When is “art” actually just sexist tripe?

When is “art” actually just sexist tripe?

Continue reading “When is “art” actually just sexist tripe?”

My Pa ‘bullshitting’ Ray Martin on national TV (1992)

As a celebrated bullshit artist, it’s really no surprise my charismatic grandfather Laurie Sheales ending up on national TV in May 1992 telling Ray Martin one of his tallest tales.

My 87 year old and gloriously hirsute Pa was sitting in a pub one night, swilling beer and telling those assembled how he’d been completely bald as a younger man, but how he’d managed to turn things around by applying cow manure to his hairless head.

A producer for Midday just happened to overhear this tale and invite Laurie into the studio to retell his story, and give a live demonstration.

The result is a piece of Sheales family folklore. We particularly love how the old fella kept his hands firmly behind his back the whole time and — after a tentative start — even began cracking his own jokes.

By the end it was The Laurie Sheales Show.

I hope you enjoy it.

Did the promise of pudding swing the Victorian election?

THE internet engaged in a collective ‘isn’t he adorable’ a few months back when it transpired actor Benedict Cumberbatch couldn’t say the word “penguins”. You can watch the video here.

B3o3twUIUAMYxp9(The fact Cumberbatch had just lent his voice to a nature documentary about penguins — or “pengwings” — and is currently starring in the Penguins of Madagascar movie made the whole thing even better.)

So what does all this have to do with yesterday’s Victorian election, which swept Labor’s Dan(iel) Andrews into the premier’s office?

While conventional wisdom suggests the controversial East West Link and disputes about pay for ambos and firefighters played a key role in Labor’s win, it’s also possible Daniel Andrews flicked the switch to ‘evil genius’ and employed a bit of highly strategic, Cumberbatch-esque linguistic subterfuge in a bid to sway undecided voters.

Stick with me here, and check out this video of the Labor leader promising Victorian voters PUDDING. Yes, as in the moist cake stuff. Moreover, enough pudding to fill Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium.

(Post continues below video)

On the surface Andrews simply can’t say the word “putting”, which is unfortunate given the ALP’s campaign was almost entirely built around the slogan ‘Putting People First’. But let’s not be so naive.

These political catchphrases are debated, dissected and focus group tested before ever being uttered in public.

danWhich means two things have happened. The first is that Labor strategists adopted this slogan in the full knowledge that Andrews couldn’t pronounce a third of it. This seems cruel, odd and somewhat self-defeating.

The second option is that the ALP’s savvy election strategists devised this particular collection of syllables in the hope some voters would be subliminally swayed by the promise of baked goods.

It’s so crazy it might just be true.

(H/T Daniel Bowen.)

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”.


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.”


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.



Nigel and Frog (© 2014 Fox).

‘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.”


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.

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.

ABC ‘Reseach Report’ March, 2013

1) Surgeons who play video games are better at ‘keyhole’ procedures

University of Rome.

Laparopscopic surgeons may improve certain aspects of surgical performance by regularly playing on a Nintendo Wii, according to research published in PLOS ONE.

Researchers analyzed how a four-week training regimen on the Wii impacted the laparoscopic skills of post-graduate residents in the first or second year of their surgical training.

Half the surgeons were assigned to a training regimen on the Wii while the other half were not. Before and after the regimen, all the participants’ performance was tested on a laparoscopic simulator. The study found that participants in both groups improved their skills over the four week period, but those who had been trained on the Wii showed a significant improvement over the other group in their performance on several specific metrics like economy of instrument movements and efficient cautery.

[Note: this study didn’t recieve any funding from Nintendo or other video game developers.]

2) Australians didn’t gamble away last year’s carbon tax compensation payments, viewing them as different from past payments
University of Melbourne (Melbourne Institute) 

Australians opted not to gamble away last year’s carbon tax compensation as they had earlier government payments, according to a University of Melbourne study.

Researchers explored whether the 2012 carbon tax cheques sparked an increase in expenditure at the pokies, as had occurred following the economic stimulus payments of 2008 and 2009.

The study found many recipients were more restrained in 2012.

“The Carbon Tax cheques arrived when people were expecting a hike in their power bills. They were portrayed as a rebate on rising costs of living due to a ‘big, new tax’,” said researcher Hielke Buddelmeyer.

“In contrast, the payments made during the Global Financial Crisis were seen as a windfall. Something to be spent, guilt free.”

3) Conservates are happier than progressives: study
University of Queensland

Conservatives are happier than liberals because of their strong ties to a large network of social groups, according to new research.

A research team from UQ Psychology conducted a study among 816 undergraduate students to explore the link between conservatism and happiness.

UQ Psychology Professor Jolanda Jetten said the findings indicated that conservatives were happier than liberals due to greater access to social capital – a great source of well-being.

It appears what makes conservatives happy is not conservative ideology but rather a “social and material advantage” – that is, access to groups, participation, membership, etc.

So maybe money can make you happier?

Journey to belonging

An edited version of this article appeared in February VOICE, distributed through The Age.

Each year thousands of asylum-seekers try to settle in Australia. Most are fleeing persecution because of their race, religion or lifestyle. They’re looking for something simple yet sometimes elusive: a fresh start. Ryan Sheales reports on their struggles and triumphs.

Randomly stop 10 people in the street and ask for their view on asylum-seeker issues and you’ll probably get about 15 different responses. Some welcoming, some hostile, some confused, some somewhere in the middle.

Refugees arriving in Australia often encounter a climate where their legitimacy is bitterly contested.

Social researchers – like Melissa Phillips from the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences – see it as a problem across the whole of Australian society.

“Despite the Federal Government trying to distinguish between ‘good’ refugees and ‘bad’ asylum-seekers, most people make little distinction between them,” she says.

“As a result many refugees’ everyday interactions involve people questioning who they are, and why they have fled their countries of origin.“

The Australian Parliamentary Library, which produces independent research reports for politicians, has warned there is “a great deal of confusion and misinformation in the public debate” about asylum-seekers.

Its 2011 report Asylum-seekers and refugees: what are the facts? also found the terms ‘asylum-seekers’, ‘refugees’, ‘illegals’, ‘queue-jumpers’ and ‘boat people’ are frequently used “interchangeably and/or incorrectly”.

The study also dismissed the notion Australia is being “swamped” by would-be refugees.

It pointed out that Europe generally processes about 280,000 claims for asylum each year compared with roughly 49,000 claims in the US and 33,000 in Canada.

In comparison, less than 7,000 claims were lodged in Australia and New Zealand combined in 2009.

Despite this, a “treacherous combination of a lack of understanding, generalisations and misconceptions” still lingers across sections of the Australian community, according to the University’s Martina Boese, who’s currently working on a research project analysing the experiences of migrants and refugees settling in country Victoria.

Dr Boese believes refugees are often incorrectly portrayed as damaged, needy or burdensome for their new country.

“The focus often seems to be on a refugee’s history with trauma or deprivation, not on their skills, experience and resilience. In comparison, skilled visa entrants are more commonly represented as useful and entrepreneurial,” she says.

“This black-and-white imagery of ‘damaged refugees fleeing war-torn countries’ versus ‘skilled migrants needed by the Australian economy’ leaves no doubt about who is the more wanted kind of entrant.”

Even the very term “refugee” – which is as much a legal category as it is a social descriptor – can be a damaging label.

Invariably, some politicians and media organisations seem intent on exploiting the ‘refugee stereotype’ for votes or ratings. But there’s little focus on the less tabloid-friendly ‘success stories’.

Somalian woman Maimun Mohamed spent the better part of a decade in a UN refugee camp in Kenya, after fleeing the civil war that had gripped her homeland in 1991.

Maimun Mohamed

When she and her husband arrived in Australia in 1999 they knew nothing of their new country – and no one.

Her experiences in Australia were recorded in 2010 by Researchers for Asylum-seekers, a volunteer group of academics and students affiliated with the University of Melbourne’s Department of Psychological Science.

“At first she worked as a receptionist and gradually moved into community work where she developed a niche for assessing the employment needs of disadvantaged communities, including refugees,” her story reads.

“Slowly she made connections and figured out the way things are done.”

Ms Mohamed eventually started her own business, the Innovation Recruitment Agency, which works to find appropriate employment for resettled refugees.

Or take the example of David, whose journey from Sudan to Melbourne took 19 years: through Ethiopia, back to South Sudan, on to Kenya and finally to Australia. He arrived here safely in 2004, aged 22.

“Flying through Sydney to get to Melbourne, David could not believe that such a world existed. Everything felt like a dream,” researchers remarked of his experiences.


“The first challenge David encountered was to understand how to connect with people, services and just ‘live’ in Australia. Everything was completely new and each task, even a simple one like cooking or filling the bathtub, had to be learnt from scratch.

“Luckily, his cousin was here to help him figure things out and explain processes as simple as a meeting at Centrelink.”

Like many refugees, David also had to deal with traumatic flashbacks to the horrors he witnessed in Africa.

Refugee advocates believe there will be a greater acceptance of refugees when their motives are better understood.

Too many people still believe refugees make a voluntary choice to leave their homelands, warns Melissa Phillips who spent time working in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in South Sudan.

“The idea that people voluntarily leave their homes with few means and little documentation is just crazy, and challenges our knowledge of contemporary conflicts and their effects on people,” Dr Boese says.

“Going further, it seems hard to comprehend that some people believe refugees leave their homes with a destination in mind.

“Refugees are focused foremost on removing themselves from precarious situations and it is only later that they may start to think of options for a permanent and safe future.”

David knows how he’d like Australians, and those seeking asylum here, to approach refugee issues.

“People from round the world look and think differently and it is easy to be misguided by stereotypes,” he says.

“Until you get to sit down with people and talk to them, it is important to extend respect and kindness to all people.”

“It is important that those who were born here as well as those that resettle here work hard, open up and accept each other.”

Hear an interview with David or read more of Maimun Mohamed’s story here

Do me a favour? Ignore Alan Jones.

DO me a favour? Ignore Alan Jones.

The radio veteran’s most recent comments suggesting Julia Gillard’s father died of “shame” because of her daughter’s “lies” are foul and reprehensible.

The condemnation has been swift and comprehensive, although some are still waiting for Tony Abbott to also voice his personal disgust.

Alan Jones will in time apologise, if only because of pressure from his sponsors and his employer. But it won’t be real contrition.

And then what?

Chances are he will go back to his radio show. Just like just after he called for Ms Gillard to be downed in a chaff bag.

The well-regarded conservative campaign strategist Mark Textor took to Twitter last night to dispel some myths about Alan Jones:

“Jones’ trick has been in part to convince many of the elite that his voter influence was significant when mostly it has been marginal.”

He went on to point out that Jones has a “relatively demographically limited, mainly Sydney based audience”.

The suggestion is that Jones’ “influence” is a cultivated myth, fueled by the propensity of other members of the media hanging off every word he mutters.

So why don’t we treat Alan Jones like the troll he is?

While Media Watch and the Daily Telegraph haggle over the fine print, the general consensus is that ‘feeding the trolls’ – ie, responding to them, giving them the attention they crave – is misguided:

“Excited and dramatic reactions encourage them to continue or escalate their bad behavior, to see just how upset you will get.”

We – journalists and politicians – need to ignore them.

We need to ignore him.

It seems Alan Jones’ “power” comes from his perceived influence.

After all, that’s what his employer and his sponsors are buying.

If Jones is deprived of this clout he will enter into the realm of irrelevancy where he belongs.

But that is a matter for us.


  • (Post script: And yes, I realise the irony of writing a blog post about Alan Jones while urging you all to ignore Alan Jones.)

No journalist should have to report on their friend’s murder.

JILL Meagher’s death is an unfathomable tragedy. Her family remains in a state of shock and despair. My heart goes out to them.

But I want to pay tribute to Jill’s ABC colleagues. My former colleagues.

This has undoubtedly been one of the toughest weeks of their lives – both personally and professionally.

Journalists deal with tragedy on a regular basis. Road deaths, street crimes and a seemingly endless supply of harrowing stories retold in the

But rarely are they so close to the victims of these traumas.

“It’s hard to walk both sides of the street on this one,” 774 mornings host Jon Faine told listeners today.

As perhaps ABC Victoria’s most well known personality, Faine’s reactions and remarks have been instructive. He has given a voice to the whole ABC Radio team.

Days after Jill vanished police made repeated visits to the home she shared with her husband, Tom. They took away bags and cases filled with undisclosed belongings.

Unfounded mutterings began to surface on social media suggesting Tom was perhaps involved in some kind of foul play. Why else would they search the home.

Faine took to the airwaves to defend Tom. In doing so, the radio veteran acknowledged he was probably overstepping a line.

Perhaps he did go too far, perhaps not. But all the ‘lines’ which define acceptable behaviour have been blurred this week

The MEAA journalists Code of Ethics compel reporters to “respect private grief and personal privacy”.

Which is all very well – except when the grief is the reporter’s own.

The Code also says journalists should “not allow personal interest … to undermine [their] accuracy, fairness or independence”.

Which is fine, except when your “personal interest” is only in your mate’s safety, against all the odds.

774 Radio manager Cath Hurley paid tribute to her staff this morning, saying they have covered the issue “straight up and down” and she was “proud” of them.

She is right. They have been stoic. They have been brave. They have been exactly what they needed to be.

It’s all too easy for reporters to become desensitized to trauma and loss. To the trauma and loss of others. It’s natural, and often necessary.

This week’s events will have shattered any emotional barriers that ABC reporters may have built up over the years.

And the next time a woman is abducted, raped or murdered on the streets of Melbourne – and sadly, there will be a next time – the events of the past week will come flooding back.

There is a lot of grieving to be done, a lot of questing why and a lot of healing.

My thoughts are with everybody in the ABC family.