Thursday, August 25, 2016

Forthcoming Report on Post Traumatic Stress Injury

On Friday 9 September Australia21 (, in collaboration with FearLess, will be launching an essay volume designed to raise awareness of Post Traumatic Stress, and to form the basis of a future roundtable designed to improve our understanding of this widespread problem and help set the agenda for further work on it.

Below is the text of the Foreword I wrote for this forthcoming report.


Australia21 is an independent public policy think tank. Inspired by the Canadian Institute of Advance Research (CIAR), it was founded in 2001 to develop new frameworks of understanding about complex problems that are important to Australia’s future. For fifteen years we have been bringing together multidisciplinary groups of leading thinkers, researchers and policymakers to consider issues about our future, ranging from climate and the landscape, our society and our economy to Australia’s place in the world.

Typically the issues we deal with are those which social scientists call “wicked problems”. They are difficult to define clearly: different stakeholders have different versions if what the problem is, and there is usually an element of truth in each of those versions. They have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal. They hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibilities of one organisation, and the organisations that need to be parties to the solution often have conflicting responsibilities and goals, which necessitates trade-offs between conflicting goals.

Our modus operandi is to work in collaboration rather than competition with those who have insights into the issues we tackle. It is rarely the case that any of the stakeholders lack state of the art awareness, or access to it, of the parts of the issue that fall within their responsibilities. Australia21 finds that its best value add comes from bringing together in the one room as broad a range of stakeholders and relevant subject matter experts as possible, to compare notes, in a systematic way, on what we think we know about the issue, and even more importantly, what we do not know, but need to know, in order manage the issue more effectively.

In the case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or as I would prefer to call it Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), we have an issue which affects not only the current wellbeing of an enormous number of Australians and permanent residents, but through that, their capacity to realise their full potential over the course of their lives. Often identified in the public mind as a problem arising from traumatic experiences in the course of military service, we find that PTSI in fact arises in a variety of segments of society. Sometimes it is the result of situations that people will inevitably encounter in certain occupations: among first responder organisations (police, fire-fighters, ambulance and other paramedics) trauma surgeons and nurses, for example. For others it is the consequence of sexual assault including sexual abuse of children, or other forms of social dysfunction: domestic violence, or drug or alcohol-fuelled violence within the community within which a person is trapped, or the circumstances which have forced people to flee their countries of origin and seek refuge in Australia.

Estimates put the numbers of Australians who live with PTSI (those directly affected plus their immediate families) as high as 3-4 million. This is an enormous proportion of our population living lives that range from tragic and/or dangerous, to “lives of quiet despair”, to lives that are simply not as productive and enjoyable as they could and should be. Clearly this comes at a very large cost: the economic and social costs of people being unable to rise to their full potential, and the costs in terms of overall societal wellbeing.

It also entails societal risk, where PTSI sufferers reach the point where they cannot perform their duties safely and effectively and become a risk to themselves and to members of the wider society.

Clearly the aims in dealing with such a major and important problem must be find ways to manage the risks that are inherent in certain occupations, to identify individuals’ emerging problems in sufficient time to allow a full recovery, and to address organisation cultural issues that make people reluctant to acknowledge that they are struggling. In order to achieve that, we need to put solid flesh on the bones of these aspirations.

Our aim in bringing together this collection of essays to gather together in one place a set of short readable essays by some of the most expert people in the country, covering every aspect of the problem: the nature and extent of the problem of trauma-associated stress in Australia; hazards in specific groups; societal and economic costs, and what is done and needs to be done. This collection will be used as the basis for a roundtable in which we ask as many as practicable of the contributors to view the subject as a whole and make their expert contribution to considering where we go from here.

If by so doing we can contribute to the identification of gaps in our knowledge and our procedures, we will consider that as time well spent.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Election priorities

It is amazing what we do and don’t discuss these days in the course of election campaigns, or the "phony war" that precedes them. At the present time we seem to be endlessly fascinated by what is to happen to the threshold for the second highest personal income tax scale to cut in, a matter which will leave 75% of taxpayers unaffected and will have a trivial effect on most of the rest.

Meanwhile, we have young Australians in Iraq, without, as far as I can tell, the form of authorisation required by our Constitution, and without the protection of a Status of Forces Agreement with the Government of Iraq. The effect of this is that they do not have the appropriate authorisation from either government to kill or capture people or destroy their property, and would find it difficult if brought before a tribunal to plead the defence that they were obeying lawful orders. Then on Saturday night ABC TV News revealed that these people are not simply training the Iraqi Army “behind the wire” at Camp Taji, they are following close behind them as they go into combat. Meanwhile, the Government of Iraq is collapsing in a heap. Is anyone talking about this? Not as far as I can tell. There was a time when matters of war and peace captured some attention during election campaigns, but no longer, it seems.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Seventieth Anniversary of the end of the Pacific War

Today is the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific.

On this day in 1945 my father was on board the MV Duntroon, as head of a Prisoner of War Relief Unit, together with a contingent of Australian General Hospital (Army) nurses. The vessel was bound for India, the mission of those on board being to aid the POWs being liberated from the Japanese in Burma.

When news of the Japanese surrender came through, the vessel was diverted to Singapore, arriving there on the day Lord Louis Mountbatten accepted the formal surrender from the Japanese commander. They set up headquarters in Changi Gaol, and began the dreadful business of assessing the physical and psychological state of the prisoners in Changi and those coming down from the Burma-Thailand Railway and the outlying camps.

The matron in charge of the AGH contingent was the remarkable Madge Brown, whom I got to know well in my school days as she took up a position straight after the war as administrator of student accommodation at the New England University College/University of New England, a position she still held when I left Armidale in 1966. Madge had an eventful war: among her other claims to fame was the fact that she had been in Tobruk during the siege. It was a privilege to have known her.

For more on Madge Brown, see  Ida Madge Brown (1904-2009).

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What a mess

In a series of announcements in August-September 2014 the Prime Minister committed us to a steadily escalating role in northern Iraq: first humanitarian supplies for Yezidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar, then air strikes by RAAF FA/18s and airborne support for the missions of other members of the latest US-led Coalition, then an “advise and assist” training role for several hundred soldiers.

This is presented as an operation by a US-led Coalition to degrade and destroy IS, and in early June Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said with some pride in a morning interview on Radio National that the size of Australia’s training contingent is second only to that of the US.

The fact is the principal backers of the Iraqi Government in the fight against IS are the Iranians, so the Americans find themselves de facto allies of a country with which they have no diplomatic relationship, against which they have maintained strong economic sanctions for decades, and against which they have expended considerable diplomatic energy to ensure that they are diplomatically isolated and play no significant role in the settlement of the many problems of the Middle East.

In the minds of the Iraqi Government, however, the Iranians were seen as so central to success that when the Iraqis launched an assault to recover Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace, they reportedly neglected even to inform the Americans ahead of the event. This might have had something to do with the fact that several months after thousands of American advisers turned up to train the Iraqi Army on which they and various allies had already spent a reported $25 billion, the Iraqi Army still wasn't ready for combat. Most of the hard work would be done by Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, who reportedly made up about two-thirds of the force which the Iraqis assembled outside Tikrit for the operation.

As we now know, things didn’t go according to plan, and the ground forces were forced to call upon US air strikes, which led to American expostulation  that as a matter of policy, the United States does not coordinate...anything with Iran, and that  "The Iraqis have some homework to do on this before we are able to assist them in the area they've asked for." US air support was provided in due course, but the “liberation” of Tikrit was followed by a wave of looting and lynching.

Further evidence of the confusion emerged on 1 June when it was reported that the prosecution of a Swedish national accused of terrorist activities in Syria had collapsed at the Old Bailey, after it became clear Britain’s security and intelligence agencies would have been deeply embarrassed had a trial gone ahead. It seems that British intelligence agencies were supporting the same Syrian opposition groups the accused man was.

This whole operation against IS puts one more in mind of a dog’s breakfast than a well-organised military campaign. It seems neither to be militarily effective nor calculated to win the hearts and minds of the Sunni people living under the dominion of the Islamic State.

Nicholas Stuart summed it up well in The Canberra Times on 26 May (see Ramadi's fall signals a strategy in tatters).  Of our Prime Minister’s approach Stuart says:

Abbott's theological background hasn't served him well in the real world. He instinctively divides forces into black and white, and that's why he's finding himself out of his depth in a Middle East where there are multiple loyalties and conflicts. Should we really be surprised that the simplistic answers he advocated have failed to solve anything?

… Abbott needs to understand that the world is not engaged in some kind of Manichean struggle between good and evil: the Middle East is a complicated situation where subtlety is needed to succeed. 

It's fine to label people, or insist on particular courses of action, but unless you've got the power to enforce your desires you're wasting everyone's time. There's a rule that suggests if you don't understand something you shouldn't get involved lest you make the problem worse. Our PM should consider taking this advice.

And in a letter to The Age published on 27 May, CIAW/AWPR Treasurer Andrew Farran summed it up in a few lines – see Blindly following the US, seventh letter from the top. Andrew’s letter reads:

Tony Abbott would have us follow the US any and every where. So which country in the Middle East does the US most fear? Iran. Which force in the region does Iran most fear? Islamic State. So why is the US so opposed to IS when it could provide the required balance against Iran? Why is it so concerned with the fate of Iraq when it has become irretrievably a pawn of Iran? The region is full of contradictions. Does Mr Abbott comprehend this when he speaks of IS simply as a "death cult"?

Syria and Iraq are destroyed states. A new balance of forces is emerging based on centuries-old, pre-colonial historical and religious rivalries, in which other regional states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also involved.

This is not where Australia has direct interests nor should it be involved. The terrorist repercussions from there to here are greatly exaggerated.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Official Opening of Wright College, Mark II

Wright College was the first men’s college to be opened at the University of New England. It was established in 1958, in temporary buildings, and I was a member of the College throughout my university days, from 1961-65. When the original wooden structures reached the end of their lives in 1996, there was no money to replace them and they were bulldozed, to the grief of large numbers of alumni.

There has now been a miraculous resurrection, and I had the honour of speaking on behalf of the alumni at the official opening ceremony this morning.  Thius is what I said:

·      Chancellor
·      Vice Chancellor
·      Mr Colin Ahoy representing the local Aboriginal community
·      Staff and students past and present
·      Members of the Wright family

As an alumnus of the original Wright College and a graduate of the University of New England it gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to say a few words on this auspicious occasion.

I will use this opportunity to pay a couple of tributes and to address a couple of remarks to the current residents, students and staff.

My first tribute is to the man that this College honours, Phillip Arundell Wright, known affectionately to all as “P.A.” This remarkable man played an important role in the University’s creation, and was one of its great benefactors: when the White family donated Booloominbah and about 70 acres of land, P.A. donated land around the University, including Laureldale on the other side of Booloominbah, which became the University Farm, land along the creek flats, which became the Consett Davis Playing Fields, and the land upon which we stand. He also donated that magnificent mace which the Esquire Bedell carries before the Vice-Chancellor on academic occasions. I would urge all of you to Google him; right at the top of the list you will see the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, which will enable you to get the measure of the man in a very few minutes. For those who want more, Judith Wright’s Generations of Men would be a good place to start, and there is a fine portrait of him by Archibald Prize-winning artist W.E. Pidgeon over in the Wright Centre.

My second tribute is to my father, and to his generation of staff and students who worked so hard to build the university we know and love. My father was one of that first group of 24 students who enrolled in the New England University College in its commencement year. He returned as a staff member immediately after World War II, and when the University became an autonomous institution in 1954 he was elected to the University Council.

One of the big things he had taken out of his time at NEUC was the value of the personal relationship between staff and students that has become the hallmark of this university and is one of its great strengths.

So when he and his colleagues of that time had the opportunity to shape the new institution, my father, like many others, was a committed believer in the idea that the new University of New England should be a residential university. So committed was he to this idea that on his modest academic’s salary he offered me the opportunity to live in Wright College, about 400 metres from our home over the way in Handel Street. This was an opportunity that I gladly took up and for which I have been forever grateful.

My third tribute is to the many staff who over the years have laboured successfully to keep our college system going, no easy task when the higher education authorities have never exhibited much warmth toward those trying to do something new or different, nor any understanding of the particular circumstances of regional universities. I especially thank those who have surmounted all the obstacles to breathing new life into our beloved Wright College.

To the current residents, staff and students, I would say only that this is your Wright College now, and you must make of it what you will. It will not be the same as Wright College Mark I, nor does it need to be – times are different now. I guess for the many of us watching sympathetically and perhaps anxiously from the sidelines, our measure of your success will be the extent to which members of the student body decide that Wright College is to be your home while you are at UNE, and becomes a central feature of your memories of your time here.

In closing, I would just say that while it is your Wright College, I hope you will manage to feel that you are part of something which in a very direct sense began in the 1950s, and which draws a straight line back to the 1930s when an enlightened group of prominent citizens, many of them without much formal education, succeeded against extraordinary odds in establishing the first university in regional Australia.  

Thank you.

Before the ceremony

Chancellor James Harris and
Vice-Chancellor Annabel Duncan unveil the plaque

A view of one of the buildings –
in the colours of the original Wright College crest

Monday, March 23, 2015

Death of Malcom Fraser

Below is the text of a media release I put out on Friday 20 March on behalf of the Campaign for for an Iraw War Inquiry/Australians for War Powers Reform following the news of the death of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Death of Rt. Hon. Malcolm Fraser AC CH

On this 12th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry/Australians for War Powers Reform expresses its deep sorrow at the news of the passing of Australia’s 22nd Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Malcolm Fraser AC CH.

Mr Fraser was a foundation member of our movement, having attended in early 2012 a meeting in Melbourne which convened to consider how we might best campaign for the establishment of an independent inquiry into the decision-making process that led to Australia’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the relocation of the so-called “war powers” from the Executive to the Parliament.

From that time forward he was effectively the movement’s Patron. Later in 2012, in Parliament House, Canberra, he launched our publication “Why Did We Go To War In Iraq?: A call for an Australian Inquiry”. He was a strong supporter of our movement and a ready source of guidance and wise counsel.

“His support for this cause was of a piece with his staunch opposition to apartheid as Prime Minister, his humane approach to Indo-Chinese asylum seekers during his time in office, his calls for a more humane approach to asylum seekers in the contemporary era and his respect for international institutions and international law”, said Paul Barratt, President of CIWI/AWPR.

At this time of faltering foreign policy and a too-ready willingness to commit the Australian Defence Force to overseas conflicts his wisdom and ideas will be missed more than ever. His stature will undoubtedly grow in coming decades.

Many of our members and longstanding supporters have known Mr Fraser both professionally and personally over a long period of time. We shall miss him both as a friend and as a colleague, and extend our condolences to Mrs Fraser and the family.

Paul Barratt
20 March 2015

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Honorary Appointment

I am very happy to be able to advise that offer and acceptance formalities have now been completed for me to take up an honorary appointment as an Adjunct Professor in the School of Humanities at the University of New England.

I am pleased to be strengthening in this way a family connection with this fine institution which goes way back beyond my doing a Science degree here in the early 1960s, to a day in early 1938 when my father became the first student to enrol at the fledgling New England University College (of the University of Sydney). With the exception of the war years and sabbaticals, he spent his entire working life here, retiring as the third Professor of Psychology in 1978, forty years after his first undergraduate year here.