton knew what was happening in the world but it was mediated by the experiences of people striving to make a difference. Although he lived as a monk in a silent monastic order, Thomas Merton was at the centre of the changes in the US Catholic Church that saw the Church come out in support of the civil rights movement, declare the war in Vietnam as an unjust war and to call for nuclear disarmament.

Thomas Merton
(Photo – Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama in 1968)

The lesson I take from the life of Thomas Merton is the importance of relationships – in many of our campaigns and causes we may not achieve success but if we never lose sight of the importance of supporting and sustaining each other, and we remain in the struggle for peace and justice, who knows the ultimate outcome.

This weekend as we meet to change the governance structures of Amnesty International Australia and reconsider our role in supporting the global movement for human rights, it is important to reflect on how we sustain each other as “prisoners of conscience”.

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Vale Peter Burns – a man for all seasons

Peter Burns, an active member of Amnesty International Australia since the 1970s, passed away on 14 March 2018. I had the privilege of being invited by Beverley and the family to assist them in planning the celebration of Peter’s life, which was held on the 21st of March at the Woongarra Crematorium Chapel in Townsville.

Peter Burns

We began our celebration with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners, the Wulgurukaba and Bindal people. Following that we had a “muster” of all the groups represented which was an impressive indication of the breadth of Peter’s passions and interest. There were people there from the University of the Third Age (U3A), from James Cook University (JCU) where Peter taught Indonesian for many years, from the Indonesian community of Townsville, from the Townsville Arts community, from the Townsville Amnesty group, and from the Australian Labor Party, of which Peter had been a member for even more years than he had been a member of Amnesty.

Andrew Burns gave a moving tribute to his father. We learnt that Peter was born in Adelaide in 1934. He moved to Melbourne after World War II where he studied Dentistry for two years and then completed a Primary Teacher’s certificate. On the basis of the science subjects he studied as part of his Dentistry studies, he soon found himself teaching science at Bright High School where Beverley Nicholson was Principal.

In Andrew’s words: “The prospect of marrying Peter must have had quite some allure because the immediate professional consequences for Beverley were so disadvantageous. When they married in January 1960, regulations then in place resulted in Beverley becoming a temporary teacher while Peter became head of the school.”

So that Peter could complete his education degree, Peter and Beverley moved back to Melbourne where Peter commenced his studies of Indonesian which became his passion for the next 50 years. Peter, Beverley and their sons Andrew, David and Stephen, moved to Townsville in 1974 where Peter was an Indonesian Language lecturer at JCU until his retirement in 1996.

One of Peter’s attributes that Andrew especially admired was Peter’s sincerity to his commitments. Andrew reminded us of his father’s regular presence at the weekly “Fridays in orange” vigils that the Townsville Amnesty group held outside the office of Federal MP Peter Lindsay. We were calling on the Australian Government to ensure that David Hicks be given a fair trial or be released from imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay. We wore orange because this was the colour of the jumpsuits worn by Guantanamo inmates. Each week Peter would repaint a large board which gave the number of days David Hicks had been detained without trial. Andrew told us that the Board was still in the back shed with the number 1937 painted on it.

1860 days David Hicks
(Fridays in orange – by then David Hicks had spent 1860 days in detention)

Andrew also told us that Peter had been a member of the group that successfully lobbied then-Queensland Transport Minister Russ Hinze to introduce the first bike paths to Townsville.

Andrew paid tribute to Beverley’s caring for Peter as he endured the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. Peter had had Parkinson’s disease for eight years. Towards the end of his life Peter was physically frail but he was spared the terrible mental deterioration that afflicts so many sufferers. Peter continued to enjoy Crosswords until two months before his passing. Andrew’s concluding words were “I will miss Peter. I will miss his curiosity, his generosity of spirit and our conversations profoundly.”

Following Andrew’s tribute, those attending were invited to share their own memories of Peter. U3A colleagues said how much they enjoyed the philosophy courses taught by Peter, and gave us the hilarious story of Peter’s antics during a debate held between U3A members and JCU Law students. Jeanie Adams told us that as a beginning tertiary teacher she taught with Peter at Melbourne Teachers College (Secondary Art & Crafts). Jeanie described Peter as a great mentor and told us that on occasions she and John had baby-sat Andrew, David and Stephen.

Artist Jenny Tyack shared stories of Peter’s artistic accomplishments and pointed to Peter’s self-portrait displayed at the front of the chapel and painted during one of Jenny’s classes. Trevor Mack paid tribute to the guidance Peter had given him when he commenced as a lecturer of Indonesian at JCU. Lindy Nelson-Carr, former ALP State MP and Cabinet Minister in the Beattie and Bligh Governments told us of her appreciation of Peter’s longstanding commitment to the Annandale ALP Branch and the wise and generous contribution he made to the life of that branch.

We shared a letter sent to us from Trish Johnson from Canberra when she heard of Peter’s passing:

“In 1985 I wanted to join an Amnesty group in Townsville, but one was not currently active. When I set about starting one again, Peter Burns was quickly on board. His knowledge and encouragement was invaluable: he was a skilled letter writer, a passionate supporter of human rights, and a constant source of varied information and perspectives, with a quirky sense of black humour sometimes thrown in. He and Beverley were often at functions and events, such as Button Day and campaigns, and I found him a great mentor at that stage of activism.

Thank you Peter – we will miss you.”

Following the tributes, grandson Paul Burns, read “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas – one of Peter’s favourite poets. This was followed by a time for reflection when people were invited to place rose petals on Peter’s coffin and say their own farewell. We did this to the recording of Bryn Terfel singing “The First Time ever I saw your face”.

kazoos(Tropical Kazoos join Amnesty International members for the annual Labor Day Parade)

The celebration featured some of the other music Peter loved including Appalachian Spring and “Danny Boy” also sung by Bryn Terfel. The final song was Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance”, which was played by members of the Tropical Kazoo band. One of Peter’s involvements not already mentioned was his long time membership of the Tropical Kazoo Band. He particularly favoured our motto taken from a ‘gruk’ by Piet Hein “The noble art of losing face may some day save the human race”. Peter’s commitment to kazoo playing and the band was evidenced by the fact that he was the only band member who had an instrument case for his kazoo – an ornate polished wooden case.

As we played that day at the end of the service, I imagined Peter listening to our playing with a twinkle in his eye, and agreeing that this was a most appropriate way to conclude his celebration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas – a time of high risk factors for Affluenza

In November the Roy Morgan Research Centre together with the Australian Retailers’ Association predicted that Australians would spend $50 Billion over the Christmas trading period. By sector this includes $20.2 Billion on food (including alcohol), $8.7 Billion on household goods, $3.9 Billion on clothing, $3 billion on Department store purchases and $7 Billion on hospitality.

This prediction represents a 2.8% increase on spending in 2016 which left the retailers a little glum as they were hoping for 4-5% increase. This $50 Billion will add to GDP so that makes it good for the economy according to most politicians and economists. More would be better as mainstream economic thinking is all about quantity – quality does not get a look in. Never mind that much of the food will be wasted and most of the gifts will be things not needed and in many cases discarded soon after Christmas.

David Jones

Our obsession with GDP as the best indicator of a healthy economy means that Christmas is a gift that keeps on giving to politicians and economic planners. This is how it works. Let’s be conservative and estimate that 25% of the stuff purchased ends up in land fill in the next three months. That might cost $20 million to dig the holes and an extra $50 million to collect and bury this discarded stuff which adds a further $70 million to GDP. And it doesn’t stop there – Christmas is the peak season of the year for conflict in families and family breakdown. The legal costs that ensue also add to GDP. And then there are the medical costs of treating victims of traffic accidents over the Christmas break … you guessed it – they also contribute to GDP.

Getting back to the spending projections for Christmas, we might think that this extra spending is justified because all this retail therapy is making people happier, but this is not the case. Economist Richard Denniss reports that most Australians are more than 40% wealthier today in real terms than they were 20 years ago but they feel poorer. So what is happening – how have we got to a situation where we waste so much that the very future of our planet is threatened and yet it is not making us any happier?

According to Richard Dennis, most of us in Australia and the rest of the developed world are suffering from a dangerous disease called affluenza. This is explored by Richard Denniss in his recently released book “Curing Affluenza – how to buy less stuff and save the world”.

I shop therefore..

Denniss defines affluenza as “… that strange desire we feel to spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t know…” It is dangerous because most of us by our behaviour would give the impression that happiness comes from accumulating more and more stuff. We feel that we are defined by the fancy car we drive or the expensive clothes we wear. And then all too soon we get rid of this stuff and replace it with more. The energy that we need to make all this stuff is one of the main contributors to the increased levels of carbon dioxide that causes climate change.

Richard Denniss has no problem about people liking good things but asks why we need to keep replacing them all the time. He suggests that a better way is to cherish the things we own – preserve them, repair them, and then gift them or sell them when we no longer need them. Denniss encourages us to foster new ways of thinking and acting that do not squander limited resources, and which support the things we value most: vibrant communities and rich experiences.

Richard Denniss maintains that the only way to cure affluenza is by cultural change. Most of us depend on our possessions to feel good about ourselves. Denniss believes we need to find other ways to feel good about ourselves – such as feeling good about ourselves when we are not so selfish. I fear Denniss may underestimate the challenge we face in making the changes needed. The people who are rewarded most in the crazy system that has evolved are the leaders and ambassadors of our consumer society.

Curing Affluenza

In Sydney recently I heard Richard Denniss discuss the ideas in his book with Ross Gittens, the Economics Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. Denniss remains optimistic and outlined some of the signs that gave him hope that things can change in time.

One hundred years ago the English writer GK Chesterton wrote: “There are two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” Western culture has been trying the former way with little success for the past 50 years. It may now be time to try the second way.

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In the Care of our Common Home

In October Bill Ray, The Anglican Bishop of North Queensland and Tim Harris, the Catholic Bishop of Townsville released a joint statement “In the Care of our Common Home: Sister Earth”. Recalling numerous past Christian leaders who have reminded us of our inter-connectedness with all of creation they say: “For Christians, this care for our common home is not an optional or secondary part of our daily living, rather it is “an essential part of our faith”. They go on to say that our dominion over the planet needs to be understood in the sense of “responsible stewardship” especially to future generations.

The Bishop’s statement also draws attention to “Laudato Si – On Care for our Common Home” – the document on the environment released by Pope Francis in June 2015. Laudato Si is not addressed to Catholics or Christians alone but to every person in the world – such is Pope Francis’s concern for a planet where we no longer respect Nature as a shared gift. Pope Francis uses these words to describe the deterioration of the planet “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look like an immense pile of filth.” Pope Francis calls us to a new way of viewing creation as well as a new, simpler life style.

Issues highlighted in the  statement from the two Townsville-based Bishops include the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef due to climate change and threats to the Great Artesian Basin posed by proposed mega-mining developments in the Galilee Basin. Also singled out are the entrenched racism of many towards Indigenous people, increasing inequality in Australia, and the need to restore a moral compass in financial services and economic management.

The Bishops urge us to look critically at some of the modern myths in Australia today: “individualism, self centredness, self-absorption, progress that is unlimited, the unregulated market, competition and consumption as a remedy for all ills.”

The Bishop’s statement finishes with a call to action. The remind us of the words of Pope Francis in Laudato Si “In this day and age, unless Christians are revolutionaries, they are not Christians.” They challenge us to “turn around” the way we see nature, the way we care for Creation and its people, and to live more simply with less negative impact on the environment”.

To help all people of faith begin this process of “turning around”, this Saturday the workshop “Justice, Climate and Responding Ethically” will be held in Townsville. The workshop will be presented by Thea Ormerod and Tejopala Rawls from Australian religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC). This is a collaborative, multi-media workshop in which participants will explore what a faith-based, ethical response to global warming might look like in this time and place.

Thea Ormerod and Tejopala Rawls acknowledge that information about global warming can be overwhelming, so the workshop begins with acknowledging and validating our emotional responses. We will then explore the ethics of climate change, building a sense of our shared morality and values.

We will then hear some inspiring stories of people taking action, from local communities who have made their operations more sustainable to people collectively standing up for a better future for coming generations.

Understanding that Adani’s Carmichael mine project is a sensitive issue locally, Thea and Tejopala will share why and how ARRCC is standing against it. This will open the way for a facilitated dialogue firmly grounded in mutual respect.

About the presenters: Thea Ormerod is a practicing Catholic, semi-retired social worker, grandmother of seven and has been President of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change for ten years. She is a long-time social justice advocate and experienced workshop presenter.

Tejopala Rawls is an ordained Buddhist in the Triratna tradition, who has worked in the environmental movement for most of the past twenty years. He is a climate change leader within a worldwide Buddhist community.

The workshop takes place this Saturday 18 November from 10am to 3.30pm at the Conference Centre at the Mater Hospital.

Registration details and more information at https://www.facebook.com/events/142018559759648/

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Young people make it look so easy

I was invited to participate in the Australian-ASEAN Youth Forum organised by the Asia Education Foundation and held at Kirwan High School on Friday 20 October.

The Australia-ASEAN Youth Forum brought together 65 students from four schools to discuss key issues facing Southeast Asia from the perspectives of  ASEAN member states and Australia. ASEAN member states are Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Students worked together in teams of six, and their task was to represent their allocated country’s leaders in discussing three contemporary regional issues: refugees, climate change and trade.

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(Photo: Delegates address the opening plenary at the Australian-ASEAN Youth Forum)

In the first plenary session of the Forum, each team presented their allocated country’s position on the three issues. We then broke into three groups (two students from each country team per group) to debate ways to address these issues in more depth and try to reach mutually agreeable solutions through negotiation and consensus building. My role was to facilitate the Committee session on Refugee Issues.

As part of their presentation for the Refugee Committee discussion students were challenged to “walk in the shoes” of their allocated country. In preparing for my role I engaged in the same process and was surprised by what I discovered.

 

I was shocked to find that there are an estimated two million undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia with some sources suggesting that there might be as many as six million undocumented people resident in the country. Of these, there are 150,000 asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This situation is tolerated by the government as it means that there is a vast pool of cheap labour available to Malaysian industry. The downside for the workers is that as they are undocumented, they are vulnerable to exploitation and other forms of human rights abuse.

Thailand faces a similar scenario to Malaysia – Thailand is home to an estimated 600,000 refugees, asylum seekers and stateless people.

Pressure Points

 

Faced with these overwhelming numbers Malaysia and Thailand must be amazed by the inability of the Australian Government to compassionately manage the estimated 30,000 people on bridging visas and the thousand or so incarcerated in off shore detention centres. The impression given by our Government and the popular media is that Australia is the only country in the region with a refugee problem. How far from the truth is that!

Myanmar is the main generator of refugees in our region. The UN estimates that 420,000 Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the last two months following persecution by the Burmese Army.  More than a million Rohingya now live in the countries in the region – mainly Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand. There has been strong condemnation of Myanmar’s policies from the UN and human rights NGOs but the ASEAN countries have not said much on the issue.

I was impressed by the approach taken by the delegates in the Refugee Committee. At the commencement of the session delegates agreed that the greatest human rights issue facing the region was the treatment of the Rohingya people by the Myanmar Government. There was division in the room as to how best address this issue. Malaysia wanted a strong condemnation of Myanmar’s policies from other ASEAN members while some other countries counselled a more cautious approach. As time was limited in the session, the decision was made to concentrate on issues where there was some prospect of agreement. Delegates also agreed to widen the focus to refugees, people seeking asylum and stateless people.

Each delegation was invited to nominate one issue of concern.

Philippines spoke first suggesting that there was a need for a regional approach to protecting refugees and people seeking asylum as there had been in the 1970s at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. Malaysia understandably expressed concern at the numbers of people seeking safety in their country.

All delegations agreed that member states needed to reassess their commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention – currently of the ten ASEAN member countries, only Cambodia and Philippines are signatories. Other issues included the financial burden of caring for refugees and stateless people, the vulnerability of undocumented workers, and Australia’s fear of being overrun by people seeking asylum.

In the final session of the Forum, the five resolutions proposed by the Refugee Committee were adopted unanimously by the the member states and these are included below. I came away from the Forum convinced that if national leaders in the “real” world could find the compassion and empathy shown by these students, we might begin to address problems that at the moment appear to be insurmountable.

Refugee resolutions.JPG

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