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Australia

The photograph arrives while I am reading Dave Witty’s What the Trees See. A tree’s branch close-up, outer brown-red bark peeled back to smooth and brilliant green. A friend, spotting it on Quandamooka Country in Minjerribah, North Stradbroke Island, has been understandably stopped in her tracks. Framed intimately like this, its shape and textures suggest warm musculature: lean in, you will be held. This beautiful creature.

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In October 2014, an article by health reporter Aisha Dow appeared in Melbourne’s Age newspaper titled ‘Deadly flu pandemic could shut down Melbourne’. It began with a dystopian vision of Australia’s second most populous city plunged into a Spanish flu-like crisis:

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‘The tension between religion and intellectual knowledge definitely comes to the fore,’ says Max Weber, ‘wherever rational empirical knowledge has consistently worked through to the disenchantment of the world and its transformation into a causal mechanism.’ Darwinism, or so one version of the history of modern culture goes, is the culmination of the process of disenchantment, the last step in the transformation of the world into a causal mechanism.

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On Holidays by Richard White & The Cities Book by Lonely Planet

by
August 2006, no. 283

Despite the rhetoric of globalisation, it is impossible to buy an airline ticket online in the United States with a credit card issued abroad. When I needed a ticket from Boston to Washington last year, and after numerous unsuccessful arguments with airline websites and 1800 numbers, I dropped into the local Harvard travel agency. There was a welcome familiarity in discovering that it was a branch of STA, one of more than 400 branches operated around the world by the Australian-based company.

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The central contention of Kim Torney’s Babes in the Bush: The making of an Australian image is that ‘the lost-child image continues to resonate with Australians’. The cover illustration is from Frederick McCubbin’s famous painting Lost (1886), which Torney elevates to ‘the iconic image of the lost child story’. The task set out in these assertions, and iterations of them, is to find why the image continues to resonate in Australia now that the phenomenon of children lost in the bush is such a rarity, compared with the nineteenth century. (Torney quotes the alarming statistic from the Melbourne Argus index for the 1860s of seventy children fatally lost in the bush.)

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This important book succeeds in forcing us to see and hear the individuals hidden from knowledge and understanding behind the razor wire of Australia’s detention centres. The opening chapter, ‘The Iron Curtin’, presents material that, even if familiar to some, still has the power to shock. I was jolted once more by the cold facts of our treatment of refugees a ...

On the afternoon of Tuesday 23 December 1958, all work in the remote South Australian coastal towns of Thevenard and Ceduna came to a halt for the funeral of nine-year-old Mary Olive Hattam, who on the previous Saturday afternoon had been violently raped and then bashed to death in a little cave on the beach between the two towns. On the morning of her funeral, a 27-year-old Arrernte man called Rupert Max Stuart had been formally charged with her murder: he had arrived in Ceduna with a small travelling funfair on the night before her death. He spent Christmas Day in Adelaide Gaol, penniless, illiterate and terrified. How the Hattam family spent Christmas Day can scarcely be imagined.

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The arresting cover of James Jupp’s important From White Australia to Woomera features the distraught faces of the children of detained asylum seekers. As the blurb puts it: ‘There never has been a greater need for a sober, historically informed yet critical account of immigration policy in Australia.’ This is indeed a book for the times. The nation’s left/liberal intelligentsia – much-disparaged by the right as ‘the politically correct chattering élite’ – has been in a state of profound shock ever since John Howard and Philip Ruddock swept the government to victory in November 2001 on the back of their hardline policy on asylum seekers. The Tampa episode, the ‘Pacific solution’ and the rising desperation of the families incarcerated and punished at Port Hedland, Maribyrnong and Woomera are surely all too familiar to readers. Labor’s experimentation with temporary protection visas for refugees in 1990, and the introduction of mandatory detention for the ‘boat people’ in 1991, had been followed under Howard, from 1996, by the freezing of humanitarian programme levels, reductions in social security support and an increasingly draconian detention regimen. But none of these developments quite prepared observers for the Howard government’s subsequent demonising and torturing of these wretchedly desperate folk in the final stage of their attempt to find sanctuary from evil Middle Eastern régimes. And nothing, perhaps, was more shocking than the government’s dry-eyed response to the drowning of refugee women and children at sea.

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The title of this book suggests that it will be less concerned with industrial aspects of Australian cinema than with ideological, but, as if this might limit its scope and resonance, Peter Malone’s subtitle suggests that other lines of inquiry and response might be accommodated as well. This proves to be the case.

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This Gauche intruder into the Australian book scene is sure to annoy many readers. Their annoyance, even disgust, will be various and peculiar to their own preoccupation with what they consider a good read, good literary criticism, good Australian cultural identity. Jennifer Rutherford presents us with a passionate, scholarly, rude and uncompromising discussion about Australian culture, reading identity at both individual and collective levels. She is a Lacanian (sure to annoy some), an unapologetic deployer of psychoanalytic insights into Australian identity fantasies; she is an astute and forthright literary and cultural critic (critics past and present, quake!) who offers a range of non-partisan and theoretically consistent readings of the novels of Catherine Spence, Rosa Praed, Henry Handel Richardson, George Johnston, Tim Winton, David Malouf, and Patrick White; and she is a canny, amusing, serpent-toothed reader of the broader Australian culture, from Hansonism, to the streets and suburbs of Canberra, to contemporary academia. She bites hard.

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