essay: Aging Butterfly

Thoughts of an aging butterfly                                                                                25.6.2011


Are the thoughts and concerns of an undistinguished sixty-one year old white Australian worth anything?  Clearly I believe the answer is ‘yes’; that’s because I support the idea that a generalist’s perspectives are of value in this age of experts and specialists.  Well, generalists are a penny a dozen, you may say – true!, but not all non-specialists remain interested in general issues of their life and times, and fewer still have the effrontery to document their ideas.

I should declare myself, so that likely bias is clear to all.  I had a privileged upbringing in a middle class Melbourne family, private schooling and university training to be a doctor. I have three grown-up children, and my first marriage ended in divorce after seventeen years. Most of my working life has been as a GP in different settings, including an isolated  two year stint in  PNG and some ongoing work in aboriginal communities in recent years.  I was, when younger, an enthusiastic activist in the peace and antinuclear movements, and in midlife spent four years as a paid conservation campaigner working on forest conservation.  I have travelled quite widely – most adventurously by motorcycle across Europe and Asia as a young adult.  The following are issues of interest to me, in no particular order:

Climate change:  I remain aghast at the low level of political debate about this issue in my country.  Here is a huge, complex subject crying out for bipartisan support – nationally and internationally – to lead us all away from the abyss; but cooperation doesn’t happen in the face of naked ambition and lust for political power.  Federally, we have Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government, dependent on Green MPs for survival and, thank Gaia, pushed by them to introduce a carbon tax.  We have the opposing Coalition parties lead by the rabidly conservative Tony Abbott, desperate to bring Gillard down and promoting bitter opposition to the carbon tax to do so.  Abbott, with his ‘big new tax’ mantra, seems not to believe in the threat of climate change, and is taking every opportunity to block Australia’s small, faltering steps to do something.

This is a wealthy country, and the biggest per capita polluter on the planet.  This is an issue of biosphere survival, the defining issue of our times, but the LNP Coalition under Abbott is using bogan ignorance and indifference to fuel his journey to The Lodge.  It’s execrable.  If ‘bogan’ sounds arrogant, it’s meant to include all those people who for whatever reason don’t inform themselves about the big issues, but rely on tabloid headlines to form their opinions.  The Herald Sun has run a campaign against the carbon tax, along the lines of ‘we shouldn’t be leading the world on this issue’ – God,  what tosh!!  In my opinion the Herald Sun and related arms of the conservative media represent the worst of big business – those who stand to lose a slice of their profits if forced to retool for change.   If Australia, the ‘lucky country’ that rode a ‘resources boom’ out of the recent global financial downturn, cannot do anything much to ameliorate climate change, then how can we expect China, India and indeed America to make the unprecedented global commitment required.  Gillard’s poor showing in recent polls suggests that a very significant proportion of Australians don’t want a carbon tax; please Gaia the minority government can recover its support in time to bed down these reforms before the mad monk can pull them apart.

Politics and media:  This leads me to a few thoughts about politics generally, about leadership, governance and the media.  Politics is primarily  about the pursuit of power, and holding onto it.  It’s therefore not surprising that politics at federal and state levels – the levels that feature most in the daily media – often seems depressingly mean and grubby.  Leadership is about wisely choosing a course and sticking to it, about having effective policies and strategies to achieve your goals, uniting your team and clearly articulating your message to the electorate.  It should not be confused with popularity in opinion polls, which changes from week to week and seems to fascinate the media, and to heavily influence party political machines.  Short of gross incompetence or corruption, governments should be allowed to run their course to achieve the goals for which they were elected.

Governance is about how the party of government uses the institutions of government, including parliament and the public service, to achieve its goals, and to maintain civil society and the rule of law.  This encompasses ministerial accountability and standards of parliamentary behaviour.  Our federal and state parliaments often seem to be forums for low level verbal brawling and abuse, not the sort of behaviour expected of people voted to political leadership. Large sections of the media often focus on this poor behaviour and on opinion polls, rather than on accurate and informative analysis of what’s really happening.  Parliamentary debate and media reporting are two areas where application of tougher standards could improve the quality of our democracy.  It would probably help if social studies subjects dealing with these processes and institutions of government and society were compulsory in the middle to later years of secondary schooling.

The role of the media in this country is not always an honourable one.  All media organizations except the ABC are owned by big business interests who are not at all averse to using biased reporting to undermine a government they don’t like.  It’s a pity the ABC doesn’t publish a daily newspaper – in the interests of more balance and independence in political reporting in the print media – and all the more valuable in a country where political literacy is thinly distributed.

Population, Refugees and Terrorism:  Growth in world population is outstripping the planet’s resources, destroying habitat and the survival of many species, so it must be contained, as must the dogma of endless economic growth.  I follow the widely held beliefs that efforts to contain population must emphasize alleviation of poverty and education of women in developing countries, along with incentives for small family size everywhere and education re birth control.  Australia has a fragile environment, with ‘carrying capacity’ limited by shortage of water and poor soil fertility.  Perhaps our population should be stabilized at around 30-35 million (I admit to just plucking this figure from the air).  There is also a limit to how many people of very different religious beliefs and cultural values we can absorb before social cohesion is seriously threatened.  Set against this are the great strengths and colours of our multicultural society and our responsibility to settle a reasonable number of genuine refugees.  There is a valid role for the UN here in arbitrating suggested annual refugee intakes for all countries, taking into account environment, culture and the regional causes of refugee status.  Efforts to prevent war, poverty, famine and climate change are of overriding importance in stemming the global tide of refugees by dealing with the sources of the problem.

Efforts to reduce global poverty, disadvantage and other injustices are fundamental to reducing the desperation that leads to terrorism – which clearly finds support among the dispossessed.  Modern Islamic terrorism seems to have other causes as well – witness radical fundamentalist  intolerance of other faiths, cultures and lifestyles; and Sharia law appears to relegate significant groups eg women to a lowly status intolerable in the modern world.  I therefore support international efforts to contain and defeat Islamic terrorism, although I am uneasy at going to war to do so.  It seems that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have made terrorist groups stronger.

Australia’s indigenous community:  There is some small irony in our faltering efforts to deal with international refugees when we struggle to look after our own indigenes, though of course we don’t have the luxury or the right to choose.  Through reading and personal involvement I have a fair understanding of why aboriginal communities are the most disadvantaged in the country – at very least in my knowledge of the historical basis of this national disgrace.  What’s harder to comprehend is why we have found it so hard to help them, over such a long period.  Again, the nature of politics points to one answer.  For the bulk of our urbanized, mortgage-obsessed non-indigenous population, aborigines are near-invisible, sports stars notwithstanding.  They are fringe-dwellers, out of sight and mind, so it takes a socially progressive government to seriously tackle the multiple issues that maintain indigenous disadvantage.  The aborigines I see each week in a clinic in Melbourne’s west, are mostly pale-skinned and not readily identifiable as indigenous; they are like a poor white population, though with the additional severe health problems that beset many people of aboriginal heritage.

Systematically and brutally crushed by the occupying white colonial power, with  their sacred lands alienated, their collective spirit sank to a very low ebb; and despite some outstanding individuals and community leaders, politically they have been a rabble of disparate, disunited clans.  So ‘aboriginal affairs’ generally hasn’t been a vote-winner, until recently when the national conscience has been pricked by appalling findings of well-publicized reports eg the Little Children are Sacred study that led a conservative government to mount a hasty ‘intervention’ without much consultation with the communities involved.

It’s hard to imagine two more different sets of cultural values than spiritual, land-based traditional indigenous culture and our modern, urban, materialistic, land-alienating one.  Accommodating two such different societies within one nation would pose serious problems even if both were vital and healthy.  Our political system sees regular changes in the colour and priorities of federal and state governments, so advances and policy initiatives under Labor are then lost under the Coalition.  The bilingual education project started under Whitlam is a clear example of how excellent initiatives wither on the vine when funding is quietly withdrawn.  The best hope for indigenous communities seems to lie in helping them towards self-determination in all spheres of life,  and weaning them off the scourge of welfare dependency while allowing aboriginal community-led initiatives to develop and flourish.  I have been most impressed by successful projects of this nature in health care.  There’s a difficult, dynamic balance in providing aid to raise these communities from such a parlous state to reach one of independent, functional recovery.  Leaders like Noel Pearson and Ted Egan have written much on such themes.

Personally, I regret that I’ve come rather late in career to make any significant contribution to aboriginal communities, though I’ve been aware of the issues for a long time.  In part that’s because one can’t be active in all areas of need, and of course there are plenty of personal and family distractions to blame!  For the past three years I’ve been doing an annual 5 week stint in NT, and for the past 18 months a weekly few sessions at the Gathering Place Community Centre in the western suburbs.  I enjoy this work, challenging as it may be, at least in part because of the vast gulf between general practice in the wealthy bayside community where we live, and working in an urban aboriginal community at the other end of the social scale.  Perhaps there’ll come a time when I move to full time indigenous health care – not possible comfortably settled where we are at present.

Work, easing back and retirement:  All of this leads to thoughts about the changing balance of my activities as I age.  On the one hand I need to keep working standard hours for a few years yet as I’ve gone into debt to buy a cheap investment property in Hervey Bay, Queensland – hopefully not a foolishly impulsive decision.  In fact that’s not quite true; whatever investment income I may have, I’d have to keep working anyway.  We don’t have an expensive lifestyle day-to-day, but travel holidays are expensive and a lot of fun.  So given that I need to keep working, I expect that in the next ten years I’ll gradually cut back my clinic hours and consider options like work in UK as a base for travel around Europe.  Some things are givens; staying well in touch with Eve, Tate and Lec is very important to me, and a consideration to be built into any plans.  That said, it’s a pretty good time of life – GP work is a mix of challenges and the ease born of experience, and we seem to have a fair work/life balance for now – though Rochi would be happier if she had a better job in the Arts.   I should also acknowledge that significant money inherited from my parents has made life easier, in so far as providing investable funds for future security.




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