I once heard that if the majority can’t, won’t or doesn’t speak up, it soon becomes the minority. I couldn’t help thinking of that again as I surveyed what is exciting voters today and influencing our politicians.

Before I even get on to the children on Nauru in detention – an issue that helped decide the Wentworth by-election – what about the notion that Tasmania could soon become the first state to remove the sex of a child from birth certificates.

This is a move aimed at relieving transgender people of the shame or difficulty of having one sex on that certificate while presenting as another sex.

But the ramifications, of course, are huge, and it doesn’t matter that supporters of the proposed bill, that will go before Tasmania’s lower house next month, in November, insist that hospital records will still show what sex the child is when born.

That’s a fig leaf.

This is a calculated attack on the realities of biology and on a key foundation of our society and all its institutions. If passed, there will be agitation in other Australian states and territories for similar bills.

In fact, South Australia already allows transgender people to alter their sex on their birth certificate without having had sexual reassignment surgery. That legislation went through their upper house in December, 2016. (Victoria knocked back a similar bill around the same time but, in 2014, the Australian Capital Territory also removed the need for sex change surgery before altering the sex on a birth certificate.)

You can see where all this is heading, can’t you? The push for gender neutral language and for the removal of the pronouns “he” and “she” which has surfaced over the past year should have put us all on alert.

Again, using “gender neutral” language to preserve the feelings of transgender people as well as the people who now identify as something other than male or female – depending on what report you read, there are now between 22 and 71 varieties to choose from – involves massive changes throughout the community, from how our schools, universities and prisons operate, to how you may be greeted by a Qantas staffer.

So, given the upheavals and costs and the potential for frustrations and misunderstandings, how many transgender people do you think there are in Australia? From all the noise about transgender issues, and the attention given to them, I sometimes wildly think it must be 50 per cent. But realistically, what do we think? Ten per cent? Five per cent? Three per cent?

Less than one per cent according to reliable research.

In the United States, where these intense pressures are also being felt, the figure for people who identify as transgender, according to various studies and interpretations which take into account all the nuances involved in collecting such data, is about 0.6 percent.

That’s according to a study conducted by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles and published mid-2016. In a detailed  and intriguing paper, “Size of the Transgender Population and Why It Matters”, by a Canadian pastor, Paul Dirks, who has made himself an expert on sex and gender literature and data, the figures from this research and other studies were dissected.

Dirks extrapolated, applying the figures across Western society, and he took issue with the transgender lobby which claims much higher figures. As he writes: “Size equals strength.”

He also socked The Guardian Australia for repeating such figures – four per cent, provided as an estimate to its reporter by Safe Schools – even though the story did mention critics saying that number was inflated.

For Dirks, what mattered was that an unreliable figure was quoted at all with no mention of the far lower figure from the evidence-based Williams study.

And these low numbers are the real point of this item.

How have we got to the stage where the demands of the few now get so much attention?

How is it that problems that are relatively small in comparison with the skyscraper threats looming over us on all sides – economic uncertainty, population growth and moves, nuclear threats, war, poverty, inequity, the potential for unchecked technological advances to take the world backwards – now get so much attention?

By all means, let us make sure that everyone – whatever sex they identify as – is free from bullying, prejudice and any kind of discrimination – and let’s fight for that. But do we really need to make such extensive changes to society to achieve that?

I feel the same way about other issues that now dominate the news and public conversation.

Peta Credlin, on Speers on Sunday on Sky, last Sunday week, pointed out that the key issues for voters in the Wentworth by-election were the ABC (presumably, its safe funding and future), climate change and getting the refugees, including the then 52 children, off Nauru.

Phelps had said the same day that relocating those children would be her “first order of business”.

As Credlin dryly went on to say on Speers, these would not be top of the list issues in the bread and butter electorates.

That is not to say these issues aren’t important, and the plight of the children on Nauru, where they are kept in detention along with their families, is heart-rending. It’s good to see action being taken.

But how is it that those children can help decide a crucial by-election – and become poster-kids for thousands of demonstrators protesting against our offshore detention centres – but continuing reports, since 2016, that close to three-quarters of a million Australian children live in poverty are mostly met with crickets?

When did we become so narrowly focussed? When did we start losing the capacity to unite over the big issues that are affecting us right now and will affect our future? More importantly, when did we become such suckers for skilful lobbyists who know how to whip up what can end up looking like a kind of collective mania?

The same applies to climate change. Yes, we need, as global citizens, to do something about it and to keep working out the best scientific, technological and behavioural ways to achieve that. But why has such a chunk of the Australian population decided the only way we can do that is by drastically reducing our reliance on coal-fired electricity and fossil fuels, thus crippling our businesses, in an already tough market, with rising energy costs and loading households with soaring energy bills?

One of the best recent articles on the facts about Australia and emissions reduction was published last Wednesday in The Australian. It was by Nationals senator for NSW, John Williams who, before entering the Australian parliament, had run a mixed farm for 21 years and then a farm supplies business. In his biography online, he states proudly that he lives in rural Australia. (He also crossed the floor on various occasions to vote against the Government in his support of a Royal Commission into banking.)

The article was short, incisive, and effectively ripped apart the emperor’s-new-clothes frenzy that has taken over our energy debate.

Williams pointed out that with Chinese coal-fired power generating plants emitting 4271 million tonnes of CO2 annually, and with another 130 plants under construction – that 130 alone “will produce more CO2 than Australia produces” – we are kidding ourselves, and duping many, if we think our own actions will change the world. We produce 128 million tonnes of CO2 a year, Williams reminds readers. We are responsible for 1.3 per cent of the world’s emissions.

And, as Williams also points out, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has already told Senate estimates that reducing carbon emissions by that much will have negligible effect on the world’s climate. “But,” Williams continues, “we all know it will have an impact on our economy, our standard of living and the way we do business.”

Do we think our virtue-signalling efforts will somehow impress the major emitters – the United States, Russia, India, China – and shame them into making huge changes to their own use of coal-fired power or fossil fuels and in that way, we will save the planet?

Just as with the issue of the Nauru children and transgender rights, do we think that by yapping about this particular solution for global climate change we somehow present as better, more moral people?

We can’t blame the politicians who have campaigned on these issues to win votes. I’m pretty sure they’d far rather be getting on with the business of running the country using a big picture lens and protecting our future.

(And the new member for Wentworth, Kerryn Phelps, who I don’t doubt cares hugely about the children and adult refugees on Nauru, also has a sterling record when it comes to caring about neglected children here. She and partner Jackie Stricker adopted one child who was at severe risk – Gabi is now a happy teenager – and have campaigned impressively since for easier legal adoption of such Australian kids.)

No, it’s something about us at the moment – and the rise of identity politics – that is taking these issues and turning them into government-changing, headline-winning agendas.

Meanwhile, we don’t seem too interested in hunting out solutions to these problems that are less pat and far more complex but which will work better in the long run. Williams, for instance, makes the case for soil carbon capture as a solution to climate change: “Do this [balance magnesium and calcium levels in agricultural soil] over our 450 million hectares of land, increasing the soil carbon by 3 per cent, and that will neutralise our emissions by 100 per cent for ­almost a century.”

Californian research from 2016 questions how quickly soil carbon capture does actually work but let’s keep digging and researching and experimenting with other solutions that will have less paralyzing effects on our economy. Along the way, we can discover other beneficial side effects too, as this article points out.

It depresses me unutterably that I have no solid explanation to offer as to why so many in the Australian electorate have turned into lemmings.

It also bothers me that each of these issues, and, especially, the solutions suggested, eat away at the fundamentals of our society, one based on the truths, discoveries, freedoms, cautions and breakthroughs achieved by western civilisation at its best.

At least I’m not alone in my worry. In his latest book, Identity, Francis Fukuyama writes that the rise of identity politics is one of the chief threats modern liberal democracies face.

He writes, “Unless we can work our way back to more universal understandings of human dignity, we will doom ourselves to continuing conflict.”

Many people, who do see the bigger picture and are worried about these agendas, now keep their mouths shut in public – and I mean, by that, even daring to have a vigorous debate across a dinner table – for fear of being bullied or ridiculed.

Just remember how this item opened: if the majority doesn’t speak up, it soon becomes the minority.



 In late September, listening to Andrew Ford’s Music Show on ABC Radio National, I was tipped off about a free performance of The Diggers’ Requiem in Sydney at the Pitt Street Uniting Church.

As that’s only a hop, step and a jump from my home, I went along, and was knocked out by the ambition and emotion of the work, its terrible beauty. It’s actually 12 movements, each signifying another major battle – from Fromelles to Passchendaele – fought by Australians on the Western Front.

As I listened in the darkened church to the music and choir, paintings and illustrations from the War Memorial’s collection were screened, deepening the mood of the event and making it all the more poignant.

The Diggers’ Requiem opens with the Dead March from Handel’s oratorio Saul and continues with compositions by local contemporary composers like Elena Kats-Chernin, Nigel Westlake and Richard Mills and including the last work of Frederick Septimus Kelly, The Somme Lament. He was killed on the Somme two weeks later, in November 1916.

The Diggers’ Requiem was commissioned by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Australian War Memorial and its producer/director was Christopher Latham who is also director of The Flowers of War project which aims to celebrate and highlight the music – and other artforms – created by those serving during World War I and which may have been since overlooked or forgotten.

That evening in Sydney, I learned, was just a preview in miniature to the event proper which was held on October 6 at Llewellyn Hall at the Australian National University, with the AWM orchestra and choir and members of the band of the Royal Military College Duntroon.

I told a close Canberra-based friend that if she were free on the 6th, she and her husband should go. She did and emailed to say she’d loved it, she thought there was a sell-out crowd and, at the end, there was a standing ovation. “Desperately sad,” she wrote, “but also stirring.”

She and I had recently visited the AWM together on a Sunday and wept through that day’s Last Post Ceremony, an initiative of AWM director Dr Brendan Nelson.

The war memorial’s orchestra and choir, Christopher Latham’s idea, started during Nelson’s tenure as well. The former federal politician and onetime Liberal Party leader, who was appointed to the memorial in late 2012, had no experience in running a cultural institution but under him, this much loved building has become even richer.

It tells stories of courage, valour, sacrifice, love, bravery and comradeship. It is impossible to walk around the dioramas and think that this memorial celebrates war. What it does is honour the best of the human spirit, while marking – tragically – the price of our follies.

It is wonderful and refreshing to see an organisation so well run, and with such vigour and imagination

Nelson’s original five year appointment was extended in late 2017 to May 2019. There is nothing in the legislation, according to the AWM, to say it can’t be extended again. So here’s a suggestion.

Consider the ugly fallout at the top of the ABC in late September. Korn Ferry, executive researchers, have now been hired by the Government to find a new ABC chair.  Meanwhile, the banking and finance industry royal commission isn’t doing too many favours for the image of leadership in that bit of our world.

Is it too hard to think the Government – the AWM director is officially appointed by the Governor-General on advice – could simply decide that Nelson can just stay at the memorial for as long as he likes?

Isn’t it a relief to know that something is being run well and also pleasing the public? (On that Sunday I visited, everyone there seemed united in their fixed attention on the exhibits, their fascination with what was being commended and remembered at the memorial. It was one of the quietest places I’ve visited in a long time. Now that represents an issue that brings a community together.)

I know, I know. We now have the demands of process, diversity, fairness, transparency, on and on. Jobs must be advertised; everyone should be given a go. There would be an almighty brouhaha from certain quarters, especially given Nelson’s former political life.

But Gustav Nossal provided a fine example of the worth of longevity with his stewardship of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research from 1965 to 1996.  The AWM’s second director, John Treloar, served for 32 years, from 1920 to 1952 (with a break during World War 2).

And think, for a start, of the taxpayers’ money saved in headhunter fees!



There are tensions over Australia’s rate of immigration so, at a time like this, it’s enlightening to read the work of Alice Pung whose parents migrated from Cambodia, via Vietnam and a Thai refugee camp, as asylum seekers. Her father, Kuan, experienced the horrors of the Pol Pot regime. To survive, as people around him died of starvation, he once boiled up his leather belt and ate it, sharing it with his mother and sister.

Her mother, Kien, who had known her father as a child but had escaped to Vietnam with her family, met him again in what she still called Saigon and they married.

Pung, who has now won several awards, has been writing about her experiences as a Chinese-Cambodian-Australian growing up in Melbourne since she was 19 – she is now in her late 30s – when she was discovered and mentored by Black Inc. editor, Chris Feik.

Her books include two memoirs, Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter, and Laurinda, her first novel.

Her voice is disarming, deceptively gentle, funny and frank:

“ ‘When we were in the Thai refugee camp,’ Dad continued, ‘we slept on a straw mat about this size.’ He indicated an area the size of one of our sleeping bags. ‘That was a very good and productive mat,’ he said. ‘You were manufactured on that mat. Manufactured in Thailand, assembled in Australia.’

“ ‘Ewww!’ I said, but my father liked telling the story about how I came to be.’

“ ‘Ewww!’ my brother said.”

Black Inc. has now released a selection of her non-fiction writings, Close To Home ($32.99).

Some of it is horrifying. Pung writes of her mother in one piece, “She had never believed in a compassionate God. She came from a country where women’s throats were cut with palm leaves and coconut juice had been used in intravenous drips as a blood substitute.”

She attacks the stereotype of the Asian student as “anti-social, rich young foreigners who ‘form ghettos and don’t assimilate’ ”, writing instead that when they arrive, from faraway countries, they are lonely and homesick.

Pung, a trained lawyer, has also worked as a pastoral care adviser and a residential tutor at Melbourne University’s colleges and she comments: “I have come to respect and admire their stoicism. They do not live in their own little worlds: they have opened up my world.”

Melbourne author, Cath Ferla, first captured for me the experience of these students with her 2016 novel Ghost Girls, set in Sydney. One young woman confides to the fictional narrator, an English language teacher (as was Ferla at one stage): “It’s not easy here. This country is not so friendly if you are a foreigner. It’s easy to feel alone in the crowd.” Ferla remarked to me, “There’s that sense of being invisible.”

Travelling via Singapore’s Changi airport in early 2006, I sat in Economy next to a gawky young man on his way to Australia as a student. Even back then, I knew such visiting students were not necessarily getting the education they thought their money would – and should – buy. As I looked at his brand-new cheap suit, his thin wrists, and thought about what his parents had probably sacrificed to give him this chance in Australia, my heart ached for them and for him.

I also felt ashamed of my country.

Pung’s intention is not to shame us. She loves Australia. It’s more that her compelling, and often humorous, essays help explain the migrant experience in a way that is valuable to anyone who anyone who cares about – and occasionally grapples with the reality of – a multi-cultural society.



Sometimes you have to journey back into the past to discover how truly ghastly bits of today are. I haunt the second-hand parts of the Berkelouw bookstores and found treasure recently at their Book Barn in Berrima in the NSW countryside.

It was another volume of collected pieces by the mid-20th century Irish columnist Patrick Campbell (also 3rd Baron Glenavy) to join my five book collection of his writing. He was published in British newspapers like The Sunday Times and, in spite of a terrible stammer, was a regular on the BBC television show Call My Bluff with his good friend Frank Muir.

Reading him now, I have sometimes laughed so hard I frighten the cat.

In 1954, he wrote a prescient piece called “A Sock in the Voice of the People”. It began: “Every time it happens, from now on, I shall ring the British Broadcasting Corporation and say, ‘Stop it, stop it, stop it …’ until they cut me off.”

He was protesting the arrival of “Mum, Dad, Doris, and our Len” on the airwaves, a move masterminded by British actor and broadcaster Wilfred Pickles.

Pickles’ TV show, Ask Pickles, involved getting members of the public to talk about their dreams and, in the process, their lives. It was watched by millions but the discriminating Campbell wasn’t having any of it.

“What it does for me, listening to them, is to slow down the process of thought to a point whereat I balance on the edge of my chair, with the mouth agape, the eyes glazed over …

“… I begin to feel the hot rich blood boiling up into my brain. Why should I be sitting here, having paid nearly £70, in instalments, for my television set, to be told that sometimes Mum doesn’t like Dad being down at the coal face, and sometimes she does?”

Campbell died in 1980, well before reality TV started to hit its stride.

Lucky him.

Unlucky us.



And here is Patrick Campbell himself, showing that a stammer doesn’t have to hold anyone back: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoiKoIZ7wwo