Monday, July 14, 2008

I Want In

You might already be tired of hearing about 'working families', but that's fine because there are a lot of other catchphrases and buzzwords to work your way through. One of them is 'social inclusion'.

This idea really caught on about 10 years ago with the Blair government in the UK, although it looked at it from the other angle - 'social exclusion'.

In this country, South Australia (in many ways the most progressive State) has led the way. It established a Social Inclusion Unit (within the Premier's Department) and a Social Inclusion Board in 2002. The Rudd Government has now essentially nicked the idea and is doing the same thing.

So who is socially excluded and therefore needs to be socially included? Last week, I chaired a panel on this at the Australian Institute of Family Studies conference in Melbourne. I can't say the panel was comprehensive, but it did highlight some groups that do need help.

The homeless - Tony Nicholson from the Brotherhood of St Laurence spoke about them.

Senior Australians - Rhonda Parker, a former WA Cabinet Minister is these days a very effective advocate as Aged Care Commissioner.

The mentally ill - the Chief Federal Magistrate John Pascoe spoke movingly about the difficulties some people face when interacting with the legal system.

And indigenous children - their interests were highlighted by the deeply impressive Muriel Bamblett, who's the Chair of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care.

The Rudd Government is still getting going but it has made social inclusion a priority. It's one of the portfolios of Julia Gillard, and has its own Parly Sec. The polititicans have had a fair bit to say on this topic but (as always) it's what they do that matters. Unfortunately, it's not rocket science - it's much more difficult than that.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Reap what you sow

For some time now I have occasionally teased my 4 year old about her tummy. "It blocks out the light", I might say, or "Are we having an eclipse?"

She laughs, I laugh, it's been fun. Until the other day, when she said to her mother, "Am I too fat?"

We live in an age when about 1 in 5 of kids beginning school is overweight and childhood obesity is increasing. Fat kids have a tendency to become fat adults, with consequent effects for their quality of life, health and life expectancy. I'm not sure whether this next bit is chicken or egg, but most of the parents of overweight kids don't think their children weigh too much.

That's the context. But the specific bottom line is fine. She's not fat. She has an age-appropriate tummy - her weight has always been pretty much bang in the middle of where she ought to be for her age. She's tall, but fat she ain't.

So that question brought both her mum and I up short.

She doesn't get to watch a lot of commercial telly, though she does see some. And everywhere she sees images that extol the virtues of beauty and slimness for girls and women. Actually, it's more than that, it's popular culture: Girls in advertising, magazines, appearing on television are mostly not normal-looking - they're slim to very skinny and have big hair. Toys are not normal looking either. Forget the anatomically impossible Barbie, there's now something worse, the Bratz doll.

Bratz dolls are tarty. My mum would call them 'common-looking', but that's English understatement. Put it this way, if you were a straight teenage boy and you met a young woman who looked a bit like that, you'd be very excited indeed*. Our daughter understands that a Bratz doll will never be permitted in this house.

We are trying to give her good messages. This house is full of books and she has her head in them all the time. She's physically active and next year begins school and playing a team sport. Her mother went to one of the finest universities in the world and there's no reason why she can't as well.

But there are companies that plan to make money from our girl. The marketing has started already and it clearly gets more intense over the next 5-10 years. The other day on the show, I spoke to Maggie Hamilton about her new book. She traverses a range of issues about girls from birth to adulthood. Clearly, our girl is still at an easy age and things will get tougher later. There is so much I want her to learn but four things seem very relevant right now.

1. Skinny isn't everything.
2. Treat other people the way you'd like them to treat you.
3. Buying things doesn't make you happy.
4. You have to be true to yourself. (Hard when you're still working it out)

And ps. Your Dad was wrong to say "it's blocking out the light."

*Though if their heads really were that big, it would freak the boys out completely.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Don't know much biology*

In my job I interview a lot of academics. They can be great people to talk to, they're often genuine experts and their job is thinking. Years ago, I read a quote from the Dean of Engineering at Auckland University. It went along the lines of "Few Cabinet Ministers, in my experience, are used to sustained thought". Well, yes. That's because the skills that make for an effective politician don't usually involve sustained thought, not in terms of grappling with an intellectual challenge anyway. But I digress.

The trouble with many academics is that they often don't appear to say anything. There is a disconnect between what we in the media want, something simple and definite, and the way that so much of the world actually works - complex and ambiguous. Academics are grappling with that complexity and ambiguity, and they don't want the simplification to be wrong. (They also don't want to be sniped at by their peers, who may be a bit - how shall I put this - jealous of any media profile)

All of this explains much of what can be an unhappy relationship between academia and the media, but as far as today is concerned, it's just background. Because today I interviewed an academic who had things to say and said them well.

We were talking about sex education in schools - something the Public Health Association (along with 28 other groups) is calling for a much more comprehensive approach on. I put it to Angela Taft that some critics of sex education oppose giving teenagers information, essentially on the grounds that they will use it to have sex.

She shot that point of view down so quickly it was the intellectual equivalent of watching a ninja take out an unknowing guard in the movies. Sweden, she told the Life Matters audience, has had a comprehensive sex education approach since 1945. Other Scandinavian countries have also been taking this path for decades. Their teenagers begin having sex later than ours and their rates of teenage pregnancy are half what ours are. The evidence is overwhelming.

Not that one or two newspaper columnists will let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a good rant though. Watch this space.

*With apologies to Sam Cooke

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


My grandmother, who was born in 1901 and died almost 20 years ago after a long and noisy life, trained as a nurse. When she started there were no such things as antibiotics - so the focus was on hygiene, everything had to gleam. She could make a bed with creases so sharp they could cut you. She didn't do bedside manner, even for the grandchildren she loved. Instead she had a real facility for pointing out your faults. It was refreshing - in much the same way that swimming in the North Sea on Christmas Day* is refreshing.

She liked a drink and at Christmas parties she often drank too much. She was a member of enough clubs to attend perhaps 50 Christmas lunches every year, beginning in early November. She never tired of them. When libated she was known to have the ocassional cigarette - a habit she'd really tossed decades beforehand. She believed in saturated fats of all kinds - and had a weakness for strange foods from another age: brawn, dripping on bread, black pudding, tapioca.

When my mum, her daughter, produced a meal with rice as the carbohydrate, my Gran would say helpful things like, "What is this muck?" She consumed industrial quantities of salt, enjoyed the pokies, had an eye for much younger men and loved to embarrass her adolescent grandson.

She was exhausting, she was unforgettable. She was a Character.

I've been thinking about her a lot this week, partly because it was her anniversary earlier in the month but mostly because the government announced it had appointed a Chief Nurse - a capable and impressive woman. Australia hasn't had one for ages. In a small, almost ineffable, way it makes me feel better to know she's there. My Gran would have approved.

*Sea Palling, Norfolk, 1993. Never again.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

I blame the parents

Ten days or so ago, I was MC and facilitator of Parents' Night Out in Brisbane. It was a good night. There was music, from a vocal group I'd never heard of before (they were wonderful), comedy from mother of five Fiona O'Loughlin (she was brilliant) and a discussion with the cheery heading "Are today's cities destroying childhood?"

Not long into it, one of the panellists, I think it was Geoff Woolcock, wondered aloud whether the culprit wasn't so much cities as parents. After all, it's parents that hover like helicopters over their precious children; it's parents who drive their children everywhere rather than encourage them to cycle or walk; it's parents with the best of intentions who have lobbied to remove risk from their children's lives.

Another panellist, the geographer Paul Tranter, thinks about child-friendly cities a lot - it's his job. A while ago he went to a transport conference. Paul spent the day listening to economists and engineers talking about cost-benefit analyses and the efficiency of transport networks. Jeanie Mac!
Eventually someone (it wasn't Paul) asked "have you factored into your models the loss of children's joy and wonder?" I think you can imagine the response.

We have lost a bit of joy and wonder. Over the last year or so on Life Matters, several guests have highlighted the importance of children being allowed latitude and freedom. It's not good for kids if they're only unsupervised inside the house or garden - they need to be given the skills to learn to navigate their neighbourhoods safely and allowed to get on with it. In the long run, it's safer. Adolescence is too late to be learning road sense

Think of your own childhood and the best bits that come to mind are probably when you were away from the parental gaze. That's what too many of today's kids are missing out on - a bit of benign neglect.

Prue Walsh has spent decades consulting on play. She's the person that schools and local governments around the country and all over the world ring to make their playgrounds better. If they're too safe, she reckons they're boring. "I blame the safety-nazis," she says.

I don't. I blame the parents. With the best will in the world, and the most positive intentions, we've got this wrong. And our kids are missing out.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cranky at Crikey

I like Crikey. As a journalist, it's hard not to. I've used Crikey commentators on various shows I've presented - they've been great talkers with something to say. Crikey at its best is irreverent, cheeky and sometimes fearless. It doesn't mind sticking it to those in power.

And sometimes it gets it completely wrong.

Yesterday in its Tips and Rumours section, Crikey ran this:

On October 23, 2006, the ABC's Life Matters program devoted itself to a warm analysis of The Dore Program which was offering help to parents with children suffering attention deficit syndrome ... at a price! It featured a lengthy interview with the program's founder, owner and chief evangelist, Wynford Dore. The Life Matters website still carries this gushing blurb:
The Dore Program offers drug-free treatment for a range of learning problems. It's based around exercises that stimulate the cerebellum - the part of the brain that controls eye-coordination, inner ear balance and motor skills.
The therapy is named after it's (sic) backer and founder Wynford Dore, who struggled for many years to help his daughter cope with severe dyslexia.
He's now calling for change in the way we manage and treat learning difficulties, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The program was presented by Richard Aedy, the producer was Amanda Armstrong and the story researcher and producer was Jackie May. Last year the ABC's Four Corners took a more sceptical view of The Dore Program and last night The 7.30 Report comprehensively buried it with the news that the business is now in receivership leaving debts of more than $13 million. Parents have been left high and dry, some owing money while others are in debt. We eagerly await Life Matters follow-up story as well as its apology. Or doesn't it matter?

The short answer is it matters a great deal. The longer version is that Life Matters did follow up stories. Two of them. If the anonymous Crikey writer had followed a few journalism basics, like making a phone call or spending 10 seconds using Google, he or she would have discovered that this was completely wrong.

Yes, I spoke to Wynford Dore - though the interview was anything but gush. In March last year, when his organisation put forward its lead researcher, David Reynolds, I interviewed him too. By then it was very clear that the science was disputed and controversial. The interview was rigorous, detailed and robust. By some distance it was the toughest interview Dr Reynolds had in Australia. I'm proud of it.

When Four Corners reporter Matthew Carney was doing his own story on Dore, he requested that interview. He told me recently it was a key piece of research for his film.

Last month, when the Dore organisation collapsed, Life Matters was one of the first to report the story. I spoke to a long-time critic of Dore, Max Coltheart, who's at Macquarie University. I also interviewed Michael Greenwood from Parkes Shire Council. Parkes had really embraced the Dore concept, it had a Dore centre and established a trust to pay for kids who it was thought would benefit to attend. When I did that interview, Parkes was still wondering where its $15,000 was.

I'm not perfect, far from it, and Life Matters isn't perfect either. But we really have tried to cover this story at key stages and from different angles. A few seconds with a search engine would have established this.

I'm sorry to go on - I'm about to stop. Life Matters executive producer Amanda Armstrong says it all far better, and much more concisely, in the response Crikey published today.

There still hasn't been an apology though!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What do you do?

It's the classic question, isn't it, the one you get at parties.

"What do you do?"

I am not good at parties and the last one I went to was my sister's 40th. In a way this doesn't count as a party (not that it wasn't fun, L, if you're reading this) because I knew nearly everyone there and so didn't get asked the question.

The thing is, answering that question is pretty much where I peak at parties because my job is easy to explain: I talk to people on the radio. Most of the time is spent preparing to talk on the radio, which means a lot of reading, quite a lot of conversations with the EPs and producers, a fair bit of thinking and some writing. The actual talking is the smallest part of the whole process, in terms of time.

There - that's it. There's obviously more to it but that's really the guts of the thing. It's dead easy to explain.

A couple of weeks ago, sitting at Adelaide airport, it occurred to me how unusual this is. I was in conversation with a geologist, who agreed, but then didn't try to explain to me what his job involves. Mainly I suspect because it's not that easy to do*.

A few days later I was having dinner with friends - it was a special occasion so there were 15 people around the table. The group was made up of:
broadcaster, IT manager, nutritionist, anaesthetist, TV journalist, environmental NGO campaigner, TV journalist, lawyer, director of a childcare centre, financial journalist, IT specialist, channel manager for a technology firm, housewife/actress, investment banker and dental specialist.

I know exactly what I do (restrain yourself) and have a good idea of what the three journalists do and also the childcare director and the housewife/actress. But that's it. Of the 14 people there who weren't me, I can tell you what five of them really do. I have no understanding at all of what the investment banker does, but consider him one of my better friends. The channel manager has explained her job to me on three occasions but I still don't understand it. She has been immensely patient.

We live in a time of arcane specialties. Many of us become fluent in highly specialised and sometimes technical skills that are difficult to explain to someone who doesn't have them. There are plenty of jobs which require skills that are easy to explain - plumber, electrician, carpenter, butcher, baker, teacher, journalist. We all feel we have a handle on these occupations without any real understanding of what they do. These days though many of us have jobs that are difficult to even describe.

This ought to mean that we make real connections when we have conversations, instead of just talking about work. But I fear that what's really happening is we're not having the conversations with those outside of our circle - because they're too hard.

Talking to people is what I do and it's usually worth the effort. I just wish I could make myself do it at parties.

*To be fair, he thought that people weren't really interested in what he did, that they were just being polite.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

That's gratitude for you

Once, when I was whingeing to my mother about my son, she said something that stopped me in my tracks.

"Don't go expecting gratitude from your children."

Now there are two ways of taking this and I took both. She's right - absolutely right - it's the way of the world. And I think she was making a small point too. Incidentally, I think it's difficult to get your head around how much your parents loved you until you have your own kids. Then it blows you away.

Anyway, I say this because tomorrow on the show we're doing a talkback on feeling appreciated. We all need to feel appreciated, both at work and at home. Stephanie Dowrick will be my guest and I think quite a few people will ring in. Hope so.

Monday, June 2, 2008

None of my business

Privacy is a mutable concept. Most of the time most of us never think about it. Roger Clarke, who's Chair of the Privacy Foundation and was on Friday's talkback, puts it very succintly: "It doesn't matter until it does." This is a pithy, IT-expert's way of saying that none of us care about privacy until we feel ours has been invaded.

I think that's right but also not the full story. It's likely I would feel my privacy is being invaded at a different point to when you would. Certainly, there's a difference between generations. Older Australians have a more attenuated sense of privacy, younger ones much less so. So a person in her 70s, is less likely to tell you how she votes or what her house cost, than one in her 40s.

Young people, for whom social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Bebo are de riguer, are extremely relaxed about privacy. Or at least, that's how it looks. I use Youtube to find old music clips when I'm supposed to be working but there's plenty of other, more embarrassing, footage out there. And spend five minutes flipping through or myspace and you can see images of worse-for-wear party-goers that would not have been in the public domain a decade ago.

A couple of things are going on here. Firstly, these images are not being posted so the likes of me can pontificate about 'young people today'. They're not aimed at me at all, they're for their friends and acquaintances. Interestingly, Jonathan Nicholas - Director of Inspire Interactive, says the fact that anyone can see these pictures doesn't really occur to many people who post them(!)

But it's not just naïveté. This is the Big Brother generation (in the Endemollian sense rather than the Orwellian). It's used to the idea of a life lived in public - that's what the nobodies selected for the tv show do and it's what the high status celebs do too. Using myspace enables you to control your image as professionally as the craftiest PR firm, so why would you want to hide your light under a bushel?

However, you can't do this if you have a privacy threshold set at the same level as say, a 75-year-old's. Naturally there are 75-year-old exceptions to that rule - Joan Collins springs (unbidden) to mind, and I don't think any of us are looking forward to this guy getting older in his usual understated, discreet manner.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Butter Butters Better

When I moved to New Zealand in the mid-80s, one of the many things I didn't know about the place* was that I was emigrating to a Dairy Super Power. NZ is a small economy and so export earnings are important. Back then, dairy was the biggest export earner, and every Kiwi I met seemed to consume a lot of milk products.

Cheese was marketed as "The Great New Zealand 1-Kg" - none of this mucking around with 500g blocks. And butter, though I may be wrong about this, advertised as "Butter butters better". Great, catchy slogan. Everyone I met used butter, and in seemingly vast quantities. I honestly do not know how companies making margarine survived - their product seemed to be regarded with universal hostility.

Coming from Australia, (with a pretty big dairy industry itself) I could barely remember eating butter. I'd grown up on ads for Meadow Lea and had a horror of fats that weren't polyunsaturated - not that I'd really known what it meant. I got used to eating butter, who wouldn't? Then I moved to the UK.

Britain was not all about butter, instead it had a rather schizoid relationship with food. You have to remember the government there had been (at the very least) economical with the truth about links between Mad Cow Disease and CJD, so there was a deal of justifiable suspicion about the food industry. But at the same time, organic food was getting going and British people have terrific exposure to some of the great food cultures of the world: France, Italy, Spain etc. The Brits were just inventing the gastro-pub, a brilliant concept that combines two of my favourite things. Indeed, after they brought the licencing laws into the (then) 20th Century, it became all too possible, in those happy days when I didn't have children but did have a high disposable income, to go into a gastropub for Sunday lunch and not be able to get away until say, 8ish. Not that any of this got me back to butter.

In fact, I've only just made the return trip, this very week. Marge will be leaving our household, along with a lot of the biscuits we've been buying. We're going to make more of our own, because that way we'll really know what's in them. White bread, along with it's delicious variant, the fresh white roll, is being banished to the weekend. And there will be no more yoghurt-like products with long lists of ingredients being handed over to the kids.

This might seem a little schizoid too - going back to butter but embracing the dense, multi-grain bread. But there is a logic to it. After talking to Michael Pollan and reading his book, we're embracing proper foods that have been less mucked about with. We already eat a lot of fruit and fair few vegies but we could do with eating a bit less meat. I can't imagine giving it up, compelling as the environmental argument is, but eating less - yes, that I can do. In fact eating less of everything is a good idea and the first baby steps down that track are now being taken.

Food is one of life's great pleasures and I don't plan to don the gastronomical equivalent of a hairshirt. Proper foods - the kind your great grandmother would recognise as foods - in proper portions, properly savoured - that's the way the French and Italians do it. I think they're onto something.

*Australians are woefully ignorant about New Zealand, whereas Kiwis know a fair bit about Australia. Their media has quite a few stories about Australia and Australians; our media covers the All Blacks and the odd earthquake or volcanic eruption. It's a classic, big brother/little brother thing and explains a bit of why they love to beat us at anything.