Saturday, June 1, 2019

Post election: Ken Wyatt's historic gig and daring to hope for Australia reMADE

What a Reconciliation Week. Not only were we reconciling differences after a bruising election, but a respected Indigenous man was appointed Minister for Indigenous Australians, the first Indigenous Australian to be given that responsibility.

Ken Wyatt was subjected to racist taunts during his campaign for the West Australian seat of Hasluck in 2010. After his narrow win for the Liberals, some people who voted for him complained they didn't realise he was Aboriginal.

He was born on a mission farm, a former home for young Indigenous children removed from their families. His mother was one of them.

In his maiden speech Wyatt thanked Kevin Rudd for the 2008 national apology to stolen generations. When he heard it, in his office in the West Australian department of health where he was director of Aboriginal health, he cried.

"My mother and her siblings, along with many others, did not live to hear the words delivered in the apology, which would have meant a great deal to them individually," he said.

"I felt a sense of relief that the pain of the past had been acknowledged and that the healing could begin. At that point, the standing orders prevented an Indigenous response."

During his maiden speech, and again at the swearing in ceremony at Government House on Wednesday he wore a booka, a traditional cloak made of kangaroo skins given to him as a gift from Perth's Noongar elders. The red-tailed black cockatoo feather on the front symbolised leadership. In a break with tradition the entire ministry stood and applauded.

Wyatt is a good listener. He will need to be in the days ahead. Managing expectations within the Coalition and among Indigenous constituents will be difficult.

He brings a deep understanding of the gross inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. To address the complexities of it, Wyatt must reach out across the chamber, continue to call out racism and paternalism, and acknowledge the ideas, passions and experiences that many people bring to the table.

Labor's platform this election better articulated and addressed the social determinants of health and wellbeing (how poverty affects everything) and that empowering Indigenous leaders, not just those who are visible, to take local actions for themselves does result in stronger communities. Its policies were broader in reach with dollars to match.

Wyatt often talks to Aboriginal parliamentarians in Labor. He admires them. We can assume the dialogue will continue. If only more party political people sort to make friends across the aisle.

The wider electorate is desperate for signs of cooperation and genuine reconciliation. A majority want to change the date when we celebrate nationhood. We long for real collaboration and an openness, rather than the usual ideological bickering.

Wyatt has the authority to move on the Uluru Statement of the Heart by endorsing a referendum to embed a representative body in the Constitution that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people "a voice to the Commonwealth Parliament".

It's hardly radical because the body would be advisory, rather than have a decision-making function; like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) which John Howard abolished to Wyatt's regret.

In a turnaround, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has accepted that a referendum should happen but he has no timetable for it.

Wyatt is cautious, but learning from the 1967 referendum, has the capacity to bring naysayers along. Strangely enough, the Coalition may be in a better position to take fear out of a potentially fractious referendum debate, assuming the debate doesn't drag on.

Much has been made in recent weeks of an apparent schism between Australians on a number of issues. Are we really more hopelessly divided than before? I don't think so.

We are different and we do vote differently, but that doesn't mean we don't want the same things: comfort, security and care. That's the overwhelming view of Australia reMADE, an independent, vision-based collaboration of a cross section of people working to build a country where people and planet come first. It's vital work.

Researchers with Australia reMADE went into pubs and workplaces around Australia asking the same question: 'If you woke up in the Australia of your dreams, what would it look like?' Belonging, a meaningful job and good healthcare came up again and again, from tradesmen in fluro vests to women with PhDs.

The best way to bring people around is not to yell at them for not voting as you did, as tempting as that may be. Queensland is not hugely different from the rest of Australia. Pro-miners are not bad people.

What's long overdue is the will to have both sides agree on the need to transition from coal, and quickly, supporting old industries to retrain their workers, and to agree on shared messaging that convinces all of Australia that our future depends on the transition.

Anthony Albanese has offered a willingness to reach out to cooperate with Morrison, and a willingness to reach out to people who didn't vote for Labor. The language is encouraging.

First published in The Canberra Times, May 31, 2019
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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Time to recast Australia's role in the region

A new or re-elected government will give us a chance to better support our neighbours in Asia and the Pacific. The behaviour of the last one hasn't been good.

It has repeatedly used the aid budget as a sort of automatic teller machine to take money from development in order to get its budget in order.

A glaring example was the $55 million dollar refugee resettlement deal with very poor and dictator-led Cambodia. About $40 million came out of aid while $15 million was directed for resettlement services and support. Signed in 2014 by Scott Morrison as immigration minister, it was an abject failure. Only four people accepted offers of resettlement from Nauru. Only a Syrian man (with his family) is left but he's now hoping to move to Canada.

"Why is your country doing this?," perplexed Cambodians asked Australians in Phnom Penh at the time of the deal. "We all know where the money will end up." Corruption permeates Cambodia. The deal wasn't directed (as it could have been) at Cambodia's deteriorating human rights situation and the silencing of its media.

China has been delivering the region something closer to real aid, although like our special Cambodia and Nauru and Papua New Guinea contributions, much of it has been directed to elites in those countries rather than going to genuine needs.

As prime minister in 2018, Scott Morrison woke up and scrambled together a policy to renew focus on countries from the Solomon Islands to Samoa. The policy signaled support for the US, and while welcomed, the money for the region was redirected from the existing and an already drastically cut aid budget.

Aspects of the new policy are questionable, namely the new loan facility Australia set up to finance new infrastructure in the Pacific. We already lend to the Pacific through the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. It's the biggest lender. Is there a need for a dedicated Australian-branded loan facility, requiring another bureaucracy to deliver finance?

Some say yes. It's been put to me that Pacific nations have been crying out for targeted infrastructure assistance, for roads to communication technology to support education and health systems, in addition to support to address the climate crisis (last year Pacific Islander leaders said in a strongly worded Pacific Islands Forum statement that the biggest risk to the Pacific's security is climate change. Australia has been woefully slow and resistant to take action).

And there's a concern China's lending model has left some in the region, namely Tonga and Sri Lanka in desperate circumstances. Unable to pay back debts, they have been forced to transfer their liabilities into land grants and fresh access for China to their ports. A worried Australian government has felt an obligation to offer an alternative and a lending regime with clearer and more flexible arrangements and more safeguards in place. Direct lending by Australia to Pacific countries might also create a more diverse marketplace for lending.

Still, Australia's Pacific announcement was borne out of years of complacency across the region. We have been drifting and we have been losing influence and impact in Asia as a less than exemplary champion of human rights. And, existing development programs are legacy programs put there when Labor was last in power. "We've been doing some programs for so long and we keep doing them that Australia has forgotten why we do them," one outgoing parliamentarian told me.

Labor is seeking to correct things should it form government after May 18, but not in a hurry. Penny Wong has committed the ALP to rebuilding Australia's aid budget but cautions that it will take time, more than 10 years, to get anywhere near the .5 per cent of GDP target.

"All of us who believe in a strong and generous Australia must push back and articulate why Australia's international development programs matter; to the lives of those in our region, to our influence in our region, to our own national interest," says Wong.

The aid sector represented by the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) wants whoever is elected to not just commit to rebuilding Australia's aid budget but to make the policy air-tight and bipartisan.

Regional development is linked to security (transboundary disease is both people and agriculture, for example) and so Australia's shrinking engagement has adversely affected the national interest.

Australia should see the world as it is but with ideas and imagination, transform it into something better: see how to assist our neighbours but also to understand the challenges to work together to live in a safer and more equitable world.

Australia's aid program can also be our best soft diplomacy tool. We were there assisting Thailand rescue the young Thai soccer team trapped in cave. Australian volunteers are every year working in communities abroad to reduce maternal mortality rates and raising awareness about good nutrition to reduce the risks of diabetes in Pacific communities.

With a recast approach we must respond to the question - 'what is Australia really good at, so our neighbours benefit from us the most?' "That question has not been asked for many years," ACFID head, Marc Purcell, tells me.

"What's the point of having a deep-sea infrastructure cable providing more data to the Solomons if you have a population that doesn't have beyond primary school literacy?"

"We have scrambled to knock back China. The point is, does the Pacific need more Australian supported infrastructure or would they benefit more from things that Australia is good at, which would be governance experience and grant programs in public health and education," Purcell asks. Those programs improve the capacity of vulnerable populations and their well-being, to ultimately support stronger communities. An educated population is better able to determine the future course of its country and deal with the problems they have whether it preventable illness or the scourge of modern slavery.

It's not an either or, but the way we are going about it (signalling to the world's major powers that, 'hey, we are in the infrastructure game too') is not for clear reasons to do with the specific needs of any developing country that wishes to partner with us. Their needs should not be incidental.< First published in The Canberra Times, May 13, 2019. Photo by Duc Le on Unsplash
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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

New media and violence: an old problem meets the modern era

History is littered with examples where propaganda has led to appalling acts of violence.

That's why the rise of social media in the hands of extreme groups is a deep concern, as is the role of public figures in potentially inflaming hate.

Who could forget Rwanda. Twenty-five years ago this month the world heard of the genocide against the Tutsi. I was in South Africa covering that country's historic election of Nelson Mandela, a moment of euphoria, when shocking news trickled in of the mass murder of up to 70 per cent of Rwanda's Tutsi people by members of the Hutu majority.

Civil war had been brewing in Rwanda before April, 1994. But the use of the media in skilled hands brought ordinary people, who had lived together for hundred of years, to extreme violence.

The Tutsi were labelled as demons, rich and avaricious, out to get the Hutu. The Hutu were called on to kill members of a Tutsi rebel group that threatened the government, and their "accomplices" - women and children.

A private radio station founded by the president's party played a key role. It exploited and exacerbated small tensions in powerful and provocative style. When a plane crash killed Rwanda's Hutu President, the ground was already prepared to incite the killing of those "cockroaches", as the Tutsi were called.

Within months the International War Crimes Tribunal began trials. One, known as the "media trial", pursued a newspaper and a radio station for inciting genocide. It determined that what was said, (things like, "we know the enemy, we know them by their narrow nose, break that nose") was said with intent.

The trials discovered that the behind the broadcasts were intelligent people pulling the strings, just as trials after World War II that pursued justice for the million or more Jews killed in Europe discovered that the people who headed Germany's propaganda unit had doctorates.

We often think of social media as a Western phenomenon. But with the rise of personal devices, its uptake is rapid everywhere. The United Nations has found that the military in Myanmar used social media to incite violence against the Muslim Rohingya by soldiers and the militia recruited in the Buddhist population. The strategy to kill and displace thousands of people did not evolve overnight. As in Rwanda, people in power executed long-held plans.

So we shouldn't underestimate the power of powerful people to do it here.

The Australian government's crackdown on social media companies after Christchurch, threatening jail for executives that don't remove live streaming of violent crime, is to be applauded. But violence can be incited by old as well as new media.

Visiting Australia last week for the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide was American lawyer Stephen Rapp. Rapp is a former United States ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues in the Office of Global Criminal Justice. He said he was in no doubt there were parallels between the Rwandan and Myanmar genocides and the Christchurch massacre.

Social media, he told the ABC, "are powerful means to build hatreds and to prepare people for violence". Social media allows players in politics - in the broadest sense -greater capacity to target individuals with tailored messages that exploit existing insecurities.

"We see it in the Christchurch situation, where communications were made that this young man had responded to... [a] kind of rhetoric that Muslims are going to replace us. In Rwanda the rhetoric was 'the Tutsis are going to replace us' and: 'do it to them before you do they do it to you."

Rapp's antidote, hard not to endorse, is that social media be used to spread love, to reinforce our common humanity. Moderates need to be heard. He points out that in places where violence has thrived, the extremists had silenced the moderates first.

The problem for both types of media is that 'what bleeds leads'. Each type inadequately covers peaceful demonstrations, vigils and efforts to marshal our better selves.

Add to that, leaders tapping into attitudes held by some in the community who hold negative views of Muslims, people of colour or other minorities. They include parliamentarians who don't necessarily believe the things they say but say them regardless, for political gain.

Then there's a kind of combative politics practiced in Australia and on display every Question Time. It's aggressive, full of blame. The language is so scorching, the politicians so busy shouting at each other they don't even see it's a problem.

Christchurch and the historical lessons about where propaganda has led before it, deliver a sharp message to our members and would-be members of parliament. Election campaigns with their overblown claims, demonisation and invented threats can create divisions when what we really need is to be brought together.

First published in The Canberra Times, April 15, 2019
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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 in the Christchurch massacres is an Australian citizen espousing white-supremacy and publishing a manifesto of hate.

The rise of right-wing hate ideology 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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