Foreigners decide who becomes Australian in citizenship chaos

The Australian Government recently tried, and failed, to make it harder to become an Australian citizen. But it is the citizenship of these very lawmakers that is causing political mayhem including the loss of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The High Court has just ruled the election of five parliamentarians to be ineligible because at the time of election these politicians held dual citizenship. To be a Parliamentarian in Australia, it is not enough to be a citizen, you cannot be a citizen of any other country either.

Barnaby Joyce, the then Deputy Prime Minister, was born in Australia and has lived his whole life here. He is an Australian. But he is also a New Zealander because his father was born in New Zealand. Deputy Leader of the Green Party, Scott Ludlum, resigned because he too was a New Zealander despite having left there aged 3. The other Deputy Leader of the Greens, Larissa Waters, had Canadian citizenship because she was born there, to Australian parents who returned with her to Australia when she was still a baby. Fiona Nash is British because her estranged father was born in Scotland, which she didn’t know meant that she was British too.

The fifth parliamentarian whose election was ruled ineligible by the High Court was Malcolm Roberts. He probably should have guessed that he held dual citizenship after after being born in India to Welsh parents and only becoming an Australian citizen when he was 19. The High Court ruled that the election of two others was legal but the drama has only intensified since.



Left to right: Ludlum, Waters, Joyce, Canavan (cleared), Roberts, Nash and Xenophon (cleared)

Immediately after the High Court ruled on these five people, the President of the Senate (Stephen Parry) resigned after admitting that he was a British citizen through his father. The Prime Minister was astonished to hear this but other Cabinet members were not as they knew about Senate President’s dual citizenship but advised Parry to wait until after the High Court ruled to decide whether to reveal his dual citizenship or not.

So far the opposition Labor Party has not lost any Parlimentarians to dual citizenship but the Government had, which meant that it had also lost its majority and relies on independent Members of Parliament for support. Then they lost another MP, with former Australian tennis number 1 (and world no. 8) John Alexander resigning because he was also British. If only the hordes at Wimbledon had known when he was playing in the 1977 doubles final.

A surprising element of this comedy has been that it has often been other people telling Parliamentarians that they are citizens of other countries. It was a British guy living in Australia who investigated Barnaby Joyce’s heritage and broke the story of his dual citizenship, causing Joyce to become outraged. Media organisations began to smell sweet, delicious, politician’s blood and were quickly researching who else may have dual citizenship throwing up a host of names. It was the media that uncovered John Alexander’s dual citizenship.

Facing the loss of Parliamentary control, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, called for three opposition (Labor) Parliamentarians to refer their eligibility to the High Court due to media speculation of their citizenship. He was less forthright about an independent Parliamentarian supporting the government who may also have been British at the time of election. So far, the Labour MPs are not referring themselves, even though it looks like renunciation of their second citizenship was confirmed too late, and the Government doesn’t have a majority to vote for their referral.

People are beginning to realise there could be many former politicians, maybe even Prime Ministers, who held dual citizenship and should never have been in Parliament. And existing ones continue to resign. Senator  Lambie who is a totem for real, honest, hard working Aussies, turned out to be British through her father.


Jackie Lambie after resigning in Parliament

So far the attention and debate has focussed on whether certain politicians are dual citizens or not, but in time the question of whether dual citizenship should be a barrier has to be addressed. The constitution bans it to avoid undue foreign influence on the Australian government. However, as has become evident for many Australian politicians, you can be a citizen of another country without knowing and renouncing that citizenship is not fully in your control. Australia, of course, is full of first or second generation immigrants.

The gobsmacking thing for many Australians has been to learn how other countries treat citizenship. This is a country that tries to restrict citizenship and make it something that people have to earn through various tests if not conferred through birth. That people can be citizens of other countries so easily seems a little strange to many.

The concept of citizenship is fundamental to the way our world is [meant to be] structured and governed. The world is divided into States that are legally recognised and have geographic boundaries. No State should have a geographic boundary crossing with another and there should be no habited part of the world that is not part of a State (Antartica, a bit different, and there other places a bit disputed). Each person is a citizen of at least one State and thus has a place to live and call home. The right to nationality and citizenship is actually a fundamental human right from which other rights spring. Without it, a person, or group of people, is adrift and at sea.

The concept  of citizenship is meant to bring clarity, certainty and security to a messy world full of different tribes, clans, nations and peoples. The Australian government has tried to assert this authority by saying that it will decide who comes into the country, how and when. They will decide who gets to be in Australia and who does not; they will decide who becomes Australian and who does not. That the people deciding who should become Autralian or not were people who had foreign citizenship themselves only illustrates the need for nuance, and understanding, in a messy world.




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The Lucky Country making its own luck

Australia sometimes refers to itself as the “lucky country”. It’s all a matter of perspective but there is good reason to think that Australia does enjoy its fair share of luck.

Think back to when Vanilla Ice was top of the charts and Saddam Hussein had just survived the Gulf War. Think back to when Italian football had just arrived on UK television or when The Cosby Show had its final episode. Think back to when Yugoslavia existed and before the Australian High Court had found that Mabo did have land rights. It was all those days ago, 25 years actually, that Australia last had an economic recession. Whilst the rest of the world may have suffered the Japanese depression, the tech bubble bursting and the great financial crash, Australia has carried on regardless.

Recently published research showed that whilst Australia is not immune to rising economic inequality, it is a place where what your father does not dictate what you can do. Those perennial do gooders, Finland, Norway and Denmark do beat Australia in terms of social mobility, but looking enviously up at Australia are most other countries including Sweden and Germany, and certainly countries like USA and UK.

There is a part of Australia that prides itself on having discarded the British class system and created an egalitarian society where everyone is the same as anyone else. Australian’s love the story of their famous cricketer Dennis Lillee greeting the Queen (UK’s and Australia’s) with a handshake and a “g’day, how ya goin?” Who is she to be treated any differently?


Just prior to the research about social mobility, a highly respected international health think tank found that Australia had the second best health care system in the world. There is free health care available, although strangely things like ambulances and dentists are not, which helps give Australia one of the longest life expectancies in the world, beating most other wealthy countries. Health and wealth are closely linked to education so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Australia has 6 universities in the top 100 in the world, and all of those are above the one that I went to in Scotland.

Economy, health and education are important things for many people when deciding where to live, but there are many places in the world that have these. To be among the best, you need a little extra something special like an iconic opera house; or monumental bridge; or world famous beach; so it’s not surprising that Sydney is ranked the 11th most liveable city in the whole world. However, Australia can boast three other cities that are even better. Perth (sadly not the Scottish one I was born in) and Adelaide are in the top 10 and Melbourne was ranked the world’s most liveable city for the 7th year in a row. Of all the cities in all the world, Australia has the ones where you want to be.


Sydney: 11th best in the world; 4th best in Australia.

Australia is much more than a few impressive cities though. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world and Uluru stands alone as the only rock that is known throughout the world. Australia is a country built on the coast and why would you not want to live near the coasts that have beaches like Bondi and paradise islands like the Whitsundays. It’s a country that has tropical rainforests in the north, snow capped mountains in the south, and deserts with rocky escarpments in the centre.

The land has provided a bounty for many people in Australia and being the 8th biggest producer of wine in the world means that we can all have a drink to that. And it’s a wine that you are likely to enjoy as Australia has 21 of the world’s top 100 wines, and even has the most awarded wine in the world – a shiraz from South Australia. Thankfully, Australia also produces delicious cheese to accompany your wine.


France? Italy? Nope, Montalto Vineyard just a hour down the road from Melbourne.

Many people attribute the economic miracle mentioned above to the mining boom that Australia has experienced by digging up all of those minerals from the ground. Recently, Australia had the world’s largest economic resources of gold, iron ore, lead, zircon, nickel, uranium and zinc. It also has lots and lots of bauxite, coal, cobalt, copper, and silver. Whilst being good for mining companies, all of this mining may not be good for the environment. If only Australia had ample sunshine (Alice Springs gets 3500 sunshine hours a year!) and empty land (think the size of France) to build huge sunfarms then it could become a powerhouse in renewable energy. Oh wait, it’s already in the top 10 producers of renewable energy in the world.

When you’ve got so much sunshine, it’s not wholly surprising that life is one spent outdoors. Australians are famed for loving their sport. Melbourne’s annual calendar is not marked by climactic seasons but by sporting ones. Aussie Football, cricket, rugby league and union, and soccer all work to find their own space in the  calendar, alongside massive sports like netball, hockey and swimming.

For a country of only just over 20million people, Australia produces Olympic champions in athletics, rowing, swimming, modern pentathlon and of course multiple winners in the winter olympics too. Their rugby team generally thrashes most apart from New Zealand and their soccer team has even done better than Scotland has ever done in the soccer World Cup. When it comes to sport. Australia wins.



But surely all of the preoccupation with running, catching balls, flailing arms in a swimming pool means that Australia is a cultural desert. Well, I grew up gripped by Neighbours and Home and Away and the Australian talent for storytelling shines through with film directors like Baz Lurhmann and actors like Cate Blanchette, Hugh Jackman, Geoffrey Rush and Nicole Kidman. A great Australian novelist, Richard Flanagan, won the Booker prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North years after his countryman Thomas Keneally won it for Schindler’s Ark, which was of course made into an Oscar winning film.

Kylie Minogue found pop stardom and other Australians have found worldwide acclaim. The Gibb brothers of the Bee Gees grew up in Australia and had the Bee Gees had their first successes here. INXS were iconic; Crowded House were loved; AC/DC rocked and Nick Cave still captures imagination. And that’s ignoring the man Australians liken to Bob Dylan – Mr Paul Kelly. From little things, big things grow.

Australia may be the self-titled Lucky Country, but the thing about luck is that that you make your own, and Australia seems to be doing pretty well at it.


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Does Australia have more snow than Switzerland?

I am from Scotland, a country of rugged landscapes, mountain highlands and brutish weather. Now, I live in Australia; a country of beautiful beaches, a never ending and never changing arid “bush”, and burning hot weather. Like most stereotypes, both are useful in giving you a general idea but don’t quite give you the whole picture.

My partner, Claire, had arrived before me, during Melbourne’s winter. She complained of the cold and how she sat with the computer on her lap, not because she was using it but because of the heat it generated. Having previously dismissed this as a girl gone soft after years in the sweltering heat of Cambodia, I had to go out and buy a jacket immediately after arriving in Melbourne – despite it now being springtime. I was flabbergasted to see that Canberra, the capital of Australia, has whole seasons where the temperature drops to below freezing at night. There are days when I look at the weather and see that my hometown of Perth in Scotland is warmer than Melbourne in Australia. This is not the Australia that was sold to me from watching Neighbours and Home and Away as a kid.

This surprise grew to a state of disbelief when somebody told me that Australia gets more snow than Switzerland.  I’ve not been able to find evidence to support this, nor has anybody else although post number 22 uses a bit of maths to show that it may not be true. But even the fact that this is a question worth debating just goes to show that Australia gets snow, and lots of it.

During winter in Scotland, we would take our sledges and slide down the hill at the old reservoir or near the school playing fields. None of my family skied and nor did my friends so it never really occurred to me to hit the slopes. When I imagined what life would be like in Australia, I never pictured snowcapped mountains and slalom runs.

From my home in Melbourne, I can hop in the car, leave the beach behind and in about four hours be at any one of four ski resorts. Scotland has mountains, but they are small compared to the Australian alps. The smallest resort, Mount Baw Baw, is, as well having a funny name for Scottish people, still 200m higher than Scotland’s greatest peak at 1550 metres. The summit of Mount Buller, the largest resort, reaches past 1800 metres, and Mount Hotham, home of the serious skiers, nearly touches 1900 metres. These heights mean that even when the temperature is a t-shirt wearing weather of 18 degrees in Melbourne, you can be skiing up in the mountains.


I think this is Mount Feathertop, seen from the top of Heavenly Valley chairlift on Mount Hotham. The clouds had just parted and all of a sudden you could see these mountains with untouched snow all over them. There was a lot of mouth opened gazing at this point.

Recently, we decided to see what skiing in Australia was like at Falls Creek. Wisely, we decided it would be good for me to have a lesson before I tried to do anything by myself, whilst Claire has skied before. At its simplest, there are only four things that you need to be able to do while skiing – go forwards, turn right, turn left and stop. Hopefully, I could master these four skills in a two hour lesson.

When the skiing stops, there are two options for getting down the mountain to go home. You can take the chair lift down the hill, which nobody does and only exists because the chairs have to go down to bring people up, or you can ski down in stylish swishing and swooshing arcs. Claire who had not yet seen me ski asked if I wanted to ski down or take the chair lift. Hesitantly, I said that we should give skiing down the mountain a go. The problem that became quickly apparent was that I had only mastered 2 of the 4 skills needed to get a down a mountain safely.

As I gathered more and more speed, Claire yelled at me to use the snow plough method but despite my best efforts, I continue to speed downwards and could see that I was about to go off the run and head who knows where.  I decided that the best way to stop would be to fall over, which I managed without any problem. Claire caught up to and asked me why I didn’t use do the snow plough. I protested that I was so maybe it was that I had too much natural speed – I was too good at going forward. Ignoring the ridiculousness of this notion, she advised that I should turn one way and then the other skiing across the hill from side to side so that I wasn’t going straight downwards. This should slow me down.

Having played football my whole life, I’ve sometimes found it frustrating that my right foot is stronger than my left, but never did I imagine that this curse would contribute to me careering down a mountain like an out of control balloon that has just been burst. To turn left, you put your weight on the outside foot, the right, so it is the right foot that is forcing you turn. Immediately this felt comfortable and natural and could turn left fine. However, as I skied across the hill, I found it a lot more difficult to turn right so as not to fall off the edge.  It seems that of the four simple skills, turning right, as well as stopping, is one that evades me. The problem of course is that not being able to turn right or stop makes it difficult to evade other skiers, which I didn’t entirely do.

Undeterred the next morning, and still allowed on the mountain, I had another lesson which allowed me to learn how to stop and turn right. By the end of the day, I made it down the mountain without crashing or crashing into anybody, although it seems that I still have too much natural speed that is difficult to control. Like an untamed Ferrari.

There were two young boys, aged 3 and 5, staying in the same accommodation as us at Mount Buller, and they had both been skiing since they were aged 2. They are already good enough to be going down black runs, doing jumps and skiing downhill backwards. Next winter, they will attend the primary school that opens on Mount Buller for that one single term allowing them to ski and go to school all winter. They represent a growing interest in snow sports and Australia already has five snowsport world champions, mainly in the newer modern formats of mogul skiing and snowboarding at which they have had previous Olympic success too.

For me though, skiing is also about being up high for beautiful vistas, except I was up this huge mountain and I couldn’t see a thing. Visibility was about 50 metres, and only the object of vision was a big, bright orange pole. I had heard of these mythical days on the slopes when the sun shines and it is warm enough to wear only a t-shirt. I treated such stories with incredulity until one afternoon at Mount Buller when you could feel the heat in the sun. It was spring-time in Australia, again, and this time I could have discarded my jacket and skied in the sun.

There was a moment, when the clouds first parted and the sun shone brilliantly in a blue sky, that I was glad to be able to stop my skis and look out across a folded carpet of mountains. The views were stunning and you could look for miles afar and down to a green, lush land whilst I was standing at the top of a mountain of snow. It was a picture of Australia that I never imagined.


From the summit of Mount Buller, you could see this landscape of green mountains that had been folded up into sharp peaks that went on and one. As the sun changed position, the colour of the mountains would change to take on shades of blue in the dark green. Ignore the skier by the way, it’s not me anyway.

I have a good friend back home who has lived abroad and enjoys exotic holidays in far flung places, but Australia holds no appeal for him. I’ve not asked why but I could imagine that it may not seem different enough to the Britain that he lives in; that all Australia has are a few beaches and some pleasant cities. I think that I maybe thought the same until living here. I’ve previously written about there being more to Australia than what is on the surface, but the actual Australian surface itself, and just below it, is one to be explored and astonished by.



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Ningaloo: the next Great Barrier Reef?

We were bumping up and down as the boat sped across the top of the waves towards the Great Barrier Reef. Only 25 minutes into the 60-minute journey from Cairns and tourists had already taken themselves to the back of the boat to throw up overboard. As we neared the reef, exuberant, tanned guys with bleached hair , who doubtlessly spend their winter on the slopes, instructed us about safety and respecting the reef. We donned our stinger suits, flippers, goggles and snorkel and dived in.

On the sail back, while chatting to one of the instructors who had spent time in Scotland, we heard on the radio that UNESCO had decided not to place the Great Barrier Reef on the endangered list (and again just recently). Some in Australia were disappointed by this, hoping that being put on the list would prompt action to protect the reef: the death of coral is real, the colour has faded and sea life is less abundant.

Ningaloo Reef is on the other side of Australia from the Great Barrier Reef, at the northwestern tip. I had never heard about it before coming here and even among Australians you often get a puzzled look when you mention it. The nearest town is a little place called Exmouth, which has about 7000 people living in it and is 1270 kilometres north of Perth. It’s a new town, only established in the 1960s to support a US naval communication centre.

Ningaloo Reef is off Cape Range National Park and there is no accommodation in the national park, meaning that if you want to stay in the park, you take a motorhome, campervan or tent. And, even then, there are only about 80 camping spaces in the whole park. There are no restaurants, no bars, no shops and no mobile phone reception. There’s you, whoever you came with, whatever you came in with and whatever you brought with you. But a whole other world awaits just the other side of the sand dunes.


Ningaloo Reef, just off Australia’s coast at Cape Rage National Park

If you walked the 50 metres from your campervan onto the beach and into the water until it was chest high, you could stick your head underwater and be transported into a wonderland quicker than falling down any rabbit hole. You would immediately see the colours, shapes and swimming styles of fish that you had never seen before, or even imagined. It’s a whole other world dancing in technicolour just inches below the water’s surface. And it’s a world in which we are slightly ill suited; maybe even out of our depth.

In the array of sea life, be it tiny darting fish, languid turtles, alien looking rays or gigantic whales, none have any resemblance to a human form. I know of the evolutionary theories that our ancestors ascended from water to land, but now it even takes us giant efforts just to get into the water. A person trying to get in a wetsuit is like somebody trying to extricate themselves from a straightjacket, and then we strap goggles around our heads to see and fasten on a tube for breathing. The absurdity is heightened by the people flapping like clowns with oversized fins on their feet.

The unfamiliarity of this alien world does make it completely immersing and mesmerising though. An hour would go by just swimming around being amazed at the creatures swimming beside and around you, and yet it would feel like 20 minutes. During my first swim, I saw a turtle gently waft its flippers and mosey on without a care in the watery world. I came across a ray lying on the seabed covered in sand – and waited. And waited. I just wanted to see it swim off but it was still there when I came back 15 minutes later. And only just as I was about to turn away with impatient disgust did it shake itself from the seabed. It was gone before I realised what I was seeing.


“tum, te, tum, I’m just floating along”

I would go back to the beach and, like a little kid who had just come his favourite rollercoaster, I would want to run straight back in for another shot. But there were sights to be seen from the beach too.

There’s an old lighthouse on a hill at the tip of Cape Range providing a view of the ocean for miles either side. From there, we had been watching humpback whales blow and slap their fins on the water through binoculars. Descending the road to the beach, one whale suddenly rose out of the water, twisted and slapped its back onto the water. The ridiculousness of the whale’s size, its appearance from nowhere right in front of us, and the crash of it against the water, induced spontaneous laughter. We settled down on the beach and watched a few of them go past, breaching, blowing and slapping as they did.


How much fun does this look? The humpback whales give birth in warmer climes during the winter and then migrate around the northern and western parts of Australia down to Antartica for the summer with their calves.

A couple of days later, we were out in a boat amongst them, seeing their incomprehensible size up close. However, the humpback whale was playing second fiddle to the whale shark that day.

The whale shark is the biggest fish in the sea and can grow to over 10 metres long. Their huge wide mouth hoovers up plankton (krill, fish eggs, crab larvae, small squid) as they meander their way around the ocean. Their slow, predictable movement, allied with a distaste for human flesh, means that they are ideal sharks for tourists to hop in the water with and swim as close as three metres away.


I’m over 1m 90cm and the tail fin was taller than me


The Tiger Shark is really interesting to look as the sun rays hit the white dots on its scales making it appear in slightly different colours

I’m quite long for a human but I felt like a tadpole swimming next to a whale shark, and from behind I was gobsmacked at the height of its tail fin, which would be taller than me. I had seen skeletons of whales and sharks in museums before but my imagination had failed to render what it would be like alive and real just metres from my fingers. It was mind-boggling to be with.

We were told that it was only in the late 80s or early 90s that a local doctor, who was a keen fisherman, realised the regularity of whale sharks and humpbacks visiting the area. While he didn’t keep it a secret, the number of people visiting Exmouth and Ningaloo Reef is miniscule compared to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.

Looking at Exmouth and around the surrounding area, there are not many reasons why you would want to live there other than Ningaloo Reef and the sea life. I began to think that the people who live there do so because they don’t want to live in cities or be surrounded by humans and all of the things that we build. They want to be away from it all, free to explore a world of fish, sharks, dolphins and whales without being interrupted by 10 million tourists.


Everywhere you looked, there were bright and wonderfully shaped fish… that would never sit still long enough for me just to look at them.

Of course, there are other people who do want you or I, and our dollars, there. Exmouth has a new tourist centre and there were new homes built along a man-made canal – perfect for holiday makers who want to go out fishing. It felt like a town on the precipice of change, and I was contributing to pushing it over the edge.

Despite being on a boat roaring away from the Great Barrier Reef, I was one of the people who wanted UNESCO to advise that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. I want the Australian government to do something, but I obviously didn’t want them to stop tourists speeding there on high-powered boats, swimming around chasing sea life and accidentally touching and breaking off the odd bit of coral. The more we visit, the less it becomes. And the less it becomes, the more likely we are to begin searching for new wonderlands to gaze at, take photos of, and tell stories about. The less Great the Barrier Reef becomes, the more likely we are to find Ningaloo.

That’s what I did and it’s Ningaloo that I’m telling people about. Why would others not want to go and enjoy what I and thousands of others have? Why should they not have the chance to experience this watery wonderland? Why should they not explore a far-off corner of their country? But if they do, I wonder what will become of Ningaloo.

It doesn’t take much to imagine the angry muttering of local people as hordes descend to hunt the whale sharks with their underwater cameras. You can hear their frustration at the disregard shown for the fragile coral and sense their despair at having to close up home and move elsewhere to escape high-speed boats terrifying the fish just below. You can see them shaking their heads wondering why we couldn’t just leave the place alone.


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NT: a place of home and racism for Aboriginal people

In my last blog, I tried to convey the different feeling that the Northern Territory has to other parts of Australia, but it was absent of even mentioning a major difference of the NT – the proportion of people who are Aboriginal.

For Australia as a whole, 3% of the population are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander – relatively few. Considering this, and the fact that only one-third of Aboriginal people live in the main cities compared to 68% of non-indigenous people, it is easily possible for many people in Australia to have never met an Aboriginal person. Indeed, a previous survey found 6 in 10 people thought that they have had little or no contact with an Aboriginal person.

The phrasing of this statistic is interesting in that it says that people thought that they had little or no contact with an Aboriginal person. Some of those 6 out of 10 people may have had contact with an Aboriginal person and not known it.

Some international readers, like myself before coming to Australia, would think this to be a bit strange. Surely a person would know if they had contact with an Aboriginal person or not? This thought comes from a belief that Aboriginal people are black and would have similar features to somebody like David Gulpilil, an actor in Baz Lurhman’s film Australia.


David Gulpilil, who was also in Crocodile Dundee, Walkabout and Charlie’s Country

In one of my first blogs I wrote about how I had been at meetings where an Aboriginal person would deliver a Welcome to Country and talk about their heritage, and I was silently intrigued that all of the Aboriginal people doing these talks had been white. Many people who are Aboriginal have ancestors who are not Aboriginal and may indeed be white, and thus some Aboriginal people are also white, especially in states like Victoria and New South Wales.

The process of colonisation has meant that the dominant language and culture of Australia is one rooted in Britain and built upon by European migration post World War 2. Aboriginal languages and cultures have been suppressed and sidelined, to the stage that Aboriginal culture is viewed as being something separate to Australian culture. It is outside, it is different, it is unAustralian.

The preponderance and dominance of non-Aboriginal custom, language and people means that in many parts of Australia it would be easy not to see, hear or feel any semblance of Aboriginal life on a day to day basis. However, in the NT, 25% of the population is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Many of the Aboriginal people in the NT are black and are therefore visually different to the predominant white, Anglo Australian. Additionally, you will hear Aboriginal people speaking their language in the street or park, meaning that visibly and audibly it may be easier to know if you have had contact an Aboriginal person. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that greater awareness of Aboriginal people necessarily leads to respect and understanding.

In conversations I’ve had with Australians about Darwin and the NT, there’s often some mention of “it” being a bit dysfunctional. The “it” may not be identified and whilst the government is often the reference, sometimes the person is meaning that society as a whole in the NT is dysfunctioning. One of the dysfunctions described is the levels of racism towards Aboriginal people.

The type of racism can be a subtle, even unconscious thing, for instance people assuming that all Aboriginal people are drunks, irresponsible, incapable and lazy, and then treating them based on these biases. Racism may come as more overt hostility and abuse, or it can even become a societal and institutional thing where it pervades the way that Aboriginal people are considered by government, institutions and society.

Last year, an investigative TV programme showed guards at Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in the NT tear gassing young people, putting hoods over them, stripping them naked and beating them. The Prime Minister pointed out that there may be some racial element as nearly every young person in juvenile detention in NT is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.


A situation where nearly every young person in juvenile detention is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander can only be possible if the way that society exists discriminates against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The situation is the result of communities without good schools, health care, jobs, or transport, and a majority population that treats them as being different, maybe even inferior. They can be outcasts in their own home and trapped in a world that is not theirs. They are unable to live in a white, Western world and unable to rebuild the lives they had before we came.

Yet alongside this struggle, and unlike in states like Victoria, there are parts of the NT that are owned by Aboriginal people. These huge areas enable Aboriginal communities to live more akin to what life would have been like before colonisation; retaining their language, customs and culture – retaining their way of life. Non-owners can only enter these areas if they receive a permit from the Northern Land Council.


Once a year, the people of Tiwi Islands (top left of the map above) allow non-owners to enter without the need of a permit. This falls on a day that they host multiple art exhibitions and sales, and the grand final of their Australian football league. On this day, you get a couple of hundred tourists going across, as we did, and you immediately feel that you are in a very different part of Australia. You are in a part of Australia that is not dominated by British or European immigrants and English is not the dominant language. It looks, sounds and feels very different.


Pukumani poles have spiritual significance within Tiwi culture, ensuring that the spirit of the deceased is released from the body into the spirit world.


Despite the obvious problems in the NT for Aboriginal people, the NT appears to be a focal place of sorts for Aboriginal people throughout Australia. Uluru, in the NT, is not only an icon for many Australians as an outstanding rock of beauty, it has special meaning for Aboriginal people throughout Australia. This is represented by it being the location chosen for a convention of hundreds of Aboriginal people to discuss constitutional arrangements between Aboriginal people and Australia. Additionally, the recommendations of that convention were called The Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The NT is also home to Garma, which is the biggest Aboriginal festival in Australia, and is much more than music and dance. Garma’s organisers, Yothu Yindi Foundation, proclaim it to be the Aboriginal equivalent of the World Economic Forum at Davos. The National Indigenous Music Awards are held in Darwin and of all the major festivals in Australia, it is Darwin’s that has the most performances by Aboriginal artists. Indeed, Darwin’s Festival was recently opened by the B2M band from Tiwi Islands. Despite the problems the NT has, it may be a place where Aboriginal culture can thrive.

Something that is in a state of dysfunction may be more liable to change than if it was in a state of function. Therefore, I wonder if the NT offers a possibility of change for Aboriginal people in a way that other States cannot. These other States are functioning, and function in a way that Aboriginal culture is dominated by another. Can the NT find a way to function for all cultures within it?




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The Northern Territory: Australia’s Last Frontier

For the last year, my girlfriend, Claire, has been working and living in Darwin. People outside of Australia instinctively know that it may not be close to Melbourne and seem slightly reassured when I tell them it is only four hours away. Until they realise that is four hours by plane.

If you live in Scotland, where I’m from, in four hours you can fly to Morocco in northern Africa. Imagine Scotland and now imagine Morocco; how different and far away from each other do they feel? When I fly back to Scotland from Melbourne I will find that I have time to watch a film, eat a meal, get up for a walk and maybe shut my eyes for a bit, and still see the Australian land mass beneath me. By appreciating the size of Australia, you can begin to understand how it might not be the same all over.

In a previous blog, I wrote about Kakadu, near Darwin, being the place that I felt was uniquely Australian. And the Northern Territory, of which Darwin is the capital, is certainly viewed as being a bit unique by many Australians. There are generally two types of reactions that you get when you tell people that Claire is living in Darwin. The first includes eyes bulged, eyebrows arched, a raising and backward tilting of the head all accompanied by an exclaimed what?! This incomprehension signals that the person considers Darwin a backwater town that is like a last, uncivilised frontier of Australia.  It is poorly governed, has a rudimentary economy and is home to vagabonds and wanderers. It’s all just a bit unruly.

In the second reaction, the eyebrows, for a brief moment, go the opposite way. They furrow and the eyes narrow slightly, whilst the head comes forward and nods gently. This person is curious and wants to know more.

The Northern Territory may be a bit unruly but a place where social rules are bent offers adventure and experiences to remember. A person could live in Melbourne or Sydney, Perth or Adelaide, and apart from a few landmarks, each may not feel substantially different to the other. It’s city living. But Darwin and the Northern Territory offers something different – it offers the outback with its sense of ruggedness and earthiness, and maybe even a sense of danger.

Danger is a crocodile being found in a swimming pool or taking people from the water’s edge. Danger is the heat killing people out for a walk because they became disorientated. Danger is a cyclone that can rip up towns and houses. Danger is a python so big that it ate the crocodile that could eat a human..


This actually happened in Queensland but I bet you it has happened in the NT as well

The chances are that you will mosey on without encountering any danger at all, but the outback can be rugged all the same. To get around, people have vehicles that can drive over rocky mountains and through croc infested rivers. And even with these mechanical beasts, there are certain places that you get to in single propeller planes or helicopters. You don’t look out on manicured countryside and think of an afternoon picnic; you look out on a red earth and wonder what it would have in store for you if you were brave enough to venture into it.

The Northern Territory is vast and sparsely populated. For a place that is 1.5million kilometres squared, there are only 250,000 people. The Northern Territory is bigger than France, Germany and Spain combined yet these three countries have a combined population of nearly 200m people. Alaska, that great wilderness of the northern hemisphere, is more densely populated than the Northern Territory! 145,000 people live in Darwin and 25,000 people live in the Northern Territory’s second city, Alice Springs, which is 1497 kilometres away. In between, there’s the odd dusty town and rusting buildings.


One of the pools at Edith Falls

Recently we went to Katherine and went to one of its main attractions – Edith Falls. In between rapids and little waterfalls in the river, we found a pool that was still and warm to swim in. Being the busy Easter holiday weekend, there were maybe four or five other people there – but far enough away to feel that you had the place to yourself. In Melbourne, you can go walking in the Dandenongs on a Sunday and be greeted by a barrage of lycra-clad active-wear enthusiasts. In the Northern Territory, you meet a park ranger and a frill-necked lizard on the path.


I hadn’t realised this until contemplating this blog but when you go to the NT (look, all the locals call it that and I’m bored typing Northern Territory repeatedly), you go there not because of what man has made, but because of what exists in the absence of man. Sydney is the opera house and a big ugly bridge. Melbourne has a cricket ground and some kooky laneways serving expensive coffee. Meanwhile, the NT gives you deep gorges thousands of years old and escarpments bearing the marks of continental shifts from aeons ago. It gives you jabiru birds in the sky and huge prehistoric crocodiles in the water.

Although what attracts people to the NT may not be things that people have created, that’s not to say that there are not people who make the NT more interesting. Of course, there are people who were born in Darwin, grew up in Darwin, work in Darwin, raise a family in Darwin and continue to live in Darwin without a second thought. But then there are a lot of people who choose to go and live in the NT, and the type of person who chooses to go and live in the NT may be a bit more interesting to begin with.

At my work recently, a new person remarked that they had come to Melbourne from Perth (Australia) and were soooo glad because of the better coffee. Nobody moves to Darwin for something as mundane as the coffee. For some people who choose to go there, it doesn’t just seem to be about work or every-day life; it seems to be more existential. People go to broaden horizons or hide from mistakes of the past. They go to learn more about their country or escape a life gone wrong. They go to experience a different culture, test themselves somewhere else, or start a new beginning.

In those dusty towns and rusting buildings of the NT, you meet people and wonder how their lives had led them there. You feel as though you could sit down with a cold one and hear a tale that would not have finished after ten hours. Australia’s Broadcasting Corporation obviously feels the same as they are currently producing a series on the NT’s most colourful characters.

I write this blog as a frequent visitor but never inhabitant of the NT, and for some people living there maybe life does become about the taste of coffee. Maybe the unruliness does becomes tiring and wearing, or you begin to miss what a bigger city can offer in terms of culture and current affairs. Especially, when what counts as topical and important is the NT’s major newspaper putting this on the front cover.


Another day, the front page was a photo of a line umpire who had ran remarkably quickly at an Australian Football game. With such standards, it is understandable that a “Good for Darwin” party was not celebrating contributions to Darwin’s greatness, but gently and fondly mocking Darwin by judging something as being good, for Darwin.

The NT is currently running a tourism campaign “Stop Guessing; Start Doing”, and also has rather humorous videos by comedians sarcastically comparing Darwin to places like Melbourne. The sarcasm is perfect as it comes from an understanding that you don’t go to Darwin for the things you can get in Melbourne; you go to Darwin to revel in the difference it provides.


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New Zealand: Scotland on steroids; Hollywood magic; and rodeo cowboys

People had told me that New Zealand’s South Island is like Scotland on steroids; the mountains are that bit higher and the lakes are that much bigger. After visiting, I realised that small, skinny Scotland would need Ben Johnson’s doctor to get us in the same race as New Zealand’s South Island. But there was a Scottishness that Australia has never evoked.

In Melbourne, people hear my accent and know that I’m not English, but often assume that I’m Irish or ask me which part of Ireland I’m from. An Australian boy with a Scottish flag on his t-shirt told me that he was Scottish, or rather that his Mum was, and when I asked which part she was from, he answered “Ireland”. But New Zealanders immediately know that I am Scottish and ask me which part I am from. They also didn’t exclaim surprise that Scotland also has a place called Perth in some inexplicable coincidence along with Australia.

Scotland has many towns that have deliberately retained an old-fashioned quaintness that are full of little tea-rooms and intriguing curio shops that you think have interesting things but have nothing worth buying. New Zealand’s South Island has similar sorts of towns except it appears that this is not because they are deliberately paused in time, but that they are running a little behind the times and are in no rush to catch up.

Another similarity is the smallness of the towns of the South Island with many having between 10,000 and 20,000, and only a couple of bigger cities above 50,000. Whilst places like Queenstown are overrun by tourists, other places remain relatively undisturbed and you can get a sense of what life is like for those living there.

Whilst the South Island is where much of Lords of the Rings was filmed, it was other films that came to my mind when touring around. I began to imagine films that inspired romantic notions of what community feels like. I could imagine towns of the South Island having a James Stewart character running through it wishing everybody Merry Christmas like in It’s a Wonderful Life. I could sense towns having such collective joy as when all ages of London town come out to fly a kite in Mary Poppins. Whatever the magic dust is that old-time Hollywood sprinkled, some of it fell on the little town of Te Anau on Hogmanay 2015.

For Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve), there were two obvious choices; we could either go party in Queenstown or lose ourselves in Fiordland National Park with wildflowers, a small river, Milford Sound and a cathedral of peaks. We went with the third choice which was to go somewhere in the middle and that place was Te Anau, a small town of 2000 people. Walking into town about 10:30pm, we were pointed, by some friendly police people, in the direction of the town’s main park and found a bonfire, some live music and the townspeople of all ages out to celebrate.

Near midnight, after some secret or telepathic communication, everybody began leaving the music stage and wandering towards the lake. Fearing some ritual dip in the freezing lake or a Pied Piper hypnotic escapade, we decided to follow at a safe distance. Thankfully, the mass migration (150 yards) was only because this little town was going to put on a ooh-aagh inspiring firework show from the lake.

After the fireworks and some New Year greetings, we all went back to the live band for more partying in the park. Daughters danced with dads; you bought a hotdog from your neighbour volunteering at the food stall; slightly inebriated teens chatted to former teachers and everybody loved the local band who played songs that garnered huge cheers but were wholly unknown to Claire and I.



We even managed to find a charming bar open late with a live band and friendly atmosphere

It wasn’t just Te Anau that had the the magic dust sprinkled on it, even poor Christchurch, still suffering from multiple earthquakes, had a park full of families on Christmas Day picnicking, paddling in the pool and playing games together. Whilst we may not have expected to see a group of Indians playing cricket in Christchurch, we  were even more surprised to see a series of rodeos happening throughout the South Island over Christmas and New Year. I never saw one rugby ball being kicked the whole time we were there, but I did see a wild horse kick a cowboy off their back. We also saw hundreds of cars rock up to a field outside of Wanaka to cheer on men and women attempting to ride huge bucking bulls, lasso cows and tame wild horses.

We got around, as many tourists do, with a campervan that allowed us to stop where and when we wanted. Before going to the South Island, a friend told me that everywhere takes longer to get to than you think. This is not just down to the single lane roads  but because you will want to stop to take a picture every time you turn a corner. The lakes were a turquoise blue, caused by high calcium levels, that I had never seen before, added to the breathtaking contrast of blue skies and green mountains.

It was about 10 years ago that I first saw a picture of Milford Sound and was blown away by it. When we sailed and kayaked in it with, we were even treated to a school of dolphins swimming and jumping. However, the South Island then went and trumped that by taking us on a walk up to the Key Summit above Milford Sound that gave us views across the mountain ranges, lakes and sea.  We sat, looked out and took a deep breath of wonder.

It’s at times like those that it’s best not to say anything. It’s best to let the beauty speak for itself. In that spirit, I’ll leave you with a few places to wonder about.




Milford Sound, taken from our kayak


Views from Key Summit in Fiordland National Park, where Milford Sound is


See what I mean about the colour of the water?!



Queenstown – the birthplace of the bungee jump. This town of 15,000 people is engulfed by over half-a-million visitors a year. We drove 30km to the other end of the lake and stayed at a campsite right at the water’s edge with a grand total of 30 other people.


We finished a walk one night in the near dark and didn’t fancy driving onto a campsite. So, making the most of our campervan, we slept in the car park and awoke to this view of Aoraki (Mount Cook) in the morning.


This is a glacier lake near Aoraki (Mount Cook) which had this eerie, mystical feel to it. There were quite a few times that you did feel in a land undiscovered and untouched by humankind.








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