Friday, April 6, 2018

Rising education inequality should worry us all

In the opening pages of Aldous Huxley's famous dystopian novel Brave New World we are introduced to the Social Predestination Room.

On a tour of the room, a supervisor rubs his hands and points to the hatching embryos. Babies will emerge as "socialiased human beings, as Alphas and Epsilons," especially grown to be less intelligent.

A keen student asks why the temperature and oxygen levels are set where they are. "Ass!" says the director, "Hasn't it occurred to you that an Epsilon embryo must have an Epsilon environment as well as an Epsilon heredity".

I was reminded of the explanation while reading What Price the Gap? Education and Inequality in Australia, a new report from the Public Education Foundation (PEF).

It finds that inequality in educational outcomes actually increases as Australian students move through their school years. In other words, disadvantaged students become more disadvantaged over time.

Examining six years of testing data from 2009 to 2015, it finds that Australia’s school performance has been falling relative to other countries, "kids at the bottom of the performance distribution are falling faster and further than kids at the top".

It's at odds with our idea of 'fair go’, the ‘lucky country’. It's a picture painted with every new study on inequality: haves and have-nots start far apart at birth and grow further apart over time.

The report finds that educational inequality is increasing across a wide range of dimensions. It is found in access to teachers, access to resources, access to curriculum and test performance.

Inequality exists within sectors - public and private - as well as between them but more so in the public system.

In terms of financial cost, to quote from the PEF report:

The OECD calculates that a 50 point fall in test scores leads to a decline in long-term GDP growth of around 0.87% per year. Based on this, we have estimated the net present value of the economic loss to Australia of our falling educational performance. We calculate the loss attributable to the 2009-15 fall in performance to be $118.6 billion.

The current crop of school leavers (and potentially the next one, if nothing much changes) will experience declining livings standards.

The Foundation did not measure the impact of educational inequality on social cohesion. We can only imagine the adverse and corrosive ripples.

While not the focus of the report, it offers a range of recommendations to improve the performance of our lowest achieving students to ultimately reduce inequality. These include targeted teaching approaches, the randomisation of a share of enrolments to selective public schools (to counter the effect of taking high achieving students away from neighbourhood schools), the introduction of second classroom teachers to support underperforming students outside the classroom, especially in disadvantaged communities, alternative learning programs; and of course, firm commitment to needs-based funding for schools. Some of this is already happening but clearly more must be done.

A fairer funding model is essential. But we must also not shy away from discussing the implications of a multi-sector system, especially elite and private schools heavily subsidised by the state that intensify privilege and class. That debate should be driven by a shared understanding of what we value in Australia.

Deepening inequality is not intractable, but we are at a point that if we don’t tackle this with a bipartisan approach, we are reducing the prospects of not just our children but the wellbeing and common good of the nation in the long term.

Find the full report here

Friday, March 23, 2018

Scourge of modern slavery that taints Australian business

My great great grandfather was an indentured labourer. I had thought what happened to him was in the past.

British philanthropist William Wilberforce died shortly after he won the battle against slavery in the early 1800s. He would be astounded to discover that more than two centuries later there are significant reports of “modern slavery” in environments as diverse as the factories of Dhaka, London’s backstreets and Canberra’s embassies and brothels.

I do not know exactly what happened to my grand great grandfather. I do know that he was taken from India and to an island off Southern Africa and forced to work for the British Empire.

Many of those who have campaigned for an Australian Modern Slavery Act (due before the parliament by mid year) have seen it up close. One is a daughter of mining magnate Andrew Forrest who met forced sex workers as young as nine while volunteering at an orphanage in Nepal.

Many Australians are the descendants of slaves. Convicts supplied slave labour after settlement. In the decades leading up to Federation, people from Pacific islands were kidnapped and forced to work on Queensland sugar plantations, often alongside stolen first Australians who worked as housekeepers. The first mass strike by Aboriginals wasn’t about land rights but cruel treatment and unpaid wages.

The strength of the union movement helped end indentured labour in the sugar fields (as did, curiously, the White Australia policy), but it has continued and grown elsewhere, beneath the surface. Modern slavery is a human rights issue that includes abuses from forced labour, bonded labour and human trafficking, to servitude and child labour.

Internationally recognised expert Matt Friedman, says there are more slaves today than at any time in history. Slavery is expanding fastest in the Indo-Pacific, the area connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia.

Most are not in metal chains or conspicuous outfits. According to Friedman, a new man, woman or child enters slavery every five seconds. Only a fraction are ever saved. In Australia, those most at risk are migrant workers, especially women, sent here through unscrupulous agents.

David Cooke, Australian head of the printing and photocopying firm Konica Minolta told a recent gathering in parliament house that most Australia business had slaves in their supply chains. “It’s bogus to suggest otherwise,” he said. It was in every businesses interest to have an effective reporting and compliance regime. “If it is clear what is expected of business,” he said.

There will be some in government who will carp on about not wanting more red tape. But Cooke says what will be asked of business is minuscule compared with the reporting already required of them.

Konico Minolta has put anti-slavery efforts at the heart of its corporate responsibility and sustainability policy. Cooke credits the approach with growing his business. He says that when boardrooms put the issue of modern slavery on the top of their agenda, they discover there is plenty of help to overcome it.

Working with the chocolate industry, campaigners learnt that self-regulation wasn’t enough. To really tackle child labour, human trafficking and labour exploitation in that sector, governments, police, producers, unions, civil society and farmers had to come together and share-responsibility. Slaves are trafficked from community to community. All eyes are needed, including in regional Australia where backpackers and migrants are moved around.

Today we can confidently purchase certified slave-free chocolate from local supermarkets knowing that the brand has checked its supply chains and worked to improve conditions. Sometimes when they check they find child labour or slavery. When they do it isn’t an indication of failure but a sign that their systems are working. They can fix things and help restore children and people who have been traded back to normal lives.

The same cannot be said for many other goods from t-shirts to soccer balls.

A robust Modern Slavery Act would encourage all firms beyond a certain size to look at their supply chains and report annually on progress made, knowing that there is a risk to reputation if they do not.

Assistant Minister for Home Affairs, Alex Hawke, will steer the proces. He has Liberal colleagues Chris Crewther and Linda Reynolds to thank for highlighting the problem at committee level but will need to convince more senior colleagues including Hawke’s hard-headed boss, Peter Dutton.

He and other advocates are often asked, why are the majority of people being enslaved in the first place? The absolute majority live with persistent poverty. If Australia is serious about working to stop slavery it has to also step up efforts to reduce extreme global poverty.

A version of this was published in The Canberra Times, March 8, 2018. Illustration: Andrew Dyson

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Music engagement program supports social inclusion

John, a primary school pupil in Canberra's south, was doing badly. At times disruptive and appearing uncaring or unaware of others' feelings, he was at risk of falling behind.

Then, over just a few weeks, he and peers learnt songs as part an outreach activity with the music engagement program. The aim was to sing with residents of a local retirement home.

The program was funded by the ACT government and run out of the Australian National University's School of Music. Its staff stressed that learning the songs was more important than getting them right. Accuracy can get in the way of what's natural.

Even so, John's teachers doubted he would do well. The day before the excursion to St Andrews Village in Hughes, the rehearsal was a lesson in chaos. John pulled faces, swore and made rude finger gestures.

On the big day, much to the surprise of those who were there, John needed little or no behaviour management. Video of the 45-minute session shows him talking to residents between songs, asking and answering questions. At one point, he notices that one has dropped her walking stick and runs over to pick it up. His behaviour towards others "was uniformly positive, gentle and polite".

What changed? The singing excursion turned him from being "helped" into a "helper", moving him from receiving help to providing it.

He is just one of tens of thousands of students the program has enriched. In 2008, it was recognised with a community music award from the Music Council of Australia. It is listed in a United Nations compendium called Music as a Global Resource, which showcases the ways in which music is used to address social problems around the world.

After their visit to St Andrews Village, John and his fellow students continued to behave and respond in a better way. An especially aggressive student, Robert (described as "likely to hurt people") said about the residents: "I love them, they're lovely people."

In the evaluation, a classroom teacher enthused: "The nursing home visit was nothing short of a miracle ... I was particularly surprised at John ... He finds it difficult to be in a group at all ... John overcame his shyness ... They were given a different sense of who they are."

For nearly two decades, the music engagement program was funded by the ACT government through artsACT. Until late last year. The week before Christmas, it was told it was being defunded – all of it, the entire $400,000 grant. Staff had known it was under review but had been led to believe a new contract was being finalised. It has come as a shock.

The reason given by artsACT was that the program did not fit with the agency's "mission". It's odd, given that the current ACT Arts Policy (2015) has as its the core principle "participation in and access to the arts".

Building caring communities is in everyone's interest. Research suggests generosity flows from high self-esteem. The music engagement program has shown that the opposite is also true; that allowing children to engage in helping behaviours in a supportive environment can improve children's self-esteem.

The National Tertiary Education Union has expressed dismay on behalf of affected union members. It says the decision will have a detrimental effect on thousands of community members, including students with special needs, nursing home residents, families and community groups.

The program was due to celebrate its 20th birthday. "While this is terrible news for our members, they are eager to see the survival of the program in some form. We join them in calling on the ACT government to restore funding to this vital community program," the union says.

No program has a right to be funded for perpetuity. But, as yet, artsACT has not provided a public statement. While I understand the agency has sought to refocus resources to engage more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and reflect a new direction at the ANU school of music, it's important that the Barr government explains how the money that used to fund the program will be used instead.

It was a world-class program that made a difference. It has been scratched with little or no consultation outside of the ANU. It would be great if, for our sake, it could be kept alive by new financial backers who understand its continuing worth.

First published in The Canberra Times, February 14, 2018. Photo: David Walker c/o Fairfax Media.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Govt tries to gag public-interest advocates, again

The Coalition has been waging war against those who've dared to question it since 2013.

Its latest gagging grenade has been lobbed under the cover of foreign donations reform, bizarrely egged on by the largely foreign owned mining industry.

On election Tony Abbott tried to abolish the newly-legislated Charities Act which enshrined in law the right for charities to engage in political advocacy. There's not much point in (for example) trying to house the homeless without also trying to remove the causes of homelessness.

The Act set up an Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission as a one-stop shop for keeping tabs on and assisting charities, as recommended by the Productivity Commission. Abbott lost that battle after the charities themselves appealed to cross benches.

Then he tried to strip environment groups of their charitable status. His environment minister Greg Hunt set up an inquiry that recommended they lose the right to tax deductible donations unless they spent 25 per cent of their income on "environmental remediation work". Organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation would have to clean up the environment in addition to doing what's most effective: lobbying to prevent it being damaged in the first place. Groups like Lock the Gate would have to plant trees as well as campaign against coal seam gas mining.

In December a fierce critic of many of the activities of charities, Gary Johns, became the new head of the Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission - replacing the highly respected company director Susan Pascoe. Senior bureaucrats had urged Malcolm Turnbull's charities minister Michael Sukkar to re-appoint Pascoe who had done her job well.

Johns had previously called on the Coalition to abolish the Charities Act. It must "makes it clear to the High Court that advocacy is not a charitable purpose," he said in 2014. It should deny charity status to the "enemies of progress". His book, The Charity Ball, argues that too many charities in Australia do little or no charity work.

Now there's the Foreign Influence Transparency Bill and the benignly named Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill.

Turnbull wants to prevent charities that engage in public debate from receiving donations from foreign governments and foreign state-owned enterprises.

He wants to force any group that spends $100,000 or more on political activities in the four years before an election to register as a "political campaigner". Political activities are defined as "the public expression of any views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors". There are stiff fines if they don't comply.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told the Senate in December that while political campaigning was a positive indicator of the strength of Australian civil society, it is important "that these actors are subject to the public accountability of more traditional actors, such as registered political parties or candidates".

Charity boardrooms are already urging less advocacy, worried about their funding, and the implications of going on a political campaigner register.

Cormann, Turnbull and Sukkar have achieved something rare. They've united Getup and the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs, both of whom oppose the moves saying they will stifle political debate.

A donor to a "political campaigner" of gifts totalling more than $13,500 in any financial year (or as little as $4.80 a week) will be required to lodge a return to the Electoral Commission.

Institute research fellow Gideon Rozner: "It would effectively give the electoral commission authority over a whole range of community organisations with no relationship to the political process other than commenting on public policy issues," he told Pro Bono News. "It would impose a pointless and unnecessary red tape burden on charities, community groups, service clubs, religious organisations and other civic groups."

Getup's national director, Paul Oosting told members in a letter that the requirement would "decimate a lean, grassroots organisation that relies on tens of thousands of online donations".

Anglicare's Kasy Chambers goes further, telling me: "The Anglican Church, as you know, has a strong vision and tradition about calling out unjust structures and opposing violence. If a minister does a sermon on that does that make that Church or the priest a political actor? Does that mean every gift or donation over a certain amount that goes in the plate to that parish or church must be traced back?"

"This is not about our voices being shut down. It's the fact that we are a conduit for people who don't have the money to buy influence."

Gary Johns, the Coalition's pick as the new head of the Charities Commission happens to agree. He wrote on the ACNC website: "The ACNC has submitted a response in relation to the proposed amendments. It is our view that the [Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform] bill as formulated, will place a further regulatory burden on charities, and may inhibit their ability to advocate as a method of achieving its charitable purpose."

One of the clearest voices articulating that charities should be exempt, is that of David Crosbie, head of the Community Council of Australia. He told a parliamentary inquiry the proposed changes were unfair because it exempted businesses but not charities.

"If commercial activities are carved out – why not charitable activities? My reading is that in practice – if an international company like a Diageo [sought] to influence our alcohol policies, that is okay – no inappropriate foreign influence there," Crosbie said.

"But if the Gates Foundation give money to alcohol research by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education – they would have to register… [And] charities already face significant regulations and limitations on their capacity to engage in political activities."

Many in the third sector accept that Australia has been, and will be increasingly subject to foreign intervention - some of which will be covet, unfriendly and hostile. But the proposed amendments go too far.

Not-for-profits and those they serve already feel muzzled. A recent survey by Pro Bono Australia found that two-thirds of all Australian charities find it harder to be heard by the federal government compared to just five years ago.

First published in The Canberra Times, February 5, 2018

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Facebook is ripping society apart, and other reasons to rethink social media

When Chamath Palihapitiya joined Facebook in 2007, it had 50 million users. By the time he left after four years, it had 800 million. He was its vice-president for user growth.

These days, he feels tremendously guilty.

"I think we all knew in the back of our minds, even though we feigned this whole line that there probably aren't any bad consequences, I think in the deep recesses of our minds we kind of knew something bad could happen," he told the Stanford Business School last month and reported for the first time this week.

"The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we've created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth, and it's not an American problem - this is not about Russian ads - this is a global problem.

"We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection, because we get rewarded with these short-term signals - hearts, likes, thumbs-up -and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth.

"What it is is fake, brittle popularity. It's short term and leaves you even more vacant and empty than before you did it, because then it forces you into this vicious cycle where you are like: 'What's the next thing I need to do now? Because I need it back.' "

There are now 2 billion Facebook users, one-quarter of the world's population.

Many of us need to use it, for research or to contact lost friends. In some parts of the world, it helps, in a limited way, to spread democracy.

But it stresses us, even while it is temporarily calming us. Like a poker machine, its unpredictability invites us back for hit after hit until we are so full of chemicals we suffer "disconnection anxiety" when we are away from the screen. We all know people who grieve how much time social media sucks up and how angry or upset they feel after sessions on it, but they still go there.

Further, it normalises deception. The late sociologist Ben Agger described social media as an "electronic prosthesis" for identity. It allows, and often requires, us to fabricate identities.

Like its younger cousin Twitter, it encourages polarisation as much as discussion, often functioning as an echo chamber. Twitter's co-founder, Evan Williams, told The New York Times in May that he had thought that once everyone could speak freely and exchange ideas, the world would automatically become "a better place". He added: "I was wrong about that."

At the Canberra launch of her biography in November, former Greens leader Christine Milne said it wasn't that long ago that people talked about the same things. Media consumption was shared. Now, there are fewer conversations, fewer common stories. It's harder to get people in the same room. Politicians use Facebook to create their own separate news channels, shielded from scrutiny.

Facebook and Twitter heighten conflict. Moderate words aren't much liked or retweeted. Research shows your tweet is 20 to 30 per cent more likely to be retweeted if you use strong language. Cyberspace has become a more intense projection of the material world, a world of continuous rivalry.

While users are able to share ideas, feel they are taking part in democratic process, social-media networks are, in fact, driven by celebrity. Historian Niall Ferguson says that, as the networks grow, the people who join them "don't want to be connected to any old person". They want to get close to Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg.

And they help make Trump, and Facebook's founder Zuckerberg, who is the world's biggest-ever media baron, even more powerful; in Zuckerberg's case, beyond the reach of governments. "We were promised we would all be netizens, speaking truth to power and sharing cat videos," Ferguson says. "But the reality is the social networks of our time are extraordinarily unequal."

Ultimately, this enormous concentration of power is all about money. Social-media networks profit by capturing our data, our innermost thoughts as expressed by our clicks. It's a goldmine for advertisers and others who want to track us. Along the way, they are draining real news organisations of the money needed to report real news. They sell ads without the need to pay for the content that surrounds them.

The virtual world is painful to leave. I can't say I will ever not be in its clutch. It keeps pulling us back because it embodies our hopes and fantasies. Way before the internet, we longed to be distracted from reality. My down-to-earth friend Tim puts it this way: "My intellect knows social media is not good for building consensus, I know it's impacting democracy. But I go there anyway."

First published in The Canberra Times, December 15, 2017. Picture: Paul Sakuma

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Let's review the value of school reports

End-of-year school reports are making their way to parents and carers. For many, it's a major contact with the school. Most look forward to the reports, even if their children don't.

But what's their value? Do they actually tell parents anything useful?

Teachers generally hate writing them. They take up a lot of time, and teachers don't believe they are allowed to be as honest as they would like to be. Their reports are censored.

They didn't used to be. Peter Frost (not his real name) teaches in a NSW public high school. "I used to be able to write, for example, that student A had been persistently disruptive, that he didn't follow instructions," he tells me. "Then I was told I couldn't say that. The principal told me not to be negative. But I was trying to be truthful."

Truth wasn't appreciated. His principal told him that if a student was described as disruptive, it reflected badly on the teacher and the school. It was better not to say it. It was better to use neutral words, cleansed of meaning.

"Private schools are worse," he tells me. "Their reports are even more of a public relations exercise."

Another teacher, in the ACT, backs him up. "Reports are not objective documents," she says. "They are 50 per cent subjectivity and 50 per cent propaganda, making the student and the parents feel good."

It'd be a problem if parents relied on a school reports to be informed.

Conscientious schools make sure parents don't. They talk to parents and students throughout the year, made easier by email and mobile phones. If a child isn't learning well, they make sure the parents know about it before report time. Students should also get feedback in the classroom – in real time – critical for continuous improvement.

Yet many parents still seem to want the reports, like it's part of a contractual arrangement that also legitimise everyone's effort.

I find parent-teacher nights and student-led conferences much more valuable. They offer context, detail, an exchange of information.

Good teachers know this and often can't see the point of writing lengthy reports. "We are stressed out by it," one says. "Drafts go through a committee and then come back to us. If there are typos, it reflects badly on the school."

Another says: "It's not just time consuming, it's difficult to tick a box which narrowly defines achievement."

There are no serious studies evaluating Australian school reports. But there is across the Tasman. John Hattie, now director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, published an evaluation of the New Zealand system in 2003 titled School Reports: Praising with Faint Damns. It found that, while school reports are one of the primary vehicles for relaying information about students' progress to parents, they emphasise what students can do, rather than what students cannot do.

"We found the majority of reports indicated that very few students were badly behaved, and most were above-average achievers, most were making an effort in class, most were a pleasure to teach," he says.

The reports used common phrases to describe different children. "I am sure most parents in Australia welcome reports but find them not that helpful. No wonder they demand more tests, accountability, and teacher-proof information."

Hattie wants school reports to describe students' performance in ways that are specific, to offer strategies and be easy to understand.

He wants schools to invite in a cross-section of parents, give them copies of students' reports and ask them to interpret out loud what they are reading. If they can't, he wants them to outline how they want reports presented. "This simple step may dramatically improve the power of school reports to reflect student performance," he says.

Meaningful reports would help parents who didn't like school growing up. They are often afraid of directly approaching the school to ask questions. If they are not told something, they might not find it out.

States and territories are all moving to "streamline" reports. Some teachers worry that a more standardised format will leave even less room for conveying what's happening. Worse still, they are adopting electronic systems that keep reports as a record that follows each student as they move through different schools. Although the language will be bland, they will be tarred forever with marks between A and E (unless parents opt out, which is an option).

Outcomes of schooling matter, but so does the experience of itself. Schools are places for socialisation and collaboration. Perhaps we need a new category of outcomes that support the integration of subjects.

As principals sign off on reports in the days ahead, it helps to remember that teachers, too, get nervous about them. Sometimes, they are trying to say something without actually saying it. Reports can never convey the whole picture. In my experience, it is always better to keep the communication channels open and find time to talk.

First published in The Canberra Times, SMH and The Age on December 1, 2017

Monday, November 27, 2017

School leavers need celebration options that don't include grog

It's the schoolies week season. Not taking any risks, an acquaintance with a 17-year old daughter booked a trip for her and her friend to a tropical island, each with their father. Anything to avoid an underage booze-up.

It's that time of year when there's a rash of parties that provide alcohol to children. The school formals are (meant to be) alcohol-free but the pre and post-formal parties are not.

It's well-established that consuming alcohol early in life, right up to age 21, damages developing brains. Early consumption seems to lead to alcohol-dependence and other problems later in life.

Supervised drinking isn't safe either. Studies show that when parents supply alcohol at children's celebrations, thinking they are teaching them about control, they actually encourage heavier drinking. Exposure to alcohol leads to drinking.

The message seems to be getting through. Official statistics show Australian teenagers are drinking less and start to drink alcohol later. They are even abstaining from alcohol when their parents didn't.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says the average age that Australians tried alcohol for the first time (usually pre-mixed spirits) rose from 14.7 in 2001 to 16.1 in 2016. The proportion of Aussie teens aged 14 to 17 who binge drink halved over the past 13 years. The proportion of abstainers more than doubled.

The decline is in line with what's happening in Britain, Sweden and New Zealand.

Why is it happening? No one really knows, but we can guess.

A report by Britain's Institute of Alcohol Studies credits better parenting. Parents are themselves drinking less, showing disapproval of children's drinking, and developing warmer and more open relationships with their children.

The Institute finds little evidence for the popular notion that the trend is driven by new technology (and that young people have less disposable income because of smartphones). In fact, "children who spend more time online and on social media may be more likely to drink".

The fact that any child drinks remains a worry. The alcohol industry says we shouldn't worry because children are drinking less. There's no need for tougher regulation.

Michael Thorne, of the Canberra-based Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, says the industry takes advantage of gaps in regulation. "There is now a mounting and irrefutable body of evidence that points to the ways in which the alcohol industry very deliberately markets alcohol to children," he says. "Like tobacco before it, it's a dying industry if it can't recruit new customers."

Letting your hair down with a drink is fine, but you're an important role model for your kids.

Demonstrating the success of this marketing, the drinks of choice for 12 to 17-year-olds are "alcopops", not low-alcohol beer.

The foundation will argue a lot more needs to be done when it marks, later this month, the 40th anniversary of the release of the Senate standing committee on social welfare's report, Drug Problems in Australia – an intoxicated society? The report's publication in 1977, championed by the then Liberal senator and doctor Peter Baume, is considered a watershed moment in acknowledging both alcohol as a major drug of abuse and the importance of harm minimisation.

As we get into a more celebratory mood this summer, it's timely to be reminded that letting your hair down with a drink is fine, but you're undoubtedly an important role model for your kids.

Further, if your child is not finishing secondary school just yet, consider the need for new rites of passage that break the myth that a celebration is not a celebration without grog and getting smashed. Not-for-profits working in developing countries are increasingly offering volunteer-work holidays that ensure young people have a fun adventure that expands their horizons and changes lives for the better.

First published in The Canberra Times/Fairfax Media, November 22, 2017. Photo: Nic Walker

See related Leavers need confidence to say no to alcohol, study finds

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