Monday, March 27, 2006


By Darryl Mason

The cyclone hammered people of Innisfail have been mightily slagged by Sydney columnist Miranda Devine, safely tucked up in her warm PJs as she delivers her scathing, bitter verdict on mothers with children in tow who spent two days or more standing in the rain in the Innsifail town square last week.All they wanted was dry clothes, food, water, nappies and some emergency cash.

But they're just a pack of bloody whingers, reckons Mirada Devine.

"We in Sydney are very sorry for the people in northern Queensland who have lost their homes to Cyclone Larry." Miranda wrote yesterday in the Sydney Sun Herald. "But, much as we will miss their avocados and bananas on our supermarket shelves, we can live without their whingeing."

I don't know who told Miranda she could speak for the people of Sydney, but she's dead wrong. People in Sydney who actually bothered to watch the news, and take it all in, saw only a handful of people complain about their extreme misfortune. Maybe Miranda was watching her own special channel where her view of the world is carefully filtered for anything that might infect her pre-formed opinions?

"This is hardly Hurricane Katrina," she writes. Yeah, it was Cyclone Larry, and it was actually more powerful than Katrina, despite the fact no-one was killed.

"Five minutes after the cyclone hit, locals were whingeing that 'they' haven't come and fixed it for them. Do they not have their own arms and legs?"

Miranda is being sarcastic here, of course, unless she really has no idea at all. And from reading the rest of her column, perhaps she really doesn't.

Five minutes after the cyclone hit, nearly all the people of Innisfail were still holed up, trying to protect themselves and their families from the 280kmh winds that roared through the town and tore apart and damaged more than a thousand buildings.

Miranda quotes the widely seen footage of local Shiralee Hazel, who aired her frustrations at a TV camera, as being indicative of the rest of the townsfolk.

"Effing do something now," Shiralee said. "That is my message for them. Get off their fat arses and do something."

Fair call? Sure. It's hard to imagine any of us could stand in queues for two days, in the rain, holding traumatised, hungry, wet, bored children and not demand everything move faster. You'd have to be mad, or heavily medicated, not to get worked up if you found yourself in Shiralee's sodden shoes.

Premier Beattie understood this, so did Opposition Leader Beazley, so did Prime Minister Howard. But not Miranda. In her fantasy world, all the common folk should just shut up and stand dutifully, silently, in line.

And where exactly were all these other people Miranda claims were 'whingeing'? Virtually non-existent perhaps?

There were a few who were pissed off enough to vent their frustrations publicly, but they were hardly in the majority.

Miranda had the opportunity, to an audience of many hundreds of thousands of readers, to point out how the North Queenslanders looked after themselves and each other at a time when it must have seemed like the world was coming to an end. For the many who are now trying to live amidst the destruction and deprivation forced upon them by the most powerful cyclone to hit Australia in a hundred years, their world has literally come to an end, but they're getting on with it. Not that Miranda can tell the difference.

"Australians, especially outside the big cities, used to pride themselves on their self-reliance and resilience, forged in a hard, unforgiving land. Now, according to images beamed back to Sydney, they have become helpless victims. A category five cyclone comes to town and it's all the fault of Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and Prime Minister John Howard."

She is simply baiting her readership here, and pandering to those who think anyone who needs to rely on their government for help at any point in their life must be lower than pond scum. Miranda will go weeks without writing something outrageous, obviously drawn deep from her own well of misinformation and prejudice, then suddenly there it is on her column page, dripping with bile.

Sometimes it seems like she only writes columns like this to get the expected reaction of furious outrage from readers, and the hundreds of letters that will prove to her bosses that yes, she is relevant and controversial, and that's why they should keep paying her six figures a year to bust her arse turning out a few thousand words a week.

"No doubt there are plenty of admirable people quietly getting on with rebuilding their communities," Miranda goes on, "but we didn't hear from them."

An absolute lie, flat out. On Channel Nine, Seven, Ten, Two and SBS, there was dozens of stories aired showing people rebuilding, clearing debris, cooking up food for the hungry, checking in on elderly neighbours, donating clothes and food and nappies and furniture and blankets, and we heard from them all right. We heard them say stuff like, "Well, this is what you do, isn't it? When people need help, when your neighbours need help, you help them."

Next she completely distorts the truth about all those locals who not only helped the SES and soldiers get the tarps onto the rooftops, but she claims people only complained the SES didn't hang around to get them fixed into place.

No, they didn't do that for every house. How could they? Last week there were only 80 or 90 SES workers on duty at any one time, and they had a priority list of 1000 or so homes to tarp, while the rains kept on falling.

"God forbid that people might have to do some work themselves," Miranda writes.

Yeah, all those mums comforting freaked out infants should have been up on the ladders fixing the tarps into place. Miranda fails to mention that in many cases SES workers told locals to not risk injury by climbing around damaged roofs in the rain, and that it was better to wait for more help to arrive.

But hey, why let the facts get in the way of a classic Miranda Devine Distortion Central splurge?

She also found it quite distasteful that local residents dared give Howard a serve when he breezed into town. And here I was thinking that slagging off a pollie was about as Australian as you can get. Not in Miranda's world. Jeering or daring to boo your Prime Minister is just plain rude and nasty and not on anymore.

Even Howard laughed off the abuse. Miranda, however, appears offended to her very core.

She then complains about the already infamous headline of the Gold Coast Bulletin, 'You're Too Damn Late!' in reference to the politicians who flooded in to see the damage for themselves and make with the photo ops, while "thousands of tonnes of aid sits stranded beside a highway they failed to fix".

Somehow Miranda finds this information innacurate, but again, she doesn't know what she's talking about. The Bruce Highway's long delayed improvements, a failure of successive State and Federal Governments, allowed the road to flood too deep for more than a dozen big trucks chock full of supplies to get through.

Had the Bruce Highway been fixed years before, raised above the flood plains, and earth-banked on both sides, as the locals and the local papers have been demanding for years, then obviously the aid would have gotten through much faster. Even Premier Beattie admitted the Bruce Highway neglect was wrong, and has promised the highway will be fixed within two years.

Miranda also writes, "The fact is that authorities gave plenty of notice of the cyclone and evacuated 1000 people from vulnerable coastal areas on Sunday, the day before Larry hit, presumably saving lives."

Yes, exactly. But the locals who decided to stay needed somewhere to evacuate to, didn't they? And they needed vehicles to get out of town. And if they were taking their young children, they needed supplies and clothes and toys and food. This stuff just doesn't fall from the sky when you get a few days notice of a cyclone coming. Yes, they should have had cyclone supplies, but what about when you work a full week picking bananas and you don't have enough money left over to build up that cyclone emergency stockpile? What then?

Miranda Devine has adopted the US Extreme Right's viewpoint of the Hurricane Katrina victims here. Hey, you were told to get out, if you decided to stay, you deserve what you got.

And then Miranda finishes her heartless rant with this : "The endless whingeing is a reflection on an affluent consumer culture in which people have come to expect that everything they want can be delivered in 30 seconds piping hot and preferably free if they only scream loud enough. "

"No inconvenience is tolerable, not even for an instant, and the consumer is always right."

So cyclone survivors are impatient consumers, are they? Instead of being Australians in need of help? Most of whom didn't complain at all, but understood exactly why those who did complain had to get out their anger and frustration. And if she thinks communities of banana pickers and farm workers are members of "an affluent consumer culture" then she's really got her head in the clouds. What many of these people earned for a forty or fifty hour week, Miranda picks up for typing a few dozen words.

Miranda's attitude to those far less than fortunate than herself (she could well afford to charter a helicopter to evacuate herself and her family from a danger zone, if necessary) is part of what has been called 'The New Meanness of Australia'.

It is an attitude where people in unfortunate circumstances are no longer tolerated, where Aussies who need help are not worthy of it simply because they had to ask for help in the first place. The Australia she describes is one where you are supposed to never expect your governments to be there to help you, even if you have spent your whole life working bloody hard and paying your taxes.

And it is a 'Mean Australia' few outside of Sydney's kill-or-be-killed super-speed corporate-minded culture would understand, or would even want to comprehend. This mindset is as foreign to most Australians as the cyclone that tore away the livelihoods of thousands of North Queenslanders.

Miranda Devine seems to live in some alternate reality world where people who have been deprived of their homes, dry clothes, food, water and their dignity are supposed to stand quietly in lines for two or three days and when asked for the tenth time by yet another media crew, "How do you feel?" should only reply :


Sounds like a cyclone swept through Miranda's head and her heart, carrying away her sense of compassion and her comprehension of the word 'empathy'.

And I doubt many Australians were surprised or offended, as Miranda appears to be, when a handful of hard done by mums, standing for more than eight hours a day, had a "whinge" about the queues and the rain and the time it was taking to get food, supplies and emergency cash sorted out.

Even John Howard understood why he copped some abuse when he entered the town. Some of it was angry, some of it was joking, but all of it was pretty much an Australian reaction. Howard obviously knows the people of Australia, and the people of North Queensland, a lot better than Miranda Devine does.

Australians watched the people of the town of Innisfail coping extremely well, under the circumstances, and felt proud that they complained as little as they did.

We were deeply moved by their shocking stories of survival and loss.

We were heartbroken by the terrible plight faced by so many mums and their terrified kids.

And we laughed, too, at the good-hearted farmers and local blokes who could still crack a joke when their lives were at their lowest.

How much more Australian than that can you possibly bloody get?