“Trumpisms” in Australian political conversation

You only have to turn on the television to notice the merging of opinion, fact and news into ‘debates’ of equal value. I can’t claim this as an original thought. I first heard the comment on a podcast I was listening to. I can’t remember which one or the person who said it but I do remember he was well qualified to make the statement and how well the observation resonated with me.

panel 2i

The unwillingness to distinguish between opinion, fact and fantasy allows for “Trumpisms”, those I-can-say-anything statements that are rarely critically interrogated (on air at least) in Australian political conversation. Granted they may not always be as obviously outrageous as those made by Trump himself but nonetheless nonsense when unpacked. Today it seems anyone can say anything and it is treated as informed. Politicians make outrageous unsubstantiated and false claims and talk in false binaries. In my opinion, interviewers have a lot to answer for when they let these slide. How often are experts included on topics that they may have spent many years researching? When they are it is often just enough to make sure the “balance box” is ticked. Even worse is when the most outrageous commentary is given equal footing in the name of ‘balance’ (a concept now constructed to mean something entirely different) while other voices are condemned. Politicians don’t tend to pay attention to research unless it is the kind that supports their ideological position. These days we are lucky if cabinet members actually read the reports on the committees they lead. Sound and well executed research often throws up findings that counter ideological positions. Sure it can be uncomfortable but it should be encouraged not ignored.

Concern about the country’s future and the well-being of all people in our society calls for the interrogation of public commentary and the separation of fact and fantasy. When it comes to policy, a critical position should cause us to ask if claims can actually be substantiated, who are these people presented as ‘experts’, who funds them, does their organisation have an ideological position and value base, do we know what that value base is and how much credibility (in this particular policy area) should we attribute to them. Historical examples and simple observations of how things work elsewhere easily eliminate many claims before we even turn to research. We need to demand that opinion be called opinion and insist that research independently conducted be presented to support claims made. I for one would like to see a ‘talk show’ with a panel of researchers discussing a topic they know about and only then seek responses from politicians.  Would you watch it? I know I would. Perhaps then the quality of our ‘debates’ and policies would improve and the differences between opinion and knowledge would be much clearer.


Advertising children is step too far

Is Australia breaching the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) by condoning theAdvertising children advertising of children? Barnardos Australia is advertising children for adoption on their webpage. Photographs, glossy and attractive are on a public website along with names and stories (models and pseudonyms are used) however some personal information is provided. Is it really ethical to advertise children as if they were stray puppies appealing to sentiment or to justify advertising as long as an adoption is achieved?

Some representations in the media about adoption are presenting ideologically and politically biased information and ill-formed attitudes about children in care while being intent on homogenizing the diverse and individual circumstances of families in need and their children. Terms like ‘forever families’ and “freeing children for adoption” need to be used with caution. Children know very well they have another family. Words are important. People in the adoption community have contacted me distressed about advertising, media stories and terminology used.

Research has shown that many adoption agencies particularly in the US are in breach of The Convention of the Rights of the Child – Articles 2 (protection from discrimination), 8 (protecting identity) and 16 (privacy) by advertising children, using photolistings, fantasy terminology and allowing prospective parents to select a child . The difference is Australia is party to the CRC and the US is not. There are many disastrous adoption practices in the US and in the UK. Australia should be smarter than this and venture into these areas with extreme caution.

No justification can alter the fact that advertising children as needing adoption is problematic at a time in their lives when they are not fully aware of the long term consequences and cannot give informed consent to publicity – even with models and pseudonyms. There are particular responsibilities to protect children when they are in the care of the state.  Blurring the public and private on the internet are significant problems for children and can cause harm. It is documented how adults often fail to pick up on the distress of children and assume they are fine. Outward compliance can be very misleading.

Children should not be ashamed of being adopted but neither should their lives be defined by their adoptive status or their pre-adoptive circumstances. Nothing disappears on the internet and geography offers no protection to privacy.  Regardless of how positive their adoptive family experiences are, many adoptees struggle with identity, belonging and difference. They do not need their private struggles to be played out in the public arena and to suffer the indignity of being labelled. By making the circumstances of vulnerable children public, children are placed at risk of being forever labelled, stigmatised and bullied alongside the negative implications for their sense of self-worth particularly if no one puts their hands up to adopt them as is often the case. Article 39 makes it very clear that children who have been subjected to neglect or abuse should receive special help to restore their self-esteem not to heighten their vulnerability and draw the world’s attention to their circumstances. Defining them by their backgrounds and adoptive status is more than potentially damaging in the long term.

It seems some Australian governments are running out of ideas. Instead we seem intent on importing the worst of policies from overseas when it comes to children. In the UK enforcing adoption as a child protection measure has meant permanent removal happens too quickly and without consent. Children wait in care indefinitely for a ‘forever family’ to adopt them. In many cases this happens in preference to working with parents and families to improve circumstances and to find appropriate care with other family members because adoption is considered ‘gold star’ at the expense of other options that may be more suitable. Rest assured professional work with families does create change and the circumstances of many families are temporary. They are not all in need of permanent removal . Any adoption-driven agenda (not to be confused with opposition to adoption) is not what we want in Australia.

Adoption and a child’s identity, history and psychosocial needs are a private concern and advertising is ethically dubious and could be viewed as a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child even with de-identification. Some people would argue the end justifies the means but perhaps like all else in adoption we also should ask adult adoptees and the families directly affected and whom we are failing.

Living to a 150

Some politicians are making big claims about longevity to justify their health and social policies. Are our politicians on the far right simply fantasizing about living longer? Is this why they tell us good health investment should be directed towards curative research alone while everything else to do with health is lying under a precariously balanced metaphorical bread knife. How would you like that sliced – thin or sandwich?  From a cynic’s point of view this claim might simply be about appealing to the core of individualism and what’s in it for me? An old tactic repackaged.

Sure many scientists are making claims about future generations reaching incredible ages but I am sure they will agree at this point in time these are theories not proven fact, possible, even likely, but still theoretical.  Certainly our average life expectancy has risen as health care and living conditions have improved. Hans Rosling is very entertaining on this issue.

It is a fact that better access to health services and better living and working conditions improve the overall health of a population. One day some people might live to 150 but these results depend on future discoveries and advancements in biological interventions such as gene therapy. Such projections are speculative and assume scientific progress will continue uninterrupted and treatments will be equally affordable and available to everyone. Living longer, if indeed we do, might be the privilege of some people and not others depending on the social policies we choose to adopt.

My argument goes like this. In my opinion, human beings have always been a pretty arrogant lot. We really do believe we are superior – to other animals, climate etc etc.  We particularly hang on to the belief that we can tame nature and we do – to a point. How many examples of nature doing what it does, do we need to show us that although we might be on top for a while it won’t necessarily last – at least not without some counter reaction. A prime example is antibiotic use and the development of antibiotic resistance . When we triumph over one disease, a new one seems to emerge to take its place – smallpox, AIDS, Ebola, take your pick.  According to one recent study, although average life expectancy is higher, this generation has a different set of health issues – more metabolic disease.   The effect of this shift in disease on our future life expectancy is unknown but can be hypothesised. We already know the long term impact of these diseases on our health but on the other hand we don’t know the influence of future medical treatments yet to be discovered and made available.

There are other factors to consider when contemplating our longevity. We have known for some time health is more than biological and that social factors and social policies impact on our health.  We only need to look at work on inequality and studies on the health of particular, improverished populations such as the people who live in the Gorbals, south of the river Clyde in Glasgow.

Alarmingly social policies and where governments choose to invest does influence longevity and health. We only need to look at health outcomes for Indigenous peoples in places like Australia and Canada and recent findings that life expectancy has reduced in some areas of the UK. This backward shift is being linked to the reduction of services that maintain health and well-being. Even if some people manage to live to 150 it may not happen for everyone equally. Assuming good genes and discoveries in curative and genetic medicine, all people will still need access to good healthcare. The seeming dominance of far right ideologies that promote policies of user pays, a sole focus on individual responsibilities, privatisation and purely biological approaches to health combined with a failure to address inequalities will continue to negatively impact on the health of many people. It will mean only those who can afford access to services will reap health benefits.

Sure average life expectancy has improved but has the end point actually changed? We have always had centenarians and a very few sparky souls that live to extraordinary ages, a rare few reported to be a 120 or slightly more.

This is not new and I doubt if modern medicine has had too much to do with it. Perhaps someone can answer this for me – have we actually extended our lives beyond the upper limit of our bodies’ use-by date? To put this simply, has the oldest age anybody has ever lived actually changed? Is there an upward trend at that upper limit? Difficult question as many long lives are unverifiable. I don’t think so – it may come but it will depend on more than biology and must include the social. Perhaps also there is a certain truth in that when we cure one thing, something else emerges – whether this is disease, the impact of climate change or even the stuff people are pumping into their bodies to at least appear younger. For the moment, future generations living to a 150 remains predictive and speculative. We all need a better approach to health than one based on profit or policies that make it harder for people to access healthcare or improve their lives. And so if it does come true and we manage one-day to live past our current use-by date, I hope it comes true for everyone not just a few.

Online live panel on the sustainability of adoption

Live panel this Sunday 21st December – watch live or later

youtube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSKgUrUWHGk&feature=youtu.be

Other details https://plus.google.com/u/0/events/cn54b3l8d15bp7h20jh6s419ad0

Campaigning against Australia’s institutional abuse of abuse of children – We’re better than this

Yesterday I saw the We’re better than this campaign.


It is wonderful to see celebrities come out in protest of what counts amongst the worst travesties in Australian history. Australian celebrities are protesting against Australia’s treatment of refugee children. Hundreds of children are locked up in Australia, Naru and Christmas Island. Australia is committing the institutional abuse of children and breaching their responsibilities in terms of the United Nations Conventions we are party to – those on refugees and the rights of children. Children should not be held in such conditions…but neither should their families.

Australian actor, Bryan Brown, should be commended for leading such a charge but I do have a word of caution.  In one interview, Bryan mentioned placing children in the care of Australian families as one possible option. To be fair, he didn’t necessarily present this as the solution and in other interviews he places the responsibility squarely on the Australian government to find a solution.

We need to keep this campaign going and support it – but I have a couple of words of caution.

Our government must respond to the advice of experts in finding a solution, an area where, unfortunately, it doesn’t have a good track record. The danger is the government will respond in ways that are not so good. For example, women in detention are so desperate about their current situations, futures and their children’s well-being, losing custody of their children appears a good option. Many parents are reported to be so traumatised, they will need adequate psychosocial support, mental health and healthcare. All people will. Some Australian politicians and adoption campaigners would be all too willing to pursue adoption as the solution especially in some states. Authorities and politicians will no doubt have been inundated by inquiries from prospective adopters. Such as solution would be a further abuse of children, not to mention their families.  Note – this is not a criticism of adoption rather adoption is not the answer for children with families co-erced by circumstances and the abuse by government.

In my view, it is important that we do not conceptualise children as separate from their families because they are not. Even unaccompanied minors have families and they should be removed from detention centres but the focus should then be on healing and reunification strategies. For children with families, perhaps temporary removal is the lesser of two evils under current government policy but there is a word of warning here too. We know from studies on trauma and disasters that maintaining the care of families or carers is one of the most important things to a child’s recovery – something we shouldn’t forget. If removed, how will the government ensure ongoing contact with their families and the maintenance of relationships if families are separated. Will they arrange regular and frequent visits to or from Naru or Christmas Island for this to occur? To say the least, children will be anxious about parents and other family members who remain in detention and be traumatised by separation. For parents, it would simply be another breach of their rights, re-traumatisation and significant loss.

It seems to me that this campaign is about raising awareness and demanding action from the government and I say go for it – but perhaps there should also be a view on the solutions and not simply leave it to the government to decide what is best. Their track record is not good. The lesser solution is to address living conditions, provide education and health care and respond to the needs of refugees in detention. The humane and appropriate solution is to release refugees into the Australian community with the appropriate supports to assist them to rebuild their lives after the trauma Australia has imposed. Unaccompanied minors should be placed in homes preferably with members of their community or with Australian families who are properly prepared. Reunification strategies must proceed while the children heal.

So my message is keep up the good work celebrities but perhaps keeping an eye on the solutions is also important – at least make sure the government takes the advice of experts so we can avoid unintended consequences.  Keep the pressure up!

Why can’t women wear what they want?

The wearing of head coverings and veils by women of the Islamic faith has been a political issue in Australia this year, literally a material manifestation of fear, racism and right wing politics that unfairly targets women. I am not Muslim so I will not speak for the women in the many, diverse Islamic cultures represented in Australia – I will leave that to them – but I do have a few observations from where I am sitting.

My first real awareness of the western world’s tendency to tell (and legislate against) Muslim women’s choice of apparel happened in France. I was there at the height of the political movement that sought to ban head coverings and veils that has since captured most of Europe, the US and now Australia. This was a paradox given the reputation of the French for human rights and freedom. Many women the world over hold feminist views and believe they are supporting Muslim women but concerns about head coverings are only about Muslim women not all the other types of head coverings present in all cultures. All over the world, men and women have accepted the idea that women are forced to wear such clothing and are subjected to varying degrees of subjugation and domestic violence. There is no doubt sometimes this is true but is far from universal and no different to any society. We know this from Muslim women themselves (To Veil or not to Veil). In the cases where abuse is a problem, it is a domestic violence issue not a clothing issue and should be dealt with accordingly. Muslim women are able to represent themselves and perhaps our obligation is to respect and support them rather than speak for them.

These views on QandA


The other event which has stuck in my mind is before and after the fall of the Twin Towers. In my suburb before this tragedy, veiled women walked the streets with their children, went shopping, went to the park and headed to wherever they were going. Afterwards, they disappeared. I assumed these women preferred to stay at home where it was safe and they would not be subjected to blame and racism.

The third event was the banning of the “burqa” in parliament by the Australian government, relegating any woman wearing the offending clothing to sit behind glass with school children to protect the parliament from disruption or violence. At the same time, the Prime Minister acknowledged he found this form of dress confronting oblivious to how many Australians find images of the Prime Minister in a variety of sporting attire equally confronting.


In my view, a true feminist approach means allowing women a choice of what they wear. Just as wearing little clothing is not an excuse for rape, wearing a lot is not an excuse for racism – and yes even Tony Abbott can wear his budgie smugglers. Perhaps western societies should instead pay attention to the restrictions they place on all women and let women dress how they would like. The “Lady strips bare” tells how Tracey Spicer has been forced to dress throughout her television career.

The lost vision of Gough Whitlam and second-rate copies

Gough Whitlam (July 11, 1916 – October 21, 2014) became Prime Minister of Australia as I was growing up. I remember pretty clearly the impact of this man’s policies on the country and on me in particular and so his death at the age of 98 was sad.  I made some early observations about politics and who stood for what because of political advertising in the early 1970s. The ads from one side of politics – I will leave it to you to decide which side – seemed to specialise in vicious personal attacks, scare mongering and what felt to me like hate speech and so I formed some pretty early views about power and the misuse of it in federal and state politics. Because of this, I developed a distaste for politics – a state of affairs I worry affects young people today when they should be taking an interest more than ever. I don’t think too much has changed as the experts on attack are are still convincing Australians to be scared and manipulating public discourse.  Let’s be clear at this point – I have never been a member of any political party but I do find it tragic and ironic that Mr Whitlam died at a time when Australia’s current Prime Minister and Team Australia are racing to dismantle what is left of Whitlam’s progressive policies of forty years ago. Whitlam’s death caused me to compare today with yesterday and I began to understand my distress at the state of contemporary Australia more deeply in light of history.

An article in The Conversation drew my attention to a piece written by the Institute of Public Affairs calling for Abbott, our current Prime Minister, to be the new Gough and provided a manifesto for the transformation of Australia to the far right. The missing pieces fell into place and the disasters playing out in a bizarre era of Australian politics where egos and the misuse of power are more potent and obvious than anything I have ever seen before became crystal clear. Since Whitlam, perhaps as a reaction to his management of the economy, Australia’s success is now measured solely in economic terms by both sides of politics or so it seems. The shift and loss of a social conscience has laid the ground for political extremists and fundamentalist ideologues.

From where I sit, there are obvious differences between Whitlam and Abbott apart from their ideological positions– physical stature, intellectual curiosity and capacity for oratory. Beyond the obvious, the differences are greater particularly when we think about humanity and the capacity to care about the welfare of others and society as a whole.

The Bendigo Advertiser with The Sydney Morning Herald  published a list of some of Whitlam’s achievements while in government on the 21st October. This is how I see the comparison:-

Whitlam introduced free tertiary education, established needs-based funding for schools, examined inequalities between private and state schools and introduced the first commonwealth funding for state schools. Abbott is reducing education funding except for private schools and chaplains, and creating a U.S. type tertiary education system that will reduce affordability and access to higher education.

Whitlam introduced universal health care, invested in a focus on community health and the establishment of Medibank – a commitment to equality in healthcare. Abbott is intent on dismantling the healthcare system as we know it, creating greater user-pay systems that privilege insurers, disadvantages those on average and lower incomes and will inevitably lead to poorer health outcomes and increased inequality.

Whitlam reformed social security reforms – introduced income support for mothers raising children alone, equal pay for women and non-punitive divorce, and addressed stigma, discrimination and outdated stereotypes. Whitlam was intent on leaving the 1950s. Abbott is constantly under fire for sexism and stereotypical notions of women and the conscious stigmatisation of people in lower socioeconomic circumstances as non-tax payers, bludgers, ‘leaners’ and outside society as we know it, also established through welfare reform.  He relentlessly pursues middle class welfare while punishing the less advantaged in society – intent on returning to the 1950s not leaving it.

Whitlam on human rights – abolished the death sentence, established the Legal Aid Office and the Australian Law Commission, and promoted equal rights in Indigenous affairs, drafted the land rights legislation and moved away from the White Australia Policy to name a few. Abbott on human rights, quite frankly Abbott and his cronies leave me speechless – if a right can be trodden on let’s do it and do it in a big, big way and of course fuel racism, discrimination and the marginalisation of minorities.

Whitlam stopped conscription and pulled Australian out of the Vietnam War, an anti-war position. Abbott seems to have an over-eagerness to involve Australia in conflict – is decidedly pro-military intervention and wants to play with the big boys.

Whitlam generally respected knowledge, education, the Arts and research. Abbott ignores knowledge, cuts research funding, prefers ideological positions, abolishes learned committees and is some cases prefers the advice of celebrities and mostly those with vested interests, and cuts funding to the arts and the ABC.

Whitlam lowered the voting age to 18. Abbott seems not to care what the public (or experts) think – rather he is happy with media monopolies, rewriting curriculums, and generally withholding information and limiting transparency in all activities because – after all everything is for national security isn’t it?

In my view, Whitlam had the limelight and Abbott chases it at every opportunity. Partisan politics aside how people are treated in Australia today (or at sea) is a disgrace. Judy Garland is reported to have once said “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of someone else”. Let’s face it cheap imitations are never the same – and if you must copy seek to emulate the good things. Unfortunately a lot of damage can be done along the way if you don’t.

Noel Pearson’s Eulogy