Five reasons why workplace bullies survive and thrive: And what we can do about it

Last year the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons went through a serious soul searching exercise following some alarming reports of bullying in the profession.

The College commissioned an independent report that contained shocking findings. These included,

  • 49% of Fellows, trainees and international medical graduates report being subjected to discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment
  • 54% of trainees and 45% of Fellows less than 10 years post-fellowship report being subjected to bullying
  • 71% of hospitals reported discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment in their hospital in the last five years, with bullying the most frequently reported issue
  • 39% of Fellows, trainees and international medical graduates report bullying, 18% report discrimination, 19% report workplace harassment and 7% sexual harassment
  • the problems exist across all surgical specialties and
  • senior surgeons and surgical consultants are reported as the primary source of these problems.

You can find the full report here.

There is nothing new in this- and surgeons may be no better or worse than any other professional group. We ought to commend them on their honesty. Why is it so bad? Let me restate the blindingly obvious.

  1. Bullies get short-term results. We live in the world of the KPI, the financial year, and the spreadsheet. For many organisations these are not just tools, but substitutes for real values. So let’s get real about the causal factors between “performance” and bullying cultures.
  2. Bullies successfully “manage up” and accumulate power and influence. They seek to make themselves indispensable. Many are charming- some are just threatening. The result is the same- wrapping themselves into power structures with octopus-like tenacity.
  3. Bullies don’t care about their victims- their empathy stretching only to those who share their world view. Ironically, bullies often see themselves as victims, making the tough decisions, and doing work that others cannot stomach. This theme is eloquently captured in the Hollywood courtroom drama, A Few Good Men. In the climactic scene, a Marine Colonel, pressed to justify the death of one of his men says, “You can’t handle the truth! ..we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? ..I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You..curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know, that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like “honor”, “code”, “loyalty”. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it! I would rather you just said “thank you”, and went on your way.” (You tube clip here)
  4. Policies and procedures meant to investigate and remediate are not used -or do not work. Whilst there is important work to be done to assure real justice and protect human rights, these processes will never be perfect. The best analogy is an ambulance waiting at the bottom of a cliff. And to be sure- if you need an ambulance you want a good one! However I have yet to see a workplace with a truly independent process, and sufficient to power to prevent the organisation from shielding the bully, together with the authority to deliver timely justice. Even the quick removal of a bully still leaves post traumatic scars and necessary repairs.
  5. Whistleblowers are often ostracized and punished. Like a surgeon seeking consent for a dangerous procedure, we need to be honest with victims about the true chances of proper redress, as well as the consequences of alternative choices. We all have stories of traumatised colleagues, who in hindsight, could have and would have protected themselves better.

And so lasting remedies will rely far more on prevention than cure. If your workplace rates highly on the following parameters, it will seriously reduce the oxygen that bullying needs to survive. Does your organisation

  1. Identify and reward respectful behavior
  2. Honor truth
  3. Encourage cultural diversity
  4. Acknowledge the need for work/life balance
  5. Plan for the long term
  6. Reject quick fixes and addresses root causes
  7. Nurture talent and innovation
  8. Seek to promote talent from minority groups

If your workplace does not have real metrics to monitor progress on these things, it will continue to be a haven for bullies. And no matter where you sit in your organisation you can have some effect on promoting a positive culture.

Posted in Culture, Social Policy, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Seven reasons to abstain from approving amendments to the AASW Constitution

At the AASW 2015 AGM a number of constitutional amendments are being proposed. These proposals were the subject of a discussion paper in March this year and comments were invited. One could reasonably have expected, at the very least, that comments or submissions would have been published on the AASW website. And at best, that there could have been some online discussions on the back of comments received. Sadly neither occurred.

I sent a submission last June, based largely on my previous blog post on the topic and received a polite thank you- and then…. nothing.

After publishing this post, I sent a version of it to the AASW, asking that it be published in the interests of fair and balanced discussion. The answer? A polite no. I then sent the AASW a number of questions based on my concerns. These have been published. Tricky to find- and so I have provided a direct link here.

I have incorporated the answers in this piece. You will see that I am less than impressed with the AASW responses, but I would like you to make your own judgements.

My reasons for abstaining from these proposals are set out below.

The problem of putting diverse amendments as a “take it or leave it” package

Some the amendments are important and others routine. All the amendments are however being presented as one package. This means that members cannot pick out and vote in favor of the proposals they agree with, whilst voting against others. Personally I am comfortable with longer terms of office and other routine matters that provide for fair elections or alignment with corporate law. But the amendments are being put as a “take or leave it” lump. I am therefore compelled to vote for abstention, until my concerns can be addressed, and the amendments are presented separately further down the track.

None of the proposals are urgent. There is no reason why they cannot be deferred for further consideration. I therefore urge all members who cannot attend the AGM to carefully consider the AASW proposals and send in an abstention proxy if any of the proposals is not to their liking.

The considered AASW response is

” the Board has thoroughly reviewed and endorsed the changes and it is because they see them as important and uncontroversial that they are presenting them to members at the AGM to be accepted with a single vote. This is also seen by the AASW’s lawyer as best practice for Constitutional amendments because a single vote will ensure consistency in the outcome”

The plain english translation is- trust the Board assessment that all these matters are related and uncontroversial, and beside our lawyer tells us it is best practice.

Sorry, not good enough. A lot of the amendments are unrelated and controversial. I also need to know why something is supposedly “best practice”.

Stripping our values and principles from the Constitution

I find it distressing that this issue was not even canvassed in the March governance discussion paper; i.e., the proposal to completely expunge the section on the values and principles that inform our code of ethics. These include belief in the equal worth of all human beings, respect for others (including compassion fairness, equity and justice), belief in collaboration as the cornerstone of effective practice, high quality social work service provision, respect for privacy, the promotion of human rights, and positive change that brings about growth and development for human beings. These values should be regularly reviewed- but certainly not deleted.

The proposed deletion has been justified by legal advice that the Constitution is not the “appropriate” document to detail values. Lawyers tell us that a constitution should only set out a company’s rules and legal requirements. According to the AASW,

“The risk of not following this particular piece of legal advice is that the Constitution is used inappropriately and therefore not for its proper purpose. This particular proposal is about moving, not deleting, language to its proper document. It’s an administrative change to ensure the Constitution remains contemporary.”

I struggle to think of an instance where one could use our values “inappropriately” if they remain in our constitution. Can you? In the corporatist universe the Code of Ethics is informed by …..well… the Code of Ethics. In reality the Code of Ethics has the same status as any other by-law. It should be guided by a higher set of principles. And what more logical place is there for those principles to be found than in our Constitution? We are above all else a professional association. Without our values in the Constitution, the AASW moves towards being a corporate shell.

Locking membership eligibility clauses into the constitution to protect the members from future rogue Boards

Some readers may be puzzled by the need for membership eligibility clauses to be locked into the Constitution. Currently the Constitution allows for broad consultation before the Board makes any changes. This proposal is a bit like putting an extra deadlock on your door, because you’re afraid that the existing one is not enough.

There a many things that frighten me- global warming, free market fundamentalism, and the erosion of social capital -to name a few. But I am not frightened of the prospect of a rogue board betraying the will of the majority of AASW members. I trust my fellow members to behave ethically and democratically.

Even if you think my trust is naïve, and the extra deadlock on the door makes you feel safer, be aware that unless the constitution includes the entire body of our accreditation standards, and lists every approved university course, it is still actually the Board that decides who is eligible for membership, because it is the Board, not the membership that approve accreditation standards, which can be changed at any time. The Board also decides which universities meet those standards. Future “rogue” Boards can simply change university accreditation standards without having to change the Constitution.

The AASW simply confirm my analysis when in response to my question about this the Board states,

“As with any changes to our core values, any changes to our core education standards would be undertaken in consultation with members and stakeholders and following a full review of the ASWEAS.”

The current Board also claims that this amendment will assist our registration campaign. In reality, our campaign for registration is over, and there is not a shred of evidence that this amendment would help to revive it.

The need to make provision for accrediting overseas qualifications

There is no provision for the current practice, which often involves granting membership eligibility to overseas applicants with 3-year degrees and sufficient experience deemed to make up the difference. Additionally, applicants from New Zealand with 3-year social work degrees are granted eligibility in a special deal that the AASW has with that country. I have no problem with this, but I cannot see how, on any plain reading of the proposed amendment, that any allowance is made for this.

The AASW response is as follows,

The key principles in international qualifications recognition are comparability and outcomes, not equivalence and inputs. The AASW’s role as a skilled migration assessing authority is to determine whether an applicant has the key transferable skills and knowledge required to evidence the competencies needed to practice social work in Australia, not a comparison of the structure as to how these were acquired. In operating an international qualifications assessment program, it is not possible or reasonable to require an exact match of course structure and content between countries. Further, the AASW assessment criteria is consistent with the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) global education standards which are intended to promote the individuality and uniqueness of national standards while acknowledging the commonalities needed to compare diverse training programs throughout the world; to facilitate movement of social workers between countries; and to identify core purposes of social work globally, while still maintaining and valuing national/local creativity and innovation in social work education. Furthermore, the IFSW/IASSW states that “from an ethical point of view the migration of those social workers that wish to practice in another country should be enabled and not blocked” (IFSW, 2012).

I am comfortable with all the above, but it misses my point. Anyone reading our proposed Constitution would not have a clue about any of the above.

We have a contract with the Federal Government to assess overseas credentials for skilled migration. The AASW assessment criteria is consistent with the International Federation of Social Workers and International Association of Schools of Social Work global education standards. The values of the IFSW/IASSSW as stated above should be the enshrined in the membership section of our constitution to provide the ethical underpinning of our work in assessing overseas credentials.

Barring students from standing for high office

The proposed amendments prohibit student members from being elected to the National Board or to the offices of Branch President or Branch Vice President.

The AASW rationale is as follows,

” it is not appropriate or reasonable for a person who does not hold the qualification for a profession to be responsible for or represent that profession. Further, to allow this would serve to diminish the importance of the qualification.”

I consider students to be colleagues and I have learnt a lot from them over the years.

May I remind you that the average age of a social work graduate is 30 and that we have many outstanding student members with invaluable experience and qualifications in other fields.

It is crucial to point out that elected offices are political offices. It is voters who decide fitness for office, and what perspective a candidate might offer.(including a student perspective)  Provisions that bar entire categories of people from standing for office do not pass any test of democracy.

Some boards also actively seek people with a particular perspective- for example consumer, legal or finance expertise.

Imagine the reaction to a proposal that only people who had successfully completed year 12 of high school would be allowed to stand for parliament?

We have thankfully arrived at a point where we allow voters to decide the particular merits of any candidate on an individual basis, rather than barring whole categories of people as being unsuitable. We can trust our members to sort it out.

Deleting the requirement that Branch Presidents be required to participate in annual strategic planning.

The March governance discussion paper stated that,

The Branches are integral to the functioning, success and relevance of the AASW. The Board, Branches and members have identified that the role of the Branches is not as well protected as it should be in the Constitution. A key goal of this review is to better define, strengthen and protect the proper role of Branches in the Constitution..”

It is currently a constitutional requirement that Branch Presidents be involved in annual strategic planning. It is therefore quite bewildering that the Board is proposing deletion of this requirement. Removing this to a governance document simply means that it is no longer guaranteed. It is a further step in eroding the already diminishing power and influence of the Branches; the exact opposite of the intentions stated in the governance paper. The AASW now states,

“references to strategic planning and operational issues are not relevant to a Constitution.”

Really? It begs the question of why the Branches are in the Constitution at all?

Abolishing the Board Executive Committee

Currently the Constitution requires that an Executive Committee be established, consisting of the National President, two Vice Presidents and the CEO. The AASW states that “governance and legal advice is that this is not best practice, as Executive Committees can create a real or perceived ‘Board within a Board’.” Why is it not best practice? I have never before encountered the phrase- “Board within a Board”. Where does it come from?

My experience of Boards suggests that there are greater risks of concentration of power in finance committees.

During my time as Vice President, everyone involved valued the diversity of views and robust testing of options in Executive meetings. There are risks involved in concentrating more power in the hands of the President. Has this been considered? We don’t know- because the process has been less than transparent.

The constitution defines relationships not just for the current Board but also for all Boards. The logical consequence of the proposed amendments is to dispense with Vice Presidents altogether. After all what is the point of a Vice President?

The essence of the AASW response is that the change will,

“remove any perception of too much power resting with the National President and Vice Presidents.”

Frankly this response simply evades the question.

Capacity of Board Directors found in serious ethical breach to delay termination of membership

Our Ethics By-Laws provide for the termination of membership of members found to have seriously breached our Code of Ethics. But it appears that we have legal advice “that the Corporations Act deals with breach of fiduciary duty by a Director and it is not appropriate to use the Ethics By-Laws in that context. If a Director refused to resign as a Director as a result of a breach of fiduciary duty, then removal by a general meeting would need to be sought.”

It beggars belief that Board Directors are exempt from routine termination of membership in these circumstances. Common sense would suggest that if a Director is no longer eligible to be a member of the AASW it should also be impossible to continue to be a Director.

I am not satisfied that this issue has been thoroughly explored and would like to see the legal advice. We all need to be completely satisfied that all legal avenues have been exhausted in finding a means for Directors to be subject to termination of membership in the way that all other members are.

Just as importantly, if it does turn out to be the case that the only way of getting rid of an unethical Director is through a general meeting then the mechanism for this must be spelt out in detail within the Constitution. Who would call this meeting? In what time frame? Who prepares the brief and motions for the meeting? How is the meeting funded? Without robust provisions for the immediate triggering of a general meeting, a rogue Director could drag out a legal process for months or years and expose the AASW to enormous legal costs and ongoing reputational damage.

The AASW response is less than comprehensive!

Clauses C.6 and C.7 of the current Constitution already set out the provisions for the calling of a general meeting. No changes are proposed to clauses C.6 and C.7.

 Clause C.6 cannot apply since corporate law dictates that directors cannot remove other directors. Clause C.7 requires 100 members or 5% of the membership to initiate a general meeting. How would the members know? Well….the names of members who are found to be ineligible for AASW membership due to serious ethical misconduct are published on the AASW website. (Seriously, this is the AASW answer to my questions on this issue) When is the last time you looked at this list? If this is genuinely the only way we can be rid of a director found to be ineligible for membership- then there must be an automatic trigger in the constitution for a general meeting to speedily deal with the matter.

Send your proxy to the AASW

If you share my concerns on any or all of the above matters, remember that they are being put as a package- not as separate proposals.

I will be attending the AGM to speak in favor of abstaining on the package. Many of the proposals need further consideration. Just as importantly they need to be put as separate amendments at our next general meeting, so that members have a real choice about voting for or against all items on a case by case basis.

If you would like me to hold your abstention proxy at the AGM you can download the form here, fill it in and send it to the AASW by Wednesday November 25th.  If you wish you can send it to me and I will forward it to the AASW for you.

If you allocate your proxy to me,  my membership number is 200763.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Living in dystopia: ten tips for reconnecting the personal and the political

Heading into town, by the fire sign, up ahead one mile Mum and naked child by the highway

Flash four-wheel drive, I only want a ride to the other side. Don’t try and hide behind your window

I bet your weekly wage could pay my ransom and free me from this sand fly infested castle

Johnny Walkers Shoes- Pigram Brothers

 I am blessed in many ways. I have a well-paid job where I get a chance to make a difference. I live in a comfortable house, eat well, and share my good fortune with family and friends.

And yet I often feel tired and overwhelmed. There is such a yawning gap between my personal circumstances and the world around me. We are daily reminded that we are on the edge of apocalypse. Everything is relentlessly marketised and monetized. Mindfully watching or reading the news is deeply distressing.

And meanwhile we all carry on. Did dystopia arrive while we weren’t looking?

Consider these facts.

  • The planet is warming rapidly. No matter what personal ethical choices we make to reduce energy use, and live in harmony with our environment the difference will not be enough. Only mass action to quickly move to zero carbon economies by all industrialized nations will avert a global catastrophe that could kill a billion people, and make life miserable for those who survive. The response of our government? Fight the next election on electricity prices.
  • There are almost 20 million refugees worldwide. Worse still -more nations are imitating Australia, closing their borders. For over 400 years the first world has exploited less industrialized countries, and continues to do so. We reap what we sow, and then blame the victim. The government response in our name? Incarcerate men, women and children in conditions that any reasonable person would describe as torture.
  • Many of our first nation peoples live in abject poverty in third world conditions- and we think we are not racist.
  • We are amongst the richest nations in the world, and yet individually we are hocked to the hilt. Our mortgage debt as a proportion of property values has almost tripled over the past 25 years, rising from 10 to 28 per cent since 1990. Australians owe $51 billion on credit cards. $33 billion of that is accruing interest, costing card holders more than $540 million a month. And of course pay day lenders exploit the most vulnerable with high interest schemes that skim repayments directly from Centrelink benefits.
  • Research commissioned by the Australia Institute found that on average full-time workers are working six hours unpaid overtime each week and part-timers are working three hours. This works out to be $9,471each in unpaid overtime to their employers each year – a total value of $110 billion per annum. If the unpaid hours were allocated to and paid to Australians looking for work the unemployment rate could be zero rather than 6.2%.
  • Meanwhile the dole sinks lower and lower below the poverty line.
  • Self employed workers face the constant stress of rising prices, pressures to keep costs down and an uncertain economic climate threatening their livelihood.
  • There is a rising trend of people not getting enough sleep. Unsurprisingly the most at risk of this phenomenon are full time workers, and the poor consequences for health and well-being are numerous. This statistic would be even worse for women because of their larger share of domestic labor.
  • The poor get easy access to junk food, and the “time poor” google 15 minute gourmet meals.
  • We are all spending more time connecting to screens and devices. We have less time for each other, and more of our elderly are going to end up living on their own. The fastest growing household type is the lone person household, projected to grow by an average of 2.2% per year, from 1.9 million in 2006 to 3.2 million in 2031.

Amid the daily chatter of opinion, hand wringing, finger pointing and culture war, we are distracted from the root causes of our dismal dystopia. Our politicians and corporate warriors have unleashed the most radical and destructive elements of free market fundamentalism across the planet.

Although championed by conservative politicians- there is nothing conservative about it. The profit imperative reigns supreme. Global corporations have become adept at squeezing every ounce of profit from every region and every workforce and then moving on and leaving unemployment and misery in their wake. Where is the end point in this relentless pursuit for the last drop of productivity? Not only is it the chief driver of unemployment, lower real wages and longer working hours: mining corporations needing to make every last dollar out of coal are also endangering the well being of billions of people.

If the purpose of humanity is simply to serve the economic system, rather than the system serving human society, the logical endpoint is to turn all workers into zombies. Former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis put this succinctly in a recent Guardian essay,

“economic theory that treats human and non-human productive inputs as interchangeable assumes that the dehumanisation of human labour is complete. But if it could ever be completed, the result would be the end of capitalism as a system capable of creating and distributing value. For a start, a society of dehumanised automata would resemble a mechanical watch full of cogs and springs, each with its own unique function, together producing a “good”: timekeeping. Yet if that society contained nothing but other automata, timekeeping would not be a “good”. It would certainly be an “output” but why a “good”? Without real humans to experience the clock’s function, there can be no such thing as “good” or “bad”.”

Freud once said that love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness. In that sense the endpoint of unchecked capitalism is the destruction of love.

Any student of debt will tell you that the battle around debt is also a battle between rich and poor. Kings and lords used to impose debts on their subjects as a kind of protection racket. Pay me tribute and I will give you a currency with my image stamped on it, backed by my power and authority. The alternative was death or imprisonment. Now the state has become a middleman, and the inducement is subtler but just as powerful. Make credit (actually debt) freely available. Lenders don’t need to worry if people can’t pay it back, (because the state will find a way a recouping the money for them).

Economists have a cute phrase for this – “moral hazard”. Economist Paul Krugman described moral hazard as “any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly”.

This is the root cause of the GFC and the ongoing woes of the people of Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal and the third world. It is also the model for pay day lending across the globe.

And yet deep within our psyches is the notion that we must always repay debt. Why? Paradoxically, according to the World Bank, of the nearly 100 banking crises that have occurred internationally during the last 20 years, all were resolved by bailouts at taxpayer expense.

From big banks to pay day lenders, corporations that make credit too freely available all have the same get out clause to excuse their behavior: customers have the choice to borrow or not. They just provide a needed service. It is a slick way of blaming the victim. Banks in fact know that a certain portion of their credit card customers will not go into debt, but their entire business model fundamentally relies on a known proportion of their customers being unable to resist the temptation to go into debt. The same “free choice” argument applies to the purveyors of junk food and the clubs that stack their premises with poker machines.

And the people who have maxed out their credit cards for so called “discretionary spending”? They gave it to their children and shared it with friends. David Graeber, writing on the history of debt talks, about the poor responding with “ a stubborn insistence on continuing to love one another. They continue to acquire houses for their families, liquor and sound systems for parties, gifts for friends; they even insist on continuing to hold weddings and funerals….”

Meanwhile, the privileged among us read about “sleep hygiene” and grapple with a problem that many people on the planet would find very odd: work/life balance- or as Freud might conceive it – how to keep love from being leached from one’s life.

How did this come to be? Imagine this conversation between a group of hunter gatherers?

“You know what guys….we should spend more time hunting and gathering and less time feasting and having a good time. But [objects someone] Hang on.. the whole point of hunting and gathering is so that we can spend as much time as possible feasting and having a good time”.

There has of late been an entire industry develop around the concept of happiness and how to achieve it. Its chief discovery is something that would strike most of us as entirely obvious- but in the current climate, oddly subversive: genuine happiness lies in being generous, connected and helping others.

Given all of the above, I am happy to share my personal list of tips to help reconnect the personal to the political, ranked from the global to the individual. Consider this a small contribution to the burgeoning industry of advice on self-improvement. Feel free to add your own.

  1. Insist that whatever savings you have are ethically invested. This also applies to the savings of any organisations you belong to. This means for example, hassling your bank, trade union and professional society to divest from fossil fuels. Check out
  2. Vote for the Greens. It is the only party with realistic policies to tackle our dystopian nightmare. Skeptical? Have a look at their policy platform.
  3. Listen! Be mindful, and assume that people who disagree with you may also have good intentions.
  4. Stop doing unpaid overtime.
  5. Give some of that time to your community in whatever activity you find enjoyable
  6. Offer to mentor someone who will benefit from your skill and experience.
  7. Be more generous.
  8. Have more parties!
  9. Spend a little more time being where you are (turn off that device!)
  10. Go to bed earlier…..

Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds

The Buddha

Posted in Social Policy, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Monsters, angels and vicarious trauma: social work and the limits of empathy

Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.

Sigmund Freud

Last year Helen Garner published a book about Robert Farquharson, the man found guilty of drowning his three young sons by driving his car into a dam. Garner attended his trials, finding it both a compelling and gruelling experience. In a piece she wrote recently for The Monthly, reflecting on her own and others’ reactions she said,

What people find really hard to bear, I’ve noticed, is the suggestion that they themselves might contain their share of human darkness, hidden inside their souls. I believe this refusal lies behind the strange hostility I encountered, many times, when I was trying to write about Robert Farquharson’s trials. Friends would ask me what I was working on. When I told them, they would be at first quite curious – what’s he like? What sort of man is he? I would be barely three sentences into an account of his family background, his broken marriage and his broken heart, when my questioner’s mouth would harden into a straight line and she would make a sharp stabbing movement at my chest with a straight forefinger and say, angrily, “You’re making excuses!”

Well no….she was simply trying to put herself in his shoes. And as we know, any social worker in direct practice does this routinely in her daily work, immersing herself in the lived experience of others. Being empathic is often straightforward, but sometimes it means bearing witness to the unbearable: a death or trauma, bringing fear, rage, loathing, shock or impossible grief.

The memory may be fresh or a recollection from 50 years before…it matters not.

Nevertheless it is an essential component of our work. We travel the liminal space between high and low tide, love and hate, compassion and fear – the no man’s land between monsters and angels.

Vicarious trauma is an ever-present possibility. Without supportive colleagues and good supervision we would burn out, stumble and fall. But as dangerous as this space is, it is the space of shared understanding. How can we possibly help our clients if we do not truly understand them?

Yet increasingly we live in a world where empathy is conflated with agreement; (If you see it from their point of view -you can’t be one of us!) The monsters are cast out and the liminal space is simply denied. If monsters do exist, they live in another country entirely- never in our own hearts. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ is replaced with membership of ‘Team Australia’.

In this brave new world of black and white, marketing plays an essential role- expunging monsters and polishing our claims to membership of the just and righteous brigade. Politicians surround themselves with flags, and we too burnish our images on Facebook and Linkedin reflecting a world without fear, rage, doubt or failure.

Professional bodies of all disciplines manage their marketing with great care. In our sphere the promotion of counselling or psychotherapeutic intervention is so relentlessly upbeat, that a visitor from another planet would conclude that a kind of utopia (of the Stepford Wives variety) has already arrived. Writing about this issue in 1913 Freud said,

A friend and colleague of mine.. once wrote to me: What we need is a short convenient form of treatment for outpatients suffering from obsessional neurosis. I could not supply him with it and felt ashamed; so I tried to excuse myself with the remark that probably physicians would also be very glad of a treatment for consumption or cancer which combined these advantages.

 The talking cure has gotten longer and shorter, gurus come and go; solution focused, narrative, CBT, mindfulness, and so on. Whatever the form, the variables make it impervious to randomized controlled trials – but easy to promote as the next good thing.

But the need for empathy and understanding will never go away; nor the implicit knowledge that we all carry darkness in our hearts. To be understood is a necessary and visceral experience- not achievable via text message, website or user manual. In the real world therapeutic gains are often hard won and provisional; bullies thrive and the oppressed are permanently damaged, along with those who try to help them. Too many of us are depressed and despairing because we cannot live up to the shiny expectations of our social milieu.

This however is not an invitation to cynicism or despair; it is a reminder to temper hope with reality, to know our limits, to use language for truth rather than propaganda, to admit that our best is sometimes not good enough and to acknowledge that we are both monsters and angels.

 ..much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness

Sigmund Freud

Posted in Culture | 8 Comments

The death of Chloe Valentine: the future of professional social work in child protection

In January 2012, four year old Chloe Valentine died in appalling circumstances at the hands of her mother and her mother’s partner. Both were found guilty of manslaughter and jailed. During her short life Chloe was the subject of many notifications to Families South Australia, and her family received considerable support from Families SA social workers.

The public were understandably horrified and sickened by the manner of the Chloe’s death. These strong emotions unleashed a powerful impulse to allocate blame. The mother and the social workers involved were in the front line of a flood of righteous rage.

Sometimes when children die in these circumstances qualified social workers are justifiably annoyed at being blamed since the workers involved do not always have a social work degree. But in this case there was no place to hide….Families South Australia hire qualified social workers as a matter of policy.

After a long running inquest, Mark Johns, the South Australian Coroner handed down his findings in April this year. I have always felt a strong empathy for any social worker caught up in this kind of enquiry. No matter what their personal accountability, they are usually caught in a web of bureaucracy, inadequate supervision, and high workloads. Add to this a sensationalist media, and these workers will feel besieged and persecuted.

The extended inquest fuelled the outrage led by the local media. And far from providing the balanced or thoughtful analysis that this tragedy deserved, the Coroner weighed in with his own simple remedies to tackle the root causes of child abuse, including the holus-bolus application of income management, trampling on privacy, mandatory drug testing and fast-tracking the adoption of foster children. Whilst these measures played well to popular sentiment, they are solutions that have all been tried- and failed- the USA being the favored testing ground for this kind of social engineering.

In its haste to be seen to act, the South Australian government supported all the Coroner’s recommendations. But past experience suggests that few if any will be implemented. In the last 15 years there have been at least 32 child protection enquiries in various parts of Australia, and many more overseas. We are entitled to ask- what has changed?

It is difficult to make any definitive judgments on the Coroner’s views without access to the thousands of pages of statements and transcripts. But on the facts that the Coroner reports, it is hard to disagree with his primary finding- that Families SA should have used its coercive powers against Chloe’s mother to stipulate a range of conditions that had to be met in order for Chloe to remain with her mother. If she had not complied, Families SA would then have been justified in removing Chloe from her care.

In effect, Families SA were being berated for simply not following their own rules. What went wrong? The Coroner blamed it on a departmental culture that sought to downplay the actual risks of abuse, together with a reluctance to use its coercive powers. It is noteworthy too, that from top to bottom in Families SA no one broke ranks, from the department head to the most junior caseworker. If there was debate or disagreement on the conduct of this case, it seems to have been kept in house. Unusual, as this kind of enquiry often offers up a scapegoat on the altar of blame.

What is lacking (at least in the Coroner’s report) is evidence of any critical reflection or analysis from the senior social workers involved in this case. Social work is an independent profession with a core commitment to child protection and social justice. The Coroner could have called on a range of highly qualified social work experts, but he seems to have relied on one expert with a particular view that suited his own. This is no substitute for a robust root cause analysis. If Families SA conducted an internal analysis we are not privy to it. Nor did the Coroner (or Families SA) as far as I know, call upon the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) who could have provided high quality informed comment. (What a lost opportunity!)

The Coroner also recommended that social workers be registered. These days professional registration is a national process oversighted by Health Ministers from all the states and territories through the Council of Australian Governments. COAG does not have a mechanism for family and community service minsters to get together, and South Australia is the only state that prefers to employ qualified social workers in statutory child protection. And so what might the remedy be to ensure the practice standards of the thousands of child protection workers who are not social workers? Health Ministers agreeing on social worker’s registration is extremely unlikely for reasons I have covered elsewhere, and child protection concerns will not add to the argument.

More importantly, registration may define the lowest acceptable practice standards, but it will not create an environment where the highest practice standards can flourish in a challenging and complex work setting. Indeed in countries where social work is registered, the process has been used to scapegoat individual social workers, rather than address the systemic issues of inadequate supervision, poor training and excessive workloads. (See the case of baby Peter Connelly in England). The registration recommendation sends a message that the social work profession cannot be trusted, even within a tightly controlled environment, to maintain quality practice standards.

From time to time there have been calls to establish a national entity such as a college that would identify the qualifications, attributes and qualities of statutory child protection workers. In our free market world neither the states nor the federal government will join forces to invest in such as body. (Perhaps just as well because it could never be truly independent.)

More salient still- this independent body already exists in the shape of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). But the AASW lacks authority simply because its membership is sparse amongst the child protection workforce, even in South Australia. Worse still there are too many eminent child protection experts who are not members.

This must change. We can reduce the number of child deaths and the rate of child abuse. We must reclaim our professional independence and our professional authority. In government bureaucracies individuals who speak truth to power are often scapegoated and marginalised. It is far more effective to speak up with a strong independent professional association at your back. If there were voices inside Families SA demanding better training, higher quality supervision, and adequate staff to cover leave or escalate complex cases- they were not heeded or heard.

The AASW must redouble its efforts to recruit child protection workers. But it cannot do this without the partnership of the industrial unions that cover this workforce. Public sector unions are becoming far more conscious of defending the right of the public to a socially just and high quality service. There must be a partnership between the AASW and public sector unions to advocate for reasonable workloads and adequate supervision. Most vital of all must be a concerted effort to drive a culture which accepts only the highest standards of professional care. The public are entitled to it.

And South Australia is a good place to start.


Posted in Social Policy, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

AASW Constitutional changes: Planning for the past and stripping the rights of student members

Very few members of the AASW will have so far engaged with the proposed changes to the Constitution of the AASW. Reading a lengthy document or attending a meeting is something most of us will avoid. Consequently it is disappointing that the AASW has not established a website forum to promote “discussion”. In my dictionary “discussion” is not a one-way process. But worse still, the discussion paper is not a discussion at all, but simply a piece of advocacy promoting one view and one view only. Given this unabashed bias, and any attempt to put alternate options, it would have been preferable to see published the actual draft changes that we will be asked to vote on. There also seems to be no plan to publish any submissions or member comments on the AASW website? I hope this is forthcoming.

If you think there will be an opportunity to debate these changes at the AGM- think again. The result will have been decided beforehand by proxy votes.

Changing the constitution requires the approval of at least 75% of members present at a meeting or by proxy. (Proxies counts as part of the 75% at the meeting) It is therefore a big deal- not done lightly or often.

Any constitution should establish broad intent and broad principles, as well as providing for future needs. Every other policy and procedure of an organisation must be consistent with its constitution. This includes by-laws, charters, plans and the like. Our by-laws are changed often, without notifying the membership, as they are usually uncontroversial changes that give better operational effect to our Constitution. By way of example, the constitution does not need to be changed to enable preferential voting in AASW elections. And in fact the Board changed this by-law two months ago in preparation for the next election.

Any discussion of changing by-laws is an unnecessary complication in the context changing the constitution, as by-laws must necessarily be updated after any change in the Constitution. As for a governance charter- let’s see it. We can then provide some informed comment. (Hopefully on a web forum!)


The current membership rule is deliberately simple.

“The Board may by resolution establish in the by-laws, categories and levels of voting, non-voting, life and honorary membership and determine the eligibility requirements, rights and obligations for each class of membership.

Before making any substantive changes to by-laws related to membership categories, education or accreditation standards, the Board shall engage in reasonable consultation with the membership and other interested parties”

 This allows for maximum flexibility in adjusting membership categories. So what is the benefit of locking “graduates of accredited social work programs” into the Constitution? Beyond asserting the “need”, the discussion paper does not explain this. And why does the international qualification assessment process then need to be included in the Constitution? Well only because we do not accredit overseas social work courses. (Except New Zealand courses by default!) If we lock categories into our constitution, we must then enumerate all the exceptions.

But locking in membership categories is a minor matter compared to stripping our student members of their full membership rights. Currently students may stand for the full range of elected positions on our National Board and Branches. Removing this right is akin to telling an Australian citizen who happens to be a student that she can vote in a municipal, state or federal election, but cannot run for office.

Elected offices are inherently political. The AASW Board is stating that it does not trust its own members to vote for the candidate best suited to the role. We should need no reminding that the average age of a social work graduate is thirty years and rising- in no small part due to the popularity of masters qualifying programs.

The most puzzling initiative of all is the proposed amendment that a Director of the AASW Board cannot have their membership terminated by any decision of the AASW except at a general meeting of members. This means that a serious proven ethical breach that would normally lead to termination of membership would not apply if a member was also a Board Director. Are we seriously proposing a special general meeting of the membership to ratify an ethics decision if the member is also a Board Director? Surely this is an unintentional mistake?

Board Committees

The proposal that the Executive Committee of the Board be abolished has me very concerned. It would have the effect of concentrating more power in the hands of the President. As it is, the President has significant power in the day-to-day operations of the AASW through her liaison role with the CEO. The National Executive meets between Board meetings to provide advice, guidance and oversight. Redundant of course if everyone on the Board is in complete agreement all the time, but a vital check when interpretations of policy and process vary.


Any fiddling with the administrative governance of branches addresses yesterday’s problems rather than tackling root causes of discontent.

There is no reason why Branches could not run their own elections or use electronic means of ensuring as many people vote as possible.

And Branches need not be limited by geography. Why not enable branches to be formed on the basis of mutual policy or practice interest?

The deeper issues however relate to money, power and role allocation. The role of the Branches is vague and overlaps with national initiatives. The funding formula for Branches is contested. This is a set of governance problems that has gone on for too long.

Branches need to be treated as key stakeholders in deciding AASW priorities and the funding that flows with it. This means funding programs- not positions. It means funding branches to deliver those programs rather than being tied to self-limiting capitation formulas. With virtual technologies there is no reason why national programs cannot be delivered from Darwin or Hobart. Money is power. If Branch Presidents are not involved at the very beginning of the budget allocation process these issues will continue to fester.

Let us hope the governance charter positively tackles these problems and that Branches play a foundation role in developing the charter.

I will be attending the next AGM. When the time approaches let me know If you would like me to hold your proxy.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Beyond Charlie Hebdo: The miracle question – free speech, church, state and civil society

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre news coverage was dominated by the vision of politicians linking arms at a unity march in Paris.

These politicians could be neatly divided into two groups: those who actually suppress free speech and those who would like too. The heads of Jordan, Turkey, Egypt (yes Egypt!) Russia and Israel were quick to condemn the terrorist attack. These countries between them have a suite of policies that include jailing those who criticise the monarchy, blocking websites, banning YouTube and Twitter, jailing and/or turning a blind eye to the murder of journalists, banning “gay propaganda”, and so on.

Reporters Without Borders keeps a tally of the oppression, harassment, and murder of reporters. In 2014 sixty-nine journalist were killed as a direct consequence of doing their work. There are currently one hundred and sixty five journalists in jail.

If we truly believe that a free press is one of the hallmarks of a civil society there is still a long way to go.

In Italy the journalist Roberto Saviano has been under heavy police guard for several years. Of necessity he is living in secret locations, ever since he published the book Gomorrah, an expose of organised crime in Naples. There is no one in Italy who is brave enough to offer him a place to live.

In 1999, NATO bombed the headquarters of Serbian Radio and Television. Those killed included a make-up artist, a cameraman, an editor, a program director, three security guards and other media support staff. A Pentagon spokesman told a briefing in Washington, “Serb TV is as much a part of Milosevic’s murder machine as his military is”. NATO claimed that civilian communication systems were also routinely used by the military. When complaints were lodged with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, NATO stated,

“[We need to] directly strike at the very central nerve system of Milosevic’s regime. This of course are those assets which are used to plan and direct and to create the political environment of tolerance in Yugoslavia in which these brutalities cannot only be accepted but even condoned. ….Strikes against TV transmitters and broadcast facilities are part of our campaign to dismantle the FRY propaganda machinery which is a vital part of President Milosevic’s control mechanism.”

Within hours Serbian TV was back on air.

Reflecting on examples of this type can lead to fractious debates, attempts to allocate blame and strident claims for the high moral ground.

But it is more constructive to consider this – who has the greatest power and responsibility to avoid bloodshed and promote peace?

In the case of Serbia, Milosevic appealed to long held nationalist grievances with the active collusion of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Church did not speak up for a free press and independent voices were harassed and brutally suppressed. Mainstream Serbian media became a mouthpiece for national and religious chauvinism. Nothing new there. All over the globe, Christian and Muslim religious leaders have ingratiated themselves to state power, with horrendous consequences.

There is no institution more deeply embedded in culture than religion. It offers meaning, it shapes our language and world view. It offers comfort to the sick, the poor, the disabled and the grieving. It offers us the rituals that shape all the major events of our lives. Both the Muslim and Christian worlds have champions of peace and tolerance. (In Australia the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Catholic Commission for Social Justice spring to mind.)

And could anyone seriously challenge the claim that the overwhelming majority of both Muslims and Christians simply want peace and prosperity?

There is however an anti humanist strain in both Muslim and Christian doctrines – doctrines that preach apocalypse, judgment and jihad. There is no doubt that in the Milosevic era, Serbian Radio and Television was indeed pumping out a toxic mixture of sectarianism and national and religious chauvinism. Worse still opposition was censored and brutally suppressed. And all of this happened with the active support of the Serbian Orthodox church.

This collusion of church and state now also underpins Russian politics. When three members of Pussy Riot were jailed for staging a political protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church said that they were “doing the work of the Devil“. Pope Benedict supported his view.

In the Muslim countries, wherever possible, both Sunni and Shia use state power to promote their sectarian rivalry – a rivalry that fuels most war between Muslim countries, creates millions of refugees, and internal oppression of whichever group is the poorest.

It is time that the leaders of these great religions stopped pandering to state power to garner a share of it, and represented the interests of their own congregations.

In response to an attack on a Synagogue in Denmark by a Danish-born Muslim, hundreds of Muslims in neighboring Norway formed a human shield around a Synagogue in Oslo as a symbol of solidarity with the city’s Jewish community.

After the tragic hostage drama in Sydney last December, many will recall the Sydney woman Tess Kum who tweeted, if you regularly take the 373 bus between Coogee and Martin Place, wear religious attire and don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. This message quickly went viral and similar offers were made across Australia.

Despite the hypocrisy of our politicians linking arms in the Paris post Charlie Hebdo demonstrations, I would much rather see them there than not. And I would like to see their religious counterparts with them.

I will not republish bigotry or sectarian nonsense, but I will ride with those who value peace, respect for cultural diversity, and freedom of worship.

Why can’t our religious leaders do the same?

When working therapeutically, one of my favorite techniques is to ask the “miracle question”. In this instance – if the world were to miraculously change overnight whilst you slept, what would you notice on waking, that would indicate the problems you were worrying about had been solved?

Easy- the world media would report the following;

  • The Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe has invited Roberto Saviano to stay in the Archbishop’s residence, and to travel on public transport with him whilst he looks for a place to live.
  • Kirill, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church has condemned the civil war in the Ukraine and called on the Russian government to stop aiding and supporting the separatist rebels.
  • Kirill is also planning to travel to Rome for talks with Pope Francis about their shared concerns regarding the connections between state bureaucracies, organised crime and multi national corporations in many countries.
  • The most senior Shia and Sunni leaders across the world have organised a conference with the following agenda; respect for emerging secularism is some of the Muslim nations, a call for the immediate laying down of arms within and between Muslim nations, and the provision of immediate relief for the millions of people displaced by war.

Why not?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Moving to a zero carbon economy: how we can make a difference: a conversation with Professor John Wiseman

Professor John Wiseman is the Deputy Director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne. His current research focus is the social, economic and political transformations needed to reduce the risks of runaway climate change and achieve a just and sustainable post carbon future.

He kindly agreed to an interview with me to discuss his work and some of the implications for the human services sector.

Q: You started off as a social worker; tell me how you got to working in climate change and sustainable post-carbon futures?

A: Yes, sure. Like a lot of people I was interested in social work from the beginning, due most of all to a passion about social justice but always with an awareness that there was a link between social justice, environmental issues and ecological sustainability. That has always been in the background of the work I’ve done along with a strong interest in linking critique and action. That perhaps helps explain why I’ve spent a fair bit of my life working across university, public sector and NGO’s.

That link between social justice and environmental issues I’ve always felt was important and clear, but really it has been in the last five or six years that the climate change issues have become quite sharp; particularly for me when I was working as director of a research centre called the McCaughey Centre in the School of Population & Health at Melbourne University. That was a Centre that focused on high level drivers of population health – issues of poverty, racism and violence and so on. But increasingly over that period the evidence that just kept coming into my inbox, that the accelerating risks of climate change were going to be one of, if not the most important health risks, particularly for vulnerable people; to such an extent that the Lancet now quite clearly argues that climate change is really the biggest health risk of the 21st Century.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in reading a lot of the material that has come through on climate change over the last 6 to 7 years and its link to social justice and health within and beyond Australia. From that I made a call about two or three years ago to leave the position as Director of the McCaughey Centre and move to the Sustainable Society Institute at Melbourne University to convene the climate research cluster. We continue to work on climate health and social impacts but I’ve also switched increasingly to the solutions side, and on how might we drive a fast shift to a low emissions, low carbon economy. So that’s a way of summarising the journey I’ve been on.

Q:   So what’s the worst case climate scenario for Australia?

A: The place I’d always start on that is Australia being part of the world, the worst case for the world is global warming beyond 4 degrees, and that’s exactly the track we’re on. There are many ways in which these statistics can sound a bit dry but I’ve always been struck by the comments of one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, Professor Joachim Schellnhuber who advises the German government. He makes the sobering comment that a world in which there is 4 degrees of warming or more is probably not fundamentally compatible with human civilisation along the lines that we currently understand it. To put it another way, it’s probably going to lead to a global population of something around a billion people and if you just stop and think what that might mean, it is very chilling.

Now if we turn to the worst case scenario for Australia – Australia’s climate and its environment on the one hand makes this country particularly vulnerable to climate change, and on the other hand we remain relatively wealthy as a country, so maybe we’ve got better capacity to adapt than less affluent societies in Africa or South-East Asia or the Pacific Islands. Those countries are where the consequences are going to be harshest and fastest. But having said that, there are plenty of people in Australia, low-income people and people in rural and Aboriginal Australia, who are already feeling the sharp end of what climate change means in terms of fires and floods and droughts. So like most things it is the most vulnerable people who are worst affected. The worst case climate scenario for Australia, as in the rest of the world, is extremely serious. Even five years ago when I first started thinking about these issues, like a lot of people I thought, “Oh yes, this is some way away, this is something we might have to think about in the future”. But now we’re all increasingly aware that the impacts and the implications are upon us and so these matters are for urgent decision and action now, as well as in the future.

Q: So how much time do we have left to complete a transition to zero carbon emission?

A: Some people have talked about this as the critical decade between roughly 2010 and 2020 and I believe that’s a good way to think about it. It gives some sense of the urgency. If you see 2 degrees of global warming as the minimum guardrail, then you would want to see a global transition to a zero carbon economy by about 2040, and you would need to keep drawing down carbon after that. But given that countries like India and China are still in a different league in relation to issues of poverty, developed economies like Australia and the US would need to move much sooner to a zero carbon economy and really, ideally, within the next 5-10 years, but certainly as quickly as possible. So yes, the answer is “extremely fast”.

Q:   Yes, that sounds incredibly urgent.

A: Some people would use the word “emergency”. The real issue is that the longer you leave the turnaround the harder it gets. So the sooner we start the less difficult the task is, and if you leave it too long it really becomes enormously difficult to get emissions down at a reasonable rate. So the sooner the better.

Q: Your group has done some work on what the ingredients are, the essential components of a rapid transition. What does that look like?

A: A number of colleagues at Melbourne University – we’re involved in a two part project called “Post Carbon Pathways”. We had a close look at the best large-scale low carbon transition plans around the world and then we spoke to their lead authors and the people putting them into practice. The first thing it tells you is that a zero carbon economy is possible. There are things that need doing very fast, but from a technological point of view this is doable. The big barriers are political. The key ingredients are remarkably agreed and there are three or four that are fundamental; firstly replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, in other words, phasing out coal and replacing it with solar, wind, other forms of renewables. Secondly, improving energy efficiency – there are huge gains to be made in more efficient houses, more efficient uses of energy and more efficient transport, and of course many of those gains are of particular value to low income people, to vulnerable communities. And thirdly, reducing emissions from forestry and agriculture. Low carbon land use has important implications for farming and for the rural sector, and we need to think too about how forestry and agricultural land use can help us drawn down carbon. The last point I would always add to that list, a central ingredient is making sure that the most vulnerable people are supported in that transition process.

Q: And the cost to the economy of putting all these measures in place quickly?

A: Well, in general, in every study that has been done around the world comes to remarkably similar sorts of figures of 2 to 3 per cent of GDP perhaps. So that’s a really significant amount of money – but not impossible. I think there are a couple of important points when we talk about costs though. Firstly there are very real economic as well as social costs in not reducing emissions rapidly. There will be economic costs and you can see that if you talk to the insurance companies around Australia. They are very acutely aware of the rising impact of extreme weather events on their bottom line; so there are many ways in which there are economic costs in not acting. Secondly, there are really big potential employment and economic opportunities in acting; there are big opportunities in renewable energy and energy efficiency and in different sorts of land use. That’s why many people would say Australia – the current government at least – are lagging behind not just in acting on climate change but we’re also in danger of missing out on a whole lot of economic opportunities.

Q:   The general public however could be forgiven for thinking that the message out there is (a) it’s too expensive and (b) it’s actually unrealistic to replace fossil fuel use very quickly with alternatives that people talk about, you know, base load power as being something that can’t quickly be transitioned.

A: It’s striking that many Australian households – not necessarily just inner city greenies; they’re making their own conclusions about this. Look at the speed with which lots of Australian households are deciding to put solar PV on their roofs. I think there are a lot of people who are taking a view that says in addition to it being a good environmental decision, there might actually be smart financial reasons for making that switch as well. Yes, as with any large scale change there are some costs but there are also important opportunities and there are countries like Germany or other European countries who don’t seem to be doing too badly and are making a much faster switch to a new low carbon economy than we are.

Q: Given what has happened over the past few weeks with petrol prices dropping, I actually wondered whether the fossil fuel industry will start dumping product on the basis that it will be worthless soon, and actually that would be a very perverse outcome.

A: Yes. I think there must be a lot of people in fossil fuel industries looking nervously at their bottom line just at the moment in terms of what their profitability is going to be like, so the finances, the costs and benefits of, say, renewables compared to fossil fuels are changing incredibly fast, much faster than many people, either consumers or more people in the industry would’ve thought. But the lowest hanging fruit and the quickest way for a lot of people to save money is just reducing energy consumption. Energy efficiency is a great way for everybody to reduce costs, so that just makes good sense all around.

Q: Well, given that we have such little time left to avoid a greater than 2 degree rise in temperature, the actual price of carbon ought to be very, very expensive right now.

A: Yes, I heard an interesting talk late last year by a guy called Peter Bakker who is head of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. He used to run the biggest transport company in Holland and he made it very clear he was no extreme environmentalist, and that he was arguing from a strong business position. He represents lots of big companies like Siemens and Apple and he said, “Look, in my view we certainly have a strong, robust, lasting carbon price and” – in his view – “it is time to stop mucking about, it needs to be about $100 a tonne”. Now in the Australian context where we used to have a carbon price of a bit over $23, that sounds like a lot, but I think when you start hearing people in those sorts of positions saying that’s what is needed, certainly a strong, clear message about a carbon price is a pretty good way of getting people to make a very rapid change.

Q: It seems to me that in any great upheaval, whether technological or climatic, the way that politics is organised, it is usually the poor and vulnerable that get shafted. How will it be different this time?

A: Well, unless we do something about it, unless we take action, it certainly won’t be different. The poor and vulnerable globally are already on the receiving end. If we think of recent events over the past few years in the Philippines or in Bangladesh or Pakistan and we think of the floods and events, we can see it happening. And we can see in Australia too that the people who are worst affected by extreme weather events are the poorest. The people who are worst affected by heatwaves are the oldest and the most unwell. So it highlights the importance of making sure that the most vulnerable are most protected; for ethical reasons and also for strategic reasons. Internationally if you look at the most recent negotiations in Lima and in the run-up to Paris later this year, the biggest debates will be about, fairness, about who pays, who carries the burden for this change. With countries like India or South Africa saying, “Well, you guys in America or Australia have been having something of a party for quite a while and have been doing rather better than us and have been emitting more carbon”. There is a discussion about fairness and I think it’s true in Australia as well. If you’re going to convince the Australian people that a solid carbon price is necessary, that large scale change is necessary, then you also have to convince them that it’s going to be done fairly, the changes will be fair and that workers who lose jobs in the coal industry are supported. People who are affected by rising heating or energy bills, need proper procedures in place to make sure they aren’t unfairly affected.

Q: Well, given it is in our own interest to make this transition as soon as possible, why isn’t it happening?

A: Well, it’s true that it’s in most people’s interest. I think some people continue to do quite well out of the current system in the short-term, and in a way that’s true of all of us at least in the developed world. Even for those of us who say, yes, we recognise there is a real issue here, it is tempting to think short-term and focus on our current lifestyle. There is a range of ways in which all of us tend to focus on the short-term and so as a general comment I think the human capacity to think short-term rather than long-term is a major problem.

But in the Post Carbon Pathways Report I mentioned, we also asked key climate policymakers and activists around the world exactly this question. What are the biggest roadblocks, the biggest barriers? There are about half a dozen points that people continually make. One is denial; either denial that climate change is happening or perhaps more commonly and more worryingly, denial that we should do anything about it, that it’s too difficult or too expensive or somebody else should do it. There are all sorts of rationales that people come up with.

I think the second point that many people would make would be vested interests, in other words people who stand to benefit at least in the short-term from current fossil fuel investments and production. Just as the tobacco industry was pretty good at protecting itself against criticism about health outcomes, the fossil fuel industry is also pretty good at protecting its interests and its investments.

The third roadblock is what some people call path dependencies or lock-ins, meaning that if you’re on a certain track it’s often hard to move off that track. A good example of that will be cars. Even if you know that it would be a good idea to shift from petrol‑based cars to electric cars, when we stop to think about how we replace all our petrol stations with charging stations and so on, it’s a path that is hard to change. So that needs leadership and a visionary kind of action.

The next roadblock is unfairness, and inequality – that gets well and truly in the way of concerted action. Then there is unconstrained consumption; there’s the power of our culture and of the advertising industry to keep us buying stuff, lots and lots of stuff. And then lastly there is practical decision‑making governance coupled with financial constraints. We have to find different ways of channelling finance into renewables rather than fossil fuels, we have to find different ways of managing energy so there are a number of roadblocks and we have to learn to be smart about dismantling those quickly.

Q: Normally you would expect the more progressive political party, the Labor Party, to be taking a bit more of a lead in undoing some of these roadblocks, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

A: I think that’s probably true around the world. Labor, social democratic and progressive parties around the world have been caught in this tension between doing the right thing on environmental issues and also trying to meet the shorter term political demands of constituencies to keep taxes down and keep prices down. Those are the sorts of drivers that are affecting them. It seems to me that the onus is on all political parties to provide a leadership in showing that this is a change that is coming, it’s a change that is necessary, a change to a low carbon, a low emissions future. It is a change in which it is crucial to act quickly but it is also smart to act quickly if you want to be on the right side of history.

Q:   Doing it fairly seems to me to involve a lot of redistribution from richer people to poorer people and there’s a lot of resistance to that idea at the moment. One of the attractions of a price on carbon is it’s a market mechanism and there is a conviction these days that markets are the best way to get things happening but there are lots of things that you’ve flagged that simply involve a redistribution from the well off to the less well off.

A: Yes, I think even in the last few days we’ve seen figures that show that we’re close to having 1% of the world’s population owning over 50% of the wealth, so we’re heading into a world that is increasingly unequal.

Q:   Referring to the Oxfam report?

A: Yes, exactly. I mean, there’s simply no way of driving a transition to a fair zero carbon economy while those sorts of inequalities keep accelerating. That is not going to work.

Q: There seems to be inbuilt driver or inbuilt accelerator with capital accumulation if you believe Thomas Piketty’s critique. He’s saying basically that capital accumulation is on a fast track now.

A: Sure. I think Piketty has provided a bit of a wake-up call to lots of people around how that works, and so I agree with you that simply setting a price on carbon, while I do believe that’s really important, is by no means the only thing that needs to happen. There will need to be strong action on progressive taxation and then the channelling of taxation resources partly into investment in a low carbon economy and partly in the actions needed to make sure that that change happens fairly.

Q: It seems to me that there’s going to be a real problem for those changes to happen fairly if we leave things in the realm of the market and when I look at the way economists and politicians discuss these things, there seems to be an underlying assumption when you look at all the political conversation in Australia and the rest of the western world that market fundamentalism is just good and it will get things right and we should just let it rip. But whenever we see it rip, it really smashes the vulnerable and the poor and creates a greater gap between rich and poor -so the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. Market fundamentalism seems to be the new religion in some ways.

A: And has been for some time. Yes, just as I can’t see how you can have the transition to a fair zero carbon economy with current inequalities of wealth, I can’t see how you can do that with current inequalities of power. An unfettered and unregulated free market as you said is one in which inequalities not only of money but of power will tend to accelerate. So yes, there will need to be a shift in power. In particular I suppose one good example of that will be the power of some of the biggest vested interests -the giant coal and oil companies – and we need to find ways of challenging that power.

Now, some of that has to come from the grassroots and from social movements; the large demonstrations that we saw late last year in places like New York at the United Nations and elsewhere around the world, Lock the Gate and other processes against coal seam gas and all of those things are important examples of grassroots movements challenging that kind of power. But I think we’ll also need to see some role for government and perhaps also some role for different approaches to how businesses are run. I think there are promising signs in some of the alternative thinking about not for profit businesses and social enterprises and so on. So all of those are about questioning the dominance of an unregulated free market system.

Q: Market fundamentalism does seem a very radical religion, for want of a better word, because it does tear things down very quickly and create a lot of disruption. I wonder what has happened to a conservative view of the world, -let’s just take it slowly and see what these changes might mean before we hop into them.

Q: Yes, words like “conservative” and “radical” have become perhaps confusing. There’s nothing conservative about an extreme set of free market policies that mean increasing inequality for the vast majority of people.

Q: A lot of resistance around the world to coal seam gas exploitation is really those communities being very conservative about their lifestyle, their local economy and their opportunities for enjoying what they’ve got.

A: Conserving what they’ve got.

Q:   Exactly, conserving what they’ve got. But few people name this radical force of market fundamentalism for what it is – Naomi Klein talks about it sweeping across the planet and tearing it up.

A: Naomi Klein, as you said, does say it very well and her book brings a lot of these arguments together very effectively. There are others perhaps less well known in this country. Rebecca Solnit is another American environmentalist author who makes some similar points very well. There are clearly parts of the environment movement – comes to mind – who have clearly identified the need to challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry through strategies like divestment. While that might not use quite the same language as the critique of market fundamentalism it is certainly identifying inequalities in power and control over resources as really important to those debates. If you look at some of the ideas being discussed around the demonstrations in the US and elsewhere on climate change last year, issues of climate justice are starting to become more visible and that’s a good thing -but there’s a way to go.

Q: There seem to be twin arguments around divestment and one is the ethics; we shouldn’t invest because it’s bad, you know, like tobacco. And an argument which says actually all the stuff in the ground – the coal, gas, petroleum – we can’t actually use it because if we do we kill the planet so therefore it’s actually not worth anything near what it’s valuation currently is; they are essentially dead assets -so any smart capitalist is going to get out of a dead asset.

A: Yes, if we had said even two or three or four years ago that divestment would have moved so fast as an important part of the strategic discussion on climate change, I think many people would have been surprised by that. I do think it’s important and it’s important for a couple of reasons; not just because of the amount of money being moved out of fossil fuels and into other purposes like renewables although that is important, but certainly in Australia that is still a relatively modest amount of money. I think what it has done more importantly is to start a public debate about investment priorities, and more fundamentally about what some people call the social licence of large fossil fuel companies. Just as the debates about divestment from big tobacco fuelled a public discussion about was it ethically right to make money out of tobacco, so too the divestment issue tends to fuel a discussion around people’s kitchen tables about whether or not it is right to make money out of fossil fuels particularly when we know that to have any real chance of avoiding extreme climate change, most of the current known reserves of coal and oil and so on will need to stay in the ground. So yes, there are good economic reasons for being aware of that but there are also good ethical and political reasons.

Q: Yes, I think if you’re coming from an ethical point of view there is a stronger argument for reinvestment in a sensible means of—

A: Oh, completely, yes, and so at the same time as we need a divestment movement we also do need a reinvestment movement. It remains quite hard in Australia really to identify ways if people want to put their personal investments or their superannuation into more environmentally sustainable purposes it is still quite hard to find ways to do that.

Q: One of the biggest class of investors is actually people in super funds. We’re talking about millions of Australians. Has any economist done any work on how much the super funds actually have in fossil fuels and what might be the impact of getting out of that and getting into something more sensible?

A: Yes is the answer and there are a number of organisations – in Australia again would be a good place to start, but there are others who have began to do those figures. I think it is a really important set of questions for people to ask, to write to their superannuation companies or indeed their banks and say, “Hey, I’d like to know how you’re investing my money” and indeed, more strongly, that they would like to look at options for switching.

Q:   I noticed the other day that the Australian Quakers are actually getting out of the Big Four banks for that reason.

A: That’s right and quite a lot of other churches either have or are looking at that. There is discussion of the Catholic Church more broadly posing questions about where its funds are invested, and yes, it cuts both ways. It opens up issues on the negative side of divestment but it also opens up positive questions about how people would like to invest their money.

Q:   But we aren’t just talking about big organisations, there are also an many employees in our sector, and NGOs, trade unions, professional associations who are running super schemes for instance, so I guess I’m a little surprised that more work hasn’t been done amongst those organisations. I’m surprised there hasn’t been some kind of rainbow coalition formed to share information about that, to spread ideas about what ethical investments might look like in terms of contributing to a rapid transition.

A: I think that there is huge potential for the community sector, the health sector, for workers individually, co-actively, to raise these questions, to talk with either the organisations they work with or superannuation funds directly. Clearly a major part of the health and community sector works on issues of ageing, of disability, and of social insurance more broadly. So people in the community sector, are well positioned to raise lots of those issues either as employees or as consumers or as members of superannuation funds. All of those are important ways of acting and I think sometimes when people talk about climate change there is that sense of “Yeah, but what can I can do?” or “What can I do other than switch off my lights and those sorts of personal things?”, and there is nothing wrong with that but it is important I believe to think about ways of acting more collectively as well.

Q: Yes, well, talking to your bank and your super fund and so on I guess are potentially very powerful and quite obvious -but doing it collectively you have even greater power.

A: Yes, quite. I agree.

Q: John, I really appreciate your time. I think my readers will be very interested. Are there any further comments that you want to make about this whole area?

A: Well, only to go back to what you asked me to begin with, “how does somebody who starts off as a social worker end up talking about climate change?” As I said at the beginning, it seems to me there is a key link between social justice, health and wellbeing and the environment – it’s not new but the link is becoming closer and closer and more and more important. I believe that most people are increasingly aware of that, particularly young people, and so yes, it makes lots of sense to me that these issues are seen as very closely connected. It strikes me as interesting how strongly many health workers have become involved in climate change issues. I know lots of friends who are doctors, nurses, health workers and people in the health sector and there is a very good website, The Climate & Health Alliance, which brings together a lot of that work. Perhaps there is an opportunity for a greater involvement by community sector workers collectively or working with the health sector to go the next step in this discussion.

Q: Yes, the issue is more coordination and leadership because there are a lot of good ideas out there. It certainly struck me when you said that the Lancet had rated this as the number one health risk for the future. Thanks again.

This interview with Professor Wiseman has prompted me to fire off letters to my bank (ANZ) , my trade union (HSU) and my professional association (AASW) to find out what their investment policies are in relation to fossil fuels, as well as their approach to the super funds of their employees. Will keep you posted.

It is heartening to note that the AASW is a member of the Climate and Health Alliance.

Posted in Politics, Social Policy | Leave a comment

Let’s scare away the dark

What a dark year!

The seeds were sown back in the day by John Howard. Tax cuts and the Tampa. He lost an election- but not before these policies became bi-partisan. From 2005 to 2012 we bled $169 billion on tax cuts we didn’t need…Money that should have been invested in health, education and public transport. And to cap it off, 42% of this money went to the top 10% of income earners. How do they keep getting away with it?

Many of us cringed as asylum seekers baked in the sun on the deck of the Tampa. And now we routinely incarcerate innocent men, women and children in conditions that would trouble the RSPCA.

John Howard certainly tapped into the dark side of the Australian psyche. Manning Clark famously described two strands of the Australian character; the enlargers, and the punishers and straiteners. These dark times have thrown up plenty of leaders who seem to take real pleasure in punishing and straitening. Joe Hockey has inherited the mantle of Peter Costello, and Scott Morrison has taken the baton from Philip Ruddock. Encouraged, these kinds of leaders are popping up in all our institutions, large and small. Bring on the KPI’s and efficiency dividends.

The seeds of Tampa and tax cuts have now grown to a full toxic bloom. Universal Medicare hangs by a thread, the unemployed have had their dignity stolen from them, and higher education waits for a straitening dose of free market medicine. And by the way…climate change is some other countries problem. We just need to sell our coal while it is still worth something. The fair go is being hollowed out.

We will end up being defined, not by our common collective humanity, but by our individual spending power.

Nevertheless we refuse to give up or give in. Trade unions, churches and many other progressive organisations keep standing up for human dignity, a fair go, and a genuinely civil society. See for example the Sydney Alliance.

And-“If we all light up we can scare away the dark.” These are not my words- they come from the song Scare Away the Dark, by singer-song writer Michael Rosenberg. (Passenger) My favorite lines…..

We want something more not just nasty and bitter We want something real not just hash tags and Twitter.

We’re scared of drowning, flying and shooters But we’re all slowly dying in front of fucking computers.

So sing, sing at the top of your voice, Oh, love without fear in your heart. Can you feel, feel like you still have a choice.

If we all light up we can scare away the dark.

You can see and hear it here on you tube.

To all my readers- Thank you for all your encouragement. I hope you have a festive season full of love and kindness.

Posted in Culture | Leave a comment

An open letter to social work academics: please stand up for publicly funded education

Dear Heads of the Schools of Social Work and Senior Academics

As you know, the enthusiasm of Vice Chancellors for the proposed “reforms” of higher education certainly does not reflect the views of many academics or students. These reforms will lead to the second poorest quartile of students subsidizing the poorest quartile. This is our government’s idea of equity. Are we really going to acquiesce to this without protest?

For the last 30 years neo-liberals have been nibbling away at public education. At the height of public funding of universities, the government paid over 90% of university costs. HECS opened the door to a user pays system. Public funding has now been reduced to less than 25%, with a lot of handwringing about what we can and can’t afford. But no amount of sophistry can disguise the fact the the end result is transferring money from the poor to the better off. Poorer students have been paying an increasingly high price for their access to university.

Universities have been privatised by stealth without any debate.

The Bradley Review signaled the end of capping student numbers. And a billion dollars later the government put the brakes on again.

Along the way we have exploited overseas students to cross subsidise our own, as well as creating a back door migration program.

And there have been other troubling consequences of the marketization of what we all once considered a public good. Some students now feel entitled to the degree that they are paying for, whether they reach the right standard or not. Plagiarism has become a problem, and students of lesser ability are not always offered the support that might help them over the line.

In the face of all this, your reaction has been to embark on a forlorn piece of lobbying to increase band funding of the social work degree to the level of other allied health professions. Which faculties do you imagine will surrender funds so that this might happen? Won’t the answer simply be that in a free market you raise your prices?

You need an economist (not a lobbyist) to find the truth to some simple questions. What is the real cost of teaching a social work student? What is the cost of delivering 1000 hours of placement? Who should pay for this? Are social work degrees operating at a loss? Or are they cross subsiding other activity? These questions are all within the free market paradigm- but you need to understand how the enemy is thinking.

Look to the United States to understand the full horror of increasing student debt in a for profit system. Christopher Pyne needs to be called out when he holds up the US system as ideal.

John Oliver’s satirical HBO talk show cut straight to the bone when discussing this issue. But the problem with satire, not matter how true, is that it comes from a place of cynicism and resignation.

I have looked in vain for a joint statement from social work academics calling for public funding of universities to be maintained. Our professional values surely oblige us to speak up. Other countries manage to have publicly funded universities. It can happen here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment