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.


Happy Australia Day: why I’m staying here

Yesterday was Australia Day, the national day of the country I now call my home.

It marks the day in 1788 when the British First Fleet landed in Port Jackson (the actual name for Sydney harbour). That group of eleven ships held a few dozen British citizens, a couple hundred officers and their families, and several hundred convicts. It was the first wave of European settlement.

For the Aboriginal population that was already on this continent 26 January has been referred to as Invasion Day. As a person descended from Europeans who invaded and settled North America I feel I don’t have much to say about that other than sorry.

I didn’t spend yesterday thinking about this. I spent it thinking about Australia and about where it’s going. This is important because I’m not here by chance: I chose to come here. Most people do not do this and that’s by both opportunity and inclination. Most people stay and live where they were born with some of them finding extra fulfilment by traveling to other places for a visit.

What’s not to love? Havaianas 2012 Australia Day Thong Challenge. Photo by Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer. Used under Creative Commons license.

It’s also important because Australia is – in its current form, without moralising about what it took to get it here – a very young country. It formed a Commonwealth only in 1901. It has very few people, and is one of the least-densely populated countries in the world. It’s also a country with a lot of recent immigration with 25% of people here born overseas and 50% of people here either born overseas or from parents who were.

Most of my thoughts around Australia are that it’s going to be just fine.

It has problems. People here wring their hands and complain just like all people do in every country around the world. The complaints here are the same as they were in Canada and the UK: they are the complaints of a people who are successful, safe, and prosperous. Lots of people would kill to have lives like Australians do which is why we have a lot of people who want to come here or choose to come here when their home country is no longer safe. That immigration of course becomes one of the things that some small-minded people complain about: that immigrants are changing the Australian way of life. I usually can’t hear those people over the roaring sound of their own hypocrisy.

Australians are worried about money and jobs and global warming and whether it’s safe to walk the streets at night and what kind of world they’re giving their kids and why their politicians have to be so short-sighted and adversarial. Like everyone else in the world.

But Australia is a very positive place. Deep down people here know they have it good. Most people see the great diversity of ethnic backgrounds as a good thing. Australians travel overseas a lot. Employment is high. There are vast natural resources here. The streets are very safe. There is breathtaking natural beauty on everyone’s doorstep. Fruit and meat and wine are all very high quality. Federal legislation means every employer has to set aside a pension superannuation fund for your future. Costs are high but so are salaries. Everyone here loves to have a laugh.

One of the most striking signs of this positive feeling is rather mundane: it’s the tendency for Australians to go for variable-rate mortgages rather than fixed-rate mortgages. In many countries homebuyers prefer knowing exactly what their mortgage payments will be for the next few years, especially if they buy their house when interest rates are low (in Canada about 60% have fixed-rate mortgages, while in the US it’s more like 90%). But about 80% of Australian mortgages are variable-rate which I think is an indicator of the optimism they feel that things will always get better. I know there are probably many other reasons for this but I think there’s something in it.

This positivity is a good sign of a country that will do well. It will come up with ways to get past obstacles, to work with or around the naysayers and troublemakers. It will see the bright side of things. It will move on and flourish.

Later this year I will be able to say “we” when I talk about Australians. I’m definitely continuing to hang my hat here for a while.


Sydney Festival: The Blind Date Project

Last Thursday night I attended my next Sydney Festival event: a bit of improv theatre called The Blind Date Project.

In each performance of the one-hour play actor Bojana Novakovic is greeted in a karaoke bar by a different, surprise (to her and to the rest of us) actor playing her blind date. How the night proceeds is up to how they improvise with each other and via stage direction sent by text message to their phones by the director. The audience sites in the karaoke bar and watches it all unfold.


The night I went was great. There was expected blind date awkwardness, getting-to-know-you games, a whole lot of humour, a whole lot of flirting, and exposed secrets. The date is suspended a couple of times when the participants have a go at karaoke but it’s a welcome relief from the so-ordinary-it’s-bizarre interpersonal exploration. Some of us might be used to living that but watching it is weird.

It’s a funny, exciting, brave little theatrical adventure each night. I expect it was a lot of fun for the actors too.


Sydney Festival 2013: you should do stuff

The annual month-long celebration of the arts, Sydney Festival, starts in a few days. If you’re going to be in this city during January you should go see an event. Some are free. All will be an interesting adventure.

Rubber Duck says attend the Sydney Festival or else. Picture: Adam Taylor Source: The Daily Telegraph

“Hey, how YOU doin’?” Picture: Adam Taylor Source: The Daily Telegraph

Here’s what I have tickets for or am planning to attend:

  • The Secret River: Two of Australia’s most respected artists come together for the first time to adapt Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel for the stage. Directed by Neil Armfield and adapted by Andrew Bovell, this ambitious new play dramatises the story of two families divided by culture and land.
  • Concrete and Bone Sessions: World renowned professional skaters and BMX riders rule the speed bowl of an Inner West skate park – made super-human by their wheels. Pitted against them, parkourists, breakers and dancers fight for survival in a contest of wit, speed and virtuosity.
  • Kashmere Stage Band: This program combines the heart-warming, foot-stomping tribute of the award-winning documentary Thunder Soul about about the legendary Texan school funk orchestra, narrated by Jamie Foxx, with a rare live performance by members of the reunited band.
  • Osaka Monaurail: Lots of bands pay tribute to the classic James Brown sound of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but few live and breathe it like nine-piece Japanese funk and soul band Osaka Monaurail.
  • Rubber Duck: The bright yellow inflatable duck at Darling Harbour is five storeys high and five storeys wide and has been popping up in various cities around the world since 2007.
  • Archie Roach: Archie Roach is celebrated as one of Australia’s most gifted artists. He has released a stream of remarkable albums, receiving praise from and touring with Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Patti Smith and more.
  • Summer Sounds in the Domain – Sing the Truth: Join thousands of Sydneysiders at The Domain to see singing stars Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright, together with the Sing The Truth band, performing classics by their favourite female songwriters, as well as from their own much-loved catalogues.