Politics and human frailty

Many years ago, way back in the 1970s, for a journalism project at the University of Hawaii, I wanted to spread and track a rumour from the West Coast to the East Coast of USA.

My wise professor told me no… it would be irresponsible and betray the principles of the journalism profession. Although disappointed, I was also a bit chuffed because in telling me ‘no’ I realized  that he, too, believed I could probably achieve what I was proposing.

It was an important lesson in responsible actions that has stayed with me in subsequent years of my life.

Back in those days, the media was still revered and spoken of as The Fourth Estate. It prided itself on its objectivity, intelligence, and integrity and novice reporters were taught to explore, investigate and question their way to the truth.

Fast forward to today and news is no longer a revered commodity in our internet based and device (iphone, tablet, computer) driven culture.  The Fourth Estate has been virtually replaced by a social media that becomes a mockery of objectivity, intelligence and integrity. It has become the tail that wags the media dog to go for the best story that will deliver the most ‘hits’, rather than the truth.

There don’t seem to be many elder statesmen teaching new recruits in the media these days. The new standard of journalism is to write personal impressions, not facts, with little reference to what has gone before… and it shows. It breeds mediocrity and an unfortunate self-centeredness that makes objectivity impossible, because journalists today seem to be writing for and competing with social media and competing with ‘here today gone tomorrow’ deadlines. They are writing what they think they know, rather than having any opportunity for time to report what they discover.

The same mediocrity is happening with our politics.

We have just had an election in my State where neither party achieved the required number of seats to form government. The Labor party would require help from one Independent and the Liberal party would need support from both Independents in order to form Government.  The Liberal Party had achieved a clear first preference voting majority, despite achieving one less seat in this election, but an independent’s frailty has now given government to the Labor Party. To hear Independent MP Geoff Brock interviewed on television the night of the election, and to then witness his submission to the carrots offered him a few days later shows how easily human independence and valor, becomes human frailty and ego.

He is reported as saying he gave minority government to Labor (and accepted a high-paying Ministry in the process) to ensure stability of Government for our State.

Why are there no journalists asking this man about the alternative scenario, i.e. the State’s voters going back to the polls and Geoff Brock possibly  losing his seat in that process? Is he really wanting us to believe that scenario was of no concern and that this was not simply a selfish decision?

Why are there no journalists questioning why this man was so quick to sign up with a minority Labor Government, despite earlier saying he would wait several days. And why  did he not even have the courtesy to speak ‘one on one’ with the other key player in this race, Opposition Leader Steven Marshall, rudely leaving him a voicemail message instead?

His press conference was more important than having this respectful phone call first, yet Geoff Brock tells us he is about saving our Government’s stability!

I was at the pre-polls handing out ‘how to vote cards’ and the mood among Labor and Liberal volunteers, and the majority of voters, was that it would be a resounding victory for the Liberals, it was time for a change, everyone was saying. Curiously, the polls were knife edge on polling day.

We ended up with two elected independent MPs, Bob Such and Geoff Brock, holding the balance of power yet both of these independents were overwhelmingly supported by Liberals as the next highest voters in their respective electorates.

To make matters worse, Bob Such takes emergency leave in the week following the election while votes are still being counted, due to illness. It is then reported that Dr Such had deliberated for over a year whether he should run again, with his health factors as a major consideration.

A journalist wrote a column in a local paper arguing that the Liberal party in my state can never win a clear majority under the current electoral system, and judging the last few elections where the Liberal Party has won the popular vote, we have to begin to believe there is some truth to that theory.

Geoff Brock runs as an independent in a predominantly Liberal electorate and before the election is even declared and you can say ‘Yes Minister’, he has told Labor Premier Jay Weatherill he will give him government.

A local Holdfast Bay councillor, who ran and lost for the Labor Party for the third time in an unwinnable seat, unabashedly declared he ran just to give himself an edge in the local government Council elections later this year. He also refers to the Liberal Opposition Leader as Stephen Marshall, when his name is Steven Marshall.

Maturity, intelligence and fair play  are  missing from our political system.

A few years ago I was at a politics forum to celebrate the history of the first South Australian State election.

People at this forum were remarking about the reluctance of people these days to engage in community politics, whether it be at the local, State or Federal level. It has a stigma about it.

I raised the question with Bob Such, who was a participant in this forum, that we should perhaps be promoting Civics as a subject in our schools. He disagreed, saying he thought it was up to the political parties to teach people about politics!

But civics is not really politics, you see, civics is about systems of government.

This last election proves Bob Such was wrong. We need to objectively teach young people Civics…what a democracy means, how the various levels of government work, and why it is so important for us as a society to choose wisely among the candidates we can elect to represent our points of view.

I was amazed at the number of people at the polls who did not even know what electorate they lived in, many did not even know the names of their candidates.

Democracy is such a precious attribute of our society and it is so sad that the media, candidates and population at large take its existence for granted.

If we started teaching civics in our schools, students might then engage with the systems of government because they were genuinely interested in establishing good governments, not simply because of a steadfast allegiance to a particular party line, or to be different from mum and dad, or because someone else tells them how to vote, or to tick a box because they couldn’t care less.

The challenge, of course, would be finding civics teachers who could be objective and explain systems of government with truth and integrity and intelligence, rather than simply expounding their preferred party line.

Jan Smith

Who knows only his own generation remains always a child

I live in a wonderful seaside village that dates back to the beginnings of my State’s history. The government of the new Province of South Australia was inaugurated in 1836 on Glenelg soil. The State’s first Governor arrived at Holdfast Bay on the Buffalo, and our first European colonist mainland settlers arrived here before expanding their reach to all parts of our State and beyond.

We have a rich memory of local residents representing  our state’s and our country’s former ‘movers and shakers’ in politics, sports,  and business throughout  Australian history living in Glenelg, or nearby Brighton… names like Henry Ayers (Premier), Thomas Elder (pastoralist/philanthropist), Lionel Logue (King’s speech), Jimmy Melrose (aviator), Henry Sparks (Adelaide oval), Alf Roberts ( Adelaide stock exchange, golf, professional tennis) George Soward (architect of Adelaide’s Beehive Corner), Douglas Mawson (explorer), and Adam Lindsay Gordon (poet) to name just a few. Horse Trainer Bart Cummings was born on Farrell Street, and Sir Mark Oliphant romanced his future bride here at her home in Glenelg. As well as residents there are all the travellers that our famous Red Rattler trams have brought to Glenelg… even the legendary Racehorse, Pharlap. James Stobie,  inventor of the Stobie Pole, attended our Glenelg Primary School. We had the first licensed cinema in Adelaide, we had the tallest residential building in the 1970s, we have the only Ring Bowl club in the country, we are the home of Bay Sheffield footrace, and the traditional finish line for the City-Bay fun run. And rumour has it that our most recent, historically famous, resident is our country’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

So with all this rich and lasting  cultural history, I was bemused to recently read this paragraph from our Council’s CEO as a welcoming message on the Council website:

Yes, we’re a little biased down here at the Bay. Holdfast Bay is the proud birthplace of the State of South Australia where Governor Hindmarsh arrived in The Buffalo back in 1836, but there’s more to The Bay than just history.        http://www.holdfast.sa.gov.au/ceo

It’s that little word, just, that rankles and left me bemused.

 Who knows only his own generation remains always a child  is a quote from George Norlin (1871-1942) inscribed on the Norlin Library at the University of Colorado. Those readers who enjoy history might like to explore the story of this interesting man.   The writings of Cicero (106BC-43BC) are said to have inspired Norlin’s quote above.  http://ucblibraries.colorado.edu/about/norlin.htm

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it , from the pen of George Santayana, is also said to be influenced by Cicero.                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Santayana

We have had a classic example of Santayana’s quote at our local Council. Within weeks , they have made two decisions that explain perfectly what he was talking about!

Two Councils ago, (about 6 years ago), we had a fragmented dysfunctional Council that was at war with itself and had factions that sided with the then CEO, or the Mayor. There is an accepted caretaker convention during Council elections that no major decisions are made until the newly elected Council concurs, however that was disregarded and the then CEO pushed through a beachside kiosk development decision with the help of Councillors who opposed the Mayor, who was himself against the decision being made. The current Council has now bought its way out of a bad contract  as part of that rushed  development decision six or so years ago, at the 11th hour of a new Council election.

Our tweeting councillor is proudly noting that the new decision to buy out of a bad deal represents a 12% return to ratepayers. He conveniently, or ignorantly, disregards all the lost income to the community of a bad leasing arrangement of the years of the initial contract and that the return is going to the Administration coffers, not necessarily as a dividend to ratepayers. It represents a 12% return to the Council Administration finances  (if the Councillor’s facts are correct, there’s been no public announcement to ratepayers about this) . The Council does not pay tax and, with this latest decision, is now a landlord to a commercial enterprise competing with other rate paying and tax-paying commercial enterprises in our community… is that now what ‘good’ local government is all about? Profiteering at the expense of the taxpayer?

At the same time, in a sort of ‘déjà vu’ for residents, our council was rushing through a plan to hand over air title, and revoking community land  beneath it , in agreeing to an unsolicited proposal from a  private developer, where the public details were sketchy, the traffic management had not even been considered, and local businesses directly affected were not even consulted. The Council ignored its own policy to tender, on the magnitude of the proposed development, and ensured it was a Category 2 development which our tweeting councillor then boastfully reminded us meant ‘no appeal rights’. And most interestingly, again, the Mayor was against this proposal, on procedural and financial grounds, not emotional grounds, yet it was again a rushed decision based on factions, ego, and spite. What is going to happen in years to come with this latest decision? Will a new Council have to buy back the air titles it has currently given away and again say it was a bad decision by a bad Council?

Why is it that 13 elected adults sitting around a Council table become more like a schoolyard of immature warring and mischievous adolescents, than a forum for good decision-making? Is it because they are only interested in themselves and their own generation of Council, as per George Norlin’s wise words.

There are several instances on this Council where petty personal disputes and arrogance are resulting in playing with people’s lives and livelihoods. This happens, I am sure, on other Councils, too.

Interestingly, those Councils that have a rich sense of their history, seem to be better at decision-making.


Children Learn What They Live

Dorothy Law Nolte wrote a classic poem on child-rearing ‘children learn what they live’ in the 1950s that was distributed to millions of families by a different form of social media for those days, advertising for a baby formula!

In the 1970s Nolte copyrighted her famous words and they live on today in a range of posters, cards, bookmarks  and also expanded into a wonderful little book, co-authored with Rachel Harris, that should be given to every new parent.

Nolte’s wise words came to mind when I read the newspaper front page the other day reporting that free- to- air TV stations now want to screen adults-only shows 24/7, and end the current ban on adult-only programming until children’s bedtimes at 8.30pm.

The TV industry argument was rational, but sad. They claim the ban is now irrelevant because parents have access to DVDs, parental locks, and can simply focus the kids’ eyes on the two dedicated children’s programming channels provided by the ABC.

I agree with Australian Council on Children and the Media chief executive, Barbara Biggins blasting this proposal as ‘outrageous’. As she points out, not all children grow up in families where parents are vigilantly watching over what their kids are seeing on tv.

And where is our society’s preoccupation with sex, violence and violent sex coming from, anyway?

Yesterday, on World Suicide Prevention Day, I found myself watching one of the formula forensic medicine crime programmes that was all about a doctor being forced to operate and remove people’s spleens and replace them with a bomb, so that an ex-soldier could be a suicide bomber on a plane as payback for all his countrymen who did not give a damn about his now broken life, and the sacrifice he and his fellow soldiers had made in Iraq. The doctor’s daughter was a diabetic being withheld her medication to force the doctor to comply as a subplot and the broken people behind this plot had decided to let her die, too, because after killing the first person, the second one becomes easier.

I  began to ask myself  why was I watching this stuff… was it really enjoyable entertainment? On one level it raises an awareness of the pain and suffering that leads to mental derangement, it resolves an horrific circumstance with a happy ending and presumably there is the emotional creativity of the actors to appreciate… but does life have to be that gory and graphic for this message and artistic engagement?

Contrast this with that wonderful programme Compass on the ABC, which recently featured a story about people’s resilience when bad things happen to them. The story traced the personal journeys of two quite different people… a woman who had been severely burned in a bushfire in the 1970s , and a young man who has recently broken his neck in an accident. The stories of how these two people fought the personal horror of what had happened and tapped into an inner strength were remarkable and inspiring in equal measure.

We have a lot of depressed, angry, violent and unhappy souls in our society if the tv, newspaper, and social media are any indication.

Closer to home, I was dumbfounded to see ‘twitters’ last week from a Local Government councillor in my community commenting that:

1960’s copper wires do not provide enough speed to make porn interesting. I need NBN.

And also,

 ‘Real Solutions’ can be achieved by electing a Liberal Government or masturbating. I suspect some promises are the latter.


This man is often mentioning the school children he counsels as part of his employment, so I question his maturity in thinking that writing on social media about downloading porn and masturbating is at all humorous, or being a good role model to young people, or reflective of his community position as an elected Local Government councillor.

Children do learn what they live, and the onus is on our adult society to set the values for the kinds of adults we want them to grow up to be.

It’s also never too late to have a happy childhood… and set some new examples for ourselves to follow.

Tomorrow is RU OK? Day — a reminder to regularly ask ‘are you ok?’ of family and friends who might be going through a tough time.

Bad things are always going to happen to good people, no one escapes, but if we instill the right values in our children they’ll have a better chance of having that confidence, courage and resilience they’ll need to weather life’s storms, without becoming angry, violent, jealous, or spiteful.

If anything, I think we should be putting more family-friendly programming on our free-to-air TV.

Jan Smith