opinion

How clumsy Hollywood broke the hearts of two Australian schoolgirls

HOLLYWOOD is now actively crushing our children’s hopes and dreams.

Too dramatic? Let me explain…

A pair of 7 year old Melbourne schoolgirls recently hand wrote a letter to the US producers of their favourite movie.

“We really like Rio 2,” they declared, cutely. “We have an idea for Rio 3.”

The proposed plot would take place in Egypt, they wrote.

Kids letter“Nigel could get a new girlfriend and escape the Frog (both pictured above). Blue and Jewel and all the other characters follow him to find out where he is going.”

The girls kindly offered to send the studio more detailed plot notes, concluding with maximum adorableness: “One day we would like to be movie writers”.

Melt!

But the grey-suit-wearers at 20th Century Fox were unmoved. 

Fox“We cannot accept your submission … and are returning it unread,” they thundered in a cheerless, typed response.

The studio said it would only consider the SEVEN YEAR OLD GIRLS’ MOVIE PITCH if it was “submitted through an authorized literary agent who is a signatory with the Writers Guild of America, and who is known to us”.

One of the girls’ mums was flabbergasted.

“When I arrived home after work yesterday and saw the letter from 20th Century Fox I was quite excited, as was [my daughter],” she told me via email.

“I was expecting the usual ‘thank you for your interest, we encourage you to pursue your dreams, of course we don’t accept pitch ideas but it’s cute coming from two 7 year old girls halfway across the world, we are glad you are such fans of the movie’, or something to that effect,’ she said.

“You can imagine our surprise when we read the letter.”

“I understand their policy, but this is seriously over the top.”

Indeed.

How can film producers that frequently tells stories of plucky young kids pursuing their dreams and overcoming adversity be so… so… soulless? And without any sense of irony.

But the girls — like heroines in their own heartwarming animated film — are pushing on, trying to get the Hollywood heavyweights to reconsider their (dare I say, excellent) Rio 3 proposal.

If you’d like to help encourage 20th Century Fox and their subsidiary Blue Sky Studios to respond to the girls’ movie pitch please tweet them using the #reconsiderrio3 hashtag.

CLICK HERE TO TWEET THE STUDIOS.

 

Nigel and Frog (© 2014 Fox).

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Returning to journalism

I’m thrilled to let you guys know I’ll be joining Channel Ten’s The Project as a field producer.

All good things must come to an end. And while it’s been a privilege to rub shoulders with some of Australia’s top thinkers and policy analysts at the University of Melbourne these past few years, my first passion has always been journalism.

Nothing quite compares.

typewriterI love that moment when people finally agree to be interviewed. I get a rush when somebody says “I’m rolling” and a little red light turns on. I like making it my business, literally, to know what’s happening in the world. News junkies represent!

This move has nothing to do with the University’s current restructure, although when an organisation pauses to consider its future it presents individuals with an opportunity to do the same.

I wish my University academic colleagues all the very best solving the world’s grand challenges, and I wish my soon-to-be-former media team comrades all the very best making sure people out there hear about it (that’s right, those punters I bang on about).

I will start at The Project — a product of Roving Enterprises — in late July.

Got a story? It’s never to soon to email me or anonymously fill in the below form.

— RS

P.S.: If you’re interested in what The Project’s field reporting team actually does, here are some recent stories on topics as diverse as voluntary euthanasiatransgernderism and human travel to Mars.

Even Republicans can enjoy the royals

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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I HAVE some advice for all those rabid supporters of an Australian republic. The most productive thing you can do when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visit Australia in April is simple: take off your grumpy pants and get on board.

That’s right, you heard me.

Get excited, engage in those workplace water-cooler discussions about where the royal duo might visit, perhaps even buy one of those glossy magazines with a cut-out itinerary.

Because whether you like it or not, ”Kate and Wills” are popular. And rolling your eyes when somebody expresses excitement about the royal visit isn’t going to change that. Quite the opposite, it’s likely to switch people off to your arguments.

Being snarky is rarely an effective tool of persuasion.

Instead, Australian republicans (and I’m one of them) need to send the message that it’s OK to like the royals and not want them as our head of state.

Having an opinion on Brad and Angelina’s growing brood or keeping up with the Kardashians isn’t incompatible with wanting a republic, so why should royal-watching be?

My Republican wife and sister-in-law were glued to TV coverage of the 2011 royal wedding.

After the failure of the 1999 republic referendum the (then) High Court Judge Michael Kirby delivered a speech in London on the ”10 lessons” Australians should take from the experience. They’re worth revisiting.

Kirby said labelling opponents of the referendum proposal ”un-Australian” was ”a sure way to alienate them”. He noted how the Queen’s ”admirable personal qualities continue to attract a vital cohort of support to the negative case” (an argument which now applies equally to Kate and William).

Kirby also chastised the media for having ”showed the Queen and her supporters in a bad light”.

The lesson is clear, Australians who dream of a republic need to stop denigrating those with an affection for the royal family. It’s counterproductive and, what’s more, the royals aren’t going anywhere.

If an Australian admires the Queen’s grace, stoicism or colourful array of hats, they’ll continue to do so under a republic. And a directly elected Australian prime minister would be powerless to quell demand for pictures of young Prince George or his party-boy uncle.

American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once wrote: ”Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”

The same could be said of attempts to shame Australians into disliking the royal family. It just won’t work.

Australian republicans need to accept that Kate, Will, Chuck, Harry and Lizzie do belong in our magazines and gossip sites, and refocus their arguments to why they don’t belong in our constitution.

‘Human rights’ built on a bedrock of shame

When a troublesome child is chastised for bad behaviour they’re often quick to point the finger at somebody else, as if that other child’s wrongdoing might somehow lessen their own guilt.

New research suggests this very natural ‘Look! Over there!’ impulse — enacted on an international scale in the 1970s — might have spurred enthusiasm for what we now call “human rights”.

The election of Democrat Jimmy Carter proved a watershed moment for human rights. (Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration.)
The election of Democrat Jimmy Carter proved a watershed moment for human rights. (Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration.)

Melbourne historian Dr Barbara Keys argues human rights are today’s moral lingua franca – the universal language in which we couch our aspirations for human betterment.

“Though they can seem like a timeless truth, it was not until the 1970s that ‘human rights’ became a household term and a global rallying cry,” she says.

Dr Keys’ new book Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s seeks to identify the impulse at the core of this “new moralism”.

Surprisingly, it locates the roots of the modern human rights movement in Americans’ traumatised psychological state after the Vietnam War.

“It is hard to overstate how deeply unsettling the war was for Americans, whose faith in their country’s benevolence was profoundly shaken by the war’s extraordinary brutality,” she says.

“Martin Luther King Jr. famously called the United States ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world’ and many observers around the globe agreed. At home, liberals in particular felt ashamed and guilty.

“The desire to assuage these feelings – not to atone for them but to sublimate them – led liberals to embrace human rights.”

Which bring us back to that naughty young child dobbing in a friend.

Dr Keys argues increasing moves by the US to shine a light on the wrongdoing of other nations may have been less about actually preventing atrocities, and more about creating a distraction from America’s own sense of national shame.

“As I see it, promoting international human rights was not a ‘natural’ response triggered by an epidemic of human rights abuses, or by a cool-headed rethinking of Cold War anti-communism.

“Instead it was a kind of sleight-of-hand, whereby Americans turned the spotlight away from America’s own recent history of violence to focus instead on brutal torture by nasty dictators in places like Chile and South Korea.

“Instead of reckoning with their own guilt, Americans made themselves feel better by pointing the finger at others.”

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At the same time, however, another dynamic was at work. Dr Keys uncovers a largely forgotten conservative strand of human rights promotion, one that sowed the seeds for the neoconservative enthusiasm for human rights and democratisation that defined the George W. Bush era.

Indeed, it was the men and women who would don the neoconservative label a few years later who first introduced international human rights into mainstream American political vocabulary in the early 1970s.

“These conservatives found liberal guilt enraging. They rejected any effort to blame the United States,” Dr Keys notes.

“They grasped human rights as a tool to criticise the Soviet Union, and in particular to press for greater levels of Soviet Jewish emigration. Human rights was useful to conservatives because the concept restored moral stature to the United States and placed opprobrium squarely on the Soviet Union – effectively righting the moral balance that had been upset by the Vietnam War.”

Jimmy Carter, when he became president in 1977, made international human rights promotion one of the central pillars of U.S. foreign policy. His advisers told him human rights appealed to both liberals and conservatives, and could help heal the psychological damage the war had caused.

But Dr Keys believes Carter failed to reckon with the irreconcilable divergence between liberal and conservative visions of human rights, which prioritised very different rights and were aimed at very different targets.

“Though the new policy was hobbled by unresolved contradictions, including the tension between liberal and conservative visions of what human rights were, Carter gave the new mantra the full backing of a superpower and thereby almost single-handedly ensured the rise of human rights to its current status in the global moral imagination,” Dr Keys says.

Her explanation for the rise of human rights makes the arc of US foreign policy sentiment since the end of the Vietnam War more understandable.

Meantime, the liberal version of human rights similarly derived from a failure to reckon with the true costs of American interventionism in Vietnam.

The neocons who would plot the invasion of Iraq after the election of George W. Bush had first embraced the moralism of human rights as a rejection of guilt for the Vietnam War.

Human rights made renewed interventionism more thinkable, not less – which is why so many liberals could end up supporting Bush’s war for human rights.

sorryasylumseekers.com

AKA Why I started sorryasylumseekers.com

There is a serious debate to be had in Australia about asylum seeker policy.

Millions of people flee persecution every year, and their passage from danger to safety needs to be regulated. Most people agree with this, even if their views on exactly how  then to manage the issue differ.

Hence the debate that’s currently raging across our nation’s homes, pubs and halls of power.

Valid questions are being asked in this debate.

How many asylum seekers can Australia sustainably accommodate? How should we, as a nation, deter/manage/encourage asylum seekers? Is ‘stopping the boats’ Australia’s only policy objective? Is mandatory detention a useful policy measure?  Etc etc

These are complex issues worthy of detailed examination.

However, my website sorryasylumseekers.com wasn’t established for that purpose.

Instead, sorryasylumseekers.com is based on a philosophy that Australia’s asylum seeker policy debate — while worthy and necessary — should take place on a bedrock of humanity.

Whatever your views on the Pacific, Malaysia or PNG solutions, surely we can all agree that basic human decency is a worthy objective?

However you assess Australia’s obligations under international law, surely we can all agree that as a rich country we should treat those in our care with respect?

The website is about saying sorry for harsh or inhumane treatment, which is entirely avoidable.

I want compassion for those fleeing persecution as an agreed starting point, something considered sacrosanct by all Australians. Only then can we  have a mature and fruitful debate about real-world policy solutions.

Australia’s asylum seeker policy debate — while worthy and necessary — should take place on a bedrock of humanity.

The public response to sorryasylumseekers.com has been overwhelming. We have contributions from every state and territory, as well as Australians living overseas. Dogs, cats and babies have also featured in people’s posts.

The website has been written up on The BBC WorldBuzzFeed, Al Jazeera, The New Daily, The Guardian, SBS and News.com.

But let’s be frank here — a few feel-good pictures aren’t going to change the world.

However, at the very least, I want asylum seekers to know that not all Australians are lacking in compassion.

There are people with big hearts all across the country (and of all political persuasions).

sorryasylumseekers.com may not achieve anything.

It may raise some awareness, it may eventually raise some money, or it may make just one person fleeing persecution feel more welcome in Australia.

But it’s better than doing nothing.

The troublesome truth about politics

This review of Jonathan Green’s The Year My Politics Broke (Melbourne University Publishing) first appeared in The Voice. 

As a detailed account of how politicians and politicking has veered off course in Australia over recent years The Year My Politics Broke isn’t an enjoyable read. But then, it isn’t meant to be: the book is designed as uncomfortable reading.

That veteran journalist Jonathan Green has managed to make it engaging at all is a real triumph.

imageEarly on in the book Green – the presenter of Radio National’s Sunday Extra and former editor of the ABC’s analysis website The Drum – states it is neither a diary nor campaign notebook, but instead “a running reflection of the current state of our politics”.

(The word “our” is crucial, as Green obviously believes all Australians bear some responsibility for the current state of national affairs. And that especially includes him, he says, “a minor league media participant”.)

True to his word, Green does not provide a blow-by-blow account of contemporary Labor rule, nor does the book read as yet another critique of Tony Abbott’s ‘just say no’ approach to Opposition. Instead, the book tackles issues thematically.

But the overarching (and most distressing) argument contained in The Year My Politics Broke is that our whole political system is now incapable of constructive action or compromise on the big issues.

“The assumption we make from the outside is that the political system will make a genuine attempt to reach some sort of resolution, to come up with ideas and policy settings that might advance these various courses,” writes Green.

“The troublesome truth,” he goes on, “is that sometimes the establishment of disagreement, the pursuit of a negative line [for its own sake], can have more political reward than sitting down and working the thing out.”

And all this at a time when the nation’s policy challenges – like climate change, tax reform or the treatment of asylum seekers – are only becoming more thorny.

“The challenges facing us today are so multi-dimensional and complex,” former Victorian Governor Alex Chernov told Voice in June.

“They tend to inhibit rather than encourage public discussion and the development of policies in relation to them.”

You’d curl up in a ball if it wasn’t all so important.

The only problem with The Year My Politics Broke is that it sometimes felt overly familiar. Green has a beautiful and unique writing style, but I would often read a passage with a distinct sense that I’d read it before (perhaps months ago on The Drum?).

It must be hard to write over a prolonged period of time and then produce a wholly original retrospective on the same topic (especially when you have a unique writing style). Green’s efforts are admirable.

That being said, perhaps the only way to truly do justice to the Rudd—Gillard—Are-We-There-Yet?—Rudd-Again years is to instil in the reader a sense of déjà vu.

The Year My Politics Broke certainly did that. Bravo.

Lamenting “Do Something-ism” in Australian politics

This piece first appeared on Election Watch.

john“AT LEAST DO SOMETHING!  DO!”  former Hawthorn coach John Kennedy Snr (right) famously urged his players during the 1975 VFL Grand Final. The rousing address was recorded, and now forms part of footy folklore. But the speech might also speak volumes about our approach to national politics.

Callers to talkback radio frequently lament the government-of-the-day’s perceived lack of action on topical issues, and vaguely demand it “does something”. Petrol prices are too high? The government should do something. A rise in asylum seekers? The government should do something. Unemployment on the rise? Well, clearly the government should do something about that.

Let’s call it Do Something-ism. Exactly what the government should do is less frequently articulated (let alone the elusive ‘how?’).

Policy responses to big issues are inevitably hard and boring. They involve compromise and time to implement. This isn’t the West Wing, where policy conundrums are identified and solved within 42 minutes. Swift action by governments or ‘crackdowns’ by authorities may capture the headlines — and temporarily sooth the concerns of the talkback callers — but rarely do they produce sustained results.

Do Something-ism is a gift to oppositions who can exploit perceptions of government inaction without necessarily needing to propose an alternative course of action. Prime Minister Tony Abbott accused Julia Gillard of leading a “do nothing government”, while Labor used the same line of attack against former Victorian Liberal Premier, Ted Baillieu. Both leaders have now been confined to the political dustbin.

This isn’t the West Wing, where policy conundrums are identified and solved within 42 minutes.

Of course, governments also use Do Something-ism to their advantage. When Kevin Rudd returned to the Prime Ministership in June 2013, he immediately set about tweaking Labor policy in areas of perceived electoral weakness; striking an asylum seeker deal with PNG, “axing” the carbon tax, reforming Labor’s internal structures, etc.

These policy modifications were soon subjected to legitimate and probing questions (Was Mr Rudd overstating the PNG deal? Was he really “axing” the tax? Were the party reforms — later dubbed “Kevin’s curse” — rushed and ill conceived?). But in a sense, none of this mattered. Mr Rudd was doing something. He was acting. The details were irrelevant.

When Gruen Nation analysed a Coalition campaign advertisement that featured little more than then-Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey reciting a laundry lists of economic and budgetary data (see the clip at Election Watch’party ad database), the ABC’s Annabel Crabb put it this way:

“[That ad’s] main aim to to kind of bombard you with wall-of-sound statistics so that your overall impression is: ‘Oh my head hurts, so many numbers’.

That is, to leave the viewer with the impression of action and competency. To demonstrate Joe Hockey has what it takes to Do Something about the economy. Again, the details were superfluous.

A genuinely engaged public could force our political leaders to talk more about policy, or even abandon ‘thought bubble’ policies that are never going to work.

So when Australians complain about the parties’ lack of policies, or the poor standard of debate in Australia, they should recognise the power for change resides with them.

If the average voters’ political engagement extended beyond simply wanting politicians to Do Something — to instead include discussion about what they should do, how it should be done, who should pay for it and what compromises would be required — Australia would be a better place.

A genuinely engaged public could force our political leaders to talk more about policy, or even abandon ‘thought bubble’ policies that are never going to work.

If you need any further arguments against the pervasive cancer that is Do Something-ism, consider this: Hawthorn lost that 1975 Grand Final.

Perhaps the players would have benefited more from being told what to do.

On hiatus

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You may have noticed — or perhaps neither noticed nor cared — but this website is on hiatus for the remainder of the federal election campaign so I can devote my full attention to Election Watch.

Election Watch is a University of Melbourne initiative to provide in depth analysis and commentary on the 2013 federal election. We do funny memes too!

 

As one of the editors, the project is taking up an awful lot of my time and I thought it would be silly to reproduce my efforts on this site.

If you’re interested, you can read my musings and watch my studio interviews here.

 

Confessions of a ‘sexist’

I emerged from a long meeting yesterday to learn Victorian police had charged St Kilda forward Stephen Milne with rape. My reaction? Rather pathetic.

Screen shot 2013-06-19 at 9.06.15 AMAfter the initial ‘wow’ moment, I almost immediately engaged in a passionate discussion with two male colleagues about… football.

Has Milne been arrested? Bailed? I wondered aloud, but only as a prelude to my follow-ups: Surely St Kilda will have to drop him? Was there precedent for this? Andrew Lovett’s name was thrown about as we discussed how the AFL and St Kilda might respond.

We even mentioned Mick Malhouse, the veteran AFL coach who was fined $7,500 in 2010 for calling Milne a “f***ing rapist”. How would he be feeling today?

It’s been a big week in the AFL, we reflected, first Melbourne coach Mark Neeld is sacked and now this!

The closest we came to truly discussing the woman – the alleged victim – was musing about her age, dissecting claims the pair met at a St Kilda family day and asking if this woman was actually the ‘St Kilda Schoolgirl’. (She’s not.)

Only later, after a female colleague  pointed out the gross deficiencies of this initial exchange, did I truly reflect on the weightier issues:

  • How is this woman coping?
  • What an awful nine years it must have been for her!
  • If she made an accusation of rape in 2004 and police now believe there is enough evidence to lay charges, why did it take them so long to form this position?
  • Does the AFL have a culture of sexism and misogyny?
  • Etc etc…

Our original topics of discussion were valid.

This case has and will continue to span the realms of celebrity, sport and the media as well as those of power, crime, culture and sexism.

All these elements — their roles, characteristics, origins, relationships and shortcomings — should be scrutinized. We should discuss and debate them at length.

But we should also recognize that some of those issues are more important than others. Some have a greater claim for our attention. And which issues we (read: I) select to  consider first is extremely telling.
 
“The standard that you walk past, is the standard you accept,” Australia’s Army Chief Lieutenant  General David Morrison told us last week.

And he’s right.

We must call out blatant and ‘unintentional’ sexist behaviour. Beginning with our own. 

RS

Why we miss the ‘old’ Game of Thrones

I ASSUME we’re all familiar with those trendy tapas restaurants where the food is brought out in annoyingly tiny portions which are consistently too small to ever really satisfy? One bite and the dish is gone, and you’re once more hungrily awaiting for the next (also unfulfilling) culinary instalment.

danyYes, well in a case of ‘careful what you wish for’ this is exactly what’s now happening to fans of the Prime Ministerially endorsed HBO series Game of Thrones.

After demanding the show be available locally as it’s aired in the US, Australian fans are suddenly missing out on one of the key ingredients that made the show so enjoyable to begin with: binge viewing.

Gone are those heady times when we could (morally, at least) Torrent a dozen episodes of this Westeroisi wonder and sit back as the gripping political power plays and gratuitous sex scenes kept us engaged for half a day.

No longer can we enjoy the quaint and guilty pleasure of borrowing a friend’s burnt DVD with back-to-back instalments of the Seven Kingdoms’ palace intrigue.

We brought this on ourselves.

And last night’s non-episode just added insult to injury. The mood was captured by my friend Zo Zo (reassuringly, not her real name):

 zoeeee

The era of on-demand digital media and the notion of being drip-fed a “television show” seems grossly incompatible. Filming for Game of Thrones Season 3 was completed in November2012 – but still we wait! We have the technology, we have the demand… what’s the problem?

Of course, this is just the modern expression of an old urge. When I want to read a book I want to read the whole book. In my time.

I don’t want it serialised. I don’t want to purchase a few chapters, and then have to buy a few more later on. If I want to stay up past midnight to read a few more sneaky chapters, I damn well will.

Why should the small screen be any different?Game of Thrones … Peter Dinklage as Tyrion.

Wouldn’t it be great if the next frontier in “television” is direct and comprehensive distribution. A season at a time, as they’re commissioned and created.

Traditionalists could still watch episodes on the TV, and good on them. Their slightly archaic viewing habits wouldn’t affect me (and chances that demographic wouldn’t have their viewing experience ruined by spoilers on social media).

Everybody would win.

Well, nearly everybody. Just not the TV industry gatekeepers, who are already moving quickly in the other direction.

It seems those already in control are so busy preserving their power they’re ignoring the chilly winds of change brewing afar.

Sound familiar? Winter is coming.

ned