Monday, November 10, 2008

US Presidential Election

The 2008 US presidential election was memorable in many ways, but for me it was particularly unique as I experienced it in Australia. When I arrived here in February, I was surprised at the level of coverage the Obama – Clinton primary race received. By now I am used to the interest in and knowledge of US politics, and have enjoyed getting glimpses of our election from an Australian viewpoint.

It was Wednesday afternoon here when the election results were in. I was in Melbourne, finishing my walking tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens. There was an Aussie woman who must’ve heard me talking with the guide, and between my accent and the mention of Thanksgiving it probably wasn’t hard to guess I’m American. So I found out who won the election when, in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, I was told, “Congratulations on your new president.”

“Obama?” I asked, as it seemed like he would win.

She confirmed, “Yes.” This was an interesting way to find out who won, I thought. A short time later I was on the tram and a huge picture of Obama was on the cover of the free afternoon newspaper people read on public transportation. The headline informed all that he was projected to win; by the time the paper was actually out, McCain had conceded.

A majority of Australians wanted Obama to win. President Bush is deeply unpopular here, and McCain seemed to represent a continuation of Bush’s presidency. Under John Howard, Australia’s previous prime minister, the country followed America into the war in Iraq. (As a side note, Australia has been a US ally in every conflict since we entered WWI.) The Iraq war is opposed by most Australians, who are further disgusted at reports of American torture. There is also a sense that the Bush administration has an inflated sense of American self-importance. Australians want a US president who is going to be part of the world community, not set apart from the world community.

Of course people have noted the significance of having an African-American president, but there is something a bit more remote about that here. Setting aside the fact that Obama’s ancestors were never slaves, the labor in colonial Australia came from British convicts, not slaves, so people of African descent in Australia are very few (though some refugees come here now). It would be closer to home if Obama were Native American, because Australia has significant challenges relating to equality for indigenous people. Nevertheless, Aussies recognize that, as the media has been proclaiming, a racial barrier has fallen.

There was an Australian Associated Press article in Saturday’s Mercury (Hobart’s newspaper) informing us that Kevin Rudd was one of several national leaders to call Obama and congratulate him. According to the article they talked for 10 or 15 minutes about the expected topics: the economy, security, and the environment. Kevin Rudd was widely quoted as saying “I'm convinced that we are going to have a first class working relationship with president-elect Obama.” (Read the article at

Elections here are announced, then held three weeks later. The length of this campaign has astonished Australians, who generally think it’s excessive. Moreover, they are confounded by the idea of voting being voluntary. Voting in Australia is mandatory, and failure to vote results in a fine. It is a civic duty here, and voluntary voting is seen as one of the odder aspects of the American political system.

While I’ve been learning Aussie perspectives, Australians have enjoyed asking me for my viewpoint. Since Australians are generally blunt, I was surprised that nobody asked me who I voted for. A lot of other questions have come up, though. I’ve been asked who I thought would win, how I vote from Australia, and if I come from a red state or a blue state.

All in all I believe Australians share the general view that at last the election is over, we know who the next president will be, and life can move forward.

Monday, October 20, 2008


In my last post I mentioned that Cairns uses the motto, “Where the reef meets the rainforest,” and I took a day tour with Trek North Safaris to see the rainforest. Unfortunately it rained on and off that day – appropriate for a rainforest, but inconvenient for tourism. We had lunch in a covered area next to a picturesque brook called Cooper Creek; during lunch the rain came down quite heavily and we saw the creek rise a few inches. While Australia is the driest inhabited continent, the eastern coast of Queensland gets a lot of rain during the wet season (November-April).The high rainfall and hot climate means that a continent known for its vast arid interior has a patch of tropical rainforest.

We took two easy walks during the day, with our guide telling us more about the various plants we saw. I quite liked the name of one particular plant. This plant has long creeping tendrils with hooks that it uses to haul itself up to the sunlight, and these hooks will also grab onto hair, clothes, or skin and not let go. Since they get their hooks into you and don’t let go, these plants are known as lawyer palms. There were vines everywhere, some of them impressively thick. Nevertheless our guide informed us that swinging through the trees on vines a la Tarzan was creative license and, while the vines are quite strong, he didn’t think it a very good idea.

The rainforest is very, very green, with lots of little streams running through. Our guide pointed out lots of various orchids, but none were flowering. Birds were hard to spot, but easy to hear chirping away. The largest bird in the rainforest is a flightless one in the same family as emus and ostriches known as a cassowary. The numbers have been declining and cassowaries live in a fairly small area, but they are a beloved animal in the area known as Far North Queensland. Cassowary road signs are common, and I also saw vehicles with bumper stickers showing a cassowary silhouette and the caption, “Take care!” While my group didn’t spot wild cassowaries, I saw them at both the Cairns Tropical Zoo and Birdworld. While undoubtedly magnificent creatures, they don’t look particularly friendly. Apparently cassowaries can seriously hurt humans between their powerful feet and the hard bony protrusion on top of their heads, although tourists are informed (and reassured) that they prefer to retreat into the rainforest. Male cassowaries sit on the eggs and raise the chicks; females have nothing to do with rearing the young.

As part of the day’s events we took a cruise on the Daintree River. This happened during some quite hard rain, but at least it was a reasonably warm day (I’m guessing mid 70s Fahrenheit) so I didn’t think it was that bad. Some of the Australians complained of cold, but this is nothing new. I’m rather used to it by now, having people around me think it’s cold when I don’t. In any case, the main point of the cruise was to see saltwater crocodiles in the wild. These “salties” are technically estuarine crocodiles, and not strictly saltwater dwellers, but Aussies are fond of their –ie words and the term has stuck. The company we went out with did nothing to get a reaction from the salties; they don’t want the crocs to see the boats as a source of food or a source of hostility. I was happy to hear that, although it must be noted that this company doesn’t guarantee a crocodile sighting. We saw two, and one had its mouth open which was interesting. Interesting, from a safe distance in a boat. These weren’t the big older males, which can reach 6 yards long; the ones we saw were ‘only’ 2 and 2 ½ yards long. That was just fine with me.

Tour guides – and I say this from experience with multiple tour guides – love to tell tourists about the salties. Namely, they tell you how only stupid people get eaten by crocodiles. “If you’re on the bank,” explained our crocodile cruise guide, “you’re on the menu.” Nevertheless, fishermen wade into the rivers and then sometimes end up getting eaten. I noticed warning signs along the river informing readers, usually in at least two languages, “Crocodiles inhabit this water: attacks may cause injury or death.” This was accompanied by drawings, one of a croc with its mouth open and another of a swimmer with a line through it. There really wasn’t room for misinterpretation. We were also told the story of a man who wanted a really good picture of a saltie. So he and his wife rented a canoe, went to a river known for having lots of crocodiles, hung a piece of meat out off the edge of their canoe, and waited to get that picture. Unfortunately, the crocodile wasn’t satisfied with the piece of meat. “He probably got a great picture right before he was eaten,” theorized our guide. (The wife managed to swim to shore.) I almost wonder if there is a book published for tour guides, Only Stupid People Get Eaten by Crocodiles: True Stories Guaranteed to Shock and Appall Your Tourists.

For lunch we could have fish or steak. I had the fish, which was barramundi. Barramundi, or barra as the locals refer to them, are a well-known northern Australian fish. They are famous both for being great fun to catch and also good to eat. I liked the barramundi alright, but still prefer haddock. This is just as well since I can get haddock in Maine. Anyway, it’s a decent fish – not too oily – and authentic tucker (that’s Aussie for food) for the region. Our tour guide, who was a fountain of knowledge, told us that barramundi spend the first half of their lives male and the second half female.

After lunch we went to Cape Tribulation. This was named by James Cook the morning after he discovered the Great Barrier Reef. He also named Mt. Misery and Mt. Sorrow. As you might’ve guessed, he discovered the Great Barrier Reef the hard way. You can see it under the water during the day, but Cook had the misfortune to encounter it at night. Later, after giving depressing names to a few landmarks, he was able to save his ship and crew with the desperate effort of throwing most of the cargo overboard. (The cannons are now in various museums.) When the next high tide came, HMS Endeavour floated, and he was lucky because coral stayed lodged in the hull, which kept more water from pouring in. Cook ordered the hole covered with one of the sails and Endeavour limped along northwards for a couple of days until they found a suitable place to land. Repairs took two months. When I visited Cape Tribulation, it was raining again, so the view wasn’t that great, but I could see that on a clear day it would be spectacular.

On the way home we stopped at a little café for tea and coffee. Growing in a pot on the side of the building I finally spotted a flowering orchid. Also, there was a green tree frog on a round light outside the building, attached to a wall. (This light wasn’t on.) Most of us thought it was plastic at first, and even when we saw it breathe one Canadian man thought perhaps it was battery-operated. “As if we’d bother,” replied our tour guide. The green tree frogs are fairly well-known and this particular one now features in lots of photos. Once it was determined this was a real frog, we all whipped out our cameras. The café staff found this highly amusing.

Since we cut one of the walks short due to rain, we stopped in to a place that grows tropical, exotic fruits and uses some of them to make ice cream. They had fantastic ice cream – I thoroughly enjoyed the coconut flavor. I didn’t at all mind having a shorter walk because it was quite good ice cream, and we still got to take the second walk, just a bit shorter. I very much enjoyed my rainforest excursion, rain and all, and learned a lot while I was at it.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Great Barrier Reef

I spent a week in Cairns (pronounced more or less like “cans”) in the north of Australia. It was entirely different from Tasmania, where on a cruise I’ve seen a penguin in the cold waters. It’s hot and tropical at about 16 degrees south latitude – the closest I’ve ever been to the equator. I stepped off the plane at 7 pm, and it was a humid 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cairns uses the motto, “Where the reef meets the rainforest.” It is, tour guides and promotional websites like to point out, the only place in the world where two World Heritage areas are so close to each other. My first full day in Cairns was devoted to the better known of the two, the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef stretches over 1,600 miles north-to-south off the coast of the Australian state of Queensland. It falls under the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, to which day visitors must pay an AU$10 reef tax. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, I was told on my tour, is larger than the United Kingdom! It can apparently be seen from outer space.

Because of its international airport, Cairns is the most popular place to visit the Great Barrier Reef. A plethora of companies offer tours; from budget tours to the more expensive variety which include champagne on the return trip, the options are bewildering. I chose tour company Passions of Paradise for my excursion. This was an affordable (AU$125) but quality day tour and I enjoyed it immensely.

The boats taking tourists out to the Great Barrier Reef are collectively known as the “Reef Fleet,” and there are buses that will pick people up from the many hotels and motels and drop them off at the Reef Fleet Terminal, then bring them back to their accommodation later. There were hundreds of people when I arrived at the Reef Fleet Terminal. It was the tail end of the major tourist season, as the wet season starts November 1st and torrential downpours naturally deter a lot of visitors. I had an ideal day: blue sky with only fluffy, non-threatening clouds, a slight breeze but nothing to stir up the water and make huge waves, water that was in the high 70s Fahrenheit and air just a few degrees warmer.

Everyone was assigned a number for the day, which was used to ensure that everyone returned from both of the snorkel/dive sites (twice in the last ten years certified divers who went off on their own have been left behind; the film “Open Water” was inspired by the 1998 disappearance of an American couple and in May of this year two divers survived being forgotten). I felt safe knowing that I would check in with my number and didn’t have to worry about an inaccurate headcount. Then we headed out to sea, a trip that took roughly an hour and a half. On the way they held introductory diving and introductory snorkel information sessions. Some people chose to take an introductory dive, which is closely supervised, while certified scuba divers could go off on their own. I stuck with snorkeling and spent the extra money diving would have cost on renting an underwater digital camera, which allowed me to take pictures left, right, and center.

Our first site was Michaelmas Cay, a small sand island that’s also a bird sanctuary. This means most of the island was roped off, but I wanted to be in the water anyway. I don’t understand the people who took the little transfer boat out and sprawled on the beach to sunbathe, while fish and coral were just waiting to be explored in the impossibly clear water. This fairly shallow spot was a great place to start snorkeling. For a couple of minutes I was a little jumpy because the fish and coral are really close, but it was so beautiful that didn’t last long. Although I did later get quite a shock when a batfish, about the size of a dinner plate, nearly careened into me. I think I was more startled than the batfish.

Incidentally, it’s illegal to remove anything from the Great Barrier Reef and taking a piece of coral can earn you a fine of AU$7,500. We were informed on the boat that some coral grows only 1 centimeter, or less than half an inch, per year. With the thousands of tourists who go out every day, I can see why the heavy fine is used as a deterrent – otherwise the Great Barrier Reef would shrink daily.

Snorkeling around Michaelmas Cay was magnificent. So magnificent, in fact, that I lost all track of time and missed the glass-bottom boat tour I’d meant to take. That was alright, because I spent more time snorkeling. We had over two hours at Michaelmas Cay but the time just flew by. Only three companies have permits to operate there, so we weren’t all chock-a-block, as Aussies say. Some of my personal favorites were the giant clams (one of which is featured in the first picture above). These are so big that they don’t move from place to place on the sea floor, so now and again the brightly-colored muscles would clench. There were lots of fish in all shapes, sizes, and colors, although the second site had more fish. And, of course, there was the coral. That too came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

Snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef is such an experience that it’s a bit hard to describe. After lunch we went to our other site, Paradise Reef, which is out in open water. There I was floating along just in front of and over a school of small, bright blue fish, but I was so near I felt as though I was swimming in with them. To be sharing their gorgeous, multi-colored, richly textured underwater world is an awesome and magical moment. I saw Clarke’s anemone fish (which I thought were clownfish but later learned are a similar but different species), a single large fish which may or may not have been a Queensland grouper, brain coral, coral that looked like an enormous mushroom, purple coral spiking up like so many fingers, coral that waved with the current, a particularly striking fish with bright blue, purple, green, and magenta, plus numerous other kinds of fish and coral. One of the staff members, who was diving and taking pictures that we could later purchase, brought up a sea cucumber which I got to hold while I was snorkeling. (This worked marvelously as a marketing tool, as I subsequently bought the picture for my mom.) The sea cucumber looked like a giant caterpillar – it was about a foot long – and was a slimy, squishy creature.

We didn’t encounter the elusive sea turtles, but at least neither did we encounter reef sharks. To my astonishment, some people want to get up close and personal with sharks. The fact that these are supposedly not sharks that snack on humans did not at all make me want to get near one without a solid barrier between me and the large carnivore with sharp teeth. A Passions of Paradise crewmember mournfully informed us that some 200 million sharks are killed a year and some species are in danger of extinction. I’m sure that’s bad for the ecosystem, but I personally am not a great fan of sharks.

All too soon we were called back to the boat. On the trip back to Cairns we sailed part of the way with the motor off. This was a lovely way to end the day. It was quiet without the engine, enabling us to hear the gentle splashing of the blue water against the boat. I found a good spot and settled in to soak up some sun. (It was a good thing I soaked in the sun face-up, because not long after this I discovered a rather nasty sunburn on my back and the back of my legs, despite two applications of SPF 30. Lots of people had sunburns in Cairns. I’m sure sales of aloe vera are brisk.) I didn’t want the day to end, but at least I had more fun planned for my vacation…

To Be Continued

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Tasmanian Devils

The iconic Tasmanian devil is the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial. Devils are scavengers, not hunters; they play an important ecological role by cleaning up carcasses. After devils are done you’d never know the carcass had been there, as they eat every single thing: hair, bones, feathers and all. Because of this, it was the farmers who first noticed in the mid-1990s when the devil population began to decline. Farmers reported seeing more dead animals lying around.

That was the first clue that something was wrong with the Tasmanian devils. Now the affliction is known as Devil Facial Tumor Disease, and it’s killed half the devil population. Scientists are mystified on multiple levels. First of all, they have no idea what triggered the outbreak. The tumors are a cancer which is spread through contact; devils bite each other when fighting over food and transmit the disease via bites. This, I learned at a public forum on saving the devils, is highly unusual and has scientists quite perplexed. It is a terrible way to die. As the tumors swell, devils struggle to eat and breathe; in the end they die either of starvation or suffocation.

The University of Tasmania is a center for research, with biologists and doctoral students alike racing to find out more about Devil Facial Tumor Disease and how it can be stopped. Some progress has been made about devils from western Tasmania having more genetic diversity and thus greater resistance. (Eastern devils were hunted for years, reducing their genetic diversity.) Other people are working on last-ditch plans to save the species. Some of these plans include trying to have a disease-free zone and keeping in captivity an extensive devil population from all over Tassie. It may be that the disease will run its course and wipe out most of the devils, but the survivors would be disease-resistant and the species could eventually rebound. On the other hand, there are real concerns that within ten or twenty years wild devils may be extinct. That is why captive devil breeding programs are considered important.

Tasmania has already lost its largest marsupial predator, the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger. The last known thylacine died in 1936, in captivity. Thylacines resembled greyhounds in shape, with broad stripes down their sides. Unfortunately, they developed a taste for sheep, which led to their being hunted into extinction. (It was only a few months before the death of the last thylacine that the state government declared thylacines protected.) At least, the mainstream view holds they are extinct. Some people insist that a few remain in the untamed western wilderness, but no proof has ever come out. Tasmanians now regret the loss of the thylacine, to the extent that license plates feature a stylized picture of one and there is a state cricket team known as the Tigers. I believe that this loss spurs the determination of Tasmanians to save the Tasmanian devil.

Devils are nocturnal and fairly shy around humans, but I saw some at a local wildlife park. They are not cute creatures, in my opinion, but somehow I was drawn to them anyway. Perhaps knowledge of their plight was part of it, but devils are the kind of animal with an innate ability to draw respect. Despite their small stature they are commanding. I timed my visit to coincide with feeding time, and while I wish I turned away a bit faster because it was revolting, I learned a lot from the staff worker. She told us that devils are not, in fact, dirty creatures. After eating we saw the devils begin to bathe in a rather cat-like fashion, which put the myth to rest completely.

I am pleased that I got to see these unique and noble animals, gross eating habits aside. For more information on devils and the Facial Tumor Disease, go to

Saturday, September 27, 2008


I recently went to Canberra, Australia’s capital (for the record, they do in fact spell it ‘capital,’ unlike Washington, D.C. which is ‘capitol’). I was in Canberra to attend the Australian-American Fulbright Commission’s Enrichment Seminar. This was a three-day seminar, but I stayed a few extra days to take in more of the city.

Canberra (emphasis on the first syllable: CAN-burra) is in many ways similar to Washington, D.C. When negotiations were taking place for Federation (that is, the uniting of all Britain’s Australian colonies into a single independent country, which occurred in 1901), a major sticking point was the location of the capital. The contenders were Sydney and Melbourne, which were rival cities and couldn’t stand for the other to have the honor of being the capital. If Sydney was chosen, the colony of Victoria would be unlikely to join. On the other hand, if Melbourne was chosen, New South Wales would stay separate. The solution was to build a new city as the federal capital, in a location roughly between Sydney and Melbourne. Thus Canberra was born.

Canberra is the heart of the tiny Australian Capital Territory, or ACT. As cities go it is fairly small, with a population of roughly 350,000. It was a planned city, and that is obvious. The Fulbright Commission drove us up to a lookout on Mt. Ainslie and we could clearly see how structured Canberra is. It was 1927 before the city was ready to take over as Australia’s capital, so Canberra is quite a young city.

Until recently Canberra suffered a poor reputation. A common joke was that the only good thing about living in Canberra was that all your relatives lived interstate. This hasn’t gone away entirely. A few of us were talking before class started one day last week and one of my classmates said, “A week in Canberra! You’ll die of ennui.” (That is, boredom.)

As it turned out, I could easily have spent another two or three days in Canberra. The first two and a half days were packed with events for the Fulbright Enrichment Seminar, and then I took in Floriade, which is the spring flower festival, the National Gallery, the Australian War Memorial, the Royal Australian Mint, and part of the National Botanic Gardens. I fully intended to make it to the National Museum, but never made it there.

One of the highlights for me was our visit to Parliament House. Opened in 1988, it’s sometimes referred to as “New Parliament House” to distinguish it from Old Parliament House. (Old Parliament House was built to be temporary, but it was used for sixty-one years.) The Fulbright Commission took us there for Question Time, and happily we were given good seats in the central gallery.

Question Time is unlike anything that happens in American government, and I guarantee more people would watch C-SPAN if we had something similar. On the other hand, we got an interesting take on the downside from one of the Prime Minister’s aides. He told us that Question Time is what people see on TV and it leaves them with a negative view of government. For the record, therefore, Question Time is only an hour and a half, four days a week when Parliament is in session, and the rest of the time government continues in a more sedate fashion.

To facilitate understanding, I’ll give a brief summary of Australian government. It is a parliamentary system, modeled on the British system. The upper house is the Senate and the lower house is the House of Representatives. Don’t let the fact that they have the same names as U.S. houses of Congress fool you into thinking it’s a presidential system like ours.

The House of Representatives, like the British House of Commons, is the seat of real power, so I’ll focus on that now. The most important person is the Prime Minister – since January of this year, the Honorable Kevin Rudd. (Side note: the official business, such as the seating chart we were given, notes titles. Once a person serves as a minister they are forevermore known as “the Honorable.” On the other hand, this is a country where Parliament House was built into a hill so ordinary people can walk on the roof of government. Sometimes, Australia is a land of contradictions.) The Prime Minister is the leader of the ruling party in the House of Commons. There is never an election for Prime Minister.

Ministers are chosen from the ruling party, which currently is the Australian Labor Party. Usually Aussies spell it ‘labour’ but this name was taken from the American Labor Party decades ago and thus uses American spelling, which I think is an interesting factoid. The role of a minister is most easily compared with the secretary of a Cabinet department in the U.S., but it’s an inexact comparison because ministers come from the House of Representatives. Other representatives, those who aren’t ministers, are known as “backbenchers.” Ministers sit on the front bench, or in this case rows of seats, while all others are behind them.

The opposition, currently the Liberal Party of Australia, sits on the other side of the room, with a few Independents and Nationals in between. When we were there the opposition had just shuffled its leadership, choosing Malcolm Turnbull as the new leader of the opposition. Quite unlike U.S. government, the opposition has a shadow government. There is, therefore, a shadow minister of the treasury, and so on. The main role of the shadow government, as far as I can tell, is to point out exactly what they think the government is doing wrong.

We were escorted to our seats and given a handy seating plan and list of members. Down below we had a straight view to the Speaker. His job during Question Time is to moderate, and even though he’s a member of the government (that is, the ruling party) I found him to be quite fair. Occasionally he would call out such things as “The Member for Flinders will withdraw” or “The Member for Herbert is warned.” He also gives the floor to the next person. Names weren’t used once; representatives were always referred to by title, as in “Member for Flinders” or “Minister for the Treasury.” In the center of the room was a table with two podiums and microphones. On the left sat the Prime Minister, with the ministers behind him and the Labor backbenchers behind them. On the right was the Leader of the Opposition, with the shadow ministers behind him and the Liberal backbenchers behind them.

Two kinds of questions tend to get asked during Question Time: those from the opposition and those from the government. The opposition naturally takes the opportunity to grill the government, asking ministers to defend their positions and hoping to trap them into something that will make a good news headline. The government backbenchers also ask questions, which basically give the ministers a chance to talk about what a great job they are doing. One question came from an Independent, and while his was slightly critical he didn’t use it to attack the government, and in return Kevin Rudd gave him a very polite answer. Polite, I assure you, is rare during Question Time.

Question Time had just started when we arrived, after thorough security screening which, to my regret but not surprise, meant my camera had to be left behind. As we filed in, the Prime Minister was answering a question about the economy. This was shortly after the disaster on Wall Street so economic woes were at the forefront of government worries. Kevin Rudd said something that caused all members of the opposition to laugh as if on cue. It was quite startling, but turned out to be common on both sides. Laughter, discontented murmurings, and resounding cries of “hear, hear!” are common and happen in such tandem that I hardly would have been surprised to see cue cards.

As the Liberal representatives laughed, Rudd said that the economy seemed to be “a matter of some hilarity” for the opposition. This caused discontented murmurings, most of which were impossible to make out from the viewing gallery. One woman was louder than the others, however, and I distinctly heard her reply, “No, you are!”

Welcome to Question Time.

The Minister for the Treasury was one of the more colorful characters. Rather neglecting the issue at hand, he gave a passionate speech about how the Leader of the Opposition is selfish. Turnbull, in his view, isn’t interested in what’s best for Australia, he’s interested in what’s best for himself. Warming to the subject, the Minster for the Treasury declared, “You could almost see the self-righteousness wafting out of him as he quoted himself.”

I wasn’t kidding when I said more people would watch C-SPAN if our Congress had Question Time.

Most of the questions focused on the economy, the environment and climate change (this one was big for the government backbenchers asking questions that allowed ministers to discuss how wonderful they are, to resounding calls of “hear, hear!” from Labor backbenchers.) One of the final questions dealt with binge drinking among young adults, which is a growing problem here. It pleased the government to no end to inform the House that an independent report commissioned by the previous government suggested a higher tax on pre-mixed bottled drinks known as “alcopops,” an action already taken by the current government. This provided a handy opportunity for the government to accuse the opposition of standing for getting young girls drunk.

During most of the time a government minister was speaking, one of the opposition backbenchers was making a “yap yap yap” sign with his hand. On occasion the person speaking would go on too long, ranting, and their microphone would get cut off. The Minister for the Treasury, after listing some of the excesses of the opposition, taking care to emphasize every word, finished a speech with a rousing, “and they should be condemned!” Spontaneous laughter continued to burst forth from both sides.

We left when Question Time ended, as did most of the representatives. Then we were whisked off to the Ministerial Section for a meeting with the Prime Minister. He is, of course, an extraordinarily busy man, so this was quite an honor for us. We waited in a meeting room, and all stood up as he entered. It was a brief meeting, but we all found Kevin Rudd to be quite personable. He shook hands with each of us, introducing himself simply as “Kevin.” Then he spoke for a minute on the importance of Fulbright, which was the first treaty signed by Australia and America. He also discussed the closeness of Australia’s relationship with America, which won’t change no matter who is elected as the new president; he called Barack Obama to offer his congratulations once Obama was officially chosen as the Democratic candidate, and was quick to add that a couple weeks before he had congratulated John McCain. Following this a photographer took a group photo in front of his official entrance. On the way out to the courtyard for the photo one of the other scholars asked him about coral bleaching, which is what this scholar is studying, and was pleased to inform us afterwards that Kevin Rudd knows what coral bleaching is and is aware of the problem. (Coral bleaching is a loss of color in corals due to a stress-induced loss of photosynthesizing algae. This can kill the coral.)

Afterwards the Prime Minister’s aide took us up to the roof, where we got a lovely view, and some of us took the opportunity to listen to his insider view on Parliament. That was when he lamented the skewed view of politics that Question Time creates, and he said that the Liberal Party will try to blame economic woes on the government, while the government notes that they’ve only been in power nine months so a lot of the problems can be traced to the previous government. Some things in democracies are truly the same everywhere.

It was an afternoon I’ll never forget. Meeting the Prime Minister was a great honor, and I’m still chuckling over “You could almost see the self-righteousness wafting out of him as he quoted himself.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Australian Words and Phrases

Below are some common Australian words and phrases. I’ve noticed myself starting to use some of them. Much to my surprise I walked by a branch of ANZ bank and thought of it as “zed,” not “zee.” Most of the time, though, I continue to amuse people with my American speech.

Good on you = good for you; the correct response is “Thank you,” not, “On me? Where?”

She’ll be right = everything will be fine

Aussie = Australian, pronounced “Ozzie”

Tassie = Tasmania/Tasmanian

Oz = Australia

Sunnies = sunglasses

Chokkies = chocolates, esp. as in “hot chokky”

Bikkies = biscuits, which can refer to cookies, crackers, and dry pet food; what we would consider a biscuit is a scone

Tea = the drink, a snack, or the evening meal; the first time I was asked if I had ingredients for tea, I wondered how complicated it can be to make a cup of tea – until I realized this was tea as in dinner

Ta = thanks

Petrol = gasoline

Prezzies = presents

Pikkies = pictures

Uni = university

Lollies = lollipops and hard candies

Hoppies = any of the hopping marsupials

Cockies = cockatoos

Posties = postmen/women

Trolley = shopping cart

Rice Bubbles = Rice Krispies, which are made by Kellogg’s and everything

Blokey = masculine

Have a feed = eat

Note = bill, as in a $10 note

Full on = hardcore, completely

SMS = text message

EFTPOS = debit card

Off = spoiled, rotten (as in vegetables going off)

Reckon = think; Australians don’t do much thinking, as they prefer to reckon

There is also a trend to emphasize adjectives by following them with “as.” For instance, very cold is “cold as.” American food is “sweet as.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Port Arthur Con't

Isle of the Dead is Port Arthur’s cemetery. It’s a very small island, divided so that convicts, lunatics, and paupers were laid to rest on the lower southern side while military and ‘respectable’ people were buried on the higher northern end. The island is reached by a short boat trip with commentary. My tour guide on the island said that the guides like giving the Isle of the Dead tour because they get a chance to talk about some of the individual people. I must say that I am usually a fanatical picture-taker. When travelling alone I’m prone to snapping the best self-portrait I can manage with historical or tourist sites in the background. I only took a couple pictures on the Isle of the Dead, however, and none with me. It didn’t seem right, somehow, to have a smiling picture of me in such a somber place. The tour was very informative and sensitive. We got to learn about several individuals, both convict and free. There was one convict who had been transported at 19 for stealing a silk coat that belonged to his father – and his father was the prosecutor! (The prosecutor as the term was used here was the wronged party pursuing legal action, not the lawyer.) We don’t know if this was a case of borrowing Dad’s clothes or something more serious, or if the father knew his son could end up on the other side of the world. However, when this man died at age 32 he had one of the nicer grave markers. (They don’t used the term “headstones” because they can’t be sure they are actually over the heads.) Few convicts had anything to mark their graves, which wasn’t even allowed until 1853. At the bottom of this marker, however, is chiseled “T. Pickering.” Thomas Pickering was a convict stonemason, and he’d been friends with the deceased man for eight years. He didn’t usually sign his work, either. It’s an interesting story of how friendships could be formed under the harsh conditions. I found it rather heartwarming to hear of this story, because Port Arthur was most often a place of broken men, broken hearts, and broken spirits.

Point Puer (Latin for “youth” or “boy”) juts out and nearly touches the Isle of the Dead. It’s a hugely significant site because it was the first juvenile detention center in the British Empire (and possibly the world, we were told). Many youths were getting into trouble and being transported; the age at which you were legally responsible for your actions was 7. Lieutenant Governor George Arthur decided that it might be a better idea to have a separate place for children, away from the hardened adult criminals. In 15 years some 3,000 boys were at Point Puer, most of them between the ages of 14 and 17 but some as young as 9. (Girls weren’t sent to Point Puer; the female convict system was distinct.) This was really forward-thinking for the time. So much so, in fact, that the British copied the idea at home and stopped transporting youth altogether. This made Point Puer unnecessary, so it closed in 1849. Also forward-thinking was Commandant Booth, the man in charge of Port Arthur when Point Puer opened. He insisted on giving the boys full rations. Generally at the time men would get one ration, women half a ration, and children even less. Anyone who has ever seen a teenage boy eat knows that this really doesn’t make any sense! Booth also allowed for a small bit of free time, albeit heavily regulated, in the morning and evening. In between, the boys worked hard.

However hard the work, the focus at Point Puer was on reform. Therefore the boys were taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Although the effectiveness of this has been questioned, I suspect it varied based on each boy. They were also provided with religious instruction, which at that time was strictly Christian, and about half of the boys learned a trade under the supervision of a tradesman. Since Point Puer couldn’t accommodate teaching all the boys a trade, they all started out doing hard labor (clearing trees, tilling soil, etc.) and those who made a favorable impression with their attitude and actions were given the opportunity to learn a skilled trade. This would allow them to be productive citizens once they were free; ideally this would be a win-win situation for the colony and the boys. Trades taught included tailoring, stonecutting, carpentry, shoe-making, coopering, and nail-making.

Sadly, there is very little left at Point Puer. After its closure the buildings were demolished and useful material was brought across the harbor to the main settlement. We saw the wall, which is all that remains of the sawmill, and some foundations. Our guide helped bring it to life by tracing the experiences of three boys. Of particular note were a couple of curving stones left in the foundation of the trades area. They were carved by inexperienced boys but the work was very admirable.

A stunning example of the boys’ workmanship is Port Arthur’s church. It was built by convicts in the 1830s using stones and bricks. The stones were shaped by Point Puer boys. While fire ravaged the inside (consuming, among other things, pews that were also the work of Point Puer boys), the walls are in excellent condition. This is an imposing neo-Gothic church with a front that resembles a castle, a complex shape that bends in at the back before flaring out, and an enormous arched window in the back. Inside, the empty space produces a bit of an echo, magnifying the volume of spoken words. Since the church was built up a small hill, it has a lovely view out the thin arched windows. Inside the rather small but magnificent church was one of those places that feels special, when I become calm and somber, a bit awestruck and a great deal contemplative.

It was hard to tear myself away from the lovely church, but there was more to see. I had yet to look at the Separate Prison. Once there, I decided it was the most chilling part of Port Arthur. The Separate Prison was built to try a new prison reform idea: sensory deprivation. For twenty-three hours a day, men were locked in a tiny cell with only a small window above their heads. The thick walls prevented talking with their neighbors, and there was nothing to do. For one hour a day, they were allowed to walk around, but even this was done with their head covered except the eyes. At Port Arthur this was used for the prisoners that were continuous offenders and considered incorrigible.

This sounds horrific, and it was. The cells were very small and dark. It’s no wonder that so many men went insane. However, I understand that the prison reformers were trying to do a good thing. It was unpleasant to be whipped and work in chain gangs while on minimal food rations and in thin clothing, so the reformers sought what seemed to be a more humane alternative. The idea was that this time alone would give the men an opportunity to reflect on their sins and change their ways. Problematically, this had already failed in England before the Separate Prison at Port Arthur was completed, and therein lies the biggest problem to my mind.

It was easy to understand how men went insane, and after leaving the Separate Prison I took a few minutes to savor the fact that I am alive, and free. I stopped to watch the charming green rosellas flit around the lawn, chirping their bird songs. I admired a heron standing stoically in Settlement Creek, the stream that was crucial to Port Arthur. After all, a key way that we process information is to empathize with it. The Separate Prison left me needing a few moments to center myself in the present and achieve just a bit of detachment, a reminder that this horror was not my own to experience.

The Penitentiary was a less emotional building for me to visit. It’s enormous and dominates the cluster of buildings it sits in. (The church is on the other side, a short walk away.) Originally it was built as a flour mill. Here Linus Miller, one of the Americans I’m researching who was sent to Port Arthur for absconding (running away), had to “tread the wheel.” As there was not often enough water to run the mill, convicts would turn it by walking up steps endlessly. This was tiring, of course, but they had to be careful not to miss a step. The wheel would keep going, making missing a step very dangerous. Concentration was therefore also required, but the task was so tedious it’s only natural for minds to wander. Convicts hated treading the wheel. Fortunately for them, the mill experiment only lasted a few years. The soil around Port Arthur isn’t very good, and authorities were already bringing in the grain by ship; eventually it occurred to them that they might as well just bring the grain already ground into flour. Thereafter the mill was given an addition and turned into a place to house convicts. In the 1890s the Penitentiary burned in a bushfire and then slowly collapsed. Part of the front wall has been rebuilt, although you can’t really tell just looking at it. A staircase has been built inside, which gives visitors the chance to climb up and look at the huge building with its internal walls stretching out below them. The Penitentiary was a four-story building, and as odd as it may sound I suspect it may look even more impressive than if it was in pristine condition. There’s something about being able to look down from the staircase and see from one end to the other inside the building that is fascinating.

Six of the Americans I’m studying were sent to Port Arthur, all for absconding. From Linus Miller’s memoir we know that he and another American man left their work party to see if it would be possible to get passage away from Van Diemens’ Land for the entire work party. They hoped to find sympathetic American whalers who would smuggle them out. Alas, it wasn’t to be. However, not many convicts wrote memoirs and fewer still wrote memoirs of Port Arthur. Miller’s account is used by the Port Arthur administrators and is a valuable resource.

In the end, “fascinating” is a perfect word to describe Port Arthur.