In the absence of strategy

In the news the last few days has been reports about how China wants to build a base in Vanuatu. It’s caused consternation and controversy and the Australian government has spoken out about it for the obvious reason that a base so close to our mainland – and so far from China – poses a potential threat. And it won’t be an isolated incident.

I rolled my eyes when I read the news. I was totally unsurprised, but experienced a sinking feeling. For me it’s another example of the Australian government’s short-sighted incompetence. This situation could never have developed had we not dropped the ball so badly.

Foreign aid and foreign assistance has been steadily dropping for a few years now, particularly to the Pacific islands. This follows on from the decision a few years back to stop radio and television broadcasts into the region and through Asia. Many a time on my travels I’d flick the dial and come across a familiar accent broadcasting familiar news and views. No longer. This was very popular, not just with expats, but with locals too. All this has been ditched, along with the cuts in aid, for economic reasons.

What price a few million dollars of extra expenditure? Well, now we know. Into that vacuum the Chinese with their expansionary policies have rushed. Once upon a time we exported culture and influence, which was the intangible benefit of our investment. Once we stop making that investment our influence has retracted, and the previous beneficiaries now look elsewhere. Enter the Chinese.

It would be nice to say that none of this could be foreseen, but you have to presume there are some very highly paid people in government departments who would have warned about this. God knows there were voices in the media who did that. Unfortunately the government – and I’ll point the finger at Morrison (and Abbott to a large extent) – chose to ignore those warnings.

Now there is a mad scramble to undo the damage but seriously, I don’t know how that can be achieved.

This is what infuriates me so much, the blind short-termism and the total lack of an actual strategy.

Had there been a proper strategy appropriately championed by the minister, and with a PM a bit brighter than Abbott, then Australia would be continuing to influence and embrace the region – China could never have got a foothold.

Unfortunately this sort of thinking – or unthinking – is not uncommon. The government is rife with it, with energy policy being another prime example. It also happens in the corporate world. I fight an uphill battle every day trying to suggest that the initiatives we take on should be a part of a broader strategy. There is a bigger picture we should be adding to.

In my experience in my present job is that it’s all pretty random. To a large degree that’s structural, with no capacity for a guiding principle. It’s also people, a form of ignorance combined with opportunism leading to misdirected effort. The result is that a bit happens here, a bit there, nothing in concert, with wasted and unnecessarily duplicated efforts, and occasionally contradictory elements.

If it’s a bigger picture then some are working on a landscape, others a portrait, and some an abstract. There is no coherence, sense or overarching purpose. That sums up our government pretty well, too.

The fallout

Harrowing scenes the other day when the disgraced Australian cricketers returned home. All three of them took it hard, with Steve Smith breaking down in his press conference. It was hard to watch, and impossible not to be sympathetic.

In the wake of that the attitude to him, and to a lesser degree the others, has softened, to the point that some now claim that the whole thing has been blown up out of all proportion and the penalties are much too harsh.

The penalties – basically 12 months for Smith and Warner, 9 months for Bancroft – are pretty much in line with my expectations. They’re banned from all cricket outside of grade cricket in that period, while I might have allowed them to play Sheffield Shield. The penalties aren’t as harsh as they seem simply because the international cricket season pretty well ends today for the Australians. Effectively they miss a short tour playing Pakistan, and next summer against India.

I was just as affected as most people by the remorse shown, but it doesn’t soften my attitude or change the basic facts. As much as anything a harsh penalty is needed to demonstrate the seriousness of the offence, and as a circuit breaker from which a change in culture and behaviour may now flow. This is a fork in the road.

It’s not necessarily the end of it – appeals and further hearings are possible – but now is the time for us to get around these individuals. They have transgressed, but they have also recognised their wrongdoing and shown remorse. Sport is all about second chances.

Of the three the most I’m most concerned about is David Warner. He appears to be the architect of the crime and has borne the brunt of the recrimination. He’s not well loved around the world because of some of his antics, many of which I’ve found hard to stomach also. He assumed role, misguided as it was, for the team, to be the attack dog, and bear the brunt of the conflict that arose from it.

That backfired to some extent in this tour of South Africa when it became personal off the field. I still scratch my head that Warner was the more heavily penalised in the confrontation with de Kock. In my eyes, as it is with everyone I’ve spoken to, de Kock’s comments and behaviour was reprehensible. The offence was doubled down when in the next test match half the South Africa crowd turned up in Sonny Bill Williams masks, up to and including South African cricket officials. That was an utter disgrace and insult not just to Warner, but more particularly his wife. That too was pretty much swept under the carpet, but it’s no surprise that Warner came into the third test seething with anger.

The whole situation was further compounded when Rabada, banned for two matches for repeat offences, had his suspension overturned on appeal. At the very least Smith was incensed by this, and I presume most of the team was. It was a poor call by the ICC, further proving how inept they are, and effectively undermining their own process. I suspect it added to a siege mentality among the Australians – aggrieved, besieged by the crowd, let down by due process, promoting an us against them mentality and an environment in which extreme choices might seem reasonable. The rest is history.

The ICC, as always, have a lot to answer for, but so too does Cricket Australia. They allowed for this situation to degenerate over a long period. Occasionally they would mutter something censorious, but did little about it. Part of the problem was the wrong people in the wrong jobs. By all accounts Lehmann is a ripper bloke, but I’ve heard stories that prove he was the wrong person to be national coach. He has since resigned. On top of that Steve Smith should not have been made captain. This offence proves that he had neither the strength or authority to prevent wrong being done, but the problem started at his appointment. He’s a great batsman and probably a nice guy, but that doesn’t make for a leader. CA has to clean up the method by which they select leaders. A Border, a Taylor, a Waugh or a Ponting would never have allowed for this to happen.

For now we have a re-configured Australian team, a new captain, and soon to have a new coach. All power to them.

Day of shame

I’m one of those people who whenever there is political turmoil am glued to the TV seeking developments and listening with rapt interest to the commentary and analysis. Yesterday was one of those days, though it was not political turmoil that transfixed me, but sporting – which is the next biggest thing in Australia, after all.

It was a normal Sunday morning. I woke, made coffee, then settled back in bed to catch up with the online news. I’d woken in between news bulletins so I received my initial news through a combination of Facebook updates and the Age online. What I found there shocked me to the core – as it has millions of other Australians.

The third test from Cape Town has been in progress and Australia trailing. These are hotly contested matches against an opponent we dislike. The cricket has been compelling, but everything else from this series has been pretty ugly – and it got worse.

It’s hard to understand how it came to this, but in the lunch-break on the third day and with Australia behind the eight ball Steve Smith and his so-called leadership group hatched a plan to cheat. The most junior member of the team, Cameron Bancroft, was enlisted to do the dirty work – that is, to scuff up the ball with a piece of abrasive tape to help promote some reverse swing.

Not only was this immoral, it was also profoundly stupid. It’s hard to get away with anything these days, but especially so in this series when so much has been going on that every moment is heavily scrutinised. Unsurprisingly when Bancroft attempted to tamper with the ball he was spotted. The umpires became involved, then Steve Smith, who at first denied anything untoward. It was only after play that Smith along with Bancroft admitted to the ploy. Both men were remorseful but Smith, totally out of touch with the gravity of the situation, believed he could continue on as captain.

The news broke like a tidal wave in Australia. Around the world much of the foreign fans either condemned Australia, or rejoiced in our disgrace. My feelings I think mirrored those of most Australian supporters – disbelief, disgust and shame.

I sat on my couch watching one talking head after another being wheeled out for their opinion. Their complete condemnation of events was near universal. Though I knew it, I struggle to comprehend what had happened. It was so foreign to what I believe as an Australian that I couldn’t connect to it. At the same time I felt waves of emotion. I felt terribly betrayed. I felt as if everything I had been led to believe in had been exposed as a sham. The Australian way of sport, our distinct ethos, hard but fair, an ethos I had believed in, upheld, and defended, had been corrupted entirely by this madness that ran contrary to everything we had been brought up to believe.

This is why it is such a big thing: it has struck to the very soul of Australian sport. We’re no lily-whites, God knows that, but while we go hard on the field what was sacrosanct was the concept of fairness. There have been international cricket captains charged with ball tampering in the past. They’ve been condemned, penalised, but the sky didn’t fall in. The difference is that in Australia that sporting ethos is almost holy. It defines so much of us as a people. It’s a part of our identity, and so then to have exposed an act of such cynical disregard to both fairness and the rules is an existential blow. The shame is felt by all.

It was a given yesterday morning that Steve Smith would be sacked as captain. My own view was that should be the minimum. He may be the best batsman in the world, but if he never took the field again for Australia then I was cool with that. I’ve never been a fan of Smith the man, but his actions on the weekend were compounded by the fact that he got the most junior member of the team to execute them. That in itself beggars belief. It’s cowardly, and exploits the loyalty of a guy who wants only to play for Australia and is still trying to prove himself. Bancroft should have said no – he was clearly uncomfortable – but he should never have been put in such a position.

All of this was known when James Sutherland turned up for an impromptu news conference. He was obviously shocked and it showed in his demeanour. Others have commented that he seemed near to tears, and he said many of the things the rest of us were thinking – yet he stopped short of sacking Smith.

This was a terrible misreading of the mood and the situation. Had there been some doubt over the circumstances then an investigation first might have been appropriate. Smith had admitted guilt though, and from that moment could not continue as Australian cricket captain. They say that the position of Australian cricket captain is the highest office in the land – to allow an admitted cheat to go on in that role would be a betrayal of everything the office stood for. One ex-cricketer even suggested they should not be allowed to wear the baggy green cap. In the end both Smith and Warner either resigned or were stood down from their roles before play started.

Where to from here? Well, this is something we can never really live down. I can’t remember a more serious breach in my lifetime of watching Australian sport. There’s a long way back from here, but at least we can make a start on it now.

While this incident is a total shock, standards have been slipping for some time, and Cricket Australia must take some responsibility for that. I wrote a few weeks ago how I was finding it hard to stomach, and I’ve got an iron constitution. The Australian cricket team has been stinking it up for a few years now, and I hear stories all the time of women who used to take an interest in the game who have been turned off by the culture of the team. CA should have been more pro-active.

Obviously Smith is front and centre in much of that. I’ve never liked him. I’ve always thought him a bit odd, a tad socially dysfunctional, and I think that’s been evident on the field. As a leader he’s been poor – impulsive, reactionary, demonstrative, unsympathetic. Unparalleled as a batsman, he has still failed to lead by example. For what it’s worth I think he’s a poor captain also.

Lehmann is another problem. He was the right coach at the right time when he came in, but that time has long past. I have my doubts about his technical ability, but it’s his yobbo-ish tendencies that really turn me off. I think we have gone past that sort of character. From what I hear he plays favourites in the dressing room and can be a divisive figure. More to the point I think his blokish acceptance of borderline behaviour has allowed for standards to slip. Supposedly he was not involved in this decision – hard to believe – but in any case I can’t see him surviving this, nor should he.

If we are to redeem ourselves we must start with a clean slate. To begin with that means hefty penalties for those involved, including something like a 12 month ban for Smith. It means substantial re-education for those who remain, and in fact, throughout cricket teams across Australia. And it means new leadership.

I’m a big fan of Justin Langer, and know that had he been coach none of this would have been possible, let alone allowed. No-one is a tougher competitor than Langer, but no-one is truer to that particular ethos we all so believed in. You know he’ll be bleeding today, just like the rest of us. The bonus is that I think he’s a very good coach too. I think he must be installed pronto.

As for captain, Australia must move away from giving it to the best player in the team. Being a great batsman doesn’t necessarily make the best leader or captain, and Smith is the proof of that. Tim Paine has been named interim captain and I think he’s the perfect choice – level-headed, smart, a tough competitor who will battle it out. He’s an admirable character. Longer term they either need to bring someone from outside the squad in, or elevate Mitch Marsh or even Pat Cummins, though neither is ready for now I think.

We must use this to become the cricket team every Australian admires. There’s a stain that can’t be eradicated, but it can be overcome.

This is 24 hours later and I surprise myself at how measured I am. Yesterday I was devastated. I walked into work and it’s the discussion played out loud. I get a cup of tea and everyone shakes their head. I’m so sad at what Australia has become – politically as well as on the cricket field – but there’s no getting away from what has happened. Let this be a catalyst for change. Hopefully we can strive to be our best selves, hard still and relentless, but true and humble also. That’s what I want, and what the country needs.

A good day to be Australian

When I think about it, it’s been a crappy few years in Australia, and in fact for much of the world. There’s been little to celebrate, and much otherwise to fear, decry or sadden.

Yesterday was one of the better days in recent Australian history. Yesterday the heart soared, and it felt good to be an Aussie again.

There were two big moments yesterday, both of which might have soured, but this time came out just the right way.

Last night the Socceroos played Honduras in Sydney for the right to compete in the World Cup in Russia next year. It was a big event, a big crowd, and a lot riding on it.

Even before last night’s game the Socceroos had created history. No team had ever played so many matches to qualify for the World Cup. No team had ever travelled so far – the equivalent of six times around the world, they say. It had been long and arduous, and more recently, controversial and testy. Last night was it, one way or another.

Coming into the match playing on our home ground gave us the advantage, but at half-time the score was nil all and we were getting nervous. In the second half the game broke open, and Mile Jedinak, the skip, scored three times – twice from the penalty spot, and another from a deflected free kick.

That was it. There was a great outpouring of relief and happiness on the ground, in the stands, and in lounge rooms all over Australia. Sitting in my lounge room I exchanged SMS with friends who had been watching in their home, and engaged in social media. On Twitter I wrote I want to be Mile Jedinak when I grow up – such a great leader and commanding presence, we had lost our way without him, and came good with him back.

I feel sorry for the Hondurans. They fought passionately, but they were always a class below.

Earlier in the day something else had happened which should have a more enduring impact upon the nation.

The much criticised plebiscite on Same Sex Marriage turned out to be a resounding success, with more than 80% of Australians having their say. It was always thought that the Yes vote would win, but as always in moments like this, as indeed in World Cup qualifiers, you’re never sure of the result until the whistle blows. Yesterday the whistle blew on the plebiscite and the results announced: a little over 61% of Australians said “Yes’ to same sex marriage.

This was a great and emotional moment. At work a crowd had congregated in the staff dining area to watch the results announced on TV. I think every one of them hoped for the Yes result – I’ve yet to meet anyone who professes anything else. With it announced the news spread, there were high fives in the office and cheering. Around the country there were much greater celebrations.

This was a result I was very committed to, but it doesn’t affect me. For hundreds of thousands of other Australians the result of this plebiscite had a direct on their life and destiny. All going well this should pass into law sometime before Christmas, and those Australians can go off and married their loved one, just like the rest of us. It is a great moment of inclusiveness, and an acknowledgement that we are all equal, and with the rights now to enshrine it.

I felt so proud and happy. I believed that Australia would vote that way. It’s a victory for compassion, decency, and that great Australian dictum, a fair go for all. I am at times critical of our society, but I’ve always thought that Australians are natural democrats – it’s why we are renowned for being egalitarian. We’ll judge you on your merits, not on your title, wealth, or if you happen to be heterosexual or gay.

A final observation on this – anyone who witnessed Penny Wong break down at the announcement and wasn’t moved is a mug. She is a woman I admire greatly, very smart, a little fierce, a decent human being. She also happens to be gay. She rode this politically, but it was also very personal. Her tears gave expression to the relief and pure justice of this moment.

Owning up

Woke up this morning to two shocking pieces of news.

First, the news from Texas and the church shooting there. New such as this is almost de rigueur these days, terrible as it is. It’s been going on way too long, and no matter the clamour it never seems to change – in fact, it appears attacks like this are becoming more common. Something has to be done – has to be – but you doubt that anything will. If Obama couldn’t change things then Trump has no willingness to, and the NRA will keep defending their turf. From the outside, it seems unsustainable, that something must give – otherwise anarchy beckons.

The other news was of a 13-year-old girl being struck by a car while riding her bike, here in Melbourne. She’s in a serious condition, but what is truly shocking is that the driver of the BMW that struck her stopped briefly, then drove away, leaving her near death.

I say it’s shocking, but this too has become almost routine. It’s not uncommon for pedestrians to be struck, but when I was growing up it was rare for a hit and run to be reported – these days it feels as if 90% are hit and runs. What has the world come to?

This time it’s too much. A girl, riding her bike, has been struck and left for dead. It’s more than deplorable, it’s unconscionable.

I understand the panic that must grip a driver when they hit another person, but that’s the test. Running from it is not only disgraceful, it’s ultimately futile – no-one gets away with it. And surely the first instinct should be to render assistance?

I hate to say it, but I think it’s a sign of the times, and the stats I reckon would back that up. Why is it that once upon a time we would stop and take responsibility when now we flee from it?

I see it in the increasing reports of cowards punches, and brawls in general (there was another last night in the city near where I work).

Bar fights are not new, and I’ve been in confrontations myself. Used to be though there was a code that you would never strike someone from behind, or when they weren’t looking. It probably sounds small beer, but it made a fundamental difference. For one, when you know a punch is coming you can prepare for it – a cowards punch (when the victim isn’t looking) is well named. There were many fewer serious injuries or fatalities once upon a time.

It’s telling from a psychological perspective to. Somewhere along the way we’ve crossed a line, when or why I don’t know. There’s no honour in hitting someone from behind. There’s only one aim in doing that, and that’s to inflict pain and injury. The old fights are nothing to be proud of, but what they boiled down to was macho posturing. You faced your opponent and took him on squarely. If you attempted anything underhand then you were a pariah, and your mates would let you know about it. These days, literally, the gloves are off.

It’s not dissimilar in the prevalence of hit and run accidents. We’ve become selfish and self-indulgent, with our first thoughts of ourselves. We don’t face up to things as we used to, and don’t take responsibility for our actions as we did. There’s a lot of moral cowards out there and I find it very disquieting.

A good death

The lower house of the Victorian parliament voted last week to allow euthanasia laws, the first in Australia. It’s still not a done deal, but it’s more likely than not that they will be passed into law. I reckon that’s great years.

It’s a contentious subject, split by ethical, religious and humanitarian arguments. For the doctor brought up to respect the Hippocratic oath it goes against all that tradition, yet so many doctors – who see the suffering and grief up close – have a natural sympathy for a merciful end. I remember my grandfather, who died in the early eighties, laying in his sick bed in the old Prince Henry basically non-compos, and who, with a nod and a wink, was allowed to slip away without artificial sustenance.

I can understand and even sympathise with many who oppose euthanasia. At the very least it makes for a complex philosophical conjecture. Late last week Paul Keating, a Australian I respect before any other, came down hard against it. On this occasion though I think he is wrong, if not out of touch, then perhaps out of step.

I don’t know of anyone who has lost someone close to the cruel ravages of disease who opposes euthanasia. Most, like me, are strong advocates for it. There is a selfish aspect to that: it is demoralising to watch your loved ones waste away in pain. It seems demonstrably cruel, not just to them, but to those forced to witness it without the power to do anything about it. This is not mercy.

My mother, like many with terminal diseases, wished to cut short her pain. She was clear about this from a long way out, and conjectured plans to make it so. It was about pain for her, but also about dignity – she wanted to go out on her terms. That’s a powerful argument – especially when you consider the sad alternative she had to suffer.

As her son I found it very hard. It’s awful to watch someone you have so loved suffer so badly, and in mum’s case at least there seemed very little left of her in the last days. Her body went on, briefly, but she was too far remote from us to connect. I watched her deteriorate, held her frail hand, spoke to her hoping she could hear me, but all of it was gut wrenching.

What was hard as a son was that I could do nothing to help her. She had clear instructions, yet I could do nothing to obey them. It felt a betrayal which, combined with grief, was a heavy burden to carry. I’ll never forget how mum ended, and have no doubt it would have been right had she been able to choose her time of passing, when she was still lucid and bright and of sound mind, before the long slide to oblivion.

Morally I have no doubt about the rightness of euthanasia. Getting it right legally is the tricky part, but it appears the bill under discussion has properly considered the complexities and contradictions of the situation. This will be no simple rubber stamp. As it should be there will be a process with checks and balances. I so hope it becomes law, and think it reflects well on us as a society and state – the most progressive in Australia.

What do we learn from this?

I figure this might be one of my more controversial posts, or at least one of the more misunderstood. Misunderstanding comes easy these days.

In the last week there have been a series of revelations about legendary Hollywood movie mogul, Harvey Weinstein. Daily one after another woman has come forward alleging sexual harassment, and even rape. Many of the women are high profile actresses and models. It’s been an eye opening and shocking litany of offences, making clear that Weinstein is a pathetic and obsessive serial offender. At one point I wondered if I was the only person who didn’t have a Harvey Weinstein story.

One of the aspects most disturbing to me is the realisation that so much had been swept under the carpet. I’m no innocent, and tend to cynical view when it comes to the wielding of power. That multiple organisations would choose to view these offences with a blind eye came as no great surprise. What was surprising was that there were so many seemingly influential ‘names’ who had been victim of these offences, but had chosen to remain silent till now.

It’s a regular tale told of how many victims of sex crimes either choose not to report them, or do so and are humiliated by the experience, or disbelieved. It’s a fundamental societal issue, particularly as it seems that sexual offences are far more common than I would have believed. I understand how difficult it is to confront the judicial system after being victim of this, particularly when you have little faith in the process. Unfortunately, by failing to report it makes it harder for the next woman, and it vindicates the actions of the perpetrator, potentially allowing him to go again – as clearly has been the case with Weinstein.

I believed, falsely as it turns out, that high profile actresses would not have the same fears. Even if behind the scenes I thought something would be done, but until the bombshell last week no-one had really spoken out. It’s a sorry tale, and in the wake of it there are thousands of women coming out with the #metoo hashtag admitting to being sexually harassed, or worse. If there is a positive out of this it’s that it has been put under the spotlight, and perhaps with strength in numbers more women will come forward, and the low-lives committing these offences will be properly punished. Only then can we hope to stamp this behaviour out.

As a man, I’m horrified. I’ve wondered if I’ve ever done anything that might be construed as sexual harassment. I can’t think of anything, and there has never been an intention to do anything like that – but who am I to judge?

So, Weinstein, and this is the controversial bit. It’s shocking what he has done, but I can’t help feeling some pity for him. In the first place there is obviously something wrong with him that he should be such a repeat offender. There’s something pathetic about it which speaks to the nature of his psyche. What craving did he seek to satisfy, and why? Many of the stories about him are similar, with Weinstein making unwelcome advances, either verbal, or physical such as walking in naked. For the women it is disgusting, but looking at Weinstein from afar there is something pitiful in it. How does this happen? Where have we gone wrong?

The other part of it is that he’s being piled into right now. Every man and his dog is cracking in. He’s been kicked out of a roll-call of heavyweight industry associations, including the production company he helped found. It’s hard not to be cynical about some of that. I’m sure his behaviour was well known, but tolerated until he got caught out. Now it’s about the optics. Not surprisingly his wife has left him as well. Everything he was, everything he identified with, has been taken from him, and you might say, so he deserves, and maybe you’re right. What is unedifying is some of the glee attached to this.

It doesn’t sit quite right with me. He should receive his just desserts, but right now it’s all outrage, much of it genuine, but a good part of it faux. I don’t doubt the stories told of him, but as it stands they are allegations. I’m not given to hyperbole. I believe in due process and justice. This should be investigated and go to court, and hopefully it will. In the meantime he has been judged and found guilty in the court of public opinion, and duly punished. It amounts to a form of bullying, and – as I said – some of it for cynical reasons.

I can’t help but wonder how he is now, abandoned by his industry, his wife, even his brother, his name turned into click-bait and subject to ridicule. These are our times, everything is extreme – I wonder though what the reaction would be if in days from now he decides he cannot go on. I’m not saying that will happen – it shouldn’t – but what if it did?

It would change nothing of the nature of his crimes, but perhaps there are reasonable questions then about our response to them.