Coal Barons, Refugees, and War Criminals


It was a long, cramped flight on South China Airlines. The Chinese man sitting in the seat next to me was fidgeting and agitated during the whole flight, except during the brief period when he slept. If I had any Valium with me I would have offered him some. The flight ended with a public exercise program followed by a little documentary about Perth, the city we were about to land in, that was produced by the airline. It described Perth’s Mediterranean climate, described how the city was located in the Swan River (which of course it isn’t), and provided tips on which neighborhoods in the sprawling city most of the Chinese people hang out in. The film was narrated by a woman who spoke with a North American accent, but the script was clearly written by someone who spoke English as a very second language, and I wondered what must have been going through the narrator’s head as she read these hopelessly butchered sentences.

Exhausted, I waited in the Immigration line along with everyone else. Getting towards the front of the line I could hear Immigration agents speaking to the new arrivals, making no effort to enunciate clearly or slow down their speech for the Chinese visitors. The agent I got to seemed like one of the nicer ones, though, an older man with a salt and pepper beard.

“I have a work visa,” I proclaimed, on the assumption he might want to know.

“Don’t worry, it’s all in the system,” he replied, looking at a computer screen. After a minute or so of perusing his computer he said “welcome to Australia, Dave.” The majority of Australians have the annoying habit of assuming you prefer to be addressed by a nickname of their choosing, which in my case was usually “Dave.” In his case I didn’t particularly mind, though. I liked the “welcome to Australia” part. But after all the waiting and spending the $895 for the damn thing, I felt a bit jilted that he didn’t even want to look at my work permit.

As I walked past him towards the baggage carousel, a younger female colleague of his who was looking at his computer screen said, “turned away from New Zealand,” which I was. There was a questioning tone in her voice, as if to say, “don’t you think you should have asked him about this?” The man grunted disinterestedly.

At the cafe around the corner from the home of my hosts, Alex and Kamala, a couple of long-time activists and members of the organization which now calls itself Socialist Alliance, the local Murdoch rag was boasting about the plans the incoming Prime Minister had for dealing with what the press regularly calls the “refugee crisis.” Australia has very few refugees, relative to most countries, and there is no crisis in any conventional understanding of this term, but you can’t tell that to Rupert Murdoch or to either of the two major parties, or to the millions of Australians who vote for them, clearly as disinterested in their own country’s history as they are of international law.

Unlike in the US, where elections happen on an almost entirely predictable timetable, in Australia, as with most democracies, you don’t always know when they’re coming, and most of my tour ended up happening in the 10 days leading up to the election. Which coalition of parties was going to win – the rightwing one – was a foregone conclusion, according to the Murdoch press as well as the rest of the press, and everybody I talked to about it, without exception.

The outgoing Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was engaging in a suicidal backtracking on everything he once stood for, so that both he and Tony Abbott were competing on how tough they could be on “stopping the boats,” and how thoroughly they could repeal environmental legislation Rudd’s predecessor had passed, which was Australia’s brief and apparently fleeting attempt to compensate for the fact that it is one of the world’s largest producers of coal and one of the world’s biggest contributors to climate change.

Most of the press in Australia prefer to ignore the fact that the country is a deeply divided class society. They refer to billionaire coal barons as “miners,” as if any of them had ever spent a single day underground themselves, and they lament the Carbon Tax – a tax on some of the world’s most rapacious energy companies – as if it were a tax on the average Australian family, who would somehow be prospering were it not for the fact that the corporations extracting their nation’s nonrenewable resources had to pay tax like everybody else.

Despite the fact that the Labor Party was actively stabbing its base of support in the back, and despite the fact that everybody agreed the upcoming conservative win was a foregone conclusion, just about everyone with a political bone in their bodies with the exception of the anarchists were busily campaigning for one party or the other. In the case of most of my friends and fans, they were campaigning for the Greens or for one of several socialist parties, or for the Wikileaks Party, which was busily self-destructing upon my arrival in Perth, after initially looking like a hopeful alternative to the usual suspects.

The show I did in Perth was one of several fundraisers for the Refugee Rights Action Network, complete with a moving appeal from the stage by an organizer for the group, which has been involved with trying to publicize the indefinite detention of adults as well as children being practiced by the Australian government, the jailing of families who had dared think they might be able to live in Australia, after finding life in their own war-torn countries unlivable. The refugees from places like Iraq and Afghanistan especially inconvenient, given that they are fleeing from a chaos that the Australian government helped create.

There in the audience at the Workingman’s Club in the progressive neighborhood of Fremantle was Afeif Ismail, a Sudanese communist and a poet of great renown, one of the few who did manage to get refugee status in Australia, with the help of the United Nations, years before. As a former political prisoner under the Sudanese dictatorship, he had been recognized as a political refugee by the UN, and had been given several options for countries he could move to. When I met him on my first visit to Perth two years earlier, I remember him explaining how he and his family decided to come to Australia. As I recall, it was a process of elimination. The other two choices were Finland and the US. Finland was out due to the decidedly un-Sudanese weather. The US was out due to its imperial empire. So Australia it was.

I had been looking forward to arriving in the southern hemisphere and enjoying a bit of winter weather, but it was, as it happened, the end of winter, and the beginning of spring, and was the warmest spring on record. Not as warm as Japan in summer, which I had just left, so although it was too warm to wear anything more than a t-shirt, I was still happy to be there. Back home in the US, where it was also summer, the forests of California were burning up at a ferocious rate, as the bush in parts of Australia had done a few years before, costing the lives of hundreds of people along with so many trees and houses.

My next stop was Adelaide, thousands of kilometers east and south from Perth, the next city along the south coast in the sparsely-populated continent.

Dave and Kathy were celebrating the 21st year of their Singing Gallery, a fixture of the South Australia folk music scene, with a new CD featuring 21 artists who had played in it over the years. I arrived at their house late at night, and they made use of my fresh pair of ears to get some feedback on how the mix turned out for some of the songs, concerned as they were that the vocals were too quiet on one of them. Last time I stayed at their lovely house in the countryside south of the city I was in a different room, but this time that room would be taken by a family of Tibetans who were expected to arrive the following day, which they did.

In the midst of the furor over refugees arriving by boat to Australia, here were some of the few who had been allowed to come by plane. One family out of the 100 families of Tibetan origin who the Australian government had been kind enough to allow entry into their formerly whites-only settlement. This was a family Dave and Kathy had known for many years. The mother of two was as enchantingly beautiful as she appeared in the pictures of her as a young woman I had seen on the walls in the house before. The kids were adorable, despite their tendency to turn on every available screen in the room at the same time and stare at all of them at once. For me it was the first time I had heard the Tibetan language spoken aside from in a documentary, and it was certainly the first conversation I had had with actual Tibetans.

They had all grown up in India, in the region where most of the Tibetan refugees live there, those who managed to survive the harrowing, often deadly winter journey from their occupied homeland, through the mountains, where many have the option of choosing between being shot by Chinese border guards, or getting frostbite, or both. Our conversations reminded me of the many conversations I’ve had in recent years with immigrants from eastern Europe. For them, the communists are evil (be they Russian or Chinese), and therefore the capitalists are good. They still seemed confident of this worldview, but having only spent a few days in Australia when I met them, they were already starting to figure out that all was not well in capitalist paradise. At first they came to Sydney, but were appalled at the lack of community they found there, wondering where all the people were (in their cars, or watching TV in their nuclear family units, is the answer, of course). They took a bus to Adelaide, to visit their friends there, hoping it might be different. My educated guess is that they’ll soon discover that it’s not, unfortunately.

Someone had used chemical weapons in Syria the day after I arrived in Perth, and now in Adelaide the drums of war were being beaten hard by John Kerry, David Cameron, and both of the major contenders for the highest office in Australia. I sang at a protest in the center of town, attended by about ten people. I met an anarchist historian who regaled me with wonderful stories of the Wobblies of early twentieth-century Australia, who were clearly just as colorful and just as militant as their counterparts in North America. Paula introduced me to a local musician who goes by the name of Lord Stompy. He thanked me for the inspiration that attending my gig at a Communist Party hangout apparently provided him to write a fabulous anthemic punk song which he posted on YouTube as his contribution to the imminent Liberal-National electoral victory, “Who’s Gonna Win the Election” (answer: who gives a shit).

Another accomplished songwriter and a fixture of the Melbourne music scene named Les Thomas was responsible for my appearances in Victoria. After taking years off from songwriting, Les got back into the craft after his brother was arrested in Afghanistan for being a Muslim convert in the wrong place at the wrong time (he went there just before 9/11 and was arrested just after the NATO invasion). I participated in Les’s weekly Unpaved Songwriter Sessions, along with a young Filipino woman named Celene, who sang raw, short songs about being a refugee in a not-very-welcoming land.

My first of four shows in New South Wales was organized by a woman who actually worked as an accountant for the Immigration department in the Australian capital, Canberra. Around the time when I was waiting to find out whether I’d be granted a work permit (having just been denied entry to New Zealand and then denied a tourist visa to Australia), a couple weeks before, she recounted a brief anecdote from her workplace. One of her colleagues in Immigration was walking past the offices of the War Crimes department. I’m not entirely clear on what a War Crimes department does in Australia, but in any case, the folks in that department were talking about me. Her coworker didn’t catch what they were saying about me, but he did happen to pass by as folks from that branch of the government were spelling my name out loud for one reason or another.

In Sydney I had the pleasure of being given an impromptu guided tour of the newest ship to be added to the fleet of vessels belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Much loved by many in Australia, they were biding their time in preparation for their next voyage to Antarctica, where they will once again be risking life and limb to do whatever they can to stop or at least hamper the efforts of the annual Japanese whale hunt.

As I headed north from Sydney, the news on the radio was all about the bush fires that were suddenly raging in the suburbs of that city, devastating fires far too early in the season. All the folks on the radio were talking about how unusual these early fires were, and nobody mentioned climate change.

After another fundraiser for refugees in Newcastle, I arrived at Byron Bay, the hippie capital of the country, where Graeme Dunstan spoke about his attempts to do his part to try to stop the war machine, having just been given a decidedly light sentence for aiding and abetting the smashing with a sledgehammer of a helicopter gunship near the town of Rockhampton, where Australia was conducting joint military exercises with the country that overthrew their government back in 1975, the country that is home to the huge spy base near Alice Springs — the United States. Here was someone really getting to the root of the so-called refugee crisis, attempting to disable one of the war machines that is responsible for creating refugees in the first place, by bombing and strafing their homes in the many war-torn countries that Australia likes to keep war-torn.

In Brisbane, the last stop on my tour Down Under, the new Prime Minister’s plans to outsource Australia’s refugees was showing it’s first signs of cracking up, with a prominent politician from Indonesia denouncing the whole thing, which would supposedly involve sending refugees intercepted at sea, trying to reach Australia’s golden shores, to Indonesia instead. But if Indonesia doesn’t work out, they’ve still got Christmas Island.

My tour of Australia ended as it began, with the words “welcome to Australia.” No matter that this welcome came on the day before I left – it was the one that counted. For one such as I from the United States, who has lived for years in the western part of the country in particular, it was a familiar scene. But instead of Native Americans surreptitiously drinking themselves to death in a public park, it was Australian Aboriginals.

In between slugs of cheap liquor and drags on cigarettes, these men who said they were from the Bumma tribe of northern Queensland, told me stories and sang songs for my benefit, having accurately ascertained that I was a foreigner. One man sang a very moving song written by another indigenous Australian named Archie Roach, “They’re Taking the Children Away.” He claimed to have written it, and he may as well have, for it was entirely autobiographical. For just as they did in North America, the original European refugees who settled this land also thought they should civilize the natives by kidnapping, beating and raping their children.

The pertinent question is, are the boarding schools in which those children died or learned to become alcoholics better or worse than the detention centers in Nauru and Christmas Island where the would-be refugee children die or learn to become alcoholics?

David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He is currently in Europe, on a world tour. His website is www.davidrovics.com.

David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.

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