Wednesday, 26 June 2013

River Mother of the Paakandji

This is the text from a sign (undated) in the old Broken Hill library Writer's Centre, which I have had the privilege of using as an office the past two weeks.

I am writing on behalf of the Aboriginal community of Wilcannia regarding the desecration of our much loved Darling River.
For too long we have talked too much about how the Darling River has been dying. Please let me try and explain what the river means to us and how the violation of it has affected our people. 
First and foremost our people are the Paakandji tribe. Paaka in our language means river, therefore we are the river people.
For countless centuries the  Paakandji people have lived along the river and depended on it 'like a mother', which in fact it would be, according to elders who have been born on the banks and lived in huts on the river's edge as recently as 1976. In those days water was drunk straight from the river fresh and clean.
Stories associated with the river are embedded in our culture and to this day the unique feeling that it gives us when the river runs is felt by all in our community, Aboriginal and non Aboriginal.
Everyone who grew up in our community has played along the banks and spent hours exploring and learning and the river has to offer.
I believe it was in the mid 1980s when we first started to see our river in danger and the water started to drop and cease to flow.
The feeling in our town was one of tolerance, as you would be with a sick and weakening mother. We were sad but sure she would become well again, after all she had been there for all of us for so very long.
But when we couldn't fish anymore, we stopped camping out along the river and it seemed we started losing our sense of family.
Our children became wayward and it appeared as if our people started losing control of their lives. How could we ascribe this to the troubled state of our river? What mumbo jumbo is this?
When the river started flowing again we could all feel a sense of calm. Our children played at the river for hours and would come home excited at the day's adventures, tired and hungry, glad to be home.
Trails of people could be seen heading to the river. At the river were many more, grilling their fish and cooking Johnny cakes. It seemed too far fetched! 
In a survey conducted by the Central Darling Shire Council in the late 1990s a comparison was made on the height of the river and the crime rate and it seemed to show that when the river was up the crime rate in Wilcannia was down.
Everyone could see it before and now they had it down on paper.
Be it economic or ecological, in the end the Paakandji people truly need the river.
The  Paakandji tribe extends the length of the Darling river and down as far as Wentworth. Wilcannia's community is just a small sum of the whole Paakandji tribe.
Of the rest of our people suffer for the biases of the ministers in charge and the irrigators upstream our culture will soon be gone and the identity and pride of the Paakandji people will be torn apart.
There are so many people who are extremely passionate about the plight of our river and have nowhere to go with their grievances.
We sincerely hope that this letter will make a difference and we may be able to at least achieve some compromise with the power so that we can start to heal our river.
Karen Riley, Wilcannia Local Aboriginal Land Council 


After a week+ in BH

I've been so busy building my understanding of class and work and education in BH that I haven't had time to blog about it - and am too tired to do so right now.

But I can say how excited and warmed I have been by the ways Broken Hill has helped me with this project. Everyone I speak to takes on my questions and helps me puzzle them through. I've been given substantial pieces of material, sometimes painstakingly written out by hand, by people who have watched the changes I am trying to document. Everyone from year 9 students to the elderly have behaved as if it was perfectly reasonable to drop everything to help me out. They point to records, archives, help me find them, record their memories for me, suggest others I could speak to. It is like having a whole town of research assistants. I am so grateful.

Also very excited to see democracy working as it should. Many people have come up to me to say "I was thinking about what you said in the paper" (see above) and contributing to my thinking and my work by engaging me in a discussion about it. A community that reads its local paper and discusses it, acts on it.

Wonderful. And that doesn't even acknowledge the kind and generous ways I've been welcomed by people who remember my name everywhere from exercise classes to cafes.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Another couple of days

I spent yesterday and much of today trying to get a grip on elitism and professionalism in Broken Hill.

I started on foot, with naught but a photocopy of 1971 census data between me and the people I came across. Why 1971 census data? No reason, really, except that it is data and I could indicate the type of thing I was looking for. Everyone was very helpful - the Broken Hill City Council, Chamber of Commerce, the local MP's office - giving me a sense of scholarships, businesses, organisations and structures (including Lions and Rotary, but several others) that see their task as building community capacity at least in part through education - but who also consist themselves of society's educated elite.

I was able to ask about the past - which was helpful when I was back again today looking through records, as it meant I could interpret them based on what locals said- and in some cases based on what locals said they had heard about the past.

This has led me to think that my instincts two days ago were probably right. The Broken Hill Club represented a professional elite - doctors, lawyers, bankers, some graziers, mine managers - from its founding in 1888. But after the Second World War, two things seem to be changing. Firstly, the sense of class - everyone had fought together, and now they worked together, so class barriers seemed less important. The other is that the professional class is getting bigger and therefore less elite.

The two things seem to coincide in the establishment of a range of community organisations. I am finding Rotary the most fascinating.

In the 1950s, it looks a bit like the Broken Hill Club. Not that I've seen much about its membership, just that its guest speakers were consistently esteemed men - the NSW University of Technology Vice-Chancellor, professors, international visitors of repute who spoke about large, universal issues. There is a great deal of discussion about the common good that results from professional behaviour - a key argument of the professional class, Harold Perkin maintains, in showing society why they should be paid well without assisting in any way in anyone's material well being  - as in, they don't create goods or provide food.

In this decade, the Club gained its own premises, which must have made it seem like the 1950s was its glory days.

But a decade later, in the 1960s, it is all far more mundane. The focus for Rotary shifts to school teaching and the curriculum and some local projects, still with an international focus.

By the 1970s, systems have been formalised, for scholarships and international exchange, discussion focusing on the value of community service to the town.

A downturn in wool sales impacted the spending of graziers, so the Club must have suffered.

In the 1980s, the numbers of professionals listed in the BH yellow pages are higher than in the past. [Yes people, I have been reading the yellow pages today...].

Clubs in general go into decline. The Broken Hill Club suffers financially - almost certainly also suffers from a lack of elite clientele - and loses its status all together in 1992 when it amalgamates with (of all things) the musicians' club.

Broken Hill still maintains a professional elite, evident through the various organisations I visited. But that elite is less elitist than before, more community-minded than in the late 19th century, but not as organised as in the mid 20th Century moment when they began to move from the snobby top end of town to a growing professional middle class.

A key message of it all is the place of social organisation in providing the infrastructure for a professional class.

A town like Broken Hill where class is starkly obvious, is discussed daily and is built into the city's bones, offers a useful place to see interactions of class and work wherein the people and their classes and occupations need not be static to examine them, but where the sense of class is sufficiently overt to be able to see the things that are at stake as they change.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Two days in Broken Hill

I have been in Broken Hill for two days. Hardly enough for my research to be substantial, but I have been in archives and talking to local history buffs about professions and professionals in the town. I am working with the assumption that labour v capital acts as the 'master conflict' of industrialised society but is supplanted by professionalisation (Harold Perkin) - and am trying to identify what this means for social mobility and equity.

The structure of labour versus capital infuses the town, shaping the streets and buildings and telling the story of Broken Hill. 

Along with it is the story of the community. The unions, associations of the workers, the churches and community groups. For the professional elite, there was the Club – I need to know more about the Club – and other types of organisations. The Progress Society that became the Council, the YMCA, RSL, freemasons, professional associations in accounting or law that went beyond BH. There was the sailing club and other sports – cricket – in which they might participate. The elite were made up of the mine managers, the university-trained professionals, the wealthy. They dressed differently, often sent their children away to boarding school in Adelaide or Sydney and they were members of the club. The town remembers them thinking they were better than everyone else.

The mines put money into community activities to keep the workers happy and compliant. The miners put money and effort into community to keep solidarity, to support those sick from lead poisoning or mine accidents. The trades hall rivalled the town hall – honestly, it exceeded it – in grandeur and beauty.

When people talk about what has changed, it is the decline in community. The unions no longer have bands, though one organisation still has one. Where they used to be extremely competitive to get into, now they struggle to encourage young kids to play. They do a good job. The sailing club is gone, so are lots of the other clubs. People put it down to the decline in mining, but they also talk about a change in attitudes. Kids grow up and if they get an education, they don’t come back to town. People are focused on their own holidays rather than their community organisation – their time doesn’t go into the community anymore. There is still a lot of sport though. When people retire, they don’t volunteer for community things [though there seem to be a lot of people doing history in the archives, historical society and family history group] but move somewhere else, go overseas, make their own individual plans. There used to be x pubs [I want to say 91, surely that is too many...], now there are 19. There are empty community halls all over the place: the ANZAC hall near the line of lode is now the gym I’ve been going to this week.

It seemed to me that in the 1950s – 1970s [I think…not sure about where it develops or changes again] the community focus shifted into organisations that linked community building to professional standards. Membership of rotary seemed only slightly wider than the Broken Hill Club [when did that close…?], with esteemed guest lecturers and lofty speeches. Lions’ membership lists include many business owners, including garage owners etc, as well as accountants etc. Apex seems somewhere in between those two. The rhetoric within their weekly bulletins speaks to professional standards, making a name as a man of integrity in your work, linking your occupation to the community – to a kind of professionalisation.

Today I will try and find out if I can get membership lists from each of the organisations over time. I'm also set to look at the educational institutions.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Inequality in education is not the same as inequality elsewhere (though it does lead to it)

This is not really my field of expertise, but as a citizen, vast inequalities in primary and secondary educational opportunity (and thus post-school preparedness) make me cranky.

Inequality in education is not the same as inequality in other things. Wealthy families might choose to buy bigger TVs and fancier cars and that is fine.

They might also choose to be treated in private hospitals, they might buy more superannuation, their children might see more plays and have more music lessons. Those things bother me a little, in that they make things that could be fairer a little less fair, but it is OK.

But when wealthier families not only have the opportunity to buy a better future for their children in education but that the government will use public money to help them do it, that is a very big problem.

This is because segmenting children in schools segments society - school divisions lead to class divisions.

I have to admit though, that I don't mind some private independent schools. If a group of people think the state education system is ideologically or pedagogically problematic, I quite like that they have the right to set up their own system, within reason, and - if they are run at low cost, not for profit and charge modest fees, thus contributing to society, I am in fact happy for our public funds to help them out a bit.

But I find it utterly unacceptable to use any public funds at all to support big, wealthy schools - schools that, through their socialisation, the social networks they establish as well as the educational 'outcomes' they are able to purchase, help perpetuate class divisions and social and financial advantage.

Education is not the same as medical care and superannuation where a gentle mix of private and public is, if not wholly acceptable, only relatively mildly harmful: the application of the same model to education does not make the same kind of sense.

Supporting vast inequalities in education sends a message from any government who does it that they support the systematisation of social and financial advantage based on class.

Gosh I wish our Labor government would stop it. If universities can survive a cut to fund real education for real people*, we can be pretty certain that large wealthy private schools could survive it even better.

* this is debatable. My guess is that some universities will survive it, some will struggle very badly. Worse is what the universities are likely to do with the cuts, but that is a speculation for another post.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The (other) problem with casualisation

Of course the REAL problem with casualisation of academic teaching is how it impacts the lives of the dedicated scholars who live it.

The next problem is how it impacts teaching quality. I've wondered before why the community doesn't get angry that more than half our students are taught by casuals and once I quoted the quotable Eric Ashby that "Australian youth is too precious to be given third rate teachers."

But of course my implications were unfair: the reason NOT to be outraged is that casuals in fact ordinarily do a really terrific job of teaching.

I do think there is a threat to teaching quality, but that threat is not due to the casual nature of the teachers, it is because it makes the whole structure of the university precarious.

To those working towards the top of these huge lumbering organisations they seem permanent, stable and unstoppable.

But there is no reason the university should last forever. Were workplaces to slowly stop trusting in the credentials we sign off on and start instead to draw on the many many many other ways of acquiring knowledge and showing evidence for it that are now available, our authority and place in both the world of knowledge and the labour market would be lost.

And this trust is built on the people who produce and teach and examine. Who can be trusted because their work is independent, considered, built on scholarship and research - that all comes from stable employment and an academic freedom that results from at least some financial security.

And the stability of the university itself, as legislators knew for centuries (and why our universities are mostly membership based) is based on those who teach, profess knowledge, learn and engage in debate and discovery. Casualisation removes their allegiance to institutions and their willingness to support its structures, legitimacy and reputation - the things that keep it going.

See this letter, a resignation from casual academia, which rightly argues:

"your house of cards is wobbling and will topple because you have built no foundation for your institution"

PS there are dozens of newspaper reports, academic articles and official reports on casualisation. I acknowledge them but haven't linked to them, mostly to keep things quick.