Patronising, crass and condescending: it’s time to end the Vinnies CEO Sleepout

The only time my back-page column at the Australian Financial Review was spiked was when I wrote that the St Vincent de Paul Society’s annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout was well-meaning but patronising, crass and condescending. But it was not what I wrote about the venerable “Vinnies” that concerned my skittish editors and the Fairfax defamation lawyer.

My biggest spray was reserved for the corporate grandees that sign up to pretend to be homeless for one night, doing it tough “with only a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”. The CEO Sleepout was and remains a PR stunt of the most cynical kind, this year rendered even more offensive by providing CEOs with virtual-reality goggles to heighten the “experience” of being homeless.

In my Financial Review column I named several of the CEOs on mega-million salaries who were going through this faux sacrifice, CEOs who could write a cheque that could easily eclipse the amount they were raising.

“And when they emerge from their doubtless uncomfortable night, many will hop into their chauffeur-driven limousines, luxury cars or family four-wheel-drives to be taken to the comfort and warmth of their Toorak mansions (or five-star hotels, for those who have travelled first-class from interstate). Unlike the homeless Australians in whose name this event takes place, these self-satisfied campers have a home to go to.”

So why does this event cause me such unease? It might seem harmless enough. Leaders from business, government and the community get to “experience what it is like to be homeless for one night in winter” and in the process raise awareness of homelessness and raise money to help the charity’s work with the homeless.

St Vincent de Paul is to be saluted for its vital work in the community but who is not aware of the national shame that is Australia’s homelessness?

Homelessness is getting worse not better

For all the awareness being raised, homelessness is getting worse not better. Anyone walking through the Melbourne CBD will know that the homeless, once barely visible, now occupy vantage points throughout the city. When the men and women can’t be seen, their bedding can. It’s unlikely that there is a city worker who has not been approached at least once by a homeless person seeking money.

Anyone taking the train into the city can see bedding along the Yarra; anyone who walks through the city will almost certainly strike the detritus of makeshift sleeping quarters on benches, in alcoves and on the street. Bedding can even be seen in the Botanic Gardens.

As well as the horrors of being homeless men and women sleeping rough are increasingly finding themselves subjected to assault, theft and rape.

The homeless have never been more visible. When a deranged motorist ploughed through pedestrian traffic in January, among the eye-witnesses interviewed by TV news crews were homeless Melbournians; as they were in June when a motorist drove along a Swanston Street footpath (in this case taking aim at bank premises rather than pedestrians).

Police earlier this year were required to remove around 20 homeless people who had made camp outside Flinders Street Station on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, the arising pitch battles making for uncomfortable viewing.

We have all the awareness we need. Homelessness has reached epidemic proportions. While politicians celebrate Australia’s economy as one of the successful in the world the number of homeless Australians grows before our eyes.

Have we not seen enough stories about homeless people – very often women escaping family violence – living in their cars? There are so many Australians “sleeping rough” that they no longer fit a smug stereotype. They are all of us.

An annual PR staple

The ABC recently ran a story about Stephanie who fled her abusive husband five years ago and had to leave her 20-year nursing career. For the past two years she has lived out of her van. She wants to get back into nursing but just surviving is a job in itself.

“My whole life has just been disrupted by homelessness,” she says.

“I don’t have stable accommodation, I don’t have a place of safety. I don’t have enough rest so I wouldn’t be able to meet the practical terms of getting to my job and be reliable enough and be awake and switched on enough.”

Try as I might to see the best in the Vinnies CEO Sleep Out, I find it crass and condescending. For many companies it has become an annual PR staple. While it is obviously not the intention of organisers, or the participants, the Sleepout mocks the homeless. It would take only a moment’s reflection to understand that this is so.

Participants could easily sign a cheque for such trifling amounts without their much-publicised “sacrifice”. For many of the business leaders who take part in this patronising gesture, the money raised is mere pocket money.

I get what St Vincents is trying to do, and in previous years when I’ve written about this, I’ve been contacted by business people who feel genuinely hurt by my observations and who insist that they simply want to do their bit. In which case they would be better off manning soup kitchens, handing out blankets and distributing food parcels.

Rather than photos of self-satisfied CEOs posing next to their pieces of cardboard, it would be far more heartening to hear from our leading chief executives what they are doing to stamp out the scourge of homelessness. What programs do the companies represented have in place to rehabilitate, employ and skill the most marginalised in our community?

Tell us about that and spare us the hollow claims of “sleeping rough”. We need to hear how wealthy executives and entrepreneurs are sharing their smarts and good fortune to improve society. Forget the camping. Just tell us how you are building a better, fairer society and you might inspire others to follow your lead. That’s the sort of awareness we’re looking for.

And St Vincents: we know your heart is in the right place, but it’s time to put the CEO Sleepout to bed.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

 

 

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Calling myself names: people are often curious about my surname – this is how it came to be

Like all journalists my work involves speaking to a lot of people from a wide spread of backgrounds. While I ask most of the questions, there is one question that I am asked more than any other: “Where does your surname come from?”

I don’t mind being asked; it is, I suppose, an unusual double-barrelled surname and I can understand that it arouses some curiosity. Personally, I’ve never been tempted to quiz anybody about their double-handled moniker. I assume it’s either a traditional (or “heritable”) family name or a latter-day creation arising from marriage which may or may not endure.

My attitude to names is strictly aesthetic and I have never been fond of my original name Leo D’Angelo. It was never to my liking, but it was as a byline that it caused me the most irritation. I could never quite put my finger on my distaste for it; possibly because both names ended in ‘o’, but I think the closest I can come to an explanation is the name’s lack of symmetry.

When my wife and I decided to marry I suggested that we adopt a joint surname and she was agreeable. She was the Fisher.

We planned to marry in January 1989, immediately after which we were to travel to Hong Kong, where I was to join Far East Business magazine as deputy editor (I was with BRW at the time). To ensure that out passports carried out new names we went to the office of Births, Deaths and Marriages to make the changes – a remarkably simple process.

Adding my wife’s name to mine was a statement of my adoration for her but also an opportunity to recalibrate my name. It was a decision made much easier by the fact that I liked the name Fisher.

I put quite some thought into my new name. I decided that I would carry the two names without a hyphen. I also weighed up whether I preferred Leo D’Angelo Fisher or Leo Fisher D’Angelo. Again, the only consideration at this point was aesthetics and I chose the former.

When we emerged from the office we compared documents and I discovered that, contrary to our original plan, my wife had opted to make D’Angelo one of her middle names. I thought it an odd thing to do, but I considered the matter of names to be strictly one for her. As far as I was concerned deciding to retain her surname was entirely reasonable.

“If she really loved you…”

Our respective parents were not so sanguine. My wife’s father, a gentle but straight-laced fellow, was of the view that, as dictated by tradition, my wife should have adopted my surname. My parents, meanwhile, were apoplectic with indignation. “If she really loved you she would take your name,” they both argued. The issue was the only occasion that both sets of parents caucused to register their joint disapproval. Despite some lobbying, my wife and I stood firm.

In time my parents grew to love my wife, but the furore over the name was enough for them to view my marriage in very frosty terms.

Six years later, when our first of three sons was born, the matter of the name resurfaced. While I had my own reasons for adopting the twin-surname I was unfussed as to whether our children should carry my name. We agreed that they would be Fishers, with each of the boys having D’Angelo as their middle name. My parents stewed in silence.

My decision to become Leo D’Angelo Fisher was not without incident, comical and otherwise.

One editor, who knew me by my original name, initially refused to run my new byline – a matter not without irony – arguing that I could either have Leo D’Angelo or Leo Fisher, but not both. I had to produce documentary evidence that this was my name and that’s the byline I insisted upon. He eventually relented.

On another occasion, while we were living in Brisbane, where I was deputy editor of Business Queensland newspaper, my in-laws came to visit. At the time the newspaper was having a staff conference at Noosa, so my in-laws stayed at the same hotel. During an evening function I introduced the Fishers to Business Queensland’s publisher, an urbane American of considerable charm, who immediately assumed they were my parents. “What a great pleasure to meet Leo’s parents,” he gushed with great fanfare. After lavishing praise on “their son” it was considered too awkward to set the publisher straight. For the duration of the conference, the Fishers were my parents.

When my wife and I divorced after 25 years of marriage, the matter of my surname did not arise. As far as I was concerned it was a given that I would retain it. It was my name; it was my byline. And so it remains. I have not enquired whether my wife still bears her unusual middle name.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

 

It would be a great achievement, but we should drop the bumper-sticker promise to halve the number of suicides in 10 years

There’s something distasteful about politicians promising to halve the number of suicides in 10 years. That’s the commitment of the Victorian government. It’s also the policy that federal Labor leader Bill Shorten took to the electorate at this year’s election. But can it really be that simple? Can the tragic epidemic of suicide be solved as an equation? In just 10 years?

Despite the epic dimensions of the suicide crisis in Australia – each year 2000-plus Australians end their own lives – politicians have mostly looked the other way. But suicide has finally made it on to the political agenda, thanks to the tireless efforts of mental health activists.

It is just like politicians to reduce suicide to a mindless slogan, a mathematical fancy, oblivious to the agonising and very personal hell that each case of suicide represents. We cannot know what torment tears at the heart and mind of someone who feels he has no choice but to take his own life. Stephen Fry speaks of the “blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness” of depression, and so it must be with suicide. Suicide is an escape from an unremitting and deeply ingrained hell.

Despite the unimaginable burdens that suicide victims carry, when they finally do take their own lives, even the closest family and friends report no clues or warning signs beforehand.

So, while halving the suicide rate in 10 years might sound a worthy and decisive goal, given the complex, personal, determined and often very secretive nature of suicide, how can politicians make this bold, not to say rash, commitment with such confidence? There is no doubt that carefully targeted strategies can prevent some suicides from occurring – particularly in communities with a high prevalence of suicide and suicide attempts – but it’s also true, if you will forgive the black turn of phrase, that suicide has a life of its own. No effort should be spared to reach every potential suicide victim, but bumper-sticker targets only trivialise the agony that somebody contemplating suicide must experience. Australia’s suicide epidemic is much more complex than such such neat targets allow for.

To some extent politicians can be let off the hook on this occasion because the ambitious and catchy promise to halve suicide in 10 years originated with the experts.

Three years ago this month an Expert Reference Group (ERG) on Mental Health Reform – headed by Allan Fels – presented a series of targets to then new Health Minister Peter Dutton which included the recommendation to reduce Australia’s suicide rate by 10% within four years and 50% within 10 years. (Another target was to “reduce stigma against those living with mental illness” by 25% within 10 years, which seems a somewhat nebulous goal.)

Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia and ERG member said at the time that the targets “have come from the mental health sector and the wider community”.

“Holding ourselves responsible to specific targets is essential to mental health reform,” Heath said. “They are ambitious targets but Australia can meet them – if we put our minds to it.”

The target strategy is well understood in business, as reflected in two well-worn management maxims: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; and if you don’t know where you’re heading, you’ll never get there.

‘Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years’

The National Coalition for Suicide Prevention (NCSP) believes targets, when supported by “evidence-based strategies”, are attainable.

Professor Helen Christensen, NCSP member and director of the Black Dog Institute, says such strategies have helped to reduce suicide by 30% in Europe.

“Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years in Australia and just doing what we have always done is not really going to make any difference to those rates,” Christensen told the ABC last year.

“It has been a scattergun approach and funding has been distributed in a non-organised way. Initiatives are very fragmented and some are run by the government and others by NGOs.”

Christensen rejects the view that suicide is “an individual thing” and therefore not preventable: “[T]he evidence is very clearly the case that we can prevent suicide.”

There can be no ignoring the tragic proportions of suicide in Australia – and therefore the need for action – but until recently that’s exactly what has happened.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data released in March, there were 2,864 deaths from “intentional self-harm” in 2014, making suicide the 13th leading cause of deaths in Australia. (Around 65,000 attempted suicide.) Three-quarters (75.4%) of people who died by suicide were male, elevating suicide to the 10th leading cause of death for males.

Suicide is endemically rooted in Australian society. Annual death tolls are remarkably consistent and suicide is the most common cause of death among Australians aged 15-44. At the beginning of this century (2001), 2,457 Australians took their own lives, similar to the toll in 2013 (2,522) and 2012 (2,574). The 2014 spike is the highest since 1997, when 2,720 died by suicide.

It seems remarkable given such colossal loss of life that it has taken this long for politicians to confront Australia’s suicide epidemic. That they have finally done so is only because mental health activists have been relentless in their calls for government action.

Activists took full advantage of this being an election year to make suicide a policy priority for the major parties.

During the election campaign, an alliance of leading mental health advocates led by former CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia and inaugural chairman of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, John Mendoza, released suicide data in 28 federal electorates to stir candidates and MPs into supporting a national suicide-prevention strategy.

Its analysis of the 28 electorates found that between 2009-12 suicide rates exceeded the road toll and all but five had suicide rates at “high to extreme in levels”.

Any other cause of death at such magnitudes would have resulted in “a very assertive, nationally co-ordinated response”, Mendoza said. “Suicide and self-harm are now major public health problems in Australia that require a [national] public health response.”

To the credit of Mendoza and other suicide-prevention activists, this year has seen promising if belated political recognition of the need for concerted action on suicide.

‘No parent should ever bury their child’

Bill Shorten adopted the experts’ target of halving suicide rates over the next decade when he announced that a Labor government would invest $72 million to establish 12 regional suicide-prevention pilot programs in communities with high suicide rates, including in at least three indigenous communities.

Describing suicide as a “hidden story in this country” – in fact, not hidden, just ignored – Shorten also pledged $9 million for a national suicide prevention fund to support research into reducing suicides and programs to break down social stigma.

“Teenagers are taking days off school to attend the funerals of classmates who have taken their own life,” he said.

“Parents are sitting at kitchen tables, numb with incomprehension, shattered by grief, trying to write a eulogy for their child. No parent should ever bury their child. Yet seven Australians die every day at their own hand, every single day.”

Shorten didn’t get the chance to implement his promises, but for the first time a party of government had placed suicide front and centre on the national political agenda.

Victoria’s Labor government led by Premier Daniel Andrews is, however, in the position to implement a suicide-prevention strategy in his state. In 2015, 646 Victorians took their own lives.

“We cannot sit back and do nothing, and somehow accept that it is just the way things are,” Andrews said.

In July, he announced a strategy to halve Victoria’s suicide rate over the next 10 years by targeting at-risk communities.

The government has committed $27 million towards community-based support trials that will be implemented through sporting clubs, schools and other local networks. The program will also provide intensive support for people who have previously attempted suicide at six suicide hot spots throughout state.

The Victorian program will be implemented in 2017.

In August, an “integrated suicide prevention program” was launched in NSW with backing from the NSW Government, Commonwealth Primary Health Networks (PHN) and a $15 million grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

Based on successful European models, the “Lifespan” program was developed by the Black Dog Institute and the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention.

The “evidence-based systems approach” will be implemented in four regional locations in NSW and involves the implementation of nine suicide-prevention strategies, including improved access to mental health care, quality education programs for people at the front line (emergency staff, teachers, GPs) and encouraging safe conversations about suicide in schools, workplaces and communities.

It is estimated that this new evidence-based program will reduce the suicide rate by at least 20% in “a few years” and suicide attempts by 30%.

These are welcome initiatives and hopefully herald ongoing government efforts to reduce the incidence of suicide in Australia.

Perhaps the “halving suicide in 10 years” promise was a clever ruse by savvy mental health activists to reel in politicians who tend to see things in terms of slogans and catchphrases. Given that politicians have notoriously short attention spans, it might also have been an attempt to lock them in for  10 years.

With suicide now on the political agenda, it might be best if we never hear again about halving suicide in a decade. Such promises have a way of turning into political red herrings that overshadow and even derail original good intentions. We need only recall Bob Hawke’s sincere but doomed “by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”.

We don’t need the artificial inspiration of arbitrary targets when it comes to the scourge of suicide – or child poverty, for that matter – we must simply acknowledge the problem and ensure that governments take the best-informed actions to overcome it. At long last, we now appear to be on that path.

In the meantime, as a community we can play our part by bringing suicide out in the open and ensuring that it never again becomes a “hidden story”. We must talk about it, we must confront it and we must do everything we can to understand and overcome this corrosive epidemic which is killing so many of our young people, and many others, in communities around Australia.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, help is available from Lifeline ­(13 11 14), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800).

 

That cartoon: I was wrong, and so were you Bill

I was prepared to give Bill Leak the benefit of the doubt over his infamous cartoon in The Australian in which he portrayed an Aboriginal child being handed back by an Aboriginal policeman to an apparently drunk father, holding a can of VB, who cannot remember his son’s name.

Policeman: “You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.”

Father: “Yeah, righto, what’s his name then?”

My instinctive reaction was to recoil at Leak being branded a racist. Not because I know Leak (I do not) or have any personal knowledge of whether he is a racist or not, but because it is such a big accusation to level at anyone. ‘Surely an editorial cartoonist should be able to make his statement without being labelled a racist’, was the gist of my initial response.

My first reaction was not to the cartoon itself. But it should have been, particularly coming as it did so soon after the ABC’s revelations about the unpardonable treatment of Aboriginal youths in Darwin’s Don Dale detention centre and the subsequent calling of the Royal Commission.

I should have looked at that cartoon. I should have thought not “freedom of speech” but at how others would see it, particularly members of the indigenous community, and especially loving Aboriginal dads and their kids.

The one good to come out of the Leak cartoon controversy was the spontaneous and emotionally charged #IndigenousDads campaign on Twitter. And it was a great good. The outpouring of love, tributes, defiance and anger at being so unfairly – and horribly – stereotyped by Leak’s cartoon was and continues to be social media at its best. Photos of dads and their kids, posted by proud and loving fathers and children alike, were just too beautiful for my inadequate words.

In defence of his cartoon Leak insisted that it spoke the “truth” about violence and abuse in indigenous communities. But whatever truth Leak may have felt compelled to highlight, the timing of the cartoon was always going to overshadow his message, such as it was.

Coming as it did in the wake of the Don Dale scandal, it is hard not to see – immediately or, as in my case, on reflection – that the cartoon might as well have been a submission to the Royal Commission that the indigenous communities have only themselves to blame.

Even if the cartoon was conceived with the best intentions, it is yet another example of European smugness, more of that “this is for your own good” crap which has worked so well in the past.

#IndigenousDads

It is not good enough to protest that the cartoon simply shined a light on the violence and abuse in indigenous communities. Indigenous leaders know about those problems; they do not need reminding by The Australian. And those failings certainly should not be portrayed as if they are the sum total of Aboriginal Australia, to be represented in culturally loaded images and attitudes as old as European Australian itself.

#IndigenousDads was a timely and powerful reminder that non-indigenous Australians should look beyond discredited stereotypes in how we continue to see Aborigines. The fact that cartoons like Leak’s still appear reinforces the sad reality that most Australians do not know, do not see, do not socialise with Aboriginal Australians. If more non-indigenous Australians had blackfellas as neighbours, we might think it less acceptable that they be portrayed as they were in Leak’s cartoon.

Leak’s response to the criticism was to present a second version of the cartoon in which a perplexed and defeated Leak is being handed over by the same Aboriginal policeman to an enraged trendoid wearing a Twitter t-shirt and carrying a club and a noose.

“This bloke’s been telling the truth and he thinks it’s funny,” the policeman says.

“Let me at ‘im,” the one-man lynch mob yells.

I can see that Leak’s supporters might have been sympathetic to this portrayal, but in many respects I thought it was even more offensive than the first. It shows that there was no reflection on Leak’s part, nor any appreciation of how others might have seen his original cartoon. Leak’s portrayal of himself as the misunderstood victim makes a mockery of the systemic disadvantage and oppression of so many indigenous Australians over generations. Frankly, if Leak felt compelled to keep digging with a follow-up cartoon, you’d think it would be to defiantly present his middle finger than to bleat “poor me”.

The fact that Leak obviously concludes that the lesson to be taken from this experience is that it’s all about him reveals, if nothing else, a breathtaking lack of empathy and, worryingly for an editorial cartoonist, under-appreciation of irony.

‘Confronting and insightful’, tin-eared or just plain racist?

I remain an admirer of Bill Leak as one of our finest cartoonists. But what are we to make of this latest upset? Did the controversial cartoon reveal Leak’s inner racist, or as his critics insist yet again confirm his overt racism? His cartoon certainly provided succour to racists.

Right or wrong, editorial cartoonists tend not to back down. By the time they sign that cartoon they are prepared to defend it come hell or high Twitter. Perhaps it is their strength of conviction that gives them the daring to continually challenge readers and those they satire. To start second-guessing themselves would make their job almost impossible.

If Leak was simply too tin-eared and too close to his cartoon to understand the true dimensions of his creation, his editor had no such excuse.

In its response to the furore, The Australian issued this statement: “Bill Leak’s confronting and insightful cartoons force people to examine the core issues in a way that sometimes reporting and analysis can fail to do.”

Not untrue of itself, but in this instance we can dismiss it for the blah that it is.

What Leak’s editor should have said when the cartoon was presented was: “Bill, I get what you’re saying, but there are messages here I don’t think you intend or appreciate.”

And when Leak inevitably would have protested that The Australian could take it or leave it, the editor should have responded: “Well, Bill, we’ll leave it then.”

You were wrong on this one, Bill, and it’s not too late to admit it. I think your cartoon mentioned something about personal responsibility.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

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.

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.

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.