Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Australia's bushfire emergency 'like world war three'

I've been glued to the news for days, restless, easily distracted, feeling helpless. I want to stay informed but at times, it's too much.

A bloke on the south coast of New South Wales summed it up on Sunday night. ‘It was like world war three’. With rising anxiety, the threat of losing the lot, blackened daytime skies and scared small children wearing masks and adults holding their breath, it was. The enemy, fire, has been acting for months but the last few days have been truly frightening.

These are difficult times, hours that have challenged and tested the very rhythm of everyday life - at a time of year when most of us are on holiday, usually snatching time for rest and play.

These days have demanded leaders with empathy, respect and wisdom.

Monday, exactly twelve days after Christmas is known as the Epiphany. It remembers the journey of the Magi - the three wise men - to Bethlehem.

Many of us have had our own very personal epiphanies this season; searing experiences that have moved the ground from under us. Australia feels like a different place. It's all so surreal.

Among many stories of courage and loss is a collective epiphany about our fragility living on the driest and most flammable continent; about our vulnerability in the face of not just fire but shocking and persistent smoke that burns the eyes, triggers headaches and numbs our lungs. You don't appreciate good air until it's gone.

Might Scott Morrison have had his own epiphany?

After his ill-judged Hawaii holiday and a slow start, he has committed large sums to rebuild devastated communities but there has been little or no discussion of what's needed to prevent further loss of health and life, moving climate health into the mainstream.

Will he now recalibrate his government’s approach on climate change? Truths he has struggled to own or found uncomfortable have become undeniable. As we’ve heard for years, if governments at all levels don’t act, the costs of acting later will be much greater. Hope of action with an epiphany will rely on distancing himself from his mining mates.

Morrison, I get, is not the fall guy. The disaster has been a generation in the making and the entire system, the way our democracy has worked against the collective interest, is a big part of the problem.

Public anger has been palpable.

But it would have been nice to have heard and seen humility at the outset -- 'I hear you, I feel for you, I will work with you' Maybe even, 'Sorry, I was wrong'.

Poor leadership is the kind that denies what is happening to people until it’s too late, it runs over them. Good leadership anticipates change, shares information generously and empowers people to take control of what they can.

As victims of these fires describe war-like conditions, is it too much to hope for what often happens in war — an emergency response that transcends political divides?

We need a federal government that is less about winning but one that values our democracy and understands our deep interdependence with the environment and each other.

The fires have also been a powerful reminder that we rely on each other.

It's shown that we are stronger together.

Friends living near Braidwood in New South Wales would not have had their house saved without the stoic volunteer work of fire fighters and the shelter of others’ homes to ride out their fears. Fire fighters can't do it without the support of their families and the generosity of those offering care between shifts. Donations flowing towards bushfire relief have been phenomenal.

Social media has connected us to vital information, been a lifeline to many, and offered a place to vent (whatever etiquette there was on Twitter disappeared in recent days). But the web-world has also contributed to a long and regretful trend that has hollowed out volunteerism, reduced our membership to real world and inter-generational groups from unions to school and parent groups defined by a spirit to give for a greater good. The trend has contributed to high levels of disconnection, loneliness and sadness.

Expressing rage on Twitter about the political class or clicking on an online petition without actual commitment or sacrifice only takes us so far.

The not-for-profit groups that we do have need more of us to work for the change we want to see, to make our communities safer, happier and fairer, to reboot our democracy. I have heard of a rush of applications from grateful people, seeking to join the Rural Fire Service, which is heartening.

Still charity and volunteerism is only part of the picture. It can be a proxy for people in power to avoid their responsibility. The mantra of conservative politics - smaller government, fewer services, individual responsibility - diminishes the responsibilities of the Commonwealth, and denies the importance of strong public everything. Good public health, challenged during heavy bushfire smoke, needs sustained effort at local and national level to ensure a quality of life for all citizens regardless of their wealth.

Natural disasters magnify existing social problems and inequalities.

As with earlier bushfire disasters including in Canberra in 2003, it is people already living with disadvantage who will suffer the most.

Study after study has shown that the capacity of households to recover from natural disasters is closely linked to its financial situation and access to resources including employment, healthcare, social support, legal rights and education.

It's up to us and our governments to ensure the gap between the haves and have nots does not widen and that we can we all grow the resilience we need for the challenging hours, days and years ahead.

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Saturday, December 21, 2019

The future of work as the digital disrupts

Australian students are continuing to slide in international performance tables, with ACT students going down about as fast as (but typically still doing better than) those in the rest of Australia.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conducts its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey of performance in reading, maths and science every three years.

It finds that although the performance of Australian students is close to the OECD average, unusually among developed countries, Australia's performance has been getting worse over time.

Should it worry us? That depends partly on what we think will be needed for living in and surviving the rest of the century. There's no necessary reason to think it will be maths and science as we've known them. Machines might do those things for us.

But a mid-year report by Deloitte Access Economics finds employment has been growing fastest among the least routine jobs, the ones that machines can't do.

It says eight in every 10 of the jobs created between now and 2030 will be knowledge jobs. The skills we will be short of relate to conflict resolution, leadership, health and time management. In the future, it will be skills that involve human interaction – the ability to persuade people, to connect with them, how likeable you are – that will be more valuable. The jobs in oversupply will relate to manual work.

We will have to shift from "from hands to heads to hearts".

This needn't necessarily mean maths, reading and science as they have been taught.

In her just-completed PhD thesis on leadership, author Gaia Grant talks about education being too narrow, too often about "right and wrong", when the education of the future will need to be more about learning to hold contradictory yet complementary positions, being able to manage complexity.

Students of the future need to become "comfortable with grey". She talks about "ambidexterity" - which for her means the ability to explore new ideas while preserving old ones in order for ideas to grow.

There's a risk that the digital revolution, the great disrupter, will make us less flexible rather than more - less able to cooperate, focus, care and play - by colonising our attention and dividing us into tribes.

Employers increasingly complain about young people being unable to focus, communicate and commit. In part that might be because they are tech addicted.

Tech titans have not just made machines that are addictive by design but machines that might also narrow the skill sets needed to be reliable and to get on with others.

Darren Coppin of Esher House, a developer of behavioural intervention programs, told the ABC last week that that school leavers increasingly think they are management material from day one and find it hard to deal with colleagues.

The expectation that they bring their own portable devices to school has led to an environment that has cut time to imagine, play and deep read. It has isolated children from each other, even though the supporters of Google Classroom argue it allows for collaboration.

More often, collaboration is very limited.

There's emerging evidence that screen culture is creating the illusion of control but is limiting children's ability to develop the social and emotional skills they will need to make sense of the world.

Some schools are recalibrating, using technology to limit the times and purposes for which their students can access the internet. Sydney Grammar is one of the first.

ACT government schools are starting to push back as well. I know of two public high schools that are looking at ways to reinvigorate play spaces in order to cut time spent on screens.

Meanwhile, parents are exhausted by having to manage access to digital technology at home. They have every reason to be suspicious of Google Classroom.

In her book, Do No Evil, Financial Times journalist Rana Foroohar argues that Google and other big tech firms have taken us hostage by manipulating our choices, harvesting our data and commandeering our time.

Foroohar encourages, as I have for years, digital detoxes.

"Try going offline. If nothing, it will give you a sense of what a powerful force these companies are in your life. They have become as important as the utilities, water and electricity, with enormous power over us, cognitively, economically and politically," she says.

We would all benefit from unplugging and thinking about what the digital age is doing to us.

If only the bush fire smoke would lift, so we could go outside.

First published in The Canberra Times, on December 20 2019, https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6549314/is-it-time-to-step-away-from-the-screen/
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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

A shameless deal that dare not speak its name

It was always going to be a challenge, even with the signatures of thousands of doctors and advocacy by health groups, to keep Medevac. On Capital Hill, hearts have been hardened towards refugees over time, for so long.

With help from Labor, the Coalition has entrenched a harsh offshore prison system that has created profound sickness.

In his stunning memoir of time spent on Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, Kurdish Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, describes the extraordinary lengths detainees must go through to get any basic care. There are arbitrary rules and forms to fill out just to have a toothache seen to, knowing all along that there are no dentists on the island for detainees.

It would be absurd and comical if it wasn’t so serious and cruel.

Other rules, like excluding games and music, squeezing the agency and hope of people who had arrived on Manus and Nauru relatively well, piled up without any logic. People went mad with pain with no light relief or capacity to create respite.

Having made factories for mental illness, the Coalition then used the courts, armed with buckets of tax-payer money, to deny sick people the care they needed in Australia. In a futile misuse of resources, every time the government disputed a doctor’s recommendation a patient be urgently transferred, the court found in favour of the patient.

The Medevac laws thanks to Independent MP Kerryn Phelps, came into effect early this year to reduce the risk of prolonged, unnecessary delays, costly court cases, uncertainty and politicisation of medical decisions relating to asylum seekers.

It was grounded in years of evidence of the harm done, of preventable illnesses and deaths caused by the conditions of offshore detention imposed by successive governments and a litany of failures to provide appropriate healthcare in a timely manner.

Medevac provided a clear, practical and formal process with the establishment of an expert panel of clinicians who had the power to investigate and advise on the health matters.

It never compromised national security. It never impacted refugee determinations. The Minister had discretion to intervene at every step. The majority of those who were transferred for care moved from hospital into community detention in Australia with no known threats to security.

The law was working to save lives, albeit lives reduced by years of neglect.

Medevac’s repeal, secured with secrecy, will further compromise the already compromised health of vulnerable people.

It betrays fundamental values and the integrity of Australia’s entire medical profession, as articulated by Médecins Sans Frontières because it ‘effectively hands power back to unqualified officials, entrenching dangerous precedents’.

Boochani may have found some relief travelling to New Zealand after years in indefinite detention but many others are back to square one, as the offshore camps continue to break people with no prospect of being put back together.

What we need is to fundamentally change the system so to uphold international human rights obligations that Australia has signed up for under the Geneva Refugee Convention.

We may not know what deal Jacqui Lambie struck with the Morrison government but we must continue to appeal to the decency of our elected representatives to find a more sustainable, humane and accountable solution going forward.
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Thursday, November 28, 2019

Climate health has become a mainstream issue, let's treat it like one

It's frightening not being able to breathe. Having had asthma since birth, managing it is part of the rhythm of my life. Preventative medications have kept me alive, but, like millions of Australians, I occasionally get a small dose of terror when my chest tightens and my blue inhaler is empty or nowhere to be seen.

Bushfires have pushed up pollution levels to many times above safe levels in many parts of the country this past week, including in Sydney and Brisbane, which for a few days had air worse than in Beijing’s. Canberra too has been blanketed in dust.

We are inadequately prepared for what will become the new norm. People with asthma (more than one in ten of us) and others sensitive to smoke will have to stay indoors for longer. Prolonged poor air quality will hurt us all.

The latest edition of the MJA–Lancet Countdown on health and climate change came out this month, offering a global and an Australian national assessment. The report examined 41 indicators across five broad domains: climate change impacts, exposures and vulnerability; adaptation, planning and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co‐benefits; economics and finance; and public and political engagement.

It found that, overall, Australia is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on health, and that policy inaction in this regard threatens Australian lives.

In fact, it goes on, without accelerated interventions, every child born today will be profoundly affected. This new era, it says, will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.

Unchecked, frequent and intense extreme weather events will worsen food and water shortages, mean more malnutrition and famine, the spread of climate-sensitive diseases including dengue fever and malaria, early death from natural disasters such as fire and heat waves, and more major mental health problems.

The most vulnerable will be disproportionately threatened: children, the elderly, people with underlying health conditions and people living with poverty.

It urges Australia to move from over-investment in post-disaster reconstruction and more investment in prevention and mitigation to limit the impact of natural disasters in the first place.

A conservative government would surely take out some insurance and coordinate a comprehensive health plan so fewer Australians get really sick, a plan that shows us it's really listening, moving to match words of concern with deeds (Crikey confirmed this week that while there are historic federal health department reports that mention global warming - going back to the 1990s - none of the health department’s initiatives target the health impacts of climate change!).

Quite separate from the MJA-Lancet report’s recommendations, the Climate and Health Alliance, including formidable organisations the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Public Health Association of Australian has already developed the framework for the Commonwealth to pick up and run with.

It is a framework to scaffold how the Morrison Government can ensure the states and territories are supported with joined-up action on health specific climate adaptation at all levels of government.

So, what’s it waiting for? More presentations in stretched hospital emergency departments? More evidence?

Local governments and some states are already well advanced on emissions reduction and heat hazard reduction strategies so heat exposure and other health impacts are minimised.

The ACT has been ambitious on renewables and low carbon emission electricity but has some work to do developing a local climate health plan.

The Federal Government, too, could do a lot more to ensure vulnerable populations survive new stresses.

A Canberra doctor has told me of the invisible but real stresses the fire season has already had on so many people. It begins with small anxieties, he says, such as the need for frequent checks of Rural Fire Service fire maps to see what's happening.

“This is the real low grade, soul gnawing health impact we are not measuring. It is not readily measurable and we know it is there. Anecdotally I have had one patient who has had to drive to northern NSW to rescue his aged mother who's town had been burnt out.”

This doctor, also an academic, and observes that for forty years scientists and other academics have been making the evidence clear.

“It is the job of the rest of society to know that they are understating things due to academic conservatism. If an academic says it is getting a bit warm, we know the country might be on fire.”

For health care workers, the impacts are already taking a toll. That should prompt a national review to build a sustainable and climate resilient health-sector for every corner of our high-flammable continent. There are wide implications for Australia's labour force as a whole.


First published in The Canberra Times, November 27, 2019. Image c/o Shutterstock https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6510642/climate-health-is-a-mainstream-issue-lets-treat-it-like-one/
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Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Meet the neighbours: the trick to Halloween treats

I both love and hate Halloween - probably, honestly, more the latter.

It's not that it's "evil" or "of the devil". It's that it's so commercial.

For weeks my inbox has been inundated with messages urging me to "avoid the fright" and "earn spooky bonus points" in attempts to get me to buy junk food I don't need.

Halloween popped into Australia's consciousness in a vacuum. There is no storytelling attached to it, no cultural significance, no deeper meaning. Elsewhere it derived from a Christian feast on the eve of All Saints' Day, which is November 1, a time for remembering the dead, intertwined with the agricultural rituals of folk communities who gave thanks for the year's harvest.

Here, it's just all about the sweets.

In Mosman, on Sydney's North Shore, where two streets get besieged by children from all over the city, The Sydney Morning Herald reports some parents are spending $400, some as much as $1000 to ensure they don't run out.

If Halloween is going to stay, we could broaden the meaning. Making it "Austrayan" - so it feels less stuck-on, like a bumper sticker - will take time.

More immediately, we could simply see the possibilities for hospitality and neighbourliness. Opening our doors to strangers on a spring night (when the sun is still shining, giving it an entirely different feel from the northern hemisphere) is a gesture of hospitality, a sign that we are prepared to get to know our neighbours - at least to get to know their children.

Offering gifts to strangers (even if they are made of sugar, and kids return home with bags of it) and expressing curiosity in a quick conversation can help us fight social isolation. The children who come knocking take steps into the unknown. It's important that it works out well with no truly nasty surprises.

Speaking of surprise. The youngest member of my family startled us when she named the figure she wanted to dress up as: Donald Trump, who she said was the scariest thing she could think of.

Looking around Canberra's suburbs, you get the sense that parents, under pressure from the kids, have cottoned on to the hope for community engagement. They mightn't like all the junk food, but they are prepared to go along with it if it remains modest and can connect children and families in their street.

Halloween also offers us a chance to talk about health. Not wanting to take all the fun out of it, but the latest oral health survey found that half of Australian children had four or more serves of sugar-containing snacks per day.

Today, one in four Australian children are deemed overweight or obese. An increasing number of young people suffer from diabetes, Australia's fastest growing chronic disease, and from an earlier age.

A study out this month tied sugar (and caffeine) to electronic device use by teens, which may well be because it is promoted a lot on electronic devices. Our screens follow us, aware of our purchases, habits and likes. It's scary, darker than any vampire or zombie.

With eight in 10 Australian children over 12 using social media, marketers have a previously undreamt-of opportunity to blur the boundaries between communication and marketing. Halloween shows us how they do it.

If we must take part, the Australian Dental Association offers advice we probably wouldn't guess at. It says children should scoff all their sweets at once rather than stash them to eat later when they can do ongoing damage. The evidence on that is less clear.

It would be better to limit sugar all year round and find other ways of connecting with our neighbours, but Halloween could be an excuse.

First published in The Canberra Times, October 29, 2019 https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6461243/meet-the-neighbours-the-trick-to-halloween-treats/
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Monday, September 30, 2019

Time to reclaim the lifeblood of human society

In the lead up to last week’s School Strike 4 Climate, a tweet jumped out at me. “Why are so many young people depressed?” it asked, and then presented two different answers.

Teenagers: The adults have f***ed up the planet and our future.

Adults: It’s the phones.

Of course, both might be true. Depression might be sparked by the fate of the planet, but then fed by incremental updates and outrage delivered to smartphones in our pockets all the time.

It isn’t what used to happen. Panic about 1980s' concerns such as nuclear war weren’t amplified and fed back to us through a hyperconnected echo chamber.

It most certainly is bad for our health. Studies show that as screen time increases, so too do rates of teenage suicide and depression.

Lead researcher Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University compared US statistics on teenage suicide deaths, suicide-related outcomes and adolescents’ depressive symptoms, with new media use. He found adolescents who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, and adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities (in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, printed media, and attending religious services) were less likely.

Australian teens spend as much, if not more time on screens, than their US counterparts. Screen time is not just increasing conflict between people, it’s shrinking space for nourishing things, particularly in-person social interaction.

A study from some years back showed 90 per cent of respondents believed people were less polite on social media than in person, while 81 per cent said they had a difficult conversation on social media that remained unresolved.

It took us millennia to cultivate low-drama dialogue and complex negotiation; the art of building rich and rewarding relationships, an art that may be being lost.

We may know this deep down but we still compulsively go online because of its deliberate intermittent reward system, affirming us one minute but punishing us the next.

Adults, we’d expect, have a stronger sense of who they are; are therefore less buffeted by the combative, often judgmental text and relentless drama of news online. Young people are far less prepared, hence feeling more emotionally brittle, less optimistic about life, especially as is shown, if they are high-users of new media. Young people are more likely to be addicted to the technology because they have less impulse control than adults.

One strategy is reclaiming the art of face-to-face conversation, that lifeblood of human society. Conversation takes people seriously. It says we matter.

A nine-year-old told his mother, a friend of mine, recently: “People say at school that the world is not going to be here when I grow up?” The mum asked calmly, “Is that something you are worried about?” She engaged her son to understand the world as he sees and feels it. She did not look shocked. She did not panic, a feeling the language of climate emergency may create. Instead, she listened.

Good conversation starts with where kids are at, from which small steps can be made to give them a sense of power and control. As children and young people feel a loss of control, even afraid of their future, adults have a responsibility to avoid patronising them or dismissing their concern, but rather to co-design solutions with them around the table, at home, at school and in the wider community.

The stakes are high. Being so well informed can perversely make young people prone to giving up, without agency, even more vulnerable to the attention merchants that distract and numb. Some can’t get out of bed, suffering what’s now being called ''eco-trauma''. They have worked so hard to get the climate message out, but feel they have failed themselves while others have failed them.

A balance must be reached between pragmatic realism and hope about the world we live in today and tomorrow. There must be space to enjoy nature for itself without mediating screens, spaces to quieten the mind and spaces for gentle and spontaneous conversation that turns down the drama, to recharge, re-enchant and really connect.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, September 23, 2019
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Monday, September 2, 2019

A public health issue: Alan Jones and his violent metaphors

Countless firms have pulled their support and advertising from Alan Jones’ radio program after his Jacinda Ardern comments. Just what will it take to suspend him?

The managers of the station should take him off the airwaves, but not just for reasons of language. The reason to pull him off is public health. Let me explain.

One of the greatest threats to health is violence. Australia has a shocking record of violence against women. On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.

Overwhelmingly, perpetratators of domestic or family violence against women and children are male. Factors associated with gender inequality are the most consistent predictors of violence against women including male peer to peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.

Jones, who appears to have trouble with women of influence, feeds and helps legitimise an already-existing set of attitudes that condone violence.

There is mounting evidence that public, political rhetoric has an impact.

Researchers believe anti-immigrant Facebook posts triggered hundreds of violent crimes against refugees in Germany between 2015 and 2017. They helped push perpetrators over a line.

In the United States, there are a number of recent case studies of real world outcomes resulting from influencers using language that targets or excludes certain groups.

Anti-immigrant sentiment, stoked by Donald Trump, promoting punitive immigration policies has contributed to bad health - psycho-emotional and physical - and bad health-related behaviors.

Animosity directed at Latino immigrants drove fear and hopelessness which led to substance abuse and unprotected sex, as well as an avoidance of medical care or preventive behaviors.

Alan Jones, the four-million dollar radio host, who told Scott Morrison to give the New Zealand prime minister “a few backhanders”, has anti-immigrant form also.

In 2005, he took to the airwaves to condemn an ethnic minority, describing them as "vermin" who "rape and pillage a nation". A court found his comments were "reckless hyperbole calculated to agitate and excite his audience".

Laws and policies can assist in altering norms linked to violence. But the kinds of messages Jones keeps espousing, misogynist and racist confound or reduce the efficacy of those interventions.

The Australian Prime Minister who wants to make mental health a priority ought to get that.

He ought to know, as LGTBI people and First Nations peoples and other minorities do, that vile things said over and over can contribute to a hostile and stressful social environment that reduces a sense of wellbeing, even when it doesn’t result in violence.

There is evidence that (in conjunction with existing predisposing risk factors) it can result in illness and an elevated risk of suicide.

It makes the language of Jones, a man whose own sexual identity has been the subject of gossip and rumours, all the more vexing.

In his 2006 biography of Jones, award-winning investigative journalist Chris Masters points out that a constant theme of Jones’ broadcasts has been the decline of public and moral standards.

He describes how the Jones of the time tormented his staff. If they argued back he got madder. They learned that it was easier to apologise. Masters asks, “When Alan Jones laments on air the escalation of public violence, I wonder whether he thinks of the violence in his own words.”


First published in The Canberra Times, August 28, 2019
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Saturday, August 31, 2019

The smartphone has become a metronome. This is how we change the beat

Without thinking about it much, children mimic their parents. It was when my husband — a veteran journalist — and I found ourselves glued to our phones for work at home, and tweeting compulsively, that I began to worry about what it was teaching our kids.

What were we modelling? What was it doing to us? We were increasingly alone while together, particularly after our young teens retreated into their bedrooms to use their own smartphones, a development that quickened their inevitable withdrawal from us.

Cyberspace is more intense and exciting than the real world, a world of continuous competition and commerce. It's also easier to navigate. But what grabs our attention there isn't necessarily what's needed for us to grow well.

While we were working out boundaries for our children, I began to think about boundaries for us, looking for other ways to find joy and meaning in our own lives in the hope we could spark it in our kids, because it isn't children who are driving the digital revolution. It's us, adults.

Screens everywhere

We have normalised the extraordinary take-up of personal screens. Schools have made them compulsory. Adults have become dependent, blurring the lines between public and private, home and work.

It's making everyone in the family more emotionally brittle, less present. It was just this week, when at a school assembly I noticed how many grown-ups — there, after all, to eye-ball and champion students — were scrolling and checking notifications habitually.

Smartphones have thinned relationships. If parents and carers are constantly checking their devices, their children feel less important. If your partner is on the phone all day and night, your relationship with your partner suffers. It makes it hard to be at ease. It is a recipe for anxiety.

We have always sought to be entertained. My parents' and my generation were mesmerised by the television, which replaced the hearth or the fire. The difference with modern media and families is that the television set was in the centre of a common space and the evening shows were usually watched together.

The smartphone is more than a tool, it has become a metronome; dictating a rhythm that deprives us of the ability to concentrate on just one thing. One of them is conversations; active-listening, 'ebb and flow' conversations that matter. Without face-to-face conversations we find it harder to reflect. For children growing up, conversations are the bedrock of development. A way to fight back is "table-time talk" over dinner at least a few times a week.

How I quit my phone

A few years ago I became so concerned about where technology was taking us that I quit Facebook and more dramatically, quit my phone-dependent job. I went into rehab in the form of art school — getting messy with paint and clay and observing the world in a different way. There are screens and the performative elements of social media in the art world too, but they are not obligatory.

Even the most simple exercise of drawing with charcoal or ink is therapeutic, especially for young people for whom playdates often involve screens.

"I have a student who loves his computer games but drawing from observation has helped him see," a teacher told me. "Sadly, you have to teach play these days."

How can you learn to play without getting messy?

During the July school holidays an art gallery assistant told me how apologetic parents were about their children leaving marks on tables after an art workshop. "We don't make art at home. It's too messy," one told her. "That's why we give them the iPad."

The physicality of art materials can be a surprise for those of us who aren't used to squeezing tubes of paint, mixing plaster moulds and gluing collaged paper. Using our hands is part of developing and strengthening eye coordination and neural pathways.

I reclaimed making and doing things with real materials. It also proved a way of engaging practical science and my whole body. Making complex sculptures proved very rewarding.

I learnt the basics of welding and timber work with a mitre. It took some risk, which is what we want our young people to do too.

Developing any skill, given time, requires discipline, patience and fortitude, which has got to be good for emotional agility, whatever your age.

My family's challenges haven't disappeared but they have eased as we have talked about them and invested in alternatives to screens. Not everyone can change jobs or quit to go to art school but in lesser ways we can all renew our passions and support lives offscreens.

As we do, we will find our children do too. They pay more attention to what we do than what we say.

First published by the ABC Online, August 17, 2019
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Sunday, July 7, 2019

Victoria should make the ACT schools think again about rush into screens

The Victorian Government ought to be congratulated. From next year it will ban the use of smartphones during school in all state schools.

Schools are where we expect our children to be safe, to develop co-operative and pro-social skills, and to grow their capacity to focus and become critical thinkers. Smartphones blunt those skills. They are (in the main) a tool for distraction and a weapon for online-bullying. Social media is fueling anxiety.

Victoria should make the ACT think about its headlong rush into screens in schools and a mental health crisis.

If adults are distracted and harassed by technology in the workplace, then you can be sure that children and young people are too, except that it’s worse for them because they have less wherewithal to withstand it. The part of the brain that controls decision making and considering consequences is less developed.

Limiting access to smartphones in schools won’t stop bullying. It’s an old-age problem that starts offline and more likely online after school hours, but it may help.

France and Canada have adopted similar bans. In NSW, smartphones are not allowed in primary schools. In time, we might see the results in NAPLAN scores.

School-aged children can tell you immediately which teachers they like. They are the teachers who take an interest in them, who are good at listening and create spaces for respectful learning. Their favourite teachers don’t sit at the front of the class checking notifications. So too, teachers expect students to tune in. They resent wasting time managing phones and having to remind students to put them away. A whole-of-school or better still, whole-of-state approach, makes it easier.

Victoria’s decision suggests that finally there is real resistance to the digital revolution. Parents were told, without caveats, that it would benefit their children. Parents were made to feel guilty for not providing smartphones, laptops and 24 hour connectivity, as if the screens are a childhood right. Others, seeing the impacts and wanting to slow technology’s march (like me), were frustrated by the mandated take-up in schools, especially here in the ACT, where it's offered little proactive and consistent support for managing screens.

Some parents will complain that the Victorian ban means they can’t contact their children in school hours. Frankly, when I send my kids to school I look forward to not hearing from them until after the bell rings. Front office staff have always known how to connect students to parents when needed.
High school principals lament the development of smartphones, because they allow children to contact their parents about problems before they speak to their teachers. Students go missing after parents picked them up without frontline staff knowing.

Smartphones have been with us for a decade. I have seen and felt their impact. They offer a kind of freedom — the freedom to connect and to be transported somewhere else. But they have made us dependent on them and their social media functions make us more fractious.

Victoria’s ban ought to improve the general wellbeing of its students, although cyberbullying is more likely to happen after hours than in school hours.

Researchers at the University of San Diego have found that teens who spend a lot of time in front of screens playing computer games, using social media, texting and video chatting are less happy than those who invest time in non-screen activities such as sports, reading newspapers and magazines and interacting face-to-face. The happiest teens use digital media for less than an hour a day. After one hour, they get increasingly unhappy as screen time rises.

On the other hand, social media is now so pervasive that it is sometimes needed to strengthen offline connections. Young people say they need to be online to know about social gatherings. Asking them to unplug is not straightforward.

Schools are only one battleground. The other is the home. The main time Australians teens are online is 5 pm to 10 pm. More than a quarter are still online between 10 pm and midnight (times when they are more likely to experience cyber-harassment).

Digital space has become an important place - part of an indivisible whole for children who were never taught or who have lost the art of doing things without their screens. Thankfully after a decade, the pendulum appears to be swinging back towards creating some kind of balance.

Some universities are limiting screen use in class. Exchange programs are reviewing successful applicants’ use of smartphones while on exchange in order to ensure they experience a true cultural exchange with their hosts.

Other Australian states ought to think about following Victoria’s lead. The ACT Education Directorate in particular ought to reexamine its shambolic headlong rush into digitising children’s lives, and consider pressing pause.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 1, 2019



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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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