Rack Off, South Australians! We're Busy


Why is it that many South Australians believe, or at least accept, that good things must come from other places? Culturally this has been going on for ages. In 1860s Adelaide you could be entertained by imported bear baiters, the "American Midgets" (a husband and wife novelty act), the "Dragon Troupe" of Japan and as a sort of early Home and Away, a "phantasmagorical entertainment" called The Adventures of Hubert de Burgh (in which individuals "endeavoured to tempt Hurbert from the fulfilment of his sacred trust").

By the time of the second Adelaide Festival in 1960 you could see the London Philharmonic, the Bhaskar Indian dancers, Dave Brubeck, imported operas and an exhibition of replicas of Britain’s Crown Jewels.

In terms of culture things have improved, slightly, but it appears the cultural cringe has given way only to be replaced by the intellectual cringe. The SA Government’s Thinkers-in-Residence scheme has been running for some years now. It consists of importing foreign "thinkers" (mainly university intellectuals) to stay in Adelaide for residencies between two and six months. During this time they bring their powers of observation and intellect to bear upon issues that, apparently, have escaped the notice of locals.

Let me start off by saying I’m not entirely against the program, but I was surprised by the scarcity of local thinkers among the Thinker alumni. The idea that we have to import great minds to tell us what we’re doing wrong reeks of a sense of inferiority, of not believing we’re smart enough or have enough vision or know what’s going on in the world. (I could even argue that this scheme is intellectual window dressing, used by our Government to gain credibility-by-association, but I won’t.)

Why, for instance, did we need a Thinker to tell us we need to build cheap, good quality housing for our homeless? Couldn’t we work that out ourselves? Couldn’t we look to other cities that have been doing it for years? Perhaps the real issue here is a lack of vision and of leadership from our local politicians.

SA has produced a few good thinkers: Douglas Mawson (explorer and geologist), Howard Florey (of penicillin fame), Alf Traeger (inventor of the pedal wireless), Bob Francis (social commentator), Patsy Biscoe, Fat Cat, and probably others. But, recently, the great minds have been a bit thin on the ground. Politically, SA has been run by the John Singleton of politics, Mike Rann. Rann, who wants to be remembered as the "Education Premier", has fought teachers over a pay and conditions dispute that’s now entering its 15th month, and he’s criticised doctors and surgeons who don’t want him to knock down the Royal Adelaide Hospital and rebuild it on polluted ground. Rann is the king of Doublethink, the art of embracing contradictory beliefs. He believes in intellect, but he doesn’t believe in intellect (except, perhaps, in its imported form).

So what makes a good Thinker? Could you or I, for example, fit the bill? Yes, we have thoughts, so we can Think. We have the ability to specialise, so we can become an "authority" on a subject. We have imagination, so we can innovate. We are literate, and can communicate, so we can make our Thoughts known, and understood. So why can’t we be Thinkers?

One recent Thinker, Andrew Fearne, was imported from the University of Kent to "raise awareness and increase understanding among the SA community of the challenges and opportunities presented by global value chains to the sustainable competitive advantage of SA’s agri-food and wine sectors".

I wasn’t sure what this meant, so I checked the Government’s Thinker website and under "Mapping Residency Impacts and Influence against SA’s Strategic Plan Targets" found that the impact of Fearne’s residency upon locals was the "Vine to Dine Sustainable Value Chain case study which was announced by the Premier in London in May 2008 addressing the carbon footprint of a Riverland-grown grape to a bottle of Yalumba wine sold in Tesco, UK". Not very helpful.

Much of what exists on this website is babble. It doesn’t convince me that this scheme is good value for money, or that anyone is being made happier, wealthier or wiser. I’m convinced that at least some of these Thinkers should be locals — people that know our dilemmas and have their own ideas about solving them. Just to make sure we had some smart people here I looked up the University of Adelaide website and spent an hour reading about hundreds of well-educated, well-travelled intellectuals who wouldn’t need to be imported to do our thinking. (They’re already doing it.)

Apart from these people, I think we could also use some of the older members of our communities to talk to school kids about respect, immigrants to broaden our view on life, prisoners to talk about where they went wrong, small business operators to talk about enterprise and risk taking, farmers to talk about their relationship to conservation, and the list goes on.

In truth, many organisations have had "thinkers" for a long time, but they’ve usually been known by obscure titles, such as "policy officer" or "research director". With such roles, the "thinking" tends to be done in-house, the problem being that there is an expectation that the organisation will actually do something with their ideas. By contrast, creating a loosely-defined, blue-sky, Thinker-in-residence role, absolves you of any obligation to ever use what your Thinker has thought up. The condition of this freedom to ignore is that they come from outside the organisation, so I guess it also follows that if the organisation is The People of South Australia, then the Thinker has to come from interstate or overseas.

Ok, it’s true — secretly I crave a Thinker position. Every night as those around me descend into a haze of reality television I read the latest Scientific American and tune into Radio National as I sip mulled wine. But I’m still only a small-"t" thinker.

Right now this idea of outsourcing one’s thinking seems to be catching on elsewhere. Although no other state in Australia spends taxpayer’s money on Thinkers, London’s South Bank Centre has just appointed Martin Bright, a journalist, as their inaugural Thinker. As the Independent‘s columnist David Lister pointed out, "It’s important stuff … There’s already one school that has adopted the idea. Why not hospitals, town halls, Manchester United? Wannabe thinkers could audition on Britain’s Got Talent."

Eventually, I suppose, if we all decide to give up on thinking, we can import shipping containers full of Thinkers from other places. Every home can have one. Then, at last, we can put our feet up and take it easy.

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