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smh opinion 2014

Lock out laws shut down Sydney’s Oxford Street


Poor old Oxford Street. If you want to kill a party stone dead, you stop the alcohol, right? People say they’ll stay, but once they start sipping water, they remember tomorrow’s early start and it’s all over. Dead as. Same with a city’s nightlife.

Six months into Barry O’Farrell’s draconian small hours, inner-city lockout laws, the evidence is still mostly anecdotal. Some say the violence is down, some say it’s up (because everyone pours out at once). Others say it has dispersed or gone underground. But even if it’s option A, and the legislation has worked, the cost may be more than we should pay.

Answering violence with a lockout is like answering a forest ambush with clear-felling. A street like Oxford Street is far more than a conduit. It’s an ecosystem; an intricate interlace of battle and support, a rhythmic diurnal dance of day dwellers, evening meanderers, nighthawks and, yes, predators; waking and sleeping, opening and closing as the Earth turns. O’Farrell’s lockout sprayed this jungle with Agent Orange.

Barry O'Farrell backed inner-city lockout laws.Barry O’Farrell backed inner-city lockout laws.

And yes, it’s that dramatic. Walk up Oxford Street. Club after club is closed; not just after 1.30am, but completely. Permanently.

True, Oxford Street has other issues; specifically Westfield Bondi Junction and online shopping. But shopping is daytime; clubbing is night. Oxford Street has been defined by its capacity to do both. So when a knee-jerk law clears a swath through the city economy, rethinking is required.

I say rethinking but, frankly, any thinking would help. After the king-hit deaths of Thomas Kelly in 2012 and Daniel Christie on New Years Eve 2013, “alcohol-fuelled violence” became one of those phrases. Like “stop the boats”. Like “jobs jobs jobs”. Like Team Australia.

Dangerously headline-friendly, such one-line, no-brain slogans should never be let into law. Their very crowd appeal shows their vacuity.

O’Farrell described his lockout as “pioneering legislation”; code for, we have absolutely no idea whether this will work. Undaunted by cliché, however, immune to the nuances of urban life, our then Premier blundered through the wilderness to deliver his “tough and comprehensive package”.

The new laws included eight-year mandatory sentencing for one-hit deaths, 48-hour bans for troublemakers, $1100 instant fines, 10pm bottle shop closing and 1.30am lockouts with 3am shut-outs. So many measures, so little measuring. And actually, even if we could measure, and violence was demonstrably reduced, we’d have no way of knowing which of the many provisions had done it.

But this is just the start. Even the need for the laws is doubtful.

An ABS paper from July 2013 shows that, over the five years to December 2012, assaults at licensed premises dropped by 23.7 per cent. NSW recorded crime statistics show that from January 2009 to December 2013, alcohol-related incidents were stable in inner Sydney (and across almost the entire state; with significant drops in Blacktown, Liverpool and Wollongong). (Only Parramatta showed an increase).

Plus, as O’Farrell acknowledged in the days after the Daniel Christie attack, neither his nor Thomas Kelly’s death would have been prevented by the laws. Both attacks occurred early in the evening, about 9pm to 10pm.

“One am lockouts and 3am shut-outs . . . would have had no impact,” O’Farrell declared at the time.

Yet, within the month, he would introduce precisely these measures as law, telling parliament, “more needs to be done to improve the safety and amenity of the Sydney central business district, particularly late at night . . .”

The law created a new entity, the Sydney CBD entertainment district. (The name is Orwellian since what they are not interested in is city entertainment.) The “district” includes all of the Cross, most of Elizabeth Bay, part of Surry Hills and the entire city centre including Chinatown, the Rocks and Walsh Bay. Barangaroo and both casinos, however, are excluded.

Is this simple ineptitude? Or is it a bizarre form of anti-urbanism?

It is conspicuously city specific. When, at a Rooty Hill house party, Hugh Garth allegedly one-punched 21-year-old nursing graduate Raynor Manalad to the ground, allegedly causing a haemorrhage and death; no one put western Sydney on curfew.

You can just see it, can’t you? Ban house parties from Blacktown to Mount Druitt. Ten o’clock curfew Quakers Hill to Eastern Creek. It’s almost like violence is fine out there. Expected. But when it’s inner Sydney, where the bourgeoisie hang, the response is immediate, extreme and partial to government friends.

Perhaps it’s just the old wowsers’ revenge on the city. Just as 19th century evangelists like William Wilberforce conceived the idea of the suburb as a weapon against the evils of city nightlife, so the Liberal government framed laws designed specifically to destroy the city’s nightlife.

Or it could be something more sinister; yet another arrow in the government’s get Clover quiver.

The Darlinghurst end of Oxford Street is Sydney’s traditional gay strip, Sydney’s core clubbing scene and lord mayor Clover Moore’s political heartland. It is now devastated. In one block, between Flinders and South Dowling, I counted 16 empty premises, out of 34. Almost half.

To see why, you have to understand how people socialise these days. It’s not my pattern, although I do occasionally seek out a late night watering hole. But young people don’t even start going out till 10pm or so and then, because of mobile connectivity, it’s loose. A leisurely meal with one group, followed by a chilled drink till midnight or one with another, then someone suggests clubbing.

Clubbing doesn’t mean you go to one place and stay there. It means you move around, checking out this underground dive, that gay bar or the new cabaret. You change groups, bar hop, split and reconnect, play it by ear. The two core ingredients are density and alcohol. It’s about disinhibition and critical mass; small bars, which are theoretically exempt, rely on the ebb and flow to survive.

I’m not pro-alcohol or pro-violence. But good cities need nightlife and this involves risk. Sending revellers to Erko or Crows Nest doesn’t reduce violence, it just changes the stats and – good heavens! – the inner-city vote.

Twitter @emfarrelly

Greedy politicians full of hot air, not heroics

<i>Illustration: Dionne Gain</i>Illustration: Dionne Gain

It’s the contrast that keeps striking me. On one hand there’s the airship hero Michael Nerandzic, who carefully jettisoned his three passengers, knowing that saving their lives would cost his. On the other, there’s this endless ICAC parade of the greedy and inane, hell-bent on traducing our trust and our shared habitat for the sake of, what – another overseas trip? A yet-bigger, yet-uglier house? More zeroes?

I know. You weary of it. Corruption fatigue sets in. A part of you starts to think, of course they’re dishonest, greedy and cheap. Naturally they’re infantile, arrogant, self-absorbed. They’re Australian political leaders. Yawn.  Tell me something I don’t know.

Somehow, it took 10 years to confirm Labor’s corruption. But then we hired in the clean team; that nice squashy Mr O’Farrell, then nice Mr Baird with his upright Christian values. Only now it turns out both parties have been in it together, Labor and Liberal tail-to-snout at the same trough.

The last two years of ICAC transcripts make one hell of a read. The secret deal-making is so extensive, so intricate, so industrious and so enduring it’s impossible to believe the party bosses didn’t know – just as it’s impossible to believe Bob Carr thought Eddie Obeid was clean, planting him in Cabinet.

Unabated outrage is our proper response, and not only because Michael Nerandzic shows that nobility is still possible. After all, it’s not nobility we’re asking from our politicians – though frankly a Nelson Mandela or Ted Mack would go down a treat right now. For pollies we set the bar much lower. They just need do the job straight. Or even try.

It’s not like they’re short of a buck. These guys are all well salaried; fed and watered at our considerable expense. Yet still they cannot control their appetites. Gimme more, guzzle, slurp. Is there perhaps some surgery we can mandate here? Some moral lap-banding?

Sure, they’re resigning. Cornwell. Owens. McCloy. There’s a joke going round that at this rate ICAC will bring the paper bag industry to its knees. I say bring it on. The bag mountain.

But, honestly, resign? Do these guys have any idea how inadequate this is as a response, how paltry?

Anyone else (except maybe a priest) would find themselves prosecuted. But if you’re a corrupt city mayor, MP, lackey, lobbyist or senator – someone with real power for good or harm – and you’re caught stuffing yourself with chocolate in a famine, resigning is it. Enough said. Off you go now and play.

Crikey. You pay more for parking in a bus lane than for destroying an entire transport system, not to mention a fertile valley or a lovely coastal city.

Even so, it’s less the principle than the size. Owen and Cornwell took $10,000 directly from prohibited donor, “walking ATM”  McCloy. They had to go. But Garry Edwards, Liberal MP for Swansea, took a mere $1500 – or was it $1800? Poor chap forgets. Edwards was merely sent to the cross-benches in punishment.

Mike Baird talks of “atonement.” He says his party has “forfeited the right” to contest the Newcastle and Charlestown elections. It’s hard to disagree. But backing off from the ballot box is no answer. Backing off, from the Liberals or the Nationals, is cowardice and bad sportsmanship. Whatever happened to democracy?

The moral stature may be pygmy but the implications are immense. McCloy, who describes himself as a “walking ATM”, vows to fight the developer-donations ban in the High Court. Meanwhile, winemakers and horse breeders in the Hunter Valley wish for just such a ban against other industries (mining, coal seam gas) making party donations.

But in truth, it’s hard to see the value of either course, since the ban itself is so patently ineffectual.

Direct person-to-person paper-baggery is the simpleton’s method. Restaurateur Peter Doyle told the ICAC on Monday just how eminently futile the donations ban is. Doyle, who gave his occupation as “unemployed,” told of the $1000-a-head dinner he held at his restaurant Doyles on Circular Quay.

Doyle said he suggested the Liberal Party fundraiser idea to Police Minister Mike Gallacher who thought this a “great idea”. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

But law is not the only casualty. The ICAC transcripts bristle with corrupt transactions over container wharves, coal terminals, mining rights, water licences, exploration permits and land.

It’s like a game of monopoly where there are rules set out in a little book but no one is expected to play by them. In fact, the game is how to get around them. Except here the board – all those mining rights and rail lines and spot rezonings – is our world. It’s where we live, and these guys are tramping all over it.

And it’s both sides – together. Allegations of Tripodi and Roozendaal conniving with Tinkler and Hartcher to ‘‘bone’’ Jodi McKay. McCloy destroying the city’s medium-rise future and rail line. And all backed by the boys’ clubs. Eightbyfive. Club 13. 6.5.  A nasty, testosterone-fuelled cross-party coalition of the corrupt.

This is not politics. It’s not conservatism. As Ted Mack said recently, political parties are “like two mafia families seeking control of the public purse for distribution to themselves, supporters, the special interests who fund them”. And while they squabble over filthy coal it’s our clean future – carbon farming, public transit, urban agriculture, solar farms – that dies.

If it’s atonement the Premier wants, he must halt all mine, development and rail truncation approvals, punish the McCloys, Owens and Hartchers with two years working their butts off for the Greens. He must see that he’s the pilot here. We’re the passengers he should jettison to safety.

Twitter @emfarrelly

CBDs are for us all, not just suits

<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.</i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.

So, run that past me again? The City of Sydney is storming into the future, with light-rail, carbon-neutrality, green-density, cleanskin administration and, from this tiny pocket handkerchief, a full quarter of the state’s economy. Newcastle, by contrast, stagnates while local political figures, from Chris Hartcher to Tim Owen to Jeff McCloy, blag and bluster in front of ICAC.

Yet this antediluvian Newcastle model, where big business fu…umbles the city for its own benefit, is what the Baird government wants to reimpose on Sydney. Could they possibly be serious?

The 20th century changed so much that a core challenge for cities is discerning what to keep and what to lose. But one last-century fiction we should have no qualms ditching is the CBD.

A Central Business District is not a city. Good cities don’t even have them. Good cities have genuinely mixed-use, high-density walkable urban cores that are as lively at night, because people live there, as during the day.

The CBD is an unsustainable cash-cow monoculture based on the old separatisms – of use, of transport mode, of gender. It was invented in the late 19th century by a city-hating coalition of radical evangelists, who saw suburban sprawl as the best cure for the evils of city night-life, and gluttonous developers, who knew a fully-serviced land-grab opportunity when they saw one.

Big business hates good cities. People just get in the way. So it’s no surprise that the latest Get Clover bill, designed to swell the City’s business vote and supported by the Baird government, originates in exurban redneck heartland, with the Shooters and Fishers Party.

The idea is simple. Give business owners (who may not be ratepayers or even citizens) not one vote but two, and force them to use it, so tipping the vote toward the city-as-cash-cow mindset.

To understand just how destructive this thinking is for cities, consider what the 20th century did to public transport.

Seventy years ago you could get a tram to Bondi. Sydney had a light-rail network that the world envied. Using local electricity from Ultimo and White Bay, it boasted 291 kilometres of track and some 400 million passenger trips a year.

But mid-century developer greed and political self-interest used a range of pretexts to rip up Sydney’s tracks and replace them with filthy diesel buses. (The transport minister later took a job with the bus-tyre manufacturer. Well, natch.) Now we struggle to reclaim a few small scraps of our bus and car-clogged streets for – you guessed it – electric light rail.

The terrible irony is that by the time Sydney’s last tram was scrapped in 1961, economist Jane Jacobs had already written her world-changing book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ prophetic message was that – contrary to the 20th century’s worship of size, singularity and speed – the small, the local, the intimate, the old, the mixed and the pedestrian were critical sustainers of a healthy urban economy.

Had the minister’s job offer come 20 years later, Sydney’s trams would still exist, and we wouldn’t be starting again from scratch.

It’s a tale from which you’d think we might learn. But no.

Seventy years ago, you could do Sydney to Newcastle by steam train in two hours eighteen minutes. Today’s fastest trip is two hours and thirty-six minutes – a full hour, says rail expert Colin Schroeder, longer than necessary.

Yet now, far from installing this faster train, Newcastle’s city fathers are following Sydney’s stupidity, with less excuse and greater expense.

Egged on by local developers, the Baird government proposes to rip up the last, crucial 2.5 kilometres of Newcastle’s rail track, the bit that delivers people right to heart of this lovely little town. Why? Not to improve transport, or the city – but to free the city’s last non-undermined waterfront land for development. Work starts on Boxing Day.

This is nothing short of madness. Elsewhere, cities compete for sustainability, greenhouse reduction, freedom from the car. They measure their self-worth on creating clean, fast, dignified transit. Not Newcastle.

Newcastle has excellent bones. Its pretty, gridded sandstone core drapes over a headland set between river and ocean. Sure, the surrounding sprawl is ugly, but rail lets you ignore all that, popping up like a meerkat right in its heart. Newcastle is as close to a European-style town as you’ll find in this country.

Developer-governments want to change all that. Mayor Jeff McCloy megaphoned the rail idea back in 2011, when (according to ICAC counsel Geoffrey Watson, SC) he was still just some multimillionaire developer – and prohibited political donor – summoning local parliamentary candidates like Tim Owen into his soft-top Bentley for wads of hundred-dollar bills.

ICAC’s ongoing Operation Spicer has heard evidence suggesting all sorts of sinister links between developers such as McCloy and Nathan Tinkler, politicians including Tim Owens and Joe Tripodi, and the friendly-fire campaign – ”stop Jodi’s trucks” – to winkle Labor MP Jodi McKay from office. Less a can of worms, all this, than a pit of ruthless trouser snakes.

None of it furthers the public interest. Indeed, if we, the public, stand by, it will destroy a system that could benefit Newcastle’s city economy a thousand times more than all the third-rate high-rises those guys can erect between them.

We should demand a moratorium, halting all inner-city rezoning, development approvals and rail-destruction until ICAC sheds its light. We should demand that Sydney’s voting rules apply equally to everyone.

Cities are for us all, not just suits. Clover Moore’s bike lanes, small bars and transit push have transformed Sydney, inviting us in. The more we mix it up, the more vibrant the city economy becomes.
So, what do the Shooters and Fishers get from the deal? In news just in, the Libs have promised them hunting rights in Hyde Park, with Mad Dog Morrison to supply asylum seekers as quarry while George Brandis yells racial abuse. You heard it here first.

Twitter: @emfarrelly

Culture wars on the roads

May 14, 2014
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Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.

The bicycle is a machine of utmost elegance. If you had to invent the minimum-gesture device to address the maximum number of contemporary crises – carbon, congestion, pollution, obesity, health costs, land-pillage, sprawl – that device would surely be the bike. Is that why Australians hate it?

The weekend cycling death of Mudgee grandmother Jill Bryant will no doubt intensify Roads Minister Duncan Gay’s urge to ban cyclists from certain roads. In NSW, 14 cyclists were killed last year: double the year before. But to ban bikes for that reason would be the transport equivalent of closing primary schools because kids were shot at Sandy Hook.

Instead, the Minister should expedite measures for making cycling safer without pushing cyclists off the road.

There is tempting symbolism in the Mudgee accident: eco-minded female run down in daylight, from behind, on Mother’s Day by that hyper-male vehicle, the 4WD ute.  In general terms, if not in the particular, the symbolism is real. Any cyclist knows it. The bike wars are culture wars.

Bike-hate is not principally about delay. Motorists show remarkable patience for other cars. They’ll sit comfortably behind stoppers, parkers, turners and incompetents of all kinds. But sitting behind a bike makes many people mad. Really mad. Why? Because bikes represent cultural change. Cultural change is threatening.

This is ironic, since the bike easily predates the car. But the bike is also the form of the future. That makes it dangerous.

Admittedly, there are rainy days and long trips that cycling does not suit. But for the half of household trips that are under 5 kilometres, cycling is perfect.

The car, by contrast, is deeply last century. Aggressive, loud, fast, filthy, thrilling, conscienceless and blindingly convenient, it either exacerbates these crises or has caused them.

Don’t get me wrong. I love driving. I adore road trips. But this isn’t about what I want. Sadly, it’s not even about what you want. It’s about the wants of the other 7.2 billion planetary humans. Which makes it, simply, obvious. We can’t all drive everywhere.

In cycling policy, as in all things green, Australia lags. Well, naturally. Just being young, wealthy, educated, immense and sunny is no reason for us to lead the way to the future.

Yet even in America, people are driving less. This is especially marked amongst millennials (born 1981-2000) and, since it predates the downturn, is not economically driven. Which is why it is increasingly seen as the way of the future.

For 80 years, from 1920, vehicle use in the US grew steadily. In 2004 it peaked, and by 2010 was roughly ten 10 per cent below the long-term trend. The same shift, though smaller, has characterised Australian cities. Young people are choosing to drive less.

This phenomenon is so striking that it has been seriously studied. Dozens of explanations are proposed, including smartphone connectivity and the non-car-dependent availability of sex.

But what matters is that it’s not a cost thing. It’s a lifestyle thing. A choice.

Greg Fischer, entrepreneurial mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, is completing the Louisville Loop, a 180-kilometre shared cycleway, specifically to attract inner-city residents. San Francisco and Boston have major ‘’walk first’’ programs, prioritising pedestrians, then bikes, then cars. San Francisco has its amazing Critical Mass event and dozens of small Michigan communities are pursuing ‘‘complete streets’’ – designed to validate bikes, transit and pedestrians, as well as cars and trucks, as essential street users.

Pedestrians are core. You can run a city without cars (Venice, say, or Sydney in Olympic mode). But a city without pedestrians is inconceivable. Such a city has no retail. No bars. No music. No buskers. No theatres. No sense of place, connectedness or community. A city without pedestrians is not a city. It’s a business park. And bikes are pedestrians on wheels.

Cars have economic upsides, certainly. But they also have economic, as well as health and environmental, downsides. A Texas Transportation Institute study found that in 2007 congestion caused an annual $78 billion fuel-loss.

Yet in Sydney, Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian cancelled funding for the Inner West GreenWay, a cycleway along the new light-rail. She defunded the last, connecting bit of the Liverpool Street cycle lane.

Instead we have Lend Lease’s hideous, $25 million engineering extravaganza, the Albert (Tibby) Cotter Walkway on Anzac Parade, opposed even by cycling groups, yet contracted before it was even approved. The entire Seacliff Bridge cost only twice this amount – and all so that visitors to the 2015 Cricket World Cup won’t have to cross at the lights.

This is madness. Grade separation has never worked well for cities. What sane pedestrian will loop-the-loop when you can cross at grade? Groundedness is a pedestrian’s right, and a cyclist’s. Cities need pedestrians and, increasingly, pedestrians demand cities.

This is why Surry Hills and Redfern continue to skyrocket. It’s why youngsters bus in every night and why opinion-leaders are immigrating from Gordon and Hunters Hill. Everyone wants that walking-and-cycling lifestyle.

For me, cycling to a downtown meeting is quick, reliable, clean, fun and free. Better still, it saves me from gym-time. But it’s not safe. Cycling deaths are up, but fewer than 20 per cent are caused by cyclist error. License cyclists if you must, Mr Gay, but it won’t reduce deaths. We need cycle paths: more, connected, now.

It’s no longer an inner city thing. In Bateman’s Bay, Coffs, Junee and Coonabarabran, cycleways proliferate. Three-quarters of NSW people want to be able to cycle.

We know the benefits. Weight loss. Clean air. Interesting streets. Walkable nightlife. Explorable shopping. Street talk. And time not-spent-commuting to enjoy it.  In short, villages.

The government’s NSW 2021: A Plan to Make NSW Number One sets 32 goals. Goal seven is Reduce Travel Times. Goal 10: Improve Road Safety. Goal 11: Keep People Healthy. Goal 20: Build Liveable Centres. Goal 22: Protect our Natural Environment. Goal 27: Enhance Cultural, Creative, Sporting and Recreation Opportunities. Each is furthered by bikes and pedestrians. Each is undone by cars. Join the dots, Mr Gay. And the cycle paths.

Connect and be part of this sunburnt country

Elizabeth Farrelly

“Happy Invasion Day!” comes the offspring’s blithe farewell as she heads off to earn double time at some ghastly chemical-laden, transfatty, foreign-owned, far-from-organic, fast-food joint in the city. Some place symbolising our own colonisation by fat white powers.

I am not especially persuaded by Australia Day, with or without green-and-gold ”stand proud” condoms. Fat men frocked in sequined Southern Crosses. Entire neighbourhoods reeking of charred steak. Is this the price of equality? Can we tolerate more fireworks? More burnt meat? More beer?

<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari</i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

When a European friend asks what to do on the 26th my heart sinks beneath the triteness of it all. I yearn to reel off Australia’s brushstrokes on the big canvas of world culture. Breakfast, say, at new Marysville, the world-first fire-proof village where every house has a sacrificial skin and a beautiful refractory keep. Lunch atop Sydney’s world-first fully autonomous, solar-skinned skyscraper. Evensong at the Church of the Sacred Dreaming, where Ignatian mysticism embraces water worship as vividly as Catholicism once embraced voodoo.

My personal-best Australia Day so far was an accident. I was in Canberra, 2012, same offspring in tow, for an interview about guerilla music. We lucked into the ”riot” in which PM Gillard was manhandled – not by rioters, of which there were none, but by police.

Work done, we’d hired bikes, rolled down the Parliament’s dewy kikuyu and, in gleeful surprise, joined the indigenous land rights march reported as a front page ”riot”. It was less riot than church.

That indigenous people should have constitutional recognition is so obvious it barely warrants discussion. Andrew Bolt’s insistence that “Australia’s founders … were inspired by the creed that all citizens are as one before the law” is dangerously duplicitous.

The original constitution specifically excluded ”the aboriginal race” from legal equality and from being counted in the census (sections 51 and 127). We need to de-obliterate these people. Not out of guilt, although we may also feel that. And not from kindness or condescension. But in recognition of our own need for truth.

I’m a Celt, but that doesn’t make the Norman invasion wrong. It was an invasion, no two ways, bloody and cruel. It was also hugely creative and immensely beneficial, although not to everyone. Not to my guys. Truth is truth. It is what it is. The stories must be told.

Yet I shun the Invasion Day tag. Its crude (and essentially conservative) assumption that the given is better left untrammeled – nature without culture, animal without human, native without colonial – rolls into an all-too-easy swag of leftie values, as unexamined and unsustainable as the rightie-bag against which it reacts. Reality is much subtler.

The war as now framed – monarchists versus reconciliationists – is puerile. We need to state the truth because it will free us for the urgent and creative business of how best to live together in this astonishing place.

I love Australia. I wasn’t born here, and became a citizen pretty much by accident. Yet Australia moves me in a way I was never moved by my beautiful native Aotearoa – often translated the Land of the Wrong White Crowd.

What I love is not, I think, what draws most people here: harbour, oceans, warmth, wealth. It’s not the carefree lifestyle that enchants and re-enchants me, but almost its opposite. There is an exquisite pathos in the way we inhabit this country, or more precisely in the way we fail to inhabit it, that touches what I can only call my soul.

This struck me, aptly, well on the wrong side of the rain shadow. We spent Australia Day eve waiting for rain, in a country where every day is spent waiting for rain. The past six months have seen depleted rainfall and soaring temperatures across most of NSW. Whichever parameter you take – precipitation, soil moisture, temperature, fire danger – the official map is 90 per cent red or orange, with more, hotter, predicted. To us townies this is familiar but abstract. Out there it is catastrophically real. Farmers count and record every millimetre. They sum, average and chart it like people noting religious festivals.

The rain, when it comes, starts softly. People come in to dinner wet and smiling. They bet on its duration. (No stakes, except survival.) This rain, the same again next week, and again a week after that, they might just break even. But they know it’s a stretch.

This is not really about water. Water is the surface, the run-off. It’s about learning to really be in this land, together, in a way that is nuanced, receptive and deep-rooted. Rain is not just their problem. Blimey. They grow our food.

D.H. Lawrence described Sydney as “sprinkled on the surface of a darkness into which it never penetrated.” It’s not just Sydney, it’s enterprise Australia. We will not connect properly to the land until we connect with those who connect so deep and long they became one with it, the aboriginal peoples.

And we cannot make this connection until we get over our embarrassment at the most blinding and obvious truth of all: that these big issues are not political, or scientific, or economic. They are issues of the spirit. That’s where the connection must happen.

Only then will Australia grow to stand for something more significant than the bikini, the lamington and (God help us) the stump-jump plough.

Twitter @emfarelly


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