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There Goes The Civility Again

A matter of days after the Coopers controversy that was not much of a controversy died down, today there was a reminder of how the debate around marriage equality can often be toxic and potentially dangerous. The ever-reliable Peter Dutton provided that jolt to the memory.

The Immigration Minister was speaking in response to a letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, which was co-signed by a number of business leaders, including the Managing Director of Wesfarmers, the Chief Executive of ANZ, and the Qantas boss, Alan Joyce.

All the champions of free enterprise bore some of the unwarranted criticism from the combative Immigration Minister. However, it was to be Alan Joyce, the openly gay CEO of Qantas, who was the singled out for further unnecessary criticism, above and beyond all the other signatories.

In his rage against the business community, Mr Dutton said that the company bosses should “stick to their knitting”, and that the government he is a part of “would not be bullied” by the business sector.

Furthermore, the minister went on to say that “it is unacceptable that people have used companies, and shareholders money, to try to throw their weight around in these debates”.

Then came the ministers precision-guided barb aimed at Mr Joyce. He said that “Alan Joyce, the individual, is perfectly entitled to campaign for and spend his hard earned money on any issue he sees fit, but don’t do it in the official capacity and with shareholders money”.

First of all, the Minister of Immigration is more than a little bit lucky that his knitting jibe was directed at the group, rather than the Qantas CEO. Had Mr Dutton aimed this remark at Joyce, it would have been rightly seen as playing to the negative stereotypes of LGBTIQ community.

If the minister had made that particular part of the statement about Alan Joyce, he would have been accused of using the outdated and wrong assumption that gay men are somehow feminine in nature – which they are not.

Minister Dutton’s riposte to the letter, that business must stay out of the affairs of government and society, needs to be examined.

Companies in any given nation, where they are free to do so, like in our liberal democracy here – need to respect and appeal to diversity. This is not an unnecessary evil, but a responsibility in a free and open society. Individual businesses and business leaders can choose whether this amounts to simply serving a diverse community, or using more broader mechanisms of inclusion, like what happened in this particular instance.

In the absence of laws providing for inclusion and non-discrimination, it is a basic concept of business, that organisations within society need and should want to appeal to as big a market as possible – and also to serve an existing market. Otherwise, how would they maintain and then grow their respective markets?

That is precisely what these champions of industry have done in these circumstances. They have engaged with their responsibility to be inclusive of the whole of Australian society, while using broader mechanisms of inclusion.

When you live in a liberal democracy, you are entitled to freedom of expression. This goes for both business, and the Immigration Minister. And, as is frequently said when instances like this arise, they can be called out if and when those people make what any reasonable person would call, at the very least, stupid and ill-informed comments.

It just so happens that the Immigration Minister has a history of being called out for saying the wrong thing.

Just the person you want as a leader to unite the nation together.

Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes

A little over seven years ago I did something that many of those also from the north and western sides of Brisbane would scoff at – I moved to the southside of Brisbane. Oh, the horror of being just that little bit closer to the bogans, apparently, aside from the fact there are people from all walks of life across this city.

But there was something else about moving to the southside that I began noticing and thinking about, not long after finding my first home away from home with a couple of friends. Pasty white young me was in the minority – even in my own little 3 bedroom townhouse in Mount Gravatt East, as well as in the wider complex.

My friends and I spent a year-and-a-half in that wonderful little spot. We were situated nicely between two big shopping centres, which we would frequent more than just about any other place during that time.

When our time was up, we moved to another townhouse complex a little further out, in a suburb called Wishart. The place looked almost exactly the same as our previous residence, yet somehow was not connected.

After having our application approved, and upon meeting with the complex manager, he asked us if we wanted to put a pin on the world map in his office to signify where we came from. I looked at the map and noticed plenty of drawing pins in the Asian countries, but none on Australia. We all shared a laugh at this.

It was a thriving little community and the sights, sounds and smells were indicative of families enjoying their time together, and at peace. I would go on to spend five years there, while the same two housemates completed their studies.

Then, in 2015 came a little bit of a shock. My housemates, international students from Malaysia and Nepal had to return back home. For the first time in my adult life I would have to contemplate living on my own.

I searched and searched for a one bedroom place. The constant disappointment at the cost and poor state of most of these places was frustrating, and perhaps hastened my balding process.

In the end I settled on a one bedroom duplex. The most annoying part of this was that I went from paying $130 a week for a room in a house, with access to a kitchen and living area, to paying $275.00 per week for basically the same privilege. And this time I would not be splitting the electricity or internet bills three ways.

But the most eye-opening part of this journey was moving to within cooee of a mosque, at a time when debate was increasing about the place of Muslims in Australian society. My neighbours in the duplex are also Muslims, from Somalia. We have different schedules but pleasant interactions when we do cross paths.

I have never felt unsafe living in this area in all of my time here, despite living alone. That is, except for one occasion when an overly aggressive neighbour from up the road, who was closer to me in appearance, baled me up and angrily demanded that I get him to mow my yard. I did not give in, and thankfully I have not seen him in a very long time.

At this point I can imagine that some will be thinking about ghettoisation, and that has been something that I have considered over the years too.

There can be little doubt that different ethnic groups do tend to congregate in certain areas of cities across Australia, and that is certainly the case around Brisbane, and I have lived it. We must however give more mature thought as to why different ethnic groups tend to stick together.

Is it not the case that if immigrants were back in their homeland, they would tend to live around people of the same background? Don’t we, the people who were born here, do the same? If you moved to a different country, or as is the case for immigrants in my little area of town, were forced to move elsewhere, wouldn’t you want to be closer to people with whom you have some kind of natural connection?

Perhaps too, part of the problem is us? If we could venture out into these areas more, aside from the occasional culinary journey, we would see that these so-called ghettos are not impenetrable. Australia is not quite like the United States of America, where divisions are so much more entrenched and lead to more widespread conflict.

My experience over the last seven years has been somewhat transformational. I have always accepted difference to a degree, but through my experiences, that willingness to embrace diversity has expanded.

To paraphrase Jimmy Buffett just a little bit, or perhaps not at all, when people seek changes in latitude, perhaps we can respond with a little bit of a change in attitude?

A Royal Mess of Priorities

To say that Tuesday the 25th of March was an interesting day in Australian politics was an understatement. First up in the morning, we had the Attorney-General announce the long-awaited proposed changes to s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act. And, as if that was not enough fuel for thought, in the late hours of the afternoon, on the day Governor-General Quentin Bryce completed her appointment, the Prime Minister announced the reinstatement of knights and dames in the Order of Australia.

Throw in the sentencing of Craig Thomson over the HSU scandal and the developing story involving Senator Arthur Sinodinos at ICAC and today could hardly have given political pundits and the public anymore fuel for debate.

After making an election commitment to repeal s18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, the government released an exposure draft of proposed changes to the Act – changes which are remarkably similar to those I suggested last week. And of course that decision, which is to be debated before proceeding to the next stage, will be a heavily discussed and opined on topic in the Australian political discourse, particularly between now and April 30.

It was a government surprise coming in the late afternoon however, which really got social media talking. At 4pm, shortly before a farewell function for the outgoing vice-regal, the Prime Minister informed Australians that 2014 sees the return of knights and dames, albeit only four annually. Twitter erupted as those changes were announced. Jokes were rolled out thick and fast and the obligatory catchy hashtag was spawned.

This was a strange spectacle on Twitter. In the morning we had a very significant issue, in proposed changes to racial discrimination laws, given some substance by the government. Debate that, social media did – until about 4:01pm. Then it was all about Australia bringing back the Sirs and the Dames. And it continued in that fashion all night long. The s18c changes were paid scant regard, as with Craig Thomson’s sentencing and Senator Arthur Sinodinos’s ICAC hearing.

You are probably thinking, like me, that you know which issue was the most substantive, and which will have the biggest impact on Australian society and culture. Surely, for most reading this, it is not the return of an old titular honour which last ceased under Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Then again, I could be wrong. It all depends on whether the views of Twitter users as to what constitutes big news are reflective of that of broader society. If that is the case, then we are in a spot of trouble.

I am not entirely convinced that Twitter is always the best representation of society’s views. It is a mode for the loudest to express their views, however those with the loudest mouths often seem to express the most uncommon views in society. It is rarely a platform for the mainstream, more moderate of voices, though there are, as always, exceptions.

However, it does appear that the traditional media has taken notice of social media – as well they might when struggling to compete in a new media landscape. The major papers have, in varying degrees of absurdity, taken a stand on the smaller, more trivial issue of bestowing antiquated titles on people.

There was a theory being bandied about on Twitter, that the announcement on royally bestowed honours was used by the government as a distraction from the heat generated by the racial discrimination debate. If that is the case, shame on the majority of Australian’s for falling for it. We should have seen right through it as a non-issue and not been so incensed by what is a trivial matter in comparison.

The racial discrimination debate could change society. On the other hand, despite emotional protestations from republicans to the contrary, giving four people a year a title by appointment will have no impact on the Australian way of life. Making eminent people knights or dames will not create a renewed love for the monarchy. Only the sickening worship of these pseudo celebrities entrenches respect and admiration for the royal institution.

If republicans want a republic – and I consider myself one – we need to try much harder. If we think giving people titles will further entrench the monarchy, then perhaps we need to sharpen our arguments.

To be fair, our politicians need to learn how to prioritise better too. What was announced today was so inconsequential it should have been left off the government’s agenda for some time.

During the previous government, our political class spent a lot of energy on the often trivial nature of political debate. It seems there is a wish to continue down the path of being complicit in the dumbing down of debate and the avoidance of the hard issues.

The only question is whether we are being complacent, blissfully ignorant or willfully ignorant when it comes to deciding what matters most.

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