Showing posts from 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…

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 si…

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 Newca…

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…

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 consta…

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 …

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 notorio…

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 m…

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 ni…

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 delive…

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 th…

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 us…

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 Austral…

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.


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 Ll…

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 equ…

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…

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 …

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 und…