End the detention of asylum seekers in Australia

This is the letter I sent today to my Federal Labor MP, Catherine King.

Dear Catherine,

I have been and remain horrified at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, and so I write to you as a constituent to ask that you press your Government for humane treatment of these desperate people.

What if it was your mother, father, children or friends who had no other option than to flee their country, leaving behind a lifetime of memories and in many cases the opportunity to earn a living for some time. Would you want them denied succour in a new land? Imprisoned for indefinite periods? I am ashamed to be a citizen of a country that locks people up under these conditions.

Not only do we know onshore processing works, it’s the only humane option. Leaving asylum seekers in limbo in places more palatable to our politicians is a national disgrace, and poorly represents a country I know to be full of kind and generous people. The Government is not reflecting community sentiment, even if it claims to be.

The puerile ‘debates’ over so-called ‘boat people’ are even further evidence of how impoverished political discourse is in Australia. It is clear that people fleeing war, famine or persecution will leave by whatever means they can, including the life-threatening voyages some take by boat. You can help re-focus the debate on what’s important – how can Australia help people who seek asylum on our shores to enjoy the same freedoms and privileges we take for granted?

We need leadership, not pandering to the most base sentiments of our society.

It’s time Australia stops destroying people’s lives (and in the worst cases, committing murder when people take their own lives rather than suffer in detention centres any longer) by locking them up with no hope for months and years on end.

Distrust and incarceration are not the answers, compassion and hospitality are.

Sincerely,

Tammi Jonas

Why agroecology is essential to food security

A recurring claim in discussions of food security is that small-scale organic agriculture cannot feed the world, a claim used to support the continued centralisation of agriculture into the hands of a few mega-multinational corporations, who will save us all with GM crops. Arguments are posited around higher yield and decreased pesticide use with GM crops, totally eliding the high yields that can be obtained in organic agriculture and the complete lack of pesticides in these systems, just for a start. Such GM propaganda is utterly spurious and refuted in the literature.

The field of agroecology offers a rich body of work that makes the argument for moving to more sustainable, small-scale agriculture, whether organic or with reduced external inputs such as commercial fertilisers and pesticides. In a few recent discussions I’ve had with supporters of GM, I’ve sent them links to reports to back up the clear and demonstrable evidence that we must move to a very different way of producing food that works to preserve natural resources and regenerate landscape while supporting local communities, but I don’t believe any of them ever read the research.

So today I decided to tweet quotes and paraphrases from one piece of work, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food report: ‘Agroecology and the Right to Food‘, released on the 3rd of August 2011. I hoped that by reading the 21-page report myself and offering just the highlights, those who speak loudly on a topic they appear to know little about might be better informed. Of course I also knew it would offer plenty of good evidence for those already advocating for sustainable ag. I offer you the list of the quotes and paraphrases I tweeted here in one place for easy reference. Note that most of these are direct quotes from the report, and a couple of them are paraphrased – I have not added any of my own comments.

Another excellent resource of the latest research in agroecology is The Laboratory of Agroecology and Urban Ecosystems at Washington State University Vancouver – and you might like to follow Assistant Professor Jahi Chappell on twitter – he’s @mjahi – as he often tweets links to relevant research.

Continue reading Why agroecology is essential to food security

No Need for New: Some principles for reducing consumption

As I read through our primary school’s newsletter the other day, I had the annual moment of excitement over the Smith Street Xmas appeal – ‘Yay! We can contribute!’ And then I had the annual moment of deflation when I read that all donations must be new. ‘Why?’ I moaned at my secondhand computer monitor, as I pictured the box of toys and clothes in perfectly good condition but no longer of interest to my children, sitting in the shed waiting for a trip to the Salvo’s.

I decided to check my response with the twitterz, expecting replies of ‘don’t poor people deserve new stuff?’ And the twitterz didn’t disappoint, but mercifully a number of the likely suspects joined a thoughtful discussion about the issues – consumerism, the lived experience of poverty and being ‘marked’ by secondhand goods, the practicalities of sorting through secondhand donations, the pleasures of the handmade gift, and questions of sustainability.

Why do people think we have a right to new things? Why do people make others feel bad if they don’t buy new things? I’m not such an ascetic as to suggest there’s no place for wanting something that is new to you, nor that in some cases new will simply make better sense than secondhand, whether for reasons of efficiency, practicality or some desired aesthetic. But having ‘new’ as your default position is, quite simply, wrong.

Logical fallacy #1: New Things Will Make Us Happy

It worries me that people think any of us ‘need’ or ‘deserve’ new stuff. In a civil society, you have a right to a roof over your head, access to clean water and nutritious food, good health and to be treated equally and fairly, and not much else.

There is clear research that shows that buying or having new (or more) things does not make us happy beyond an initial rush. In fact, the research indicates that the more affluent a society becomes, the less happy it is. Increasingly, we are being encouraged to spend our disposable income on experiences rather than things, as we work out that identities need grounding in memory, belonging and discovery, not the shirt on our back. I would add to this wisdom that many experiences cost nothing.

Logical fallacy #2: New Things Are ‘Nicer’ Than Secondhand

An unwanted gift on its way to the donation bin

So many new things are simply bright, cheap plastic – things that caused unhappiness in those who worked to make them, those who worked to deliver them, and those who must work to dispose of them. These things cause little more than a flash of ‘oh! Bright and shiny!’ in the children/adults who receive them, followed by the pallid realisation of how little joy can actually be found in such superficial ‘small pleasures’. These items fail the hedonistic principle at every stage – one should seek pleasure, but your pleasure should not be at the expense of another’s.

Obviously there are lovely things that are new. Handmade gifts can be a great pleasure for the maker, giver (who may or may not be the maker) and the recipient. Good quality items with an ethical production and distribution history can ensure you are comfortably and fashionably clothed, or perhaps using durable and effective cookware without breaching the pleasure principle for anyone (though many such things can also be found secondhand, obviously).

Bookshelf bought at auction, filled with old books inherited & bought.

We all have certain things we prefer to buy new – for me it’s shoes, which I buy very seldom, but always new. And who wouldn’t love to receive a brand new barbecue after two decades of the uneven heat and rust of hard rubbish versions? Last year we asked Stuart’s folks to withhold our birthday presents for the year and pile them into a Xmas present so we could cook entire meals outside for the next 30 years with fantastic results. We took years to decide a new one was a defensible choice and have not regretted it.

The pleasures of well-made old things.

Yet nearly all of the most treasured items in our house came to us secondhand. Bookshelves are a great example – some bought at auctions and some on eBay, some found in the hard rubbish – why would you buy shelves new? Our old hand beater is one of my favourite kitchen implements – my mother-in-law bought a new one a few years back and ended up vastly preferring a secondhand one we gave her. When our 50-year-old fridge didn’t survive our last move, eBay came through with an excellent secondhand one. I know loads of people who buy secondhand books, so what’s with the stigma on kids’ toys? If they’re in good condition, why not choose them over new, both for your own children and to give to charity? And nearly all the clothes I buy the children are from Savers.

Logical fallacy #3: Giving Secondhand Items to Charity is Patronising

Why would this be an unacceptable gift?

Some folks on Twitter suggested it was patronising to insist we give secondhand items to charity, arguing that ‘poor people deserve nice things too’. See Logical fallacy #s 1 & 2 for my response. However, obviously there are resonances of the First World having a First Class Freakout of What Happens when the Developing World catches up on Over-Consumption. Of course that would be patronising if it was my point, but what I’m suggesting is far more radical.

We all need to make secondhand our default position rather than seeing it as a deficit model. In fact, the default position should really be ‘why buy anything at all’, so that purchases are in fact only made when truly necessary or when one really desires to give a gift (birthdays being the most obvious example), and secondhand (or homemade) should be our first thought. New stuff should be a last resort for many consumables. How much waste could we avoid if we actually put a lot of thought into gifts, rather than marching into shopping centres like automatons who believe we might insult someone by giving them something that already has a history?

Imagine

Now imagine that those who can afford new things regularly make the choice to buy secondhand. Suddenly those who can’t afford new things don’t stand out for buying old stuff, and nobody has to feel bad about giving a secondhand gift. Of course any gift you give should be clean and not broken, as should any donation to charity (though there’s another post in what some consider irreparable and others will resurrect – our society is so de-skilled and accustomed to planned obsolescence it’s shameful the things we throw out).

When I was interviewed for the Salvo’s Buy Nothing New Month article that ran in Woman’s Day in September, I was asked how much money we save by choosing secondhand over new, and my immediate response was that we don’t think of it as saving, we think those who shop for leisure or choose new over secondhand are wasting money. We need to reverse our thinking – instead of a world where refraining from shopping is some kind of hardship, we’d all be better off if we saw shopping as the hardship – something we occasionally just have to do when we’d rather be gardening. In terms of both social and environmental sustainability, it’s the right thing to do.

Democracy Matters

It will surely surprise none of you that I’ve been thinking a lot about democracy this year. There are a few particular reasons I’d like to share for my musings on democracy:

  1. I’m an elected President of a national organisation.
  2. I was deeply uncomfortable with the word ‘democracy’ before this year.
  3. I was involved in the establishment of a new peak body for international students in July.
  4. I have the honour of being an Ambassador for Aung San Suu Kyi through the Burma Campaign Australia.
  5. I’m an elected member of my children’s primary school council.

I’ve taken my roles on various councils very seriously these last five years – some might even call me a governance junkie (I do).

I understand democracy to mean a system where people are free to speak their views, insofar as they are not harmful to others, and to vote for elected representatives who will do their utmost to work in the direct interest of those they serve. When the constituency’s views are not well understood, democratically-elected representatives will do all in their power to survey the population to ensure they are truly aware of majority views. They will also ensure that minority views are well understood and their needs met.

Let me begin though with my second point – I was profoundly uncomfortable with using the word ‘democracy’ until this year. There is a fairly simple reason for this, which is that I was raised in the United States and swung heavily to the left during my undergraduate years at UCSD, whereupon I first heard Chomsky’s famous line that “America is the most brainwashed nation in the world”, as I protested the 1991 Gulf War. I won’t expound at length here on why I think democracy in America is broken, but essentially, I have thought so for a long time.

But stepping carefully away from that Big Conversation, let’s jump to this year. I’ve now been on a number of governance bodies, all related to the education sector, and so obviously believe in the system of democracy. I believe in the importance of voice, and of using it well. Having a voice is a privilege, and not one I take for granted. I’ve often been called a ‘squeaky wheel’, and it’s true, I usually get the oil. I’m quite proud of this fact, especially given I use my voice regularly and resoundingly to help others.

So in July there we were down in Hobart, having managed to get about 100 international students from all levels of post-secondary education to a three-day forum, which resulted in the establishment of the Council of International Students Australia (CISA). As the chair for the three days, I was constantly amazed and impressed as I led the democratic process. And I had the opportunity to reflect on the many students present who had never participated in democracy. It was exhilarating when the constitution was adopted, and inaugural office bearers elected.

Perhaps what heightened my awareness of the diversity of political experiences of those present at the International Students Forum was that in June I had the great honour to be invited by the Burma Campaign Australia to be an Ambassador for Aung San Suu Kyi. The primary role of the ambassadors has been to ‘use our liberty to promote Burma’s’ – to use our voices to bring attention to the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house detention on the 13th of November 2010, having spent 15 of the past 21 years imprisoned in her home by the military dictatorship. The elections held just days before her release saw the UNDP maintain power in a process widely regarded as rigged. Democracy does not exist in modern Burma, but Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), intend to keep fighting for it. And in my limited capacity, I’ll keep using my voice to raise awareness of Burma’s plight.

I’ve learned a great deal about democracy these last few years, and I’m now able to comfortably say I believe in it. Even in America, where the system is limping along, people have a voice, if they would only use it. A weak education system certainly does not enable a healthy democracy, and nor does a failure of the state to look after its people’s health or ensure they all have safe housing. And yet the right to speak and to vote still exists in real terms, which must surely give one hope for a brighter future. In Burma, such rights are at best limited and at worst subverted by unscrupulous so-called leaders.

Aung San Suu Kyi perhaps best summed up the people’s essential role in democracy during her speeches after release:

“Please don’t have the attitude that politics do not concern you. […] Everything is politics. Politics is not just coming here and supporting us. The housewife, who is cooking at home, also has something to do with politics because she is struggling to feed her family with the money she has. Struggling to send children to school is politics. Everything is politics. No one is free of politics. So saying that politics does not concern you and that you do not wish to be involved in politics is a lack of awareness of politics.”

Hear hear. Every purchase you do or don’t make, such as buying green power, is a political act.

I’ll close, predictably, with a reflection on the impact of so-called Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) on student voice. Some of you may have seen today’s article in The Australian about my organisation, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) closing down our offices in Trades Hall due to lack of funds. The article highlights the decline of our members as their funding dried up, even in cases where universities have tried to support them by diverting money from teaching and learning funds.

I must reassure everyone that CAPA will continue to lobby at the national level, continuing our 30-year history of transforming national policy for Australia’s 270,000+ postgraduate students. We’ll just work from home. In fact, even with our limited financial resources, we’ve just released our Benchmarking Report on Minimum Resources for Postgraduate Study 2010.

There are many who supported the VSU legislation in 2005 based on the fallacy that the Amenities Fee only supported radical student politics and free beer. In fact, the fee paid for many essential services on campuses, as well as independent representation and advocacy.

Who cares whether there are student reps on university committees, some may wonder? Well, if coursework postgrads are worried about the quality of your degrees as class sizes increase, who would you like to voice that concern? Perhaps you’re a research student with supervisor woes and no office space? In more dire circumstances, maybe your supervisor is wrongfully trying to claim your IP?

Student representatives canvass a plethora of issues at committees regularly and relentlessly, leading to significant improvements in policy and practice. Advocates working for student associations identify themes in their casework and alert representatives to issues that are not unique, so that they may lobby for change across the system. Where they are not well resourced and not able to work together, it’s difficult to notice themes, let alone take them to central committees. On far too many of Australia’s university campuses five years into life with VSU, there are student organisations barely surviving and unable to maintain a strong voice as their funding has disappeared.

Most of those campuses without independent postgraduate representation have lost their link to CAPA, the peak body, meaning their voices are disappearing at the federal level. Those who have lost their postgrad associations include members of the Go8 – it’s not just small and regional universities who are suffering. (For those interested, you can read all of our submissions to Government on the VSU and current SSAF bill.)

CAPA is aware of instances of postgrad associations being overtly threatened with a withdrawal of funding and/or disbanded by universities because they didn’t like what the student reps were saying about their institution. A return of the Student Services and Amenities Fee (SSAF), with a proviso that some of the fee be used to directly support independent representation and advocacy on a per head distribution between undergrads and postgrads, would ensure that such unethical and undemocratic behaviour could not occur.

Again, to quote Aung San Suu Kyi on the day after her release, “Accepting that there can be a difference of opinion is a democratic principle.

A Civil Campaign

Yesterday’s announcement of the sacking of Catherine Deveny from The Age came as no surprise to many of us who have loathed her particular brand of lowbrow vitriol that covers a wide spectrum – from class hatred and ‘hipster racism’ to attempts at humour around the sexual activities of an 11 year old girl. And yet the Twitters are alight with dissent over whether she should have been sacked for her tweeting at the Logies.

Others have already blogged on the issues around whether she should have been sacked for her tweets and questioned why more socially destructive and offensive columnists like Andrew Bolt haven’t been fired yet. The most compelling piece I’ve seen came from Jason Wilson over on New Matilda, who asks why she was hired in the first place. And surely those of us who dislike Deveny’s work would agree that she’s hardly the worst offender. The other trollumnists should be reined in as well, in the interest of a more civil society.

And so I have an idea.

In my meeting yesterday with Graeme Innes, Race Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, we talked through the complaints process available to all Australians if they think something published is discriminatory on the basis of race, sex, age or disability.

For example, if you read one of Bolt’s columns (and I don’t recommend it, though to get this campaign going many of us might need to) and find it offensive, you can lodge a complaint with the AHRC. Even if you believe an ‘anonymous’ comment is racist, sexist, etc, you can make a complaint and the publisher is responsible for defending or denying.

You can then tweet what you find offensive and suggest others might complain if they too find the material offensive. So rather than all of us simply tweeting our outrage, we can take action.

The AHRC (or you could use your state Commission, such as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission) is required to investigate every complaint. Clearly, the system will look after itself – spurious complaints should not end up sacking somebody who is undeserving.

The important thing is that the AHRC and state commissions cannot act on racist comments in a column or the comments without an official complaint.

So it’s time to speak up!

Logically, if trollumnists start attracting as many complaints as they do rabid comments of agreement, they becomes liabilities for their employers, as Deveny did for hers it seems.

The trolls have had their day. It’s time we take away their oxygen.

Food and the art of representation

This article appeared this week in Campus Review – an interview with me about the year ahead as CAPA President. 🙂


Julie Hare

February 15, 2010

Campus Review

I am what I eat. You are what I feed you,” Tammi Jonas’s bio on Twitter asserts. When the new president of the Council of Postgraduate Associations is not cooking – or thinking about, talking about and communicating about food – she’s completing a PhD (with a food focus – of course) and representing the country’s 270,000 postgraduate students.

Jonas’s blog, called ‘Tammi Tasting Terroir’ and subtitled ‘The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a PhD candidate, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and would-be cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community …’ sums it up.

The blog is a random mix of recipes for sourdough and passionate monologues on the state of higher education.

Food frames most aspects of Jonas’s life – even the political. Two years ago she held a soup kitchen for University of Melbourne tutors under vice-chancellor Glyn Davis’s office window to draw attention to poor conditions and unpaid work that their lot in life.

“We got everyone to come down with their fingerless gloves and I made a giant pot of potato and leek soup. I literally fed the tutors,” laughs Jonas.

More recently, she drew national attention to the issue of casual teaching when she resigned from the University of Melbourne council – and then wrote about it in an article for New Matilda.

Now her penchant for the big political statement is due to find its fulfilment in her role as president of CAPA – and she hope’s individual branches will follow suit.

While she likes the publicity, Jonas says her resignation from Melbourne University council was more than just a stunt.

“I certainly wanted the publicity to keep shining light on the issue [of exploitation of casual staff], otherwise no one will realise we need their sympathy,” she says.

“It wasn’t so much a stunt as a principled and ethical resignation, because I was no longer willing to be part of a body that wasn’t in my view behaving ethically by leading the way and ensuring all members of the academic community are being treated fairly.”

The issue, which Jonas says she had been campaigning on for years (and is itemised on her blog), revolved around postgraduate students being asked to present unpaid “guest lectures”, lack of adequate office and desk space, and unpaid work in other areas such as marking.

However, she would like it known that Melbourne is not the worst culprit – and can point the finger at any number of the other universities which she considers even more exploitative.

As Jonas takes up the top gig with CAPA, 2010 might be the year that some of the more pressing issues to do with postgraduate workforce issues get resolved. The government’s research workforce strategy reference group is due to report in the first half of the year.

“We’ve had the Bradley and Cutler reviews, but there are still many issues around lack of sustainability [of the research workforce] if things don’t change,” says Jonas.

“We have too many people leaving the sector because it’s not attractive enough. We are particularly interested in seeing conditions improve for research students both as casual labour and also in terms of their own basic minimum resources – computers, desks and so on – when they are doing their study. And then, of course, there are follow on effects of that on coursework postgraduates such as having better funded teaching programs so everyone is getting better quality courses.”

Jonas says other key items on her agenda for the year include the welfare of international postgraduate students and the quality of coursework programs on offer.

Originally from the US, Jonas moved to Australia 18 years ago after meeting her husband Stuart while backpacking around London.

“Being a migrant explains my interest in national identity,” she says. “My passion for issues around international students I’m sure [is partly inspired] from being a migrant myself – although I’ve never been identified as one because I’m white and sound a lot like the people here.

“I often assert my migrant status to highlight for people the diversity of what migrants are.”

Jonas recently chaired a working group to set up a new national representative body for international students and is hopeful it will be launched later this year.

The CAPA and National Union of Students initiative came about in the aftermath of the hijacking of the former representative body, the NLC, by a group led by a Chinese businessman Master Shang (CR, 27.04.10 and 11.05.10).

“It’s such an important job – they have no independent national voice right now and we would like to see international students representing international students again.”

Jonas said the third big ticket item for CAPA is student services and student organisation. CAPA’s finances have been savaged since VSU legislation introduced by the Howard government. With the Student Services and Amenities Bill currently being held up in the Senate, there is uncertainty as to whether the government will get the support necessary to get it passed.

“CAPA is really struggling to survive. If you look at some of our achievements last year such as making sure that postgraduates got the stimulus funding, the rise in APAs and getting income support for masters students, these are really big achievements. If we didn’t exist, none of these things are likely to have happened.

“I find it extraordinary that people [politicians] who are in the business of representation themselves don’t understand the importance of the representation we provide.”

While Jonas has a big year ahead, she said there is no way her PhD (on multicultural foodways and cosmopolitanism in Melbourne) will get put on ice. With an invitation to submit an article to the Australian Humanities Review and another to present a paper at the international food ethnography conference in Finland in August, Jonas says she will plough on.

In the meantime, there is also CAPA, the family and food, beautiful food.

Find Jonas’s blog at http://tammijonas.blogspot.com

Why I resigned from the University of Melbourne Council

Here’s the article I had published in Crikey on Wednesday 9 December 2009.

Melbourne university post grad student Tammi Jonas writes:

On Monday, I resigned from the University of Melbourne Council in protest against the University’s exploitation of its casual labour force, which is largely made up of postgraduate students. I myself was asked to teach a seminar for free that I had previously been paid to present, and chose to use my own example to fight for the many others who are all too frequently put in this untenable position.

You can read my resignation in yesterday’s Crikey, or else on my blog, as well as the email inviting me to teach for free. The withdrawal of my labour from an exploitative system is a strategic and ideological choice I started to make a few years ago when I opted out of tutoring in the Arts Faculty, where remuneration and conditions are woeful, as they are at so many Australian universities.

So a few facts: casual staff are delivering about 50% of the university sector’s teaching, Data from DEEWR also shows that there are more women than men employed as casuals, which has particular implications for women with children, who we know are still doing the lion’s share of caring for children. Casual staff have no paid leave and no job security, let alone a clear career pathway. As the sector grapples with understanding how it will replenish its ageing workforce, it continues to employ people under casual contracts with no plan to integrate them into the future workforce. Meanwhile, some 60% of Australia’s PhD graduates leave the sector entirely, a figure that has been climbing steadily for many years.

So what does all of this mean to the average postgrad who thinks, ‘great, I’d love to teach!’ There is great disparity in wages and conditions between institutions – I’m assured that Melbourne University is by no means the worst offender.

Many tutors attend lectures as part of their preparation for tutorials, but at most institutions this is unpaid. The Head of the School of Political and Social Sciences at Melbourne has informed his casual staff that “Tutorials are not designed to go over lecture content – they should be capable of standing alone. Where they are merely going over lecture content, they are not doing what they are designed to do.”

This is a total furphy – of course tutorials are designed to support the lecture content, though not to slavishly ‘go over’ it. Would he be happy if the lecture that week was on racism in the media and the tutorial was on feminism in India? This same head of school also asserts that there is no need for face-to-face meetings between subject coordinators and tutors, and that the “LMS [an online space for learning materials, with discussion forums] seems a suitable format in which staff can communicate with each other.”

This is his justification for not paying for meetings – whilst tutors spend MORE UNPAID time on the LMS. Tutors are also often asked to give guest lectures without pay, sometimes ‘lucky’ to receive a bottle of wine. A lecture can take up to a week to prepare when you’re doing it for the first time, so even when it is paid at the rate of 3 hours per hour of delivery, it’s totally insufficient.

Many tutors are not provided with any office space in which to work or consult with students, and those who are must share an office, which can be very awkward if meeting with a distressed student. Those without offices meet with students in cafes or other public places, which is even more awkward with a distressed student.

Many casual staff talk about ‘semester bleed’, whereby they must attend to issues around academic misconduct and students contesting their marks well after their contract has finished. And a number of universities don’t even pay for end of semester marking, which can take dozens of hours to complete. It is unconscionable that institutions whose very raison d’etre is to contribute to the global public good are exploiting their least powerful members. The old ‘we don’t do it for the money’ argument has worn thin.

I say no matter WHY we do it, they’re going to have to pay us.