Posts

Showing posts from 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 …

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

Image
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 slee…

Hunger is a justice issue that hurts us all

Image
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 c…

What we need in a new ABC managing director

Image
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 t…

Aged care Royal Commission should focus on human dignity, relationships

Image
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 overwo…

The important and humbling work of doing diversity

Image
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 ch…

Evidence should lead planning in Canberra

Image
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, usu…

The slow and sincere journey towards reconciliation

Image
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 commission…

Tricked into forced marriage: cultures of control

Image
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, S…

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 …

'I believe you and I will care for you': After the Royal Commission

So big has been the impact of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that one denomination, Anglican, in this part of Australia — the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn — has paid out four million dollars to victims over the past three years.

Without alarm, the man who was until Easter Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn told me the compensation costs would only increase.

We conducted an ‘exit interview’ in the weeks before he stepped down.

“What we want to do is be generous and kind and Christian,” he told me. “We've got facility with our various agencies to draw down money when necessary.”

Stuart Robinson is in no doubt that a national redress scheme is essential, but says it’s just one approach. “Parallel to that, we will be working with people for whom that won't work,” he says. “A one size fits all approach is not the best - there have to be different entry points for people to be cared for.”

“We are working with individu…

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 fro…

Scourge of modern slavery that taints Australian business

Image
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. …

Music engagement program supports social inclusion

Image
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 resid…

Govt tries to gag public-interest advocates, again

Image
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 spen…