We are on the cusp of a brilliant future, only if we choose to embrace it

Speaking a couple of days after the 2022 Federal Election, renowned Australian journalist, Stan Grant, noted that although the election of the Albanese government had been a moment of national ‘catharsis’, it was more difficult to discern in the result a commitment to a clear, positive direction for the nation. In that sense, the future shape of Australia remained an ‘open question’.

This was not to deny that the Australian electorate seemed to express, through their vote, a few clear preferences: an end to the debilitating ‘climate wars’, higher standards of integrity in federal politics and more generally, a preference for a more diverse and inclusive form of representation in our national parliament and government.

There is every reason to believe that these expectations will be met. Indeed, one might be encouraged to hope for something more. For example, it was remarkable that the first utterance of Prime Minister Albanese, on claiming victory, was to promise a referendum to enshrine in the Constitution an Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’ as called for in the Uluru Statement From The Heart. The surprise in this was that this issue had barely been mentioned during the election campaign – yet had clearly loomed large in the mind of the new PM.

So, what else might we aim to achieve as a democratic nation endowed with the most fortuitous circumstances of any nation on earth? Yes, despite the current ‘doom and gloom’, we are on the cusp of a truly brilliant future – if only we choose to embrace it.

We have everything any society could need: vast natural resources, abundant clean energy and an unrivalled repository of wisdom held in trust by the world’s oldest continuous culture supplemented by a richly diverse people drawn from every corner of the planet. However, whether this future can be grasped depends not on our natural resources, our financial capital, or our technical nous. The ultimate determinant lies in our character.

Three forces can shatter our path to prosperity. First, enemies from without who seek to exploit our grievances and divide our nation into warring factions. Second, a collective fear of the unknown and a lack of trust in those who would lead us there. Third, a lingering, persistent doubt about the legitimacy of a society that violently dispossessed the first peoples of our continent.

Each of these threats can be neutralised – if only we have the collective will and the courage to do so. With this in mind, I have outlined below a set of core, national objectives that I think would secure the endorsement of a vast majority of Australians. It is the realisation of these objectives that will unlock the brilliant future that is available to all Australians.

In five years, we can fashion a society that is at ease with itself and its place in the world. We can have sown the seeds out of which will grow a universal sense of belonging – a gift bestowed by First Nations people who have only ever asked for respect, truth and justice. That sense of unfettered connection, informed by an Indigenous understanding of country that has grown over time immemorial, will be the glue that binds us into one people of many parts. Once established and reinforced, nothing will dissolve that bond.

In five years, we can grow the confidence to embrace radical change – confident that no individual or group will be asked to bear a disproportionate burden while others take an unfair share of the gains. Our commitment to a broadly egalitarian society will move from myth to reality. While we may not all rise to equal heights, no one will be left to fall into the depths of neglect or obscurity. This will allow us to be brave, to take risks and to harvest the rewards of doing so.

In five years, we can be better led. Confidence can be restored in our governments – that they will truly honour their democratic obligation to act solely in the public interest – whether in their use of public resources or in the policies and practices they adopt.

In five years, the aged, the sick and infirm should be cared for by a workforce who are properly valued and rewarded for their support of the most vulnerable.

In five years, all Australians should have a genuine opportunity to make a home for themselves in affordable, secure accommodation.

In five years, everyone should feel more safe and secure in their homes, their workplaces, their cities and towns.

In five years, a confident Australia can build and reinforce enduring alliances with nations who share our desire to live in a just and orderly world free from the heavy yoke of authoritarian governments.

All of this is possible. For the most part our physical and technical infrastructure is world class. Our ethical infrastructure could be better. We need to invest in this area – confident that in doing so we will unlock both social and economic benefits of staggering proportions. As Deloitte Access Economics has estimated, a mere 10% increase in the level of ethics in Australia would lead to an increase in GDP of $45B (yes, billion) every year – not through some kind of ‘magical effect’ but as a direct consequence of the increased trust that better ethics would create.

Do this and we can embrace the brilliant future that beckons us.


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You won't be able to tell whether Depp or Heard are lying by watching their faces

The Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial is now over.

Heard has been found guilty of defaming the actor with an op-ed she wrote – that did not name him explicitly – about being a survivor of domestic violence. Depp’s legal team too has been found guilty of defamation, but the amount that Heard has to now pay Depp is a much higher figure than he has to pay her.

The proceedings are done. But the media reaction to the trial – both from traditional outlets, and the deluge of posts about it crowding every single social platform like ants across an old plate of food – will linger.

This is because, in many circles, the all-too public spectacle has been treated like an unprecedented event. Pored over ad nauseum, it has been subject to endless thinkpieces, YouTube breakdowns, and Twitch streams. Twitter is awash with “fan edits”, compilations of carefully selected moments cut to the jaunty music usually associated with dance trends, or videos of dogs playing with each other in suburban backyards. There’s no use blocking keywords associated with it on social media. Videos still find a way to slip through, because the trial is everywhere. 

This isn’t so surprising. The trial is on one level, a glimpse into the personal lives of the usually alien upper class. On another, it is shocking and disturbing enough – whichever side one takes – that it provides the vicious thrills that a culture which has become obsessed with true crime obsessively seeks out. This is all information, content. But how much of it do we need to make an informed decision about the outcome of the trial? And more than that, is this a useful kind of information? Where does it lead us? What does it give us?

The trial is foreign, it’s taboo, it’s ugly, and it’s glossy. What it isn’t, however, is quite as novel as it first seems.


Old Stories; New Faces

Much like the O.J. Simpson trial, or the proceedings against Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, the Australian woman who claimed a dingo ate her baby, the Depp/Heard case is an example of a media-captivated society channeling abstract arguments through the lens of a high stakes legal proceeding, populated by faces that viewers have already developed complex parasocial relationships with. And, importantly, in each case, there has been an intense public scrutiny on how the figures in these cases should act – a fixation on their body language, their expressions, and the way they sound out words.

During the Simpson trial, the abstract arguments at play concerned race relations. Now, the tensions underlying the Depp/Heard trial are to do with what is sometimes referred to as our “post-metoo world”, a culture that has seen abusers reckoned with, and vast systems of deception that protect those abusers brought to light. 

All of these court cases represented, and now represent, an opportunity for the public at large to discuss topics they might not normally have considered polite to bring up at the dinner table, or around the water cooler. “Is O.J. guilty?” was a way of saying, “tell me what you think about race and class in this country.” “Is Amber Heard a liar?” is now a way of saying, “what do you think abuse looks like? And what do we do about it?”

But there is at least one way that the Depp/Heard trial is involved with a trend that is breaking new ground. Unlike the Simpson trial, or the case against Chamberlain-Creighton, most viewers are watching the case through the internet. In turn, that means viewers have a unique ability to craft their own content about the proceedings, filtering key moments pulled from hours of footage through whatever pre-existing narrative they have constructed about the hero and the villain of this painful, and very sad story.

These content creators, who are often cutting together their videos in their spare time for no gain except rallying their audience around them, can watch over the trial’s footage as frequently as they like. They can scrutinize the same few seconds over and over; slow stretches of it down; freeze them in place. 

In turn, that has turned a growing number of these amateur video essayists into amateur psychologists. A large subset of Depp/Heard content creators have come to believe that they can work out which of the players are lying by closely watching their expressions, unpacking their body language, and picking over the slightest tic, or absent gaze. For these sleuths, the case’s conclusion is as clear as Heard’s grimace, or the smile unfurling in the corner of Depp’s lips.

Embed from Getty Images


The Face Of A Liar

Those who seek to excavate the “truth” hiding beneath the trial by studying the body language and facial expressions of Depp and Heard start from a justifiable philosophical position. It was the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a famous monist, who believed that every bodily state is underwritten by a mental state. For Spinoza, all things are of the one matter – variously called “nature”, or “God” by his intellectual interpreters. On this view, there is no distinction between any two substances, let alone a distinction between the way we hold ourselves, and what we think. The mind is the body, and the body is the mind.

From this starting point, it makes some sense to believe that the flesh might hold some insight into the secret thoughts and desires of two people who are very famous and very rich – and thus largely inaccessible, because nothing buys privacy like money and influence. Or, if not insight, then evidence gathered as post-hoc justification. Decisions as to guilt change based on a variety of factors – but they’re sometimes made early, and data can be gathered after those decisions have already been made, propping up pre-existing positions.

The mistake, however, is to generalise what these embodied states look like, and thus to generalise the emotional and mental states they are tied to.

There is, quite simply, no one way that all of us look when we lie, or are distressed, or happy. We are distinct in the way that we consider the world around us, and thus distinct in the way that we physically appear when we do.

Many of the “tell-tale signs” that get neurotically returned to, over and over again, on social media – Heard’s tone of voice, Depp’s drawl – could have any number of associated affective states, from anxiety, to pain, to yes, perhaps, the desire to lie. “It can be tough to accurately interpret someone through their body language since someone may feel tense or look uneasy for so many reasons,” said the therapist and author Dr. Jenny Taitz. 

If we follow Spinoza, we will believe that our bodies and our thoughts are intertwined – but that’s not the same as saying the former will reveal the latter. These are slabs of affect, expressed both physically and mentally, but they are not as easily comprehensible as that makes them sound.

Indeed, psychological studies have proved for decades that none of us are skilled when it comes to weeding out those spinning “falsehoods”, and those not. A 2004 study of lying found that “agents of the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency – as well as judges, local police, federal polygraph operators, psychiatrists and laymen – performed no better at detecting lies than if they had guessed randomly.”

There is, after all, an immense social advantage to picking liars. If we could do it, and do it reliably, then that would be an invaluable skill, one we would expect to spread and be adopted across communities quickly. The fact that there is no dominant method of analysing the way our bodies twist and pose when speaking in itself speaks to the impossibility of using faces to get at what we mean when we talk about “the truth.”

Moreover, even most “body language experts” – an increasingly popular and media-saturated sub-set of pop psychologists, who have almost no science to back up their claims – admit that we need to get a baseline of our subject’s physical reactions before we can even attempt the fraught and mostly doomed work of trying to understand if they’re lying. 

Which is to say, we need to at least know what people look like when they’re telling the truth before we can tell if they’re not. And we don’t know Johnny Depp, or Amber Heard, despite the illusion of closeness granted by social media. We don’t have enough data about how they move through the world, or what they look like when they do. How could we possibly guess at the motives and thoughts of utter strangers?


The Actors

Heard’s critics in particular have developed the line that she is a “performer”, going through the mere motions of grief and trauma – and not particularly well. They highlight a moment in which Heard appeared to pause while waiting for a cameraperson to snap a picture of her pained face, and another in which she seemed to flicker, composing herself for her next line as an actress on set would.

Of course, Heard is performing, on some level. But she is not performing in a way different to Depp. Though his defenders do not often note it, he too is signaling to the cameras, and to the jury – his smiles, and asides to his legal team, make that clear.

Nor, even, are these two distinct from the rest of us. We are all performing. We are social creatures, who have the ability to tell when we are being watched by others. Theory of mind, the term used to describe our understanding that other human beings see and think like we do, means that we can throw ourselves into the perspective of our observers. We do this constantly. It is part of what it means to have a body, and to be a person.

As philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, we don’t even have to be actively watched to know that we could be watched. We carry with us the sense that we are what Sartre called a “thing in the world” – an entity that, at any time, could be stumbled across, and studied. As a result, we are always aware of ourselves, and how we might appear. Even when we are totally alone, we are never really alone. We are always with others – whether they’re flesh and blood observers, or ones we’ve made up in our head.


Where The Truth Lies

None of this has been an attempt to argue that Depp is telling the truth over Heard, or vice versa. It is not even a question of “truth”, as that word has been contemporaneously used.

The binary between the “real” and the “fake”, aggressively emphasised in media reactions to the trial, is itself overly simplistic, an outdated harbinger dangerously trickled down into the culture by analytic philosophy.

That is not to diminish the hurt, or the trauma, that clearly sits at the centre of the trial. That pain is real. That pain can be understood, but only when we look at the evidence in totality – the actual evidence, not the faces on the stand – and then causally tie it to certain parties. 

We should, however, remember there is no objective state of affairs – no perfect place from which, like God, we can dispel the lies and embrace the world as it really is. The judge overseeing the Depp/Heard trial is not neutral. None of us are. At best, in this case as in so many others, we should, like the great pragmatist Richard Rorty, argue for ethnocentric justification for our claims, rather than tying them to a standpoint that sits outside of history, and belief, and bias. In doing so, we can embrace the changeability of our own positions – not on guilt and innocence, exactly, but the societal pressures that are so at play here – and examine them, seeing them as the flexible systems of thought that they are.

Throughout, however, we should remember that whatever we’re looking for when we hope to untangle a messy and painful relationship between two strangers who we will almost certainly never meet, it will not be found in their faces.

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Housing affordability crisis: The elephant in the room stomping young Australians


Affordably housing its peoples is a hallmark of a developed society. Yet, Australia’s housing system has been failing young people, argues Intifar Chowdhury.

Squeezed by rising rents and aggressive increase in property prices, young Australians are increasingly being locked out of the housing market, and thus are being denied the stability and financial security that was taken for granted by previous generations.

The housing affordability crisis deepens as inflation, cost of living and housing prices rise at a faster rate than wages. Similarly, Australia’s rental crisis worsens with natural disasters such as flooding and increased competition as the country reopens to international students.

The backdrop to the COVID-19 pandemic will also exacerbate this growing economic inequality across generations. In fact, those in their late 20s and early 30s have now known two crises: the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008-2009 and the COVID-19 crisis of 2020-2021. This puts them at unique risk and financial disadvantage compared to other members of society.

The reality on the ground is that, compared to their parents and grandparents, today’s young people are not only poor homeowners but also poor renters. The reality is an intergenerational theft.

While some have argued that housing should be at the front and centre of the upcoming federal election, housing affordability has not taken on a sufficient degree of importance in the policy narratives of the two major parties.

In fact, I’d agree that young Australians have been betrayed by both parties. Although the youth need a proper national plan for housing affordability and supply, their situation is sometimes met with rather condescending comments from the political leadership.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comment – that “if you can’t afford rent, buy a house” is both comical and disturbing at first reading. As the PM flaunted in the first 2022 leader’s debate, first home buyer loan schemes allowed 160, 000 Australians to gain access to the property ladder last year. And his recent proposal to allow young people to tap into their superannuation has a similar ambition.

But what he neglects is how housing affordability concerns 67 per cent of Australians, many of whom are young people with low wealth and heavily taxed incomes. And government subsidies for a relative minority put upward pressure on prices for the many, presenting a trade-off of where it is more difficult to save a deposit for a home. Therefore, such comments are disturbing reflections of how far removed Australian political leaders are from the reality on the ground.


Housing affordability: a sticky problem?

Housing unaffordability has been identified as a pressing problem for more than decade now, so why then does it remain unresolved? The simple answer to this is that the politics around the problem prevents a permanent solution.

The housing affordability crisis persists because of two political reasons. First, more voters have an incentive to maintain the status quo compared to those who could benefit from a more equitable housing system. Although the growth in property prices entrenches economic inequality, it is a positive for incumbent homeowners who want to capitalise on their investment.

Further, impenetrable, cumbersome and ambiguous policies spook those with property. They fall into the status quo bias. For example, Labor’s 2019 election slogan to tone down investment incentives and introduce the housing tax upset property and construction industries and offended a large constituency of property owners. These radical proposals cost Labor the election.

Existing housing policies also fail to address the root cause of the problem. Most efforts to deal with unaffordability aim to cool housing demand rather than increasing supply. Pete Wargent, co-founder of BuyersBuyers, believes this approach would “make a marginal difference to affordability over time”.

Although investment incentives like CGT discounts and negative gearing are touted as the key drivers, recent review of six economic papers revealed that the combination of both contributed only a small 1 per cent to 4 per cent increase in dwelling prices. Whereas zoning restrictions, which limit the supply of land on which to build homes, contribute to almost half the rise of average detached house prices in major metropolitans, like Sydney and Melbourne. Centre for Independent Studies’ chief economist and a former RBA official, Peter Tulip, suggests increasing supply and lifting zoning restrictions can have huge benefits.

Yet, these are difficult to attain. The politics of improving housing affordability is determined by whether there are more voters who are property owners than not.

That is, whether there are more beneficiaries of unaffordability who will vote in their self-interest and support policies and parties that will keep prices high and rising, even if that compromises the future security of young people.

According to the Australian Electoral Commission, in 2022, there are 4.2 million voters aged over 65 compared to 3.1 million voters under 29. That is a difference of 1.1 million between lightly taxed, asset-rich older Australians, and younger wage earners. This intergenerational inequality is therefore a function of the classic headlock between the older haves and the younger have-nots.


Simple fix: increase supply?

Housing unaffordability is a complex structural issue that can’t be viewed through a simplistic lens.

Despite a plethora of issues influencing the housing market, the imbalance in supply and demand is at the crux of the matter. Rather unsurprisingly, the Property Council of Australia, recommends major parties to address supply shortages to improve affordability.

But adequate supply of housing doesn’t just mean constructing a certain number of dwellings on greenfield sites. It needs to be well-located and well-serviced with job, social and community infrastructures.

At both federal and state level, more commitment is requited to increase urgent need for more social housing. With a historically low level of social housing, (i.e. a non market rental housing sector), this would be more affordable and secure for low-income earners. Both major parties, however, fall short on public housing investment this election.

Supply of affordable housing can be increased by institutional investments, but investors show relatively little interest in affordable housing largely due to perceptions of risk and comparatively low returns. This is where government incentives and the introduction of some form of financial instrument (similar to the discontinued National Rental Affordability Scheme) could work.

However, evidence from Europe and Britain, suggest that government intervention may decline as affordability worsens. There is a major challenge to rolling out reforms: homeowners want to protect their properties from being undermined by growing housing supply, resulting in less support for government intervention. This feeds into inequality.

Another option is rent control. But opponents suggest that more limitations in the rental property make owning far less appealing. This again points to the headlocks between homeowners and renters; as the classic adage from former PM John Howard goes: no one is complaining in the streets about their house value going up.

Under the current structure, young people are common losers of the housing system. A change in government won’t be a silver bullet for housing affordability in Australia. What is needed is a structural change which is hard to attain given competing interests, imbalanced power and wealth dynamics among stakeholders.

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A foot in the door: The ethics of internships

It’s just to get my foot in the door, I tell myself for the fifth time today as I offer my brain, my degrees and time to someone for free.

It’s a phrase that I’ve always found to be so incredibly visceral. I picture a door just about to slam shut in my face, that I have to hastily shove my foot in before it swings to a heavy close. Or a door that is slightly ajar, an unknown little me comes knocking and I have to slip my foot in and pry the thing open – to beg for an opportunity.

A foot in the door to do tasks which by now should be compensated. Because somehow in my years of trying to find a suitable job, no-one deems my skills to be transferable.

None of these scenarios really paint a picture for a healthy work foundation.

One would think that multiple arts degrees and years of casual jobs following instructions, would qualify me for an “entry level position”.

But it doesn’t. It leaves me cold emailing organisations, asking if they can send their off cuts to me so that I can get exposure. So that I can build a portfolio. So that I can earn a living and build my career.

But in my thinly veiled bitterness I digress. I chose the arts. I chose the creative field where getting your foot in the door is seen as a ‘privilege’. Having worked actual entry level jobs such as gallery host, our role was held up on a pedestal, yet we were not. We were made to simultaneously feel so lucky to have this job and yet so small and very replaceable. Why? Well, because it looks so good on the CV.

But in reality, it hasn’t really done anything to help my long-term career. And while I’ve had some wonderful bosses who have helped mentor me to learn and grow, this no longer seems like valid proof that I can, in fact, progress my career. It also doesn’t help that the pandemic cut arts positions in half.

The issue that lies here is often the refusal in hiring processes to acknowledge transferable skills. Which leaves you wondering, where do you gain these industry specific skills if no one will hire you for entry level jobs? Internships, of course.

Internship or Indenture?

Internships are fascinating mostly because of their prevalence, lack of regulation and lack of overall purpose. A report for the Fair Work Ombudsman by Adelaide Law School in 2013 states that “In Australia, as elsewhere, the term ‘internship’ is without fixed content. It has a broad and uncertain meaning covering everything from unpaid or paid entry level jobs to volunteer work in the not-for-profit sector”. This covers such a breadth of options that no wonder those starting out in their careers can fall into the trap of being exploited.

Internships are rife, particularly in the arts and on a global scale. Note when referring to the arts I include any creative industry, because they all bleed into each other – skills intersect and majority of skills learned are transferrable. There would be no issue with internships… if they were paid, but they rarely are.

In the UK, Sutton Trust is a non-for-profit organisation that fights for youth social mobility. Their work spans research on the prevalence and the social impact that internships have on recent graduates or those looking to change their career. Their 2018 report found that that 86% of arts internships are unpaid. The issue with unpaid internships is that life isn’t free.

Putting numbers on this, to live in London for a month whilst doing an unpaid internship costs £1,019 (about AUD$1800). And to make matters worse, due to the lack of legal clarity surrounding internships, there are concerns that some employers are exploiting this grey area. A harrowing ethical dilemma – getting an extra pair of hands without even attempting to understand their own responsibilities towards interns.

Due to the lack of legal clarity surrounding internships, there are concerns that some employers are exploiting this grey area.

It’s interesting to note that internships are always perceived as a stepping-stone. The Australian National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) has a fact sheet on internships and what to expect, stating that they can be either paid or unpaid but the ‘crux of the situation is that it is an educational exchange’. NAVA go further to highlight the Fair Work Ombudsman’s criteria of an internship as a ‘meaningful learning experience, training or skill development’. This sounds completely reasonable, except when there is a precarious edge that tips easily into exploitation.

Researcher at the University of Montreal, Mirjam Gollmitzer recently detailed the precarious entryways into journalism. Often internships are seen as a socialisation into an industry or workplace, but Gollmitzer states that whilst that is ideal, research shows the opposite.

Through interviews with interns within the journalism industry, she finds interns who are ‘starved of mentorship and training’ and often left to their own devices. She highlights a powerful observation arguing that ‘the tacit assumption is that workers, not employers, are tasked with making the internship a success’.

How do we determine the success or value of an internship? To be seen as a meaningful learning experience, interns require mentorship, an environment to gain confidence and an understanding of how an industry works. Instead, Gollmitzer finds interns are often merely an extra pair of hands doing menial tasks, “with their experiences marred by haphazard interactions with time-strapped colleagues and arbitrary decisions by supervisors.”

The onus should be with employers to ensure interns are offered a valuable and structured experience where they can come out having truly learnt something and be given a genuine leg up in their career.

Instead many interns are left with a bitter taste in their mouth. They’re overworked, under paid (or not at all) and don’t walk away with skills or tangible experience they can take into an entry level job, which seems barely adequate. Which leads to the questions… when did jobs stop being a place of meaningful learning experiences and skill development? And how did we palm this off onto unpaid internships?

How did you get your start?

The above two questions are integral in understanding the shift that has occurred in the workplace. When listening to boomers talk about their start in the industry, often we hear those anecdotes about how they started in the photocopy room and someone noticed their intelligence and they were given a chance. Or how they were internally trained and given qualifications within the organisation.

The fact of the matter is that entering the workforce has been increasingly difficult for young people. The latest statistics from the HILDA Survey by The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic & Social Research shows that only about 40% of graduates find full-time work in the first year out of full-time education. Their median hourly earnings are about two-thirds of median earnings of all workers, which is abysmal since our cost of living is ever on the rise. But this is certainly part of the discussion surrounding internships. With more and more people unable to find full-time work, we turn to casual work, to subsidise rent and to simply make a living, despite these casual jobs often not actually having relevance to one’s degree or career aspirations.

Casual work is the backbone of all unpaid internships. We all know someone who has worked in a pub whilst doing an unpaid internship in their desired creative field. But this leaves young people with burnout, and a distaste for a particular industry. Imagine that – already having doubts about something you studied just because from the get go you’re told you’re lucky to be working for free.

Nothing in life is free, therefore internships shouldn’t be. Making internships unpaid ‘learning’ experiences often leaves out entire demographics of people who simple cannot afford to work for free. It perpetuates the elite nature of industry, and the idea of the grind straight off the diving block. It’s cruel and unnecessary. Particularly because it wasn’t quite as brutal in different generations. For the first time ever, gen Z are running the risk of earning LESS than their parents, something that has never happened in the course of history.

How do we fix this? While I’m not well versed in economics or capitalism, I do know that people need to be paid for their work. Don’t take on an employee if you don’t have the bandwidth to mentor or financially compensate them. We need to start treating entry level jobs as a first stepping stone into an industry and leave the exploitation of young workers in the past, where it belongs.

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What did you value at the start of your career?

Constructing an ethical healthcare system

Assessed from a distance, Australia’s healthcare system may seem to shine.

Contrasted with the near non-existence of subsidised medicine in the United States, and the increasing shortages of doctors and other specialists seen globally, Australia could be taken as providing healthcare at least a calibre above the rest. However, with a closer look, it quickly becomes apparent that one’s assessment of the ethical status of Australia’s healthcare system is one that is decidedly dependent upon the vantage point of the assessor.

When we narrow our scope and focus instead on the internal workings of the Australian system, holding it to a local, desired standard of performance, its ethical misgivings readily become apparent. If the role of a successful healthcare system is to provide equally for all, where illness, disability or socioeconomic status do not stand as features which reliably disenfranchise its users, then the current formation of our local system does not seem to ethically sparkle.

Dr Annmaree Watharow was a general practitioner for over two decades. She is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Technology Sydney where she completed her dissertation on the healthcare and hospital experiences of those who have dual sensory impairments. She has published works on topics ranging from improving communication within healthcare environments to fostering improved practice in research settings, along with personal testimonies on her experiences of living with deafblindness.

When I ask Dr Watharow what she takes to be the central ethical failure of our current healthcare system, she responds concisely:

“Parity of access to quality healthcare is the key ethical issue.”

If we agree that equal access is a central pillar to an ethical system of healthcare, we are required to understand who is currently being left out and why, in order to begin remedial work.

“Migrant populations, homeless, incarcerated, LGBTQI+, veterans, older Australians, Indigenous Australians, and people living with disability and chronic illness” are all social groups that Dr Watharow sees as belonging on the (not exhaustive) list of those who are directly and negatively impacted by the apparent partialities in contemporary healthcare systems.

Where there are losers, there are also winners – or, at the very least, those who remain comfortable in the current modes of national healthcare dissemination. When considering the broader Australian population, Dr Watharow suggests, “Multiple sections are disadvantaged, but you have a core group who are well positioned to leverage advantage. These are people with good income, good housing, good nutrition”.

Pre-existing social structures that both create and sustain sharp disparities in income, quality of housing, education and health work to negatively impact an individual’s wellbeing. These factors are oftentimes discussed as being ‘social determinants of health’, such that they directly affect a person’s risk of developing physical or mental illness. Dr Watharow importantly draws our attention to how those belonging to disenfranchised groups are subsequently more likely to be negatively impacted by facets of our social structure that reach far beyond the healthcare system.

“There are inadequacies in our social welfare, justice and recognition systems which fail these groups”, Dr Watharow explains. When considering current pensions and welfare allowances for example, it is apparent that some individuals have their health compromised long before they end up in a hospital bed. “The current funds don’t allow people to practice healthcare or good nutrition or have quality housing. All of these contribute to poorer healthcare outcomes.”

Evidently, assessments of the ethics of our healthcare system would be incomplete without an assessment of the broader society in which that system operates. Dr Watharow helpfully turns our focus to how broader, socioeconomic disadvantage necessarily breeds unequal access to and benefit from current systems of healthcare.

Better understanding these causal factors, which directly contribute to this inequality, usefully directs us towards finding pragmatic solutions, and Dr Watharow is clear in pointing out a pivotal step that is necessary to spur positive change: we need to provide a means by which the wide array of disenfranchised voices may articulate the intricacies of their own disadvantage.

“The lynchpin of the medical system should be shared decision making. For that to happen, everyone needs access, they need communication, and communication support if not able to communicate.” Ensuring the representation of marginalised voices in both research and political settings is a necessary step towards the shared decision making required for the construction of an ethical, inclusive healthcare system. If particular users of the healthcare system are silenced in their capacity to communicate their needs or experiences, inequality will be fostered.

Critically, creating the capacity for individuals to speak truth to the power is only the first step. “We need an attitudinal shift in how we treat those who are older, have a disability, or cognitive impairment. We need healthcare institutes to comply with the statues that exist on an international, national, and state levels that prohibit abuse, neglect, and violence, as well as promote healthcare.”

Dr Watharow emphasises that Australians, especially Indigenous Australians, living with disability are a key population who remain poignantly disadvantaged in the current healthcare system. Even with the construction of government services such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), these groups continue to suffer in the face of discriminatory social systems which stifle the capacity for their needs to be adequately heard across community, research, and political settings.

“I think the NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] has severely short-changed First Nations peoples by not understanding that their disability experiences and needs are not the same as non-Indigenous. Disability is understood differently and there are major barriers to getting disability services to rural and remote regions. Added to this, many First Peoples need basic things like shelter, food, work; if you haven’t got the money for a bus fare to town you can’t go get assessed, if you haven’t got predictable housing how do you get home help?”.

Recognising the insufficiencies of social welfare schemes and the impact these have on practices of healthcare again draws our attention to the importance of addressing nationwide, systemic inequality in order to construct ethical systems of healthcare. Unfortunately, aiming to remedy broader social inequalities as a method to achieve equitable healthcare may appear a slow and arduous approach. Luckily, as Dr Watharow suggests, these ambitions need not be pursued in lieu of more targeted action.

“If we put in some basic work to expecting our health environments to be compliant with universal design principles and disability standards; if we expect our staff there to be aware, knowledgeable and compliant with accessibility and communication provisions (which are enshrined in legal statutes) and if we enforce these with audits, spot checks and evaluation of complaints, if we make it a condition of service that staff do yearly training and upskilling in providing equitable access and communication and care to PLWD [people living with disabilities], we can do so much!”

The process of constructing an ethical healthcare system in Australia requires both remedial and aspirational work. Currently, quality healthcare cannot be equally accessed by all. Understanding which groups face obstacles to access, and why, is a critical starting point for resolution. We require a commitment to ensuring individuals can communicate their needs and critiques of current models, and that these calls are heard and responded to. Concurrently, it must be demanded that pre-existing standards of care are reliably upheld and not entirely disregarded.

Critically, neither of these methods will be pursued if current attitudes toward particular members of our society remain engrained. As Dr Watharow offers, “a greater inclusion and tolerance of difference in all levels of society” is required if we are to garner the motivation required to remedy existing inequalities.

The solutions are multifaceted, slow, and likely expensive. But if we are committed to equality, both in systems of health and in our societies more broadly, the gap between those who can enjoy healthy lives, and those who cannot, should slowly close.

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What does ethical healthcare look like?

Survivors are talking, but what’s changing?

At the Australia-wide March4Justice rallies in 2021, Brittany Higgins (a former Liberal Party staffer) and Grace Tame (Australian of the Year 2021) delivered speeches in Canberra and Hobart, respectively. Higgins was raped inside Parliament House. Tame is a survivor of child sex abuse. Both called for changes in Australian culture and our institutions to prevent “abuse culture” and to ensure the safety of those most vulnerable to sexual assault.

On Wednesday 9 February 2022, both women gave respective addresses at the National Press Club (NPC) in Canberra. Both criticised that too little had changed since they spoke at these rallies. (Though, the day prior to the addresses, Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally apologised to the survivors of sexual harassment and assault endured by employees in federal parliament.)

In her NPC address, Higgins explained her rationale for making her sexual assault public:

“I made my decision to speak out because the alternative was to be part of the culture of silence inside Parliament House. I spoke out because I wanted the next generation of staffers to work in a better place.”

She then lamented:

“I’m worried what too many people beyond the government and the media took out of the events of last year was that we need to be better at talking about the problem…. I’m not interested in words anymore. I want to see action.”

To clarify, the words Higgins is not interested in anymore are “weasel-words” – she is not advocating against free speech, nor rejecting the need for conversations on the prevalence of sexual abuse.

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Tame and Higgins both believe we need institutional changes to address this issue. And if we are to take anything away from the NPC addresses – and we should – it is this: institutional change must be tackled actively – though not all institutions are formal; we must challenge abuse of power – though not all power is formally bestowed; and those who are in formal positions with considerable power must act effectively.

To that end, Tame explicitly identified three necessary steps that must be taken to progress social and institutional change.

  1. Take sexual violence seriously – this means taking proactive measures to prevent it.
  2. Provide adequate funding to actually implement the proactive measures we need.
  3. Create consistent legislative reforms. For example, sexual assault of a child should not be named “maintaining a relationship with a person under the age of 17,” which was the law Tame’s rapist contravened. All such forms of child sexual abuse should be named for what they are. Abuse.

And, according to Higgins’ response during NPC question time, a greater gender balance in Government would help immensely.

Tame and Higgins have told Australia exactly what we need to do – so why isn’t Australia making adequate progress? Higgins clearly believes that the LNP Government, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in particular, could be doing more to prevent such heinous acts. She explains:

“I wanted him to use his power as Prime Minister. I wanted him to wield the weight of his office and drive change in the Party and our Parliament, and out into the country”.

In spite of Morrison’s apology, and even in light of the 28 recommendations for change in parliament workplaces following an independent review headed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner (AKA the Jenkins’ review), Higgins perceives too little action, reminding us:

“Last year wasn’t a march for acknowledgement and it wasn’t a march for coverage. It wasn’t a march for language. It was a march for justice, and that justice demands real change.”

It is time to hold power to account.

On the matter of power, note its informal use. During her NPC address, Tame revealed that she had received “a threatening phone call from a senior member of a government funded organisation” ‘asking’ her not to say anything negative about the Prime Minister because “you are influential”. But Tame did not have the power in this exchange – the caller did.

Then there is the press, another crucial institution with an immensely powerful role to play in shaping the attitudes of the populace.

But what media seem not to care about, says Tame, is how trauma is often reinforced through powerful institutions like the press.

Since being named Australian of the year in 2021, Tame reports being: “re-victimised, commodified, objectified, sensationalised, delegitimised, gaslit, and thrown under the bus by the mainstream media.”

Strikingly, in spite of Tame’s reprimanding of the press for their re-traumatising actions, the anonymous phone call to Tame became the centre of the mainstream media’s focus of the NPC addresses – with Higgins’ contribution essentially written out of the narrative. Suddenly it was necessary and urgent to find the identity of this mystery caller and for the Prime Minister to assert intent to discover which agency was responsible (and, in so doing, delicately removing himself from the realm of complicity in this abuse of power).

Then, on 14 February, the Daily Mail ran a photo of a teenage Tame seated with what appears to be a ‘bong’ (a device for smoking marijuana). One can only presume that the decision to publicise this photo, which implicates Tame in undertaking illegal behaviour, would have the effect of tarnishing her public image. Media are supposed to report neutrally, not run smear campaigns.

On 19 February, Tame responded publicly via Twitter to all media who published “that” photo, stating:

“At every point — on the national stage, I might add — I’ve been completely transparent about all the demons I’ve battled in the aftermath of child sexual abuse; drug addiction, self-harm, anorexia and PTSD, among others. You just clearly haven’t been listening.”

She then goes on to chastise the media:

“By point-mocking a symptom of a bigger picture, you’ve reinforced the imbalance of an already skewed culture. You’ve chosen to punish the product of an evil, not the evil itself. This is precisely why survivors don’t report. Congratulations.”

Inertia and smear campaigns are just two of the ways institutions can perpetuate abuse culture, also known as ‘rape culture’.

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Philosopher Claudia Card has argued that ‘rape’ (here, meaning any and all sexual assault) is a terrorist institution. Sexual violence – a social practice – is gendered. We live in a world of “social norms that create and define a distribution of power among and between members of the sexes”. This is a type of social identity power – a power that is informally maintained through our actions and our assumptions about the way the world necessarily is. Women fear what men can do to them. Terror of this kind is manipulative. And terror is a shortcut to power.

Rape is also an institution (in an informal sense) insofar as it is “a form of social activity structured by rules that define roles and positions, powers and opportunities.” Cisgender men are usually the perpetrators of sexual assault, and women and children (including male children) are usually the targets of that assault. “For the most part,” says Card, “the rules become ‘second nature’, like the rules of grammar, and those guided need not be aware of the rules as learned norms”.

While I want to emphasise that not all – nor even most – cisgender men commit sexual assaults, that cisgender men can be victims of sexual assault, and typical targets (women and children) can be perpetrators, the constancy of this type of activity – in 2018–19, the majority of sexual assault offenders recorded by police were male (97%) – leads to the impression that sexual assault (tacitly: of women and children) is inevitable.

Since there is a social practice – an open secret – of women and children being sexually abused, women become socialised to fear sexual abuse. Women live in a state of apprehension, always on alert for signals of danger. Cisgender men (who have not experienced assault) do not have to live this way.

Thus, if ‘rape’ really is an informal terrorist institution in Australia, it would follow that one of the reasons Australia is yet to meet Tame’s first requirement – to take sexual violence seriously and to take proactive measures to prevent it – is because we have not yet disregarded the assumption that sexual abuse is inevitable. People may be working on changing such tacit assumptions, but on a mass scale we are yet to shift the dial.

This leads us to Tame’s second ask: adequate funding. Help the people who are doing the re-educating, who are running shelters, who need to access specialist legal services, who are training medical professionals in sexual assault cases, increasing access to psychologists, and improving the child welfare system. The list goes on. And, in Higgins’ view, if there were more women in Parliament, this issue would be taken more seriously – even though “quotas” is a “dirty word” to the Liberal Party, she revealed in question time.

Finally, we reach Tame’s third driver of change, to which her foundation has been working: creating consistent legislative reforms wherein, for instance, there is no reference to a sexual “relationship” between an adult and a child. However, one foundation can only achieve so much – we need a more proactive approach.

Higgins and Tame both identified the barriers to overcoming trauma, while making suggestions on overcoming the abuse culture that has been absorbed into some of our most powerful institutions. Thus, institutions are not off the hook. They have their role to play in dispelling both rape culture and challenging the presumed inevitability of sexual abuse.

Given this, why did the media sensationalise Tame’s anonymous caller, why was Tame smeared, and why was Higgins cast out of the media spotlight? Why is the Government dragging its feet on reform? Why do people keep spreading “that” photo on social media?

One problem, it seems, is this: while Higgins and Tame were indeed given a platform from which to speak, what they said was not really ‘heard’ (that is, properly understood) by the media, by politicians, and even by the public. When one is not heard properly, one is effectively silent. Silence is exactly what Higgins was trying to escape. And yet, it seems that what is said too often makes little difference.

Being ‘effectively silenced’ does not necessarily mean that someone literally cannot speak, or that they have no platform. It means that when they speak, they are misunderstood (often wilfully). The message that should be taken from their words is not the message that media, politicians, and even the general public actually hear.

The media have acted as though that one singular instance of intimidation was the most important issue raised that day. But the point Tame was making is that there is no need to name the person nor agency because this sort of silencing tactic happens all the time to people trying to change the status quo. One must ask, are the media and LNP, even the public, purposefully missing the forest for the trees?

To fail to heed the wisdom of these women, as spokespeople for survivors, is an absolute ethical failing. They are gifting us with their situated knowledge and experience-based insights that would lead to successful reform, as well as the many insights that have been shared with them by other survivors who have sought them as confidantes. Tame literally lists what needs to happen: one, two, three. But it is clear that the press and the Parliament have not yet learnt how to actually listen to the intended overarching messages of these women – and, until they (and we ourselves) do, nothing will change.

We must pay attention and be proactive in destroying the terrorist institution of abuse culture.

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How can societal and institutional change be tackled?

Is the right to die about rights or consequences?

Of all public policy debates, voluntary assisted dying is an ethical debate as much as any other, made clear by the recent impassioned speeches on the floor of the New South Wales parliament and the accompanying public debate.

The various arguments for and against voluntary assisted dying are motivated by a range of different reasons. For some it’s by personal experiences and time spent with dying loved ones. For others it’s by views on human dignity – reasons that are used both for and against. Many arguments are motivated instead by a deep belief in the existence of God, and what this means for how we treat others.

While there may be no “best way” to consider and assess the case for and against voluntary-assisted-dying, it seems to me that a useful approach is to focus on two central ethical issues:

  • The level of rights an individual has over their body
  • Whether legalised voluntary assisted dying makes a society worse-off due to the negative consequences that may ensue, such as increased self-harm in the broader population or individuals being pressured to prematurely end their lives.

The rights case for voluntary assisted dying largely centres on an individual’s self-ownership rights – what they are permitted to do with their bodies. These rights do not rest on any consequential benefits that might arise, such as a more cohesive society or a happier public, but are natural rights, without further need of justification.

If people have self-ownership rights in a strong sense – for example, they can do as they please with their bodies, free from any external government interference – then it seems the proposed NSW voluntary assisted dying bill does not go far enough.

Patients must have a condition that is advanced, progressive and will cause death within six months (or 12 months for a neurodegenerative disease). This timeframe appears unfair because it means patients with higher levels of pain who are further from the relief of death will suffer more, for longer. If anything, a person experiencing a higher level of pain has a greater need for voluntary assisted dying. If we regard incurable psychological suffering as an affliction comparable with physical suffering (a possibility it seems we do take seriously as a society), failing to provide relief for this cohort seems if not unfair, then at least inconsistent.

However, our existing social norms suggest self-ownership rights are not inviolable. We are not allowed to sell our organs, even if to save another person’s life (we can donate them). We are not allowed to sell ourselves into slavery, even if this could raise vital funds our families or children need to lead better lives.

When we impose risks that are great enough, either to ourselves or others, we are restricted from doing things as menial as leaving home after dark, as was the case in parts of south-west Sydney during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Sometimes these restrictions are publicly justified on the basis of being good for the individual (paternalistic reasons), and other times on the basis of being good for society (what economists might call “externality” reasons).

With regard to consequences, from an individual’s perspective, it seems reasonable to suggest that a condition can be so severe, so acute, that life is not worth living. Our existing medical practices align with this view. It is permissible in NSW for doctors to withdraw life-saving treatment at the request of patients and doctors are under no obligation to provide medical treatment when treatment is considered futile. While there is a difference between killing and letting die, this practice suggests it is possible for the benefits of death to outweigh the costs of life.

Therefore, from a consequentialist perspective, it seems to me the primary issue of concern is whether voluntary assisted dying makes society worse. One argument made is that voluntary assisted dying can increase suicides in the general population and pressure vulnerable people to prematurely end their lives. It seems reasonable to accept this is possible and reasonable to accept that we cannot know with full certainty how legalising voluntary assisted dying will impact NSW.

The primary issue of concern is whether voluntary assisted dying makes society worse.

However, these consequential considerations can be informed by looking at the experience of other jurisdictions. Voluntary assisted dying has been legal in the US states of Oregon, Washington and Vermont since 1997, 2009, and 2013 respectively; legal in the Netherlands and Belgium since 2002; and legal in Switzerland since 1918.

Given both sides of the debate argue the evidence is in favour of their own argument, a useful exercise is for the government to commission an independent non-partisan group of experts to analyse the existing data and academic literature, and publicly report back. This would help inform members of NSW Legislative Council when they consider amendments and vote on voluntary-assisted-dying legislation in 2022.

The non-partisan group would analyse how laws have been introduced in other jurisdictions and how these laws have changed over time. The group would ideally look for evidence of whether voluntary assisted dying has increased general population suicides or self-harm, or pressured individuals to prematurely end their lives. They might even consider whether voluntary assisted dying legalisation has numbed or lessened the community spirit, or negatively (or positively) changed the way a community treats and thinks about death.

An independent non-partisan report would provide a greater understanding of the trade-off between individual rights and social consequences. Should it be the case there is near zero risk of negative social consequences, then the case for voluntary assisted dying would seem unassailable. But if there is a risk of increased general population self-harm (for example), the decision then centres on a threshold issue of what level of risk and what level of social impact we are willing to accept.

We might be willing to accept one additional event of self-harm or we might be willing to accept one hundred. We might even be willing to accept that an individual’s rights over their bodies are so strong that patients in agonising pain have a right to voluntary assisted dying, regardless of the social consequences that might result. That is, we might conclude that individual rights trump social consequences.

Should the voluntary assisted dying bill become law, the NSW experience may differ from other jurisdictions due to a range of policy or cultural reasons, which is why it seems an oversight the proposed bill does not require more in the way of future data collection and future reviews (something that could be undertaken by the proposed Voluntary Assisted Dying Board). This amendment would aid future debates (should the bill be passed by the NSW Legislative Council) on whether voluntary assisted dying should be expanded, amended, or even repealed.

It seems to me, the proposed voluntary assisted dying bill permits too little where rights are concerned by setting too strict a timeframe on nearness to death, and permits too much where consequences are concerned by not adequately taking into account the potential for negative social consequences.

The proposed bill and the ethical debate would be improved by considering ways to treat individuals consistently and fairly, by the government commissioning an independent non-partisan group to publicly report back before the NSW Legislative Council votes on the voluntary assisted dying bill, and by amending the proposed bill to require greater data collection and mandate future reviews.

These measures would enhance our understanding of individual rights and social consequences and enable our politicians to vote with their conscience alongside the relevant facts.

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Is the right to die about rights or consequences?

Of what does the machine dream? The Wire and collectivism

This week, a group of more than a dozen Rohingya refugees launched a civil suit against Facebook, alleging that the social media giant was responsible for spreading hate speech.

The victims of an ongoing military crackdown in Myanmar, the refugees claimed not merely that Facebook allowed users to express their anti-Rohingya views, but that Facebook radicalised users – that, in essence, the platform changed beliefs, rather than merely providing a conduit to express them.

The suit is, in many ways, the first of a kind. It targets the manner in which systems – whether they be social media giants, video streaming sites like YouTube, or the myriad of bureaucracies that we all engage with in one way or another almost every day – warp and change beliefs.

But what if the suit underestimates the power of these systems? What if it’s not merely that social and financial enterprises alter beliefs, but that these enterprises have belief sets entirely of their own? More and more, as capitalism continues to ratify itself, we are finding ourselves swept up in communities that operate on the basis of desires that are distinct from the views of any one member of those communities. We are all part of a great, groaning machinery – and it doesn’t want what we want.

Pawns in a Game

There is a key sequence in David Simon’s critically adored television series The Wire that sums up this perspective perfectly. In it, three young men, all of them members of a rickety enterprise of crime, find themselves playing chess. The least experienced man does not understand the game – how, he wants to know, does he get to become the king? He doesn’t, the most experienced man explains. Everyone is who they are.

Still, the younger man wants to know, what about the pawns? Surely when they reach the other side of the board, and get swapped out for queens, they have made it – they have beat the system. No, the experienced man explains. “The pawns get capped quick,” he says, simply.

There is a deep, sad irony to the scene: the three men are all pawns. They have no way of beating the system. They will not even live to become queens. When one of them dies a few episodes later, shot to death by his friend, there is a grim finality to the murder. He did, as expected, get capped quick.

This is the focus of The Wire – the observation that members of any community are expendable when weighed against the desires of that community. The game of chess is bigger than any of the pawns could imagine, a system with its own rules that they are merely contingent parts of. And so it goes with the business of crime.

Not only crime, either. The genius of The Wire is the way that it draws parallels between those who operate outside the law, and those who uphold it. The cops who spend the series cracking down on the drug trade are also pawns, in their way: lowly members of a system that they are utterly unable to change. No matter what side of the law that you fall on, you will find yourself submerged in bureaucracy, The Wire says – in the machinations of a vast system of power relations with a goal to constantly perpetuate itself, at your expense.

These are the systems that Sigmund Freud wrote of in his seminal work, Civilization and Its Discontents. For Freud, there is an essential disconnect between the desires of individuals and the desires of the social communities that they unwillingly become a part of. There are things at foot that are bigger than any of us.

Bureaucracies are not the sum total of the desires and beliefs of the members of those bureaucracies. These systems have a life – a value set – entirely of their own.

Image: HBO

The Game Never Changes

If that is the case, then how does change occur? The Wire offers only dispiriting answers. The show’s idealists – renegade cop Jimmy McNulty, rogue crime boss Omar Little – either find themselves subsumed by the system that lords over them or eliminated. There is a hopelessness to their rebellion. They uselessly throw themselves into the path of a giant piece of machinery, hoping that their mangled bodies slow the inevitable march of progress.

It doesn’t work. Those who thrive are those who give themselves over entirely to the system, who align their values perfectly with the values of their community and embrace their own insignificance. Snoop, the show’s most hideous and intimidating villain, is a happy pawn, one who has never once considered changing the rules of the game that will send her too into an early, dismal grave.

But what if we all stop playing? That is the solution that The Wire never considers. If these systems, whether they be criminal or judicial, are to be changed, then it requires a different kind of collectivism. We are all part of many communities, not just one. If we remember this – if we understand that we have the power and solidarity that comes from being a member of a particular class, a particular race, a particular gender – then we can fight collective power with collective power. The solution isn’t to get the pawn to the other side of the board. It’s to tip the board over.

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Who do our bureaucracies benefit?

Did Australia’s lockdown leave certain parts of the population vulnerable?

The pandemic has increased the duty we have to other members of our communities.

Different groups of people have different interests, but balancing these interests can cause conflict and friction.

Given Australia’s hard lockdown stance, many people could not wait to lift the restrictions and return to their daily routines. However, in relieving people from these restrictions, we also leave vulnerable populations exposed.

Who do we have a more significant duty towards?

There were discussions around school kids and their right to access education, conversations about teen and adult mental health, and calls to vaccinate the elderly. However, a group that was affected by all these considerations and needed further contemplation was ignored – those with disabilities.

While we are interested in protecting all people, if we do not ensure the safety of the most vulnerable in a population, we fail – we blatantly show that we do not value their needs in conjunction with evaluating a safe society.

The Ethics Centre’s Dr. Simon Longstaff stated recently on Q&A that ‘it is unforgivable that we have to have this conversation … where the most vulnerable members of our community have been left exposed. We should not … expect those people with … vulnerabilities to bear the burden of what we would prefer to do.’

While mental health costs of lockdowns are in favour of opening, Dr. Longstaff warned that ‘we as a society are going to have to accept that those who become infected and die will be something we have to wear on our own conscience.’

Phase 1A of Australia’s vaccine rollout, was initiated in February with the intention of targeting essential healthcare workers and those most vulnerable, such as the elderly and those with disabilities. However, in June only 1 in 5 people with a disability had been vaccinated, and less than 50% of support workers had received both doses of a vaccine. Yet, there was a dramatic increase in October to 70% of individuals being vaccinated.

The marked uptake was likely due to lockdown measures being lifted, as many people wanted the vaccine but could not receive it due to lack of accessibility.

In order to receive a vaccination, people had to contact their GP or later on could book one online.

On the face of it, these distribution procedures seem reasonable but there were significant problems that severely limited access. Having to make a GP appointment simply to obtain a vaccination referral was an unnecessary step that made it particularly difficult for those with disabilities, many of whom are dependent upon others to assist them.

Further, despite being a part of Phase 1A, many people with a disability could not receive the vaccine until lockdown had been lifted and support networks were reinstated. There was no follow-up, reassurance, or support to ensure that those who wanted to receive the vaccine could promptly do so. Therefore, as vaccine distribution moved from one phase to the next, it left an increasing number of those with disabilities behind.

Secondly, for similar reasons, internet access is more difficult for many of those with disabilities and the Department of Health website was not particularly user-friendly. It did not include larger, more legible text or have text to speech which would have helped those with limited sight or those who have trouble reading. Additionally, the high demand for vaccination meant that timeslots were severely limited and if they were available, they were usually inconvenient.

This was especially problematic for those with disabilities because it was not always clear which facilities were equipped with accessible features. To obtain informed consent, centres would need to have staff who are able to understand sign-language and provide information leaflets in braille. Much of this burden of providing additional support and care fell on already stretched family members and carers who, because of lockdown, may already have been working from home and home-schooling children.

What should Australia have done?

First and foremost, the relevant authorities should have ensured that almost 90%+ of each phase was vaccinated before moving to the next phase. In doing so, they would have needed to provide adequate support for those in Phase 1A and set up additional measures as required.

  • Vaccine facilities should have been situated close to care facilities.
  • Carers and parents should have been able to book their vaccines with individuals.
  • Vaccine facilities ought to have implemented “safe” times or locations whereby those with disabilities could show up with no appointment.

What is perhaps irreconcilable is that while these requests/services were prepared during the pandemic, they were simply unavailable due to lack of federal organisation. There are many hospitals around Australia that have rehabilitation medical departments, all of which have specialised members and facilities. Despite notifying the government that they have experience and the equipment to convert into vaccination sites for those living with disabilities, they were not used.

The distribution of the vaccine in Australia was not organised in a manner that was empathetic to individuals living with a disability. I agree with the Royal Commission and Dr Longstaff that ending lockdown and opening without first ensuring high vaccination rates in this vulnerable community was unconscionable and unforgivable.

The lockdown was organised in a manner that did not respect the needs of particular populations. It once again highlights the inequity that people with disabilities face and places the responsibility of any harm to these individuals squarely on society. It was our duty to protect one another from harm during the pandemic, and we have failed a significant group within Australia’s population.

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Which members of the population do we have a more significant duty towards?

Vaccination guidelines for businesses

Businesses are having to address complex ethical questions about the extent to which a person’s vaccination status should be a condition of employment.

Here are some guidelines to consider:

1. There is a difference between a mandatory requirement (where there is no choice) and a condition of employment (which people can choose to meet as they think best).

Many jobs impose conditions of employment that relate to a person’s health status (including whether or not they have been vaccinated).

2. Respect and promote the maximum degree of freedom of employees – limited only by what is required to meet one’s obligations to others.

In determining this it’s important to consider:

  • The nature of any duties owed to other people – including employees, customers, and members of the community more generally.
  • The specific context within which people will come into contact with your employees e.g. frequency, proximity, location – and estimate the way these variables shape ‘the risk envelope’.

3. Determine if a legitimate authority (e.g. a government) has made any rules.

This includes Legislation, regulation, public health orders, etc. that determine how the business must act. For example, governments may set license conditions that ‘tie the hands’ of specific employers.

4. Actively seek alternative means by which employees might perform their roles, even if they are not vaccinated.

Note, alternatives must be practical and affordable.

5. Determine who bears the burden (including the cost) of alternative measures.

For example, should employees who choose not to be vaccinated be required to be masked, or to use rapid antigen testing at their expense?

6. Consider how roles might be reassigned amongst the unvaccinated.

With priority given to those with medical exemptions.

7. Treat every person with respect – ensuring that no person is ridiculed or marginalised because of their choice.

But note that respect for one person or group does not entail agreement with their position; nor does it void one’s obligations to others or your right, as an employer, to advance your own interests.

8. Be prepared to adjust your own position in response to changing circumstances.

Including evidence based on the latest medical research relating to vaccine safety and efficacy, etc.


Read more on the difference between compulsory and conditional requirements here.

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How can we navigate the conditions of vaccination in the workplace?