Monash University Law School Alumni Address 25 May 2017

Monash

Good morning. What a special honour to be here with you today to celebrate your achievements.  Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting exactly where you are, and believe me it feels like only yesterday. So much has happened since then, but 25 years ago, I could never have imagined the adventures I would have, that I am still having! One thing I do know however is that in many ways, the opportunities I have been able to take advantage of since my days at Monash have all stemmed from this moment, from this place, from this point in time. 

No matter how you got here, whatever advantages you did or didn’t have up to this point, make no mistake: you are now in a position of privilege.  The key question before you today, is ‘how will I use that privilege and the opportunities that it will present?’   In order to spark some thinking as you contemplate that question, I would like to share with you some of my story, and to suggest to you that whatever you are currently thinking, what happens from here is unlikely to go to any plan that you might have in your head today!  If, however, you are open to opportunity, and to how you can use your privilege to improve the lives of others through how you work and live, you may end up having have knock-on impacts that you never even dreamed of. 

As a fresh-faced graduate from Horsham High School in the mid 80’s, I came to Monash hoping to find a cauldron of radicalism and protest. I was keen to break away from the roots of a very conservative small-town environment.  I had come to Melbourne as a feminist, growing up in Horsham in the 70’s made sure of that.  While I was blessed with an amazing family, I found a lot of the attitudes I grew up with, particularly those regarding gender roles, quite suffocating and indeed, unjust.  Initially, I thought a law degree would be my path to satisfy a thirst for justice, to right the many wrongs I saw arising from an unfair world.  My education at Monash allowed me to understand how the legitimacy of the system of laws could be used to enslave or to liberate: to reinforce the positions of elites, or create a more equal society.  I grew up in the time of apartheid, of land rights, of the stolen generation, of the continuing fight for gender equality.  This may be hard for many of you to imagine, but up until the year I was born, a woman in the Australian public service would have to resign upon getting married:  it was illegal for a married woman to work for the Commonwealth. 

So while I was at Monash, I spent some of my time focused on women’s issues, particularly as a member of the Victorian Women’s Electoral Lobby.  I learned an incredible amount from those women about organizing, lobbying, influencing, and how to think about social change, and I have used these skills in my business life ever since.  But in practice, I will have to confess that my life at student at Monash was nowhere near as radical or revolutionary as I had imagined in my high school days.  By the time I studied and worked several jobs to support myself, I ended up with a lot less time for radicalism than originally intended.   When I ultimately secured my law degree, I followed a corporate path rather than a community one.  My pursuit of justice became a bit more of a sideline than a first priority. 

I joined Telstra as a lawyer in the early 90s and progressed up the ranks.  It was a particularly dynamic time, as competition was being introduced into the telecommunications sector for the first time, so lawyers played a critical role in working out what this new environment would look like.  

Perhaps to salve my conscience a little, with my first Telstra paycheck I decided that I would start making regular contributions to a charity, because I wanted to make sure that I continued to focus on what difference I could make.  To be clear, I did always feel that at Telstra we were doing exciting things, connecting a disparate nation through the power of communications, but I always wanted to do more.  I chose the International Women’s Development Agency as my charity, a fabulous Melbourne based NGO that works with women’s groups in country across the Pacific to help communities develop by improving the position of women.  And there was some activism mixed in with corporate life:  I become involved with the Young Lawyers Section of the Law Institute, and was the founding Convenor of the Women Lawyers Association in 1996.  I found that my lobbying skills could be used within the context of our profession as we fought law firms to improve their approach to flexible work practices, to increase their pro bono contributions, to consider issues of discrimination against people with HIV.  Perhaps one of the earliest lessons I learned as a lawyer was that sometimes it is better to be an agent of change from within, to learn the language of those with the power and use that to effect change rather than try and keep knocking on doors from the outside. 

After a few years, I took 12 months leave to move to the UK to study for my Masters in Commercial Law at the University of London.  It was the time of Tony Blair’s New Labor, of the UK’s integration with the EU, of the growing sophistication of Britain as an integral part of Europe….. oh well. 

Back to Melbourne, and then in 1999 I was asked to head to Telstra NZ to help grow Telstra’s business in NZ.   A planned 6-month stint becoming a 2-year adventure where I ended up in a very senior business role in a joint venture company called TelstraSaturn, with plans to spend one billion dollars rolling out broadband cable all over the country.  Our plans for global domination in New Zealand were incredibly exciting until the dotcom crash brought us back down to earth. 

And yet what looked to be the darkest of times turned out to be the greatest opportunity of all.  After two amazing years I left New Zealand with my future husband in tow, having bought him in a corporate deal that didn’t work out so well for TelstraSaturn but provided me with an unexpected bonus. 

We moved to Sydney and I started work with AUSTAR, the regional pay-tv company that had owned the other half of the joint venture.  AUSTAR had a few challenges at that point, including potential bankruptcy, but I figured nothing ventured….. TelstraSaturn offered pay-tv services and I had really loved the content side of the business which allowed me to pursue my passion for film and TV.   The opportunity to be more directly involved in the media and in turning the AUSTAR ship around was exciting to me.  Growing up in Horsham we only had 2 TV stations, BTV6 Ballarat and the ABC so I knew first hand just how transformational a service like AUSTAR could be for regional audiences.  Many of my lawyer friends at the time were horrified by my choice: AUSTAR was a business on the edge, and they felt that I was taking a step back in my career.

To be sure, there were a few hairy moments, such as the memorable day where I had to relay to the CEO that our banking lawyers thought we were insolvent.  His response: get new lawyers.   Thank goodness we did because we emerged from that crisis stronger and more determined to succeed.  We restructured the industry, restructured the business, fixed our customer service problems and massively expanded the product.  We brought in investment from a private equity firm who later sold out for 10 times their investment, and the business was ultimately sold to FOXTEL in 2012 for $2.5bn.

After 10 fascinating years at AUSTAR, the sale created an opportunity for me to try some new things.  Being involved in corporate life was exhilarating, but I was now lucky enough to have some capital to put to work, and I thought it was time to change how I applied my ‘time’, my ‘talent’ and my ‘treasure’.  I was intrigued by the rapidly changing nature of the media industry and the different sorts of media companies that were springing up.  The internet, social media and the rise of streaming services were all fundamentally changing the nature of the media landscape, how we consume media and amount of choice available.  Media is no longer a one-way street, it is much more democratic: audiences are no longer interested in being talked at or told when and how they can consumer their media of choice, increasingly they want to be part of the conversation. 

This has massive implications for civil society, for how we make and experience entertainment, and for the traditional business models across the media sector. 

So, in 2012 I switched gears, and mixed my life up. I cast aside being a lawyer once and for all and entered my entrepreneurial phase.  My training as a Lawyer was a brilliant background for the days ahead, having taught me to think analytically, to consider connections, how to set up relationships and just as importantly how to deconstruct them.  I invested in several media related business and worked closely with the management of each company to help them grow. 

My husband and I also set up the WeirAnderson Foundation, a philanthropic foundation to support projects that promote gender equality and benefit women and girls.   And finally, I continued to combine my business skills and philanthropic interests by serving on a number of boards in the arts and philanthropic sectors. 

Through this re-jigging, I was really able to focus on the joy of combining corporate and community, and finding ways to ensure that business benefits would also mean community benefits.   

Through the WeirAnderson Foundation, I have learned a lot about philanthropy and ways to support social change.  Australians are some of the most generous people in the world, we have very high levels of volunteerism and we are fantastic in a crisis.  What we do less well at is providing regular support to the ‘day to day’ work of organisations that play critical roles in supporting people within our communities.

But any of us can do this: you don’t need a foundation or to be wealthy to be a philanthropist, you just need to have a focus: pick an area that you are interested in, learn about an organization that is doing some good work and then decide how much of your monthly budget you could contribute to help that organization performs its work.  It might $10, it might be more: but make it something, become an Everyday Philanthropist, be part of a community that is bigger than you and your everyday life.

Through our work at the Foundation, I have had the chance to become involved with a number of fascinating organisations and meet with incredible people who are committed to building a better world.  This includes The Grata Fund, a people powered fund for justice that is helping to support important public interest litigation:  perhaps once a lawyer always a lawyer??  But while the law and the pursuit of justice are critical to building strong communities, so too is the role of business. As committed as I am to the economic success of my business ventures, one of the greatest lessons I have learned is that we live in a Society, not an Economy.   As active participants in our society, our job is to actively engage in a passionate debate about the sort of society and community we want to live in.  My belief is that an inclusive society, that encourages all people to participate and contribute, regardless of their differing abilities, will be stronger.  And, I believe that businesses that promote and facilitate inclusion will help to build stronger communities.  I am very lucky to be involved with a business that does just that. 

Ai-Media is for profit business that is also a social venture: we want to make money while helping to make the world a better place. Ai-Media started life as a provider of closed captions television channels, and our vision was simple:  while it is great to allow access to TV for people with a hearing impairment, or for whom English is a second language, wouldn’t it be great to use that technology to give them access to real life situations as well?

So, we took the technology behind our TV captioning product into the classroom.  Our initial plan was to allow deaf and hearing impaired kids access to what their teacher was saying by having us listen to the what the teacher was saying over a phone line, and then use our technology to send a live transcript back to the student sitting in the classroom via their iPad or tablet. It then turned out that this product was also helpful for kids with all sorts of learning challenges, including autism. 

Another unexpected consequence of this work was when we realised that the availability of the transcript has lead to teachers improving their own teaching practice, simply by reading the transcript at the end of class.  We have developed this further in partnership with the University of Melbourne, creating our Visible Classroom product which provides transcripts of what the teacher says across a number of classes which are then analysed to provide insights into what is happening it that classroom and what the teacher can do to improve.

We now provide captions for Seven, Nine and Foxtel as well as high quality ‘speech to text’ services for many education and corporate clients. We now also have operations in the UK, the US and Canada.   We have built a global technology platform that will allow us to serve clients from anywhere in the world, using captioners from anywhere in the world: a global workforce that can help us with our goal of making every piece of video and audio content possible accessible to anyone with a disability.

I am also following my dream of investing in film and television as Chairman of Hoodlum, an Australian and US based production company. Our first feature film, Australia Day, will premiere in June at the Sydney Film Festival, and last week Netflix announced that they had commissioned Hoodlum to make Tidelands its first Australian commission for a global audience.

But it appears my corporate life isn’t finished yet, 12 months ago I returned to a full-time corporate role to help Foxtel transform itself in an ever-changing media landscape.

I am really not sure how all of this happened, but I know that none of it would have transpired if it wasn’t for all of the supporters, mentors and leaders that I have had the privilege to work with, and the life I lived at Monash.  The privilege of being encouraged to challenge yourself, to challenge others, to imagine more: these are privileges for which I am truly grateful. I could never have imagined this future, but I left this place 25 years ago believing anything was possible.  I believe that the same is true for each and every one of you: this is the privilege that we share, and the opportunity in front of all of you.  May you grasp it with both hands, and may it bring you every happiness and success.

Captioning can have more impact than you think

This article was first published in December 2015 in the UK's 'Politics First' Magazine published by Policy-UK

Life is often the story of unintended consequences. Sometimes, the greatest opportunities arise when we grasp how actions aimed at one purpose can in fact also have broader impact.  This has certainly been the case when it comes to the provision of television access services.

The BBC, supported by the policy environment in the UK, has lead the world with the introduction of program subtitling (closed captioning) across multiple platforms.  Quality captions ensure that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can access television and video content on the same terms as their hearing friends, but captioning has also had major impacts well beyond deafness.  As discussed during the CAP THAT! campaign and National Literacy and Numeracy week, multiple studies around the world have shown that children who watch television with the captions on screen have higher literacy skills than children who don’t use captions.  Similarly, people for whom English is an additional language have been proven to significantly improve their English reading and comprehension skills if they enable captions as part of their viewing.  Overall, captioning can increase the literacy skills for people of all ages, improving their vocabulary, word recognition, comprehension and reading.

Our business, Ai-Media, launched in Australia over 10 years ago as a television captioning provider.  As a for profit social enterprise, we then turned our minds to how captions could transform access beyond television, to real-life situations.  

We started where the need was greatest - in the classroom - developing our Ai-Live service that involves us listening to the teacher over a phone line and providing a real-time, quality transcript to students in that classroom via their tablet.  The results have been fantastic, not just for students with a hearing impairment but also for students with a broad range of learning difficulties, including students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). 

The more we tried and tested this service, we came to realise that the benefits extended even beyond the students.  Analysis by The University of Melbourne, who were conducting an independent review of our Ai-Live pilot in Victorian classrooms, found that the teachers were using the transcripts provided to them at the end of class to reflect upon what had happened in the classroom and to improve their own teaching practice.  This has lead to an exciting collaboration between ourselves and the University as we have developed a new suite of products, the Visible Classroom, which use a combination of transcripts and analytics to improve teaching effectiveness. 

In under a decade, captioning has moved beyond the television, to a tool of universal design in mainstream education settings, and a powerful tool to improve the quality of teaching in all classrooms.

The UK has been an integral part of Ai-Media’s journey.  In 2013 we commenced business in the UK to take the Ai-Live product into schools, university and businesses.  We undertook further pilots of the Visible Classroom concept in 10 schools across the UK, with funding from the Education Endowment Fund and we have undertaken some in depth exploration of how captioning can help children with ASD.  To help develop our business further, we were privileged to partner with Nesta Impact Investments, who supported us through their Digital Makers Fund. 

Our mission at Ai-Media is to have global impact, one word at a time.  Whether we are providing access to entertainment, news and current affairs, work or education, or we are helping to improve the quality of teaching in classrooms around the world, we believe that innovation and commitment can make the world a better place.  We are grateful that the UK has been a welcoming and supportive market, and we intend that the UK will play a pivotal role in our future.

Book Review: Michael Wolff's 'Television is the New Television'

Just because some people are no longer watching THE television doesn’t mean that they aren’t still watching television.   This is the key takeout of ‘Television is The New Television”, a new book from media industry commentator Michael Wolff.

Wolff ‘s book is an engaging insider’s perspective that looks to dispel some of the hype surrounding digital media and challenge the doomsayers who predict the death of the television industry in the face of new forms of media engagement.  Wolff lays out the shifts in digital media revenue models and engagement strategies, providing a succinct summary of the race to the bottom that is the feature of many online businesses.  With audiences being seen as the most valued media commodity, most digital businesses are focussed on ‘traffic’ rather than core and quality product and environment.  This worked in the early days when high CPM rates meant revenue could outstrip the costs of buying the traffic, but falling CPM rates mean the arbitrage model is broken.  Wolff argues that digital media’s key advantage over traditional media, the ability to provide absolute measurability of viewers and their actions, has turned out to be the tragic flaw.  Advertisers have been able to use such granular information to devalue the currency.  With so much focus on the numbers and on response rates, editorial has become marketing, it is all about traffic rather than sensibility: click, like, share.

Television, in the meantime, has gone from strength to strength.  Wolff’s argument comes down to following the money and understanding the implications of where the money comes from.  Digital media has mostly taken advertising revenue away from newspapers and magazines, decimating the classifieds and chasing the direct response end of the advertising market.  Television meanwhile continues to have sport and higher end cultural content as a major part of its mix, allowing it to sell cultural currency.  New platforms are competitive, but they are also providing traditional networks with new distribution and monetisation opportunities.  Free from the sensibilities of advertisers, new streaming platforms are also providing new forms of content that are growing the market rather than cannibalising it.  Viewer hours across all platforms are increasing, even if audiences for traditional network television slots are shrinking. 

Wolff points out that advertising revenue only makes up about 50% of revenue streams for the television industry, with subscription, foreign content sales and content syndication providing growing new revenue sources.   Some caution is needed here when applying Wolff’s analysis to markets outside of the US.  Wolff uses the phrase ‘television’ very broadly but clearly what he is mostly talking about are the US network conglomerates such as CBS, NBCU, ABC and FOX who all have international operations as well as their domestic US networks. 

The analysis does in fact reinforce the dilemma of the Australian free to air networks.  In 2014, advertising revenue made up the vast bulk of their revenue:  95%, 80% and 76% for the Ten, Nine and Seven networks respectively.

 The Australian networks need to diversify and drive more content related revenue streams such as subscription and content licensing sales as their environments continue to change.  It may not be the case that digital media is stealing their premium advertising dollars, but it is changing the behaviour of increasingly discerning and well-served audiences.

The key message from Mr Wolff’s book is really not that revolutionary.  Quality content is what drives engaged audiences and this in turn is what drives premium advertising dollars. Well told stories, whether reality, documentary or drama, key sporting events: these are the staples of traditional television, and will continue to drive television businesses if they continue to provide engaging environments for the audience.  But despite ‘television being the new television’, there is no room for complacency for any market participant.  And, just as television networks can’t afford to rely on advertising as their only revenue stream, digital media businesses also need to understand how risky an advertising-only model is for them.  Relying purely on traffic to drive advertising revenue puts you in the click-bait game and at the mercy of social media algorithms.   Unless they are able to leverage global scale, the digital media businesses that will win are those than can build a brand and an environment that stands for something.  Quality:  who knew??

On the marriage of music and technology

Any music fan over 40 can still remember the revolution that was the arrival of the Sony Walkman…. could there be anything cooler? Of course, there was a much greater revolution waiting around the corner with the digitisation of music, the arrival of the iPod and the move of music online. For digital natives, this is all completely assumed and natural but it is worthwhile reflecting for a moment just how much technology has transformed our ability to experience music.

Prior to the late 19th century, the only way to be musical was to attend a concert or event where music was present, play an instrument or sing a song; until the gramophone, music was a fleeting moment only: you had to be there. The arrival of recording technology allowed music to be both a shared and an individual experience, democratising access to the great music of the world, subject of course to your local record shop stocking the music that you wanted to buy.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the technology revolution has gone even further, with even the world’s most obscure music only one click away. Not only can we access other people’s content, but technology allows us to create, share and store music in a way that the Walkman generation could never have imagined.

The challenge of course is how to navigate that world of available product. How do you find your particular kind of music, how do you celebrate your favourites while exploring new artists? Again technology has come to the rescue, with incredible recommendation engines sitting inside streaming services. These engines run on algorithms that analyse your choice of music and then choose new tracks with similar characteristics but often from different artists. Some might prefer to have a conversation with the quirky guy at their local music shop, but it is hard to beat the immediacy and depth provided by online services.  

At Moshcam, the focus is on a particular kind of music experience, the live one. Working closely with the artists on the night, we choose venues that showcase a live event, and then we use the best available recording technology to capture the essence of the night: the music, the crowd, the sweat and the passion. We then use streaming technology, either via our website, our YouTube cChannel or our apps to allow access to the audio and video of that concert to anyone, anywhere in the world. Social media platforms allow fans to share their thoughts about the music and the artists, and participate in a worldwide conversation about music and life.  

I still have my Sony Walkman sitting at the bottom of a drawer. It is very useful for an 80’s dress up party but I am glad that the music revolution has moved on.


 

 

Hearing The Voices of Women

The shortlist for the 2014 Stella Prize is out there, and I have started working my way through it.   2 down and 4 to go!

The Stella Prize celebrates Australian women writers, but it also aims to do much more.  To encourage women to write, to inspire debate, and to lobby for the equal inclusion of women’s writing in our education system.  The figures show that not only are women writers underrepresented as winners of literary prizes, and in our education syllabus, but they are also underrepresented in mainstream media reviews, which are critical to the marketing and sales effort for authors. 

At a recent lunch to celebrate the shortlist, Annabel Crabbe told the story of Yvonne Ward’s book, Unsuitable for Publication: Editing Queen Victoria.  Ward goes back to the original letters and journals of Queen Victoria, which were – after her death - edited for publication from 44 volumes down to 3.  The two editors were men who had little interest in her conversations with other women, or with her family.  Our view of this fascinating woman has been shaped for nearly 100 years by a very limited subset of the material available.  Ward’s book is an attempt to reveal the richer range and depth of Victoria’s voice than earlier, more short-sighted collections have shown so that we can understand who she really was, not who certain men wished she had been. 

Even today, we still have men trying to suggest what women should write about and how they should express their opinion.  One such gentleman who comments on The Hoopla made a strategic error in suggesting in effect to Corrine Grant that she should not be ‘…commenting about some very complex political and financial issues without having any actual experience in those areas…….’.  Corrine’s response, ‘Celebrity Mummy Blogger says “Sorry”’, is a fabulous and funny riposte to such presumption. 

Some might consider it strange that in 2014 we need to have a Stella Prize, or that we need to have websites such as The Hoopla and Birdee to allow women to have intelligent conversations with each other.  There are plenty of examples that point to the need, but I think it is also a question of ‘want’.  Virginia Woolf probably wouldn’t be surprised that women still want literary and opinion ‘rooms of our own’, places where women’s voices can be heard on their own terms.  While mainstream media continues to be dominated by men’s voices, and to define women’s interests as limited to celebrity gossip and recipes, women will seize upon alternative forums to consider and debate the world. 

Stay tuned for the announcement of the Stella Prize winner on April 29.

Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

Here is a life lesson: high heel boots, wide leg pants, narrow stairs and jet lag are a potentially lethal combination.  I was recently in New York, where on my first day, after my first meeting, I took a spectacular tumble down a staircase, ending up with a broken foot, wounded pride, and bruises in the most unusual places.  My experience of the last couple of weeks travelling on crutches through New York and London has made me reflect on two issues: first, that as an able bodied person I take mobility completely for granted, and second, how amazing it is to be touched by the kindness of strangers.

From hotel staff, taxi drivers, people in stores, or perfect strangers on the street, I was overwhelmed with how people were willing to reach out and offer assistance.  Perhaps I had become a little jaded but everywhere I went I felt part of a community that was looking out for me as a vulnerable person they saw crossing their path.  This kindness has been just as obvious back at home in Sydney, as I make my way around in a not terribly elegant fashion.

Perhaps this enthusiasm to help is what musician Amanda Palmer was getting at in her fantastic TED talk, The Art of Asking.  Don’t ask fans to pay for music she says, let them. Palmer talks about the relationship between fans and artists in the digital world, but the spirit of what she was saying is much broader than just music.

And maybe that’s the point; maybe we all sometimes need to stop - whether by necessity or design - and put our heads ups, and don’t be afraid to ask for some help.  There is a sense of isolation that can develop as we forge through life at 100 miles an hour.  We don’t have time to ask for help, we just need to get on with things.   But in keeping our heads down we can miss the opportunity to see what is out there when we look up: a community of others who are willing to lend a hand if only someone will let them. 

What makes a movie "Australian"?

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the two AACTA award ceremonies celebrating all that is fantastic in Australian film and television. From the luncheon which recognised the skill of our technical craftspeople, to the televised evening event which focused more on the acting awards, it is inspiring to spend time reflecting on just how skilled, innovative and committed our screen practitioners are. It was particularly exciting to see Rebecca Barry’s documentary, I Am A Girl, nominated for four awards. The WeirAnderson Foundation was a proud supporter of this beautiful film; the recognition of Rebecca and her team was well deserved.

But it wouldn’t be awards season without a bit of controversy and there has been much debate this week about the film that swept this year’s AACTA Awards, Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby is a $100m-plus studio film based on the iconic US story and stars three key non-Australian actors. It won 13 AACTA awards, much to the chagrin of various commentators who queried both how it could be considered an Australian movie, and how rational it is to have such a huge film competing against other films such as The Rocket, a $1m indie film with mostly first-time actors.    

I will admit upfront that I am a huge fan of this version of Gatsby: it moved me and it entertained me. In my view, Lurhmann and Martin’s film beautifully brings to life a story that might be set in Jazz Age USA, but whose themes are extremely relevant in post-GFC Western society.  Reverence of wealth for its own sake, celebration of excess, the unquestioning rewarding of wealth with privilege without the equivalent responsibility. In an aspirational society, these are issues we are still grappling with nearly 100 years on from the events depicted in Gatsby. 

Regardless of issues of thematic relevance, is Gatsby an Australian film? I say yes, absolutely.  Not only was every frame shot in Australia, not only were the bulk of the incredible special effects rendered in Australia and not only were the bulk of the cast Australian, but the film was absolutely under Australian creative control. Aussies Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce wrote the screenplay (based on Fitzgerald’s novel), Luhrmann directed and produced the film, and Catherine Martin, also a producer, created the look and feel that was so critical to its depth and heart.

It can’t be the case that for a film to be considered Australian it can only be set in an Australian environment with Australian characters. We live in a globalised world - what is critical is an Australian perspective on that world. Storytellers have always looked to the classics for inspiration to tell stories that will make sense of their own environment and the issues they face. Australian theatre is full of re-interpretations of classic works, from the Greeks, to Shakespeare to Wilde or Coward.  Classic themes and classic stories can mean something new for each generation, and it is parochialism at its worst to argue that we can’t aspire to tell those global stories. 

If we want to challenge how Australian Gatsby is, surely the same arguments can apply to The Rocket, a fabulous story by Australian filmmakers shot on location in Laos, with Laotian spoken throughout. There has been little such debate about The Rocket, suggesting that the concern around Gatsby is much more about its status as a studio-funded picture. Given the challenges faced by English language Australian films which must compete in a globalised environment, I find this really puzzling. If Australian filmmakers can convince large international studios to fund them to make their projects here in Australia, employing some of the best actors and screen practitioners the world has to offer, and allowing them the opportunity to bring their perspective to the screen, then surely we should be congratulating them?  Gatsby is a fabulous showcase of what the Australian screen sector can deliver. We should all be very proud of it.

The Joy of Bingeing

I have a secret. I love to binge.  No, not chocolate (well, okay, that too): I mean television. Whether it is recordings stored up on my FOXTEL iQ, shows on iTunes or the traditional DVD box set, I love nothing more than lying on the couch and soaking up as many episodes of a TV series as possible. My husband likes to limit it to two episodes a night, but that to me seems hardly worth the effort. In order to totally absorb myself in another world, I need at least three or four. My record is eight, which isn’t that hard on a rainy weekend, particularly when “one hour” network television episodes are only 43 minutes long.

During the Christmas break I was immersed in the machinations of Washington politics via the first two series of the delicious Scandal. I also winced my way through the entire first series of Banshee: in between the excessive violence and some pretty full on sex scenes there is some great characterisation and enough story twists to keep you guessing. 

And it appears I am not alone. Binge-viewing has quickly become the norm. When Netflix released every single episode of its flagship drama House of Cards all at once, many argued it was only a stunt and that few viewers would want to watch the show in this way. But the numbers tell a different story. Netflix recently revealed the results of a viewer survey that showed that about half of the respondents watched the full 22 episodes of series one of House of Cards within one week. And frankly, why wouldn’t they? Drama of this quality is like a long, complex and completely satisfying movie. Once you are absorbed into the world, you don’t want to leave.  You can track complex storylines more readily, you can be “of the world” that has been created. It’s escapism at its best.

You do need to be careful however. I went through a “24 phase” a few years ago, knocking off several seasons over a few weeks, watching multiple episodes back to back.  I ended up with lots of bad dreams with someone constantly chasing me. My husband posits this as exhibit A in his argument about limiting the amount of binge-viewing in any one period - probably not a bad point. It is also fair to say that a show like 24 doesn’t necessarily stand up that well to constant viewing, with plot weaknesses and credibility issues becoming all the more apparent when you are watching it straight through. 

So, like all things, perhaps a bit of moderation is required. Worth considering, but I’m not making any promises.

Should we worry about how much our favourite charities spend on administration?

Christmas might be a time of giving, but it is also a time of great need for charities helping those who need a hand. Many run special Christmas appeals to tap into the giving spirit. But it is the cost of such fundraising that has been questioned recently in a Fairfax Media study.

The analysis of 15 Australian charities shows that some are spending up to 41 cents in every dollar donated on the costs of administration and fundraising, while other charities spend as little as five cents of every dollar donated. The Fairfax report comments on calls for greater transparency in the charitable sector at the same time that that the Federal government is looking to abolish the body set up under Labor to regulate not-for-profit organisations. There is some concern that the abolition of the Charities and Not-for-profits Commission will result in increased uncertainty and fewer guidelines, making it harder for donors to understand just what does happen to their charity dollar.

Any organisation taking public money must be transparent and any reluctance to be clear about the cost of a charity’s operations should ring alarm bells. But shouldn’t we be just as focused on the outcomes of a charity’s works as we are on the cost to achieve them? The adage that sometimes you need to spend money to make money is as true in the charitable sector as it is in commercial business, yet many people have a strong aversion to money they donate being used for anything but an end project. Everyone wants to feel that their money is being used to help someone in need, but perhaps we need to expand our understanding of that idea. No organisation can run without staff - and paying for quality staff often means quality outcomes. Spending money on marketing can increase the visibility of an organisation and the issues it is seeking to address, leading to greater community understanding. There is often a multiplier impact as well: increased money spent on marketing can lead to more money being raised so those marketing funds can be considered an investment. And of course in most instances money spent on marketing and administration means increased employment, which can be a good in itself. 

In March, US fundraiser Dan Pallotta gave a widely viewed TED talk on this issue (posted below), arguing there is a real double standard in our relationship with charities. He argues that too many non profits are rewarded for how little they spend rather than for what they achieve. Pallotta suggests instead that we should start rewarding charities for big accomplishments even if that comes with big expenses.

A related issue is the actual number of charities that have tax deductible status and that are competing for the donation dollar. There are nearly 59,000 registered charities in Australia, with some 2300 registered in the past 12 months versus the 1200 registered in the previous 12 month period. Some of these charities are very small, started for a specific purpose, and in receipt of only a small amount of funds, but still needing to spend money on administration, regulation and fundraising. There is a question to be asked here as to whether the ends being sought by the people setting up these organisations could be better served by working with established charities instead to ensure more efficient outcomes.

While transparency and efficiency should be a key obligation of both, there will always be many differences between the charitable sector and for profit businesses. However when we are thinking about our favourite charity, perhaps the key question shouldn’t be what percentage of funds is being spent on administration, rather it should be what impact is being achieved with the money raised. After all, it isn’t just about the giving: it is about how what we give can change the world.

Should our politicians keep working over Christmas?

The silly season brings with it a range of regular stories: reflections on the year that was, best and worst TV shows, highlights of the year in politics (that must have been a struggle to write this year).  Inevitably, there is also the story about where our various pollies are heading on holidays. This latter story then leads to the inevitable criticisms and querying whether - with so many problems facing the world - perhaps they should just keep on working. Of course these stories are usually simply for sport, easy targets to make us feel better about the fact that most of us won’t be heading to France with our daughters for the holidays. But in the spirit of the season, can’t we afford to be a bit more generous? 

Regardless of our views of their effectiveness, it doesn’t take much to concede that being a politician is a hard, usually thankless and often lonely job of long hours, time away from families and many frustrations. And unless you are a true political junkie, aren’t we all relieved that there will be a couple of weeks at least where we get a break from the relentless display of the political arts in the media, of he said versus she said, of talking points masquerading as debate, of slogans pretending to be answers to questions? It is hard to imagine that we will really miss our favourite politician over the summer. 

And here perhaps is the opportunity; perhaps we could seize the day and spend the summer actually talking about issues in depth, not in soundbites. Perhaps while the politicians are away, we could open a conversation about what sort of society we really want to live in, unaffected by the political necessity for point scoring and disagreement with anything that has been suggested by the other side. Maybe we can do some of the work ourselves rather than rely on the pollies to do it for us. 

Let’s give the politicians a few weeks off and give them something to think about  when they return … including whether we even noticed that they were gone.