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Capitalism: the new cool?

There was a schism appearing in the minds of youth when I was at University in the early 90’s; between the old socialist mindset and the blooming Capitalist mindset. I still had a foot in the socialist camp – believing in ideals, the possibility of a people-led movement, the hope for equality. On the other side was what seemed a bizarre phenomena at the time (though now is completely normal), capitalism was becoming the new cool. This is well covered by Thomas Frank in his meticulously researched book One Market Under God, in which Capitalism’s ability to become the new cool is described. I saw it happen first hand with board members of the student union bragging about money, material goods and discussing which big brand they should invite to advertise on the new tele-info system spread throughout the campus. It was anathema to us left-leaning types. They simply laughed at us when we brought up points like – ‘a university should be a place of learning free from commercial influence’ and ‘a student union should be about collective action, not profit’. Twenty years later I’m back at Uni and Capitalism is now the order of the day. The majority don’t do politics, and they are certainly not anti-capitalist. There are a few socialists hanging on and even the outline of a student union or two, but they are essentially toothless.

East Berlin Crossing Man

In 2002 I was in East Berlin, visiting, trying to imagine life under the Communists. There wasn’t much to suggest it except for different shaped men at crossing lights, a few depressing looking buildings, and groups of people, who did not seem imbued with the stressful countenance of the Capitalist citizen, sitting around drinking . Sitting in a cafe I met a girl from East Berlin and her Mother. The daughter was about my age and the mother in her 50’s or so. They had lived in East Berlin, seen the wall come down and watched the resulting transformations in German society. I asked them what it was like to live under communism. After all, this seems as exotic and foreign a life as any to a boy brought up on the fat of Capitalist success in Australia. The mother’s answer has always stayed with me. ‘It was like’ she said with flat, tired eyes, ‘there was nothing to look forward to’. She waved her arms as if to suggest she never wanted to experience it again.

Recently, I was reminded of this conversation while watching the upsetting documentary ‘When Borat came to Town‘, which describes Sacha Baron Cohen’s unethical exploitation of a Romanian village when filming Borat. The villagers made 3 Euros from their involvement. Lawyers promised them a windfall if they sued. Nothing happened. (The uninformed being exploited by entertainers and lawyers – is this not the perfect metaphor for the West?). The man who led the law suit was broken by the end of the documentary and claims, ‘I have given up on dreaming. Without money there is no point in having dreams’.

Borat: the face of exploitation

So here we have two characters, both recent citizens of Communism, that see Capitalism if not as a shining light, at least as an opportunity to build dreams and have something to look forward to in life. Yet in my own country of Australia, a bastion of Capitalism, I see a community becoming fractured by the pursuit of money. Neighbours who don’t talk to each other, drivers that abuse one another, a society increasingly stressed. I don’t see much happiness in my country. But I do see a lot of people moving fast, climbing over one another to be the best and becoming increasingly suspicious of their fellow citizens. In East Berlin people seemed to have a lot a time to sit around and talk with one another. In the documentary I mentioned, people were dancing in the street and again there was a lot of sitting around and talking. There was community.

It seems the drive for Capitalism is irresistible (all that lovely stuff!), and its destructive impact only apparent when it’s too late. It’s all terribly confusing! We want to suck the fruits of Capitalism; even anti-capitalists seem pretty content with the lifestyle on offer i.e. embracing technology cheaply disseminated by Capitalism, yet when we have obtained it we become miserable, suspicious, competitive. Can we create the perfect society? Is happiness possible? Or are humans, like the Buddhists concluded, destined to suffer because that is the nature of life?

More time for this please…

It’s a fine balance, I think, between the different ideals and approaches to life. If any one extreme dominates (as Capitalism presently does and Communism once did) things go awry. I would like to be able to spend more time with my fellow citizens with a non-competitive, non-suspicious countenance, drinking and discussing life. But I would also like to be working toward something that I desire (not what the capitalists or the state tells me I should desire). Perhaps anarchy could deliver this balance (a system that has little hope of succeeding), or perhaps a people-focused democracy (rather than economic focused) is the answer. More on that in next week’s blog!

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Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Is it wrong to be religious? Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would have us believe so. In fact I would say they are anti-religious extremists – and I am positive they would proudly agree with this statement. Its one thing to hear the religious extremists of Christianity and Islam talk firebrand language about the evil of non-believers, but to hear intelligent self-proclaimed atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens wax lyrical about the evils of religion is hard to bear. One would think that such men of science and intellect would know better than to further entrench divisions in an already fractured society. They are effectively shutting down any dialouge between those who believe in religion and those who do not. They are spreading a hatred amongst the population towards those that they accuse of spreading hatred. It is depressing, it is small minded.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Dawkins and Hitchens tell us that religion is the source of all woe in the world. That it is at the heart of pogroms against the Jews, homophobia, misogyny and general intolerance. Both essentially believe that all religion should be eradicated and replaced with a kind of international humanism that will function on a rational and scientific basis. There is merit to this argument. There is no doubt that when religious extremists get into power terrible things can happen. The Taliban in Afghanistan were/are a terrifying example of this. George Bush, a devout Christian, brought the world to a chaotic and war-torn position with his religious mania. But there have also been plenty of non-religious leaders who ruled with cruelty. Stalin was an atheist and he killed 60 million people in his Gulags. Pol Pot was also an atheist and his regime murdered 2 million Cambodians. Perhaps the point is not that religion creates cruelty and terror, but rather the possession of power leads to cruelty and terror.

In the West the State (political-economic system) is considered to be free of the influence of the church and is run on transparent democratic values. Yet the State is responsible for the incarceration of thousands in its cruel prison system. The State controls the military which is responsible for the killing of unknown numbers of people – think Iraq and Afghanistan. Anti-terror laws in Australia allow police to raid anybody’s house without permission, a law that spreads fear and anxiety through the population. All these activities are not religiously motivated –  they are sanctioned by the State. My point is that pointing the finger at religion as the only source of cruelty  is an extremist view that ignores the wider picture. Wouldn’t it be more worthy to ask what it is about human nature that causes such acts of cruelty and hatred in the first place?

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Religion has created men and women of peace. Ghandi was a Hindu. Martin Luther King was a Christian. The Dalai Lama is Buddhist. These men have inspired millions, atheist and non-atheist alike. Nelson Mandela is Christian and he led South Africa into the modern world, with a constitution free of religious interference that Dawkins and Hitchens would approve of. Yet here is what Mandela has to say about religion:

Religion is one of the most important forces in the world. Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, or a Hindu, religion is a great force, and it can help one have command of one’s own morality, one’s own behavior, and one’s own attitude.

When I was young I read a book by Christopher Hitchens called Letters to a Young Contrarian. It was a book written for young radicals, giving them the courage to stand against popular opinion and to speak against what they did not believe in. Hitchens is no hypocrite when it comes to this matter. He is probably the most well-known contrarian on the planet. But his contrarian views have caused him to contradict himself. Hitchens was unusual in that he was one of the few people from the Left side of politics who supported Bush’s war on terrorism, including the bombing of Sudan. Hitchens supported it for the lofty idea that it was a war defending the humanist ideals of Western civilisation against the dark-age beliefs of Muslim extremists. But of course by giving his support to Bush he covertly gave support to religious extremism, because that was the basis of Bush’s war on terror. He went to war with Iraq because God told him to. How can Hitchens justify this? I’m sure he can easily, he is a clever fellow. But he lost me at this point- his views have become farcical. He also lost some powerful friends from the decision to support the war on terrorism, including Noam Chomsky.

Dawkins comes from a different perspective. He thinks we should all reject religion because science is the only truth. Science is a truth indeed. It has brought us many positive developments, especially knowledge. But it has also brought as the atom bomb, polluting machines, chemicals, refined weapons etc. And science in the past was used to justify Europeans superiority over other cultures which led to genocides around the world. Ironically it was religious missionaries who saved some indigenous cultures from complete annihilation (though arguably, they completed the process culturally by forcing them to convert to Christianity). Even today science has a limited sphere of viewing – it can only answer so many questions. This has already been resolved by the deconstruction of the Western mind by post-modernists such as Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida who (perhaps unintentionally) left the door open to other ways of perceiving and understanding the world including mysticism, shamanism and dare I say it religion. Imperialistic statements that place one world-view above others are nothing but incendiary. Can Dawkins not see that his comments could lead to as much anger, resentment and hatred as any religious leader could invoke?

Of the people in my life, some are atheist and some are religious. And they are all good people. While they don’t agree on everything, they are capable of getting along with one another and accepting that each other has different beliefs. Such people are likely to become uncomfortable with one another and may even become enemies with the rise of vociferous voices like Hitchens and Dawkins who, like any other extremists or propagandists, spread division amongst the population. Religion has the capacity to deal with questions that Science cannot answer as science is limited to the physical domain; however, in the 20th Century science broke beyond the observable into the realm of the mystical. There are plenty of examples of this. Read this quote from physicist Brian Swimme, a scientist who is attempting to bridge the gap between science and religion and offer the world something new, not just promote the same old divisions and hatreds:

While this perspective (quantum physics) is new within the traditions of science, from another point of view we are arriving at an understanding that was deeply appreciated during the classical religious period of humanity. Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart in the Middle Ages of Europe grasped intuitively that emptiness is the source of everything. This realization is echoed in the life and teaching of Buddha, who understood that all put-together things arise from emptiness and exist inseparably with emptiness.

Religion refuses to put humanity at the center of existence. In this way it gives its believers a realistic perspective of their own reality. That they are something small in something vast – a kind of awe and reverence arises from this understanding. Humanism while a worthy political aspiration can never offer the consolations and inner understandings of religion as it places humans at the center of existence which is essentially false. We need to see ourselves in relation to the vastness and mysteriousness of the universe in which we exist. That religion inspires nutters and murderers and intolerance is not necessarily the fault of religion. It is the fault of humanity. It is something in ourselves that we need to understand and overcome. Creating further divisions by dumping people who choose to believe in religion in the ‘bad person’ camp is just plain dumb. We should expect more from our intellectual and cultural (self-proclaimed) leaders. Yes Hitchens and Dawkins, I’m talking about you…

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I am merely non-mummy space with the occasional banana. This may sound like some kind of surrealist soundbite, but it is in fact a serious existential

A father's purpose

A father's purpose

comment on my present situation. Those of you who are fathers may understand the statement, but those who are not probably need some explanation. There are days when my children take no notice of me at all. I am non-existent, a mere distraction from the central deity – Mum. I am, as I say, non-mummy space, and anything that is not Mum is of no consequence. At one stage on one of these particular days I was eating a banana. My kids started crawling toward me, there eyes fixated on me. I felt momentarily special. My kids want me, I thought, I’m important! But the moment I ate my last piece of banana, they became still, turned there back on me, and even started crying as they headed towards Mummy, who of course looked at me like I was a greedy bastard for not sharing my banana. I am merely non-mummy space with the occasional banana.

This is the life of a father. You crave adoration from your kids. So you jump toward them and hug them and pinch their cheeks. And there response? It is so hysterical and tormented that if you were in a park you’d probably be arrested. ‘But officer they’re my children’. ‘I doubt a child would react that way to their own parent sir.’ I can see why some father’s resort to a life spent in the chair drinking beer and swearing at the TV, or dedicate themselves to work so they don’t have to be home. The sudden sense of purposelessness in the home when the children come along is palpable. I mean you can get in their and help, but in the end you are non-mummy space.

As for the Mum. They are exhausted by the end of the day after having two little cling-ons hanging off their jeans, and by the time they see you they are ready to explode. Which is fair enough, because everyone needs to explode when the pressure builds. But you start feeling guilty because your a slob, which you are, and were quiet happily for all those years before the wife and kids came along. Suddenly you’ve got to try and lift your act because the Mum is sick of doing all the work. I mean seriously, I can see why blokes head down to the pub and hide in the corner making furtive glances between each other and the TAB tellies. Its the mixture of guilt of having maintained your natural level of slackness, and saying that you just needed a walk to stay fit so you could play with the kids.

Anyway, I’m not doing any of these things. Instead, I have decided to buy a yellow suit and wear banana deodorant for now on. This way the kids will follow me around and my wife will think I rock because I’m distracting them. My very own post-modern solution to an age old problem…

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Fame has become an obsession hasn’t it? I mean everyone wants to be famous. Big Brother (remember that show), Australian Idol and Celebrity Chef are all examples of this. Is it good for us, this obsession with fame? Are there any people left simply content with there life, or are we all clawing for more – more recognition, more love, more more?  The greatest symbol of fame is Paris Hilton – she has done nothing of value, except be really good at being famous. She is our symbol, we need her, because we can all laugh at her and put her down, yet she has what everyone wants – fame (and money I guess).

What is the source of this drive that afflicts us? Capitalism is definitely a culprit. This system encourages us to accumulate more. To stand out from the crowd by how much you have, how much you earn. It encourages us to stand on our neighbour to reach the top. This is a logical precursor to a state of wanting to be noticed by as many people as possible. Hollywood movies are another cause. How many films are there (particualrly kids films) that tell the story of the under dog reaching the top and being loved by everyone. How many young minds have been distorted by this? And the half-baked philosophy of ‘follow your dreams and your dreams will come true’ has left a trail of depressed 30-40 somethings who have led their lives trying to be stars and be noticed and be the ones who stand out, only to realise one day, they have nothing.

What about me? Why do I write blogs and twitter and make music and get it out there and try to get people to read my stories? Do I just want to be noticed? Is the whole phenomena of the net a disparate collection of people shouting and calling – ‘hey, check me out, I’m cool, I’m interesting’?

In France there is group of anarchists called the Invisible Commitee that don’t want to be noticed (but do want to halt Capitalism). They don’t want to be noticed… I am thinking this might be some kind of political reaction to the obsession with fame. They say being ‘socially nothing is the condition for maximum freedom of action’. That kind of makes sense. If I want to get noticed and raise the ladder of fame I have to be nice to people and get people to think I’m amazing. Not much freedom in that.

But then again Charles Manson is famous, and he wasn’t nice to people. He is a crazy guy that killed people. What about all these gunmen in America that kill scores of people, then themselves. Usually they are misfits or depressed people who don’t get noticed and are thus really angry with the world. What best way to get noticed than murdering a whole bunch of people? Well, there are better ways to get famous and noticed. But the majority of us never will be known beyond a small circle of loved ones. And there are those few of us who are driven crazy by it and do terrible things.

Younger generations have the fame fever bad. They have grown up being told they can be whatever they want to be, they just have to set there minds to it. Thus we have a whole generation of kids who want to be rock stars and movie stars and just bloody stars. Who the hells gonna clean the toilets? Or maybe one day toilet cleaners will become famous and everyone will want to be a toilet cleaner? Like Kenny. Perhaps the problem is that it’s so easy to reach everyone in the world with YouTube and aeroplanes and mobiles that we all know we can be noticed and spend our lives trying to be.

Imagine being content with a few loved ones around you and an expressive life that was meaningful to you. How quaint. But then again, maybe the drive for fame is a democratic victory! That everyone has an equal opportunity to raise to the top. That you aren’t just born into fame & wealth, you can make it happen! The result being of course that we can all be miserable together, wishing we had more (Ha!). Maybe the anarchist ‘Invisible Committee’ will take over one day and we won’t be able to be famous anymore. Unless of course your the anarchist who started it all and you become famous and everyone knows your name…

I don’t think this blog entry has resolved anything. I am famous yet?

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Thomas - the really useful engine

Thomas - the really useful engine

I have a two year old son obsessed with the children’s program, Thomas the Tank Engine. This means by default, I am also a Thomas the Tank Engine Fanatic – because it is constantly on! To my surprise watching Thomas the Tank Engine has been an engaging experience – I am shocked and a little disturbed by the profound cultural layers this show possesses. (I know, I know, I have to get out more). I must admit I do like the little models, and the island where the engines live seems so peaceful and scenic I’d actually love to go for a visit (bloody hell, I do have to get out more!).

There are four types of characters in the show: humans, trains, carriages and trucks. I want to describe each one before I get into the meat of the subtexts that I perceive.

The Fat Controller

The Fat Controller

Humans. The main human is a character called the Fat Controller. He is in fact, fat –  the only person represented as so in the show – and is in complete control of the island. Whenever anything goes wrong the engines shudder in fear at the potential reprimand of the paternalistic fat controller, who manages the engines with a firm but friendly hand. The other humans are drivers, signalmen and quarrymen (yes, all men). They are all dressed according to their rank. The drivers have ties on, the signalmen have overalls, the quarrymen have work clothes (except the foreman who has a suit on). The fat controller wears a top hat and tails!

Diesel - the devious engine

Diesel - the devious engine

Trains. There are two types of trains. The good trains are the steam engines. Their only purpose in life is to be called a ‘Really Useful Engine’ by the fat controller. They are incredibly grumpy much of the time (except Thomas who is usually happy). They are always telling each other off, tricking each other and can be vain. The other thing they share in common is a loathing of the diesel engines who are threatening to take over the role of the steam engines. The diesels are represented by a black engine (yes, black!) called diesel who is a conniving, back-stabbing villain. The rest of the diesels are women. The women diesels are nicer than the black Diesel, and look constantly toward the steam engines for guidance.

Carriages. The only thing to be said about the carriages is that they are all placid, subservient and female. All the steam engines are, you guessed it, male. The females are pulled around by the males and told what to do. They hate to be apart. If a steam engine has to be apart from his female carriages he gets very upset indeed.

A proletariat truck

A proletariat truck

Trucks. The engines are constantly shunting trucks, getting them in order for the quarry or the harbour. They are a faceless mass who are intent on causing trouble for the engines and therefore for the island society in general. Every wise engine knows they have to treat the trucks harshly to keep them in line.

You may well have picked up on a number of sub-texts in the program from what you have read. Basically this program is the most class-ridden, old fashioned, conservative program ever made for children – I’m sure of it. And although written originally in the 1940’s it first aired on television in the 1980s. This is well after the cultural revolution of the 60s.

Now for my sub-text rave! Essentially the steam engines represent the middle class who are subservient to the upper class as represented by the fat controller (who is corpulent, representing wealth and luxury). Their only purpose is to serve him and be loved by him. If not, they are potential scrap. The trucks represent the Proletariat or the working class who have to be kept under control in case of some kind of Marxist insurrection, in which the ‘natural’ order of the island would be disturbed. The trucks are constantly trying to create disorder but are bullied violently into submission by the engines, all with the blessing of the fat controller. Women are either docile subservient creatures who follow their men dutifully around or are represented as diesels, who threaten to overthrow the steam engines, possibly a nod to the feminist movements challenge to the patriarchal order. And as for blacks, they are represented solely in the evil Diesel who intends to overthrow the Steam Engines, perhaps a nod to West Indian immigration into the UK mid 20th century. Finally, the program is obviously some kind of nostalgic reflection on a ‘lost’ Britain where everyone, in a class based society, knew their place. In this show all is well and peaceful when everything is in its correct place (unless of course you don’t fit in, in which case, like the trucks, you are brutalised).

I tried explaining all this to my son but he would not have a bar of it. He simply said ‘Move Daddy’ because I was blocking his way. When I tried to put ‘Communism for kids’ on he simply screamed at me till I put Thomas back on, then he demanded I leave the room –  what on earth am I going to do? OK, OK if these subtext are in any way correct I greatly doubt that Rev Awdry, who originally wrote the stories for his children, had all this in mind. But it sure as hell stands out to me!

Note: I have two confessions to make: 1/. I don’t really own a DVD called Communism for Kids and do not want to own a DVD called Communism for Kids! 2/. I have based this blog on the classic series. No doubt the newest series is more politically correct – but then again maybe not. Anyone know?

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I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about the meaning of life (too much time in fact). I have spent many hours lying on the couch with the familiar philosophical crease between my eyes pondering the nature of rationality; I have often fazed out on trains while watching crowds of odd faces (including my reflection in the window) wondering how on Earth we all exist on Earth and what keeps us all ticking and so forth. ‘What a waste of time’, I hear you say. Well yes, that is kind of true, but when your head chooses to go to these mental terrains you haven’t got much choice but to follow.

Anyway, one strange day I had what I initially thought was an awful thought. What if we humans aren’t actually that important after all? Most of my philosophical musings to this point presumed in some way that humanity was important; that we were somehow the synthesis of millions of years of evolution that had lead to us, we beings that exhibit consciousness, perhaps even intimating a deeper consciousness beyond our level of understanding. A consciousness that we humans are beginning to unravel through our very existence. But then I thought, what if we are just part of a process, part of an unfolding. The implications being that it is not us that is important, but our role as a link in a chain of lifeforms that stretches backwards and hopefully forwards in time.

Then I started thinking about sex. Actually I think about sex a lot – objectively of course! Never in any dirty pornographic way, for real! Sex. Everyone wants it. Or, we spend our lives trying to learn how to avoid wanting it. The former is emphasised every Saturday night. Just head into the city and watch the waves of people spilling into the city, pheromones blaring, searching for sex. As for the latter, consider the various religious orders who see transcendence of sexual desire as an important step to enlightenment; these persons still make sex central to their lives, just the avoidance of it! My point being that sex is everywhere.

And it’s everywhere because it feels so bloody good. Actually that is not true; often its disastrous, dull and at times dangerous, but generally it feels good. Particularly the orgasm bit that seems to drive us thoughtlessly into the act, tongues hanging out and heads howling at the moon. This is what I call the ‘biological imperative’ – evolutions master stroke! It ensures the perpetuation of life into the future. Does evolution have some kind of teleological drive? Or is it just a mad process heading to goodness knows where? Who knows. But one things for sure, it wants to keep on going. So evolution creates sex, which feels unbelievably good, which means all living things just keep on wanting to do it.

At this point I was both horrified and elated. Finally, after all these years of thinking, an actual truth: We are all driven by the biological imperative. Yeah! To reproduce life. To ensure the continuation of our species and all species that follow after it. (I was horrified because I was hoping for something better, see last paragraph). I am not proposing a moral biological imperative i.e. you must have children to engage with universal truth. No! Evolution is impersonal. The drive is purely physiological. It is our choice to respond to our drive in whatever way we choose. Thus sex encompasses experiences ranging from the hideous crime of rape to the enlightening possibilities of tantric sex (and all the normal sex stuff in between which is where I, like most of us, are hanging around).

It’s not a glorious truth, and it is pretty self-explantory, but at least it’s solid. Still, I’d like to find a transcendent truth of hidden meanings in the every day world. One that connects us with infinite processes in a non-corporeal state of ecstatic understading. Any ideas? Oh stuff it, I’ll stick with sex ;-).

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Peter feeling the Passion

Peter feeling the Passion

Peter Garret, once an anti-uranium campaigner, has given his support to the creation of a new uranium mine in Australia. He is in big trouble with his ex-activist friends. They seem to think Peter Garret should single-handedly turn the neo-conservative Labour Party into a radical left-wing machine. This is pretty unfair. No one can join a machine like the Labour party and expect to retain their individuality. The party, like most organisations, swallows you up and forces you to relinquish your independence. We all experience this to some degree in our lives. Peter Garret is an extreme example of this familiar process.

For this reason, I never understood why he didn’t join the Greens. He could have helped the Greens in their pursuance of extra senate seats in the 2007 federal election enabling them to hold the balance of power in the senate. Richard Di Natale with a profile not nearly as large as Garret narrowly lost his fight for a senate seat in the 2007 elections. Imagine if Garret fought for such a seat. Not only would he have been a good chance of winning, he would have helped the profile of the Greens around the country. If the Greens had controlled the senate, Garret would be in a better position to fight for the views he sang about in the Midnight Oils.

I met Peter Garret at an anti-uranium mine protest in Jabiluka in the late 90s. He played along with a couple of other bands out in the bush before an illegal walk onto the Jabiluka site. He seemed like a serious and passionate individual who wanted to hear the stories of the long-term activists. He was keen to give them support. So on a personal basis I have no doubt about Peter Garret’s passion about the views he fought for in the past. At this time he was a rockstar, and in the 1980s he was a member of the Nuclear Disarmament party. These positions made it easy for him to shout and scream about single issue causes. He did it well and nearly won a senate seat (polling 9.6%), as did other members of the party. So why didn’t he join the Greens and try it again?

Obviously he thought he could make more meaningful change through the Labour Party. I respect him for making this difficult choice which will inevitably leave him isolated from many fans and his activist friends. Unfortunately I think it is proving true that the ‘Power and the Passion‘ are being sucked out of this wonderful man as he becomes the victim of the Labour Party machine. No one can resist that pressure. I’m sorry Peter, you will always be a hero of mine, but we need you out here, with the people on the ground who are fighting for purposeful change. You could of done this in the Senate – and you still could!

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