The devil in the unrevealed detail of the ABC's Michelle Guthrie

Cautious early commentary on yesterday's restructure announcement from ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie has been broadly positive.

200 mostly middle management jobs are to go. The number of internal divisions will be cut from 14 to nine, and $50 million will be made available to boost video and digital content production in regional Australia.

With ABC and other 'legacy' media audiences in steady decline, nobody disputes the need for radical change in order to confront digital disruption from the likes of Netflix and Facebook. The question is whether Guthrie is going about it the right way, and as yet it's difficult to tell.

So far, she has been light on detail, and not very forthcoming when she has been asked to explain her decisions in forums such as Senate Estimates.

When challenged to justify the ending of shortwave broadcasts, all she had to say was that there had been only 15 complaints from members of the community. Some of her interlocutors were stunned by her lack of detail, and there is no doubt there will be pressure for her to be more forthcoming in the future.

But for now, we're being left to join the dots in what could be a deliberate strategy to facilitate a slash and burn approach to reforming the ABC. In other words, the wholesale removal of functioning infrastructure that has taken many years to establish and cannot practically be rebuilt should her plans turn out to be mistaken.

Yesterday's announcement included news that the ABC's international division will be absorbed into other divisions. Does this mean that the ABC is no longer interested in providing a service to listeners in the Pacific and PNG, which it has done for many generations through Radio Australia?

It appears it does, and that it's quite significant. It's the broadcasting equivalent of cancelling the most needed part of Australia's international aid to developing countries.

The ABC has just discontinued shortwave broadcasts to the region, ostensibly as part of the move towards distribution of content through the internet. But a report yesterday on the industry news website reveals that Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) has stepped into the void created by what is being depicted as Australia's abandonment of the Pacific and PNG region.

Radio New Zealand CEO Paul Thompson said: 'Remote parts of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu who may be feeling the loss of the ABC can rest assured RNZI will continue to provide independent, timely and accurate news, information and weather warnings as well as entertainment to its Pacific listeners.'

Radio New Zealand came to international shortwave broadcasting only in 1990, and its CEO is obviously proud to be able to help these nations at their hour of need. This begs the converse question of why Michelle Guthrie is not ashamed that the ABC has apparently disabled its ability to provide them with assistance and why it does not matter that the ABC will no longer have a separate international division.

The ABC withdrew its shortwave broadcasts at the beginning of this year as Radio New Zealand was reasserting the need for them. Metaphorically speaking, the two broadcasters are not on the same wave length.

The Radio New Zealand CEO claims that they broadcast timely cyclone and tsunami warnings via shortwave and can continue to be heard should local FM broadcasters go off-air due to a cyclone or other disaster.

We need to hear a counter claim from Michelle Guthrie that the warnings are not vital or that they can still somehow be accessed through the ABC's online services even while there is a power cut. Or that the welfare of these people in a crisis is not the ABC's or Australia's concern.

Messing with the Mass alienates Catholics who might return

In February, Eureka Street published an article titled 'Time to repeal "ugly" Mass translation'. It was written by Gerald O'Collins, an Australian Jesuit who has been one of the most recognised and respected theological voices in the English speaking Catholic world of the past 50 years.

He welcomes the news that Pope Francis has appointed a commission to revisit the Vatican document that shaped what he calls the 'ugly, Latinised translation foisted on English-speaking Catholics' by the 'clumsy, difficult' 2010 Missal.

The 2010 Missal that is currently in use replaced the accessible English of the 1969 translation. It opts for 'supplication' over 'prayer', 'wondrous' over 'wonderful', and 'oblation' over 'sacrifice' or 'offering'.

Such terms do not have currency in today's spoken English and I believe that their use in the liturgy amounts to a winding back of one of the major breakthroughs of Vatican II.

Gerald O'Collins is arguing in favour of instituting an 'incomparably better' translation from 1998 that was never used. But my view is different. I would prefer to see a reinstatement of the 1969 translation, largely for selfish reasons.

I accept his expert assessment that the 1998 is a better translation. But the 1969 is what my generation grew up with. And I am a member of what is arguably the most significant generation of Catholics that has been largely lost to the Catholic Church.

I say that not just out of baby boomer arrogance. I believe that, for various reasons, we are the ones who are the most likely of any generation to return to regular Mass attendance at this time. Yet the new translation - any new translation - alienates us as soon as we walk in the door and Mass begins.

Sometimes I even tell myself that it was intentional. We rejected the Sunday Mass obligation, so they don't want us back.

I know that's not true, but paranoia feeds my sense of alienation from the Church, as if it is a sect like the Exclusive Brethren, where you're either in or out. Cardinal Pell always criticised what he called the 'smorgasbord Catholics'. He was referring to those who wanted something from Catholicism but were not content with accepting all the teachings and rituals of the Catholic Church as a 'package deal'. That's me.

In common with many of my generation, I resented being forced to go to Mass as a child. It made me 'hate' the Mass. So I deal most effectively with my childhood trauma by choosing not to go to Mass as an adult. It's that simple.

In fact, often on a Sunday morning, I will pause briefly to give thanks to God that I have been mature enough to make an adult decision and not go to Mass. How perverse is that? The fact is that I cherish my self-given freedom from the Sunday obligation and it feels good.

The tragedy is that we all need public ritual in our lives, and the Catholic Church is the most powerful and significant source of ritual and community that is easily available to people like me. I do think about going to Mass. My local parish is blessed with one of the most gracious and creatively intelligent priests I know. But I know that the moment I enter that beautiful stone church, I will hit the brick wall of the unfamiliar Mass translation.

Choosing the pleasure principle over self-denial to lose weight

This morning I noticed an article on ‘mindful eating’ in the Australian edition of the Huffington Post. I was interested to compare the writer’s ideas with my own, which I set out in a list before visiting my nutritionist late last year.

My personal journey towards a right relationship with food goes back to primary school, when I was stigmatised as the fat boy in the class. Subsequently it became a life goal to reach normal weight. I was never obese, but over the next four decades I was mostly overweight, sometimes significantly.

I would tell myself that I was happy being moderately overweight. But I don’t think that was really the case. I wanted my weight to be ‘normal’.

I achieved my goal two years ago. The turning point was selling my car in 2012. I had felt the need to justify owning my car by using it. When I no longer had a car, I adjusted my life so that many of the services I routinely accessed were within walking distance.

Measurement was important. I got into the habit of weighing myself every day and set and achieved high step goals, which I monitored using the various electronic pedometers I owned.

My scales talk to the Fitbit app, and - as a matter of both pride and weight maintenance - I keep my eye on the graph in the app that tells me my weight is in the middle of the recommended range.

I was not preoccupied with diets or counting the calories of my food intake. But I would have very productive conversations with my nutritionist, who did not recommend crash or fad diets.

I have been keenly aware that most people who lose weight put it back on within a year. Not me. I set a new goal for myself, which was to develop a habit of what I called ‘mindful eating’.

That is something I worked out for myself. It includes spiritual and ethical dimensions as well as practical measures such as eating with small bowls. I didn’t realise until I read this morning’s Huffington Post that mindful eating is a concept talked about by the experts.

For me, the underlying principle is that it’s like meditation. Focus on the food rather than extraneous thoughts. Watching TV or doing another activity while eating is taboo. Even unchecked eating with others in a social situation works against mindfulness unless the conversation is about the food.

The Huffington Post writer Juliette Steen is familiar with what happens if you take your mind off your food: ‘You start eating a meal and look down a few minutes later to see an empty bowl, even though you don’t remember eating everything’.

I’ve often wondered why the French tend not to be overweight even though their diet includes many high calorie foods such as butter and goose fat. My theory is that they’re always talking and thinking about the food they’re consuming. Their eating is mindful.

The idea is that the pleasure of eating is maximised by the level of awareness, not the quantity on the plate. This is something the French know and Americans (and Australians) don’t. It’s also the basis of the ordered pleasure principle of the ethics of the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Clinical psychologist and author of Mindsight Dan Siegel says that in developing the capacity to label and describe our internal world, we become more nonjudgmental and develop a greater sense of equanimity.

As a means of dieting, and indeed regulating our intake of any of life’s pleasures, it beats self-denial. Indeed it makes us much nicer and more balanced human beings.

Helping the poor without a social work degree

I remember spending six weeks ‘helping the poor’ of Sydney’s eastern suburbs at the end of 1978. I was a Jesuit novice, and two of us were seconded to work with a small Australian order of nuns that specialised in providing nursing services and material assistance to those living on the margins.

Within the order there was tension between one of the younger nuns, who had a social work degree, and some of the older sisters, who believed such degrees were a distraction from the order’s core mission of providing aid.

The younger nun and her supporters argued that the order needed to adapt its mission towards lifting people out of poverty. What they'd always done - providing ongoing stopgap assistance - was keeping them marginalised.

In retrospect, I think they were getting into a discussion of liberation theology, which was then dividing the Catholic Church in Latin America in its efforts to make the church socially relevant.

The Sydney order was Our Lady’s Nurses for the Poor, also known as the Brown Sisters. The young nun in 1978 was questioning the teaching of the order’s founder Eileen O’Connor. O'Connor was reflecting the thinking of the time when she told her sisters in 1913: ‘The cause of a person’s poverty is not yours to question. The fact a person is poor is the reason you help’.

Last week I was reminded of this debate in the order when I read a report in Fairfax Media questioning the work of the 22 year old founders of the Orange Sky free mobile laundry and shower service for the homeless.

In January 2016, Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett were awarded joint Young Australians of the Year for their social entrepreneurship. But the Fairfax reporter set about putting their remarkable achievement into perspective by seeking comments from professionals in social work and related disciplines.

University of Queensland social work academic Cameron Parsell told Fairfax that services such as Orange Sky undermined people’s dignity when they were forced to shower and wash in public spaces, ‘particularly when we know that ending homelessness is possible and cost-effective’.

Parsell’s research showed it cost the taxpayer more to keep a person chronically homeless ($48,217 each) than to provide permanent housing ($35,117).

Meanwhile the acting chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, Kate Colvin, urged philanthropists and organisations such as Orange Sky to consider where to channel their energy and funding.

‘The reality is that ending homelessness starts with boosting affordable housing, not providing comfort measures,’ she said.

The professionals’ point was well made, even if it misses the point that Orange Sky’s core mission is to connect people. Orange Sky would say that many people with a roof over their head are lonely and do not feel spiritually and emotionally whole.

One of the young entrepreneurs - Nic – responded: ‘Lucas and I are two young blokes who are volunteers and by no means are we experts in the homelessness sector.’

It could be that their passion and experience makes these 22 year olds perfect candidates to enrol in social work degrees and become experts in the homelessness sector.

Selfishness as the new moral norm

Many people were relieved this week because President Trump finally gave a speech in which he tried to be nice rather than nasty.

I’m not relieved. It’s merely a change of tone in his behaviour and rhetoric. He’s not moving away from his ‘America First’ philosophy that makes a virtue out of selfishness.

The most unfortunate thing is that because he’s finally learning how to be presidential, he could end up a two term president rather than a ‘mistake’ one-term president.

We will have a generation of young Americans growing up thinking that it’s good to be selfish. Moral aspiration will be focused on keeping Americans safe rather than making the world a better place to live.

To this end, on Monday Trump signalled a $54 billion increase in defence spending and a corresponding decrease in foreign aid.

There is no question that Australia will follow America’s lead. Within a week of Trump taking office, Scott Morrison was uttering the phrase ‘Australia First’.

Yesterday – Ash Wednesday – was the beginning of the Project Compassion Lenten Appeal of Caritas Australia, the international aid and development agency of the Catholic Church.

I thought that the ‘Love Your Neighbour’ pitch of the giving campaign was sadly out of step with modern times.

Instead of ‘$10 a month during 2017 could provide 110 children in Cambodia with anti-malaria treatment and vaccines’, it could have been ‘$10 a month could power a border patrol vessel to prevent refugees entering Australian waters for one hour’.

Caritas Australia and other aid and development organisations such as Oxfam have always put a lot of their resources into education. Caritas has worked hand in hand with Catholic schools to teach young people to be good neighbours. That is why graduates of Catholic schools have often had a strong sense of social justice.

This is at odds with the Federal Government’s new emphasis on good citizenship that means putting Australia first at the expense of our neighbours.



My Muslim prayer cap

Somehow I get the daily email alerts from the Body and Soul website, which contain the Murdoch tabloids’ syndicated articles on personal wellbeing. Today’s headline – ‘Can you really catch up on lost sleep?’ – is relevant to me at this moment.

A day after returning to Sydney, my body clock is still on Malaysian time. The time difference is only three hours, but my body wants to go to sleep at 2:00 am rather than the usual 11:00 pm. Daylight wakes me hours before my body is ready. My Fitbit tells me I slept for only 6 hours and 4 minutes and I lack the energy and brainpower I need to face the day.

Re-entry into my own world in Sydney also requires a few cultural adjustments. The most interesting I’m facing is how to regard the beautiful knitted Muslim prayer cap that I have ended up with.

I bought it from the shop at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. It was intended as a gift for my friend at home, but he diplomatically rejected it because he has brown skin and said he feared being branded a Muslim and becoming an object of hate and fear in these troubled times.

My white skin makes it easier for me to wear the cap without attracting unwanted attention, so it’s more likely that I will feel comfortable wearing it.

As far as street wear in Newtown is concerned, exotic is the norm, so I’m fine on that score. But I need to go into it a bit more deeply to decide whether it’s really proper for me to wear it.

As a Catholic, I ask myself how I feel when I see people with a tattoo depicting the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

It is possible that the wearer of the tattoo is making a religious faith statement. But given the generation of most tattoo wearers, I would guess that it is unlikely that they are Catholics with a devotion to the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

Therefore I can conclude that they have appropriated an element of my religious culture to make their own statement of cultural identity.

Do I resent that, or am I flattered? Personally I am flattered because they are giving articles of my religion their own form of cultural validation. They probably don’t accept much Catholic doctrine (not that I accept it all). But they’re conferring on my faith a certain degree of coolness, and I like that.

I ask myself what kind of cultural statement I am making in wearing the Muslim prayer cap. I would say that it is, in equal measure, a love of the exotic, and a (hopefully not misplaced) wish to express solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters in these hostile times.

I look forward to wearing it in the street, in exotic Newtown and in the shopping centre of a seriously Muslim suburb such as Auburn, to test the vibe.

A view of the Royal Commission from the End of the World

Yesterday I caught a bus to the End of the World. It was not exactly how I usually imagine the end of the world. More heaven on earth than hell on earth.

It took the form of a large open air seafood restaurant named the End of the World. It was at Teluk Bahang, near a fishing village in the relatively remote north western corner of the island of Penang. The original restaurant has been destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and subsequently rebuilt and relocated to higher ground.

I selected my live red snapper from the fish tank and had it served to me steamed Hong Kong style, with garlic, ginger, light soy sauce and rice wine. But my thoughts turned to the hell on earth experience of the victims of child sexual abuse in Australia and the justice that could be around the corner for them.

As I enjoyed my snapper, five of Australia’s Catholic archbishops were fronting the Royal Commission in Sydney. I was thinking of the brief conversation I’d had with a friend in Sydney on Sunday, hours before my departure for Malaysia. My friend is a mental health professional who has counselled many victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

He was angry with Archbishop Fisher after reading a long interview with him in the previous week’s Sunday Telegraph. The thrust of the interview was contained in the archbishop’s description of the sexual abuse crisis as a ‘kick in the guts’ for the non-offending majority of good priests. The archbishop said they had felt ‘contaminated, betrayed and demoralised by the paedophiles in the church’.

My friend was dismayed that the archbishop appeared to have minimised the suffering of the victims.

Upon reading the interview, my reaction was to be stunned at Archbishop Fisher’s apparent discounting of an underlying reality I thought the Church was gradually coming to accept. That is the argument that child sexual abuse is primarily a product of the culture of the Church, rather than numbers of rogue priests and brothers. But his message in the interview was that the priests who had ‘given their all’ had been ‘tarred with this brush’ that belonged to those who had physically carried out the abuse.

I was surprised that the archbishop would say these things publicly, even if this is what he thought privately. It was as if he had not learned from the public outcry that followed his infamous advice to parents of victims (the Fosters) during World Youth Day 2008 when he suggested they should get over it and not ‘dwell crankily on old wounds’.

However when he was before the Royal Commission yesterday, Archbishop Fisher did describe the Church’s response to victims as ‘criminal negligence’. He admitted that allegations were covered up in the past to protect the Church’s reputation.

My hope is that the Catholic Church will emerge from the Royal Commission contrite and not triumphant. In the Sunday Telegraph interview, Archbishop Fisher was still expressing pride in the Church’s role in building the social welfare infrastructure of Australia through its schools for the poor, its orphanages and hospitals ‘where there were none’. To me, it appears the Church was unwittingly constructing breeding grounds for child abuse for which it must now take responsibility.

In my view, Vatican II’s vision of a ‘pilgrim church in need of redemption’ must be realised. The Church’s theologians could take the Church’s doctrine of ‘social sin’ as the basis for admitting that the whole Church, including the ‘good’ priests and laity, should take responsibility for the abuse.

My final thought is prompted by the archbishop’s admission of criminal negligence, and it may or may not be too far-fetched. It is that child sexual abuse is a crime against humanity, and on that basis it could be fitting to take the Australian Catholic Church to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in order to secure ultimate justice for victims.


Penang's city of museums

When I’m travelling, I always enjoy visits to museums. It’s true to say that I’m spoiled for choice here in Penang, as history is very much at the core of the identity of the locals.

The list includes the Penang 3D Trick Art Museum, two separate camera museums, the Made in Penang Interactive Museum, the new Colonial Penang Museum, the War Museum, Toy Museum, Sun Yat-sen Museum, Penang Islamic Museum, Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum, the iBox Museum of Glass, and more.

Some of them would have to be gimmicks to amuse tourists. Others would be intended for a niche clientele. Or perhaps they are just the private owners’ labour of love.

The restaurant I discovered by chance on Monday – ZhengHe - had its own museum and art gallery upstairs, and I found going upstairs for a visit a very satisfying after dinner activity.

The restaurant’s building is itself a very well maintained museum piece. It spans four interconnected shops that would have been built in the 19th century. The staircase I ascended was built without any nails with original merbau wood.

I met the owner, and he is obviously very proud of the museum and must spend a lot of money keeping it in such condition. It is a pity that I was the only diner, and it was empty the following night when I walked past, despite good reviews on TripAdvisor.

Yesterday I went to the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery, which was established in 1821 and houses many state treasures including furniture, jewellery and costumes.

It is supposed to be one of the best presented museums in the country, but it was weighted in favour of the stories of the elites and dominated by ‘old wares’ and tableau presentations. It just seemed ‘old’. Not the modern ‘interpretation centre’ style of museum that I find it easier to engage with.

Cultural heritage in living cities

Yesterday I was talking to a local retired civil servant who had come to take one of my fellow hotel guests sightseeing on the other side of the island. He now lives off his pension and enjoys doing part time work in hotels to keep himself occupied.

He told me that the grand 75 year old hotel he has been working in most recently is shutting down for good next week. The building is too big and neglected to be viable as a hotel without major investment.

He said there were no plans for the building but was confident that heritage laws would protect it from demolition. When I talked to him about my hotel – Hutton Lodge - he mentioned that there had been an attempt a few years ago to burn it down for the insurance windfall.

The hotel is one of George Town’s few remaining colonial style bungalows. Fortunately it has been restored and redecorated – simply - and is now quite profitable as budget accommodation. It has a breezy interior with original architectural features intact, and I would have no hesitation in staying here again if I returned to Penang.

Later, I was thinking about urban regeneration as I walked along Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian), which – like The Rocks in Sydney – is frequented mainly by tourists. It is very presentable, with even footpaths and restored and freshly painted buildings. The owner of the tiny café I visited said that nearly all his customers were tourists, whom he liked because they were polite and friendly.

At the end of Armenian Street is the office building of George Town World Heritage Incorporated, an advisory resource that employs professionals with backgrounds in fields including urban planning, architecture, conservation and heritage.

It is described as an independent company, although its Board of Directors is made up of government officials and politicians. Arguably that is how it should be. I would guess that the measure of their success will lie in how incorrupt they manage to be. There are exhibits on the ground floor depicting the types of architecture and methods of conservation.

Its focus is more on preservation than urban regeneration, but I was thinking that the two need to go hand in hand if the result is to be a living city rather than merely a tourist attraction or a museum.

I was reminded of an urban planning exhibition I visited when I was in Medellin, Colombia, in 2015. It was called ‘Piso Piloto. Medellin-Barcelona’ and was about renewing cities, specifically those two.

The focus was on public housing, including both architecture, art and design, and the social dimension in particular. They did not use the word ‘heritage’. But importantly, for me, they had integrated an aspect of regeneration and renovation of existing spaces.

In George Town, it seemed to me that it was all about preservation without a social dimension. That suggests that they need to work to ensure they do not end up with a large street museum rather than a living city that caters for the needs of its own population in addition to the desires of tourists.

Should Penang sanitise its past?

After taking an overnight flight from Sydney and transiting at Kuala Lumpur for four hours, I arrived in Penang at 8:00 am yesterday.

I told the bus driver that I wanted to go to Penang. He obviously gets it regularly from tourists, but laughed and was intent on correcting me. I was already in Penang – the name of the island - and headed for George Town, the island’s city that is Malaysia’s second largest and one of Southeast Asia’s most famous cultural and gastronomic hubs.

Within George Town, I am staying in a historic no frills bungalow hotel on the edge of the 108 hectare World Heritage zone, which was inscribed in 2008. UNESCO recognised the city for its 'unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia'. George Town contains one of the largest collections of pre-World War II buildings in Southeast Asia and is considered an architectural treasure.

That description leads me to expect the kind of picture perfect vistas that we associate with many urban precincts in Europe. But my first impression was that George Town is just as dilapidated and functional as Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City and many of the other Asian cities I’ve visited, complete with the odours of an inadequate sewerage system.

I enjoyed my day long ‘discovery walk’ along the broken and uneven and obstructed footpaths. There’s a lot to see, but what stood out for me was an attraction much less grand than most. It is the historic photographic display and memory collection point on the ground floor of the Star newspaper building.

In particular I liked the ‘What’s your Penang story?’ corner where visitors were invited to type a letter to share their experience of Penang. I don’t know how many people have actually typed their story, but I appreciate the symbolism of publicly holding up the value of listening to and recording people’s stories. Until they see a display like this, many people think that nobody wants to know about their past.

I’ve long been interested in ways of preserving the past, since I did my Applied History postgraduate degree at the UTS Sydney in the 1990s. Coincidentally, on Sunday I was talking to a member of an oral history collection group that had a stand at a fair in Newtown in Sydney. He is currently doing a postgrad degree in history at UTS.

Understandably Penang will want to capitalise on its World Heritage site status. I noticed many of the hundreds of restaurants in the city use heritage as a selling point. My photo depicts promotion of ‘Penang Tradisional Famouse Food’ and ‘Dessert Old Time Delight Shop’.

I like this. But I suspect that commercial reality will probably see the transformation of the heritage zone into a sanitised theme park so that tourists will visit in large numbers and generate renewed wealth for the city.

That will probably mean the creation of even footpaths and the elimination of sewerage odours. These enhancements will make for a more comfortable visitor experience, but I think it will also be a less authentic representation of Penang’s past.