Australia: a backwards country, going further backwards

Devolution_zps5c30acaaLast weekend, whilst driving in the Melbourne northern burbs, my wife’s phone rang.

It was friends of ours, recently back from a holiday in Europe and they had big news. They had gotten engaged in Paris.

They had been together for a number of years and we were delighted to hear they had tied the knot.

But then the realisation struck home that they cannot legally marry in this country, because Australia does not allow gay marriage –  they are a lesbian couple.

For a very brief period in December last year, it was legal for gay couples to wed in the ACT. Rather than embrace this bold move forward, the Commonwealth government successfully appealed the territory laws that had been in force for less than a week. No sooner were  gay couples saying “I do” then their marriage certificates were being gleefully stomped upon by conservative bureacrats.

This is the country we live in.

These are 17 countries where gay marriage is legal with Scotland the latest to the join the list of enlightened nations earlier this year.

First to allow gay marriage was Holland way back in 2000, the others are: England (2013), Wales (2013), France (2013), New Zealand (2013), Uruguay (2013), Denmark (2012), Argentina (2010), Portugal (2010), Iceland (2010), Sweden (2009), Norway (2009), South Africa (2006), Spain (2005), Canada (2005) and Belgium (2003).

Yes, even the country of my birth, South Africa, a developing country with many social issues, has recognised that people of the same-sex have the legal right to become husband and wife, but not in Australia. Prime minister Tony Abbott is vehemently opposed to gay marriage despite, his own sister Virginia being in a gay relationship.

Asylum seekers

This is not an isolated backwards step, Australia is moving backwards in many disturbing and insidious ways.

Our foreign minister, Scott Morrison recently drank champagne with his Cambodian colleagues after agreeing to send refugees that arrive by boat to Cambodia in a grubby “cash for people” deal that treats people like livestock.

Cambodia, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world will take Australia’s unwanted refugees who are already living in secret squalor on the impoverished island of Nauru.

What will Cambodia get out of this – $40 million and the promise of more money if they take more people. At the same time, Australia has washed its hands clean of its commitment to provide a safe haven for genuine refugees in what Amnesty International has labelled “a new low in Australia’s deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers”.

This is just the tip of the iceberg: The 2014-15 Federal Budget, the first under Joe Hockey, cut Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program from 20,000 to 13,750 places and reduced its aid spending by $7.6 billion over five years.

Free speech squashed

Rather than enshrine freedom of speech as he had promised in opposition, Tony Abbott has done the opposite.

Journalists and bloggers now face up to 10 years in jail for doing their jobs, providing information about the secret activities of government organisations, even if their stories are in the public’s interest.  This is not all, the new national security laws also make it easier for security agencies to access personal computers and spy on Australians overseas, the very violations of individual privacy, that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed were happening on an industrial scale in the US, UK and Australia.

And while the government eventually backed away from moves by attorney General George Brandis’s love-child – plans to water down protections under the Racial Discrimination Act that would have made Australia a protected haven for Holocaust deniers and racists (legal to offend, insult, humiliate someone based on their race or ethnicity), the fact that they were drafted in the first place, speaks volumes about our retreat from enlightenment.

Other backwards movements

These are but three examples, there are many more:

Savage reductions in funding for impoverished aboriginal communities, scrapping of the two-year carbon tax, which actually worked to reduce carbon emissions  in exchange for support for the coal industry, money pulled from the national broadcaster the ABC forcing the likely cancellation of important investigative journalism programs, a $7 GP co-payment that will hurt the poorest in society. The list goes on.

It’s a depressing state of affairs for those who cherish Australia as a forward-thinking, first-world nation, that values multi-culturalism, basic human decency and a “fair go”.

As for my gay friends who are now engaged,  there’s always New Zealand as a wedding option – a country that’s not just beating us at rugby.

For a far more erudite article on Tony Abbott and his government, read David Marr’s excellent article in The Monthly here.

The not so subtle art of charity mugging

charity muggerHas a random stranger ever jumped out at you on the street like a slightly demented baboon, wanting to shake your hand and ask you how your day is going?

Did it feel nice? Did it feel genuine? Did you stop for a chat only to find out they’re actually some backpacker on a working holiday visa trying to convince you to sign up for a monthly donation to a charitable organisation?

Chances are, if you take a regular lunch break in just about any major capital city, you’ll encounter someone in a brightly coloured shirt – red, yellow or blue – with a lanyard around their neck, clipboard in their hand and a cheesy grin on their mug.

Welcome to the world of face-to-face fundraising or depending on your level of cynicism – charity mugging or “chugging” for short.

It’s hard not to be cynical when running into this mob.

For a start there’s all that silly chit-chat and superficial interest in your life which is only designed to get you to stop long enough for them to deliver their sales pitch.

If you’re foolish enough to stop, you’ll then most likely be told a little about the charity they represent, what it’s doing around the world and then there will come a line that goes something like:

“Would $10 a week mean a lot to you?”

“Could you spare it?”

And that’s the beginning of the guilt trip and coercion to get you to sign a direct debit form and ring up another sale and commission for the backpacker/fundraiser.

Perhaps you don’t feel all the guilty – after all it’s your money and yours to spend as you like.

Perhaps you’re potentially interested (after all, charity is in essence a good and noble thing), but want more information.

Is there, per chance, a brochure you can take away so you can think about it?

“No,” will come the swift reply. “We don’t have any brochures. But I’d be happy to answer any questions you have.”

“Can I find more information on the internet?” you may respond by saying.

“Yes, there is a website” the chugger will tell you. But why bother, when “I can answer all your questions” and again, you’ll be urged to sign up then and there.

Now let’s be honest. Charity mugging is certainly not the hard sell.

If you want a hard sell, try walking into a shop in the Marrakesh market or a stall on the heaving streets of Mumbai – if you’re weak-willed or easily swayed you’ll soon find yourself heading down to the post office to freight carpets, perfume bottles, trinkets and garments all the way home.

But that’s different.

Charity for me has always been a voluntary thing.

On the same day that I deliberately stopped to chat to two chuggers from Amnesty International on the corner of Elizabeth and Collins Streets in Melbourne, there was also a Salvation Army volunteer standing diagonally across on the other corner of the intersection with a red bucket and a sign, quietly and graciously accepting coins from passers-by.

No silly attempts at banal conversation. No facile compliments, no direct debit forms. Just happy to accept whatever people can spare.

The same can be said for those who sell The Big Issue. A greeting to passers-by, a polite request to possibly purchase a copy of the magazine and a smile and thanks if he answer is no.

Nevertheless, I was curious. Does the “in your face” method of chugging actually work? How much are these people being paid and who is hiring them?

So I send off some questions to Amnesty International’s media office and received responses shortly afterwards.

Their spokesperson confirmed that Amnesty International Australia engages “face to face fundraising suppliers” to raise support for its regular giving program and says it’s a “great return on  investment”.

The people who do the chugging aren’t employed by Amnesty International but by specialist business organisations.

One such organisation is Cornucopia, who works with a number of charity such as the Red Cross, the Fred Hollows Foundation and Amnesty International.

There’s a group of cheerful people, arms raised as if they’ve just won the lottery pictured on the website, which spells out its modus operandi, that is:

“…by engaging members of the public in conversation in the street, at shopping centres, at their place of work and at home” [with the purpose to] “recruit…long-term regular givers for leading not-for-profit organisations”.

So just how much of every dollar you donate to Amnesty International via direct debit goes to the charity and how much into the pockets of Cornucopia and its sellers?

According to the Amnesty International spokesperson, its fee arrangement varies slightly from supplier to supplier and is detailed on the pledge form completed by the donor upon sign up.

“All donations are paid directly to us and we pay the supply a one-off fee from our fundraising budget for the year,” says the charity’s spokesperson.

I was directed to the following webpage on the Amnesty International website where there’s this chart:


As can be seen, a hefty chunk – 42 cents of every dollar raised – does not go towards charity work at all.

Presumably the 22% dedicated to “building activist base” is the proportion of funds raised that goes to paying those annoying people who stand on the street with their smiles and one-liners.

But apparently it works, despite the negative press this selling method has attracted.

I’ve found dozens of articles critical of “chugging” including this incisive piece from The Guardian, which has as its heading a perfect encapsulation of how I feel: “Charity muggers can take the enjoyment out of giving”.

The article, written by Richard Coles, a vicar (a generally a charitable bunch by nature) makes some good points.

“I like the object of the exercise; I hate the method,” writes Coles, as he describes chuggers at work and how “they accosted people with arms outstretched, a friendly gesture that is actually designed to funnel you in to their proposal; how they chastised those who wouldn’t stop; how they muttered insults at their retreating backs”.

I submit my objection is exactly the same.

It’s the manipulation, the guilty admonishment, the trickery that really pisses me off.

It seems to go against the whole ethos of fundraising – a carefully crafted psychological assault taught to backpackers in need of a buck, who then seek to torment the public to get to their wallets.

Apparently it works.

“We have been fundraising via face to face for 12 years. In this time we have found that this method is successful and provides a great return on investment,” says the Amnesty International spokesperson.

She says it accounts for around 72% of funds raised from regular donors, which in turn account for three-quarters of their total income.

That maybe so, but Amnesty International won’t be getting a penny from me until they drop the charade.

I might buy a copy of the Big Issue instead!