On Tuesday, on the radio, I heard broadcaster Phillip Adams giving a tribute to writer Christopher Hitchens who died in December. Adams commented casually that Hitchens had lost many friends over his pro-Iraq war stance.

Adams said it as if this is what we all know and expect: that friends will stop being your friend if they disagree with an opinion you hold.

Funny kind of friendship.

But perhaps Adams is right; maybe we now live in an age where we are so intolerant – or so fragile, so self-righteous – that it is easier to lose friends, or indeed colleagues or acquaintances, than agree to have people in our lives with whom we disagree.

I’m getting sick of it.

I was raised in a house where every dinnertime turned into an argument between the side of the family that was pro-American and the side that wasn’t. Then we all sat down and watched repeats of The Donna Reed Show before the kids got sent off to do their homework.

Arguing or debating seemed normal to me. It still does.

But, as Hitchens apparently found, the 21st century no longer seems to be a place where argument – or apparent disagreement – is tolerated.

Did the subject of boat arrivals and asylum seekers, for instance, come up during any of your holiday season gatherings? Talk about spontaneous combustion. One minute guests are talking across a table; the next someone is snatching up their coat and their partner and stomping out of the house.

Sometimes the partner stays.

Given how lucky this country is, and how safe most of us are, Australia should be the very model of a place where people can have sane, civilised back and forth discussions about refugees; arguments that canvass all the options and which even – whew – eventually lead to us towards innovative, good and humane solutions.

But no, the stomping-out is designed to stamp out debate. Paradoxically, the worst offenders are often the ones most adamant that, on the grounds of prosperity and decency,  Australia should accept all boat arrivals who turn up on our shores.

If they are so admirably tolerant of such difference, why can’t they be more tolerant of differing opinions?

As I said, I’m sick of it.

What concerns me is the effect of a small, highly vocal, self-righteous chunk of the population on our ability to have open-ended discussion of highly sensitive topics.

The subject of boat arrivals crystallises so perfectly a number of key issues – how we deal with people in need; inequity; kindness; tolerance; security – that the topic has been turned into a kind of short-hand. If someone says X, then, of course, that must mean they also believe Y. If someone even raises X, it must mean Y.

And if they believe Y, well … where’s my coat?

We can see this being played out publicly on the national conversation.

In mid-January, Parnell McGuinness wrote a thoughtful and sharp opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald which was titled: “Intellectual Substance Abuse”.


Her key point is that, in Australia, we confuse advocacy with public debate, “and the advocate with the public intellectual”.

She also argued that, “both the right and the left care about creating a healthier, happier, more prosperous society”.

That is, most of us are on the same side; we’re only arguing about the best way to achieve the same aims. In appealing to people to properly debate and listen to each other, she paraphrases Sartre: “Hell is other people’s ideas”.

Well, indeed, a truth that most of us learn, to our displeasure, when we are two. Then we, supposedly, get used to it if we are to become mature individuals who can function in a community.

In last Monday’s Australian, Aboriginal leader Warren Mundine was quoted on the doubts in some quarters around the expert panel’s series of recommendations on constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. In the face of such questions, Mundine noted:

It didn’t take too long before some members of the constitutional panel played the racist card. Their argument rests on the old ‘You’re racist if you don’t agree with me’ line. It makes me sick in the gut that genuine debate is being attacked in this way.

Feminist Melinda Tankard Reist, who is pro-life, is currently being burned at the stake after a recent Sunday Life article profiled her, and her views on pornography.

The story ignited psychotherapist Jenny Wilson who blogged about Tankard Reist’s supposed religious beliefs. Now it is all being played out in legal letters and extra raucous, rancorous comment as Wilson’s high profile supporters pour on the kerosene. Reist writes:

In the past week I have received so much e.hate I have had to disengage … It’s the Wild West. All the norms and expectations of civil discourse have gone.

I’ve met Tankard Reist a few times and even though it’s clear to both of us that she and I don’t agree on certain issues, we’ve always had a civil discussion and she has always been courteous.

Not so many of her critics.

This latest attack on her smacks of another pile-on by the anti-Christian brigade.

When things get this torrid and nasty, sensible people start thinking it’s best to pull in their heads and talk about the weather.

Gatherings where hosts are keen not to see their carefully planned evening turn into parties for baboons will obey the old rule about suitable topics: no politics, no religion.

Some, who prefer not to have to go through life wearing an asbestos suit, will think twice about speaking or writing publicly on such contentious issues.

And Australia will be far worse off.

But the hysterics will be as pleased as punch.


I’ve never been a bread and circuses type of girl. Given a choice between crowds ooohing and aaahing at spectaculars and staying at home with a book, a DVD and a glass of wine, I’ll usually take the latter.

We all have the right to make our choices.

But there is something about the fireworks fervour that grips Sydney at this time of year that makes me feel that choice is taken out of the equation.

Do I have a choice about the barriers that are stuck up around the Botanic Gardens and Mrs Macquarie’s Chair before New Year’s Eve to keep crowds in check?

Do I have a choice about the hundreds and thousands of people who turn up, making it impossible to get around the city?

Do I have a choice about the noise and the solemn notices put out about how to look after terrified pets?

And, crucially, do I have a choice about the millions of dollars spent by the Sydney City Council and various government departments and commercial sponsors on the fireworks? The New Year ones cost over $6 million. Tomorrow, Australia Day, there will be more fireworks over Cockle Bay.

Hello? No other city in the world does this.

The trouble is that Lord Mayor Clover Moore is definitely a bread and circuses kinda girl. She has been quoted saying that the NYE fireworks end up generating $156 million in revenue. I’d like to see the breakdown. After all, on that night, according to The Daily Telegraph, more than 2800 police were out on patrol, keeping an eye on things.

How much did that cost?

A City of Sydney press release boasts that “over a thousand accredited personnel” work on the night of the event.


And why fireworks?

So fleeting, so showy, so baby-ish.

Remember when visiting British author and psychologist Oliver James assessed Sydney so harshly that The Sydney Morning Herald asked afterwards: do we live in the world’s most vacuous city?

A friend with a background in tourism tells me that the fireworks are good, better than good, that 1.5 million people turn up to watch them and that Sydney is establishing itself around the world as the party destination.

It just seems a shame that that’s all we can offer. Even if I can bear the night, it’s the money being blown up over our harbour that makes me gag.

If Clover Moore is having difficulty working out how else she could spend $6.5 million of funds, there are plenty of on-line comments to guide her. Shelters and aid for the city’s homeless top the suggestions.

But the city could also become more ingenious. One woman writes, “I can’t get any financial assistance for my husband’s lifesaving chemotherapy treatment…”

Perhaps the Lord Mayor – if she’s still in the job next NYE given the proposed legislation to stop MPs also serving in local government – could run a competition for NYE 2012: “How can I best spend the millions that I would otherwise squander?”

Alternatively, what a brilliant bit of opening public relations such a competition could be for her replacement.

There could even be a second competition for us: how to have a really good NYE party at home.


We Sydney city pedestrians are inured to the shouted insults from cyclists if we ever remonstrate with them about charging down our footpaths or ignoring traffic lights. “Eff off!” is the usual reply.

The behaviour has now crossed the elements. Yesterday, in Cook and Phillip pool on Sydney’s College Street, I watched two young women slowly swimming side by side up and down one lap lane, chatting as they did so, and blocking anyone-else from using that lane. (It was the good one too: medium speed, any stroke.) After seven laps in the next-door lane (medium, freestyle only) out of a mix of curiosity, irritation and, yes, because I wanted to back-stroke, I stopped mid-pool and asked them, as they sailed by like two stately porpoises, why they weren’t swimming on the left like everybody else.

Were they embarrassed? Abashed?

Did they look around the pool and go: ohmigosh!

Nope, they were outraged.

The age of I’ll-do-anything-I-want-to-do-and-eff-you is well and truly here.


When humans behave badly, we can always turn to animals. I happily watched this twice after the swimming-pool episode.