It’s Saturday morning and I’m sitting in what has turned out to be a vegetarian café in Battery Point. The hour is much earlier than I like to be up and about. I’m eating an unidentifiable piece of produce that has been cooked to taste like bacon. It’s actually very tasty.
I took the red-eye flight from Melbourne this morning, so I’m vagueing out, staring at one of the café’s curtains. It is printed with multi-coloured Kombi vans and looks suspiciously like a bedsheet. Suddenly Millie is standing in front of me, beaming her megawatt smile in my direction.
As we walk to her car, she says “I have to show you this.” She points out an old miner’s cottage, where someone has installed astroturf in their front yard, but has then allowed a fringe of weeds to prosper at its boundaries. She grins mischievously. “Isn’t it fantastic?” We jump into her car and begin the hill climb up to her place.
I’ve never been to Millie and Garth’s house before today, but it is more or less exactly what I was expecting. Which is to say that I expected to be surprised and amazed by the quirky, inventive and downright weird ways in which they have utilised the space.
Theirs is a small weatherboard house, built in the shadow of Kunanyi, or Mount Wellington. Welly, as it’s affectionately known by the locals, has recently had a dump of snow, and looks like a gigantic half-eaten brownie.
The first thing that catches my eye on entering their house is a brown cardboard placard stuck to the wall. It says: “The future could be awesome!” I’ve seen her hold it high during various rallies – climate change rallies, anti-cable car rallies, indigenous rights rallies. The people of Hobart are a fairly progressive bunch, and they love a good rally. You often see many of the same people at each one: a reminder of how small this capital city really is.
When we walk into her kitchen she says, “Make sure you point out how messy it is – in your story, I mean. I hate the idea of presenting us as if we live perfect lives.”
The house abounds in oddities – old leather suitcases stuffed full of papers, handmade pottery, jars full of buttons, oversized sculptures of peanuts, books on every conceivable topic sprouting from the bookshelves that line every wall, including the complete Harry Potter series (I read it every few months, she offers, as I browse). A strange contraption is on display atop one of the shelves – a square wooden board, attached to which are an assortment of syringes and plastic tubing.
“What in the hell is that?” I ask.
“I’ll give you three guesses,” says Millie.
“Is it a messed-up version of Mouse Trap?” I venture.
“Nope.” She laughs.
“I got nothin’.”
“It’s the bottom of my wedding cake,” she says, inexplicably.
“That doesn’t help,” I say, frowning.
Millie launches into a description of the wedding cake automaton that her father built for her wedding day, where guests were invited to press buttons, which caused tiny dolls to pop up out of the cake, like a game of reverse whack-a-mole. The dolls represented other potential partners that Millie might have met. The game was accompanied by a spoken-word recital of Tim Minchin’s song ‘If I didn’t have you (someone else would do)’. Millie admits it sounds unromantic, but points out that it is statistically correct.
We sit out in the terraced garden, next to her ramshackle chook-shed, and eat the sweet pastries we collected from Jackman and McRoss whilst in town. Millie’s partner Garth comes and sits with us, perching on a tree stump as we discuss the matter of their determined escapee chicken. Garth reads books constantly, and writes a review of every single one of them on social media. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a pair of better-suited humans.
I recently moved to Melbourne from Hobart. Millie asks me how I’m coping. I say, it’s alright.
The flatness of Melbourne kind of freaks me out, she says. You can’t see the edges, you can’t get out.
This observation makes me laugh. I can’t say that I’ve paid all that much attention to city topography. As is so often the case with Millie, I have difficulty absorbing her way of looking at the world. Sometimes it doesn’t fit with mine at all. I enjoy this very much.
I look at Millie, in her bright yellow patchwork skirt and pixie haircut, and wonder if she has always stood out. Not long after we first met, she told me a story about how she wanted to do good in the world as a child. When I was very small, she said, I was so upset by all the stories of war and refugees that I decided to be a butterfly dancer on stilts and get on the front page of the paper as a positive news story.
Upon becoming a grown-up, she completed a PhD on the concept of neighbourhood sharing and worked on local community sustainability projects. She is now the national co-ordinator of the Australia reMADE Alliance – a collaborative initiative drawing together civil leaders and organisations from all sectors, who are working together to revive democracy and realise the vision of an Australia where no-one is left behind.
Over the next two days, our three-way conversation covers a staggering amount of ground, and leads into some territory that is often left unexplored by your average progressive.
I offer Exhibit A: During one of our many discussions about climate change, Millie suddenly says: “I would really like to write a piece celebrating coal.”
Spotting my raised eyebrows, she says: “I know! Radical!”
“Coal has been this amazing thing that has literally kept the lights on,” she continues. “People have sacrificed their health and their communities and their land for coal. It has been an amazing thing. Its time is up.”
I ask her again to describe her job to me, as the concept deals with such large themes that it is difficult to comprehend its remit.
“Australia reMADE came about because there was a group of civil society leaders from across a lot of different sectors of society who cared about a lot of different things – environmental, social justice, workers’ rights. They came together and said: We seem to be losing on all fronts. We’re on the back foot, we’re not setting the agenda, we don’t have a sense of where we’re going, we’re just fighting against things all the time.”
“Naomi Klein has a book where she says no is not enough, we need a really big collective yes.”
“But what is our yes, and what are we fighting against, and are we fighting against the same thing? From that came the need to have a shared vision, use a common language, so when the environmental community stands up they know that they’re backing the workers, First Nations, etcetera.”
“We had enough self awareness to realise that we were sitting in a room full of mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly well educated people, and we’re talking about a vision for the whole country. We cannot be the ones to create that vision.”
Millie set out to speak to as many diverse groups of people as she could, and ask them what kind of future they wanted for Australia.
I ask her whether she came across many people who held beliefs that weren’t in line with a progressive vision of Australia.
“Absolutely,” she says. “I was working with a bunch of union delegates. I turn up there and I’m not sure how it’s going to work. Am I going to run it? Are they going to run it? How are they going to respond to me? It’s clear that I’m very different to them. I get introduced as ‘This is Dr Millie Rooney, she has a PhD and all these important things’ and I’m thinking ‘some of these guys haven’t finished school – why are you setting up our differences so soon?’ So I go in and say ‘I’m a carer for a chronically ill partner, and I’m struggling to get permanent work’.”
Millie says the very first comments they make, when she asks them what’s really pissing them off about life in Australia right now, contain a very strong anti-refugee sentiment.
“That threw me because of course, that’s not what I wanted to hear. But I promised that I would listen, so I said ‘Okay, let’s put that on a sticky note and put it up on the board.’”
When Millie talked to some of those men one-on-one afterwards, it turned out they were deeply compassionate about people who needed help. They just felt that the choice was between their families – as people with insecure work, as veterans – or the refugees.
“They had the sense that people coming to this country as refugees didn’t really need our help, so they’d bought that line,” she says.
“But at heart, they were just as compassionate as everyone else we spoke to. So that was an amazing process to go through.”
Millie cannot think without doodling. She has a scrap of paper before her, and she draws an ever-expanding mandala of random images as she ponders each question.
“I’m trying to do more creative things,” she explains when I remark on her drawing. “It’s part of my mental health plan.”
Millie has an unusual but effective way of dealing with stress.
“I wrote up most of my PhD thesis in dress-ups,” she admits.
A major theme that emerges over more than 24 hours of almost non-stop discourse during my visit is that of the current state of progressive culture. Of course, Millie and Garth identify as progressive, but they are not blind to the movement’s faults.
For instance: “I think we have a terrible call out culture,” Millie says. “We need to find a way to critique each other and hold each other safe.”
We discuss the sense of hopelessness or sometimes even paralysis that many people are overtaken by once they learn how enormous the task of achieving social and environmental justice is. The two of them often strike me as inexhaustible fountains of optimism, but I also know there have been dark times for them – they are no different from anyone else in finding it hard to cope sometimes.
Garth talks about his own ‘personal apocalypse’ of living with chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s been 13 years, and counting, that he’s suffered from the illness. When I ask him how he feels about the coming impacts of climate change, he says simply: “I feel like the shit has already hit the fan, so it probably won’t get a great deal worse for me.”
“I don’t really plan for the future anymore, because I’ve known that I could just get sick again. I suppose the positive way of putting that is that I’m a bit more present, in a kind of Buddhist, being in the ‘now’, kind-of way.”
“I think I am naturally optimistic,” says Millie. But being optimistic doesn’t mean that there’s not grief, she hastens to add.
“We both have moments of just… sadness. It’s not pessimism. It’s not only that we’re losing things, it’s also that it’s so unnecessary that we’re losing them. It’s so simple – we’ve got the answers and we don’t have to be this shit.”
“One of my really conscious practices, that I’m not very good at, is how do I defiantly take joy in just being a person, living. That’s what the garden is about, that’s what playing boardgames is about, that’s what helping my friend clean her dirty walls [from smoke damage from a leaky fire box] is about. It’s about being alive, and a human, and being connected.”
Millie says she is frequently criticised for being naïve and not actually talking about the reality of the world. I admit to her that, when she first described the concept of Australia reMADE to me, I thought it sounded a bit… airy fairy.
“Well, you can’t be what you can’t see,” she says. “We have been told for a long time, through neoliberalism, that there is no alternative, that people are essentially self-centred, this is how things are. Like it or leave it. We’ve forgotten that we don’t have to buy that – we literally don’t have to buy that. We’ve forgotten that we can always strive for that different, better thing. It’s also completely common sense, there is nothing whacky about that. Having a vision gives you something to work towards.”
But it is nuanced. We dedicate many hours to wrangling with the importance – and the pitfalls – of trying to communicate the complex problems and solutions of a world that cannot simply be reduced to black and white.
“The problem is, nuance isn’t cool,” Millie says. “People don’t think nuance shows leadership. You can’t stand up on a soapbox and get attention with nuance.”
“I gave a talk the other night. It was about love and connection, and all those things. And the critiques that came in were like: Have you changed the world yet? We’re in an emergency, what are going to do about that? They’re all really valid points. I’m not dismissing those things, that’s part of the ecosystem of changes that have to happen. The emergency stuff is really important, please keep doing it.”
Nuance is not a call to action either, I observe. It doesn’t have simplicity. Myself, I see it again and again, in every public forum. People ask: “What can I do? It’s so overwhelming.” Nuance doesn’t help that.
“Yeah,” she says. “Nuance just makes it more paralysing.”
How do you cope with it? I ask.
We sit in silence for a few moments as she adds to her doodle.
“This is still something I struggle with,” she says. “But I think it’s actually about having the confidence to do the nuanced work knowing that it’s not the work that gets the glory. It’s like the Harry Potter ‘horcruxes or hallows’ dilemma. The hallows would bring glory, but the actual work that is hard and impossible and boring and scary is destroying the horcruxes.
“So I think nuance takes courage. As does speaking about vision. And I think it takes a willingness to perhaps not be recognised for the work that is done.”