Give circumcision inequality the snip

There are convincing arguments both for and against infant male circumcision. Medical authorities supportingthe practice describe it as a form of vaccination. Thoseagainst regard it as potentially risky surgery that is 'unnecessary, irreversible and harmful'. Unlike female circumcision, there appears to be no certain case for the state to determine whether or not non-therapeutic infant male circumcision should take place. 

In 2009 a detailed issues paper of the Tasmania Law Reform Institute canvassed the criminalisation of the practice on human rights grounds. This was a response to calls for clarification of the law to determine if those performing the procedure could be charged with committing assault or abuse, and whether parental consent is a mitigating factor.

Tasmania's then Children's Commissioner Paul Mason said: 'Everyone is entitled to bodily integrity, to protection of their own body from injury by another without their consent.'

But doctors advocating the procedure as a preventative health measure can also mount a human rights argument along the lines of every child having the right to access the best available health outcomes. It would be self-defeating if the 'protection' afforded by one right prevented the 'access' offered by another.

The obvious problem is that infants are not capable of giving consent, and experts argue that the procedure becomes problematic once they're old enough to decide. 

Necessarily it falls to parents to make an informed and responsible decision, and there's nothing wrong with that. It is subsequently important that they have the means to exercise the option they've chosen. Regrettably this is not always the case, and their decision can be reversed by their economic circumstances. Middle and higher income families could easily afford the cost of up to $800 but low income families cannot.

The cost will become a major issue if the Federal Government goes ahead with plans to remove non-therapeutic infant male circumcision from the list of procedures that qualify for Medicare payments unless it is found to be necessary in particular cases. There is already inequity in the fact that public hospitals do not perform infant male circumcisions in most states.

Advocates are calling for an end to the ban on the procedure in public hospitals and a substantial increase in the Medicare benefit for the operation.

It is empowering for parents to have the ability to contribute to the quality of life of their children though responsible decision making, but alienating if inequitable funding models make decisions for them.

Hockey and Thatcher's 'no entitlement' is bad economics

In Australia we've just had a Federal Budget that sought to produce a surplus at all costs. In Europe they're reacting to pressure to agree to crippling austerity measures.

Yet it's quite possible that both initiatives will fail because they rely on narrow measures of economic wellbeing. Hard-line doctrinaire strategies that include cuts to social welfare can hurt people in the short term and the long term.

The esteemed economist Joseph Stiglitz has blamed Europe's current predicament on political pressure to yield to what might be called fundamentalist economics.

In a recent interview with The European, he talks about 'overly simplified', 'distorted', and indeed 'faulty' pre-GFC models that 'encouraged policy-makers to believe that the markets would solve all the problems'. Yet, he says, the 'narrow-minded' free-market economists responsible for the global financial crisis 'have not revised their opinions'.

The economists in question argue that demographic change, and the end of the industrial age, have made the welfare state financially unsustainable. They say that cutting debt means reducing the cost of welfare payments. Stiglitz counters that the Scandinavian countries 'all have strong social protection and they are all growing'. He is particularly critical of the economists' fixation on GDP numbers.

'I don't want to talk about GDP anymore, I want to talk about what is happening to most citizens. Even the Right is beginning to agree that GDP is not a good measure of economic progress. The notion of the welfare of most citizens is almost a no-brainer.'

Stiglitz would strongly disagree with Joe Hockey's recent landmark 'End of the Age of Entitlement'address because of his belief there is a clear and important link between human wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Stiglitz is well known for the his participation in the study commissioned by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 to assess how well GDP is able to measure society's wellbeing. Its conclusion was that most people can be worse off even though average income is increasing.

Understandably Hockey provoked outrage with his suggestion that we should rely on families rather than the state for social welfare. History could well rank Hockey's 'there's no such thing as entitlement' alongside Thatcher's infamous 'there is no such thing as society'. Thatcher declared 'there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation'.

Hockey's premise that high social spending equals debt and decline reflects the GDP fetish that Stiglitz regrets in the fundamentalist economists. It is deaf to the cries of anguish of individuals such as Dimitris Christoulas, the 77-year-old retired Greek pharmacist who took his own life because he could no longer afford to feed himself.

Moreover it refuses to countenance the perfectly sound economic argument that expenditure on the welfare of those who are marginalised is an investment in the social wellbeing of all of us.

Big media's NBN convergence challenge

The National Broadband Network (NBN) is set to level the media's playing field, and that's good and bad. 

We'll all have the ability to become broadcasters, with no need for licences and expensive infrastructure. Innovations such as YouTube have already given us a taste of that, and how 'citizen' media can contribute to our flourishing as human beings and communities. 

But because our media world will be flooded with content from overseas, our distinctive Australian culture will be threatened. This has occurred with state and regional cultures in recent decades, as nationally networked content has become the norm. State based football now receives little media coverage compared with the past. 

In the future we'll source the majority of our media content from the NBN rather than broadcast towers and newspaper vendors. The media industry as we know it will die if it fails in its various attempts to reinvent itself.

The end of big media businesses such as Seven, Nine, Ten and the newspapers would be bad for media proprietors such as Kerry Stokes and Rupert Murdoch, but not necessarily a great loss at all for the rest of us, given the NBN's empowerment of small media enterprises and the diversity that implies.  

However it also provides an uncertain future for the ABC and SBS, which exist largely to promote Australian culture and identity.

Earlier this year, ABC managing director Mark Scottsounded the alarm at a forum of commercial and public sector broadcasters:

'In the short term, in the next couple of years it looks pretty good. People are still watching television ... But if you take a longer-term view, when the NBN is here and you are battling global content, where there's seamless distribution and endless content available, that's where you have got to be quite paranoid ... and you have to be positioning yourself quite aggressively now for the uncertainties of that world.'

The Federal Government's Convergence Review report released last week provides a blueprint for media policy in the NBN era. Its vision includes many radical changes including a 50 per cent increase in Australian content obligations for commercial free to air television operators. 

More compulsory locally-produced programming will diminish the currently healthy earnings of the television networks. But broadcasting a substantial amount of local content will provide them with a point of difference that will potentially cushion them against competition from foreign content providers.

Australian programs are costly to produce, but it has been demonstrated over the past two or more decades that Australians prefer local to foreign content. 

The commercial networks are demanding that Australian content rules should also apply to the ABC. This seems fair, although extending the requirement to SBS would be another matter.

The report of the Convergence Review is a document with many layers of complexity and simplistic responses to it can be misleading and meaningless. Nevertheless we could find that the increased Australian content it recommends could mutually benefit the TV networks and the Australian public. Australians will watch free to air television to the extent that it provides Australian content, and this will ensure the survival of Australian culture.

Rupert Murdoch an example for older Australians

81-year-old Rupert Murdoch has been on display in a London court room during the past week as a possible role model for older Australians. There is a lot not to admire about his business practices, but he stands tall as an elder who is able to maintain his stature in the face of momentous challenge. His 103-year-old mother is another example of a person whose dignity remains undiminished in old age.

Murdoch and his mother are privileged in that personal wealth has afforded them the best aged care money can buy. Obviously Murdoch does not yet receive 'aged care' because his good health sets him apart from many of his contemporaries, who are afflicted with Alzheimer's and other conditions of old age. His well-funded lifestyle and health regime is geared to ensure the longevity of his working life.

Murdoch and anybody else who can afford to fund their retirement and aged care costs should do so. They have a potential to maintain their dignity and quality of life in old age that those of slender means lack. The Government needs to fund the retirement and aged care of those who cannot pay their own costs, but there is no reason why it should give funding to those who can.

That is the thrust of the Federal Government's new aged care blueprint, which was announced last week and welcomed by most stakeholders and, it seems, the Opposition. Tony Abbott's response to the plan is essentially that it's good but too good to be true. Let's hope it's not.

The essence of the blueprint is that aged care is an entitlement rather than a luxury. That is a departure from the rather muddled and undefined position of the past, when a greater number of people died before reaching old age and there was less call for aged care.

There has been an imperative for the Government to update and articulate aged care entitlement as a core value linked to what it means to be Australian. There is no such entitlement in certain other countries, notably in the United States, where there is resistance to the idea of support for those who cannot pay.

It is a vast understatement to suggest the increasing population of older Australians has stretched resources. Martin Laverty of Catholic Health Australiaspeaks of 'sustainability deficits'. He said 60 per cent of our aged care services have operated in the red for the past few years, and a paltry 1800 of the 24,000 applications for aged care at home were successful.

'The government fell short of adopting all the Productivity Commission's plans, which, if adopted, would have set up aged care services to meet the needs of older Australians for the next few decades. But what the government did offer is a blueprint that will improve what is a pretty dire situation.'

There's a lot of work to be done to ensure that the reforms are legislated and implemented without the political and media obstruction faced by that other great reform the NBN. To that end, Lin Hatfield-Dodds of UnitingCare has called for an implementation group with bipartisan representation from federal and state governments, as well as the non government sector. 

Unlocking the culture of clergy sex abuse

We do not criticise the police force as a whole when there are revelations of corruption. We tend to believe that police men and women protect us and do at least a fair job of upholding the law. Our condemnation is confined to police drug rings and the like and, most importantly, the evil culture that sustains them. 

There is every reason why we should apply the same principle in our response to sexual abuse within the Church. In other words, let's avoid scapegoating the Church in general and focus instead on convicted abusers and, most particularly, the culture that has sanctioned their actions, even if identifying it is a lengthy and costly process.

Bishop James Moriarty led the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin in Ireland until he resigned in 2009 after he was criticised in the Murphy Report into the handling of clerical child sex abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese. He was one of many church leaders who effectively allowed sexual abuse to occur under his watch. 

'With the benefit of hindsight, I accept that, from the time I became an auxiliary bishop, I should have challenged the prevailing culture,' he said in his statement of resignation.

Identifying and describing the culture that prevailed should count for almost everything in the investigation of clergy sex abuse (as indeed with corrupt behaviour in the police force and other professions). Individual abusers, and those in authority who failed to act, were a product of a culture that accepted, at best, the existence of sexual abuse as an abhorrent fact of life and, at worst – among offenders – that sexual gratification at the expense of those subject to one's authority was a 'perk' of the job (like funds from crime for corrupt police). 

Specifically every inquiry into sexual abuse should draw significantly on ethnographic and historical expertise. Ethnography — referred to as 'thick description' — aims to provide a detailed, in-depth description of the unwritten rules by which we live our lives. It has the potential to unlock the secrets of a culture and, in connection with sexual abuse, explain why some church personnel abused minors. 

History is important because much of the abuse occurred at a time when social and religious mores were very different, even though it may have been only two or three decades ago. Irish Jesuit Father Gerry O'Hanlon describes it as 'trying to understand how a truth that seems so blindingly obvious now [but] was, at another but quite recent period, so opaque'. 

O'Hanlon has written several essays on sexual abuse and the Murphy Report in the theological journal The Furrow. He uses the poet Seamus Heaney's well known line about the Irish Troubles — 'whatever you say, say nothing' — to characterise the behaviour of many Irish bishops in relation to sexual abuse. 'This, in the terms used by the Murphy Report, is the culture of 'don't ask, don't tell'. And so bishops, for example, did not talk about this even among themselves and were unaware of how widespread the problem was.'

Victoria's parliamentary committee has much it could learn from a study of the Murphy Report and the analysis of O'Hanlon and others. It has already been heavily criticised for lacking expertise and resources, and there is widespread expectation that the result will be superficial and lack credibility.

One committee member, Frank Maguire, has already resigned after declaring he was not up to the job. It could take further resignations before the State Government rethinks its decision to act in haste.

Philip Adams in schism with the Dawkinsonians

ation in that it was promoted as a fight rather than comedy. In a sense this is much closer to the contest of ideas that we would hope to see in an exchange between a believer and an unbeliever. But it lacked the mutual respect that any form of dialogue requires.

The Sydney Morning Herald's Leesha McKenny referred to the 'barely concealed mutual disdain between Dawkins and Pell', implying that hostility was the defining characteristic of the event. Neil Ormerod also made this point in Eureka Street last Wednesday when he contrasted the Q&A 'match-up' with the 'gentlemanly affair' that was February's Oxford debate between Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Dawkins ('on his best behaviour').

In the shadow of the blockbuster Q&A and Global Atheist Convention was a much more poignant encounter earlier this month between broadcaster Philip Adams and the Jesuit Fr Gerald O'Collins. Adams is the longtime (but arguably fallen) doyen of Australia's atheist movement, while O'Collins is one of the English-speaking world's most published and respected Catholic theologians. 

The conversation took place on Adams' Late Night Live program on ABC Radio National, and there was not merely a degree of respect, but positive affection. In the opening moments of the interview, Adams referred to 'the bridge between us', and O'Collins said to Adams: 'We always think of you with affection and gratitude.'

Such an instant bond need not soften the positions held. And it didn't. Adams attempted to chisel away at O'Collins' belief in the Resurrection as an actual event. O'Collins stood firm in declaring the physical Resurrection 'central and obvious' to him in his life. Adams countered by admitting that while he does live in a universe that is ultimately meaningless, he's very happy, and life as an unbeliever 'is not too bad'.

But there was far more agreement than disagreement, especially with their common distaste for religious and atheist fundamentalism. 'I find fanaticism hard to take,' said O'Collins. Adams mentioned with a degree of pride: 'I've fallen out of favour with many Australian atheists because I'm not sufficiently Dawkinsonian.'

In view of the natural bond between Adams and O'Collins, it seems there could also be an affinity between the one-eyed Dawkinsonians at the Global Atheist Convention and fundamentalist believers of all religious faiths. It's a pity that they are more likely to engage in fistfights than dialogue. Or maybe not.

The slow torture of kids in detention

Julian Burnside taunted his audience at La Trobe University in 2010 with the suggestion that we take a couple of children out of detention and publicly execute them.

'And if killing seems a bit tough, well then what say we just take half a dozen kids from detention and torture them for a while. Publicly, so that everyone will get the message.'

The idea of his 'thought experiment' was to illustrate that we are not bothered by the torture of children in immigration detention because it is out of sight. Burnside's logic was that if the torture was conducted publicly, and not behind razor wire, most Australians would be bothered. The politicians would act immediately to stop child detention.

The torture is also out of sight because it is mental and there are no physical wounds. The evidence will only come to light in the form of mental illness, which the children will suffer in years to come. 'The torture is slow and unseen and the damage much harder to fix.'

Sister Anne Higgins has been involved with families in immigration detention for over ten years. She says it's well documented that people detained for even three months suffer mental illness. She stresses that children are especially vulnerable.

'I recall in particular a 12-year-old girl who arrived at a detention facility with her parents and younger sister.  She was a bright-eyed child relieved to be safe from the danger experienced in her country of origin.'i

Higgins was alarmed to learn that after several months, the young girl was suicidal. As in many detention cases, the refugee determination and review processes were drawn out. 

'Her parents were powerless; they could not change the situation. The local guards also did not know what to do. As the child's life was now in danger from her situation, the doctor attending the centre placed her in hospital. This bright-eyed, engaging young girl had now become a sad, listless child. After many more months the family were eventually accepted but severe damage had already been done to this young person and to her family.'

According to the International Detention Coalition (IDC), Australia currently holds 528 children in secure and remote facilities. Last week it released its Captured Childhoods report at the 19th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The authors spent two years listening first-hand to the stories of children and parents from all over the world who have experienced or been impacted by immigration detention. 

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen responded with a statement that that the 'Federal Government is continuing to move children and vulnerable families out of detention facilities'. Effectively it underlined how slowly this is taking place, as if there is no urgency. 

The Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition said nothing. It was left to the Greens' Sarah Hanson-Young to urge legislation to outlaw child detention and to declare that it is 'shameful that Australia is on the list of countries that locks children up simply for seeking refuge and safety'.

Big media takes a leaf out of big tobacco

Media bosses are doing its best to discredit the Finkelstein Report and to convince ordinary Australians that the protections it seeks are not in their best interest. The main recommendation of the Federal Government's Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation is for a publicly-funded regulatory authority to replace the Press Council, which is operated by the media companies themselves. 

Fairfax's Australian Financial Review had media industry heavyweights speak at its Future Forum on Thursday. It asserted in its editorial the next day that the 'old-school' view of the media held by the Finkelstein inquiry 'no longer exists'. 

In this new world, [Austar pay TV chief John] Porter's warning resonates: Australia should 'stop believing that paternalistic government can keep up with changes in technology and the market'.

It could be that the media bosses do have a better understanding of new technology than bureaucrats employed by the government. But if that is the case, it does not follow that they can be trusted to make and police their own rules. 

The commercial media bosses' main responsibility is to build revenue for shareholders, not to protect consumers from harm. We would not let big tobacco specify the size of health warnings on cigarette packs, so why should we allow media bosses to decide on the media that is best for us?

An editorial published in the Weekend Australian earlier this month went much further in its attempt to damn the report. The writer depicted Justice Ray Finkelstein as the victim of a left-wing ideological 'conspiracy'. This was perpetrated by academics who are 'unsuccessful' media practitioners engaged in the 'pseudo-discipline of media studies'. 

Mr Finkelstein's reliance on academics to gauge the performance of the media contaminates his report with error ... The empirical failings of these poachers-turned-gamekeepers do not appear to trouble Mr Finkelstein, who quotes at length from their submissions and 'research' to claim that the press is so biased and malevolent that it should be controlled by a government-funded body.

Dr Anne Dunn is Associate Professor in media and communications at the University of Sydney and President of the Journalism Education Association of Australia. She responds to the editorial's assertion that the claim of media studies to be vocational 'amounts to fraud'. Her explanation is that the courses are primarily designed to provide a broad education rather than practical instruction.

A university level degree with a major in journalism or media production will seldom 'claim to be vocational' ... because a university degree is widely understood to offer something more.

Among other qualities, Dunn argues that a university education fosters the ability to conduct research, use evidence and construct arguments. These, she suggests, are not evident in the Weekend Australian's editorial and other media attacks on the Finkelstein Report. 

Moreover there is an essential link between study of the humanities and a humane view of the world that is represented in the Finkelstein Report but missing from the media bosses' cries for self-regulation. These 'old-school' values are more relevant to determining the rights and wrongs of media practice than merely an understanding of new technology and markets.

Zero tolerance for ritual humiliation

The Church is recognised as having tolerated abuse of children and young adults, and sometimes regarded it as character building, in connection with corporal punishment and activities such as drinking rituals at university residential colleges.

Yesterday’s Sun-Herald led with the story of a first-year female student at the Catholic St John’s College at Sydney University rushed to hospital after being pressured to consume an initiation drink during an Orientation Week ritual.

In recent years other colleges at the university have also had to deal with the entrenched culture of ritual humiliation involving alcohol and sex. A student from Wesley College at Sydney University wrote in 2009:

Many young women feel disempowered, or attempt to win male 'respect' by going along with their incessant chanting to 'get your tits out for the boys' – and losing their self-respect.

Yesterday’s Sun-Herald revealed that the St John’s College rector Michael Bongers has implemented the college’s zero-tolerance policy on excessive drinking and other anti-social behaviour which had been a more or less accepted part of the college’s culture for many generations. Bongers has suspended 30 students over the recent incident.

Suspending 30 students makes a powerful statement that ritual humiliation destroys rather than builds character, and it won’t be tolerated. It was a tough and potentially divisive decision that will involve collateral damage. The college is likely to take a substantial financial hit, and at least some of the 30 will feel they played little or no part in the offence and do not deserve to have their education disrupted.

Zero-tolerance is also the risky strategy that federal defence minister Stephen Smith employed in dealing with the Skype scandal in the defence force. He perceived that the message sent by Commodore Bruce Kafer’s insensitive timing of his disciplining of the alleged victim undermined public condemnation of the act, even though Kafer did not break any rules. Smith has put his job on the line, and hopefully he and the defence force will emerge stronger after the dust settles.i

Military cadets and college students are at an impressionable and vulnerable stage of their life. Technically they are no longer minors, but they remain sensitive to many of the stresses that can undermine their confidence for the rest of their lives. It’s worth alluding to the positive energy created by the recent Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children inquiry.

In Eureka Street last week, Monsignor David Cappo highlighted its strategy of both prevention and high level intervention. He also discussed the interconnectedness of issues such as violence, alcohol and substance misuse and mental health problems. 

When a cocktail of such factors is placed in the hothouse environment of a military academy or university college with a tradition of robust behaviour, there is a certain inevitability in the result. But this need not be the case if those in charge are prepared to take decisive action to stop behaviour that has been tolerated in the past.

Infanticide and the spectre of eugenics

For many, it would have been alarming to read on Friday that 'killing newborns is morally the same as abortion and should be permissible if the mother wishes it'.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, the idea is that around a third of infants with Down syndrome are not diagnosed prenatally, and mothers of children with serious abnormalities should have the chance to end the child's life after, as well as before, birth.

There is a lot that could and should be said about such a proposal, except that it is not a proposal, but merely a 'reasoned argument'. Arguments don't have legs unless they're greeted by popular acclaim, or perhaps contempt.

There is a danger that expressions of community outrage at the idea of infanticide could put it on the agenda for serious discussion.

Indeed that has perhaps already occurred in this instance, in which case organised community outrage could be appropriate. A lack of such an expression would then be a poor reflection on our society if we accept that the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members.

Julian Savulescu, who edits the British Journal of Medical Ethics says the two Melbourne academics who wrote the original article putting the argument for terminating newborns did not seek to 'present the Truth or promote some one moral view', but 'to present well reasoned argument'. He added that 'if others made a similarly refined case for recriminalising abortion he would also publish that'.

To an extent, his point is a good one. It's that academics operate in a laboratory of ideas, and it's their task to experiment with a variety of arguments in their attempt uncover the truth.

However some arguments are like dangerous viruses that should not be allowed to escape the lab, and their justification for infanticide seems to have done just that. It's therefore legitimate to suggest that this could be a matter of professional negligence.

A frightening example of a dangerous idea that made it out of the lab and into Victorian Government legislation is that of eugenics, the science of improving the race. It was promoted by a number of Melbourne academics such as the influential and well respected Professor of Anatomy at Melbourne University Richard Berry. 

State Parliament unanimously passed a bill legalising eugenics in 1939, but it was never enacted due to the embarrassment of the Holocaust. The bill aimed to institutionalise and potentially sterilise groups such as Aborigines, slum dwellers, homosexuals, prostitutes and alcoholics, as well as those with small heads and with low IQs.

Actually the very point about taking a stand against infanticide is that it is a form of eugenics, which by definition has no place in a society that cares for its most vulnerable.