Archive for the 'Australia' Category


I’m volunteering for secular ethics instruction in primary schools

ethicsI didn’t go to school here in Australia, but I’m starting to learn more about it.

Public schools here in New South Wales provide, in an example of separation of church and state, only secular instruction. However I’ve learned that they are also required to make time and facilities available each week for Special Religious Education (SRE). This isn’t comparative religious studies, it’s actual religious instruction – not by a teacher, but by a person authorised to teach the articles of faith of that religion, like a priest or an imam.

Most schools call this “Scripture class”. Across the state the majority of SRE classes are Christian, though in cities like Sydney there’s enough multiculturalism that there are plenty of Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and other classes.

If a parent doesn’t want their child to attend any SRE class in their school they can opt their child out. In that case they attend “Non-scripture”, sometimes called “colouring-in” because they’re often discouraged from doing extra work that would put them – during school hours – at an advantage to those who are in SRE.

A few years ago some people decided there should be another option for those kids that weren’t in SRE; that they could be taught secular, philosophical ethics in school, without the need for a religious framework. That program is now being offered at a growing number of NSW schools, and it’s called Primary Ethics. It teaches primary-age kids how to think about ethical questions like: is it ever right to lie? How can you tell when someone’s really your friend? Why do we eat some animals and not others?

I thought this was a great idea. If schools are compelled to allow for religious instruction then I think it’s only fair that a non-religious option for learning ethics should also be made available.

I’m not in the classrooms teaching it, but I am the volunteer Ethics Coordinator for a primary school here on Sydney’s northern beaches. That means I’ll ensure the ethics teachers have completed their training before they go in front of any classes, and I’ll work with the school to ensure we have enough classes and rooms to meet the demand of parents who want their kids in Ethics.

I’m looking forward to getting involved in the community, and learning more about this state’s educational system.


The Northern Beaches, where pervs are fair

Last weekend, on my run to Manly, I turned to jog along the beachfront and ended up behind a group of very fit young ladies. This was pure chance, I swear.

After only a few steps the group of women was hailed by a hairy, middle-aged man, as wide as he was tall, obviously just in from a swim. “Looking good, ladies, looking good,” he oozed, his beach towel stretched to its limits around his wet, wooly belly. The women ran on, ignoring him.

“Hey, what about me?” I shouted with a smile.

As I moved right to overtake the pack I heard from behind me, “Hey, I didn’t say you didn’t look good.”


Sydney Festival 2014: go see this

Sydney Festival is coming around again. I will be quite busy in January with new house setup and baby prep, so probably won’t attend many of the scheduled arts events. Or any of them, really.



But here’s my opinion of what you should go see, Sydney people. In no particular order:


Volunteering for OzHarvest and the Newtown Mission

My employer, CA Technologies, gives us employees up to 3 non-consecutive paid days off each year to volunteer in the community. Back in May I took a day off to assist crisis help line Lifeline by lifting tons of books in preparation for a fundraising book fair. Yesterday I and several of my colleagues had another day away from our desks helping OzHarvest and the Newtown Mission.


OzHarvest Food Rescue addresses the fact that our society throws away a lot of perfectly good food. At the end of each day restaurants throw away mountains of it that they either feel they can’t use or that customers wouldn’t accept. Grocery chains reject produce that isn’t “shaped right”. OzHarvest estimate that 20% of food that’s sold in Australia ends up being thrown into a landfill, uneaten. So they drive around to as many places as they can with their fleet of vans, pick up what’s perfectly usable, and distribute it to one of the hundreds of charities in Australia that can use it. In Sydney alone they have 11 vans, 900 companies acting as food donors, and over 240 agencies that take the food, resulting in roughly 13,300 needy people receiving free meals every day.


The Newtown Mission is a Uniting Church congregation in Sydney’s Newtown, a place known for its edgy culture and colourful street life. This Christian group used to run a soup kitchen but decided that sounded too downbeat, and have jazzed it up into a lunchtime café that runs four days a week. Using food from OzHarvest and volunteers to prepare and serve food they serve lunch to 70-100 people each day. The regular volunteers who run this are amazing, tireless people.

Yesterday we joined those volunteers. We arrived mid-morning and chopped fruit, made salads, got tables ready, packed goodie bags, set up the café, made sandwiches, and even peeled bags of potatoes for the next day’s meal. Then we served that food to about 80 people who came through.

There are a wide variety of people who come to get a free lunch. Some obviously have addiction problems; some are obviously recent immigrants who are struggling financially. Some have mental health problems. Some people clearly got as much benefit from the social interaction with the Mission volunteers and each other as from the food. Only one person got a bit out of control, and the regular volunteers said that’s rare. Everyone who came through the serving line was happy to chat with me.

We all took turns eating some of the food we’d prepared and sat with the rest of those there for lunch. I met some really interesting folks at my table, two Aussies, one guy who grew up in West Berlin, and another from Wisconsin, USA. Everyone had a very different story but everyone was really appreciative of the service that OzHarvest and the mission were providing, and impressed that the company I worked for would let us come and volunteer.

The scale of food waste in our modern society is staggering. The number of people, even in a society as wealthy as Australia’s, who need help to get a decent meal is significant. OzHarvest and the Newtown Mission are doing things to address both of these situations and they’re doing them together. Each deserves my ongoing help, and yours too.


Australian government is stable and productive

Architecturally lame, politically efficient

Architecturally lame, politically efficient

People who don’t follow Australian politics might not know that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is once again Prime Minister. A couple of weeks ago he challenged for the leadership of the ruling Labor party and won, deposing Julia Gillard as MPs realised the September election was unwinnable with her rock-bottom popularity as leader. This may remind those in the know of the 2010 leadership challenge where the exact same thing happened but with the roles reversed.

The conservative media made this out to be evidence of a severely dysfunctional government. They attacked this turn of events as a return to a failed leader. The political chattering classes oohed and aahed. Media watchers and political luvvies continue to shake their heads at an ineffective minority government.

All of which just goes to show that negativity and outrage will expand to fill the available space, and that bad news sells better than good.

We don’t elect leaders in a parliamentary system so a party is free to change leaders whenever it likes. House speaker Anna Burke pointed out last week that in many other countries around the world a leadership spill like this would result in tanks in the street. Here in Australia life goes smoothly on, both practically and constitutionally.

The best example of how our sense of perspective is skewed is this fact, voiced last week by both Burke and independent MP Rob Oakeshott: that despite being a hung parliament led by a very unpopular PM the current term has resulted in 585 pieces of passed legislation, 87 per cent of which had bipartisan support.

In Australia our politicians largely understand the job they need to do, and get it done.


International Ice Hockey

International Ice Hockey has just swept through Australia. Pros (though not top-of-the-league NHL stars) formed Canada and USA teams that faced off in three games, with two in Melbourne last weekend and one in Sydney last night. I went to the latter, like a good Canadian boy.

It was a fun and well-organised event. Allphones Arena was sold out at 21,000 people. The series was tied at one win apiece so last night was the decider. Canada won of course, 9-6, and so took the series. TAKE THAT, EH!


The grade of hockey played was okay, but I realise that’s relative. It was better than any play you’d ever see here otherwise; the boys were fast on the ice, and the Canadian goalie was quite good (the high score notwithstanding). But as someone who’s seen plenty of NHL hockey they were going pretty easy. There was very little checking, and one or two half-hearted “fights” that seemed more for show than due to real grief. But it makes sense that no pro player is going to risk an injury for an overseas exhibition game.

The scores made it pretty clear that there was a big element of showmanship in all the games. The first Melbourne match was 11-9 for Canada, and the second was a USA shootout win after a 9-9 tie. At the end of the second period last night Canada was ahead 7-2. The third-period USA closing of the gap was completely for show.

But they had lights and music and firecrackers. They had kiss-cams and dance-cams and kids’ hockey between periods. They promoted the local amateur and professional ice hockey leagues. People drank beer and ate hot dogs and cheered whenever a bit of biff happened on the ice. The skating was fast and the passing reasonably skilful. The only nods to the fact that this game was being held in Australia were the announcer guest-spots with cricketers and the videos between periods explaining the rules.



Volunteering for Lifeline

The software company I work for, CA Technologies, believes that good community members make good employees. Putting their money where their mouth is, CA permits employees to take a few paid days off each year to volunteer.

Lifeline is a well-established and well-respected Australian charity that runs suicide prevention and crisis assistance contact services. They have been running for 50 years and take more than 400,000 calls every year from Australians who need help (and get as many online contacts). Like most non-profits they rely on community support for a significant part of their funding.


So last Friday CA permitted me to go help move hundreds of boxes of donated books for a massive book sale that’s taking place at the Hornsby RSL this weekend.

It was actually a lot of fun. I grew up on a farm doing day after day of physical labour. Friday was a refreshing change after so many years at a desk: to spend a day lifting heavy things onto a truck and then lifting them off again somewhere else.

I met a lot of other volunteers, almost all of whom were retirees. They were pleased to see a couple of younger guys to help out with some of the heavier and higher lifter. There was another Canadian immigrant, plus many who had visited there. I met a chemist. One of the long-time volunteers had rigged up sets of wooden rollers that made it easier to load the trucks; this reminded me of blueberry season back home.

I helped a guy turn on Google Now on his phone. I snacked on sweets that the ladies brought in. After all the boxes of books were in the hall we helped the ladies turn them the right way to allow crowds to browse the titles. It was a day very well spent.

Yesterday and today have been warm, sunny days. I hope Lifeline is getting a great crowd out to buy lots of books.