All posts by Phil Dye

Behind Abbott and Gillard: a job for us all

At the fresh young age of 55, I’ve finally decided what I want to do when I grow up. Now this revelation didn’t stem from a career counselor and it didn’t take a psychometric test to work out. I just know I’d be good at it. The understanding came from watching TV, and specifically the Australian election interviews on the nightly news.

Over the past year, I’ve been more and more aware that when a prominent person…let’s call them the ‘talent’, is interviewed on an issue of national importance, there’s often a gaggle of serious-looking types standing behind them and nodding whenever the ‘talent’ says something definite. I don’t know what this profession is called; yet for the sake of this article I’ll call them ‘Nodders’.

Now what attracts me to this profession is that it’s obviously well paid and has a definite purpose. It must be well paid because they are all dressed fairly nicely. Mind you, they may be naked from the waste down as I only ever see the top half.

The purpose of the profession is clear. The professional Nodder is there to give support to the ‘talent’ and stop any other scallywag trying to get into the frame behind them to make bunny ears or silly faces. Their mere physical presence ensures no would-be TV star (or ‘Chaser’ personality) ruins the interview. Simple.

The professional Nodder must also ensure they don’t in some way dominate the image and detract from the talent. This is very important. People with big noses for example, or those with facial scarring shouldn’t apply. Nor should people who are overly attractive.

They must be disciplined enough not to look straight into the camera, but fix on a spot just behind the talent’s earlobe. This denotes serious interest and full concentration, ensuring they don’t disastrously nod in the wrong places. Thankfully new workplace practice makes it simple to sack an inattentive Nodder.

Yet the Nodder’s role is more complex than that. There’s an area of study called Neuro-Linguistic Programming that basically looks at certain persuasion techniques and how to maximise their effectiveness. One technique, and one we’ve all subconsciously used at some time in our lives, is to nod positively when our desired option is being discussed, and shake our heads in disagreement when any other option is being considered. It’s like a sales person nodding positively when we try on a new suit or dress. The positive affirmations give us good feelings towards the clothes, especially when we are sitting on the fence and unsure of our decision.

The same theory works with the professional Nodder. If we are a little undecided about a point say, Tony Abbott is making, the enthusiasm of the professional Nodder may well tip us over the edge! And why stop at one Nodder when you can have a team? A few days ago the same Tony Abbott was interviewed with seven, yes, seven Nodders all bobbing in agreement with some very valid points that he was making. I didn’t think they were valid at the time, but with so many well-dressed folks behind him in agreement, I changed my mind.

Most political aspirants have enlisted the help of Nodders. Julia Gillard had five in an interview last week and even Bob Brown from the Greens had one. Joe Hockey can’t seem to find any, so I’m going to apply to him first.

As we gear up to elections on both a state and federal front, be prepared to see the professional Nodder more and more on our TV screens. I’m getting a team together now. Interested?

The end of monogamy

This piece was first published in the US based ‘Third Report’. Click THE THIRD REPORT to read the original.

As our politicians and sports stars fall from monogamous grace like ninepins, and as the US based adultery website ‘Ashley Madison’ prepares its worldwide launch, it’s time to examine the ideal of monogamy in the light of cold, hard 21st century relationship facts.

Monogamy, that ideal expected of anyone in a ‘stable’ relationship, has become an impossible and unnatural practice for many in modern times. David Barash and Judy Lipton, authors of the The Myth of Monogamy, recently told Australia’s ABC that 50-80 per cent of men and just under half of women cheat on their partners. So what is it about monogamy that makes it so damn difficult?

The most recent evolutionary theory is that infidelity may well be a necessary act to increase genetic diversity and guarantee species survival; that while being impossible for a high proportion of the male population, the institution of monogamous marriage may well have outlived its usefulness – even for women. If, as Darwin stated, our primary evolutionary imperative is to survive and reproduce, monogamous marriage, through partner restriction, may be limiting our survival as a species on this planet.

In ancient times, marriage was merely a contract between families to secure land and guarantee the existence of lawful offspring. Men could have concubines and visit prostitutes, while maintaining a relationship with their wives for procreation. As the Greek orator Demosthenes put it: “We have prostitutes for our pleasure, concubines for our health, and wives to bear us lawful offspring.” Publicly at least, women enjoyed no similar liberty.

The increasing power of the Christian Church in Europe meant marriage evolved into a spiritual state where men and women became ‘one flesh’ with all the assistant responsibilities that ‘one flesh’ involved. Monogamy was written into the contract and the marriage sacrament became a contract between the couple and God; a serious contract indeed!

With average life spans in 17th Century Europe of only 40 years, and with a high infant mortality rate, monogamous marriage helped ensure a ‘stable’ environment for children to survive. Poor couples married young and due to the general uncertainty of life, produced many children. Monogamous marriage therefore, could well have been an evolutionary necessity to maintain our genetic legacy.

It’s also true that in these centuries past, people lived in smaller villages and towns – usually with the church at its highest point. Anonymity was difficult, and individuals were less likely to ‘stray’ because infidelity didn’t remain secret for long – especially if it resulted in offspring. As God looked down on his fearful subjects from the town’s central rise, monogamy, however irritating, was easier than infidelity. Church enforced monogamy, fear of God and the monotonous work produced by the early industrial revolution, created a passive and socially controlled workforce unwilling to venture outside the norm.

But in today’s large towns and enormous cities, and with the decreasing influence of the Church in the lives of many, infidelity is not only simple but often without consequence.

Readily available birth control means offspring can be avoided. Flexible working hours means more workers control their own time – a scenario ripe for infidelity, while people are often anonymous in their own neighbourhoods, let alone their cities. The moral influence of a close community is virtually non-existent.

Yet perhaps the major force making monogamy an evolutionary anachronism is the wealth and health created by modern life. When resources are scarce, caring for children resulting from multiple partnering is impossible. When resources are plentiful, this care is, if not simple, easily bought from an army of businesses all too willing to fill the childcare void.

We now live longer than our ancestors and can enter other relationships once our children grow up. 45 was virtually old age in 1765. Now, it’s scarcely middle age and men can reproduce again to further their genetic legacy. Many women of course will say the evolutionary imperative behind infidelity benefits men, with little or nothing positive for them. If spreading our DNA is our dominant evolutionary call, women are restricted by their reproductive clock.

Remember though, that it’s only been the last 300 years that humans have lived into their 80s. Evolutionists are now saying that as humans live longer, it’s probable that women’s reproductive lives will extend proportionally. Indeed, the evidence is telling us that this is already happening with a 60 year study of 2000 North American women by Yale University’s Stephen Stearns revealing women are definitely evolving to reach menopause later in life, According to Stearns, ‘Natural selection is still operating.’, while according to evolutionary theory, this longer childbearing window will allow for multiple partnering, greater genetic diversity and more choices for women.

Yet what of those who elect to ignore the evolutionary lure of infidelity and travel the monogamous road? Are their genes destined for the DNA scrapheap or is there still some positive evolutionary purpose behind ‘As long as we both shall live’?

Monogamy, at least during the initial glow of love, serves a definite evolutionary purpose in guaranteeing paternity (and therefore the selected DNA) of offspring. Indeed, this could well be the only evolutionary purpose behind monogamy in a healthy and wealthy society. If he is monogamous, then she knows that all his resources will go towards the care of her offspring. If she is monogamous, then the offspring will certainly be his and he can provide the resources for its survival without waste.

It’s also true that in a society rife with infections, the monogamous pair will not be exposed to the sexually transmitted kind and could well live longer as a result. With the increase in pharmaceutical quick-fixes for sexually transmitted infections, this theory is diminished. Indeed, The Pill and antibiotics could be regarded as monogamy’s greatest enemies.

As the coming northern hemisphere chill makes snuggling a very attractive pastime, and as Ashley Maddison makes infidelity cool, we could succumb to the moral confusion and self flagellate all in the name of monogamy. Preferably though, we could realise that as intelligent mammals in a free and open society, we need no longer be bound by the dictates of 17th Century Europe and enjoy the biological rush that comes from our ancient evolutionary urges. We could also realise that every biological drive has its consequences, and that those consequences are anything but simple.

Tiger and infidelity? Just blame Darwin!

This piece first appeared in the Courier Mail on December 10, 2009

The public tisk-tisking over Tiger Woods’ seemingly endless affairs needs to be examined outside the context of tabloid sensationalism. Is the public discussion because Tiger has failed as a moral role model in breaching his marriage contract? Is it that the attention he’s given to his affairs may have detracted from or (heaven forbid) assisted his golf game? Is it because the regular ‘Men’s golf weekends’ arranged by thousands of men each week risks being squashed by wives everywhere?

According to the US based ‘Marriage Education Fund’, the unpalatable truth is that 44% of married men and 25% of married women ‘cheat’ on their partners. A study by the University of Chicago found that of the thousands of married men and women who stated they had a ‘happy’ marriage, 27% had experienced an affair. You’re not alone Tiger!

Recent socio-biological thought also indicates that infidelity may be an evolutionary trait; that the concept of everlasting, monogamous marriage is an evolutionary anachronism ripe for dumping. Far from enhancing our gene pool, the institution of monogamous marriage may well be limiting genetic diversity to the detriment of western society.

In centuries past, when humans had a lifespan of barely 40 years, monogamous marriage helped guarantee the survival of offspring by maintaining a functional environment for children to grow to maturity. Couples were married at 17 and had as many children as possible by age 30 due to the high infant mortality rate.  Mum and dad, exhausted, poor and taxed-out, died at 40 yet they survived and reproduced. Evolutionary work done!

While we have children later than our ancestors, we can still live a good 20-30 years after our children grow to adulthood and reproduce. For some men and women, those later years may involve caring for grandchildren while parents work; yet another evolutionary development ensuring the comfortable survival of the children. Survive and reproduce. Evolutionary work very well done!

For some men, those post-children years can also be used to begin other relationships in order to reproduce yet again. Their genetic inheritance is doubly guaranteed and the gene pool is further diversified. For those with bucket-loads of money to ensure the survival of their first brood, or those who are attractive, fit stock to women of childbearing age, beginning the new family (or having affairs) can begin early. Survive and reproduce two or three within a life span and your evolutionary work is extremely well done!

Enter The Tiger. He, like 44% of married men and 25% of married women, elected to stretch the boundaries of monogamous marriage to include this evolutionary imperative. Thousands do it every day, and if you’re an elite athlete with money, brains, a good body and an obvious ability to master the sporting world, you will attract women who may well want a piece of that DNA. This indeed, is a woman’s evolutionary drive and Tiger would be a prime target.

By demonstrating the uncertainty of marriage and the often impossible concept of monogamy, he’s reminded us of a truth we’ve known for a very long time. Yet while monogamous marriage may be an uncertain institution, the Men’s golf weekend, an institution that’s been in Australian society for a long time, and one usually sanctioned by women as a ‘harmless blokey’ adventure’,  is most certainly now a thing of the past. Thanks Tiger

Education reform: An ex-teacher’s view

This article first appeared on ABC Online Opinion on 5th September 2008

As NSW teachers push for further industrial action in their pay claims, and as their colleagues from other states prepare to fight the Federal Government’s education reforms, it’s perhaps time to take a closer look at the difficult and often cloistered life of a teacher. I taught in public primary and secondary schools for 15 years before diving into the muddy pond of business. In recent times, I’ve occasionally chosen to front a primary or secondary class just to kick the bank balance along (casual teaching is good for that) or lighten up from pressures of business (children are great for that).

Yet while I’ve long supported the public education system and the undervalued teachers who work in it, my visits to schools lately have left me championing Rudd’s education reforms in a way I never thought possible.

Most schools contain vibrant teachers who are passionate about the development of their students. I’ve seen them and am in awe of them. Yet I’ve also witnessed teachers who are long past their use-by date. It seems our schools contain many teachers who have never left school. Coming directly from university or the old college system straight into the classroom, their experience and knowledge of the world outside their teaching cube is limited to the odd overseas vacation. Some sadly, spend 40 years in the classroom planning for their retirement payout.

While a narrow world view was unquestioned in the 50’s when the world was indeed a smaller place, our time of ‘global everything’ requires, indeed demands a wide and innovative educational perspective from our teachers. Attitudes defined by antiquated methods, narrow world views and a non-competitive ‘tenure’ system produce a malaise that I’ve witnessed time and time again.

On chatting to teachers in staff rooms, I’m stunned as to how many ask about ‘getting out of teaching’. They want to know how I did it, how I survive and if there’s a demand for their skills. It’s as if these individuals feel frightened of the outside world and are amazed at those who manage to break out.

Children don’t just need teachers, they need great teachers. While they need people who can help them understand mathematical concepts and the meaning of Shakespeare, it’s teachers who embrace a world outside the curriculum that’s important. Perhaps it should be mandatory for all teachers to job-swap every three years to give them a peek at the bigger (realer!) world.

For too long state teacher’s unions have applied narrow, old-world views to education. The rest of the world get’s paid according to performance. In my small business, like most others, I don’t get paid unless I work damn hard and constantly innovate. Treading water by simply covering the bases and waiting for retirement would see my business collapse within months. Performance-based pay is a fact of broader life that teacher’s unions have avoided for years, yet without financial incentive to be the very best they can be, teachers can slip into the long slow ‘death-by-superannuation’ cycle that holds many teachers to their jobs and makes a student’s life hell. There’s no incentive to improve, and there’s no incentive to get out.

Transparency in school performance, while more problematic than performance-based pay, is essential in giving both parents and teachers the choice they deserve. Rudd acknowledges that some parents will stay clear of schools that aren’t achieving, yet so will some teachers. Others however, will relish the challenge of helping transform an underachieving school. Principals, under pressure to improve their school’s performance, will need to employ (on higher salaries) teachers who can engage, innovate and inspire. The ‘death by superannuation’ teachers, fronted with new ideas and fresh ways will either copy their colleagues, or opt out…possibly to a job they’re more suited to….possibly to early retirement.

I know it scares most teachers to think their ‘tenure’ in a school or indeed their job is limited, yet the concept of a ‘job for life’ went west 20 years ago. Without radical change incorporating not only transparency and performance based pay, but key performance indicators outside of curriculum expertise, the teaching malaise I’ve witnessed all too often will worsen. From what I’ve seen, death by superannuation is a death that both teachers and students can do without.

The Rugby League fiasco: Who’s really to blame?

This article first appeared on ABC Online on 15/5/09. Click here for the original.

As Matthew Johns faces the music for his role in one of the many group sex scandals that has rocked rugby league, and Channel 9 stands him down as a network personality, it’s time to look at who should really take ultimate responsibility for the fast disintegrating code of rugby league.

As revealed by the Four Corners report, and as admitted by Johns himself, he was only one of the many individuals involved in the group sex episode where up to 12 players and staff witnessed the act. Why then, has only one of these men publically apologised to the woman? Why, in the face of public disgust and a diminishing faith in the Rugby League code is the silence as deafening as it was in 2002?

Possibly because many of those involved in this and other group sex scandals over the past decade still believe they did nothing wrong as according to the law, they didn’t. As Johns has repeatedly stated, the woman at the centre of the scandal was “a willing participant”. What those involved fail to realise (although Johns clearly understands now), is that consent and willing participation does not always equal lifelong happiness. Most of us remember consenting to something that caused us grief or shame. We all, at sometime in our lives, have regretted participating in an act because our involvement left us emotionally raw or compromised. Its life and that’s how we learn.

Most of us get over it quickly due to the trivial nature of the episode and the absence of psychological damage. The incidents described both by Johns and the woman however, involved youth, inexperience, celebrity and sexual extremism facilitating the potential for psychological damage … not only for the woman, but for all parties involved.

The sexual experience as a ‘rite of passage’ is one given much weight in our society, and rightly so. Our early sexual encounters, based as they are around our often fragile sense of self, can be life affirming or life destroying and create a template for intimacy that extends throughout our lives. They can indeed, form who we are, and a sense of responsibility for both ourselves and others is important during early adult sexual adventure.

The extreme nature of the NRL’s group sex ‘bonding’ incidents has clearly impacted greatly on the lives of many. The naïve young woman involved in the Johns’ incident, a woman described as ‘unworldly’ by the investigating police officer, has been damaged for life. Numerous other unnamed women…women unworldly yet curious, have been equally damaged through their naïve, yet legal willing participation.

Yet what of the young men? What of the players, many also in their teens, who have had their lives defined by a culture that clearly sanctions this style of behaviour? While our immediate gut reaction is to seek out and humiliate the players involved, the full force of our wrath must go to the parents of the Rugby League family – the coaches, managers, trainers, administrators and media who have tolerated and possibly facilitated this ‘culture of ‘irresponsibility’ for decades.

The coaches, trainers and administrators of the game have known about this type of ‘bonding’ behaviour for decades. These parents of the Rugby League family, while not breaking the law, have shown immense disrespect towards their players and the women these players meet. Legal issues aside, it’s the impact these encounters have on the young men in their care – men who should be mentored into positions of social responsibility, that is the important issue.

A $100,000 fine imposed on the Manly club for their alcohol-fueled season launch won’t stop it happening again. Excluding the team from the competition for a year however, and sacking the officials who created the event, may help change the culture.

Fining any club for the extreme pack mentality of their players won’t suddenly make for sexually responsible young men. Mass sacking of the coaches and administrators who allowed this behaviour to occur may help build lasting change.

Even the players, those like Hasim El Masri who espouse a socially responsible position for players and fans, could stage their own ‘action’ to rid the game of the leaders who allow pack-mentality behavior to occur.

To renew our faith in Rugby League, change needs to be swift and brutal. It needs to target the leaders who have built the culture and who profit from it, not the players who are themselves the victims of it. . Above all, it needs to implant new parents to the Rugby League family, parents who hold strong their responsibility to build outstanding men who can hold their heads up as players and role models.

An Easter re-think on miracles

crucifixionFirst Appeared on ABC Online: 10/4/09:

Many years ago, my daughter asked me to tell her the truth about the Easter Bunny. It was a pivotal point in life for both of us, and the topic of conversation soon shifted to Santa Clause and the tooth fairy. What I hadn’t anticipated was a deeper discussion with a nine year old on the religious significance of the resurrection.

‘Why do adults spend so much time making us believe things that aren’t true? Maybe Jesus didn’t really get out of the tomb at all. It’s pretty funny after all isn’t it?’

According to my daughter, that question is on the lips of nearly every child who has ever attended a scripture lesson. It’s a question though, that is largely confined to adult theological discussion …as if children don’t ponder such ‘miracles’. I remember asking the same question of Mr Parker during scripture in 1966. I was soundly reprimanded for it.

These days of course, there would hopefully be no such reprimands.Teachers would take the time to listen, explain and understand, rather than attack. Our focus on creating children with a passion for enquiry and an independent mind would surely override the need to implant doctrine without discussion. Surely.

Yet the question remains pivotal in explaining the decline in Christian belief over the past 30 years in Australia.

Church leaders are largely adamant on the actuality of the resurrection. Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell is consistent with most of his fellow leaders when he states “If Christ isn’t truly risen then we’ve backed the wrong horse.” Only the Quakers have the vulnerability to view the resurrection as a matter of interpretation. It’s a vulnerability the rest could well learn from.

Perhaps there are many ‘lapsed’ believers who would gladly return to the fold if the acceptance of miracles wasn’t so pivotal to the ‘Christian’ label. The contradiction between our contemporary focus on logical world understanding, and the Christian insistence that not only did Jesus rise from the dead, but was a virgin birth, divided loaves and changed water to wine is surely too much for the rational human mind to seriously contemplate. From my daughter’s summary of what children really discuss after scripture, it could well be doing more to damage our children’s trust in the Christian faith than maintain it.

I realise fully that to Christian believers, faith in miracles immerses them in a different world. That by suspending the need for rational order they create an environment for deeper belief and spirituality. That unquestioning ‘faith’, is a fundamental hallmark of Christianity.

I also understand that by accepting the resurrection as fact, it makes it so much easier to accept without question the other miracles so pivotal to fundamental Christian faith. In 2009, as the number of practicing Christians in the western world declines, surely our relationship with God need no longer hinge on the ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ acceptance of miracles?

Unlike our often-tardy European ancestors, our educated society doesn’t need the threat of damnation or the lure of heaven as a form of social control. The idea that some supernatural entity was capable of ecstatic or damning miracles may have done the trick during the reformation. In struggling, oppressed and uneducated populations, fear of the unknowable is always a prime method of social control. This explains the Christian churches’ powerful drive into oppressed African and South American countries. In wealthier, educated societies however, the threat of supernatural intervention commands far less leverage.

In our society that is controlled more by its access to wealth than lack of it, we are more likely to be persuaded by feet on the ground logic than legendary miracles…by evolutionary proof rather than ‘intelligent design’. It’s also true that in ordinary secular life, any remotely dubious promise is likely to be scrutinised by a consumer watchdog or the ACCC. For the sake of miracles, the separation of church and state is indeed a necessity.

If the important life of Jesus is going to be questioned alongside Santa and the Easter Bunny, perhaps it’s time our religious leaders took a more flexible view of the Bible and those who read it differently. Perhaps it’s time they embraced the resurrection not as literal fact, but as a metaphor for the incredible resilience of humans and nations in the face of catastrophic events. Events we have seen all too much of lately.

The literal and the metaphoric could stand alone or together, yet both views could be honoured by religious leaders as valid expressions of ‘a’ relationship with God,…a relationship meaningful for all in modern society and one not contingent on, nor defined by our acceptance of miracles.

Europcar: Stalled in customer complaint

Hiring a car in a Europe is full of pitfalls. Mainly the problems arise from trying to read maps in a strange language, understanding road signs and withstanding the abuse from drivers who consider 130km an hour far too slow.

Yet my recent use of Europcar in Italy made for a far worse experience than any fist shaking Italian in a Lamborghini could provide.

Mind you, there was nothing wrong with the car. There were however, some immense problems with the bill. On hiring the car, I told the rental officer that it would be a two day hire between Venice and Siena. That meant the car would be returned to Siena on a Sunday. “No problem!” I was repeatedly told.

After some lovely scenery in Tuscany and some excellent food in Florence, we arrived in Siena for the Sunday return. Don’t try and find fuel on a Sunday in Italy. Self-serve pumps may be available in some service stations yet working them needs a degree from Oxford. I decided to pay the Europcar rate for the half tank of fuel I’d used. Better to pay the fuel rate than miss the train to Rome…especially with two 13 year olds itching to go shopping!

The Europcar office in Siena is so far away from civilisation that not even the Police know where it is. It took us an hour to find, and we eventually hailed a cab and followed it to a back alley off a back street in a back suburb…obviously unknown to the local constabulary.

On arriving, there was no one on duty. There was however, a set of instructions telling us returners to lock the car and put the keys in a box at the side of the building. The car was clean and locked, and the keys nicely placed in the box just short of the two days hire I had intended. In my deluded state, I thought there may be some sort of timing device that recorded the time keys were put in the box. What was I thinking?

On returning to Sydney, I received a bill from Europcar for three full days of hire + fuel. On phoning the Australian Head Office, they said they would investigate the overcharge but ‘…not to hold my breath’.

After two weeks, they had not had a reply to their questions so I asked them to enquire again and also asked for Europcar’s contact details in Italy. I emailed them several times yet received no response. I still haven’t.

After a month I again phoned Europcar Australia, and was told “Oh…They’re hopeless in Italy. You’ll never get a response. We can’t even get a response.”

Finally, some six weeks after receiving the bill, the Australian Office told me that because the car was returned on a Sunday, and Italians don’t work on a Sunday, I would be charged the full three-day rate. This was not explained in the rental contract and there is nothing about it on the Europcar website. It’s clearly an unethical and potentially fraudulent overcharge, and if every tourist who returns a car on a Sunday is being slugged, Europcar is doing very nicely out of it.

Not only that, there has been a recent unexplained deduction from my credit card from Europcar Rome for $97.00. – six months after my European trip! My bank has been notified of possible fraudulent activity. I’m lookEuropcar: ing forward to, but not expecting, Europcar’s response.

On Googling the phrase “problems with Europcar” you’ll find thousands of similar stories. If this was an Australian company, Consumer Affairs would have been on to them in a flash. This is not the way we do business in Australia.

So the lesson is clear. If you’re travelling to Europe, and planning to hire a car, choose Avis, Budget or take the train. Whatever you do, avoid Europcar like the plague.

Reality: the best gift of all

This piece first appeared on ABC Online on 23/12/08

“And what do you want for Christmas young man?” said the Myer Santa to 10-year Steven. “An Ipod? A Nintendo game? Perhaps a remote control car?”

Steven looked decidedly glum, and after some deliberation, spoke with maturity far beyond his years. “I want the financial crisis to end please Santa. I understand these things sometimes take time to resolve, yet Mum and Dad tell me this Christmas will be far leaner than any before, and that our holiday is going to be at home this year. I’m guessing even you are having trouble affording the raw materials to make all our toys.”

Santa smiled. He knew this was no ordinary Christmas for many kids like Steven.

For the first time in many Aussie kid’s lives, they are experiencing a Christmas not defined by the material overflow that has been the trademark of Christmas for the past decade. Dads and Mums (and Santas) around the country have made the conscious decision to spend less and take control of the largesse that has long defined the holiday season. Rudd Christmas bonus or not, families are tightening their belts, and even the retailing gurus are facing reality.

Richard Evans, Executive Director of the Australian Retailers Association, admits that shoppers have opted for less expensive items, and although “the crowds will be the same, their total spend will be less.” For most of us, this is a no-brainer.

Yet for children faced with the promise of a ‘diminished’ Christmas, the reality of it all must be confusing to say the least. Possibly even more confusing is the feeble efforts of parents in trying to explain this change. If the head of General Motors can’t understand it, how can a 10 year old? Mmmm…perhaps that’s a bad question.

One of the biggest gifts a parent can give a child is the ability to face reality and to understand personal limitations. We’re emerging from a decade when every child was capable of everything and every adult could have it all, to a far more reasoned time. For years, school report cards never told it how it was with children always ‘working towards understanding’ rather than simply ‘not understanding’. The post feminist message that women could ‘have it all’ has been proved a myth with both women and men understanding that life is compromise and attempting to have it all often results in obtaining nothing at all.

For children, understanding that years of plenty are usually followed by years of thrift helps them see the world with a seasonal rhythm and prepare them for the cycles of life with all their ups and downs. Continuing the delusion of everlasting wealth is like believing the myth of everlasting health. Everlasting anything is delusional. As human animals, we’re all subject to the beat of the seasons, whether they are environmental, financial or personal.

It’s in the very seasons of difficulty that communities and families often forget trivial personal disagreements and somehow pull together to overcome whatever external problems they face. Australian mateship wasn’t forged through consumer bliss in Christmas shopping malls, but in a spirit of hardship faced and overcome. Far from resulting in societal disintegration, high and low seasonal cycles help cement the relationships that bind society together. Together we can enjoy the highs, because without being united, we can never overcome the lows.

This Christmas season, it’s perhaps timely to give our children not just a gift that needs unwrapping, but the gift of a conversation about the realities of being a human animal on this planet of ours.  Yet rather than the negative conversation of financial woe that many are having, the conversation could be one of harmony, natural order and togetherness reflected through our seasonal and personal cycles. The kids may not say thank you, or give you a hug, but unlike the Ipod or the Nintendo , it’s a gift that will last a lifetime.

Why Ponting must be sacked

While Ricky Ponting has seen Australia through some lush times as cricket captain, his time is most certainly at an end. His performance during the fourth test in India has been unconvincing, and his willingness to throw away what could have been a glorious win in order to maintain his captaincy during the first test against New Zealand in 10 days time is little less than deluded.

There was a time during India’s second innings of the fourth test that Australia, ebullient after the run-out of Tendulkar, should have pressed home their advantage with the quicker swing bowling of Lee and Watson.

Yet to the dismay of commentators and fans alike, Ponting fell into the hands of the Indian batsmen by bowling first Cameron White (who took a thumping), then Michaela Hussey (who didn’t boost the score, yet didn’t bother the batsmen) and then Michael Clarke (who seems to be losing 1kg in weight every time he bowls a ball).

The reason for this bizarre selection of bowlers was solely due to Australia’s dismally slow over rate. While the entire team risked a fine for slow over completion, Ponting risked suspension for the next match, which just happens to be against New Zealand in 10 days time. While I’m quite sure the team would have copped a fine simply to regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Ponting let Harbhajan Singh and Mahendra Dhoni belt a partnership of over 100, setting Australia 382 to secure a win…a big ask in any country, let alone India. A big ask so Ponting could avoid suspension.

When Watson was finally invited to bowl well after the damage was done, he not only stopped the avalanche of runs, but almost immediately secured the valuable wicket of Harbhajan Singh. Had this occurred 90 minutes prior straight after the tea break, Australia could have been chasing a total of less than 300 with a day to spare.

Yet this has happened before. In January 2008, Ponting was forced to use similar tactics to avoid suspension and a team fine in the 3rd Test against India in Perth.

Australia lost the test and still copped a fine. Perhaps the fine would have been worth a win. Ponting’s perspective – that being captain in an upcoming test is more important than chasing victory in the here and now is questionable. His inability to monitor the over rate should have selectors searching for a math’s coach quick-smart, while his insistence on part-timers, and his confounding reluctance to bowl the unpredictable Katich, or even the quicks off a short run, should leave the Australian Cricket Board asking some serious questions.

As Australia enters its hot and lazy summer of cricket, change is most certainly nigh.

Smiling in the gloom

And the Lord said unto the people of the world, “Verily, as the globe warms and the waters rise and the uncontrolled renovation of bathrooms and kitchens continues unabated, I will send a pestilence. This pestilence will be in the form of an Angel, and this Angel will be called the Angel of Financial Turmoil who will drive out the greedy company directors, merchant bankers and uncontrolled mortgage lenders to the land of moderation and frugality.

“And as the supply of credit dries, there will be no more funds for expensive four wheel drives nor the fuel they consume. The people of the world will reduce their consumption of all things, and will begin to walk, ride pushbikes or take public transport. Lo, they will realise that there is little money for regular restaurant meals or a diet of take-away food. They will once again grow vegetables, milk the beast and sustain themselves. The word ‘McDonald’ will once again be a Scottish clan and obesity will be no more. The people will rise and be fruitful and while they will not even think about it, they will be happy.”

When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. Some however found an interesting parallel between financial turmoil and the world’s need to consume less. Some understood the sign and saw that God and Nature had fought back in the way that people would best understand; that if reducing consumption to save the planet wouldn’t force change, reducing consumption because they had no money to do otherwise would have to do.

The financial turmoil of the past month has left many looking at ways to save a few dollars. My conversations with local restaurant owners indicate people are eating out less, and when they do, they’re becoming more price conscious.  Radio gardening shows have begun serious talk-back on growing vegetables and raising chickens.

According to media reports, many are taking to the pushbike to save on fuel and parking costs. The world is certainly a different place, and while many mourn the loss of financial freedom the ‘Angel’ has delivered, others see our sudden consumption consciousness as the first step in solving the world’s climate crisis, perhaps a first step they were unable to take by themselves.

According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, if the demands on our planet continue at the same rate, “by the mid 2030’s, we’d need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.” For the unconscious spender, this simply means two planets to renovate. Great! To others, 2030 is very close indeed.

Yet rather than cry in our double brie about it all, there’s a definite feeling that this change, this new world we’re entering, could be OK. That in delivering the pestilence, the Angel has created a non-negotiable set of rules that we must abide by. Carte Blanch is fine, yet limits created through necessity provide a structure and direction that western society has lacked. Like a tear-away child needing discipline, western consumers ran away with the ball, really wanting someone to give chase and read us the riot act so we could feel safe within fair boundaries.

Capitalism, bless its little heart, has allowed us to do what we want when we want, yet capitalism spinning out of control creates individual greed and community breakdown. The ridiculous salaries paid to some company directors represents capitalism gone mad, especially when these salaries stand alongside declining literacy, underfunded hospital systems and an indigenous problem that we should all be ashamed of.

Yet we’re all responsible. I saw no street protests when the Macquarie Bank chiefs walked away with their zillions. Words of dissent in Australian society have been few and far between, and while we were renovating, many tear-aways ran away with the ball. Indeed, we may have run and hidden the ball ourselves somewhere in our new kitchen!

The structure, direction and limitation imposed through necessity need not spell doom and gloom. Throughout history, it’s the ‘difficult’ periods that create community and a sense of ‘pulling together’. Australian ‘mateship’ wasn’t a product of good times and consumer bliss but the result of hardship and necessary limits. Whatever the advertisers try and spin us, our lasting memories aren’t of lying in the sun sipping margaritas, but of the holiday when we had to overcome something that went drastically wrong. It’s of having something to work for with creativity and flair, not just having something to spend. It’s the memory of crusty bread from an old wood-fired oven, or long seasons without air-conditioning waiting for the southerly buster. It’s of warm bottled milk capped with cream, home without renovation and the romance of old things.

And as the people worked, and as they celebrated the Feast of Weeks with the first fruits of the harvest, they realised what they’d lost in the years between then and now. They laughed and they sung. They ate, drunk and danced and the children danced with them. They made love and made no plans – certainly no renovation plans. And the Lord saw that although the food was plain, and the wine cleanskin, it was all very, very good.