Re-negotiating our right to life


A rather tart little letter appeared in The Age a couple of days ago from a Melbourne woman.

‘I have seen first hand how generous the general public are with donations to the Asian tsunami fund,’ she intonated. ‘I wonder if this generosity would be reciprocated to us should it ever be necessary.’

No matter which way I read her missive “ and, to do her justice, I went over it at least half a dozen times trying to discern some other context “ it struck me at once as self-congratulatory and resentful. I concluded that she was one of those people whom you just want to grab by the lapels and shake, yelling: ‘I know you mean well but, really, YOU JUST DON’T GET IT!’

Our aid to the millions of victims of this tsunami is not some sort of quid pro quo. It should not even be seen as an act of charity. It is a gesture of solidarity, an expression of our shared humanity. Given that John Howard keeps telling us how rich he has made us “ and that half of Australia seemed to be shopping the very day the tsunami consumed 150,000 lives and a million livelihoods “ maybe we should not be so back-slapping about our own generosity. Even if we got to $100 million in private donations, that’s still only $7.50 per adult.

Still, if people like World Vision’s Tim Costello (why, oh why, didn’t the Labor Party beg this man to take a safe seat ten years ago?), and the heads of UNICEF, CARE Australia, Oxfam-Community Aid Abroad, Caritas and the International Red Cross say they have been overwhelmed at the amount donated so far, perhaps we can feel good for a while.

But before we rush to beatify ourselves as servants of humanity, like all candidates for sainthood, we must pass three tests.

Philanthropy is great but we had better be prepared to dig a lot deeper, and a lot more frequently, in the future unless the Australian government actually meets the United Nations foreign aid target of .7 percent of gross national income. According to the Australian Council for International Development, we currently give only .25 percent and we rank 15 out of 22 on the OECD table of developed donor nations. I suspect this won’t be an issue at the next federal election and neither Labor nor Coalition governments have ever realised this goal.

Second, Australia and other developed nations, especially the United States, must change the way they consume the world’s natural resources because this has a direct impact on conditions in the developing world. When George W. Bush’s pappy was president back in 1992, he told the UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 that ‘the American way of life is not negotiable’. Was he talking about free speech or the rule of law or democratic elections (at least in the era before his son was installed in 2000)?

No. Papa Bush was defending the ‘right’ of Americans to guzzle as much oil as they demand to fuel their eight-seater sport utility vehicles or heat the ping-pong rooms of the McMansions that were beginning to sprout on the fringes of US cities. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the US produces 20 to 25 percent of greenhouse gases and Americans use thirty times as much water, land for food and forestry products as the people of India. Australians, having consumed fresh water as though they were living in perpetually misty Norway, rather than on the world’s driest land mass, are only just learning to treasure the most valuable and scarce resource of all.

I’m not suggesting the developed nations were responsible for the shift in the earth’s tectonic plates, which caused the quake and the tidal wave, but their cavalier use of fossil fuels is certainly contributing to rising sea levels, which will threaten several low-lying Pacific nations, such as Kiribati, Palau and Nauru. Then where would John Howard send our refugees? New Zealand is already home to a third of the population of Tuvalu and Prime Minister Helen Clark is one leader, at least, prepared to fulfil her moral duty by offering sanctuary to the remaining citizens of a country that sits just four metres above sea level.

Finally, we must learn true empathy “ and that doesn’t involve indulgent and (always) criminally wasteful fireworks displays in our two major cities on New Year’s Eve. Yes, I know, more than a million dollars was raised from people attending the show or watching on television. But that should have been the case even without the pyrotechnics. New Yorkers and Londoners were just as guilty but, pointedly, the Swedes, Danes and Germans all cancelled their big cracker nights.

Sometimes, in the midst of sorrow, there is a place for celebration “ of sorts “ but it is usually a display of defiance by those determined not to be victims or those who want to show that, despite their pain, they can still summon up beauty.

During the 1992 siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the multi-ethnic Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra kept on playing. Its principal cellist, Vedran Smailovic, performed in the streets as Serb snipers took aim from the hills above. He would not be moved. Today, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, set up by the great Jewish maestro Daniel Barenboim and his friend, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, and comprising Arab and Jewish musicians, performs in the West Bank, even as their two peoples slaughter each other.

The Boxing Day tsunami has undoubtedly sensitised Australians to the victims of nature’s fury but we still seem blind to the evil that men can do. Ten years ago, I suspect few could point to Rwanda on a map, let alone recall that 900,000 people were butchered in a wholly avoidable tribal conflict. Even today, where is the anger and outcry at the 100,000 innocents who have died in Iraq for a lie?

Surely all innocent lives, taken by nature or by man, are worth the tears of Australians. Attention must be paid.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.