Festival Muse 2018: Turn me on

Muse FestivalWoo hoo, Muse, which is one of my favourite places in Canberra, is running its second Muse Festival this long weekend in Canberra. As last year, Mr Gums and I went to the opening event, Turn me on, last night -and it was different but also good. Different because last year’s opener, Women of the Press Gallery, was a panel discussion, while Turn me on comprised separate, short, roughly 10-minute talks by five speakers on the given topic, which was how they got turned on to politics or to the passion they have for their field of work. Muse was looking, in particular, for “the lightbulb moments and hidden drivers” behind the speakers’ passions for what they do.

Turn me on

The speakers were a varied bunch, but they had at least one thing in common – they’re “prominent locals”:

  • Michael Brissenden, political journalist and foreign correspondent for the ABC since 1987
  • Zoya Patel, founder of Feminartsy
  • Roland Peelman, director of the Canberra International Music Festival
  • Elizabeth Lee, Liberal MLA in Canberra’s Legislative Assembly
  • Jacob White, staffer for Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh, and co-ordinator last year of the Australian Marriage Equality group’s postal survey campaign in the ACT

Michael Brissenden

Of the five speakers, Brissenden had the longest-standing Canberra cred having been born here in the 1960s, to parents who were part of the first big wave of academics coming to the ANU in the 1950s-1960s. He provided us with an entertaining picture of a Canberra very different to the one we know now, back when it was “six suburbs in search of a city”. There were few restaurants, so people made their own fun: they had parties. You would, he said, have historian Manning Clark “banging on” in one corner of a room, and poets AD Hope and David Campbell doing the same in another. What fun, eh? You needed, he said, a sense of humour to enjoy Canberra then.

He shared a couple of songs written by his father, RF Brissenden – “Canberra Blues” and “Gough and Johnny were lovers” (with its line “never trust a cur [Kerr]”) commenting on the 1975 dismissal. Being interested in politics, he said, was unavoidable in his house. Canberra is still a small place and can be suffocating at times. But it is also full of inspiring, intelligent people. No wonder, he said, they, like himself, keep coming back. (We know what he means.)

Zoya Patel

Zoya Patel, Festival MusePatel cut right to the chase. What turns me on, she said, is feminism. She then joked that there was a time – her early dating days – when her strong attachment to feminism was a turn off! Clearly though, the dates who reacted like that didn’t last, because her commitment to feminism remained strong.

She gave us a brief history of her trajectory as a feminist. She talked of her upbringing within a Fiji-Indian culture, where it was not considered normal for girls to have strong ideas, particularly political ones, and her staring to write, at the age of 15, for local feminist magazine, Lip Magazine. She spoke of how she’d been told that feminism was irrelevant, that women had won what they’d campaigned for. As a second-wave feminist from the 1970s, I remember being horrified by this attitude in the 1980s and ’90s, and am thrilled to see feminism on the rise again and in hands like Patel’s.

She talked about tipping-points that have kept her strong – such as encountering online trolling when she took Lip Magazine online – and about founding the cleverly named Feminartsy. She sees feminism as being about sisterhood, saying that “as many we are strong”. She’s pleased that feminism has gone from turn off to turn on!

Roland Peelman

Peelman, whom we had enjoyed earlier this week when he gave the pre-concert talk at Musica Viva, felt a little uncertain about his place in the group. He was not a politician, he said, but a musician, and not an Australian or a Canberran, but a Belgian. However, the thing about Peelman, who was also the artistic director of The Song Company for 25 years, is that he’s an engaging speaker.

He talked about attending a secular university in Ghent, which is still today a centre of positivist philosophy. This has informed his life he said. And, in one of those synchronicities we often talk about, he spoke of being on the barricades against missiles in Western Europe in the early 1980s. Regular readers here will remember our recent discussion about the Cold War on my review of Diana Blackwood’s Chaconne.

Peelman talked about the difference between Australia’s adversarial 2-party political system and the Belgian situation where government is made after the election (as has happened in Germany over recent months!) Talking to him afterwards, I suggested that the 2-party system may be breaking down with voters (here and elsewhere) increasingly voting for small parties. Peelman likes this form of “messy” democracy.

Finally, he talked about the politics of a small arts organisation (like The Song Company) battling big bureaucracy, and how they can survive despite the naysayers. Small arts companies do not work well within the constructs of economic rationalism. Music, he said, builds from community. And that’s as political as he’d get he said!

Elizabeth Lee

Local Liberal politician, Lee, started by noting how much we have in common despite our (political) differences.

What turned her on to politics or what encouraged her to chase a political career, she said, was her father. Korean-born, she grew up as the eldest of an all-girl family, so her father, she said, was a feminist from start. He told her that she was the needle, and her sisters the thread. She explained that her moving to Canberra to do Law at 18 years old was unusual for an Asian at that time. It means, though, that she has lived all her adult life here.

Lee then talked about how she went from not being interested in politics at university to working as a lawyer and getting involved in the Law Society, where she realised that she liked organising. Soon after, when she started work as a lecturer at the ANU, she joined the Liberal Party – because she agreed with the classic Liberal values which focus on “individual freedom and responsibility”. She described losing the 2012 election, and her father helping her see that politics seemed to be where she could contribute the most. She stood again in 2016 and won.

She also shared some disturbing examples of racist and sexist attacks she has faced, but said that she is committed to her (unsought for) leadership role as an Asian female politician.

Jacob White

Like Patel, White quickly identified the factors that led him to his political passion. He said an interest in process is something you are born with, and also that as the middle child of a family of five (with two older sisters and two younger) he got early practice as an agitator!

He also remembers being aware of the injustice of his Nana’s struggles. She was a single mum who had brought up 5 children including one with severe Down Syndrome. He described his early experience of activism, writing to local politicians when he was just 8 years old about lantana choking a play area – and succeeding in getting it removed. Finally, he talked about realising, when he was 11 or 12, that women were not for him, and soon seeing the injustices gay people lived with.

White said he was very involved in student politics, and from this experience came to work for Andrew Leigh. However, when they were all caught off-guard by the marriage equality postal vote, he took leave from this job to manage the campaign in Canberra.

He spoke about being from a small industrial town near Wollongong, with a father “in the steelworks”, and mother “at the RSL”. You don’t have to have a political background to do what he does he said, because “everyone’s life is inherently political.”

All in all, an engaging session, not the least because I got to hear and see some of Canberra’s new, young leaders, as well as seeing that some of the older hands still have things to offer!! Win-win, I’d say.

Oh, and the opening party drinks and canapes were great too – as you’d expect from Muse.

Thanks to Muse (particularly Dan and Paul) for another great event. As I’ve said before, what a great addition they’ve made to Canberra’s literary and arts scene.

Angharad at Tinted Edges has also posted on Festival Muse.

NOTE: Check the Muse link above for more Festival events.

7 thoughts on “Festival Muse 2018: Turn me on

  1. Hi Sue, I am not familiar with any of the presenters except for Michael Brissenden. Their reasons for being ‘turned on’ by politics would have been interesting. I am still interested in politics, but since Gough went I have also been ‘turned off’ by them.

    • Haha Meg. I agree re being given turned off. We have increasingly been so which makes me think that the Belgian “system” may become practice here as voting becomes more fractured.

  2. For some reason WordPress is denying me entry to comment – refusing every Password I try etc….Grrr!

    What I wanted to say WG is that young Jacob WHITE is a distant KABLE Family kinsman – whom I met early last year when Andrew Leigh’s pal Pat CONROY – my local member – put on a presentation for consdtituents re the Morrison Federal Budget – Jacob was his Press/Publicity Officer…Small world!

    Jim KABLE


    • That’s really weird Jim. Anyhow, I have captured and approved your message, and thank you for it. How amazing – yet another small world connection. I loved his passion and energy for changing the world. We need more like him, don’t we.

  3. Pingback: Festival Muse | Tinted Edges

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