Why I won’t be voting on September 7


I won’t be voting next weekend because I can’t. I’m not yet an Australian citizen.

When I found out in March, to my surprise, that I was eligible  to apply for citizenship, I was thrilled. Nine years of waiting. Four visas. Enough paperwork to fill a jumbo jet and the moment had finally arrived.

So I printed out the 84 page booklet Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond” that tells you all you need to know about this great land to prepare for your citizenship test and read it cover to cover.

Then I downloaded all the forms that I would have to fill in.

I had this great idea that I’d write to all the different political parties asking why I should give them my valuable vote and then turn that into a story for this blog or maybe Crikey (the editor was keen, “a new citizen’s guide to Australian politics” or something like that was how I pitched it).

But then there came the complicated instructions that are standard with anything that has to do with the Department of Immigration. You read them, read them again, ponder them, but still you’re left scratching your head and perhaps heading for the liquor cabinet.

Once again there’s the obligatory police clearance? I must have gained police clearance half a dozen times now for my various visas, surely they know me better than my own mother? Then’s there’s finding people to sign statutory declarations and certifying documents and photocopying.

And remembering!

Once again, I must account for my movements over the past nine years into and out of Australia. Honestly, its all become a blur: who can remember every trip they’ve taken? To make matters worse I lost my previous passport and the one before that is in a box somewhere in my parent’s home in Johannesburg, which means there’s yet another form I have to fill in.

Further dampening my enthusiasm was news that I would have to send off two forms and $43 to the South African Department of Home Affairs if I wanted to have dual citizenship. Approval has to be gained first from South Africa before taking the oath in Australia or you lose your South African citizenship. And the time to process these two forms – three to six months!

So the end result is that the paperwork lies in yellow plastic folder on the big desk in the spare room waiting for me to summon up a degree of enthusiasm to fill in all the details and painstakingly try to sort out what documents I need and who needs to sign what.

It’s hardly the response I’d expected of myself  because the truth is I’ve always wanted to vote in this country. Becoming a permanent resident was a big deal (I even cherished my pale green Medicare card) and gaining citizenship is even more of a badge of honour.

Perhaps it has something to do with my arrival in Australia almost a decade ago, which happened to be just a few weeks before the 2004 election, the last federal poll won by glum John Howard and his cronies. My girlfriend at the time, her sisters, their partners and everyone else lined up to vote, while I milled about the polling station in some backwater country town eating a sausage roll and getting funny looks from the locals (He’s white, he looks Australian so why isn’t he voting?). If that wasn’t enough, we stopped the car to vote on our way to Canberra for the annual flower shower (the Floriade), a trip which included an obligatory visit to Parliament house and a walk past those solemn paintings of past prime ministers.

But now that the opportunity has come – and I probably could have voted in a week’s time if I’d made a big effort on the paperwork front – I could hardly care.

Who the hell would I vote for? There’s very little to inspire me among the neo-conservative Coalition, directionless and clueless Labor and the loopy Greens. There’s the smaller parties with their eccentric candidates so maybe I’d chose them and preference the bigger parties last, but then what would be the point? A protest vote perhaps?

All quite different from when I voted for the first time in South Africa in 1994. That wonderful sunny autumn day when there was hope and belief and joy in the air and as the newspapers rang out “Vote, the beloved country” with photos of lines of people snaking endlessly down city streets, amongst the leafy suburbs and through country side and hilltops.

APTOPIX South Africa Elections

A queue of voters in South Africa, 1994

It was a glorious moment, history in the making, and one of my finest memories.

But there’s nothing to inspire me now, in fact its far more enjoyable watching the circus from the sidelines (so to speak).

The truth is, I’ll eventually find the time and energy to put all the paperwork together and put my application in because to steal from Peter Allen, I also want to call Australia home (in an official capacity).

Indeed, it will be a proud day when they hand me a tree, offer me a lamington and a tiny tub of Vegemite.

But as for voting, I’m happy to wait another three years.

Are thinner politicians more electable?

rudd v abbottOf all the guff that has been written about this upcoming election – and there has been a lot – an article from Brisbane’s The Courier Mail caught my attention focusing on the fact that prime minister Kevin Rudd is packing on the pounds apparently under the stress of losing his short-lived grip on power.

The story, written by Hannah Davies, had as its headline: ‘Moon-faced PM ‘comfort eating’ as the stress of the Federal Election campaign takes its toll.

The story quotes a number of nutritionist and dietician who comment on the prime minister’s fuller face and apparent appetite for pizza and beer with the insinuation that he’s becoming less able to govern by virtue of his weight gain.

They even give him free advice such a that he opt for “nuts and a fruit basket”.

Hannah Davies even went so far as to ask the PM’s spokesperson whether he was “comfort eating”. A ridiculous, irrelevant question you’d think given the broader issues being faced – she might as well also have asked if he was spending more time on the couch eating potato chips!

Anyway, it does raise an interesting point about appearances.

Contrast Kevin Rudd’s apparent podginess (It’s easy to find an unflattering photo of someone constantly be photographed, hence my use of the word “apparent”) with the superfit appearance of Tony Abbott and its easy for a conservative Rupert Murdoch-owned paper like the Courier Mail to suggest, subtely that gaining weight is a sign perhaps of bad personal management, bad habits and an inability to lead.

It’s interesting that the two other high-profile politicians to lose a lot of weight are both on the conservative side of politics: shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, whose is a shadow of the huggable bear of a man he once was and NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, whose weight has bounced up and down like a yo-yo over the last 15 years, but is now almost unhealthily gaunt.

O’Farrell explained in an interview to the Daily Telegraph in December last year that he lost the weight by challenging himself after the 2003 election to go to the gym every day for a week, a pledge he has stuck to for nine years.

Joe Hockey admits to having some help via gastric bypass surgery over the Christmas break followed up by with dieting and exercise.

He says its because he wants to be around to see his grandchildren grow up and was also tired of being called “Sloppy Joe” by former Treasurer Wayne Swan.

It’s surely no coincidence though that Joe Hockey has lost his weight in an election year.

Slimmer and fitter apparently makes you a better leader, thinker and decision maker in the eyes of many while adding a few pounds is a sign that you’ve lost your mojo.

This, of course, is baloney.

Yes, losing weight is good for your health and overall sense of wellbeing and people who lose weight are to be commended.

But fat people that suddenly become thin do not suddenly develop more brain cells, a better moral and ethical belief system and a greater sense of what’s right and wrong.

Being fat never bothered Winston Churchill, nor did it stop him defeating a far skinnier Adolf Hitler.

And there’s no indication that billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer intends to shed any pounds as he seeks a political role.

Yes you may live longer and feel better about yourself, but let’s not confuse this with character, decency and moral strength.

After all Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush – two leaders who both puffed out their chests in front of the camera – are hardly the model of political astuteness.

On with the circus!

The not so subtle art of charity mugging

charity muggerHas a random stranger ever jumped out at you on the street like a slightly demented baboon, wanting to shake your hand and ask you how your day is going?

Did it feel nice? Did it feel genuine? Did you stop for a chat only to find out they’re actually some backpacker on a working holiday visa trying to convince you to sign up for a monthly donation to a charitable organisation?

Chances are, if you take a regular lunch break in just about any major capital city, you’ll encounter someone in a brightly coloured shirt – red, yellow or blue – with a lanyard around their neck, clipboard in their hand and a cheesy grin on their mug.

Welcome to the world of face-to-face fundraising or depending on your level of cynicism – charity mugging or “chugging” for short.

It’s hard not to be cynical when running into this mob.

For a start there’s all that silly chit-chat and superficial interest in your life which is only designed to get you to stop long enough for them to deliver their sales pitch.

If you’re foolish enough to stop, you’ll then most likely be told a little about the charity they represent, what it’s doing around the world and then there will come a line that goes something like:

“Would $10 a week mean a lot to you?”

“Could you spare it?”

And that’s the beginning of the guilt trip and coercion to get you to sign a direct debit form and ring up another sale and commission for the backpacker/fundraiser.

Perhaps you don’t feel all the guilty – after all it’s your money and yours to spend as you like.

Perhaps you’re potentially interested (after all, charity is in essence a good and noble thing), but want more information.

Is there, per chance, a brochure you can take away so you can think about it?

“No,” will come the swift reply. “We don’t have any brochures. But I’d be happy to answer any questions you have.”

“Can I find more information on the internet?” you may respond by saying.

“Yes, there is a website” the chugger will tell you. But why bother, when “I can answer all your questions” and again, you’ll be urged to sign up then and there.

Now let’s be honest. Charity mugging is certainly not the hard sell.

If you want a hard sell, try walking into a shop in the Marrakesh market or a stall on the heaving streets of Mumbai – if you’re weak-willed or easily swayed you’ll soon find yourself heading down to the post office to freight carpets, perfume bottles, trinkets and garments all the way home.

But that’s different.

Charity for me has always been a voluntary thing.

On the same day that I deliberately stopped to chat to two chuggers from Amnesty International on the corner of Elizabeth and Collins Streets in Melbourne, there was also a Salvation Army volunteer standing diagonally across on the other corner of the intersection with a red bucket and a sign, quietly and graciously accepting coins from passers-by.

No silly attempts at banal conversation. No facile compliments, no direct debit forms. Just happy to accept whatever people can spare.

The same can be said for those who sell The Big Issue. A greeting to passers-by, a polite request to possibly purchase a copy of the magazine and a smile and thanks if he answer is no.

Nevertheless, I was curious. Does the “in your face” method of chugging actually work? How much are these people being paid and who is hiring them?

So I send off some questions to Amnesty International’s media office and received responses shortly afterwards.

Their spokesperson confirmed that Amnesty International Australia engages “face to face fundraising suppliers” to raise support for its regular giving program and says it’s a “great return on  investment”.

The people who do the chugging aren’t employed by Amnesty International but by specialist business organisations.

One such organisation is Cornucopia, who works with a number of charity such as the Red Cross, the Fred Hollows Foundation and Amnesty International.

There’s a group of cheerful people, arms raised as if they’ve just won the lottery pictured on the website, which spells out its modus operandi, that is:

“…by engaging members of the public in conversation in the street, at shopping centres, at their place of work and at home” [with the purpose to] “recruit…long-term regular givers for leading not-for-profit organisations”.

So just how much of every dollar you donate to Amnesty International via direct debit goes to the charity and how much into the pockets of Cornucopia and its sellers?

According to the Amnesty International spokesperson, its fee arrangement varies slightly from supplier to supplier and is detailed on the pledge form completed by the donor upon sign up.

“All donations are paid directly to us and we pay the supply a one-off fee from our fundraising budget for the year,” says the charity’s spokesperson.

I was directed to the following webpage on the Amnesty International website where there’s this chart:


As can be seen, a hefty chunk – 42 cents of every dollar raised – does not go towards charity work at all.

Presumably the 22% dedicated to “building activist base” is the proportion of funds raised that goes to paying those annoying people who stand on the street with their smiles and one-liners.

But apparently it works, despite the negative press this selling method has attracted.

I’ve found dozens of articles critical of “chugging” including this incisive piece from The Guardian, which has as its heading a perfect encapsulation of how I feel: “Charity muggers can take the enjoyment out of giving”.

The article, written by Richard Coles, a vicar (a generally a charitable bunch by nature) makes some good points.

“I like the object of the exercise; I hate the method,” writes Coles, as he describes chuggers at work and how “they accosted people with arms outstretched, a friendly gesture that is actually designed to funnel you in to their proposal; how they chastised those who wouldn’t stop; how they muttered insults at their retreating backs”.

I submit my objection is exactly the same.

It’s the manipulation, the guilty admonishment, the trickery that really pisses me off.

It seems to go against the whole ethos of fundraising – a carefully crafted psychological assault taught to backpackers in need of a buck, who then seek to torment the public to get to their wallets.

Apparently it works.

“We have been fundraising via face to face for 12 years. In this time we have found that this method is successful and provides a great return on investment,” says the Amnesty International spokesperson.

She says it accounts for around 72% of funds raised from regular donors, which in turn account for three-quarters of their total income.

That maybe so, but Amnesty International won’t be getting a penny from me until they drop the charade.

I might buy a copy of the Big Issue instead!

Reading Christopher Hitchens: A spanking from Margaret Thatcher and more profundity

398303-christopher-hitchensI’ve just finished reading “Hitch-22” – the memoirs of the late, great Christopher Hitchens.

Some (a fair portion) of his narrative, I found difficult to grasp fully or to follow the argument to its conclusion, with sentences and paragraphs full of literary and political allusions and references which would require, if I had the time, plenty of background reading on my part.

But yet still it is engrossing, filled with wonderful little moments such as when he tells the story of how Margaret Thatcher (he swears this actually happened) made him bend over and smacked him on the backside with a rolled up pamphlet after he dared to disagree with her at a gathering in Westminster, before she became prime minister.

Not one to ever concede an argument, most notably with a women he admired awfully (not the other way round), I think Hitchens took the spanking just so that he could recount this remarkable anecdote.

There’s plenty of wit, charm, irreverence and cheekinesss in his writing (I wrote about his tips for drinking in an earlier post), but also a great deal of solemnity and painful personal recollections.

There’s bittersweet recounts of his mother, Yvonne, who never revealed her Jewish roots to her husband, Hitch’s distant, but proud father – “the commander” – and who died in a suicide pact with her lover in a bare hotel room in Athens.

Hitchens writes about his need to spend time each year in unstable countries, how he accidentally wandered into a dangerous part of Afghanistan, how he nearly got shot in Northern Ireland, his student protests, his philosophical and literary bouts with Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Susan Sontag and Edward Said to name just a few.

He also has the humility and flexibility of mind (a trait which he says separates the open-minded from the “totalitarian principle”) to admit that he held a wrong view about a situation – most notably, his opposition to the first Gulf War – and armed with better information, he has changed it.

There’s also a wonderful, incredibly poignant story retold from a Vanity Fair article about a man Hitch never got to meet – Mark Daily, a young American soldier who volunteered to fight in Iraq after being inspired by the articles he read written by Hitchens arguing there was a moral case for war (to remove the psychopathic tyrant Saddam Hussein) and who was killed in combat.

He writes of Daily:

“This is the boy who would not let others be bullied in school, who stuck up for his younger siblings, who was briefly a vegetarian and Green Party member because he couldn’t stand cruelty to animals or to the environment, a student who loudly defended Native American rights and who challenged a MySpace neo-Nazi in an online debate in which the swastika-displaying antagonist finally admitted that he needed to rethink things. If I give the impression of a slight nerd here I do an injustice. Everything that Mark wrote was imbued with a great spirit of humor and tough-mindedness.

Hitchens also writes lovingly that the country “lost an exceptional young citizen, whom I shall always wish I had had the chance to meet” who seemed to have “passed every test of young manhood, and to have been admired and loved and respected by old and young, male and female, family and friends”.

In this way, he shifts from strongly held ideological positions on religion, politics, war, the Middle East to tales of the people who shaped his life and gave him his richest experiences.

I came across a beautiful passage that made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle and really, really made me think and ponder the horror of it all.

Hitch writes about a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the dangers of those who wish to wipe the slate clean – for a “tabula rasa” for their lives.

“I once spoke to someone who had survived the genocide in Rwanda; and she said to me there was nobody left on the face of the earth, either friend or relative who knew who she was.

“No one who remembered her girlhood and her early mischief and family lore; no simbling or boon companion who could tease her about that first romance; no lover or pal with whom to reminisce.

“All her birthdays, her exam results, illnesses, friendships, kinships – gone.

“She went on living but with a tabula rasa as her diary and calendar and notebook.

“I think of this every time I think of the callow ambition to ‘make a new start’ or to be ‘born again’.

“Do those who talk this way truly wished for the slate to be wiped?

“Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction.

“You wish to have one more reflection on what it is to have been made the object of a ‘clean sweep’?

The Christopher Hitchens guide to drinking (for the young) and artistically minded

christopher-hitchens-drinkingTowards the end of the marvellous memoirs of the late journalist, thinker, philosopher and humanist Christopher Hitchens – Hitch-22 – there’s a little gem of a section where he dispenses some advice “for the young” on drinking.

Hitchens loved a drop or two and could by all accounts – including his own – handle his booze pretty well.  He claimed to never miss a deadline or an appointment or class due to booze, though admits to being mildy tipsy once on the BBC (though no one, he says, noticed).

When writing at home he maintained a certain discipline when it came to drink.

He was partial to whiskey – “a decent slug of Mr Walker’s” – at about half-past midday cut with Perrier water and no ice, then at luncheon (not quite sure how soon this was after midday) “perhaps a bottle of red wine, not always more but never less”, no after dinner drinks but maybe a nightcap “depending on how the day went – though never brandy.

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland and can help provide…the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing,” says Hitchens with his brilliant wit, charm and self-deprecation.

But he maintains “he was never a piss artist”.

Here then, faithfully transcribed by yours truly are his “simple pieces of advice for the young” (and the artist I think) when it comes to drinking:

1. Don’t drink on empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food.

2. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood.

3. Cheap booze is a false economy.

4. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain.

5. Hangovers are another bad sign (as is watching the clock for the start-time to your next drink) and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night (If you really don’t remember, says Hitch, that’s an even worse sign).

6. Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed – as are the grape and the grain – to enliven company.

7. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available.

8. Never ever think about driving if you have taken a drop.

9. It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man. I don’t know quite know why this is true but it is.

10. Don’t ever be responsible for it.