The tropical garden around our house in Fiji has been all but blown off the face of the earth. Mangoes, coconut palms and banana trees are smashed and the conflagration-bright foliage of a spreading flame tree that rose over smaller shrubs like a colossal static fireball has been carried far out into the Pacific, the tree itself reduced to a trunk and a few bare branches, jagged and splintered. The house is intact, apart from three broken windows, and in that we are more fortunate than hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in this cyclone-devastated country. Most of these people are poor, in a way that I think even the poorest in Australia would find hard to imagine. Heaven knows how they manage at the best of times, let alone when their shacks of corrugated iron and fibro cement are flattened or roofless.

At least the relief work is under way, the power is back on after three days and the water supply restored - for those who have running water, which not many of the Fijian poor do. To be reminded of poverty at Christmas is probably salutary, except for those who have to endure it, at Christmas and on every other day of the year. Lord, we are lucky in Australia: why do we never seem to realise it? Why do we - why do I - complain so?

No more posts now until the new year. Thank you to all who have followed Argus in 2012.

23 December 2012


Bishop Owen Featherhead, retired Bishop of Burchett Hill, has suggested that the date of Christmas be changed to "make the festival more relevant to ordinary Australians."

Bishop Featherhead said that "an ideal new date" for Christmas would be 26 April, "which is also of course the birthday of Mahomet."

"Would it not be a lovely idea," he writes in the Burchett Hill Anglican, "and one expressive of our ecumenical commitment to all people of goodwill, if the birth dates of the founders of our two great religions were twinned into one festival in which all who look with faith at the Stable in Bethlehem and, er, wherever the Great Prophet was born could share their yuletide joy?"

Bishop Featherhead said that the calendar fixing Christmas Day on 25 December was "an artificial Western construct which rightly gives offence to many of our sisters and brothers of different faith traditions. To do away with it," he said, "would be a huge step forward in building that fraternal sisterhood of humankind which is the purpose of all true religion."

Bishop Featherhead said that moving Christmas to April, when the weather is cooler, would also "eliminate the anomaly of Australians trying to enjoy traditional Christmas festivities, such as eating roast goose and listening for the sound of sleigh bells in the snow, when it's a hundred, I mean thirty-seven, in the shade." He continued: "I admit it is unlikely we would get snow in April, but hail or autumn mist would be a not unacceptable substitute, and I cannot be alone in thinking that the Christmas ham - well not ham of course if we are celebrating a joint Christmas and Mahometmass - would taste no sweeter at that time of year."

Historically, said Bishop Featherhead, combining the Christian and Muslim festivals was "peeling away centuries of colonialist accretions and going back to the root of things." He said that "viewed from that angle, the births of our two bundles of joy were not that different in circumstance. True, Mahomet was the child of a wealthy family and Our Other Saviour a victim of deprived economic circumstances, but in both cases there are accounts of signs and portents, a traditional indication of divine intervention in human events."

A further advantage of moving Christmas to 26 April, the Bishop writes, is that it would be "a healthy corrective to the militaristic excesses" of Anzac Day. "We are constantly reminded by our leading thinkers in the media and academe that Anzac Day has degenerated into - indeed always was - an excuse for glorifying war and celebrating the worst aspects of masculinity. To follow it next day with a festival of peace and goodwill, kindness and consideration - all the feminine virtues - could be nothing but beneficial."

As to the prospects of extending a joint Christian and Muslim festival to the third "religion of the Book", the Bishop admits he is pessimistic. "It is unfortunate," he concludes, "that we would be unable to invite members of the Jewish faith to join us in our ecumenical celebrations, but to do so - apart from their having no bonny baby whose birth to celebrate - would be to seem to sanction murderous Israeli aggression against the displaced people of Syria and Transjordan and that would not accord with the preaching of a religion founded on love."

21 December 2012


If we think we're one of the world's more important nations, not everyone would seem to agree.

"The Vatican has announced the appointment of an Englishman, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, previously apostolic nuncio in Guatemala, as apostolic nuncio in Australia."

Guatemala? Is it a promotion or a demotion? Still, it could have been worse. He might have come to us from New Zealand.

13 December 2012


Dr Gwen Witchetty, the outspoken Professor of Native Title at Burchett Hill's Manning Clark University, has slammed the Gillard government's $4.5 million-a-year Chief Commissar for Climate Change Enforcement, Professor Tim Fruitbat, for his comments on Aboriginal custodianship of the environment, describing him as a "fascist-racist who makes Hitler seem like a fairy godmother."

Dr Witchetty made her comments while delivering the first of this year's Finkelstein Lectures on ABC Radio. She said that although she was not in favour of censorship, Professor Fruitbat should be "locked up for life" adding that, in a more enlightened society, "he would be speared and have his tongue cut out."

The Finkelstein Lecturer, whose appointment to the prestigious chair at Manning Clark three years ago was hailed as a landmark in Aboriginal attempts to "break through the wattle-and-daub ceiling" of promotion in public life, had taken exception to Professor Fruitbat's comments in an interview with The Leftie that Aboriginal people "could not be trusted" to look after "our natural heritage of flora and fauna".

"Wherever they went they destroyed protected native species such as goannas, crocodiles, wallabies and honey ants," Fruitbat told the magazine in an interview with its proprietor, property developer Izzy Schonkhaus. "They decimated protected native plants and grasses - baobabs to make canoes, eucalypts to build gunyahs and spinifex to do heaven knows what with. Even our very national emblem, the golden wattle, was ruthlessly harvested for its seeds. The fact that any species was protected by environmental law meant nothing to them."

In her lecture, Professor Witchetty said Fruitbat's chronology was "utterly defective" and he "should go back to his abacus". "Australia's first peoples," she said, "had their own environmental protection procedures in place." The problem was that these had been "blown out of the water" by the arrival in this country of "bog Irish and other Europeans like Fruitbat's ancestors."

She said the fact that Australia's "time-old landscape and its mystic denizens had survived for millions of years before the Fruitbats of this world turned up to ruin it proved that Aboriginal people were expert in enforcing environmental protection", and indeed should be "reinstated in that role, at a commensurate emolument, by government today."

Asked later by ABC News about Dr Witchetty's criticisms of his comments, the climate-change guru was unabashed. "What would she know?" he laughed. "She's just a silly old gin promoted above her intellectual station." However he later apologised for "any suggestion of misogyny" in the use of the term "gin" and issued a statement pointing out that what he "had really meant to say", was "bat".

ABC director of news and current affairs Gordon Flowerchild said it was "wonderful to see the cut and thrust of genuine high-IQ professorial debate" arising from an ABC programme. He said that the fact that both sides had been extensively quoted on air "demonstrates once and for all the ABC's commitment to balance" and showed that right-wing accusations of bias were "way off mark".

11 December 2012


Readers who care about fine architecture will be pleased to know that the sale of St Alban's Armadale (see "Architecture for Sale", Argus, 30 October 2012 and subsequent updates) will not after all lead to any kind of destructive redevelopment. I understand the Coptic Orthodox Church has bought St Alban's. This is excellent news. The new owners will maintain and respect the structure, especially the noble interior, and continue to use the church for the purpose for which it was built.

5 December 2012


I came across some lines by Longfellow I remember my mother singing in the kitchen, a song learnt in her schooldays at University High in Melbourne in the late 1920s. They seem to me to illuminate some of the changes in our society since then.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints that, perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Inspiring though they were considered in the past, if anyone suggested singing those words in a school, or anywhere, today, imagine the objections. Patriarchal language - men, brother. Elitism - great. Discredited top-down history - lives of great men all remind us. Judgmentalism towards diverse lifestyles - forlorn and shipwrecked brother. How can we know that the brother's lifestyle is not an alternative one with which he is perfectly content, and is merely perceived as forlorn and shipwrecked by those blinded by bourgeois notions of success? Sexism - why shouldn't the brother be a sister, or transgender? Seeing? Well, there are other ways of apprehending and "seeing" might just be a bit inappropriate towards the visually impaired. Take heart? [S]he doesn't need to take heart, whatever that means, just to have her/his human rights recognised, to be affirmed as a person and to have a suitable recompense paid for the disadvantages inflicted by "society" in the course of shipwrecking her/him.

As for footprints on the sands of time, well, we'd be told, we've had quite enough of those, thank you, in the form both of the culturally genocidal footprints of colonisers and imperialists the world over and the carbon sort we selfishly leave today. What we want today is fewer footprints, not the encouragement to leave more. If Longfellow were writing today he'd be instructed, at the risk of losing an arts grant, to put some lines together not about our egotistically aspiring to make our own lives sublime, but exhorting us to devote our efforts to restoring to the planet the sublimity it had before all those "great men" came along and with their discoveries and inventions mucked it up.

5 December 2012