Tony Abbott and his hapless government would do well to heed the lessons of The Killing Season

If social media is anything to go by – and who am I to say it’s not? – Greg Combet’s potty mouth was the sensation of the ABC’s opening episode of the compelling political documentary series The Killing Season.

But I suspect it was much more than Combet’s robust language that made an impression. While former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard slogged it out for the moral high ground, that place was modestly occupied by the former ACTU leader and minister in the (first) Rudd and Gillard governments.

The subjects of Combet’s measured but rustically expressed wrath were the leadership changes in the Labor party. The first was in relation to the Rudd-Gillard coup against Kim Beazley, telling reporter Sarah Ferguson that the machinations against the leader caused him “the shits big time”. The second denunciation was saved for the elevation of Mark Latham, which proved politically disastrous for Labor at the 2004 election: “I thought, ‘fuck this’, to be frank about it, ‘I’m sick of it’.”

Many voters will share Combet’s outrage, and very likely his vocabulary, because they, too, are fed up with the machinations of Canberra politics. Already from the first episode of Ferguson’s masterful three-part series it is clear that Rudd and Gillard have a differing recollection of events. And if we thought the first episode was gripping, we best wear a seat belt for the remaining two episodes.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is wrong when he says “voterland” is not interested in what our political leaders are up to in Canberra’s corridors of power. He should not confuse disaffection with disinterest. The fact that the ABC hit the ratings jackpot with The Killing Season should disabuse Abbott of that patronising assertion. Rather, voters, like Combet, despair at what constitutes “leadership” in Canberra. Indeed, Combet might reasonably have prefaced his invective with: “Let me quote the people of Australia…”

The recent outpouring of grief over the death of Malcolm Fraser – with moving tributes from the most unexpected quarters, including Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – was as much a lament for what passes for leadership in Canberra today as it was recognition for a life of public service built on compassion, integrity and rectitude. Many who might have been expected to hold a political grudge, including the aforementioned former prime ministers, instead focused on Fraser’s abiding contribution to the nation built on a clear moral (as distinct from religious) framework.

Keating, like Fraser a leader of conviction and consequence, said in his official statement of condolence:

“The great pity for him of the budget crisis of 1975 was that it de-legitimised his government, at its inception, and with it, much of the value he otherwise brought to public life.

“Nevertheless, many will appreciate the gestures which came rather nobly from his political spirit – the passage of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, his compassion for refugees, the creation of SBS, along with many other clear-sighted reforms. He was particularly committed to the rights and freedom of individuals – un-suborned by the power of the state.

“His public life also enshrined other important principles: no truck with race or colour and no tolerance for whispered notions of exclusivity tinged by race. These principles applied throughout his political life.”

Leadership changes a feature of Australia’s robust democracy

The Killing Season should not be seen as a case against leadership challenges and the instability inevitably surrounding such challenges.

Party leadership manoeuvrings have always been a feature of Australia’s robust parliamentary democracy; leadership “coups” have occurred in opposition and in government.

After John Gorton (PM from 1968-71), every prime minister, with the exception of Gough Whitlam, became PM as a result of wresting the party leadership from the incumbent, either as opposition leader or prime minister.

There is no reason to be squeamish about prime ministers being toppled by their own. The Westminster system allows for it, and we should embrace it as a safety valve to be activated by government party members in the event of incompetent, corrupt or otherwise flawed leadership.

The process should have been applied in the final years of the Howard government when it became clear that John Howard was past his prime. Had Peter Costello taken his chance, and had not Cabinet squibbed it when Howard refused to blink, a much stronger Coalition would have gone to the 2007 election won by Kevin Rudd’s Labor.

Equally, had Malcolm Turnbull not been so circumspect in February, when a leadership spill motion failed in the Liberal party room, the better man might have been Prime Minister today.

One reason Turnbull did not declare himself – on the calculation that he would get his chance when Abbott inevitably returned to form – was the subject matter being played out in The Killing Season. Turnbull and his supporters did not want to be seen to be “doing a Julia” and deposing a sitting Prime Minister mid-first term.

It is to be regretted that Turnbull and his Cabinet colleagues lacked the courage to play by the Westminster rules. More importantly, they failed in their duty to the people of Australia by not acting to remove a flawed leader. Their missed opportunity means that they are now placed in the position of having to destabilise their leader internally, which places them precisely in the realm of The Killing Season, making a bad government even more dysfunctional.

Turnbull and his supporters missed one of the key lessons of Julia Gillard’s “political assassination” of Kevin Rudd.

If Gillard and her senior ministers had been more candid about why they felt compelled to move against Rudd – his chaotic and erratic management style, his insularity and refusal to consult with ministers, the growing dysfunction of his private office, the policy on the run, his contempt for anyone he did not consider his equal – her prime ministership might have had the legitimacy it lacked going into the 2010 election.

Had Gillard taken Australians into her confidence she may well have gone on to secure majority government which would have put an entirely different complexion on her government and subsequent events. Gillard failed many leadership tests in office, but it’s also true that we did not get to see the best of Julia Gillard.

Rudd not without triumphs

There are no “ifs” in history, true enough, but Gillard’s miscalculation was that in exercising her entitlement under our system of government to challenge Rudd for the prime ministership, she did not fulfill her obligation to unambiguously explain to voters why she did so.

As the first episode of The Killing Season made clear, a truncated Rudd prime ministership would not have been without its triumphs: the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the seminal apology to the Stolen Generation, and the historic counter-attack against the threat of deep recession following the Global Financial Crisis.

Clearly these achievements were not enough to dissuade Gillard and her supporters from the conviction that a continued Rudd prime ministership was not in Australia’s interests. This should have been fully explained to the people – with due homage paid to Rudd for those achievements.

If Turnbull, like Gillard, believed that a continued Abbott government was not in Australia’s best interests, he should have pressed his case for the leadership and challenged Abbott in February. If he lost, just as Keating resigned to the backbench having failed in his first attempt to topple Hawke, Turnbull could have taken his place on the backbench.

It’s bloody and Darwinian, but the system for the most part works and results in strong and vibrant leadership. When Fraser toppled the affable but ineffective Billy Snedden in 1975 it saved Australia from the near certainty of a haphazard Snedden government in 1977. When Keating took over from Hawke in 1991, who by this stage was past his best, it meant another five years of strong and defining government.

Peter Costello let down his supporters and the people of Australia by not staring down Howard and re-energising the faltering Coalition government. Malcolm Turnbull may well have squandered his opportunity to remove arguably the worst Liberal Prime Minister since the feckless William McMahon.

The Killing Season is not a case against leadership challenges. While it is a gripping piece of political drama presented in the finest traditions of the ABC and Australian political journalism, it is to sell it well short to see it simply through the prism of political ambition.

At its most fundamental, The Killing Season is a case for good government, which ultimately the first Rudd government was not. It makes clear what can go wrong in the absence of openness, probity and accountability. It is a call for a return to the best traditions of leadership, public service and parliamentary democracy. It should serve as a reminder of why voters feel let down by modern politics and the rise of the “political class”, and underlines how little has changed even with the defeat of Labor in 2013.

For Tony Abbott and his ramshackle government, The Killing Season serves due notice that the killing season is not over yet. Indeed, given recent missteps, there is every chance that it’s well and truly Abbott Season.

Bill Shorten shows leadership on marriage equality; the question now is will Tony Abbott join him at the altar?

Same-sex marriage may well prove the rebooting of Bill Shorten’s less than inspiring leadership of the Labor party, but in the meantime, and more importantly, it provides much needed political momentum in support of marriage equality in Australia.

Australia’s reluctance to face up to marriage equality as a fundamental issue of human rights ended with the announcement by Shorten and his deputy Tanya Plibersek to co-sponsor a private member’s bill. Marriage equality is now only a matter of time; if there was ever any doubt about that, those doubts can now be cast aside.

It is mischievous to dismiss the Shorten-Plibersek initiative as a political stunt. While there is growing support for same-sex marriage among MPs and the community, there remain pockets of entrenched opposition to such a reform.

As Shorten admitted to Fairfax Media: “I know this private member’s bill will not have the universal support of my colleagues.”

Plibersek’s recent misjudged call for a binding Labor vote on same-sex marriage illustrated how passions can be very quickly inflamed on the issue.

The Shorten-Plibersek announcement should be welcomed as an act of policy leadership – leadership sorely lacking from the Abbott government which has preferred to stall on the matter in the hope that it goes away.

But the Irish referendum ‘yes’ vote in favour of same-sex marriage put paid to that misreading of a generational move for change. If Ireland can overcome its social conservatism and Catholic mores, what is Australia’s problem? More to the point, what is Tony Abbott’s problem?

Abbott has personal views against same-sex marriage, but those views, as deeply held as they may be, must be secondary to the objectives of national inclusiveness and respect for the rights of all Australians. As Prime Minister he has a responsibility to show leadership on the issue that transcends his own personal position.

When all is said and done, there are no fundamental reasons for opposing same-sex marriage. Certainly none so fundamental that Australia can continue to say to a section of its citizenry that they are not free to marry the person of their choice; that marriage as a profound expression of love is not available to them.

Australia’s Marriage Act has not been handed down from the heavens. It is an instrument of the state, an expression of community values. The state has an obligation to ensure that the laws governing the institution keep pace with changing social attitudes and the human rights of all its citizens.

One day Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief

Marriage is hardly a fixed entity. It was not so long ago that laws proscribing marriage between white and African Americans, and laws circumscribing marriage between white and Aboriginal Australians, were considered reasonable and consistent with preserving the “sanctity” of marriage. Such laws today would be considered unthinkable by all but the most extreme margins of society.

Generations from now, Australians will scratch their heads in disbelief that homosexual men and women had to fight for the right to marry the person they loved.
Tony Abbott has called for tolerance in the conduct of the same-sex marriage debate, but he has no tolerance for the profound desire of some Australians to marry someone of the same sex.

“[W]e need to see mutual respect of all the different views on this debate because as I said, decent people can differ on this subject,” Abbott says.

No doubt the PM is blind to the irony that while he is pleading for mutual respect, he is denying it to those gay Australians who wish to marry but in law cannot.
It is absurd that homosexual Australians should have equal standing before the law in every respect but marriage. By what perversion of logic does equality stop at the door of marriage?

It’s true, some Australians do have deeply held views of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Convictions deserve to be respected, but they are not always the best foundations for a just and inclusive society. Marriage can longer be preserved as an exclusive club.

There is no excuse for Australia’s inaction on marriage equality. Nineteen countries have so far legalised same-sex marriage, including the country of Abbott’s birth, Britain, and our neighbour New Zealand. Australia is in danger of standing as isolated on gay marriage as it does on climate change. For Abbott this may be a point of pride, but only at the cost of his credibility.

Quite apart from issues of equity, inclusiveness and respect it is preposterous that what is legal in a growing band of countries, in nations as familiar as Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and France, is illegal in Australia. In multicultural Australia it is now the case that many citizens find themselves wondering why it is possible for marriage equality to apply in the countries of their origin but not in their own country.

There is no turning back

Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek are to be congratulated for bringing the issue of same-sex marriage to a head. There is no turning back following their decision to place the issue front and centre of the nation’s political agenda.

Curiously, and unconvincingly, sections of the government and its backbench have accused Labor of politicising the issue of same-sex marriage and of jeopardising a bipartisan approach to change.

Liberal MP Warren Entsch, a long-time supporter of marriage equality, rather than welcoming an imminent vote on the matter, says he is “profoundly disappointed” by Shorten’s announcement because it will turn the result into a partisan vote.

“This is about survival for Bill, this is not about marriage ¬equality. It was always our intention to bring something on this year. I’m determined to get something up and I don’t want it to be partisan. Let’s do it in a civil, orderly way,” he says.

Tony Abbott, avowedly opposed to marriage equality, has been stalling on the issue since assuming office. Even granting Coalition MPs a conscience vote has been a stumbling block for Abbott, let alone opening his mind to the substantive issue itself.

Whatever “something” Entsch had in mind, there was no definite prospect of the government bringing the issue to Parliament; nor, in the event that it did, that it would permit Coalition MPs a free vote. Similarly, the issue being brought to the Parliament by a minor party would have been fraught and far easier for the government to stymie.

The fact that the alternative government has announced its intention to put the issue to the Parliament is entirely another matter. In doing so it has raised debate and discussion on marriage equality to new heights. The genie is out of the bottle and proud.

“Political”? Yes. An out-of-step, tin-eared, ideologically hidebound government has been out-manoeuvred by Labor. But it is no less an action of leadership by Shorten and his deputy. Their next leadership challenge is to prosecute their case and take the rest of Australia with them to the altar of reform.

Warren Entsch and like-minded colleagues can ensure that marriage equality is not a partisan issue by backing the Labor initiative and urging their Prime Minister to adjust his hearing aid and, like his opposite number, show some courage on the issue.

Even if the Prime Minister finds gay marriage confronting, as he does so many things, he must declare that the time has come for marriage equality in Australia.

Bill Shorten’s position is compelling, unambiguous and ultimately straightforward:
“Our current [marriage] law excludes some individuals, and to me that is unacceptable. It says to them: your relationships are not equally valued by the state, your love is less equal under the law.”

We should have heard such a statement from the leader of the nation.

But better late than never. There is absolutely nothing to stop Tony Abbott from regaining the initiative and endorsing Shorten’s sentiment as a matter of fundamental principal.

It is not too late for Abbott to race down the aisle, join Shorten, and declare “I do too”.

The play ‘Blue Italian’ plates up some unpleasant truths about our treatment of migrants and refugees

Blue Italian & Nil by Sea
Plays by Katie Pollock, Directed by Rachel Chant, Produced by Peter Fray
Sydney, April 29-May 17

My father was born in Queensland but his parents migrated to Australia from Sicily in the 1920s. They were joyous occasions when we would travel to Ingham, cane country, in Far North Queensland, to visit my grandparents, by this stage retired from farming.

My grandfather – Leonardo D’Angelo, Nonno to his adoring and adored grandchildren – was a Carabiniere, a member of Italy’s military police force, before he migrated to Australia. A gentle and softly spoken man, I would like to think he wanted no truck with Benito Mussolini’s fledgling fascist state, but I never got to ask. My grandmother – Rosaria, Nonna – was a strong and independent woman, who loved to be surrounded by family.

Nonno became a naturalised Australian in 1931. He felt it was his obligation to become a citizen of his adopted country, even though he knew he was not welcome by his Inglese neighbours. The Queensland government lamented the flow of southern Italians, who were considered to be racially inferior, to its northern canefields.

A 1925 Royal Commission concluded that while northern Italians were “law abiding and honest” (and unambiguously white), their swarthy counterparts from the south were “less likely to be assimilated into the population of Queensland”. The fledgling Australian parliament, meanwhile, grudgingly placed southern Italians (and other southern Europeans) beyond the reach of the White Australia policy (and Queensland’s unilateral attempts to ban them) by declaring them “white aliens”.

When WWII commenced thousands of these “white aliens” were declared “enemy aliens”, my grandfather among them. Despite being an Australian citizen, he spent two years in an internment camp in Cowra, NSW. My grandmother ran the farm with my father and aunt, both of whom were still at school and mercilessly bullied and beaten by students and teachers alike as enemies of King and Empire.

If my grandfather resented the humiliation and injustice of internment, he never said so. My grandmother, on the other hand, never forgave Australia for what it did to her husband. I think about my grandfather in that camp. What thoughts went through his mind? Did he regret migrating to Australia, or was this simply the price that he was prepared to pay for a better life?

I was 12 when I visited my grandparent’s little house in Ingham for the last time (in fact, Nonno died while we were on the road, a day short of arrival). I remember the distinctive Queensland cane furniture; the black and white photos of friends and family in faraway Italy that lined the walls, but also of crowded picnics in dusty Australian settings; the colour-tinted photographic portrait of an ancient and slightly scary Italian couple – apparently my great-grandparents – above a doorway; but most vividly of all, I remember the proud display of Blue Italian dinnerware.

All in blue and white

I had never before seen such crockery and they fascinated me, the idyllic, bucolic scenes that always seemed to reveal something new … a shepherd and his flock, his dog, a woman washing clothes on the water’s edge, mysterious ruins, the glimpse of a village, people going about their business, a castle in the background, glorious clouds, beautiful flowers … and an unmistakable sense of peace, tranquility and far away. All in blue and white. When I see those patterns today they take me straight back to my grandparents’ home.

Not that I knew them as “Blue Italian”. I didn’t know that’s what they were until several weeks ago when I saw the play promoted on Facebook. And yet I instinctively knew what the play’s name referred to. (I looked up Blue Italian and found that this “iconic English design” has been in continuous production by Spode since 1816.)

The moment I heard of this play there was an immediate and very personal connection. The poster of a young girl, barefoot, in a simple dress, holding two battered suitcases (“ports” my Queenslander father still calls them) looking back as a path before her wends its way through Australian bush. That girl could have been any of the thousands of young Italian girls who made their way to Australia, perhaps to join relatives while the rest of her family saved enough to make the journey themselves. This was my mother, who was 15 when she came to Australia from Sicily in the 1950s, her parents and siblings – my grandparents, uncles and aunts – not joining her for several years.

What I was reading into Blue Italian, based on these few clues, was very much from my own experience. Like all good theatre, this play will touch people in many different ways, possibly unexpected ways. The political relevance of the play was unmistakable, but for me it was also a very personal journey.

This powerful and moving one-act play, of just 30 minutes’ duration, is set in an “unknown destination”. For everyone in the audience, and certainly for me, the destination was Australia. In any case, the themes are universal. They will resonate in any country that takes immigrants. And they apply equally to official migrants and, with searing contemporary resonance, “illegal” asylum seekers.

What was remarkable about playwright Katie Pollock’s work was the ability to get into the minds (and hearts) of these wanderers, and to simply and starkly convey the hope, fear and desperation of people who find themselves in faraway and unwelcoming environments. Are they the aliens, or are we?

Chaos, displacement and rejection

The play, performed by four actors in an intimate setting, at ground level, amidst the chaos of a jumble of black and yellow traffic barriers, orange lights flashing, is a rapid-fire exploration of longing and belonging, the desperate search for somewhere to call home when far away from home, innocent hope that is met with the inexplicable anger of unfeeling officialdom and unwelcoming strangers. They endure the pain because the desire for sanctuary is so much greater than the obstacles placed before them at every turn; even greater than the pull of memories of loved ones left far behind. (The play takes its name from the girl’s memories of eating her nonna’s soup from a Blue Italian bowl.)

The play is not presented as a linear narrative, which heightens the sense of chaos, displacement and rejection that migrants must feel in a new land, particularly a land that manifestly does not want them there.Let alone how asylum seekers must feel. “Go back!”, “Access denied!”, “Wrong way!” Who are these barriers for? Anyone who is not us. But who the hell are we?

I wondered about the sacrifices my grandparents made to build a new and better life not just for themselves but for their children and future generations of their families; the barbs, slights and humiliations for no other reason than their difference; of the everyday embarrassments of joining the wrong queue, entering the wrong door, boarding the wrong bus; the hurt of being told to “speak English” and “Go back where you came from”, of being called “wog” and “dago”. And every day they would rise from their beds, knowing that they would have to endure the same again, with few helping hands to ease the way. And they would keep getting up until things got a little easier, a little more familiar.

‘She’s very beautiful for an Eye-talian’

My mother, a resilient and intelligent woman, recalls that her introduction to Australia was not quite so jarring: unlike the stereotypical swarthy Sicilians who so alarmed the Queensland government, she was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. “They all thought I was Inglese, and when they discovered I wasn’t the old women would say, ‘Ooh, she’s very beautiful for an Eye-talian’.” (My mother made it her business to learn English as soon as she could.)

As an imperfect but overwhelmingly successful multicultural society each new wave of arrivals is looked upon with suspicion and resentment, but in time they become valuable members of society, and then it’s somebody else’s turn. Blue Italian provides a glimpse of how poorly these “new Australians” are treated before they go on to settle and contribute unwaveringly to their adopted homeland – but we certainly don’t make it easy for them.

And then there are the asylum seekers. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Ministers dismiss asylum seekers as “economic refugees”, “queue jumpers” and “illegal migrants” we can only marvel at such heartless arrogance and willful vilification. These wretched people are so desperate that they are prepared to risk their lives and those of their families, braving uncertain sea journeys in the quest for a better and safer life. Even if Australia can’t offer refuge to all who seek it, surely we can treat these poor souls with dignity and respect.

The companion play to Blue Italian, Nil by Sea, also a one-act play and performed by the same four actors, is based on the tragic story of Jose Matada, whose body was found on a London suburban footpath in September 2012, his body smashed and containing no identification. The young man, from Mozambique it subsequently emerged, had stowed away in the wheel recess of a British Airways aircraft departing from Angola. He fell out, most likely already dead, when the aircraft’s undercarriage opened in preparation for landing at Heathrow airport. Texts sent by the man, who died on his 26th birthday, referred to his hopes for a better life.

Nil by Sea features residents discussing – with a combination of casual disregard and growing empathy – what level of hardship it would take to compel someone to take such desperate measures for a better life. Indeed.

The Blue Italian-Nil by Sea combo was produced by Peter Fray, who as well as being an emerging impresario is a prominent newspaper editor. He is deputy editor (news) of The Australian and is a former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald and editor of the Canberra Times and the Sunday Age in Melbourne.

I am in awe that a busy deputy editor of a national daily newspaper can find the time – and clarity of thought – to produce plays. As someone who is in the process of writing my family’s story, with Leonardo’s story at its heart, both the play, and Fray’s clearly boundless reserves of energy, give me heart.

Kudos to Peter Fray and his outstanding creative team: Director Rachel Chant, assistant director Samantha Hickey, lighting and production designer Benjamin Brockman, sound designer Tom Hogan, physical coach David Jackson, and the actors Jennie Dibley, Nat Jobe, Alex Malone and Sarah Meacham.

Blue Italian-Nil by Sea
Leichhardt Town Hall, Sydney
Runs until 17 May 2015
Tickets $30 adults/$20 students and pensioners
Bookings http://www.trybooking.com/hfho

RIP Sawyer Sweeten, the little boy from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ who became a young man who felt he had nothing to live for: when will this stop?

The death of former child actor Sawyer Sweeten attracted fond but fleeting media coverage. Sawyer, one of the twins on the much loved US television series Everybody Loves Raymond, committed suicide at his family’s Texas home. He was just 19, a few weeks short of his 20th birthday.

The series ran from 1996 to 2005 and has been a repeat staple ever since. But Sawyer, and his real-life twin Sullivan, who played Geoffrey and Michael Barone on the series, discontinued acting when the show ended and largely disappeared from view – except for their adorable television selves, and occasional cast reunions.

Many millions of people around the world watched Sawyer and his brother grow up on television over nine years; the twins were 16-month old babies when they began on the show as original cast members, alongside their TV parents Ray and Debra Barone (Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton), sister Ally (real-life sister Madylin) and extended family members played by Brad Garrett, Doris Roberts, the late Peter Boyle and Monica Horan.

Sawyer was visiting his family home in Texas, where he shot himself in an upstairs room, while family members were downstairs.

He was no longer the sweet little boy that we saw growing up on television, but a young man, described as “anti-drugs, very quiet and very shy”.

This won’t come as a surprise to viewers of Everybody Loves Raymond. Despite almost a decade on the show, the twins never grew into the precocious child actors we’re used to seeing on US television; on screen they were shy, awkward, ill at ease, fluffing lines and obviously following direction as best they could. They were not gifted child actors. But one suspects that it was precisely because we saw two happy little boys no different from little boys in our own families, rather than the slick performances of child prodigies, that we loved the Barone twins all the more.

What struck me about photos of Sawyer after the show finished in 2009 was that he was still very obviously shy and awkward in the public gaze. Recent private photos released by the family or posted on social media show a teen and young man who seemed doleful, even when smiling for the camera.

This is not a veiled accusation that others should have seen in Sawyer a suicidal young man. They would have seen a “very quiet and very shy” Sawyer being Sawyer. Suicidal tendencies will occasionally be so marked as to be unmistakable, but in most cases they are well disguised.

As is often the case with suicide, the family reports no clues, no warning signs, of Sawyer’s intention. Sawyer’s family will now be experiencing, along with the unbearable loss, the guilt and anguish that they did not discern the clues that may have saved his life. It is a fruitless torment, but understandable.

Madylin Sweeten posted on her Facebook page: “At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love. Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”

‘Let your loved ones know how much you care’

Sawyer’s on-screen grandmother, Doris Roberts, also took to social media: “It is with great sadness that I learned the news that Sawyer Sweeten, who played my grandson Geoffrey Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, died at his family’s home in Texas. He was a very sweet young man who will be dearly missed. Make sure your loved ones know how much you care about them, and please check in with them if you haven’t touched base with them for a while. It’s very important to keep in touch.”

These pleas, and others like them posted by heartbroken cast members, friends and family, reflect the anguish of those left behind and the torment that a troubled soul was left unattended to go down the lonely path of self-destruction. And yet it is hard to imagine that Sawyer felt unloved or discarded. Most likely he felt unworthy of that love and undeserving of the care of those closest to him.

Suicide is an escape from an unremitting and deeply ingrained hell, but also, perversely, it is an act of love – a conviction that those closest to you are better off without you. Suicide victims carry unimaginable burdens that they can no longer endure, but very often they also feel themselves to be a burden to others.

The question that inevitably follows a suicide is “Why?”. It is never easy – or even possible – to adequately answer that question. In Sawyer’s case, suicide is a too common occurrence among former child stars. It is hard to imagine the sheer enormity of the transition they must make from child star to anonymous adult.

Professor Charles Figley of Tulane University in New Orleans, a psychologist specialising in trauma and resilience, says of child stars: “They often go from the height of fame to the depth of living without it. It’s more than the rest of us have to face.”

Chicago clinical psychologist Dr John Mayer, who specialises in treating children and adolescents, explains the difficulties posed by the unique circumstances of the child star.

“These kids are kept from the developmental skill building that most kids go through to make them capable adults. Such things as learning about rejection, loss, transitions, and the process of identity development are in limbo while the production companies unknowingly shelter them from those natural struggles a child or teen needs to go through. … They become ill-equipped, often dysfunctional adults. Many of these kids become adults with ‘holes’ in their development, and, at worst, they are emotional and social disasters.” (Quotes from Figley and Mayer reported by Korin Miller, Yahoo!Health, 25 April 2015.)

We can’t know why Sawyer took his own life. There are no reports of a suicide note, but suicide notes can just easily raise more questions than they answer. We ultimately cannot know what torment tears at the heart and mind of someone who feels he has no choice but to take his own life.

A little boy no more

The show’s creator Philip Rosenthal said in a statement: “We knew and loved Sawyer as a little boy. He and his real-life siblings Sullivan and Madylin were such a charming, integral part of our TV family. They never failed to make us laugh, or remind us how we feel about our own children. We are terribly sad to hear this news and our hearts go out to Sawyer’s family.”

We can surmise that being loved as a little boy who does not really exist, and being part of a fictional TV family that no longer exists, can weigh heavily on a sensitive heart.

For me, the death of Sawyer Sweeten is painful because I, too, loved that little boy and his twin brother. But as with any suicide, there are many strands to that sense of loss and grief. Sawyer’s death cut deep, and it wasn’t just as a fan of Everybody Loves Raymond.

My now estranged wife and I used to watch and enjoy the show, all the more so because we had our own twin boys whose age was not so far removed from that of the Barone twins. My boys will be 17 this year, and broken homes being what they are, I don’t see them as often as I would wish, and I can only celebrate their milestones second-hand. My grief at the distance which has been placed between me and my boys, coupled with the nostalgia of having watched the show with my wife, gave added poignancy to Sawyer’s death.

But that’s not my only connection to Sawyer’s lonely death (as all suicides must be).

My youngest brother Tony died by his own hand in 1981: he was 15, and like Sawyer, just a few weeks shy of his birthday. He shot himself in his bedroom – at a time when guns could still be kept in the home – when my parents went for an evening walk and left him home alone watching TV in his room. On their return, they found him dead; he had changed into his pyjama bottoms, the TV was still on. I was called from where I was living nearby and with my parents, in surreal disbelief, knelt over his lifeless body. I will never forget my parents’ quiet cries of anguish. “My son, my darling son,” my mother wept, “Why didn’t you tell us you were so unhappy?”

Tony was a shy, sensitive and very sweet boy. Only days before he died he walked up to my mother in the kitchen, hugged her and told her how much he loved her. One of the last photos taken of Tony was with me, just a few weeks before he died, in which we stood side by side. To this day I cannot look at that photo, guilt stricken that I did not have my arm around him to let him know how he dear he was to me. But in others of the last photos taken of him I can see sadness etched in his face, whereas much earlier photos of him showed a sweet, happy, almost angelic little boy.

What sadness had engulfed my brother in the days or weeks leading to his death? We know that he didn’t like the school he was going to, and my parents had promised he could change school at the end of the year. Reports subsequently surfaced that he may have been bullied at school, which breaks my heart, and you can imagine how my parents felt. We are all left with the forlorn wish that we could have done more.

Having initially acknowledged suicide, my parents quickly went into denial, such was the shame associated with suicide. (The coroner delivered an open verdict, but was of the opinion that in all probability it was suicide.) Even now, the subject is not broached.

Although I do not press my parents on the subject – why would I? – my view is that as a society we must talk about it; we must confront it, and we must do everything we can to understand this scourge which is killing so many of our young people (and of course many others) in our own communities and far beyond. We must do more in our schools, our heath systems, our community organisations, and in the media to raise awareness and understanding of suicide.

Suicides are deaths that can be avoided; but we have to learn how. We must tackle it as we would any other unwanted destructive element of society. Rather than fearing suicide as the last taboo, we should fear inaction on suicide. In the meantime, we can only farewell and remember fondly those who have slipped through our fingers.

Rest in Peace, Sawyer Sweeten. You were loved and you will be missed.

Let me end with your sister’s plea:

“At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love. Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”

Support and information about suicide prevention is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

The media’s role in driving workplace diversity: the risks and rewards of a sometimes rocky road

We’ve heard about the role of diversity in business, why it’s important and the strategies and challenges involved in seeking and managing a diverse workplace. But how well is that diversity reflected in the media? And what role does the media play – and what role should it play – in promoting and shedding light on the diversity agenda?

As journalists, it’s our job to hold a mirror to the business community and the nation’s workplaces. Our role is to challenge, to champion change – to act as a medium through which change is championed by others – to moderate and filter.

The media has been an agent of change for diversity. If you have any doubts about that, compare any of the daily newspapers through the decades and the differences will be stark – both in editorial and advertising content.

From the media’s perspective, however, seeking to reflect diversity can be fraught with unexpected pitfalls.

There are some senior women in business, for example, who flatly refuse to be interviewed about gender issues. They argue that there is more to being a successful woman in business than simply talking about women in business. They do not want to be seen through the prism of gender activism.

Diversity can be a sensitive topic, and occasionally in the eye of the beholder. One manager of Asian heritage told me of his annoyance at being asked by his company’s in-house communications team to be featured in a story about diversity. This man was a fourth-generation Australian and he resented being seen in that light.

In 1998, I was a staff writer with The Bulletin magazine and I covered what was dubbed “the Gutnick tapes” affair. The story involved the disclosure of taped telephone conversations in which employees of Melbourne stockbroking firm JB Were were heard to make anti-Semitic comments about businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

My story examined the question: is there an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Melbourne’s business community? I spoke to and featured comments from several Jewish community leaders and businessmen, and Gutnick himself.

The story won praise for shedding light on the contentious and uncomfortable issue of anti-Semitism; but it also attracted criticism, from members of the Jewish community, that the story might potentially fan anti-Semitic sentiment. These critics were basically arguing against rocking the boat. One Jewish leader who had become aware that I was writing the story contacted my editor to express his concern.

It’s important to write such stories, even when they may cause discomfort to some. Experience shows that lasting and substantive change doesn’t just happen. Discredited attitudes take root in silence and indifference.

Recently on my site I revisited the subject of anti-Semitism, which in recent years has assumed a much higher and more disturbing profile. To eradicate anti-Semitism it must be confronted, but it’s a subject that still causes great discomfort, within the Jewish community, and within the media itself.

When ‘the right thing’ is not so obvious

Sometimes the media can tie itself in knots in attempting to do the right thing.

A few years ago, an internal debate raged at a Fairfax magazine when it was proposed that magazine run a list of Asian directors on the boards of ASX 200 companies. The story was framed in the context of the Gillard government’s Asian Century whitepaper and its call for more Asian experience on company boards. Internal critics of the list argued that such a list was racist.

In the end a list was run, but it was limited to Asian-born directors on the top 100 boards – that is, not the original list which would have also included Australian-born Asians. This distinction, it was felt, removed any racist overtones.

BRW magazine used to run several very popular lists throughout the year: the top entrepreneurs, the fastest 100 growing companies, the leading franchises, the best companies to work for… and so on.

With each ranking came the usual complaints: why aren’t there more women on these lists? The answer was simple: these lists were dependent on individuals and businesses nominating themselves: but relatively few women did, even when they received a prod from us to do so.

In 2012, I wrote a cover story for BRW about Carolyn Creswell, the woman behind the hugely successful Carman’s range of muesli products. Carolyn is a very warm, very successful entrepreneur who many women – men and women, but certainly women – find inspirational. Even so, I wasn’t really surprised when we started receiving letters from readers complaining that it was typical that a “male-centric magazine” like BRW should feature an attractive woman on the cover. (At the time, the editor of this “male-centric” magazine was Kate Mills.)

It’s just a fact of life that you can’t please all of the readers all of the time. Editorial judgment doesn’t get side-tracked by that kind of criticism. But it can be tricky terrain.

Most prominent women in business would assert that the business media is sexist.

Melbourne company director Carol Schwartz is perhaps the most vocal critic of the business media for being dominated by male editors, male journalists and male businessmen. I just don’t think that’s true anymore.

Overall, I believe we are seeing more female bylines and more ethnically diverse bylines, and we are seeing more women and non-Anglo people in the business media.

But it does raise the question: How far should the media go in ensuring diversity is well represented in its content?

When I write a feature on a particular topic I will start by working on a list of sources. Some will come from my own network or knowledge of the subject matter, but in many cases I will also cast the net with PR contacts for someone or some business that may fit the bill.

Thinking outside the diversity square

My priority here is to find a relevant contact, but it’s also a way of ensuring that my stories don’t comprise the usual suspects. When I send out the call for potential contacts, I don’t stipulate that diversity be a consideration: my interest is in finding the most appropriate contacts. But the PRs I approach are free to think a little bit outside the diversity square in who they nominate.

In most cases, that contact list will be a diverse grouping, reflective of the wider community. But it won’t always be the case; and even so it may well transpire that the women or non-Anglos on the list may not be available, or interested or necessarily be right for the story.

The view that there is an institutional gender or cultural bias in the media is wrong. Editors, by and large, are very much attuned to the issue. Diversity is something that most editors are conscious of – as one of the many aspects of a publication that must be considered in producing the best possible product.

At BRW, in recent years, there were conscious efforts to get more women in the magazine. A couple of years ago, BRW editor James Thomson – now companies editor at the Financial Review – dedicated an entire issue of the magazine to women to coincide with International Women’s Day. It was a landmark issue.

Also at BRW, to overcome the male-dominated, self-nominated lists, we introduced lists such as the ’30 richest self-made women’, which was based on our research, rather than relying on self-nominees.

But how far should the media go in ensuring diversity in their publications? In the United States in November last year, Bloomberg took the radical step of introducing a “quota for quotes”. Now retired editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler issued this directive: “All Bloomberg News [stories] must include at least one woman’s voice, and preferably a balance of men and women. Women are engaged in every topic we cover. Our journalism should reflect that variety.”

I can’t see it working, nor do I think such hard and fast rules are desirable. Journalistic red tape is not the answer. And if a quota for female voices is desirable, why not for other groups? That said, I certainly understand the motivation.

Journalists have a critical role in promoting diversity – in many respects simply by doing their jobs professionally rather than taking on the mantle of social activists. Communication practitioners, too, can promote diversity in and through the media.

Most journalists are interested in writing stories that are relevant, accurate and engaging, which necessarily means reflecting their audience and the wider community; and most journalists, I believe, are interested in being socially responsible.

How corporate comms can promote diversity

Communication professionals – whether in-house or external media advisers – can play an active part in advancing the diversity agenda:

01 For communications professionals who want to promote diversity in the media: I will start with this very basic but fundamental advice – understand the media, understand the role of the journalist, understand what is news and what is newsworthy, and always consider your pitch not simply in terms of what’s ideal coverage for your organisation, but what fits the interests and audience of a particular journalist and his or her publication.

02 When pitching a diversity-based story – for example, how a company has implemented diversity management targets – think beyond the HR director as the media contact, avoid diversity jargon, and try not to take the high moral ground. Provide meaningful data, illustrate how the program has worked, provide names and details of people who have benefited from the program, and convince your CEO to be prepared to talk about the program and the value of diversity to his or her organisation.

03 When issuing media releases, provide alternate contacts, even if they don’t feature in the body of the release, to provide journalists with optional contacts that reflect the diversity of your organisation.

04 When arranging speakers for your own conferences, or providing speakers for external conferences, be mindful of the opportunity to promote diversity through your choice of speaker.

05 Compile contact lists for journalists that reflect the diversity of your organisation. A directory is one option, but also consider tailoring a less expansive list to the particular interests of a journalist, with maybe half a dozen contacts. If you’re targeting a writer who specialises in workplace issues, tailor a list accordingly – it may be the chairs of in-house diversity, cultural or LGBT committees, for example, or a list of employees who have won awards or have some special achievement. You can issue a fresh list every month or quarter. Journalists will keep the names they want for their own contact books.

06 Various organisations compile media contact or speaker lists; these are usually for women in business, such as the Women’s Leadership Institute which compiles a Women for Media Database. Encourage notable women in your organisation to be on those lists. If your organisation is part of an industry association, consider the creation of an industry-wide database of contacts.

07 If you’re not already part of the content marketing revolution, becoming your own publisher is an ideal way to promote the diversity of your organisation with key stakeholders, including the media. ANZ BlueNotes is a perfect example.

This is an edited transcript of a presentation to the International Association of Business Communicators (Vic) forum, ‘Driving the Diversity Agenda’, Melbourne, 18 March 2015.

Kings Cross rapist Luke Lazarus was sent to prison for just 3 years: when are we going to get serious about this most horrific of crimes against women?

Convicted rapist Luke Lazarus, the son of a Sydney nightclub owner, was recently sentenced to a maximum of five years’ gaol for raping a teenage girl in a Kings Cross alley. Lazarus will be eligible for release after just three years. When a convicted rapist is sentenced to three to five years’ gaol, something is very, very wrong.

This is not another “tough on crime” tub-thump. This is specifically about rape and how it is viewed by society. What the Lazarus case demonstrated with unmistakable clarity is society’s untroubled view of rape; a view which neither accords with the horror of the crime, nor with the shameful reality that women continue to be preyed upon by men as a matter of entitlement and power lust.

The refusal to confront the horror and prevalence of rape is in great part a gender issue, a manifestation of some men’s ingrained view of women. It is also a much wider social and cultural issue. Men who have a less than enlightened view of women are given sanction by social and cultural norms that remain tolerant of aggressive male behaviour towards women.

The continued endemic incidence of rape is a manifestation of a society that – irrespective of whatever progress has been made towards equality of the sexes – condones a level of risk that women must endure simply and precisely because they are women. That is, there is a price attached to being a woman, which can be an ostensibly benign wolf-whistle at one end of the spectrum, and rape (and murder) at the other extreme.

We know that society is sickened by rape-murder cases. Recent incidents, which need not be reprised here, galvanise communities in grief, sorrow and even guilt like few other crimes of savagery do. But when it comes to rape itself, somehow a completely different set of values applies.

There was upset expressed when a stand-up comedian recently made a joke about rape, but it came to no more than a social media brush fire, with arguments for and against the comedian’s right to tell the joke (such as it was).

In the 1960s comedians could tell jokes about rape without raising a murmur; casual references to rape would feature in TV and film dialogue with impunity. In these instances “rape” is used as another word for “sex”, albeit understood to be forceful or meeting with resistance, but ultimately framed in the self-serving mythology that “no really means yes”. Such sanguine references to rape carry the understanding that women deserve and/or come to enjoy it.

The use of the word “rape” in its sanitised form, and the stylised depiction of it, has hardly disappeared. It is still to be found in all forms of popular culture: in film, music and advertising, on television and social media, and comedians’ routines. Since the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s, however, it’s more likely to meet with condemnation when it is encountered. Hopefully by men and women. I still hear the word used in the most cavalier – and blokey – way and it shocks me.

A failure to confront the horror of rape

Feminist theory calls this “rape culture”, a social conditioning or normalisation of rape perpetuated by language, stereotyped gender roles and male attitudes towards women, and the popular portrayal of women. But it doesn’t require feminist dogma to understand that as a society we have yet to fully confront the horror and prevalence of rape, which brings us back to the Luke Lazarus case.

Lazarus, 23, was in his father’s King Cross night club, the Soho, in the early hours of the morning, when he approached the 18-year-old woman on the dance floor, told her he owned the club and invited her to the VIP area. He led her outside – she willingly accompanied Lazarus – and they kissed. At this point the woman said she wanted to return to her friend inside, whereupon Lazarus pulled her stockings and skirt down, ignored a second plea to be allowed to leave, and ordered the terrified woman to “Put your fucking hands on the wall.” (Try to imagine the overwhelming terror felt by the young woman at this point, alone and in a dark alley.) Lazarus then told her to get on her hands and knees and ordered her to “arch your back”. He then anally raped her, deaf to her plea that she was a virgin. The ordeal lasted around 10 minutes. The next day Lazarus would boast to a friend by text message that he “took a chick’s virginity”.

District Court Judge Sarah Huggett described the attack as “spontaneous and opportunistic”. Opportunistic I can begin to understand, but spontaneous? I find it difficult to fathom rape as a spontaneous act; it strikes me as a very deliberate, calculated and debased assault. It is an act that reeks of power, entitlement and callous indifference. Lazarus claimed the woman was a willing participant because she didn’t physically resist or scream. “I still 100% state that I believe everything that happened on that night was consensual.” The traditional defence: she wanted it.

Judge Huggett dealt forcefully with that canard: “She [the victim] had the right to go to Kings Cross, to be intoxicated, to kiss a man. She also had the right to say she wanted to return to her friend. The offender ignored that.”

The Lazarus case underlines that sentences imposed on convicted rapists – or available to judges – are too lenient and wholly at odds with the horror of this vicious crime. Can there be a more debased and destructive assault on someone that stops so short of taking that person’s life? As the victim said in this case: “A part of me died that day.”

It simply should not be possible for a convicted rapist to be sentenced to 3-5 years. Such a sentence says to society that rape, while serious, is just an inevitable part of life. “What are you gonna do? Boys will be boys.”

At the sentencing hearing references were heard in support of Lazarus’ “good character” and urging the judge not to impose a custodial sentence. These testimonials likewise reflected society’s ambivalent attitude towards rape.

Can a rapist be of good character?

These were leading citizens who spoke for Lazarus: Waverley Mayor Sally Betts, the secretary of the Consulate-General of Greece in Brisbane Tsambico Athanasas, Bank of Sydney chairman Nick Pappas and Greek Orthodox parish priest Fr Gerasimos Koutsouras.

But it is precisely because of the standing and good reputation of these community leaders that the impact of their testimonials gives cause for concern.

Their comments were doubtlessly made in good faith and with evident affection for Lazarus and his family. But in speaking for Lazarus in such high terms they, however inadvertently, undermined the suffering and torment of the victim, and the gravity of the crime itself.

Ms Betts urged Judge Huggett not to gaol Lazarus. “The conviction is inconsistent with the gentle, well mannered and respectful young man that I know.” Quite apart from the obvious that she plainly did not know him as well as she thought, one can only wonder what the mayor’s female constituency made of her plea that a convicted rapist be spared a prison sentence.

Fr Koutsouras declared: “The possibility of imprisonment is completely undeserved for this promising young man.” It is hard to fathom that a man of God would state a belief that imprisonment is “undeserved” in the case of a convicted rapist.

Dr Pappas, a lawyer and respected businessman, said of Lazarus: “I have always observed him to be a respectful, courteous and obliging young man who has, on my observation, never displayed even a hint of unlawfulness in his conduct.”

The conviction, of course, reflected not the pious Lazarus that his referees had occasion to know, but the swaggering rapist who on 12 May 2013 committed an act of utter depravity on an 18 year old girl whose life will never be the same again.

At issue is not the integrity or honour of these community leaders called on to speak for the reputation of Luke Lazarus. The issue is that in doing so they have sent out ambivalent signals about rape as a serious crime.

Why the justice system even permits this roll call of testimonials in the case of rape is beyond understanding. This is not the robbery of a 7-11 convenience store. This is about an angry, aggressive and arrogant young man who felt entitled to defile a young woman he had plucked from the dance floor with that very intention.

Given that a conviction has been made, having leading citizens speak glowingly of the convicted rapist is in effect, however unintentionally, saying to the victim: “Sorry about that little fracas at the Soho, but Luke is really a good kid.”

Those who spoke for Lazarus would have done well to consider that their words may have brought comfort to his family, but also hurt and insult to the family of the victim. They will have caused confusion and anger in the community, and in some cases given succour to those men of who might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Rape is not only a crime against one individual, it is a crime against all women, and it is a crime against society.

Sentences for rape should reflect the depravity and life-long impact of the crime; they should send a message loud and clear that there are no grey areas when it comes to rape.

The sentencing process, where such testimonials are permitted, should reflect on the hurt such glowing tributes bring to the victim, and the message they send out to the community. Those who would speak glowingly of convicted rapists may wish to reflect on the wider impact of their statements.

As for the self-pitying Lazarus: “My life, at least in Australia, has been completely destroyed and now I have to live the rest of my life knowing every single person in Australia, or at least Sydney, knows I have been convicted of a sex offence.”

Not just “a sex offence”, mate. Rape.

Was Miriam Margolyes right that people don’t like Jews? We need to talk about anti-Semitism

On the ABC’s Q&A program recently, actress Miriam Margolyes, not known for her reserve, made two incendiary remarks that instantly set social media alight and provided plenty of fuel for heated office-corridor discussion the next morning.

One pithy remark was in response to a question from the audience, near the end of the program, about her views of Tony Abbott. “I think he’s a tit,” she said with exquisite diction and lethal precision. The audience was in disbelieving but approving uproar.

But Margolyes’ comment of deeper significance and lasting reverberation was on the subject of anti-Semitism, a subject often considered too sensitive for robust debate or frank assessment.

As a questioner from the audience pointed out, racist attacks against Jews do not seem to elicit the same kind of spontaneous sympathy and support for Muslim Australians in the wake of the Martin Place siege in January, which gave rise to the #illridewithyou social media campaign.

For Margolyes – a British-born Jew, now an Australian citizen – there was only one response:

“People don’t like Jews. It’s not comfortable to say that and it’s not comfortable to hear it, but I believe it to be true.

“After the Holocaust it was not fashionable or possible to be anti-Semitic…but because of the actions of the state of Israel and the appalling treatment of the Israelis towards the Palestinians, and the settlements that have been built in contravention of the United Nation’s rulings, and the support that has been given by American Jews and Australian Jews to what is going on in Israel, anti-Semitism has again reared its horrific, ugly head and anti-Semitism is as unacceptable as anti-Muslim feeling.”

It was a controversial sentiment, but it’s one that many Australians would agree with. However, it’s not the kind of sentiment to be expressed in polite society. But is Margolyes right: are the actions of Israel the reason for the rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world, including Australia? (So great in Europe that Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has urged European Jews to emigrate to Israel. “The State of Israel is your home,” he says.)

It is true that opposition to Israel’s stance in relation to Palestine has galvanised growing and increasingly strident support for Palestinian statehood and condemnation of Israel. But that’s more likely to be the subject of blogs, scholarly articles and newspaper opinion pieces.

At the risk of sounding elitist, the intricacies of the intractable Israel-Palestine standoff are unlikely to be the catalyst for the desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, the outpourings of searing anti-Semitic invective directed at anyone going about their business simply because they are wearing a yamaka or a fedora hat, the bullying of school children, and the cowardly assaults.

A problem that Australians prefer not to talk about

At least Australia has been spared the menacing fascist street marches that are now almost commonplace across Europe.

But that is not to say that anti-Semitism is not a problem in Australia, albeit a problem that many Australians deny, or simply prefer not to talk about. There will be self-conscious remarks about the old-money Melbourne Club not permitting Jewish members – a claim the club vehemently denies by pointing out the names of prominent Jewish members – but it’s a touchy subject nonetheless.

A Melbourne businessman and prominent Liberal Party identity once told me that he deliberately chose not to join the Melbourne Club for that reason.

“Behind the closed doors, the old Melbourne Club view of the world is that you don’t promote Jews, you don’t socialise with Jews. The way I express my disapproval of this is by not joining the Melbourne Club and not being seen at the Melbourne Club, and a lot of people like me, who have Jewish friends, think in exactly the same way.”

Even so, this normally outspoken individual declined to put his name to the comment.

But sometimes a controversy will emerge that makes it impossible to look the other way in the face of blatant anti-Semitism.

In 1998, as a staff writer on The Bulletin magazine, I covered the explosive “Gutnick tapes”, the revelation of taped telephone conversations between employees and clients of the venerable stockbroking firm JB Were & Son which exposed a series of offensive remarks about Melbourne businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

The tapes came to light when they were played during a Melbourne insider trading trial. Gutnick refused to let the matter drop and secured a formal apology to himself and the Jewish community. Oddly enough, Gutnick was criticised for making a bigger issue of the tapes than it needed to be – including by fellow Jews – but as Gutnick told me, there was an important principle at stake:

“If you don’t fight language like that, it goes further. We live in a golden era with regard to tolerance, but in times of economic turmoil, anything can happen. The lesson to others, not only regarding anti-Semitic remarks, but any type of racial vilification, is that it won’t be tolerated in business.”

When I was writing that story, which included interviews with several Jewish community leaders and prominent Jewish businessmen and women, I was sympathetic but professionally dispassionate. I was, however, very moved, when I wrote a sidebar to the story which involved the reaction of a young Jewish manager to the tapes controversy.

‘Those boys didn’t speak to me again’

He told me that the incident reminded him of his schooldays and he recounted this story:

“In 1985 I was playing cricket at a Scotch College cricket camp. During the first few days I was mixing with a group of boys I’d met for the first time. On the third day of the camp, I mentioned that I played cricket for [the Jewish cricket club] Ajax. Those boys didn’t speak to me again for the next three days and I was taunted on the field whenever we played. It upset me that kids could have that attitude, and it still does when I think back.”

It was a conundrum for me then and it remains so today: what is it about being “a Jew” that stirs up such venom in non-Jews? Why would an Australian boy, who happens to be Jewish, find himself the victim of centuries-old hatreds, in a young country that couldn’t be more removed from the dark and blighted histories of pogroms, displacement, systematic discrimination and genocide?

This is where Margolyes’ proposition falls short: anti-Semitism is a constant through the ages that defies rational explanation and is connected to no one event.

In the 1980s I was a journalist at Peter Isaacson Publications, at the time the largest independent publisher of business titles. The urbane and modest Peter Isaacson was – and is – a war hero (he was a World War II fighter pilot, flew dangerous missions over Nazi Germany, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and on his return to Australia flew his Lancaster bomber, Q for Queenie, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge) and a media trailblazer. Last year he was inducted into the Media Hall of Fame.

Working for Peter remains a defining time in my career. I was only a few years into journalism when he appointed me editor, at age 26, of one of his national publications that set me on my way as a business journalist.

I really didn’t think about it then, but it would horrify me to think that anyone would see Peter first and foremost as being Jewish. Peter is a proud Jewish community leader, but he is so much more. And Peter himself, whether in his workplace, or anywhere else, could not abide any behaviour that smacked of intolerance, racism or discrimination.

In 2002, Isaacson had a very public stoush with then editor of the Crikey site, Stephen Mayne, over an article in Crikey which he felt had gratuitously referred to Larry Adler and Louis Moss as “Hungarian Jews”.

“I do not care whether you publish this letter or not. It is a protest about your unnecessary identification of the religion of Larry Adler and Moss as Jewish,” he wrote.

‘He’s a Jew you know’

“I do not recall, in the two years I have subscribed to Crikey, of reading the religious identification of any Anglicans or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics or Plymouth Brethren or any of the multitude of other religions. Why specifically identify those whose religion is Judaism or any other religion UNLESS the identification has a bearing on the report? What you have done is to disregard one of the prime ethics of journalism.”

A clearly very angry Isaacson demanded that Mayne instruct his editorial staff ”not to use a person’s race, colour, creed or sexuality as an identifier UNLESS such use is imperative to the meaning of the story”.

I get where Isaacson was coming from, because I know people who, when referring to someone who happens to be Jewish, feel they must identify him as such, irrespective of the context. A friend of mine has this habit: “I worked with Max a few years ago – he’s a Jew – and he was a bloody good salesman…” When I take issue with him his riposte is always: “Well, it seems you’re the one who has a problem with him being Jewish.”

Is my mate anti-Semitic? Probably not. Maybe. Who knows? But what is it about being Jewish that it cannot go unremarked? Is it a harmless cultural tic, or does it signify something deeper?

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently reflected on the death of four Jews in the Paris kosher supermarket during the murderous “Charlie Hebdo” terrorist rampage in January and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

“In the long and blood-soaked history of Europe’s Jews, the death of four more in a Parisian kosher market is, at best, a footnote. But they were not the accidental victims of the terrorists’ wrath, not just merely in the way or in the line of fire. They were singled out for who they were and not for what they had done,” he writes. “They were killed for being Jews.”

The terrifying aspect of anti-Semitism is that from this volatile well of ancient hatreds, which has irrationally and inexplicably transported itself to one of the youngest nations on Earth, Australia, some similar horror might easily emerge.

In these times of dread and uncertainty – unnecessarily fanned by opportunistic politicians and excitable commentators – who would blame those Jews who fear what the darkest minds among us may be capable of? Who would blame those Jews who toss those words around and around in their minds: “They were killed for being Jews.”

No wonder that for some Jews even the relatively innocuous – whether it’s the insults of a racist stockbroker or gratuitous references to someone being Jewish – casts such menacing shadows.

There are no answers here. Perhaps many more questions need to be asked. Certainly some frank discussions need to take place. Just because we’re too uncomfortable to talk about anti-Semitism doesn’t mean it hasn’t set deep roots in our society. And a little empathy and understanding wouldn’t go astray.

We can’t will anti-Semitism away. We know it’s not that simple. But perhaps we can make a promise to our better selves that no matter what trials and challenges lay ahead, no one will be singled out for who they are.

Whoever leads the government at the next election, it’s time for Bill Shorten to show he has what it takes to be PM

Bill Shorten has been wise to stay clear of the Abbott government’s leadership agonies. Tony Abbott, often derided for behaving as if he is still Opposition Leader, seems to be doing Shorten’s job as well. But Shorten cannot continue to rely on the imploding Abbott government.

Abbott survived this week’s leadership spill motion 61-39: that’s hardly a rousing victory. Ministerial solidarity saved the Prime Minister – which makes you wonder just what level of ineptitude it would take for Ministers to be guided by the national interest. Even so, Tony Abbott will not be able to rely on that solidarity a second time. He is now on notice that Malcolm Turnbull is waiting in the wings.

For Bill Shorten, it’s time to move from the sidelines and get back into the fray. It’s time – well time – for Shorten to demonstrate his credentials as Australia’s alternative Prime Minister.

He is almost certainly right to believe that facing Abbott at the 2016 election is the best chance he has of leading Labor back to power and securing for himself the prime ministership. But winning by default, as Tony Abbott did in 2013, is neither the key to good government nor to restoring Australians’ eroded trust in the institutions of power.

Bill Shorten owes Australians a blueprint for the nation in these critical times of post-GFC economic volatility. Many families are concerned about their financial wellbeing; many Australians are concerned about job security, and for too many unemployed, of ever working again; consumers are nervous and business is increasingly pessimistic about future prospects.

Shorten has made statements about what he will not do: he won’t place added pressures on the weakest and most disadvantaged in the community; he won’t deregulate the university sector; he won’t dismantle Australia’s universal healthcare system. These are welcome commitments, but now Australians need to hear what Shorten would do as Prime Minister.

Australia needs solutions to many fundamental problems, problems which are clearly beyond the wit of the current government.

There is a long list of serious challenges which require vision, a coherent strategy and public policy sophistication, none of which has been present in this government. Nor do the previous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, of which Shorten was a member, stand close scrutiny on many of these challenges.

A long list of serious challenges

Australia faces many problems; let’s go through some of them.

An ageing population for which little provision has been made, and for that matter a rising population for which there has been even less planning.

Our health system is rightly the envy of the world, but it requires resetting for the challenges ahead. So does our education system, from schools, to higher education to vocational education and training.

The Australian economy is vastly changed, and faces even more profound change in the years ahead as whole industries restructure and even disappear under the weight of global competitive pressures, rapid advances in technology and shifting consumer behaviour. Labor squibbed reform of Australia’s ramshackle taxation system when it was last in power; Australia cannot afford not to undertake such vital and long overdue reform.

The depletion of vital funding that will keep Australian scientific research and innovation at the forefront of the world’s best is at crisis point and a national disgrace.

Australia needs to regain its place as a valued and respected member of the international community. Turning the global refugee crisis into a zero sum game for domestic political gain has dehumanised us as much as it degrades those stateless men, women and children who are fleeing oppression, torture and in many cases certain death. We cannot take all who would seek a place in this country, but that is no excuse for Australia to turn its back on these people and to place unreasonable pressure on inadequately resourced regional neighbours to shoulder a burden that is ours to bear.

Climate change, “the great moral challenge of our generation”, has all but become a political no-go zone – can there be a greater abrogation of leadership than reducing this crisis unfolding before our eyes to a matter of seats won and lost?

The fabric of the nation also needs urgent attention; whether it’s cultural diversity, religious and racial cohesion, women’s rights and inclusion, government has a critical, and under this government mostly neglected, role to play.

Bill Shorten, and Labor under his leadership, must confront these and many other issues. It seems an inexhaustible list of issues awaiting attention in very great part because of political inaction by both major parties.

Some issues cannot wait: true and proper reconciliation with the First Australians. Others must at least be put on the political agenda, such as reform of Australia’s creaking federation and system of government, including further consideration of the Republic.

It is simply not acceptable for Shorten to give himself the added insurance of not upsetting the prospect of certain victory by withholding a detailed plan to voters well ahead of the next election.

A generation of mediocre government

The blight of “small target” election campaigns has condemned Australia to a generation of mediocre government and mealy-mouthed sloganeering that masquerades as political leadership.

Shorten must repudiate the debased and deeply flawed modern political wisdom that being honest with the voters is a sure route to political oblivion.

Australia needs a plan, and Australians sorely want their trust in political leaders restored. Tony Abbott promised he was going to do just that. Instead, Abbott is a politician clearly out of his depth, as is his government, the most flawed, inept and duplicitous in the post-Menzies era.

If the challenges facing Australia were not so serious, it might well be enough that Bill Shorten is not Tony Abbott. But that is not the case.

Shorten needs to convince Australians now that not only is he committed to good government, but he has a gameplan that will drive his government. It is essential that he produce such a manifesto even if he is to face Abbott at the next election, and doubly so if, as is more likely, Malcolm Turnbull, in which case a one-term Coalition government is not such a certainty.

When Tony Abbott won office in 2013 it was despite Australians not being convinced that he was PM material. Which is why from the first opinion poll after winning office, voters expressed their remorse with an unprecedented repudiation of their choice. Voter dissatisfaction with Abbott and his government has been the one constant of this most chaotic, dysfunctional and arrogant of governments – as writ large in Victorian and Queensland state elections.

At this stage, voters are no more convinced that Shorten is PM material. The task of convincing voters that he is deserving of the highest elected office in the land, whether he is assured of it or not, must start now.

Shorten’s parliamentary performance during the Opposition’s no confidence motion in the Prime Minister immediately following the aborted leadership spill was a masterful and too rare performance. It was a speech coherent, articulate and withering, highlighting with pinpoint accuracy the government’s flaws, setting clear points of difference between Labor and the Coalition, and for once, none of his trademark lead-weighted zingers. Instead, humorous and well phrased barbs found their mark and energised the Labor benches. Tellingly, Shorten also had Turnbull in his sights, letting it be known that he was ready to face him if that’s where the political cards should fall.

Parliament still matters – and should matter. It’s the forum that provides the best insight into the men and women who would govern the nation.

From Shorten we need to see more such performances. A strong Opposition holds governments to account, and provides voters with a viable alternative come election time.

But more than performances, we need from Shorten his plan, his party’s plan, for Australia. A plan not just for the next three years, but for the next 30 years.

Let’s hear about the Australia that a would-be Shorten government believes in and will work towards. Let’s hear how a Shorten government will restore Australia’s shaken faith in Canberra. Let’s see more of the men and women on Shorten’s frontbench that would form government in 2016.

It’s time for Shorten to start thinking and behaving like the alternative Prime Minister. No silly zingers (Shaun Micallef won’t like it, but he’ll move on), no dad jokes, no unconvincing theatrics.

The government will sooner or later sort out its leadership issues. That’s none of Shorten’s concern. Whether it’s Abbott, Turnbull or anyone else, Bill Shorten has one life-defining task before him: to convince the people of Australia that he deserves to be the next Prime Minister. To date, voters have been given very little reason for believing that is the case.

Whether he does become the next PM is, of course, up to voters. But what voters want, more than anything, is to go to the polls in 2016 with two worthy alternatives to choose from. That’s one immediate contribution that Shorten can make to public life.

Bill Shorten: your time starts now.

From the chants of the #JeSuisCharlie marchers to the cant of Abbott’s charlies the word is “freedom”

It is the stuff of history. On Sunday, 11 January, 1.5 million people filled the streets of Paris – 3.7 million marched nationally – in a show of solidarity and defiance following the three days of jihadist terror that traumatised the French capital and horrified the world.

Paris has a long history of mass rallies and on Sunday its denizens came out in force, in tribute to the 17 dead, unbowed in the face of terror, united in their embrace of the democratic and social values they hold sacred – and which the jihadists repudiate.

Along the procession could be heard the ardent cries of “Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood!”, the spontaneous renditions of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and tearful expressions of pride in “the Republic” – this was a nation celebrating its past and girding itself for whatever lies ahead.

The attack on the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 dead, shocked because of its cold-blooded depravity and the ease with which the executions were carried out. But for the French, there was also a principle at stake: freedom of expression, a value as old as the revolution itself.

Charlie Hebdo was struck because it had dared – pointedly dared – to run satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, raising the ire of radical Islamists who took their bloody revenge on Wednesday 7 January. (There are no taboos at Charlie Hebdo; it spares no religion, no public official, from its biting satire.)

The immediate international response of horror and solidarity on social media was to adopt the hashtag “Je Suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” – with 5 million tweets carrying #JeSuisCharlie in three days. The Western world became as one in defence of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

On Wednesday 14 January, exactly one week after the Charlie Hebdo slayings, the surviving members of the magazine produced a defiant edition of the magazine featuring, of course, the Prophet Muhammed on the cover, weeping, holding a Je Suis Charlie sign under the banner heading “All is forgiven”.

In deference to the worldwide show of support for Charlie Hebdo and its ideals, 3 million copies of the post-massacre issue were printed, compared to the usual 60,000.

The sting in the tail of the Charlie Hebdo rally that wended its way through Paris – led by 40 world leaders – is that the spirited show of unity masked a hard truth that in the light of day must now be confronted: France is a nation torn. The Paris march, and others throughout the country, was an affirmation of France’s resolve to overcome its internal divisions to fight the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism. That now remains to be seen.

World leaders march for freedom of the press

It is a great shame that in this cathartic moment of national mourning – but also a rousing show of defiance – that the values underpinning the march were mocked by the presence of world leaders who were abusers or fell well short of the values and virtues that the marchers were defending.

For Australians, it was a point of particular affront that among the leaders defending freedom of the press was Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in whose gaols Australian journalist Peter Greste (along with two of his Al Jazeera colleagues) has languished for over a year.

Reporters Without Borders expressed outrage at the presence of “predators of press freedom”, singling out leaders from Egypt, Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, “countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted”.

American author and journalist Jeremy Scahill was scathing of the “circus of hypocrisy”:

“[E]very single one of those heads of state or representatives of governments there have waged their own wars against journalists.

“Blasphemy is considered a crime in Ireland. You had multiple African and Arab leaders whose own countries right now have scores of journalists in prison. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel has targeted for killing numerous journalists who have reported on the Palestinian side, have kidnapped, abducted, jailed journalists,” he told public broadcast news program Democracy Now!

Australia’s fervent expression of solidarity with France and its defence of the values of free speech – Australia was represented at the march by Senate President Stephen Parry – has had some unintended political consequences on the home front.

Liberal senators Cory Bernardi and Dean Smith (who is chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights) have taken advantage of the attack on Charlie Hebdo to renew calls to change Australia’s race-hate laws, specifically Section 18C which makes it unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate a person or group on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin.

The 18C saga began almost a year ago. The Abbott government’s plans to repeal the section came unstuck after the political storm created by the unintentionally provocative statement by Attorney-General George Brandis: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

It could easily have been a statement made in defence of Charlie Hebdo, but it was in March 2014.

What should have been an important debate on the competing demands of free speech and community cohesion was cut short because the politics became too hot for the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott’s “leadership call”

Tony Abbott explained that he had made a “leadership call” to overrule his Attorney-General, which should not be confused with Tony Abbott demonstrating leadership on the issue. His was a political call, not a matter of principle.

Instead of an emphatic prime ministerial affirmation of values and principle, Abbott replaced Brandis’ contentious language with his own mealy-mouthed offering: “I want the communities of our country to be our friend not our critic. I want to work with the communities of our country as Team Australia.”

Politicians choosing to avoid difficult discussions make life momentarily easier for themselves, but sidelining an issue should not be mistaken for settling an issue.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was just what proponents of changes to 18C needed to prosecute their case for freedom of expression with unrestrained vigour.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who seems to think he is an elected politician, bought into the issue by gleefully pointing out that under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Charlie Hebdo could not be published in Australia – or would be subject to continual challenge and/or censorship.

Bernardi would have been aware of all those #JeSuisCharlie tweets and he pounced on this obvious contradiction:

“I find it extraordinary that people will support Charlie Hebdo in France being able to publish what they want, to lampoon and to mock and satirise who they want, and yet many of the same people are happy for us to restrict what we can publish…because we might cause offence in this country.”

It was not the federal government but Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane who sought to curb the enthusiasm for revisiting 18C, insisting that support for Charlie Hebdo and Section 18C are not incompatible:

“There is complete and unfettered freedom to discuss and debate matters of religion, religious identity, religious belief and religious practise. There is in any case wide protection for anything that is artistic work or fair comment on matters of public interest, provided that it is done reasonably and in good faith.”

The renewed push for the dumping of 18C is taking place in a vacuum of Tony Abbott’s making. With a private senator’s bill co-sponsored by Bernardi set to revive the 18C divisions, the onus will once more fall on Abbott to show leadership – on this issue specifically and more generally in assuaging the concerns of Australia’s Muslim population in the wake of both the Sydney Siege and the Paris terror attacks.

In the absence of the necessary leadership, Australia finds itself mired in a highly partisan “debate” about free expression at a time when members of the Muslim community feel their voice goes increasingly unheard.

Opportunistic tosh

Dean Smith has cynically co-opted events in Paris to seek Senate support for changes to 18C. “As a tribute and defiant rebuttal [to events in Paris] we should change our laws to allow for greater freedom of speech, expression and opinion,” he wrote in The Australian.

Such opportunistic tosh is offensive and if anything qualifies Smith for the Charlie Hebdo treatment.

At some basic level there is bipartisan support in Australia for the principals of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but that ends at the door of 18C: Labor is against watering down the section, and the government is choosing not to pursue its preferred option.

Rather than start this debate from scratch, let’s accept that the finer detail of Australia’s freedom of expression laws should be left not to politicians, but to a law reform commission. And if we are to revisit the issue of freedom of expression, why not a discussion on whether Australia should have a bill of rights?

As for France, the true test starts now. It must now confront the many realities of a nation with huge challenges ahead.

Although much of the focus in Paris has fallen on the horrors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there was also the murder of four French Jews killed by a third jihadist at a kosher supermarket.

Anti-Semitism on the rise

This will have been a chilling development for France’s 550,000 Jews – especially as rising anti-Semitism was already a problem in France, without having the additional burden of being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered France’s Jews – and Europe’s Jews – safe haven in Israel:

“To all the Jews of France and all the Jews of Europe, I wish to say: the state of Israel is not only the place to which you pray, the state of Israel is also your home. Any Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel will be received with open arms.”

Netanyahu’s offer may well resonate with some. In 2013, 7,000 French Jews migrated to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, and the year before that 3,400. But the idea that Jews must flee their own country will surely not sit well with most. It seems extraordinary that Europe’s Jews are even today having to make such contemplations.

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to reassure Jewish citizens: “France without the Jews of France is not France.” In the Sunday marches, many held placards declaring “Je Suis Juif”,or “I am Jewish”, in solidarity. The government has also heightened military and police security at Jewish schools and synagogues – an act of support but which must also be unnerving.

In addition to its Jewish citizens feeling under siege, France has the challenge of reassuring the nation’s 5 to 6 million Muslims that they are embraced as citizens of the Republic: but France has a long way to go in convincing even second and third-generation French Muslims let alone recent arrivals of this.

Anti-Muslim racism, entrenched social disadvantage, long-term unemployment – including a 25% youth unemployment rate – and decrepit housing estates make for a colossal challenge. Already, since last week’s jihadist attacks, there have been several incidents of violence against Muslims and mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Rather than treating the events of Charlie Hebdo as a political opportunity to make it easier to express extreme views – and given a less than convincing case that the Act presently contains unreasonable curbs on freedom of expression – some of Australia’s more colourful politicians might want to concentrate on how to make Australia’s vibrant and cohesive multicultural society an even more prominent beacon of what is possible in an enlightened democracy.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité

What happens after you’ve been diagnosed with depression? Let me tell you about my year…

Eight months ago, in April, I wrote about my long-time battle with depression, which included the declaration that “the rest of my life starts now”. That column generated a very warm response from friends, colleagues and peers in the journalist community and beyond. It was gratifying and humbling.

My “coming out” was cathartic and the response comforting beyond measure. Writing about my experience, many readers told me, was of great benefit to them, which made it a doubly rewarding experience.

I have wondered whether it would be appropriate to end 2014 with an account of how the “rest of my life” is progressing. Would it be an extravagance? An imposition on your goodwill? I hope not.

I’ve decided to provide some insight into my year not because I derive some perverse pleasure from laying bare my life, but because I believe it’s important to shine a light on what’s involved in overcoming, or at least getting a grip on, depression.

My intention is not to provide a treatise on depression and its treatment; this is my experience alone. And it’s only the first leg of a long journey.

My depression began when I was a schoolboy, just 13 or 14. At that tender age I experienced the physical sensation of depression sitting on me like a thick, heavy “black fog”. (Churchill called it the “black dog” – the description doesn’t matter; its salient character is that it comes unbidden and stays for as long as it pleases.) These occasions were crippling, not linked to any particular cause or event. The sadness was overwhelming, and to my parents’ consternation I would burst into tears for no evident reason.

A maelstrom of emotions combined fear, guilt, introversion, self-loathing and desolation. Without realising it, at school I learnt to disguise it; I developed coping mechanisms. My time at university was much the same. Like many undergraduates my period of adjustment was difficult, but for me “difficult” meant periods of the blackest anguish.

Soon after graduating with my BA in history and political science I landed a job as a reporter for a country newspaper, a happy time and the first step in what would unfold to be a mostly satisfying career. Journalism was my solace.

The depression and its manifold symptoms continued, worsened, and were left untreated. I convinced myself that I was coping. The death of two brothers, my youngest, at 15, by his own hand, the other in a car crash at 22, within the space of four years, were largely suppressed as I buried myself in my work.

Learning to juggle career and depression seemed to be working, but I know now that I was simply delaying the inevitable crash.

Marriage and the birth of our three boys over 10 years provided me with a time of unconfined joy. But it was only a stay. As my beloved boys grew into their teens, the depression dug in, by now equally persistent at home and at work. That’s when my depression entered its most destructive phase: when work no longer provided a release for all that pent-up anguish.

And it all came crashing down

Despite doing what I regarded as my best work as a columnist for BRW and the Australian Financial Review, every word was a mountain. I found it hard to concentrate, my temper was getting shorter, and motivation was hard to find. At home, I had all but closed down. By the end of 2013, I couldn’t go on and took a voluntary redundancy from Fairfax. Just a few days into the new year, on the eve of our 25th anniversary, it was my wife who couldn’t go on. Our marriage collapsed and for the next six months I lived with my parents.

The grief and devastation was unbearable. In February, I asked my parents to drive me to my GP. I told them I had some test results to collect. In fact, I was there to seek help for my depression. In the waiting room I was unable to stem the silent flow of tears – not helped by the fact that there were young mothers with their toddlers in the room, bringing to mind sweet memories I could not handle. The receptionist noticed and kindly allowed me to wait in a private room.

The GP was visibly moved to see me in such a state. He referred me to a psychoanalyst, who I was able to see almost immediately.

The psychoanalyst was straight out of Central Casting: sandals, round-rim glasses, jeans, Viennese. He even had the archetypal couch in the corner of the room, although over the next half-dozen visits I never once used it. We talked, I cried, he asked questions that took me to faraway times and events, I cried some more.

Even in a daze I found myself admiring his forensic skill as an interviewer. It was like being in a dream. “Am I really seeing a psychiatrist?” At other times it was all too real, and raw, as he expertly but without fuss linked pieces of my seemingly scattered narrative into cohesive threads.

“I think I can make a diagnosis, but let’s talk again next week,” he said. (Let’s call him Max.) Max prescribed some sleeping pills – for the uninitiated, psychiatrists are medical doctors – and wrote out a referral for several pathology tests.

Those tests resulted in prescriptions for compound medicines, in addition to anti-depressants, as well as recommendations for various vitamins and supplements and the beginning, for the first time in my life, of an exercise regimen. I was so determined to get myself on top of things that I unconditionally accepted whatever was recommended.

By the end of the second visit, the diagnosis of clinical depression came as a great relief. Partly because it provided the basis for treatment, but also because it provided some validation or context for the way I had felt for so long. “You’ve never seen anyone about this?” Max asked more than once, shaking his head in disbelief. “I don’t know how you’ve gone this far without treatment.”

“This is very serious”

“Becoming unemployed can lead to depression, the breakdown of a marriage can lead to depression, but on top of that you have depression that goes back to your childhood which has gone untreated. This is very serious. You – must – have – treatment.”

This was not just a declaration. He wanted me to acknowledge the challenge ahead and to make a commitment to stay the course. I willingly made it.

“Getting stronger” – physically and mentally – was something Max spoke about often. I still longed for reconciliation with my wife. He’d seen enough marriage breakdowns to know what the odds were on that front, but he humoured me.

“There will be no reconciliation unless you are strong … You are no good to your wife or to your children unless you are a strong … They can’t be confident about the future if they see you like this.”

My challenge was to rebuild. An important part of my recovery was achieving a state of emotional equilibrium. Taking anti-depressants for the first time was a revelation. I had assumed that anti-depressants meant being in a perpetual torpor. Not so. I simply became me without the constant crying or sudden descent into melancholy. The medication kept a lid on all the cues that would normally set me off.

My diary entry for 21 February: “First day on anti-depressants. First day no tears.”

Max’s role was to see me in a fit state to progress to long-term clinical treatment. He recommended that I see both a psychotherapist (who can be a psychiatrist, but whose primary focus is helping patients gain an insight into their behaviour as the key to dealing with depression) and a psychiatrist, who would manage my long-term medication.

This was tricky, he explained, as psychotherapists often don’t like working in tandem with “psychopharmacologists” – psychiatrists who only provide prescriptions and manage medications. Max made his recommendations, undertook to write to them, urged me to make contact, and in the event that they agreed to work together, I would need to obtain referrals from my GP.

The psychotherapist (“Laurence”), a psychiatrist of some eminence, didn’t so much agree to collaborate with the workaday psychiatrist (“Harold”) as tolerate the fact that I was seeing him. In the eight months that I have seen Laurence he has never mentioned him or shown the slightest interest in what medication I am on.

Since April I have seen Laurence weekly. He has a couch, and it’s not a prop. Each week, I lie on the couch and he sits behind. In the early weeks he would simply say “Let’s begin” to start me off. I soon got the gist of proceedings, which was that once we were in position I would start talking. Sometimes Laurence would barely speak. Perhaps a “Mmm” here and an “interesting” there. Other times something would prick his curiosity and he would quiz me on something.

Bursting forth like a toxic torrent

There have been times when I think “What on earth am I going to talk about?”, but the moment I hit the leather the hurts, slights, torments and agonies from the past burst forth like a toxic torrent. All the while I hear heavy scribbling behind me. (I also soon discovered that while the Freudian Max loved picking my dreams apart, Laurence had no time for dreams.)

In addition to our weekly sessions, Laurence “recommends” that his patients also attend weekly group therapy sessions, which he oversees. These sessions can be like weekly soap operas and strangely compelling. The group comprises a core handful of Laurence’s patients. Occasionally a newcomer will show up, stay a few weeks and disappear. In the time that I have attended the group its membership has included lawyers, a university lecturer, an Anglican priest, a nurse … and a journalist. Some occupations go undiscovered. We only use first names, which provides sufficient anonymity for people to disclose the most horrific details of their lives.

Somehow, the stories in group therapy thread and intersect, with Laurence’s gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) guidance cajoling, stimulating and challenging; providing insight into our own lives even while we think we are discussing the choices, decisions and anxieties of others.

Harold, meanwhile, whom I see every month or so, is agnostic about therapy, and kindly dismissive of some of Max’s “holistic” approaches to care. Harold regulates my medication, trying to find that happy medium. It seems to be as much art as science.

But is it working? It’s early days yet. When I compare the mess I was at the beginning of the year with where I am today, the answer would have to be ‘yes’. But there’s nothing linear about this process. I have ups and downs, wins and losses, moods that still peak and trough.

Depression is not a tap that can be turned off and on. The flow of water is constant; it’s about managing (dare I say channelling) the stream.

A couple of months after I commenced my treatment I found myself feeling invincible. Marriage over? Fine, life goes on! Career to rebuild? No worries, the work’s pouring in and I might even write a couple of books while I’m at it. People kept telling me how good I looked. The first few times I took it as something that people say, but on one occasion I asked a former workmate, after she’d made the comment, what she meant. “The last couple of years at BRW you were walking around with a little black storm cloud above your head. We could all see it. The cloud’s not there anymore.”

This period of invincibility was perhaps a way of soaring above realities that still had to be dealt with. The high didn’t last. That would have been too neat and easy. There are more knocks to come; that’s just the way it is. But that light at the end of the tunnel is the best incentive I’ve got. My boys.

It’s all about my boys

I still miss my boys and try as I might I cannot come to terms with having to make times to see them. It’s not pleasant to have to make appointments to see your kids. And the one certainty is that no matter how enjoyable the time together may be, I always have to say goodbye to them as they return home – what until quite recently was “our home”.

My heart aches that I missed out on their school speech nights; that this year I wasn’t there to put up the Christmas tree as the boys gather to decorate it; that I won’t be part of the annual “family” holiday. I can’t help thinking of the milestones, parties, celebrations and gatherings that I will not be part of.

It’s fair to say that the boys – aged 19, 16 and 16 – seem to have made the adjustment to the new status quo much more easily than I. But the effort that goes into maintaining a relationship with my teen-aged sons today – as difficult as it may seem now – is about ensuring that we enjoy a more meaningful relationship for the long term. I get that.

In the meantime my grief and loss are still playing themselves out. Sometimes I’m above it, sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I’m clear eyed. (It might be time for Harold to rejig the medication again.) But for all that, what I am is resilient.

At the beginning of 2014 I was reclusive and inconsolable with grief; now I enjoy meeting up with friends, contacts and former work mates. I’m living in my own apartment and I relish those moments when I walk through the front door and feel that I’m “home”. I’m grateful and humbled that there are so many people who care about me, worry for me and respect me.

And without a hint of embarrassment I will say that I don’t know where I’d be without Twitter. Whatever my mood and disposition I can engage with some of the brightest and most interesting people in Australia and the world. And while we’re handing out accolades, my home away from home, the Saint & Rogue, is up there as well.

Professionally, what pleases me is not that there is so much work flowing in, but that what I am producing is finding its mark with readers, editors and in many cases, me. I hope that 2015 will be even more fruitful. And, yes, that includes plans for at least one book.

Last year, having given my reasons for writing about my depression, I concluded: “But most of all there is a very personal reason for this column. I am drawing a line in the sand: I am going to beat this thing.” How’s that going? The battle’s not won, but I am winning.

And a final word: if you’re suffering from depression: get help. Now.

The original piece: My life-long battle with depression: the rest of my life starts now, 4 April 2014.