Words by Alex Mansell
Collage by Ashleigh Duncan

You could be forgiven for entirely missing the release of the Australian film Tracks at the beginning of March this year. Despite decent reviews and a marketing campaign that spanned bus shelters all over the country, the film detailing the journey of Australian woman Robyn Davidson travelling 1,700km from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean with four camels and a dog hasn’t proven to be a commercial success.

As far as Australian films go, Tracks appeared to have potential. The story is relatively well-known thanks to Davidson’s popular 1980 book and the international fame she received from the related National Geographic cover story and newspaper coverage. The film also starred well-known actors including Mia Wasikowska from Alice in Wonderland and Girls star Adam Driver. Even the American director—John Curran of the 2006 film The Painted Veil—holds his own in cinematic history.

After its release on the 6th of March, the film quickly dissolved from mainstream cinemas due to poor crowds and found itself in the less lucrative world of independent cinema. Box office figures have been scarce: Box Office Mojo suggested that the film has made only $1.6 million in Australia. This is a disappointing figure considering its $12 million budget. Tracks’ reception abroad is also not expected to be any better than that in Australia given the fact that the film will only receive a limited international release at the beginning of May and that the hype generated by its showing at the Vancouver Film Festival last October is well and truly gone.

Following the supposed ‘Golden Age’ of Australian cinema in the 1970s and ’80s that produced critical and commercial successes like Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Gallipoli and The Man From Snowy River, Australia was in prime position to cement a place in world cinema. Yet somehow, we’ve ended up with an industry plagued by a lack of confidence, lack of funding, and lack of public support. In Peter Craven’s 2006 article in The Monthly that still has resounding relevance today, he describes a phenomenon in international cinema wherein Australian films are “perceived as foreign and art house”—a viewpoint that restricts them from the mainstream markets regardless of their potential for success. Tracks has found itself the victim of this trend.

Contemporary Australian films that have been commercially successful seem to be characterised by their overuse of aggressively ‘Australian’ iconography and themes. A film like Australia is an obvious case in point, and its generally negative reception domestically was a direct result of this. Red Dog followed in the same vein but still managed to receive a solid reception locally. The international attitude towards Australian films as niche has resulted in the high-profile films that do make it overseas having an artificial ‘okka’ feel to them. Australian filmmakers are being given the choice of making a film about anything they want, or attaching a big sign to their production that says ‘AUSTRALIAN’ through the liberal use of stereotypes, as in Red Dog.

Domestic funding for Australian films is still very low. A 2009 Screen Australia survey of the industry found that 57 per cent (or $224 million) of funding for Australian and co-produced films comes from overseas investors. And although Screen Australia is the main government funding body, its contribution over 2012 and 2013 amounted to a total of $24 million, dramatically lower than the total of $140 million from the government in 2005/06.

As far as making a profit goes, the only Australian film of 2013 that has made back its money is the Australian-American co-produced The Great Gatsby. None of the purely Australian films of 2013 did particularly well at the box office, and almost none received attention from overseas. After the ’70s and ’80s when Australian filmmakers made films that Australian people wanted to watch, we’ve reached a point where most of our films are too art house and foreign for overseas markets, but too inauthentic for domestic audiences.

You may ask what’s so bad about Australian films dying out. You may prefer Hollywood blockbusters or foreign masterpieces anyway. Is there any reason to go for the local stuff? Here’s one: film offers a unique opportunity for Australians to share their stories. Maybe they’re adventurous and set in the outback like Tracks or maybe they’re in the middle of a city, as far removed from stereotypes as you can get. The point is that Australians have stories that are worth telling, and without local and government support, they will never get told. Without the right kind of support, stories like Tracks will never reach the audiences that they really ought to.

Words by Duncan Willis
Illustration by Ashleigh Duncan

Throughout primary school, my friend Boris and I were inseparable. We sat next to each other in every class, at lunchtime and at recess. The sole exception was one class each week when Boris got to sit in the corner and draw pictures while I had to learn about a guy who lived 2000 years ago and who could provide everybody with bread and fish. Boris was Chinese and Buddhist, and thus his mother had opted out of his religious education for reasons I didn’t understand until later. While I learned about Jesus and the disciples, Boris read books or joined in other classes.

This simple classroom separation has its origins back in 1872, when the colony of Victoria declared that education was to be “free, compulsory and secular”. Government funding to all denominational schools ceased in 1874, and religious instruction in government schools was banned. Ever since, religion has become an ever-increasing presence in government schools. In the ‘50s, volunteers from Christian and Jewish groups were allowed to deliver religious instruction alongside the curriculum. They were joined in the ‘90s by volunteers of other faiths, providing students with Buddhist, Sikh, Baha’i, Hindu and Muslim options. The Government now spends more money on religious education than it ever has before.

Religious education in Victorian schools was completely overhauled as part of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006. The act stipulated that primary schools could provide either Special Religious Instruction (SRI), defined as “instruction provided by churches and other religious groups and based on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs” (2.2.11, section 5), or General Religious Education (GRE), “education about the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world” (2.2.10, section 4). GRE was intended to be taught by qualified teachers, whereas SRI is taught by volunteers of various faiths. No syllabus has ever been written for GRE, and unless a teacher develops their own course in their own time, there is effectively no class where children can learn about religion in a secular context. In 81% of Victorian primary schools, the only option is Christian religious instruction, usually taught by a volunteer from ACCESS ministries, an inter-denominational Christian group.

Fairness in Religions in Schools (FIRIS) argues the current system is unfair. Scott Hedges, who co-founded the grassroots organisation in 2011, sees the current system as betraying Victoria’s progressive history. He believes that in making schools “free, compulsory and secular”, the 19th-century government was sending a clear message that it would not embroil itself in sectarian disputes between the churches. Furthermore, it was making an effort to construct a society different to that of England or Ireland, which had been racked by years of sectarian violence. However, Field Rickards, Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, believes that at the time, secular meant “non-sectarian”, and not, “free of religion”. Hedges refutes this, arguing that Rickards is “totally wrong on the facts … and wrong in spirit”.

FIRIS believes that students should follow a curriculum in GRE that teaches students about the beliefs, architecture, culture and festivals of different religions in a secular context. This new course would be at the expense of all current religious instruction in schools. Hedges points to Australia’s closest neighbours, which include countries that are predominately Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu, arguing that to understand the culture of our neighbours, we must understand the fundamentals of their religion.

Dan Flynn of the Australian Christian Lobby rejects the view that GRE and SRI are substitutes for one another and instead, says that they should be taught together. Flynn believes that the stories in the Bible, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Golden Rule, are important because of the messages they impart to children. He believes that SRI should remain an option for parents, while GRE should be core curricula. He argues that SRI shouldn’t be taught by qualified teachers because true believers of the faith can provide more genuine experience. He likens it to learning about Indigenous Australian culture from an Indigenous elder as opposed to a textbook. However, he concedes that perhaps the volunteers teaching SRI need higher levels of training and the primary schools need to come up with better alternative plans for children who opt out of religious instruction.

Dr David Zyngier, a Senior Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Monash University Faculty of Education, is deeply critical of the ACCESS curriculum from an educational point of view. He states that “students are not being challenged to think independently”, that activities “minimise intellectual growth” and, “moreover, there does not seem to be any logical selection and sequencing of the content”. Where most primary school curricula, over successive years, aim to create an environment where students learn independently and develop deep levels of thinking, the ACCESS curriculum favours individualised ‘busy’ work. Zyngier argues that the curriculum is incompatible with the current Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) and that religious instruction should be removed from Victorian public schools to “ensure that the damage that is being done by ACCESS Ministries to our most vulnerable children end sooner rather than later”.

Lara Wood, the FIRIS campaign co-ordinator, alleges that current system “encourages ignorance”. She argues that religious education in schools is important, but the current system does not allow for education, merely instruction, or “indoctrination”. She believes that SRI is harmful for students, alleging that children “are being taught to be suspicious of children of other cultures” and that they are being taught that if they do not develop a personal relationship with God, then they will go to hell. She accuses ACCESS ministries volunteers of indoctrinating and proselytising children, despite the fact the ACCESS volunteers must sign an agreement which specifically outlaws proselytising.

I didn’t come out of primary school brainwashed, believing Jesus was the only way to avoid hell, I didn’t end up suspicious of other religions and cultures. However, I didn’t leave primary school with an understanding of Gospels, or of the messages of the Bible, or of our Judeo-Christian heritage. I didn’t know a thing about any other religion, believing Islam and Judaism were other denominations of Christianity.  As I found with my friend Boris, understanding one’s religion is key to understanding one’s culture. A secular religious education would have helped me develop a tighter relationship with both my best friend and others of different faiths to my own.


Words by Tess McPhail
Illustration by Ashleigh Duncan

Like many students, 2013 was my first opportunity to vote in a federal election. In the race to win my vote, Labor, the Coalition, and the Greens made Australia’s immigration policy a battleground for debate. I attempted to make an informed decision by looking beyond the sound bites and the spin. But the more I researched, the more frustrated I became with the lack of media reports on the condition of asylum seekers living in detention. I soon realised, however, that this was not because Australian journalists were chasing a better story, but that chasing this story was a breech of Australian law.

In 2011 the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) introduced a Media Access Policy to immigration detention facilities, known as the “Deed of Agreement”. But don’t be fooled by the name; the DIAC and the media have not constructed the terms of the deed.  Rather, it was the government that laid down these conditions, which outline the media’s capacity to gain access to detention facilities. Among the visitation procedures, the deed requires that media remain with an escort at all times, and that journalists must submit all photographs, video footage and audio recordings for review by the Department. It’s no wonder then that media bodies such as the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance have argued that the deed frustrates the democratic right to freedom of press and the public’s right to know.

Although we do not have an implied right to freedom of speech in Australia, the landmark High Court case Lange v. ABC (1997) established that there is an implied right in the Australian Constitution to political communication in respect to matters that could affect peoples choice in federal elections or constitutional referenda. Given the central role immigration policy played in the 2013 federal election, it is hard to deny that the treatment and conditions of asylum seekers living in detention centres is a matter of public interest.  And yet, we have an Australian government body restricting political communication on this issue.

According to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, it is important to balance government secrecy and freedom of speech in the interest of national security. There is no doubt that there have been instances when limited public knowledge has been in our best interest. However, when the law prevents journalists from conducting interviews with detainees, even if informed consent has been given, one can’t help but ask whether this is censorship undertaken in the interest of protecting the safety of the Australian people. Or could our ignorance of the happenings at detention centres be aimed at fostering a sense of political inertia? The Australian Press Council’s Letter to DIAC that called for reform of the Deed of Agreement in 2012 suggests the latter.

Raising these questions does not depend on your party ties or where you sit in the offshore processing debate. Rather, they are questions that need to be asked by any of us who value democracy in Australia. Drawing on the ideas of philosopher and free speech advocate Alexander Meiklejohn, an informed citizen body is required for representative democracy to function most effectively, However, limited media access and a subsequent lack of information on federal government policy hinders our  ability to make informed decisions when placing our vote. Instead we are required to almost blindly navigate our way between persuasive politicians and catchy slogans.

Reports emerged in January that media restrictions are set to increase, with the Government of Nauru allegedly increasing media visa fees to deter journalists from visiting detention centres. Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul responded by labeling this “an obstacle to prevent coverage”. “Without independent media access to Nauru and detention centres, there is no accountability,” Rintoul said.

Though we often take it for granted, we would do well to remind ourselves that democracy is not a default setting for society. Rather, it is fragile and—as Baron de Montesquieu first recognised—must be protected from the corruption of a self-interested few.

The judiciary, by its nature, is limited by the fact that it can only act as a check on government policy if a case is brought before them. The media must therefore play a key role in acting as the Fourth Estate in democratic societies. However, as we contemplate the consequences of the DIAC’s Deed of Agreement on independent journalism, we are compelled to ask, if the not the media, then who is keeping the government accountable?