Ask an ethicist: do teachers have the right to object to returning to school?

In recent weeks, there has been a particularly intense debate about whether or not students should return to the classroom.

This article was first published by Crikey, in their weekly Ask the Ethicist column featuring Dr Simon Longstaff.

Much of that debate has focused on the interests of the children and their families. However, there is a third stakeholder group – the nation’s teachers – who need to be considered. Part ‘essential worker’, part ‘political football’, they have been celebrated on one hand and condemned on the other. So, what are the ethical obligations of those who teach our children during COVID-19.

As a starting point, let’s agree that education is a significant ‘good’ and that children should not be deprived of its benefits unless there are compelling reasons for doing so. Compelling reasons would include the potential risk of infection due to school attendance.

At present, the balance of evidence is that the risk of children becoming infected is low and that they are unlikely to be transmitters of the disease to adults – especially in well-controlled environments. However, why take any risk – if viable alternatives are available?

Here, we should note that the education of children has not been suspended during the crisis. Instead, it has continued by other – ‘online’ – means. This has required a massive effort by the teaching profession to ‘recalibrate’ the learning environment to support distance learning.

We should also note that the ability to provide distance education distinguishes teachers from other essential workers who, of necessity, must provide a face-to-face service. For example, while some doctors can consult with patients using ‘telemedicine’, most health care workers need to be physically present (e.g. when administering a flu injection, or caring for a bed-ridden patient, etc.).

So, if distance learning achieves the same educational outcomes as classroom teaching, teachers would not seem to be under any moral obligation to return to the classroom. However, the Federal Government has recently cited reports suggesting that online learning produces ‘sub-optimal’ outcomes for students (unwelcome news for children living in remote communities and educated by the ‘school of the air’).

If this is true, then it would suggest two things. First that the government should be massively increasing its investment in education for children who have no option but to engage in distance education. Second, that teachers should be heading back into the classroom.

However, what of the teacher who lives with people for whom COVID-19 is a particular threat … the aged and infirm? In those cases, the choice is not just a matter of balancing a public duty as an educator against a preference for personal safety. Rather, the teacher is caught in an ethical dilemma of competing duties.

In such a case, I think it would be reasonable for a teacher to claim they have a conscientious objection to returning to the classroom – grounded in a refusal to be the potential cause of harm to a loved one – especially when the only certain protection for the loved one is that the teacher remain isolated.

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.

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Can you put a price on life?

There’s more than lives at stake in managing this pandemic

Imagine a parallel universe somewhere, one without a pandemic. What would you be spending this week concerned with? What social and political issues would you be wrestling with? How would you be spending your day?

Ironically, my parallel life looks very similar. Locked in a room, thinking a lot about pandemics. I’m not an epidemiologist or a public health expert though – in my parallel universe, I’m preparing to run a thought experiment for The Festival of Dangerous Ideas: The Ethics of the Apocalypse.

The basic premise is to find out whether, facing a couple of end-of-the-world scenarios, the audience can save the human race without losing their humanity in the process. I won’t give away how the event works or is scored, but there are a bunch of different victory conditions – survival is a necessary condition of success, but alone, it’s not sufficient.

That point bears repeating as we live through a pandemic of our very own: survival is a necessary, but insufficient condition for success.

By focusing solely on what is going to guarantee success or best facilitate a flattening of the curve and minimise deaths, we risk permitting a political and social environment that we would, in that parallel universe, reject outright.

Over the last few weeks, as Australia’s containment measures around COVID-19 have grown increasingly strict, there’s been a widespread movement demanding an immediate lockdown. #Lockusdown and other variations have trended on Twitter, and major mastheads have called for increasingly severe policing measures to manage the pandemic. Writing for The Guardian, Grattan Institute CEO John Daley wrote:

“There is no point trying to finesse which strategies work best; instead the imperative would be to implement as many as possible at once, including closing schools, universities, colleges, public transport and non-essential retail, and confining people to their homes as much as possible.

Police should visibly enforce the lockdown, and all confirmed cases should be housed in government-controlled facilities. This might seem unimaginable, but it is exactly what has already happened in China, South Korea and Italy.”

Similar comments have been made by other public commentators in support of such measures, including the ABC’s Norman Swan. Swan has pointed to the efficiency with which China were able to control the spread through draconian measures – including in one case, welding people inside their apartment building.

Imagine in a pre-COVID world, suggesting a liberal democracy like Australia look to the authoritarian state of China for political guidance. Yet, this is what happens when we reduce all things to a single metric: the goal of keeping people at home and flattening the curve of new infections. It is easy to conceptualise. We can visualise what it involves and we can imagine the benefits it confers.

However, whilst this logic is comforting – especially in times when fear and uncertainty are rife – it places us dangerously close to the crude and morally repugnant catch cry: the ends justify the means.

In NSW, new laws and extreme penalties aim to enforce self-isolation regimes – as John Daley’s piece suggested. The maximum penalties for leaving your home without a reasonable excuse (of which sixteen are listed) are six months imprisonment or a fine of up to $11,000.

Are you cooped up in your share house, finding it impossible to work? If you choose to go to the park, you’ll face a severe penalty. Considering using the time your teenager has off school to rack up some learner driving hours by leaving the city and heading to the mountains for a bushwalk? Want to do a drive-by birthday celebration in lieu of an actual party? All of them are now subject to police enforcement. Do any of them, and you’re potentially breaking the law.

There are still those who will argue that it’s good these activities have been made illegal. After all, if you go to the park and sit at a bench, you might pick up coronavirus from someone who was just sitting there, or leave some behind for somebody else. If you go for a drive, you may need to stop for petrol, or break down and need mechanical assistance… more exposures means more risk for vulnerable Australians. The elderly, those with chronic illness, Indigenous Australians and immunocompromised people might be more at risk if you do this. However, it doesn’t follow from this that we should threaten people with prison sentences for failing to play ball.

In suspending our ordinary ways of life, we don’t also suspend the moral norms and ethical principles that give them direction and meaning. Punishments should still be reasonable and proportionate to the offenses; we should still aim to strike a reasonable balance between risk, security and freedom.

As Schwatz Media’s Osman Faruqi – who has been following the authoritarian developments around COVID-19 management – noted ,we should remember that increased law enforcement itself carries a cost. Whilst we’re all equal before the law in principle, in practice, minority communities, the poor, homeless and a range of other groups – vulnerable Australians – tend to bear the brunt of increased police activity around the world.

Police have been encouraged to use their discretion in enforcing these laws, but discretion is subject to bias and inconsistency, as is any other aspect of our decision-making. If new police powers are necessary to protect vulnerable Australians from COVID-19, who will be protecting the Australians made vulnerable by these new laws?

In the best-selling board game, Pandemic: Legacy, players have to combat a fast-evolving, unknown virus, using various measures. Options range from quarantines to military lockdowns to the literal, nuclear option. However, because the goal of the game is simply to ensure humanity’s survival and the effective control of the pandemic, these options are all seen as morally equal.

In a game, that’s fine. In reality, as we go from suspending ordinary life to suspending more basic moral and political norms and rights, we need to be able to understand and consider the costs it involves. We can’t do that if our sole metric for success is flattening the curve.

In his column, John Daley wrote that “Covid-19 is the real-life “trolley problem” in which someone is asked to choose between killing a few or killing many.” This framing only obfuscates the deeper issues which pit health and safety against other essential political values; short-term outcomes against a long-term political landscape and the competing needs of different of vulnerable communities.

That’s not a simple trolley problem, it’s a political smorgasbord. And we need a much more sophisticated scoring system to work out what success looks like.

You can contact The Ethics Centre about any of the issues discussed in this article. We offer free counselling for individuals via Ethi-callprofessional fee-for-service consulting, leadership and development services; and as a non-profit charity we rely heavily on donations to continue our work, which can be made via our websiteThank you.

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Is authoritarianism the solution?

Disease in a Time of Uncertainty

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the outbreak of coronavirus, officially called “SARS-CoV-2”, that has caused disease primarily in Wuhan, China.

The virus, which causes a disease called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), has spread to 25 countries, infected more than 73,000 people, and caused 1,873 deaths. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a “Public Health Emergency International Concern” and more than 50 countries — against the WHO’s advice — have implemented travel restrictions and quarantines in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease.

There’s been a lot of worry about this coronavirus, but arguably the thing that is driving this worry is uncertainty. It can’t be the deaths alone – fewer than 1,900 people have died of COVID-19. In contrast, since October, 14,000 people in the USA alone have died of influenza.

Unlike the 1918 influenza pandemic or the 2009 influenza pandemic, both of which killed young people faster than normal flu, the people who are dying of COVID-19 are typically old, have pre-existing diseases that make them vulnerable to pneumonia (one of the main ways COVID-19 kills you), or are heavy smokers.

Despite its rapid increase in cases in China — driven, in part, by a change in definition of how they count cases — the number of cases elsewhere has stayed relatively low.

A reported 2.5 per cent of the patients diagnosed in China have died, yet fewer than 0.4 per cent of patients elsewhere in the world have died – a bit more than seasonal flu, but not much, and not as widely.

So why the fear? And why the fantastical conspiracies: tens of thousands dead but hidden in China; a laboratory escape; or even a biological weapon? There are surely a lot of reasons: the actions of the Chinese government during the 2003 SARS outbreak; general distrust of China in a media responding to Washington’s belligerence; and some enterprising grifters out to make their name or make a buck.

Still, these all take hold in an environment of uncertainty. And in ethics, how we deal with uncertainty is a tricky case. A classic example of why uncertainty can be tricky from the perspective of ethics goes something like this.

Say I ask you to play a game: I roll a normal dice; if it lands 1-5, you get $1; if it lands on a 6, you pay me $2. To many people this seems like a good deal. Five chances to win; one to lose. You should expect, mathematically, to win 50c each game. But what if I pull out a weird, many sided dice with 120 sides. If the dice land 1-119, you get $1. But if it lands 120, I get $59. It might feel different, but the expectation (again, mathematically) remains the same.

Now imagine a huge dice in which that one chance of a loss was $10,000, or even $1 million… Part of the reason it feels different is psychological. After all, $59, or $10,000 is so much more than $2, and so even though your chances of losing are decreasing, the pit in your stomach at the thought of losing $10,000 is probably a lot more. Moreover, you’re risking that for $1 each time. Sounds like playing with fate, and you might not want to play with fate when fate could take your house if it wins.

Another part of the reason it feels different is that we don’t often encounter — or at least don’t recognise — extreme cases in our lives where we face a small chance of a huge loss. My colleagues and I have looked at this phenomena in the case of things like laboratory safety, or industrial regulations. But the same goes for things like pandemics.

Coronaviruses circulate in animal populations, usually certain species of bat, and typically don’t infect humans.

Occasionally a virus does, often through an intermediate species, and the results can be bad. It can be really hard to figure out how bad, though. So we don’t know when these viruses will appear, or how bad they are going to be.

Given that, it can be really easy to get complacent before the fact, and even easier to overreact after the outbreak starts. This leads us to take drastic actions such as to violate human rights in the name of protecting public safety (or at least appearing to protect safety), even when those actions are shown to be ineffective. But this is because instead of winning a dollar, preparedness costs us that dollar. It’s hard to get governments to spend dollars today that might not benefit us until 2030, but if we wait until we need it, we could lose everything.

It turns out that the best solution to these scary, uncertain diseases is to invest, as a society, day to day. That costs resources, but it’ll help out when the “big one,” the next 1918 flu, comes. COVID-19 is unlikely to be that kind of pandemic, but even it is testing global health systems.

We need, as a society, to get better at dealing with the uncertain, by investing in preparedness today.

Better healthcare systems; more nurses, doctors, and scientists; a more aware community; local plans for infection control that match the plans of national governments; and protections for people in quarantine so they don’t lose their livelihoods or, as is the case in some countries, have to pay for their own quarantine when they aren’t even sick.

These investments cost governments money. They cost us taxes. But if you’re scared of COVID-19, with all its uncertainty, you should be much more scared that we’re not doing the ordinary, everyday things that’ll keep us safe.

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Are we prepared for the next epidemic?

Respect for persons lost in proposed legislation 

The Ethics Centre is a strong supporter of human rights. As such, we agree with the principal purpose of the draft Religious Discrimination Bill (2019) legislation – which is to outlaw discrimination against all persons on the basis of their religion. However, we also argue that the exposure draft is deficient in a number of important ways.

We recently made a submission articulating these concerns in response to the second exposure draft of the proposed legislation.

Core to the submission is our belief that human rights form a whole and are indivisible. That is, we are disinclined to support legislation that creates broad, general exceptions to the principle of non-discrimination. This is especially so when the proposed exceptions risk abrogating the human rights of one group in favour of another.

It’s important to make it clear that the Centre’s approach is not based on a naïve belief that human rights cohere without tension. We know that this is not the case – and understand that religion is, by its very nature, a special case.

This flows from the fact that every religion makes rival, exclusive and absolute truth claims that resist any form of independent evaluation.

Add to this religion’s appeal to transcendent authority, its inclination to order the lives of its adherents and the emotional and spiritual investment it requires of individual and communal belief – and it’s not surprising that difficulties arise not only between religions but in connection with the expression of other human rights.

Our submission seeks to affirm the universal principle of ‘respect for persons’ and to propose criteria for limiting (without totally restricting) the extent to which religious belief can be used as a justification for discrimination.

‘Respect for persons’ is the ethical requirement that we each recognise the intrinsic dignity of every other person – irrespective of their, gender, sex, race, religion, age … or any other non-relevant discriminator. It is this principle that underpins all human rights – and cannot be set aside without undermining the whole edifice.

Given this, we argue that any exception to the prohibition of discrimination that is accorded to people of faith must be severely restricted. That is, lawful discrimination, by people of faith, must only be allowed to the extent strictly necessary to avoid material harm to the religious sensibilities of those affected.

In short: we set a very high bar for those seeking to discriminate against others in the name of religion.

For example, there is a good case for allowing a religious school to discriminate against a person seeking employment as its Principal while concurrently rejecting the religious beliefs that inform the school’s defining ethos.

However, there is no good reason for applying such a test to the employment of a member of the same school’s maintenance team. Nor is there any justification for discriminating against a person based, say, on their sexual orientation if, in all other respects, the person aligns with the religious beliefs of the school – as understood by a significant number of believers.

This brings us to another aspect of the Centre’s submission – that discrimination based on religion only be allowed where there is broad consensus, amongst the faithful, that a belief is a legitimate expression of their religion. This should help avoid giving protection to those who occupy the extreme fringes of religious belief.

Finally, none of the above should be read as justifying restrictions on religious belief. On the contrary, we support the right of people to believe whatever they like. Furthermore, we encourage people to act in accordance with a well-informed (and well-formed) conscience.

We also urge people to realise that to act in good conscience entails the possibility of being punished if your conduct is found to be contrary to law. Such is the case of conscientious objectors who resist conscription into the armed forces, or Roman Catholic priests who choose to respect the ‘seal of the confessional’ even if the law compels them to disclose specified admissions by penitents.

This is the balance that a society needs to maintain: respecting the moral courage of those whose religious beliefs compel them to act in a manner that society must prohibit for the sake of all.

For those who are interested, The Ethics Centre’s submission on the proposed legislation will be published by the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department in due course.

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Should religion trump human rights?

Stop Idolising Youth - Recommended reads

Are we idolising youth? Recommended reads

Stop Idolising Youth - Recommended reads

IQ2 Australia debates whether we need to ‘Stop Idolising Youth’ on 12 June.

Advertisers market to youth despite boomers having the strongest buying power. Unlike professions such as law and medicine, the creative industries prefer ‘digital natives’ over experience.

Young actors play mature aged characters. Yet openly teasing the young for being entitled and lazy is a popular social sport. Are the ageism insults flung both ways?

1. Why do marketers hate old people?

Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman / 2 December 2013

Why Do Marketers Hate Old People?

An oldie but a goodie. Bob Hoffman is the entertainingly acerbic critic of marketing and author of books like Laughing@Advertising. In this blog post he aims a crossbow at the seemingly senseless predilection of advertisers for using youth to market their products when older generations have more money and buy more stuff.

“Almost everyone you see in a car commercial is between the ages of 18 and 24,” he says. “And yet, people 75 to dead buy five times as many new cars as people 18 to 24.” He makes a solid argument.

Read the full story


2. It’s time to stop kvetching about ‘disengaged’ millennials

Ben Law, The Sydney Morning Herald / 27 October 2017

It's time to stop kvetching about 'disengaged' millennials

Ben Law asks, “Aren’t adults the ones who deserve the contempt of young people?” He argues it is older generations with influence and power who are not addressing things as big as the non-age-discriminatory climate crisis. He also shares some anecdotes about politically engaged and polite public transport riding kids.

You might regard a couple of the jokes in this piece leaning toward ageist quips but Law is also making them at his own expense. He points out millennials – the generation to which he belongs and the usual target for jokes about entitled youth – are nearing middle age.

Read the full story


3. Let’s end ageism

Ashton Applewhite, TED Talk / April 2017



There’s something very likeable about Ashton Applewhite – beyond her endearing name. This is even though she opens her TEDTalk with the confronting fact the one thing we all have in common is we’re always getting older. Sure, we’re not all lucky enough to get old, but we constantly age.

In pointing to this shared aspect of humanity, Applewhite makes the case against ageism. This typically TED nugget of feel good inspiration is great for every age. And if you’re anywhere between late 20s and early 70s, you’ll love the happiness bell curve. In a nutshell: it gets better!

Watch on TED


4. Instagram’s most popular nan

Baddiewinkle, Instagram/ Helen Van Winkle



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A post shared by BBY BADDIE 👼🏼 (@baddiewinkle) on

Her tagline is “stealing ur man since 1928”. Get lost in a delightful scroll through fun, colourful images from a social media personality who does not give a flying fajita for “age appropriate” dressing or demeanours. Baddie Winkle was born Helen Ruth Elam Van Winkle in Kentucky over 90 years ago.

Her internet stardom began age 85 when her great granddaughter Kennedy Lewis posted a photo of her in cut-off jeans and a tie-dye tee. Now Winkle’s granddaughter Dawn Lewis manages her profile and bookings. Her 3.8 million followers show us audiences aren’t only interested young social media influencers. “They want to be me when they get older,” Winkle says. Damn right we do.

Follow her here


Event info

IQ2 Australia makes public debate smart, civil and fun. On 12 June two teams will argue for and against the statement, ‘Stop Idolising Youth’. Ad writer Jane Caro and mature aged model Fred Douglas take on TV writer Ben Jenkins and author Nayuka Gorrie. Tickets here.

Join the conversation

What are the characteristics of youth?

Are we prepared for climate change and the next migrant crisis?

Climate change and the next migrant crisis

A powerful infographic published in 2014, predicted how many years it would take for a world city to drown.

It used data from NASA, Sea Level Explorer, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Venice will be the first to go under apparently, its canals rising to wetly throttle the city of love. Amsterdam is set to follow, Hamburg next.

Other tools play out the encroachment of rising tides on our coasts. This one developed by EarthTime shows Sydney airport as a large puddle if temperatures increase by four degrees. There’s also research suggesting our ancestors may one day look down to see fish nibbling on the Opera House sails.

Climate change refugees will become reality

Sea level rise is just one effect of anthropogenic climate change that would make a place uninhabitable or inhospitable to humankind. It’s also relatively slow. Populations in climate vulnerable hotspots face a slew of other shove factors, too.

Already, we are seeing a rising frequency of extreme weather events. Climate change was linked to increasingly destructive tropical cyclones in a report published in Nature last year, and Australia’s Climate Council attributed the same to earlier and more dangerous fire seasons. Rapidly changing ecosystems will impact water resources, crop productivity, and patterns of familiar and unfamiliar disease. Famine, drought, poverty and illness are the horsemen saddling up.

Some will die as a result of these events. Others, if they are able, will choose to stay. The far sighted and privileged may pre-empt them, relocating in advance of crisis or discomfort.

These migrants can be expected to move through the ‘correct’ channels, under the radar of nativist suspicion. (‘When is an immigrant not an immigrant?’ asks Afua Hirsch. ‘When they’re rich’.)

But many more will become displaced peoples, forcibly de-homed. Research estimates this number could be anywhere between 50 million and 1 billion in the 21st century. This will prompt new waves of interstate and international flows, and a resultant redistribution and intensification of pressures and tensions on the global map.

How will the world respond?

Where will they go? What is the ethical obligation of states to welcome and provide for them? With gross denialism characterising global policies towards climate change, and intensifying hostility locking down national borders, how prepared are we to contend with this challenge to come?

“You can’t wall them out,” Obama recently told the BBC. “Not for long.”

While interstate climate migration (which may already be occurring in Tasmania) will incur infrastructural and cultural problems, international migration is a whole and humongous other ethical conundrum. Not least because currently, climate change migrants have almost no legal protections.

Is a person who moves because of a sudden, town levelling cyclone more entitled to the status of climate migrant or refugee (and the protection it affords) than someone who migrates as a result of the slow onset attrition of their livelihood due to climate change?

Who makes the rules?

Does sudden, violent circumstance carry a greater ethical demand for hospitality than if, after many years of struggle, a Mexican farmer can no longer put food on the table because his land has turned to dust? Does the latter qualify as a climate or economic migrant, or both?

Somewhat ironically (and certainly depressingly), the movement of people to climate ‘havens’ will place stress on those environmental sanctuaries themselves, potentially leading to concentrated degradation, pollution and threat to non-human nature. (On the other hand, climate migration could allow for nature to reclaim the places these migrants have left.)

There is also the argument that, once migrants from developing countries have been integrated into a host country, their carbon footprint will increase to resemble that of their new fellow citizenry – resulting in larger CO2 emissions. From this perspective, put forward by Philip Cafaro and Winthrop Staples, it is in the interests of the planet for prosperous countries to limit their welcome.

Not that privileged populations need much convincing. Jealous fear of future scarcity, a globalisation inflamed resentment towards the Other, a sense that modernity has failed to deliver on its promise of wholesale bounty: all these are conspiring to create increasingly tribalised societies that enable the xenophobic agendas of their governments. A recent poll showed that 46 percent of Australians believe immigration should be reduced, a percentage consistent with attitudes worldwide.


A divided world

In the US, there’s Trump’s grand ‘us vs them’ symbol of a wall. As reported in the Times, German lawmakers are comparing refugees to wolves. In Italy, tilting towards populism and the right, a mayor was arrested after transforming his small town into a migrant sanctuary.

Closer to home, in a country where the 27 years without recession could be linked to immigration, there’s Scott Morrison’s newly proposed immigration cuts. There’s Senator Anning blaming the Christchurch massacre on Muslim immigration. There’s the bipartisan support for the prospects, wellbeing and mental health of asylum seekers to deteriorate to such an extent, the UN human rights council described it as ‘massive abuse’.

Yet the local effects of climate change don’t have a local origin. Causality extends beyond borders, piling miles high at the feet of industrialised countries. Nations like the US and Australia enjoy high standards of living largely because we have been pillaging and burning fossil fuels for more than a century. Yet those least culpable will bear the heaviest cost.

This, argues the author of a paper published in Ethics, Policy and Environment, warrants a different ethical framework than that which applies to other kinds of migration. He concludes that industrialised nations “have a moral responsibility … to compensate for harms that their actions have caused”.

This responsibility may include investing in less developed countries to mitigate climate change effects, writes the author. But it also morally obliges giving access, security and residence to those with nowhere else to go.

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What level of protection do you expect from another country?


Australia, it’s time to curb immigration


A majority of Australians welcome immigrants. So why then do opinion polls of young and old voters alike across the political divide, now find majority support for reducing our immigration intake?

Perhaps it could be for the same reason that faith in our political system is dwindling at a time of strong economic growth. Australia is the ‘lucky country’ that hasn’t had a recession in the last 28 years.

Yet we’ve actually had two recessions in this time if we consider GDP on a per-capita basis. This, combined with stagnant real wage growth and sharp increases in congestion and the price of housing and electricity in our major cities, could explain why the Australian success story is inconsistent with the lived experience of so many of us.


The decline of the Australian dream?

Our current intake means immigration now acts as a ponzi scheme.

The superficial figure of a growing headline GDP fuelled by an increasing population masks the reality of an Australian dream that is becoming increasingly out of reach for immigrants and native-born Australians alike.

We’ve been falsely told we’ve weathered economic calamities that have stunned the rest of the world. When taken on a per-capita basis, our economy has actually experienced negative growth periods that closely mirror patterns in the United States.

We’re rightly told we need hardworking immigrants to help foot the bill for our ageing population by raising productivity and tax revenue. Yet this cost is also offset when their ageing family members or other dependents are brought over. Since preventing them from doing so may be cruel, surely it’s fairer to lessen our dependence on their intake if we can?

A lack of infrastructure

Over 200,000 people settle in Australia every year, mostly in the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne. That’s the equivalent of one Canberra or greater Newcastle area a year.

Unlike the United States, most economic opportunities are concentrated in a few major cities dotting our shores. This combined with the failures of successive state and federal governments to build the infrastructure and invest in the services needed to cater for record population growth levels driven majorly by immigration.

A failure to rezone for an appropriate supply of land, mean our schools are becoming crowded, our real estate prohibitively expensive, our commutes are longer and more depressing, and our roads are badly congested.

Today, infrastructure is being built, land is finally being rezoned to accommodate higher population density and more housing stock in the outer suburbs, and the Prime Minister has made regional job growth one of his major priorities.

But these issues should have been fixed ten years ago and it’s increasingly unlikely that they will be executed efficiently and effectively enough to catch up to where they need to be should current immigration intake levels continue for the years to come.

Our governments have proven to be terrible central planners, often rejecting or watering down the advice of independent expert bodies like Infrastructure Australia and the Productivity Commission due to political factors.

Why would we trust them to not only get the answer right now, but to execute it correctly? Our newspapers are filled daily with stories about light rail and road link projects that are behind schedule.

All of it paid for by taxpayers like us.

Foreign workers or local graduates?

Consider also the perverse reality of foreign workers brought to our shores to fill supposed skill gaps who then struggle to find work in their field and end up in whatever job they can get.

Meanwhile, you’ll find two separate articles in the same week. One from industry groups cautioning against cutting skilled immigration due to shortages in the STEM fields. The other reporting that Australian STEM graduates are struggling to find work in their field.

Why would employers invest resources in training local graduates when there’s a ready supply of experienced foreign workers? What incentive do universities have to step in and fill this gap when their funding isn’t contingent on employability outcomes?

This isn’t about nativism. The immigrants coming here certainly have a stake in making sure their current or future children can find meaningful work and obtain education and training to make them job ready.

There’s only one way to hold our governments accountable so the correct and sometimes tough decisions needed to sustain our way of life and make the most of the boon that immigration has been for the country, are made. It’s to wean them off their addiction to record immigration levels.

Lest the ponzi scheme collapse.

And frank conversations about the quantity and quality of immigration that the sensible centre of politics once held, increasingly become the purview of populist minor parties who have experienced resurgence on the back of widespread, unanswered frustrations about unsustainable immigration that we are ill-prepared for.

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Do you have a right to protect your good fortune?


People with dementia need to be heard – not bound and drugged


It began in Oakden. Or, it began with the implosion of one of the most monstrously run aged care facilities in Australia, as tales of abuse and neglect finally came to light.

That was May 2017. Two years on, we are in the midst of the first Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, announced following a recommendation by the Scott Morrison government.

The first hearings began this year in Oakland’s city of Adelaide. They have seen countless brave witnesses come forward to share their experiences of what it’s like to live within the aged care system or see a loved one deteriorate or die – sometimes peacefully, sometimes painfully – within it.

In May, the third hearing round will take place in Sydney. This round will hear from people in residential aged care, with a focus on people living with dementia – who make up over 50 percent of residents in these facilities.

With our burgeoning ageing population, the number of people being diagnosed with dementia is expected to increase to 318 people per day by 2025 and more than 650 people by 2056.

Encompassing a range of different illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and Lewy body disease, its symptoms are particularly cruel, dissolving intellect, memory and identity. In essence, dementia describes the gradual estrangement of a person from themselves – and from everyone who knew them.

It is one of the most prevalent health problems affecting developed nations today – and one of the most feared. Contrary to widespread belief, one in 15 sufferers are in their thirties, forties and fifties.


Physical restraints

How do you manage these incurable conditions? How can you humanely care for the remnants of a person who becomes more and more unrecognisable?

One thing the Royal Commission has made clear: you don’t do it by defaulting to dehumanising mechanisms of restraint.

Unlike in the UK or the US, there are currently no regulations around use of restraints in aged care facilities. It is commonly resorted to by aged care workers if a patient displays physical aggression, or is a danger to themselves or others.

Yet it is also used in order to manage patients perceived as unruly in chronically understaffed facilities, when the risk of leaving them unsupervised is seen to be greater than the cost of depriving them their free movement and self-esteem. The problem of how to minimise harm in these conditions is an ongoing and high-pressure dilemma for staff.

Readers may remember the distressing footage from January’s 7.30 Report, in which dementia patients were seen sedated and strapped to chairs. One of them was the 72-year-old Terry Reeves. Following acts of aggression towards a male nurse, he was restrained for a total of 14 hours in a single day. His wife, however, had authorised that her husband be restrained with a lap belt if he was “a danger to himself or others”.

Maree McCabe, director of Dementia Australia, is vocal about why physical restraints should only be used as a last resort.

“We know from the research that physical restraint overall shows that it does not prevent falls,” she says. “In fact it may cause injury, and it may cause death.”

While there are circumstances where restraint may be appropriate McCabe says, “it is not there as a prolonged intervention”. Doing so, she says, “is an infringement of their human rights”.

After the 7.30program aired and one day before the Royal Commission hearings began, the federal government committed to stronger regulations around restraint, including that homes must document the alternatives they tried first.

Restraint by drugging

Another kind of restraint which has come into focus through the Royal Commission is chemical restraint. Psychotropic medication is currently prescribed to 80 percent of people with dementia in residential care – but it is only effective 10 percent of the time.

“We need to look at other interventions,” says McCabe. “The first to look at is: why is the person behaving in the way that they are? Why are they responding that way? It could be that they’re in pain. It could be something in the environment that is distressing them.”

She notes people with dementia often have “perceptual disturbances” – “things in the environment that look completely fine to us might not to someone living with dementia”. Wouldn’t you act out of character if your blue floor suddenly became a miniature sea, or a coat hanging on the door turned into the Babadook?

“It’s about people understanding of what it’s like to stand in the world of people living with dementia and simulate that experience for them,” says McCabe.

Whether through physical force or prescription, a dependence on restraint shows the extent to which dementia is misunderstood at the detriment of the autonomy and dignity of the sufferers. This misunderstanding is compounded by the fact that dementia is often present among other complex health problems.

Yet, and as the media may sensationally suggest, the aged care sector isn’t staffed by the callous or malicious. It is filled with good people, who are often overstretched, emotionally taxed and exhausted.

Dementia Australia is advocating for mandatory training on dementia for all people who work in aged care. This covers residential aged care, but could also extend to hospitals. Crucially, it encompasses community workers, too.

“Of the 447,000 Australians living with dementia, 70 percent live in the community and 30 percent live alone,” notes McCabe. “It’s harder to monitor community care, it’s less visible and less transparent. We have to make sure that the standards are across the board.”

It is only through listening to people living with dementia – recognising that while yes, they have a degenerative cognitive disease, they deserve to participate in the decision-making around their life and wellbeing – that our approach to it has evolved. Previously, people believed that it was dangerous to allow sufferers to cook, even to go out unaccompanied.

Likewise, it is crucial that we continue to afford people with dementia the full rights of personhood, however unfamiliar they may become. Only then can meaningful reform be made possible.

Besides, if for no other reason (and there are many other reasons), action is in our own selfish interest. The chances, after all, that you or someone you love will develop dementia are high.

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What is a better solution to care?


Increase or reduce immigration? Recommended reads


Immigration is the hot election issue connecting everything from mismanaged water and mass fish deaths in the Murray Darling to congested cities and unaffordable housing.

The 2019 IQ2 season kicks off with ‘Curb Immigration’ on 26 March. It’s something Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised to do today if re-elected and opposition leader Bill Shorten has committed to considering.

Here’s a collection of ideas, research, articles and arguments covering the debate.

New migrants to go regional for permanent residency, under PM’s plan

Scott Morrison, SBS News / 20 March 2019

Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed his immigration plan today. He confirmed reports he will lower the cap on Australia’s immigration intake from 190,000 to 160,000 for the next four years. He announced 23,000 visa places that require people to live and work in regional Australia for three years before they can apply for permanent residency. “It is about incentives to get people taking up the opportunities outside our big cities” and “it’s about busting congestion in our cities”, Morrison said.

Read the full story


Australian attitudes to immigration: a love / hate relationship

The Ethics Centre, The New Daily / 24 January 2019


You’ll hear Australians talk about our country as either a multicultural utopia or intolerant mess. This article charts many recent surveys on our attitudes to immigration. The results show almost equal majorities of us love and hate it for different reasons, suggesting individual people both support and reject immigration at the same time. We’re complex creatures.

Read the full story


Post Populism

Niall Ferguson, Festival of Dangerous Ideas / 4 November 2018

Niall Ferguson

At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on Cockatoo Island, Niall Ferguson presented his take on the five ingredients that have bred the nationalistic populism sweeping the western world today. Point one: increased immigration. Listen to the podcast or watch the video highlights. Elsewhere, Ferguson points to Brexit and the European migrant crisis and predicts, “the issue of migration will be seen by future historians as the fatal solvent of the EU”.

Listen to the podcast now


Human Flow movie

Ai Weiwei / 2017

Part documentary and part advocacy, Human Flow is a film by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei that “gives a powerful visual expression” to the 65 million people displaced from their homes by climate change, war or famine. It is not the story of ‘orderly migration’ based on skilled visas or spatial planning policies, but rather, one of mass flows across countries and continents.


Government needs to wake up to impact of population boom

PM, ABC RN / 23 February 2018

IQ2 guest and human geographer Dr Jonathan Sobels is interviewed by Linda Mottram on the impact of Australia’s population growth on the continent’s natural environment. He’s not the only person concerned about this. A 2019 study by ANU found 75 percent of Australians agree the environment is already under too much pressure with the current population size.

Tune in now 


Counter-terrorism expert Anne Aly: ‘I dream of a future in which I’m no longer needed’

Greg Callaghan, The Sydney Morning Herald / 18 November 2016


Dr Anne Aly is a counter terrorism expert come politician with “instant relatability”, according to this feature piece on her. Get to know more about her interesting life and career before catching her at IQ2 where she’ll argue against the motion ‘Curb Immigration’. Aly is the Labor Member for the West Australian electorate of Cowan and first female Muslim parliamentarian in Australia.

Read the full story


Event info

Get your IQ2 ‘Curb Immigration’ tickets here
Satya Marar & Jinathan Sobels vs Anne Aly & Nicole Gurran
27 March 2019 | Sydney Town Hall

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When should the natural environment be put before people?

After Christchurch

What is to be said about the murder of innocents?

That the ends never justify the means? That no religion or ideology transmutes evil into good? That the victims are never to blame? That despicable, cowardly violence is as much the product of reason as it is of madness?

What is to be said?

Sometimes… mute, sorrowful silence must suffice. Sometimes… words fail and philosophy has nothing to add to our intuitive, gut-wrenching response to unspeakable horror.

Thus, we bow our heads in silence… to honour the dead, to console the living, to be as one for the sake of others.

In that silence… what is to be said?


Yet, I feel compelled to speak. To offer some glimmer of insight that might hold off the dark — the dark shades of vengeance, the dark tides of despair, the dark pools of resignation.

So, I offer this. Even in the midst of the greatest evil there are people who deny its power. They are rare individuals who perform ‘redemptive’ acts that affirm what we could be. Some call them saints or heroes. They are both and neither. They are ordinary people who act with pure altruism – solely for the sake of others, with nothing to gain.

One such person is with me every day. The Polish doctor and children’s author, Janusz Korczak, cared for orphaned Jewish children confined to the Warsaw Ghetto. At last, the time came when the children were to be transported to their place of extermination. Korczak led his children to the railway station — but was stopped along the way by German officers. Despite being a Jew, Korczak was so revered as to be offered safe passage.

To choose life, all he need do was abandon the children. At the height of the Nazi ascendancy, Korczak had no reason to think that he would be remembered for a heroic but futile death. He had nothing to gain. Yet, he remained with the children and with them went to his death. He did so for their sake — and none other. In that decision, he redeemed all humanity — because what he showed is the other face of our being, the face that repudiates the murderer, the terrorist, the racist…the likes of Brenton Tarrant.

I know that many people do not believe in altruism. They will offer all manner of reasons to explain it away, finding knotholes of self-interest that deny the nobility of Janusz Korczak’s final act. They are wrong. I have seen enough of the world to know that pure acts of altruism are rare — but real. And it only takes one such act to speak to us of our better selves.

We will never know precisely what happened in those mosques targeted in Christchurch. However, I believe that, in the midst of the terror, there were people who performed acts of bravery, born out of altruism, of a kind that should inspire and ultimately comfort us all.

Most of these stories will be untold — lost to the silence. Of a few, we may hear faint whispers. But believe me, the acts behind those stories are every bit as real as the savagery they confronted and confounded. And even when whispered, they are more powerful.

Evil born of hate can never prevail. It offers nothing and consumes all — eventually eating its own. That is why good born of love must win the ultimate victory. Where hate takes, love gives — ensuring that, in the end, even a morsel of good will tip the balance.

You might say to me that this is not philosophy. Where is the crisp edge of logic? Where is the disinterested and dispassionate voice of reason? Today, that voice is silent. Yet, I hope you can hear the truth all the same.

Dr Simon Longstaff AO is Executive Director of The Ethics Centre.

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Can we overcome hate with love?