Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Give the gift of quality time this Christmas

Here's a radical idea this Christmas. Don't buy just more stuff for your loved ones. Give them your time. Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource. The irony of giving your time to others, mindfully, involves being less time-obsessed.

Each of doesn't really have more or less time. We have the same amount. You may have heard the one about the bloke who was asked, "If you had only 48 hours left to live, how would you spend them?" One hour at a time, he replied.

We live in an intriguing period of human history, in which we are more connected around the clock. I can be in touch with my teenage children by phone all day. Texts offer discrete bits of information. But e-communication is limited for understanding and learning from each other. Instead, it can fracture communication and make us more impatient, more disengaged.

In her 2014 snapshot of Australian children, social capital and communities, Australian National University Professor Sharon Bessell found that a majority of surveyed children aged 8-12 had been treated in a rude, dismissive or hostile manner by adults. She found that a majority did not feel that they were listened to. Kids' concerns echo other studies that point to adults being preoccupied, distracted and forgetful, not just some of the time but nearly 75 per cent of the time.

There are a number of factors at play but we are increasingly distracted by technology to the point where we feel time pressured (with a fear of missing out) and unable to listen. It can rob children, young people and adults of time to just be, enjoy each other's company without time pressures and judgments, and rob us of stillness to resolve and recover from life's inevitable stresses.

Carol (not her real name) is a seasoned teacher I met this year. After teaching in primary schools around Australia for decades, she has begun to see, for the first time, children from middle class homes arrive for big school without an ability to hold a basic conversation.

Conversations have an ebb and flow of questions and answers, observations and reactions. "In recent years I have taught children in kindy and year one who have obviously not been talked to or listened to. They are children that don't have the language to express themselves," she tells me. How alarming.

"I usually ask children to write about their weekend. One boy only wrote the letters P-S-T and a number. While awake all he did was be on his PlayStation. It became apparent that was no family culture of talking and being listened to. When I was a child we sat around the table every evening, talking. Talking goes with writing. If you can't talk, you'll struggle to write."

Carol describes a culture increasingly summed up as "alone together". Just a few generations ago a child may have written the name of a mesmeric television show in a classroom journal, but the difference was the TV was in a common room and the show was usually watched and talked about with others.

We've all seen it, perhaps been there: a family at a restaurant, a couple with kids not saying a word to each other, each on their screens over a meal.

If parents and carers are constantly checking their smartphones and messaging on social media then their children feel less important. If a partner is on his or he phone all day, in their private world, then adult relationships suffer too.

Tom (not his real name) has a parent who is always checking his phone. Tom's dad travels interstate a lot for work. Tom was visiting when he leaned on the kitchen bench and said, "When I am a father, I'll want to spend lots of time with him [my child]."

Children and young people know what's good for them. A family that thrives is a small network that forms to care for one another and spend time together. There are more tensions when it's hard to make ends meet and paid jobs consume many extra hours. But when tethered to technology the little time we have to give of ourselves (intentional parenting and caring beyond serving meals, being a taxi), is whittled away.

Something big is going on when studies tell us kids have more stuff and screens than ever before but mental health issues among young people have skyrocketed. It's bad everywhere, but Mission Australia's latest National Youth Survey found teenagers in Canberra are unhappier, more stressed and less optimistic about their futures than other young people around Australia.

Time together is time for sharing, communicating, setting goals, making decisions, establishing traditions and having fun. Technology can be part of that time together but best used in a focused way with focal points for genuine connection.

Quality time turns the 'I' into 'we'. Conversation with active listening could the easiest and hardest present you could give these holidays. And a tip: if you're planning a holiday down the south coast, find a spot without WiFi.

First published in The Canberra Times/Fairfax Media, December 15, 2017

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

ABC anti-charter changes that shrink specialist radio shows

As we head into the festive season, one of the most religious times of the calendar year, ABC management has axed an important program that seriously explores the meaning of the season.

Axing the religion and ethics program Sunday Nights with John Cleary makes little sense from either an ABC charter or a ratings perspective. It's heard on the local radio network. Still going strong after three decades with a number of hosts, it rates its socks off, especially in Canberra. Its nationwide audience is between 300,000 and 400,000 - quite something for a program on between 10 at night and 2 in the morning.

Whereas most local radio programs deal with news, sport and lifestyle topics, this one deals with faith and the challenge of what I call 'living life together'. It is increasingly relevant in a culture that is becoming more narcissistic, gadget-oriented and anxiety-riddled. Rather than preach – anything, it provides a canvas for thoughtful conversations that go deeper than simple discussions about brands of religions.

Radio staff at the ABC passed a motion of no confidence last week citing "systemic failure" in senior radio management. Among areas of concern was the "continuing erosion of specialist programming in music, features and religion". They said it was "serious breach of the ABC Charter and a disservice to the Australian audiences that the ABC is funded to serve."

Sunday Nights wasn't axed because it was expensive. It's been run on a shoestring. I think the reason is ideological. For years, especially since the savage cuts to the ABC's religion unit in 2014, management have adopted a passive-aggressive approach to religious programs and a thinly veiled contempt for people interested in spirituality.

In the most recently published census, 61 per cent of us identified as being Christian and another 7 per cent as practicing another religion. That's a substantial audience to spurn.

Nightlife will now be broadcast seven nights a week, in an effort to smooth the weekend out. Expect even more breezy magazine content or party politics, because it's easy.

Complaints from senior clerics across all faiths have fallen on deaf ears. ABC Radio's new head of spoken content Judith Whelan has offered to meet with them, although it isn't clear what she could do. She arrived at the ABC after the decision had been made and came from the Sydney Morning Herald where she had run newspapers not radio stations.

Soon the only specialist broadcasts left on local radio will be those that deal with sport. They're regarded as so important that they displace PM when the cricket's on.

The ABC is increasingly confining whatever specialist programs it has to Radio National (RN), and even there it says they will soon (in the history of RN) be online only. RN has an informed but tiny audience. It's to get a panel-based hour long program to compensate for the loss of Sunday Nights called God Forbid. Management wants it to be, at times, comic. Let's see how long it lasts without being patronising.

Our world is becoming more complex and more perplexing. We need tools to understand the forces driving it. And there's no doubt religion is one of them. We need specialists and sophistication. Instead, the new breed of ABC managers seem to believe that everyone can do anything. Except for, most notably sport. It means religion gets ignored on mainstream outlets and sport gets given as many hours and as many specialists as needed. Newspapers have also axed their religion reporters. Whenever they do report on religion, it's about the failure of institutions.

Sunday Nights examines what underpins us. Amid the rise of nationalism built around crude stereotypes the program squares with the world while exploring powerful alternatives. Defence and security experts will be shaking their heads at the loss of a platform for exploration and respectful debate on topics including extremism and social alienation. Cleary has literally brought senior leaders of different faiths together, in the studio. Afterwards, they've kept talking.

In taking religion out of the mainstream the ABC is walking away from one of its central mandates, which is to talk about important things that others won't. Please ABC management, by all means review Sunday Nights, but don't throw out one of the few really worthwhile things local radio does.

A version of this was first published in The Canberra Times, 1 December, 2016

Thursday, November 17, 2016

It takes a village to prevent institutional child abuse

"It takes a village..." was perhaps Hillary Clinton's most memorable line. It was given a macabre twist in the Academy award-winning movie Spotlight, about the cover-up of sexual abuse by Catholic Church clergy in Boston. One of the actors observed that "if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one".

We are about to learn more about the NSW "village" of Newcastle, in which an extraordinary number of respected citizens appear, through action or inaction, to have helped cover up allegations of sexual abuse.

Four years after Julia Gillard announced the royal commission into institutional responses to abuse, the Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, Greg Thompson, is due to take the stand on Wednesday in Sydney when the commission reconvenes for case study 42. He has already given evidence privately, as perhaps the most senior clergyman to do so. He grew up in the Hunter Valley and was sexually abused while a university student in Newcastle. After serving as a priest in many parts of Australia, including Canberra, he returned to Newcastle as bishop in 2014.

He says he was greeted by senior community figures keen to "groom" him. One legal figure recommended a system of internal reviews; an opportunity for the new bishop to "learn" but also, he realised, be potentially compromised. “They [lawyers] have been trying to manage the fallout that they know about, so I would become acquainted with it. He wanted to know what would I do with it,” Thompson says. He went straight to the police.

Within months he issued a formal apology to victims and announced he wouldn't live in the "house on the hill" traditionally occupied by the bishop, as the stately mansion had come to represent all that was wrong with religious power. It's since been sold.

In Boston, the press had for years turned a blind eye to the industrial scale system of abuse. But the legal profession was worse, enabling it by working for both sides and drawing up secrecy clauses. They were "doing their jobs".

Whistle-blower Thompson sees parallels in his coal-harbour town. He wants, he tells me, a separate inquiry into the legal profession. He talks about a "cabal" that conspired to only half-heartedly investigate perpetrators. There were conflicts of interest. Diocesan lawyers acted for both sides. They provided poor advice, and even "mislaid" records.

It has shades of what's gone on in the Catholic diocese of Ballarat, another big country town with a web of connections and little accountability. Thompson says police should also appear. "Many survivors told police, and police did not act."

It's a salutary lesson for any community that does not have enough checks. The most high-profile alleged offender is Graeme Lawrence, a former long-serving dean of Christ Church Cathedral, the mother church of the diocese. The cathedral dominates the skyline and is a symbol of how far something can fall.

Thompson has attracted co-ordinated opposition, not only from lawyers, but also from politicians and prominent locals. Lawrence, known for his charm and charisma, has a lot of supporters despite being defrocked (although not charged with any crime) more than four years ago. Feeling increasingly exposed, some won't go down without a fight. They are used to a culture that prioritised self-interest over the ethics of Jesus Christ.

The Royal Commission has heard that an extraordinary number of clergy in the Hunter Valley are themselves survivors of sexual abuse. Many had parents in the ministry. The strength and power of the Jesus story helped make it a place they wanted to be despite, or perhaps because of, what happened. But any culture that buries hard truths is going to bare strange fruit. Survivors, it’s now clear, thought hiding ugly experiences helped them forget. But that’s not how memory works. With triggers, trauma re-emerges years later, and often repeatedly.

In wrestling with the culture he is trying to change, Thompson reflects that some senior Anglicans had a “sense of self-entitlement” that led to sex with children “because a system and a culture allowed it to exist”.

There were efforts to change things. A small number of pedophiles were outed, belatedly, as the Anglican Church tried, in a less than comprehensive way, to improve complaint handling and professional standards from the 1990s. While some survivors have had redress through the courts, too often they've had big chunks of their payments siphoned off to lawyers who were connected to the diocese. It was a second tier of abuse.

Parishioners thought bishops were doing the right thing, but often they weren't, some relying instead on poor advice. At least one former bishop, the current Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft (in Newcastle from 1993 to 2005), knew of claims of sexual abuse and did little or nothing, despite legal obligations to report.

Herft seems to have been compromised by a culture of intimidation. He left managers to manage things. A man with a reputation for sticking to the rules, Herft appears to have been too trusting, operating on the assumption that someone who gives their life to Christ to serve in the ministry will do the right thing. It's an assumption common in Christian community, where there is almost a duty to think the best of people while, paradoxically, knowing that we are all flawed.

Since his appearance before the commission in August Herft has temporarily stood aside as the Archbishop of Perth to focus on the Newcastle crisis.

Another pattern revealed by the Commission over months of hearings is that allegations were buried ‘for the good of the church’. It’s why police officers, for decades past, are said to have colluded too. An important question is what did the mother Diocese of Sydney know. There was a lot of letter writing between the two dioceses in the years now in the spotlight.

The church is diminished by all of this. Parishioners and those that worked for the diocese and studied theology in the diocese with names now notoriously connected to sexual abuse are left questioning their faith and the nature of their connections and friendships. Many are in shock; devastated, and feel tainted by association. Some are defensive. Others, who were baptised, confirmed or married by alleged offenders are troubled, wondering about the meaning and status of their special event.

Thompson is working with a small team to explore the best way to support others' post-trauma healing. He says some days he doesn't think too far ahead. Much of his time is talking to Catholics who were abused as children. They seek him out, across denominations.

The can of worms opened in Newcastle exposes not just the institutions concerned, but all of society. The royal commission has not been tasked with examining broader cultural forces. Its job, focused on victim case studies, is mammoth enough. Even there, it has had to prioritise. It simply can't look under every rock. Moving into a final phase before what's called "wrap-up" hearings, the commission is due to present its final report before Christmas next year.

We can already thank the commission for the language it's provided for a long-standing problem swept under the carpet. Faith communities are aware of the risks like never before, resulting in better screening of candidates for the ministry and related training.

What's also clear is that all of the community has a role to play developing child-safe cities and towns with zero tolerance for abuse. An independent redress scheme is only one step towards companionship for survivors. Staying with them for true restoration into community life is a long term project for all the "village".

A shorter version was first published in The Canberra Times, November 15, 2016

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Free tablets: an election sweetener without nourishment

When asked about ACT Labor's election promise to provide free tablets to every public high school student my astute 13-year-old told me, "It's stupid. I'd love a free tablet but no one needs a tablet."

It's as if the ACT government didn't ask actual students, the apparent beneficiaries. My teen went on, laughing: "Tablets do less than Chromebooks [Simple, lightweight laptops designed to be used connected to the Internet, with documents that live in the 'cloud'] which are more useful. There's no mouse pad or keyboard. I've never had 'enhanced learning' because of a tablet. What tablet would it be any way? They range from 50 bucks to more than 600."

Labor's $17 million campaign sweetener is neither based on evidence about how to achieve an outcome or designed with an outcome in mind. The concerns of parents about the Education Directorate's current bring-your-own-device policy have little to with cost and everything to do with patchy implementation and the lack of an obvious purpose. Labor's promise is so silly it does not even match the directorate's current recommendation that the device students bring to high school is a Chromebook.

Ask any high school student what their favourite subject is and they are likely to say it's the subject with a great teacher. That's where the $17 million would be better spent. Most parents can afford laptops if they are needed. Those that can't, can get subsidies or loans. That's if laptops are needed – a question the ACT hasn't systematically addressed.

Online resources can help in the classroom. Teachers can show students YouTube videos on a screen. But it isn't clear how much laptops add. Google classroom (a web platform used in ACT schools) makes it easier for students to collaborate but there are other ways to collaborate. Google classroom also allows parents to tune into school assignments, but parents who care will find out anyway.

Ask any teacher what happens to technology provided by the school versus something bought at home, and they'll quickly tell you which one will get damaged the most quickly.

Remember Kevin Rudd's decision to give a laptop to every student in years 9 to 12? The rollout was slow, technology changed over time, teachers felt inadequately trained and in the end schools had to cough up their own money to maintain machines that kept breaking down.

Computers, tablets and laptops are not silver bullets to produce critical and creative thinkers for the 21st century. In the late 2000s, Duke University researchers Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd conducted one of the world's biggest studies on the effect of gaining a home computer on maths and reading scores. Not only was there no evidence that it helped scores, they said, but there was "statistically significant" evidence it sent them backwards.

While computers can help (with research for homework and the like) they can also hurt (by providing distractions such as social networking and gaming sites).

"I am not saying go out and burn all the computers. If you want to buy junior a computer with your own dollars, that's fine. If you make this decision that junior's momentary pleasure is worth a small loss in knowledge – go ahead," Vigdor told Fairfax Media at the time.

He added that it was another thing altogether to talk about spending public money on computers. "The justification for these policies when they are proposed is not to allow students to have a good time, it's to improve the way they perform at school," he said.

Reading on devices might even harm comprehension. In a 2014 study, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", New Zealand researchers Val Hooper and Channa Herath found "definite differences between people's online and offline reading behaviours". They said we were likely to process words read from paper more deeply.

"Online reading has had a negative impact on people's cognition," they concluded. "Concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall rates were all much lower while reading online."

If there are studies that show pushing devices into classrooms and homes improves learning outcomes, it would be nice if the ACT pointed to it them, or even better did a comprehensive review of all of the studies to date and used it to guide what it did.

Until it does, it's reasonable to conclude that children and young people need good teaching and strong relationships with teachers more than they need so-called "infrastructure" that will become obsolete within a few years.

First published in The Canberra Times, September 22, 2016. Photo: Fairfax Media/SeongJoon Cho

Monday, September 12, 2016

How the Internet is amplifying poor body image

It's Love Your Body Week*. If you don't love your body, you're in good company. The crowd-funded documentary Embrace, in cinemas last month, told us that 70 per cent of girls don't much love their bodies. Forty-five per cent of women of healthy weight think they're overweight.

Australians, most of them women, spend $1 million a day on diets. They spend $1 billion a year on cosmetic surgery. The film's message is that while we are more than our bodies, our bodies have become how we measure ourselves.

But the film doesn't spend much time on the role of digital technology. Exposure to pornography and the objectification of girls starts young these days, twisted by exposure to violent online games such as Grand Theft Auto that are now played by boys as young as 10.

A parent in Embrace speaks for many of us when she says she feels as though her daughter is drowning in a sea of media that reinforces unattainable and dangerous expectations. "I'm in constant damage control," she says. The internet is amplifying her daughter's inner critic.

As a daughter and a parent, it's something I've pondered a lot. I most certainly wasn't comfortable in my own skin growing up, thanks to my colour and the invisible scars of South Africa's apartheid. I want my own children to be comfortable in the bodies they have. How amazing they are.

The online mobile photo- and video-sharing service Instagram bombards late primary school-aged children and teenagers with images all day long. There's pressure to get one's own images liked and commented on, to not fall behind.

While it's often argued that the internet supports new communities that allow people of all types to find someone who accepts them, it also does the opposite. Katie Roiphe, the American author of The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism, says of Instagram: "The fear of straying from the formula is matched only by the desire to be just a bit better at it. What is slightly chilling is the sameness, the lockstep, the absolute refusal of originality." The young people in my life agree. One says the rating of photos becomes the rating of people.

Exposed to a constant stream of air-brushed images of "beautiful" stars and wealthy celebrities, young people also see advertisements for products pushing a particular kind of perfection. "There's something branded, moneyed, about Instagram," Roiphe says. "The best things in life, it whispers to our teens, are by no means free."

Meanwhile, longer screen time is being linked to the eating disorders and higher calorie intake that make the images even less attainable. It eats into our sleep, encouraging us to consume still more snacks.

Poor body image is a public health issue. Education and intervention programs should be better targeted and funded.

Established research shows mothers are a key influence. Pressure to lose weight, appearance-related criticism and modelling of body image concerns and dieting behaviours from parents are correlated with, and prospectively predict, poor body image among adolescent girls. Improving children and young people's media literacy also helps them resist appearance-related pressures.

Embracing who we are has become more complicated. Digital technologies have become inescapable mirrors, reflecting back to us the image we have become. That image is of unhappy and discontented people. The best of the advice that's out there is to eat well, shower kids with unconditional love, plug out of social media more often, develop friendships that mutually nourish and get more sleep.

*Otherwise known as Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Article first published in The Canberra Times, 8 September, 2016.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The legacy of the Rio Games?

For all the triumphs of the two-week Rio Games, I have found this one hard to get into. There’s a sick feeling, not about the sacrifice and tears of competitors giving it all they can, but the sacrifice of the Brazilian people.

Teachers, and others, who haven’t still been paid for months to help finance this show have also struggled to get into the Olympics.

According to the respected Datafolha agency, most Brazilians have had no interest in the Games. Most expect the Games to hurt Brazil (The Olympics are notorious, wherever they are held, for promising growth and then delivering anything but a growth shot). Bumper stickers have rearranged the Olympic rings into a four-letter word.

These Games are further away than any other in recent memory from the ideals of the founder of modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin. Coubertin advanced the need for an event every four years that would honour of “the constant renewal of mankind”. He preached a gospel of the power of sport. “Have faith in it,” he wrote to a friend. “Pour out your strength for it, make its hope your own.” Coubertin abhorred war and thought athletic competition could prevent it. In replacing war, Games could foster understanding, tolerance and peace.

When first-world Australians are robbed in Rio and complain of poor interiors in the athlete’s village, I understand their frustrations. It’s about expectations. Rio citizens expect to face violence. Each and every day, 14 of them are murdered. Those living on the city's cramped hillsides can only dream of the grand plumbing and domestic interiors of the Olympic village.

Most have not been able to afford tickets to the Games. “Just thinking of the Olympics leaves me revolted,” one street vendor told the New York Times. “Our politicians want to trick the world into thinking things are great here. Well, let the foreigners see for themselves the filth we live in, the money our leaders steal.”

The goal of the Olympic movement is to contribute to building “a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play,” or so its Charter says.

Yet what’s most supported is a power struggle by the biggest economies (who’s on top, who’s second..) and the worst of our world: deep inequality, corruption, exploitation, mistrust and tribal rivalry backed by the very visible gods of the corporate West. And I haven’t mentioned the sacrifice of ‘clean’ sportspeople robbed of a chance to compete because of systemic drug cheating by peers.

The Olympic opening procession, oaths, torch, and flame are meant to evoke the Games' higher purpose as a community-building ritual meant to reward and inspire. The Olympic Charter even declares play to be a human right. Tell that to despondent locals forcibly displaced and living with reduced services to make way for this expensive global spectacle.

t says a lot that the torch relay was pelted by rioters as the flame approached its final destination.

The Games have brought much needed attention to Rio but who will care when the closing ceremony ends?


Sunday, July 31, 2016

NT juvenile justice system rotten from the top down

The tragedy of this week's Four Corners program is that the damage done to young people in Northern Territory detention centres was largely already on the record. What was missing was the political will to change anything, other than to change things for the worse by legislating to legalise shackling and mechanical restraints.

As in the US where the legal system is flawed and it's almost impossible to prosecute an officer if you're poor and black, it's video – provided here by whistleblowers – that's disruptive and making the difference.

It shows guards at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre laughing and swearing at a boy at breaking point, stuck in a dark, sweltering and filthy isolation cell with no fresh water for 15 days straight. Other footage shows a different young person handcuffed, hooded and shackled to a mechanical chair.

The Prime Minister wants to know what lessons can be learnt. The NT Children's Commissioner reported on the facility's notorious behaviour management unit a year ago. Her recommendations fell on deaf ears. Now Chief Minister Adam Giles wants to "restore faith in our custodial institutions". It's he, his CLP team and their predecessors who must be in the dock.

What is the point of funding children's commissioners if governments pay no attention to what they find? What too is the point of being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child if we behave as if we are not? The Australasian Juvenile Justice Administrators recommends limits on disciplinary measures in all facilities; limits that protect the dignity of children and offer them the chance to complain. What's the point of them if they are not observed?

Usually it's children Australia locks up abroad that grabs sorry headlines. This really hits home, but as on Manus Island and Nauru, there's a shameful lack of accountability and transparency.

Giles, facing an election next month, admits a cover-up culture exists in his corrections department. But in a lame defence of what took place on his watch, he says he would like the jointly convened royal commission to "identify appropriate measures for restraint" in juvenile jails.

The entire NT youth justice system was reviewed five years ago. Several publicly available reports already describe what's appropriate and what works, with comparisons made across jurisdictions (showing the value of a federation in which, if willing, states and territories can learn from each other) including a recent Australian House of Representatives report into the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in the justice system.

South Australian research from 2009 finds that physical restraints don't wind back aggressive behaviour, it makes it worse. A report published just three months ago by Australian Children's Commissioners and Guardians entitled Human rights standards in youth detention facilities in Australia: the use of restraint, disciplinary regimes and other specified practices finds that mechanical restraints retraumatise already powerless people.

If a child is threatened with and experienced acts of violence, it only generates fear and anger. Possibilities for positive learning and reform shut down as children feel diminished. You can forget about rehabilitation in those conditions.

Let's remind ourselves of who we're talking about. Children are not merely small adults. They are developing and vulnerable. The things that can lead them into the justice system are largely the same as those that can lead them into state care – dysfunction at home, alcohol and drugs, violence, disadvantage and poverty. Many have never been treated with respect and are deserving of a youth justice system that does not perpetuate their life experiences.

NT corrections minister John Elferink, now sacked from that role but still employed, didn't see that. He told the ABC: "We get these kids in these environments and they come to us fundamentally pre-broken by choice." No, children have their own agency, but they don't choose to be broken. When they are in trouble with the law it's typically adults who've already failed them and broken them.

The Commissioners and Guardians report finds the NT is unique for all the wrong reasons, having no legislation or policy about consulting medical staff over the use of force and restraint, nor any legislation or policy regarding the training of offices in de-escalation techniques. It has no policy framework covering the use of searches, seclusion and lockdowns.

While Australia's youth justice facilities mostly offer good care and support, other jurisdictions also have gaps. Western Australia should be part of the royal commission. Serious incidents there have in recent years prompted some reform including the appointment of an independent Youth Justice Board but real change relies on sustained efforts to monitor outcomes.

The Commissioners and Guardians report also finds that committed, well-trained and adequate numbers of staff are the foundation for any functioning and effective custodial institution. Detention staff should be representative. In the NT and elsewhere they are not demographically representative. They are less likely to relate to detainees. Examining racist attitudes must be in the inquiry's viewfinder and the role of a political culture generated from the very top.

Each year Australia spends more than $438 million dollars on youth justice detention. If this was really spent on "correction" it would leave vulnerable people – with so much of their lives before them – better able to cope in the world outside than when they came in.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 29, 2016

Friday, July 22, 2016

Pokemania a sad indictment on the state of play

Nintendo's mobile-gaming "miracle" Pokemon Go may be bringing millennials out of the house – of their own free will – but its success says a lot about how the whole idea of play has changed, for the worse.

The app may be free for smart phone users, but this is pure commerce. It's created what marketers want: more spending in the shops that have shelled out fees to become physical destinations for Pokemaniacs. Yuk. Play has always been about constructing and imagining reality. Now it's about flogging products. It's transforming and reducing homes, memorials and cemeteries into spaces for so-called play, with an eye to profit.

It's cannibalising real-world geography, in contrast to traditional play that's bounded inside a "magic circle" in which children play act without corporate scripts.

Children of my generation born in the 1970s had the freedom to get dirty, to climb trees and experience real danger. My parents and their friends did even more. They played with tools and walked alone at dusk. They played sport in the streets and built forts. Yes, the girls spent half their time pushing their dolls around in prams (in prep for later life) but they connected with kids in the neighbourhood, role-playing, in unmediated ways.

Over time, for whatever reason, parents tightened the rules. Play moved indoors in response to a perceived threat that was much higher than the actual risks. A rise in inner-city living took children into their own rooms.

Parents went from generally resisting buying toys to seeing them as important tools for socialisation. Today's bedrooms, a new battleground where kids spend many hours, are packed with electronic gear and the Internet - probably more dangerous stuff than the streets children used to surf before they went indoors.

I suspect families in the bush capital have held onto "old fashioned" play for longer with our tremendous access to the outdoors. But local families are also among the most wired, with parents working insane hours.

I get that the Internet allows young people to interact with people from all over the world. But most of the time it is used to "enhance" existing local relationships. Pokemon Go allows young people to hook up with friends in local parks and malls and travel across town to find the creatures in real time. With their smartphones they are both connected to and detached, each from the other.

The game's developers win because it's taking over play. Adults love it too. Our brains crave novelty, and belonging. This is a game that offers both.

Observing over the years my own children play with friends and in their own imaginary worlds without phones, I can see that play without gadgets is very rewarding. It gives kids space to try out new identities without the sometimes adverse consequences of doing the same in the digital sphere. It's inherently relational and non-competitive. It involves a lot of negotiation. It's not about getting better at something, it is play for its own sake.

There are two broad schools of thought about screen-based play. In the corner that favours screens are those that applaud their interactive possibilities and unprecedented social opportunities. In the other corner are those that value traditional play for offering "real" interaction, and for being tactile. Perhaps there's a middle way. Technology isn't all bad of course, but it does have downsides.

I'm no sentimentalist, but I do find myself longing for a return to some of the low-tech stuff: play that makes do with what's around, and board games, and enjoying the playground that is outdoors. There is increasing evidence that our highly wired lives aren't working for us, socially and mentally. We're forever restless and under pressure to perform.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 21, 2016

Ancient lessons on custodianship for the PM

After acting like a sook on election night, Malcolm Turnbull re-emerged this past week as something more akin to a statesman or Indigenous elder.

He said he was touched when Bill Shorten rang to concede. Turnbull was carrying his young granddaughter on his hip. It was a "beautiful reminder" that politicians are "trustees" for future generations. He might just be preoccupied with personal legacy but I'm taking hope from this.

Indigenous Australian have long been trustees, and storytellers as they hand down wisdom to generations to follow. NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It was fitting that this year's NAIDOC celebrations focused on "songlines" in the same week that a marathon count decided who would govern us and shape our story.

Turnbull's grandchildren won't think twice about opening school assemblies and parliaments with a "welcome to country". Yet until the arrival of Kevin Rudd nine years ago it didn't happen in parliament and often didn't happen at schools. They will probably not think twice about recognising Indigenous peoples in the constitution. In just a few generations we have moved from seeing Indigenous Australians as backwards to seeing them as custodians with something to teach.

In declaring himself and all parliamentarians "trustees" Turnbull is positioning himself as part of a continuum.

Here are some things he could also take on board from an ancient culture:

1. Connection to country. Society can take new shapes but that primary connection provides one of the most stabilising aspects of life. One cares for country and she cares for you. From young Indigenous people are taught to pay attention to country. They develop a sixth sense; an openness that sees them tune in. What's the take home message for someone who thinks he is a trustee for future generations? No new coal mines? In the very least, narrow victories are not opportunities to berate others or boast but opportunities to listen and pay attention to 'country'.

2. There are many Aboriginal nations. It's worth remembering this as new tensions surface about race and ethnicity and what it means to belong to this island home.

3. A spirituality that fosters the common good. An enduring practice in Aboriginal culture is living in a collective rather than identifying as an individual. Community life depends on brothers and sisters getting along and looking out for each other. Aboriginal people have for generations shared food and readily cared for children that are not their own. In all likelihood, Turnbull's grandchildren will be provided for. As a true trustee, he should be aware of children born into families not so lucky.

4. Traditional Aboriginal practice inspires the way forward. For example, fire-stick farming – creating waves of "cool" fire that ripples across land – was done for thousands of years so things can grow back stronger. Aboriginal people see themselves as co-creators with the creation spirit. Fire propagates seed so species continue. With that, sacred songs are sung to nourish country.

5. Being a custodian means nurturing stories. The arts are central to continuing cultures, and central to Australia's oldest. Stories tell us who we are. Restoring cuts to the arts and national museums would be a way to help.

Over time our way of doing politics should go deeper into the conceptual framework of Aboriginal Australia, melding Indigenous concepts with those from Western democracies to make something truly our own, and to shape modern songlines befitting a mature opal-hearted nation. Tell me, I'm not dreaming.

First published in The Canberra Times, 18 July, 2016.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Too little skin in the Indigenous development game

This week's Four Corners revealed Aboriginal communities being ripped off by "weasels" – middlemen who disappear after cashing in on highly-lucrative government contracts meant to benefit disadvantaged people.

The program put a spotlight on 'whitefella charlatans'; obvious targets of public outrage. Yet on television their victims weren't particularly angry, just sad that once again their trust had been betrayed.

They ought to be angry at successive governments of all levels that have set aside money for them but not done the work needed to make sure it reached them. Governments must know that capacity constraints in communities make members vulnerable to people who work corruptly.

In my time working in Indigenous development, I heard of bureaucrats who "throw money over the fence and expect communities to put together the puzzle". Communities are set up to fail in part because departments working with them operate from a paradigm of service delivery rather than community development.

In his important book out this month Serious Whitefella Stuff, development practitioner and academic Mark Moran makes the case. At a book launch, coinciding with Reconciliation Week, he spoke of his own awakening. "I wanted to put a notice up for a public meeting and he [a local who became a good friend] made me rewrite it 20 times before people would understand it."

Moran and his co-contributors call for a complete rethink of the way governments and remote communities interact. Moran describes an oversupply of programs that recipients find bewildering. In some communities with as few as a 1000 people there are 100 programs delivered by hundreds of providers who don't talk to each other and have different agendas.

He says in the main bureaucrats are trying to do good and increasingly open to new ways of working, but are not in their jobs long enough to realise sustained and positive change. "Relationships are the building block for reform, not the next big policy solution."

(It's an unpopular thing to say, but for all the mistakes the missionaries made, they stayed, they learnt the local language and they built relationships).

If we took the aspirations of Aboriginal people seriously, then those expecting to work with Indigenous Australians – public servants and business and the non-government sector – would be trained in asset-based community development. They would have capacity in cross-cultural communication. They would have facilitation skills to build consensus and resolve conflict and they would be able to support skills sharing and leadership development.

The military style, top-down NT Intervention (which unfortunately coincided with forced shire amalgamations) was a policy solution based on the worst cases of neglect and, as a result, it swept away everything before it, including the good stuff. "We need to recognise capability and civil society that already exists, Moran says. "The deficits often sit with outsiders who work in remote communities."

World views are not what you look at but what you look though, like spectacles. We all look at the world through a grid we take for granted, a web of narratives and symbols that help us navigate the world. The Commonwealth spends more than $25 billion on Indigenous affairs each year. It would help if it adjusted its spectacles for respectful, two-way learning.

Like most people, Indigenous Australians like to manage their own affairs. But delivering services necessarily involves a transaction, and transactions turn people into objects, especially as government employees are working to three-year timeframes to tick boxes. The construction of new homes in the Northern Territory as part of the Intervention was a classic example. Tens of millions of dollars were spent with scarcely a single Indigenous apprenticeship created.

Not only are few jobs being being created, communities are having to return grant funds because there is no capacity on the ground to absorb the resources. Process is as important, if not more than outcomes. That inevitably leads to putting people first and growing their confidence and skills.

The office of Prime Minister and Cabinet (which began managing Indigenous affairs under Tony Abbott) is currently re-engaging 500 communities under as part of a revamped NT Intervention. There is a will to "engage" better but the externally imposed timeframes are unrealistic. The best overseas aid organisations commit to having their people work with locals for a minimum of 10 years. Arguably, the difficulties in working with Indigenous locals are greater.

The increasing politicisation of the Australian Public Service, along with seasonal purges, means that communities are lucky to liaise with the same public servants for more than a couple of years. Too few have skin in the game. This makes it easy for the so-called weasels

First published in The Canberra Times, June 10, 2016. Image c/o Fairfax Media

Monday, June 6, 2016

Let's dig in for public schools - for the common good

Six-year old Josie (not her real name) was enrolled in a prestigious private elementary school and progressing well, so well that her reading was well above average. Her parents asked the principal if she could be moved up a class or have her classes more personally tailored.

They were politely refused. All the talk about child-centred programs and extra resources was "just talk," her father Rick says.

"We tried other elite schools who also claimed they had resources to burn for individual care, but in the end they wouldn't budge," he says.

"That's not the way we do it here" was the typical response.

Then Rick and his wife tried their local public school.

The school assessed her, let her sit in on some lessons, and went into overdrive. Josie was put into different groups for different subjects as part of a specially-designed program. They kept an eye on her. They were "just all round brilliant".

That year Rick and Josie's mum got the usual letter from the school asking for a Voluntary Contribution of $140.

They talked about it and sent the sent the school a cheque for 140 times as much: $20,000.

Rick was on a train platform in Sydney when he got a call from the school. The principal was on the other end of the line, speechless. The cheque was real.

"I explained that we were willing to pay $20,000 at a private school, so why wouldn't we send the same amount to his school as it deserved every cent. They went above and beyond."

"It was lovely. The money was so appreciated. I knew it was not going to go towards a rowing club shelter, but more important things."

Once a year state primary and high schools send parents and carers a letter requesting support in the form of a voluntary contribution. They are only allowed to send one. I am familiar with them, having served on a school board that has debated why it is that each year fewer than half the families respond. We debate the timing of the letter, the text of the letter, the extent of the discount for families with more than one child and anything else we think might improve the response rate.

We rarely get big donations, and families in the ACT are typically more stingy than families in NSW, even though their incomes are higher. (In any event, if they did decide to pay up big it isn't as effective as it could be. Donations to private schools are tax deductible, but donations to public schools are not, although donations to the libraries within them sometimes are).

As reported by Fairfax Media last week, years of benign neglect of the public system and lobbying by private schools means non-government schools are now government-funded at similar levels to government ones. We seem to have accepted the distasteful idea that the government should fund even very wealthy private schools whose families turn their back on the government system.

Public school advocate Jane Caro asks what women and public schools have in common? She says we pay them less and expect them to do more. Rick thought the private system would deliver more than it could. He thought paying more would buy more.

The decisions parents make about schools are complex but often influenced by what's on the surface. It's like buying a book. Book publishers spend a fortune on enticing covers and hiring bookshop window space. Private schools have the money to show off. The spectator sport that is NAPLAN plays a part even though if you allow for socio-economic status, the differences between public and private schools are paper thin.

Public school halls may be less fancy, the quality of their open night signs forlorn, and their uniform culture more relaxed but, gosh, it's made up for by commitment; commitment to individuals and a commitment to that old fashioned thing called the common good - with no religious branding or criteria-heavy waiting lists. Their values: respect, care, excellence and community are driven by a notion of the common good. John Howard defamed them when he said they were values-free.

When a family makes a voluntary contribution to a public school it's not about buying something for an individual but supporting the common good.

The common good is what's missing from prime minister Turnbull's language so far this election. Even his talk about innovation is tied to the market, making something that can sold.

Don't wait for a reminder before contributing to your local public school.

First published in The Canberra Times, 28 May, 2016. Cartoon illustration courtesy of Fairfax Media.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Digital election campaign means less time to reflect on the issues

More than any previous election campaign this one will be won or lost using digital media.

Millions of us are wedded to Facebook. It's a vast digital kingdom that each party will try to conquer.

These days we are living more in our heads and less in the real world. We have fewer embodied and spontaneous experiences with strangers, and more disembodied ones, although usually with people we have chosen to follow; people whose political preferences align with our own. It's made us more tribal, more like the followers of Donald Trump, given us more blindspots.

The upside is that many of us are able to engage directly with members of Parliament, even the Prime Minister. And fact-checking is easier once you establish which sources to trust.

Meanwhile, journalists are under siege. Those on the campaign trail are tethered to devices that won't let them rest, and they are encouraged to use them to engage with the public when they've time to spare – time they would have once used to reflect. Sleepless parliamentary staff are chained to the same devices.

Campaigns impose their own structures: morning alerts, risk-averse and scripted events, hand-shaking and limited main-street and shopping mall encounters. Reporters look for the cracks and fault lines, but not for long as they'll need to move on, catch that bus before it takes off for another scheduled pseudo "engagement".

Parliamentary radio reporter Francis Keany vividly describes his life on the 2013 campaign trail in his new book Follow the Leaders: How to survive a modern day election campaign, launched last month. He survived thousands of kilometres travel, a bare-bones media budget and painfully long days with the wonders of over-the-counter medication, caffeine, rare family reunions and opportunities to speak to people outside the bubble of politics. The book is full of hurried, strange and surreal moments to the tune of slogans repeated ad nausea.

"The press conference begins and five minutes later the press release is issued, giving us zero time to digest a complex promise about a 1 per cent levy on big business to cover Abbott's controversial paid parental leave scheme ... Anger [among reporters] is clearly picked up by the microphones which is echoed by plenty of comments online," Keany notes of day three.

The new technology is incredibly useful. "You can quickly Google and fact check during a press conference, you can gauge reaction on Twitter and your bosses can listen into live feeds with suggested questions and quotes," he tells me. But he adds, that being tethered stifles him.

There's plenty to be concerned about in the rush to engage and compete in cyberspace. First of all, not everyone's equal in so-called "digital communities". They are echos of the real world and its biases. They over-represent celebrities and they over-represent men. Like ancient Greece, they are "democracies" made use of by the few. Genuinely needy people with little access to people of influence don't have the time to spare. Real barriers prevent those people that really need advocacy from being heard online.Even open forums are maintained by a dedicated and stubborn core of participants.

Journalists need to be careful not to treat Twitter and Facebook as if they represent the constituency. "The trick will be to recognise whether it's just another Twitter citizen arcing up, or whether it's a collective nerve that's been pinched," says Keany.

Political parties must be mindful their people (many Internet natives in similar garb) aren't sucked into staring at screens all day rather than door-knocking and holding face-to-face meetings with a diverse range of people. The appeal of digital communication is not only its potential reach but its low cost (as with online education, it's cheaper but probably not better).

The Internet has reshaped the public square, remodelled the old town hall meeting. For the media and for politicians it will be a balancing act between responding to the legitimate but often reactionary issues that arise on social media and aiming to maintain a holistic approach to the campaign with a consistency of character and a moral compass.

The wild and terrifying time that is a federal campaign is a test of endurance for all concerned, heightened in the digital age. Campaigns have never been simply about policy but about shaping identity. The pace of our digital culture further elevates colour over issues of substance and shrinks our capacity for sustained policy discussion. I hope to be proven wrong.

First published in The Canberra Times, 13 May 2016 Image c/o Simon Letch

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Twisted logic of an asylum policy now in disarray

Papua New Guinea's decision to close the Manus Island detention centre after its Supreme Court unanimously declared it a denial of a right to personal liberty and illegal has been met with little more than a declaration that our government will never allow its residents to come to Australia.

Minister Peter Dutton's lines sounded well rehearsed. Regional processing and resettlement had stopped many people from losing their lives at sea. They also sounded false. It's a corrupted compassion that seeks to prevent drownings at sea but will tolerate what seems like indefinite life sentences for people who have committed no crimes.

Just this week Four Corners told us about one asylum seeker, Hamid Khazae, who paid the ultimate price. Doctors were key advocates in the program.

The first wave of health professionals to raise the alarm about care in detention centres spoke out as long as 15 years ago. I produced a documentary for ABC Radio National at the time, quoting the Australian Medical Association among others.

"There are inappropriate guidelines and inappropriate treatments available to people who are in detention.. Some of the concerns are the poor use of interpreters, particularly for those people in inadequate trauma counselling," said Kerryn Phelps.

Khazae was one of those who had no effective interpreter. Four Corners revealed that repeated medical advice about him was ignored and his care was unnecessarily delayed. Khazae died of a treatable bacterial infection.

The doctors who spoke to Four Corners have been threatened with jail for making this known. The Australian government contracts private firms to run the centres on foreign soil in environments far more secretive than those we tolerate at home.

In my 2001 documentary psychiatrist Professor Patrick McGorry issued a chilling warning.

"The level of abuse and trauma that's been visited on people within Australia at the moment, in future years is going to come to the same sort of situation as the apology for Aboriginal people," he said. (The lawyer who ran the PNG case suggests the Supreme Court ruling will spark compensation cases.)

Nine years later, McGorry's expertise in the field of mental health was acknowledged when he became Australian of the Year. He's deepened his view, calling the detention centres factories of mental illness.

Doctors have a long and honourable tradition of standing up for health. Most are united in their disgust, not only at the gag clause but at the conditions of detention.
When asked how she felt after being released from a Lebanese jail along with a 60 Minutes film crew this month, Brisbane mother Sally Faulkner was naturally delighted.

"They treated us well, we can't – we can't complain about that," she said. "But it's just, yeah, it's the uncertainty that sort of kept me awake at night, not knowing if it was gonna be a lifelong sentence or what. It was, yeah, it was no joke."

Faulkner was detained for two weeks. On average, asylum seekers in Australian offshore detention camps are detained for 450 days with no certainty as to when they will get out. One has been in for 1000 days. He can only dream of a bribe directed to the right place by Channel Nine or a snatch team rescue.

Few people seriously suggest Australia should not be able to detain irregular arrivals briefly on arrival in order to determine whether they pose a threat to society and to check on their identities.

But the process we've got now has no mechanism for ever releasing them within Australia or for preventing them sinking into despair. Many are intercepted young (the detainee who set himself alight on Nauru this week is just 23),vibrant and hopeful that on the strength of their story, they will get asylum. Months pass, the bureaucracy grinds on and more than half are indeed found to be genuine. Their cases are upheld but refugees enter the community after detention utterly demoralised, often severely ill, as a result of the experience.

Papua New Guineans, backed by their highest national court, understand the long-term costs of having said yes to Australia to accommodate the detention centre.
The centre created short-term jobs and some infrastructure. But as one PNG opposition member stressed, there was the good, the bad and the ugly. "In our hearts we knew it was not a long-term thing."

Meanwhile, Australia's policy is in disarray. No one likes to lose face especially when backed into a corner, so be prepared for tough talk from the government. Even though there is very little between the two major parties on asylum seeker policy, the Coalition is already using the PNG decision to scare voters and drive a wedge between it and Labor by conflating asylum seekers with terrorism.

After nearly decades of thorny debate, surely voters deserve a more sophisticated approach. A hardening towards asylum seekers would run counter to growing and grass-roots opposition to the policy, much of it in from across the Christian churches.

While the court ruling offers another arrow in the long campaign for change, it also fractures the appearance of cohesion in the federal Labor Party. Those cracks will be exploited by a desperate government.

First published in The Canberra Times, April 29, 2016.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Arguments for live export trade ring hollow

Elections are meant to help us decide what we think. But on one important issue we already know.

Opinion poll after opinion poll shows most of us want the bloody business of live animal exports stopped. It's our political leaders who are looking the other way.

When Four Corners revealed the cruelty of live exports in 2011, MPs were bombarded by correspondence from shocked viewers demanding change. The Gillard government responded by suspending live exports, but was quickly heavied by the industry and allowed live exports to resume with new standards to tackle mistreatment.

Its so-called Exporter Supply Chain Assurance Scheme improved conditions but they seem to have slipped back under Tony Abbott, which abolished the Department of Agriculture's live animal export division in 2014, within a year of expanding the live export trade to China. The department is responsible for promoting the trade and also regulating it, but now without the benefit of any serious advisory support.

The conditions and duration of sea voyages are unchanged. Advocates say abuse continues. Rates of stun-gun use are reportedly higher, but animals, sent to the Middle East and Asia are still subject to prolonged and painful deaths.

Bidda Jones, RSPCA Australia's chief scientist, and Julian Davies re-examine the issue in their book, Backlash – Australia's conflict of values over live exports. They argue for an ethical evaluation of the trade, so that any decisions to expand it actively consider the welfare standards in countries where risks exist. Decisions would be based on more than pure economics.

Federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who helped launch Backlash at the National Library last month, reckons that whenever he raises the issue, the response to his office is twice the size of any other issues, even that of asylum seekers.

"It is politicians who authorise the live export trade ... who have the power to stop shipments ... who make the laws regarding the corporations who run this trade," he said at the launch.

Wilkie believes very few of his federal colleagues understand or care that this is a systemically cruel trade: "There is no way to send sheep to the Middle East in the northern summer in any other way but a deeply cruel way."

Federal MPs here in the ACT are no doubt aware of the reservoir of concern in the Canberra community. Many MPs are uncomfortable with the trade. But letters of concern are redirected to Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce where they seem to disappear.

Even though it should be proud of its efforts to improve the sector, Labor's got little skin in the game these days. After the campaign against the trade peaked, it figures there's nothing to be gained by publicly arguing for strengthened protocols. It doesn't want to take a strong public position and risk looking greener than the Greens, nor inflame a more organised lobby.

Events of 2011 saw the mobilisation of the sector like never before with the agriculture industry presenting a unified front even though many members – sheep and cattle farmers – are against the live export trade. "You want to hope there is no animal-sympathetic entity to which we will all, one day, become accountable," wrote a rural constituent to the department in 2011, someone who grew up on a sheep and cattle station.

It seems only one issue at a time (asylum seekers) can claim the consciousness space. That's a shame but perhaps an election will see fresh faces prepared to take a stand (Labor's two most vocal opponents to the live export trade, Melissa Parke and Kelvin Thomson, are on their way out as are strong supporters of the sector, among them Joe Bullock).

What's unfathomable is that the live export industry has grown at the expense of the Australian processed-meat industry. "Even if these politicians don't care about the welfare of animals, you'd think they'd care about the numerous Australian workers who have been laid off," Wilkie said.

The live animal export industry is worth $1 billion. By comparison, international students contribute more than $16 billion in export income to the Australian economy.

The industry has been quick to dismiss the book as a "rear-view mirror" focus on the trade, offering reflections on the ban as a "comfort spot" for those opposed to the live export industry. But events five years ago are still contemporaneous. The arguments used to resume the trade were flimsy then and are flimsy still.

The ABC's Sarah Ferguson told the launch the industry held a hollow position, claiming "that the live cattle trade needed to exist in order that Australia should educate Indonesia, as if this is the only way that knowledge could be transferred from Australia to Indonesia via the live cattle trade".

"The hollowness of that argument, incredibly, took hold in Australia," she said. "This is where the media comes out of the book rather poorly."

Before another election and a very expensive plebiscite on another issue already decided in the public's mind, let's do something about this one. Animals we export for slaughter overseas can't speak up for themselves. We had spoken up, and were pacified. We ought to speak up again.

First published in The Canberra Times, March 31, 2016.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Valuing art and those that make it

Don't give up your day job. You'll hear it again and again if you are just starting out as an artist, and for good reason.

Artists down the centuries have been hybrids. They work one or two unrelated paid jobs so they can work in the arts for enjoyment, for "psychic income".

It's the reason so many great compositions, canvases and films are created, for non-monetary benefits such as joy in seeing a vision realised, peer recognition, fame and the prospect of influencing public opinion.

Of course some artists actually manage to make a living through what they do. But most never scrape together enough from art to live above the poverty line, despite a sympathetic tax system, government subsidies and grants.

Artists are both liberated and hamstrung by the notion of psychic income. It's their best friend and their worst enemy. They often volunteer their time; give away their work because they want to.

"Worse, they ask one another to do the same," Jack Lloyd, business and operations director at Belconnen Arts Centre, says. "We do this because, in part, we don't value our work ourselves."

The question of what artists get paid came to the surface at last month's pre-budget arts forum convened by the Childers Group, an ACT arts advocacy organisation.

From the floor, there came an audacious idea of a minimum wage for artists. Community workers have one.

Greens arts spokesman Shane Rattenbury responded with humour. "The problem is artists from everywhere would move to the ACT," he said.

While there's no national award covering artists, the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance and the National Association for the Visual Arts publish guide rates, covering everything from exhibition fees to teaching rates. Still, the average annual income of an Australian visual artist is just $10,000 – a fraction of what most other full-time workers get.

Governments will fund projects, but usually not salaries. Artists will sometimes quote a figure for "wages" or an "honorarium" when putting in grant applications, but they will rarely do the sums and be upfront about the actual number of hours involved with an actual hourly wage.

With no award, those artists that are employed lose entitlements when they change workplaces. Many are employed on contract which means they are responsible for paying their own superannuation.

In its pre-budget submission the Childers Group urges the ACT government to ensure there are "no professional arts workers employed by ACT key arts organisations earning less than the average Australian wage".

It is worried the ACT isn't attracting and retaining the best people and about disparities between what arts organisations and the public service offer. It wants the government's arts agency artsACT to examine how earnings in the ACT compare to those elsewhere and to benchmark standards. ArtsACT is reluctant to do so, saying art centres determine what their employees and contractors are paid. But when their boards, seeking to attract the best people, pay their managers well, those further down the line suffer. Programs can also shrink.

The ACT may scrub up well compared to the rest of Australia when it comes to funding institutions but a lack of curiosity and interrogation about artists' pay and conditions is at odds with the rhetoric from all three major parties in the ACT.

"The arts are at the core of our human existence. They give expression to our values," Labor's Chris Bourke told the arts forum at Gorman House.

"Art contributes to our health and wellbeing ... It strengthens communities," Rattenbury said.

"Arts is not an add-on but should be built into everything," the Liberals Brendan Smyth said.

All three, especially Smyth, spruiked the economic benefits of the arts but said little about the delivery costs.

Like most things, it's complicated. Art cannot and should not always have a dollar value attached to it. That can get in the way of creating art. And art means different things to different people, although we usually know it when we see or hear it. As in other fields, what a person is paid depends on their skill and the quality of their output. That's up for debate.

Nonetheless it is true that what gets measured gets valued and nurtured. The fact that we don't really measure the effort that goes into the arts and back advocacy to improve conditions suggests we think it takes care of itself or that we don't actually care about it. Maybe we think they are too many intangibles – it's all too hard to measure. Well, let's get creative on that front!

First published in The Canberra Times/Fairfax Media, March 9, 2016.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

This Lent, why not give up speed, live in the present

Australian painter Jeffrey Smart created semi-urban landscapes where huge windowless buildings sat in harsh light. They were props surrounded by small, often puzzled and isolated figures.

The landscape taking shape between Majura and Fyshwick has echoes of a Smart. There's something surreal about towering retail temples ribboned by hills dotted with sheep.

Bold fluorescent signs point to giant warehouses circled by grey car parks, like moats hugging corrugated exteriors. People move in and out of vehicles in an orderly fashion, dwarfed by the primary-coloured Ikea, Costco and Masters hardware store.

Ikea promises a kind of rebirth. Its thick catalogue soothes with new endless possibilities for clean and sunlit interiors. The rooms of our lives can be realigned. Just swipe your card.

So mesmerised are we that we imagine waking up the next morning blonde and living with less clutter, comforted inside one of the world's best welfare states, a Scandinavian country built around equality. Instead, we need a master's degree in orientation to take what feels like an endless air-conditioned tour, supplied with easily torn tape measures and the promise of meatballs.

But the best is yet to come when we are back home to assemble the flat pack, the enamel gloss a little chipped.

Seriously, what drove us to queue for hours at the opening late last year? We welcomed the world's largest furniture retailer like a childless aunt welcoming a baby. It was a gift to us rather than a sink for our wallet.

I think it has something to do with the notion that we can start again. And we don't need to wait. However complicated our lives, Ikea tells us we can have it all, right now and on budget.

The nearby giant warehouses tell us that big is better. "You can only make a saving if you buy 36 of those," a friend and Costco member jokes without a smile. "My husband came home with a bottle of sauce that big," she gesticulates. "I need extra real estate to house it."

I was lured into Costco once to help provide treats for a school fete. Their cakes are good for kids' parties. "They have cakes for Africa," my friend told me. The crazy thing is we don't need to be fed as much as Africa.

Back at Ikea, a beeper has gone off to ask a parent to pick up a child from Little Land. A helpful staff member steers an anxious parent back to her child, held semi-captive, via secret doorways as if entering Narnia.

Ikea gets to little people early with its own doll's house furniture that they can learn to love before they are ready for the big stuff.

It all sits oddly with the other popular social movement: living slowly, living simply and buying locally produced. There's an acronym for that one: LOHAS, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. It's formalised in such organisations as slow food, slow money, slow thinking, slow fitness and slow gardening. It incorporates the concepts of awareness, consciousness and concern for the greater good. Its concern is that modern life is cutting us off from our humanity. As someone once told me, "You can't love anything at speed."

Companion books are everywhere; those that invite mindful slow colouring in. LOHAS practitioners, many of them of faith, are reacting to a culture addicted to speed and convenience. They strive to be present, to make their own food. They more likely to choose cloth over disposable nappies.

"In modern society, once you've tasted convenience, it's hard to go back, but I feel better doing these things, even though it's a pain," one says. While she might save time using commercial products, she feels they rob her of something.

I understand the buzz about Ikea. It's a revolution in organising small spaces. Other companies are customising their goods to fit into Ikea spaces.

But instead of looking for new arrangements to organise our things, why not just get fewer things? We could eat less but eat more slowly, read less but read more slowly.

It's food for thought as Lent rolls around once again in preparation for Easter. Instead of giving up rich foods, a better idea might be to give up speed, to live each day rather than be caught up in it, to be present. It would erase boundaries between our roles as parents, mentors, citizens, workers, spiritual beings and shoppers.

First published in The Canberra Times/Fairfax Media, February 20, 2016.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

For education's sake, we should question NAPLAN

Parents be warned. As school resumes, there's escalating concern that NAPLAN, the annual assessment for students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9, is producing awful consequences.

In a new book sarcastically titled How to Pass a Test, long-time teacher Lynne Edwards begs readers not to pick up the so-called "education kits" now on sale in news agencies and post offices.

She says it's bad enough that NAPLAN and the preparation for it soaks up time that should be spent teaching but it's worse if parents further harass their children at home.

NAPLAN testing is supposed to improve the quality of education by producing data that can be used to redirect resources to areas of need.

But too often it is redirected to well-resourced parents, leaving poorly performing schools even worse off. (We know that the real issue is not the differences between schools but differences within schools as students at the same school struggle to all rise together with the tide.)

The results should never have been published on a website for immediate access like an adult spectator sport.

"Once a narrow testing system is given the high-stakes status attached to the MySchool website and then published in league tables, the distortion becomes detrimental and destructive," Edwards says.

Importantly, the results aren't even current. Delivered up to half a year later, NAPLAN results are practically useless as a feedback tool for students.

And, the testing regime puts unnecessary pressure on students and their teachers. One seasoned primary teacher in Sydney told me of a pupil who just panicked. "Kids feel that if they fail they are failing for life," she said.

The term "NAPLAN belly" has been coined to describe common ailments during the testing period. A survey commissioned by the University of Western Sydney's Whitlam Institute found students vomiting, crying and staying away. It concluded that NAPLAN harms students.

As a parent attending a welcome to high school last week, I was delighted by the school's emphasis on treating the student as a whole person. "School is about bettering yourself and learning about yourself," the year 7 co-ordinator said. "It's about supporting others too."

So it's frustrating to see Australia going down the US path of more and more tests. Edwards quotes Finland's director-general of education as saying the Australia/US approach is "an attempt to simplify a complicated issue and offer a quick fix". By de-emphasising arts and emphasising numeracy and literacy testing, they suck time away from diverse and creative learning, problem solving and risk taking.

Edwards urges Australia to emulate Finland, which has moved from an "old system" of grammar schools and civic schools to a comprehensive, inclusive system driven by co-operation and collaboration, research-based training and intense mentoring for teachers. Education is valued as a public good. Teaching in Finland has become as competitive and prestigious as professions in medicine or the law. The teaching profession attracts and retains talent. By contrast, teachers here lament losing colleagues amid poor working conditions.

It's a myth that NAPLAN and the MySchool website were needed because parents were not well informed. Tests were always a small but important part of student and classroom evaluations.

But one-size-fits all tests are "not the way teachers were trained to teach and it is not the way children learn", according Geoff Hastwell, a retired Adelaide teacher who is now a musician.

"We want our schools to be much more than test-prep paddocks, we want students to be exposed to the arts, and we want them to feel cared for," he says.

He wants teachers to unite to oppose it. "I'd like them to get together and declare: the emperor has no clothes, stop this!," he says, but admits he hopes in vain. "Their union is less strong. They are less courageous and won't speak up for fear of losing a promotion."

In the US, an entire profit-making machine has grown around NAPLAN-style tests. Firms that prepare, administer and provide evaluation of the tests enjoy financial success, despite many shortcomings.

An emeritus professor at the University of Southern California, linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen, says non-stop testing in his country is "sucking the blood out of education". There's no money for anything else. What really annoys him is that the testing regime has not been validated. As with mandated computer-use in schools, "there's been no control group".

It has provoked an "opt out" civil disobedience movement across every state of America against state-mandated testing. It includes students themselves deciding to boycott NAPLAN-style tests.

Here in Australia, at a time of rising deficits and reduced Commonwealth income, couldn't we consider spending less on standardised testing and on the things that matter? Yes to more funding for Gonksi. Education is an investment, not a cost. But this election year, let's bring on the debate about NAPLAN, too. Let's not move with the American public and be taken for a ride. In the very least, school principals and teachers owe it to their students to downplay the significance of the tests.

First published in The Canberra Times/Fairfax Media, February 8, 2016.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Whatever you do, don't use the f-word: tips for dealing with a fussy eater

"All my boy will eat is fish fingers," groans a parent I know.

"A number of smart people have told me that they only ate fish fingers the first 10 years of their life. They seemed to do all right ... But I'm looking for a recipe that disguises broccoli as fish fingers."

While this mum is able to joke about it, we share a common concern: we each have a child dubbed a "fussy eater".

So concerned was I about my little person's limited diet that I took myself off this summer to a government-run health session on fussy eaters.

Stories emerged from other mums about the horror of anything lumpy; the terror of juice still in its fruit; parents unable to sneak a banana into a milkshake; only custard for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or – as if straight out of Doctor Who – custard and fish fingers.

My little person really only likes things that are white, to the point of food racism: white pasta (no sauce, thank-you), mashed potato, white bread (with butter only) and only the whites of eggs.

I have always understood children as having agency. I will not threaten or bribe. I am responsible for providing a selection of foods and she is responsible for eating them, unforced. Children are in control, ultimately, as they learn self-regulation.

But my creative enterprise and attempt at persuasion brought little success. It should have been easy. The family eats most meals together to help socialise my daughter and encourage new culinary things. It's as if she has worked out what won't poison her and is sticking to it.

Frustrated, more so because I had no problems of this kind with the older kids, I was ready to give anything a try.

I can report having a little more hope after getting some helpful tips, including some old ones learnt afresh from a very helpful nutritionist:

1. Offer a small variety of what the rest of the family is eating with some modification (for example, a larger portion of what she likes for dinner, so she can still choose and feel good about eating what she typically likes).
2. In the same vein, expose her to new foods so they become less scary. If she doesn't like the pasta sauce, put it to the side, but don't exclude it, as exposure to disliked foods helps her overcome her dislikes.
3. Role model by showing and eating a variety of foods that are safe.
4. Offer wholemeal breads.
5. Offer a high-iron food at least once a day.
6. Try not to pigeonhole her as a "fussy eater", as children can wear that label with pride as a special badge (oops, seems too late for that one at my house).
7. Involve her in the making of the meal. Helping with the cooking can increase the likelihood of a child eating new things.
8. Use vegies as a vehicle to get in other good stuff, like hummus dip scooped up with sticks of carrot (a distant hope for us, but I have to be optimistic).

The tips have come just in time, ahead of the stresses of a year of school lunches. Ultimately, I have to respect a child's decisions to eat or not to eat. It's not a given that we'll get where we should in a hurry, but I was reassured that a child knows how much food she needs to survive.

First published in The Canberra Times, January 27, 2016.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The seductions of the beach

If the bush represents the sweat of hard work and childhoods in suburbs sprawling into a scrub frontier then the bleached sand and cool sea is where we choose to escape our pimpled and later ageing selves. So contends author Robert Drewe in his new book, The Beach.

He argues the beach is part of the Australian consciousness at many levels. We are called to the edges of the continent to find refreshment and the promise of renewal. But it's also where early intrepid travellers, settlers and convicts first encountered Aboriginal peoples; where mutual curiosity turned into clashes.

There are more than 11,000 sandy beaches in Australia, each with their own secrets, sand flies, jellyfish and near or actual drownings. They are where our anxieties play out (shark!) and where our moral values are tested.

They are where people experience intimacy and intrusion, rescue and rejection. The backdrop for the Cronulla riots a decade ago, the beach represents a lifestyle and philosophy, viewed under threat. When too close to the beach, asylum seekers are given numbers and taken to prison camps girt by sea. The coastline is littered with propaganda and demons.

If we see the desert as a place of redemption, with its sublime emptiness and silence, the beach for citizens is a place for fulfilment. A lot of us love the beach because it's where we had our first crush. It's where our innocence was lost.

Drewe notes that retirement and nursing homes are increasingly scattered along the coast where residents gaze out, recalling earlier years, staring at Norfolk pines and 50 shades of blue.

I grew up and became freckled in Manly; more of a neighbour of the sea rather than a lover who surrendered to it. The boardwalk and sandy stretch from Shelley to Queenscliff was then, as now, a highway of diversity and flesh, a sticky collage of ice-creams and cola, and increasingly sunscreen-painted people. Folk either lose themselves or become more conscious of their cellulite.

A friend of mine recalls a familiar walk down sandy steps to a favourite beach where he finds a strange but wonderful solidarity with strangers. "I feel I am being good to myself. My soul relaxes and lightens. When I sit watching people having fun in the water, I feel I am one of them."

He feels lucky at the beach: "Everyone's there for the simplest but most important things in life: joy, freedom, relaxation, friendship. Every time I dip into the ocean ... it makes me feel more generous, and more patriotic."

There is a kind of democracy at work at the beach. The absence of clothes equalises bums, legs and arms under the southern hemisphere's uncompromising light. The constant motion of the sea links swimmers together. Under the force of waves, they share a dangerous freedom denied to those walking on the ground.

Abandonment and freedom come to mind for Drewe too, who says he's pleased there are no private beaches in Australia. "You can choose to walk the perimeter of this vast continent with relative freedom." But, he asks "Why do we need to pee as soon as we enter the sea?"

The sea invites us all to let go more than we otherwise might.

Another mate, although a long-time resident of the coast, notes that she is just not a "fish-type"; saying she has always lacked a courage she thinks is needed for the surf. "The waves always overpower me. The cold thing freaks me out. Maybe I'm just not hard enough. I get swept away. And I'm so fair, he's fair, I end up looking like a lobster."

"But I do appreciate the ocean for its freshness, its clean air," she adds.

Even though climate change makes the coast increasingly threatening with rising sea levels and monstrous waves that bludgeon the coast, the beach in all sorts of weather is still seductive, promising mental and physical relief any time of year.

First published in The Canberra Times, December 8, 2016