Claiming condemnation as vindication spares you from introspection.

Mental gymnastics can be a useful skill.

Being able to approach questions from different perspectives and tease them out in unique ways can make you a deeper, more thoughtful person.

But cerebral dexterity can also make you impervious to reality or reflection.

They’re a lot to unpack regarding the Israel Folau saga, but frankly others have already done that. I won’t try.

I’m interested in the mindset required for somebody to boldly claim criticism as endorsement (politicians, we get to you later).

Appearing on SKY for his first TV interview since being sacked, Folau was asked how he has been able to “endure” what’s been thrown at him?

“It states in the Bible, as a Christian, and following after God’s word, that you will encounter [a backlash],” he told Alan Jones.

“So it’s kept my strong.”

After consulting some Christian friends, my best guess is Folau is referencing these Bible verses:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:10

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
2 Timothy 3:12

The Folau interpretation seems to be that the more people object to your views the more correct you are. (Jones didn’t ask if the public outrage had prompted any self-reflection from Folau.)

Some have described Folau as ‘playing the victim’ but I’m not convinced. Playing suggests a level of awareness or strategy.

I think Folau truly believes what he’s espousing and his search for Biblical guidance to comprehend and process the criticism appears genuine.

But, regardless, Folau has let his faith act as an inhibitor to self-reflection. He hasn’t been able to look at himself with the same critical eye he’s turns on others.

I’m no Christian scholar, a failed alter boy at best, but is there not an obvious link between introspection and that much-hyped Christly virtue of humility?

2 Corinthians 13:5 even tells us “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?

Embracing Folau’s broad intellectual shield, you become one of those fictional monsters that only gets bigger and stronger the more people attack you.

It’s the ultimate get-out-of-jail card. Pass go, do not accept any criticism.

You simply excuse yourself from the rigours and responsibility or self-reflection.

What a super philosophy!

The parallels with Donald Trump are obvious and boring. Trump draws strength from the outrage of progressives, but yawn.

A more mundane expression of this super philosophy is made by our local political class, and it’s just as worthy of analysis.

Here’s a scenario: Politician A unveils a new policy. Two sections of the community—who normally disagree on everything and maybe even despise each other—both criticise the policy.

“See,” proudly declares Politician A. “We’ve got the balance right.”

Well, no.

Just as Folau is no more correct because of the criticism he receives, a politician is no more correct because diverse stakeholder groups are all critical.

The notion that every possible avenue of concern exists on a neat and linear spectrum is wrong.

What if the politicians’ stakeholder groups both think the proposed program is poorly structured? What if they both think governance arrangements are deficient? Or what if they simply oppose the program for wildly different reasons?

Seeing how specific groups react to policy changes can be instructive. But there’s no mythical sweet spot between the denunciation of stakeholders.

Broad public condemnation—for a policy proposal as for an Instagram post—doesn’t magically mean you’re right.

Maybe your policy is just average.

Maybe your views are plain hurtful.

Maybe you’re simply wrong.

Surely we can all do better?

Death, dying and the pursuit of control

Victoria’s landmark Voluntary Assisted Dying laws are now in force and, for most Victorians, won’t mean a thing.

They will probably never use them or know anybody who does, for the eligibility criteria is so narrow.

But for the unlucky few who will eventually exercise their rights under these new laws, they mean an awful lot.

My sister Kate had almost everything: intelligence, humour, compassion, a thirst for adventure, a love of animals, art and music.

The one thing she didn’t have was time.

Cancer changed all that. Osteosarcoma, to be exact. The most common type of bone cancer.

Kate died a few years ago. She is my big sister, but at 36 I’m now older than she ever was.

Kate and her study notes for veterinary science exams at Melbourne University.

Kate was a science student and, later, a veterinary surgeon. Early on, one of her doctors offered her a choice: “Do you want us to treat you as a medical professional, or not?”

That is, did she want them to distill her diagnosis and treatment options into layman’s terms, or communicate absolutely everything: all the scientific detail and nerdy medical complexity?

She chose to know as much as possible. It allowed her to reclaim a small amount of power and control.

When you’re fighting for your life and, later, preparing for your death, you grasp at any power and control you can.

Years later, Kate’s family and friends raised funds to help with the cost of medical treatment and to send Kate and her husband on the “holiday of a lifetime”.

We asked for donations, held a big trivia night and auctioned off items donated by local businesses.

(She probably won’t remember, but Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy—then an opposition MP and now one of the senior government ministers charged with overseeing these new reforms—kindly donated a voucher for High Tea at the Victorian Parliament.)

Thousands of dollars were raised, and we were so thankful for the immense generosity of those who contributed.

But I detail this at length mainly to reflect on the futility of it all.

We gave my sister distractions, adventures and comforts because that was all we could give her.

What she wanted originally, a healthy life, the cancer robbed from her.

And what she wanted at the very end, a good death, the state denied to her.

My sister knew the end was coming.

She made a kind of peace with it, as much as I suspect anybody truly can.

She managed to say goodbye to almost everybody she loved and this gives me great comfort.

But, when the time came, Kate’s death was lonely. It was even more tragic than it needed to be.

She exercised the only power and control she had left.

Nothing was going to make my sister well again. But I will forever wonder how much better her death would have been if her family and friends had been there to hold her hand.

If my sister was alive today she would be applauding these new laws and thanking those who have campaigned so tirelessly to see them realised.

There are legitimate debates to be had about safeguards and implementation. But for those who oppose Voluntary Assisted Dying outright I have only envy and pity.

I envy anybody who hasn’t had a loved one so sick that they longed for the simple salvation of death, only to be denied this basic dignity.

And I pity anybody who has endured this awful experience, but still wishes to deny people the right to die in a manner and at a time of their choosing.   ■

Thanks for reading to the end. I heartily recommend this beautiful piece Kate’s good friend Dougie McGuire wrote on ABC Open just months before her death.

“We argued about everything over long boozy dinners, politics particularly, Irish matters especially and raged about the big things that really don’t matter, safe that our friendship was strong enough to be strengthened by the many small acts which do.”


When racism is in fashion.

Running commentaries on media stories are boring at the best of times, but occasionally an exception is warranted.

Not because something is so egregious or overt (there’s plenty of people ready to be outraged about anything over on Twitter) but because it’s subtle and missable, potentially even unintended—but definitely still damaging.

So here goes.

A young woman with African heritage is excelling in her field. Subah Jok is a young model who just strutted the catwalk in Paris for Giorgio Armani. So of course a newspaper story about her success must include a response to “crime problems in Melbourne”.

Is there any suggestion this woman is a criminal? No. But she’s black.

And because the notion of an ‘African crime crisis’ has been hard-baked into many Victorians’ minds, this woman is now fair game for a question about crime.

The same way every person of the Catholic faith should be asked about pedophiles at every opportunity, right?

Only they’re not.

But lets go with the theory for a moment longer.

An analysis of the raw data tells us Victoria’s biggest criminal offender group by “county of birth” are actually Australians. Boring, white-bread Aussies. Followed by Kiwis!

So by this new standard… next time Geelong superstar Paddy Dangerfield rips a game apart, he should be asked about Australian crime.

And next time Lorde is touring Melbourne we should ask her about Australia’s Kiwi crime wave.

Only we shouldn’t. And we wouldn’t. And we don’t.

That would be misguided and misleading at best; racist and offensive at worst.

But in Victoria—black people are fair game, didn’t you know?


How did the Right lose ownership of marriage?

Look around the world and you’d be forgiven for thinking marriage equality, gay marriage, equal marriage (whatever you want to call it) is a progressive notion.

Calls for reform are often heard from the so-called Left: greens, students, academics and connoisseurs of cold drip coffee served in moody laneways. It’s easy to forget marriage is intrinsically conservative.

Britian’s conservative PM David Cameron
When British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the Tory faithful in 2011, he said this:

“Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

His speech, widely reported at the time, put marriage equality firmly in the conservative tent. Cameron went on to emphasise marriage wasn’t just a piece of paper, but something that “pulls couples together through the ebb and flow of life [and] gives children stability”.

The most progressive thing anybody can do—be they gay, straight or otherwise—is to live away from the shackles and trappings of marriage. Marriage is, after all, an institution historically associated with property deals, military alliances, dowries, arranged unions, the general oppression of women and, more recently, soaring divorce rates. FTW.

(As a married man strongly in favour of reform, I’m not suggesting people give up on marriage equality. But, strictly speaking, that would be the most progressive thing to do.)

This perspective is hardly new.

“When I went to university [in the 1980’s] we weren’t talking about gay marriage,” former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in 2013, shortly after losing office. “As women, as feminists, we were critiquing marriage.”

Oh how the debate has flipped. Now progressives push for couples to declare their union under the banner of marriage, and conservatives demand couples live outside its bounds. The Conservatives have won! But they now don’t want the victory.

Conservative Senator Eric Abetz and the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, both oppose marriage equality.
Which brings us to the politics of all this. New Zealand, Britain, Ireland and the US have all embraced gay marriage, and the sky hasn’t fallen in. Everybody (well almost everybody) accepts it’s inevitable in Australia too. Given this, the Right is cruising for a massive defeat.

With ever hysterical attack on gays and lesbians, their love, their sex lives and their ability to raise kids (arguments all purportedly mounted in defence of the institution of marriage) conservatives are digging a massive, wrong-side-of-history sized hole for themselves.

It simply doesn’t have to be this way. The Right should start framing marriage equality as the conservative victory it will be. It’s not too late to snatch a political victory from the jaws of defeat.

Along the way, and with the correct leadership, we might just build some consensus, heal some wounds and make a better Australia. Anything less would be a missed opportunity.


(Feature image: Reuters.)

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.)

Even Republicans can enjoy the royals

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.


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.

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


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.