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.


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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.

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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?

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Moving to a zero carbon economy: a conversation with Professor John Wiseman on social justice and the environment

green buildingProfessor 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

The demise of Medicare Locals: What social workers in private practice should do about it

Fours years ago on a sunny autumn day in Canberra, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and NSW Premier Kristina Keneally took a stroll through the roses in the gardens of Federal Parliament. Both were bleeding political capital and desperate to do a deal to overhaul the Australian health system. Without NSW in the cart the Prime Minister could not conclude a meaningful deal within the COAG umbrella.

The compromises they made that day ensured that the inherent dysfunctions of our illness industry would keep on accumulating. Consequently, instead of an integrated unified health system, the states have kept on running hospitals, as well as many primary care functions, whilst the Commonwealth kept funding GPs. The compromises continued in setting up Medicare Locals. Their boundaries did not match the state health districts and their cooperation with the states around primary health care lacked essential governance.

For all the faults of Medicare Locals, progressive forces hoped that they would continue, but the AMA, in a churlish submission to the Horvath Review, put paid to any slim hopes of that occurring. The doctor’s peak professional body claimed that there had been a deliberate effort to down play the role of GPs, failing to take advantage of their leadership and expert understanding of primary care.

The reality is very different. The history of GPs in Australia is one of successive governments heavily subsiding the income, infrastructure and continuing professional education of primary care medicine. This has been done largely within a fee for service funding model, which might suit some GPs but has been a failure for many patients. Last year only four in 10 NSW adults who have a regular place of care reported that their GP always helps coordinate their care- a decrease of 17% from 2010. The doctors response? They just need more funding. This fails to recognise the systemic flaws in driving primary health care through a fee for service model. The red tape piles up- along with a bunch of perverse incentives and system gaming. In 2011 the World Bank reported that there was not enough evidence to justify the $2.7 billion dollars spent in the previous twelve years on a range of incentives designed to complement fee for service.

This sets the scene for Professor John Horvath’s review of Medicare Locals delivered in March this year. Professor Horvath’s credentials for conducting this review? He is certainly no expert in primary health care. Formerly a specialist renal physician, appointed by the Howard Government in 2003 as Chief Medical Officer, he is now better known as a board member of the casino gambling group – Crown. He is also Chair of the Crown Responsible Gaming Committee. (Many would think responsible gaming is a tautology)

But Professor Horvath’s most valuable credential for this review is his unabashed market fundamentalism. In his report he bluntly stated,

“I found it particularly concerning that a number of stakeholders described to me instances where Medicare Locals established services in direct competition to existing services. I consider this to be outside the Medicare Local mandate. The role of PHOs should be restricted to facilitators and purchasers and not to directly deliver service, except where there is demonstrable market failure, significant economies of scale or absence of services and patient care would be compromised.”

 Professor Horvath did not trouble us with any examples. Ironically, GPs were instrumental in setting up these services. Every single Medicare Local board has a least one GP on it; and in most cases two or three doctors. This connects to the heart of the prevailing fiction that GPs are experts in primary health care. They are actually experts in their own field, namely, medicine.

A significant proportion of GPs simply want the Medicare Locals to do what the Divisions of GPs used to do; i.e., help them with credentialing, infrastructure and continuing professional education. Credit to those GPs who step forward for leadership roles. But keep in mind that they see the world through the lens of their own small business/clinical practice. To step outside this frame is like asking an independent truckie to advocate for better rail infrastructure.

Come next July, 61 Medicare Locals will morph into 30 Primary Health Networks. The current Medical Locals are busy scrambling amongst themselves to form new consortia to tender to become PHNs. There may be some surprises. Governments are probably a little weary of throwing money at models that do not deliver for patients. We might see big charities and big health insurers stepping into the ring.

Increasingly the care coordination of complex patients will be put in the hands of real experts with specific training for the role. Inevitably this will often fall to nurses and allied health professionals. Knowing the political persuasion of our government we can expect the routine high volume care coordination to be privatised/(outsourced), and the complex stuff done directly by government; a model that the poor and socially isolated should fear when we consider how this is working for the unemployed and the disabled.

Social workers, (and indeed all allied health professionals) who looked to Medicare Locals to integrate them into primary health care, have been largely disappointed. As a consequence patient care has suffered. Many Medicare Locals opted for a token allied health presence on their Boards, without a robust mechanism for consultation with fellow professionals. We have an opportunity to get it right this time around.

A good example of what is possible can be found at the Inner Western Sydney Medicare Local, which is jointly owned by three organisations; the Central Sydney Allied Health Network (CSAHN), the Central Sydney GP Network, and the Central Sydney Health Community Network. There are over 2,000 allied health professionals within the boundary of this Medicare Local, and 215 of them are members of CSAHN. This includes 85 psychologists, 33 pharmacists, 23 physiotherapists, but sadly only 8 social workers. Consider the following from the CSAHN annual report,

One of the key projects this year has been the establishment of HealthPathways Sydney to improve the patient journey and increase coordination of services. With CSAHN support, HealthPathways has been consulting with local allied health professionals to receive their input into these important pathways of care. Discipline specific HealthPathways for allied health are also being established to increase the understanding and integration of local services and appropriate referral pathways.. which will provide long lasting benefit to the local community. ..

Another significant project that we have undertaken is that of improving public/private allied health partnerships and lines of communication. All the allied health directors at the SLHD met with the CSAHN Board to discuss ways in which we could work together to create a better coordination of services and ultimately improve the patient journey. Many initiatives were agreed including joint service directories, shared CPD events, appropriate referral pathways between public and private, improved discharge reports from SLHD and shared student placements. This has been an incredibly rewarding experience working with the SLHD and something which we hope to develop further in the years to come..

 Of course like the GPs, there will be many social workers and other allied health professionals who simply want to focus on their discipline specific contribution, but without local professional leadership and a strong voice they will be sidelined again.

It is now a matter of urgency to get together and get organised. Within the boundaries of each of the 30 PHNs there should be a general meeting of all allied health professionals to form an organisation committed to making real the vision of truly multidisciplinary primary health care. This kind of thinking is encompassed within the position papers of many of the health related professional associations including the AASW. The time for motherhood statements and position papers is over.

This task cannot be done from above, but all the relevant professional organisations must help by providing the connectivity, organizational tools and resources to local leaders to make this happen. Allied Health Professions Australia must set up a clearing house/coordination hub to provide local leaders with practical support for effective community action.

Coincidentally, the AASW is finally getting around to forming a national private practice committee. Involvement in this piece of work ought to be its first priority.

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Moral failures and market failures: why we should abandon intercountry adoption

In April this year the Centre for Independent Studies (independent of what?) published a scathing attack by Jeremy Sammut on current out of home care policies.

His argument is as follows,

Child protection data for 2012–13 show that Australia’s OOHC system remains under siege due to rapidly increasing spending on OOHC, increasing numbers of children in OOHC, and the greater complexity of the OOHC population. Since 2000–01, the total real national expenditure on OOHC has more than tripled; the total OOHC population has more than doubled; and the total number of children in very expensive ‘residential’ care placements has almost doubled. High levels of ‘re-reporting’ and ‘re-substantiation’ of cases of child abuse and neglect, plus high levels of ‘instability’ (unstable placements) for children while in care, mean that increasing numbers of children are being damaged by the very child protection system that is meant to protect them..

 The longer time children are left in abusive homes and unstable care, the greater is the damage done; it could therefore be argued that more damaged children are ending up in care not despite but because higher spending on family preservation is exacerbating child abuse and neglect. Larger sums are being spent on family support/preservation without yielding the promised reductions in demand for statutory and OOHC services because Australian child protection authorities refuse to face up to the hard truth behind the failure of so-called ‘preventive’ social services to assist the dysfunctional families most likely to abuse and neglect children: damaged parents, with entrenched personal and social problems, stay damaged, and these dysfunctional families damage their children..

 Sammut spends fifteen pages hammering this point. He then proffers the solution like a rabbit out of a hat; more adoptions.

Despite the deteriorating situation in the OOHC system, there has been little effective policy response in most states and territories. Lack of action—best illustrated by the gross disparity between the high number of children in care and the low number of local adoptions—has led to child protection gaining overdue national attention. In December 2013, the Abbott government announced plans to make it easier for Australian parents to adopt children both locally and from overseas. Acknowledging the official ‘taboo’ on adoption in child protection circles, Prime Minister Tony Abbott ordered an inter-departmental committee headed by the Department of Premier and Cabinet to recommend ways to take adoption out of the ‘too-hard basket’ and streamline the adoption process.

 And the reason he offers for this misguided profligacy and policy blindness of our states and territories? workers remain traumatised by the profession’s involvement in past adoption practices, including forced adoption and the Stolen Generation; hence the adoption ‘taboo.’ Adoption targets and incentive-based funding would circumvent the anti-adoption cultural resistance and facilitate much-needed cultural change in child protection authorities by providing clear political direction. Responsibility for reviving the use of adoption would be rightly and definitely assumed by the politicians, both federal and state, who are ultimately in charge of the system.

Sammut bemoans the lack of ‘local’ adoptions – 210 in Australia last year. He regards this as pitifully low,

..especially given the rising numbers of children in care. But the situation is actually bleaker than this. There were only 54 adoptions where the child was not previously ‘known’ to the adoptive parents, and in all these cases the birth mother and/or birth father consented to the adoption. Adoption is so rare partly because child protection authorities will not pursue this option without parental consent and will not apply to the courts to dispense with parental consent. Of the remaining 154 ‘known’ adoptions, 78 were ‘step-parent’ adoptions, 5 were ‘relative’ and ‘other’ adoptions, and 81 were ‘carer’ adoptions—out of a care population of more than 40,000. Moreover, 78 of 81 carer adoptions were in NSW alone. The under-performance or non-performance on adoption from care by other states and territories speaks for itself. (my emphasis)

 Sammut offers the United States as the ideal model for his proposed policy shift.

In the United States, more than 50,000 children are adopted from care each year. If Australian children in care were adopted at the same rate as in the United States, there would be around 5,000 adoptions each year, nationally.

Concurrent with this attack on out of home care policies, Adopt Change, a high profile lobby group has persuaded the Abbott government to cut the red tape to speed up intercountry adoptions. In December 2013 the SMH reported that

Tony Abbott says he wants to make it “much much easier” for Australian couples to adopt children from overseas, saying tens of thousands of babies could be brought to Australia from orphanages.

The Prime Minister invited Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman and his wife, the adoption advocate Deborra-Lee Furness, to Kirribilli House on Thursday to announce that his government would deliver “reform on overseas adoption” within 12 months.

“There are millions of children in orphanages overseas who would love to have parents,” Mr Abbott said. “And thousands of those, maybe even tens of thousands of those could come to Australia”.

 In May 2014 the Prime Minister announced that a

new report has identified significant barriers facing Australian families wanting to adopt from overseas.  Inconsistent rules, costs and the lengthy wait to adopt currently deter many people from even starting the adoption process…COAG agreed to a national system for intercountry adoption. The Commonwealth will work vigorously with the States and Territories to have a new system operating by early 2015.

Adopt Change also claims that there are “almost 18,500 kids in foster care in Australia needing a family”. Is this accurate? And is adoption a solution?

Let us be clear: there is no eager queue in the US or Australia of people waiting to adopt a child from out of home care.

In the US around 20% of children in foster care are adopted annually. Most US states give top priority to relatives and current foster parents when a child becomes legally freed for adoption. In 2013, 89 percent of children adopted from foster care were adopted by relatives or foster parents. They also needed plenty of state support to do it. Ninety-three percent of the children adopted from foster care in 2013 qualified to receive an ongoing subsidy because they met their state’s definition for “special needs.” (In 2008, 43% of monthly subsidies were $301–$500; 24% were $501–$750.) According to a US adoption guide these subsidies are designed to remove the financial barriers that may prevent a family from adopting from foster care, and to ensure that a child’s special needs are met until he becomes an adult.

If the same policy is adopted in Australia, and long term foster parents are encouraged to adopt the children in their care, how would we judge the success of this initiative? And why not move to the simpler and quicker option of permanent guardianship?

And as for Sammut’s hard truth that helping dysfunctional families enables futher child abuse? There is plenty of evidence of successful programs that meaningfully engage parents in protecting their children.

Whatever the consequences of adoption from foster care, it does not significantly increase the quantum of carers as it mostly formalizes existing care arrangements. Barnardos Australia, strong proponents of open adoption from out of home care, speak of reducing short term placements by offering carers and their foster children the permanency of adoption. Paradoxically, in 2013, the NSW Government spent a million dollars in a campaign to recruit more foster carers. The Minister said,

“There is urgent need for new foster families to provide safety and stability for vulnerable children and young people,”…“We have 9,000 amazing foster carers across NSW, but we need more. In the next year alone we need at least 450 new carers.”

There were no Hollywood celebrities at the launch.

We know from past history that adoption flourishes when governments deny the resources that families and communities need to look after their own children. It then becomes easy to break the connection between birth parents and their children. This in turn frees up a larger pool of children available to be adopted.

Let me table some relevant facts. Although Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the demonization of the unemployed is ensuring the creation of a permanently impoverished underclass. In the mid 90’s the unemployed were just on the poverty line at 48% of median income. This has dropped dramatically to around 30% of median income. Sole parents are moved from parenting payment to Newstart when their youngest child turns eight. About half the 600,000 children below the poverty line are in sole parent families. This begs two questions. Are state governments having to put back into families (through OOHC funding) what the federal government has been busy stripping out? And are numbers of children in out of home care rising because of this entrenched and growing underclass?

Do social inequality and high adoption rates go together? Well…..yes.

Consider this league table of child poverty from UNICEF. Remember too that the Abbott government is determined to introduce further policies to increase inequality.

In relation to minimising child poverty, Iceland is the best performing country in the world. In 2012 in Iceland there were 34 adoptions. 50% of those were step parents adopting their partners child. The rest were intercountry adoptions, mostly from China. There were no local adoptions at all outside of kinship. Not one single Icelander adopted a local child that was not already known to them. By contrast, in 2008 in the US there were approximately 136,000 adoptions. 13% were intercountry. 41% were organised through a public agency and 47% by other means. These include adoptions organised a facilitator who charges a fee for linking expectant birth mothers with prospective adoptive parents. The US accounts for half the adoptions in the entire world. A growing underclass ensures that there are plenty of local adoptions where the adoptive parents did not previously know the child.

There are many adoption practices in the US that Australians would find abhorrent, including the quasi marketization of the process, including the prospective adoptive parents paying all the birth mother’s expenses, as well as being present at the birth. (What odds the birth mother changing her mind at that point?)

Organisations like Adopt Change portray adoption as an act of altruism; essentially rescuing orphans from deprivation or worse. Whilst there is usually a significant component of altruism in fostering an older child with special needs and problematic family attachments, the same cannot be said for those people who want to adopt a healthy young baby and have as little as possible to do with the baby’s birth family. If the desire is strong, then those with the means will turn to intercountry adoption (or surrogacy).

This quote from an adoptive parent sums up this viewpoint;

“I am an adoptive parent. I adopted my gorgeous boy 15 years ago from South Korea. Why South Korea? Because it was a country that imposed no religious or other constraints on us adopting a baby.
Why not Australia? Because we would have had to agree to share our baby…”

This quote from another adoptive parent illustrates a more thoughtful view.

I am a mother of an adopted child from another country … There is a big part of me that feels guilty for having adopted my son. He was relinquished because he was the last of 10 children, no father, poor mother. She didn’t choose to give him up,- her circumstances forced her to. But I got what I wanted! a child. Of course he was lucky now that he has me and I feel blessed but the motivating factor was me wanting to have a child. If my priorities weren’t looking after ME firstly, but rather helping a child, imagine what the money and resources that it is costing me to raise one child, could do to support the family and community that my son came from. If we all did this……..

Intercountry adoption has been plagued with scandal. Child trafficking and/or bribery and corruption have occurred in Guatemala, Albania, Cambodia, China, Nepal, Samoa, Haiti, India, Ethiopia, Liberia, Peru, and Vietnam.

The majority of these countries are parties to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. Supporters and apologists for intercountry adoption offer this convention as a solution for the chronic corruption that plagues the practice, but paradoxically the fatal flaws in intercountry adoption can be found in the text of the Convention itself. As you might imagine it affirms the necessity of adoptions being made in the best interests of the child, that consent for adoption must be freely given without inducement or compensation, that agencies involved should be non profit, and that only reasonable fees may be charged. It upholds the principle of subsidiarity according to which intercountry adoption should only take place when suitable adoptive parents cannot be identified in the country of origin of the child.

Astonishingly it does not require adoptive parents to maintain their child’s cultural or religious links with its community of origin. The only relevant reference to this is the UN Declaration Relating to the Welfare of Children (1986). Article 24 requires Member States to pay due regard to the child’s cultural and religious background and interest. What does “due regard” mean? And how can it possibly be enforced? The Declaration does not canvass the option of open adoption at all. How practical is this concept across oceans and cultures? Open adoption is feasible in local adoptions from foster care, particularly given that foster parents started their journey with an openness to a relationship with birth family.

Most striking of all, the Convention declares its intent to “establish a system of co-operation amongst Contracting States to ensure that those safeguards are respected and thereby prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children”. (my emphasis)

If adoption regulations are ‘preventing’ a market in acquiring children, the regulations are in effect market regulations.

The social disadvantage of the communities and individuals who relinquish children for adoption has always fuelled the ‘best interests of the child’ argument, as any victim of a forced adoption will tell you. Now (and in history) proponents of adoption will sometimes say that the end justifies the means – after all who could argue with a good outcome? But consider the now famous case of Michael Hess, the US lawyer, adopted by wealthy Americans from an Irish orphanage, who then vainly looked for his mother Philomena Lee. He died without ever meeting her.

We now know in hindsight that this should never have happened. Even if Michael Hess had been an orphan it should never have happened. In a more civilized world Michael would never have left his own country. The state should have given Michael’s mother and/or extended the family the means to care for him properly. If this was not possible he should have been fostered in his own community.

Despite the propaganda of pro intercountry adoption groups, intercountry adoption is on its last legs. Figures from International Social Services show a global decline of nearly fifty per cent, from 43,142 adoptions in 2004 to 21,991 adoptions in 2011. The decline is not because of market regulation failure, but because of the increasing realisation that it should never have been a ‘market’ in the first place.

Countries are taking more seriously their obligations to look after their own children. It is unlikely that more countries will sign up to the Hague Convention.

Convention participant countries are taking longer and longer to offer children for adoption and increasingly offering only older children with illnesses and disabilities. In a world committed to social justice and the reduction of inequality, adoption will become a rarity, just as it has in Iceland. Countries are increasingly taking the view that the ‘best interests of the child’ include keeping the child in its own community and providing that community with the resources to care for its own children.

There are many things that we can do if we want to contribute to the welfare of children both at home and overseas. We can contribute to child welfare charities both at home and overseas. We can lobby our governments to increase welfare payments so that no child lives in poverty. We can insist that the Abbott Government increase overseas aid, and stop counting money used to imprison asylum seekers as foreign aid. We can volunteer to be foster carers and open our hearts to both the children and the communities they come from.

Of course none of the above will necessarily ease the pain of being childless.

Just as adoption is declining and becoming more open, a new challenge to child welfare is emerging; surrogacy – the most marketised ‘solution’ of all, purpose designed to prey upon the pain of being childless. Google the term ‘surrogacy’ and you can immediately weigh up the pros and cons of renting a uterus in India or Mexico. Prospective parents can compare the costs and benefits of an arrangement in India costing $28,750 USD, or Mexico at $49,500 USD. Let us not debate how to regulate this market. Surrogacy contracts are already being declared unenforceable in many jurisdictions. There are some things that should never be for sale.

In my view the Australian Association of Social Workers should take an unequivocal stand on these issues. We must not forget the lessons of the Stolen Generation and forced adoptions. We should advocate for the repudiation of the Hague Convention, we should no longer support intercountry adoptions, and we should affirm the unenforceability of surrogacy contracts.









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