Author Archives: keirpaterson

This Father’s Day, let’s celebrate the unDads

Today is father’s day. I just ate a huge plate of homemade chocolate chip pancakes and my kids presented me with a stunning re-imagining of some of my favourite music in a single album cover. It took them weeks to create. At 13, 14 and 16 they are resourceful, inventive, kind and not afraid to try new things. My work here is done. Well, not done, but…heading in the right direction. Life is good.

This time yesterday, I was fully reclined in a dentist chair, mouth cantilevered wide for a root canal. On the ceiling, in my line of direct sight, conservative commentator and culture warrior Joe Hildebrand was appearing on Channel 10 explaining to a panel why there’s no point men taking parental leave in their child’s first six months (something about boobies, it turns out). Like that scene in Clockwork Orange, I couldn’t physically look away.

Dentistry doesn’t often lead to self-reflection, but it did get me thinking about my own evolution as a Dad, as an economic provider, a co-parent and step-parent. In this phase of late capitalism, is parenting really only about service provision? If so, why would a man take a break from being a productive economic unit, especially if he can’t meet the milk production quotient?

I fell into this trap as a young father. My own Dad, who taught me many of the good and important things, also told me ‘the world doesn’t owe you a living’. I took it to heart. I was determined to get to the top. I worked hard, travelled constantly, started a part-time MBA when my youngest was only six weeks old. I didn’t get to the top (spoiler: there is no top). What I did get was depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and a persistent feeling of unworthiness.

It was a long way back, with a lot of trial and error, false starts and backwards steps. As I’ve said before, parenting often feels like failing at the most important thing I’ll ever do. But I’ve learned to be a bit more kind to myself. So this year, maybe for the first time, I feel like I deserve all the pancakes.


I have been teaching my 16 year old how to drive, in fits and starts (more of the former so far, but the ratio can only improve). She is determined to learn on a manual. It’s the perfect metaphor for her general approach to life: given the option, she’ll choose the hard way, it will take longer, but she’ll learn a skill and something about herself. It’s a hard habit to watch as a parent, but it will stand her in good stead. It’s inefficient and possibly unproductive – who would choose to drive a manual in 2019?

But productivity is overrated, at least as an output. Economists are increasingly studying happiness as a driver of economic growth and greater productivity. Happier societies are more productive (and more equal). Turns out equipping our smaller humans with the mental and emotional resources to thrive is one of the most economically productive ways to use our time.

For most of my working life, we’ve talked about “the economy” like it was a real thing, as if it existed independently of human beings. We are in thrall to this thing that we ourselves created, conjured from columns of numbers. But the economy is just the way we choose to measure the consumption and output of people. Fortunately, policy, like the Ardern Government’s Wellbeing Budget, is starting to catch up.

My Dad didn’t teach me how to drive. It wasn’t his fault as such, he lived on the other side of the world. My Mom didn’t have the time or the temperament. My saxophone teacher, a gentle man named Robert Wegley, seeing my predicament, offered to give me driving lessons after music. He was kind, and patient, and steered me through that rite of passage. A private music teacher doesn’t earn much – they only have their time to sell. He wasn’t my Dad, but he was more than just a service provider. He was one of my unDads. He gave up his chargeable time for me. The world needs more Robert Wegleys.

Marty Kaminski was my teacher in grade three, another of my unDads. He insisted that the kids call him, simply, Marty. On his own time, with his own money, he created Walden Pond in our classroom. A literal pond, with frogs and lily pads. It was magical and something I’ll never forget. He had 9 year olds reading passages from Thoreau. The world needs more Marty Kaminskis.

Dennis Byron Sr was my baseball coach when I was 10, another unDad. His son, Dennis Jr, was my friend – we would sit on my porch for hours playing The Game of Life and listening to Stevie Wonder. In an entire season of little league baseball, I connected bat and ball exactly once. But Dennis always praised my attitude and the fact that I never stopped smiling. At the end of the season, he organised a special award for me for staying positive. The world needs more Dennis Byrons.

It’s a complicated regime that keeps me mentally well these days: love and connectedness to family, purposeful work, volunteering, a sense of community and place, writing and music, sobriety and exercise.

I’m trying to be more deliberate in expressing gratitude, which has been shown to increase happiness. So on this Father’s Day, I’m going to be grateful for my own amazing kids, appreciative of my partner-in-life Sara (who has taught me more than anyone I know), and grateful to my own parents who overcame adversity to give me the life I have.

And I’m grateful for my unDads: the Dennis Byrons, Marty Kaminskis and Robert Wegleys of this world. They don’t expect our thanks, or seek it. But let’s give it anyway. To all the father figures, volunteers, teachers, coaches and mentors, who freely give of their time and selves: thank you for everything you do.

For David Berman (1967 – 2019)

Gen X lost one of its great poets this week, and almost nobody noticed, but the manner of his passing is something that should give us pause.

David Berman’s death on Wednesday has affected me more than the death of any other person I didn’t actually know, except maybe David Bowie in 2016. But Bowie was 76, having lived a full and exalted life of creativity and connection, surrounded by a loving family.

Berman was 52. His output has been patchy (but brilliant), his schism with his family well documented, his mental illness fully disclosed, if through layers of irony. Hospitalisations and self-medication over the years (“When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/I find my worst ideas know how to swim.”) At least one suicide attempt, in 2003. He quit music in 2009, incomprehensibly citing differences with his tobacco lobbyist father.

Then, miraculously, a new Berman album, released as Purple Mountains, appeared in July. Possibly one of his best. And a month or so later, he’s dead.

I’ve been listening to Berman’s records as the Silver Jews for 25 years. Listening back this week I can still be floored by his ability to find and express, in few words, the beauty in the ordinary and the pathos in life’s daily details. Drinking margaritas at the mall is a metaphor for existential crisis. Snow in Manhattan brings out the unnoticed heroism of regular folks.

But what also strikes me is how small he makes himself. It’s a rare song that doesn’t include a self-putdown.

In the 90s, self-deprecating nihilism was the default mode for middle class white kids in the Anglosphere. When Kurt Cobain announced he was calling his last album “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die,” barely a pierced eyebrow was raised. (He changed it to In Utero, fearing people “wouldn’t get the joke.”) Pearl Jam were hated by the cool kids for their overbearing earnestness. As the Shins sang ironically/unirconically, on the cusp of the millennium, caring is creepy.

In many ways, Berman fit that bill: he played in a genre, country music, to which he didn’t seem particularly committed. He sang songs about Jesus, which might have been sincere, or maybe not. He sang in a flat, weary baritone barely capable of carrying his beautiful melodies.

But Berman’s emotional directness, even dressed up in indie country bonhomie, was well off the slacker script.

He tried out modes of talking about depression that were whimsical (Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed), slathered in country cliche (Honk If You’re Lonely) and, most recently, devastatingly direct (All My Happiness is Gone).

At the time, as someone with experience of depression, it struck me as heroic. What makes me sad now is how small he made himself.

In her show Nanette, Hannah Gadsby talked about the pitfalls of self-deprecation for people who are already othered through their sexual or cognitive non-conformity. I won’t paraphrase her, because it’s a subtle, multi-layered piece and she is a genius and I am not, but I will say that making yourself smaller, whether to deal with anticipated rejection or abandonment, or just to ingratiate yourself with others, is not helpful. It is not, as the millennials say, self care.

It’s a strange time to be Gen X. Our heroes have started dying, but we haven’t achieved the cultural ascendancy that is the due of every generation, however brief.

We’re an in-between generation. The boomers’ long, self-perpetuating cultural shadow dominates mainstream media, but we’re interlopers in the millennial-owned digital sphere.

I admire and envy millennials. They are resourceful and articulate. They’ve figured out that loyalty to a full time job is a scam perpetuated by corporations who will outsource you in a heartbeat. And they have access to their inner worlds and the emotional vocabulary to express it.

It’s a vocabulary I’m learning, which involves letting go of some Gen X hang ups. If I’m honest, the phrase self-care makes me cringe. Caring is creepy. But as I said in a previous post, it’s time we soften the fuck up.


Kurt was a pretty good front person. He liked the same bands I liked. He wrote some good songs and he nailed that quiet-loud-quiet-loud thing he learned from the Pixies. But he wasn’t a prophet, and romanticising mental illness, or self-destructive nihilism, or any combination thereof, is not much of a cultural legacy to leave. (Pearl Jam, on the other hand, just donated $11M to homeless services in Seattle.)

It’s often quoted that men are more likely to suicide than women. In fact, women experience mental illness as commonly as men, and attempt suicide just as often. But men, on average, use more violent means that are more likely to lead to death. If you still think toxic masculinity is not a thing, I don’t know what to say to you.

Listening back to his incredible output, it’s clear that David Berman, at some deep level, couldn’t appreciate the beauty he was able to reveal to all of us.

There’s nothing romantic about that. It’s just desperately sad.

If this post has brought up any issues for you, please talk to a service like Lifeline Australia (freecall) 13 11 14. There are also heaps of other services you can contact if needed.

Change the date: my white dreaming 2020

[Note: this story contains names of people who have died.]

There are a great many Indigenous voices published today, 26 January, on why we should change the date and meaning of our national day. There’s nothing I can or would seek to add to that. This blog is about why we should not only support these voices but call for a change on behalf of all Australians, to enrich our stories and ourselves.

There has been a movement in recent years to use this day to both acknowledge the pain of Australia’s indigenous people and celebrate the heroic survival of the world’s oldest continuous culture. So this is also a story about one man, Algy Paterson, his fight to preserve his language, and the small part my great grandfather played in that. 

I’ll never forget the first time my Father mentioned Algy Paterson, Kuruma man, blood relative and last speaker of the Martuthanira language of North Western Australia. My cousin.

It was months after my grandfather George “Peter” Paterson died and my grandmother descended into despair and helplessness. As we excavated the accumulated trash and treasure of a life well lived, my Dad recalled stories (some of which were new, some of which I knew) of his father and our family’s remarkable and regrettable history.

In 1831, Nicol Paterson arrived in Western Australia from the Orkney Islands. According to family legend the Patersons had been shepherds and pirates, supplementing their income by tying lanterns to the sheeps’ tails during storms. Ships at sea would mistake the rocking lanterns for safe harbor and dash themselves on the rocks and the Patersons would loot them for valuables. Nicol left Scotland with Her Majesty’s Customs on his heels, eventually settling in Pinjarra.

Nicol “took leasehold” on property called Creaton on the lands of the Noongar people. Not long after, in 1834, an estimated 70 Bindjareb Noongar men, women and children were murdered by a millitary detail led by then WA Governor James Stirling. Most of the local settlers were involved in the killing. Some time after 1860, the Patersons left Pinjarra, buying the leasehold on a sizeable sheep station called Yarraloola in the Pilbara on the lands of the Robe River Kuruma Martuthanira people.

My grandfather Peter was born in Geraldton, several hours south of the station. When his mother, my great grandmother, went into labour they set off to catch the packet steamer at Onslow on a dray pulled by two horses. Halfway there, one horse died, so my great grandfather Keith harnessed himself next to the living horse and helped pull the dray the rest of the way.

As a child in remote WA, in winter Peter would develop scurvy, breaking out in large sores. When the season’s first oranges arrived by boat, still green, the family would gorge themselves. When their trousers wore out they would sew kangaroo hide into the seat.

As we sorted through yellowing photos, hearing the second hand stories of my grandfather’s childhood, nearly every photo (except the formal family portraits) had the same caption: Peter and Algy. An aboriginal boy, roughly my grandfather’s age but much smaller, was his constant companion.

“They must have been close,” I said to my Dad.

“Well, yes,” he replied, a bit surprised. “Algy was his brother.”

In 18 years of stories tall and true from my Grandfather, the name had never been mentioned. I knew nothing about Algy or his people. My Dad knew very little too, and I still wonder how he came by this knowledge.

As far as I can determine, Algy wasn’t Peter’s brother, he was his cousin. Keith’s brother Alfred, returned from the war, was Algy’s father.

Perhaps the relationship with Algy’s mother was a loving relationship, a shared connection across race and culture. Perhaps it was a violation in a history of often violent appropriation.

What I do know is this: when the Child Protectorate of Aborigines came to take Algy away, my Great Grandfather helped protect him. Algy’s grandparents took him bush until it was safe to return. In this way, Algy avoided the cultural negation of assimilation.

Was it kindness, blood, or both? In the Kurruma kinship system, everyone is intertwined in full knowledge of their relation to everyone else, stretching back tens of thousands of years. The Scots have a word for this too: clan, from the Gaelic clann, simply meaning children.

The years spent in the bush with his grandparents, evading the Protectorate, left Algy the last fluent speaker of his language, a legacy of which he was acutely aware. It also gave him a continuing connection to country. This would prove to be important.

The first settlers, impressed by the Kurruma’s diving skills, enslaved them in the pearl industry. In 1886 small pox killed thousands. Benevolent pastoralists “employed” them for flour, tobacco and rations. Less scrupulous dispossessed and, in documented cases, slaughtered them. Algy’s generation, and many since, were sent to missions and orphanages.

By the 1980s, fearing the songlines would die with him, Algy Paterson contacted various linguists by post, until Alan Dench, a young academic from the Australian National University agreed to meet with him. Dench wrote his doctoral thesis on the Martuthanira language. He’s now a pro vice chancellor at Curtin University.

As Dench notes, “[Algy] refuses to allow his received knowledge to fade from memory or public awareness, believing it is not only relevant to the Aboriginal people living in the pastoral stations and the towns of the Pilbara today, but also to the wider Australian community. He, rather than any visiting linguist, decided that his language should be preserved in written forms for future generations.”

My Aunt Chris and Uncle Mark met Algy at the Yaraloola in 1982. They sat on the veranda – he wouldn’t go inside. He gave them a message stick to be handed to Peter, his old friend, my grandfather.

Algy died in 1995, at the approximate age of 75. He had a gaggle of grandchildren. His second wife, Dolly, was one of the celebrated aboriginal stockwomen of Western Australia.

In 2016, the Federal Court of Australia determined that the Robe River Kuruma people “have rights and interests in, and a connection with, the land and waters of the Determination Area, in accordance with the traditional laws acknowledged and the traditional customs observed by the Robe River Kuruma People.”

As proof of title, the finding cites (among others) a continuous descent from a Kuruma elder with a long and unbroken connection to country: Algy Paterson.

Our stories

Many are the stories told to me by my father and his father. I have no reason to doubt their veracity, but nothing to prove it either. Of course the truth is important, but true or not the stories we tell about ourselves are equally important to who we are.

I recognise the courage of my forebears as Europeans in inhospitable lands and the hardships they endured. While my great grandfather Keith was running the station, three of his brothers were serving in active combat in Europe and Turkey in WWI.

The life of sacrifice they led, its challenges and hardships, are part of my story. Their troubled relationship to the land and its traditional owners is also part of my story.

My great grandfather’s act of kindness or clann, and the single-minded determination of my cousin Algy Paterson, led to the rescue, at least on paper, of a dying language. It contributed, 200 years after white settlement, to legal recognition of sovereignty never ceded.

Don’t we need a national day big enough to carry all of these stories, and more?

I love this country. I have lived on three continents. I gave up a US Green Card to reside and raise children here.  I can’t think of any more patriotic act, performed by every wave of migrant, even the first freed convicts who remained.

But it always was, and always will be, aboriginal land.

We are, all of us, colonised and colonisers, oppressed and oppresors, courageous and craven. We are Australians. We need to recognise this rich and regrettable history on a day that doesn’t dance on the graves of the first Australians, or deafen us to the tragedy and and triumph of our remarkable past.

I’d like to thank my Aunt, Chris Paterson for helping me learn more about this story.

All the terrible arguments against marriage equality in one handy piece (and why they’re wrong)

Dr Kevin Donnelly, take a bow. Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University, author of “This is why I’ll be voting against same-sex marriage,” you have done us a huge favour in producing such a tightly packed, closely reasoned summary of every “argument” against marriage equality, that none of us will never need to read another version of this rubbish again.

Surely that’s worth something. So, first up: Kevin, thank you for your service. Now, if you can bear it, go and read his article.

If you did manage to get through it, you can now descend from the ceiling, make yourself a cup of tea, and if you’re so inclined, read on. (If not, and fair enough, I summarise the main points below.)

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.

I’m not an academic, I’m just a blogger, but I’m fairly sure that being a Senior Research Fellow has something to do with research. I say fairly sure because no actual research made it into his article. Read it again, if you dare: research-free.

And I don’t wish to question Dr Donnelly’s religious devotion, but it doesn’t accord with my experience of Catholicism. My beloved, her extended family and many, many of my friends are Catholic and I don’t detect their loving, refugee-helping, union-joining, equality-promoting presence in Donnelly’s writing at all. (Admittedly, I often don’t recognise them in present-day Vatican dictates either, but fortunately these days we frown on taking orders from radical theocracies abroad.)

As the U.S. comedian-turned-Senator Al Franken has said, if you take a copy of the New Testament and cut out all the references to Jesus helping the disadvantaged you end up with a box.

Donnelly opens:

“There’s no doubt that central to the concept of family is a definition of marriage involving a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation.”

I like to think at this point Kevin hit the carriage return (he uses a typewriter, surely?), ripped out the piece of foolscap and sent it off to Fairfax with a self-satisfied “…nailed it”. I also like to imagine his annoyance when the Editor rejected it until he could come up with another 774 words, because there’s no other explanation for the perfunctory way in which the rest of the article tosses out half-baked assertions as universal truths.

But let’s conduct a little thought experiment with his opening “there’s no doubt” gambit.

1960:     There’s no doubt that central to the concept of family is a definition of marriage involving a man and a woman of the same race.

1920:     There’s no doubt that central to the concept of family is a definition of marriage involving a man, and a woman denied all reproductive rights.

1850:     There’s no doubt that central to the concept of family is a definition of marriage involving a man and his female property, as negotiated with her father.

1750:     There’s no doubt that central to the concept of family is a definition of marriage involving a man whose ownership of his wife can only be overridden by the lord of the manor.

In fact, there’s no doubt that the only immutable fact about marriage is that it is constantly changing.

He then trots out the “there are more important issues” argument:

….according to the 2011 census figures only 1 per cent of Australian couples are same-sex, with surveys suggesting only a minority want same-sex marriage. There are more important issues to worry about.

There is so much wrong with this argument, but it’s a common one from marriage equality opponents, so let’s dispatch with it quickly:

  1. Protecting the civil and human rights of minorities involves…people in the minority. Well, duh. It’s both circular and fatuous – not easy to pull off.
  2. It’s not an important issue…but if we let gay people marry it will lead to the downfall of civilisation. Sorry, you don’t get to hold both views simultaneously.
  3. There are more important issues to worry about. We actually expect our elected officials to be able to think about multiple issues simultaneously. That’s literally their job. And we expect the vast machinery of government to be able to do more than one thing at a time. Hence, John Kennedy managed to put someone on the moon and introduce the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He didn’t tell African Americans to wait until he’d sorted out this moon thing.

Next we get the talk-back radio “Adam and Eve Not Adam and Steve” argument:

“To put it bluntly, gays and lesbians are physically incapable of procreation and having their own children. For them to believe otherwise is to deny the life choice they have made and to believe they should be entitled to something normally associated with biological parents.”

It’s at this point that Kevin starts to lift the curtain on his grim Handmaid’s Tale concept of marriage as a loveless vessel of joyless procreation.

“Parents who have conceived naturally as a key aspect of what it means to be married also know that children require a male and a female role model if they are to fully mature and develop as young adults.”

This is when I start pounding my mental typewriter until my fingers are bloody stumps. As a man raised by a single mother, this is not only hurtful, it’s stupid. There are reams of research that find quite the contrary – that poverty is the independent variable driving poor outcomes for families, not family make-up. If Donnelly really cared about outcomes for children, he would be fighting inequality, not equality. But I am the better person, so I will take a deep breath, pause, and offer you this photo montage of abject failures not raised by a Man and a Woman in Wedlock.


“Both genetically and emotionally, and what is expected socially, men and women are different. While much has been done to promote equality of the sexes the fact is that boys need strong, male role models.”

Again with the hurtful and stupid. Kev, serious question: do you know any of The Gays? Because, leaving aside the question of what a strong male role model looks like, there are many, many strong role models, male and female, gay and straight, in this community in all colours, shapes and sizes. This is the gaping chasm in your understanding of the modern Australia that I know and love: a boy born in 2017 who can’t respect, engage and love his community in all its diversity won’t thrive emotionally, socially or economically. You hate that, don’t you?

“Forget the mantra that equality only occurs when all sexes are the same – it is possible to be equal but different.”

He may not realise it, but he’s done us another huge favour in this short sentence. Anyone who has ever doubted that marriage equality is a human rights issue in the proud tradition of the advancement of civil rights to ALL need only read these 21 words. If the de-segregation movement in the US, the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and the black rights movement in Australia have taught us anything it’s that separate is never equal.

“There’s no doubt that we are living in a time of significant social change, where social institutions such as marriage that have stood the test of time are being critiqued and undermined.”

Critiqued, yes. Undermined? No.

Social change movements do well to downplay the nightmare scenarios conjured by their opponents. No, your marriage will not be less valid. No, clergy will not be forced to bless the union of Adam and Steve or Cheryl and Beryl. No, you won’t be enslaved in the production of rainbow wedding cakes.

But now that Kevin has done us the favour of outlining his dim view of marriage existing solely for the production of progeny and transmission of Western culture, it’s worth asking the counterfactual: if we had to have a non-binding postal survey to approve his version of marriage, would ANYONE vote for it? It’s so grey and joyless, it actually makes me sad for him.

For those of us who choose to view marriage as a joyful declaration of love and a community recognition of family, it hurts to have it denied to other people that we love.

I wrote two years ago about the reasons my wife Sara and had decided to bring our blended family together in marriage. And the kind of marriage I would want for my kids (should they want it, if they don’t that’s fine too) bears no resemblance to Donnelly’s grim vision.

Donnelly is right in that the meaning of marriage is changing, which should make us rejoice not despair. As Senator Penny Wong said, we didn’t want this farce of a postal survey, but now that it has been forced on us, let’s make sure we win. First and foremost, because it’s a civil rights issue of equality before the law. But The Gays that so terrify Donnelly could be pushing us towards something unexpected: saving marriage from the dustbin of the past.

Aussies, it’s time to start tipping

homage_to_catalonia_cover_1st_editionAustralians love tipping. Footy tipping, race tipping…but service tipping, not so much.

It runs against our egalitarian grain – that a person engaged in an honest days work shouldn’t have to beg a complete stranger to earn a living.

There’s sound historical precedent for this. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell relates arriving in Barcelona in 1936, which had just been captured by Communist and Anarchist forces, and finding that “tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy.”

Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’.

In light of today’s decision by the Fair Work Commission to cut penalty rates (weekend loadings) for workers in the retail and hospitality industry by as much as 50%, it might be time to re-think our aversion to tipping.

When I moved back to Australia as an 18 year old and started working in hospitality, I loved the fact that you knew at least a week in advance how much you would be paid. That was in stark contrast to my experience in America.

In the US, by the time I was 18 I’d worked most front of house hospitality positions: busboy, waiter, bar back. The hourly wage was – wait for it – $1.08 an hour. This wasn’t mandated in an award. It was at the discretion of the restaurant: the wage had been calculated as an estimate of the tax I would owe if I was tipped 15% on my tables, based on the estimated turnover of the restaurant.

If the restaurant got its sums right, after taxes I should earn nothing. Somewhere I have a cheque I received for 14 shifts over two weeks that netted me 33 cents.

Of course, the real pay was in tips. On a good Friday night, you could earn over $100, or $12 – 15 an hour. And yes, if you were great at your job, if your tables were full, and if your customers were great tippers, it’s a well-paid job.

But as a waiter, you only have control over one of those factors. For every Friday night you finished flush, there was a Sunday brunch staring at empty chairs and a slowly-yellowing buffet. And there were always tables you lavished with attention who stiffed you at the end of the night.

But it was still better than being back-of-house, earning minimum wage of $3.25. One of my co-workers, a dish washer, worked two minimum wage jobs and was homeless.

Now, I’m aware that some are concerned that we are paying too much for our deconstructed cappuccinos. That our wanton consumption of smashed avocado on toast is an impediment to ever owning a home.

Those people, I’d venture, never had to rely on penalty rates to support themselves through school, or save, or feed a family.

A worker shouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers to earn a living. But for the next little while, at least until penalty rates can be restored by legislation under a Labor government, we should suspend our aversion to tipping.

I’d suggest 20% on Saturdays and 30% on Sundays.

Unless your penalty rates have been cut too. But in that case, you’re probably working.

The year Christmas was cancelled and a hope for 2017

It has been a horrible year for those of us on the progressive side of politics, or anyone who is generally pro humanity and anti-suffering.

Political opportunism at the expense of the vulnerable has been overarching theme of 2016. Brexit, the ascendancy of Trump and Hanson, the atrocities of ISIL and the brutal suppression of the Syrian people while the world stood by…it has seemed at times there was nothing stopping unscrupulous leaders who were willing to appeal to our deep, unspoken fears.

It’s enough to make you give up on this human experiment, to think that, as the late great Bill Hicks said, “it appears we’ve just about run out of ideas on this planet.” Each fresh atrocity has added weight to the suspicion that humans are, generally speaking, a bit shit.

But I keep thinking back to a story my Aunt Linda told me a year ago, just before Christmas 2015, when David Bowie was alive, Pauline Hanson was an answer in a 90s trivia round, and it seemed inevitable that a woman would ascend to the highest political office in the world.

She told me about a Christmas sometime in 1950s Britain.

My grandfather, Leon Reginald DuBois, a worker and union organiser at the Austen motor plant in Birmingham, had been on strike for months, fighting for fairer pay and conditions.

There was meagre money for necessities, and none for Christmas treats, let alone presents. It was going to be a grim Christmas.

Linda, the youngest of five, still believed in Father Christmas. So my grandfather sat her down and told her this story.

In most years, he said, Father Christmas leaves the North Pole and travels south around the globe, dispensing presents to all the children as he goes. But by the time he gets to Australia, there are no presents left. The Australian children all miss out, just because they’re furthest from the Pole. They both agreed this was terribly unfair.

So this year, her Dad told her, for once Father Christmas will start in the South. All the kids in Australia and elsewhere who usually miss out will get presents.

Unfortunately, though, that means that by the time he gets to England, there won’t be any presents left.

They both agreed that, while disappointing, this was only fair.

I can’t imagine how hard it would be to tell your youngest child there won’t be Christmas this year. Because of the efforts of people like Reginald and countless others, I’ve never had to.  And while he told my Aunt a white lie about Santa (as all parents do), it was in the service of a greater truth. She would miss out on Christmas presents that year, but he could hope that, in time, it would lead to fairer work for all.

Hope and fairness – both have taken a battering this year. Barack Obama was hope personified when he campaigned eight years ago. Fourteen million jobs were created during his tenure,  but income inequality only increased in that time, as it has in Australia. Trump swept those states where manufacturing has died, and with it the dream that a worker’s children could do at least as well in life as s/he did. Despite the fact Trump’s party has waged an unrelenting war on unions in manufacturing states like Wisconsin. Despite the fact that he supports spending cuts that hurt the poor and tax cuts to help the rich.

If it’s true that, as Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, it’s also true that arc is not a smooth one. Every reformation is followed by counter-reformation. Things get worse before they get better.

Who knows what 2017 has in store. Early signs, it seems, aren’t good. But if an appeal to fairness can make a child accept there will be no visit from Santa, I like to think there’s some small hope for us all.

The night white privilege saved my life

I have only the haziest memory of the events that led me to walk into a 7-Eleven with a gun in my pocket. But I thought about it again today, at the news that Keith Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot dead by police in a case of mistaken identity.

I was young; not yet 19, and drunk and dumb.  But the fog of alcohol and the mists of time haven’t stopped me from thinking about it often over the past 25 years. And more recent events have given me pause to reflect on what my – breathtakingly stupid – actions have to teach me (and maybe others) about white men with guns and the privileges afforded them.

What I do remember: it was during the six months between finishing high school in Philadelphia and starting university in Australia. My days and most of my nights were occupied as a busboy in a city restaurant, often pulling double shifts to save money for college. On the free nights I had, the few friends that hadn’t left for college that fall would idly congregate anywhere that was free of parental supervision, and drink.

That particular night we were at a friend’s older brother’s place in Northeast Philly. The older brother was out. After a lot of beers, my friend mentioned that his brother had guns. We thought it would be fun to check them out. I remember a hand gun and a pump-action rifle. I know it was pump action because I held it and pumped it, like I’d seen in Scarface, loading a bullet into the chamber. Everyone hit the ground. It seemed hilarious. We went out back and took turns firing the handgun into the night sky.

It was cold out – late fall, or early winter – and I was wearing a leather biker jacket. As often happens on such nights, someone decided a trip to 7-Eleven was required and we piled into a car. I don’t know why, or why nobody stopped me, but I tucked the handgun into my pocket. This memory is clear – walking into the 7-Eleven, handgun in my pocket, feeling the heft and the power of it. Willing someone to mess with me so I could show them.

Nobody did. What I wanted to show them, I’m not sure. A young man with a brain marinating in testosterone and alcohol can feel an overwhelming need to prove something he can’t articulate, with little regard for the consequences. I don’t make any excuses for my actions. I was just lucky that day, lucky that nobody in that 7-Eleven stopped me, or spoke to me, or looked at me funny.

Just lucky. That’s what I used to think. I used to think that if there was a greater truth to be found in my idiocy, it was that in a nation full of guns any momentary lapse in impulse control can be deadly. It’s not a new thought. Parents Against Gun Violence post a summary of such cases every month, as heartbreaking as it is monotonous.

But it’s not the prevalence of gun violence in America that has prompted me to think about that night.

Mike Brown, a black man shot dead by police in 2014 outside a Missouri convenience store, wasn’t carrying a gun.

Alton Sterling, a black man shot dead by police in July outside a Louisiana convenience store, wasn’t carrying a gun.

Keith Scott, shot dead by police today in North Carolina in a case of mistaken identity, wasn’t carrying a gun.

Nor were any of the other 102 unarmed African Americans shot by police in 2015.

These are recent events, but they are not new. Ta-Nehisi Coates, growing up in nearby Baltimore at the same time as me, wrote in his brilliant coming-of-age memoir The Beautiful Struggle, that his mother:

“…knew that I had no idea how close I was, would always be, to the edge, how easily boys like me were erased in absurd, impractical ways. One minute we were tossing snowballs at taxis, firing up in front of the 7-Eleven, speeding down side streets and the next we’re surrounded by unholstered guns, a false move away from going down. I would always be a false move away. I would always have the dagger at my throat.”

Although I’ve thought about it often, I’ve never written about it. Partly because I’m ashamed of some of the stupid things I did when I was young. Partly because, as a white person (and now a white Australian at that), #blacklivesmatter never felt like my struggle.*

What prompted me to decide to write about this was another shooting, this one last week, of Terence Crutcher, an African American man shot dead in Oklahoma. Police responding to an unrelated call pulled up behind his stalled car. They didn’t offer assistance. They shot him dead. They said he wouldn’t put his hands up, although a video tells a different story.

One day in my senior year of high school, when my Mom was away for work and I should have been in school, I took her car to buy a keg of beer. On the way home I got a flat tyre and pulled over on the interstate. A police car pulled up behind me and a very polite officer helped me change the tyre. We had to move the keg of beer out of the way to get to the spare.

This is white privilege.

A young, drunk white man, concealing a gun and possessed of an incoherent and unfounded rage, walks into a convenience store and because nobody stops him or even questions him, wakes up the next morning with no consequence except a hangover.

This is white privilege.

Recognising that our lives might have been very different without the benefits it confers is important. It’s not going to dismantle the systemic apparatus of white supremacy. But at least we’re being honest with ourselves. It’s a small thing, but it’s a start.


*And if you think this is an American struggle, reflect on the fact that Indigenous Australians make up 98% of the prison population in the Northern Territory, or that 25 years ago a comprehensive royal commission into our appalling record of indigenous people dying in police custody made 330 recommendations, only a handful of which have been implemented. In 1991, 17% of the prison population was Indigenous. That figure is now 27%.

The Stanford rapist and talking to our kids about consent

It’s hard to talk to your kids about consent. In a household of five, including some big personalities, there’s a lot of shouting, “DON’T PUT YOUR SHOES ON THE KITCHEN BENCH AND WHERE IS YOUR CLARINET?” and not a lot of time for quiet reflection and reasoned discussion.

By now you’ve probably read the incredible victim impact statement by the woman raped at Stanford University by Brock Turner. (I hate calling her that, as she is undoubtedly much more than that, but I don’t know her name and I refuse to reduce her to “the victim.”) You’ve also probably read the entitled and telling character references from Turner’s family and friends, which have done us the favour of highlighting not only the environment Turner grew up in but in illuminating the white and male privilege of that environment.

So I’ve been thinking a lot in the past few days about Brock Turner, the woman he raped and how we as parents can make sure our own children don’t turn out to be Brocks or in relationships with Brocks.

It’s a cliché, but parenting is hard, our ability defined mostly by the mistakes we make. Much of the time I feel like I’m failing at the most important thing I’ll ever do. Our success as parents tends to be measured and rewarded based on our child’s ability, not his or her kindness. You can read this in Brock Turner’s father’s letter. He raised a man who was an exceptional swimmer but, based on the available evidence, a terrible person. It’s clear from his letter that the truth of that is too confronting to acknowledge.

Do you know the band 5 Seconds of Summer? No? I envy you. The slightly edgier One Direction, they play their own instruments, sing songs that are catchy as hell and are sooooo cute. We listen to them a lot. Constantly, in fact.

On the way to school this morning with Ella, aged 10, we were listening to 5SOS’s “Heartbreak Girl,” which I’ve heard, conservatively, 52 gazillion times. It’s a template unrequited love song.

But with the Stanford rapist’s family and friends’ focus on his suffering and his deprivation going through my head, for the first time I found myself really listening to the lyrics.

I’m stuck in the friend zone again and again…
I know someday it’s gonna happen
And you’ll finally forget the day you met him
Sometimes you’re so close to your confession,
I gotta get it through your head
That you belong with me instead.

I asked Ella, “What do you think the friend zone is?”

“It’s when they’re friends but he wants to be more than friends.”

“But she just wants to be friends?”

“Well, I think she likes him, because he says she’s close to confessing.”

“But that’s just what he thinks. Don’t you think she would say if she did like him?”

“I guess so. Maybe she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“Maybe. But she’s not responsible for his feelings, he is. If she doesn’t like him, it’s not her fault. He just needs to deal with it and get over it.” He’s not entitled to her feelings or her body, I thought, but I didn’t say it, not today.

Yes, parenting is complicated and difficult. But I feel in this instance we have access to a pretty simple truth we can pass on to our sons and daughters (especially our sons). You should never have sex with anyone who wants it more or less than you do.

So these are the things I will talk about, at least until I get an eye roll and “Dad, it’s just a song.”

Then I think, my work here is done. For today.

A veneer of monogamy: my budget response

During Scott Morrison’s budget presentation last night my mind drifted, bizarrely, to Kath and Kim, although I suppose it’s understandable that, in the face of ScoMo’s unrelenting drone attack, the mind seeks any respite it can get.

If I remember correctly, Kim is shopping for a dining suite and mentions to Kath she is looking for “pure monogamy.”

“Oh no, Kim,” Kath responds. “Monogamy’s very old fashioned. You just want a veneer of monogamy, that’s all anyone cares about these days.”

Fairness. It’s a word we hear a lot from all sides of politics at the moment. When Hockey presented his second and last budget in 2015 he used the word fair 15 times and published a taxpayer-funded Fairness Booklet to explain why reducing welfare access and increasing upfront healthcare costs was, in fact, fair.

ScoMo’s first budget speech featured the f-word only once. It is a much fairer budget than either of Hockey’s efforts and it makes minor tweaks to some of the more egregious drivers of inequality in our economy. But as I’ve written previously, the drivers of inequality are often the devils in the detail, and in detail the budget is severely lacking.

Superannuation was the centerpiece of this budget and it took two reasonable steps towards making the system more fair: people on incomes of $250,000 plus must pay an additional 15% tax to put money into super (the previous threshold was $300,000). And, more significantly, the amount of after-tax money individuals can put in to super has been restricted to $500,000 over a lifetime (the previous limit was $180,000 per year).

As I said, this is a step in the right direction. Super tax concessions available to the wealthy had become so unfair that the government had no choice but to act. Last year an ACOSS report singled out superannuation tax settings as a key driver of wealth inequality in Australia. And while Australia is still far more equal in terms of wealth than both the US and the UK (Australia ranks 10th lowest in wealth inequality – the US is fifth worst), an estimated 2.5 million Australians live below the poverty level, which is unacceptable in a country as rich as ours.

Limiting tax concessions at the top end is an important part of tackling inequality in our retirement income system, but it does nothing to help alleviate poverty unless the tax gains are equitably distributed.

Under the Rudd/Gillard Labor government, employers’ minimum mandatory superannuation contributions were planned to increase from 9.5% to 12%. Under Abbott/Turnbull this has been delayed to 2025, which in political terms is never.

So apart from retaining the Gillard government’s Low Income Superannuation Contribution in slightly modified form, this budget has done nothing to alleviate poverty in retirement, which is not only a very real problem, but a very gendered problem. On average, women retire with $90,000 less than men and almost a third of women are retiring into poverty. (Sorry Kath, sorry Kim…ScoMo doesn’t care.)

So after spending months fretting over (and leaking) varying thought bubbles on the generosity of benefits accruing to those on very high incomes, the concerns of those on very low incomes, particularly women, have been comprehensively ignored.

Fairness. Is it old fashioned? Do we want real fairness, or is a veneer of fairness all anyone cares about these days? I guess we’ll find out come July.

(Note: these views are my own and do not represent the views of my employer.)

Cycling saved my life, but I’m not a cyclist

New South Wales’ draconian new cycling penalties, which include fines of up to $450 and require all people riding bikes to carry photo ID, made me think of the fixie-riding hipster shown below.

deakin 2

On 26 June 1906, he was sued at court for riding his bike on a footpath in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. In a letter read to the court, the cyclist was unapologetic: he did not think he was doing any harm, as hundreds rode through the gardens without incident.

To no avail – he copped a 2s 6d fine plus court costs. Who was this reprobate? Australia’s second Prime Minister, the “Father of Federation” and former state member for Essendon and Flemington, Alfred Deakin.

Deakin often rode his bike to Parliament in the years before cars became a common sight on Melbourne roads. I have a rule that I break on an almost-daily basis: never read the comments on online cycling articles. In addition to the usual comments (people riding bikes should be registered, I once saw one run a red light, they look ridiculous in lycra, etc) people often opine that our roads were not designed for bikes. Yet it wasn’t until 1916 that cars became so prevalent on Melbourne roads that safety regulations, like requiring that all cars drive on the left hand side and occupy no more than two lanes, came into effect.


Broken Hill Barrier Miner, 26 June 1906.

Regulation to improve safety of road users is a wonderful thing, but policy that serves only politics is bad policy. The penalties introduced by NSW Transport Minister (and self-proclaimed “biggest bike lane sceptic”) Duncan Gay have nothing to do with safety and everything to do with pandering to angry drive-time call-back radio listeners stuck in their cars. Like the former Victorian Liberal government, for Gay the answer to clogged roads must always be more roads.

This ignores a vast amount of international data showing that building roads doesn’t solve traffic problems. It’s called induced demand, and it can worsen traffic on improved or expanded roads. Case in point: the state of Texas spent $2.8B expanding the Katy highway to 23 lanes (!) and traffic delays actually got worse.

So most cities are actively looking for ways to improve transport mode share, with some even trialing schemes to pay people to ride to work. Instead, NSW is ripping up bike lanes, matching the hostile rhetoric with an environment that is physically hostile as well.

All of this will lead to fewer people cycling less often.

This is not only bad transport policy, it’s bad health policy. In 2010, lifestyle diseases were estimated to cost Australia $37B in direct and indirect costs. Lack of physical activity is the fourth highest risk factor in global mortality. When the Federal government is continuing to cut health funding to the states, creating a hostile and unsafe environment for people riding bikes is short sighted, to say the least.

For me, it’s not just an issue of policy, it’s personal. Ten years ago I weighed 15 kg more than I do now. I experienced frequent anxiety and periodic depression. My father and uncle had both died suddenly of strokes at the age of 60 and I was only 35 and already on medication to reduce my blood pressure. The writing wasn’t so much on the wall as hitting me repeatedly over the head.

One day I got on a bike and rode to work. It wasn’t terrible. So I did it again the next day. I started dropping weight and my blood pressure improved. And when you don’t feel physically terrible all the time, your mental state improves as well, in my case enough to give me the motivation to seek help for my mental health issues. It’s an over-simplification, maybe, but I believe it to be true: cycling saved my life.

You might think it’s strange, then, that I wouldn’t call myself a cyclist. I love to ride bikes, but as the Danish/Canadian urbanist Mikael Colville-Andersen points out, calling someone who rides a bike a cyclist makes about as much sense as calling someone who uses a Hoover a vacuumist. For more people to start cycling, it needs to be seen as a normal activity, not a subculture with special clothing, unwritten rules and pitfalls for the newby.

In Seattle, a program to actively promote a change of language has lowered the temperature in the so-called “cycle wars” to promote respect for all road users and take the emotion out of what should be a sedate discussion on how to get the most people from A to B in the most efficient, healthiest and least environmentally-damaging way possible.

I like to think Deakin would approve. He was a rare master of both policy and politics, tackling complex issues from agricultural irrigation to how to best join the disparate Australian colonies in Federation. As he argued to the court, the vast majority of people ride bikes without incident or outcry. But he still copped a fine. Perhaps we haven’t progressed as far in 110 ten years as we’d like to think.

safe streets language