A Teachable Moment

Wednesday, 30 December 2015
A belated Merry Christmas everyone. Like many of you I've been eating, drinking and spending time with family, including my 60ish, conservative leaning, Liberal voting, talkback radio listening father. Now, he knows I'm a massive lefty, so keeps most of his views quiet when I'm around (and certainly I like to avoid political arguments at Christmas, in front of Mr G) .

Nonetheless, in a discussion over coffee and cake about the changing face of Sydney, Dad did mention that he finds the full face burqa confronting.

And as a straight white middle aged man, he's probably never been confronted by anything in public.

So I said "it's interesting that you find yourself confronted by someone in public, because as women, we are aware of risk and danger when we go out in public all the time, constantly, every single time. Because the risk of something happening is real, and that's why you don't sit next to the lone man on the bus, or cross the street when you see a group of guys you think have had a few drinks."

I could see he was incredulous, so I told him. I told him of some of the instances of street harassment and assault that I, my sisters, and women I know have faced over the years.

The man on a crowded Sydney New Years Eve who stuck his hand between my legs than vanished before I  could confront him.

The Seven-Eleven clerk who pocketed my sister's keys when she held out a loyalty card on her keyring to be swiped.

The stranger at Strathfield station who called me a "lezzo" when I refused his invitation to go home with him.

The time I was pulled into a laneway in Newcastle and groped.

The man on the bus who groped my sister, underage at the time.

The many times I was called some variant on "ugly bitch" for politely declining to talk to strange men.

That this sort of thing has died down for me in recent years as I've gotten older and worn a wedding ring, but there was the Saturday morning a year or so ago I was taking the bus to uni to get the peace and quiet studying that having a small child in the house does not afford, and a guy sat next to me despite that there were lots of empty seats available, pressed his body up against me and said "I just want to take you out of your comfort zone". I climbed to an empty seat and when I arrived at the university library, sat too shocked to study, tears of indignant rage in my eyes, thinking how dare you do that to...anyone.

And as I told him all this, I could see my father going from incredulous to shocked, and angry.

I explained this is what happens, in a culture that still sees women as a commodity of men. Which asks what a woman was doing out at that hour, or wearing that. Which will apologise to the male partner of the woman he has propositioned, not the woman herself. Which angrily accuses women of destroying the joint. Who points to this or that politician's untrustworthiness as being emblematic of her sex, not her character. In that culture, it's hardly surprising that so many men feel they can get away with harassing and assaulting women. It's not like they'll be called out on it. It's not like they'll be reported to the police.

"Why don't women talk about this?" Dad asked.

Well, women are starting to talk about it, now, finally; I've noticed a real increase in women sharing their experiences of street harassment since I wrote the post I linked about in December 2012 (not saying I had anything to do with it of course, just that the dialogue has opened up since then).

Let's talk about it more. Let's not be ashamed. If we're groped on a bus, let's stand up and shout "hey everyone, check out this creep". Let's talk about it, so we can all - men and women - be aware of what goes on and be able to step in to support anyone we see facing this. Let's make perpetrators know they can't do this, they can't harass and grope women in public, that they will be called out and shamed and held to account. Let's make them think, and stop before they even start.

Anyway, I wrapped up my teachable moment by saying "you know, next time you hear someone say men and women are equal under the law so we don't need feminism and feminists just want superiority, remember this is why I'm a feminist, this is what feminism is fighting for, because women are still facing this shit everyday".

I'm glad we had this conversation.

Edit: I received this message from a friend who read this post:

Every woman has these stories. The time I was called a slut in year 9 (I was 14) because I wouldn’t have sex with one of the boys. The time I was verbally abused (called an ugly cunt) at Summernats because I wouldn’t have sex with one of the men. The countless times where I’ve been felt up in clubs & bars. The times men have walked out of their way to come & sit next to me when there are other seats around. When I am at the shops & I’m leered at by other customers. When I am in a shop & the assistant stares at my breasts while putting my items through the till.

Every woman, I believe. I'd like to share our stories, so if you'd like to share, drop me a line. Of course you can be anonymous if you wish.

My Tempestuous Relationship With Opal

Sunday, 6 December 2015
Ignore the haters who say an arts degree won't get you anywhere. Photo: Business Insider

So the Opal card system turned three this week. And it doesn't look a day over what do you mean the bloody Opal reader isn't working.

I have a love-hate relationship with Opal. God knows Sydney was long overdue for an automated ticketing system - it was first proposed to have one in place for the 2000 Olympics, but the final product wasn't implemented until 12 years later - and the Byzantine array of weeklies, monthlies, travel tens and excursions needed fixing. Now there's just one reusable card for everything, tap on, tap off, what could be easier and you don't even have to talk to anyone. Tremendous, right?

But there are some...issues. The system is infamous for the number of non-functioning readers. Sometimes this means a free journey (though that can be frustrating itself when you're trying to get reward, on which more shortly). But more often, because you can't tap off, a non-functioning reader means you get slugged the default maximum fare for the trip; sure, you can ring up and dispute it, but who has the time? There's also issues with topping up the balance; I was once housebound for several days after spending the last $20 in my bank account topping up my Opal then learning a glitch in the system meant it would take days for the money to show up on my card.

My biggest problem though is with the travel reward system. The way it works is that once you have made 8 paid journeys in a week, your travel is free for the rest of the week. I travel regularly to Sydney, Newcastle and points in between, so this can save me a lot of money if done right. The cheapest way to do it is by making lots of the cheapest journeys early in the week. When I lived in Sydney, I'd do the light rail Opal card cheat most Mondays, but now, if I can be bothered, I spend my Mondays confounding the bus drivers and irritating fellow passengers by walking down the road, catching the bus one stop, then walking back home again once an hour for 8 hours, It's pretty tedious, so I don't always get around to it.

But it's expensive if I don't. It can take me a bus, a long train ride, then another bus to get to uni, say, and Opal has this annoying quirk where if you change modes of transport, you get charged for a separate trip but it does not count as a paid journey.

Also, I liked the "set and forget" option of a monthly or longer ticket. I like knowing I've got unlimited travel. With the Opal reward system, I feel like I'm playing a game and every Monday morning at 4am my score gets reset to zero. No matter how hard I work to get that reward, I've only got a few days to enjoy the free travel before I have to start all over again. Combined with that I have Mr G on the weekends, and all my day-dreamed trips to Kiama and the Blue Mountains and the Southern Highlands just never seem to happen.

Plus, and it's a minor quibble, but tapping off for myself and a four year old who refuses to co-operate when trying to wrangle said four year old, textbooks and shopping is a pain in the tuckus.

Hopefully they work out some of these kinks soon (although after initially encouraging people to "cheat" by racking up cheap journeys to get free travel later, there have been some noises from the government that they intend to close the loophole). Allowing for switching of transport modes to count as separate journeys for the reward would be great. An option to pay a set sum for a longer period would be even better. Fix the malfunctioning readers. Then bring back the dancing foam Opal Man.

RIP Scott Weiland

Friday, 4 December 2015
When yet another of the idols of your youth has died, and yet another little bit of you has died with them. It's a bit weird, cause we all saw this coming for twenty years, we've seen several sources proclaiming his death from reputable sources, and it turns out to not be true. And now it is true, and it may not be a surprise but it's still a shock, and it still fucking hurts.

Death thou shalt die; you think you have our measure but you don't. 

No Australian Gun massacres? Not Quite

Following this week's (this week's! How we mark these things now) gun massacre in the United States, the usual response swings into place, so rehearsed by now it might as well be scripted. Footage of terrified victims being evacuated, local officials giving statements; President Obama addresses the nation looking grave; and the issue of gun control is raised again. The pro gun lobby will argue that the problem here is mental illness, not access to guns (although in this latest shooting, given the perpetrators were Muslim, it is of course being labelled terrorism); gun control advocates will favour reigning in America's absurd appetite for firearms, pointing to the Australian example, where following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, a guns buy back was enacted, tough new guns laws enforced, and there have been no mass shootings since.

I'm not an American and have stopped trying to get involved in their gun control debates; Lord knows, there's enough frustrating and overwhelming social problems here for me to worry about. (Besides, it's hard to escape the depressing conclusion someone posted on Twitter - that the US gun debate ended after Sandy Hook; that once killing kids became acceptable in the name of gun rights, it was all over).

But by the FBI definition of a mass shooting as the deaths of "four or more persons during an event with no cooling off period", then there has been a mass shooting in Australia, little more than a year ago. And with the increased awareness of domestic violence following Sarah Ferguson's brilliant Hitting Home documentary series, it would add insult to tragedy if their deaths were written off as simply due to a "domestic incident".

We shouldn't forget about the Hunt family - Kim, Fletcher, Mia and Phoebe - murdered by the man who was supposed to love and protect them, their father, Geoff.

Photo: Les Smith via Fairfax
The facts are stark. On the night of 7 September 2014, Geoff Hunt shot his wife Kim, son Fletcher, 10, and daughters Mia, 8, and Phoebe, 6, to death at their south western NSW farmhouse before committing suicide at a nearby dam.

The narrative which followed was galling. Geoff Hunt was described over and over as a lovely guy, a family man, who just snapped following the pressures of caring for his wife Kim, who sustained a traumatic brain injury in 2012. He was portrayed as lovingly caring for his children whilst she struggled with mood swings and rage. How much Mrs Hunt struggled with her injuries, or that her disabilities made her more vulnerable to domestic violence, were seldom mentioned. Nor that Mr Hunt was not making a loving sacrifice on the last night of his family's life, but an egotistical decision to slaughter them all that points to a sense of male entitlement at the heart of so many domestic violence cases; I own you, I control you, you belong to me and I will make decisions of life and death on your behalf. Pain and despair may have driven Mr Hunt to suicide; ego and rage caused him to take his family with him.

Not everyone has ignored the true horror of what this man did to those who trusted him most. The NSW Coroner Michael Barnes, in the recent inquest into the deaths, stated, "Massacres must not be swept under the carpet merely because they occurred in the home of the deceased at the hands of a family member...What Geoff Hunt did was inexcusable, the absolute worst of crimes". There's also this excellent piece from Nina Funnell. But their story is still framed in the national discourse, for the most part, as the heroic Dad saving his family.

In writing this post, I don't for a second want to give ammo to opponents of gun control ("An Australian says their gun control laws don't work!". But largely the deaths of the Hunt family have been swept under the carpet, because they happened at home, out of sight and unseen. If a mother and her three children were shot in some public area, maybe in the Sydney CBD there would be  floral tributes, services at the major cathedrals, the Premier in attendance at a candlelight vigil. The Hunt family died alone, died hidden, their deaths seen as a family tragedy not a mass murder, and only made worse by pretending they never existed.

Why I'm Really A Lefty

Wednesday, 2 December 2015
I've heard gay people explain how they knew they were gay when they were six; before they even knew what gay was.

 Well, I knew I was a socialist at six before I knew what socialism was, or really anything about politics. Visiting Sydney's home of waterfront mansions, Palm Beach, with my parents I overheard them talking wistfully about "how the other half live". I knew that you got money from work, so I didn't understand - my father worked two jobs, he would be away from home working for weeks at a time, how could you do all that work and not be rich? Were there other ways to get rich? It didn't seem very fair.

 My knowledge of political economy has expanded somewhat from there, but my basic political philosophy remains the same. If you work hard, and are a good person, then barring calamity nothing bad should happen to you. If you are unable to work for whatever reason, those who do enjoy that good fortune, through taxes, should allow you to live a life of modest comfort and dignity. I've written extensively about my political beliefs in the past; you can get the gist here, and that's not what I wanted to write about today. No, it was a small realisation that my political beliefs may have been formed not due to envy, but something more unsettling.

My family were fairly apolitical; my parents didn't become citizens until I was well into my teens, so I didn't even experience the Aussie childhood ritual of lining up with your parents for democracy sausage. Unlike my kid, who has been to climate marches and refugee rallies and picketed outside Kirribilli house for Aboriginal land rights, all I knew of protests were my father's disdain of them. There were no political discussions around the table, no friends who told us of their work on campaigns. And yet I remember, for example, at the age of nine being bitterly disappointed that George Bush beat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 US Presidential election. Why? Why was I instinctively leaning left at such a young age?

 I worked out why. The only regular exposure I had to any form of political content was my father's love of talk back radio. We spent extensive hours in the car, stop-starting on the streets of Sydney, with possible smoking (I can't remember and don't want to ask). I do remember that I was extensively, lavishly, ridiculously car sick across the city. (I vomited under the Coke sign on William Street long before I ever had a taste of alcohol). And whilst I was sitting in my misery, or pulling over so I could dispense my stomach contents across the Sydney metropolitan area, there were John Laws and Alan Jones, droning on about referring to the Bicentennial as Invasion Day, and that Peter Garrett was a misguided fool, and how terrible the Hawke government was, and how ridiculous the Sex Discrimination Act was, and whatever other issues were exercising right wing nut jobs in the 1980s. I've thankfully blocked out most of the details, but I can see now that I was indoctrinated from an early age, in my way, that conservatives make me sick.

Newcastle off the Rails

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

I've been at times a bit rough on my fellow Novocastrians (I will always consider myself one even though I don't live there right now). I've long stated Newcastle's city motto should be "getting all worked up over nothing". Goodness me, how they love to argue! Give them any issue - entry fees into swimming pools, say, or whether some trees should be removed - and they will fight to the death, on twitter and the comments section of the Newcastle Herald, with personal insults and accusations of bias, until you get the impression it's the argument that's the point here, not the issue at hand.

However, there is one area where Novocastrians could be justified in getting a little crazy, and that's the matter of public transport. To background: in December 2014, the heavy rail line that branched off the main Northern line into the centre of Newcastle's CBD was closed. The closure came after many years of debate, which people expressed weariness of; the problem is, the debate was never going to conclude with the result "okay, the line stays". The train line cut across very valuable, and beautiful, waterfront land (the beauty of Newcastle takes my breath away some tines) and powerful people wanted the heavy rail gone.

And so did I. What? Nico favours closing a rail line? Well, sort of. The idea was, in theory, that the heavy rail line would be replaced by light rail. The heavy rail, with its fences and overhead wiring, created an enormous physical barrier between the CBD and foreshore, so I was in favour of removing it if, and only if, the heavy rail was replaced by light rail along the same corridor, The light rail could travel more frequently, with more stops, and offer greater convenience whilst allowing people to easily walk across the line from the water to the shops.

It was never going to happen, The rail line should never have closed until construction of light rail was pretty much ready to get underway. Instead, it was closed without even a definite plan in place for the light rail - and nearly a year later, there still isn't one. We learn today that the government has been, for the last fifteen months (and prior to the closure of the heavy rail) sitting on a report stating the business case for the light rail is flawed, and it has failed 7 of the 9 criteria it has been assessed against. That's it. We have no viable plans, no agreed route, no construction schedule, no starting date.

Personally, I don't think the light rail was ever going to be built, and it certainly won't now. The government will quietly shelve the plans, or hold off until it completes privatising the public transport network (a plan they announced out of the blue never took to an election), then Veolia or Transdev or whoever else wins the contract will announce that they're terribly sorry, but the light  rail just isn't viable; it's sad but what can they do.

And we'll have more of the same as now, like the last time I was in Newcastle with a hot and bothered four year old and had to wait forty minutes for one of the "frequent" rail replacement buses, and we missed our connecting train at Hamilton and had to wait nearly an hour for the next one.

And the land will be sold to developers, because if there's one thing Newcastle desperately needs, it's more new apartments for downsizing baby boomers.

It may not be the worst thing the state government has done, certainly not with all the closing of shelters for victims of domestic violence and selling off public housing. But Newcastle gets screwed yet again, the wishes and votes of the community ignored, the needs of the population (including the new uni campus in town being constructed with no parking spaces to encourage the use of public transport that now no longer exists) disregarded.

Secession doesn't seem so crazy, and you can understand why people get so upset.

Note: I always miss out on NaNoWriMo and NaNoBlogMo cause of exams, so I'll be attempting to blog every day in December. Join us, won't you? #BlogDec  
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