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.”


Duncan – Issues vs Distractions

“I’ve got a disability and a low education, that means I’ve spent my whole life working for minimum wage. You’re gonna lift the tax-free threshold for rich people … Rich people don’t even notice their tax-free threshold lift. Why don’t I get it? Why do they get it?”

Victorian man Duncan Storrar asked this question on the political debate TV show Q&A soon after the launch of the 2016 Australian election campaign. Soon after, his life was turned upside down. Before long the country’s most read newspaper declared him a “villain” on its front page.

I don’t plan to relitigate these events here. That’s been done enough elsewhere.

For me, the most disappointing element of this whole saga was how some people, wilfully or otherwise, ‘played the man’ and simply ignored the issues Duncan so bravely tried to put in focus.

I wrote the below statement in my capacity as Media and Communications Manager at VCOSS.

There has never been a more dangerous time to be an Australian. Just ask Duncan Storrar.

We now live in an age where simply having the temerity to ask a Government MP a question about tax relief makes you fair game for public ridicule. After his appearance on Q&A, some have elevated Duncan to the status of a national hero. But Duncan didn’t ask for that. Others have sought to tear Duncan down. He certainly didn’t ask for that.

They say never to pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel. And that may be true. But all Duncan did was ask a question.

The truth is this isn’t about any individual. A federal election is upon us and every minute we spend debating whether or not Duncan is a good bloke is a wasted minute.

Its 60 seconds we’re not discussing the future of fairness in our country or how to make our tax system more equitable.

Instead of dissecting Duncan’s life, we could be discussing how in Victoria alone we currently have more than 650,000 people living in poverty. We could be musing on the fact that, of these, almost one third are earning a wage but it’s just not enough to pay the bills.

We could be outraged that 22,000 people are homeless in Victoria

We could be discussing how entrenched social disadvantage is mighty difficult to fix, because social problems are complex, with multiple, interrelated causes.

And, specifically, we could be discussing proposed changes to Australia’s tax regime. And how such changes might affect those who are doing it tough.

So why don’t we focus on the issues? That is what Duncan asked for.

(This post originally appeared on VCOSS’s Facebook page.)

In defence of Days of Thunder

In defence of Days of Thunder (1990)

On Saturday, when all the chores and errands were done, I had an urge.

Days of Thunder was calling my name. I wanted to get out there and hit the pace car.

Earlier in the month, I’d watched a TV news story about drag racer Phil Lamattina who had survived a horror crash and has now quit racing.

Days of Thunder had been floating around in my subconscious ever since.

It was a film on high rotation during my childhood. Mum had taped it off the telly on VHS and my brother and I quickly embraced it. Phrases like “I’m dropping the hammer!” became common in our home. We’d ‘slipstream’ on our bikes.

For those unfamiliar with the text, IMDb says Days of Thunder is about “a young hot-shot stock car driver [who] gets his chance to compete at the top level”.

Even I think that sounds shit.

The film has long been derided as ‘Top Gun on wheels’, full of two dimensional characters and wooden dialogue. Insert your phrase of condemnation here (though, be warned, they’ve all been used before…)

Should I even revisit this film? Or was it best left in my childhood?

With some trepidation, I decided to show some faith and rewatch Days of Thunder. 

I wasn’t expecting a masterpiece, but among the extended action sequences, perfunctory character development (and, it must be said, an uncondemned instance of what’d we’d now call sexual assault*) what I encountered was a pleasant surprise.

Indeed, in retrospect, the film even acted as a petrol splattered Trojan Horse for a few pretty valuable life lessons:

1) Real heroes admit their flaws.
The Days of Thunder plot setup hinges on a single moment where arrogant and supremely talented race car driver Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) admits to industry veteran Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) that he’s in over his head.

Cruise-Duvall“I don’t know a lot about cars,” Trickle says in hushed tones in a blokey bar. “I’d like to help out but I can’t. I’m an idiot. I don’t have the vocabulary.”

In the context of the film, this is a massive and embarrassing confession. The movie’s prototype hotshot driver (“There’s nothing I can’t do in a race car”) is admitting he’s oversold himself and is begging for help from a man he hardly knows, but whose reputation he obviously respects.

Admitting your flaws? Respecting your elders? Asking for help? You wouldn’t find many other ‘action heroes’ embarking on such a conversation.

Cruise and Duvall’s characters quickly slot into the protégée/mentor dynamic and success soon beckons.

2) Men, talk to your mates about their health.
When Trickle and the film’s early villain, the perfectly named Rowdy Burns, are involved in a serious crash, the two adversaries soon develop a fractious friendship. Rowdy suffers a subtle but debilitating brain injury from the smash and ends up hiding away in his country retreat popping painkillers.

Burns makes it very clear he doesn’t like hospitals or doctors—especially female ones—and has no intention of engaging with the medical system. Sound like any men you know? Pressure is put on Trickle to go “talk to Rowdy” and convince him to get treatment.

Eventually, he does.

Cole Trickle: What’d you win this one for? This one right here? What’d you win this for? [Points to a big trophy in Burns’ room.]

Rowdy Burns: Doesn’t it say?

Cole Trickle: Yeah, that’s a Winston Cup, buddy. Hell, that’s an easy one to forget. What’s your name, or has that slipped your mind too?

Rowdy Burns: Screw you, man.

The dialogue is hardly Sorkin-esque, but the conversation is nonetheless tense and layered. Neither man wants to be there. Cole doesn’t want to be probing his new friend’s health woes (and reminding himself of his own mortality), and Rowdy doesn’t want him there putting pressure on him. Frankly, it’s a conversation men never enjoy.

But the scene happens (below). Rowdy goes to the hospital and agrees to have minor brain surgery. Their friendship is elevated to a new level. The lessons are that real mates talk to each other about their health and that awkward conversations are sometimes necessary. If more men had learnt this lesson in teenagehood the world would be a better place.


3) “I’m more afraid of being nothing than I am of being hurt”
Cruise’s character delivers this memorable line in the buildup to the movie’s final race sequence at the Daytona 500, “the Super Bowl of stock car racing”, which he, of course, wins.

On face value it’s a statement of recklessness and hubris. But, in the context of the film, this somewhat cheesy line is a declaration of genuine self-belief.

Coming at such a crucial moment in the film, it’s also instructive in understanding Trickle’s wider character arc. It’s the sentiment of a young man who’s respectfully learned at the foot of his mentor, honestly contemplated the risks of his own profession through watching the suffering of his mate Rowdy and—weighing up the dangers—has made a calculated decision to pursue his goals.

The lesson here needs little decoding. It’s okay to dream big and even take risks to achieve your goals.

Days of Thunder isn’t a work of genius. It’s closer to good than great, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the trash reputation it’s developed over the past 25 years. Which is why I felt compelled to pen this defence.

If you love a brainless action sequence then please watch Days of Thunder immediately.

But, equally, if you look beyond the fast cars and slick race scenes, and ignore the now-cliche Tom Cruise smirk, you might just find a film with equal parts heart and horsepower.

*- This is a big asterisk. The scene referenced involves Cruise’s character grabbing his female doctor’s hand and shoving it on his crotch, because he mistakenly believes she’s a prostitute wearing a medical costume. The incident becomes a source of embarrassment for Trickle and his mentor Hogge, who later apologises to the doctor (played by Nicole Kidman). Interestingly, she doesn’t really condemn his act and actually enters into a relationship with him. This film’s views on acceptable sexual behaviour is dated, to say the very least.

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.)

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.

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.

AKA Why I started

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 wasn’t established for that purpose.

Instead, 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 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

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). 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.

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.