Friday, March 22, 2019

A Christchurch reflection


Like many around the world, I have this week found myself in dismay-driven prayer, heartfelt hope for the world to be better, safer.

As a person of colour, it is deeply concerning that the alleged perpetrator involved the Christchurch massacres is an Australian citizen espousing white-supremacy and publishing a manifesto of hate.

The rise of the ideology around the world is indisputable.

The Internet has helped the cause. Social media has made white-supremacists more visible and international (Why shouldn’t the forces for good, for love, be more greatly amplified by the world wide web?). In small, bizarre and accumulative ways, a fear of Muslims, that objectifies them, has shown its ugly head online.

Platforms including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have not exercised as much moral authority as they should have. They have relied on pressure from individual governments, rather than being proactive from the get-go in self-managing and limiting hate-speech and the live-streaming of violence. I have long worried about social media’s hunger for gut-wrenching and gratuitous content; it is a giant performative space that invites and celebrates extremes. It also fits with a gaming culture that normalises violence. Several people told me they saw the mass shooting video and thought it was simulated; something out of an addictive online game.

In Germany there are clearer expectations and penalties of online platforms, says says Professor Paul Spoonley from Massey University in Wellington, a specialist in ultra-nationalist politics.

While reluctant to draw a causative line between comments by politicians and the extreme right Spoonley does finger them for creating an enabling environment; an environment which makes views (such as the Muslim world is swamping the white Western world) acceptable.

Populism around the world has seen parliamentarians engaged in dog-whistling politics, including here at the highest levels, with appeals to community politics of an extreme nature. Anti-immigration rhetoric has fuelled and normalised hate-speech. It has long infected debate about refugees and asylum seekers. It's not enough to call for an end to divisive tribalism while fanning it in subtle ways. Words matter.

Human Rights Watch said this week, that while Prime Minister Morrison strongly condemned the Christchurch attack and inflammatory statements by a far-right senator, his remarks appear insincere given his record as Immigration Minister and the record of senior Australian government officials in conflating Islam or refugees with terrorism for political gain.

Under pressure this federal election campaign to recognise that rhetoric can have a devastating impact - conservative parties, Labor and the unions are urged to put One Nation last on how to vote cards. One Nation's simplistic politics, that scapegoat Muslims for Australia's ills and elevate white people and nationalism, exploits voters' insecurities and hardens hearts.

What personally upsets me is that parliamentarians who have stirred the pot have used Christianity to justify their views and propaganda. They use religion when expressing religious intolerance. It represents such a betrayal of anything the gospel claims to be about - from the healing work and ministry of Jesus Christ and tales of his refugee family, to the imperative to love one's neighbour and stand with the most vulnerable.

Free-speech, let’s remember, is not hate-speech.

Compared to the UK and the US, the far-right is a modest group in New Zealand and Australia, but they are no doubt more active.

Spoonley says New Zealand authorities were so focused on Muslim terrorism, they were diverted from looking at the extreme right.

What's concerning is that in both countries across the Tasman there is no designated agency that publishes clear, annual data to know exactly who the white-supremacists are, and what they do. Authorities have thrown very few resources at the problem.

We live in a complicated world but it should not be hard to foster a political principle that expresses and embeds equal respect for all citizens and stresses that we have more in common than not. It begins with the imaginative capacity a creator God has given us all.

Image: Rage and Intimacy, 2018, Toni Hassan (Ink transfer and paint on board)
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Thursday, March 14, 2019

In the shadow of Neverland: a journey from fandom to pathos

Here’s the thing. A lot of people from Oprah down suspected Michael Jackson of pedophilia but he continued, while alive, to live with impunity. Finally two men have come forward to speak their truth and fulsomely.

Leaving Neverland,” the disturbing documentary that continues to make headlines around the world should surprise no one and yet Jackson’s tenacious fans will hold onto their version of the King of Pop, regardless. But there's no holding back the tide.

Like many of them, I grew up with Mowtown music. Thriller had been rocking the charts when, as a junior high school student, I celebrated my crush one school dress-up day. I wore a twist on the Billie Jean outfit; one white glove, a red jacket, a pair of shiny-fly glasses, white slacks and my mother's low-heeled leather loafers that promised to defy gravity on the dance floor. My hair was short, shiny and curly. My nose was itself.

Over the years I lost interest in the star. By the time the first case of alleged child molestation was before a US court, he was a slim cardboard cut-out, almost lifeless insomniac. Jackson's chubby brown cheeks had given way to a distorted mask; a chiseled chin and pale-face.

I covered the 2005 case against Jackson (for the ABC) brought by a teen cancer sufferer who told a jury that, when he was just 13, the singer providing him with alcohol (what he called ‘Jesus Juice’) and molested him at least twice.

Jackson was acquitted. But it was problematic. The magic was gone.

Accusations against Jackson continued to fly about as did more stories of multiple sleepovers with minors.

Then, a few years ago veteran journalist Randall Sullivan wrote his book Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson. I read it with macabre curiosity. Sullivan says Jackson died "a 50-year-old virgin"; that he yearned to be 'presexual'. Real adult intimacy was just too messy. There were details about his quest for perfection and something the author called sexual anorexia. Sullivan described a self-loathing star, haunted by the criticisms of a scavenging family.

No doubt he was a manipulated child-star. But as an adult, it appears beyond doubt, he went on to become a chief manipulator himself. The evidence is devastating. In separate accounts, Wade Robson and James Safechuck say Jackson sexually abused them for many years from boyhood to adolescence. The documentary is as uncomfortable to watch as it is compelling.

They describe a calculated pattern of grooming and exploitation. The abuser, in a position of power, set out to seduce. Jackson became an accepted member of each boys’ family. He isolated himself from scrutiny (creating the Neverland ranch, a vast and gated community). He then isolated the victims, from their families and from each other (Jackson lavished the children and their families with gifts, even paying for the families to go on holidays without Robson and Safechuck). Jackson turned the boys against their parents to inflate Jackson’s hero status. He claimed God was on his side. He told them they would go to jail if they told anyone. He even had them practice a routine should they be caught having sex.

Wade and Safechuck did not know the other’s story until they went public. Their experiences are very similar. They broke down when as fathers they recognised their proteges’ vulnerability and their own at the age the alleged abuse began. Wade and Safechuck live with shadows but have found catharsis.

Who may have helped Jackson in his web of deceit? Most likely, teams of people; people in paid positions, who worked behind the scenes to support his addiction and hide it. There is always an industry behind what is hidden, as we saw with Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, just as there was an industry around powerful men in entertainment alleged or found guilty of using sex for favours and women as playthings, from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein. How does evil happen? When good people do nothing.

I’m not entirely without empathy for Jackson. You can both believe a victim and pity a perpetrator (continue to admire their talent, even with legacy up in the air); at least seek to understand what drives them and what environments create socially inappropriate impulses and actions unchecked.

The documentary adds to a growing sense that a generation or two have been growing up now with very little faith in institutions, in people they once looked up to and in elders they once may have trusted. The light that has shone on the darkness in Jackson’s life and those of other celebrities (and clerics) has left lots of people asking, ‘who and what can I trust?’

As a parent I wonder out loud about how the parents of Wade and Safechuck could have ever agreed to situations that clearly put their children at risk. But every day our children are exposed to risk and every day we way up risk factors, having confidence in our neighbours, schools and the clubs they join, while understanding that children too, have agency.

Then there’s the question, from what age should we broach issues from respectful relationships to consensual sex - especially with the rise and rise of smartphones and social media? I think the conversations must start young. Reluctance to talk about the complexities leaves society ill-equipped to recognize and handle child sexual abuse today. History professor Rachel Hope Cleves of Victoria University puts it well when she writes that, "A culture that is caught up in narratives that identify pedophiles as monsters has a hard time recognizing when beloved figures, like Michael Jackson, are molesting children right before its eyes."

Talking openly about good touch versus bad touch is essential. While carers might feel they need to protect their children from some information, the fact is that young people have a right to know about their bodies, about personal safety and who to talk to should they need to. Talking about adult power and responsibility, and about their own power might not eliminate risk but will support healthier relationships and hope.

(Image via YouTube)
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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The one thing we have to fear is fear itself

The government’s trying to scare us, which is odd because the one thing that is truly frightening it keeps trying to tell us isn’t a problem - calamitous climate change.

There’s Medivac. Scary stuff! Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said our hospital waiting lists will be bumped out by refugees evacuated from offshore detention camps.

Then there was the problem of violence by African-Australians in Melbourne, also pointed to by Dutton and ministers including Greg Hunt. Never mind that you are much more likely to be attacked (and killed if you are Melbourne woman) by someone who is not African (In fact, every week in Australia, a woman is killed by a current or former partner).

Last week there was talk of recession. That’s what’s coming if Labor is elected. Ignore for the moment that figures released on Wednesday show we are already in a per-capita recession.

The Prime Minister says Labor’s extra taxes on negative-gearers and people who receive share dividends without paying tax could push us into a full-blown one. It’s impossible to say that it won’t happen, although it should be noted that, at least initially, Labor is offering much bigger personal income tax cuts than the Coalition, which ought to protect us from a recession.

All this scare-mongering mightn’t work. Long ago Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said success in arousing fear relies on the speaker making himself appear trustworthy. The government is devaluing that currency.

Research out last month showed that the level of satisfaction with Australia’s democracy had fallen from 86 percent in 2007 to just 41 per cent after four election cycles. If the trend continues, there won’t be much trust left.

“Whoever wins the 2019 federal election must address this problem as a matter of urgency,” said Mark Evans, professor of governance at Canberra University and the driver of a new initiative called Democracy 2025 at Old Parliament House.

Whoever is elected will also have to address a lack of faith in governments to arrest a more present and chilling reality.

Morrison was as conspicuously absent from the Victoria’s latest fire emergency as he was when Tasmania was threatened by dangerous fires over summer or when the Darling River’s Menindee Lakes were filling up with dead fish.

His environment minister Melissa Price keeps insisting that carbon emissions are falling, although she has conceded it is only over one quarter rather than a period of years. Meanwhile, the National’s Matt Canavan insists now is the time for more coal mines.

The problem with all these small and not so small lies is that it has normalised deceit. We have gotten used it to it, or worse, people are needlessly frightened because they are told to be so. Fear ultimately narrows human hearts.

Government ministers are not embarrassed by their tactics. When challenged, they show no or little remorse. For those of us who are appalled, we turn to social media only to find anger and anxiety on a road to nowhere.

Every government is culpable. Every election cycle is an opportunity to press the reset button.

Our best defence against more scaremongering is a fearless and independent media and a public that treasures truth. Valuing the welfare of the whole community over self-interest, vaccinates voters. The biggest porkies told are strategically aimed at our hip pockets and insecurities.

They are lies that inflate threats to personal wealth and safety over community wellbeing and environmental health. The lies almost always betray notions of the common good.


First published in The Canberra Times, March 11, 2019
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Sunday, December 16, 2018

One political bright spot --- action on modern slavery

There was at least one bright spot on Capital Hill before parliamentarians flew out of Canberra last week.

It was the passing of Australia’s first federal law to address modern slavery in the things we buy.

The passage of the law was an exercise in genuine bipartisanship, with the most active Liberals being Western Australia’s Senator Linda Reynolds and Victorian member of parliament Chris Crewther, and the most active Labor members being Tasmania’s Senator Lisa Singh and Victoria’s Clare O’Neil. O'Neil and Reynolds, representing the major parties, collaborated primarily with Greens Senator Nick McKim, independents Tim Storer and Derryn Hinch, and members of the Centre Alliance.

It wasn’t just the senate doing its job, but a strong and collaborative civil society too.

We might be disgusted with the near-toxic levels of tribalism in the parliament and despair at its capacity to do good, but there is room for optimism.

The Senate committee system generally works well. It was at its best producing a report ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ that led to Australia’s Modern Slavery Act.

At the heart of the new law is a recognition that without really well-documented supply chains, the clothes we buy and the food we eat can be tainted by slavery.

It encourages business to look for slavery and report on what they find and their efforts to stamp it out. Better informed consumers can encourage a “race to the top”.

The bill was improved as it went through the Senate (as many bills are), with both Coalition and Labor senators working to make it better.

It isn’t perfect. Labor asked for an independent modern slavery commissioner and civil penalties for companies that failed to report. The act provides for a review after three years, with a view to establishing penalties if it is found necessary.

Labor has promised penalties and an independent commissioner should it win office.

The law applies to 3000 businesses, including large Australian companies and household names. It provides for an annual public listing of companies that do report.

With a parliament labelled chaotic and a conflict-driven media cycle, we can too easily focus on the problems, not the possibilities and solutions.

We can be so dissatisfied with politics, we forget to ask what does effective look like and move to action that. Everything can feel so big, so intractable.

But it needn’t be so. A common-good policy change is possible. It often takes many years. It puts people first and recognises that half a cake is better than no cake at all.

Tenacious operators learn to tackle the edge, understanding their sphere of influence and working with it, rather than only seeing spheres of concern. Securing a Modern Slavery Act was textbook.

Further, senators who spoke to the bill were gracious. There was little or no adversary rhetoric. It was democracy at work, but almost unrecognisable to too many of us. Hands were shaken and the work of other parties and members recognised across the usual divides.

The new law sends a ray of hope in this season heralded as one of hope. It is well timed as it nudges us this Christmas to consider if the gifts we buy are slave-free.

Why not ask retailers what they know about the manufacture of a product you're thinking of buying? Choose to purchase a gift that is made without slave labour and in doing so, give a gift that beckons a better world.

First published in The Canberra Times, December 15, 2018
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Monday, November 26, 2018

The federal govt wants to help you sleep better at night, yes really

So, one of the plotters who blew up the government of Malcolm Turnbull, Health Minister Greg Hunt, has ordered an inquiry into sleep.

He reckons there’s a problem and a parliamentary committee is now looking into it.

Sleep is a problem. It’s no small matter that four in every 10 Australians are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.

But has he looked in the mirror?

Does he demand that his staff answer mobile phones all hours of the night and at the crack of dawn, or does he insist they get eight hours sleep per night?

Does he answer radio and television calls for an interview before the sun is up? Or does he tell producers to remember that a tired minister is a less-functioning minister.

He must know that the madness that engulfed the Coalition over the past few months, saw a lot of people lose a tonne of sleep. And for what?

I happen to be writing a book about the smartphone age and its impact on families. It is clear that communication technologies are adversely affecting sleep, especially among young people.

Even for adults, watching and reading content on personal devices late into the night is delaying sleep and making it harder to work and be well.

The ABC even seems to promote sleeplessness. Watching iview (in bed) is sold as the best way to catch up on programs. The broadcaster encourages ‘bingeing’ as if it’s a virtue.

The Health Minister thinks the government has a role to play. But it abolished the National Health Preventative Agency in 2014 to save money in the short term and because it didn't want the nanny state telling us what to do with our lives.

Tony Abbott preached that the best thing governments could do was to get out of the way. If you’re overweight, you'd chosen to be. If he had thought about sleep (and he never seemed to get much himself) he would have said that sleeplessness too was a personal choice.

Hunt wants to treat sleep as a national health problem when his government seems to have turned its back on what are almost certainly bigger health problems - obesity, and issues related to critically dangerous climate change, not to mention the underlying determinants of poor health including poverty, domestic violence, housing insecurity and pollution.

Cutting hospitalisations for chronic disease with pre-emptive measures would boost productivity as well as making us better off, which is what the axed National Health Preventative Agency was trying to do.

The parliamentary inquiry will doubtless make good recommendations, things like education campaigns about diet and fitness, perhaps around the pervasive use of social media.

But will it dare tackle growing levels of insecure work and poor rates of pay that contribute to stress and sleeplessness? Will it recommend the prime minister slow down so that he sounds more than half awake as he whizzes around Queensland? Will it invite parliamentarians to role model workplace environments that support balance?

I doubt it, but this government - if it’s really listening - can change tack and actually take preventative health seriously.

First published in The Canberra Times, November 20, 2018. Picture c/o ALAMY, Fairfax Media
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Monday, October 22, 2018

Hunger is a justice issue that hurts us all

Within days of a government minister repaying obscene amounts billed for internet use we learnt this week that one in five Australians regularly struggles to afford food.

The hunger relief organisation Foodbank categorised one in four of these people as having “very low food security”.

It’s worst away from our cities, and when big bills arrive.

Schools respond with volunteer-run breakfast clubs. There are about a dozen across Canberra and Queanbeyan, feeding more than 500 children.

It's well established that disadvantage is typically experienced across many dimensions. Those dimensions cascade. There is a strong correlation between children going hungry, health complaints and poor education outcomes.

Successive studies across many countries by global agency UNICEF show hungry children are also more likely to be bullied and will experience shame and exclusion because with little food at home, they feel less able to have friends over.

An infant will typically be full of wonder and curiosity; "capabilities" as economist-philosophers Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum describe them.

But observe the same child at age 10 who is experiencing poverty and these capabilities can become impaired as she catches on to an external reality - that working hard at school and home is not enough to get ahead in a society where things are stacked up against her.

The key observation is that inequality is not just imposed on kids, it is absorbed and naturalised, with profound impacts on a child’s sense of self and life outcomes.

If an unconvinced public needs another reason to get behind a campaign to reduce inequality ahead of the next federal election, it’s that inequality lowers motivation and national prosperity.

Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett shows that high school students suffering from economic disadvantage and unequal access to learning resources did not believe they could get ahead.

The finding is hardly surprising and yet we have a new prime minister (who says he is interested in a 'fair go') offering a $4.4 billion deal to non-government schools that experts say further undermines the principle of needs-based funding.

We think of ourselves as an egalitarian society but the truth is the top 20 per cent of Australian households (earning $260,000) have on average 12 times the income of the bottom 20 per cent of households (with an average income of just $23,000).

Even in well-healed suburbs of Canberra, more and more people are flocking to use relief and food harvesting services, with goods sourced by Sydney-based Foodbank (there are Foodbanks in most Australian states).

Worryingly, some of the people accessing services – a growing number – are in paid work. Australia is drifting towards the reality in North America where millions of people belong to the community of ‘working poor’.

Our tax system, which used to help us guard against inequality, is just not keeping up. Tax cuts have been going to those who need it least.

Meanwhile, the evidence is overwhelming that Newstart, asking the jobless to live on a $40 a day, is too low (compare that amount to Assistant Treasurer Stuart Robert's internet bill of $90 a day). Federal Labor is only promising a review, worried about being seen as soft.

The former head of Anglicare in Canberra, Peter Sandeman, now based in Adelaide with Anglicare SA used a speech for that city’s recent Festival of Ideas to dream of a time when Australian politicians did not assume there are trade-offs between efficiency and equity.

Citing work by the aforementioned Wilkinson and Pickett he said it’s clear that for wealthy countries like ours, it is the degree of income inequality rather than average income which is closely related to a range of health and social problems.

“The greater the inequality, the poorer the health and social outcomes in that country,” Sandeman said.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis is that greater inequality seems to heighten the social anxieties of people through increasing the importance of social status.

“This means the rise of both fragile self-regard and anxiety,” said Sandeman.

“This, in turn, means that levels of trust between members of the public are lower in countries where differences in incomes are higher. We know trust and reciprocity are the hallmark of social capital, the relationships which bind us together as a community and lower the transaction costs of economic activity and a foundation of market efficiency.”

The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison governments have gone on and on about security threats (with Labor usually in sink on matters of border protection). And yet if it really understood security the Coalition would register and ensure it worked to reduce inequality, understanding that inequality hurts security, economic prosperity, our very well-being and ability to get on with each other.

First published in The Canberra Times, October 20, 2018. Image from Foodbank Victoria.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

What we need in a new ABC managing director

Behind all the talk about the independence of the ABC lies a separate but gnawing concern that populism is increasingly trumping depth in the making of its programs.

Michelle Guthrie was a late convert to quality reporting (staff still wince recalling her early advice to makers of Four Corners, that they should try doing some positive profiles of successful business leaders). But under her, and under budget pressure, senior management have been hacking away at serious programs in order to make way for topical and lighter fare.

It has narrowed the range of topics focused on by those programs and limited their depth.

Guthrie presided over a downsizing of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs The World Today and PM, cutting both from one hour to half an hour.

The "ideas network", Radio National, was thinned as management began earnestly shifting the network into a podcast-making machine that can one day be moved off the broadcast airwaves altogether.

Management may deny that specialist programs on RN will soon be online only, but everybody knows the general direction. Last year the then director of radio, Michael Mason, closed RN’s much-loved specialist music unit.

Here in Canberra, audiences have been appalled that senior people have been nudged out of the building as they approach 50 years of age. Veterans are less valued.

Broadcasters with experience and corporate knowledge have been encouraged to look elsewhere.

In that respect the Liberal Party Federal Council’s astounding call for the privatisation of the ABC (without any dissenting voices) might be seen to have been a good thing, because it energised the ABC into fighting back and mounting the case that it exists in order to provide a quality product.

Management's tragedy is that it has failed to acknowledge that in the search for new audiences it runs the risk of neglecting knowledge and established audiences.

A Canberra-based scholar in religion was aghast to hear a very senior presenter interview an archbishop recently without knowing the language of the New Testament.

Meanwhile several academics in Canberra have complained to me that when they approach the national ABC with details of their work about climate change they are told it won't be reported because it is either too complex, or too hard to find someone from "the other side".

One of the only quality programs that appears to be truly protected is Four Corners. But even inside Four Corners there is unreported self-censorship as producers try to second guess potential government complaints.

The ABC is at its best when it informs us, when its staff attack a subject with expertise as well as difficult questions for people in power.

A showcase is Q&A. But at times it is so staged-managed as to be an abomination. When it pitted leading scientist Brian Cox against discredited senator Malcolm Roberts in an attempt to create drama, former senator Christine Milne was disgusted.

“You can have someone who has spent their lives studying global warming and someone who plainly knows nothing,” she told a forum in Canberra. “But they are set up together. What an insult to Brian Cox. The show does it time and time again.”

In many ways the ABC is like the Department of Home Affairs.

When it is doing its job well, we don’t notice it much. If it stuffs up (in its case, stuffing up its mission of creating a safe space for the exchange of ideas and information) we notice a lot.

In taking up the fight for independence the new boss should be open about the importance of depth.

She or he should acknowledge mistakes. That means allowing former staff to speak openly. At least one former broadcaster I know has been muzzled by the terms of his departure agreement.

Meanwhile, a new group being launched to help make the case is ABC Alumni, a forum in which former staff can share information and raise concerns.

The group has called for an urgent bi-partisan inquiry into the national broadcaster and it wants the ABC Act amended to prevent politically partisan appointments to the board.

The ABC needs leaders who will resist pressure when that pressure is inappropriate, ensure its journalism is accurate, impartial and sophisticated, and that management hangs onto internal expertise.

First published in The Canberra Times, October 8, 2018
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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Aged care Royal Commission should focus on human dignity, relationships

Do we really need a royal commission to tell us what’s wrong with aged care?

From what I am told, in Canberra we know the problems and they are not extensive. Pockets could be better of course, including some of the reputable facilities run by churches.

And there is at least one common complaint: that too many staff don’t speak English well. It can be a barrier to developing good relationships with residents.

The other challenge, wherever you live, is the need to keep an eye on the centre to make sure its service doesn’t worsen.

If the centre loses a couple of key people or can't attract staff (which happens a lot) things can go off the rails quickly.

Four out of every ten people in aged care are not visited for an entire year, according to the aged care minister Ken Wyatt. That’s shocking. Even where residents have no relatives or friends who can visit, the rest of us should be able to find a way to do it.

Most of the complaints made to ABC’s Four Corners program came from overworked and frustrated staff. It is clear they love their work and would like to be able to do it better, and to have better pay and conditions.

Nursing homes have that name for a reason. They used to be staffed by nurses. But there are fewer nurses than there used to be. And doctors aren’t keen to visit (In the ACT, I'm told, GPs are reluctant because the Medicare levy won't often cover their visits). There's a gap between what we expect of facilities and what they deliver.

They were first run by churches. In the Menzies era, government funding (for buildings) was at first provided only to non-profits. Now it is provided more broadly in tandem with efforts to impose national standards. It is the same model as for childcare, except with less success at improving standards. The royal commission might get to the heart of why.

The focus of previous inquiries has too often been on the business model rather than human dignity. “What continues to be lost is the person,” says aged care advocate Associate Professor Maree Bernoth of Charles Sturt University.

Professor Bernoth says that the single most important aspect of working with older people is the quality of the relationship between the older person and the person working with them.

“The space in that relationship or interaction is precious and needs to provide the quality and the expertise that is required by each individual,” she says.

“If we start by identifying what makes that relationship work, we will have a better chance of getting the aged care system functional and satisfying for the older person, their family, and those who work with them either in residential aged care or in the community.

“There are organisations who understand this relationship and have the support, encouragement and ongoing monitoring in place to enhance and grow those interactions.

“The Royal Commission is an opportunity to identify these organisations and use them as the map to move us to a sector where the individual is celebrated and supported in a sustained sector of our communities.”

Amen to that.

First published in The Canberra Times, September 24, 2018
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Friday, August 31, 2018

The important and humbling work of doing diversity


Growing up in suburban Sydney, I broke bread with all kinds. The dismantling of the White Australia policy in the 1960s and 1970s had allowed my parents to bring me from South Africa, aspire to belong and buy a house on a quarter acre block.

My father started a business. Schooled in Islam, he ensured we never ate pork. I went to a public school alongside Aboriginal, Slavic, Italian, Greek and Malay students, as well as Anglos. Embracing the Jesus story, I found mentors in a diverse and welcoming community in Anglican and Baptist churches while still connected to my Muslim family.

Canberra is less diverse, but still very welcoming.

Here in the national capital, Senator Fraser Anning made a splash when he called for an end to immigrants who do not reflect “the historic European Christian composition of Australian society”. He’s been roundly condemned.

What Anning may not have heard loud and clear is that Jesus was not European. He’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if in a Western church or visiting an art gallery full of images of a pale white man dying on a cross. But there’s no doubt the historical Jesus was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew.

In the New Testament, Jesus exalts hearers to welcome and love strangers. As does God in the Old Testament. In Exodus he tells us to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt”.

Backing up his newly minted colleague, Bob Katter talked about defending the Australian race. But the race he talks about is made up of the descendants of people who were once foreigners in this land. Katter’s own grandfather came from what was called the Assyrian Empire which took in Syria and Lebanon, and was refused naturalisation. In rejecting foreigners Katter is rejecting a big part of himself (Perhaps it helps explain Australia’s hostile policy towards refugees, a policy that deeply poisons our polity).

French-Bulgarian philosopher Julia Kristeva says denying the stranger within is common. In her book Strangers to Ourselves she makes clear that the foreigner lives within us: “He is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder”.

Coming to terms with foreigners means coming to terms with ourselves, and with God, who is by definition a stranger also. It’s contentious and compelling stuff.

In his book God is Stranger British scholar Krish Kandiah argues that if God wasn’t a stranger he wouldn’t be awe-inspiring, magnificent and majestic. Kandiah argues that when we accept strangers, we are accepting of ourselves and God. Whether we are of formal faith or no-faith, accepting the ‘other’ moves from the abstract to being concrete when we break bread and offer shelter with others.

This includes people who aren’t literal strangers, but who are strangers to us because of their class, gender or sexuality.

Anning’s call for a return of the White Australia policy is underlined by a concern for social cohesion. He may have a point. If everyone looks and talks the same, then there’s likely to be more social cohesion. But how dull! Being among people of difference makes us feel more alive and more in tune with the diversity of the natural world - which is rich with variety.

The federal leadership drama of recent days brings home that diversity and differences will always exist; that they have to be acknowledged and managed.

At a policy level, it is worth asking whether Australia needs a Multicultural Act to draw some boundaries around what we mean by cultural diversity so the policy is not perpetually defined by its enemies; to articulate the rights of migrants while also ensuring there is access to resources to fully participate in society in reciprocal ways and for social cohesion.

Do we need core values reflected in laws that apply to everyone? You bet. Female genital mutilation goes against core values wherever you are from. So too, forced marriage.

Doing diversity is about creating low judgement spaces. It can be hard work. It requires courage and humility, the development of a kind of ‘cultural competence’ if you like.

There can be conflict. Encounters with 'the other', with strangers inevitably take us to places of tension where we don’t want to be, places where we see and hear things that run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold those tensions creatively; they will narrow thinking, shut us down.

But when we allow those tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and others. The genius of democracy - even if it feels increasingly fragile - lies in its capacity to use tensions to generate insight, energy and new life. Communities become more secure, as fear subsides. We are rewarded with personal growth and foster an ecology of mutual flourishing.


First published in The Canberra Times, August 25, 2018

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Friday, July 27, 2018

Evidence should lead planning in Canberra

It’s getting harder to believe, but Canberra’s forefathers wanted to create “a garden town, with simple, pleasing, but unpretentious buildings”.

For most of its life, that’s how Canberra has been. Except that recently there has been an emphasis on towers that threaten to block views and plunge streets into shade. It’s not something any of us remember voting for.

We are often told that packing people in more densely is good for the environment. It is said to mean less water and energy use per person.

Except that it doesn’t, according to fascinating but little-known research commissioned by the ACT Environment and Planning Directorate and conducted by Patrick Troy, Mishka Talent and Stephen Dovers at the ANU. It found no significant difference in water and electricity use between residents of apartments and houses.

While people with gardens used more water in summer, they were more careful in what they used at other times, acting as stewards of their environment. Apartment dwellers, usually not individually metered, cared less.

And apartments were hotter in summer, partly because they were less likely to be surrounded by trees and large shrubs. As a result they either used more air conditioning or relied on building-wide evaporative coolers that guzzled water.

Troy found that apartment dwellers had fewer possessions, which meant they used their washing machines and dishwashers more often, even when they weren’t full. Their buildings contained more embodied energy in the form of concrete, glass and steel, and they used more energy for building-wide cooling, security lighting and lifts.

Labor commissioned the study but appears to have been largely ignored it.

When I asked why he thought his research had been sidelined, Troy said that real estate agents and politicians seemed determined to look for simple solutions even when they weren’t there.

The one field in which Troy believes greater urban density could actually cut energy use is transport, although he suspects the tentative finding, in a Western Australian study, has been overstated and “twisted for the ambitions of real estate developers”.

Letter writers frequently condemn the ACT government for not having a vision for Canberra, or for not making the thinking behind its vision clear. While it has recently made greater efforts to consult (at least by asking residents to tick boxes in surveys), it is often doing it after the really important decisions have been made.

Light rail is one of them. Tony Powell, head of the National Capital Development Commission until 1985, says it’s a not particularly well thought out solution to a problem the planning authorities themselves created.

He helped develop the ‘Y Plan’ in which every town centres in each leg of the Y (Belconnen, Gungahlin and Tuggeranong at the extremities, and Woden, Weston Creek and Civic in the middle) would contain as many jobs as it did people. While many commuters would travel between towns (in both directions) many would not. By concentrating jobs and offices in Civic and the Parliamentary Triangle and forcing people to travel in, the planners created the demand for transport they want to use light rail to meet.

Pushed to one side in the rush for higher rise Canberra, many fear, are views and access to open and green space, whether back yards or mountains, parks, bush or forests. Nature scenery and access is good for our mental health. It helps reduce stress.

Canberra-based landscape architect Ken Taylor increasingly spends his time in China and South East Asia with cultural heritage management projects. The ANU Professor says some overseas cities have inventories of views.

Before developments are approved planning authorities have to make sure they are not blocking important vistas. It’s an obvious and simple idea that the ACT Planning Directorate could take up.

In his submission to the ACT parliament’s current Nature In Our City inquiry Taylor says that “at this stage in the city’s history what is needed is for the landscape ethos of the city to be re-imagined and applied, rather than ignored.”

He says this is particularly so in new medium and high density developments, “where regrettably we have had an approach driven solely by land economics”.

We need to put people first if we’re to save and respect what we’ve got. An energised electorate would make all the difference.


First published in The Canberra Times, July 13, 2018. Image:envirolawgroup.com
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