Life in Melbourne (BBC Postcard)

Life in Melbourne (BBC Postcard)

Melbourne was this week named the world’s most liveable city for the fifth year running, much to the disgust of some snivelling Sydneysiders.

The rankings are based on a survey covering political stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure.

The BBC World Service asked me to produce a little ‘postcard’ about what life was really like in Melbourne.

This excerpt also includes the perspectives of residents living in Athens (ranked 69) and Kiev (124).

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.)

Compo for a dud TV?

In a display of extreme cheekiness, a Melbourne man has sought compensation because he couldn’t watch his favourite TV shows.

A Panasonic TV

The man spent about $1,350 on a Panasonic TV in 2011, but earlier this year the unit broke down. The man eventually convinced the TV maker to refund him more than $1,000 for his troubles.

Not satisfied with this outcome, court records show the man also sought extra money “for loss of use of the television”.

“The applicant’s claim was based on the notional cost of renting a television set for the period of time for which he has been without a television,” court documents reveal.

However — and wait for this — the man admitted to Victoria’s Civil and Administrative Tribunal that “he did not actually rent a television set”.

WHAT?! So he sought money to compensate himself for the cost of a rental TV which he did not even rent?!

That doesn’t seem like a waste of court time, at all!

But fear not, dear reader, common sense prevailed and the court sensibly denied the man’s bid.

“As the applicant did not incur any expense to rent a television, he has not suffered a loss and is not entitled to an award of damages for loss of use of a television set.”


You can read the full case here.

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).

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.

‘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?