Putting the whimsy back into activism

I attended my first micro protest (an innovation of Spookmeister Stephen Taberner) a few days ago. Here’s a little bit about it.


I’m in the Bourke Street Mall on a Saturday morning, one of an appreciative circle of shoppers and tourists listening to a hip-hop artist. Beside me is a placard that I’ve propped up on the bench alongside my bag. IT’S ALREADY HAPPENING, it reads. The message plays on a theme repeated on similar signs carried by small groups of two or three, and other singletons like me, sauntering through the mall and wandering into shops: YOU CAN TALK TO YOUR SPECIALIST ABOUT IT; SOME BEARS DON’T LIKE IT; IT’S GOING TO GIVE US ALL OCEAN VIEWS. Beneath each capitalised, declarative statement is a helpful footnote: It’s climate change.

My fellow sign carriers and I are not en masse; rather we are sprinkled through a small area of the CBD. No one in our loose little group is chanting slogans or blocking streets. There are no dodgy sound systems broadcasting rousing calls to action, no banners proclaiming affiliation with political parties, activist organisations or other causes; we are simply strolling through the laneways and arcades, carrying our signs like enigmatic thought bubbles. Some of us take coffee at a café or do a little shopping. The purpose of this gentle infiltration of city streets is to encourage people to consider climate change when they cast their vote in the federal election in less than a fortnight’s time.

This ‘massive micro protest’ is the invention of Stephen Taberner, a musician and choir master of the Spooky Men’s Chorale. A performer with a penchant for sly humour and undercutting expectations, he first employed this method of voicing dissent in 2016 as a deliberately non-confrontational and thoughtful alternative to mass demonstrations.

‘Protest is sometimes the worst kind of theatre, both predictable and jarring,’ he says. ‘When the pro/anti-racist marches were taking place on the same day in the Melbourne CBD, it was only when they passed me that I knew which side they were on. Everything else – the signs, the police presence, the strident chanting – was the same.’

People in loud, public arenas, like Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall have already girded themselves against approaches by chuggers, people trying to shove flyers into their hands and the general surge of human traffic, he argues. Shrill, noisy protests – whether on the side of the angels or tapping into darker forces of bigotry – simply alienate most people, weary of clamorous oppositionalism.

In the lead-up to the federal election, and in the atmosphere of what many commentators are already calling an unprecedentedly toxic and negative campaign, it possible to cut through the racket and calumny with humour and whimsy? Might non-strident action such as we are undertaking be more effective than a noisy demonstration?

Today is the third time that Jane Schinas has participated in a climate micro protest. ‘It’s creative, it’s subtle. It surprises people, I think,’ she says as she writes IT’S THE ELEPHANT IN EVERY ROOM on her placard with a black sharpie. She’s found carrying the sign is often an invitation for people to positively engage. ‘It’s just a nice interaction.’

‘What we’re doing is hard to define,’ says Anthony Dillon, a second-time micro-protester. ‘It’s not a protest, it’s not a performance. It’s quite pedestrian. Because they can’t register what it is, people ask themselves, “What is this this?” and in that moment they really open up to engage in a way they don’t with a traditional protest.’

This is my first foray into micro protesting, and I opt for a passive approach to an already low-key display of disgruntlement. As I sit with my placard listening to the hip-hop musicians, a young woman sits down beside me. Is there a demonstration? she asks. She also has a sign, although hers is a call to oppose fascism. Perhaps this micro protesting thing is catching on.


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Audiobook of WEDDERBURN now available

The audiobook of WEDDERBURN is now available.
· Bolinda – http://bit.ly/2FNlviE 
· Audible – https://adbl.co/2FNncfL 
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You can listen to a sample on my Facebook page or on Soundcloud.

You can also download the audiobook from @bolindaaudio on the @BorrowBox app – and listen for free! All available from your local library

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DUST, DISRUPTION AND DELAY

How much is a human life worth? Or rather, what is fair reparation for the distress and grief caused by three of your family members being brutally murdered? On Friday 15 February 2019, Maree St Clair and her brother Paul Holmes have come to the Supreme Court in Melbourne to hear the answer to that question. It has been almost four years and four months since their brother Greg Holmes and their mother Mary Lockhart and her husband Peter were killed in their homes at Wedderburn in Central Victoria by their neighbour, Ian Jamieson. Today Justice Kevin Bell will deliver his judgement as to the compensation he must pay.

The siblings’ application for crimes compensation has followed a similar trajectory to that of the murder charges against Jamieson, in that it has been characterised by his apparent determination to delay and disrupt the process. While he initially indicated to police that he was willing to accept responsibility for shooting the Lockharts multiple times and leaving Mary’s son Greg with over 25 stab wounds, in the 18 months between that night in October 2014 and when his trial was due to start, Jamieson changed his tune.

I documented Jamieson’s changes of plea, his sacking of teams of lawyers and late claims of being stabbed by Greg Holmes with a syringe filled with ‘possibly ice’ in my book Wedderburn: A true tale of blood and dust, published in 2018. My account of the neighbours’ feud over dust raised by the use of a dirt track, the terrible fallout of the killings and the legal proceedings against Jamieson, concluded with the dismissal of his application to appeal his conviction for Greg Holmes’s murder (claiming – after he’d pleaded guilty – that he’d killed the younger man in self-defence). My curiosity, however, about the man and his determination to position himself as the victim in the scenario of the murders and preceding events, was unabated.

In May 2018, after I’d completed the manuscript for Wedderburn, but before its publication, I attended a hearing in which Jamieson was asking for an indefinite stay in the compensation proceedings. Representing him was David McCulloch, whom I assumed was his barrister. McCulloch – in his late 60s, grey-haired and with a Scottish accent – appeared unremarkable, nevertheless, he seemed ever so slightly out of place. Maybe it was just the set of his shoulders in the grey suit that was less fitted than that of the younger, more fastidiously groomed barrister sitting at the opposite end of the bar table. Or perhaps it was the formality of the language that sat uncomfortably in his mouth, and which he used to address the bench, making his every utterance sound like an apology. Jamieson himself was present in the court only via video link from Barwon Prison.

The presiding judge, the Honourable Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth, was well acquainted with Jamieson and the crimes for which he remains incarcerated. She heard the original charges of murder against him, accepted his guilty pleas, presided over his plea hearing, rejected his application to change his plea and sentenced him to two life sentences for the murder of the Lockharts and twenty-five years for that of Greg Holmes. At an earlier directions hearing in January related to this compensation claim, Jamieson stated that he intended to appeal, yet again, his conviction for murdering Holmes, this time in the High Court. Her Honour pointed out what she must have hoped was obvious: ‘Even if he [Jamieson] was successful in setting aside one of the convictions, he would still face an application for compensation for the other two.’

As was the case with Jamieson’s original appeal, he had left his run late, missing the cut-off date to file his papers to the High Court, and Justice Hollingworth, it appeared, sensed a familiar pattern of forestalling. McCulloch explained to Her Honour that Jamieson’s petition to the High Court would be made on the basis that he was mentally unfit to be charged with murder. Given this was the case, he argued, any claim for compensation against Jamieson should be deferred indefinitely until this matter was resolved.

Justice Hollingworth contained her impatience beneath tightened facial muscles and clipped sentences. She pointed out that success in this endeavour would necessitate not only satisfying the High Court that Jamieson had sufficient grounds for appeal, but also, given the lateness of his application, securing special leave to submit it. In her opinion, his attempt was ‘utterly hopeless’ and with ‘no prospect of success.’ Jamieson had already been assessed three times by two different psych professionals (including an expert appointed by his own side) who had found he was fit to stand trial. In her view, any hope Jamieson held of being granted special leave to appeal, let alone having his appeal upheld was, she paused for a long moment, literally lost for words, eventually managing to utter, ‘so close to zero as to be negligible.’ Her Honour was just warming up. It was ‘fanciful’ to imagine a different outcome. Jamieson had ‘not been frank’ in his dealings with the court. While he had intimated that he had lodged the necessary documents to further his application, he had not.

In the exchange between the bench and the bar, it became clear that McCulloch was not a barrister, rather he was appearing as a ‘McKenzie friend’, someone who acts as an advisor to an accused or a respondent representing themselves in a matter before the court. According to the Victorian Criminal Proceedings Manual, ‘In criminal trials, judges are very reluctant to grant leave for a “McKenzie friend”, as experience has shown that the practice is fraught with danger. Proceedings are more likely to become protracted… The accused may attempt to use the adviser as a convenient excuse for any improper or disruptive behaviour…’

McCulloch countered Her Honour’s view as to the likelihood of any appeal asserting the delay was due to Jamieson’s ‘cognitive difficulties’. Her Honour took a different view. It appeared to her, she said, that Mr Jamieson retained a ‘great grievance against this [the Holmes] family’. She referred to the ‘rudeness and contempt’ that he demonstrated towards them throughout the proceedings that eventually led to Jamieson’s conviction and sentencing, and his complete lack of remorse.

Perhaps it was the opening McCulloch had been waiting for. Since his conviction, Jamieson had developed contrition for his actions, he told her Honour. Justice Hollingworth’s scepticism at this piece of information was unfeigned. When McCulloch brought up his client’s wish to limit compensation because he hoped his grandchildren would be able to inherit his estate, she told him that Jamieson’s ‘remorse was utterly, utterly, utterly irrelevant.’ Her exasperation rose with each successive adverb. As for his desire to leave an inheritance for his grandchildren, that too, while understandable, was immaterial. ‘He has murdered three people; he has to pay compensation.’ And, she reiterated, Mr Jamieson had still not submitted his submission for special leave to appeal his conviction for Greg Holmes’s murder. Here, McCulloch interposed to make a clarification. The respondent intended to appeal to have all three of his guilty pleas set aside.

This new piece of information tested Her Honour’s patience mightily, but she confined herself to reminding McCulloch that the convictions for the murders of Mary Lockhart and her husband Peter had never been subject to an appeal. There was no basis for delaying the compensation hearing she told McCulloch, because, in her assessment, there was no prospect of the High Court consenting to hear Jamieson’s appeal. She refused his application for a stay and nominated a day in June for Marie and Paul’s compensation claims to be heard.

 

From the time he made the call to the triple zero operator shortly after killing his neighbours, through to his application to reverse his guilty plea to Greg’s murder, Jamieson claimed he had been ‘pushed’ into killing his three victims. Despite being asked not to, Jamieson said, Peter Lockhart continued to drive his tractor along a dirt track, raising dust that contaminated his water supply and soiling his drying washing. He maintained that all three of the deceased – but particularly 75-year-old Lockhart – deliberately provoked him to the point that he snapped.

In Wedderburn, I wrote about Jamieson’s lack of contrition, his self-pitying air, and the disrespect he showed for the court and his victims’ loved ones. And, in speaking about the book, I’ve often been asked if I thought that Jamieson believed that he was driven to his terrible deeds. It was a question I’d addressed briefly in the final chapters: ‘To truly accept what he has done and to show real remorse would be to accept a version of himself that must always remain unforgiven.

I have warmed to my theory the more I’ve spoken about it. I’ve come to believe that Jamieson, in order to be able to live with himself after committing such evil, had to construct a narrative around the killings that portrayed a version of himself that he could live with; a story where he was the victim, compelled by others to perform savage acts.

A clue, perhaps, into what (or who) else helped to shape and inform Jamieson’s attempts to thwart his eventual convictions and sentencing is that David McCulloch, Jamieson’s McKenzie friend, served time in Barwon Prison, where Jamieson remains incarcerated. McCulloch has form, and perhaps expertise, in frustrating the wheels of justice. Referred to in newspaper headlines as a ‘drug kingpin’ and ‘gangland figure’, his previous associates include Lewis Moran, Tony Mokbel and Carl Lewis. He was released from prison in 2018 after his 2009 application to appeal against his sentence for drug trafficking was rejected. At the time of this rejection, Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland told the media that McCulloch was part of an underworld plot to stymie the charges and legal proceedings against him by attempting to persuade the state government to set up a royal commission into Victoria Police. McCulloch’s case was delayed for years after he claimed several police officers were corrupt

 

At the June 2018 hearing, it was Justice Bell, rather than Justice Hollingworth, who heard the compensation claim. McCulloch again appeared on behalf of Jamieson, who was in the court room, while barrister Joseph Amin represented Marie St Clair and Paul Holmes. Amin outlined for the court their ongoing distress and suffering, before noting that there had been difficulty in ascertaining Jamieson’s true financial circumstances. Jamieson’s evidence about his assets appeared incomplete, devoid of any mention of bank accounts, superannuation or other assets. The barrister also addressed the issue of any potential impact paying compensation would have on Jamieson’s rehabilitation. Any considerations given to this matter were rendered invalid by the fact that 68-year-old Jamieson, due to his age and his sentence, was likely to die in prison; his lack of remorse and by the seriousness of his crimes.

McCulloch had little to add to the written submissions already tended, other than to add, before passing on rates notice that valued Jamieson’s Wedderburn property at $400, 000, ‘I would just like to say on behalf of Mr Jamieson that he would like to inform the court that he does indeed express remorse and contrition and that any overt lack of such expression in the initial stages we say, with respect, was due to his psychiatric/psychological condition at that time.’

Justice Bell adjourned the court. He would deliver his judgement on a date to be decided.

 

Nine months later, on 15 February 2019, Justice Bell delivers his judgement in the Supreme Court in Melbourne. The hearing is short. Jamieson is present in the courtroom, as is McCulloch. Marie St Clair, her husband Dennis, and her brother Paul, along with their barrister, are also present. Maree is awarded $130,000 (reduced by $30,000 which is the amount she was previously awarded under the Victims of Crime Assistance Act), Paul is awarded $150,000 (also reduced by $30,000 that he was also awarded under the Act). They strike me as modest amounts for their ongoing distress and suffering.

In his written judgement, Justice J Bell declared: ‘They [Maree and Paul] were normal people living normal lives to whom something horribly abnormal occurred, causing those lives to be redefined forever for the worse.’

 

In late 2018, David McCulloch was cautioned by a Supreme Court judge to stop providing legal advice to prisoners, including Jamieson, after he was accused by the Victorian Legal Services Board of engaging in unqualified legal practice.

Ian Jamieson's Jailhouse Lawyer

This article in The Age sheds an intriguing light on Ian Jamieson's attempts to derail the court proceedings against him for the Wedderburn murders.

‘Former underworld figure David McCulloch represented himself at the Supreme Court last month where he was told by a judge to stop providing legal advice about potential appeals for six prisoners, including a triple murderer, currently serving time inside Barwon Prison.’

Gisborne Library: Talking about WEDDERBURN with Gemma Rayner

I always prefer an ‘in conversation’ event to an ‘author talk’. Often readers, especially discerning ones like Gemma, can identify the key points of a book more accurately than the author and can direct the discussion in ways that might not occur to the writer (i.e me). Not surprisingly then, I really enjoyed this event at Gisborne Library today (6 Feb).

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Review of WEDDERBURN

As well as being a writer, I’m also a freelance editor. I’m grateful that Editors Victoria, of which I am a member, have reviewed WEDDERBURN.

Maryrose set herself the task to 'write with compassion and honesty about those who died and those who continue to suffer as a result', and she's achieved that goal. It's a beautiful book about a dreadful subject.

Book review: 'Wedderburn' by Maryrose Cuskelly

Is it possible to defend writing about murder?

Helen Garner wrote that ‘no one would ever write anything if one had to give their writing a moral justification’. However, every non-fiction writer asks themselves if they are justified in writing about their subject, especially when they are writing a story that might be judged as not theirs to tell.

I asked myself several times over the months and years of working on my book WEDDERBURN, how, when the time came, I would morally defend writing it. Could it ever rise above reportage to be a work that offers insights on the broader questions of violence and masculinity and of resilience and recovery? Over the last few weeks, these questions have been something I’ve considered every day. They have become even more insistent as the book’s publication looms.

Violence and murder are shocking. They destabilise the families, the communities, and sometimes even the societies they disrupt. The fault lines beneath our ‘civilised’ existence are exposed. Threats we thought would never menace us are revealed. Fortunately, most of us will never have to wake to a phone call telling us that someone close to us has been murdered, but few of us will escape a brush with trauma altogether – it might be the suicide of someone we love, a terrifying diagnosis or a devastating accident. The list of horrors that can be visited upon us is limitless.

So, what value might there be in writing about life in extremis, about people at the worst moments of their lives? I believe narratives about violence and grief can build empathy and add to the conversations we are already engaging in as a society: What is the source of the rage we see every day on our roads, on social media and in our homes? Is there such a thing as ‘toxic’ masculinity? How can we assist people recover from trauma? If we fail to examine ruptures in the social fabric when they occur, we can gain no insights into their causes or their fallout.

One reason I admire the work of Helen Garner is her fearlessness in examining the darkness that lurks in all of us. The notion that a person must be a monster to commit murder is a fallacy. We all have a capacity for violence, and a greater understanding of what unleashes sudden, unforeseen acts of extreme aggression is worth seeking.

In WEDDERBURN, I have done my best to write with compassion and honesty about those who died and those who continue to suffer as a result. I’m under no illusion; there will be people angered and hurt by the book’s publication, but I hope that some readers may be reminded, as I was daily while researching and writing it, of the value of life, of love, of loyalty. Perhaps, too, they might observe, as I did, that it remains possible to respond to such horrific events with grace, courage and hope.