A conversation with Cameron Hindrum (March 2008)

Cameron Hindrum is many things; husband, parent, secondary school teacher, leader in the arts community, vocal and politicised opponent of the proposed pulp mill in northern Tasmania. The questions I asked him related to his profession as a secondary schoolteacher, to his opposition to the pulp mill proposed not far from his Launceston home, and to his involvement with the Tasmanian Poetry Festival of which he is the president.

I began by asking Cameron whether he sees a lack of discipline as a problem in many schools today.

It’s a bit hard to answer that question; the phrase ‘lack of discipline’ covers a lot of ground, and some schools—for a variety of reasons—will have more problems in this regard than others. I can really only speak of secondary schools as this is where my experience has been, and I have to say that generally I find adolescents to be fascinating to work with—they have myriad pressures to deal with, many of them as they reach the end of high school are entering the casual work force, many of them are dealing (or have dealt) with split custody arrangements after marital separations, they begin to grow into their identities and understand their sense of self. So with all that going on (and admittedly it is sometimes more, sometimes less) it’s not surprising that they get a bit tetchy at times.

And schools will always deal with it the best they can. I hope that doesn’t sound too hollow—schools don’t always have all the answers. I became aware not long after I started teaching that there are some students for whom school just doesn’t fit—they can’t handle the structure, the expectations, the routines. They will nearly always react negatively to continued pressure to conform to what the school wants: be here on time, wear your uniform, listen to the teacher. Many of them need to be working towards a tangible and practical goal, such as an apprenticeship, not trying to churn out an essay on Macbeth.

So it’s a problem only in relative terms, I think.

But are students allowed too much freedom, both in and out of school?

Not within the context of their participation in school, no. Certainly not at the school where I currently work. We have policies governing uniform, attendance, mobile phones and so on, and if students make the choice to breach those policies they know there will be consequences. Of course some of them will make that choice.

Outside school, again it is difficult to be specific—I think some certainly are. An extension of this question, as I perceive it, is that some teenagers are not adequately supervised in many of the activities they engage in outside of school. As a result, for example, they can access alcohol and other recreational substances. In some cases of course this activity will affect academic performance—but it’s something over which teachers have almost no control. Parental responsibility comes heavily into play here.

How about class sizes. Are they too big for optimum teaching?

Aaah, the perennial question. I’ll have my Union rep contact you with an answer… This is a complicated issue—what do you mean by optimum teaching, for example? This is why performance pay for teachers would never work—if classes are too big, it becomes that much harder to get positive results across the range of abilities that might exist in the class room. (I’m happy to report that idea seems to have dissolved with the demise of the Howard government.)

Class sizes are certainly bigger than they have been in the last decade or so. I don’t have precise statistics conveniently to hand but I would say anecdotally that there has been an increase of, say, three or four students per class on average. I can assure you that a class of 26 is different to work with than a class of 22. As to the cause, I don’t know; school enrolments fluctuate from year to year and I know that at the moment they are in an upwards trend. So in theory it is possible that class sizes may start getting smaller in the next few years as this cycle starts moving the other way.

One solution often put forward is to recruit more teachers—fine, but where do these teachers work? At my school classroom space is at a premium—we are at capacity enrolment. If the answer is to spread students across more classes, this only creates another (potentially very expensive) problem—where do those classes go?

I think the nature of teaching has changed to allow for this phemonenon. It had to really, and it is the nature of teaching that it should to try and keep pace with community expectations and curriculum demands anyway. Student-centred approaches dictate that students will within reason work at their own pace and develop and expand their understanding of the topic being taught—more able students in a class will handle this well, less able students will need help. In a way, students have had to learn some independence and resilience—the teacher may not always be available to help immediately with queries or assistance.

What about "streaming" students based on ability? Is that a good idea?

Yes, it is; it gives higher-ability students a better chance to be extended as they should be, and it gives lower-ability students the opportunity to have more support as needed.

How do you get students engaged/excited about a subject?

Any teacher will tell you what an uphill battle this can be at times. All sorts of factors come into play—the day of the week, and indeed the time of day, can make a difference to how receptive students are.

But where possible I like to adopt the approach developed by Howard Gardner, father of the Multiple Intelligences; in his book The Disciplined Mind he talks about the powerful entry point, the use of a hook by which to get attention and keep it. It might be a question, an image, an object, a work of art, a piece of music. I tend to use music a lot, because it can cover a lot of ground—introducing social issues, prompting creative writing, historical perspectives and so on. For example, the song ‘I was Only 19’ by Redgum is a gem, both for its imagery (if you want to talk about poetry) and as an introduction to the issue of Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.

The use of film, or extracts from films, is another good method, for similar reasons.

Regardless of what is used as the hook, the teacher has to sell it. I think the students have to sense some level of passion in their teachers about what they are expected to do, and to know.

There’s been plenty of attention focussed on the state government recently over its education policies. Do you think education is heading in the right direction in Tasmania?

Well there’s a heavily loaded question to ask a teacher! You’re not trying to get me into trouble, are you?

I can really only speak for secondary education, as that is the area in which I work. I’m reasonably happy with the direction that has been adopted by the Tasmanian Curriculum (despite the entirely unoriginal name). I also think that at the secondary level, a discipline focus is important. The other positive is that students are developing critical skills—the ability to question and investigate issues to support their opinions and so on.

I felt I was lucky to witness the implementation of the Essential Learnings (another odd name—surely a tautology?) from a professional distance; the majority of it happened while I was on secondment to the University of Tasmania. There were some frightful stories coming out of schools about the stress many teachers were under, and I had doubts about the efficacy of such an approach in secondary schools. It didn’t help that the ELs were mired in jargon that many parents had difficulty with. I understand that Don Watson had a field day with some of the ELs curriculum information.

The reforms that have been made in the last 12-18 months have reversed some of those issues, so generally I think things are sailing along okay at the moment.

I was reading somewhere – it was on Tasmanian Times, I think, in response to the proposed pulp mill – that water, like all our other natural resources, exists primarily so that someone can make a profit out of it … which is why, for example, solar energy will never take off until a way can be worked out to privatise the sun. Okay, serious question: the issue of values. Take materialim, for instance; is that a serious issue for children, for teachers? How does an awareness of what society considers important filter through to schoolchildren without the school system being trapped into a political correctness?

Privatise the sun? Someone told me that John Howard had this on the agenda for his next term of government. SolarChoices. What a terrible shame it won’t see the light of day.

Materialism is not really an issue for me personally; my one extravagance is books, but I have learned some restraint (and how to use the State Library) where that vice is concerned.

I think advertising is now being so successfully manipulated that demand is created where it didn’t previously exist, which in turn has created the need for consumer awareness and protection in increasingly younger people. It is fair to say that almost without exception, every student at the school where I work has a mobile phone, to give but one example; these, along with iPods and XBoxes, are way up there on the must-have list. With items like mobile phones, of course, ongoing expenses are incurred and the money has to come from somewhere, so kids are getting casual jobs to make money to spend and on it goes.

To some extent a school will reflect and influence the values of the community it serves, but largely those values have to come from, and be reinforced by, the family unit. Parents, specifically. A good education—what is referred to often as a rounded education, perhaps—will deal with the imparting of knowledge as only one aspect of the bigger picture, but the extent to which schools can influence what children take away from their time at school is always going to vary, for a wide variety of reasons. A child’s first and most profound experience of what is valued in society will not come from school at all, I would argue; it will come from home.

I’ve heard it suggested that if you’re not a conspiracy theorist in Tasmania today then you're sadly out of touch with reality. Given that you hold strong views about the government’s political management of the state, I wonder whether you’re sympathetic with this suggestion?

Well that’s probably a bit further along the cynicism spectrum than I would like to place myself, but I certainly understand why people would believe it. We have had the Premier asking a commercial construction company (which is also a subsidiary of Gunns) to undertake the renovations on his home—the pokies contract awarded to Federal Hotels—and of course the whole pulp mill fast-track approval process to benefit Gunns. I use the word approval deliberately—the government’s process was designed and intended to get the mill approved, not merely assessed. I still don’t believe that there has been a proper independent assessment of the mill in terms of its environmental or economic impacts. The RPDC was supposed to ensure this, but we all know what happened there.

Many rational people have looked at these issues and scratched their heads, and I don’t blame them.

You’ve been an outspoken political critic of the pulp mill planned for northern Tasmania – in your back yard, given that you live in Launceston. How do you feel about the issue the way things stand at present? Still stoicly opposed? Resigned to some degree?

Absolutely not resigned, not at all. And I share that view with many thousands of other Tasmanians. A couple of points to illustrate my complete distrust of this project: Gunns seem to believe that effluent discharged into Bass Strait will disobey all the known tidal and drift currents in the area, and stay neatly within a small diameter of the outfall pipe. When the Iron Baron ran aground off Low Head in 1995, the fuel oil and other rubbish that leaked from it as a result washed straight back onto the beach. Admittedly this was slightly further west than where the outfall pipe will be but similar results are likely.

Additionally, Gunns has resolutely failed to accept that the mill effluent will contain dioxins which, once they have entered the marine environment, will stay there. They do not dissolve or break down over time. This doesn’t seem to bother anyone one at Gunns, perhaps because they are not fish.

The water issue alone should be enough to question the need for this mill—it’s very difficult to justify diverting between 26 and 45 gigalitres of water a year to the mill, when many farms are experiencing drought conditions and the state’s dam catchments are at critical levels.

Another issue is to do with employment. The economic benefits of the mill have been strongly sold to the Tasmanian public as an excellent reason to go ahead—and I will recall the famously misleading claim by the Premier that it would give every Tasmanian family an extra $870. But employment figures that the mill will generate have been blatantly and repeatedly misrepresented, mostly by the CFMEU, which has behaved pretty poorly over this issue in my humble opinion. I have a copy of a full page ad placed by this union in which they claim that the mill will, in total, employ something like 6000 people. This is a laughable exaggeration. The actual total, based on both independent assessments and figures from other mills of a similar size, is slightly less than a quarter of that, and the vast majority of those will be during the construction period of about two years. People have a right to be extremely suspicious about these issues—especially in light of the fact that Gunns has now admitted that actual employment generated by the mill will be fifty percent less than they originally stated. What else has the company grossly overstated with regard to this development?

We should be a lot smarter about how we tackle the issue of downstream processing in Tasmania—the mill represents bludgeon thinking, lowest-common-denominator stuff.

Let me ask about a charge that’s levelled at people who will not accept the pulp mill, which is that the election results seem to suggest that support for the mill is there from both parties, that anti-mill supporters are simply not accepting the will of the electorate but being pig-headed. Is that a valid charge?

Well of course this is very much in the eye of the beholder. It is fair to say that in wider electoral terms, people have issues other than the pulp mill on their minds, and in the Tasmanian context the Liberal Party is really, really struggling to present a satisfactory alternative vision for the government of the state.

I can say with some confidence that support for the mill almost certainly cost Ivan Dean the Mayorship of Launceston at last year’s local government elections, so the will of the electorate has asserted itself on at least one occasion. (To be fair, Dean did nothing to endear himself to mill opponents by labeling them misinformed after one of the rallies in Launceston last year, which was attended by many thousands of misinformed people). At the same election, a Greens candidate won a position as alderman and I think this reflects some support heading towards the Greens across the state. Their vote also increased at the last state election, I understand.

The problem is that the mill issue has now become two-tiered: I know people who support the mill in principle but loathe and despise the manner in which its approval was handled by the government. So the mill itself is one issue, and the government’s handling of it is another.

There are all sorts of concerns emanating from the mill issue—increased log truck traffic on the roads, odour emissions, the effluent being dispersed in Bass Strait, on and on it goes. If remaining highly critical of what I am being told about these issues makes me pig-headed, it’s a label I’m happy to wear.

One of the timber industry’s arguments is that Australia imports billions of dollars worth of forest products, thus it’s selfish to expect the visual impact of our demand be transferred to countries overseas....

I might argue that it is also selfish for companies like Gunns to take a perfectly good timber resource and feed it to the chipper.

I’m always interested to hear the likes of Eric Abetz or Bob Gordon dismiss anti-forestry arguments that are based on aesthetics. Aesthetics should be important—people don’t make Tasmania their holiday destination so they can marvel at the endless beauty that only a bluegum plantation can inspire, or gaze with awe across clearfelled coupes. But aesthetics will always lose the fight against economic imperatives, won’t it?

Having said that, there will long be this conservation/capitalist dichotomy in Tasmania, and it fascinates me. I said earlier that there is room to approach how we utilise our timber resources in a smarter way, and part of that might include how we harvest trees to avoid these ugly scarred landscapes that frighten the tourists.

The pulpmill issue managed to find its way into the hearts and minds of many of those who attended the Tasmanian Poetry Festival in October last year. I note that one of the many hats you wear is that of director of the poetry festival: how do you manage to find time for all your activities - your role as a husband and new Dad, your work as a teacher, your responsibilities as head of the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre? Even more pertinently, what motivates you?

I also tried learning to play the bagpipes over the last few years. That’s been placed on the backburner for now—something had to give and I’m sure the neighbours are grateful.

Fatherhood comes first; I remember when I first took on the Poetry Festival a few years ago that I worried about the time it was taking away from being with my son, who was only two at that stage. It only proved to be so time-consuming because I’d never done anything on that scale before, as I’ll explain later. It’s important to me to be hands-on Dad, so some things (such as regular writing time) have been pushed out of the way a bit. The pre-school years are of crucial importance in forming those lasting bonds with children, as any psychologist will tell you, and my son is six now and at school full-time (as am I, of course) but my wee daughter turns two this week, so my wife and I are kept endlessly busy between the two of them. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I don’t for a second consider myself ‘head’ of the Tasmanian Writers Centre—I’m currently Chairman of the Centre’s committee of management but more importantly I’m part of an organization that is working to try and provide genuine opportunities for this state’s writers to improve their craft, create networks with other writers, find outlets for their work through publication, performance, mentorship, whatever is needed. The TWC has recently undergone a change of Executive Director and with Chris Gallagher in the role now, with her connections and experience, is it exciting to witness some of the directions the Centre and its members might be heading into over the next few years.

Finding time is a constant challenge, which is partly why it’s taken me a couple of weeks to finish answering these questions! I often tell people that teaching is probably the worst job to have if you want to be a writer because it does consume a lot of energy, and it does bite into your evenings and weekends with marking, report writing, planning work and so on. The flipside of that is of course that it comes with about twelve weeks off a year and if I was more disciplined I would make better use of that time, I suppose.

The Poetry Festival was enormously challenging and time-consuming when I first took it on, back in 2003, because I had almost no idea what I was doing. I attended my first Tasmanian Poetry Festival in 2002—so I didn’t have a lot of experience of the event to get me started. I was aware of it before that, of course, but I didn’t know much about it.

Steve Davis and I work on it together now, and sometimes I will call on the esteemed counsel and wisdom of Tim Thorne—often I will seek his input on who to invite. I have routines and things in place so it’s easier and it is still very enjoyable—I’ve met some fascinating people through the Festival and although it makes for a very hectic couple of weeks in September/October it is always worth it.

What motivates me? Another difficult question, something that I really don’t dwell on all that much. An inability to say no, perhaps?

I suppose I’m trying to create opportunities for others to be inspired, to find a purpose and place for their writing. I remember attending a Writers Festival in Hobart in 2001 that inspired me enormously—meeting novelists like Rodney Hall and Nicholas Hasluck, hearing Jordie Albiston read her poetry, just being around other writers and people who thought that writing was important. And people who’ve managed to make their living out of it. Festivals are crucially important in that regard, and I hope the Tasmanian Poetry Festival provides the same opportunities.

How do you find ways of energising the Tasmanian Poetry Festival? Put another way, what do you hope to inject into the festival, your own stamp if you like?

I’ve actually done very little to change the format of the Festival—I added a new event, the Friday night cruise (which, to be fair, was not my idea, it was the late MML Bliss’s, but a bloody good idea it is) and I have played around with the idea of venues, which is something I’m always keen to do—we’ve had readings in art galleries, cafes, restaurants, bookshops, on the aforementioned boat, and so on. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke…

Otherwise I think the Festival is only as good the poets who read—and some poets read their work better than others. (I will not mention any names!) I have tried to tap into veins of good poetry in other parts of the country—there is an excellent live poetry scene in Brisbane, for example, which has provided some excellent talent for the Festival and will again this year. The Melbourne scene has also featured strongly over the last few years.

I don’t know about putting my stamp on it—I’m happy enough for people to book the first weekend of October every year to come to Launceston and enjoy themselves with some of Australia’s finest poets.

What – and who – can we look forward to at this year’s poetry festival?

Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Readers of Famous Reporter will have to make the trip to Launceston on October 3-5 to find out. And they should all bring a hundred of their closest friends.

(Email interview, March 2008: Ralph Wessman)