The noble art of losing face

During 1986, the International Year of Peace, I was inspired by creative friends to explore clowning as a way of communicating the importance of peace-making to a world that desperately needed to make peace at all levels. I became “Peppo the Global Lifesaver” whose mission was to save the world by encouraging peaceful resolution of conflict in people of all ages.

1 Peppo

In 1988 I came across the wonderful saying of Piet Hein “The noble art of losing face may one day save the human race.” Pien Hein was a Danish philosopher, scientist, mathematician, designer, author and poet.

To lose face, a person needs to be able to admit they are wrong and sadly this is something that many of us find great difficulty in doing. This is true at the international level where national leaders  have started wars to “save face”and at the personal level where  relationships break down when people are unable to admit they are wrong.

In the intervening 30 years I have actively sought to lose face in all sorts of ways and have had lots of fun in doing so. At the 1994 Woodford Folk Festival, I discovered that wonderful musical instrument the kazoo, and since then have been part of three kazoo bands that have given hundreds of people the opportunity to lose face with me.

In 1996 we formed the JCU Kazoos whose mission was to “lose face” in an environment where people can take themselves way too seriously. One wonderful memory was the 1997 JCU Open Day  when 76 members of the university community including professors, senior administrators, teaching staff, professional staff and students performed the JCU Kazoo Tattoo in true Edinburgh style.

19 woodford

In a similar spirit “of losing face” the Amnesty International Kazoo band was invited to perform at the 2003 Woodford Folk Festival and was a great hit with attendees at the festival.

Several months ago I decided find more out about this saying and its author Piet Hein. It is taken from a longer poem:

The noble art of losing face my some day save the human race
and turn into eternal merit what weaker minds would call disgrace.

Piet Hein was the author of many such short cryptic poems – called “gruk” in Danish. In fact he composed more than 10,000 gruks both in Danish and English and these are published in many volumes.

Another gruk I love:

Living is
a thing you do
now or never —
which do you?

As indicated in my introduction Piet Hein was a person of many talents. In 1959 traffic planners in Stockholm came to Piet Hein with a knotty problem. As part of the redevelopment of the centre of Stockholm they needed to design an intersection of two major motorways but the space available did not allow for a roundabout – the usual solution.

7 Sergels_torg-Stockholm-DSC_0115w

Piet Hein went away modelled the problem and came back with his solution – the superellipse. The superellipse has since been used in furniture design in many applications requiring the best use of available space. Piet Hein is also the designer of many games and puzzles.

I have been invited to share my thoughts on this saying and its author Piet Hein this week at PechaKucha Townsville. PechaKucha is a style of presentation where each presenter displays a total of 20 slides and has 20 seconds to speak to each slide – a total of seven minutes all up. It promises to be an interesting evening with eight topics on a wide range of topics.

Might see you there on Wednesday.

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Can continued economic growth be sustained

On Tuesday I attended the Environment and Election Forum for the Herbert Electorate hosted by the North Queensland Conservation Council at the Townsville Yacht Club. Herbert is the electorate that takes in most of Townsville.  In attendance at the Forum were the sitting LNP member Ewen Jones, ALP candidate Cathy O’Toole, Greens candidate Wendy Tubman, Colin Dwyer from Katter’s Australia Party, Michael Punshon from Family First, and Aaron Raffin from the Glen Lazarus team.


Prior to the Forum I thought about what question I would like to ask. Given the “jobs and growth” mantra coming especially from the two major parties, I decided I would ask a question about economic growth. Economic Growth has been a goal of governments since the 1940s and certainly in the 50s and 60s was responsible for improvements in the quality of life of many Australians.

Today after 70 years of striving for economic growth, the picture is not so rosy.

Sustained population growth together with increased economic activity has left our agricultural areas barren and eroded, many previously pristine areas degraded, and our coastlines badly damaged. Another result of continued economic growth over these years has been increased inequality.

In 1989-90 the total salary of a CEO, including base pay and bonuses, was 18 times that of an average worker; today it is 63 times higher. Translated into weekly earnings, an average CEO is paid $65,000 a week, or around $11,000 more than the annual wage of an average worker. With just five weeks’ pay, a CEO could buy outright the modest home that most people spend their entire working lives paying off.  These figures are taken from a study by Dr John Shields of Sydney University published in the Journal of Australian Political Economy. His paper reviews the movement in the CEO salaries paid by 51 corporations that are members of the Business Council of Australia (BCA).

Back in 1989-90, the 90%+ of the population who had jobs could buy more consumer goods(“stuff”) than their parents could even dream of. Today those in jobs still have access to even more “stuff” but the numbers of unemployed have increased. And both major parties keep telling us that what we need is more “growth”. Can’t help but think of the quote sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

My question to the panel – I asked given the evidence – did they think it might be time to move away from an economy based on growth and make sustainability and equality the goal. The first to respond was Colin Dwyer who is an economist and seemed genuinely surprised by the question. He went on for a while about economic theory and concluded by saying that we need even more growth if we are to address inequality and world poverty. Perhaps Colin needs to spend more time pondering Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Sitting member Ewen Jones said that we need growth to support our ageing population. Cathy O’Toole agreed that GDP was not the best measure of the health of a community. She suggested that it was time that we look for other indicators (Gross National Happiness perhaps?). Wendy Tubman of the Greens said that central to Greens policies was the notion that continued growth is no longer sustainable if the earth is to have any future.

Back in 1972 the Club of Rome published the   “Limits to Growth” a study which modelled the consequences of continued growth in a world with finite resources by examining three different scenarios. The chilling prediction from that report was the “business as usual scenario” would result in the collapse of the global system in the second half of the 21st century.

In 2008 Graham Turner at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) published a paper called “A Comparison of `The Limits to Growth` with Thirty Years of Reality”. In this paper Turner examined the past thirty years of reality with the predictions made in 1972 and found that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the ‘business as usual’ scenario modelled in the original study. Other recent studies have agreed – unless major changes are made to the current global economic system we are facing a disastrous collapse of that system in 50-60 years.

That may not concern those of us enjoying the second half of life but what of our children and children’s children.

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Responding to Reclaim Australia

Several weeks ago it was announced that Pauline Hanson will be the guest speaker at the Reclaim Australia rally to be held in Townsville on Sunday 22 November.

Pauline H at Reclaim Australia Rally

This announcement was met with great jubilation by people posting on the Reclaim Australia Facebook page. The Facebook page gives an insight into the motivation and aims of the Reclaim Australia movement. Since the terrorist attaches in Paris the nature of posts have become even more extreme and racist than they were previously.

The Reclaim Australia page has often linked to the page of the United Patriots’ Front (UPF). In a recent article in Eureka Street correspondent Jeff Sparrow reviews the questionable activities of the United Patriots’ Front and concludes that the organisation is fascist because “Fascist” is an accurate description of the behaviour the group espouses. Sparrow reports  the response of UPF leader Blair Cottrell several years ago to a Facebook image of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler – ‘there should be a picture of this man in every classroom and every school, and his book should be issued to every student annually’.

Kim Vuga

Local spokesperson for Reclaim Australia Kim Vuga gained national attention earlier this year with her participation in the SBS documentary “Go back to where you came from”. From the Reclaim Australia page we learn that Kim Vuga will be a guest speaker at Brisbane’s Reclaim Australia Rally this Sunday.

Interestingly the Townsville Amnesty group was referred to a number of times in an article on Kim Vuga by journalist Nick Galvin in the Sydney Morning Herald. The incident described in the article happened in June when Kim and three supporters turned up at our monthly vigil for Refugees and Asylum Seekers which is held outside the office of Federal member Ewen Jones. We were not chased away as Kim suggests but decided to leave as we saw no point in giving Kim and Co the confrontation that they were seeking.

Members of the Townsville Amnesty group do not support any form of counter protest to the Reclaim Australia rally.

We believe this would only lead to confrontation which would be counter productive given our recent interactions with members of this group. Instead we are asking supporters to attend the Townsville Climate Change Rally on Saturday 28 November. This is a global event that will involve people around the world calling for meaningful action from world leaders at the Paris climate change conference that will take place in early December.

On their Facebook page, Townsville Reclaim Australia oppose any action on climate change and see it as a UN-lead conspiracy. A large turnout on the 28th will show that large numbers of people in Townsville do support decisive action on climate change from the Australian Government.

On the issue of how Australia and other nations should respond to the attacks in Paris it was good to see Independent Senator Nick Xenophon give Liberal Christopher Pyne and Labor’s Kate Ellis a brief history lesson on last week’s Q&A program on the ABC.  Nick Xenophon reminded others on the panel that the failing of the Iraq war, which began in 2003, led to Islamic State’s rise to prominence. He warned that military force alone would not be successful  in achieving a peaceful outcome to the conflict in Syria.
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Towards a compassionate response to refugees and asylum seekers

Refugee Awareness week was recently celebrated at JCU by the SANTE student group. SANTE stands for Supporting All Nations Towards Equality and the group is based in the School of Medicine and Dentistry. Highlights of the week included a Q&A Refugee Panel held on Tuesday and a Cultural Awareness lunch on Thursday.

SANTE panelThe Q&A was a lively event attended by more than 80 students and members of the public, and followed the format of its namesake on ABC TV. The convenor of the panel was Dr Farvardin Daliri, founder and organiser of the Townsville Cultural Festival and  Director of the Townsville Intercultural Centre. The four panelists were Dr Julie Mudd a Senior Lecturer at JCU, Dr Brian Senewiratne a consultant physician from Brisbane, Jenny Stirling a social worker with Townsville Multicultural Support Group and Federal MP Ewen Jones.

The first question was asked by SANTE President Jithendri Weerasingha and referred to the report “The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (2014)” released by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report documents compelling first-hand evidence of the negative impact on the mental and physical health of children held in Australian Immigration Detention Centres. Ms Weerasingha asked that as many of the people in these Immigration centres will ultimately end up in Australia, did it make sense to hold them under conditions that would lead to ongoing health problems and then be faced with addressing these when they eventually end up in Australia.

The first on the panel to respond was Federal MP Ewen Jones who told the audience he gave the report by the Australian Human Rights Commission no credence as it was “politically motivated”. He repeated accusations made by various Federal  ministers about the Commission. Ewen Jones also repeated the assurance by a succession of Federal Immigration Ministers that none of the asylum seekers currently on Nauru or Manus Island will ever be allowed to settle in Australia. Presumably we don’t have to worry as their ongoing health will not then be our concern.

child in detentionOther panelists immediately took Mr Jones to task. They said that if evidence exists that we are damaging the mental and physical health of children, surely the important thing is to address this – not to score political points by suggesting the possible political motivation of those making the report.  Dr Brian Senewiratne ,who has treated scores of former refugees for mental disorders, graphically described the terrible impact of immigration detention on the people he has worked with.

Another question from the audience made reference to the Border Force Act – legislation that was recently passed that would allow the jailing of someone who speaks up about abuses in detention centre. The panel were asked to comment on the implications of this legislation for medical staff working in Immigration Detention Centres. Julie Mudd said that this legislation puts medical staff in a completely untenable situation. Statements of Ethics in all health professions are firmly based on the principle of “do no harm”. If medical staff are not allowed to speak out about cases of abuse, then this is in direct conflict with their Code of Ethics.

Brian Senewiratne referred to a 92 page letter signed in late 2013 by 15 doctors who have practiced inside the immigration detention centre on Christmas Island. The letter documents “numerous unsafe practices and gross departures from generally accepted medical standards” and is  the most comprehensive document ever seen on the failings of medical procedure inside detention centres in Australia. Dr Brian said if the doctors had sent this letter today, under the new legislation they would be subject to prosecution and could possible be sent to jail.

Julie Mudd later commented outside the meeting  it was a chilling reminder that Nazi Germany had used  similar legislation to ensure that most people in Germany were not  aware of the mass killings and heinous “medical experiments” taking place in Nazi concentration camps.

A number of times during the evening, Ewen Jones made the comment that it all came back to dollars. He said that we could treat asylum seekers in a more compassionate way but it would send Australia bankrupt. It we are to balance the budget then we need to stop the boats.

Both Jenny Stirling and Jule Mudd challenged him on this point each time he made it. They suggested that if the offshore detention centres were closed, then the billions of dollars saved could be used to house asylum seekers in the community until their claims are determined, to assist the speedy processing of asylum seekers currently waiting in South East Asia, and to facilitate the orderly settlement of those whose refugee claims are substantiated.

Boat-PeopleSuch a regional solution would cost less that the current failed system, and would stop the boats because if there were an orderly processing system, people would no longer need to risk hazardous sea journeys seeking safety.

There was applause for a member of the audience who questioned the high cost of the current system. He said it was tragic that a system that costs so much still resulted in the terrible health outcomes reported by recent independent investigations. Where is all the money going he asked. Good question.

I was impressed by how well informed the audience were and this was evident from the thoughtful questions asked. It was disappointing that Ewen Jones spent the majority of the session trying to defend the government position regardless of the question or information being shared by experts in the field of mental and physical health and social issues.  Towards the end of the session Jenny Kelly, JCU staff member and  Amnesty member, implored Ewen Jones to go home and reflect on what the young people in the audience were saying.

By the end of the evening it was apparent to many in the audience that the current system of offshore detention has failed. To stop boats arriving in Australia, Australian  Governments have been prepared to spend billions of dollars to house asylum seekers in offshore detention centres that destroy their mental and physical health;  the navy has been used to send boats back with no concern as to what might happen to people in the boats; and they have used secrecy to attempt to hide what is happening from the Australian public. As Julie Mudd told the audience on Tuesday, the boats may have stopped but those sent back are left where they started – living in desperate conditions with little hope for any real change to their situation.

Post Script: The panel took place on 1 September. Six days later Ewen Jones came out on National media calling for Australia to take up to 50,000 refugees from Syria. It appears that Ewen Jones followed Jenny Kelly’s suggestion.

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Australian kids show us the way

Last week I came across a video made by a kidz4kidz.aus, a student group aiming to raise awareness for children in detention centres in Australia. The video features members of the group reading actual statements made by children in Australian-run detention centres taken from “The forgotten children: National Inquiry into children in Immigration Detention” released last year by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The message is simple – as kidz4kidz.aus say in the introduction to the video – they are giving voice to children who are voiceless and nameless due to the inhumane policies of the Australian government. The words of one unaccompanied child are especially haunting “…We don’t know when we will be free. Our hope is slowly going. Maybe I will be killed.” This highlights what perhaps is the cruelest cut of all – we have taken away hope from these children and indeed all people held in Australian detention centres.

A series of Australian Immigration ministers have taken macabre delight in assuring asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat that even if they are found to be genuine refugees they will never be allowed to settle in Australia. At the moment going to Cambodia, or staying in Papua New Guinea or Nauru appear to be the only options.

I have witnessed first hand what the removal of hope does to people living in refugee camps. In 1977 and 1978 I worked with the YMCA of Thailand in one of the refugee camps along the border of Thailand with Laos. There were more than 10,000 people living in the camp and though conditions were quite primitive, people were generally in a positive mood. This was largely due to the fact that every Tuesday a fleet of buses would arrive in the camp and take people away to settlement destinations in the US, France or Australia.

I visited the camp again in 1980 and although physical conditions had improved – the food available was more varied and nutritions and health services more established- the mood had changed. People were lethargic and levels of opium addiction had skyrocketed among those remaining in the camp.

Why? The buses had stopped coming and the 3000 or so people who remained in the camp realised that they were not going anywhere. Hope had been removed and despair had taken over.

This year the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expects more than 400,000 people to embark on perilous journeys seeking to escape war and persecution. The  response of  Australia to asylum seekers stand in stark contrast to that of Germany and a number of other European countries.

refugees welcome

Germany has said that any of the asylum seekers currently arriving in Europe are welcome to seek refuge in Germany. Germany expects more than 800,000 people this year alone will take advantage of this offer.

The European response for the most part has been one of compassion – one thing that is sadly lacking from the Australian response to the current refugee crisis.

We need groups like kidz4kidz.aus to help us move towards a more compassionate and sustainable response.

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In the land of the blind

Two months ago I received an invitation from Vicki Salisbury, Director of the Umbrella Studio in Townsville, to open the exhibition “Suspicious Suspension” by Tehran born artist Hesam Fetrati.

In the invitation Vicki said that the exhibition, opening 22 May, was the artist’s interpretation of the distress caused by the harmful and common global activity of displacement. Vicki went on to say that it was a powerful exhibition and an opportunity for me as an Amnesty International representative “to speak out and stir the (melting) pot regarding the issues of refugees”.

Hesam discusses his work at the Exhibition opening

I accepted the invitation and on the Friday morning before the opening went to the studio to meet Hesam and to be introduced to his work. We went across the road for a coffee and I found out more about Hesam. Hesam was born in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution in the late 70s. During his childhood he witnessed the horrifying effects of the 8 year long war that followed the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussain’s forces from neighbouring Iraq. He subsequently became an artist and used cartoons to comment on what he saw happening around him.

In 2011, reaction from authorities to Hesam’s political cartoons resulted in him applying for a student visa to come to study in Brisbane. Hesam is currently finishing his PhD at Griffith University and he has permanent residence in Australia.

Following our coffee Hesam introduced me to the art work in Suspicious Suspension. This exhibition contains Hesam’s work from his first two years in Australia and also contains several pieces of more recent work. His works focus on the experience of refugees and asylum seekers making the hazardous journey to Australia by boat and the perceptions of them from the people and Government of Australia.


Screaming Fish

Hesam portrays refugees in several ways: as severed tree trunks, as fish and as suitcases. The severed tree trunks symbolise the displacement of refugees from their culture. I asked Hesam why the fish images have large teeth and look quite fearsome. Hesam replied that refugees are perceived by many Australians to be dangerous people.

Hope is the theme of a number of paintings in the exhibition. Hesam explained that hope sustains refugees on their often perilous journeys that in many cases go on for years and years. One of the cruel twists of the current Pacific solution introduced by Kevin Rudd is that asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat are told that there is no hope that they will ever be allowed to settle in Australia. The devastating effects of this can be seen be seen in the incidents of self-harm that have occurred in the off shore detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru.

Blindness is another theme explored in a number of works in the exhibition. I immediately thought of current government policies that ensure that Australians are kept in the dark about the practices employed by the Navy as part of Operation Sovereign Borders. There are no images of people who are currently seeking to come to Australia by boat and no chance for us to see them as people and empathise with their plight.

Selfishness medallion

The final piece in Hesam’s exhibition is the Selfishness Medallion. Hesam designed this medallion for the immigrants and refugees who have arrived in Australia in the past 230 years and yet have no compassion for the current wave of refugees. We talked about Hesam’s desire to present this medallion to Tony Abbott, who is an immigrant to Australia, and one who has little empathy with more recent arrivals to Australia.

I talked with Hesam about his hopes for the exhibition. Hesam said that sales of his work would be welcome but his greatest desire is that people will look at his work and gain a greater understanding and empathy for the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. He said that if one person experienced a change in heart after viewing the exhibition then his work would be worth it.

Hesam’s exhibition will continue at Umbrella until the end of June and I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking to get a better understanding of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.

No war

Postscript: “No war” – one of Hesam’s current works that examines the related themes of patriarchy and peace.

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New Parliamentary report “Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?”

scott M

How many of you like me watched last Monday’s Australian story “Just call Jamal”.

It was good to see another side of Scott Morrison. I am so used to seeing his poker face telling asylum seekers that there is no hope and to prepare themselves to rot in island detention centres or settle in Cambodia – it was a change seeing him smiling and genuinely relating to Muslim Australians.

The problem is not necessarily that our leaders have no compassion – it is their black and white thinking that pervades the public discourse on asylum seekers and so many other pressing issues of our time. On one side we have the fifteen million “genuine refugees” waiting patiently in refugee camps on the other side of the world and we are constantly being told that their rightful places are being taken by “economic refugees” who employ people smugglers to jump to the front of the queue.

This world view is challenged by a recent publication of the Parliamentary Library “Asylum seekers and refugees: what are the facts?” written by Janet Phillips.

One of the first things addressed in the report is the use of “illegal” when describing asylum seekers. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is cited which states that everyone has the right to seek asylum and goes on to say “…The UNHCR emphasises that a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution should be viewed as a refugee and not be labelled an ‘illegal immigrant’ as the very nature of persecution means that their only means of escape may be via illegal entry and/or the use of false documentation.”

The report reminds us that there is no orderly queue for asylum seekers. Of the sixteen million refugees in the world, the UNHCR estimates that 800,000 currently are in urgent need of resettlement with 80,000 as the maximum number of resettlement places available in any year. This means that only a small percentage of those whose refugee claims are successful in any one year will be successfully resettled.

We are also reminded that the majority of asylum seekers arrive by air. These people arrive on a tourist or business visa and claim refugee status on arrival. Their claims are processed and they are allowed to remain in the community while this happens. If they are found to be genuine refugees they are usually allowed to settle in Australia.

child in detention

In contrast those who arrive by boat are told that there is no chance of their ever settling in Australia. If found to be genuine refugees the best hope they have is to be sent to Cambodia or possibly allowed to remain on Nauru! Ironically over the past twenty years, the percentage of refugees arriving by boat granted refugee status is much higher than for those arriving by plane.

As for the claim that most of the asylum seekers arriving by boat are economic refugees, in the words of the report “…Past figures show that between 70 and 100 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat at different times have been found to be refugees and granted protection either in Australia or in another country.”

The information presented in the report supports what critics of current policies have been saying for some time – “stopping the boats” might be a political solution but it ignores the plight of those needing to leave their home country to escape persecution, torture and possibly death.

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