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