Sports fans' idolatry makes monsters of heroes

The lives of many ordinary people are focused on sporting heroes, who act as their proxies. Although they do not know their idol personally, their devotion enables them to feel in some sense that they have themselves reached the hero's extremes of physical and mental endeavour. 

At its best, this delusion can have a positive social effect, in that it can make sports fans feel good about themselves, and infect their families and those around them with a positive outlook.

But essentially, many fantastic sporting achievements are just that. They are fantastic in the sense that what the hero has done is indeed great, but not well grounded in the reality of the give and take of human relationships and day to day activity in their lives.

The regrettable truth is that highly successful athletes are often deeply flawed human beings. Their success is frequently accompanied by a range of narcissistic and selfish behaviours that exploit and damage other people who are close to them in their personal and professional lives.

This appears to be the case with Oscar Pistorius, as it was with other sporting greats including Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and Shane Warne. Australia's badly behaved swimmers from the 2012 London Olympics could well join them in the future.

With regard to Armstrong, it's possible to argue that his bullying, intimidation and misrepresentation of those around him — which was designed to protect his clean image — was a greater wrong than his use of the performance-enhancing drugs.

The paradox is that the activities of successful athletes off the sporting field often include establishing or helping charities, which are dedicated to helping those who are less fortunate. But, whether intentional or not, these activities can work to conceal the truth about the athlete's flawed record in their treatment of fellow human beings, and they also reinforce the damaging myth of his or her super-human greatness.

In seeking to curb the excessive behaviour of sporting heroes, we can call for greater regulation and surveillance. But we can also examine our own behaviour.

We should not discount the role the blindness of our own idolatry can have in fuelling the arrogance and inflated sense of self worth of these people. It's one thing to praise them for the mental rigour that facilitates their single-minded pursuit of particular goals on the sporting field, but another for us to continue to support them when it's clear that they have brought this single-mindedness to their abuse of people off the sporting field.

Radical Benedict

Pope Benedict's resignation shocked the Church and the world. A papal resignation has not occurred in almost 600 years. Benedict did something that was considered 'not done'. It was not against the rules, but it has changed the institution of the Church. 

It makes him look like a radical in the tradition of Christian radicalism. Biblical commentators note that the term radical 'is derived from the Latin word radixmeaning 'root', referring to the need for perpetual re-orientation towards the root truths of Christian discipleship', and that 'one way Christians achieve this is to revisit the Sermon on the Mount or the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels'. 

Such re-orientation is informed by conscience. Accordingly, Benedict wrote in his statement last week: 'After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry ... In order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.'

The logic of what Benedict did implies that his successor could choose to overlook practices that are arguably no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the ministry of Jesus Christ in general, such as priestly celibacy. 

It is true that relaxing the celibacy requirement would involve revising laws in addition to overturning modern tradition. But Benedict has established the principle of the Pope 'examin[ing his] conscience before God', in order to promote the primacy of the exercise of the ministry for which the Church was founded. Accordingly, laws that fail to uphold primary principles can and should be changed.

The upshot of Benedict's resignation is that the Church has grounds for hope that did not exist a week ago. As the blogger Andrew Sullivan put it:

Those of us who have hung in must now pray for a new direction, a return to the spirit of the Second Council, a Pope of reform after an era of often irrational reaction and concealment of some of the worst evil imaginable. It can happen. Perhaps Benedict XVI finally grasped that. And finally did what he was never ever capable of doing before: let go and let God take over.

Moreover it would do no harm for the reverberations of Benedict's radical and conscientious action to be felt beyond the Church, inside institutions such as political parties and unions, where more attention is often given to particular rules and conventions than the purposes for which they were founded.

Philanthropy should be a condition of tax relief

Prime Minister Julia Gillard ruled it out last week, but there's no denying that the Federal Government would like to reduce tax concessions for the wealthy when they access their superannuation. Last year the concessions cost $30 billion in forgone revenue, and Treasuryestimates the figure will increase to $45 billion by 2015–16.

The concessions are designed to encourage more Australians to fund their own retirement, and not burden the public purse by taking the age pension. But in reality, it would be much more cost effective to remove the means test from the age pension and have the rich receive the same $712 per fortnight as the poor. 

Australia Institute research fellow David Richardson saysthat in his last six budgets, former treasurer Peter Costello took the cost of super tax concessions from 1.3 per cent of GDP to 3.3 per cent. Meanwhile, the cost of the age pension was at just over 2 per cent of GDP. In 2009, the Australia Institute produced a report titledThe great superannuation tax concession rort, which showed how the concessions redistribute scarce resources away from low-income earners towards the secure and privileged well-off. 

The scarce resources are required to fund important but expensive projects such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will improve the lives of countless needy Australians. By contrast, the concessions secure the sometimes obscene lifestyles of wealthy Australians, who believe they are entitled to tax relief.

Business Council of Australia president Tony Shepherd told a round table meeting last Thursday: 'Philosophically, I object to the term 'concessions' ... We go to work, we get paid. The money is ours.'

Shepherd speaks on behalf of a section of the population whose members have often worked hard to get where they are. They feel it is unfair that they are expected to share their reward with those who may not have worked as hard, or been as lucky in the lottery of life.

Such an attitude belongs more to the USA, the land of the self-made man, and not to the Commonwealth of Australia, where we have always been more mindful of the common good. 

But it has to be noted that respectable self-made men in the US give generously to their favourite charities and foundations. In Australia, respectable citizens pay their taxes, and welfare and other public needs tend to be government funded. Philanthropy has never taken root. This was confirmed in an Australian Council for Educational Research survey reported in the media today.

The case for tax concessions for wealthy Australians would be more convincing if there was evidence of large-scale philanthropy here. If philanthropists funded welfare and other public service organisations, governments would not need to raise taxes for this purpose. If wealthy Australians would like tax relief, they should think about emulating the self-made men of the USA.

Tax justice for unpaid carers

r community with disability, chronic illness or frailty due to old age. There is no 'tax justice' for these families, according to the Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

'The failure of our superannuation and taxation systems, alone, to recognise this contribution and provide a value for this unpaid work means that carers — mostly women — who have had long and repeated absences from paid employment, find they have negligible retirement savings and indeed, often retire in poverty.'

Unpaid carers include both parents and guardians of children as well as those who care for a family member or friend with disability, chronic illness or frailty due to older age. The first group are better provided for, although grandparents who spend many hours providing free childcare may beg to differ. It is the carers of those with lifelong chronic conditions who find themselves working as virtual slaves.

As the report points out, they lack the ability to provide for their own old age, when they may not be fortunate enough to have a family member to care for them. In addition, their activity does not fulfil the Catholic 'moral obligation to link industriousness as a virtue with the social order of work, which will enable man to become, in work, "more a human being" and not be degraded by it'.

The report's recommendations include legislation to assist unpaid carers with mechanisms like carer assessments to determine their support needs, and carer cards securing access to services and entitlements which would allow them to participate in society on a more equal footing. There is also a call for reform to the current system of retirement income and savings, including the age pension and superannuation that is currently tied to paid work.

It is disingenuous to talk about 'tax justice for families', or to be providing a school kids bonus that does not require accountability, without also seeking to provide for those whose support needs fall outside established assistance mechanisms. It's time that voters showed signs that they are prepared to reward genuine leaders more than those whose handouts are politically calculated.

Not judging Ned Kelly and Lance Armstrong

At lunchtime on Friday, Ned Kelly’s Requiem Mass was finally celebrated in St Patrick’s Church, Wangaratta, in north-eastern Victoria. The bushranger was sentenced to death by hanging in 1880 and denied the religious rites he requested. His bones were recently rediscovered and identified, and his family has been able to organise a belated funeral and reburial.

On Friday, commentators and bloggers took the opportunity to pass judgment on Kelly. One called him a ‘psychotic and dangerous’ criminal ‘with a pathological hatred of the police’. Another deplored the ‘dishonest folklore and revisionism’ that has made him a hero for many Australians.

But they missed the point, as did members of the public who directed abusive phone calls and emails to Monsignor John White, who presided at the Requiem Mass on Friday.

White explained: ‘The life that Ned lived is not the point today... We have a church of saints and sinners and we are not here to say which category Ned fell into.’

Coinciding with Ned Kelly’s Requiem Mass on Friday was quite a different ritual, the broadcast of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with cyclist and now self-confessed drug cheat Lance Armstrong. The interview was seen by many as a calculated bid on the part of Armstrong to harness the positive power of Winfrey’s brand to induce public judgment that he is morally fit to resume his sporting career.

But like the Ned Kelly requiem, judgment should not be the point here either, however self-serving Armstrong's own agenda may have been in doing the interview with Winfrey. It doesn't serve any useful purpose to dwell on whether we think Armstrong should be condemned or excused. If we're interested in the common good, we will instead be discussing how drug policy can be changed to ensure there is a level playing field for cycling and sport in general.

As ethicist Julian Savulescu put it in the Fairfax press on Saturday: ‘Rather than excoriating Armstrong, wouldn't it be better to ask why everyone is cheating, and why the rules are failing?’ Savulescu does not share the Catholic religious world view of Monsignor White, but they are both urging us to look at the big picture. 

Ned Kelly killed three policemen, and that was a serious crime. But a reading of his Jerilderie Letter manifesto suggests his actions were a symptom of a system of British colonial rule that was stacked against Irish Catholics. In the same way, Armstrong’s behaviour is a product of what Savulescu calls an ‘ideology’ of zero-tolerance against performance enhancing drugs in sport, which he argues should be examined. Armstrong’s deplorable treatment of informers such as his former aide Emma O’Reilly is comparable with the way Kelly dealt with those who informed on him. 

There are arguments to both condemn both Kelly and Armstrong as psychotic criminals, but also to recognise their achievement as trailblazing reformers, though Armstrong is still a work in progress. However judgment of whether they are right or wrong is best left to their own soul-searching, when they face their God or ultimate reality. As the agnostic Armstrong has said: ‘If there was indeed some body or presence standing there to judge me, I hope I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life’.

A true life or a deceitful life might be inspiring, or discouraging, for us to think about, depending upon how we view the behaviour of the individual concerned. But it is not something we can know unless we are Ned Kelly's God or Lance Armstrong's body or presence. The business of the rest of us is to consider how best to reform the rules by which we live our lives, and play our games, in a civil society.

Coal mining, civil disobedience and the public good

Commentators were outraged by activist Jonathan Moylan's fake media release that caused disruption to the stock market last week. But there was little concern about the the impact of coal mining on people's health and the climate, the issue that prompted what was called his act of civil disobedience. 

Decades ago, industry and government were slow to listen to the message of activists about the dangers of asbestos, and we are now paying the price. The effect of coal mining on the health of local communities is probably far less significant, but nevertheless overseas evidence suggests it could be serious and far-reaching. 

The Beyond Zero Emissions 2012 study Health and Social Harms of Coal Mining in Local Communities points to evidence of elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas in the US. The authors stress the need to research the health effects of coal mining in the Hunter Valley and other regions. But instead governments appear to be granting mining licences indiscriminately and offering favourable treatment to the coal industry.

The study cites offshore evidence of excess deaths from lung cancer and chronic heart, respiratory and kidney disease related to living near coal mines. Its authors detail major expansion that is underway or planned in our coal mining industry, but point out that there is a 'glaring absence of local evidence to determine what impacts these projects will have on the health of surrounding communities'.

It seems governments do not want to know about the long-term health impacts of coal mining. Coal mining's short-term economic benefit is more attractive politically, and there is also strong lobbying from industry groups and others. Rod Campbell of the public interest advocacy group Economists at Largesuggests government actions go beyond cavalier and are more underhand. i

The Maules Creek community on whose behalf Moylan was acting approached Campbell's group to help make sense of the 2000 page environmental impact statement that was delivered just days before Christmas with only weeks to respond. He writes: 'Our assessment of the review is scathing. Gillespie Economics has overlooked the foreign ownership of the project and presented profits to overseas interests as benefits to the NSW community.' 

Moylan did the wrong thing in undermining public confidence in the share trading system, which in turn underpins the stability of our economy. His actions were fraudulent and supporting them would amount to affirming anarchy and rejecting the rule of law, even if governments and the coal industry don't appear to be acting with integrity and in the public interest.

He was, as he told the ABC, only making 'the announcement that ANZ should have made, that it wasn't going to be investing unethically' in Whitehaven's Maules Creek Coal Project. 

The media and the vulnerable in 2012

oking at our archive, I discovered this was a constant throughout the year.

Still current is the fallout of actions of 2DAY FM employees who appeared to have prompted the death of nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who was vulnerable to suicide. Also recent is the criticism that, while the media were empowering church sexual abuse victims by telling their stories, the victims and their stories were providing fodder for one of the year's biggest media events, so that media outlets were in effect capitalising on lives broken by the church. Earlier the BBC was exposed for suppressing coverage of the exploitative behaviour of one of its own, Jimmy Savile.

Back in January, we were reflecting on the film The Iron Lady,and Meryl Streep's determination not to make a plaything of Margaret Thatcher. Instead she would continue her own lifelong effort as an actor to 'defend the humanity of people that we've made into emblematic figures of one sort or another'. 

Also in January, we used Pope Benedict XVI's idea of a communications 'eco-system' to mute the shrill 'Stop the boats!' political rhetoric in order to allow space for a hearing of the hope and fears of both asylum seekers and the Australian people. The Pope had urged a balance between silence, words, images and sounds, which is more likely to give voice to the poor than cacophonic social and mass media. 

Another comment observed that the iconoclastic tone of much TV comedy 'lacks the values and moral centre needed to counter xenophobia' exists in the community. The same could be said for violent video games, but there was also the view that they are easily demonised when proper funding for mental health services is also needed. Another form of media was threatening to exploit vulnerable people — online gaming and betting apps.

In March, and again in November, Sydney University's St John's College was in the news, and the media made a meal of accounts of students having to submit to humiliating rituals to gain the acceptance of student elders. 

In May we used the term 'Big Media' to suggest that large media corporations are just like 'Big Tobacco' in their relentless exploitation of captive small people for the end of shareholder profit, but that the National Broadband Network might provide diversity if the government followed recommendations from its Convergence Review rather than the wishes of the large media owners, as successive governments have for many years.

Some things never change, but we live in hope that they will, and that we will all live in a better world as a result. That is our hope for 2013.

Royal Prank blood is on everybody's hands

The weekend's media was dominated by the tragic turn of events in the 2DAY FM royal prank media saga. The 46-year-old British hospital nurse and mother of two who took the prank call was found dead after her apparent suicide.

As the culmination of such a moment of unspeakable sadness, the behaviour of the social and mass media lynch mob was no less shocking and shameful than that of the 2DAY FM 'shock jocks' themselves.

The proliferation of ill-considered opinion is an unfortunate consequence of the advancement of media technology in the 21st century. Comparatively lengthy production processes of the past had a moderating effect on intemperate opinion and its consequences.

In the context of the fast-moving royal prank crisis of the last few days, it would indeed be tragic if shame provoked the shock jocks to follow the lead of the nurse, in line with a fear expressed by beyondblue chairman Jeff Kennett.

While 2DAY FM has a very poor track record in reining in the excesses of its presenters, the station and its shamed employees are not entirely to blame. All parties bear responsibility, including the hospital itself, whose chief executive declared in his measured statement of defence: 'Our nurses are caring, professional people trained to look after patients, not to cope with journalistic trickery of this sort.' 

But why not? It would seem that, in the modern world, accepting royal patients and being vulnerable to media trickery go hand in hand for such an institution. It is surely irresponsible for the hospital not to train its staff to cope with journalistic trickery, and it follows that its CEO is partly to blame when his fails in such preparations and there are tragic consequences.

Trickery and magic has always been integral to the world of entertainment, which often contributes to the healing and wellbeing of those suffering ill-health as much as the care provided by some hospitals. This is perhaps what was on the mind of Prince Charles when he initially joked about the prank with reporters. Indeed professional jesters have always contributed to the good spirits of royal families.

That is one line of argument that is no more far fetched than suggestions that the presenters should have known that the nurse was vulnerable to self-harm and directed their trickery elsewhere. The point is that everybody is to blame and nobody is to blame. In some sense it is a variation on the theme of social sin, which Sandie Cornish wrote about in Eureka Streetlast week. 

When tragedy occurs, the best and only response is to let cool heads prevail, and take Prince Charles' approach to the fanatics of social and other media, allowing space for a sense of community perspective to emerge. NSW premier Barry O'Farrell went further with his simple but empathetic words surmising that the shock jocks must be feeling 'terrible'. 

'I think there are some people today who are suffering, not just the family of the nurse but those who in some way were involved with what appears to be the trigger for this tragedy.'

Pro-business governments reversing Eureka Stockade achievement

Today is the 158th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade rebellion, in which around 500 miners rose against British colonial authority on the goldfields at Ballarat. It is often described as the birth of Australian democracy and the 'fair go'.

Peter Fitzsimons, who revisits the event in his new book The Unfinished Revolution, explains the cause as resentment towards the government, which was granting wealthy squatters use of large tracts of land for a pittance — 3000 acres for £10 — while the often dirt poor miners were having to pay 30 shillings to lease their 64 square feet mining plots. 

The squatters controlled the government and the miners had no influence. The former built large pastoral empires and became very wealthy. In 1839, a group got together to establish the Melbourne Club, which still exists as a meeting place for Australia's richest and most powerful men. Like James Packer. 

Packer has successfully lobbied the NSW Government to back his proposal for a $1 billion casino and hotel complex at Barangaroo, on the edge of Sydney Harbour, with no competitive tender. It fits the Government's Unsolicited Proposals policy, and has bipartisan support. 

Packer responded: 'I'm incredibly grateful to the Labor Party for not playing party politics and I'm incredibly grateful to Premier O'Farrell and the Liberal Party for doing what it has done.' He also has wide supportfrom other influential politicians and business people who possibly believe they can benefit from his investment's boost to the tourism sector.

But other voices including commentator Mike Carlton and former premier Kristina Keneally are concerned that ordinary people have been cut out. Carlton said: 'Barangaroo is public space, owned by the people of this state, who are entitled to the final say in what happens there. Yet before a sod has been turned, the normal checks and balances have been tossed overboard.'

The NSW Government website says the Unsolicited Proposals policy's 'key objective is to provide consistency and certainty to private sector participants'. Private sector investment is an easy option for governments around the country that face the challenge of having to catch up on decades of underinvestment in public infrastructure. 

Packer is funding much of the transformation of the industrial wasteland into a thriving modern urban hub. But in the end, it will belong to him and not the people, and its management will be geared towards increasing his personal wealth and influence, and not the common good. It amounts to a reversal of the enfranchisement of the people which was the achievement of the Eureka Stockade. 

Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks called Eureka 'a catalyst for the rapid evolution of democratic government in this country' and 'a national symbol of the right of the people to have a say in how they are governed'.

'No advantage' policy more harmful than leaky boats

The Federal Government is using its imagination and casting around for further ways to be cruel to asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas. Fairfax reported on Friday that the Immigration Department has invited church groups to suggest measures that would make the lives of asylum seekers more difficult, as part of its 'no advantage' policy.

The policy is the most politically palatable of the measures recommended by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers when it handed down its report in August. It promotes disincentives that will cause asylum seekers to decide against taking 'irregular maritime voyages', by ensuring that they gain 'no benefit by choosing not to seek protection through established mechanisms'.

Last week, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced conditions under which asylum seekers will be released into the community. These include a living allowance that is less than the dole and a ban on working for five years, even after they have been granted asylum.

The Sisters of St Joseph are one of the religious groups working with asylum seekers in the community. Their leader Sr Anne Derwin says life is already difficult for asylum seekers living in the community.

'No work rights, extremely limited available housing, language and cultural difficulties and an allowance of $219.20 a week without any concessions, means that quality of life is almost impossible without generous community support. Now the bridging visas with the constant threat of offshore transfer will exacerbate the distress already being felt by these most vulnerable people who seek only safety and a fair go.'

As part of getting its 'no advantage' deterrence message to potential asylum seekers in their countries of origin, the Government would have to be encouraging international media coverage of the extent of the cruelty. One wonders whether that includes when an asylum seeker commits suicide, which is the logical consequence of this policy for some people.

The fact is that if you treat people harshly, you will diminish them as human beings, and they will cease to value their own lives. Already they are prohibited from working. They will have difficulty sustaining relationships and it is unlikely they will feel that they can make a positive contribution to society, perhaps ever. This undermines the justification for the initial harsh treatment. 

One of the stated reason for the 'no advantage' policy is that dangerous maritime voyages put the asylum seekers' lives at risk, but surely no more than the 'no advantage' policy itself.