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.

Sex at home may be on the wane, but the office romance is alive and well

A recent “sexual health study” – the Australian Study of Health and Relationships – found that Australians are having less sex at home. University of NSW sexual health researcher (nice work if you can get it) Professor Juliet Richters believes she has the reason for that.

“We think it might be the intrusion into people’s home lives of work – checking your work emails last thing before you go to bed [and] taking your laptop to bed,” she explains.

Sounds plausible. The scene is easily imagined. “Sorry dear, it’s an email regarding the Henderson account; I’d best deal with it, my promotion is riding on this.” Sex versus the Henderson account? The Henderson account it is, especially if you’re a self-important tosser.

But perhaps there’s another reason why Australians are more interested in their laptops than their partners’ laps when at home – and at this point it should be stressed that the survey concerned itself with heterosexual couples. Which either means that homosexual couples are banging away like gates in a storm, or they’re going to be part of a separate study.

So, back to John and Betty. Perhaps it’s not so much about the intrusion of work as work is where the action is.

Whatever else may be happening at home, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, the office romance is alive and well.

The office romance is very much part of the office furniture. And very often between or on the furniture. Which might be the only thing going for clean desk policies. It saves a lot of packing and unpacking for those amorous colleagues who like to give true meaning to “hot desking”.

For as long as there have been workplaces, so too have there been office trysts. The modern workplace is arguably even more conducive to runaway passions. People are spending longer at work and working under intense pressure. It’s hardly surprising that colleagues working in close proximity to each other for such long periods will eventually find themselves moving from spreadsheets to bedsheets.

At it like public servants

The public service is a particular hotbed of industry. Of a sexual kind, that is. Real industry is a little less common. Our tax dollars still mostly go to funding meetings whose primary purpose is to decide on more meetings, reports that conclude further study is required, and workshops aimed at increasing productivity while keeping bureaucrats away from their desks for days at a time.

Public servants generally like to marry public servants, so government departments are like dating services with lunch breaks. And never let it be said that public servants don’t know the meaning of the word efficiency: bureaucrats find that the workplace is not only a useful place to find a life partner, but an illicit lover as well. It’s what is known as a “one stop shop” in the private sector.

The interstate or overseas conference is a boon to workplace romances. If the PITs – partners in tryst – are senior enough, there is the happy and regular coincidence of both needing to attend the same conference.

Even when there is no conference, it is an easy ruse to claim to one’s partner that there is, thus conveniently explaining one’s absence from the spousal home.

The risk inherent in any office romance is being caught out. Not that there is such a thing as a secret office romance; it’s simply understood that nobody is supposed to know and generally everyone plays along. Whoever coined “open secret” must have had the office romance in mind.

The following delicious yarn no doubt has many variants in workplaces across the land, but it will illustrate how easy it is for office romances to come unstuck.

A middle-ranking “team leader” who was having an affair with a female colleague, a member of his team, decided it was time to step up, and spice up, his office romance. That’s when he hit on the idea of the bogus conference.

Whenever he wished to spend the night with his office consort he informed his wife that he had to fly interstate for a meeting.

The subterfuge extended to him arriving at work with an overnight trolley bag, a matter of derision for all those who knew the score. The scheme unravelled when the philanderer’s wife rang one afternoon to enquire which hotel he was staying at. Unfortunately, one of the few people who did not know about the deception – or more likely she did – informed his wife: “Oh, I can see him at his desk now, I’ll put you through.”

Office romance bingo

People involved in office romances go to great lengths to keep their relationships secret. Everyone knows, but the charade plays on: the meaningful glances across the partitions, exaggerated attempts to keep a po face when passing in the corridor and, for public servants, the furtive brushing of cardigans in the tea room.

The elaborate secrecy can be tiresome but it can also be entertaining in its absurdity. The carefully staged separate arrivals and departures, the angry disagreements at meetings to demonstrate their professional objectivity, the cunning small talk: “Did you have a good weekend?”

Those in the know can amuse themselves with Office Romance Bingo at meetings. Furtive glance across the table: tick. Knowing smile when the other speaks: tick. Double entendres, “That’s a good idea, Malcolm… maybe we should suck it and see”: tick. Or yick.

There is something about furniture that office romantics find irresistible. The boss’s desk is a favoured after-hours pit stop, likewise desks of unpopular colleagues.

The growing popularity of open-plan offices means that those who prefer to be surrounded by four walls – rather than 40 partitions – when interfacing with a colleague don’t have as many options. The meeting room is always a favourite. Here the boardroom table becomes the office furniture equivalent of the king-size bed.

The executive and his PA who decided one fateful night to use the boardroom table as their place of congress thought they were safe from prying eyes but alas were caught in flagrante delicto by a colleague who happened to drop by. Mutterings about working late were exchanged and no more was said. Except for the giant love-heart that appeared on the meeting-room whiteboard the next day.

For three people at least, attending meetings around that table would never be the same again.

As long as there are offices, the office romance will continue to blossom. Unfortunately the office is an endangered species. As companies increasingly shrink their workspaces, preferring employees to work “off site”, the office romance may go the same way as the filing cabinet and the tea break.

Researchers may find that’s when “sexual health” in the home stages a remarkable recovery.

Commuter trains from hell: another morning of backpack warriors, office turtles and hamburgers with the lot

Common courtesy is not so common anymore. Certainly not on public transport. And as for trains – troughs on wheels – you will only find manners, courtesy and consideration if you google them on your mobile device.
Commuter travel has become intolerable. Any day now I expect some passengers – or “customers” as they are now known – to come on board with a couple of chooks and a kero stove to make fresh eggs for breakfast, and perhaps a goat for a lovely glass of organic milk afterwards.
At their worst, modern train travellers are (in alphabetical order) boorish, illmannered, inconsiderate, loud, vulgar, selfish and may or may not have their own teeth.
While the authorities can justify placing considerable effort and resources into apprehending fare evaders, the operator of Melbourne’s train system, Metro, appears helpless to stop the vandals, graffiti gangs and takeaway food-ferals from turning train carriages into aftermath scenes from Glastonbury.
Trains are crowded and clearly illdesigned and illequipped for the throngs they must carry.
Granted, the crush of public transport travel is simply a reality of a busy, growing urban population. Unfortunately, most of our fellow travellers choose not to observe certain norms of behaviour that would make travel as comfortable – or at least tolerable – as possible for all concerned. That’s where the public transport experience falls down. Most commuters couldn’t give a stuff about anyone else.
What makes public transport travel to and from work such an ordeal is not so much the overcrowding but the astonishing rudeness and lack of consideration that one daily encounters within the heaving, graffiti-laden walls of public conveyances.
The rudeness starts when the train stops at the platform. Instead of waiting for people to get off before boarding, unthinking passengers desperate to secure a space charge into the bulging carriage. The ensuing contest of opposing forces resembles a cross between the Battle of Beersheba and World Championship Wrestling.
Occasionally one will hear a warrior-passenger cry: “Would you mind moving down the carriage please, there’s plenty of room!”. Those on the train hanging on for dear life will be wondering exactly where that room might be.
But it’s also true that there is the territorial passenger who manages to occupy a strategic standing position, as near the door as possible, who will not move to make way for oncoming passengers come what may.
If there does happen to be an unoccupied seat, usually a corner island of torn, tattered and food-encrusted upholstery located within a heaving mass of humanity and their possessions, there will always be someone who makes it their mission to claim it. Usually it’s someone of considerable mass, carrying enough hand-held and strapped-on baggage to resemble a one-person Burke and Wills expedition, with the force, determination and rudeness to burrow through any throng. It’s the commuter equivalent of Taz the Warner Bros cartoon Tasmanian Devil getting from A to B with maximum disruption.
I have observed more than once somebody cause considerable mayhem and upset to claim a seat, only to alight one or two stops later.
Meet the Office Turtles
Once on board, the carriage is mostly populated by office turtles. They are instantly recognisable: business attire incongruously offset by backpacks, giant white sports shoes and a flurry of wires.
The office turtles are not a generational oddity, nor is the phenomenon defined by gender. One of the regular turtles I used to encounter was a woman of approximately 60 years, prim and proper in outwardly appearance, neatly attired in grey, lips pursed, most likely a secretary – she was almost a caricature of the no-nonsense PA: except for the giant white runners and a backpack the size of Townsville. Anyone who stood between a seat and Miss Daisy was about to have their morning ruined.
Despite the cramped conditions, office turtles generally keep their backpacks on, much to the discomfort of whoever happens to be standing behind them. More than once I have been in danger of being smothered by a burly backpack. When I dare to push them aside, it’s I who get the look for being rude.
And who knew that Chanel makes backpacks? The tossers who wear them still look like office turtles, but very posh turtles. And they don’t look as if they’re moving house because Chanel backpacks are very dainty. It’s only a matter of time before Chanel produces commuter sports shoes.
Office turtles behave as if they are the only ones on the train. They are not only a visual blight, but a risk to life and limb.
Those few who are considerate enough to remove their backpacks on the train show no such courtesy when, with great exaggeration, they swing their backpacks back on as the train reaches their stop. Many a time have I received a full-force blow by an airborne backpack – and never a murmur of apology. There is no such thing as backpack etiquette on public transport: it’s every turtle for himself.
Basic passenger etiquette is a thing of the past. It is no longer the norm, for example, for people to cover their mouths when yawning. Scores of passengers doing their best imitations of somnolent hippos are not a pretty sight. A young person once looked at me with some curiosity as I yawned, and then I realised that she had probably never seen somebody cover their mouth when yawning before.
Cracking one’s knuckles is another popular sport on trains. Few sounds are more disgusting than somebody methodically cracking their knuckles one by one. Some do it with a bit of a flourish, like that swipe of the keyboard that some pianists favour when they complete their bouncy number. But it’s still noisy and disgusting.
Feeling peckish for a peak-hour snack
More than any other breach of consideration for others is eating on the train. No matter how crowded and uncomfortable, there is always someone, morning or late afternoon, who feels the urge to tuck into a hamburger with the lot, a bucket of KFC or very often, by the sounds of it, bags of gravel.
I have stood next to someone on a crowded train, eyeball to eyeball, who munched away merrily on carrot sticks. The unseemly experience was not only noisy, but pungent. Somehow he was able to negotiate a bag of carrot sticks and a tub of exotic dipping sauce while maintaining his balance.
Construction workers enjoying takeaway curry, office girls with bottomless bags of nuts, university students and office workers with steaming bags of McDonald’s, and there’s always someone with a juicy, crunchy apple.
A few days ago an office worker got on the train and proceeded to pour milk and cereal into a bowl and crunched away for the next several stops, right down to the tap-tap-tapping of the bottom of her plastic bowl to ensure every last morsel was devoured. Unspeakable.
It ‘s now fashionable to come on board with cups of takeaway coffee. These people really can’t wait until they get to their destination to have a cup of coffee? Or have it at home? Apparently not. So, on crowded morning trains people are nursing cups of coffee, avoiding swinging backpacks as they take furtive sips. I know that one day I’m going to end up wearing somebody’s morning brew – sooner or latte.
Worse than passengers rude enough to eat on crowded trains is passengers who insist on devouring each other. I refer to young newbie lovers intent on demonstrating their undying love for each other, oblivious to the delicate constitutions of others, most notably mine.
One of these days some idiot is going to get on his knees and propose marriage to his one true love. He best not be too close as there is every chance he will find himself at the receiving end of a technicolour yawn (apologies to Barry McKenzie).
On top of these outrages against good taste is the scourge of interminable mobile phone conversations and the audio pollution of invasive “personal” music devices, which emit the dubious musical tastes of their owners.
All of this is not just about trains. The crowded trains are a microcosm of wider society and its preoccupation with self. Perhaps the lack of consideration for others and the primacy of individual comfort is a coping mechanism for the pressures of life in the new century.
Such onslaughts against civility – the overcrowding, the selfishness, the boorish excesses – will only get worse as populations climb. There’s always something to look forward to on public transport. And watch out for goats.

Canberra wants to stop the boats, Bendigo wants to stop the mosques: this is what happens when leaders stop leading

Comments on social media reflect the shame and heartbreak that many Australians feel over the Abbott government’s hard-line asylum seeker policies: the inhumanity of Manus Island and Nauru detention centres; the intransigence and belligerence of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison; and most recently Tony Abbott’s egregious inducement of $10,000 for detention centre detainees to return to their countries of origin.

It’s not just the Abbott government that has maintained its rigid stance on asylum seekers.

The federal Labor caucus recently squibbed its chance to set right Australia’s internationally decried refugee policy when it voted against WA MP Melissa Parke’s motion to abandon offshore processing.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd didn’t want to be seen as soft on asylum seekers either. He devised the “PNG solution” on the eve of the 2013 election, vowing to send all future asylum seekers to PNG for resettlement. “From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” said Rudd who three years earlier lamented that Australia’s asylum seeker policy would shift to the right under his successor Julia Gillard.

Under Gillard’s ill-conceived and unrealised East Timor and Malaysian “solutions” Labor’s asylum seeker policy did lurch to the right, but by the time Rudd returned to office last year, he declined to assert his much trumpeted Labor values.

To understand why Australia’s asylum seeker policy is so fixedly skewed on such an inhumane course, it’s necessary to return to the operative word in the opening paragraph: “many” Australians feel uncomfortable with Canberra’s treatment of refugees. But not most.

Since John Howard hit a rich electoral vein with his unabashed demonisation of asylum seekers, successive governments have dared not tamper (or Tampa) with his formula for political success. The deeply unpopular Howard government seemed set for defeat at the 2001 election, when along came the Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa and its cargo of 438 refugees rescued from international waters.

Tampa’s captain Arne Rinnan was refused permission by the Howard government to land the refugees on Australian soil. Within days the government introduced the Border Protection Bill to lend legislative confirmation to action which had been condemned internationally, and devised the “Pacific Solution”, whereby asylum seekers would be sent to Nauru for processing.

Howard’s “border protection” mantra

Right on cue followed the September 11 terrorist bombings in the US – which the Howard government used as vindication for its tough stance on Tampa; and in October came the “Children Overboard” affair, with senior ministers falsely claiming that asylum seekers intercepted by the Navy near Christmas Island had thrown children overboard from their stricken vessel in order to be rescued and taken to Australia.

Howard knew that his “border protection” mantra had struck a chord and that public opinion was on his side. “These are people we do not want, people who throw their children overboard,” said Howard at his most un-prime ministerial.

Howard stuck to the theme in the lead up to the November election. During his campaign launch speech on 28 October 2001, he delivered this infamous line, since parroted by the Abbott government: “[W]e will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

These events are a black stain on Australian politics, but they accorded with the views of most Australians.

The Howard government won in a landslide, John Howard the warrior PM was born, and the template was set for asylum seeker policy in Australia: “illegal immigrants” and “queue jumpers” were demonised as potential terrorists and any political party soft on asylum seekers was decried as a danger to national security.

Australia’s inhumane policy on asylum seekers has bipartisan foundations: the Liberal National Coalition, despite some internal disquiet, is at home with its warlike posturing; and Labor, in particular Bill Shorten, is too afraid to show leadership on the issue.

This immovable stalemate – a connivance of political will and political cowardice – has led to the unspeakable suffering, anguish, mental deterioration, suicide and unlawful death of asylum seekers in faraway detention centres. While many Australians feel disquiet, even disgust, most are prepared to look the other way.

Australia has the policy it does on asylum seekers because focus groups and polls tell the major parties that they are in sync with popular opinion. Or it may be just a collective wink of the eye – Tony Abbott would understand that signal – but it gives the government the confidence to proceed with its inhumane policy.

There remains a strong thread of xenophobia, if not racism, that runs through the community. Witness the current highly organised protest against the building of a mosque in the Victorian regional city of Bendigo.

Bendigo: Australia on show

What began as a grassroots campaign has attracted the organisational and financial muscle of various right-wing and anti-Islamic groups from around Australia. The CEO of Restore Australia, Mike Holt, is unapologetic about his support for the Bendigo stop-the-mosque campaign: “They use the mosques as a centre for jihad. These things are not like the tea and coffee churches,” he told Fairfax Media.

These groups, and the Bendigo residents who support them, are the public face of the secret focus groups that stiffen the resolve of governments on asylum seekers. Rather than show leadership on the issue – as perhaps Malcolm Fraser or Paul Keating might do – Abbott and his immediate predecessors govern with an eye on the opinion polls.

And yet something seems amiss here. Walk down the street of any capital city or major regional centre – including Bendigo – and it seems impossible that Australia’s official response to asylum seekers could be so brutal.

Every colour, culture, creed and ethnicity is represented on the streets of Australia, which is rightly held up around the world as a model of multiculturalism. To see the peaceful harmony and vibrant co-existence of people in all their diversity on our streets and in our workplaces is to see Australia at its best.

But Australia’s relationship with diversity has never been straightforward. From the unambiguous racism that underpinned the White Australia policy to the tolerance (if not always embrace) of immigration which has given modern Australia its multicultural hue, ours has been an ambivalent relationship with race.

The gold rush era of the 1850s was an early example of multiculturalism in Australia, in which many races and creeds lived in harmony on the goldfields. Yet there was unspeakable racism and violence against Chinese gold diggers; and while African-Americans were welcome on the goldfields, Aborigines were being dispossessed and exterminated.

Between 1901 and 1939 the first large movements of non-British Europeans to Australia began. However, these mostly Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs and Poles were only reluctantly permitted entry as “white aliens”.  

Australia opened its doors, if not its arms, to large-scale European migration after WWII, but always on the understanding that these “new Australians” would leave their histories and cultures behind and assimilate with the predominant “British Australian” population.

A question of leadership

It was not until the Whitlam government (1972-1975) that immigration was celebrated, as a matter of government emphasis, for its diversity and cultural enrichment and it was the Fraser government (1975-1983) that formalised and entrenched multiculturalism as a feature of Australian life, including the infusion of other “races”.

As well as increasing Australia’s immigration intake, with an emphasis on Asian migration, Fraser took a humanitarian approach to the Vietnamese refugee crisis and permitted nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, including over 2000 “boat people”, to settle in Australia.

Fraser’s point has always been that if he had relied on popular opinion or focus groups neither his refugee policy nor his admission of large numbers of Vietnamese and other Asians to Australia would have occurred.

Which returns us to 2014 and Australia’s mean-hearted asylum seeker policy.

While the current policy may be in accord with the popular mood and racist attitudes – and not just of the white Anglo population – it does not excuse the absence of leadership on the issue. In fact, such leadership is all the more urgent.

The onus falls on our political (and community) leaders to respond with humanity and compassion to the refugee crisis. The primary issue is not how many refugees Australia can or should take, but how we treat those who seek refuge. And the responsibility falls on our political leaders to engage with the wider population not just on the issue of asylum seekers, but on matters of race, tolerance and harmony.

It may or may not cost taxpayers more to treat asylum seekers with decency, respect and compassion, but it is costing the soul of the nation dearly to lock these people in faraway detention centres and throw away the key by way of “sending a message” to other would-be asylum seekers.

But that is not the only message this policy is sending, as retiring Liberal senator Sue Boyce notes: ”I think the whole asylum seeker issue is…fraught with dog whistling.”

It is plainly too late to expect leadership from Tony Abbott on asylum seekers; he is more mindful of hanging on to whatever electoral support he still has than any desire to take a principled stand. And it is too much to expect Abbott, or Shorten, to visit Bendigo and urge residents to pull their heads in and show some decency towards fellow citizens who wish to build a place of worship in their community: they lack both the moral authority and political courage for such action.

Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating would have made the trip to Bendigo as prime ministers. They would have done so for reasons of symbolism, but also because they believed in a certain Australia and were prepared to stand up for it. They would have appealed to people’s best natures; they would have occupied a platform with Islamic and other community leaders; they would have spoken with vision and clarity about Australia as a vibrant, welcoming, open democracy.

That’s how much politics – and political leadership – has changed in Australia in such a short time.

 

 

No more tinkering around the edges: time for a royal commission into violence against women

When Julia Gillard announced the royal commission into child sex abuse in November 2012, it was a decisive and historic moment in the life of her troubled government, and long-overdue formal acknowledgement of the horrific suffering endured by thousands of defenceless children. The royal commission will be remembered as one of Gillard’s greatest legacies.

Like most royal commissions, this one had a somewhat ungainly title: the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. But it makes sense. The commission isn’t just collecting harrowing stories – albeit an essential function; it is also “investigating how institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs and government organisations have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse”.

Crucially, “It is the job of the Royal Commission to uncover where systems have failed to protect children so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”

Taking the lead of this landmark commission, it is time for another long overdue royal commission: a royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women.

On 17 May 2014, Victoria’s Leader of the Opposition, Daniel Andrews, announced that a Victorian Labor Government would establish a Royal Commission into Family Violence. This was a welcome call and reflected deep community unease over a spate of heartbreaking examples of this scourge.

But we need more, and Australian women in particular need more. Women are victims of unspeakable violence in the family home, but violence against women is a society-wide blight that seems deeply ingrained in our culture. Any inquiry must delve more deeply into violence against women, not just in the family home, and any response must be a national response.

I can anticipate the reaction to such a call; I might have made it myself once: why a royal commission into violence against women only? If such an inquiry were necessary, why not into violence against men and women?

Because the violence I have in mind is not random violence in which the gender of the victim is incidental. It is violence – sexual, physical, mental – which specifically targets women, committed through a sense of entitlement, superiority or right by some men.

It is violence (very often family violence) which considers women a possession, a spoil or prey. It is violence predicated on a sense of superiority, power and conquest. It is a violence as old as time itself, and which despite every progress by humankind, remains an evil undiminished.

Simply and only because they are women

Yes, anyone can walk down a dark, isolated street at night, jog through the park in the early hours of the morning, wait alone at a bus stop at dusk, or pass a mob of drunks in a club district, and be robbed, bashed or harried.

But only women are targeted simply and only because they are women.

Only women are subjected to assault and physical violence by male partners who feel this is a legitimate – even natural – expression of power, entitlement and manly authority. Only women face sexual harassment in the workplace because some men consider them available fruit; only women must fend off the unwanted advances of men who believe that buying them a drink or dinner entitles them to just reward; only women walk a lonely street or secluded pathway and wonder if this will be the night that a stranger will consider it his right to claim her body and possibly her life.

Women are enjoying unprecedented and overdue freedoms, opportunities and recognition. This is a testament to those feminist activists who over generations have demanded their rights, and also to the ability of societies to adapt to changing times and attitudes.

But women know there is much more to be done and that progress is often illusory; women know that entrenched attitudes, norms and laws that disadvantage them and them alone remain; women know that being a woman, even in 2014, is enough to expose them to danger.

The very fact that the unspeakable crime of rape persists to the extent that it does is society’s shame. That women continue to be victims of violence in the family home demonstrates that age-old power relationships remain undiminished and too little challenged. That women feel unsafe and vulnerable in a whole range of settings and circumstances that would not trouble a man reveal fundamental flaws in a society that considers itself refined, enlightened and fair-minded.

This is not a sudden and dramatic awakening of my inner feminist. The sisterhood and I have many points of disagreement, and on the corporate front I’ve written against boardroom quotas for women, “panel pledges” and the existence of the glass ceiling. But such matters are on the edges of this discussion.

Indeed, when a male CEO stands up and declares his support for the Panel Pledge – promising not to participate in any conference panel that does not include a woman – there are congratulations all round about the wonderful advances women are making in society.

“This is not the kind of society I want to live in”

But in the real world, too many women are finding that too little has changed.

When I hear of the latest Jill Meagher (the Melbourne woman who was raped and murdered, her final moments before meeting her predator captured on CCTV) or Rosie Batty (whose 11 year old son Luke was killed by her estranged husband), my heart breaks and I think, “This is not the kind of society I want to live in, it’s not the kind of society women should be living in: why are we letting these women down like this?”

Whenever one of these tragedies occur there’s a spontaneous community call for action and a flurry of activity ensues: governments vow to toughen sentences, police promise to overhaul internal processes, government departments appoint task forces to improve communication between agencies, newspapers launch campaigns.

But this is just tweaking around the edges, and somehow, no matter how genuine or well intentioned these responses are, nothing seems to change.

A national royal commission into institutional responses to violence against women is the best hope of achieving meaningful systemic change across all jurisdictions and instrumentalities. To adapt the wording quoted above, the job of the royal commission would be to “uncover where systems have failed to protect women so it can make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices.”

It would hopefully make state and federal governments obsessed with “efficiency dividends” think twice before cutting funding for women’s shelters, community programs, police forces, judicial systems and legal aid services.

A modern, liberal and wealthy society such as Australia should find it intolerable that violence against women continues so endemically and habitually. Something is desperately wrong. We need to understand why violence against women occurs, how we as a society respond to it, and how we can more effectively act to stamp out this blight on our community, and in the meantime better protect those women who are its victims. Only a royal commission can place us on this path.

 

 

Business leaders who take part in Vinnies CEO Sleepout are more concerned with good PR than the growing homeless crisis

The St Vincent de Paul Society will hold its annual Vinnies CEO Sleepout on June 19. In capital cities around the nation, chief executives from business, government and the community will “experience what it is like to be homeless for one night in winter”. The aim is to raise awareness of homelessness and to raise money to help the charity’s work with the homeless.

I acknowledge the good intentions of this event – which since its inception in 2006 has raised $13 million – but it is an event that causes me much unease.

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?

On the train into the city I can see bedding along the Yarra; and anyone who walks through the city will almost certainly strike the detritus of makeshift sleeping quarters on benches, in alcoves and on the street – never mind the growing number of destitute beggars on the streets. The other day I was dismayed to find bedding on the outskirts of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

We have all the awareness we need, thank you. Yet once a year around 1000 chief executives and other community leaders, “with only a sleeping bag, beanie and piece of cardboard”, will pretend to be homeless for one night.

Last year, these worthies raised $5.3 million. Big deal. That’s an average of $5300 each. Almost everyone donning a beanie for the night will earn that in week – and then some.

Try as I might to see the best in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout, I find it crass and condescending. For many companies it has become an annual PR staple.

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.

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

All for a good cause: say “Cheese”

An email from the PR manager of a major company whose CEO was taking part for the first time could barely contain itself. The CEO, the flack explained, “wants to experience what it’s like on the streets and to be homeless”. Is that so.

“Over the coming weeks we will be taking a number of photo’s [sic] of [the CEO] in his [company-name] hoodie and [other executives] in their specially designed hoodies to promote the event. Collections will be held through [sic] Australia,” the release gushed.

“We also hope to take some shots on the night… Any help to promote this worthy cause would be appreciated.”

Sic – or sick – is right.

Not only are these business figures making heroes of themselves for sleeping in the open for one pathetic night, they’re adding insult to their condescension by dressing up as homeless people – in case we don’t know what they look like.

What especially grates is that by any casual observation the homelessness problem is getting worse, despite this bogus event. And given the unsettled economy, and the erosion of government services for the worst off in our community, we can expect to see (and very often not see) more people sleeping on streets, park benches and in their cars if they’ve not yet been repossessed.

I get what St Vincents is trying to, and in previous years when I’ve written about this I have been contacted by small 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. (A good friend of mine, IT journalist the late Malcolm Hudson, used to work in a kitchen serving hot meals on Christmas day for Melbourne’s poor and homeless.)

I don’t doubt the motives of some of those who take part (but for most others I very much do), but I cannot accept that this event is what’s best for Australia’s homeless. I have no doubt they would find this event – if they even know about it – patronising, superficial and insulting.

“The aim of the Vinnies CEO Sleepout is not only to raise funds, but raise awareness of homelessness. Our goal is not just to service the homeless, but to bring about an end to homelessness,” St Vincent de Paul states on its CEO Sleepout website.

With awareness like this …

But if it is succeeding in making the warm and fed more aware of homelessness, it doesn’t appear to be making us any more thoughtful towards them.

During the January heat wave the media reported that homeless people were being chased away from air-conditioned shopping centres seeking refuge from the oppressive conditions – even though many people with somewhere to live but without air-conditioning were doing exactly the same thing. Many homeless people also found themselves being ushered out of take-away food outlets, cinemas and public toilets by security staff, often acting on complaints from the public.

One “rough sleeper” told The Age that during the hot weather it became harder to maintain his sense of pride.

“[I]t’s not like you can jump in the shower and change your undies,” he said. “If I’m really on the nose people want to keep away from me. It does very little for my self-respect … and that’s pretty much all I have on the streets.”

Suburban thugs who roam city streets at night seem to be very much aware of the homeless, hunting them down in their makeshift digs to rob them, bash them and sometimes even murder them. (RIP homeless man Wayne ”Mousey” Perry who was fatally stabbed under a city railway bridge on the banks of the Yarra River in January.)

So, no, the Vinnies CEO Sleepout does nothing for me, other than cause me great unease.

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 some enlightened companies do have such stories to tell – 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. We don’t need to see them aping the worst off and expecting a pat on the back for it.

To our business leaders, this entreaty: 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.

 

 

If George Megalogenis is an ‘ethnic commentator’, maybe we’re not as multicultural as we think

George Megalogenis is one of my favourite writers and one of Australia’s most respected political and economic journalists. I used to read him in The Australian, I have read and reread his seminal books and I am one of his 28,000 followers on Twitter. (Forgive this gush, George, but I’m about to make my point.) So imagine my surprise when earlier this month he was referred to – almost dismissed – as an “ethnic commentator”.

George Megalogenis an “ethnic commentator”? Oh, of course, it’s the surname.

A bemused Megalogenis tweeted on April 14: “I see my old employer News Corp has me branded as an ‘ethnic commentator’. Um, I was born in Oz.”

Even if Megalogenis hadn’t been born in Australia, how could anyone read his vast body of work as a journalist, commentator and author and pigeonhole him as an “ethnic commentator”?

Quite apart from being a misnomer, there is something inherently divisive in the notion of an “ethnic commentator”. The use of “ethnic” in this way is a throwback to a time when the population was divided into “them” and “us”. It deliberately sets out to marginalise and trivialise somebody’s contribution to public discourse.

So how did this contretemps unfold? It started when Megalogenis, in response to Tony Abbott’s decision to reintroduce knighthoods, while controversy raged over the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, tweeted on March 25: “More than half the Oz population is either immigrant or Indigenous. Government introduces Imperial honours and bigots’ rights. Weird stuff.”

The comment caught the attention and raised the ire of Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi who wrote on April 6: “It’s a common mistake to assume all ethnic minorities must be on the same page on a particular issue.” Megalogenis, and commentator Waleed Aly, who was also in her sights, were examples of “ethnic commentators who misrepresent minority groups”.

I was surprised to see this term still kicking around. Does Australia still have – need? – “ethnic commentators”? Can’t one simply be a commentator? Why should Megalogenis’ tweet carry any additional import because of his surname?

Panahi was born in the United States and it may well be that in the US, whose multiculturalism is as triumphant as it is tribal and angst-ridden, it is more common for commentators to speak on behalf of their ethnic constituencies.  

Multiculturalism in Australia has made such enormous strides in a very short time – certainly within my lifetime – that even the term “multiculturalism” seems outdated and superfluous.

A foot in both worlds

My surname was plain D’Angelo until I added Fisher when I married in 1989. My mother was born in Sicily and migrated to Australia in the 1950s when she was in her teens; my father was born in Queensland of Italian immigrant parents, also from Sicily. (My paternal grandparents migrated to Australia in 1922; Pop was interned during the war despite being a naturalised Australian.)

In many respects I had a foot in both worlds. As a fair-haired boy I didn’t stand out on the school playground (my mother and maternal grandmother were blonde and blue-eyed), and because I grew up with English (as well as Italian) in the household I didn’t speak with the distinctive “ethnic twang” that most kids of Italian stock carried. As a child I was both a product of what would be called multiculturalism and an observer of its dynamics.

When I was at North Footscray Primary School in the 1960s the ethnic diversity consisted of Italian, Greek and recently arrived Yugoslav kids; nothing like today’s cultural cornucopia. I remember when a group of migrant kids started playing soccer in the school grounds – one of the boys had brought a soccer ball to school – and the headmaster strode up to the startled and embarrassed children and declared: “This is Australia; we don’t play soccer here!”

Once a week we had religious instruction, conducted by a Salvation Army officer. Before the class would begin a teacher would bid the “non-Christian” children – that is, the Catholic kids from migrant families – to file out and wait in the school yard until the “Christians” had their lesson. A dozen or so of us kids, fairly certain we were Christians, and well aware that we were being set apart from the Anglo-Australians, would chat among ourselves, bemused but happy to escape something so boring as religious instruction.

In the era before multiculturalism, when migrants were “new Australians” – a seemingly inclusive but subtly divisive term – assimilation was the order of the day. That’s why so many migrant kids from the 1950s to the early 1970s have tales of being ridiculed (or worse) in the playground for having salami sandwiches or other such exotica for lunch. Today everyone thinks they’re Italian and more often than not their specialty dish is spaghetti Bolognese (and more often than not it’s bloody terrible).

An explosion of difference

The other day I was walking through the Highpoint shopping centre, in Melbourne’s west, and as I surveyed the throng of shoppers I was struck by the presence of every possible hue, culture, ethnic dress and language in a cacophonous explosion of colour, sight and sound. Of difference. National dress would have been frowned upon in the 1960s, except at annual festivals, but today Australians from Indian, African and Middle Eastern backgrounds feel no hesitation in dressing as they would in their homelands.

How can anyone debate the desirability of multiculturalism, or protest that it’s time to scale back the “multicultural experiment”? This is now who we are. There is no turning back; there’s only the future and its many exciting possibilities to embrace.

The post-war migration boom of the 1940s and 1950s certainly changed the course of Australia, and the Whitlam government (1972-75) deserves credit for ridding Australia of the last vestiges of the White Australia policy and celebrating the diversity and riches of post-war migration. But the undoubted father of Australian multiculturalism is Malcolm Fraser, prime minister from 1975 to 1983, and he gets too little credit for it.

As well as increasing Australia’s immigration intake, which had slowed under the Whitlam government, with a particular emphasis on Asian migration, Fraser took a humanitarian approach to the Vietnamese refugee crisis and permitted nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, including over 2000 “boat people”, to settle in Australia during his term. In 1978 the Fraser government created the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs, overseeing a migrant population that was multicultural and multiracial.

The success of Australia’s multiculturalism, defying its most ardent critics, is that ethnic and cultural differences have not dulled the broad community’s sense of common cause and values, of belonging, of one’s Australianness (except for those whose necks are of a particularly vibrant hue).

That is not to say that each infusion of migrants and refugees is seamless and without its challenges, but the richness, cohesiveness and productivity of Australia’s population is a great success story.

In such a free and inclusive society there is no need to marginalise or segment somebody who contributes to public discourse – whether as a journalist, blogger or interested citizen – as an “ethnic commentator”. To do so is divisive and trivialises whatever they have to say as something less than legitimate or credible (as opposed to a “mainstream commentator”).

So, where were we? Oh, yes: “More than half the Oz population is either immigrant or Indigenous. Government introduces Imperial honours and bigots’ rights. Weird stuff.”

That’s the view of George Megalogenis, commentator. If you disagree with George that is something you’ll have to take up with him, and thanks to social media you very easily can. He may well argue the toss with you and support his case with some compelling stats and facts, or he might refer you to something else he has written on the subject, or he may engage in a lively conversation with you in which you both learn something, or agree to disagree.

Because that’s what commentators do. They inform, engage and stimulate. And that’s about the size of it, in any language.

 

Why I’ve changed my mind about same-sex marriage

I have changed my mind about gay marriage: it’s time for the federal parliament to legalise marriage for same-sex couples. Marriage, as in the real thing. Not a “gay version”, not a euphemism-laden consolation prize that comes close: marriage equality for same-sex couples.

When I’ve written about same-sex marriage in the past I haven’t been avowedly anti-gay marriage, I just – “just” – haven’t taken it particularly seriously.

I’ve dismissed it as a “political bandwagon that can’t be stopped” – that is, a fashionable issue rather than a burning issue of equality and human rights.

I’ve joked about it, warning that “gay marriage will mean more cards distributed around the office for signing and more envelopes doing the rounds for donations to buy useless gifts”. Or this: “I always thought the most compelling advantage of being gay was not having to bother with marriage. Now it seems gay romantics are determined to rip up their get-out-of-jail-free cards.” (I’ve got a million of ‘em.)

When I have sought to make a serious point about gay marriage it is to question whether the federal government should be in the business of defining marriage at all. Here my argument was that gay marriage should be free to emerge in an environment in which social and cultural behaviour, not legal definitions, dictate custom.

“[G]iven that marriage has become such a flexible and diverse social institution, surely it is time for government to give up its role as protector of the institution. Rather than amend the Marriage Act, the federal government should abolish it. The government’s business should be to record permanent relationships for purposes of taxation, superannuation and other benefits and legal requirements,” I wrote in 2011.

“Beyond that, it should be for churches, registered celebrants and even commercial enterprises to offer marriage as a service. Let private operators offer whatever products and services they please – marriages, civil unions, certified life partner agreements, even renewable licences. Open up marriage to the competition of private enterprise, let the government concern itself only with recording these arrangements and let’s get on with the things that really matter.”

Well, my condescension aside, same-sex marriage does matter. And given that the law currently does and pointedly has done since 2004 define marriage as being between a man and a woman, it’s time to for Australia to show some consistency in its attitude to the gay community and some honestly in acknowledging how much society has changed from the white-picket-fence era of the 1950s.

It seems extraordinary now, even shocking, that there was a time not so long ago when homosexuality was illegal in Australia. There remain pockets of intolerance towards homosexuality, some of it virulent, but on the whole gay men and women are visible and welcome members of the community. (Hopefully there will come a time when we don’t even have to make such a statement.)

In 2014, there is nothing remarkable about same-sex couples and “the family” has become such a complex and diverse social organism that same-sex parenting has fused itself into the social fabric virtually without murmur – “traditional family” warriors notwithstanding. So one can be gay, one can live in a loving same-sex-relationship, and a same-sex couple may even be bringing up children in the suburbs. But no marriage. It is mean-spirited, disrespectful and irrational to draw the line at gay marriage, to insist on marriage as the exclusive preserve of male-female couples.

I once wrote: “I won’t pretend to understand the demand for same-sex marriage.” But now I do understand it. And like so many epiphanies, it is personal experience that has opened my eyes.

A couple of months ago my marriage broke up, just a few weeks short of our 25th anniversary. (No one to blame but me. I’ve not been an easy person to live with.) That catastrophic event brought into sharp relief the profound love I had, and have, for my wife and of course my children. I don’t know by what circuitous route my mind took me to the issue of gay marriage, but I thought to myself: if two people of the same sex love each other with the same depth as I do my wife, and they wish to express that love through marriage, by what right does anyone dare stand in their way?

Seen in these unequivocal terms, it’s impossible to mount a credible argument against same-sex marriage, and irresponsible to consider it an inconsequential issue.

Society has changed, attitudes have changed, and our laws must change accordingly. Marriage is not a natural state; it is a social instrument, something we have invented. And even the very best inventions have to be finetuned from time to time. If Prime Minister Tony Abbott won’t show leadership on this issue, let us hope that federal parliament will.