Sunday, December 16, 2018

One political bright spot --- action on modern slavery

There was at least one bright spot on Capital Hill before parliamentarians flew out of Canberra last week.

It was the passing of Australia’s first federal law to address modern slavery in the things we buy.

The passage of the law was an exercise in genuine bipartisanship, with the most active Liberals being Western Australia’s Senator Linda Reynolds and Victorian member of parliament Chris Crewther, and the most active Labor members being Tasmania’s Senator Lisa Singh and Victoria’s Clare O’Neil. O'Neil and Reynolds, representing the major parties, collaborated primarily with Greens Senator Nick McKim, independents Tim Storer and Derryn Hinch, and members of the Centre Alliance.

It wasn’t just the senate doing its job, but a strong and collaborative civil society too.

We might be disgusted with the near-toxic levels of tribalism in the parliament and despair at its capacity to do good, but there is room for optimism.

The Senate committee system generally works well. It was at its best producing a report ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ that led to Australia’s Modern Slavery Act.

At the heart of the new law is a recognition that without really well-documented supply chains, the clothes we buy and the food we eat can be tainted by slavery.

It encourages business to look for slavery and report on what they find and their efforts to stamp it out. Better informed consumers can encourage a “race to the top”.

The bill was improved as it went through the Senate (as many bills are), with both Coalition and Labor senators working to make it better.

It isn’t perfect. Labor asked for an independent modern slavery commissioner and civil penalties for companies that failed to report. The act provides for a review after three years, with a view to establishing penalties if it is found necessary.

Labor has promised penalties and an independent commissioner should it win office.

The law applies to 3000 businesses, including large Australian companies and household names. It provides for an annual public listing of companies that do report.

With a parliament labelled chaotic and a conflict-driven media cycle, we can too easily focus on the problems, not the possibilities and solutions.

We can be so dissatisfied with politics, we forget to ask what does effective look like and move to action that. Everything can feel so big, so intractable.

But it needn’t be so. A common-good policy change is possible. It often takes many years. It puts people first and recognises that half a cake is better than no cake at all.

Tenacious operators learn to tackle the edge, understanding their sphere of influence and working with it, rather than only seeing spheres of concern. Securing a Modern Slavery Act was textbook.

Further, senators who spoke to the bill were gracious. There was little or no adversary rhetoric. It was democracy at work, but almost unrecognisable to too many of us. Hands were shaken and the work of other parties and members recognised across the usual divides.

The new law sends a ray of hope in this season heralded as one of hope. It is well timed as it nudges us this Christmas to consider if the gifts we buy are slave-free.

Why not ask retailers what they know about the manufacture of a product you're thinking of buying? Choose to purchase a gift that is made without slave labour and in doing so, give a gift that beckons a better world.

First published in The Canberra Times, December 15, 2018

Monday, November 26, 2018

The federal govt wants to help you sleep better at night, yes really

So, one of the plotters who blew up the government of Malcolm Turnbull, Health Minister Greg Hunt, has ordered an inquiry into sleep.

He reckons there’s a problem and a parliamentary committee is now looking into it.

Sleep is a problem. It’s no small matter that four in every 10 Australians are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis.

But has he looked in the mirror?

Does he demand that his staff answer mobile phones all hours of the night and at the crack of dawn, or does he insist they get eight hours sleep per night?

Does he answer radio and television calls for an interview before the sun is up? Or does he tell producers to remember that a tired minister is a less-functioning minister.

He must know that the madness that engulfed the Coalition over the past few months, saw a lot of people lose a tonne of sleep. And for what?

I happen to be writing a book about the smartphone age and its impact on families. It is clear that communication technologies are adversely affecting sleep, especially among young people.

Even for adults, watching and reading content on personal devices late into the night is delaying sleep and making it harder to work and be well.

The ABC even seems to promote sleeplessness. Watching iview (in bed) is sold as the best way to catch up on programs. The broadcaster encourages ‘bingeing’ as if it’s a virtue.

The Health Minister thinks the government has a role to play. But it abolished the National Health Preventative Agency in 2014 to save money in the short term and because it didn't want the nanny state telling us what to do with our lives.

Tony Abbott preached that the best thing governments could do was to get out of the way. If you’re overweight, you'd chosen to be. If he had thought about sleep (and he never seemed to get much himself) he would have said that sleeplessness too was a personal choice.

Hunt wants to treat sleep as a national health problem when his government seems to have turned its back on what are almost certainly bigger health problems - obesity, and issues related to critically dangerous climate change, not to mention the underlying determinants of poor health including poverty, domestic violence, housing insecurity and pollution.

Cutting hospitalisations for chronic disease with pre-emptive measures would boost productivity as well as making us better off, which is what the axed National Health Preventative Agency was trying to do.

The parliamentary inquiry will doubtless make good recommendations, things like education campaigns about diet and fitness, perhaps around the pervasive use of social media.

But will it dare tackle growing levels of insecure work and poor rates of pay that contribute to stress and sleeplessness? Will it recommend the prime minister slow down so that he sounds more than half awake as he whizzes around Queensland? Will it invite parliamentarians to role model workplace environments that support balance?

I doubt it, but this government - if it’s really listening - can change tack and actually take preventative health seriously.

First published in The Canberra Times, November 20, 2018. Picture c/o ALAMY, Fairfax Media

Monday, October 22, 2018

Hunger is a justice issue that hurts us all

Within days of a government minister repaying obscene amounts billed for internet use we learnt this week that one in five Australians regularly struggles to afford food.

The hunger relief organisation Foodbank categorised one in four of these people as having “very low food security”.

It’s worst away from our cities, and when big bills arrive.

Schools respond with volunteer-run breakfast clubs. There are about a dozen across Canberra and Queanbeyan, feeding more than 500 children.

It's well established that disadvantage is typically experienced across many dimensions. Those dimensions cascade. There is a strong correlation between children going hungry, health complaints and poor education outcomes.

Successive studies across many countries by global agency UNICEF show hungry children are also more likely to be bullied and will experience shame and exclusion because with little food at home, they feel less able to have friends over.

An infant will typically be full of wonder and curiosity; "capabilities" as economist-philosophers Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum describe them.

But observe the same child at age 10 who is experiencing poverty and these capabilities can become impaired as she catches on to an external reality - that working hard at school and home is not enough to get ahead in a society where things are stacked up against her.

The key observation is that inequality is not just imposed on kids, it is absorbed and naturalised, with profound impacts on a child’s sense of self and life outcomes.

If an unconvinced public needs another reason to get behind a campaign to reduce inequality ahead of the next federal election, it’s that inequality lowers motivation and national prosperity.

Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett shows that high school students suffering from economic disadvantage and unequal access to learning resources did not believe they could get ahead.

The finding is hardly surprising and yet we have a new prime minister (who says he is interested in a 'fair go') offering a $4.4 billion deal to non-government schools that experts say further undermines the principle of needs-based funding.

We think of ourselves as an egalitarian society but the truth is the top 20 per cent of Australian households (earning $260,000) have on average 12 times the income of the bottom 20 per cent of households (with an average income of just $23,000).

Even in well-healed suburbs of Canberra, more and more people are flocking to use relief and food harvesting services, with goods sourced by Sydney-based Foodbank (there are Foodbanks in most Australian states).

Worryingly, some of the people accessing services – a growing number – are in paid work. Australia is drifting towards the reality in North America where millions of people belong to the community of ‘working poor’.

Our tax system, which used to help us guard against inequality, is just not keeping up. Tax cuts have been going to those who need it least.

Meanwhile, the evidence is overwhelming that Newstart, asking the jobless to live on a $40 a day, is too low (compare that amount to Assistant Treasurer Stuart Robert's internet bill of $90 a day). Federal Labor is only promising a review, worried about being seen as soft.

The former head of Anglicare in Canberra, Peter Sandeman, now based in Adelaide with Anglicare SA used a speech for that city’s recent Festival of Ideas to dream of a time when Australian politicians did not assume there are trade-offs between efficiency and equity.

Citing work by the aforementioned Wilkinson and Pickett he said it’s clear that for wealthy countries like ours, it is the degree of income inequality rather than average income which is closely related to a range of health and social problems.

“The greater the inequality, the poorer the health and social outcomes in that country,” Sandeman said.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis is that greater inequality seems to heighten the social anxieties of people through increasing the importance of social status.

“This means the rise of both fragile self-regard and anxiety,” said Sandeman.

“This, in turn, means that levels of trust between members of the public are lower in countries where differences in incomes are higher. We know trust and reciprocity are the hallmark of social capital, the relationships which bind us together as a community and lower the transaction costs of economic activity and a foundation of market efficiency.”

The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison governments have gone on and on about security threats (with Labor usually in sink on matters of border protection). And yet if it really understood security the Coalition would register and ensure it worked to reduce inequality, understanding that inequality hurts security, economic prosperity, our very well-being and ability to get on with each other.

First published in The Canberra Times, October 20, 2018. Image from Foodbank Victoria.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

What we need in a new ABC managing director

Behind all the talk about the independence of the ABC lies a separate but gnawing concern that populism is increasingly trumping depth in the making of its programs.

Michelle Guthrie was a late convert to quality reporting (staff still wince recalling her early advice to makers of Four Corners, that they should try doing some positive profiles of successful business leaders). But under her, and under budget pressure, senior management have been hacking away at serious programs in order to make way for topical and lighter fare.

It has narrowed the range of topics focused on by those programs and limited their depth.

Guthrie presided over a downsizing of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs The World Today and PM, cutting both from one hour to half an hour.

The "ideas network", Radio National, was thinned as management began earnestly shifting the network into a podcast-making machine that can one day be moved off the broadcast airwaves altogether.

Management may deny that specialist programs on RN will soon be online only, but everybody knows the general direction. Last year the then director of radio, Michael Mason, closed RN’s much-loved specialist music unit.

Here in Canberra, audiences have been appalled that senior people have been nudged out of the building as they approach 50 years of age. Veterans are less valued.

Broadcasters with experience and corporate knowledge have been encouraged to look elsewhere.

In that respect the Liberal Party Federal Council’s astounding call for the privatisation of the ABC (without any dissenting voices) might be seen to have been a good thing, because it energised the ABC into fighting back and mounting the case that it exists in order to provide a quality product.

Management's tragedy is that it has failed to acknowledge that in the search for new audiences it runs the risk of neglecting knowledge and established audiences.

A Canberra-based scholar in religion was aghast to hear a very senior presenter interview an archbishop recently without knowing the language of the New Testament.

Meanwhile several academics in Canberra have complained to me that when they approach the national ABC with details of their work about climate change they are told it won't be reported because it is either too complex, or too hard to find someone from "the other side".

One of the only quality programs that appears to be truly protected is Four Corners. But even inside Four Corners there is unreported self-censorship as producers try to second guess potential government complaints.

The ABC is at its best when it informs us, when its staff attack a subject with expertise as well as difficult questions for people in power.

A showcase is Q&A. But at times it is so staged-managed as to be an abomination. When it pitted leading scientist Brian Cox against discredited senator Malcolm Roberts in an attempt to create drama, former senator Christine Milne was disgusted.

“You can have someone who has spent their lives studying global warming and someone who plainly knows nothing,” she told a forum in Canberra. “But they are set up together. What an insult to Brian Cox. The show does it time and time again.”

In many ways the ABC is like the Department of Home Affairs.

When it is doing its job well, we don’t notice it much. If it stuffs up (in its case, stuffing up its mission of creating a safe space for the exchange of ideas and information) we notice a lot.

In taking up the fight for independence the new boss should be open about the importance of depth.

She or he should acknowledge mistakes. That means allowing former staff to speak openly. At least one former broadcaster I know has been muzzled by the terms of his departure agreement.

Meanwhile, a new group being launched to help make the case is ABC Alumni, a forum in which former staff can share information and raise concerns.

The group has called for an urgent bi-partisan inquiry into the national broadcaster and it wants the ABC Act amended to prevent politically partisan appointments to the board.

The ABC needs leaders who will resist pressure when that pressure is inappropriate, ensure its journalism is accurate, impartial and sophisticated, and that management hangs onto internal expertise.

First published in The Canberra Times, October 8, 2018

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Aged care Royal Commission should focus on human dignity, relationships

Do we really need a royal commission to tell us what’s wrong with aged care?

From what I am told, in Canberra we know the problems and they are not extensive. Pockets could be better of course, including some of the reputable facilities run by churches.

And there is at least one common complaint: that too many staff don’t speak English well. It can be a barrier to developing good relationships with residents.

The other challenge, wherever you live, is the need to keep an eye on the centre to make sure its service doesn’t worsen.

If the centre loses a couple of key people or can't attract staff (which happens a lot) things can go off the rails quickly.

Four out of every ten people in aged care are not visited for an entire year, according to the aged care minister Ken Wyatt. That’s shocking. Even where residents have no relatives or friends who can visit, the rest of us should be able to find a way to do it.

Most of the complaints made to ABC’s Four Corners program came from overworked and frustrated staff. It is clear they love their work and would like to be able to do it better, and to have better pay and conditions.

Nursing homes have that name for a reason. They used to be staffed by nurses. But there are fewer nurses than there used to be. And doctors aren’t keen to visit (In the ACT, I'm told, GPs are reluctant because the Medicare levy won't often cover their visits). There's a gap between what we expect of facilities and what they deliver.

They were first run by churches. In the Menzies era, government funding (for buildings) was at first provided only to non-profits. Now it is provided more broadly in tandem with efforts to impose national standards. It is the same model as for childcare, except with less success at improving standards. The royal commission might get to the heart of why.

The focus of previous inquiries has too often been on the business model rather than human dignity. “What continues to be lost is the person,” says aged care advocate Associate Professor Maree Bernoth of Charles Sturt University.

Professor Bernoth says that the single most important aspect of working with older people is the quality of the relationship between the older person and the person working with them.

“The space in that relationship or interaction is precious and needs to provide the quality and the expertise that is required by each individual,” she says.

“If we start by identifying what makes that relationship work, we will have a better chance of getting the aged care system functional and satisfying for the older person, their family, and those who work with them either in residential aged care or in the community.

“There are organisations who understand this relationship and have the support, encouragement and ongoing monitoring in place to enhance and grow those interactions.

“The Royal Commission is an opportunity to identify these organisations and use them as the map to move us to a sector where the individual is celebrated and supported in a sustained sector of our communities.”

Amen to that.

First published in The Canberra Times, September 24, 2018

Friday, August 31, 2018

The important and humbling work of doing diversity

Growing up in suburban Sydney, I broke bread with all kinds. The dismantling of the White Australia policy in the 1960s and 1970s had allowed my parents to bring me from South Africa, aspire to belong and buy a house on a quarter acre block.

My father started a business. Schooled in Islam, he ensured we never ate pork. I went to a public school alongside Aboriginal, Slavic, Italian, Greek and Malay students, as well as Anglos. Embracing the Jesus story, I found mentors in a diverse and welcoming community in Anglican and Baptist churches while still connected to my Muslim family.

Canberra is less diverse, but still very welcoming.

Here in the national capital, Senator Fraser Anning made a splash when he called for an end to immigrants who do not reflect “the historic European Christian composition of Australian society”. He’s been roundly condemned.

What Anning may not have heard loud and clear is that Jesus was not European. He’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if in a Western church or visiting an art gallery full of images of a pale white man dying on a cross. But there’s no doubt the historical Jesus was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew.

In the New Testament, Jesus exalts hearers to welcome and love strangers. As does God in the Old Testament. In Exodus he tells us to “not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt”.

Backing up his newly minted colleague, Bob Katter talked about defending the Australian race. But the race he talks about is made up of the descendants of people who were once foreigners in this land. Katter’s own grandfather came from what was called the Assyrian Empire which took in Syria and Lebanon, and was refused naturalisation. In rejecting foreigners Katter is rejecting a big part of himself (Perhaps it helps explain Australia’s hostile policy towards refugees, a policy that deeply poisons our polity).

French-Bulgarian philosopher Julia Kristeva says denying the stranger within is common. In her book Strangers to Ourselves she makes clear that the foreigner lives within us: “He is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder”.

Coming to terms with foreigners means coming to terms with ourselves, and with God, who is by definition a stranger also. It’s contentious and compelling stuff.

In his book God is Stranger British scholar Krish Kandiah argues that if God wasn’t a stranger he wouldn’t be awe-inspiring, magnificent and majestic. Kandiah argues that when we accept strangers, we are accepting of ourselves and God. Whether we are of formal faith or no-faith, accepting the ‘other’ moves from the abstract to being concrete when we break bread and offer shelter with others.

This includes people who aren’t literal strangers, but who are strangers to us because of their class, gender or sexuality.

Anning’s call for a return of the White Australia policy is underlined by a concern for social cohesion. He may have a point. If everyone looks and talks the same, then there’s likely to be more social cohesion. But how dull! Being among people of difference makes us feel more alive and more in tune with the diversity of the natural world - which is rich with variety.

The federal leadership drama of recent days brings home that diversity and differences will always exist; that they have to be acknowledged and managed.

At a policy level, it is worth asking whether Australia needs a Multicultural Act to draw some boundaries around what we mean by cultural diversity so the policy is not perpetually defined by its enemies; to articulate the rights of migrants while also ensuring there is access to resources to fully participate in society in reciprocal ways and for social cohesion.

Do we need core values reflected in laws that apply to everyone? You bet. Female genital mutilation goes against core values wherever you are from. So too, forced marriage.

Doing diversity is about creating low judgement spaces. It can be hard work. It requires courage and humility, the development of a kind of ‘cultural competence’ if you like.

There can be conflict. Encounters with 'the other', with strangers inevitably take us to places of tension where we don’t want to be, places where we see and hear things that run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold those tensions creatively; they will narrow thinking, shut us down.

But when we allow those tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and others. The genius of democracy - even if it feels increasingly fragile - lies in its capacity to use tensions to generate insight, energy and new life. Communities become more secure, as fear subsides. We are rewarded with personal growth and foster an ecology of mutual flourishing.

First published in The Canberra Times, August 25, 2018


Friday, July 27, 2018

Evidence should lead planning in Canberra

It’s getting harder to believe, but Canberra’s forefathers wanted to create “a garden town, with simple, pleasing, but unpretentious buildings”.

For most of its life, that’s how Canberra has been. Except that recently there has been an emphasis on towers that threaten to block views and plunge streets into shade. It’s not something any of us remember voting for.

We are often told that packing people in more densely is good for the environment. It is said to mean less water and energy use per person.

Except that it doesn’t, according to fascinating but little-known research commissioned by the ACT Environment and Planning Directorate and conducted by Patrick Troy, Mishka Talent and Stephen Dovers at the ANU. It found no significant difference in water and electricity use between residents of apartments and houses.

While people with gardens used more water in summer, they were more careful in what they used at other times, acting as stewards of their environment. Apartment dwellers, usually not individually metered, cared less.

And apartments were hotter in summer, partly because they were less likely to be surrounded by trees and large shrubs. As a result they either used more air conditioning or relied on building-wide evaporative coolers that guzzled water.

Troy found that apartment dwellers had fewer possessions, which meant they used their washing machines and dishwashers more often, even when they weren’t full. Their buildings contained more embodied energy in the form of concrete, glass and steel, and they used more energy for building-wide cooling, security lighting and lifts.

Labor commissioned the study but appears to have been largely ignored it.

When I asked why he thought his research had been sidelined, Troy said that real estate agents and politicians seemed determined to look for simple solutions even when they weren’t there.

The one field in which Troy believes greater urban density could actually cut energy use is transport, although he suspects the tentative finding, in a Western Australian study, has been overstated and “twisted for the ambitions of real estate developers”.

Letter writers frequently condemn the ACT government for not having a vision for Canberra, or for not making the thinking behind its vision clear. While it has recently made greater efforts to consult (at least by asking residents to tick boxes in surveys), it is often doing it after the really important decisions have been made.

Light rail is one of them. Tony Powell, head of the National Capital Development Commission until 1985, says it’s a not particularly well thought out solution to a problem the planning authorities themselves created.

He helped develop the ‘Y Plan’ in which every town centres in each leg of the Y (Belconnen, Gungahlin and Tuggeranong at the extremities, and Woden, Weston Creek and Civic in the middle) would contain as many jobs as it did people. While many commuters would travel between towns (in both directions) many would not. By concentrating jobs and offices in Civic and the Parliamentary Triangle and forcing people to travel in, the planners created the demand for transport they want to use light rail to meet.

Pushed to one side in the rush for higher rise Canberra, many fear, are views and access to open and green space, whether back yards or mountains, parks, bush or forests. Nature scenery and access is good for our mental health. It helps reduce stress.

Canberra-based landscape architect Ken Taylor increasingly spends his time in China and South East Asia with cultural heritage management projects. The ANU Professor says some overseas cities have inventories of views.

Before developments are approved planning authorities have to make sure they are not blocking important vistas. It’s an obvious and simple idea that the ACT Planning Directorate could take up.

In his submission to the ACT parliament’s current Nature In Our City inquiry Taylor says that “at this stage in the city’s history what is needed is for the landscape ethos of the city to be re-imagined and applied, rather than ignored.”

He says this is particularly so in new medium and high density developments, “where regrettably we have had an approach driven solely by land economics”.

We need to put people first if we’re to save and respect what we’ve got. An energised electorate would make all the difference.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 13, 2018.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The slow and sincere journey towards reconciliation

Most of us know about the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, but far fewer know about the first Aboriginal protest outside Old Parliament House, when it opened in 1927.

Two Wiradjuri men, Jimmy Clements (also known as ‘King Billy’, pictured) and John Noble (known as ‘Marvellous’) walked for a week from Brungle mission in the Riverina. On arrival they insisted on meeting the Duke and Duchess of York who were there to declare it open. They told a newspaper they wanted to make it clear they had “sovereign rights to the Federal Territory”.

The same newspaper reported some years later that when Noble was in trouble with white man’s law he stood up in court and said to the judge something like: “If it wasn't for Jimmy Cook you wouldn't be sitting where you are and I wouldn't be standing where I am”.

Nine decades on, there’s finally some momentum for a treaty, at least at the state level.

Victoria, led by Labor’s Daniel Andrews, is the most advanced, having appointed a treaty commissioner to create an Aboriginal representative body to begin the process. The Northern Territory has signed a memorandum of understanding that pledges to work towards a treaty. The ACT government is doing nothing, despite its progressive history.

The Turnbull Coalition government isn’t doing anything either. That’s despite the fact that one of its own, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, funded the then National Aboriginal Consultative Committee to start work on a Treaty.

Turnbull seems out of step with national sentiment. A year on from the Uluru Statement from the Heart in which Indigenous leaders from all over Australia came up with a version of a treaty, polling released by the Australia Institute this month shows more than half of voters support starting a nation-wide process of agreement or treaty making, with 26 per cent opposed.

Forty six per cent support enshrining a First Nations Voice in the Constitution, 29% oppose it. Many Aboriginal leaders themselves don’t want constitutional recognition. They say it would undermine their political independence.

Meanwhile, the difficult business of making peace with the past goes on in in fits and starts - in workplaces, pubs, homes, towns and cities. The plan to build yet another monument to James Cook; a so-called discovery centre at Botany Bay, is just another of the things that get in the way. A long-time activist in Canberra told me she doesn’t know where to walk because the country is still “strewn with unmarked graves and massacre sites.”

At Reconciliation Week events this year I was stunned to hear that at Queanbeyan Public School children sang and spoke about the Frontier Wars. It couldn’t have happened a few years back.

I was also moved to hear the story of Bob Slockee, a Canberra man who grew up at Bateman’s Bay, identifying as Walbunja as well as Irish and English “So I think I’m Australian,” he quipped.

Slockee is with Australians Together, a nonprofit organisation that creates ‘safe spaces’ for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people listen to each other.

“I’ve had a massive journey,” he told me. “Reconciliation for me personally doesn’t hit the mark. It assumes an original good relationship. But that didn’t happen at the outset. It’s more about conciliation and finding steps to come together.”

Slockee is comfortable expressing a love of God as a Christian with his own deep Aboriginal spirituality.

He says he moved beyond his own anger about the violence against and mistreatment of Aboriginals peoples when he realised that his white ancestors had suffered too. “Those convicts were taken away from their families, lived with trauma of their own,” he said. “We have a shared history.”

Image: Jimmy Clements and his dog. Photographer: W A Clifford c/o Museum of Australian Democracy

Monday, June 25, 2018

Tricked into forced marriage: cultures of control

Eighteen year-old Fatima (not her real name) was tricked by her parents into leaving Australia.

On board the plane they told her she had to marry a much older stranger. She didn't want to. They threatened her and took away her passport. The wedding took place behind closed doors.

Distressed, she logged onto My Blue Sky, a relatively new website with a secure communications portal funded by the Australian government and operated by Anti-Slavery Australia. Its administrators contacted Foreign Affairs and arranged for a replacement passport. One of Fatima’s friends drove her to the airport. One of Anti-Slavery Australia's overseas partners helped fund the flight. It was a perilous escape. Much could have gone wrong, but Fatima made it home.

Others aren’t as fortunate.

“I am just worried about all the women and girls who don't contact us,” says Professor Jennifer Burn, the director of Anti-Slavery Australia which is housed in the law faculty at the University of Technology, Sydney.

“Getting the stats is difficult. What we do know might be the tip of the iceberg," Burn tells me.

Burn helped convene Australia’s first ever conference on forced marriage, held this week in Sydney. It took place as Australians were agonising over the brutal death of 22-year-old Eurydice Dixon in Melbourne. Neither evil happened in a vacuum.

Forced marriage isn’t the same as arranged marriage, which involves consent. It has more in common with abduction.

Australian Federal Police have received 232 referrals since forced marriage became a crime in 2013. About a quarter have been helped by a program run by the Australian Red Cross. Under a current trial, it offers up to 200 days of support. Both major political parties are looking at a system of civil protection so that people can get help earlier.

Anti-Slavery Australia is currently investigating 40 cases. More than half involve girls under the age of 18. Some are at risk of being married against their will. Others have been forced into a marriage and want to get out. And some are older women who have come to realise that their marriage was against their will. Some, like Fatima, are overseas, desperate to return to Australia. In just one week this month three Australians overseas accessed My Blue Sky to try to get out.

While there have been no successful prosecutions yet, Burn says the law itself is making a difference. “The fact that this is a crime and the police are involved is preventing forced marriages,” she says. “That’s significant.”

Often, the young women are reconciled with their families, who come to understand that what they thought was their culture is against the law. Still, the problem tends to exist in closed and socially conservative communities; pressured environments that limit personal autonomy and assert family honour.

“It would be a mistake to leap to conclusions that attribute behaviour to any particular culture,” says Burn. “But we do need to do the research to understand the reasons behind the conduct, respectfully.” Education is key.

Which leads back to the tragic killing of Eurydice Dixon, another side of the long battle to protect women and girls from violence inside and outside the home.

My teenage daughter called her dad a ‘girl’ the other night, when he teared up watching a gentle teen drama. He didn’t take offence. He is the kind of guy who takes spiders outside rather than squish them.

Toxic perceptions of masculinity influence boys from very young and are reinforced by girls who think boys should look and behave a certain way. Children are spongers of the culture around them, sometimes hardened by a lifetime of abuse before they are men and women (thankfully my husband had positive male role models in and outside the classroom, able to fix a motorbike, shape timber on a lathe, listen well and marvel at the stars).

What I have found troubling about the debate since Dixon’s death is the polarised nature of it. We’ve been in tribal corners, spitting poison on social media.

Celebrated author Tim Winton tries to shine a light on misogyny and aggressive behaviour by men. In his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, the main character Jaxie has lost his mum, is bashed by his dad and wishes he was an orphan.

Winton says, “This is a profound and enduring injustice. We’re all deformed by it. Just as slavery deforms the slave-owner and slave alike.”

It is not fashionable to express sadness for perpetrators but it is important we find it within ourselves to do so; to register that savagery is learnt. It is observed, internalised and reinforced.

As Winton says with typical eloquence, “all of us, from infancy, are capable of cruelty and bastardry, but we only get good at it with practice.”

Just as we must not forget that women and children are disproportionately the victims of violence we must also resist stereotyping inherent in directing outrage at all men. We can show compassion without making excuses.

Victims of forced marriage often have parents who were themselves overly controlled by their families. Their reservoirs of experience are hard to shake.

First published in The Canberra Times, June 25, 2018. Picture found at Salford Women's Aid

Surely arms dealers shouldn't fund the War Memorial?

To hear Brendan Nelson tell it, arms manufacturers have a patriotic duty to fund the Australian War Memorial. It's about "completing the loop", he says. And it's certainly not crass.

"You need to know that the man on behalf of BAE Systems with whom I negotiated the sponsorship of our theatre, the BAE Systems Theatre, himself spent over 30 years serving our country in the Royal Australian Air Force and his own father was killed in the service of our country," the War Memorial director told Radio National in May.

BAE Systems sells guns, bombs, submarines, jet fighters and components for nuclear weapons. Its customers include Chile, Romania, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Tanzania and Qatar. It maintains Australia's Jindalee over the horizon radar.

​The former defence minister says ​the British firm employs 4000 Australians. "Of course that company needs to be involved in the Australian War Memorial," he says. "What makes me angry are the ones who won't."

While he doesn't hold arms manufacturers responsible for "what happens to innocent civilians", he says they do have an obligation to help tell the stories of wars they weaponised.

"I think these companies have a responsibility to complete the loop and help tell the story of what has been done in our country's name and the impact that it's had on the men and women who have done it," he told Senate estimates more recently.

And they wouldn't be sponsoring the memorial itself, merely sections of it or its educational activities. In May he announced a three-year deal with the world's biggest armaments manufacturer, Lockheed Martin. It'll help fund a bigger Remembrance Day.

He is no slouch when it comes to getting money from the memorial's owner, the Australian government. This year it will contribute $62 ​m​illion, money he regards as no more tainted than money from weapons markers.

"If you follow the argument to its logical conclusion, we wouldn't accept any government money because government is the purchaser of equipment that's produced by defence technology companies," he ​said.

But the government isn't ​that ​prescriptive about how ​the memorial uses it. ​Further, it's directly accountable to voters, not shareholders. ​The prospectus ​Nelson offers corporations "offers sponsorship opportunities that are individually tailored to suit the sponsor".

Among the donors is Chinese businessman Chau Chak Wing. His donation helped subsidise a book displayed in the memorial shop on Chinese Australian servicemen. It has beautiful photos but is written in pidgin English. It seems well meaning, if, as one researcher told me, "cringe making".

The vigour with which Nelson has fished for private finance is driven partly by plans to acquire an awful lot of jet fighters and helicopters and to house them in a $500 million underground extension known colloquially as "Brendan Bunker​"​. The business case alone will cost ​many millions of dollars.

An academic group that monitors the memorial known as Honest History doubts that it's a good use of money.

"It doesn't have to build $500 million worth of space just to show kit it insists on getting from the Australian Defence Force," says secretary David Stephens. "It can get digitised pictures instead."

Stephens says if it insists on acquiring the big machines, it can hold them at the memorial's annex in Mitchell, where it can be seen once a year on open days.

The Medical Association for Prevention of War, which began debate on the Australian War Memorial and weapons manufacturers, is about to launch a petition called ​​Commemorate, Not Commercialise. This week Liberal Senator Zed Seselja rejected its concerns. "What we're talking about is the defence of our nation and that includes using weapons for the defence of our nation," he said.

Expect other conservative warriors to bat for the plan and its strategy to use weapons manufacturers to help fund it. But there's growing disquiet among what ought to be his core constituency. ​On a recent talkback segment one caller, a former naval officer​,​ said he almost expects Brendan Nelson to hand out showbags on Anzac Day.

First published in The Canberra Times, June 9, 2018

Friday, April 6, 2018

Rising education inequality should worry us all

In the opening pages of Aldous Huxley's famous dystopian novel Brave New World we are introduced to the Social Predestination Room.

On a tour of the room, a supervisor rubs his hands and points to the hatching embryos. Babies will emerge as "socialiased human beings, as Alphas and Epsilons," especially grown to be less intelligent.

A keen student asks why the temperature and oxygen levels are set where they are. "Ass!" says the director, "Hasn't it occurred to you that an Epsilon embryo must have an Epsilon environment as well as an Epsilon heredity".

I was reminded of the explanation while reading What Price the Gap? Education and Inequality in Australia, a new report from the Public Education Foundation (PEF).

It finds that inequality in educational outcomes actually increases as Australian students move through their school years. In other words, disadvantaged students become more disadvantaged over time.

Examining six years of testing data from 2009 to 2015, it finds that Australia’s school performance has been falling relative to other countries, "kids at the bottom of the performance distribution are falling faster and further than kids at the top".

It's at odds with our idea of 'fair go’, the ‘lucky country’. It's a picture painted with every new study on inequality: haves and have-nots start far apart at birth and grow further apart over time.

The report finds that educational inequality is increasing across a wide range of dimensions. It is found in access to teachers, access to resources, access to curriculum and test performance.

Inequality exists within sectors - public and private - as well as between them but more so in the public system.

In terms of financial cost, to quote from the PEF report:

The OECD calculates that a 50 point fall in test scores leads to a decline in long-term GDP growth of around 0.87% per year. Based on this, we have estimated the net present value of the economic loss to Australia of our falling educational performance. We calculate the loss attributable to the 2009-15 fall in performance to be $118.6 billion.

The current crop of school leavers (and potentially the next one, if nothing much changes) will experience declining livings standards.

The Foundation did not measure the impact of educational inequality on social cohesion. We can only imagine the adverse and corrosive ripples.

While not the focus of the report, it offers a range of recommendations to improve the performance of our lowest achieving students to ultimately reduce inequality. These include targeted teaching approaches, the randomisation of a share of enrolments to selective public schools (to counter the effect of taking high achieving students away from neighbourhood schools), the introduction of second classroom teachers to support underperforming students outside the classroom, especially in disadvantaged communities, alternative learning programs; and of course, firm commitment to needs-based funding for schools. Some of this is already happening but clearly more must be done.

A fairer funding model is essential. But we must also not shy away from discussing the implications of a multi-sector system, especially elite and private schools heavily subsidised by the state that intensify privilege and class. That debate should be driven by a shared understanding of what we value in Australia.

Deepening inequality is not intractable, but we are at a point that if we don’t tackle this with a bipartisan approach, we are reducing the prospects of not just our children but the wellbeing and common good of the nation in the long term.

Find the full report here

Friday, March 23, 2018

Scourge of modern slavery that taints Australian business

My great great grandfather was an indentured labourer. I do not know exactly what happened to him, other than that he was taken from India to an island off Southern Africa and forced to work for the British Empire.

I'd be forgiven for thinking his experience sits in the past. British philanthropist William Wilberforce helped win the battle against slavery in the 1800s.

But the reality today is different. Wilberforce would be astounded to discover that more than two centuries after his death there are significant reports of “modern slavery” in environments as diverse as the factories of Dhaka, London’s backstreets and Canberra’s embassies and brothels.

Many of those who have campaigned for an Australian Modern Slavery Act have seen it up close. One is a daughter of mining magnate Andrew Forrest who met forced sex workers as young as nine while volunteering at an orphanage in Nepal.

Many Australians are the descendants of slaves. Convicts supplied slave labour after settlement. In the decades leading up to Federation, people from Pacific islands were kidnapped and forced to work on Queensland sugar plantations, often alongside stolen first Australians who worked as housekeepers. The first mass strike by Aboriginals wasn’t about land rights but cruel treatment and unpaid wages.

The strength of the union movement helped end indentured labour in the sugar fields (as did, curiously, the White Australia policy), but it has continued and grown elsewhere, beneath the surface. Modern slavery is a human rights issue that includes abuses from forced labour, bonded labour and human trafficking, to servitude and child labour.

Internationally recognised expert Matt Friedman, says there are more slaves today than at any time in history. Slavery is expanding fastest in the Indo-Pacific, the area connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia.

Most are not in metal chains or conspicuous outfits. According to Friedman, a new man, woman or child enters slavery every five seconds. Only a fraction are ever saved. In Australia, those most at risk are migrant workers, especially women, sent here through unscrupulous agents.

David Cooke, Australian head of the printing and photocopying firm Konica Minolta told a recent gathering in parliament house that most Australia business had slaves in their supply chains. “It’s bogus to suggest otherwise,” he said. It was in every businesses interest to have an effective reporting and compliance regime. “If it is clear what is expected of business,” he said.

There will be some in government who will carp on about not wanting more red tape. But Cooke says what will be asked of business is minuscule compared with the reporting already required of them.

Konico Minolta has put anti-slavery efforts at the heart of its corporate responsibility and sustainability policy. Cooke credits the approach with growing his business. He says that when boardrooms put the issue of modern slavery on the top of their agenda, they discover there is plenty of help to overcome it.

Working with the chocolate industry, campaigners learnt that self-regulation wasn’t enough. To really tackle child labour, human trafficking and labour exploitation in that sector, governments, police, producers, unions, civil society and farmers had to come together and share-responsibility. Slaves are trafficked from community to community. All eyes are needed, including in regional Australia where backpackers and migrants are moved around.

Today we can confidently purchase certified slave-free chocolate from local supermarkets knowing that the brand has checked its supply chains and worked to improve conditions. Sometimes when they check they find child labour or slavery. When they do it isn’t an indication of failure but a sign that their systems are working. They can fix things and help restore children and people who have been traded back to normal lives.

The same cannot be said for many other goods from t-shirts to soccer balls.

A robust Modern Slavery Act would encourage all firms beyond a certain size to look at their supply chains and report annually on progress made, knowing that there is a risk to reputation if they do not.

Assistant Minister for Home Affairs, Alex Hawke, will steer the process. He has Liberal colleagues Chris Crewther and Linda Reynolds to thank for highlighting the problem at committee level but will need to convince more senior colleagues including Hawke’s hard-headed boss, Peter Dutton.

He and other advocates are often asked, why are the majority of people being enslaved in the first place? The absolute majority live with persistent poverty. If Australia is serious about working to stop slavery it has to also step up efforts to reduce extreme global poverty.

A version of this was published in The Canberra Times, March 8, 2018. Illustration c/o

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Music engagement program supports social inclusion

John, a primary school pupil in Canberra's south, was doing badly. At times disruptive and appearing uncaring or unaware of others' feelings, he was at risk of falling behind.

Then, over just a few weeks, he and peers learnt songs as part an outreach activity with the music engagement program. The aim was to sing with residents of a local retirement home.

The program was funded by the ACT government and run out of the Australian National University's School of Music. Its staff stressed that learning the songs was more important than getting them right. Accuracy can get in the way of what's natural.

Even so, John's teachers doubted he would do well. The day before the excursion to St Andrews Village in Hughes, the rehearsal was a lesson in chaos. John pulled faces, swore and made rude finger gestures.

On the big day, much to the surprise of those who were there, John needed little or no behaviour management. Video of the 45-minute session shows him talking to residents between songs, asking and answering questions. At one point, he notices that one has dropped her walking stick and runs over to pick it up. His behaviour towards others "was uniformly positive, gentle and polite".

What changed? The singing excursion turned him from being "helped" into a "helper", moving him from receiving help to providing it.

He is just one of tens of thousands of students the program has enriched. In 2008, it was recognised with a community music award from the Music Council of Australia. It is listed in a United Nations compendium called Music as a Global Resource, which showcases the ways in which music is used to address social problems around the world.

After their visit to St Andrews Village, John and his fellow students continued to behave and respond in a better way. An especially aggressive student, Robert (described as "likely to hurt people") said about the residents: "I love them, they're lovely people."

In the evaluation, a classroom teacher enthused: "The nursing home visit was nothing short of a miracle ... I was particularly surprised at John ... He finds it difficult to be in a group at all ... John overcame his shyness ... They were given a different sense of who they are."

For nearly two decades, the music engagement program was funded by the ACT government through artsACT. Until late last year. The week before Christmas, it was told it was being defunded – all of it, the entire $400,000 grant. Staff had known it was under review but had been led to believe a new contract was being finalised. It has come as a shock.

The reason given by artsACT was that the program did not fit with the agency's "mission". It's odd, given that the current ACT Arts Policy (2015) has as its the core principle "participation in and access to the arts".

Building caring communities is in everyone's interest. Research suggests generosity flows from high self-esteem. The music engagement program has shown that the opposite is also true; that allowing children to engage in helping behaviours in a supportive environment can improve children's self-esteem.

The National Tertiary Education Union has expressed dismay on behalf of affected union members. It says the decision will have a detrimental effect on thousands of community members, including students with special needs, nursing home residents, families and community groups.

The program was due to celebrate its 20th birthday. "While this is terrible news for our members, they are eager to see the survival of the program in some form. We join them in calling on the ACT government to restore funding to this vital community program," the union says.

No program has a right to be funded for perpetuity. But, as yet, artsACT has not provided a public statement. While I understand the agency has sought to refocus resources to engage more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and reflect a new direction at the ANU school of music, it's important that the Barr government explains how the money that used to fund the program will be used instead.

It was a world-class program that made a difference. It has been scratched with little or no consultation outside of the ANU. It would be great if, for our sake, it could be kept alive by new financial backers who understand its continuing worth.

First published in The Canberra Times, February 14, 2018. Photo: David Walker c/o Fairfax Media.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Govt tries to gag public-interest advocates, again

The Coalition has been waging war against those who've dared to question it since 2013.

Its latest gagging grenade has been lobbed under the cover of foreign donations reform, bizarrely egged on by the largely foreign owned mining industry.

On election Tony Abbott tried to abolish the newly-legislated Charities Act which enshrined in law the right for charities to engage in political advocacy. There's not much point in (for example) trying to house the homeless without also trying to remove the causes of homelessness.

The Act set up an Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission as a one-stop shop for keeping tabs on and assisting charities, as recommended by the Productivity Commission. Abbott lost that battle after the charities themselves appealed to cross benches.

Then he tried to strip environment groups of their charitable status. His environment minister Greg Hunt set up an inquiry that recommended they lose the right to tax deductible donations unless they spent 25 per cent of their income on "environmental remediation work". Organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation would have to clean up the environment in addition to doing what's most effective: lobbying to prevent it being damaged in the first place. Groups like Lock the Gate would have to plant trees as well as campaign against coal seam gas mining.

In December a fierce critic of many of the activities of charities, Gary Johns, became the new head of the Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission - replacing the highly respected company director Susan Pascoe. Senior bureaucrats had urged Malcolm Turnbull's charities minister Michael Sukkar to re-appoint Pascoe who had done her job well.

Johns had previously called on the Coalition to abolish the Charities Act. It must "makes it clear to the High Court that advocacy is not a charitable purpose," he said in 2014. It should deny charity status to the "enemies of progress". His book, The Charity Ball, argues that too many charities in Australia do little or no charity work.

Now there's the Foreign Influence Transparency Bill and the benignly named Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill.

Turnbull wants to prevent charities that engage in public debate from receiving donations from foreign governments and foreign state-owned enterprises.

He wants to force any group that spends $100,000 or more on political activities in the four years before an election to register as a "political campaigner". Political activities are defined as "the public expression of any views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors". There are stiff fines if they don't comply.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told the Senate in December that while political campaigning was a positive indicator of the strength of Australian civil society, it is important "that these actors are subject to the public accountability of more traditional actors, such as registered political parties or candidates".

Charity boardrooms are already urging less advocacy, worried about their funding, and the implications of going on a political campaigner register.

Cormann, Turnbull and Sukkar have achieved something rare. They've united Getup and the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs, both of whom oppose the moves saying they will stifle political debate.

A donor to a "political campaigner" of gifts totalling more than $13,500 in any financial year (or as little as $4.80 a week) will be required to lodge a return to the Electoral Commission.

Institute research fellow Gideon Rozner: "It would effectively give the electoral commission authority over a whole range of community organisations with no relationship to the political process other than commenting on public policy issues," he told Pro Bono News. "It would impose a pointless and unnecessary red tape burden on charities, community groups, service clubs, religious organisations and other civic groups."

Getup's national director, Paul Oosting told members in a letter that the requirement would "decimate a lean, grassroots organisation that relies on tens of thousands of online donations".

Anglicare's Kasy Chambers goes further, telling me: "The Anglican Church, as you know, has a strong vision and tradition about calling out unjust structures and opposing violence. If a minister does a sermon on that does that make that Church or the priest a political actor? Does that mean every gift or donation over a certain amount that goes in the plate to that parish or church must be traced back?"

"This is not about our voices being shut down. It's the fact that we are a conduit for people who don't have the money to buy influence."

Gary Johns, the Coalition's pick as the new head of the Charities Commission happens to agree. He wrote on the ACNC website: "The ACNC has submitted a response in relation to the proposed amendments. It is our view that the [Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform] bill as formulated, will place a further regulatory burden on charities, and may inhibit their ability to advocate as a method of achieving its charitable purpose."

One of the clearest voices articulating that charities should be exempt, is that of David Crosbie, head of the Community Council of Australia. He told a parliamentary inquiry the proposed changes were unfair because it exempted businesses but not charities.

"If commercial activities are carved out – why not charitable activities? My reading is that in practice – if an international company like a Diageo [sought] to influence our alcohol policies, that is okay – no inappropriate foreign influence there," Crosbie said.

"But if the Gates Foundation give money to alcohol research by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education – they would have to register… [And] charities already face significant regulations and limitations on their capacity to engage in political activities."

Many in the third sector accept that Australia has been, and will be increasingly subject to foreign intervention - some of which will be covet, unfriendly and hostile. But the proposed amendments go too far.

Not-for-profits and those they serve already feel muzzled. A recent survey by Pro Bono Australia found that two-thirds of all Australian charities find it harder to be heard by the federal government compared to just five years ago.

First published in The Canberra Times, February 5, 2018