21 July 2012

Night Time Violence? Blame Alan Jones

As the world reels from yet another gun massacre in the US, many Australians are expressing their relief that apart from rare horrific exceptions, such tragedies don't happen here. Whether it's because of our gun laws - the stricter gun laws enacted in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre are about the only thing I'll give credit to John Howard for - or some other factor, we don't face random shootings in public places on a regular basis, and for that we can all be grateful.

It's hard to say that it's because we have a less violent culture than the US. With the funeral yesterday for Thomas Kelly, killed in a senseless act of unprovoked violence on his first visit to Kings Cross, there has been much discussion of alcohol- and drug- fuelled violence. Our streets aren't safe at night, the narrative runs; because of slack policing/an oversupply of venues serving alcohol/kids these days having no respect for authority, there's an epidemic of brawls, assaults and vandalism that springs forth every time the sun goes down.

And I'm sure all these factors play their part (I particularly like the latter, and may be the only lefty in Australia to toy with support for national service), but let's not ignore who is really to blame here.

Alan Jones.

Yep, him. Photo courtesy SMH.


Alan Jones, perhaps the most prominent of Australia's right-wing shock jocks, claims enormous influence despite his tiny audience; and one of the things he is influencing is a culture of violence. This is the man who helped incite the Cronulla riots with his endorsement of "Leb and Wog bashing day", to quote the words the man himself used on air; the man who said the Prime Minister and the Greens leader should be thrown in a sack and drowned; the man who just this week laughed heartily when one of his brainless callers opined that Ms Gillard's mother should have been slapped when her daughter was born. This man, who shapes community opinion, is spreading a message that working class white people are hard done by, and that violence is a fair tool to use to get what you want. Can we be surprised if his listeners - many of whom aren't so well educated - take the message on board, and out on to the streets? Let's be aware of whom the real enemy is here.

18 July 2012

Fair's Fair In School Funding

Conservatives claim to believe in equality. I'm sure they honestly think they do; it's just that they seem a little confused about what "equality" actually means. To them, it means literally providing the same opportunities to everyone. Take the issue of school funding.

Conservatives see nothing wrong with the government giving money to already wealthy private schools (not all private schools are wealthy, but the wealthy schools get their share of the booty). To them, the government providing annual funding of, say, $20,000 per student - whether that student attends The Kings School or Walgett Primary - is completely fair and equitable, because everyone's getting the same. It's so far from the truth.

The idea of equity is to redress the balance. Within reason, all kids should have the same opportunities to do well at school. The problem with funding every school child at the same level is that some kids start life at a huge disadvantage; they need more - more funding, more time, more support - to even begin to reach the same level. Where parents can't provide this, we as a society have to step in.

In most cases, a child who attends a private school - or even a primary school in a higher socio-economic area, where parental fundraising and involvement are valued - is at a huge advantage. They have parents who care enough about their education to pay for it, or at least help with homework, read books to their child, take them on outings, role model positive behaviours in going to work. For many disadvantaged children, they have none of those things. They might be growing up in a house where no one works; a house without books; a house without enough to eat. Think this only happens in a few rare circumstances?

The point is often made that parents who send their kids to private school are often not rich and shouldn't be penalised for spending their own money on a better education. But it's not penalising anyone to give a bit more to those who started out with less. No one has to send their children to private school. Some make the choice to do so because of religion, but most do so because private schools are better resourced. DH and I aren't rich and if we continue with our current careers, never will be. But BabyG has begun his life with a lot of privilege; the privilege of a white skin, the advantage of university educated parents, a house full of books, museum trips, outings. And we are planning on sending him to a private school. I believe the public education system needs to be far better resourced; but until it is, I'm not making my child a martyr to my ideals. He'll have wonderful opportunities; language immersion, science labs, medieval sword fighting is offered as a school sport.

Five minutes walk away from our intended school is a youth centre which does wonderful work with the area's children (inner city Sydney has areas of wealth and disadvantage in sometimes uneasy proximity). There are kids who attend who come from families where no one has worked in three generations; kids told at six years old if they don't shoplift the food, they'll get no tea tonight; kids told to stop wasting time at that bloody school anyway.

So. If the government is handing out this hypothetical $20,000 per head, who needs it more - their school or ours? Our school fees already cover the teachers and buildings. Our kids arrive at school usually already able to read and with homework help at home so they need less intensive classroom support. What should we spend our increased funding on - new grand piano for the orchestra perhaps? More swords?

Or perhaps they should take our share of the money and give it to the disadvantaged school. Hire an extra teacher's aide to help kids from families where no one can read. Extra books for the library cause they don't have any at home. Hiring the best teachers who can inspire a passion for education that will change these kids' lives. Hiring youth workers to work at schools to identify potential behavioural problems before they escalate, and put families in touch with support services. I think I want them to have our $20,000 instead.

We often bemoan families with generational unemployment, but the conservative approach is to remove benefits from the long term unemployed. By then it's often too late. We need to do more, start earlier, by redressing inequality from early childhood. Giving the same to every child fails to acknowledge that there are some kids who start life with a hell of a lot less, and they need to be given more, to even approach a sense of fair. It's much cheaper to provide services when a child is in primary school than to lock them up as an adult. Wouldn't we all prefer that the kid from the disadvantaged home was given the opportunity to grow up to repair cars rather than breaking in to them?

What's equal is not always what's fair. Failure to acknowledge this is letting us down as a nation, and it's a failure of social justice.

05 July 2012

Novocastrians: Just A Little Bit Different

Let me just say right now, I love living in Newcastle. Love love love it. I love getting anywhere in twenty minutes, love walking from Nobbys to Newcastle beach, love the lack of pretension, love the awesome community I've slipped into. That said, there are some things I've noticed about Novocastrians and there ways that are just a little...different. I didn't really notice when I lived here before - it was just how things were, I knew nothing else - but after five years in inner Sydney, the cultural differences stand out, and they can be a little jarring.

Mind Your Ps and Qs
In Sydney, with thousands of people wanting to be everywhere at once, queuing is grudgingly accepted as a fact of life. Not here. Unused to it, Novocastrians can't, don't, won't queue up for anything. Witness three people approaching an ATM at once. Rather than forming a queue based on rough order of arrival, people will approach, stop at an oblique angle to the machine, and stare at a fixed spot in middle distance until the thing becomes available, then the "alpha" of the waitees will surge forth to use it. At a supermarket with two rows of self-check machines, rather than a single queue, people formed vague huddles, dissolving into some tension and anger whenever a checkout became available. These people would be eaten alive at Wynyard Station.

Sorry, We're Closed
In the inner city, due to high rents restaurants are more or less forced to be open upwards of ten hours a day to try to cover the rent. It's nice, though, to be able to get a bowl of noodles at 3pm. So it was with some shock my first week back to enter a cafe at 2:15pm and be told they couldn't give me any food and they were closing soon anyway. Ah yes. Here in Newcastle we like our beer cold, our team winning, and our retail establishments closed. I know it's unrealistic to expect to be able to get a haircut at 7pm on a Sunday, but it's still a jolt to remember that pretty much any business outside of a major shopping centre is closed all or nearly all weekend, let alone to reacquaint yourself with that delightful custom of restaurants and cafes closing between 2pm and 5:30pm. DH in particular is struggling, weeping bitter tears for all the poor souls unable to obtain coffee and a panini mid-afternoon. But it gets worse. Having completed a hike around the Bathers Way (a little slice of heaven on earth, but tiring), we hankered after some French toast at a recently opened French themed cafe. It was 11:45am, and they told us they were closed at that time, but reopened in fifteen minutes for lunch. Shutting in the afternoon is one thing, but closing between breakfast and lunch? Far canal. The concept of all day breakfast is one that is yet to catch on as much as it should too.

On The Bus
Newcastle has absolutely zero culture of public transport use. Public transport is seen as a last resort for the indigent and hopeless; in my previous time here, I was standing at the bus stop in Charlestown dressed nicely for work (I didn't make a habit of it, but big boss was coming up from Melbourne) and a suited man asked me if I'd lost my licence too. Job ads routinely specify a driver's licence is required whether or not the position actually requires it; it's seen that if you don't have a car, there's something wrong with you. I have acquaintances who boast they haven't set foot on public transport since they got their provisional licence; knew a couple who lived within the fare-free zone but would drive to the beach, then bitch about finding and paying for parking. It's a little depressing. People sometimes defend this by saying "but public transport is much better in Sydney". Is it true, though? When we lived in Marrickville, our transport options were 1. Walk twenty minutes to the station (and it was uphill on the way there and uphill on the way back...there was a crest in the middle) or 2. Risk the notorious 423, which, whilst being due every 15 minutes, would often see you waiting for 50, then three would turn up at once; I used to wonder if it had ever occurred that all the 423s ended up clumped in a single convoy of buses traversing the inner west. It's true I often feel a little unsafe on public transport, largely because the only people believed to use it are in fact the only people to use it; it was nice on a recent trip back to be on a train at 11am with people who didn't look like they'd benefit from swift institutionalisation. But from here, there are buses into town every ten minutes or so on weekdays; and one of the buses is a celebrity. The options are there; people just refuse to use them.

There's more too - Novocastrians' astonishing parochialism, the food (that was a very nice salad roll, but it was not a banh mi), the facts that everyone smokes, and I'm told changing lanes also escapes people - but I'll leave it for today. It's lunch time, and I need to go get something to eat before everything closes.