While You Weren’t Looking.

I’ll admit that I’ve only been half-following the riots in Baltimore this past week, in part because life has been busy, but also because it is very easy, as with shootings in the US, to sigh and wonder when things will ever change.

Of course, change does come, albeit slowly, and the fact that police officers have now been charged with Freddie Gray’s murder is a huge step in this direction. I suppose we will see what happens in court, and whether they will be held accountable for their actions. And I suppose, it’s only a matter of time before the entrenched attitudes begin to shift.

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Always Was, Always Will Be.

As I’ve written before we moved almost eighteen months ago from the largest city in our state to a very small one, further south. Really, it’s more of a town. There were a few reasons we moved – we liked the idea of living in a cooler climate, we liked the idea of living in a smaller city, and we thought it would be good for our Offspring to grow up in the country rather than in a bigger city.

For me, though, it was much more than all that. It was like coming home.

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Lest We Forget.

They’re coming.

Over the next week or so, the area where I live will be under invasion. Thousands of people, descending… to spend the weekend. (And after a few days here, most of them will go away again, so I’m sure it will be fairly painless).

The visitors are coming from all over the country (and possibly the world, I suppose) to commemorate the first troops who left Australia by ship, to fight in World War I. They were headed, after training, to Gallipoli, Turkey.

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Fortuitously, the post I was going to write last week is even more relevant this week, considering that yesterday (and in some parts of the world, still today) was World Food Day. This year, the emphasis is on family and subsistence farming, and how they help to combat, among other things, hunger.

The trouble with talking about hunger, though, is that many of us in the developed world see it as a problem for others. When food shortages happen in other places, it can be devastating, but here, most of us are in the position where we don’t have to worry too deeply. Potatoes are too expensive? We can buy pasta instead. We have alternatives. In fact, most of us don’t know what it is like to go hungry, so much that there is a shame associated with not having enough to eat, especially if it is the case that you cannot feed your children.

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Bring Them Back, And While We’re At It, Let’s Just End This.

Apologies for the lateness of this week’s path: ethic. Over the weekend and early this week, I was busy finishing a story to submit to an anthology which goal is to raise awareness and in honour of the hundreds of missing girls in Nigeria, whose story has been so prevalent in the news recently. Sales from the anthology will go to Not For Sale, an organisation which fights against slavery and human trafficking.

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Rest, damnit!

I know what people think about Western Australia.  Or what they don’t think about it.  For example: you know how, in a TV series, when they want to get rid of a character without killing her or having her die, they send her to Australia?  In Australian TV shows, when that happens, the character comes to live in Perth.   And sure, it’s one of the most isolated cities in the world, and considering it takes up about a third of the country but only contains about ten percent of the population, you can imagine how bustling and chaotic it is.

So it figures that other cities and states look at Perth and Western Australia, and think we’re backward, and one of the areas in which we lagged behind is the regulation of retail trading hours.  We used to have very strict regulations here in WA.  No Sunday trading, and the only late night shopping night was Thursday night.  The exception was for small businesses–the local corner store, or ‘deli’ as it’s often known here, and small independent supermarkets.  The logic behind this was that if the retail industry were deregulated, then it would hurt small business.  Around 18 years ago, we had our first Sunday trading day in the city centre.  It was intended to bring some life back into the city, especially on the weekend, where it tended to be a bit of a dead zone.  And it proved to be quite popular.  People enjoyed the opportunity to do some shopping while casually walking around.  For most shops, it wasn’t the busiest day of the week, but it warranted opening the doors and paying a couple of staff.

Then about ten years ago, there was a referendum to decide if we should change the regulation across the board, and allow every shop to open on Sundays, if they so desired.  The response was a resounding ‘No’* and so the trading hours stayed the same.  Western Australia remained the backwater it had always been.

Until last year, when–in contradiction to the referendum result, but I’m not bitter–Sunday trading was allowed for all shops whose owners wished to open.    And you know, sometimes that is handy.  I’ve occasionally made a quick run to the shops on a Sunday afternoon to pick up something I needed, and because the bigger supermarkets are open, there is a wider choice, and it’s cheaper.  But leave aside the issue of big business vs small business, I really wonder if Sunday trading is doing us any good.  Leave aside the convenience, and I wonder: do we really need the shops to be open every day?  If I were to work six days a week, I can’t imagine I’d want to go shopping on my only non-work day.  I’d seriously consider getting my shopping delivered, instead, and if I were working six days a week, I’d probably be able to wear the $5 delivery charge to do just that.

If you look back a few decades, Sunday was considered to be the day of rest–and granted, it was deemed a day of rest for religious reasons.  But even those people who weren’t religious used to take it easy on Sundays.  It was a day for sleeping in, and visiting family, and playing sport.  Working on Sundays was an aberration.  It was for overtime or stocktake.  It certainly wasn’t the norm.  Even on the farm, my own parents and those of my friends might check on the sheep, or fix something on the tractor, but they wouldn’t make a point of working (again, unless it were a really busy time of year).

Is this idea that we need to buy things all the time good for us?  Is the idea that everyday is potentially a workday, a good one?

It’s probably clear by now that I’m a sceptic when it comes to religious belief.  Regardless of whether I go shopping on Sundays, I certainly wouldn’t be spending any time in church.  But perhaps there is something to be learnt from the ‘rules’ religious organisations impose.  Thinking of this brought to mind a conversation I had a while back with a friend of mine.  He was talking about how tribal elders used to lecture him and his friends when they were growing up.  They would be told that they could only hunt some animals at certain times of the year, and not at others.  ‘They told us that the spirits would punish us,’ he said, ‘but after a while, we kind of worked out that it was just so we didn’t run out of food.’

Religions have had millennia to develop myths and stories to explain how the world works, and how we should behave in it.  Some of that is purely survival, such as the rules the elders laid out for young Indigenous hunters.  Other rules are for social balance (not working Sundays means everyone gets at least one day off).  Of course, these rules can be used to control populations, to incite fear, to demonise outsiders… but all those are good reasons to have a secular society.  My point would be, what are the good parts we could take from religion, to make our society a better one?  What are the things we can borrow to ensure that we’re living lives that are good for us?

We seem to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable–and that’s a good thing–but we shouldn’t push so far that we forget what we need to survive in this world.  I wonder sometimes about how we seem to ‘break’ social rules with such scant regard for the impact.  I know, it seems like nothing to open the stores every day of the week.  But where did our day of rest go?  It’s not as if I want a strict social structure in place which dictates exactly what I can and can’t do, with disastrous consequences, should I choose not to obey.  We should have the choice, but I wonder whether we’re perhaps not that good at making the right choice for ourselves.  We have laws in place which punish us for driving too fast, or for hurting others, or for spreading malicious rumours, or for destroying the environment.  Were we so able to self-regulate our behaviour, such laws wouldn’t be needed.  It is as well that we have borrowed from the moral structures built up over time, but borrowing is not enough.  We have to consciously evolve: ask if this is the best path for our society?  If progress should perhaps be measured by something other than simply consumption and exceeding budgets?

It’s true that sometimes we need saving from ourselves, and that includes being told that we need to have a day off now and then.  I would argue that Sunday’s as good a day as any to take time out, relax, go for a walk, play football, rather than go shopping (or have to go to work so that others can do just that).  My guess is, I’m shouting into the wind on this point, but perhaps I’m not.  I don’t expect that Sunday trading will suddenly stop, but on the few occasions I’ve had to visit a store on a Sunday, I can’t help noticing that it’s hardly a busy day for any of the stores.  Maybe people take their day of rest more seriously than I give them credit for.




*This is common.  Overwhelmingly, Australians vote ‘No’ in referenda.  The most famous ‘Yes’ was to allow Indigenous Australians to be counted as part of the population and for the government to enact laws for them.  It was passed with over 90% of the vote, which I think is awesome.  Of course, it was passed in 1967, which means that up until that time, an entire people was relegated to the status of ‘flora and fauna’ in terms of census data… which I think is pretty shameful.

Fracking: A Dialogue.

(Green) I was walking down by the lake the other day, as I had not been there for some time, and I wished to see how it was faring.

(Grey) And how did you find it?

I found it lonely. The beauty that surrounded it was gone, there was no birdsong, no frogs. The wildlife had all but vanished from the area. It was like visiting a foreign place.

— There is a festival tonight, said Purple, in honour of the new year.  We should go.  There will be fireworks, and dancing and music.

That is a fine idea.  But first, let us eat.

And so we went to the house of Purple, and there were many others, Orange, and Yellow, and Pink, and Blue, and Blue sat with me, and we talked, and he said to me, ‘I noticed that you were at the market the other day.  What was it you and the others were shouting about?’

(Green) Well, I am surprised you ask.

(Blue) You are not possibly still insistent upon protesting this.  We have talked about it at length, and nobody can deny that it is important for our society to have a reliable source of energy — a source that is, as yet, untapped, simply waiting for us to release it to the people.

(Green) And therein lies the problem.  You say that we have talked about it at length, and then jump swiftly into claims that you know I cannot refute: namely, that we need energy and that the reserves are the ideal solution.  You use words such as ‘people’ and ‘untapped’ to imply that it is our right to take such a resource, without considering whether there are other consequences in doing so.

(Blue) And you would deny us that right?  Who has the right to it, then?  Some supernatural power?  Some mystical earth-spirit?

(Green)  Here, you mock me.  Is it not possible to be concerned for the impact of such an operation, without it bearing any relation to spirits?  And why should you bring that up, when I did not even mention it?  You wish, perhaps, to discredit my argument, by showing that my brethren may find solace in gods and goddesses, whereas yours have only interest in science.

(Blue) Is that not true?  Several of your ilk believe in a mystical being.

(Green) Whether or not that is true, it does not prevent us from also having concern for the planet.  There are other reasons to contradict what you are saying — the health of all involved, concern for other beings than humans, conservation of the wilderness, … and none is more important than the other, rather, each has a vital part to play, which cannot be dismissed so easily.  Yet, I digress, and you know this.  My argument was, that you are moving from a point on which we both agree, to a conclusion which is by no means self-evident or logical.  Simply stating that there is something we need, and then concluding that your method is how to achieve it, is but a fallacious argument.

(Blue) How, then?  Our society grows, flourishes, and you would have us live as cave-dwellers?  

(Green)  Again, it pains me to hear what you are saying.  I know that you are learned, and perhaps this is what perturbs me most: that you would pretend to ignore any other solutions than that which you are proposing.  When you claim we would return to uncivilised society, you are fear-mongering, so that those who listen feel they must agree to all your reasons, lest they give up their modern conveniences.  But you do not allow that there may be other ways — the sun, the wind.  I hesitate to suggest that this is because there is so little financial gain for you?

(Blue) But such cynicism!  There are a myriad of examples of how we give back to society.

(Green)  Cynical I may be, but I would argue that these examples are mere token gifts, in order to further your cause.

(Blue)  You wound me, with such distrust.  Have we not agreed that we desire the same ends?

(Green)  Agreed.  We both desire that society would have the resources it requires, but the means to such ends, that is where our desires diverge.  That you would not only poison our waters, but also lie about doing so?  That is where my disdain for you is deepest.

(Blue) These accusations are unfounded.  Where is your evidence?  You accuse me of false conclusions, and yet you have nothing to reinforce your own?

(Green) It is true that I have little proof, and I cannot help but believe it is your deception which prevents me from gaining it.  Yes, I realise: yet another unfounded accusation.  But you insist on using money, fear, to promote your business.  Surely, if there were nothing to fear from the way in which you conduct it, that would not be necessary.

(Blue) You believe we use tactics.  As we do.  This is a business, after all.  We succeed in it, we deliver on promises.  The people demand a resource.  We supply it.  That is all that needs to be said on the matter.  How could you deny us this opportunity to supply a demand?

(Green) For the reasons I have mentioned before: that it will be a short-lived resource, and it does not guarantee supply for our future.  That it is damaging, and you are paying to hide this.  You argue that there are those among us who believe in gods and so must be dismissed, you argue that our claims about poison and destruction are invalid, you disagree with our evidence because we cannot prove that your work is the cause of it.  Yet I put it to you, that such arguments are based on lies.

(Blue) I will not defend myself against this, nor should I need to.  So far, commerce has spoken in our favour, and if you would wish to prevent us from harvesting this resource, then it is commerce to which you must appeal.

(Green) Perhaps the truest words you have spoken all evening, my friend.  I do, truly, believe that I can celebrate the ethical validity of my position, yet as much as it saddens me to concede, it is money, not morals, which will convince those who dictate the machinations of our world.  However, I can only appeal to those who would give them power.  Surely, in the absence of the gold you possess, the threat of removing our leaders from power would be persuasive?

(Blue) Ha, you show too much trust.  We represent the way it has always been.  For you to change it, requires more people than you yet have, more voices, from a louder public.

(Green) This has been done before.  We have managed before.

(Blue) That was in different times.

(Green) The times are not so different, neither the people.  It can be done.  I sense your scepticism, but I have powerful hope.  Change is indeed a strong and powerful promise, and time will tell my story.

(Blue) With such rhetoric, you may win over some.  But still: it is money, and only money, which will lend success to your cause.  Time may tell your story, but the present belongs to us. Let me lend you advice: you must appeal to these elements within our society, you must gain the ear of the rich and the powerful with messages about riches and power.  Then, the benefits of which you speak will follow.  

(Green) That is, if the greed for riches and power do not corrupt us first.  It grieves me that our appeals to the better natures of those who wield decisions, must come in the guise of money.

(Blue) That is the way of the world.

(Green) Still, I hold on to hope.


OK, so it’s not really a Socratic dialogue!  There are too few characters, and I’ve written it more like a script, because I worried that it would be otherwise too difficult to follow.  But the point is, one of the problems, when discussing environmental issues, is that they tend to be emotive, and that fits poorly with the economic model by which we seem to run our countries and our lives.  It is often not considered ‘worth’ saving a species or an area, because we are not getting any net profit from it.  Such intangible concepts as diversity for the sake of diversity, or the importance of green areas on our mental health, don’t have direct economic consequences.  This makes it difficult for the economist (or the company spokesperson or the accountant) and the environmentalist, to come together in dialogue.  But here, I force them together!  Yay for philosophy!  If Socrates and Plato would have wanted anything, I’m sure they would want us to use interrogative thought and introspection and discussion, to try to find common ground, and work around the problems of economic growth versus environmental conservation.  

(I was trying to come up with some Greek-sounding names to give to the voices in this, but my Greek is… non-existent!  And they were awful!  So I’ve just given them colours.  It makes it easier to tell who’s who, anyway, and avoids gender and cultural bias to boot.)

Our federal elections are in a few weeks’ time.  I’d love a debate about fracking, the future of our energy supply, and how much money is going to be invested in alternative energy sources so that we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels.  But that’s unlikely to happen.  No doubt, once we can light our water on fire, people may start paying attention.  Wouldn’t it be a shame if we had to wait for that?

Be Careful What You Wish For.

I actually enjoy grocery shopping.  I realise for many people, it can be tedious and time consuming and sometimes stressful, but I quite like it.  I look forward to challenging myself to come in on budget, and to buy as many products as possible which are locally produced — and if not West Australian, then at least Australian.

Here’s the thing you should know about grocery shopping in Australia: there are two major supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths.  They basically have a duopoly in the supermarket business; there are a few others, but none of them has the overwhelming distribution that these two have.  And as with most supermarkets, each has its own ‘home’ brand, which is sold at a very competitive price.  That’s not news.  What is interesting, is that in recent years, both Coles and Woolworths have been expanding their home brands, and — perhaps more importantly — improving their quality.

It used to be the case that you’d buy the home brand butter or toilet paper or baked beans because you really wanted to save money, but given the choice, you’d buy another more expensive brand, because frankly, the home brand stuff was kaka.

That’s no longer the case.  Not only have they improved their basic lines, they’ve also added other ‘brands’, so that they’re now offering a cheap brand, a mid-range, and a more expensive, higher quality label.  In addition, they’re branching out into organic produce, plus they’re also offering insurance and credit cards.

Now, despite the pleasure I get from grocery shopping, I’ll admit that it is sometimes difficult to fit it in around all the other household- and child-related jobs I need to accomplish.  So it’s certainly very convenient that I can get almost all the things I need at one place, not to mention at low prices.  That’s part of the appeal, isn’t it?  It’s a one-stop-shop, and it’s marketed as that.

And there would be nothing wrong with that, only I’ve noticed something a little disturbing about the way the supermarkets’ own brands are merchandised.  I guess it’s been creeping up on me without my noticing, because it only became apparent when I recently went to get milk.  I was specifically there just for milk, which is unusual, so perhaps that’s why I was so observant that day.  I spent some time comparing prices and checking use-by dates, as I often do.  And then I realised that the supermarket brand milk took up around forty percent of the refrigerated cabinet.  That’s forty percent of the cabinet which houses the fresh, fermented and flavoured milk.  So that means the other fresh milk brands are sharing just over half the cabinet with other milk products.

Two thoughts sprang to mind in response to this.  The first was about bulk merchandising.  Back in the day when I was in retail, one of the ways in which we drew attention to products was through bulk merchandising.  A classic example of this is Coca Cola.  Think of the last time you were in a supermarket in the soft drinks aisle.  Coke takes up a huge amount of shelf space. The red and white labels on against the dark liquid in the bottles makes for a striking contrast which catches your eye.  It is something you notice even when you’re not looking for soft drink.

Bulk merchandising the store-brand milk has perhaps an even greater impact than the Coke.  This is because it’s something most of us buy everyday, and while some customers have undying brand loyalty, many will buy what’s on special or what’s cheapest.  If you notice one brand over the rest, and it’s cheap, chances are, you’re going to buy it.

The other issue is purely of space, which is why I noticed it.  If there is less space for the other brands of milk, then fewer bottles are ordered.  This means that if you normally buy a branded milk, and that one is sold out, then you must choose another brand.

Guess which brand never sells out?

After this, I began to look a little closer at some of the other departments in the supermarkets.  The bakery section is overwhelmingly store-brand products.  The cheapest fresh bread is the store brand one.  The tinned pie apple, of all things, is no longer available in large tins, except for the store-brand.  And it makes no financial sense to buy the smaller tin from the competitor, because the store brand tin is almost the same price for double the amount of apple.

This isn’t so sinister, in itself.  Every business wants to make profits; every business wants to have as much of the market share as possible.  Coles and Woolworths are just doing what any other business wants to do.

The trouble is, their methods are, quite possibly, a little underhand.  Recently an investigation into how they negotiate contracts with suppliers has raised questions of blackmail and bullying.  A 10-year milk contract between Coles and a milk-processing co-operative has been promoted as a way of giving suppliers certainty, but a cynic might view this as piecemeal, given the way in which these supermarkets can essentially dictate the success or failure of individual suppliers.  There are also some concerns about how the volatility of the market will affect such a long-running contract.

It makes me ache a little to realise just how much we have allowed large companies to take control of what we buy.  We no longer need to go to several different shops to get what we need, and that’s very convenient, but at what price is this happening?  When there is a supermarket brand product in every category, is that really choice?  Or does it mean that they can start pushing out other brands until we don’t have a choice but to buy theirs?  And what happens, if we are then unhappy with that brand?  Where is the choice, then?

This kind of business model is certainly not unique to us here in Australia, and that fact both saddens and delights me.  It’s upsetting to think that we have allowed big business to get this far, and that we accept a kind of  ‘market will prevail’ philosophy.  The market in this case is not fair, in the same way that a match between a bantamweight and a heavyweight would not be fair.  I’m sad to think that we allow this to happen without thinking of the long term consequences.

But I’m also confident that consumers can turn this around.  Farmers’ markets, boutique stores, a focus on customer service and niche goods — all of these are ways in which small businesses can push back against a powerful supermarket chain.  And they are pushing back.  It’s up to us as consumers to decide where we stand.  Will we stick with the store-brand goods, or will we choose to pay a little extra to support a different business?  Granted, economic situations sometimes limit our choices, but while we’re still spending money, we’re still making choices.

It’s up to us, to choose wisely, because if we don’t, we may find ourselves with very little choice at all.

State Politics and the Big Picture

It was our state election on Saturday.  There were no real surprises in the results, and I knew it was probably going to go that way before I voted.  But I walked down to the local primary school and stood in line anyway, youngest child strapped to my front.

An older woman stepped into the line behind me.  I was busy people-watching and didn’t pay her much attention until I heard someone say, ‘You won’t be able to take that into the voting area.  It’s considered electoral material.’

I turned around to see the young volunteer for the Greens talking to the woman behind me, who was also wearing a vivid green t-shirt with ‘The Greens’ printed on the front.

‘You’ll have to change your shirt,’ the younger woman said, not unkindly.

The older woman looked confused.

‘Or maybe cover it up, somehow?’ suggested the young volunteer as the other shrugged and held up her hands.

‘Aha.  You need one of these!’  I joked to them, pointing at the baby on my front.

Both women laughed.

‘I can probably use my bag,’ the older woman offered.

It was agreed between them that that would likely be acceptable.  The line moved forward.

I spent the next few minutes looking over the political posters on the walls and feeling a little cynical about the whole situation.  Voting in Australian state and federal elections is compulsory; you are fined if you don’t show up to have your name marked off the list.  I’ve always thought that this was a kind of enforced democracy, and I can never decide if Australians’ lack of enthusiasm for politics was due to an innate apathy or simply because they didn’t need to even bother thinking about showing up.  When it came to decision-making, at least the decision whether or not to vote was taken out of our hands?

As I pondered my electoral freedoms, the baby began to smile and coo at the woman behind me, who responded in kind, and I turned around to make small talk with her.  Usually, it’s a little weird to talk to other voters, while waiting in line, because you never know if they’re going to be completely opposed to your political perspective.  However, I knew her persuasion already, so we chatted a bit about the election, and the weather, and she mentioned that she was going to volunteer at another Polling Place after she had voted.

‘Last election,’ she told me, ‘when I was volunteering, a man from Iraq came up to me, and said, ‘Are you the party for peace?’  And I just smiled and said, ‘Yes.’’

I wondered about this as The Handsome Sidekick and I drove with the children to a park by the beach later that morning.  I tried to imagine what it must be like to come to Australia from a place like Iraq.  The infrastructure, the health and legal and education systems — coming from a nation which has seen so much conflict, especially in recent years, they must find it ridiculous, how much we take for granted.

Whenever there is an election on the horizon, all sorts of issues come out of the woodwork.  This or that interest group pays for ads to sway the public in one direction or another; there are complaints about how the government doesn’t do enough for roads, or hasn’t been tough on crime or drugs, or isn’t paying teachers/nurses/police officers enough.  

It’s not that these issues are invalid or unimportant.  We *should* be concerned that our government is listening to us, and they should be ensuring that our roads and communities are safe, and that those who serve us are getting paid fairly. Politicians should be accountable to us — we are electing them on that premise and we pay their salaries.  It’s just that we should also ask where they stand in the big picture.  What is their party doing to prevent hunger and homelessness?  Where do they stand on climate change?  How are they promoting peace?

We have so much here, that we can afford to busy ourselves with the daily minutiae.  So we should also take some time to remember that it’s not just good luck, but good management, which keeps something like peace as a constant backdrop.  It probably rates a mention, now and then.  Especially around election time.