Meanwhile in Australia

Right now I want to write about politics and bushfires. Both are very bad in Australia. The thing is, I live in the national capital and there is smoke in the air. That makes politics and bushfires my everyday. A bit less everyday but still important is that recently more evidence has been found regarding the Killing Times and how brutal European settlers could be.

I don’t want to talk about those things here and now. I will talk about them, but not when everything is so dark. I wanted to give you another light post, but my mind is delving into the darkness and trying to work out how, culturally, we are changing because life is, to put it simply, not easy for many of us.

How do Australians handle the bleakness of the present? Some deal with it by not looking or by saying “It wasn’t me, I wasn’t there.” Some claim that this is all well and truly earned, as Israel Folau said just this week that people bring evil upon themselves by not being his particular brand of Christians. These views make things worse. They make brightness fade from the horizon.

I’ve had an increasing number of encounters with episodes that make things worse at a personal level, both locally and recently. They leave a trail of hate in their wake. The most common version is “Don’t talk to this person, they’re [insert background] here” resulting in isolation for many who are left out of social groups or information loops. That’s the clearest instance. Don’t talk to people, don’t help them, don’t reach out to them in any way because their difference is not suitable for this or that environment.

I encounter it on a regular basis, being from a cultural minority and being disabled and being a woman over 50, all things that are red flags in Australia. This weekend I had two small encounters, the week before three and the week before that… ten. I want to talk about them, but I don’t want to return what was done to me to those who did it. This is a set of social habits that people fall into, and that become custom. Most of the people are not vengeful or nasty, but they’re copying influencers who might be. It becomes ingrained the way some kinds of gossip are. Australians are talkers, so it’s easy to add an extra layer to the conversations.

This has been going on for a while: I wrote it into an SF novel because otherwise it would have been impossible for me to deal with. The Year of the Fruit Cake will give you examples and how it operates at the individual level if you’re curious about this aspect. And it means I don’t have to contribute to the poisoning by enabling anyone to identify those who hurt me. This isn’t about me being hurt, anyway. It’s about what is happening in Australia. I just happen to be in a position to see that aspect.

The bottom line is that, when people from fringe elements in society are treated badly, there are seldom ways for them to sit down and talk and find out if they’ve done something wrong and fix it. Nor are there many ways for others to find out that it was never anything the person had done, and that it was about… well, I’ll get to that. Those at whom these little comments and equivalent acts are directed are simply thrust out of a social system or a workplace.

I’ve talked to a lot of Australians about this and read a lot of personal stories, and there is a pattern. Those who have been accused of things behind their backs and not given any explanation for being left out or ignored or other people being told “This person is bad” are mostly likely to be from minority cultures or religions, to be rainbow, or to have disabilities.

Those who send others away for being different to themselves (and this is more guessing and less from personal knowledge – it’s the other side I know best) are likely to want to ensure that their environment doesn’t contain people who make them feel uncomfortable. They are expressing their own vulnerability.

This is not new in Australia, but it’s never been this persistent or this nasty. There are other ways of not seeing people one doesn’t like. Poisoning the environment around oneself poisons the whole community. “I am allowed to be safe,” say many Australians, “And so I’m going to poison your waterways to make me feel better.” A bit like our natural environment and our handling of it, in fact.

These small incidents – nasty, but only relating to the lives of individuals – build up into management styles that can hurt a lot of people. When the human values are dropped, in other words, society feels the consequences.

My example of consequences is personal. Fifty-one casual academics were recently sacked from a major university. Sackings are par for the course, but this time, the university didn’t tell the staff they were losing their jobs or what that entailed. No farewell letters or cups of teas, and certainly no “We’re sorry.” They were told they were losing their email addresses.

When I asked about it, I was told that it wasn’t a job loss, but a move to contractual status. Except that no contracts have been negotiated, and no meetings have been called. There is no work.

How was this possible? Because casual workers are at the fringe of the workforce. They are remnants of the culture that we’re losing as we move into a gig economy. In fact, getting rid of casual academics in this university may have been supposed to shift things towards a gig economy. This was done without the basic components of that economy that make it operate for those contracted (longer contracts, actual paid work). The casual academics were vulnerable, and the toxic environment Canberra has been in for a while began by the targeting of individuals.

I wrote about this in a novel, Ms Cellophane – that’s when I isolated that factor. Since then, it has escalated into a culture that pushes many people on the fringe into places where they cannot get help. I only know about the work of this particular university because I’m one of the 51 staff members. Twenty-one years as a casual academic were finished in a form email about the loss of email services.

Each event, small or big is due to a combination of factors, but they add up to a toxic environment left by the mistrust that this poor dealing with problems leads to. This is the fabric that ties the big problems together and produces an Australia that I used to think was new. It’s not. That’s a different story.

It operates on the ‘people like us’ system. And it’s not solely Australian: I’m observing it in Australia right now. I’m still watching Korean dramas and a lot of the play is finding ‘people like us’ so that individuals can find some happiness and security in life. “People like us” is safe for some folks, but it can push society into a downward spiral. We want the cheerful, welcoming and somewhat brash Australia most people know. Instead we’re creating a hierarchical and dangerous country.

This is a choice Australia is currently making. It’s like climate change – it can be ignored and all the results accepted as long term, or it can be dealt with directly. It’s going to be really interesting to watch what choices individual Australians make about their lives and who they allow into them.

What’s very odd is that most Australians don’t know they’re making these choices. This is emerging from stuff that’s been deeply embedded in our culture for a long time and is just now showing its fullness.

I don’t know what Australia will become because I don’t know what choices we will all make as individuals, but I do know that the bad policies regarding climate change and drought management and refugee policy and a huge range of other things come from our changing the everyday way we treat other human beings. It affects our political decisions and our capacity to listen to the views of others.  It’s strange to see the world around me revolving around personal ethics. It’s like a DNA helix, with each decision made by one of us about other people spiralling into how Australia itself operates and what its future is.

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Meanwhile in Australia — 2 Comments

  1. Gillian, I feel for you in all you discuss here! And as for the masked firing of 51 instructors (what we call in the U.S. “adjunct faculty” or “non-tenure track”), that is outrageous. I was adjunct faculty for 12 years at the university here, so I fully understand the treatment as lower-class, even though the system depends on us laboring mightily to help our students. But I’ve never seen that level of callousness that you have now experienced. Hang in there!!

    • Thank you! I was lucky – because of my academic specialisations I had a 3 months contract at another university the very day my employment disappeared. They’ve given me library access until January, which means I can finish my current research. To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only one of the 51 to be so fortunate.

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