Sunday, May 27, 2012

A psephy aside: #SoO and my internal contradictions

The State of Origin...and the hope for a Kantian society

This is a post about football. It is specifically about that code of football followed mainly in Queensland and New South Wales, rugby league.  You might choose to divert to another post now, or you might like to hang around as I wrestle with the internal contradiction that is my football following…

It is, of course, State of Origin time in Queensland and New South Wales, and Victoria apparently. I really don’t get that bit. Now, #SoO on Twitter is a fascinating experience. It’s quite polarising actually. There are tweeps who love it, tweeps who hate it and I cop it in double doses because I like rugby league and follow Manly Warringah, the Sea Eagles. (Note to AFL fans who’ve come this far, that’s the equivalent of being a Collingwood supporter.) I’m moved to pen a note about football because my friendly tweeples and regular compelling bloggers, Susan Hetherington and Sally Piracha both posted their very readable comments on the sport. I actually agreed with their sentiments but still like my football. Thus this is a post from the sidelines from someone who wrestles with this internal contradiction, at this time of year, on a daily basis.

You see, I grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches: Harbord, South Curl Curl, in the shadows of the goalposts of Brookvale Oval. Note that the ‘northern beaches’ are quite distinct from the ‘North Shore’. North Shore people were wealthier and preferred rugby union, a different code, and not to be confused with Manly supporters. Yes, Manly was nicknamed the ‘silvertails’ in the 1970s, by then Western Suburbs coach Roy Masters, just to get a bit of spite going in the games, especially against the ‘fibros. Class war as false consciousness really, it was just footy for the rest of us. (For those interested, I can recommend the Paul Oliver documentary The Fibros and the Silvertails c. 2007/8)

Growing up with three brothers and two male cousins, three-a-side backyard footy (and cricket in summer) was obligatory. Since I was the oldest in the group, I was always captain and pretended to be Graham Eadie, star fullback for Manly and Australia in the 1970-80s. From about the age of nine I had every expectation I would one day play for the Kangaroos—then I learned about things ‘girls can’t do’. Saturday arvos were always about going to Brookie Oval for the home games, cheering and booing (the other team), quite cathartic at the end of a tough (school) week. The other games, I would sit and watch on telly with my Nan. Yep, that makes me third-gen Manly supporter. I collected the footy cards that came with two sticks of pink gum…swapping cards at Harbord Public School was always a novelty as we treasured our Eadie, Fulton and Krilich cards and wondered what to do with the other teams’ players.

There was something there about ‘community’ too, and the great sense one gets from that. I recall the Manly Corso festooned in maroon and white in 1972 and 1973 as we headed towards premiership glory. It was the semi-professional era; players were paid, but nothing like the enormous sums they earn today. They were part of the community with their regular jobs with footy on the weekend—every thing had its place, and there was a time and place for everything.

My win-win jumper
In 1980, at the time of the inaugural State of Origin game (originally intended as a one-off ‘experiment’) we’d been living in Queensland for seven years. After watching the Queensland rep team getting thrashed for many years, a decision was made to allow Sydney-based Queensland players represent Queensland. It was a great idea. As it happened, early on a number of Manly players got to play for Queensland, and since the colours for both teams were the same (maroon and white) I was comfortable with that. I’ve mostly followed Queensland for that reason—sometimes I’ve opted for the team with more Manly players, but overall, I just have a greater affinity for the passion with which the Queensland side play. I wear what I call my ‘win-win’ jumper, a 1957 replica—if Queensland wins, then I’m wearing the right colours; if NSW wins, well, I’m wearing my birthright—the perfect politician’s jumper in fact. In the end though, I just hope for a good game of footy, all round.

I love my footy, but I’m not a fanatic. As a footy old-timer, I have lamented the hyper-professionalisation of the sport and the elevation of young, immature men to demi-god untouchable status over the years. And herein lies my internal contradiction and where I share my points of agreement with my fellow bloggers @snoozen and @SalPiracha. There is a degree of ‘nastiness’ which comes with football these days, a lot of unnecessary aggression between those who follow and those who don’t. It has gone well beyond the friendly banter which passed for rivalry in years past. So much money now is at stake that, yes, dare I say it, the huge sums of money have changed the character of the game. It is characteristic of other aspects of our society where aggression has become the norm as we lose that sense of the collective good and strike out for personal aggrandisement. I’d like to see the players receive less money in their playing years (perhaps put in a trust until retirement) and have them also work—just to keep things in perspective.

I hang on to my footy, and my test cricket for that matter (though that too, is at times sorely tested), because I hold to a nostalgia of times past…perhaps. When football teams sought out American football clubs as their financial models (yes, you John Ribot and the emergent Brisbane Broncos c. 1987) I started to doubt my reasons for following. When SuperLeague and Mr R Murdoch came along and ripped our game apart, I really wondered if I could follow a confected franchise of Central Coast Sea Beagles…actually, I couldn’t and was lost to the game for a couple of seasons.

My friends and colleagues do find my fandom at odds with everything else I do. I checked the football score during interval at a symphony orchestra concert recently, much to the chagrin of my fellow classical music aficionados. Geraldine Doogue once declared on her program that AFL had a greater following of intellectuals than rugby league…I kinda took offence at that. I’m no intellectual by any means, but people with university degrees can surely enjoy their footy too. Indeed, one of my ‘books I must write before I die’ is in fact an exploration of notions of trust and loyalty in football—a Kantian exploration of the 13-a-side game…State of Origin, if we reflect on it briefly, emerged out of a sense of addressing a little bit of unfairness on the football field. 

So I agree with Susan and Sally. It doesn’t bother me one bit that most people couldn’t give a toss about #SoO. I will defend to the death (well, figuratively speaking) people’s right to dislike football, as well as people’s right to enjoy it for what it can be. I won’t however tolerate an unnecessary and mean aggression over a simple bloody game—it reflects poorly on our society at large, and it’s not the sort of society I want to leave behind.

As I complete this post, Manly have just gone down to Penrith 22-4. Bummer. But there’s always next week, we fans stick through the good times, the bad times and the somewhat unexpected. #GoManly #GoMaroons. 

And if you're not already following @snoozen and @SalPiracha, then I recommend you do. They are good members of my 'blogs to be read' list. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tit-for-tat politics…it’s not the kindy sandpit people.

To govern is a privilege bestowed upon a few by all of us.

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87) Preface, A vii

Readers of this blog will know I’m mostly Kantian in my outlook. A flawed genius perhaps, (er, that would be Kant, not me) but starting with his ‘Perpetual Peace’ some years ago, I have come to appreciate through his words that we can, if we so choose, make the world a better place. Sometimes though, one gets the sense that it gets all a little too Machiavellian, that other philosopher people like to quote when politics gets a little, well, brutal. Actually, in his adjectival form, Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527, Florentine philosopher, among other things) is often ‘misremembered’. But that is subject of a future post…

Machiavelli is probably best known for The Prince a political treatise he wrote c. 1513. In our modern vernacular the expression ‘whatever it takes’ probably best represents the treatise’s main message. Not surprisingly, Whatever it Takes was the title of the memoirs penned by former ALP senator Graham Richardson. It’s symptomatic of modern politics it seems, and somewhat prescient… I often say to students that we each draw a line in the sand, the line we daren’t cross in order to get what we want. ‘Where is your line’ I might ask them, ‘and do you hold the line, or do you keep redrawing it?’ It makes for challenging classroom discussion at times.

There is much about our recent politics here in Queensland, and elsewhere, that makes me wish we could just all sit down and read the classics. Much of what confronts us has been subject to musings and ponderings for centuries. Now that says two things to me: one, perhaps we might have advanced somewhat if we’d paid more attention along the way; and two, think where we might be if we learned lessons from our forebears.

In chapter 22, Machiavelli (in translation) posits that ‘the first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him [sic]’. We all probably know this at some level, and no doubt thoughts might turn to our respective workplaces… He goes on to say that ‘there are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehended; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless’. That’s a non-partisan observation from me, by the way, a gentle warning to all who would aspire to public office.

There is an interesting pattern developing in the new Queensland government in its early days. We’ve had headline grabbing cuts and savings of a populist, petty and mean kind (yes, sometimes all three at once) countered almost immediately by a counterpoint which belies a mature, institutional polity. While parallels have been made with the government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, I think it is actually more serious. There’s a real sandpit mentality in George Street at the moment and neither side is really behaving appropriately. Every new government believes it has a right to expend its political capital or its ‘mandate’ from the people. And up to a point, that is true. However, a government that does so by steamrolling institutional conventions can only in the end further lose the tenuous trust of the people who put it there.

In just the last few weeks we’ve seen:

v The dropping of the Premier’s Literary Award at the same time as two ‘friends’ of the LNP were installed as directors-general by the Premier.
v Government-funded corporate boxes at sporting arenas cut but in an ‘unrelated action’, former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello was given a consultancy to review the previous government’s budgetary position.
v The members of the Opposition were cast out of Parliament to a building elsewhere (so that the offices could be refurbished for use as committee rooms), but then,
v the Premier declared, just after the government was sworn in, that he would get legislation through without bothering with committees because ‘that’s what the voters wanted’…that good old ‘can-do’ approach.
v There was a particularly spiteful moment when Premier Campbell Newman denied his predecessor Anna Bligh a couple of months grace to tie up post-premier matters. (Now, I acknowledge I clearly lost the public argument about this one. But people’s anger and frustration was directed at Anna Bligh the person—she should pay, she doesn’t deserve it, she’s on a huge pension and so on. Granted, I too was disappointed when she quit so quickly and thus broke the trust of her electorate, and I have elsewhere argued that politicians have an obligation to stay the course, win, lose or go to the backbench. But, there is a respect for the office here we need to uphold for if we don’t, what do we have left?)
v The perceptions surrounding the events at Musgrave Park last week—the pre-dawn assembly of 200 police officers to move on an Aboriginal Tent Embassy on Indigenous land in West End—will be emblematic of the early stumblings of this new Government.
v The news on Friday morning last, that the Premier aimed to save $100m through cutting tea & coffee, indoor plants and air travel for public servants, somewhat chuckleworthy for the day as we lamented the end of powdery instant coffee…but by the end of the day, we had the announcement that all members of parliament would be getting more than the standard backbencher's salary because of extra duties undertaken in the course of their work. Yeah, right, that’ll make the public servants, on whose advice many of our parliamentary novices will have to rely, happy.

For now, Campbell Newman is basking in the landslide win and taking full advantage of whatever he has determined is his ‘mandate’. Most of the people who voted for him are probably quite happy at the way things are going, for now.  The only people opposing these actions are those of the ‘left’, a constituency the government can afford to ignore, even annoy, for now. But government, in its broadest sense, is for the long term, not ‘for now’, not just for three years. It is incumbent upon the incumbents to leave the polity in a better state than when they were elected. Now, our political leaders haven’t done a marvellous job of that of late, but we have a role too. As Machiavelli spoke of his prince:

I must not fail to warn a prince, who by means of secret favours has acquired a new state, that he must well consider the reasons which induced those to favour him to do so; and if it be not a natural affection towards him, but only discontent with their government, then he will only keep them friendly with great trouble and difficulty, for it will be impossible to satisfy them. And weighing well the reasons for this in those examples which can be taken from ancient and modern affairs, we shall find that it is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and who are therefore his enemies, than those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encourage him to seize it.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Ch. 20.

[At this rate, next week’s lesson might be inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.]

Monday, May 7, 2012

Mayday, mayday: Is May Day relevant?

Yes, I marched today: Labour Day 2012.

The worth of a State in the long run, is the worth of individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to little more of administrative skill or that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of a business; a State, which dwarfs its men [and women], in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men [and women] no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.
JS Mill, On Liberty, (Ch 5, Applications), 1859 [with some amendments]

Under blue autumn skies

 Today, under a spectacular sunny sky, I joined with thousands of friends,   colleagues and comrades to march through the streets of Brisbane to celebrate, to commemorate, to join in acknowledging the worker struggles of previous generations. Those struggles that meant fighting for the eight-hour working day—the 8 x 3 split of eight hours work, eight hours leisure, eight hours sleep. Yes, me who averages 11 hours in the office/classroom a day, three hours travel per day, a couple of hours work at home and an average of five hours sleep a weeknight. It really is a kind of back to the future, except the job now comes with superannuation, leave and mechanisms in place to try to negotiate a fair and just workplace.

Sharing stories over lunch

I don’t come from the sort of family background that fostered unionism. When I signed on to my first proper paid job, at Woolworths in 1980, signing on with the Shop Assistants’ Union was mandatory—no ticket, no job sort of thing. I did, because I needed the job to see me through school and uni studies. I didn’t really understand the significance of it then—that time-and-a-half pay that came when I worked on a Saturday or public holiday, that I got overtime, that we were to have a ten minute break every four hours, that as a ‘check-out chick’ I also got a separate staffer to pack the groceries—none of this at the time occurred to me as hard-won conditions. It was just a job.

I worked here and overseas subsequently and didn’t have involvement with unions for a while, until I returned to university more or less permanently in 1999. For a sector that was once secure (seemingly) there was increasingly casualisation back then (an intensification of a problem I’d had in the mid-1990s) and so, as part of a group of strong and committed members in my department, I became a union member again and see it now as a part of my engagement in the polity…upholding my end of the ‘social contract’.

And so, that is why I marched today. Yes, there is a sense that unions are on the wane, that they are mere puffballs in the neo-liberal reality. But there is a grand sense of the ‘collective’—collective good, collective power, collective strength. We are people not afraid to stand up and say we can’t make an economy out of individual self-interest, but we can make a society that is just and fair when we stand together. We each have strengths and weaknesses that we bring to our world. When we share rather than compete, we can make the world a better place.

Idealistic? Perhaps. But when I look back on political history and remember the suffragettes who struggled for the right for women to vote, and our union forebears who believed we could make the world work on an eight hour day, then I think we can continue their legacy.

A beautiful end to the day
On a day like today too, I join others in Brisbane—people in a wide range of unions, blue collar, white collar, professional and so on—people I probably wouldn’t otherwise meet (though I might teach their children) with whom I can have a chat over a drink and appreciate that sense of solidarity.

We get blamed for a lot when things don’t go as people wish in the workplace, but we also uphold a rich heritage and a legacy which is worth marching for.

Solidarity…forever…for the Union makes us strong.

*I am a member of the NTEU—the National Tertiary Education Union. I am branch president and so a state and national councillor. These views are mine, as are the photos.

Education—an institution, or more than that?

What are we learning, and why?

‘Much trouble, we are told, is taken to teach young princes the art of reigning; but their education seems to do them no good. It would be better to begin by teaching them the art of obeying’.
J.J. Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book 3 (1762)

A lot of things have come to pass over these past couple of weeks that saw ‘education’ come to the fore in its many manifestations. It happened to be the topic of a recent lecture in the ‘About Japan’ course; and it popped up again on Geraldine Doogue’s ABC RN program Saturday Extra. I read the news each day—our politicians’’ shenanigans, the growing sense of entitlement, general social behaviour—I have reason to think about it more broadly in wondering about the sort of society we are becoming.

Of course, dear reader, you are probably going to say, ‘well, that’s your job’. And yes it is; indeed, I think I decided I wanted to become a teacher when I was six years old. But is our education, both institutionally and socially, really achieving what it should? Or to put the question another way: what should education achieve?

When I teach about Japan, I am reluctant to pursue the ‘Japan is unique’ line of analysis. Japan is different, it has its unique moments, but it is no more or less so than Australia is also unique or sometimes different—it’s a matter of perspective. I have spent two years as an undergraduate student and 18 months as a postgraduate student in Japan and taught in the English language-teaching sector. I’ve encountered primary and high school students as well as their teachers. I use these experiences as reference points to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between our education systems. Most of the time students and teachers in both countries confront the same issues—time, commitment, behaviour, attitude—and that’s before we get to the content of classes.

I’ve always thought that Japan is a bit of a barometer of where Australian education, and by extension society, is heading. Twenty-five years ago, I was surprised that a Japanese uni degree was about the piece of paper and that so many ‘everyday’ sorts of things required a ‘licence’. There was a credentialisation I didn’t ever anticipate seeing in Australia. Well, that’s certainly here now. There are other, less comfortable parallels between Australian and Japanese societies, especially as a consequence of being ‘educationally-obsessed’. But whereas, as an undergraduate student in Japan I thought the attitude towards tertiary education was a bit lackadaisical compared with my contemporaneous Australian university experience, I have come almost the full circle and I think that, for a better society, perhaps we could seriously rethink the purpose of our education—primary, secondary and tertiary. 

Education matters. It can be transformative. It can teach us about ourselves as well as others. And a university education, where I focus my energies, should be about imagining a society as it could be, not a mechanism to sustain neo-liberal cogs in a machine. To nurture our humanity, we need to value our education. How we should do this shall be topics of posts  from time to time in future…