Friday, November 10, 2017

The Manus Island horror stains us all

The closure of Australia's detention camp on the poor Papua New Guinea province of Manus Island happened on Halloween, of all days. The symbolism wasn't lost on those of us appalled by what's been an Australian-government-orchestrated horror story.

This fluid crisis could have been avoided well before the PNG Supreme Court ruled the camp was illegal. Hundreds of men, many found to be genuine refugees, are now truly forsaken. Only about 60 have agreed, under some pressure, to move to three incomplete so-called transit centres that will lead to destinations unknown. Many more, about 600, would rather stay in the shell of the detention centre with no electricity, water or food than to "transfer" or walk into the Manus Island community and face violence at the hands of locals or police.

Staying has its own risks. Looters are taking electric fans, plastic chairs, tables and rubbish bins while authorities look on. And the mental fragility of the remaining men is such that they could take out their frustrations on each other. Many are impaired, more so as their supply of tobacco, a incentive used by guards, has been cut off. They are jittery, at tipping point, on edge.

They are staying at the compound because it gives them some sense of control. Signs held up by them on Facebook read: "If the air was in Australia's hands it would cut us" and "Pray for us".

On the eve of the closure, the Canberra International Film Festival screened a film about the camp called Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time. Co-directed by detainee, Behrouz Boochani, it was secretly shot using his mobile phone. Chauka is the name of a native bird, a honey-eater indigenous to Manus Island. It's also the name of what was the camp's solitary confinement and punishment wing. The fact that Australian officers call it Chauka disgusts the locals in the same way as would the misuse of the names of fauna on the Australian coat of arms.

Watching the film, I was struck by how surreal the detainees' predicament has become. Their relatives don't believe them when they call home. An incredulous wife thinks her husband is on a beach, sunbathing.

Successive Australian governments have not only neglected and abused detainees but also exploited the locals, who have in turn abused the detainees in their charge. The detention policy, dank with colonialism, set up a hierarchy, with the Australian guards and managers at the top under which sit the local workers given responsibility to control the detainees.

While the film tries to show respect for Manusians, providing glimpses of hospitality and humour, there's an ominous undertone. They have much in common with the asylum seekers but the policy pits each against the other, fermenting entitlement and resentment among the locals about the care and protection offered the detainees, when in fact it's the reverse, as confirmed when the Federal Court forced the Commonwealth to pay $70 million to the detainees to compensate for physical and psychological harm.

Most Manusians don't speak out against the mistreatment at the camp because it's their "bread and butter", in the words of one interviewed on camera. "It's in our culture to look after them. But we have become scared," he says.

After 23-year old Iranian Reza Barati was killed on Manus in 2014, the inmates who witnessed the violence were thrown in the Chauka in what they believe was a message to shut up about what they saw.

Australian parliamentarians who have sent empathetic letters to concerned citizens over many years, but done nothing in their party room, are complicit. There is such group-think among them that they've lost touch with reality, allowing brutal and grave injustices to appear normal. On Thursday, Labor leader Bill Shorten visited a Palestinian refugee camp on the West Bank. He had less to say about the camp closer to home. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has left it to a sneering Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who says he's slammed if he keeps Manus open or closed. How about simply keeping to the spirit of the refugee convention that Australia signed?

Meanwhile, Australia now has a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, and looks to the United States to take more than the 50 detainees it has taken so far.

The Trump administration has drastically cut staff on its refugee processing and resettlement program, so it will take even more time. Australia is clueless about what the US will do. New Zealand will again offer a resettlement deal but Canberra will likely shrug it off, even though the asylum seekers should have the liberty to cross the Tasman if they want to. Meanwhile a desperate situation will only worsen. Canberra refugee advocate and Brigidine nun, Sister Jane Keogh, say grimly that many abandoned on Manus won't last long enough to find out where else they might make their home.

First published in The Canberra Times/Fairfax Media, November 3, 2017

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Finding hope amid the doom of climate change

After another frigid and dry Canberra winter, I've welcomed the warmer weather with joy. Yet it's increasingly too warm to leave a lasting smile. We are told to brace for punishing summers.

In a new book, Plutocene: Blueprints for a Post-Anthropocene Greenhouse Earth, the Australian National University's Dr Andrew Glikson says there's no turning back the greenhouse clock. He foresees mass extinctions and a breakdown of civilisation. In his book, Defiant Earth, Clive Hamilton of the Canberra-based Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics foresees something even worse: the possibility of our own extinction by an untameable Earth.

Hamilton writes it will probably be hundreds of thousands of years before most of the large reserves of carbon released during the human age can be rendered immobile again. People have rivalled the great forces of nature so much that we have changed the functions of the planet for an era. The Arctic is vanishing as is the Greenland ice sheet. This won't be reversed for tens of thousand of years.

While drifting into unparalleled catastrophe, I want to cling to hope, be slow to admit that all the facts are in, that all the doors have been tried and all is defeated. But how?

When I talk to people about climate change, there are common and deflating responses: "It's all too hard", "I can't do anything about it" or worse, "I've just tuned out". Some see hope in outer space. Glikson, like many scientists looking this climate monster in the eye, says that's ridiculous.

Hamilton does not lack faith in human inventiveness, but, like Pope Francis, he reminds us that inventiveness also harbours danger.

The existential question is how to reconcile doom about the future with living a spirited and optimistic life today. While not every human is responsible for changing the climate, every human is destined to live with it. I oscillate between deep despair and small rays of hope (the take-up of renewables, etc) but I am still disorientated. Bogged down by Australia's painful, non-urgent and superficial political response to climate change, hope requires a real leap.

One person who has considered our conundrum is Canberra-based Neil Millar, a facilitator with the global Centre for Courage and Renewal (who knew there was such a centre?). Millar spoke at a Creation Sunday service at my church recently (a new and important addition to the liturgical calendar offered across denominations). He says that while we increasingly know of our connectedness to the planet, it remains abstract for too many of us. To make it specific, he suggests we adopt something of the Aboriginal practice known as a "dadirri". Dadirri involves deep listening with an inner and quiet still awareness, based on respect for country and everything that's in it. Without wanting to sound too much like a hippy, he suggests we slow down, consume less, walk our neighbourhoods, appreciating that "we are in this together", that trees breathe in what we breathe out.

Hamilton says our greatest tragedy is the absence of a sense of the tragedy. It's a theme taken up by disillusioned British journalist Paul Kingsnorth, the co-founder of The Dark Mountain Project set up eight years ago. Artists and writers at the project find a sanctuary in creating ethereal and temporal work, but above all attend to the tragedy rather than run from it. Musing on his blog last month, Kingsnorth notes a shift in the global discussion as topics that were once mainly talked about with the project are now found in the glossy pages of The New Yorker.

"Eight more years of failed treaties, of rising emissions, of expanding human numbers, of plastic in the oceans, of species slipping away, have made the reality clearer to us all. In another eight years, it will be clearer again. None of the vaunted 'solutions' to this predicament, from nuclear fission to colonising Mars to top-down 'new stories' developed by worthy intellectuals, shows any sign of shifting the machine from its designated course," he writes.

Kingsnorth, like Millar, wants to take us to the top of mountains to see beauty and then back down into our neighbourhood to hug and hear trees. He doesn't offer solutions beyond that, but is almost evangelical about our capacity to rise above the impacts of our own stupidity. We have lived through an ice age and many ages of barbarism. He thinks we can probably live through this.

Perhaps I live with a paradoxical hope; a hopeless hope, a tepid gloom. Like a pop singer, I wobble between song titles, 'I know it's over', 'From little things big things grow' and 'There is a light that never goes out'. I waltz to Friedrich Nietzsche's "arrows of longing for the other shore" and a reframed John Lennon's "Imagine there is a heaven".

First published in The Canberra Times, 6 October, 2017. Picture courtesy of

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Australia's pitiful efforts to aid Rohingya refugees

Imagine the entire population of Canberra driven from their homes in mere weeks. That's the scale of what's happening in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, once known as Burma. More than 300,000 persecuted Muslim Rohingya were forced to leave their torched villages in the past month.

Australia's response has been a disgrace, all the more so amid our campaign for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. We've offered just $5 million to the emergency relief effort, a pittance compared to the $122 million we are spending surveying opinions on whether same sex-couples should be able to marry.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says she's "deeply concerned" and has called for "restraint".

Australia is the richest kid on the block. This is our region.

The Rohingya have been persecuted for years because of their darker skin and different religion. There have been forced displacements dating back to the 1990s. In February this year, a UN report documented mass gang-rapes, killings, the murder of babies, young children and their parents, and disappearances at what appears to be the hands of Myanmar's security forces. The Turnbull government only reluctantly backed an international investigation, and then only after significant pressure.

The Australia government is in Myanmar providing defence training through ASEAN. Leveraging that we could offer to convene peace talks, or at least help facilitate them, find creative solutions.

We could bolster hope with increased diplomacy, help stop the violence, support reconciliation. We could be asking Muslim nations in the region, namely Indonesia and Malaysia, to step up. The Rohingya want international peacekeeping forces. Where's Australia? This week, the Turnbull government celebrated our peacekeepers by opening a new memorial, with the message that international peace and security does not begin with going to war.

We could adopt the Greens' suggestion and take in many more refugees made homeless through no fault of their own. Amnesty International says just 37 Rohingya have been resettled in Australia since 2013, even though about 200,000 have been waiting in squalid refugee camps on the Bangladesh border for years. That they are Muslim might have made them a lower priority.

It would be a humanitarian as well as a strategic gesture. Sidney Jones, of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, has long identified the emergence of extremism among isolated Rohingya. A new insurgent group emerged last year calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). ARSA's attacks against police posts last month appear to have sparked the latest brutal crackdown.

When pressed about resettling more Rohingya refugees this week, Bishop pointed to the $5 million that was on its way.

"The donation is welcome, but it will not change things," said Habid Urahman, a refugee who fled Myanmar 20 years ago and now lives in Melbourne. It is like treating a wound but not the cause of the infection.

Urahman is profoundly disappointed that Myanmar's leading politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League of Democracy won most seats in the 2015 election, has been silent. "She does not speak for any minorities under attack," he tells me. "Worse, she has denied crimes on the ground. It's completely unacceptable. She's blocked international media from visiting."

The Nobel peace laureate is different now that she is in power. "She wants to stay in power. She was in house arrest for 20 years and she sacrificed her life, confronting the military junta. We've seen her bravery in the past, yet now she is siding with the military."

What's tragic is this crisis was predictable. On the surface, predominantly Buddhist Myanmar looks to be an emerging democracy but has no record of a commitment to human rights or multiculturalism. It continues to refuse to grant citizenship to the Rohingya (a word the government has officially banned) even though they have lived there for generations, as far back as the ninth century.

The military appoints 25 per cent of the parliament. If unquestioned, a wider campaign terrorising people of all minority faiths will intensify. Myanmar's generals have spent years building alliances to fight them.

We are intelligent. We ought to learn from history: the genocide in Rwanda and, before that, Germany. Just as the Nazis accused Jews of causing Germany's problems, anti-Rohingya military-backed assailants appear to be doing the Myanmar government's dirty work. They are reported to be have burned down houses while wearing Muslim dress to confuse the victims.

The harassed Rohingya who stay have their villages surrounded. They are blocked from accessing electricity and water, medical treatment, food sources, including fishing waters, and state education. By not helping integrate them, Myanmar has made the Rohingya rely on mosques for an inadequate and potentially radicalising education, while heightening anger and prejudice against them.

The UN has long provided evidence of the plight of these people. What more does Australia need to do more?

Photo: Bernat Armangue. First published in The Canberra Times, 16 September, 2017

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

'Is she addicted to texting?' Recruiters increasingly ask this question

A true story. A young woman was applying for a job in the Australian Public Service. She needed a security clearance and character references. A friend took the call. It would take 15 minutes. The questions were standard until one of the last: "Is your friend, in your view, addicted to texting?"

The questions that followed were about computer use and phone use more generally.

You can guess there's a problem when questionnaires designed to gauge the suitability of employees ask about texting. While the Community and Public Sector Union tells me it is not standard for candidates to be asked about their device use directly, it is very likely that their acquaintances are asked about it, directly and indirectly. There's no doubt that texting is a relevant consideration for security, but it's probably also relevant for something else: the ability to get on with meaningful work.

While powerful tools that, when used prudently, can help the mind, mobile devices can also get in the way. The compulsion to text, tweet and message can become so big it interferes with ordinary life and responsibilities.

In her excellent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, social researcher Sherry Turkle says texting is beguiling because it offers just the right amount of access and control. She calls the typical texter "Goldilocks".

"Texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance," she says. "The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay."

It's enchanting. Texting offers a promise that a message will be received in seconds. And the promise is self-fulfilling. When you receive a text message, you attend to it, whether in a meeting or during a lecture, anywhere at any time.

Turkle's interviews with young people in the United States suggest that the key pay-off from texting is getting someone's attention and feeling important. It's not as demanding as a voice conversation and it offers the appearance of greater control (although without the ability to fine-tune the message through voice and facial cues). Although texters avoid the phone, many put so much effort into composing and editing texts that it probably doesn't save them time.

It makes life seem faster, and real face-to-face conversations seem painfully slow. And the format doesn't create spaces for learning. It shrinks time and our capacity for meaningful exchange.

Compulsive texters aren't the only ones distracted by texts. They have a domino effect. Face-to-face communication can be rudely interrupted. When someone looks away to read a message, at least for an instant she has left the room.

In Japan it's a recognised syndrome. The symptoms include compulsive texting for relationship maintenance and paying excessive attention to the need to reply. An ordinary user would attribute a delay to one of a number of causes, such as the receiver being busy or engaged in another conversation. People with text-message dependency feel neglected and anxious.

Researcher Tasuku Igarashi surveyed more than 1500 high-school students and found text-message dependency related to neuroticism and negative emotional states, including moodiness and anxiety. Sarah Butt and James Phillips of Monash University found that big text messagers are more likely to be neurotic, disagreeable, unconscientious and extroverted. Compulsive texting can be a marker.

And compulsive text and internet use can take time away from work, either directly or just while at work, as people put in extra internet hours at home to catch up. Asking questions about technology use is probably a good way to get a handle on who you are about to hire. It's controversial, not least because it further blurs the already-blurry line between what's private and what belongs to an employer.

Photo: Glenn Hunt (c/o Fairfax Media) First published in The Canberra Times, Saturday, 9 September, 2017

Friday, August 25, 2017

Violence in Virginia reflects worldwide national identity debates

Violence in Charlottesville in U.S. Virginia this week between neo-Nazis and anti-racism groups is a symptom of resentment over social change, how history is remembered and the heroes communities decide to celebrate or reject.

In Virginia the clashes were sparked by heated debate about the future of a statue of Confederate General, Robert E Lee. "It was erected at a time when there was this rising myth of the glory of the south, the white nationalist south," says local councillor Kristin Szakos who has sought to move the statue from the public square, prompting outrage from the far-right. "Lee was a symbol of all that was good in pre-war southern society - meaning slavery, white people had dominance and economic power," Szakos told the ABC.

Hours after the Charlottesville violence, anti-racist protesters in North Carolina toppled a Confederate statue there - pulling it to the ground and stomping on it.

White nationalist organisers see themselves as defenders of old and sacred monuments and therefore their history. Even as an anti-racism campaigner I seek to understand what motivates these groups. They feel threatened, as if the memorials' very existence scaffolds their future. Fresh rallies are planned to protect other Confederate statues slated by local authorities for tearing down.

Civil rights activist Reverend Jessie Jackson says the Confederate monuments are "unfinished business" in his country. "These guys sought to secede from our union, maintain slavery and secession.. and so these statues are coming down and they should come down.. When you lose the war you vanquish your symbols. Their symbols should exist in a museum someplace."

He offers a conciliatory tone: the statues should not be erased.

In other parts of the world there are similar battles over cultural heritage. In South Africa (with much less international media interest) statues of heroes of the so-called 'Struggle' are being dotted across the South African landscape. New memorials eulogising Nelson Mandela and his comrades clearly value recent political history and emancipation. Meanwhile, statues of white people - Nationalist Party heroes - are being torn down or moved into less public places. A minority-community increasingly feels pushed out of the national narrative.

At the same the ruling African National Congress has insisted on renaming streets and buildings across South Africa's cities. The decade-long campaign has driven another wedge between minority white Afrikaners and black South Africans. Anger ripples under the surface. The party of revered Mandela is consistently accused of not governing for all, not just because of its lack of action addressing inequality and poverty but by what it actively chooses to remember and chooses to forget.

History, thick with all sorts of human exchange and perspectives, is actually never really finished business. It, like memory, is elastic. Successive generations view the past in new ways as alternative histories and stories come to prominence, while other stories fade from view.

Here in Australia it's just a matter of time before Australia's own colonial statues celebrating the role of British explorers and settlers are defaced or councils are asked to move them on.

Meanwhile, we are feuding over Australia Day. Yarra Council in Melbourne consulted widely before deciding this week to cancel its annual citizenship ceremony on that day. Instead the Council will hold what it calls a small "culturally-sensitive" event featuring a smoking ceremony on January 26.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's response was odd. He accused the council of repudiating Australian values and dividing the community, without acknowledging the fact that many Australians have long thought Australia Day, a date set by the 1788 invasion, is highly divisive. With or without Turnbull's blessing, the #changethedate campaign is growing momentum.

National days, memorials and monuments act as signage about what a society or culture values. Values ebb and flow. That's why there is often intense lobbying and debate about what's erected along Anzac Parade in Canberra and why there's often a curious amount of critique about the suitability or otherwise of some public artwork in the parliamentary triangle or city precinct.

Battles over cultural symbols are more emotional the older a city, the more layered or traumatic its past. Overtly multicultural nations, especially those grappling with slave and colonial histories, are in a knot about how to ensure both cultural renewal and conservation. The ACT's commendable decision this week to have a territory-wide Reconciliation Day holiday is the start of a new tradition as a bridge between the past and present.

Conservative Senator Cory Bernardi's reaction to Pauline Hanson's burqa stunt is a reminder of the fault lines we live with. Bernardi was troubled by the stunt's impact on the reputation of the Federal parliament but at the same time endorsed the exercise as an expression of a wish to preserve "our culture" (as if he is a self-appointed arbiter of culture).

Cultures are not static, more so in our hyper-connected world. The disrupting forces of globalisation bring us closer together and yet also antagonise communities, exaggerating rifts between globe-trotting elites and others more attached to local place and who feel less control - such as the rusted-on members of President's Trump constituency.

National identities are being questioned and asserted. In post-apartheid South Africa, it's all about what does it mean to be 'African' today. In Australia, Turnbull keeps stressing Australian values without really articulating what they are or creating spaces to persuade those who feel outside the tent. The challenge is to publicly debate who we are and seek to be without dismissing contrary views and experiences. Attorney General George Brandis' speech repudiating Hanson is a hopeful sign. But many more in his party-political team need to step up to the challenge; search for, explain and articulate the values that can unite us.

First published in The Canberra Times, 19 August 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Improvised, free-range play a wonderful antidote in the digital age

Suddenly, Canberra appears awash with real play spaces.

One's just opened at my local primary school complete with tunnels, a dry creek bed and undulations that children clamber around, and play games that they create rather than have created for them.

Being an unfenced public school, it shares the space with the neighbourhood after school hours and on the weekends, making the school more secure.

At nearby Ainslie Primary School there are now two so-called 'play pods' - shipping containers packed with things such as milk crates, crutches and loose wheels. The contents are neither entirely safe nor totally dangerous.

With children as young as six about to be subject to national tests on what they've learnt, play has never been more important. Unlike tests in which there are right answers, undirected play is open, not closed. It allows children to develop their own rules and to learn at their own rates. It actually helps them become smart.

Play, unmediated by rules or technology, has been shown to:

Build motivation: Play is where children develop goals and learn to delay gratification.

Grow perspectives: The experts call it cognitive decentering. It happens when children coordinate roles with others. The ability to take another's perspectives leads to the development of reflective and higher order thinking.

Drive abstract thinking: This happens when children use objects as symbolic substitutes for real objects, separating the meaning of objects from their form.

Play isn't just for kids but adults too. Google does it, installing pool tables, graffiti boards and slippery dips in its HQ. Part of my training as a mature-age student at the ANU School of Art involves letting go of outcomes, and playing with material from paint to found objects.

I once worked with a set of crutches just like those in the Ainslie play pods.

A growing chorus of educators, public health advocates, architects and landscape designers are raising concerns about children's lack of exercise and the safe, sterile and increasingly commercial environments they play in.

In New Zealand, at the instigation of public health professor Grant Schofield, disadvantaged schools across Auckland have turned disused fields into adventure playgrounds complete with junk such as old tyres and fire hoses as part of an experiment that bans rules about what can or cannot be climbed on. With the support of principals and teachers children are allowed to roam wilderness areas adjoining schoolyards and are encouraged to bring bikes, skateboards and scooters into school.

Schofield says children develop their brain's frontal lobe when taking risks, allowing them to calculate consequences.

Students are using old equipment imaginatively, unpredictably. Teachers are observing greater cooperation.Their concentration has improved. There is less conflict. The children identified as bullies are busier, less bored and better behaved. In trusting children with risk, the schools have allowed them to discover for themselves the boundaries of what is possible and impossible. They've grown in confidence and they are better able to learn.

In the world these children inherit, computers, robots and algorithms will do much of what was traditionally thought of as work; even journalism, legal work and counselling. What will matter most will be critical thinking. Creative play is one way to get it.

It's important to reclaim play, in order to ensure that children learn more than stuff; they learn how to put it to good use.

First published in The Canberra Times, August 4, 2017

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Learning lessons from the London Grenfell Tower fire

The burnt out shell of London's Grenfell Tower is a tragic reminder of the important role of governments in ensuring people are properly housed. Outsourcing or weakly enforcing standards leads to calamity.

Grenfell Tower was clad with highly combustible foam and aluminum, chosen because it was cheaper. The building had no sprinkler system or evacuation plan. The residents were mostly poor.

Under pressure, British Prime Minister Theresa May conceded that "for too long in our country, under governments of both colours, we simply haven't given enough attention to social housing".

"This itself is actually a symptom of an even more fundamental issue," she said. "In this tower just a few miles from the houses of parliament, and in the heart of our great city, people live a fundamentally different life, do not feel the state works for them and are therefore mistrustful of it."

In Australia we are chronically short of public and social housing. We don't even have a coherent housing strategy. The Turnbull government walked away from the National Affordable Housing Agreement with the states in the May budget.

Australian National University historian Frank Bongiorno reminds us of a time, mid-last century, when state and federal governments, both Labor and conservative, "felt a sense of responsibility about ensuring that people had homes, and believed that government needed to get its hands dirty to ensure that they did".

"Their solution, in part, was to build homes," he said. "Now, we endure lectures from the Federal Treasurer about the right of mum-and-dad investors to buy yet another investment property under the country's negative-gearing laws."

In office, Australia's longest-serving prime minister Robert Menzies demanded the Commonwealth Bank provide low-interest loans to those who couldn't afford houses. Because the Commonwealth Bank was then also the Reserve Bank, it pressured the private banks to do the same. Nowadays, Menzies side of politics isn't interested.

Bongiorno told a forum at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture last month that governments know they could make a difference but they "have no real interest in doing so, because for the time being they calculate that there are more votes to be had from rising property values".

In Britain, survivors of the Grenfell Tower inferno told the New York Times that the facade was installed to beautify their tower for the benefit of wealthy neighbours.

Business-friendly governments in Britain – first under Labour and then under the Conservatives – campaigned, with slogans, to pare back safety regulations. A 2005 law, known as the Regulatory Reform Order, removed a requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings met fire safety codes and replaced it with a system of self-policing.

In 2014, Tony Abbott launched a heavy-handed "Repeal Day", boasting of removing more than 690 regulations. Doing so can have a serious impact, as I know from personal experience. My father lost his life in a construction "accident" before I was born.

The ACT abandoned government-controlled building certification more than a decade ago. It's left to private certifiers employed by builders. When they are working off the plan with no immediate owners it's easy to turn a blind eye. The highly flammable cladding used in London has been often used here.

Architects and their clients are often clueless about the procurement practices of builders and the safety of products. While there are good certification schemes for window glass and plumbing, other materials have far less rigorous accreditation. The insulation industry rarely uses thermal imaging to guarantee its work.

We are often told, especially by the Property Council, that we should remove red tape and green tape. It'd help make Canberra "cool".

Canberra is already pretty cool. Where it is not – the Mr Fluffy houses, the shoebox housing on the north-western outskirts and lack of public amenity – it's the result of planners and regulators taking their eye off the ball. It's hard to imagine that allowing more billboards and still more untried building products will make it any cooler. A diminished National Capital Authority and the ACT Planning Authority will not make Canberra cooler either. As former commissioner of the National Capital Development Commission, Tony Powell laments that a loss of staff and expertise risks the city declining into a truly "dishevelled" state.

First published in The Canberra Times, 6 July, 2017. Photo of the fire-gutted Grenfell Tower, c/o AP/Fairfax

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Left behind? Progressive Australians' reluctant to talk religion

Why is it that the louder a Christian politician talks about their faith the more conservative they seem to be?

Cory Bernardi, who split recently from the Liberal Party, is among those who have come to epitomise the idea of a Christian politician, arguing that Australia is and should remain Christian. One Nation's Pauline Hanson said repeatedly before last year's election that Australia was a "Christian country", although in her maiden speech as a senator she also noted that its government was secular. Bernardi cites the constitution as evidence that Australia is Christian and Nationals senator John Williams wants the Lord's Prayer to be part of the school system.

But there are many more Christian politicians I have been talking to who think very differently.

Recently elected West Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, a former air services officer, says he gets "uncomfortable when people start calling Australia a Christian nation".

"I think the church has a distinct role in society but to extrapolate the church across the entire country and insist we are a Christian country is just wrong," he says.

A newly elected Labor member of the ACT's Legislative Assembly, former Uniting Church minister Gordon Ramsay, doesn't see Australia as Christian either.

"We have an extremely ancient people that predates Christianity and so that would be arrogant," he says, adding that modern-day Australia has a "healthy suspicion about religion".

Ramsay, a lawyer and the ACT's Attorney-General, sees similarities between the work of politicians and priests. He says both are about gathering wisdom. "It's not primarily about just what I believe, that I've got the truth and if you disagree with me, you're wrong. I think that good politics comes from good listening, good conversations. Good expressions of faith come from good listening, good understanding," he says.

Hastie, the federal member for Canning, attends a Christian Reformed church in the semi-rural Perth suburb of Baldivis. It meets in a high school, without what Hastie calls "institutional baggage".

"The trappings of power can be wherever you go," he says. "I've seen it in the military. I've seen it especially in the church."

Hastie, whose father is principal of the doctrinally conservative Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, bucked attempts by some in the media to define him as ultra-religious and, he says, a "crazy seven-day creationist". He says faith informs his world view but he is energised by lots of ideas and people. One of his favourite authors is Christopher Hitchens.

"Wherever the church and the state get too tight a weave, it diminishes the role of both. It's great to have a freer church where they can speak truth to power, and the state can legislate for everyone," he says.

"I am very conscious that I am a representative, first and foremost, of 150,000 people of many different backgrounds. When I make my case, I make it from a public policy perceptive and I try and use data, natural law, rather than appeal through religious authority, which is the straw man that people try and knock down."

Maria Vamvakinou, a Greek migrant of working-class roots, joined the Labor Party soon after Gough Whitlam was sacked in the mid-1970s. "I didn't single out the Labor Party because of the Greek Orthodox Church that I grew up in but, for me, it was the party that best reflected the values of the church," she says.

Serving her sixth term as the federal member for Calwell in Victoria, Vamvakinou also rejects the idea that Australia is a Christian nation. "We might have been perceived as a Christian country because of the nature of the people that came here. But to try and be one now in the 21st century would be counterproductive," she says. "We are a global community and we need to come to terms with our various faiths."

Vamvakinou serves one of the largest Muslim constituencies in Australia and a region with a significant Chaldean Catholic community, many from Iraq.

"I have tried to understand the inter-faith relationships and what they might mean for me who has always been an Orthodox Christian. If I have any challenges now, it is to try and understand what someone calls the Koran and I call the Bible, to treat them with the same reverence," she says.

"The Jesus story and Jesus as a historical figure has always fascinated me. A lot of my Muslim constituents will say they believe in Jesus and Mary as well. Their faith is as real to them as mine is to me."

Vamvakinou says when the Australian Christian Party stood candidates in Calwell in 2013, it tried to "infiltrate" the Chaldean Catholic community and "exploit their fear of Muslims and their experience within a Muslim dominated Middle East".

She says people of faith on the Labor side are more reluctant to talk about it than conservatives, to their detriment. "We don't make that connection. Lindsay Tanner used to. We had conversations with him and Kevin Rudd about this. I can tell you that one of the reasons my Iraqi Christians constituency came to Labor and stick with Labor is because of Kevin Rudd, as he articulated his Christian faith."

Her comments reflect Labor senator Sam Dastyari's concerns that progressives of faith in politics need to speak up to counter a rise in extremism. Dastyari says the conversation is often "dominated by the black-and-white views of what people thought someone's beliefs meant, rather than the more grey area of how they practised them". Labor, which has a number of progressive Muslim members of Parliament, has a big job to do.

The way the subject is reported is also an issue. Former NSW premier Kristina Keneally, a practising Catholic, is tired of journalists asking her how much her faith influenced her decision-making. "By the end of my [political] career, I started saying things like, 'Oh, 37 per cent.' It was a ridiculous question but, in my entire time in politics, nobody ever asked me 'what economist do you read' or 'who influences your economic thinking?'. Not one," she says.

Keneally, Hastie, Ramsay and Vamvakinou are critical of public discussion of Christianity (in fact, any religion) and politics. "Unsophisticated", says Keneally. "Crude", says Hastie. "Very shallow," laments Ramsay, who thinks people assume that to be religious is to be hard right and closed to new ideas.

"We are inheriting more and more the assumption from the United States that faith means conservative and so there is often little distinction between a person of Christian faith and a conservative evangelical. That's one framework of faith but it's certainly not the only one. We don't have in Australia, historically, a robust value of the place of progressive faith."

Keneally agrees. "The linkage between religion and political activity is often assumed to favour the right wing of politics. That frustrates me as a centre-left politician, largely because I view the Christian gospel from a social-justice perspective. Some of the strongest social justice statements that come out of the Catholic Bishops Conference have related to economic justice in Australia and welcoming asylum seekers. But that perspective is so rarely picked up and articulated by religiously affiliated political actors."

Ramsay isn't sure why. "I'm not sure whether conservatives in faith are more active in politics or whether they are more vocal or whether they are more covered. I have an inclination that they are just more covered," he says. Keneally thinks progressives are less likely to speak openly about their faith because they are scared of a "sneering and hysterical reaction from the media". There's a suspicion they have "loyalties outside of Australia, to the Pope or whoever; that was the dog whistle that permeated coverage of me".

Yet she says the people who met her were rarely suspicious. "If anything, people in my electorate liked and respected the fact that I believed in something, even if it wasn't the same thing they believed in or they understood, because I was upfront."

"When I said 'yes, I am Catholic', I would add that I am also a woman, also a mother, also an immigrant. All of these things shape how I view the world and the decisions I bring to bear. I am also a member of Parliament. I think Hastie has done a very good job, as a brand new MP thrust into the national spotlight with an attempt to stereotype him and typecast him. I don't agree with his policy positions, he and I would probably disagree on interpretations of scripture. But I admire the role he is playing."

Hastie doesn't buy the line from some conservative Christian lobbyists that Christians are persecuted in Australia but adds that animosity towards Christians often derives from a misunderstanding of the separation of church and state. "That idea is about the state not interfering with pre-political institutions like the church, or any other organisation for that matter. Our representative democracy is full of diversity. We have people of faith and no faith in the chamber. And that's a good thing; it reflects larger society. To try to push out people of faith would actually diminish the quality of our public policy.

"Also, look at Christ. He didn't seek to supplant the authorities of the day. He just asked for space in which to practise his beliefs and that of the church. It's a really important distinction."

In the 2011 census, 61 per cent of Australians identified as Christian, but only 8 per cent attended church weekly. Despite talk from Hanson and others about a Muslim threat, it's a tiny religion, accounting for just 2.2 per cent of the population, behind Buddhism with 2.5 per cent. It's not even the fastest-growing religion. That's Hinduism, with 1.3 per cent.

Jonathan Cole, a researcher with Charles Sturt University's Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, says the problem for progressive or moderate Christians is that conservative commentators make them invisible by only promoting Christians when it suits them. Centre-left commentators barely promote them at all.

"Look at the most prominent right-wing figures and commentators, such as Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones. They are not professing Christians but nor are they anti-religion, like many commentators on the left. They are happy to make common cause with conservative religious leaders. The left might have done a disservice to its cause by not creating enough space for Christian progressives among its ranks.

"One of the big challenges for progressive Christians is the tension between Christian history and progressive values; the church's historical support for oppressive regimes, its support of slavery and complicity in economic exploitation. There is a positive story to tell also, such as Martin Luther and anti-slavery campaigners, but the right are much more comfortable with Christian history; they own it.

"And the left tends to have an abuser problem; the abused become abusers. It preaches tolerance and equality. But if you belong to an oppressor class, and the main oppressor class today is deemed to be white, middle-class, straight and Christian, then you don't get the same tolerance because the left think you are guilty and don't deserve it. It doesn't apply tolerance fully. And this is where progressive Christians can help. They can instill the doctrine of forgiveness and reconciliation."

Vamvakinou doesn't see her modesty about her faith as a weakness. She says Australians need faith, of whatever kind, more than ever.

"We are in a very anti-religion, anti-church phase and a lot of our young people's negative views towards the church is to do with social issues at the moment," she says. "That's unfortunate because I think that human beings need to have faith, some sort of faith.

"To try to be a Christian country in the 21st century would be counterproductive. We are a global community and we need to come to terms with our various faiths."

First published in The Canberra Times, 17 July, 2017. Image of Kristina Keneally: AFR

Monday, May 22, 2017

School is much more than marks

It came as a surprise earlier this year to see a full-page advertisement by a Canberra private girls high school boasting about the academic success of its high achievers.

Each student was shown with her Australian tertiary admission rank score and the name of the university she was accepted into.

(Private schools don't have the field to themselves. A number of public schools have better results, and at least one parades them on its website.)

I know schools have always been competitive, and I know ATAR scores mean something, but in a month in which thousands of Australian students sat their national literacy and numeracy tests, it's worth asking whether more tests and a greater emphasis on test results actually harms us.

An Australian National University lecturer told me recently about a number of first-year students who were so worried about attaining high marks they were paralysed and unable to start assignments. "This is the time of their lives when everything should be low-stakes," she said.

Year 12 scores are a far from perfect predictor of professional success and an even less perfect predictor of personal contentment. They tell us little about so-called "soft skills", such as getting on with people and developing decent and mutually supportive relationships. They tell us little about the employability of young people and their capacity to take part in and contribute to society.

When students are told that marks are more important than anything else, they can lose perspective. On an SBS Insight program, former high-performing students who left school were asked about their lives. Liesel described the stress she felt because she got up at 7am, rather than 5am as she used to for her HSC.

"I feel so lazy that I'm not doing enough or I'm not changing the world or I'm not doing, I'm not the best in the world at something anymore," Liesel said. "I get fives at uni, which is a credit for statistics, which I'm really proud of, but that's not good enough for me. I want sevens and I want to be the best in the world, so I'm really struggling to come to terms with that sort of not doing enough."

Psychologist Rebekka Tuqiri says pressure is good when it motivates us, but too much of it damages our brains and prevents us from performing well. The answer isn't to avoid stress, but to build resilience.

At a symposium on mental health at the ANU this month, students and staff tried to come up with a definition of resilience. The one they liked best was "the ability to bounce back". The seminar heard of a radical proposal (an idea only) to ditch the usual system of grades for first-year students and instead award only a "pass" or a "fail" so they felt less pressured and able to collaborate, experiment and even play.

Our experiences in homes and offices tell us that openness and cooperation help make things work. Complex cooperation (the kind that is needed in increasingly complex workplaces) requires practice and skill. "Modern society is really, ironically, deskilling people from many of the competences they need to deal with a very complex world," says sociologist Richard Sennett (author of Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation). He wants classrooms to more often arrange themselves into groups of students who study together and talk about what they are learning face to face.

Our headlong rush into isolating technologies makes this more difficult, but Sennett finds that, where collaborative and face-to-face study happens, students are better able to communicate and less accepting of economic inequality. As he puts it: the more unequal a society is, the less social it is.

At a forum on student engagement and success organised by my local Parents & Citizens Association this year, parents were divided into groups and asked three questions about what they wanted for their children by the end of high school:

1. What do we want them to be?
2. What do we want them to have learnt?
3. What do we want them to be able to do?

No one in my group said they wanted top marks.

Instead, we wanted them to be resourceful, to have learned to solve problems and to be able to self-reflect, set goals and engage others with compassion.

In science circles, showing compassion is referred to as being 'prosocial' (in the field of social genomics). It's an area of interest for Steven Cole, a professor of medicine at the University of California. He has studied what he calls "resilience factors" that protect our biology from difficult times.

The key, he says, is pursuing in a sustained way a cause that's greater than one's immediate gratification. "It's the kind of happiness that comes from creating stuff and trying to make the world a better place. The body works better, is more robust when it's attached to a mind with a big focal goal and magnificent purpose."

A magnificent purpose needn't be lofty. It simply involves a project that is self-transcendent; one that takes us out of ourselves.

First published in The Canberra Times, 19 May, 2017. More more information on the importance of soft and life skills for empowering young people to flourish, see this useful guide:


Friday, May 12, 2017

Booty from an "illegal" war?

In a glass case in the modern conflicts and Middle East galleries at the Australian War Memorial hangs a gold-plated assault rifle, an AK47 issued by Saddam Hussein to one of his personal guards.

It was "discovered" among a cache of gold-plated weapons (the explanatory plaque says) by the United States 101st Airborne Division in Kirkuk, and given to an Australian major-general visiting US headquarters in Northern Iraq.

Patrick O'Hara says it's "war booty". He is a former volunteer guide and before that a long-time education officer at the memorial who has resigned in disgust. "Charles Bean designed the memorial to allow people to try to understand what Australian soldiers went through during war. It was designed to show the ugly reality of war. It wasn't meant to be political, gloating or a trophy cabinet," he tells me.

O'Hara loves and respects the War Memorial "and all that it is meant to represent" but he sees the display of the AK47 as "a betrayal of a willingness of the then Australian character to put suffering and courage above politics".

"It's prostitution of the memorial to sensationalism. Iraq is still a mess. The war is still going. Women and children are still being maimed and killed. The invasion of Iraq was illegal."

The gold-plated AK47 is by no means the only kind of souvenir in the museum labelled a "discovery", what may well be seen as plunder. Would Bean, the war correspondent who helped establish the memorial, care? The memorial's website quotes him as saying Australian soldiers were "devoted collectors of battlefield souvenirs and imagined that a museum featuring these objects might be created".

Michael Piggott is an archivist who has written a new chapter on Bean in The Honest History Book, just published by NewSouth Books. He says the memorial's director, Brendan Nelson, loves quoting Bean as an authority to support or counter an argument. He says Bean features almost every time Nelson gives a speech – to give words gravitas, stories authenticity and opinion authority.

True, Piggott tells me, Bean did celebrate scavenging and "souveniring" but the gold gun takes things to another level. "This isn't of the category of granddad's German Luger kept in the attic. It takes it to a bizarre level.

"Bean spent his entire life trying to see how the Australian people were tested in war. The national character, that's what he was on about. If we were to put words into Bean's mouth, they might be: 'How does the display of this golden gun tell us anything insightful about the Australian people?' "

Whatever Bean's (hypothetical) opinion on it, without needing to invoke his name, the gun appears distasteful. It makes the museum less of a sombre place for reflection and more of a Disney-style tourist attraction. What next? A gem-encrusted weapon issued by Syria's Basha al-Assad?

New workers at the memorial are told it's important it retains its five-star tourist rating.

It's easy to forget the impact of guns in such a polished, visitor-friendly space. As Piggott points out: "Gunshot wounds are dreadful things. Bullets, especially hollow-nosed bullets as used in the Boer War, caused gaping exit wounds. You could spend 24 hours in no-man's land, dying slowly, screaming."

From the trenches in Pozi̬res in northern France, Bean wrote in his diary on July 29, 1916, that each shell brought "a promise to each man Рinstantaneous Р'I will tear you into ghastly wounds РI will rend your flesh and pulp an arm or a leg Рfling you half a gaping quivering man (like those that you see smashed around you one by one) to lie there rotting and blackening.' "

The memorial is comfortable with the display of the gold-plated assault rifle. A spokesman says it helps fulfil the role of telling stories about those who serve Australia in war and on operation. Communications head Chris Wagner says: "The gold-plated Tabuk is displayed alongside other examples of insurgent weapons to demonstrate the threats faced by coalition forces in Iraq. In addition, its display also aims to prompt the visitor to the memorial to consider the extreme nature of a regime that would gold-plate its firearms."

At a time when museums are returning Aboriginal remains to the places from which they were taken, it also prompts us to ask questions about ourselves, the stories we not only remember but but how we choose to tell them.

First published in The Canberra Times, May 4, 2017. Image: Graham Tidy