Out of the big smoke: crime fiction in 2013

Australian crime fiction hit the regions on 2013 – and international crime held a few surprises too.

By Professor Sue Turbull – this post was originally published in the Conversation (17/12/13)

Oddly enough and against trend – all those Scandinavian crime novels bobbing up in translation – I spent most of the year travelling Australia in crime fiction.

From East (Peter Cotton’s Canberra in Dead Cat Bounce) to West (Alan Carter’s Perth in Getting Warmer) with many intriguing side trips in between; a trip to Thailand with Angela Savage (The Dying Beach), and a retreat to rural South East New South Wales with Stuart Littlemore (Harry Curry: Rats and Mice).

Reviewing the route taken simply confirms my suspicion that Australian crime fiction has become emphatically “regional”. The city is no longer the most compelling crime beat, if it ever really was.

Bitter Wash Road, Garry Disher


Bitter Wash Road by Garry Disher. Published by Text in 2013.

The crime novel that exemplifies this decentralising move best is Garry Disher’sBitter Wash Road.

In an outstanding career of literary and other kinds of fiction writing, this stand-alone police procedural is Disher’s most accomplished crime novel to date. Like Peter Temple, Disher has established an elliptical, poetic style which evokes the landscape, the people and the rhythms of Australian life in ways which deserve recognition as great writing, irrespective of genre.

Set in rural South Australia, Bitter Wash Road deals with a number of pressing issues, including gender, race and police corruption.

There’s an implicit distrust of authority in both Temple and Disher’s work. As exiled detective Hirsch drives into the hills to investigate gun fire, “following the custom of the locals” he lifts one finger from the steering wheel to greet the infrequent oncoming cars.

Turning off into the hills:

Stones smacked against the chassis. Skinny sheep fled, a dog snarled across a fence line and crows rose untidily from a flattened lizard.

Forget about plot, although it’s a good one – the harsh beauty of Bitter Wash Road is all in the telling.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith


The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. Published by Hachette. Hachette

As is the case in another notable crime novel of the year, The Cuckoo’s Callingby Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. Harry Potter author J.K Rowling.

There was a lot of discussion at the time of Rowling’s big reveal about whether or not this initial subterfuge had been a cunning publicity ploy on behalf of an already fabulously successful author. If that was the strategy, it could so easily have backfired.

I embarked on The Cuckoo’s Calling prepared not to like it and with no compunction in saying so. Big targets are much easier to hit, and their sales unlikely to suffer as a result.

I was, however, entranced by the Golden Age of Crime meets 20th-century celebrity culture mash-up that is The Cuckoo’s Calling. I loved the evolving screwball comedy relationship between the impossibly named private investigator Cormoran Strike (a name that suggests he could have graduated from Hogwarts) and his “temporary” secretary, the recently engaged Robin Ellacott whose inner sleuth owes much to the plucky heroines of my schoolgirl comics.

Once again, while I couldn’t have given tuppence about the plot (it’s a misconception that this is what matters most in crime fiction), I thoroughly enjoyed following the evolution, marked by acts of incremental affection and respect, of this central relationship.

Also satisfying were the waspish sideswipes at London’s music scene and fashion elite. The crime novel has always been a great way to take the contemporary pulse.

Love Story, With Murders, Harry Bingham


Love Story, With Murders by Harry Bingham. Published by Hachette. Hachette

Which brings me to the crime novel with the most intriguing female sleuth of the year, Harry Bingham’s Welsh policewoman (“I see dead people”) D.C. Fiona Griffiths in Love Story, With Murders.

Fiona’s first person account of her attempts to live on “planet normal” while dealing with a strange condition known as Cotard’s Syndrome are ghoulish yet beguiling.

As a homicide detective blessed with the useful ability to communicate with the dead (or so she believes), Fiona is now well ahead in a game of dysfunctional heroines started by Lisbeth Salander in Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Like the Larsson oeuvre, Love Story with Murders may not be the best crime novel in the year, but it has to be the one with the most eagerly anticipated sequel.

Expect the unexpected.

The future of manufacturing: niche doesn’t need to be small

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and Minister for Industries Ian Macfarlane discuss the fallout of the Holden closure. But does it mean the death of Australian manufacturing? Daniel Munoz/AAP

Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and Minister for Industries Ian Macfarlane discuss the fallout of the Holden closure. But does it mean the death of Australian manufacturing? Daniel Munoz/AAP

By Professors Chris Gibson and Geoffrey Spinks – this post originally appeared in the Conversation (12/12/13)

An unfortunate consequence of Holden and Ford’s decision to cease manufacturing cars in Australia is the negative impression that all local manufacturing is similarly doomed. Yet there are plenty of local manufacturers that are doing well. We just don’t hear much about them.

Can we learn their secrets for success? Can these ideas be promulgated throughout the industry and help arrest the overall decline in manufacturing’s contribution to employment and the economy? Can we build new industries to fill the void left by the exit of Ford and GMH and can we do it quickly?

Our manufacturers can compete globally

One clear feature of many successful local manufacturers is that they tend to operate in niche markets. But being niche doesn’t mean they are necessarily small. Cochlear Limited, for example, makes the bionic ear: a highly specialised, niche product that provides hearing to the profoundly deaf. In 30 years of operation the company has grown to employ 2700 people worldwide with 800 manufacturing employees, many of whom are based in Sydney.

On a smaller scale, but with a similar upward growth trajectory is Røde Microphones – a private company that makes high quality microphones for the world market. The company employs around 200 people and recently doubled its Sydney based manufacturing facility. Strong export growth over the last decade has also been seen in scientific and medical instruments and pharmaceuticals. These examples demonstrate that Australian firms can compete globally.

Exploiting advantages

A close connection with customers who seek customised products is one of several competitive advantages that can be exploited by Australian-based manufacturers.

Mining equipment manufacturers, for example, work closely with mine operators to design, manufacture and maintain bespoke mining equipment. Here it is essential for the makers to go on site, understand the problem and collaboratively develop solutions through regular communication with the customer.

Defence contractor Thales Australia manufactures a range of systems in regional centres including the Bushmaster troop carrier designed to meet the specific requirements of the Australian Defence Force. The company recently announced export sales to Jamaica.

Similarly, our custom-made surfboard industry survives in the face of stiff competition from imported, mass-produced boards by understanding the needs of surfers.

Australia’s natural resources provide opportunities for the development of mineral products, processed foods and forestry products. We are geographically positioned on the doorstep of the growth economies of Asia. There are many reasons to be positive about the future of manufacturing in Australia.

Continuous innovation

One key requirement for a sustainable manufacturing is the capacity of firms to innovate. Many of the successful local manufacturers heavily invest in R&D.

Cochlear Limited engages with over 100 universities worldwide and has located its headquarters at Macquarie University. Thales Australia is a founding member of the Defence Materials Technology Centre and supported work at the University of Wollongong on automated welding systems that was part of the recently awarded 2013 Eureka prize for Outstanding Science in Safeguarding Australia. Røde Microphones has developed innovative marketing strategies to introduce its products to the music industry and was awarded the 2013 NSW Premier’s Export Award.

Innovation comes in many forms and can include technology, management and marketing strategies and the greater use of design principles to enhance product value. These activities are not always mutually exclusive – the introduction of new manufacturing processes like robots or 3D printers can require modifications to the business model, for example. The research sector is beginning to appreciate these interconnections and form interdisciplinary teams such as the University of Wollongong’s Global Challenge Programin Manufacturing Innovation.

If innovation is so important, how can it be made more efficient? Steven Johnson’s book“Where good ideas come from” (2010, Penguin, New York) has identified the conditions that favour innovation.

Essentially, it’s all about getting people together from diverse backgrounds with ready exchange of ideas and information; to provide time to absorb and process the information and “connect the dots”; and look for innovations in what Johnson calls the “adjacent possible” – that is, the introduction of new ideas that are a small, logical step from existing practises. These innovations are the most easily recognised and easily implemented with immediate effect. In this respect, it’s clear that clusters of like-minded businesses benefit from being physically located in close proximity to one another.

MIT recently released the findings of its study (Making in America, 2013) into the state of manufacturing in the US and highlighted the need to accelerate ideas to products. Again, focused activities and collaborative networks are identified as a successful innovation strategy.

Forward-looking governments

Are we doing enough to foster innovation and growth in Australian manufacturing?

The Manufacturing Excellence Taskforce Australia (formerly known as the Manufacturing Innovation Precinct) established by the former federal government aims to establish networks between manufacturers and research providers, but it’s too early to assess the impact.

What we need are forward-looking governments that are willing to invest in developing new niche, manufacturing industries and provide support for existing SMEs to grow.

While there are examples of these processes occurring organically, central governments have a role to accelerate the process and overcome the barriers to innovation like access to capital, skills, facilities, R&D costs and uncertain outcomes.

In both Germany and China, the state has had a significant role to play in supporting advanced manufacturing growth. Our universities and other research agencies like CSIRO are generating great manufacturing-related research outcomes but, ultimately, governments are needed for the necessary investments to get these good ideas translated into industries.

An end to Australia’s auto dream: why we loved Holden

Australian Holden stamp

By Dr Georgine Clarson – first published in the Conversation (12/12/13)

Yesterday we learned that our collective support for Holden is coming to an end. The demise of “Australia’s Own” has been on the cards for years. After all, this country is one of the most expensive places in the world to produce cars.

We are not alone or even the biggest subsidisers of car manufacturing, of course.

National economies as different as China, Japan, France and the USA have always offered incentives to keep cars rolling off assembly lines. But public funding for private enterprise runs deep in Australia – and it has never been just a matter of economics.

Subsidising the Australian dream

From the earliest years of British occupation, we cobbled together an Australian version of capitalism that collectively fostered and protected industries big and small.

Colonial authorities gave away land, seed, free labour, and licenses to trade in rum, run a ferry service or fish the harbour. In the 19th century colonies built railway lines and ports for miners and pastoralists, as well as dams, artesian bores and telegraph lines.

And in the 20th century there was wide support for government-nurtured infrastructures and enterprises, from banks and telecommunications companies, the Snowy Mountains Schemeand, yes, the first GMH plant in Fishermans Bend in 1936.

Such initiatives were seen as innovative and distinctively Australian ways to grow a modern settler society. They were designed not just to secure prosperity but also to create a more harmonious and equitable nation than the one we had left behind.

Cars for a rugged landscape

Australians are known as early and enthusiastic adopters of new technologies.

The first cars were quickly drawn into the prevailing confidence that technology was the solution for problems of settling the continent and learning to belong in the landscape. Cities were their natural habitat, but well before cars were up to the job, conversations turned to how useful they would be in the arid back country, where water and horse feed was scarce.

Over the next decades, as the new nation was finding its feet, automobile “overlanders” became a new kind of popular hero as they drove – and pushed and dragged – their machines into places they were not designed for. Overlanding pioneers were greatly admired for opening out the “vast blank places on the map” to white settlement and, after the second world war, to recreation and tourism.

Cars and Australia emerged at the same time and the utilitarian value of cars helped to create a national car culture with a different emphasis.

More than an item of frivolous city consumption, an object of leisure and fashion, or means of display for the ultra wealthy, early Australian car culture also spoke to more patriotic sentiments. There was an affinity between cars and the development of the nation that made them central to how life on this continent would be imagined and lived.

Like steam engines on the Great Plains of America in the 19th century, images of cars grinding across the spinifex plains of the Central Desert – with the obligatory Aboriginal warrior leaning on his spear and watching from the distance – became emblematic of the ways cars were becoming integral to our sense of ourselves.

Holden cars opened up the Australian landscape

Holden cars opened up the Australian landscape

A mobile and masculine citizenry

There was much talk about how how the movement of cars was reshaping the continent and creating a mobile citizenry. After the second world war, the special place cars held in national culture was institutionalised in the hugely popular decision to fund an all-Australian car. Holden soon captured half of the market.

But the great enthusiasm that greeted the first Holden sedans in the 1950s was only peripherally related to factors such as national development, full employment, or the security benefits of industrial self-sufficiency.

Seen from a different angle, the utilitarian value of the Holden was a story that helped to deflect attention from the less rational emotions and values that gave cars their immense power in our lives. It diverted eyes away from the reality that this item of mass consumption was saturated with meanings beyond the nuts and bolts of the thing itself and its function as a means of transport.

As much as Holden advertisements used images of women to signify their stylishness, as much as Australian women, too, had ambitions to drive them, and as much as Holdens were marketed as family cars, they were predominantly in the hands of men.

Men who did not yet own a Holden could dream of that happy day.

Here was a prized commodity that altered practices and ideas of Australian masculinity. Men were no longer only the producers of goods, but in an era of growing national prosperity, they were increasingly defined through what they consumed and how they did it.

A new mode of consumption

Unlike feminine consumption, which had been long established as domestic and frivolous, car consumption was not mere passive consuming. Cars seemed to be about much more important and exciting things – mastering machinery, conquering the “tyranny of distance” and acquiring new knowledge and skills.

Holdens were at the heart of those changes.

Proud Australian expressions of masculinity that cut across class differences were built around Holden FXs and FJsin the Redex reliability trialsand the MonarosToranasand Commodores on the Mountain.

Masculinity was even reinvented behind the steering wheel of the maligned suburban Kingswood.

Throughout the era of baby-boomer optimism, visions of men in Holdens trailing plumes of dust on dirt tracks, finding happiness in just burning miles or bush bashing, or the joy of taking the family on a long drive to the beach seemed to define a settler Australian birthright.

The end of the Holden era

Later generations grew up with a much more mundane experience of cars.

Their investments in technology appear to be very different. Studies suggest that young men and women now are more passionate about digital connectivity than their driving licenses.

Cars are more androgynous objects, and masculinity and femininity is much less bound up with the things we do with them. Their global manufacture, design and marketing rarely invoke national sensibilities. Developments such as automatic braking systems have taken over functions from the driver – and the idea that Dad might change the oil filter on the front lawn is barely thinkable.

Not only is there little political clout in the conviction that maintaining employment and sustaining working class communities deserves collective investment, but old fantasies of gunning down the wide open road in “Australia’s Own” no longer resonate in national dreams.

Perhaps that is part of the grief that many are feeling.

FURTHER READING:

Genders at Work: exploring the role of workplace equality in preventing men’s violence against women

By Dr Michael Flood and Scott Holmes 

Dr Michael Flood

Dr Michael Flood

This report released by the White Ribbon Foundation examines the role of workplaces, and men in workplaces in particular, in preventing men’s violence against women.

The report begins by noting that men’s violence against women is a widespread social problem which requires urgent action. It highlights the need for preventative measures oriented to changing the social and structural conditions at the root of this violence, including through settings such as workplaces.

Men’s violence against women is a workplace issue. As well as being a blunt infringement of women’s rights, this violence imposes very substantial health and economic costs on workplaces and organisations.

If we are how to address how workplaces can be part of the solution, we must first address how they are part of the problem, in three ways. First, workplace gender inequalities – including unfair divisions of labour and power and norms of male dominance – contribute to women’s economic and social disadvantage and men’s privilege. Workplaces thus can intensify the wider gender inequalities in which violence against women flourishes. Second, the cultures of some workplaces encourage and institutionalise violence-supportive social norms. Women in these institutions or in contact with their members face greater greater risks of victimisation, and the male members are more likely than other men to tolerate and perpetrate violence. Third, workforces can contribute to violence against women through the ways in which they respond to employees who are victims of violence or its perpetrators.

Workplaces are increasingly prominent sites for violence prevention and intervention. While most strategies focus on responses to victimisation, a growing number of companies and organisations also engage in activities designed to prevent men’s violence against women. For example, in Australia, a recent workplace pilot study has been implemented by White Ribbon Australia. This Workplace Accreditation project identifies a range of criteria for workplaces to meet in order to qualify as a White Ribbon Australia Accredited workplace.

If the workplace is to have a real impact on preventing men’s violence against women, then efforts in part must address men. There are at seven overlapping strategies through which men at work can be engaged in change.

  1.  Through face-to-face educational programs and social marketing, workplace-based strategies can raise men’s awareness of issues of gender inequality in general or men’s violence against women in particular.
  2. Workplaces can promote a culture of zero tolerance for sexist and disrespectful behaviour.
  3. Undermining established masculine norms and cultures is crucial to such efforts, and should include moves away from traditional models of masculine leadership.
  4. Men can be involved through their professional roles themselves.
  5. Men can be mobilised as advocates for change in workplaces, for example by running White Ribbon and other violence prevention campaigns at work.
  6. Men can challenge the structures and systems at work that produce inequality and exclusion, including by countering unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion, conducting gender audits, setting targets for women’s representation, and examining gendered interactions at work.
  7. Finally, workplaces can encourage men out of the paid workforce, adopting strategies for men to spend less time at work and more time involved in parenting and domestic work.

Workplace-based efforts to engage men in the prevention of men’s violence against women include attention to male leaders. ‘Buy-in’ by leaders and organisations is crucial in any program of workplace change, but this is particularly difficult when it involves unsettling the established links between management, masculinity, and privilege. Nevertheless, there are powerful examples of both individual men and men’s networks in workplaces acting as ‘champions’ of violence prevention in the workplace.

Ongoing patterns of workplace organisation and culture reinforce the unequal treatment of women and the unfair privileging of men. From working hours and structures, to recruitment, to employee care and advertising, workplaces have countless opportunities to choose either to reinforce the old ways or to take the path to a fairer and violence-free world. The challenge for workplaces is not knowing what to do to prevent violence against women – it is finding the will to do it.

For the full report, please go to http://www.whiteribbon.org.au/uploads/media/Research_series/WRIB-470_Genders_At_Work_Paper_v03.pdf

Should users pay the toll for Australia’s infrastructure problem?

Governments are failing to keep up with infrastructure demands, but are tolls the answer?

Governments are failing to keep up with infrastructure demands, but are tolls the answer?

By Garry Bowditch

This post originally appeared on the Conversation

Australia spends more on infrastructure today than at any stage in its history. Yet governments are unable to meet demand and don’t expect ever to do so. What can governments do to keep up with escalating demand and community expectations for infrastructure?

Reserve Bank assistant governor Philip Lowe says tolls and levies could be the answer to more efficiently funding the transport infrastructure we need – infrastructure he says would boost productivity and improve living standards.

Tolls are just one issue likely to be debated as part of the Productivity Commission’s current inquiry into infrastructure costs, which is considering how infrastructure is funded and financed by both the Commonwealth and the states.

Governments trying to fix the infrastructure backlog face a number of constraints including money, suitable land access and community buy-in.

Historically, Australia is a large investor in infrastructure with per capita spending of about A$18,500 pa in the past decade. This means the nation has pulled ahead of the OECD, reflecting two mining booms and nation building public spending.

Gridlock frustrates

At the same time congestion in Australia’s major cities continues to escalate with gridlock on roads impacting passenger and freight logistics. This situation reflects poorly on project selection processes and willingness to choose infrastructure that lifts national productivity. For example, renovating existing infrastructure and shifting demand from the peak to the shoulder period can often have superior productivity impacts compared with building greenfield assets.

While Australia has a strong case to build more infrastructure, it must do so with a great deal more discipline and clear purpose towards the long term national interest.

Prioritising projects with the highest cost benefit ratios is fundamental. At the same time we must recognise that Australia has erred on this front, which has come at a cost to the public. These projects are typically in the category “too much, too late,” such as gold plating electricity distribution networks on the east coast and the South East Queensland water grid.

If more road and public transport investment is to occur, governments should also focus on how they will service private capital during the long period of investment in infrastructure. This means a willingness to allow prices to reflect full cost recovery for the infrastructure provided, permit prices to reflect the incentive to invest and where appropriate use the government’s balance sheet to fund shadow tolls where a user charge is not appropriate.

Productivity matters

Better infrastructure for Australia should be anchored by a clear objective of lifting national productivity. This clarity of objective has been missing which has made it difficult for governments to be purposeful and consistent in their infrastructure decisions.

To that end the regulatory system requires reform, as it must provide the right price signals and incentives to make the best use of existing infrastructure. Tolls and user charges can have a more fundamental role to play in shaping demand and helping to direct where investment is needed to lift productivity growth.

Of course a toll should always be a fee for a defined level of service, and the community has the right to expect choice in the services available. The problem is that infrastructure often fails this test to the detriment of business and the community.

Tolls need to be justified

It is notable that the M1, M2, M4 and M5 toll roads in Sydney all originally demonstrated great benefit to commuters with faster travel time. But the reality is that now each of these toll roads has a peak hour exceeding 10 hours per day; slow speed and uncertain travel time is the norm.

To address this situation, state and federal infrastructure agencies need to enshrine customer service benchmarks that govern lifetime performance of major assets and networks. Government and the private sector concession holders will then require a framework to sustain them together.

The Australian community expects globally competitive transit times during the peak hour. Using tolls to help fund transport infrastructure is reasonable but without service benchmarks commuters are not assured of value for money; a toll becomes just another tax.

Tolls and user charges are not a panacea without fundamental institutional reform. Infrastructure must perform a service to the community that is relevant and compelling in order to justify a user charge in the first place. This is one of the missing ingredients to a better infrastructure future for Australia.

Garry Bowditch is the CEO of UOW’s Smart Infrastructure Facility

A word in your ear: how audio storytelling got sexy

By Dr Siobhan McHugh

Woman listening to music

In a cultural milieu dominated by long-form television dramas such as Breaking Bad and Madmen, how has the apparently simple activity of audio storytelling gained such clout?

In the US, documentary radio programs such as RadioLab, This American Life and Radio Diaries enjoy sold-out stage shows telling real-life stories that combine serious journalism with compelling personal narratives, philosophical discourse and an irreverent but always engaging tone.

The “new wave” of US radio often features at the hugely popular Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago. Julie Shapiro, curator since the festival’s inception in 2000, told me once, when I interviewed her, that “there’s a whole perfect storm” happening to make audio storytelling sexy: podcasting, ease of digital recording and production, and use of social media to promote and disseminate stories.

Shapiro coined Third Coast’s key tenet: “important radio can sound beautiful”. Such a view was a radical antidote to the turgid, formulaic reportage that had infected much of US public radio, whereby “documentary” had become associated with “worthy”.

Movies for radio

The revolution gained traction in 1995 when the American radio personality Ira Glass co-founded This American Life, a one-hour narrative journalism show.

Glass refuses to use the term documentary:

because [it] sounds like it’s going to be boring. Heavy. Not entertaining. Even I hold my breath a little before tuning in to a documentary program, and I make documentaries for a living.

Glass’s “movies-for-radio” approach has been a spectacular success, with more than 2 million listeners a week for This American Life on more than 500 public radio stations in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany and the US, and a further million podcasts on iTunes.

RadioLab, another cult hit, also employs a three-act theatrical model with a tightly-scripted spontaneous feel. Much of its charm derives from the riffing between the urbane Robert Krulwich and the musically creative Jad Abumrad, who interact in micro-produced, fast-paced stories loosely related to science, culture and philosophy, crafted as finely layered slivers of voice and composed acoustic.

“They’re playful … they challenge how you’re used to hearing scientific topics, complicated things, talked about,” Shapiro told me. “But mostly it’s skill, chemistry and a little bit of magic, really.”

A recent RadioLab episode, Blame, features a deeply affecting tale about an elderly man, Hector, who develops a close relationship with the crack addict who raped and killed his daughter.

In print, Hector’s story would seem unbelievable, almost perverted. As television, we would be drawn to the differences in colour, age, background, of the grieving white father and the jailed black murderer: appearance trumping story.

As audio, Hector’s warmth is paramount:

I’m 86, almost 86 and a half: when you get as old as I am, you add the half again like you did when you were three.

As Hector tries to understand why his daughter died, writing letters to her killer, we listen, enthralled, as he reads both sides of an aching correspondence.

Driveway moments

Even film-makers allow that audio, being less intrusive, can elicit deeply revealing content that film cannot: for his recent film The Darkside, Indigenous director Warwick Thornton used audio recordings because, in his view, “as soon as you put a camera in front of people, they clam up”.

Besides facilitating the expression of deep emotion, audio engenders a visceral response in listeners, engaging both head and heart. This creates what radio producers call “driveway moments”, where listeners can’t leave their car because they’re so caught up in a story.

I’m told I caused one such moment when an Australian journalist, Jan Graham, described the awful intimacy of a GI’s last moments during the Vietnam war, in my documentary Minefields and Miniskirts.

When Jan’s story appeared in print, and even when the same words were spoken by a very good actor in a stage adaptation, they were vastly less moving than the raw and wrenching emotion captured on tape. You can judge for yourself here.

Collective listening

The Third Coast International Audio Festival boldly challenges the cultural dominance of movies by staging a Filmless festival, at which audiences gather just as in a cinema, for “screenings” of selected audio documentaries.

It’s a powerful experience, akin to the charge of a live concert. Filmless has spawned spin-off events: in the UK, the In the Dark movement presents “sonic delights” at museums, cinemas, and pubs, while In the Dark Australia sees audio devotees in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide gather in churches, gardens and other atmospheric venues for collective listening events.

The whimsical, compelling personal stories of the US “new wave” are attracting young listeners in Australia. ABC Radio National has a long tradition of innovative audio – auteurs such as Tony Barrell and Kaye Mortley were making radio “movies” when Ira Glass was still a radio rookie.

ABC RN is fostering a crossover zone between audio art and radio journalism via its new Creative Audio Unit, whose recent recruitment drive for producers who can work across “genres such as features, performance, music, documentaries” attracted 85 applicants for one job.

Despite its long-predicted demise, radio ain’t dead yet.
Siobhan McHugh is the founding editor of RadioDoc Review, the first international journal devoted to reviews of audio storytelling, which launches this week.

This post originally appeared on the Conversation blog on 12 December 2013.

On being an ‘ethnic killjoy’ in the Asian Century

Sydney recently played host to the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Festival of Overseas Indians)

Sydney recently played host to the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Festival of Overseas Indians)

By Dr Sukhmani Khorana

We are fortunate to have bipartisan political support for enhancing trade and cultural links with our region in the so-called Asian Century. But do we have similar consensus when dealing with those from Asia who have found a temporary or permanent home in Australia?

According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia is now home to nearly 2 million people of Asian origin. Moreover, they are on the brink of overtaking European-born migrants for the first time in the nation’s history. Also of significance is that this crop has been recruited largely from students and skilled migrants, thereby distinguishing them from previous “waves”.

Sydney recently played host to the first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Festival of Overseas Indians) in the Asia-Pacific region, and is also the city of choice for an Intercultural Film Festival that opened on November 14.

Despite these considerable steps, we remain a huge leap away from understanding and embracing the nuances of cultural diversity as a lived experience rather than as an exchange commodity, or a political token. Unless we attempt to get cultural diversity right in our own backyard, we cannot make the case for being a fruitful partner in our thriving region.

According to Australian cultural studies academic Sara Ahmed, a “feminist killjoy” (loosely speaking) is someone who openly declares war on patriarchal practices at the ostensibly peaceful site of the family dinner table. He/she seeks to expose the seemingly “happy housewife” as a fantasy figure who “erases the signs of labour under the sign of happiness”.

I wonder if, in the Australian multicultural context, we similarly mask symptoms of intra- and inter-community discord through the figure of the assimilated, working ethnic person who shares his/her exotic lunchbox at the workplace but has little say in the corporate boardroom.

I would like to put forth the notion of the “ethnic killjoy” – someone who unapologetically asks difficult questions about the diversity of fellow “ethics” and “non-ethnics” alike. Although there are countless associations representing specific ethic groups in Australia, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest they often represent narrow interests that come at the cost of solidarity and political action.

Such a finding was reported in the Australia India Institute report Beyond the Lost Decade in 2012. That report highlighted that the Indian diaspora in Australia tended to fly under the radar and was far from being as politically active as its counterpart in the US.

In response, I and some colleagues acted as bona fide “ethnic killjoys” by approaching the Institute to fund a symposium that brought critical, creative and community voices of this diaspora together on a single platform for the first time.

We were successful, and have hopefully set the stage for such difficult yet productive conversations to continue. Similar work is already being done by the Asian Australian Studies Research Network, which also has a formidable record of bridging intellectual and community concerns regarding diversity.

With the myriad ethnic community festivals now taking place in Australian capital cities, there has been a proportionate rise in state and federal politicians of all persuasions paying visits to such sites (such as the above-mentioned Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, which received the patronage of the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell).

This is no less than paying homage to the nation’s official National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia – especially in the face of recent European retreats from the same (such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel declaring that multiculturalism has failed.

But what if this agenda – which covers cultural identity, social justice and economic efficiency – doesn’t go far enough to ensure diversity? Is it possible to institutionalise people-to-people links that go beyond food and festivals?

How can this attempt at empathy (not just co-existence) extend to those trying to get to Australia to flee persecution?

Empathy and multiculturalism

Let’s rewind to Senator Bob Carr’s appearance at the Storyology conference in Sydney in August. In conversation with Fairfax journalist Peter Hartcher, the then Foreign Minister declared that his government’s revised stance on refugee arrivals by boat was just for all concerned.

We get 3000 people a month. It’s already 20% of the migrant intake. We won’t allow this number to be increased by people smugglers.

A lot of critics are extremely well meaning people but they fail to recognise that the recent spike in numbers is being contracted out to people smugglers.

Carr did not once allude to Australia’s commitment to the UNHCR Refugee Convention, which states that:

subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalised for their illegal entry or stay. This recognises that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules. Prohibited penalties might include being charged with immigration or criminal offences relating to the seeking of asylum, or being arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of seeking asylum. Importantly, the Convention contains various safeguards against the expulsion of refugees.

During the same interview, it was brought to light that the Minister planned to visit Vietnamese communities in Sydney’s west as part of his election campaigning duties. He did not dare to refer to this group as former “boat people”.

What would “ethnic killjoys” have asked of Senator Carr on the above occasion? Our questions entail open dialogue about the family violence issues faced by culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) women, the exploitation of overseas students and temporary visa holders by small business owners, and support for, and settlement of, refugees in a range of community settings, among others.

According to academic Jon Stratton, a number of non-white migrants entering Australia’s middle class are tending towards “honorary whiteness” (also known as “model minority” in the US context).

He argues this not only alienates asylum seekers (as the “bad migrants” who cannot adopt “our” values), but also means that the acceptance of middle-class migrants is conditional on them “acting white”.

Given this, most ethnic killjoys are aware their interventions are not going to make them popular with their own community, or with the political mainstream. But we feel compelled to bear the “burden of representation”, as articulated by Black British artist Kobena Mercer. It is the only way towards a multicultural Australia geared to empathy rather than tolerance.

This post originally appeared in the Conversation.


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