Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tweets from the Tally Room or, a bird's eye view of where your pencil mark ends up.

Yes of course, a psephy goes to the tally room on election night and last night was no exception. Here in Brisbane it is at the Convention Centre opposite South Bank. Members of the public are welcome to watch the gradual accumulation of their collective participation in the democratic process grow in columns of red, blue, green or yellow. It is fascinating to think that just hours before, your thoughtful pencilled in numbers from 1 to 3, 4 or more are now there on the board, part of a pretty tremendous decision making process. Part of the fun of course is spotting your vote! 

The tally room is the place where the media also set up for the night to bring you the news as it unfolds. Behind us sit the political commentators, the TV people whose faces you might recognise, the politicians, past and present, who have been called on to offer their opinions. They're a bit like bringing in retired footballers or ex-test cricketers to offer an air of 'authenticity'. And, just like ex-players, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

This year I met up with a couple of tweep acquaintances Evan (@EvanontheGC) and Corinne (@Kin_). That was a first for me and a nice way to spend an evening. (There were those *odd* moments thought when we were tweeting each others comments and retweeting the same...ah Twitter... 'Tis nice to meet the tweeps.) Notwithstanding the tweet meet, and the little bit of interaction we had with part of the team with ABC Radio, sadly the Tally Room didn't have its usual 'vibe' and rumours of its demise were understandable. 

Previously, we've been able to anticipate the arrival of the victor and the vanquished, watch the speeches, feel the outcome of that pencil mark we made earlier in the day. But on my way in to the Tally Room I learned (via Twitter, of course) that neither the premier nor the opposition leader would be turning up later in the evening. That was a tad disappointing. 

So we were left to just watch the numbers roll across the screen. At 6.00pm it's eyes on the screen, waiting, waiting for those first numbers. You briefly ponder how accurate the opinion polls and exit polls might prove to be; watch for the 'key' seats, the marginals, the ones with 'celebrity' candidates, and of course, one's own electorate...because you're not always a completely dispassionate observer. In effect you are witnessing the immediate employment prospects of a selected 89 people, the 'winners' of a contest in which we should all play a part. 

The numbers roll out. A good psephologist is always cautious, reluctant to make bold statements on the basis of a few percentage points. There is no commentary as such in the Tally Room. You don't hear the buzz of observations from the TV sets (they're fenced off to the general public). So your assessment is your own. I like it because it tests me to make a call without other opinions, initially. I usually wait until about 7.15 to make a call, depending on how close it is. Usually, at that time, there's enough to go on. This time however, it was looking pretty apparent about 20 minutes in that a landslide was on. I switched the twitter hashtag to #blueallover by then...deliberately ambiguous so that those who supported the LNP could enjoy their moment (blue being the colour of the party), and suitably for those on the other side who might feel blue as the reality hit. 

So with the result done and dusted early on, and no expectation that the victors and vanquished would be appearing, well, it was kind of over by 6.30 from the beating heart of our democracy. All that was left was opportunity to hear the chatter, watch the reactions and start thinking about the next post. When ABC Radio's Richard Fidler tweeted a photo of a cockroach which had made an appearance at his table, one sensed it was time to go home. 

It will be indeed a sad day if the Electoral Commission of Queensland opts for an alternative, or even a virtual, tally room next time. I, for one, continue to value the chance to see the accumulation of pencil marks change a government peacefully and without real bloodshed, unlike the metaphoric corpuscles splattered across today's newspapers. 

The next post will offer some thoughts about the results of those accumulated pencil marks. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bravo Bloodland: a spontaneous response (but not a ‘review’)

I am a regular theatre-goer. I love it. I admire the actors, the production, everything that goes into transporting our lives for just a few hours. There are times I’d gladly be an usher, just to see performances over and over again. Early in my academic career when I felt nervous about standing in front of students, a colleague suggested that lecturing can be like theatre—you’re on a stage, you have story to tell, tell it as you would wish to have it told to you. I try and I think it works, most of the time.

With theatre (or classical music concerts for that matter) I enjoy the anticipation of the unknown, the story unfolding, the hope that I might see the world in a different way. Sometimes one is moved from the opening line, sometimes the emotion creeps up as the story unfolds. Always, I leave appreciating that I have seen others present their world in a creative and challenging way, even if I didn’t particularly enjoy it.

Last week, I saw (again) Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. I was happy to be watching another Australian classic, one I first saw at school with the travelling theatre troupe (probably the QTC), one I’ve seen staged brilliantly by Frank Theatre in a sassy pastiche of Australia and Japan that I’m yet to see surpassed. The ‘Doll’, for me, is part of our Australian story.

But today, I saw a play of such drama, such emotion, such superb storytelling that I hesitate to write anything, lest I fail to capture something of the impact this play will have on me for a long time to come. The 140-character tweet-response would certainly not do.

Bloodland is everything I expect from theatre. It is directed by the marvellous Stephen Page and written by Wayne Blair (The Sunshine Club) from a story by these two and Kathy Balngayngu Marika. It is performed in the language of the community whose story it tells. There is a lyricism that transports you as an audience member. It is an important reminder that English is an introduced language to this country. The music, the lighting, the set—those things that also make a play—are similarly superb. The actors use the space brilliantly.

[I’m going to pause here, I feel inadequately prepared to write this post right now. I want Bloodland to be a permanent part of Australian theatre, and I need to go away and think a little more about the incredible resilience of our Indigenous people.]

I’m back…

You know there is something about art that compels when every fibre of your body reacts and responds to what is before you. This is a play that makes you laugh, brings a tear to your eye, makes you want to reach out to a sister or brother next to you. I loved the laughter of the Indigenous women sitting behind me, their ‘knowing’ of the meaning of what was being presented, and knowing more deeply. I felt a wrenching within as I watched what our Indigenous people have endured.

Bloodland tells a story that I guess those who read newspapers, listen to radio and watch current affairs TV will think they are familiar with, but it tells it with gritty realism, a sense of humour (especially the ‘nature documentary’ scene—to say more might spoil it) and the bitter/sweet/ness of the class with ‘Miss White’. There is an aesthetic and grace that mirrors the lives of our Indigenous people. The movement across the stage was just gorgeous, as would be expected from members of Bangarra Dance Theatre.

So many thoughts ran through my head as I watched this play. The word ‘reconciliation’ ebbed and flowed throughout. It matters to me that white Australia acknowledges its past. Sometimes, I feel rather hollowed out by the hackneyed appropriation of the term by politicians and policymakers and the ways some in my profession, academia, would also seek to see ‘reconciliation’ as a problem-solving exercise.

Someone during the week threw out (on Twitter I think) that quote of Winston Churchill, apocryphal perhaps, that when advised to cut the arts budget to pay for the war, he apparently said, ‘then what are we fighting for?’. The sentiment came back today as I watched the Bloodland story unfold. Say all we like and spend all we must on reconciliation, but I reckon spend 90 minutes in the theatre with this mob and if you don't come out with a resolve to reconcile, then someone excised your emotional and intellectual wherewithal before you even walked in. I hope Jenny Macklin gets to see it.

I loved this play, and I cannot, after all, adequately convey the emotion I experienced today in the QPAC Playhouse. My apologies for that to all involved, from its conception to its staging. This play deserves to win every mainstage theatre award going this year. We should expect to see it and similar stories more often. I doubt I will see anything better for some time.

Thank you to everyone for bringing the story to the stage, it shall be embroidered on the front of my little pocket of Australian treasures. 

[PS Brisbane theatre-goers, we need to embrace the standing ovation...just occasionally]

Sunday, March 11, 2012

3.11 One year on...many years into the future

A specialist on Japan, it is incumbent on me to reflect on events in Japan today, one year since we all watched in awe as footage of that black wall of water spewed across our screens here in Australia--but spilled through the lives of people in Tohoku in ways that will take years to recover. 

In this week's tutorial for my course 'About Japan', we will take some time to discuss the events of a year ago and what has happened since. There is a lot to think about and I am particularly interested in gauging students' responses to such events. The students in the class have a range of interests in Japan--many have been there, many plan to go; some were there as the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent shutdown of the nuclear facility happened.

As with any such natural disasters it is always to watch from afar. One's first impulse is always to go and help but there is the worry of getting in the way and being more hindrance than help. We send money in the hope that it makes a small contribution. It's often not enough. 

Regular readers will know I have been travelling to Japan for about 25 years and studying the country for much longer. As the enormity of 3.11 unfolded, (in fact, I recall my mum rang to tell me, I'd been caught up with work) the welfare of students, friends and colleagues became important. I contacted a number of friends in Tokyo. It was a large shake, but not to the scale, they reassured me, of what was happening a little further north. Trains had stopped and there was a deal of confusion but they told me not to worry. Some friends I ended up ringing everyday more for their reassurance than mine, as it turned out. As one friend said, it was just important to hear a voice from another place just so a sense of normalcy prevailed. It took about three weeks for those conversations to return to 'normal' topics. But even when I visited in September last year, there remained a bit of an 'edge' to daily life. 

Of the hundreds of poignant stories which were told, one that stays in my mind is the parent who retold of the evacuation of the school his children attended. After the earthquake, all the children moved to the school oval in an orderly manner, as they had been drilled to do...momentarily, they were safe. The tsunami hit the playground, they were gone. Even now, the image wrenches an emotional response as I write.

Natural disasters we can kind of accept, eventually. But 3.11 of course now means 'Fukushima' and the problems of nuclear power. Concerns about radiation now dominate the news. I follow several people on Twitter who make it their business to provide daily updates of radiation problems in the region; young mothers who agitate for the safety of their children; government leaders and bureaucrats who seek to reassure the general public. I see hundreds of tweets through my timeline each day of people seeking to make sense of this unfolding disaster. 

In Hiroshima, there is a monument to remind us of our wartime folly where atomic weapons are concerned. I first visited there in the 1980s. Indeed, Hiroshima, the whole town, is such a monument. It is fair to say that the Peace Park and the museum do a powerful job in making you think about the futility of war--the children's clothes, the stopped clocks, the shadow of the man who was sitting on the stairs at the time of the blast...yes, the 'shadow'... The annual commemoration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is always accompanied by a roll call of those who died during the year, they are added to the list of 'hibakusha', victims of the atomic bombs. 

In August 2010, I had the temerity to reflect that, so many decades after the war, the list of names to be added might begin to diminish. But now Japan has another list: the thousands who died, the thousands who remain missing and now the thousands, perhaps, into the future for whom this disaster shall continue to bear its scars. Parents are worried for their children. People fear the unknown with the extent of radiation--how much? For how long? What of the future? Political leaders seem to equivocate when it comes to appropriate responses. The polity finds itself in flux, still, and again, and still...

I've never had any regrets about encountering Japan all those years ago, and pursuing my interests to the extent that I feel more than comfortable living and visiting there. I laugh with Japanese friends, I cry with them; we make jokes, we can be serious. Many of them believe, that despite everything, we can make the world a better place. And, one day, we will. 

I dedicate today's post to my friends in Japan, to those in Tohoku I encountered in my many travels through the region over the years and to those many, many people, volunteers and professionals, who have worked and kept us informed over the last year. You will have seen and heard things that shouldn't have been so, but thank you. 

Thirty hours in Canberra

I had reason to travel to Canberra on Friday and Saturday, a fleeting visit, but necessary. Reactions from near and far really didn't vary. It was the usual derisory stuff--why would you go there? And while Canberra doesn't need me to stick up for it, Canberra is actually one of my favourite places to be. My other favourite cities are Tokyo and Washington DC--seems like policy wonk heaven, but it probably has to do with being a political scientist and observing what makes the decision-makers tick. 

I've been to-ing and fro-ing to Canberra since my exploratory postgraduate fieldwork days in the late 1980s. I've lived there (1990-91), FIFO'd there for two and half years as a staffer and my most recent extended sojourn was three months in 2010 as a Harold White Fellow at the National Library. I've otherwise travelled there two or three times a year for conferences, research, meetings with colleagues and other matters. This visit fortunately coincided with a couple of great exhibitions and 'Enlighten Canberra', a display of fantastic lighting with selected buildings as canvas. Clever, creative, thought-provoking. Some reflections: 

Reflection in the water feature in front of the National Library

When I have the time, I like to wander through Old Parliament House. As one who spent time in the newer one further up the hill, OPH never ceases to amaze me that so much went on there, in spaces so comparatively small. The in-situ displays there are worth seeing, for anyone who cares about our democracy and our politics. (See, there is more than mere travelogue about this post.) I was actually living overseas by the time the OPH closed and everyone moved up the hill, but some of the rooms, left just as they were on the last day, give you a sense of how things must have been. 
OPH as canvas: Enlighten Canberra 9 March 2012

I was also there in time to see the National Library's 'Handwritten' exhibition, with several examples of original handwritten manuscripts of scientists, philosophers, musicians and others. The pieces were on loan from Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. To teach the work of Machiavelli, Kant and Marx is one thing; to see something they wrote, in their time, is quite another. Kant's handwriting, for example, is so small and neat... There was a subtle and understated elegance and depth of scholarship about the NLA exhibition that I think we have lost in the era of the 'look-at-me, look-at-me' blockbusters held at art galleries. I also wondered what a manuscript collection of the future might look like. Almost all of us work in digital or electronic forms now. A change of mind on a manuscript is now taken care of courtesy of the 'delete' key, the first thought lost in cyberspace. A draft manuscript covered in red and blue pencil is a thing to behold; the pencil marks of the author on a typed page invite the observer to step into their thoughts, reflect on the development of their thinking. It adds an understanding to our thinking, I think. 

The primary purpose of my visit was to take time out to re-engineer the final draft of a manuscript of my own. It is my contribution to understanding ways in which the Asia-Pacific might work together in the future. In the book, I propose an East Asia security community, and in its earliest iteration the proposal centred on the strengths of the Japan-Australia relationship and how that might extend beyond the merely bilateral. The key players are in Tokyo, Washington, Beijing and Canberra. The editor (of an international publishing house) was somewhat reluctant that Australia and Japan should provide the foundation. Could I perhaps make the idea work with a little less Australia and a bit more of what is marketable in the international relations field, he suggested. So, I've been working on that, as a nervous first-time author and not yet in a position to write the books I think should be written. 

But, thirty hours in Canberra has changed that. I'm going back to my first principles as it were. In my proposal, the Australia-Japan relationship is quite critical to the foundation and development of a security community in the Asia-Pacific. The proposal is built on trust and confidence; how could I really write a book that wasn't based on an honest appraisal of what might be possible, rather than what might be marketable. 

Yes, Canberra has that effect on me. It is where I came to understand what people will do for 'whatever it takes'. I came away from that time saying we can do it better. In Canberra, in Tokyo, in Washington DC, places where these decisions are made, we can do it better, we must do it better. We are the polity and the polity must work from first principles of trust and confidence. Sometimes, it takes the red and the blue pencils, and a handwritten note from Kant, to remind us of the things that matter.

A couple of gents on an evening stroll.
Thanks Canberra. I'll be back soon.                                       

Just spectacular. Questacon, a gift from the Japanese
government to Australia for 1988. 

All photos taken by Donna Weeks, 9 March 2012

Monday, March 5, 2012

psephy extra: podcast link

Following some enquiries from kind people, I can offer readers a link to the podcast of my public lecture at the National Library of Australia in November 2010. The lecture, called 'Gold and wool are so yesterday', details some of the finds I made on the Meiji adventurers to 19th century Australia. There is more to come...
Click on this link, and scroll down the page. The podcast is approximately 48.70Mb and runs for about 60mins.

I thank the staff at the National Library for their cooperation and exuberances in helping us discover our national treasure.

Rethinking the courage of the Meiji adventurers

In a week when there was so much to blog about, the pivotal moment struck in my class 'About Japan'. One of the things I love about teaching is the way the 'unscripted' comment in a class or during a lecture can trigger a stream of thinking and reflection on a range of otherwise unconnected events.

This week we talked about the Meiji Restoration (明治維新), generally considered to have started around 1868 and ending around 1912. It was the era in Japan triggered by the visit of US Commodore Perry's 'Black Ships' and the 'opening' of a hitherto closed Japan. It wasn't my intention to give a history lesson per se, there wasn't the time for that. Rather, in the short time available, I was seeking to convey a sense of  the magnitude of the changes that occurred in Japan during this time and how the legacies permeate contemporary social, educational, legal and political structures and institutions. We talked about the (mostly) men who were sent abroad to Europe and the US to find out all they could, about everything, and return with ways to help Japan 'catch up with the West'. And return they did with ideas and institutions which have wound their way down through the last 150 years or so. We will spend much of the rest of the semester discovering those legacies. 

But the interesting turn (I think) in the lecture came when I introduced some of my research on the era--the Japanese people who ventured to Australia at the same time and whose legacy is not talked about quite so much in the larger painting of Japanese Meiji history. As I showed students the map of Australia and lithographs of 1860s Melbourne and Sydney in Fukuzawa Yukichi's 1868 pamphlet on South America and Oceania, Watanabe Kanjuro's travels though Queensland in 1892-3 and the life of Japanese immigrant pearlers on Thursday Island, the 'opening' of Japan...and the possible role of some Japanese adventurers' travels to Australia...prompted some talk of the magnitude of the undertaking by Japanese political and intellectual leaders in the latter part of the 19th century. 'Think about it', I suggested. 'Two and a half centuries of closure and the decision to branch out and learn is in your hands. Do you think you would do it?' In other words, what does it take for a political and intellectual class to take the lead and make courageous decisions? Would they do it again? 

I directed the question to the class. Given the circumstances of the time, what would you have decided to do? I think we agreed, for that moment at least, it was a series of brave and courageous decisions to seek to enrich the country by learning from abroad. By way of comparison, we noted, Australia at the time of Watanabe's visit (1892-3) was not yet a nation, it was going through a decade-long series of constitutional conventions, it was trying to make whole, six disparate and mostly self-interested colonies. Australia was perhaps a little more insular and much of our social and political infrastructure was being absorbed via England, Ireland and other nearby countries. It seems our forebears brought it all with them, and tried to make it work. The Japanese set aside what they'd had, and set out to perhaps 'cherry-pick' the best on offer in the late 19th century. It gave us something to think about. As we proceed through the semester, we will see there were good and bad outcomes in Japan and for its neighbours, along the way. 

But later, it made me think about our present political milieu, both in Australia and Japan. The political class in both countries seems to have run itself into the ground. Apathy and dissatisfaction towards politics and politicians is something Australian and Japanese voters share at present. Confronted with a 21st century 'Meiji opportunity' what would our respective leaders do? In Australia, we hear talk of yet again (re)engaging with Asia. In Japan, the leaders struggle with coming to terms with an ageing demographic. They seem to be out of ideas. The question as to whether or not our contemporary leaders have the courage to make big, brave 'Meiji' decisions tapered off somewhat...I wonder if we'll have the opportunity to see a return to courageous leadership?