Thursday, December 31, 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 a cat to a post and try to head-butt it to death."

Who should we believe? The new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Sideshow Alley, sides with Pinker. It provides a sobering and macabre reminder of the institutional savagery at the heart of colonial Australia. The standard life was not much more than three score and 10. And you could be killed by bush-rangers just for travelling on a road.

We have always been challenged to sit between imprudent optimism and overt pessimism about violence and peace; to be real about threats and supposed crises and to keep our fears in check.

It may seem remote, but at the time of the first Christmas the world was also full of change and turmoil. It was subject to globalisation, empires (as opposed to nation states) flexing their muscles, bringing both stability and great injustice.

Regardless of whether we are more or less violent than in the past, it is certainly true that we are less likely to deny the existence of violence. The British never really told themselves about the slave trade or the treatment of the Irish. Family violence and abuse in the church and in children's homes long existed but wasn't acknowledged.

Helping us acknowledge violence may be the very thing that makes us scared: the modern media. But acknowledging violence is part of the solution.

Former leader of the Uniting Church in Australia James Haire has worked in Indonesia since the 1970s and helped broker peace between Christians and Muslims over many years. He says he told Indonesian political leaders the facts; that they were inflicting hideous violence on Muslims. They reminded him of crimes by the Dutch. He didn't argue with them. Each side acknowledged its actions. It became the foundation for something new, something better.

Peace can't be based or sustained on over-positive assessments of religion and the human condition. Wounds have to be healed the hard way.

Haire's friend, Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, former President of Indonesia often used to say, "Peace without justice is an illusion".

"I completely agreed with Gus," Haire tells me. "You can only begin the peace process with total transparency and frankness." Peace in the fullest sense of the word is not just the absence of violence, but the presence of justice.

Peace does need an ability to think afresh, to reconsider calcified views. Gun reform in the United States is difficult because of hardened views about it. Australians never developed entrenched positions. Systems, in all their variety and intensity, can "fix" people into limited views and make them less able to see possibilities for change.

Violence is best overcome by the knowledge that there's an alternative. Peace grows when we feel and experience alternatives. Jesus, whose birth we are remembering at Christmas, was a breath of fresh air. He turned expectations upside down. He was a victim of extreme violence, becoming the ultimate scapegoat. But he taught us something by embodying an alternative ethic.

Christmas and new year offer space and inspiration for other ways of being. It's a good time to gain perspective and fresh perspectives. Shalom to you this season.

First published in The Canberra Times, December 18, 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

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 are expensive. They require rotating shifts, 24/7. Counter-radicalisation programs are far cheaper and they seem to work for young people, if not for adults whose minds are more set.

Fourteen year olds can and do take part in extreme violence. Some suicide bombers are even younger. But they are invariably egged on by adults.

This is not an argument that sees children and young people as innocents as that would deprive them of agency; able to make their own choices.

But we have a extra special responsibility to them and that responsibility requires a commitment to understand them.

Adults can easily forget what it's like to be a teenager. And it's adults who draft laws.

Every culture is predicated on the expression of some passions and beliefs, the exploitation and denial of others. Cultures use visible and invisible rules to neutralise reckless and dangerous pursuits in favour of mature ones.

Advances in neuroscience are helping us get kids. In search of personal heroes and heroines who can assist them in constructing the self – young people can be steered towards an alternative course, realigned with the expectations of their community. They may be less likely to do so if living with the threat of punitive control orders for uncommitted crimes.

We know that their ego is under construction. Their identities are somewhat fractured at the same time as recognise and articulate a world they know to be broken. In seeking to be integrated they seek out and readily identify with characters who they think are consistent, have integrity or commonly offer a way they see as restoring justice. Because of a deep ideological hunger and often a sense of urgency about the meaning of life, adolescents are especially capable of making commitments, even self sacrifice, that challenge the norm.

A family counselor and friend of mine, now in his 50s, is candid about the heroes in his adolescence: "Ned Kelly and before him, Ben Hall, a bush ranger who felt poorly treated by the judiciary and sought to correct things."

"Look at the kids who went to Anzac. They lied about their age because they wanted to be part of something bigger and do something heroic. We forget that; that pull on them as lost souls. The call to join IS; what's the attraction? Participating in something bigger, wanting to make decisions for themselves."

The ACT government and local Muslim community are against the extension of control orders, as a potential breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Their concerns echo those of the national Human Rights Commission; using laws to control the behaviour of a young person when they have committed no crime could be counter-productive.

Lowering the control order age to just 14 risks adding to negative images of young people especially those of Muslim faith who may need stronger support services and mentoring relationships.

This is a vexed issue. Whoever is in government, Labor and the Coalition know they would be crucified if a bomb was to go off here that led to multiple deaths. Recent attacks reiterate that Western governments are not making up the jihadist terror threat.

But just because governments are right in their fight, doesn't mean they are right about everything to do with it.

First published in The Canberra Times, 12 December 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

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 student's dignity.

Withdrawal spaces include tents and low-lit "nooks" with cushions. They must be monitored, have no locks, and most importantly, be used by students on a voluntary basis.

The independent report finds that many teachers believe in inclusive schooling but have been unable to deliver it in classrooms as they have been pulled in many directions by multiple demands. It acknowledges that physical restraint is sometimes necessary but says teachers should be open about it to avoid situations where "a well-intentioned response is inappropriate or becomes abusive".

It says ACT schools are not always good at providing documentation and oversight around seclusion and restrictive practices, and criticises the Directorate for not having clear and practical guidelines to direct teachers.

And it says teachers are being pressured by the Commonwealth to teach with less flexibility in order to meet minimum national standards. Rigorous testing satisfies the Commonwealth, but it can get in the way of building relationships that make schooling work.

Central themes in the report are relationships and "classroom climate", the environment in which schooling takes place.

Teachers and leaders who have time to observe and understand students are more likely to tailor their teaching and support for those students. Those who build high-quality relationships with students have considerably fewer disciplinary problems than those who don't.

It's not just the teacher-student relationships that matters but also relationships between teachers and parents and carers. Developing a strong home-school rapport takes time and often needs to be initiated by the school because of barriers that prevent some carers from engaging. They include negative past experience of school, financial stress, poor health or lack of childcare.

Sometimes parents' grief over a child's disability or disorder makes it hard to see what their child's education needs are and how to advocate on their behalf. The report urges school leaders to go the extra mile to develop these relationships early because family involvement in a child's learning is linked to reduced challenging behaviour.

The expert panel consulted widely, hearing from students, teachers and agencies. They talked frankly about their experiences, holding out hope the Directorate listens. The fact the Directorate has adopted all 50 recommendations signals it wants to honour their input.

There are some interesting statistics too. The numbers of students being suspended in ACT public schools has significantly dropped over the past four years. It's a surprise to learn that despite receiving public funds, there is no requirement for Catholic and Independent schools to report to the Directorate on suspensions and exclusions. Surely that has to change.

As children with complex needs and disabilities are entitled to integration, then all states and territories have to find and justify the expense of supporting integration. The ACT is too small a jurisdiction not to deliver an effective and coordinated multi-agency, whole of government approach, especially now with more evidence of what works.

Strengthening the Network Student Engagement Teams, as the government intends, is welcome. Better case management, pulling in experts from across disciplines, is key. The new ACT student resource allocation program, which kicks in from next year, offers complimentary reform that gives school leaders more autonomy to better address student needs.

The relationship between the Directorate and schools has clearly been under-nourished. The sustained and hard work needed to implement the recommendations should result in schools knowing and trusting that the Directorate is there to help rather than ready to pounce and scapegoat when things go wrong.

First published in The Canberra Times, November 30 2015

Saturday, November 21, 2015

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-slicing" – a term Malcolm Gladwell​ popularised in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. It means making snap decisions based on thin slices or narrow windows of information, rather than weighing things up and the experience of many others.

Parliamentarians are trained by their circumstances not to pause for long but develop strategies that create a semblance of having dealt with issues. While they have always been expected to respond to issues promptly, the speed at which issues come up (and arguably the expectations journalists have of them to respond quickly) has intensified.

Every democracy has been challenged by the rise of social media.

As unpleasant as prison was for Maharaj and Mandela, they were given the luxury of time to make sense of the world without the incessant beat of Twitter and Facebook. Mandela studied his captors, learned and learnt to love their Afrikaans language.

Facebook and its clones may be making us "infobese" – exposed to news and views, but still hungry and no wiser. ABC Four Corners this week showed us our young people overly anxious about the future, supercharged by social media.

Google the words: "Love to hate Facebook" and you'll find an avalanche of posts. Many of those who hate Facebook also acknowledge that they can't live without it. It's become essential, but they don't like it.

Social media still unsettles me, years on. All the more so when I hear it will one day determine the results of elections. It's apparently close to overtaking television and radio as the main means of reaching voters.

Here's what worries me:

1. It can shrink rather than enhance connections. By allowing us to view rather than take part in others' lives, it can turn us into voyeurs. It's a medium for performance rather than conversation. Even the harmless-looking LinkedIn tells users how many people have been looking at their profile.

2. It makes everything seem as urgent as everything else, putting the sacred next to the profane on the same screen and asking us to look at the lot. It's true that advertising has always sat alongside news on radio, television and in print, but we used to know which was which.

3. It doesn't invite sustained thinking or action. Scott Stephens, charge of the ABC's Twitter account, says while social media lands him in the middle of wonderful discussions he wouldn't have otherwise had, it's a bit like photography as described by Susan Sontag​ in the 1970s. It can convey meaning powerfully, whipping up a moral storm, but its power evaporates because it isn't a tool for action.

4. It seems to be eroding our capacity to be patient and civil with each other. Although it pretends to "engage", it often just entrenches tribalism. We speak to "our kind" with less desire to reason or exercise empathy for others. It can really take its toll, especially if you're on the receiving end. After a day filled with Twitter my husband becomes terse in real life, until he adjusts.

What can we do about it? Here are some ideas:

1. Spend some of the time you would normally spend on social media volunteering and interacting with real people, face to face.

2. Use social media prompts about friends' birthdays to actually phone them. You'll deepen the relationship.

3. If you have a Twitter account, follow people who have different views to you and be open to considering them, even if you know you won't agree.

4. From time to time go on a fast. You'll return to social media less jaded after some time in the real world.

5. Go for more walks. It'll help you join the dots.

6. Go bush and camp.

7. Have more dinner parties where your mobile stays hidden.

In asking for slowness, real-world connections and reflection I am not suggesting doing nothing. I am suggesting getting more of what matters done.

First published in The Canberra Times, Friday November 20, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

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 of an independent nation in which people asserted the right to make their own decisions rather than to do what the state or Empire told them.

These days we are increasingly keen to revere our military history while being increasingly uninterested in critiquing it. As historian Peter Cochrane puts it: "Never has the Anzac tradition been more popular, and yet never have its defenders been more chauvinistic, bellicose and intolerant of other viewpoints".

It is right to ponder courage under pressure, bonds of mateship and ingenuity in adversity shown in war. But as eminent historian Henry Reynolds argues we are forever being told that "soldiers, not statesman are the nation's founders; men of blood more are more worthy of note than negotiators and conciliators".

The Memorial doesn't tell us much about the stories of opposition to war. It has a few lines on the anti-conscription campaigns, and little on the strengths of the Women's Peace Army, trade union strikes and other resistance movements, all important parts of our war story.

It does tell us more than it used to, exploring the role of peacekeepers and touching on the trauma and suffering of returning servicemen and women and their families, mainly through the work of contemporary artists. The author of The Cost of War, Stephen Garton says there have been three times as many suicides of Australian veterans of Afghanistan as combat deaths. Visiting the War Memorial, patrons wouldn't easily know that or anything else that undermines a narrative about strategic necessity.

The Memorial does tell us more about Aboriginal troops. But it doesn't tell us about the wars in which Indigenous people were on the other side.

An organisation called Sovereign Union has for some time been seeking to meet with Brendan Nelson to put its case. It's written to Dr Nelson and not got a reply. Convenor Michael Anderson wants to know why the Memorial excludes battles that were central to Australia's story. It can't be a lack of funds. The Memorial just spent $32 million redeveloping the its World War I galleries, with "the story of who we are" little changed.

Three decades ago Peter Stanley, the memorial's principal historian, gave internal advice that it should recognise and commemorate Australia's Frontier Wars. Its Act requires it to remember Australians who died "as a result of any war or warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service". Nelson has publicly said that the National Museum of Australia is better suited to the role.

Writing in the Griffith Review, historian Clare Wright thinks that what's really interesting about Remembrance Day is what we choose to forget.

Like the art movement Cubism – which shows the many facets of a subject – there are ways to show the many different facets of wars. While this writer understands it is a war memorial and not a peace museum, it should be possible for the institution to show high noble purpose (where it exits) as well as ghastly futility (where it exists) as well as everything in between.

In this year of all years, in the centenary of what we are told was our seminal war, it's surely time to remember more. Our memorial risks demeaning us if it papers over the very real divisions we have had over wars and by failing to acknowledge some of our earliest.

Memorials should tell the unvarnished truth. They are meant to shed light on our past in order to better prepare us for the future.

Last month, at the 30th anniversary of the hand-back of 'The Big Rock' to its local Indigenous owners, parliamentarians from all major parties spoke about another heart of the nation. It was Uluru, where the soul of Australia (if we assume there is only one) really resides.

First published in The Canberra Times, November 6, 2015.

After publication readers pointed out two other things that suggest Australia's coming of age:
The 1915 Commonwealth income tax system made a big contribution to forging Australia, as it set up unique social protections (among them pensions, maternity allowance, child endowment and unemployment benefits). In 1902, Australia was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in federal elections and stand for federal parliament.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

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 a social norm or is it built into our biology?

In fact, it's both. Ichikawa Jenkins says we are both hard-wired for it and pressured into it. People in their 30s are consumed by fear they are running out of time.

It was my teenage daughter who prodded me into watching the show. Her keen interest made me curious. I groaned at some of it, but ended up grateful for what the "reality" TV melodrama threw up for us to discuss in the ad breaks.

We liked Sam's vulnerability (taking us with her as she exposed herself to the ultimate male gaze); her preparedness to talk about earlier relationships and to make sense of the humiliation of being dumped by Blake, the man of her dreams, whom she met on a different show, The Bachelor, just months ago. She burnt toast while the men vying for her attention made elaborate meals. Awesome.

Why, I asked, were the men's occupations often discussed – as if it helped define them – but not Frost's? (She is a marketing manager.)

There were no on-camera glimpses into Sam Frost the entrepreneur or Sam Frost the advocate. What was she passionate about? What contribution did she dream of making to the world? We saw no aspiration beyond finding Mr Right. Yet the program was directed towards young women who presumably have wanted more than that from their lives.

It also irked me that the contestants repeatedly referred to Sam as a "girl" – a lovely, nice girl – not as a woman.

There were some signs we had moved on. Contestant Michael asked Sam if she would contemplate proposing to a bloke, just as his mother had to his father. Sure, women "can take things into their own hands", Sam said. Michael was masculine without being macho. Maybe men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus.

However, there's finding love and there's finding meaning. The program didn't really explore the latter. There was talk about being "happy together" but little discussion about what that meant.

In his book on love and sexuality, The Transformation of Intimacy, philosopher Anthony Giddens says modern relationships feed each partner's needs and can dissolve as easily as they are formed.

Canberra poet John Foulcher has thought a lot about love. He says what attracts people is their scars, not their good points. "You fall in love with their flaws," he says. Sam was haunted by the idea of being heartbroken again. The men, knowing that, spoke to her wound with reassuring words.

Research shows that romantic love is like gender: it comes on a spectrum. You can romantically love more than one person, just as you can be afraid of more than one thing. Sam understood this for herself, admitting a crush for all of three of the finalists.

We wish her and "the winner" Sasha good luck as they give this love-thing a try in the real world. But here's some advice from philosophers and life-long partners Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Their relationship was, we'd have to say, very liberal, but happiness for them was about finding harmony. It had to be worked at. They said friendship was the key, as well as having other projects, other sources of meaning.

Romantic love is often sold as a replacement for meaning. That's too much to ask of it.

First published in The Canberra Times, October 23, 2015.

Friday, October 16, 2015

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 Canberra get $271 per night.

When you have barely enough (or not even enough) to cover the cost of accommodation you worry. It taxes your mental bandwidth. If an unexpected expense pops up (of the kind that wouldn't worry someone with money) you almost shut down.

Mullainathan says there are a lot of similarities between the time-poor and money-poor. The money-poor are late paying bills, the time-poor are late turning stuff in.

Neither thinks particularly well.

Under intense time pressure, the time-poor are likely to retreat to Angry Birds, as crazy as that seems. Under financial pressure, the money-poor are likely to resort to high interest payday loans. Yes, it will make their predicament worse, but it will solve their immediate problems, the only ones they have the bandwidth to see.

"It makes total sense to be fixated on solving the immediate problem with borrowing," he told the London School of Economics. They have a real fire they need to fight today."

When people suggest other options, they look at them with incredulity. "It's like their house is burning down and they are coming to the well for water, while others are saying: have you thought about the sustainability of this well?"

When sick, the poor are less likely to take their medication. They'll worry about what it will cost them. It isn't that they are inherently less capable of thinking straight than someone with money, it's that the lack of money triggers worries that degrade their ability to think beyond the fire.

More and more unemployed Australians are staying out of work rather than finding jobs. The Council of Social Service reports that seven out of 10 Australians on Newstart have been out of work for more than a year, up from six out of 10 just three years ago. In part it's due to the weak labour market, but it may also be due to the wearing effects of being unemployed and forever worried about money.

Mullainathan says the one thing you shouldn't do with people whose mental bandwidth is degraded, is tax it some more.

Would you say to the money-poor: I have this really great program for you but you have to pay $500 upfront, he asks. We don't, but he says we sometimes throw a 50-page booklet at them, or a survey 50-questions long.

Payments have been reduced under the so-called welfare-to-work policies of successive governments but the Abbott government devised its own torture.

It its first budget it demanded that most job seekers apply for 40 jobs per month. To tax them further it denied them Newstart for the first six months.

It's since backed down in the face of an intransigent Senate. It now wants only 20 jobs per month, and a one-month wait for the dole. But if it really wanted to make the unemployed more fit for work, it would lift Newstart.

Organisations as mainstream as the Business Council of Australia and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have begged it to do so for some time.

Research commissioned for the government's pension review found one in 10 Australians on Newstart were unable get a substantial meal each day, one in eight were unable to buy prescribed medicines, and one in 20 were unable to heat their homes. The results were far worse than for pensioners, many of whom were not that badly off.

Malcolm Turnbull and Christian Porter have it in their power to ease up on the unemployed, to allow them to live and search for work with some dignity, and without financial threats gnawing away at their every decision. They have the ability to give them bandwidth, to enable Newstart to live up to its name.

First published in The Canberra Times, 16 October, 2015

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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 salvation in the form of material objects.

I get it. As a visual artist-in-training, I assume people will continue to want to put pictures on their walls. When I went to see Michael Jackson at the Sydney Entertainment Centre as a schoolgirl in the 1980s I just had to bring home something to keep the feeling going. It was a book full of posters of Jackson looking ‘bad’, sponsored by Pepsi. Now with teenagers of my own, I am reminded of the cultural pressures to frame our lives with products to shape our story.

We buy things because we can, because we want to and for what we think they can bring us. We want what surrounds them, the idea behind them. It happens when we are hollowed out spiritually. The less right we feel, the more we buy things that we think will make us right.

Corporations know this. They sell products associated with values in the hope that we will buy the products in order to buy the values.

Andy Warhol, who held a lifelong Catholic faith, understood it too, selling Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley prints and pictures of Brillo Boxes and Campbell's Soup cans. He was attacked for “capitulating” to consumerism but he was really doing was documenting the selling of identity. (When he wasn't making art, he worked in his congregation’s soup kitchen, the very opposite of selling out).

Spring is a good time to clean out our cupboards and shed those things we no longer need. There are garages throughout the suburbs just waiting to be liberated (Look out for the Majura School Spring Carnival and the National Garage Sale Trail on October 24). For me it’s also a time to think again about what I collect and why, to ask: ‘how much stuff is enough?’.

Pope Francis wants us to reflect on simplicity, on the virtues of modesty over show. You get the feeling that he is more interested in a battle with materialism than he is a battle over doctrine.

And it’s not only him. University researchers are increasingly interested in “voluntary radical simplicity” - a so-called middle way between over and under consumption. University of Melbourne researcher Dr Samuel Alexander describes it as the pursuit of “a sufficient standard of living” through non-material sources of wellbeing. As an example, he suggests exchanging some of our things for more free time.

He is promoting the idea of eco-villages that are “not escapist, but spaces to provoke thought and expand our ecological imaginations”. He says we shouldn’t forget the little things that reduce our footprint - walking to the shops, recycling, turning off the lights. But adds that we need creative and radical thinking that goes beyond simply giving up stuff.

It’s hardly a new idea. Alexander has harvested ideas from figures such as Buddha, Henry Thoreau and Jesus, who provoked his followers with “where your treasure is that is where your heart is also” (Old and contemporary prophets in all their shapes and sizes are like stones in our shoe, annoying but a potential gift).

We have become so wedded to consumption (those of us in Canberra are counting down to the opening of Ikea) that untangling ourselves from it is heavy going. Pope Francis may well have more success fighting sections of his Catholic Church over doctrine than he will in weaning the world off materialism.

The argument for easing back on acquisitions exists independently of arguments about the environment and climate change. It’s about living with ourselves and experiencing the profound and sacred rather than grasping at substitutes for it. Even if our consumption affected the rest of the world little it would be important to get it in perspective.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

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 fertilised the fruits of activism. He got us more involved in an attempt to rebuild our democratic process.

Seeing action as an antidote to despair, all sorts of Australians became incredibly active, waging "lawfare" in the courts, blazoning walls with protest art, marching through cities and staging candle-light vigils even as Abbott made those things more difficult.

Now with a new prime minister, restoring confidence in our democracy will require far more than tweaking the way senators are elected.

Keeping promises is vital, as is articulating a vision. Vision leads directly to values. What is politics for? What is the purpose of public life, its meaning, its shaping and guiding principles? And, most important, what is a good society?

But in enunciating a vision, public alienation can only be turned around with something more, something that shifts us from the superficial form of democracy based on voting and majority rule.

The movement is called deep democracy. It treats majority rule as merely a starting point. It engages minorities as well as the majority, seeking out what they have to say.

The approach asks the question: "what would it take for you to come along and join the majority?". The question isn't an invitation for anyone to betray their views. The process is a means of respecting other views so that majority decisions are better. The idea is that after being listened to, minorities are less likely to disrupt the decision reached by the majority.

It's an approach that can be used whenever there's a difference of opinion - in politics, in workplaces, in the home. It changes the atmospherics by acknowledging where people agree as well as where they differ. It mines the wisdom of alternatives and minority views, tries to find grains of truth and common ground. Deep democracy has been used to great effect in corporate South Africa, where hierarchies have been flattened post apartheid and people need fresh ways to get along.

Woody Allen once joked that relationships are like sharks: they need to move or they die. Democracy is a relationship. It needs respectful engagement. Turnbull seeks to connect with Australians via technology, in a way Abbott never did.

Writing on the future of democracy in his book All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies and the Politics of Dignity, American social reformer Robert W. Fuller holds out the prospect of a "dignitarian model of politics". It's another version of deep democracy. Rankism, he says, is a major cause of disrespect and stops us from going beyond the surface. In Fuller's version, conservative and progressive parties openly engage without fear or malice until they reach a common understanding, instead of being locked in stalemate. Australia's adversarial system doesn't support that approach. It fosters conflict; Abbott's war mentality.

Many Australians, including this writer, are fed up with our hyper-adversarial system of politics. If Turnbull is serious about intelligent conversation (as he says he is) he will not only consult with his own but also reach out to others, knowing that the very act of reaching out is important.

In his first question time with Turnbull as leader, Labor's Bill Shorten extended an olive branch, offering an honest exchange of ideas. What if Turnbull took it up? It would build more confidence in democracy than any of the arm wrestles we see in the Senate.

If deep democracy became entrenched in our culture personal attacks would backfire, discrediting their purveyors instead of their targets.

We would still have arguments, but they would be respectful and civil. They would acknowledge agreement as well as differences. They would acknowledge what matters. Otherwise, it's business as usual and history repeating itself, as it often does.

First published in The Canberra Times, September 24, 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015

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 communities see them as an extension of the Eucharist. They feed people, many of whom feel excluded. The project is a statement of solidarity.

But they are not a sustainable solution. They are like blankets for the homeless: useful when it's cold, but not able to get them into affordable housing. The more blankets and food banks we need, the greater the evidence that we are not lifting people out of poverty.

A new global report out this week shows a third of older Australians are living in poverty. In the wake of last week's poor economic data and evidence of declining overall living standards, we ought to be deeply concerned about what we are doing to tackle poverty and income inequality.

The Abbott government isn't keen on tackling it directly. Here is its latest slogan: "Backing Hard-working Australians".

To the extent that it does have a plan for tackling poverty it is built around the philosophy of "help trickling down". It believes that if businesses face less red-tape they are more likely to employ people, and so on. If they employ more people with a disability, then so much the better. But the neat theory hides all sorts of barriers to people actually getting jobs and keeping them.

Treasurer Joe Hockey might have his heart in the right place, but he is disconnected from many people's realities. In his world, poor people "either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far in many cases".

They just need to get better jobs. It's easy enough, if that's what they want. Those that remain poor are demonised for apparently not wanting a better job. They lack aspiration. Their communities are full of cultural deficits. Meanwhile, funds for services to help them have been cut. Not-for-profit organisations have been put through a tumbler, losing grants and expertise.

In his new book The Politics of Luck, Canberra politician Andrew Leigh reminds us of the importance of random events. Bad luck is extraordinarily powerful. It can change the course of many lives in an instant. Bad luck – those shifts of fate that can strike any minute – is why we need a safety net.

If our leaders don't recognise it, they end up running self-help movements rather than governments, assuring us that all we need is motivation and implying that poverty is the result of moral failure.

There's a quote doing the rounds on Facebook from Women's Rights News: "If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire."

The words sit over an image of a woman with a baby slung to her front and lengths of timber many times her weight tied to her back.

A word search of the Treasurer's speeches reveals that he only mentions poverty when he is talking about economic growth or trade liberalisation. It's always poverty overseas.

Compare that with New Zealand's Treasurer, Bill English, who has ensured that his centre-right government genuinely tackles inherited disadvantage. He has insisted that all new government spending (such as it is) relate to "social investment".

Children are his major focus. Understanding that poverty is structural, he has targets to wind back the long-term unemployment of their parents, to reverse the rise in child abuse, and sharply cut the rates of school dropouts and the rates of convicted children re-offending.

Australia doesn't have over-arching targets for reducing poverty. And there are no agreed measures of success or progress. It's convenient. It means people in power are less accountable.

First published in The Canberra Times, September 19, 2015

Thursday, August 27, 2015

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 Australia. Its government is increasing the proportion of its income spent on aid while ours is cutting it.

It is doing so in part because it feels somewhat responsible for the fate of the planet. China is capping its emissions by 2030 for the same reason.

Australia's decade-long Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands was expensive but worthwhile. By building the local government's capacity to deliver services, we helped build livelihoods and reduced the likelihood of military disruption.

Marc Purcell, who heads the Australian Council for International Development says Timor is another case in point. He says of our cuts to foreign aid: "We'll pay for it in the future, as we have done in the past, with bouts of instability and security threats because we didn't use all the levers at our disposal."

The expertise within AusAID, the agency now merged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade under Julie Bishop, appeared to be missing in action, if not ignored, to establish what programs are working and where to cut.

Aid is not charity. It's about supporting good governance, enabling environments and entrepreneurship.

It is possible to understand why we are withdrawing from Vietnam, which is a middle-income country now helping its neighbours. But it's hard to understand why we are withdrawing aid from Afghanistan after a decade-long military campaign in which we put lives at risk. Military intervention, whether in Iraq or now pending in Syria is not cheap either, especially when there are no clear objectives or an end point.

And we are withdrawing aid from Burma, right in the middle of a transition to civilian rule with elections now due in November.

Abandoning Africa the very year Ebola threatened the entire world defies logic. Africa has the highest number of countries in the world in poverty, but has massive massive assets; among them a burgeoning population of high-energy young people and enviable natural resources. As a resource-rich country ourselves we've so much to offer, including how to deal with resource companies. Yet, we've cut our Africa program by a staggering 70 per cent.

For a prime minister keen to frame his leadership in national security terms, international aid and solid action on climate change are areas Abbott could actually make his own.

It's important to be part of the world, even while we are looking after ourselves. In Britain the Conservative government of David Cameron has boosted foreign aid, lifting it by 28 per cent in the past year. Our own conservative prime minister seems keener on cutting us adrift.

First published in The Canberra Times, August 27, 2015

Thursday, August 13, 2015

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 gender and interpersonal violence at Wollongong University. "Comprehensive sex education is under attack in some parts of the education system." He means religious schools.

This is at a time when the internet and personal devices have massively increased the availability of violent computer games and toxic pornography, predominantly aimed at boys and men. It's where many first encounter sex.

The challenge for schools, with the support of carers and parents, is to commence early: to instil the tools and strategies needed to build respectful relationships. Violence is at the end of a spectrum. It can begin with angry words and actions, bullying.

Real sex education has to explore power dynamics and everyday sexism. It's real.

A teenage student enrolled at the ANU told me that sexism made getting her driver's licence tricky.

"I was in the car with my driving instructor and we were talking about a one-off driving test and he told me that I should wear something sexy because most of the driving instructors are blokes. But that I should be careful at the same time because some blokes don't know how to take no for an answer. He said he tells this to most of his female students."

Stuck with him in the car, she laughed nervously. "It was really bad, but I decided to ignore him because we were driving in rush hour traffic.

It was 2015. Was she surprised? "Yes. I think we just have to keep talking about it and keep telling men, no, I am not an object."

The return of federal parliament had its brush with sexism this week when government minister, Senator George Brandis​ referred to interjections by Senator Penny Wong as "hysterical" and "shrill".

Parents and carers are even more important than schools in talking about these things. While they might feel they need to protect their children from too much information or be reticent about sharing it (relying on David Attenborough documentaries to spark conversations or leaving them until late in the day when their children are less likely to listen) the fact is that young people have a right to know their bodies and about personal safety.

Children pick up all sorts of cues from the world around them; from the news and advertisements, from stereotypes in their favourite TV shows, from what they see Mum and Dad doing at home – and they make sense of it.

What are they learning? I must say I was delighted when my five-year-old said the other day, "dads usually know about cars but in this family it's the opposite".

How is power held and used at your place? If your experiences of adult power were unhealthy growing up, doing things differently – while harder to do intentionally – is all the more important.

We have a long way to go. Many of the gains we thought we made aren't really there. Working to prevent sexual and family violence requires social change on a number of levels as part of a broader conversation about rights and respect. Boys and men have to hold other boys and men to account.

Sex can be seen as a product, an outcome, or as part of the array of experiences that tell us what it means to be human, valued and understood. It's about relationships, connections, the exhilaration and celebration of varied and rich friendships.

Let's take the fear out of it and let's equip young people to make positive choices so they are less likely to be hurt.

First published in The Canberra Times, August 13, 2015

Thursday, July 30, 2015

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 Australia, says it's a reasonable way to describe the expectation that migrants join the national "team", especially when it comes to combating the threat of violent radicalism. "The Prime Minister has to use language that even the lowest common denominator can understand," he tells me. Trad reckons it's similar to the language used by Australia's controversial mufti Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly​ between 1988 to 2007. Trad would know. He was Hilaly's interpreter and spokesman. "Sheikh Hilaly, while critical of then prime minister John Howard, used to say: Australia; love it or leave it," he says.

Others were less charitable. "Team Australia is a foil to justify the actions of a government that has broken more promises than most in living memory," said one. "It makes my stomach turn," said another. "Australia is bigger than any one team. The national cricket team has 19 players. We're more diverse than that. The term's just silly."

The problem with the two-word slogan is that reality can never match it. National identity is fluid and dynamic. It is not fixed.

The groups that gathered under the banner Reclaim Australia a fortnight ago make the point. Media reports suggest they were something of a multicultural mix, united, ironically, in their opposition to multiculturalism.

The booing of Adam Goodes makes the point in another way. Was he being taunted because he doesn't fit into so-called Team Australia, or because he is a "real Australian"?

Abbott has never really been asked to explain what he means by Team Australia. Instead journalists have adopted the term themselves. During a press conference this year about foreign investment a reporter asked: "To use the phrase Team Australia, how do you make sure foreign investors continue to play for Team Australia?" It's become a phrase used without understanding.

How better to wrap yourself in the flag? If we don't understand what Abbott means when uses the term, how can we be against it? Much like Howard before him, he literally surrounds himself with flags and takes every opportunity to be seen with men and women in uniform. It's both innocuous and assertive. Certainly stiff.

At times it's like a code for intolerance. While staying away from the Reclaim rallies himself, Abbott didn't stop one of his own MPs from attending. They rallies have fed the view that Australia was under attack and in need of fortifying.

Have you stepped into a souvenir store recently? There's not much complexity. Aboriginals are invariably desert dwellers. Surfers are male and the babes on the beach are fair and well endowed. There's nothing about domestic violence. Nothing on poverty in pockets of our cities and no images of open cut coal mines. Senior women are invisible. There's no one in Islamic dress. Difference is subordinated to a bigger story, the story of what is called "national culture".

It's Team Australia. It shrinks the bigger, complex and exhilarating Australia. It paints us in one dimension. Noise about national identity is turned up as a kind of coercion.

Prime ministers have a responsibility to present complexity. If they don't, who will? The media? There are important stories to be told about who we are and who we are becoming, and the man at the top isn't helping.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 30, 2015

Thursday, July 16, 2015

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 lot more, a lot sooner. The National Party appears just as compromised as the Liberal Party, in the pay packet of international companies."

He's also angry with former state Labor Minister Ian Macdonald (found to have acted corruptly by the Independent Commission Against Corruption over Doyles Creek mining licences) for granting an exploration licence to Shenhua​ for $300 million – in all likelihood knowing just how rare and magnificent the rich soil and irrigation of the plains around Gunnedah are.

"Someone's got this federal government by the short and curlies to keep the mining industry going," Jack continues. This week's nobbling of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation has added to his suspicions. "The Prime Minister denigrates wind turbines as eyesores. He's effectively saying that any farmer who put up a windmill on his farm 50 or 150 years ago is a clown. But a farmer's stock would have starved to death through shortage of water. There would not have been the rural development that we've had, were it not for wind power."

Jack also shares the skepticism of broad-acre Liverpool Plains farmers and others over Minister Hunt's approval of the mine, with "eighteen of the strictest conditions in Australian history which fully incorporate all advice".

"The conditions are not worth the paper they are written on," he tells me. "By the time these impacts are found out or acknowledged, it's too late and the damage is irreversible."

Now, Jack is no hippy from inner Sydney Newtown or Canberra's Ainslie. In an earlier life he worked in the mines. He says underground mines are modest compared with any open cut, but especially the one proposed for the Liverpool Plains.

"I had to work 45 pumps to keep the water out of one. The water varies considerably. Sometimes the water was so acidic, the life-expectancy of a piece of galvanised pipe was 48 hours. If miners had a wound they had to very careful.

"There'll be another mine just a few kilometres away where the water is so good miners could shower in it. The water will vary greatly, and it varies one layer above the other. You can have bad water at one layer and below that there can be water full of salt. Once you fracture the area, it all returns to the lowest common denominator. This is the stuff ministers are reluctant to talk about."

Liverpool Plains farmers are weighing up their legal options to stop what they call agricultural genocide. Time may not be on their side, as the Chinese owners are itching to get going. Civil disobedience is likely. "I would not take the risk of a mine in a food growing area," says one Valley resident. "We can farm for thousands of years, but you'll only mine once, and the impacts will last forever."

Despite the rhetoric, mining and agriculture can't co-exist well – that's the experience of the Hunter Valley. "Those in the mining industry, and those with family in the industry, seem to have been brain-washed into thinking they can. They don't want to hear arguments about impacts," says a Scone-based business person.

All along the Hunter Valley, grape and vegetable growers have packed up because of coal dust, which can can travel 30km. "The lesson is, just don't take the risk. Mining has affected the valley's underground water systems, but there is an even greater risk further north because it feeds into the artesian water basin.

Those who feel strongly about the approved mine are not anti-mining. They want wisdom from their leaders – less self-interest and more of a long-term view. They appreciate the bi-products of mining, from farm gates to the plastics we all use. But they question why coal is being favoured over agriculture. They know it will create some jobs in construction and related industry, but also create social and economic impacts, as well as worsen the global climate. The risk to national food security is so great, they are preparing the barricades.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 16, 2015

Friday, July 3, 2015

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 they felt, the less present and engaged they became. Complaint set in and clouded students' ability to be present in their learning.

Howell found that teachers have been feeling less appreciated over time, as education has become more commodified. They were "seen as someone employed by the parents, rather than someone who was giving something precious". They described being seen as someone who delivered a product, "caught in the grip of an exchange paradigm" rather than a person giving of themselves.

One of the most famous studies in behavioural economics finds that late fees, imposed to encourage parents to pick up their children from childcare centres, have the opposite effect. Before fines were introduced in the childcare centres studied, children were picked up late around eight times per week per centre. Afterwards, late pickups jumped to 20 per week. Parents felt entitled rather than engaged.

Fees turn students into clients. Instead of considering how they should live, students who know they are paying fees are more likely to look for instructions on how to make a living.

As soon as the recommendation in the Tony Abbott's draft green paper came to light he shot it down. Owning it would have been political suicide. But at some level his government must have been thinking about it.

If he was serious about better using public funds he would stop using them to boost private schools and concentrate on public ones.

In any event it isn't right to describe public schooling as free. We pay for it through taxes. Some parents choose to pay more by going private, and others who can afford to give more do so through the public system, voluntary. And they contribute in other ways other than financial. Parents give their time, volunteering in the canteen, at fundraisers, as in-class helpers and so on.

Many families in my part of Canberra choose to work part-time in order to help in their local school and to be available for in those precious pre- and post- school hours. They understand that they are part of a social project, involving parents, teachers, and children. They understand that it takes a village to raise a child.

Students whose parents take part in their schooling in partnership with teachers record better outcomes. They have better attitudes, are more likely to take on more challenging tasks and are more likely do well at them.

Their parents are also more likely to defend and lobby for public schools. If compulsory fees sent high-income parents away to private schools, public schools would have even fewer defenders. Public schools would concentrate on serving poor people with little lobbying power. Private schools would concentrate on the rich, who would lobby for the schools to become richer still. Communities would further fragment.

And perhaps become less soulful. To paraphrase the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, education is more than discipline and ticking off competencies. It is the business of creating people who can participate in inclusive society regardless of their means; citizens who are much more than individual cogs in an economic system.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 3, 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

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 world is essentially an online world, urging kids to be logged on more often and where social media is an enticing collaborator. A fellow parent calls social media "the new smoking". Like smoking, it's addictive. Another friend says it's more like alcohol, widely regarded as innocuous.

Like alcohol it may harm developing brains. Parents aren't the only ones concerned. "My sister, with her iPad, is always on Instagram," a young adult tells me. "I worry about her. She's 12 years old. She's posting selfies all the time. I am pro selfies because it's one way to control your own image but she's taking images of down her top."

There's a lot of pressure on young people, especially girls, to "show". In the context of feeling an intense need to be accepted by peers, they become anxious about missing out socially online.

Neuroscientists have concerns about the self-referencing demands of e-technology, its need for snap decision-making and multitasking. They think today's students might have fine-tuned these skills to the point of cutting their attention spans. If so, they are less able to pay attention, less able to learn.

This week's Digital Pulse report released by the Australian Computer Society and Deloitte Access Economics points to benefits associated with the inclusion of information and communications technology in schools. But its focus is not on computers improving learning outcomes per se, but on the importance of building the technical capacity of the workforce. It's about economics rather than well-being. I'd prefer a broader conversation about how we conceptualise childhood and life-long learning.

At times devices switch on learning. At other times they get in its way. "It's so easy to be distracted when you're online," a university student tells me. "In lectures, a student was on her phone, on Tumblr the entire time. Why would you bother attending?"

For some school students, the responsibility of taking their own potentially expensive device to school may ask too much of them. Bags can be dropped or kicked. Even among adults, phones and tablets don't last long. They're sticky-taped together.

It's good to know the ACT police are going into schools to tell students about the real risks of social media and to urge them to keep personal information offline.

But schools have an obligation to do more; to talk about privacy and to point to evidence that online classrooms actually assist educational outcomes. At the very least their introduction should be monitored closely against student results. Schools need to convince us that their teachers are on board and will receive the right training. And they mustn't assume we will all be agreeable. They should show us they will support students to look after their devices and help them engage mindfully with the technology. They should support students whose families can't afford to pay for the devices.

Across the ACT, engagement with parents is patchy. Some schools ensure parents can log in and see all the messages students get, from timetable reminders to resources. They are actively supporting the transition, with tips about syncing good online habits at school and home.

Meanwhile, in our homes the battle to contain technology (and be clear about the point of it all) goes on as adults work out boundaries not just for their kids, but for themselves - when to unplug and when to reconnect. Relationships are being tested in this untried territory as our hyper-consumer culture tries to assimilate something new and suddenly ubiquitous.

Technology can become a stumbling block in the parent-child relationship. We can either resist it, or accept that it's a big part of society and work to get the best of it. Good luck to us all.

First published in The Canberra Times, June 19, 2015

Saturday, June 6, 2015

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 black men in the back. Community leaders encourage blacks to keep cell phones and cameras charged, to "ensure fairness when something happens". Racism in North America, land of the free, Australia's long-term strategic ally, is literally killing black men and leaving many on death row. As Obama says, this runs deep.

It runs deep here too. Australia lives with a legacy of racism, not easily erased. The overblown reaction to Adam Goode's war cry, an expression of culture some found confronting, tells us the dominant culture is uncomfortable with intimations there are others. Survival and resistance have become essential to Aboriginality but this minority keeps being told to get back into its box. Amnesty International reported this week that young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders 24 times more likely to be in detention than other Australians. The Human Rights Commission's social cohesion survey finds 18 per cent of us have experienced discrimination because of ethnic origin, religion or skin colour. It's not happening 'out there' but in our neighbourhoods, local shops, at work.

The late Malcolm Fraser believed Australia's asylum-seeker policies were racist. He once joked about organising a boatload of British asylum seekers to see how differently they would be treated.

I was reminded of this reading press gallery journalist Latika Bourke's new book about her life, From India with Love. She describes being tired of being seen through the prism of colour. Despite her accent, her surname and her fondness for wearing thongs, she still feels she has to explain to strangers that she is Australian.

Challenge yourself. Do you use a basic knowledge of race to cast all people of a particular ethnicity (or religion) in a particular light? That kind of casual racism and discrimination stops us from being genuinely curious and kind. What we don't understand ends up being confronting rather than an opportunity to learn. I bet the members of the United Patriots Front, who clashed with anti-racism protesters in Melbourne on Sunday were motivated by fear rather than inquiry.

For some years a set of YouTube videos has been doing the rounds. United States psychologists place children of different backgrounds in front of a white doll and black doll. They ask the children which is the pretty doll, which is the nice doll and which is the bad doll. The children consistently say the white doll is both nice and is pretty. The black doll is bad. The African-American children say it as well.

Racism's twin is desperately low self-esteem. For those at the receiving end it can feed defensiveness and paranoia. It exists between cultural and ethnic groups well as between black and white. Kon Karapanagiotidis, the head of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says 'wogs' (used here as a term of endearment) can be as casually racist and uninformed as 'Aussies'.

How do we overcome it? As a parent I take nothing for granted. It's small and symbolic, but when I went in search of dolls for my babies to play with, I tried to find ones of all hues (why do most stores still stock only fair-skinned Barbies?). As the current Human Rights Commission campaign says, racism "stops with me". It's everyone's responsibility to think about their own lives, stand up to prejudice and talk about it to friends and family.

US Democrat congressman Jim Clyburn, an African-American, says we shouldn't be complacent. "We make a mistake if we view the movement of history and the movement of society as being on some kind of lineal plane. It's not that way," he says. "It moves like a pendulum on the clock. It's always going left and right, back and forth."

A lot of us might have thought this stuff is behind us, but really it's in front of us.

First published in The Canberra Times, June 5, 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

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 abolishing the ACNC, or as the assistant treasurer says, determined that abolishing it is "no longer a priority".

In place since December 2012, the charities commission is a one-stop shop for charities and non-profits who deal with the government. It replaced the Australian Tax Office as the body that had to decide who had the right to claim that status and a myriad of other state, territory and Commonwealth bodies that investigated complaints and advised the public about who it was safe to deal with. The Tax Office was particularly unsuited to its role, being primarily concerned with raising revenue.

Over the past two years the ACNC has investigated 1300 complaints against charities, revoked the status of 9, prepared guides for volunteers and guides for charities wanting to use volunteers and opened to the public the records of 23,000 organisations.

The Coalition came to office promising to abolish it. It included it in its first red tape repeal day. The minister Kevin Andrews said it was heavy-handed and unnecessary. This wasn't the view of the overwhelmingly majority in the sector who were was pleased to at last have a charity-specific regulator that cared about it (Private companies that administer charitable trusts and some in the Catholic Church, not enthusiastic about the extra scrutiny, were the most critical).

A Senate inquiry into the government's plan to kill the commission was flooded with submissions praising its gentle approach and the fact that it has already made life easier.

"If the Government decides to proceed to repeal it, we strongly urge that the good works that have been done and the progress made in reducing reports be retained by any subsequent body," one submission said from the ACT. Another said the commission was a "dream come true".

This is a sector whose clients have been ignored or pushed around by two consecutive federal budgets.

Community health is especially aggrieved as areas like drug treatment have only received basic bridging funds while the Commonwealth throws money at a glossy and confronting ad campaign on ice-addiction with an arguable evidence-base. Meanwhile attacks on the states mean less money for public hospital emergency departments dealing with increasing numbers of aggressive ice-affected patients. Go figure.

SBS's Struggle Street brought the complexity into our living rooms (insensitively, although television easily reduces lives to outrageous soundbites). With the cameras gone, and no meaningful state or federal political reaction, residents of stigmatised Mount Druitt just feel shattered.

Canberra's struggle streets are not so clear. Disadvantage is peppered throughout the city with less defined patterns of intergenerational poverty. That's a good thing although groups rather than places are persistently poor; single parents and the long term unemployed struggling to live on depressingly low income support in a high-cost city.

Indirectly the charities commission will help not-for-profits better allocate resources so they can enhance their support for disadvantaged communities, and with less administrative hassle. The ACNC will eventually provide data sets about which charities are working where and therefore how they may work together to empower peoples' lives.

Governments generally divide communities by isolating "problems" with buckets of funds for problem areas such as mental health, drug and alcohol etc. It has forced charities to be issue-specific rather than holistic and community-development minded. Just maybe charities can break this nonsensical approach and more of them can become more collaborative and innovative under the umbrella of a supportive regulatory body.

As we head to the end of the financial year, charities will be updating the ACNC with their annual information statements. The aims are increased accountability and transparency.

The charities commission will face tougher times as it steps up to be a regulator with all that implies. But the sector's successful fight to defend the it puts the ACNC in a stellar position to get on with the job.

First published in The Canberra Times, Revised for Pro Bono News

Friday, May 8, 2015

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 released under the Freedom of Information Act to be made public.

The Coalition says funding under the Gonski formula will end after 2017. Then it will probably holding another inquiry, reinventing the wheel.

That's how it was for the Henry Tax Review. Rather than consult an expert review commissioned by Labor that had taken years to produce, the Abbott government commissioned its own new report, the taxation white paper.

On climate change, rather than build on or refine the emissions trading system that the carbon tax was about to transition into, it abandoned the infrastructure and set up its own "direct action" plan. The first permits have been auctioned. Instead of charging businesses that pollute, the government is paying some of them to pollute a bit less, using taxpayers' money.

On mental health the Coalition went to the election wanting to expand existing programs but has since offered no certainty for services now close to the brink and bleeding workers.

It may have some good ideas but more often than not it doesn't explain them, while at the same time turning its back on what has gone before.

While taking a hammer to many community service organisations and allowing others to haemorrhage while it delays decisions about their funding, it has asked the same sector to support young people out of work and unable to access the unemployment benefits it plans to deny them for six months.

Wherever you look it's hard to find certainty and logic. A big chunk of the electorate is angry. A bigger chunk is switching off.

In earlier years pre-budget speculation got us excited. Not this time. Leaks, aimed at mounting a campaign for change or softening us up, are few. There's not even much talk about debt and deficit, the old standby when the Coalition was in opposition (How could it use that tired catch cry when it's spending money like water on punitive border protection measures?).

If Abbott's approach is to knock things down and rebuild them in his own image, it'll be a struggle this time. With many of his signature items abandoned or blocked by the Senate it's hard to work out what his new image will be. I am reliably informed that members of his government are knocking back the usual invitations to give post-budget speeches, so unenthusiastic are they about what's in store.

That's a shame since reaction to the last budget offered a template for how to construct and sell the next. Reacting to the 2014 budget Australians said they believe in a fair go and a strong social contract. Many of us didn't ask what will the budget do for 'me' but what will it do for others. We looked beyond ourselves.

Governments have to convince us that some measures may cost us individually but that the changes support our neighbours. If the change is well explained, and backed by strong analysis, then people are prepared to cop some adverse impact for the greater good.

The link between good policy and electoral success seems broken, but it needn't be permanent.

First published in The Canberra Times

Thursday, April 16, 2015

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 air, since small. But I admire those who do.
My 85-year old father-in-law, Ross, who didn't run his first marathon until he was 50, admits: "It's an insult to the body."

He says runners "are almost unconscious; in a zone of their own". 

Ross wouldn't know, but it must be like childbirth. The pain, the zone. Over time one's mind strangely distills the memory into something beautiful. 

In the final few paces runners often say, "never again". Forgetting must be the only thing that explains why Ross completed more than 60 marathons, including the famous Boston event, as well as ultra-marathons and totally unfathomable 24-hour runs.

In running retirement he is grateful for the encouragement he got while "in the zone" – a familiar face, the kind voice of a stranger "that lifts the spirit".

Like hot millet bags or soothing words at a birth centre, runners latch on to whatever support is offered (and thank you to the extraordinary natural-birth advocate Sheila Kitzinger, who died  this week and told me and millions of other mothers-to-be that we were doing well and should trust our bodies). 

In some ways marathons are the opposite of natural. They are acts of will and cajoling in which runners make their bodies do what's required regardless of how ill-suited they are. Marathon runners do not need to be gifted, but they do need to be determined.

They embody the spirit summoned by John F. Kennedy who told Americans in 1962 that they would go to the moon and do a bunch of other things by the end of the decade "not because they are easy, but because they are hard".

Rudyard Kipling writes on the mystery of "will": 

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, To serve your turn long after they are gone,  And so hold on when there is nothing in you, Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

Richard Flanagan examines the phenomenon in his stunning Man Booker Prize novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He describes the will to live, to endure cholera, the endless mud, beatings and hunger for heaven knows what reason on The Line – the Thai-Burma railway. Love of Empire, mates or a fiance back home just doesn't explain it. Flanagan offers mystery over definition.

The marathon was named after a Greek city and the legend of a messenger who ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens (perhaps 20 miles) to announce that the Persians had been defeated. The race was standardised at 26 miles and 385 yards in 1921. We know it as 42.195 kilometres. They are now all over the world, even in Antarctica. In Boston (the scene of the 2013 bombing) so many attend from all over the world that distance markers use both metric and imperial measures. In Canberra ours begins near the National Library, reminiscent of a Greek temple. 

Unlike other Olympic events, spectators can line the road for free to watch. It's always the last event in the program, the human-sized one, the most democratic. Even if we're shabby at it, we know how to run. 

"I was no good at any sport at all," says Ross. "When you find you're not athletic or well co-ordinated, you try slow, long-distance running."  

Marathons are a great leveller. In Canberra, diplomats run alongside office workers, all suffering "in good company". 

"It's hours of continuous activity, not like other sports where you stop and start and your heart rate goes back to normal." 

Ross says his most enjoyable marathons have been when he helped somebody who was struggling in the last stages. 

"I reckon I walked across the line four times with somebody that I didn't know, staying with them," he says. "I remember the last person. We talked about her family. You try and take them out of themselves, exchange words. When we came to the finish I held her hand up. Her family saw her and immediately pressed into her arms. I never saw her again." 

First published in The Canberra Times