Stop worrying about the date, there’s bigger Australia Day prawns to fry


Picture: Eva Rinaldi, via Wikimedia Commons

Councils joining the #changethedate campaign aren’t just missing the point, they are squandering an opportunity to make Australia Day better.

There is an uncomfortable reality that we mask on our national day with barbecues, flags, fireworks and civic functions. We’ve designed a day where there is no room for reflection on what we might have done better.

From the nationally televised award ceremony through to the grassroots festivities of Lake Weeroona* the tone is one of celebration.

Celebrating is great. It’s important that we are proud of our accomplishments. We should lionise the very best of our culture and the things that make us unique. Knowing what works and what we do well can only make us better.

It’s just a shame we have yet to find a way to both be proud and talk openly about the things we might like to forget.

Tellingly, when the City of Yarra voted through its reforms this month it decided to begin hosting a new January 26 event acknowledging the loss of Indigenous culture, language and identity, even as it recoiled from hosting award and citizenship ceremonies.

Councils contemplating Australia Day’s role in reconciliation find themselves torn between two camps. They can jump on the #changethedate campaign bandwagon or they can frown upon displays of introspection.

Ultimately, January 26 1788 simultaneously symbolises both the start of a national journey and the end of Indigenous culture.

Councils would do well to lead a grassroots charge to recognise both aspects of the day. They’d be helping make Australia stronger because they would be helping us start difficult conversations about mistakes and the actions past communities took to try and make things right.

There were valuable ethical lessons to come out of atrocities like dispossession, the White Australia Policy and the Stolen Generations, but communities cannot learn from those mistakes if they try to forget the wider wrong. What better day to remember those actions than on a day the entire country already gladly sets aside for nation-building?

It’s something councils like Hepburn, Moreland, Whittlesea and Banyule should carefully consider as they ponder the parts they play in Australia Day celebrations.



*The City of Greater Bendigo council has no official position on #changethedate and has not discussed changing the date of award or citizenship ceremonies.

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Leaked Transcript shows Turnbull’s big gamble

Donald Trump. Picture: White House

Well, if it wasn’t already obvious Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull got off on the wrong foot last January here’s the proof.

It can take decades for these kinds of calls to become public. By that time they are only of interest to historians. This time we not only have access to a frank phone call, we have access to one that could reverberate on Australian foreign policy for years.

National leaders set store by their relationships with their foreign equivalents. It’s why France’s Emmanuel Macron went to so much effort to wine and dine Trump over the northern summer. It’s why first phone calls are so important.

Katharine Murphy has pointed with some concern to Turnbull’s “rash and foolish” position in telling Trump “you can decide to take 1,000 or 100. It is entirely up to you. The obligation is to go through the process.” As Murphy points out, Trump has a winner takes all mentality and Turnbull opens opens the door to being stiffed.

It’s worth noting though, that Trump has gone into this conversation believing he’s been stiffed. “Who made this deal? Obama?” an irritated Trump snaps. Well, yes, Obama did make the deal in the dying days of his administration, knowing Trump was about to move in to the White House. Turnbull knows it too.

Turnbull has already taken a gamble. His focus on “the deal” shows the endgame figure is 1,250. That, we can assume, allows the deal’s integrity to remain intact. The deal is so important Turnbull is willing to stake a lot on it. “I’m asking you as a very good friend. This is a big deal. It is really, really important to us that we maintain it,” Turnbull says.

His focus turns to the up-hill battle to justify the absurdities of the deal. Trump might hold to a paranoid belief any refugee from Syria could be the next Boston bomber, but he has a point when he asks Turnbull why Australia can’t just take them.

“What is the thing with boats?” Trump asks. “Why do you discriminate against boats?”

Trump is forced, grudgingly, to lock in some commitment to the deal. Yet even here he leaves his position distressingly clear to Turnbull. “I hate taking these people. I guarantee you they are bad. That is why they are in prison right now.”

As they released the transcripts, The Washington Post noted there was little discussion about the substance of the plan or its implications for US relations with Australia.

“Instead, Trump’s overriding concern seemed to centre on how any approach would reflect on him,” the Post’s Greg Miller wrote.

At least he gets something out of the deal, with Turnbull saying “we are taking people from the previous administration that they were very keen on getting out of the United States.”

Turnbull’s ultimate gamble was to use the swap as a means of allaying trump’s concerns and maintaining the Australian/US relationship.

The latest leak indicates someone in the Trump administration does not mind if that relationship hits another rough patch.

For now, at least, it appears Canberra’s relationship with Washington will remain tense, awkward and mutually distrustful.



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Trump has thrown transgender servicepeople’s lives into uncertainty

By SVG file Dlloyd based on Monica Helms design [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With three Tweets Donald Trump has not only declared transgender people will not be able to serve in the US military, he’s thrown their careers into uncertainty by failing to offer a timeline for policy implementation.

Following Trump’s announcement on Twitter, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders could not give a yes or no answer to questions on the future employment of transgender servicepeople.

Instead she pointed to an “ongoing conversation” between the White House and the Department of Defense.

Nor could she give a clear timeline for a decision to be made.

The idea that transgender people represent a threat to military readiness and cohesion is, of course, ridiculous.

Armed forces are a melting pot for people of all different backgrounds and if people have a problem with a colleague’s gender they should get over it or, at the very least, keep their mouths shut and get on with their jobs.

Now they are left in limbo, judged not by their capacity to do their jobs but by the president’s wrong headed fear of “tremendous medical costs”.

Research shows that even higher estimates showed less than 0.1 percent of the military’s total workforce would seek transition-related care that could disrupt their ability to deploy.

Trump Tweeted that his decision came after consultation with military generals and advisers. The US military establishment has a track-record of dismissing LGBTIQ issues and has resisted moving with society’s wider values.

So often anyone who does not subscribe to gender or sexual norms is viewed as complicit in some sort of social experiment.

It’s an ever more flimsy excuse. The experiment has ended. LGBTIQ people are part society and have been for decades.

Now is the time to let transgender servicepeople get on with their jobs, not throwing their lives into uncertainty.

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The Handmaid’s Tale taps into the west’s deeply held fears for the future

handmaid's tale. Image courtesy of SBS

Offred (played by Elizabeth Moss) on The Handmaid’s Tale, currently showing on SBS On Demand. Image downloaded from SBS’s website.

There’s something eerie about The Handmaid’s tale. For a show set in a world more reminiscent of the Puritan era than our own it raises unsettling questions about how we treat the meekest among us.

The show has finally come to Australia via SBS On Demand.

Wenlei Ma described The Handmaid’s Tale’s world as a “reality not to far from our own” and as “genuinely terrifying” on

Speaking to Fairfax Media’s Debi Enker, actress Yvonne Strahovski (who plays the resentful Serena Joy) said it was amazing how topical the show felt.

“We started shooting it in Toronto, Canada, pre-presidential election in the United States. Then we had the election and we were still filming when the headlines started coming out about women’s rights being at the forefront of people’s minds, and the Women’s March happened,” she said.

“We couldn’t have planned for this, but it’s become extremely relevant: it really feels like it’s speaking to people’s fears about what could be.”

Not everyone is convinced. Caroline Marcus pointed out in the Daily Telegraph that we do not live in the Islamic State. Women here do not suffer atrocious breaches of human rights, gays and heretics are executed and barbaric crimes are metered out for moral “crimes”.

She has a point, of course. Even as right wing politicians enjoy a resurgence across the west we are not seeing any of them express a need for sexual slavery or a return to good-old medieval justice.

Say what you want about people like Donald Trump (and there is much to say) but even the west’s most religiously-motivated conservatives aren’t advocating for the end of democracy and the complete overthrow of people’s rights.

Yet the The Handmaid’s Tale hits uncomfortably close to home. Audiences are not snorting, turning off their televisions and declaring they cannot believe this sort of thing could possibly happen in a western nation.

The deeper fear

So why is The Handmaid’s Tale so unsettling? And why is it so easy to draw a line between contemporary rights struggles and the horrors of a fictional future?

Perhaps the answer lies in Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss’) regular flashbacks to a contemporary world which is rapidly collapsing. It is in these flashbacks that we see how brittle long-held human rights have proven to be. We see strong and independent women relegated to slavery, protesters shot in the street and all other freedoms eliminated.

handmaids tale2

In the world of the Handmaid’s Tale, the meek are victims. Image downloaded from the SBS website.

What a scary thought, we think. It could happen just like that.

In fact the fear invoked in those scenes is a regular part of our contemporary political discourses. Both sides of the west’s ideological divide harness our fear of lost rights to rally people to their causes. Left wing activists predict the erosion of hard won minority rights which the right lament the general freedoms they see collapsing.

Maybe things aren’t so bad after all

Paradoxically, the fears invoked by these groups gives hints at how safe our rights are. Millions of people can be moved to vote or act when they feel their rights are under threat.

It’s also worth noting that the way the government of the Handmaid’s Tale enforces its power is through an endlessly large spy network and an armed goon on every street corner. Would there be enough thugs in established democracies willing to lend themselves to so grim a cause?

Ultimately, our reaction to the Handmaid’s Tale shows how deeply-rooted democratic values are.

Blessed are the meek.


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Tip shop blues

Ally-Bear languishes on a shelf. Picture: Tom O'Callaghan

Ally-Bear languishes on a shelf. Picture: Tom O’Callaghan

By Tom O’Callaghan

Poor Ally-Bear doesn’t get any cuddles where he’s gone. He’s lying on a dusty shelf in Bendigo Tip’s op-shop.

Whoever threw him there didn’t even bother to make sure he had other toys for company. His only friends are mouth-less pots and pans.

Look how sad Ally-Bear is. Picture: Tom O'Callaghan

Look how sad Ally-Bear is. Picture: Tom O’Callaghan

“It’s OK,” he tells himself. “That’s just the way it goes for signature bears.”

Besides, you can’t miss cuddles if you’ve never had any. While Allison’s friends mutilated his fur with happy-21st-birthday-messages, she was probably giggling coquettishly and spewing all over a toilet-bowl.

But Ally-Bear is not the only object made with love and discarded at the tip-shop.

A plastic plate lies in a box of mismatched china wares. It’s one of those ones kids can decorate for loved ones.

IMG_0320“We love you, Daddy,” it reads.

Sorry kids, it turns out Dad’s a bit of a dick.

But not everything deserves to belong to someone.

Like Asbestos, people have been getting rid of Rolf Harris and Kamahl’s back catalogues for years.

And we can all be grateful people have realised polka records and parties do not mix.

These are the objects that need to be destroyed for the betterment of mankind.

And so while a steady stream of furniture, knick-knacks and spare parts fly off the shelves, others languish.

That looks like it one wild party.

That looks like one wild party.

Who needs an Elf on the Shelf?

Who needs an Elf on the Shelf?

Who is Mitch Miller and why is he so happy?

Who is Mitch Miller and why is he so happy?

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Goodbye Ruby Tuesday


Ruby the Dog

By Tom O’Callaghan

Ruby was a dog. She died peacefully in her sleep.

Well, I guess she died peacefully. I wasn’t with her when it happened. I don’t climb into kennels anymore (not since the incident with the fleas), let alone sleep in them.

Lister was there. But I can’t ask him about it. He’s a dog.

It wasn’t a violent death. It’s not like the last thing Ruby saw was a bull-bar. She didn’t try to bite a stick that bit back.

She died in her old age. I guess that’s as good a way to go as any.

Don Burke = dying dogs

I used to love that segment on Burke’s Backyard in which they’d road-test different breeds of dogs. But I hated that bit at the end of the segment when that vet would start talking about the breed’s health problems.

“As they get older these dogs have a heightened risk of Arthritis in their leg joints,” he’d say in a dispassionate but professional tone.

“Thoroughly check your dog on a regular basis, to ensure their limbs haven’t fallen off.”

I’d suddenly zone out, fearing what might happen if we bought a dog but didn’t look after its teeth. Would I need to check stool samples for fangs broken loose from rotting gums?

What if the dog got a seed in its ear? Would it go insane and start meowing?

“I can’t handle that kind of pressure,” I’d think. “Maybe I won’t ask Mum for a dog after all.”

Hello Ruby Tuesday

My sister first saw Ruby in a pet store. I said I didn’t want a fluffy little toy dog.

Mum bought a Jack Russell-cross to keep Ruby company. I named him Butch.

Butch could jump fences five times his height. He could kill rabbits, mice and even snakes. But he sometimes played chicken with cars. So that was the end of Butch.

I was distraught. So was Ruby. Butch’s death aged her.

A few years later Dad bought Lister. Lister was another small wiry dog.

When he was a puppy he wouldn’t cock his leg to pee. Like a tired mother dealing with a stubborn child, Ruby would nudge Lister’s hindquarters, forcing him to raise his legs like a big boy.

Lister is still alive, though he is an old dog now. A vet put him on medication for an eye that keeps exuding puss. The vet also had to remove a few teeth that had started rotting.

Ruby is buried in the orchard, within sight of Butch’s grave.


Goodbye Ruby Tuesday


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Stringybark hits the gravel for Bendigo

By Tom O’Callaghan

Stringybark McDowell, covered in tats and dreadlocks and his trademark top-hat, is travelling far from home for gigs these days.

Formerly based in Geelong, McDowell’s now living way out in South Australia’s Riverland area.

Stringybark McDowell and Molly CoddleCream

Stringybark McDowell and Molly CoddleCream

‘There’s no gigs out where I am because people don’t have a lot of money. My closest gigs are like an hour away and they’re only once a month.’

Not that he’s too worried.

‘I’m not one of these musos who has to play every gig on the planet, all the time. I’m a bit more of a casual musician than what most people are, I s’pose. I’m not trying to be a pop star. I do it for the love of it.’

Nevertheless, right now he’s winding up a few gigs in Tasmania, then travelling back home for a few weeks before the Bendigo Blues and Roots Festival kicks off.

It’s the fourth time he’s played the festival and he’s looking forward to sharing music from Madder than a Backward Flying Crow, the new album he and Molly CoddleCream have collaborated on.

‘Bendigo is a place I’ve performed at for over 20 years. Ever since I started playing and touring ‘round I’ve always had great gigs in Bendigo, from the old Golden Vine days right through to various other venues.

‘And Col Thompson (director of the Bendigo Blues and Roots Festival) has always been supportive. When I ring him up and say “I want to come to Vic for a few gigs” he’ll get me a whole weekend in Bendigo.’

McDowell says it’s important for communities to have a live music scene. ‘Too many only support footy.’

McDowell’s built a career on the road, first as a member of Muddy Puddles and then on his own. He plays the blues and, like Tom Waits, sings like a bloke who has eaten gravel.


‘Well I’m one of those guys that runs through the bush with all the war paint on and pumping off arrows into the trees.’

‘My life’s simple. That’s my musical theory too. I was playing music before the internet come along and all of a sudden you’ve got to be a computer nerd just to apply for a gig. I tell people I can’t be fucked!’

His act’s an irreverent one, full of soul.

And just like his new album, he’s madder than a backward flying crow.

‘You see an army going into battle and they all look the same. They’re all in that army and they are all a team of soldiers. Well I’m one of those guys that runs through the bush with all the war paint on and pumping off arrows into the trees.’

Stringybark McDowell is playing throughout the festival weekend. To find out more, click here.

First published Monday 2 November on the La Trobe University Bendigo Blog

Published by the Bendigo Weekly on Friday 6 October

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Experiencing the Festival

By Tom O’Callaghan

So hang on. Hold on a minute. You’re telling me the most important people at writers festivals are writers? What have they got to do with it?

Let’s just look at this logically. First of all, I’m not on stage. And I’m the most interesting person to have ever uttered anything. Ever.

But even more importantly, writers only have power if they have an audience. What if the audience doesn’t turn up to your precious writers festival session? What if they get bored halfway through? My point is that you’re looking at the wrong part of the room, mate.

When a writer sits on stage at a writers festival, crossing their legs and looking out to the back of the room, they aren’t talking to statues. They’re actually looking out over people who are silently reacting to everything being said. The audience is thinking about every idea, every perspective and every impression the writer offers.

We don’t actually need a writer to think these things for us. We aren’t idiots. We’re able to sail our own boat, thank-you.

No matter whether a writer is huddled at their desk or sitting on stage, all they’re ever doing is lining up ideas for us. They’re building jetties, not boats.

The following is just a collection of thoughts thrown together by one audience member after the 2015 Bendigo Writers Festival. There’s some podcasts, which I hope reflect the kinds of discussions audience members have at writers festivals.

There’s also some blog posts about the experience of being an audience member. It’s a fascinating thing, sitting in the audience at a writers festival. But that experience is often forgotten because we fool ourselves into thinking the most important people are the writers.

So have a scroll through this collection. Maybe you’ll find it interesting. Maybe it will remind you of things you thought last time you were at a writers festival. I’d love to hear them.

Read the whole collection here, or jump to individual posts:

Blog posts


Feature image by Shane Carey

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The Extreme Centre

After Tariq Ali’s Beyond Extreme session Kate JamaJosh Newham and Tom O’Callaghan talk ideology. Are we the victims of centrism? Or are the left and right overrated?

Music: Street Fighting Man, by The Rolling Stones

See the session: Beyond Extreme: Tariq Ali in conversation with Robert Manne

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On Place

Writers festivals take place in bubbles. The outside world is still there. But it’s somehow separate from the festival. Kate Jama and Tom O’Callaghan talk about a sense of place.

Music: Streets of your Town, by The Go Betweens

Feature image: by Shane Carey

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