The end of (un)certainty? – Guest Post

Thanks to my brilliant friend Sam Blanch for contributing this post.


An intriguing little piece of political jargon has been continually assaulting my ears over the last few years: “certainty”. It has been an assault not only because of its appearance in ubiquitous soundbites, but also because it questions assumptions that I had made about Australian politics. It was Paul Kelly, The Australian’s editor-at-large, who had argued in his influential book The End of Certainty (1994) that “the old order is finished. There is no returning to past certitudes”. He had identified a fundamental consensus across the major political parties. The real story of the 1980s and 1990s was “the embrace by both sides of politics… of the free market agenda and its gradual application as the solution to Australia’s underlying problems”. This “new philosophy”, in short, meant that politics had been irrevocably changed by economic rationalism. Australian businesses and workers alike were now to be subject to the ever-increasing efficiencies, deregulations, flexibilities, and market-based mechanisms demanded by a competitive economy. Certainty was out of bounds.


But certainty is certainly back. Here are a few choice morsels of certainty and its cognates, from across the political and social divide and across political issues. I’m sure you’ll quickly get the picture:

Just try searching for “certainty” in the transcripts of any political leader, you will soon get sick of it. What explains the bombardment by this word “certainty” that we have all faced? Let me tentatively suggest a few things.

Firstly, certainty is an obviously useful word when comparing policy. And given the frequency of its use, certainty is probably a word identified by the ubiquitous focus groups that political parties make use of these days – “The carbon tax makes the future of my business uncertain”, “Tony Abbott’s character makes me feel uncertain about his leadership potential” – that sort of thing. Thus certainty becomes a useful political bludgeon, a tool of the political one-liner. But this is really just to defer the question. Why the prominence of certainty as a term and as an issue?

Well, secondly, it may suggest some ‘uncertainty’ about the economic rationalist consensus. Australians may be a little worried about the incessant focus on productivity gains through constant cost cutting and perennial political reform. Of course this might be just a practical demand for consistent rules in the economy. Thus certainty would partly act as a break on reform when it comes from business (changes to superannuation, for example, might deter investment by a business). But it has at least the potential to be an artefact of economic populism, a symbol of opposition to the constant change demanded by modern economics. Notice, though, that ‘certainty’ talk doesn’t actually offer a substantive alternative.

Instead, certainty’s third function may be to offer a convenient way to avoid substantive discussion. Certainty is raised with regard to change in circumstances or policies, but in itself it says nothing about the quality of a policy or circumstance. Like the very latest piece of electoral jargon (‘real solutions’, ‘positive plans’) it offers precisely nothing of use in any substantive consideration of carbon pricing, school funding, broad questions about the state of the budget, or anything of political substance. Paradoxically, this complete analytical uselessness when divorced from substantive argument may actually represent its very political usefulness. It offers a way to talk about economics without actually talking about economics. It enables pertinent questions, for example, about the redistribution of wealth throughout society, about the ownership and distribution of natural resources, and about appropriate levels of corporate taxation, to be effectively ignored. Like the political focus of people smugglers, it offers an agreed field upon which politicians can do battle on comfortable terms.

We could also discuss certainty/uncertainty in relation to the hung parliament, and the Byzantine affairs of the ALP. The former might reveal a national desire for easy answers and clear leadership rather than the perceived problems of the 43rd Parliament. The latter might lead us towards the ALP’s personality politics and obsessions with opinion polling. But let’s not go there…

Instead let me conclude with a few tentative observations. I suspect that the jargon of certainty/uncertainty indicates a lack of political consensus beneath current economic policy in Australia. At the very least, it reflects the current political class’s failure to articulate policy with any sort of philosophical or ideological rigour. Indeed, certainty seems to say little more than ‘we like making money and your political changes/lack of change potentially upset that’. And it is a term adopted across the political spectrum. In so in this vein, it also indicates what might be described as our pathological demand for a king or idol. As Willem H. Vanderburg puts it, it is modern society’s political beliefs and myths that “help cover over an abyss of relativism, nihilism, and anomie”. Perhaps then, the abyss threatens, and we crave certainty about what to put our faith in. While the economy remains the pantheon, we might be a little confused about the names and hierarchy of the new gods.


we need disability insurance, not care

The federal government has just changed the name of the promised National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)

They’re calling it DisabilityCare (the capital C is part of it). The logic being that we’ve got Medicare and we all know what that is.

NDIS is a bad name. It’s a mouthful. It sounds like bureaucratic jargon. It’s yet another acronym. I’m all for scrapping it and getting something else.

But my problem with DisabilityCare is the big capital C Care that stands out in the middle (ok, I also don’t like the fact they’ve tried to be cool by making it into one word when it’s clearly two words – I’m a grumpy old woman before my time – but that’s not my main point).


As I understood it, the importance of the insurance scheme is that it promises to replace a hodge podge of various charitable and government programmes designed to care for people with disabilities and give people with disabilities the authority to make their own decisions with their own money.

It’s meant to transform a model of charity and benefits for people with disabilities to a model of entitlement through insurance. That’s the beauty of an insurance scheme – it means people with disabilities aren’t treated like objects of charity but as autonomous agents.

By whacking the word ‘care’ on the end I’m worried it’s a throwback to the paternalism we’re trying to overcome. I’m worried it will encourage people to view the scheme as just charity.

But what’s needed isn’t care, it’s rights.

Could we have Disability Insurance instead?



[note – In thinking over this post I’m worried I implied that there’s something undignified or degrading about needing care. I just want to clarify that there’s nothing wrong with being dependent on someone else. We all are dependent on other people (if anyone were completely independent they’d live on an island and I’d be worried about their mental health) and ultimately dependent on God. I think the association of dignity and value with independence is very worrying for our community. My problem with using ‘care’ is it keeps people in a position of dependency when they need not be and forgets interdependency, it’s not a problem with care per se.]

our land our languages

Most Aussies are pretty bad at languages. For those of us who use English at home, we tend to assume that everyone else will just learn English. Most of us got a smattering of languages at school (for me it seemed to be a new language every year – Japanese one year, then German, Latin, French, Mandarin – adding up to nothing of any). It gets a bit embarrassing when we go overseas (apparently it’s not normal to be educated but still monolingual), but luckily all the locals have learned a bit of English. Other than that, I’m not sure we’re often very aware of our strange monolingualism or how it affects us.

But our presumption of English affects indigenous kids in remote areas and is getting in the way of their education.

You probably didn’t notice (it’s not your fault, it didn’t get much media attention), but a House of Reps committee conducted an ‘Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities’ last year – Our land our languages. The report started with something everyone knows is a fiction – terra nullius.

The Mabo decision of the High Court of Australia on 3 June 1992 legally recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a special relationship to the land that existed prior to colonisation. The Mabo decision recognised that ‘terra nullius’, the concept that Australia was unoccupied at the time of colonisation, is a fiction.

But it pointed out another fiction about the country, one that’s gone under the radar – the fiction that we all speak English.

Similarly, the notion that Australia is a monolingual nation and that only Standard Australian English can benefit a person is a fiction. Estimates show that at the time of colonisation there was an estimated 250 Australian Indigenous languages being used and today there are about 18 languages, strong in the sense of being spoken by significant numbers of people across all age groups.

That fiction about English – as well as a knee-jerk reaction to poor NAPLAN results – that was behind the 2009 decision to get Aboriginal languages out of indigenous schools in the NT. When the NT government mandated that schools only use English for the first 4 hours of the day, school attendance dwindled:

Evidence shows that Lajamanu School has suffered since its bilingual education program was removed in 2009 under the First Four Hours policy. Attendance figures have barely risen above 45% since mid-2009, down from 60% (and above) between 2006-2008.

Forget ‘no pool no school’, it seems it became a case of ‘No Warlpiri No School‘ at Lajumanu.

But the report also found evidence of positive links between incorporating indigenous languages into school and school attendance (though language is no silver bullet). It’s not really surprising that kids prefer school when they understand what the teacher is saying. According to the Kimberly Education Office, introducing language meant kids actually came to school and made parents happy:

I cannot really talk about attendance data, but some principals have commented to me that ‘We did nothing else last semester that was different. The only thing we did was introduce an Aboriginal language, and our suspensions have dropped and our attendance is up.’ That is anecdotal but that is strong, and parents who say, ‘I had a choice and I could enrol my kid at school A or school B but I enrolled in that school B because I know they teach an Aboriginal language.

(you may note I’ve referenced research earlier which says that school attendance made no difference to academic results in remote indigenous communities. The evidence referenced there was for schooling in English, not in language.)

Using language in school isn’t some kind of neo-colonial attempt to keep Aboriginal kids separate from non-indigenous kids, to give them a separate syllabus and keep them in their box. It’s actually the best way to enable kids to learn to read and write in English.

Putting my historian cap on, educationalists and linguists have known since the 1930s (they did studies in Mexico with SIL/Wycliffe) that the best way to learn to read and write in a second language is to learn in your own language first. Teaching kids to read their own language means they can learn the concept of reading and writing in a way that makes sense  – connecting sounds to script – before they move onto learning English as a second language. So using indigenous languages in the early years of school actually helps kids understand and read English better.

This is important because when Aboriginal kids grow up to read English and learn the ‘secret English’ used by bureaucrats and lawyers, they’ll be in a better position to negotiate and represent their interests and their cultures. It’s not about assimilation (see Nakata on indigenous education for more) or keeping people trapped in a box, it’s about equipping people.

But it’s also a basic issue of respect. English is not the only language of value, there are many Australian languages and their speakers deserve a quality education.

christians and the human rights bill – part 4

part 4 of 4

Plaatje Christopher - Human RightsThe Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill (2012) is in draft from and currently before a Senate Inquiry and facing some opposition from Christian groups. In this final post I look at the issue of public perception of Christians.

Firstly, not all Christians oppose the draft bill. Here are two positive Christian responses:

Peter Sandeman from Anglicare If we believe all people are equal we must live this

Elenie Poulos from the Uniting Church Injustice not an article of faith for all churches

how are outsiders going to interpret this?

As I have argued before, PR matters. We need to be concerned about how we come across to outsiders so as not to create a barrier to knowing Jesus. So how do we look? What message do we project to the public when we object to this legislation?

David Marr’s article article in the SMH gives us a hint. He interprets Christian opposition as churches defending their powers to ‘punish “sinners” in the workplace.’

Most conservative faiths have most of the following on their lists of the sackable: gays and lesbians, single mothers, adulterers – yes, even adulterers! – bisexuals, transsexuals, the intersex and couples like Gillard and Tim Mathieson…

Some see Christians as fighting for their ‘right to discriminate’. See Eleanor Gibbs or Ben Dorrington.

Or there’s Jeff Sparrow’s Religious freedom beats your rights at work

Religious lobbyists run the risk of winning this particular skirmish but losing the war. Even those of us who aren’t believers know that the scriptures spend far more time condemning the wealthy and greedy than obsessing about which sexual organ can legitimately go where. Do churches that already struggle for relevance really want to identify themselves so exclusively as the bedroom police, rather than finding something to say about the various moneylenders ensconced in the temples of the 21st century?

And Joumanah el Matrah Shutting out the ‘sinners’ feeds bigotry (not a secular perspective, but relevant nonetheless)

When the federal government assures religious groups they will have the freedom to discriminate against homosexuals and others they deem sinners (The Age 16/1), it not only undermines the rights of already vulnerable groups, such as same-sex-attracted people, it also undermines the substance and integrity of religion by reducing it to a collection of petty bigotries.

Finally, a cartoon


The secular public does not understand Christians’ reasoning behind their opposition. Instead, Christians, by their opposition, confirm the public’s suspicion that Christians are sexist, homophobic and arrogant and that Christians believe they are entitled to special treatment.

Many of the Christian submissions regarding the bill complain that their free speech and religious freedom would be violated if they’re not allowed to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people.’ (note –  the word ‘offend’ was included in the draft bill because it comes from existing harassment legislation – I wouldn’t normally post something from the IPA, but Berg explains it here).

That does sound a lot like we believe that offending, insulting, humiliating and intimidating people are core parts of Christianity that need to be protected. The public could be forgiven for thinking so. They see the contradiction between what we say we believe and the ‘rights’ we claim.

I am not saying that we should let our beliefs be determined by public opinion, only that public opinion matters if people are going to listen to our message. We need to think seriously about which battles are worth fighting and what our opposition tells people about Jesus.

Because I’m worried that, worst of all, we’re creating a stumbling block to the gospel, a barrier to knowing Jesus.

concluding thoughts

There is a risk that Christians and churches may be taken to court for speaking the truth in love because someone was offended by it.

But there is a far greater risk that, by opposing this legislation, the public will get the impression that we Christians reserve the right to offend, humiliate, insult and intimidate people, to treat people unfairly, to mistreat people, to show favouritism and to ignore the injustices faced by the most vulnerable in our society.

There’s a risk they will think that we value our ‘freedom of religion’ over better protections for vulnerable people.

Would you not rather be taken to court?

christians and the human rights bill – part 3

part 3 of 4

Plaatje Christopher - Human RightsThe Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill (2012) is in draft from and currently before a Senate Inquiry.

The protections for religious organisations are largely unchanged. One exception which is causing concern is that the bill will:

Ensure that no provider of aged care services with Commonwealth funding can discriminate.  This includes religious organisations (although such providers can continue to preference people of their faith).

the consequences of being yoked

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

Ah yes, the ‘don’t date non-Christians’ passage. I worry that with this one we’ve been so concerned not to date non-Christians that we haven’t thought hard about the wisdom in this passage.

When we receive public money, we’re no longer working for Christ alone but also for the state. We become indebted to the government. We’re yoked. The government, as the employer or contractor has the right to set the agenda.

Perhaps, for some services, our values and objectives are so similar to those of the government that Christian organisations can work under them. After all, many Christians do work for the government in their normal employment – public servants, teachers, nurses – and honour God with their work.

Yet I think we need to consider the implications for Christian organisations to be dependent on public money for their operation. Governments demand KPIs and love to measure things (employment outcomes, hospital beds, efficiencies) which, for Christians, are often secondary, rather than primary concerns. Yet organisations dependent on government need to compromise their priorities work to achieve these government benchmarks. Governments are uneasy about evangelism and prayer (school chaplains anyone?), whereas for many Christians these are essential activities for someone in a public Christian position. It means our hands are tied. Not to mention the public perception that Christians get a free ride on public money.

In many areas, I believe it is not in our interests to opportunistically accept cash from the government. Our values are different. We serve Jesus.

Perhaps you think I’m wrong. Perhaps you think it would be better for us to use government money while we can for the Kingdom. What I’m proposing would need  some radical generosity from Christians. Do you think that’s possible?

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bloody good drinkers – the northern territory and alcohol

“Oh, they’ve got some bloody good drinkers in the Northern Territory,” sang Ted Egan, a folk musician whom the governor-general appointed in 2003 to be the Territory’s administrator. His lyrics – as many Australians have known for a long time, and studies are beginning to affirm – are spot on. For nearly 30 years, the money spent per capita on alcohol in the Territory has been between 50% and 100% higher than in the rest of Australia. Similarly, while the national annual cost of alcohol-related harm is about $15 billion (which works out to be a little less than $1000 per adult), the figure for the Territory is more than $4000 per adult. The National Alcohol Beverage Industries Council counters these statistics. This body of alcohol manufacturers and sellers claims its own commissioned study shows more costs are borne by the individual, with national public costs at $3.8 billion. But whatever the overall cost, the Territory government figures are brutal. Alcohol-related crime and illness costs the region’s public purse $642 million per year. Booze Territory – The Monthly

Alcohol related deaths are 31 times higher in the Northern Territory than in the rest of Australia. It’s a crisis.

Just last week was the first ‘Grog in the Territory’ Summit, convened by Land Councils and various Aboriginal organisations. The ‘rivers of grog’ are becoming ‘road trains of beer‘, said one community leader.

Read about the summit here.

VBThe summit was sparked by the newly elected Country Liberals government’s decision to axe the banned drinkers register in the NT. The register had around 2,500 names on it. People with drinking problems or repeat drink divers were banned from purchasing alcohol. It meant that everyone needed to get their ID scanned on buying alcohol to check if their name was on the list. The Country Liberals’ election promise was to scrap the banned drinkers register and instead build giant prison farms for problem drinkers.

It’s unclear how successful the register was. Obviously it’s possible for someone to simply ask a friend to buy their grog for them, obviously some people would be pressured into buying alcohol. But for a few, it would help them manage their drinking problem.

There are various stats. Some say that alcohol related assaults in Alice Springs by 16% (banned drinkers register successful in reducing assault) while a banned drinker register was in operation. Another source said 15% (banned drinkers laws cut assaults) across the Territory, while another said a 6% (drop in assaults) drop in alcohol related assaults (if domestic violence is excluded). The Alice Springs Mayor has reported increased glass rubbish in parks since the register was axed. (on the other hand – crime figures which came out today indicated that violence in the NT increased in the last year – leading the Country Liberals to say the register wasn’t working)

Whatever the stats, its seems it was a simple programme which meant fewer people were being harmed. Then there’s the things they didn’t measure – medical impact, cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, effect on children’s eduction, crime, suicides etc. Of course the register wasn’t the whole answer, but it was a start.

Nonetheless, the banned register was unpopular enough for promises of its eradication to help a new government to victory.

It seems to me that only a society without a vision of the common good could oppose such a programme. Yes, it’s inconvenient for those of us who don’t have a drinking problem to scan our ID at the counter. ‘Why should I worry about someone else’s problem?’ we ask.

But it’s not ‘someone else’s problem.’ We’re not ‘all individuals.’ Alcoholism affects not only the individual, but their family, their friends, their communities, all of us.

I wish we could be a little more prepared to make small sacrifices for each other – for more communities (even mining towns!) to dry for the sake of others, for retailers to forgo the extra profit, for people to be willing to put up with the hassle of a simple register. In a functioning society, other people’s problems are everyone’s problems. That would be a society which believes in the common good.

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which country expects a kid to wait more than 2 years for a wheelchair?


Which country expects a kid to wait more than two years for a wheelchair?

Which country expects someone to live with only two showers a week?

Which country abandons young people to life in a nursing home?

Which country ranks bottom (27th out of 27 OECD countries) for people with disabilities living in poverty?

Yep. That’s us. Aussie aussie aussie.


So I hosted a disabiliTEA (part of the Every Australian Counts campaign) last week with friends from church to talk about disability in Australia.

Every Australian Counts is pushing for a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The problem is that at the moment disability support is a mess. It’s a lottery. If you acquired your disability at work you’re probably relatively well supported, but if you were born with a disability, good luck!

It also depends where you live. Regional or remote families struggle to get services, but also every state has different levels of support. Programs pop up and down with budget cycles, leaving people in the lurch.

At the moment we have a crisis. I think the worst are stories of parents who have to give their disabled child up to government care, not because they want to, but because they’re at breaking point and there’s no respite spaces available. Families break up over this sort of thing. More kids were given up this year than ever before.

The NDIS would be a national scheme, like Medicare, based on entitlement rather than welfare. It would give people with disabilities entitlement to support rather than the current system where people face the uncertainty of reapplying for support every few months, or worry about how they will manage once their ageing parents are no longer able to care for them.

Yes it’s obviously expensive.

But the research says that the cost of doing nothing would overtake the cost of an NDIS within 10 years.

  • This is because of the growing number of people who will need hospital care because they had no access to early treatment or because they can’t go home because they lack the support.
  • This is because of all the people with disabilities (they estimate 370,000 in 2050) who, with the right equipment, treatment and access to transport etc. will be able to work rather than depend on the disability pension. They’ll pay taxes too.
  • This is because of the thousands of carers (we have some 800,000 full time carers in Australia) who will be freed up to work.

It pays for itself.

But it’s also a matter of justice and inclusion.

make it real

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across party lines

About this time every four years I wish I were a US citizen. I crave a stirring speech, a real grandiose vision and I want to vote. I’m a little jealous that Americans can say things like ‘America is the hope of the Earth’ with a straight face, it must feel good to get swept up in such grand rhetoric (though don’t think too hard about whether it’s blasphemy, that ruins it).

2009: Barack Obama and Michelle Obama dance

Obama makes me swoon a little. Look at them dance (the Guardian has more of those pictures here). Actually he makes most Aussies swoon a little; he’d get 72-80% of the vote in Australia. I’m sure he wishes he were running here too.

My warm feelings about American politics starts to fade once they actually go to the polls and begin fighting over loose ‘chads’ and talking about the Electoral College and I remember how convoluted and bizzarre their system is and just how thankful I am for our independent Australian Electoral Commission (their polling stations are organised by elected officials – republicans and democrats – crazy!).

More than voting this year, I’d really love to take part in their ‘Election Day Communion‘ movement.

Churches are hosting special communion services on election day (they vote on Tuesdays – I told you the American system was strange) as a statement of Christian unity. It’s a reminder that the unity Jesus won for us runs deeper than any political divisions we have. Government and politics won’t save us, Jesus does.


We don’t have the same partisan politics here. No one questions if you’re a Christian if you vote for that party. Ok, I’ve discovered since living in the Northern Territory that real Christians can’t vote for the Greens. But every other party is fine. Maybe not the Sex Party.

But I think we too could do with some Election Day Communion to remind us that we who follow Jesus are part of something much bigger and that Jesus has broken down the barriers between us in his death.

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