Sportswashing: How money and politics are corrupting sport

Many believe that sport transcends politics. But it can also be used as a political tool to distract attention from human rights abuses, making sportspeople and fans complicit.

Legions of football fans with faces daubed in their national colours fill the spotless new stadium and explode into a roar when their team lands the ball in the back of net at the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar.  

From the promotional video alone, the scene seems to exemplify what people love about big sporting events: the emotional highs and lows; the vibrant carnivale atmosphere; the fierce competitive spirit; the skill of the athletes.  

But to the millions of migrant workers in Qatar, many of whom helped build the very stadiums that are to host the games, the World Cup likely means something very different.

Qatar has long been criticised for the kafala system of sponsorship-based employment for foreign workers, which has led to underpayment, wage theft and unsafe working conditions, leaving workers powerless to change their employment circumstances. Qatar also has a history of women’s oppression, with women requiring permission from a male guardian to exercise many basic rights, such as pursuing higher education, working in certain jobs or traveling abroad. LGBTI people have also been subject to discrimination and abuse in the country, even on the lead-up to the World Cup.  

So it is no accident Qatar is spending billions to host the World Cup, with estimates suggesting the government has pumped over $US 220 billion into the event – more than fifty times what Germany spent in 2006 when it hosted.  

This is ‘sportswashing.’ The Qatari government is hoping it can appropriate the positive associations fans have with football to elevate its own status on the international stage and distract from its ongoing human rights violations.  

And Qatar is not alone in the practice: Saudi Arabia, another nation with a problematic human rights record, has spent over $US 2 billion on its LIV Tour for golf; and China, criticised for its ongoing persecution and internment of its Uyghur minority, spent billions hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

But what’s so bad about a country with a troubling human rights record supporting or hosting an unrelated sporting competition? Does watching or travelling to that country to attend the competition make spectators complicit in human rights abuses? And shouldn’t sport be kept separate from politics? To answer these questions, we first need to be clear about what sportswashing is. 

What is sportwashing?

Sportswashing refers to states – sometimes individiuals or corporations – that seek to use sport to bolster their image by distracting from their wrongdoing. It’s typically not just a matter of hosting games or supporting a national team but rather pumping money into sport specifically to change people’s attitudes about them. 

Why sport?

Sport is more than just entertainment. It exemplifies what many people believe to be noble or aspirational virtues: discipline, hard work, individual excellence, teamwork. For spectators, sport generates intense feelings of belonging and a shared identity that verges on the sacred; a win for one’s team elevates oneself and one’s whole community. Sport also reaches a wide audience, including people who may not actively follow politics or world affairs.

So if a regime wants to bolster its reputation around the world, it’s hard to beat tapping into the positive associations people have with sport, especially high profile sports like golf, football or the Olympics. And all you need to do it is enough money. But what does all this money really achieve? 

First impressions

What springs to mind when you think of Qatar? For many people whatever it is will be informed by what’s in the media. And if the media has been focusing on Qatar’s human rights violations, it’s these that can define their impression of the country.   

This is why nations like Qatar are so keen to offer you new impressions. One function of sportswashing is to saturate the news – and internet search results – with topics other than human rights. If people know little about Qatar, and the World Cup pushes its human rights violations to the second page of Google’s search results, then fewer people will be made aware of them.  

There’s another upshot of sportswashing: given many people have powerful feelings about sport, if the majority of the news they hear about Qatar is connected to their beloved game, then their feelings for sport can bleed over into their impression of the country.  

Once that positive connection with sport is established, it can come to clash with negative associations they have about human rights violations, causing cognitive dissonance, which describes a tension between two opposing ideas. Most people tend to dislike the feeling of dissonance and will seek to eliminate it, often by ejecting one of the dissonant thoughts. Sportswashing nations hope that the ejected thought is the one about human rights rather than sport. 

This is where sportswashing becomes ethically problematic. To the degree that it distracts from wrongdoing, such as human rights violations, it can contribute to the perpetuation of that wrongdoing. Countries are often motivated to enact reforms when they experience pressure from other states, especially large democractic states that are reacting to internal public pressure. If the population is distracted by sport, then public pressure can wane. 

Just not cricket

Sportswashing is insidious, as it co-opts something that is otherwise benign and makes those who innocently endorse it complicit in achieving a political end.

But just because someone was not aware of, or chose to ignore, the political dimension of the sporting event, that doesn’t mean they are absolved of responsibility. Sadly, sportswashing makes anyone involved in it complicit to some degree. 

If we believe that our ethical obligations extend to those parts of the world that we affect through our actions, then we must consider how our spectating or participating in a sportswashing event might contribute to perpetuating human rights abuses. If we are paying to attend a sportswashed event, we are contributing financially to enabling that event to take place, and through our attendance, we are normalising that activity for others. 

There is an even greater ethical weight placed on the shoulders of sportspeople, who are often viewed as role models and whose behaviour can be seen to normalise certain values. This is why we place such emphasis on sportspeople behaving responsibly on and off the field, such as in nightclubs or in their private relationships. 

If a sportsperson accepts money to participate in a sportswashed event, that sets a standard for others. And if they are aware of the ethically problematic nature of their hosts, then this opens them to a charge of hypocrisy, as in the case of Phil Mickelson, one of the world’s top golfers, who accepted $US 200 million to join the LIV Tour despite admitting he was aware of Saudi Arabia’s “horrible record on human rights”. 

Washing sport

However, there are ways of pushing back against sportswashing. The first is to refuse to support it financially, such as by not buying tickets to the events or subscriptions to the coverage in the media. For some, this will mean missing out on watching a sacred sporting event, and it’s important not to understate how big a cost that might be for them.  

However, if they choose to watch, they can consider how to reduce or nullify the impact of the sportswashing. That could involve informing themselves and others about the true state of affairs, reducing the informational distortion caused by sportswashing. In fact, there is evidence that Qatar’s World Cup sportswashing gambit may be backfiring by drawing attention to the very human rights issues it hopes to distract from. 

Sportspeople have an even greater responsibility but also a greater potential impact for good. Some have refused to participate in sportswashed events, such as golfer Tiger Woods, who reportedly turned down an offer in excess of $US 700 million to join the Saudi-backed LIV Tour.  

In some cases, participating in a sportswashed event can be offset if the individuals work to counter the sportswashed narrative, as in the case of the Australian Soccerros, who released a protest video about human rights in Qatar. While they are playing in the World Cup, they have used their platform to support migrant workers and the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships in Qatar. Football Australia also released a similar written statement. Arguably, more Australians now know about Qatar’s human rights record than if the state had never been chosen to host the World Cup. 

When states are involved in funding sport, then sport can no longer be said to be removed from politics. Through sportswashing it becomes a political tool. If we want to maintain sport as a pure and sacred pursuit, then we must consider how we choose to engage with it and how we might avoid or counteract the power of sportswashing to distract or normalise wrongdoing.  

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Should sport be kept separate from politics?

Should corporate Australia have a voice?

The Albanese government is preparing for the fight of its life to convince Australians an Indigenous advisory body, known as the Voice to Parliament, should receive a simple “yes” in a referendum not due to take place until at least mid-2023 – but whether the Australian business community should abstain or pick a side in the campaign is a little more complex.

Some business leaders have already openly backed the Voice. CSL’s Brian McNamee called embedding Indigenous people into our Constitution for the first time nothing less than a “greater need” for the nation. Lendlease’s CEO Tony Lombardo said his company was “right behind” the Uluru Statement from the Heart and had urged his staff to think deeply about the constitutional amendment and the benefits for our First Nations peoples and the broader Australian community.

But business taking a public stance wasn’t always so. In decades prior, corporations strained to stay impartial by not weighing in on heavily politicised or social issues, seeing it as a polarising death wish amid the cohort of its customers who may err to the other side (though big political donations were a telling exception to this unofficial rule).

But the rise of social media in the era where progressive politics has assembled earth-shaking movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the fight to stop climate change has created a corporate environment where it’s not only expected companies to weigh in on big-ticket items – it’s great for business if they do.

Nearly 80% of Australians believe big brands should use their power to make an impact for real-world change on social and workplace inequality, according to research conducted by Nine and cultural insights agency FiftyFive5 – and it can turn into big bucks for corporations.

When beloved ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, which accounts for 3% of the worldwide market, announced in 2021 that it was stopping sales “in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT)” because it was “inconsistent with our values”, Ben & Jerry’s sales saw a 9% yearly growth (though frustrated parent company Unilever denied the two were linked).

And it seems the Albanese government is all but expecting corporate Australia to take a stance on the Voice one way or another. In 2019, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese declared to the Business Council of Australia that business should feel free to speak out on social issues that align with their values.

“The most successful businesses operate in ways that reflect the values of their employees and their customers,” the then-opposition leader said.

“You are not just takers of profit – you see yourselves as part of the community.”

Albanese’s comments followed a heated speech from Scott Morrison’s assistant minister Ben Morton declaring chief executives “too often succumb or pander to similar pressures from noisy, highly orchestrated campaigns of elites typified by groups such as GetUp or activist shareholders”, foreshadowing the Teal uprising in the May federal election.

But corporate activism doesn’t have to mean go woke or go broke – as long as a company is seen as being consistent with its long-held values, a customer base or wider community will accept a more conservative position on a social or political issue too, as Daniel Korschun and N. Craig Smith write for the Harvard Business Review.

“People are surprisingly accepting of a company’s political viewpoints as long as they believe that it is being forthright,” the pair write.

“When a company makes sudden changes to its procedures or identity, it can raise red flags, especially with consumers for whom reliability is essential.”

To this end, a corporate in Australia that openly supports the “Yes” campaign for the Voice to Parliament may first quietly seek to understand the company’s own history with Indigenous Australia to avoid damning accusations of “woke washing” from the public.

Director of The Ethics Alliance, Cris Parker suggests leaders seek the answer to questions like: how many First Nations people are employed at the organisation, and is it far less than the 3% in wider society? Has the organisation proactively supported these staff, providing a culturally sensitive environment that recognises Indigenous rights? 

“Basically, are you living the values of whatever social issue internally that you are considering speaking out about publicly?” Parker says.

For instance, when Nike released its “Dream Crazy” campaign to support Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the American national anthem to protest police brutality, some were quick to point out Nike’s own reputation for using the sweatshop labour of people of colour abroad in countries like China.

Further, hot-button issues can polarise people not only within the customer base but within the work culture. Parker suggests that a corporation may add the most value during this time by fostering an environment where people can respectfully share ideas and reflect on issues together.

“Perhaps standing on a pedestal isn’t the approach which will have the greatest impact. Perhaps the impact of corporations is to demonstrate the ability to create spaces where there can be civil and informed debate – not to provide the decision or choice but to impartially inform employees and encourage intelligent enquiry,” Parker continues.

“When organisations shift to a specific advocacy position, particularly if it’s about members of our community, they risk disempowering those members and really we should be supporting self-determination.” 

The best way to do this? Go back to the work culture, Parker suggests, and seek to use organisational values to create space for discussion, where crucially, everyone can feel included in the conversation.


Image by Matt Hrkac

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Should corporate Australia have a voice?

Why fairness is integral to tax policy

Pick up a first-year undergraduate economics textbook on tax and you’ll likely be apprised that there are three desired features of a tax policy: simplicity, efficiency and fairness.

The importance of the first two are somewhat obvious. Simplicity, because taxpayers need to understand how to comply with the tax system. Efficiency, because if people can easily change their behaviour to avoid paying tax, there won’t be much revenue to fund government expenditure. But fairness, the third desired feature of tax policy, is more nebulous.

Tax fairness is important not merely because economists tell us so. Rather, Australia needs to consider tax fairness for reasons such as: ensuring the continued political legitimacy of the Australian governments; because tax inherently deals with issues of inequality; and for the very practical reason of helping us deliver tax system reform.

In a liberal country such as Australia, a well-accepted norm is that restrictions on individual freedom must be justified. And in liberal philosophy, the dominate way to justify government restrictions is by considering a “public reason” test, well-articulated by influential twentieth century philosopher John Rawls’ liberal principle of legitimacy:

“Political power is legitimate only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution (written or unwritten) the essentials of which all citizens, as reasonable and rational, can endorse in the light of their common human reason”.

Restrictions that are arbitrary, unfair, exploitative or focus on benefitting a few at the expense of the many, undermine political legitimacy because they cannot be justified. Prohibiting the Nazi swastika might be justifiable because people have a right not to be vilified or feel physically threatened. But prohibiting tattoos or facial piercings, dress wear, beach outfits or more sinisterly, citizenship based on skin colour, because they offend certain sensibilities, are not legitimate forms of government coercion because they cannot be reasonably justified using the public reason test.

Rawls considered the public reason test would apply to areas in the public domain relating to judges, government officials, and politicians. And the public reason test applies to taxation as much as any other act of government coercion. Taxation, the compulsory, unrequited payment to government, is quite literally nothing, if it is not coercive. In Australia we pay around $600bn in tax each year, over $40,000 per working person.

If the tax system is unfair, it cannot be justified. And taxation that is unjustified etches away at the political legitimacy of the Australian government and, in turn, Australian democracy.

The two primary functions of tax are:
1. to fund public goods such as military, transport, education, police and the judiciary
2. to redistribute wealth and income, through policies such as pension payments, unemployment payments, childcare and paid parental leave. Therefore, because tax impacts wealth and income distribution, as well as economic inequality, the tax system has inherent fairness implications.

Wealth and income distribution, the second function of tax, determines economic inequality, an inherent fairness issue. And to determine the required tax level requires consideration of the level of wealth and income inequality we consider fair. It might be said this issue is more relevant today than in other times in our recent history; Australian inequality measures have increased steadily since the 1980s. But even if we consider current wealth and income inequality levels as acceptable, presumably there is a limit. It is unlikely that Australia would still be considered a fair country if we were a nation of 20 billionaires and twenty million paupers.

One might be tempted to try and decouple tax issues from fairness issues by claiming Australia and our tax system is fair so long as we have equality of opportunity; instead of worrying about wealth inequality and tax, we should focus on realising Australian cultural values such as a “fair go”, a value synonymous (according to the citizenship tests new citizens take) with “equality of opportunity”.

However, a “fair go” isn’t free. For a rich child and a poor child to have the same opportunities with respect to education, learning and a successful career, we require tax. For equality of opportunity to exist, the rich parent needs to contribute more tax to fund our education institutions than what the poor parent can afford. Here, issues of tax and fairness are bound.

A less philosophical reason as to why it’s important for Australia to consider tax system fairness relates to tax reform. The consensus among economists is the Australian tax system is uncompetitive, inefficient, too complex and out of date. And they may have a point.

Australia hasn’t had meaningful tax reform for decades and is out of step with international best practice. The Federal Government deficit is large and growing, thanks in part to the former government’s COVID-19 splurges (some necessary, some arguably less so). And Australian government debt is forecast to reach a trillion dollars in the coming years, a level that may limit or preclude policy responses to future wars, pandemics, financial crises or property market crashes (and the implications of muted policy options is not merely no pink batts or no JobKeeper in time of catastrophe, but no jobs, high unemployment and potential social unrest).

Yet despite the arguments of a host of economic experts, such as ANU’s Professor Robert Breunig the former Federal Treasury head Dr. Ken Henry, OECD and IMF mandarins, to name but a few, the Australian tax system remains as it is. While tax reform by its nature is challenging (there is always a loser – someone will be paying more), it’s hard not to think the focus on tax efficiency, tax competitiveness, tax complexity and so on and so forth, has failed to create the “burning platform” needed to drive policy change. A greater focus on the fairness of the Australian tax system may be what is required to buttress the valid but sometimes technical economic arguments for Australian tax system reform.

Considering fairness of the tax system is important for political legitimacy, inequality and practical reasons. A tax system that is fair strengthens our democracy by ensuring taxation remains justifiable. Tax fairness helps us realise Australian cultural values such as equality of opportunity. And a greater focus on tax fairness might help us undertake meaningful tax reform, delivering a tax system that is simple, efficient and fair.

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Does our current tax system enable equality?

(Roe)ing backwards: A seismic shift in women's rights

Standing in the middle of Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan, on the 24th of June, I propelled a sign skyward that read: Abortion Is Healthcare. There were thousands of other slogans, on posters and placards, all being hoisted repeatedly by protesters equally aggrieved by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

Earlier that same day, at 10 AM, the United States Supreme Court had overturned the ruling of the original monumental case. Since 1973, Roe v. Wade had protected the constitutional right to privacy for nearly half a century – ensuring that every woman in the US could obtain an abortion without fear of criminal penalty. But the repeal of this landmark case has unfortunately handed the regulation of abortion back to each individual state. And now, approximately 20 US states are set to once again criminalise or entirely outlaw access to abortions, despite two-thirds of its citizens being in favour of abortion.  

So how will this loss of privacy constrain women’s autonomy?

The right to an abortion protects women from bodily harm, insecure financial circumstances, and emotional grief. The medical procedure allows a woman to maintain bodily autonomy by affording the choice to decide when, or if, she ever wants a child. Abortion acknowledges a woman’s right to live life as she intends. Banning abortion severely compromises that choice. Further, it does not reduce abortion rates but instead forces women to seek abortion elsewhere or by unsafe means. In 2020, over 900 000 legal abortions were conducted in the United States by professionals or by mothers using medication prescribed by physicians.

Banning abortion places a hefty burden on women, suppressing their autonomy.

The Legal Disparity Pre-Roe

Before Roe, women in the United States had minimal access to legal abortions, which were usually only available to high-income families. Illegal abortions were unsafe and in 1930 were the cause of nearly 20% of maternal deaths. This is because many of them relied on self-induced abortions or asked community members for assistance. Given the lack of medical experience, botched procedures and infections were rife.  

Pre-Roe abortion bans harmed and further disadvantaged predominantly low-income women and women of colour. In 1970 some states allowed abortion. However, given the lack of national support, women were expected to travel long distances for many hours, which placed their health at significant risk. Once again, this limited access created unequal outcomes by only providing access to select women with means to travel and financial security.  

Post-Roe Injustice

Post-Roe, the outcomes appear just as grim. In a digital landscape, technology brings benefits but also comes at a cost, introducing new vulnerabilities and concerns for women. While technology equips women seeking abortion to find clinics, book appointments, and help with travel interstate, it can also amplify the persecution of women when abortion is criminalised. For example, in 2017, Mississippi prosecutors used a woman’s internet search history to prove that she had looked up where to find abortion pills before she lost her foetus. And currently, since the recent ruling, clinics are scrambling to encrypt their data, while others are resorting to using paper to protect their patients’ sensitive information from being tracked or leaked

Unfortunately, there are also concerns that data could be used from period tracking apps and location services to further restrict women from accessing abortions. In previous years, prosecutors and law enforcement have wrongfully convicted women for illegal abortions by searching their online history and text messages with friends. Now that abortion is criminalised in some states, there are worries of increased access to private information that could be used against women in court: specifically the use of third-party apps that sell information which would further isolate women and reduce their ability to receive competent care, which in some states could be accessed without their consent. 

The United States Department of Health and Human Services, known as HHS, released a statement on June 29th about protecting patient privacy for reproductive health. It states that “disclosures to law enforcement officials, are permitted only in narrow circumstances” and that in most cases, the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), commonly known as a privacy Act, “does not protect the privacy or security of individuals’ health information” when stored on phones. The guidance continues by suggesting how women can best protect their online information. For women to defend themselves, they must take extra precautions such as using privacy browsers, turning off locations, and using different emails.  

These additional measures are troubling as they stipulate how women receive care. Placing the onus on women, the risk of information leaking limits access to resources and further restricts the privacy and autonomy of pregnant women as it creates fear of constant surveillance.

Further, it places people seeking care at a significant disadvantage if they do not know what information is protected and what is not.  

Post-Roe, the medical landscape will also begin to shift. Abortion care is not uncommon in other procedures conducted by obstetricians and gynaecologists (OB-GYNs). Abortion care can overlap with miscarriage aftercare and ectopic pregnancies, creating murky circumstances for physicians and delaying care for patients as they wait for legal advice and opinion. In other cases, abortion care is necessary when pregnant women have cancer and need to terminate the pregnancy to continue with chemotherapy.   

By restricting abortions, many physicians will be unable to provide adequate care and fulfil their duty to patients as they will be restricted by governing laws which will hinder further practice if persecuted. Any delay in receiving an abortion is an act of maleficence, as the windows to receive abortions grow increasingly slim and the restrictions grow tighter, the process inhibits providers from treating women seeking an abortion which obstructs beneficent care. As a result, many women will lose their lives from preventable and treatable causes. 

Criminalising abortion will warp access and create unnavigable procedural labyrinths that will change the digital and medical landscape. Post-Roe United States will continue to breed fear and control over women’s lives. Criminalising abortion will isolate women from their communities and obstruct them from receiving competent medical care and treatment. Banning abortions will place an undue burden on women and will unfairly jeopardise their health and right to access care. 

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Should healthcare be conditional?

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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How can Australia pave a successful future?

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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Why do we experience emotions differently?


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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How can we ensure future generations are left financially secure?

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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