Welcome to Omelas

Ursula K. Le Guin

Australia is the imaginary world of Ursula K. Le Guin


For many years refugees attempting to reach Australia have been confined by the Australian government in camps on Manus Island and Nauru. This policy has its origin in sudden changes in Australian voter attitudes, emerging in the early 1970s, toward refugees from Vietnam. These attitudes and prejudices about refugee movement appear to be a complex mixture of apprehension about its economic consequences, bigotry, racism, and fears of terrorism. Since 9/11 Australian opinions about refugees have hardened on all sides of the debate.

A majority of Australians now appear to support a policy that claims to prevent refugee deaths at sea by discouraging refugee movement with off-shore confinement of people detained en route to Australia by boat—people commonly referred to as “illegal refugees” even though there is no such legal category of refugees.

In 1973 Ursula K. Le Guin published the story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, describing a happy, well-organised, successful and wholly imaginary society. The story has no plot or characters. It is not really a ‘story’ at all. It is the literary version of a ‘thought experiment’.  1973 is also the year Australia adopted the 1967 Protocol on the status of refugees, which removed geographic and temporal restrictions from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This is the brief period in Australian history, 1972–1975, when Australian families sought to accept several hundred young children orphaned by the war in Vietnam; and only a couple of years before the arrival of the first Vietnamese ‘boat-people’ in Darwin Harbor. Le Guin’s story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is approximately the same age as Australia’s recent refugee history.

It is now supposed that Le Guin’s story is based upon an 1891 address by American philosopher and psychologist William James to the Yale Philosophical Club:

William James
William James

“Experience” of consequences may truly teach us what things are wicked, but what have consequences to do with what is mean and vulgar? … [I]f the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which […] utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain? — William James, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Le Guin’s story imagines exactly such a ‘utopia’. Hidden away somewhere, in the basement of a public building or in the cellar of spacious private home, a child has been imprisoned in dreadful conditions. When the young citizens of Omelas reach about eight to twelve years of age they are told about the circumstances of the imprisoned child. The citizens of Omelas generally feel the same way about the child:

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. — Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’

Le Guin goes on to explain how the people of Omelas cope with this knowledge and come to terms with the arrangement that has been made on their behalf. “Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.”

In the final paragraph of the story Le Guin tells us that some of the children and some of the adults of Omelas decide not to stay in the city. They respond to the conflict they feel about the imprisoned child by walking away. “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

The meaning of the story is not so straight-forward as it first appears. Le Guin’s story sometimes appears on the reading lists for students of public administration and business courses. Why? It demands to know not only why people might decide to leave but, perhaps more importantly, how the majority of people manage to stay in Omelas, and what they do when they stay. The ones who walk away from Omelas may be the people who have decided the cost of happiness in the city is too high, or they may have given up trying to find ways to change it. Some of the ones who stay in Omelas may still be trying to think of a way to free the child from its prison. On the one hand ‘Omelas’ is a story about a kind of utopia, on the other it is a parable about a corrupt society whose citizens accept as necessary or reject as immoral the reasons for their contentment. What is the more moral thing to do: to go or to stay?

Noticing the similarity between Australia’s situation and the moral problems outlined by Le Guin and James adds new ideas to the national discussion about what is happening on Manus Island and Nauru, where men, women and children have been detained in order to dissuade others from attempting the sea voyage to Australia on the boats of people-smugglers. Finding both fictional and philosophical versions of Australia’s predicament, of our moral choices, opens up the possibility of examining the ethical statements made about this issue and trying to think about them in non-‘party-political’ ways.

Does Australians’ happiness depend on keeping people detained in offshore facilities? No-one would have to look very far to find evidence that many Australians believe there are good reasons to pursue policies that aggressively discourage refugees. Some of these reasons are racist or irrational, and some appear utilitarian:

These are the kinds of reasons that many people believe relate directly to the general well-being of Australian citizens and to the general happiness of Australian society. Your reactions to these reasons could be a litmus tests of the degree of your alignment to popular opinion in Australia. About 70 per cent of Australians accept some combination of these reasons, either alone or in addition to the argument that detaining asylum-seekers in offshore facilities discourages others from making the life-threatening journey to Australia by boat.

The question of how to prevent deaths at sea has become the principal reason justifying the detention of asylum-seekers. The other reasons I have mentioned play a role—as anyone can see simply by looking through the reader comments underneath any article about asylum-seekers on a public website—but preventing deaths at sea has been placed at the front and centre of all these reasons. Why?

We started to think about it like a ‘trolley problem’

Ben Doherty’s article in The Guardian at the end of 2014 explains that the claim to have ‘stopped the boats’ (and therefore the deaths at sea) is a kind of fiction. The fictiveness of the claim does not make it any less compelling. Yes, refugees are still dying at sea but they are doing it somewhere else; and since it is happening somewhere else, clearly outside of Australia’s purview, it is substantially and practically someone else’s problem. As Mr Doherty points out, Australian governments have signed agreements with other countries to ensure border controls are tightened and the flow of refugees reduced. There should, I think, be more discussion about whether such arrangements are morally acceptable. We should all accept that deciding between one solution and another was always going to be difficult. It’s a terrible thing to have to detain people indefinitely or ‘release’ them into communities where they are despised and threatened. But this is better than allowing those who would follow to drown at sea, is it not?

This is what happened to Australian politics about ‘boat-people’ between August and October 2001—between the ‘Tampa affair’ and the ‘children overboard’ incident. In the middle of it all, and perhaps clouding Australians’ view of what was happening in the world and the chaos that had come to reign in our and the world’s politics, there was the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attack on the USA. And then there was an Australian federal election on 10 November 2001.

The panic about boat arrivals had begun before Tampa, but the children overboard incident clinched how the issue was to be perceived by Australians. Polls at the time said about nine out of every ten Australians agreed with the government’s new hard-line treatment of asylum-seekers. The matter was decided, and confirmed at the election, and henceforth, possibly for a very long time, the major political parties were in agreement that “Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia”. Fulfilling this promise, imagined by John Howard, and articulated by Kevin Rudd (on 19 July 2013), was the principal success of the Tony Abbott government, which the Malcolm Turnbull government continues to support. This is what a clear majority of Australians want.

Note, though, that this is the new reason for an old decision. After the first refugee boat arrived in Darwin Harbor in 1976, the then Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, tried to dampen emerging hysteria about refugees, but Australians were not persuaded. Every change of government and every new wave of asylum-seekers caused some subtle escalation of panic and adjustment of language. Between the late 1970s and now, little has changed in the minds of the Australian public. Opinion polls over this forty year period show that a clear majority of Australians—with remarkable consistency (though the poll questions have changed)—want to ‘stop the boats’, favor a process to ‘detain and assess’, and have few qualms about sending refugees ‘back to sea’. Australians no longer openly refer, as they did in the late 1970s, to their wish to re-introduce a White Australia policy.

The question is, therefore, have we simply found morally acceptable reasoning to support morally repugnant aims?

The politics of Australia’s moral dilemma has converted the question of what to do with asylum-seekers into what is called a ‘trolley problem’:

What do you do?
 A runaway trolley is about to go either in one direction, where five people will probably be killed by the trolley (if you do nothing), or the other direction, where one person will be killed by the trolley (if you decide to divert it). Would you shove a fat guy off a bridge to derail the trolley? What if the only person killed was Einstein, or the smart girl who will one day cure cancer? What if the fat guy was a villain?

This problem was formulated, in the way we recognise it, by the British philosopher Philippa Ruth Foot in an essay in the Oxford Review in 1967, and published again, later, in her book Virtues and Vices, and other essays in moral philosophy. (Foot died, at 90 years of age, in 2010.)  Her original formulation of the problem differs significantly from all the usual variants in a way that is not immediately obvious. You can read about the popular variant scenarios at the Wikipedia page, where there is also the relevant quotation from her essay:

Philippa Ruth Foot
Philippa Ruth Foot

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found guilty for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five. — Philippa Ruth Foot

As Foot describes the different scenarios of her moral problem it is clear that each of the individual scenarios required different levels of involvement and sacrifice from the person who is to make the moral decision. The judge must accept complicity in an obviously illegal act. The pilot will sacrifice his own life even as he decides to cause as little harm as possible. The tram driver must make a quick decision about an imminent accident the consequences of which he will have to face personally.

In each scenario Foot describes she places the person making the decision near the centre of its consequences. Foot’s description of what has come to be known simply as the ‘trolley problem’ does not allow us to make a decision about what to do as though we were not actually involved in the outcome. In thinking about how to act morally in crisis situations, we must consider consequences and costs to ourselves.

In a similar vein. ‘Jarrahbelt’, a reader of The Guardian, added the following comment to an article about asylum-seekers on Nauru:

In December 1980 I had the great honour to be present at one of the most desperate and remarkable rescues in maritime history. The story is largely untold, unknown, uncelebrated. On the narrow main deck aft of a guided-missile destroyer of the 7th Fleet of the US Navy a number of young men, the rescue detail, good men and true, fought for an hour to rescue about 30 people from a river boat. The river boat shouldn’t have been in the middle of the South China Sea, not in winter, not in a tropical storm with 40-foot seas, but there it was. Grappled alongside by pure brute force. We were obliged to maneuver alongside them since their engine and steering had failed, a fairly tricky operation in the circumstances. It was no-one’s fault that our port screw went into them, no-one’s fault that the port screw guard came down on top of the women and children and babies clustered on the stern cabin roof. For an hour the rescue detail struggled. I lost count of the number of times we went over the wire to replace them, thinking they had been scoured off the decks by the ferocious ocean. A waterspout went over the bows at some point, the sleet was sideways, we may have been in a vast whirlpool, the wind did its very best to tear us off the ship. We were broaching very badly and rolling like a drunken elephant. But none of that mattered. The ocean would not have them. Our own lives meant nothing then. The lives of the US Navy seals who went into that terrible sea meant nothing to them. I don’t know how they made it back onto the ship, but they did, some of them bearing corpses, because the sea was not even going to have the dead. That’s what it was like. We saved 21 souls that night. They were taken back to Subic Bay and given new homes and lives in America.

I learned some valuable lessons that night. I understood that all human beings are exactly the same, no matter what their race, creed or colour. We all die the same way. We all have the same needs, wants, hopes and dreams. We all cherish peace, unless we are insane. We are all brothers and sisters under the same sky. To use people in the way these people have been used, as political pawns to satisfy the lowest common denominator of the Australian public, is beyond shame; it is beyond comprehension in an advanced country that holds its traditions dear and has offered its shelter to so many others.

I doubt very much that I will ever vote in another federal election, I’ll just pay the fine. The choice is between a coward or another coward, unwilling or incapable of raising the timbre of the national conversation to a place where the needs of common humanity take precedence over all else. — ‘Jarrahbelt’ (a reader) in The Guardian

Jarrahbelt’s comment touches upon factors that have a bearing on Australia’s discussion of the current moral dilemma of our treatment of asylum-seekers: the historical failure of governments to raise the tenor of debate; placation of the public’s prejudices and confusion without open discussion of consequences of government decisions; and the role of personal and social sacrifice in addressing an urgent, life-threatening crisis.

In Australia, as in Omelas, there is little or no open, reasonable, detailed discussion of costs and consequences of the decisions that only appear to have been made by a majority, but in fact have been made on behalf of the majority to garner its support at the ballot box.

The contempt expressed in the media, from all sides of the discussion, prevents at the start any genuine attempt to persuade people whose opinions differ from our own. Political debate generally, and this ethical debate in particular, tends to herd people into one or other ideological camp, which have become like trenches that troops shoot from across a no-man’s land. Notable for their absence from the serious discussion of these issues are many of the very people who should be helping us in the discussion. Where are the philosophers and ethicists of our universities? Where are the economists, whose job it should be to help us think about the costs and the possible benefits of accepting more refugees?

If Australians are concerned about the spiralling costs, estimated to be in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, of supporting refugees in the community, why can we not also have a detailed discussion about how best to spend the billions of dollars allocated to maintaining offshore detention facilities? Have Australian authorities adequately explored alternative strategies, for example, massively increasing the financial, logistical and practical support offered to Indonesian police and navy?

The debate in Omelas

This is what the debate about Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers looked like in 2016, almost exactly forty years after Lam Binh arrived on a boat in Darwin Harbor. David Marr and Gerard Henderson, are openly hostile. They are, however, both citizens of the new Omelas. Mr Marr perfectly exemplified the revulsion some Australians felt when they realised their society had accepted the bargain William James described in his lecture on morals. Mr Henderson, if you listen to his words closely, did not accept the bargain either, recognising that there is a serious problem to be solved and, like many Australians, holding out hope that the government would solve it.

Those of us who decided to stay in Omelas were left with the struggle about what to do. If the lessons of moral philosophy are any guide, we should have considered more carefully what sacrifices we were prepared to make to relieve the suffering of the people we detained. As we delayed, we caused more suffering. The solution required imagination, compassion, daring, and was the perfect job for a true leader, but there was none to be found.


Related links

Posts about asylum-seekers and refugees at this site

  • Off-shore [20170830 drawing, 74x105mm] -
  • Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence - Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
  • Welcome to Omelas - Australia is the imaginary world of Ursula K. Le Guin For many years refugees attempting to reach Australia have been confined by the Australian government in camps on Manus Island and Nauru. This policy has its origin in sudden changes in Australian voter attitudes, emerging in the early 1970s, toward refugees from Vietnam. These attitudes …
  • Take the pledge - … Take the pledge by sharing this graphic in any way you prefer. Download it and use it on Facebook. Send it in replies to emails from politicians. Use it as an avatar. Send the message to politicians that you will not vote for them if they support detaining asylum-seekers. More posts about asylum-seekers and …
  • Done in our name - Our capacity to blame politicians for what they have done in our name appears to have no limit—as though the agency we have through the ballot box to empower our representatives were not the same agency we should use to judge them.
  • What happened, Mr Doherty? - When it comes to the issue of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian 'public'. Australia's asylum seeker problem is entirely the fault of the Australian people. It has little or nothing to do with people smugglers.
  • Welcome, Arjun! (Park the elephant anywhere.) - Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons … Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to …

A ritual text for gay marriages

Androgyne, detail on ancient greek amphora.

“so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man” — Plato, the fable of Aristophanes from the Symposium

Introduction

There is currently no standard ritual text for gay marriages for the obvious reason that such marriages have been forbidden and, as a consequence, a public ceremony having the function of liturgy (rites and duties in religious worship) has not developed. In places where gay marriages have been permitted by state authorities the ceremonial language of the marriage either mimics marriages for the union of heterosexual couples, is provided by a helpful marriage celebrant, or is composed by the couple seeking to be married. There are many examples of new texts for gay marriages.

Androgyne, detail on ancient greek amphora.
Androgyne, detail on ancient greek amphora.

It is sometimes said that the advantage of religious rituals for marriage is that they are grounded in traditions that span centuries. By contrast modern rituals for gay marriages, especially if they are composed by the celebrant or participants, do not normally refer to ancient texts. So, we are in the habit of thinking that there are no beautiful ancient texts that could form part of a rite for gay marriages. That is not true.

The core of this ritual text for gay marriages is a version of the fable of Aristophanes, which is recorded in Plato’s Symposium. It is the original text of the fable that tells the story of the origin of human desire and the meaning of love: we were once a different kind of being, cut in half by the gods, and therefore always destined to search for that lost part of ourselves.

The ritual may have any cultural characteristics the participants wish: they can choose any location, costume, music, specific vows, or ritual actions borrowed from their personal, religious history (such as the breaking of glasses). In particular, those parts of the Catholic religious ritual that refer to scripture have been removed.

Stephen J. Williams

'Plato's Symposium' by Anselm Feuerbach.
‘Plato’s Symposium’ by Anselm Feuerbach.

Ritual text for gay marriage

The persons to be married choose how they are introduced to those invited to participate in the ceremony, and the wording of the promises (vows).

Celebrant says:

[Full name of person to be married] and [Full name of person to be married] welcome you all to the celebration of their marriage.

Our original nature was not like the present, but different. We know that the sexes were not two, but three—man, woman, and the union of the two—just as the sun, the earth and the moon are three.

In our original nature we were all bound at the back and sides, forming a circle, to the other half of ourselves.

Neither gods nor nature suffer our insolence to be unrestrained. And, so, they made a plan to humble our pride and improve our manners. To diminish our strength they cut us in two, and gave us, each, a neck that could be turned to contemplate the part of ourselves that was lost. Through this we were to learn humility.

Separated from the other part of our true selves, these two parts of [man/woman], each desiring [his/her] other half, come together, throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one. The desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, is the ancient and healing state of every person.

Each of us now separated from the other part of our true selves is but the indenture of a [man/woman], and [he/she] is always looking for [his/her] other half.

We are prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to us. And when one of us meets with [his/her] other half, the actual half of [himself/herself], the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and would not be out of the other’s sight even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another.

Please face one another.

Do you [name of person to be married] take this [man/woman] to be your lawfully wedded [husband/wife], promise to keep [him/her], love and comfort [him/her], in sickness and in health, whether you are rich or poor, and to be kind and faithful to [him/her] for the rest of your life?

Person to be married says:

I do.

Celebrant says:

Do you [name of other person to be married] take this [man/woman] to be your lawfully wedded [husband/wife], promise to keep [him/her], love and comfort [him/her], in sickness and in health, whether you are rich or poor, and to be kind and faithful to [him/her] for the rest of your life?

Other person to be married says:

I do.

Celebrant says:

Do you have rings?

Person to be married says:

[Name], I give you this ring, a symbol of my promises and love.

Other person to be married says:

[Name], I give you this ring, a symbol of my promises and love.

Celebrant says:

We praise Love, our greatest benefactor, which both leads us in this life back to our own nature, and gives us high hopes for the future, for Love promises that if we are worthy, it will restore us to our original state, and heal us and make us happy.

I pronounce you married. You may kiss.


This document is a work in progress and I welcome constructive comments to improve it. Originally published in 2006, this is version 2.0 (Monday 14 December 2015). Shortlink: http://wp.me/p5OAfE-Iw 

PDF version of this document.

General information about marriage equality:

Send me a comment: 

 

 

What happened, Mr Doherty?

When it comes to the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian ‘public’.


Australian journalist Ben Doherty‘s photograph appeared early in 2015 on a notice distributed to staff of Transfield, the company that manages facilities in which refugees are transfield noticeconfined. The instruction was simple: “Do not exchange any information with this gentleman.” Mr Doherty was sent to Coventry by Transfield because he collects information about refugees and publishes it in newspapers.

Mr Doherty’s article in The Guardian at the end of 2014 explained that the claim to have ‘stopped the boats’ (and therefore the deaths at sea) is a kind of fiction. The fictiveness of the claim does not make it any less compelling. Yes, refugees are still dying at sea but they are doing it somewhere else; and since it is happening somewhere else, supporters of the policy say, it is substantially and practically someone else’s problem. Governments of other countries have not been as tough or as practical as Australia’s has been.

The reference to fiction’s role in politics made me think of Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four, and about the year itself, about who was prime minister (Bob Hawke), and whether our world is more like that novel now than it was then, or less. The details of history seem surreal in retrospect; a sure sign that the reality of even one’s own life eventually turns into ‘story’.

Many think Orwell’s warnings were apt. We do appear to have something like perpetual war and an ever-escalating state of emergency that requires citizens accept measures hostile to their own freedoms and privacy. Governments almost everywhere seem more susceptible to forces outside the ballot booth. Orwell was right to warn us that the language of politicians tries to make lies sound truthful and the wind seem solid. The evidence is everywhere and on every side of politics.

When I try to find information about the behavior of my own government and only discover that press releases have been removed to another location, I immediately think “memory hole”. Political debate is more furious and more anonymous than ever, but the outcomes narrower: the current public circumlocution about refugees forces us think of the ‘problem’ as a moral or political struggle where the blame is always somewhere else or in another ideological camp: “We must stop people drowning at sea.” “People-smugglers are evil.” “Why is the government torturing refugees on Manus Island? ”

default-image-portAfter the Transfield affair, Mr Ben Doherty was Thomson Reuters fellow at Oxford University in the Trinity term of 2015; and his dissertation, Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over asylum in Australia, narrates the events, rhetorical changes and policy manoeuvres of Australia’s response to asylum seekers.

Lam Binh was first. The self-taught sailor and four friends found Australia from Vietnam navigating with a single page torn from a school atlas. The page went no further south than Timor: from there he was simply following a hand-drawn arrow on the bottom of the page. But on April 26, 1976 he sighted land, and piloted his battered junk, the Kien Giang, into Darwin harbour, where he dropped anchor and waited. Lam had a speech prepared for the immigration officer who boarded the next morning: “Good morning. My name is Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia”. page 7  → opens full PDF

The then Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, tried to dampen emerging hysteria about refugees, but Australians could not be moved.

Every change of government and every new wave of asylum seekers caused some subtle escalation of panic and adjustment of language.

Between the late 1970s and now, little has changed in the minds of the Australian public. Opinion polls over this forty year period show that a clear majority Australians—with remarkable consistency (though the poll questions have changed)—want to ‘stop the boats’, favor a process to ‘detain and assess’, and have few qualms about sending refugees ‘back to sea’. However,

It is important to note a distinction apparent in Australian attitudes towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat, and those who arrive by other methods (through the offshore humanitarian program or by plane). “The public makes a distinction between refugees selected under the off-shore program and self-selected asylum seekers,” Betts says in her analysis of opinion poll data. “Hostility to boat people does not mean hostility to refugees.” Australians are broadly supportive—75 per cent in favour—of refugees who have first been assessed overseas, then being resettled in the country. McKay et al argue that government and media narratives contrasting boat-borne asylum seekers with resettled refugees are crucial to public perceptions. page 54  → opens full PDF

Mr Doherty’s distinction generously offers Australians a convenient place to hide our prejudices in plain view.

Call me illegal provides an insider view of how successive Australian governments tailored language to manage the public’s anger.

When it comes to the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian ‘public’. Australia’s asylum seeker problem is entirely the fault of the Australian people. It has little or nothing to do with people smugglers.

We have (politicians and public alike) been behaving like avaricious, racist hypocrites; and have sought, for about forty years, to camouflage our insecurities with political blamestorming. Journalists and media pundits, who could have helped to pull down the propaganda and lies upon which our prejudices have built the current system of abuses, did little to mitigate the effects.

The people who pretend to lead us, having decided it was easier to manage our prejudices for their own benefit than to educate us, created ever-more absurd excesses of placation; until billions of dollars were spent on detaining a couple of thousand asylum seekers, and tens of millions of dollars thrown at other governments in our region so they would accept the small number of refugees who wanted to live with us.

Nineteen eighty-four needs to be revised for Australia: Big Brother has been watching… how you vote.


More information on refugees

Joyce Lee’s It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean

I edited and published Joyce Lee’s collected poems, It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean, in 2003. While the book is no longer in print, I am pleased that the files of the book are still available and I am able to publish them here. Also reproduced, below, is the book’s foreword by Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Ms Lee died in February 2007 [PDF ⤴︎ obituary].


Joyce Lee, 1993. Photograph by Stephen J. Williams.
Joyce Lee, 1993. Photograph by Stephen J. Williams.

Foreword

by CHRIS WALLACE-CRABBE, to Joyce Lee’s collected poems (2003)

              Hear me, lesser seasons.
It may be autumn, may be winter
but I’ll be living summer.

What can poetry do for us these days? It’s not in the business of swaying the masses; indeed, as Peter Porter has ever so gracefully put it, “Poetry is one of the few arts which is not menaced by not having an audience.” Yet it somehow retains an almost popular role in bearing witness to human decency. Yes, poetry produces some of the durable vessels which are brimming with hope.

Such concepts as humanity and humanism have been cast aside in recent times like tattered banners, outmoded ensigns. Given that climate, it is a joy to encounter some book that is everywhere imbued with a humane spirit, a book that combines alert intelligence with decency and warmth. As the writer in question, the Melbourne poet Joyce Lee says about her artistic heritage, “Old now, I treasure what was given to me, perhaps in riddles”. But as we read them we find that her poems always strive to make such riddles come clear. In this she may be seen as a traditionalist, which is no bad thing.

Cover of Joyce Lee's It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean
Cover of Joyce Lee’s It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean

Lee’s new, retrospective volume of poetry, gorgeously entitled It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean, pays tribute to human community and continuity. It gathers her clean, vividly substantial poems from as far back as their appearance in Sisters Poets 1, edited by Rosemary Dobson and published in 1979; from there it comes down to the present day, most of the earlier poems having been rewritten to some extent. The result, I am convinced, is a wonderfully coherent collection.

Long a professional pharmacist, Lee came to poetry in her middle years. The voice was there, and the lyrics it articulated could range from the familiar ground of ‘Wimmera child’s first waterfall’ or ‘Double wedding’, back through history and dream to the Biblical Hagar, and to Gerda, the Celtic witch whose potions prefigure those of a modern chemist’s shop.

Indeed, as her book shows, the poems torn out of history add something exotic and also bracing to Lee’s Wimmera-formed imagination. They leave dark shadows in the corners of her picturing. They remind us that even this brave new world of wheat and sheep and sprawling spaces comes out of history. What is more, not even the recovered landscape of country trains, scorching wind and cars that break down inconveniently quite fills her imagination: no, it is not all steeped in Wimmera naturalism. Lee’s dreams “encompass every shade of blue”; her yearnings reach for the sky. As she writes about the truths she learned tacitly, visually from her influential painter uncle (personally influential, that is),

The dark side is part of the whole, a secret under-knowledge, a
strengthener to get you through when your light is in some distant
sky or disappears. The process is mysterious, its gifts measureless.

Yet this is the poet who says to herself, in another voice, “What you know is yours.” She is not at all naïve about solids.

In her compelling verse, the recurring strain of mystery does not entail vagueness or verbal chicanery, but has its roots in accurate knowledge. This is the basis of Joyce Lee’s persuasiveness, of her poetic strength, despite her deeply modern acknowledgement that “All I believe in is change.” Metaphysical questing rides on the shoulders of verismo.

On the evidence of what we read here, she is subject to metaphysical yearning, not least in the presence of music, which Les Murray has more skeptically dubbed, “The greatest form of nonsense verse.” Responding to that transcendent composer Messaien, she hazards that “The note pins silence/ never to resound”, while in another poem she laments that “you are left with longing/ for the voice beyond the note.”

Yet as I have suggested, her dominant imagery is rooted in the flat, pastoral Wimmera, with its bluish edge of Grampians. These poems return again and again to rock, dryness, dust, vistas of plains: to what she calls in the title of one, ‘Plain dreaming.’ Far overseas, in a prospect of Dubrovnik, she can write, “In the late afternoon, stones/ glisten like sheep on bare hills.” Also to country sounds, among them the mopoke, a horse stamping in its stable, express trains passing in the night.

The poetic vocabulary of this poetry is rich, using the whole palette, as she would be glad to say. Yet the language is not arcane, nowhere near as baroque as Peter Steele, or Anthony Hecht, or Marianne Moore. It is plumfull of colors, hard nouns and proper names: not the “long lists of proper names” which the formalist Auden thought a poet should enjoy, along with riddles and complicated stanzas. Lee is above all a realist in the homestead of poetry. Most of her capitalized names are lodged in families, active in social milieux.

These poems come over to us in clear stanzas of modestly free verse, in linguistic orchestration by way of such tasty words as triangle, peephole, hem, gimme, scrubbiness, lobster, blisters, quinine, snow gum and, in triumphant upper case, MADAGASCAR. Hers is an active world crammed with things, hues and actions—even the memories are rock-solid. They contain such vivid place/events as The casino

end of Point Lonsdale pier.
Interval at a film hot air balloon, swimming
with sharks at the aquarium,
riding a bejeweled elephant.

These strengths are manifest in such poems as ‘The past walks noiselessly’ and ‘Travelling backwards’, or in such precisely physical lines as these:

Unloaded in scorching wind
I’d watched him jack the car, carefully mend the puncture,
no cursing in church clothes. Minna
didn’t mention how she’d sweated in the kitchen.

Evenings round the stove, Gus and Ernest
red-faced in shiny second best, talking
thread darning and embroidery needles. I learn
to stitch neat edges, work to a pattern.
We share mystery and far places.
I go to bed held safely in a large world.

Surely that is what Lee’s poems themselves do: go to the black and white bed of print “held safely in a large world.” It is also a realm that has space for humour: one need only think of such poems as ‘Car week’ and ‘Untidy legs.’ Who else could possibly have used “untidy” like that?

Once upon a day I lamented that most books, at least in Australia, were written by people who didn’t know anything about work. It is a pleasure here to see how persuasively the poet evokes teacher or preacher, drover or country housewife, even the persuasive committee man, having a damn good sense of what they actually do. As she says of such awareness, “Peasant born, I inherited/ hard work from a grandfather/ migrating with his tribe/ for betterment.”

Mostly, however, she writes in the present tense, employing that present-emphatic that plays so large a part in modern Australian poetry. Within this climate of syntax, the past recurs over and over again, shaping events and people, giving meaning to the great Where We Are Now. Lee is a poet of generations, it might be said, recalling in this the David Campbell of Deaths and Pretty Cousins: and Campbell was, of course, another poet who knew what work could be. His high Monaro has a great deal in common with her Wimmera.

Reading Lee, I am sometimes taken back to those once-influential studies by Erik Erikson on childhood, society and the life-history. She feels and records how human strength flows down like honey from generation to generation. Not only can she travel backwards in time, along the psychological railway, all the way to Murtoa station; she records her profession ironically with the reflection that “My workingplace is filled with prescription ghosts” and she recreates ‘My father’s country’, a grandmother’s kitchen or the grandfather leading a bride on each arm into the local church. Each of these chronotropes is far too strongly rendered to smack of sentimental nostalgia. As Octavio Paz once observed, “Poetry is memory become image, and image become voice.”

The newest writing in It is nearly dark makes radiantly clear that, as much as being an art of mimesis or of tribute, poetry can be an art of yearning. These late lyrics are full of ontological hunger. They yearn for truths which are too large to be named, or fully understood. Again and again the trope is light, flame, perhaps candlelight. “I must pursue an unknown brighter light,” she writes, reaching out for something beyond the Johannine logos, seeking to touch the ineffable. Of such poems it would be impertinent to say more.

In the large picture this book is like a tessellated novel, the pieces reshuffled but the characters intact—on the other hand, it seems possible that if the poems were set down in exactly the right order we would have Joyce Lee’s autobiography. Viewed, more sensibly after all, as a book of poetry, this is writing in which accuracy of perception is harmoniously balanced with generosity of spirit.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe
Melbourne, July 2002

Originally published by Artist’s Proof (Stephen J. Williams) in 2003.


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It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean: collected poems 1965-2003 by Joyce Lee

Welcome, Arjun! (Park the elephant anywhere.)

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons …


Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.
Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.

Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to call in, late, and join us. I had not met Arjun before. I thought for a moment, trying to recall the name in the Bhagavad Gita. It has been a long time since I read it. A very long time. “Yes… Is it as in ‘Arjuna’?”

Sebastian sent the agreed-upon text message to Arjun’s phone… “Park the elephant anywhere. I’ll come out to show you in.” —As though anyone with a modern Hindu name would turn up for drinks on an elephant.

Arjun arrived later than expected. He had been to an exhibition and the art was ‘experimental’. “I went with an artist who tried to explain it to me. Apparently it starts off being a painting, and then it gets turned into a print, and then it’s projected. There were videos, too.” So, we talked about art.

Every long friendship is a secret place, a bolthole that is also a hall of mirrors where language, laughter and identity reflect on each other. We tell politically incorrect jokes about gays, women, blacks, politics, and then quickly straighten ourselves, pretending to worry that someone might be listening at the window or that there is a microphone hidden under the table. These jokes, to be fair, are often at our own expense. No-one gets out alive.

Blacks call each other ‘nigger’. Gays take back ownership of ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. But in our colonial outpost at the end of Asia, surrounded on all sides by water, Muslims, Hindus, Maoris and ice, people who look and speak like ‘foreigners’—non-Anglo, non-Euro foreigners—are still having a gruesome time.

It is not difficult to perceive a shrill panic in Australian language in 2015. Online newspapers are stuffed full of (mostly) anonymous complaints about fake refugees. “Surely everyone knows that the countries refugees want to live in are white countries.” “The refugee convention does not guarantee that refugees can only be resettled in the wealthy country of their choosing. Yet, many refugees seem to want only to come to Australia and reject safe harbor in other countries.” And so on. Genuinely racist urges are easily camouflaged with concern that we should not allow refugees to drown at sea.

Australia has developed a heap of festering prejudices. “Why do these people have to come here.” “They’ve spoiled their own countries,” “ruined their own cultures with religious wars.” “We don’t want that sort of thing here.” “There are Muslim countries they can go to. Why don’t they go there?” “The Indian student who faked an attack on himself.” “Oh, God, they’ve taken over the Seven-Eleven stores…” “Asians. I think they’re aliens. I mean really aliens. From outer space.” 

I like to think I know a thing or two about art, but the truth is I do not know very much at all. Asian art, for example, is a mystery to me. I think I am not alone. All the Catholic and Christian stuff I have down pat, rehearsing it since childhood. To my deeply prejudicial frame of mind, Muslim art is easy: they don’t like images. What’s next? Ah, the Hindus: statues with many heads and way too many arms. I have no idea what it means.

What does it mean? I acknowledge it simply as a symbol of exotic excess. Those asian artists, you know, they just do not know when to stop. And there appear to be different versions of the same thing: one is a Krishna, the other a Shiva; some of them are dancing and some not. It’s all just too complicated—and alien.

Properly motivated, it does not take long to find out what it means.

With apologies to Hindus who may be offended by a clumsy contraction of several million words into these few paragraphs…

Hindus, like Catholics, believe in a god who transcends everything in time and space. Brahma is the supreme god of creation (alongside Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer—making the Hindu trinity). It is Brahma who is the father of Manu, from whom all human beings descend.

The central, though not by a long way the oldest, texts of Hinduism are the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Composition of both began around 400 BCE, and the texts finalised around 400 CE. The Mahabharata is the great story of the ‘Bharata’ dynasty—a history of the contest for accession between the Pandava princes and the Kaurava princes. At the core of the story is the recounting of the Kurukshetra war in which the armies of the branches of the dynasty fight each other. (In this and all the other Hindu texts, the ‘story’ is accompanied by much philosophical and devotional material.)

The Mahabharata is the longest verse epic in world literature. While the centrepiece of the poem is the description of the eighteen day battle, the Mahabharata also contains, just before the battle begins, one of the key texts of Hinduism—the Bhagavad Gita.

Arjuna, the Pandava prince, arrives in a chariot to the place where the Kurukshetra war is to start. Krishna, in human form (he is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu), is Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna looks at the army opposing him and is paralysed by the thought that many of the people there are beloved members of his family and his teachers.

Arjuna asks Krishna for his advice. Krishna does not hold back. He tells Arjuna his duty and reminds him that there is no point delaying taking action. The fate of the Kaurava princes is already determined—by Krishna himself.

To prove his point, Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. This is the moment (chapter 11, verses 10 and 11) we see depicted in the paintings of the (often blue) deity with many heads and many arms. Krishna sees everywhere, and his hands guide everything in the universe.

Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is crucially important to Hindus—personally, culturally and politically. It is a narrative about fate, courage, the necessity for action, and the role of heroism in personal and social life. Its influence runs deep in Hindu culture. Political leaders, past and present, including Mohandas Gandhi, interpreted the narrative of the Bhagavad Gita to clarify their own ideas and actions.

Careful readers will have noted that Arjuna does not arrive on an elephant.

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons. It takes some courage to get into a wooden boat and try to cross hundreds of miles of ocean, does it not?

I understand there are many Australians who believe there is an imperative to preserve life; to keep straight the lines and the lengthening queues of people wanting to come here; and perhaps even to sort through those queues for the kinds of people we would prefer.

Australia is filling up with believers who are concerned to do the right thing.

Speaking only for myself, I have decided that it is not necessary to pretend to judge whether someone is actually a refugee. I do not believe we should pretend it is moral to punish someone who seeks a better life with alienation, abuse and rape; and to promise it will be punishment without relief.

I cannot promise it will make any sense to you because I hardly understand it myself: the story of Arjuna is about how to act, and the need to act, even though we are quite certain that no matter what we do we will cause suffering. These ideas are permanent and universal. They were the same in Asia two thousand years ago as they are now in Greece or Italy.

At around the same time that the Mahabharata was being composed, on the other side of the world, a bronze statue of a boxer was being created. This statue was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885 by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. The bronze has copper inlays that make the flesh of the boxer look bruised. When the figure was cast the sculptor took a chisel to his work and gouged scars in its face.

The creators of the Mahabharata and the statue of the seated boxer were both trying to tell us something about human suffering and heroic action.

Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).
Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).


Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

More information about refugees (links)

Melisma variations

“Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education.”


My father had a secret stash of Shirley Bassey records. There was a record-player in the house. Mine. It was not a very good record-player. I was eleven and I did not know what hi-fi was. I was into noise, and catchy tunes and syncopations. I had no idea what a ‘Shirley Bassey’ was either, except that it was obviously extremely glamorous and sparkly, could be photographed with its mouth open and got hidden in my father’s bedroom closet—where there was no record-player to play it.

'Melodica'—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.
‘Melodica’—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.

Many years later I learned my father lived most of his life in another house, an apartment he kept in Collingwood, an inner suburb of Melbourne, while I reconnoitred the border of ‘Forest Hill’ and ‘Nunawading.’ His Shirley Bassey records got played—if they were played at all, I never heard them—in Collingwood.

I compensated for the lack of a musical education, from my parents or anyone else, by trying to figure out how musical scales worked with the aid of books and a strange, little keyboard called a ‘Melodica’ (which sucked, even though I had to blow in it). This ‘instrument’ emitted horrifyingly weedy, windy sounds that were supposed to be musical notes.

Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education. Exactly what these ideas and impressions are is difficult to say.

One of them, for example, might have something to do with scales. Leave aside the discipline and patience needed to practice them: every distinct culture has a distinct musical scale that is a framework upon which all its music is built. There is a Chinese scale, an Arabic scale, a Greek scale, an Indian scale, scales that are equally tempered and scales that are not. Discovering these facts through musical exploration changes a person’s understanding of what culture is and how culture shapes perception.

I listened to Mozart, and graduated to Bach. I had no idea what a Sex Pistol was, or a Clash; David Bowie, The Ramones, The Osmonds and The Bay City Rollers were all just words.

One of the popular boys in high school, who seemed to know things the unpopular boys did not know, started to mock me and gave me the nickname “Stevie Wonder”. His mockery was so gentle and, I see in retrospect, so complimentary that I wonder now whether he might have fancied me. Whatever his motive, my new nickname introduced me to the artist who convinced me that contemporary music was worth listening to. Motown. It was fresh air.

Wonder was twenty-three when he made the live studio promotional video for a new album and recorded ‘All in love is fair’. What a voice he had! Conversational and easy-going when singing quietly, it could suddenly unleash tremendous emotion. Wonder’s version of his own song is a study of contrasts between beautiful vibrato, playful melisma, and striking crescendos.

Shirley Bassey singing 'All in love is Fair'.
Shirley Bassey singing ‘All in love is Fair’.

Other singers, mainly women, took up this song very quickly, and made it their own. Shirley Bassey renders it in a sassy, wise-ass style in which her jaw really looks as though life is punching it crooked as she sings. Barbra Streisand performs it straighter, as though whispering a lesson in life and love right in your ear. Carmen McRae’s version is jazzier, seeming to plumb darker notes, but all the while keeping the melodic line under tight control. Dionne Warwick’s is the saddest version and, just by a little, the slowest.

These other artists are not merely channeling Wonder’s song. Each version seems like something completely original that is made out of the singer’s own life.

The great French cellist Paul Tortelier said of musicians, “We are fortunate. We know about happiness.” Note, though, that he does not say they are happy. And that is another mystery music teaches us, and which it is best not to explain.


Carmen McRae

Barbra Streisand

Dionne Warwick

Stevie Wonder

Shirley Bassey

Paul Tortelier

Not a threepenny opera

“Why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?”


Toner-gate, Victoria’s little arts scandal, revealed some interesting facts about government and administration of the arts.

Firstly, public sector employees working in the arts believe that going to arts events is “a fundamental obligation of their professional life”. Penny Hutchinson, Director of Arts Victoria, rejects the idea that free tickets to arts events should be registered as gifts. The Ombudsman concluded, “a lack of management and auditing at Arts Victoria contributed to a culture that allowed the corrupt conduct to go undetected”.

Secondly, the Director of Arts Victoria told the Ombudsman that department employees keep a diary of their attendance at arts events. However, neither the Arts Victoria website nor the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) annual reports of Arts Victoria’s activities contain statistical information gathered from employees or arts organisations about the numbers of tickets given away, for this or any other purpose. Detailed statistical information about attendance at arts events comes mainly from Australian Bureau of Statistics data from census interviews. The Arts Victoria website is an analytical wasteland. Sure, you can find out how much money the government spent and on what projects. When percentages and dollar figures are provided, they all point to the munificence of the public purse and the crucial role of the arts in the economy. They are statistics served up like comfort food to make the public sleep.

Third, though Toner-gate is trivial compared to other public sector governance problems (annual expenditure on ICT in Victoria is around $1.6 billion), the numbers are not trivial to artists themselves—especially artists, like writers and poets, who are not part of the ‘color and movement’ industry. Chris Flynn, who organises writers’ events in Melbourne, posted on Facebook the day the Toner-gate news broke, “Thank God I didn’t get those Arts Victoria grants after all—turns out they needed 80 grand to buy toner.” I suspect this reaction would be mild among writers.

The ABC’s comedy series ‘Angry Boys’ was viewed by “just” 569,000 viewers on Wednesday 15 June 2001, when it went head-to-head with broadcast of a state of origin rugby union match. Chris Lilley, the comedic artist in question, must think that such contests are a harsh proving ground.

Go the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) website and look at the 2010 annual report and you will find that in 2010 the total audience for 2010 was 181,387. The total “paid attendance” was just 121,330. It’s not clear from the report whether any of these figures includes free concerts in the park (40,000 in attendance) or other outreach programs. Using the two available numbers, 33 per cent of seats at concerts are given away.

The Victorian Opera annual report includes the tantalising remark that audience figures are prepared according the standard Arts Victoria methodology. Gosh. Arts Victoria has a methodology for counting audience numbers? —Its annual report does not say what it is. Neither does its website. And this is strange because performing arts publications make so many remarks about audience numbers, it would be handy to know if there is a ‘special’ way of counting them.

The VO says that the total audience in 2010 was 41,799. This number includes dress rehearsals, educational and promotional events, and even 6,500 at free concert in The Bowl with the MSO. Leave all free seats in, and any others that may or may not be free, and divide it into the total of government grants (including a small sum from the federal funding body), and it appears that every single seat at an opera event is subsidised to the tune of $91. This figure is closer to $150 if you exclude seats given away for whatever reason; but, because we don’t know how many seats are filled by arts administrators for the purposes of “professional obligation”, there is no way of telling how high the figure goes. To be fair, the numbers should look better if one took into account that public funds also pay for modest administration, marketing and other expenses.

None of this even touches on the extraordinarily generous donations received by the operatic arts by various kinds of patrons, though it is interesting to note that the VO annual report has two not-quite-full pages of these donors’ names, some of whom gave over $20,000 and at least one (I wonder who?) who came up with $2.

The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.
The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.

And the numbers were especially healthy in 2010 because of the spectacular success of Kurt Weil’s ‘Threepenny Opera’. More than ten thousand people attended 22 performances, about two and half times more than the next most attended opera and about five times more than most.

Why is the writer beating up on the euterpean muse? (I didn’t even look at the statistics for the ballet. My pure heart would be too beaten up!)

Arts Victoria’s and DPC’s websites used to bulge with business plans and targets related to the ‘Creative Capacity +’ framework for arts development in Victoria, a document that, now, even Google can’t find in the Orwellian memory hole of documents published on the Internet.1 I used to look into them to wonder, as I do now after Toner-gate, how little light these numbers, goals and performance measures throw on the ironies of arts funding.

Why, if nearly a third of seats at some concerts are unpaid for, is there no detailed information about how the seats are filled?

Why, if public taxes pay for astonishingly expensive artistic productions, are these productions not televised?

Why, considering apparent waste and inefficiency, can no public funds be found to support a poetry recitation prize for Victorian secondary school students? And why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?

Why, if arts administrators can have free tickets to attend arts events, can we not provide the same advantages to artists themselves? I could, within a week if asked, provide a list of several hundred creative writers whose artistic education would be enhanced by nights at the opera and in our concert halls and theatres, myself included.

Penny Hutchinson’s tortured responses to the Ombudsman’s report demonstrate, amongst many other things, that she has no imagination. Maybe that’s what it costs you when “professional obligation” takes you out for a night on the town.

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  1. The document can still be found in Pandora, the government repository of stale, public websites: Creative Capacity +