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The boot on Australia’s windpipe

By Dick Davies - posted Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Soon after I came to live in Australia, I ran a short weekly chess lesson at the local primary school. There was lots of enthusiasm, but the teaching bit remained obstinately non-existent. The children had only one question, and they all seemed to ask it all the time: Who won? Children would sit at a board with neither of them knowing the moves, just pushing pieces around and still they'd be asking who won. The only way I could think of to try to teach anything was to play myself into losing positions then tell them how to finish me off. But their moment of triumph morphed quickly to the conclusion that I was obviously no good at the game. This experience brought it home to me that I am no teacher, but it also gave me a foretaste of life in Australia.

I didn't know I had lived in quite strange places before coming here, but it became increasingly clear to me that now everything was different. This was no place for disinterested reflection and analysis. This was more like a raw fight. You either win or lose. If you lose you are a loser.

Then I noticed something odd. Listening to ABC Radio National, I heard a lot of panels debating in front of audiences and noticed that it seemed no panel was complete without a philosopher. Having always secretly fancied myself as a bit of a philosopher, I was intrigued by this.


It was not a term I had ever come across being used. Indeed, in a pub once I had asked an ancient alumnus of England's finest education if such things as philosophers exist and he told me he didn't know, but if they were to, he imagined they would be found in pubs. Now I seemed to be surrounded by them. But it became clear that most were simply people who had passed exams, like geographers who could all tell you something about a country, but seldom sounded as though they had ever been there.

As these observations were developing, I realised something else: I had never encountered such hostility, indeed snobbery, in my life as when I tried to engage "experts" in conversation at conferences or other events. The point was clear: You were not to be talked to until you had established you were somebody. But this was snobbery with a very definite smell of defensiveness about it. One could sense ladders being pulled away as soon as they have been climbed and territory mapped out to be defended.

This all added up to a disappointing and alarming picture. All my career, and indeed life, before coming here had led me to place the highest importance on interpersonal relationships – on people being able to work together clearly, respectfully and trustfully.

Some of the most important work that ever happens is in the removal of blocks and hindrances that get in the way of this. As people come on board and risk getting involved and trusting those they work with, the quality of life for everyone increases and the quality of the collective output increases exponentially. The value comes out of an environment in which people are open, ready to listen and committed to a common goal, and as they work together, they generate a collective understanding that is a hugely important body of knowledge. But it is not knowledge that anyone else is going to simply pick up by reading because it will have been shaped by context in ways that are far too complex to explain and it will have texture the words don't capture.

It seems to me that much of what I used to value is lost in what I see going on. When I talk to ordinary people living here, neighbours in the street, people I meet socially, I find the same old human beings I have always been used to with attitudes I recognize. But, encounter anyone in an institutional setting and all that seems to vanish, replaced by an anxiety to be seen to be in control and acting correctly. This in itself is not abnormal. There needs to be a formality about dealings with institutions. But it is the extent of it that doesn't feel right.

Institutions themselves do not create a pretty picture. Critics are abused and whistle-blowers are hounded. Stories of corruption are a regular item in the press and one wonders what can be happening when the CEO of a public institution can ask a parliamentary committee how he can be held accountable for corruption in his organization because he has been told to give top priority to something else.


Australia is a country of extraordinary achievement and it has millions of wonderful people. But those same people, adults with adult views and understanding, turn into timid children under the institutional conditions of employment. As a result, Australia is short changed, deprived of what they could be contributing because institutional norms first ensure they are afraid to open their mouths to say what they know, and second ensure that if they do still open their mouths, nobody dares to take any notice anyway.

The institutional culture decides things at the top and demands obedience. The message to employees is "leave whatever you know at the door because we will tell you everything you need to know." This artificial reality is then ruthlessly enforced by competition in giving the boss what the boss wants. This very competitiveness is continuously reinforced by a whipped-up pattern of incontinent worship of sport and sporting heroes.

Wherever I go, I am amazed at what people left to themselves are achieving, either in building businesses, building communities or reaching out to help others in need. But all this seems to succeed because it is under the radar. If it becomes official it perishes.

Two interconnected forces are stifling Australia: Competitiveness and authoritarianism combine to throttle the development of knowledge and deny the economy and the community much of the contribution people could be making. Overcoming these forces is Australia's great leadership challenge. They block the road to Australia's great leap forward.

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About the Author

Dick Davies is a technophobe who has made a career in the computer industry. He started out as an “ineducable” programmer (quoting from the course report), but later made his way to a range of management positions. He saw in computing an industry that thrived on “toys for boys”, not customer benefit and in response to this, scoped out a radical way of transforming how the industry related to its customers. His employer (an F100 corporation) funded an exploratory activity to apply these ideas, which generated business opportunities of an enormous scale during the ten years he led it. He continues to see a huge strategic opportunity if business leaders align how power operates, how employees see themselves and how technology is used.

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