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.

(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”.


(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.
(Mum, Lana and I at our place on Christmas Day)


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Can we achieve justice out of the present Covid chaos?

At the end of June, when much of Australia was still experiencing the first Covid lockdown, the Centre for Australian Progress held their annual conference – this year named Virtual Progress to indicate that the conference was held entirely online.

The mission of Australian Progress is to revitalise civil society movements and so enable us to win environmental and social progress, at the same time strengthening our democracy. Their belief is that together with hundreds of partners, we can make sure that community interest can shape our nation’s priorities.

In previous years, the Australian Progress conference has brought together thousands of people in Melbourne to be inspired by the belief that community based activism can effect change. I was one of a group of ten activists funded by Amnesty International Australia to attend the 2020 conference. This year thanks to Covid, people like me in Townsville were able to attend Virtual Progress for a fraction of the cost of attending in person. The virtual format also meant that more International speakers could be featured in the program. One of the presenters was Marshall Ganz, one of the gurus of the community organising tradition, and it was great to be able to hear Marshall’s thoughts on community organising.

One of the plenaries that had a profound impact on me was entitled “Climate and Disaster Capitalism”. I was familiar with the term Disaster Capitalism which was first referred to by Naomi Klein in 2007, but I learnt a lot more when listening to Antony Loewenstein talking about what he defined as making money out of misery. Antony says that capitalism is no longer able to sustain itself by selling dreams, so in many places it now thrives on the management of nightmares. Here is the link to a review of Antony’s book “Disaster Capitalism – Making a killing out of Catastrophe”

In his presentation, Antony brought us up to date with more recent examples of how corporations are doing very well from disasters. Antony reminded listeners that Australia is the only country in the world that has privatised and outsourced our entire immigration system. One advantage of this is that when something goes wrong, the Government can blame the Corporation, the Corporation then takes no responsibility because it was only doing what it had been told, and everything goes on as usual. A sad example of this has been the continuing tragedy of our outsourcing of the operation of immigration of detention centres – both on-shore and off-shore.

This move to privatisation and outsourcing of government responsibilities is not confined to the right of politics. Antony pointed out that the ALP in Australia, the Democrats in the US, and the Labor Party in Britain have all become devotees of what Antony talks the Bipartisan Neocorporate Agenda. He gave the example of the pop-up hospital built in the ACT at the height of Covid fears. This Hospital that most likely will never be used in the ACT, cost $23 million and was built by Aspen Medical – a corporation that has close links to the Liberal Party (surprise, surprise!).

Canberra’s field hospital, build in response to COVID-19, may never be used in the ACT.(ABC News: Greg Nelson)

And don’t expect anything to change soon. Antony Loewenstein said that this move to privatisation and outsourcing really took on in the 80s championed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (two people Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says are his economic heroes). Then in the 2000s we witnessed the phenomenon of “privatised war” in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the same corporate interests are lining up to make money out of climate change.

Another speaker at the Disaster Capitalism plenary was Tadzio Mueller, a climate justice activist based in Berlin. Tadzio announced that he was an advocate of climate communism which he defines as making justice out of chaos – much to be preferred to making money from misery. Tadzio pointed out that the current Covid crisis was the first time in the last 150 years that the planet has been given some respite from the rampant consumerism associated with economic growth. He also reminded us that the Covid crisis has produced a reduction in greenhouse gases for the first time in 15 years – although even these reductions will not be enough to achieve the Paris targets by 2050.

What Covid has shown us that emissions can be reduced if there is International resolve and commitment. Our challenge will be to enlist the same resolve and commitment from our leaders to address climate change as they have given to the Covid crisis.

Some of the other speaker at Progress addressed the changes we will need to make to our system if we are to have a future that realises both climate and economic justice. Richard Dennis and others at the Australian Institute have also given much attention to this topic. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/04/australia-can-be-a-better-fairer-place-after-the-coronavirus-if-were-willing-to-fight-for-it

Before attending Progress I was pessimistic about the likelihood of any serious response from most of the world’s nations to the threat of climate change or to the ever-present scandal of global inequality. Tadzio Mueller and others at Progress have shown me that it might be possible to meaningfully address the challenges we face – what it will need is for us to convince our fellow citizens of the importance of bringing about these changes. In Tadzio’s words we need to work for a future where we make justice out of chaos which is preferable to one where corporations continue to make money out of misery .

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Gîtes – places to stay along the Chemin de Saint Jacques

On the chemin there is a variety of accommodation to choose from – all set out in the invaluable walking guide “Miam Miam Dodo” (Eat,Eat Sleep, Sleep). You can choose between hostels (gites d’etape), bed and breakfasts (chambre d’Hotes) and hotels. All gites provide accommodation and breakfast. The cost for accommodation in a dormitory with breakfast was around 15 euro. Some gites offered a demi-pension – accommodation, breakfast and dinner -and this was usually around 30 euro. Some gites are owned operated by local communities and some are owned by local residents. Some gites had pelerins (pilgrims) written in brackets in the description. This indicated that the people operating the gite had walked the chemin themselves at some time in the past.
One thing all gites had in common was the large cup of coffee that was the centrepiece of the breakfast provided.

Breakfast at Gite Lou Parpalhou in the village of Eauze

Here are some of the gites I stayed in – all memorable for a host of different reasons.
In terms of hospitality it would be hard to go past La Flore at Saugues operated by Florence and Regis. They told us that they had opened the bed and breakfast six months ago and they prided themselves on the amazing service they provided to their guests. The price was quite reasonable because at that time I was still walking with Lana and Stephen and we were able to share a room. The meal was exquisite, the wine good and plentiful and there was cake! One of our fellow guests, Lucie a doctor from Normandie, was celebrating her birthday. Nine of us – Florence and Regis, Emma and Henrietta from the UK, Lucie and Margot from Normandie, Lana, Stephen and I – celebrated the birthday until well after 10 – a late night for the chemin.

Birthday celebration for Lucie at La Flore

Then there was the Gite de l’atelier des Volets Bleus (the gite with the blue shutters) in the village of Grealou. When preparing for the chemin, I watched a DVD of the walk made by my friend Peter Kearney. The Gite with the blue shutters and the host Esther figured quite prominently in the DVD so when I met Esther it felt like catching up with a good friend. I told Esther of her starring role in Peter’s DVD and she was quite chuffed, playfully preening and taking on the airs of a French film actress. Esther told me that she had bought the house not knowing it was on the chemin. She had intended it to be an art studio. Staying there the first time she could not help but see the walkers passing through and decided to convert the house into a gite. Peter later sent her a copy of the DVD which pleased her greatly.

Enjoying lunch with Esther in front of the Hostel with the Blue Shutters

Andrea an Italian and his Basque partner Jani operate the Bio Gite La Vita e Bella – a gite with a difference. Both Andrea and Jani had walked the chemin themselves in an earlier life and are committed environmentalists. Each year they choose an environmental project – sometimes in France and sometimes elsewhere. The cost of accommodation at the gite which includes breakfast is 15 euro – but there is no set charge for the evening meal. Guests are invited to contribute what they wish and all the money goes to the environmental project for that year.

Full house for breakfast at “La Vita e bella”

And then there were surprises. A group of us spent a balmy afternoon at the farmhouse at Trigodina around 15 km from the major regional centre Cahors. After the meal our host Remy treated us to a hour of exquisite classical piano music. He had been a concert pianist and made the green change from the city to operate the hostel in rural France. Earlier that day when I booked in, Remy laughingly told me that he could squeeze me in but I would have to share the dormitory with three attractive women. Later he apologised again – more guests – I would need to share with five women. “Ah” I said – “them’s the breaks.”

Remy entertains guests following the meal at the Trigodina farmhouse

Some gites were memorable because the host went out of their way to make you feel at home. When we arrived at Saint-Chely- d’Aubrac the weather was cold and bleak. This was more than made up for by the vivacious personality of the manager Karine who operated Gite Le Relais Saint Jacques and the brasserie attached to the gite.

Karine in the Brasserie Le Relais Saint Jacques

Laurence operated the Gite Lou Parpalhou in the village of Eauze. When I stayed with Laurence, my journey was coming to an end. Laurence helped me plan my journey from Aire Sur l’Adour where I would finish my walk back to Lyon where my journey had started. Laurence also introduced me to Sylvie who operated the Gite du Pied Leve in Nogaro where I was to stay the next night. Sylvie was invaluable in guiding me through the intricacies of Bla Bla Car – a ride sharing service that was essential to getting around France at that time because of major rail strikes.

Selfie with Laurence at Gite Lou Parpalhou

My final night on the chemin was at La Presbytere – a gite that had been the priest’s residence of the adjacent church in the village of Lanne-Soubiran – back in the days when French people went to church. The gite was operated by Marinette, a former pilgrim who made the green change from a high powered job in Brussels and bought the gitte. Marinette was assisted by a volunteer John from Melbourne. John told me that in the past ten years he had spent many months walking along the network of walking trails in Spain and France associated with the camino and the chemin. He was spending a month at the Presbytere assisting Marinette in providing hospitality to pelerins in return for food and accommodation. Following the evening meal Marinette invited her ten guests into the adjoining church where she invited each of us to sing a song from our own country to show off the beautiful acoustics in the church.

My walk finished in the town of Aire Sur l’Adour where I stayed in La Gite La Maison des Pelerins (House of the Pilgrims) operated by Isabelle and Alajandro from Spain who had been pilgrims themselves. That night dinner was a real International affair with guests from France, Germany, Holland, Austria, the United States, the UK and Australia (that was me). The two Austrian women told me they had commenced their chemin ten years ago from their home town in Austria. Each year they would walk around ten days, taking up where they had finished the previous year. So far they had walked around 2000 km on their journey which commenced near Salzburg and had taken them through Austria, Switzerland and now France.

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Memories from a long walk – “La neige”

Two years ago I spent 35 days walking more than 600 km along the “Chemin Compostelle du Puy” – one of the French feeder paths to the well known “Camino Santiago”. For the first ten days I walked with my daughter Lana and cousin Stephen. The beginning of our journey was made especially memorable by an unseasonable fall of snow (neige). Here is the story of that experience.

The first day of our chemin was fine and we walked 16 km from Le Puy en Velay to Montbonnet where we stayed at the Gitte l’Escole where our host was Marie. We could not believe our eyes the next morning when we looked out the windows on what looked like a scene from a Northern Hemisphere Christmas card. I walked around the Gitte greeting everyone with “Joyeux Noel” to the amusement of our fellow guests who were all from France, and were quite put out by the unseasonal snow. “It never snows in May”, one of them said to me.

A number of the other guests decided to take the School bus to the next town to avoid walking through snow. Stephen, Lana and I decided to walk the 15km and began making preparations. Marie (our host) was horrified when she saw that Stephen had not brought a pair of long trousers with him and gave him a pair of trousers from a box of clothing she kept that had been left behind by earlier pilgrims. Stephen also did not have waterproof pants to put over his trousers and improvised with a plastic garbage bag. Following advice from friends who had walked in similar conditions in Tasmania, we all wore plastic bags over our socks inside our shoes and this proved very effective in keeping our feet warm and dry.

We set off along the path from Montbonnet following the distinctive red and white markers that show the way along the chemin. Snow was falling steadily and the path was covered by 10-20 cm of snow. The scenery was extremely beautiful and we all were enjoying the experience. All was going well until around three km from Montbonnet, we took the wrong turn and ended up walking through a farm. When we found ourselves walking through a metre of snow, we realised something was wrong and retraced our steps to the entrance to the farm. There we found a marker and continued our journey – this time along the correct path. By this time Lana was freezing and telling me that she was sure she had frostbite. I assured her that she needed to be much longer than an hour in the snow to get frostbite, and we walked the two km to the village of Le Chier.

The marker that we missed on the tree to the right of Stephen – resplendent in his Surf Lifesaving Jacket

Our spirits lifted quickly when we discovered a kiosk selling hot coffee and chocolate croissants at the rear of the community hall. Lana’s joy turned into ecstasy when she spotted the card for the local taxi service on the noticeboard in the Hall. Stephen and I did not need much convincing and 30 minutes later we were in the taxi on our way to Monistrol d’Allier, our intended destination that day, 9km from Le Chier.

While we had only walked five km the first day – seven if we included our “detour” – we felt more confident in setting out the second day, especially as the weather forecast was for the snow to ease. There was certainly less snow falling but it was still bitterly cold.

Walking through the snow on our second day

Our guide book did not show any places of respite between our starting place, Monistrol d’Allier, and our intended destination of Sauges, a distance of around 14km. Imagine our delight when eight km into our journey while walking through the tiny village of Le Vernet we sighted a sign “Café chaud”(hot coffee) pointing down a laneway. We walked down the lane to a large garage type building that had a counter with a large urn at one end and several tables grouped around a gas fired heater at the other. We gratefully took off our wet outer garments and huddled around the heater.

An elderly man in a wheel chair, who I will forever remember as “the angel of Le Vernet”, busied himself making coffees and noodle soup for us. After an hour warming up and drinking hot beverages we felt invincible and the remaining 6km to the town of Sauges were no problem.

“Angel of Le Vernet” behind the counter – Stephen and Lana in the background

On the third day there was a light snow fall in the morning but the afternoon was fine. For the next few days there was quite a lot of snow along the path but thankfully none fell from the sky.

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35 years history of the Townsville Amnesty Action Group in nine photos

On Sunday 31 May, the Gold Coast Amnesty Action Group organised an online celebration of Amnesty International’s 59th Birthday that focused on both the anniversary of the founding of AI on 29 May, and Sorry Day 26 May . I was invited to speak about changes in Amnesty International Australia (AIA) and activism in AIA from the perspective of 35 years of activism in the Townsville Amnesty Action Group. Here is a summary of my reflections.

Pre-history – an Amnesty International group was formed in Townsville some time in the 70s. The only record we have of that group is a receipt book from a Wine and Cheese evening held in October 1981. Several of the receipts are shown below. A number of things stand out – the first is the ticket price $6! Another is the guest list – mainly politicians and James Cook University staff. The politicians include Jim Keefe – then ALP Senator for Queensland, Gordon Dean, member for Herbert in the House of Representatives, and a number of Townsville City Councillors including Mike Reynolds – the Mayor at that time.

Among the JCU staff was Peter Burns. When Trish Johnson set out to re-establish the Townsville group in 1985, Peter Burns was one of the first to join. In a message read out at the Celebration of Peter’s life in 2018, Trish recalled that Peter 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.” Trish told us that Peter and his wife Beverley were great supporters of Candle Day and other Amnesty events at the time.

The Townsville group in the late 80s and early 90s was very active and staged numerous public rallies and vigils in support of human rights campaigns. The photo above shows group members gathered outside the office of the Townsville Bulletin in 1988 in support of an Amnesty campaign on Colombia. The newspaper clipping below invites readers to a birthday party for Amnesty International at the local Sunday Market in May 1991. Candle Day held each year in October was the most important event in the Amnesty calendar and involved months of preparation. On the weekend closest to United Nations Day, 24 October, volunteers would fan out across Townsville selling badges and collecting money for Amnesty.

Newspaper Invitation to AI’s 30th birthday celebration

One of the Amnesty International important principles at that time was the Work on Own Country (WOOC) Rule. Amnesty International activists were not allowed to campaign on human rights issues in their own country. This was to protect activists in countries where speaking out on local human rights abuses could lead to them being imprisoned, tortured and possibly killed.

By 1996, group numbers dwindled and it was decided to concentrate on letter writing. We met at the Thai International Restaurant on the first Wednesday of each month and wrote urgent action letters from 6pm to 7.30pm and then stayed on for dinner. This proved a successful formula that has continued until the present.

Letter Writing at the Thai International Restaurant

By the early 2000s numbers in the group increased and we regularly participated in public events such as the Eco-Fiesta and the annual May Day Parade. For several years the group staged a weekly vigil “Fridays in orange” in front of the office of our Federal MP Peter Lindsay, campaigning of behalf of Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks. Peter Burns (mentioned earlier) would bring a sign that he updated each week that displayed the number of days that David Hicks had been incarcerated.

Fridays in Orange Vigil

By the mid-2000s the “Work on Own Country” rule was dropped and internationally the Demand Dignity campaign was launched. The Australian Amnesty International section decided to make campaigning on justice for Australia’s Indigenous people a top priority but his took some time to translate into local human rights activities.

One of the priorities for the Townsville group in the last ten years has been the Refugee Campaign. Since June 2010 the Townsville group have held our First Friday Vigil for Justice for Refugees and People Seeking Asylum outside the office of our Federal MP. Since then the Member’s name has changed three times but we have been there each month right up until the COVID-19 restrictions were introduced.

In 2015 the long awaited AIA “Community is Everything” Campaign was launched. This campaign seeks to address the high levels of incarceration of Indigenous young people, among other goals. The photo below shows members of our group meeting with Queensland Community Services Minister Coralee O’Rourke to discuss the Community is Everything Campaign.

In 2013 we decided to approach the JCU Administration with a view to holding an annual Amnesty International Human Rights Address at the University. The University agreed to the proposal and offered in-kind support which included local publicity and provision of a suitable venue. The inaugural 2013 Human Rights Address was delivered by refugee advocate Julian Burnside. In 2017 the Address was given by Linda Burney – the first Indigenous woman elected to the House of Representatives.

The phrase “prisoners of conscience” stands out for me in our 59 years of history. Peter Benenson coined the phrase in 1961 when he called on readers of “The Observer” in London to take action on behalf of that first group of prisoners in Portugal. In an earlier post I suggested that AI activists today are all “prisoners of conscience” and this is what keeps us taking action on behalf of victims of human rights abuse.

So much has happened in the 35 year history of the group but let me leave you with one last photo. As of March 2020 (pre COVID-19) our monthly letter writing meeting is still being held at the same location but the venue name is now the Wild Rice Lao-Thai Restaurant.

Follow this link to view the recording of the Gold Coast Sorry Day – 59th AI Birthday celebration.

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A Tale of Two Portraits

In early 2015, Townsville artist and friend Donna Beningfield asked me if I would like to sit for a portrait exhibition that she was putting together to celebrate Townsville’s 150th Anniversary.  Called “The Face of Our Community” and set to open in May 2016, the exhibition was to feature a selection of diverse people from Townsville representing different professions and life interests; however, we were all to be connected through our contribution to the community.

Each sitter was asked to identify someone from Townsville’s past who represented for them their position, personality, career or aspirations in life. The exhibition was to honour people in our community both present and past.

For my person of inspiration, I chose Thankful Percy Willmett (1831-1907). The first thing that attracted me was the name Thankful – for me gratitude is central to my spirituality and the way I see the world. Thankful Percy was Mayor of Townsville on several occasions and a committed community activist. When he was Mayor, Thankful Percy was responsible for the planting of the Anzac Park Banyan trees which became known as ‘Willmett’s Follies’ – obviously not everyone at the time thought it was a good idea. Today they are a physical reminder of Thankful Percy’s contribution as Mayor.

When time came to paint my portrait Anzac Park was the obvious location. No paint touched paper on the first day – Donna made some sketches and took a number of photos of me in that location.

In the next few weeks Donna invited me to visit her in her studio several times when she would show me the progress and get me to sit for a short time. The final sitting was in February 2015 and not long after that Donna invited me to view the finished portrait.

“The Face of Our Community” Exhibition was located in the foyer adjacent to the Pinnacles Gallery in the Riverway Arts complex. The opening of the Exhibition was on 15 May 2016. It was exciting to be there and see my portrait set among the other 17 portraits in the Exhibition.

At the opening Donna (shown in the above photo) shared with us the exciting news that she had been offered the lower floor of the Perc Tucker Gallery for a portrait exhibition in three years time. This Exhibition would feature portraits of Townsville people with links in the paintings to the past lives of the sitters.

Donna has the gift of being able to discern “past lives” of people in a vision that she shares with the person. Her “past lives” exhibition at the Perc Tucker Gallery from 15 March to 28 April 2019 was a great success and excited by the reception she began planning a portrait exhibition with a difference.

In this new Exhibition to be held at Umbrella Studio, the sitters would all be people Donna had painted previously and the portraits would evolve out of marks made by each sitter and incorporate one of their past lives. Donna asked me if I would be willing to have my portrait painted a second time and I enthusiastically agreed.

Our first meeting was in late February this year. At that meeting Donna gave me a sheet of paper  that had a grid of eight squares. She nominated eight emotions: anger, joy, peace, depression, human energy, femininity, illness and regret.  Donna gave me a piece of charcoal and invited me to make a mark for each in one of the squares in relation to how I was experiencing these emotions within my body.

Donna then recounted my past life reading that had come to her in the middle of the previous night – not in a dream but as she was waiting to go to sleep. She invited me to make marks as she told the story. I was a native American Indian who was taking a long canoe journey along a large river that ran North South. I was paddling from North to the South and the journey took a number of days.

She recognised me as someone high up in my tribe because I was wearing a large feather and it was a very important journey linked to marriage. I was at home on the river and I was familiar with my surroundings. At one stage of the journey Donna saw me paddling through a gorge with high rock walls on either side as the sun was setting. As Donna was giving me this reading, I was making marks with charcoal on the piece of paper in front of me.

Our meeting lasted several hours and and after I left Donna began working on the portrait using the marks I had made as her starting point.

Two weeks later on 12 March I was back to see what Donna had come up with. I was astounded by what I saw. I was paddling the canoe on the river with an enormous full moon behind me. Donna described to me the evolution of the marks I had made into the painting now before me. The marks I had made originally suggested a landscape to her which she began painting but she was having difficulty incorporating the feathers which she knew were important. As she worked on the feathers they formed into a circle which then transformed into the full moon! The marks remain in the painting throughout the sky and moon, in the vegetation in the foreground of the painting.

Donna asked me what I thought of the painting and I said I was thrilled by the beautiful image she had produced. The painting was now finished and I am looking forward to Donna’s Exhibition titled “A Question of Counterpoint” which will take place from 28 May to July next year at the Umbrella Gallery.

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Let’s not be overwhelmed by the news in this time of COVID-19

Can you have too much news? In the case of COVID-19 many of us would answer yes. How do we cope with the flood of information about this crisis from around the world. It may help to remember that it is not a new problem.

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.

Photo: Thomas Merton with Dalai Lama – taken shortly before Merton’s death in 1968

This approach works pretty well in this time of COVID-19. Most nights I still watch the daily ABC news and read the occasional newspaper article, however I give much greater emphasis to what I hear from “ordinary people” in the networks I belong to.

Here are three recent conversations that have helped me better understand the impact that COVID-19 is having on the world.

The first was with my friend Christine who lies in Colmar in the region of France that is close to the German border. Christine is one of the few people I know who has contracted the virus.

On 11 April Christine wrote: “We have been in lockdown for about three weeks.  I no longer see my family or my friends. I continued to work since I am a caregiver. And since I didn’t have any protective equipment, I caught the Corona. I’m sick, alone at home. It’s very hard. But I have family and friends who help me by dropping me food and medicine.”

Two days later and thankfully things were looking up: “Since this morning I am a little better. Almost no fever but still this terrible tiredness. Tonight I even played a little piano. What a pleasure!”

Photo: Christine (right) with friend Stephanie in happier times walking the Chemin, 2018

Christine is not in an at-risk group but it was obviously a horrible experience for her. In other correspondence, she told me that she is very angry at the French authorities because she feels certain that it was the lack of protective equipment that led to her catching the COVID-19 disease.

The second conversation was from a letter sent to our daughter Lana who works for Transform Aid International, an International Development NGO. The letter was from Andy, a colleague from a partner organisation who works with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In the letter Andy explained that in Lebanon, of a total population of seven million people, 1.5 million are refugees from the war in Syria. Unlike other countries in the Middle East, the refugees are not living in designated camps, but are spread throughout the country living in makeshift shelters or in the remains of bomb damaged buildings. For survival they depend on handouts from aid agencies and the generosity of their Lebanese neighbours.

For most of the people living in Lebanon the priority is survival. There are few resources available to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Lebanon.

Photo: Makeshift refugee shelters in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

There are seven million people living in Lebanon which has an area less than that of Greater Sydney. I wonder how Australians would cope if there were five million of us living in the Greater Sydney area and 1.5 million outsiders came and camped in our streets and in any deserted buildings? Not too well – if our heartless treatment of the 30,000 refugees living here on temporary visas is anything to go by.

The third conversation is from a series of posts on the Facebook page of Hilda Audubo, a dentist in Papua New Guinea. I met Hilda when she was in Townsville studying for a Master of Public Health and Master of Business Administration at JCU. Hilda’s page reflects the frustration many health practitioners in the two thirds world must feel when looking at the emphasis given in both the local and international media to the COVID-19 crisis.

From one of Hilda’s posts: “The media reported yesterday that there have been only seven cases of COVID-19 in Papua New Guinea so far. These have all been mild and all have recovered. Can we get an update on how many positive TB cases tested as of yesterday, how many admitted in the wards all across the country as we speak, how many died in the past year and past month. How much funding, efforts, manpower and PPE did we put into containing the spread of TB among the communities? …

I wish everyone from the top of government down to every doctor and scientist reporting on Facebook would put in the same level of energy, passion and resources into eradicating TB in our country once and for all too..”

Photo: Hilda with a colleague in her dental surgery

Hilda shared a post from local businessman Thomas Opa: “The ‘new normal’ is a western and foreign concept. We have been living with TB, Measles, HIV/AIDS, Polio, Diabetes, Malaria all our lives. Corona Virus is here to stay for a while. We don’t have to change our way of life because of Corona Virus. Soon it will come and go and we will forget that it came and is gone.
We don’t have to pretend to live the ‘new normal’ as if we are a well developed and affluent country. The majority of our people, in fact almost 85 per cent of our people live and dwell in rural areas in small villages, hamlets, scattered villages, and isolated islands with zero access to roads.
They don’t commute in trains, live in concrete jungles, congested cities, share elevators with thousands and millions of other people.
They only touch the palms of sago, buai(betelnut) palms, coconut trees, tapioca leaves, kaukau(sweet potato) leaves. Let us not put fear into our people.
Let’s not tackle COVID-19 the way all the big developed nations are doing.”

Photo : sweet potato farming in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea

What message do we take from these three conversations? Christine’s story from France reminds us that COVID-19 is a dangerous disease and something that none of us would want to catch. From Papua New Guinea we learn that while a lot of attention has been given in the media to COVID-19, its impact  has been inconsequential compared to endemic diseases like TB that take the lives of thousands every year. In Lebanon 1.5 million refugees live in quiet desperation wondering where the next meal will come from – COVID-19 would be hardly on their radar.

People say that the world will never be the same again. When this preoccupation with COVID-19 ends in the rich world, Donald Trump, Scott Morrison and their like will no doubt want things to go back to the way they were. This certainly will not benefit the majority of people in the world. What we need is a New World Order where people everywhere are treated with compassion and where our way of life respects the rights of future generations.

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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.

(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.

(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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