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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