NewSouth

In July 1894, a year after New Zealand women had gained the national right to vote (the first in the world to do so), their spokesperson Kate Sheppard prepared to address a suffrage rally in London, alongside Sir John Hall, the parliamentary sponsor of the New Zealand suffrage campaign. They took the stage in the vast Queen’s Hall at Westminster to report on their historic fourteen-year struggle. In an age when oratorical skill defined public authority, Sheppard was, unfortunately, not a forceful speaker. She was evidently ill at ease on the platform and her voice ‘scarcely audible’, as historian James Keating reports in Distant Sisters, his meticulous account of Australasian women’s international activism in support of women’s suffrage between 1880 and 1914.

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In the wake of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, truth-telling has gained new currency in Australia. The Statement called for a ‘Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’.  Although yet to be fleshed out in any detail, the renewed call for truth-telling has been greeted with enthusiasm by many First Nations peoples and their allies around the continent, who endorse the view that shining the bright light of truth into the darkest recesses of Australian history will contribute to a transformation in Indigenous–settler relations.

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‘Bad language’ comes in many forms, but, as the title suggests, the focus of Amanda Laugesen’s new book is on slang and, in particular, swear words. She documents Australia’s long and often troubled love affair with this language, dividing the history into four parts: the earliest English-speaking settlements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the period of Federation and World War I; the heart of the twentieth century; and the ‘bad language landscape’ of modern Australia. These four time periods highlight Indigenous stories as well as migrant contributions to the diverse swearing vocabulary of Australia.

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Last month I was volunteering with a group of botanists surveying coastal heathland in the Tarkine Forest Reserve in North-West Tasmania when one of them cried out, ‘Orchid!’ We all rushed over excitedly, our phones and pocket magnifiers at the ready. It was a Green-comb Spider-orchid (Caladenia dilatata), with long, delicate-green limbs and a reddish-purply face, hovering like a ballet dancer in mid-leap. The first thing that astonished me was how tiny it was – no bigger than a human eye – and then, how solitary. Like many orchids, C. dilatata uses sexual deception to mimic the shape of a female wasp; when males attempt to mate with it, they accidentally collect pollen, fertilising the next orchid they visit. Millions of seeds scatter on the wind, but only a few will land on a sunny patch of soil where the correct mycorrhizal fungus is present for it to germinate.

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Kathy Mexted was a teenager when the possibility of becoming a pilot entered her head. The year was 1978, and she was airborne in a plane commanded by her father. The latter turned to his daughter and remarked: ‘If you’d like to learn to fly, I’ll pay for it.’ Nonetheless, it would take twelve years for the author to seriously pursue her piloting ambitions. This delay was due to several factors, not least of which was that flying has long been a ‘male dominated industry’.

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What Happens Next? edited by Emma Dawson and Janet McCalman & Upturn by Tanya Plibersek

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December 2020, no. 427

What is to be done? The question is asked whenever humankind confronts a new crisis. And the answers, whether from biblical sources, Tolstoy, or Lenin (or indeed Barry Jones in his imminent book, What Is To Be Done?), must confront universal moral quandaries at the same time as they address local needs, hopes, and aspirations.

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Thucydides once said, ‘In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.’ Chris Wallace is not inclined to agree with the Greek historian, particularly when dissecting the Labor Party’s shock federal election loss in 2019. In her latest book, How to Win an Election, Wallace nominates the ten things that Labor must get right to succeed at the next federal election, and self-pity is nowhere among them. This approach appears simplistic, even tongue-in-cheek at times, but she has captured the key elements of electoral success and makes a strong case that Australia cannot afford another ALP loss.

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In her paean to walking, Rebecca Solnit notes that any history of walking is by nature provisional. As a subject it trespasses almost infinite fields: ‘anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies’. Despite such ungainly dimensions, her book Wanderlust (2000) maps rich connections between walking, thinking, and creativity. These stretch from the peripatetic philosophers of ancient Greece to the Romantic poets; from Walter Benjamin on Parisian streets to political protesters crossing no-go zones.

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Body Count by Paddy Manning & Fire by Stephen J. Pyne

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October 2020, no. 425

Last spring, as the harbingers of a dangerous season converged into a chorus of forewarning, I decided it might be a good idea to keep a diary of the period now known as ‘Black Summer’. The diary starts in September with landscapes burning in southern Queensland and Brazil. Three hundred thousand people rally across Australia, calling for action on climate change. I attend a forum of emergency managers where, during a discussion about warning systems, a senior fire manager declares: ‘We need to tell the public we cannot help them in the ways they expect, but we’re never going to tell them.’ Next week, Greg Mullins, the former NSW fire and rescue commissioner, comments on ABC radio, ‘We’re going to have fires that I can’t comprehend.’ Federal politicians assure the nation that we are resilient.

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Spare a thought for the other existential crises. Remember climate change? Wealth inequality? The rising tide of fascism? Then there’s our newest apocalypse: bad technology. When we look back, the three years from late 2016 to early 2020 will go down as the time the scales fell from our eyes. Maybe the devices we have insinuated into nearly every moment of our lives had their own aims for us all along – our time, our attention, our outrage. In 2018, the runner-up for the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year was ‘techlash’: ‘A strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence of large technology companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley.’

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