The thin line that separates

The thin line that separates

On Tuesday, 13 August 2013 I was delighted to speak at one of Newcastle’s oldest establishments, Newcastle Business Club. What follows is an extract of the speech I delivered.


It’s an honour when people tell you they’d like to hear what you have to say especially when, at three years resident, I’m just a blow-in, a tumbleweed. And also when one’s area of knowledge is something of an abstraction alongside our ordinary lives of taking kids to school, earning a living, and simply enjoying the beautiful life we have in this town.

My friends often roll their eyes, and one mate calls me a place-name-dropper, but it sort of goes with the territory of the career I’ve had. I’ve lived in New York, Sarajevo, London, Prague, Tokyo, and Barcelona amongst others, but my appreciation for this city has grown into an affection that I don’t even hold for my native Sydney.

Just as the opening of mines accounted for 19th century Newie, and the steel works set its stamp on the 20th century city, the kinds of demographic and infrastructural changes going on now may set the tone for the next 100 years. I have a real interest in urban planning, and the way that cities socialise us, and I’ve tried to take an active interest in Newcastle’s emergence as one of the nicest places to live in this country. A great deal depends on the kinds of choices that we make in the next few years. Will our grandchildren rejoice in those decisions, or revile us?

Speaking about London Noel Coward said “I don’t know what it’s coming to ‚Äî the higher the buildings the lower the morals.” But in my observation people recognize the opportunity at hand here. Newcastle has the chance to be a world leader in urban renewal, and I think it’s going the right way about it, helped very pragmatically by the current state government.

I have no particular barrow to push today, but I’d thought I’d range across a number of things of possible interest to you. If there’s any particular point I’d like to leave you with, perhaps it’s my take on some of things that we read in the newspapers, and are told by our political leaders, in relation to the boat people issue.

I was a career international official for the better part of 20 years, working first for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and then for a variety of UN bodies, from peacekeeping in Bosnia and Sudan to the UN children’s agency in Gaza, Haiti, Darfur, and a dozen other hotspots. I was assigned to Sri Lanka in 2006, a place that had been embroiled in civil war for 25 years, but because of the sheer beauty of the place was considered a prize posting.

I’ve been referred to as a humanitarian, or a human rights professional, but I’ve never regarded myself in that light, and still don’t. Rather, I’m interested in history, politics, and the working of men’s minds that lead them to conflict and to peace.

As a UN official, I was well-paid, worked an exciting job, and got to travel with a passport that gave me considerable privileges. But three years ago, at the height of the GFC, I cashed in my pension, and moved back to Australia to write a book. Not at first glance a stellar career move. I sat tucked at my desk here in Newcastle for 11 months, tapping away at my computer with two fingers. My wife said I looked like a monkey learning to play the piano. Not a recipe for a robust marriage.

In any event, it was the best thing I’ve ever done professionally. The book went into five editions globally, was reviewed by papers like The Wall Street Journal and the Economist, was nominated book of Day by Foreign Affairs, and was praised by luminaries like Noam Chomsky and our own Gareth Evans. My favourite review came from Peter Coleman in the Spectator, who wrote

“The Cage is one of the best books written by an Australian this year. It details the atrocities of both the corrupt and savage Sinhalese government and the totalitarian Tamil Tigers, providing a parable of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, and describing the thin line that separates civilized societies from those that sink into collective madness governed by hatred.”

I guess it’s the ‘thin line’ that Mr Coleman refers to, which fascinates me, the things that can make an apparently developed society turn on a dime, and implode. It’s something that makes me inherently suspicious of big government, of dogmas from any political or ideological group, of big promises, because we as people are easily misled. We’re to blame as well, of course, because we like solutions, and we demand of our politicians that they solve problems that are sometimes irresolvable.

Nevertheless, as a former and current businessperson myself, I see the growing role the business world has in helping solve the world’s manifold challenges from space junk that poses a threat to our complex systems of communications, to junk food that threatens the health of our children. Business is working increasingly with the non-governmental sector, and corporate recruiters are finding that the demands of young recruits are changing to reflect that fact. Though feckless and phone-centric, kids want to feel that the company they work for is a part of the solution.

Consequently, as Warren Buffet’s son Peter noted in the New York Times several weeks ago, between 2001-2011 the not-for-profit sector increased by 25 per cent, exceeding the growth rate of the business and government sectors. In the US alone, it employs 10 million people and gave away $316 billion in 2012 alone.

It’s commonplace for me to repeat this, but I will; in our globalised world, no man is an island, not here in Newcastle, not even in Australia. In our busy lives, and no matter how tiresome, it’s important that we not brush over the daily news because it’s repetitive, or complex, or we think that it has nothing to do with us. Rather, it’s vital that we all learn to unpackage and sort through the lies we are fed that often cover misjudgements, alternative motives, or simple ignorance and political expediency.

When I say this, I’m thinking of the folly of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention more recent examples in Libya and Syria. Australia may find itself confronting vastly increased pressures on our refugee intake in the coming years if the Middle East or Afghanistan were to spiral, respectively, into regional war or civil war. Clearly serious misjudgments have been made in these theatres, resulting in geopolitical fragmentation, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and the squandering of trillions of dollars of taxpayers money. Not to mention ordinary misery.

My book, although written about Sri Lanka, is really, as Coleman noted, a parable about human behaviour in general. If I took any general observation from the many conflicts I observed, I suppose it is that if you give people a certain set of conditions, they are generally bound to respond in a certain way. For example, if you tyrannize people, or impose unfair or unequal burdens on them, they are bound to respond, to rebel in fact, just as the Boston Tea Partyers responded to the imposition of British taxation 240 years ago.

I spent three years in Sri Lanka that culminated in the defeat of the rebel Tamil Tigers in 2009. The next posting I was offered covered all of South-East Asia, but since the mass killings of many thousands of woman and children had effectively been swept under the carpet, I decided that I couldn’t in good conscience just move on to the next cushy assignment. The one thing I thought I could do was to unpackage what had happened, and to re-package it into an objective account that others could easily read and understand.

Of course, I was motivated by the simple criminal wrong involved in this final phase of the war, and I’ll come to that in a bit. But really I wanted to be able to tell my then six year-old daughter, when she’s sixteen, that I had performed my duty as a mensch, one of those great foreign words that has no real equivalent in English, but which basically means being a man, in the deepest sense, a human.

I was also lucky enough to have a mentor, a confidant of US Presidents and a Washington insider, who posed a very simple question to me in January 2010 before I began to write ‚Äì so what? Why does what happened in Sri Lanka matter? Why should we care? That question has been partly answered since by the influx of thousands of asylum seekers arriving by boat from Sri Lanka, but it’s only one part of the answer.


I then went on to give a brief potted overview of Sri Lanka, but if you’d like to know more I welcome you to visit my website or contact me directly.

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