16 February 2012

Same Sex Marriage - A Rebuttal To Kevin Andrews

I've never seen an argument against same sex marriage that made me think "hmm, you may have a point there". Arguments against are usually filled with historical inaccuracies, shoddy reasoning, half-truths and evoking a time that never existed outside of the hazy memories of conservative columnists. So it is with this piece by Kevin Andrews in today's Sydney Morning Herald. As can be expected, the former Howard government minister is against it. Also to be expected, the arguments he uses aren't exactly robust:

The one thing that is studiously avoided by the proponents of same-sex unions is the purpose of marriage. Historically, marriage is about the protection of children.

Historically, marriage is about the protection of property, specifically a man's property. The woman he married became his property; his worldly goods would pass down to the legitimate sons who bore his name. Marriage originated in order to secure distribution of assets.

Today there is another, competing view of marriage. Instead of a pro-child social institution, some propose that marriage be based on the gratification of (two) consenting adults. Hence, the self-fulfilment of adults is to replace the social institution centred on the well-being of children.

Even if this point wasn't historically inaccurate, considering straight people can marry and choose not to have children, or marry past reproductive age, or marry and make their childrens' lives hell, or marry and divorce, why should same sex attracted people be the ones to miss out for the sake of the children?

It also ignores the overwhelming social science evidence that such an arrangement is optimal for the well-being of children and the welfare of society

Show me any evidence at all that children being raised by same sex couples are any worse off than children of married straight parents. I'll wait here.

Secondly, it politicises the institution of marriage in a novel and dangerous manner, and extends the role of the state beyond its rightful place. Marriage does not require the state to do anything. However, a redefinition can only occur by state decree. Marriage is no longer a fundamental institution of civil society, but a right, granted by the state.

Are you taking the mickey, Mr Andrews? First of all, marriage has already been redefined by law. We have redefined it as an equal partnership rather than the man having legal possession over the woman. Secondly, politicising marriage? Whilst in government, your party, uniquely in the developed world, actually banned same sex marriage (rather than merely not legalising it) and actually amended the Marriage Act, requiring couples being married to recite vows reinforcing your inaccurate and outmoded definition of marriage - but only if they were married in a civil ceremony (apparently us non religious types can't be trusted to understand just what a sacred reworked institution marriage is). If that's not politicising marriage for your own ends, what the hell is?

It's been said, not wrongly, that the divide on legalising same sex marriage in Australia isn't left-right, but a generational divide. I'm not sure what to blame for Mr Andrews' views, but why do we still need to see crud like this in the mainstream media?

15 February 2012

Cross Streets - The Real Crisis In Emergency 000

Cockatoo Island is one of my favourite places in Sydney. The former ship building yards have been left largely intact - a rarity in this litigious age - with thoughtful historical signage directing the visitor to points of interest and advising on safety. "In the event of an emergency, call 000 and advise the operator you are on Cockatoo Island." I dread the day someone has to make use of this information. The 000 operator will most likely tell them they can't send an ambulance without the name of the nearest cross street.

We accept that working repetitive jobs means switching your brain off somewhat. For some it was never really switched on - I was saddened but not surprised to have my requests at McDonalds for a bag of apple slices met with repeated shakes of the head and mumblings of "sorry, what?" by the girl at the counter, until her manager translated that I was asking for a fruit bag (she couldn't have worked out that a bag of apple slices might be called a bag of apple slices because that's not what its called on the menu). It's annoying, a bit of a laugh, but no big deal.

But what happens when this mindlessness lurches from annoying to dangerous? The concern about 000 emergency phone operators is real. They must share the call script software with taxi companies, because as taxi travellers can tell you these days, a precise street address is the only thing a taxi dispatch operator will accept. It's no use asking for a taxi to, for example, the taxi rank outside Broadway shopping centre - not knowing the exact name of the street the taxi rank is on, we simply couldn't order one; nor could we when trying to order a taxi to a major intersection in Newcastle - Newcastle! - without a street number. It's the same for trying to order taxis to most major landmarks - if you don't know the address, with street number and nearest cross street, you're out of luck.

One could argue that it's the taxi hirer's responsibility to know the pick up address - leaving aside, for instance, the lone figure trying to get home late at night from an unfamiliar and unsafe neighbourhood - but what about when calling emergency 000? The phone operators at 000 show a worrisome and dangerous inability to dispatch emergency services without a precise street address. In late 2010 I was travelling on a bus when an elderly man fainted. It was school finishing time, so I was pretty much the only adult on the bus, apart from the driver who seemed frightened and unsure what to do, and I ended up being the one to call 000. The 000 operator refused to send an ambulance without knowing the exact street address and street number. Never mind that I said we're on the bus that's stopped outside a major, very well known Sydney RSL. She wanted the exact street address and I ended up having to send one of the kids on the bus up to the nearest corner to read the name off the street signs. It was, it is ridiculous. I'm out "in the field" with an unconscious elderly man, a bunch of schoolkids ranging from upset to overeager, and a bus driver who kept chanting "oh no, oh no". She is on a computer, in a call centre. Even if the computer system she's using requires an exact street address, couldn't she have just used Google? It's one thing if a caller gives a location of "we're a few miles past the red house...everyone locally knows it". But surely there should be some levity to locate major landmarks. Then there's the question of what happens if there is no street address. I've heard of one instance where the 000 operator indicated they couldn't dispatch emergency services because the caller couldn't provide a street address - and no wonder, as they were calling from a boat that was sinking off the NSW coast. Following the 2009 brawl between rival biker gangs at Sydney airport, a 000 operator demanded to know the street address of the domestic terminal - and told the astonished security guard calling to report the incident that he "needed to get down there are see what is going on before I can send someone" even though the guard informed the operator he was watching the whole thing on CCTV.

When dispatching help to an emergency situation, time is of the essence. The horrifying possibility is that people could die due to the inflexibility of the 000 reporting and location system, but at least one person already has. In 2006, 17 year old David Iredale died of dehydration after becoming lost whilst bushwalking in the Blue Mountains. He had repeatedly called 000 for help - only to be scolded by the 000 operator for failing to provide a street address and yelling due to poor reception. Recordings of the calls were played in the inquest into Mr Iredale's death; I can't even begin to imagine the pain of his parents, having to listen to the dying words of their son and knowing he was in contact with potential help, but it was stymied by bureaucracy, inflexible rules and pettiness. And four years later, nothing had changed when calling emergency services in NSW. During slow news cycles, the media loves to run stories about ridiculous and petty calls to 000, typically featuring callers who have burnt their dinner, have an ingrown toenail or are running late to a job interview and are out of phone credit. It's true that these time wasting callers are a huge problem. But so is the current system of reporting actual emergencies, and we hear nothing about it.

08 February 2012

The Breastfeeding Wars

Is there any aspect of parenthood which is as emotion-charged, divisive and angst ridden as breastfeeding? Just mention breastfeeding on any parenting forum and the responses pour in - often highly emotive. If someone publishes an article on the benefits of private schooling, no one replies "we can't afford to send our kids to private school, so you shouldn't print stuff like this; it is cruel and hurtful". But mention the benefits of breastfeeding, and the will be a barrage of such responses on how people desperately tried to breastfeed and were unable to, so it is unfair to write of the benefits of breastfeeding. Perhaps, perhaps. Given that 90% of Australian women at least make an attempt to breastfeed, maybe more information on the benefits of breastfeeding is not what we need to increase breastfeeding rates. What is the answer then? Do we need as a society to be more understanding of the idea that breastfeeding is not for everyone?

It seems like heresy to go against the pro-breastfeeding mantra of modern parenting. But - shock, horror - given my time over, I'm not sure I would breastfeed. The pressure I felt to breastfeed was intense. I started out with a great deal of optimism, but we had a bad latch, and things got more and more painful until eventually one nipple tore in half, the other was chapped and bleeding, and every feed felt like having a vice clamped over an open wound. Of course every feed means every hour or so whilst trying to establish breastfeeding with a newborn, and it got so that every time BabyG cried, I would cry and cringe too, knowing the pain was about to start again. It was so bad that I feel twinges of pain now every time I hear of someone trying to breastfeed their first, and I can barely remember most of the first weeks of my son's life - the pain has blacked out those memories. Even to write this now brings me to tears. But at no stage did someone say to me "you know, if this is all too hard, you don't have to do this". I wish someone had told me that I could give him formula, and he wouldn't be in any way deprived, and it would not make me a bad mother. But no one said it. All I got was pressure - from books, from medical staff, perceived from family, friends and society - to just push on. So I did, and eventually it got better.

We've been at it now for nearly six months, and I had every intention of reaching that magical twelve month mark. We'd worked so hard at it, I wasn't going to give in now. Until this week, when with an internal groan I thought of the pumping I would have to do to provide BabyG with milk for a baby-free day out DH and I have planned. Feeling resentful of the many hours I would spend attached to the breast pump in order to produce a couple of paltry feeds, this time a little voice inside piped up. "You know, if this is all too hard, you don't have to do it". The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Heck, sense - it was like being handed a getting out of jail free card. I've been kidding myself that I've been enjoying breastfeeding all these months. Due to my sensory issues, having BabyG attached to me all that time is pretty unpleasant for me - especially as he no longer feeds calmly, but twists, kicks, grabs handfuls of flesh in his tiny fists (and teeth are on their way). I can never take a night off whilst DH handles feeding duties. I would love to not have to stop at just one glass of wine. I would like to be able to go out for more than a few hours. And the tantalising idea of returning to work dangles like a nice juicy plum. I'm sure for some women all these issues can be handled with pumping and storing milk but I am not a very efficient pumper, and also, I hate it.

Do I have a "right" to stop feeding, though? I'm very well aware of the benefits of breastfeeding - it's why I persevered with it in the first place long after I realistically should have stopped. Can I quit now just because I don't much like it? Will BabyG get that much more benefit out of it, especially now we are moving on to solids? Is breastfeeding where it is physically possible a case of "my body, my choice", or is it just one of those things, like getting up in the middle of the night, which we all find pretty disagreeable but just have to do?

I'm not sure where to access practical help to do this. The pro-breastfeeding message is so strong I know I'd have to give lengthy justifications for wishing to wean before I can be judged worthy of doing so. How can I say I know all the benefits of breastfeeding but want to stop doing so anyway? The Australian Breastfeeding Association has for years been trying to increase breastfeeding rates by providing information on the health benefits of breastfeeding. Rates are not increasing, so they do more of what isn't working. It's serving to create a culture of guilt and resentment that may, in fact, create a backlash against the pro-breastfeeding camp. There are obviously other issues than the health of the child at stake. Of course BabyG's health is important to me. But we have made an enormous investment of time by choosing to breastfeed him, precluding me from returning to work for at least another several months if I continue. Who is to say he would not benefit more in the long term from the increased household income of my returning to work? As someone wiser than me pointed out, breastfeeding is only free if a woman's time is deemed worthless. Yes, it takes time to prepare formula, and yes babies do benefit from the one-on-one time. In an isolationist society, are we doing anyone any favours by telling new mothers that for the sake of their children, they must be physically bound to them for the first several months of life? Does that one on one time need to be with Mum?

I'm nothing unique, of course; there are many stories like mine, and I'm not sure where we should all go with them. If we keep going on like this we run the risk of a two-tier feeding hierarchy; the blessed breastfeeders and the shunned, rebellious refusers. It doesn't have to be this way. We need a new dialogue, one that understands there are many reasons a woman doesn't breastfeed, and it's not just because doesn't understand the benefits or hasn't tried hard enough. I understand, and I have tried. I have the greatest respect for long-term breastfeeders. But I am coming to realise I am not going to be one of them.

07 February 2012

The Beauty of Newcastle

 The figs may be gone, and have left a scar on the city, but anyone who says the only beautiful thing about Newcastle is gone is wrong. Newcastle may have a strange brutal industrial beauty, but it's still one that breaks my heart.



















03 February 2012

Screwing It For The Kids

As a society we have an unfortunate tendency to get all worked up over nothing - then elect them. People elect Coalition governments hoping they will make everything better, then act surprised that they act like Coalition governments. The conservative side of politics doesn't have human interest as their main concern; they never have. So far in their just over ten months in office in NSW, the O'Farrell government has failed to do much of anything. Sure they inherited a dysfunctional public transport system from Labor, but they really should have made some progress by now; things are getting worse, not better. The NSW economy continues to tank. And this week, they have been responsible for three acts of incompetence and heartlessness affecting vulnerable kids. First, children with disabilities were left without assisted transport to school after the government failed to reach an agreement on funding for the scheme. Then it looks likely that school support services for students with disabilites will be cut in a school funding overhaul.

All bad enough, but the Coalition have also proposed an act of breathtaking meanness even for them - threatening to cut financial support for the foster parents of children aged 16 and 17. The Coalition is insisting foster children negotiate with their carers over distribution of the Youth Allowance, whilst also denying FTB; leaving foster families $214 a fortnight worse off than families with legal guardinanship of their children. When we consider the role foster parents play in the lives of older teens in foster care, it is incredibly petty. One set of foster parents have bravely decided to stand on principle, calling the government's bluff and saying they will no longer care for their foster children once they reach the age of 16. It's a heartbreaking dilemma I'm sure they didn't want to have to face.

There are relatively few children over 16 in foster care, some 1100 - kids don't enter the DOCS system in NSW over the age of 16, and kids aged 14-15 who enter usually go to refuges not foster homes so kids that age in foster care have usually been with their families for years. Foster families who keep kids past age 16 do the community and these vulnerable kids an enormous service. The expectation seems to be that foster carers will just keep doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. I'm sure most want to, or wish they could, but they are entitled to financial recompense as well. Foster care for older teenagers actually results in huge savings to the community - either from one less young person needing a place in the overburdened youth refuge system or worse, ending up homeless, which has a huge financial and social cost upon us all.

I'm sure these people are not doing it to be spiteful, but to highlight this underreported problem in our society - older teenagers who require out of home care. The system is flawed and has gaping holes for vulnerable young people to fall into, the government should do everything they can to try to close the gaps.

01 February 2012

Figs Fury

The sorry saga of the Laman St  figs in Newcastle has been dragging on for years - Newcastle City Council wanted these beautiful trees, an iconic symbol of Newcastle and one of the few pretty places in the CBD, to be removed, as the story goes, in order to construct an underground carpark under Civic Park, so they rushed through a proposal to remove them based on flimsy evidence they were a danger to public safety. The many supporters of the trees, outraged such pointless environmental vandalism could take place, fought every step of the way. I was horrified by the idea - posting back in September 2010 about how beautiful the trees were, how much they meant to me, and how they must not be destroyed.

Laman St Newcastle, September 2010

Yesterday, though, it was all over. At 5am (breaking their own noise regulations), Council sent in the chainsaws, and despite furious protests apparently necessitating the presence of the riot squad, by the end of the day substantial portions of the trees had been removed. Laman St has been left scarred and ugly, but not nearly as ugly as the reaction to their removal. The comments section of the Newcastle Herald, along with threads on Facebook, was brimming with those triumphing over the loss of the trees. They could barely contain their malicious glee. "Chop chop! I'll be having drinks in the sun on Laman St tonight" crowed one idiot amongst hundreds of similar comments. "I'm sick of hearing about the figs" ran the refrain from people who felt the need to read and comment on every article about them. There were references to the waste of money - when the cheapest course of action would have been to leave the trees alone. Some claimed the trees were ugly - which begs the question of why they didn't stick to the thousands of streets in Newcastle without fig trees. To judge from the quality of written expression displayed, it's not like the chop-chop brigade frequent libraries or art galleries (they can't even work out no one has used axes to fell trees in many years). There was anger at the protesters for disregarding the wishes of a democratically elected council - although the figs were never an election issue; the last council elections were in 2008 and figs were not mentioned. By the same logic I hope those who want the trees down are big carbon tax supporters. Then there was the argument that the protesters should not be hindering the tree loppers and police "just trying to do their jobs".

Why is doing your job an excuse for anything? Many war crimes trials have proven that "I was just following orders" is no defence. Removing the trees is hardly on the level of a war crime, but if someone is doing something deeply wrong, in a free country we have a right to protest that. If the tree removalists had refused to cut down the trees, there would have been no problem; they didn't, they were happy to take the money to engage in this senseless vandalism; that behaviour deserves scorn not protection.   Ditto the police, who could have refused to protect the tree loppers. They didn't. No one deserves to be assaulted, but standing up for what's right should take precedence over just doing your job. The police and tree loppers did not have to be there. They chose to take money to destroy the trees. Why should that be respected? Would the people who say the loppers are just doing their jobs stand aside if DoCS came to take their kids - or even merely complain if a waiter messed up their order? They're "just doing their jobs", after all.

The media coverage was, I'm sad to say, highly biased, as we get to the nasty issue of the death threats. Several of the NCC councillors who voted in favour of the trees' removal reported receiving death threats - something I'm sure any decent person, and the vast majority of those who wanted the trees to stay, would abhor. But there were threats aplenty on Facebook threads of what the cop-chop brigade wanted to do to the protesters - mostly involving axes, chainsaws and teargas. The threats were pulled from Facebook as soon as they went up, but the nasty spirit remained. The act of protesting itself was decried - Australia seems to have little tolerance for anyone protesting anything; sadly we've become a nation of sit-at-home-and-whingers instead.

The most heartbreaking aspect of it all was the destruction of the spirit in which the trees were planted. I'm sure those calling for the trees'  removal would think of themselves as proud Australians who defend the ANZAC tradition. But the trees themselves were planted by ANZACS, returned WW1 veterans who intended them to be a living memorial to their lost brothers-in-arms. (Interesting blog post on this issue, including the original Newcastle Herald article, here). Why did we hear so little of this from the Herald today? Would it have tempered the schadenfreude of those who demanded the trees be gone? Or is even the desecration of a war memorial worth it to them for them to get their way?

Those who loved the trees wanted them to stay because they are beautiful, a home for wildlife, part of the city's heritage, a living war memorial, part of personal histories and no demonstrated threat to anyone. Those who wanted them gone wished to spite the people who wanted them to stay. So who is claiming the moral high ground here? The councillors and supporters who want the figs down wanted to make Laman St as heartless and ugly as they are, and congratulations, they are succeeding.

Laman St February 1, courtesy the Newcastle Herald