Showing posts from 2015

Christmas & New Year offer time to reflect on peace and violence around us

This time of year brings to mind a stenciled piece of graffiti. It shows a child with his face scrunched up, crying over a pile of wrapped gifts. "I wanted you present, not these!"

This is a time when we would like to slow down to be more present. And it's a time when we are invited to think about peace.

In 2015 violence seemed to be everywhere, much of it arbitrary and horrendous. We were disturbed by it, continuous news magnified it in our minds.

Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff has often repeated that "we are living in the most dangerous of times". But folk like Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker say the idea that things are getting worse is one of the great misconceptions of our time.

"Accounts of daily life in medieval and early modern Europe reveal a society soaked in blood and gore," he says reflecting on his best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature. "For entertainment, one could nail…

Control orders on 14-year-olds an ethical dilemma

As the so-called war on terror escalates in the wake of the bombings in France, Attorney-General George Brandis wants to give police the power to place control orders on suspects as young as 14.

Control orders allow active monitoring, 1984-style.

Can they prevent acts of violence? The evidence suggests they can. As well as enabling the collection of evidence, control orders disrupt plans.

But the proposed law, part of a suite of anti-terror measures being investigated by a parliamentary committee, creates an ethical dilemma – especially at a time when the values of the West are under threat. In Western society it isn't normally a crime to think something. How can it be right to severely limit the freedom of someone as young as 14, just because they *might* later commit a crime?

It'll inevitably mean profiling. Islam doesn't have a monopoly on violence, but that's where the police will look. They don't have the resources to look everywhere.

Control orders a…

Responding to the needs of students with complex needs

A 10-year-old boy with autism would likely not have been held in a cage, albeit briefly, had his teachers felt the ACT Education and Training Directorate had been there to help them.

Submissions to the expert panel review released last month show ACT teachers felt overwhelmed by the growing numbers of students with disabilities and learning difficulties, and didn't know where to turn.

The 280-page report praises "an excellent school system" but points to woefully small numbers of school psychologists, to gaps in supports for students with challenging behaviours, to inadequate training and professional development for teachers, and to inadequate infrastructure; especially withdrawal and calming spaces for children.

So even though there was public outrage about the purpose-built blue cage the 10-year old boy was held in, the expert panel recommends the development of spaces with the same aim. Except they would be sensitive to the needs of the child. They must uphold a stud…

We've been bingeing on social media – it's time for a fast

African National Congress stalwart Mac Maharaj​ spent 12 years in prison plotting with Nelson Mandela before becoming a minister in the first post-apartheid government.

Reflecting on that time, Maharaj told the Financial Times that time was the most valuable thing they had. In government, there was no time to talk.

In prison Maharaj and Mandela discussed everything. Smashing rocks under South Africa's diamond-bright sky, they argued about ideology, ethics, language, poetry, culture. They were able to listen, and persuade.

You get the feeling that in our 21st century democracies time scarcely exists, despite the gravity and complexity of the issues we face. Here, members of parliament run all day trying to keep up with an impossible media cycle. Their staff are on coffee runs around the clock, ticking off engagement boxes, checking social media notifications. Our politicians might have time to test ideas with focus groups, but not with each other.

They become experts at "thin-…

War, remembering and forgetting

For one brief minute on the morning of November 11 the Australian War Memorial will come close to becoming what its director Brendan Nelson says it is every day of the year: the soul of our nation.

Set in a beautiful location at the base of Mount Ainslie on a site originally earmarked by Walter and Marion Griffin for leisure gardens and a national celebration centre, it is certainly solemn.

Much of it is dedicated to the proposition that Australia was forged in the Great War. But was it?

European Australia began as a series of penal colonies that waged wars against the local inhabitants, in the so-called Frontier Wars. It later welcomed people from many lands and crafted one of the world's first written constitutions. There was more than enough blood, machine and mettle to forge a nation – if that's what it takes to come of age – before World War I.

We're told that Australia was eager to participate. But it twice rejected conscription in referendums. They too were markers …

Romantic love: what's it good for?

In her best-selling 1970 work The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer urged a great awakening; for women to exercise their freedoms and stop being passive.

The Bachelorette put that to the test, 45 years later.

The female lead, 26-year-old Sam Frost, was indeed in the driver's seat, choosing a man on her own terms. She asserted her virility. In the last few episodes she intensely kissed all the men still standing.

But on the other hand, Frost was an advertiser's dream. Projected as The Ideal, she was slim, symmetrical, fair-skinned and mostly discreet.

Ours is a culture that urges individuality, but then pushes on us perpetual "types". Television does it best. The dwindling list of chosen blokes were all chiseled and sporty.

Hundreds of thousands of us watched it because we structure our whole lives around romantic love, philosophy Professor Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins of British Columbia University says.

It's a powerful force, yet we rarely wrestle with what it is. Is it …

Newstart not living up to its name

What do multitasking and the low level of Newstart have in common? New research suggests they both do something to our brain, and in Anti-Poverty Week the new Social Services Minister, Christian Porter, ought to pay attention.

As our new Prime Minister is fond of telling us, our future is increasingly tied up in technology (when has it not?). It inevitably means more multitasking. These days employers email us at night. We shop for shoes at our desks. We arrange business meetings while at the supermarket. Our children flip between devices while doing their homework.

As more and more things fight for our attention our mental bandwidth shrinks. There's only so much attention we can offer. Splitting it more and more ways impairs our ability to do anything well.

Harvard University professor Sendhil Mullainathan provides the link to the unemployment benefit Newstart.

At just $261.70 per week, it's hopelessly inadequate. Pensioners get $394.20 per week. Politicians staying in Canber…

I Consume Therefore I Am?

Buying is much more American than thinking, pop artist Andy Warhol once quipped. On last month’s visit to the United States, Catholic Pope Francis generated an enormous market for ‘things’, both spiritual and commercial.

It was thick with irony. While personally devoted to simplicity, Francis unleashed a hunger for products that surpassed what is usually associated with rock tours. New York was flooded with Pope posters, 'the Pope gives hope’ t-shirts, Pope caps, Pope bracelets and even Pope cheese that could be spread on Pope toast and then washed down with Pope beer. Instead of singing the hymn “The Great I Am” believers could have been singing “I Consume Therefore I Am”.

What is it about the human condition that makes us feel the need to bottle or wear things that are fleeting, even sacred, things that can’t be bottled or worn? Francis talks about being saved by the divine, of being in the world but not of it, yet all around him marketeers are offering objects that promise sal…

Deep democracy: a new model for politics?

It's been said often these past few days that Tony Abbott's prime ministership achieved little of substance. But that doesn't mean it didn't leave a legacy.

Adding to the dysfunction of the Labor years, for many it left a deeper disillusionment with politics, a thicker poison. Our disdain for politicians, our fatigue with their combativeness and repetition, remains. We got a lot of blame but few solutions. Malcolm Turnbull's win doesn't yet seem real. Could we really hope for something more sophisticated?

Abbott talked about creating opportunities but shut blinds, narrowed pathways. His pattern of support for powerful interests such as banks and coal mining companies over their customers and competing interests further disempowered the least powerful.

Abbott talked once about looking after "forgotten families" but made us brittle, more anxious and heartsick. However, he didn't kill our interest in politics. For some he did the opposite - he fertil…

Poverty is structural

There's a saying in the outback, when it's very cold it's a two-dog night. This particular Saturday afternoon in Canberra, on the wrong side of spring, it was a two-beanie day.

People were rugged up as they filed into Tuckerbox at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Hackett to purchase heavily discounted groceries. Tuckerbox is a weekly volunteer-run food outlet designed to assist people struggling with their weekly budgets.

It's food that can't be sold commercially due to bad labelling, incorrectly listed weights or fast-approaching use-by dates. Foodbank NSW and ACT collects it from manufacturers and retailers and Tuckerbox "sells" it for a small fee. Reciprocity is important. Customers like it. They are not getting a hand-out.

Tuckerbox is a sign of just how tough things have become for many people in Australia's richest city. It is one of several food banks in our suburbs and surrounds. Last month Anglicare opened Food Fair in Queanbeyan.

Faith communit…

Abbott is cutting Australia adrift

For a practicing Catholic supposedly bound to the teaching of his church, Tony Abbott appears to have little regard for one of its key tenets – the unity of humankind. Intense pragmatism has given him the space to divorce belief from behaviour.

On climate change, he acts is if Australia is cut off from the rest of the planet. It's the same with international aid.

This month, thousands of Australians took part in World Vision's 40 Hour Famine, many going hungry for the first time. It's a profound experience, which often leads to a lifetime of giving.

As we give in a private capacity, we expect our Commonwealth government to give on our behalf and commensurate with this country's wealth. But when surveyed, we overestimate the amount our government gives. We are surprised to learn that our contribution to international aid development has dipped to below 1 per cent of our federal budget and without even a debate or special vote on the subject.

China now gives more than Au…

Sex education: Start young and be frank

If we are serious about tackling interpersonal and family violence, work to prevent it has to start young. But how young? The answer is: as young as kindergarten, age five.

That was the recommendation made this week by campaigner Rosie Batty in her appearance before Victoria's Royal Commission into Family Violence.

It sits well with the evidence local groups have been amassing here in Canberra, where three women were killed by violent partners in quick succession earlier this year.

One of them is YWCA Canberra which, in partnership with ACT Office of Women, has just launched a web-based resource called Relationships Things.

It deals with what many parents and even schools don't, or don't deal with well – sex, and questions of consent. Even though sex education is formally part of the curriculum, its delivery is patchy. Too many schools don't do it.

"We have the birds and the bees and 'just say no', that's it," says Michael Flood who researches gen…

Teams have opponents

"Teams have opponents. Communities have friends." That was the message on the billboard of the Ainslie Church of Christ this month.

Members of its community were trying to send a message to the Prime Minister. They are worried that his oft-repeated use of the phrase "Team Australia" pulls people apart rather than brings them together.

Tony Abbott used the phrase late last year when announcing plans to scoop up metadata as part of the war on terror. He used it again in May when talking about the importance of integrating asylum seekers into the rest of the country. "What we have always said since coming to office back in September of 2013 is that we expect people to be part of Team Australia," he said.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane​ is worried about the term, warning that manufactured integration can "do more to divide than unite".

But what does the term mean?

Keysar Trad, founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Aus…

Hunter Valley shows folly of putting mines in farming country

Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt's decision to approve a giant 35-square-kilometre open cut coal mine on rich agricultural land near Gunnedah, north-eastern NSW, has sent shivers up the spines of those who know what's coming.

The Hunter, where I used to live and work, has learned lessons the hard way.

"You cannot have a mine operating on a ridge that has, for centuries, been making a contribution to groundwater," says one Hunter Valley local. "If this starts, it'll be one of many. Most mining applications are extended. Miners apply for more country to wreck."

Jack [not his real name] has seen huge impacts in the Upper Hunter, especially Muswellbrook which has enjoyed a boom and then a bust. The valley has been scarred forever.

Jack is a successful agribusiness person. He used to run cattle. He represents a constituency that is disillusioned by both sides of politics and keen to see a fresh run of independents. "Barnaby Joyce could have done a…

Commodification of education a slippery slope

The daft and radical idea of charging high-income parents for public schooling included in a secret draft of a federation green paper was canvassed by one ABC reporter as an attack on the culture of entitlement. But it might be the opposite.

Many members of my extended family are teachers, among them my husband's mother. Margaret taught maths at an Adelaide girls school. She used to pile up gifts of perfume and soap in her bedroom wardrobe. While education is a right, to her students it was also a gift. Margaret received something other than soap in return: the opportunity to teach emerging adults. The respect and appreciation was mutual.

Entitlement creates neither gratitude nor engagement. This is a key finding of Dr Kerry Howells, a teacher educator at the University of Tasmania. She found that the more students were aware of the money they or their parents paid for education – be it school fees or higher education contributions – the less grateful they felt. The less grateful …

The trouble with e-learning

Most young people have a palpable passion for e-learning. Yet I'll admit being reluctant to sign up my kids up to BYOD. It stands for "bring your own device".

Many ACT schools are making it compulsory. Students will have to bring their own device as their school provides high-speed Wi-Fi. Fast internet access has already been rolled out to most secondary schools. With money confirmed in this month's Barr budget, in a few years it will be rolled out to every primary school.

My concerns are not about cost, although there are equity issues especially for low-income or larger families. Schools are selling Chromebooks for a few hundred dollars. I am more concerned about the potential impact on my kids' attention-span, memory and sleep as the policy more intensely ties our home to the school's digital classrooms and homework load.

Social media sites will be blocked by the Wi-Fi system on campus. E-learning in the classroom is not limited to the internet but a BYOD …

Legacy of racist laws not easily erased

A seminal moment in Martin Luther King's early life was getting a bus across town to Booker T. Washington high school.

People of his colour were told to sit at the back. "I would end up having to go to the back of that bus with my body, but every time I got on that bus I left my mind on the front seat," he wrote. "And I said to myself: one of these days I'm going to put my body there where my mind is."

"I had seen police brutality with my own eyes and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts," the preacher and civil rights activist said in the mid-20th century. "I also learned that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice."

These days anyone can ride in the front. Barack Obama occupies the White House. But barriers remain that prevent the true joining of bodies and minds, and not just in the United States.
In Ferguson, Missouri, and in South Carolina police officers routinely shoot unarmed b…

Struggle Street and a hard-earned win for charities

You wouldn't know it from the budget papers, but the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission is here to stay.

Budget Related Paper 1.16 uses the same studiously neutral language it used last time...

"The ACNC provides independent determination and registration of charities, health promotion institutions, and public benevolent institutions for all Commonwealth purposes."

"The implementation of a 'report-once, use-often' general reporting framework is to reduce red tape and simplify the regulatory framework... to make it easier for not-for-profits to deliver their services to the community."

"On March 19, 2014, the government introduced the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Repeal Bill. However, the ACNC will continue to operate in its current form whilst the current ACNC Act remains in effect and the program expenses reflect this."

What's happened behind the scenes is that the government has given up abolis…

In search of policy logic and certainty

Tony Abbott came into office seeking to be the "infrastructure prime minister". Imagine him pulling down bridges and ripping up roads. Of course not. There would be outrage. He'd be accused of reckless vandalism.

The Prime Minister hasn't been blowing up rail lines, but in the past 20 months he has been ripping policy infrastructure. Big time. It's as if none of the work that that has gone before him matters.

During the election he claimed to be on a "unity ticket" with Labor on the Gonski school funding reforms. "We will honour the agreements that Labor has entered into," he said. "We will match the offers that Labor has made. We will make sure that no school is worse off."

Right after the election Labor's Gonski report disappeared from government websites. It didn't return to public view until a Fairfax journalist put in a freedom of information request which forced its publication under a rule requiring documents releas…

Finding meaning in the marathon

If you want to see suffering, stand at the finish line of a marathon. On Sunday after the Canberra Running Festival, bodies were strewn around the lawns in front of Old Parliament House as if on a battlefield; their faces full of agony and relief. 

Anguish is a visitor at the start line too. When the gun is fired an excited fear hits the road of runners. For newcomers it's the promise of unfamiliar territory. The best trainers will tell you that while the lasting benefits of a marathon come in the training, you should never train the full 26 miles (about 42 kilometres). You leave the last six miles "unexplored".   

That's because there's a race within a race. At the 20-mile mark muscles can run out glycogen, causing intense pain as the body searches for something else to burn. It's called "hitting the wall". Other human processes can break down as well. 

There's no way I'd attempt a marathon. I've been a wheezy asthmatic, fighting for ai…