December 2023 – January 2024

Essays

How to change a bad law

By Jess Hill
Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

Anne Summers, 2017. © Alex Murray / AAP Images

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

When Dr Anne Summers launched “The Choice: Violence or Poverty” in July 2022, it landed like an incendiary device. Its research, previously concealed among thousands of data points in the 2016 Personal Safety Survey (conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics), told a shocking story: 60 per cent of single mothers in Australia were survivors of domestic violence, and, as a direct result of leaving that violence, half of them were now subsisting on government benefits that left them living with their children in poverty. The act of leaving a violent partner had impoverished them, and, since 2012, government policies had ensured they stayed poor. Summers had a simple story to tell: changes to the single parenting payment in 2006 and 2012, which halved the age of eligible children from 16 to eight, had condemned these families to poverty; further, it was undermining the federal government’s own plan to reduce violence against women and their children. Domestic violence survivors with kids over the age of eight were forced off the $880 fortnightly parenting payment and onto the paltry JobSeeker rate of $691 per fortnight, and then saddled with punishing mutual obligations. The government had trapped many victim survivors in a Dickensian bind: stay with violence or leave into poverty.

Less than a year after Summers’ report, her stark findings, combined with a campaign years in the making, would see this bad law overturned. In a budget defined by its caution, Labor’s new treasurer, Jim Chalmers, restored the single parenting payment for children up to 14, and ended the punitive mutual obligations program, ParentsNext. The story behind how this was secured so quickly is a thrilling example of how researchers and advocates can work together to translate knowledge into action.

The Summers report did not land in a vacuum. For more than a decade, one woman in particular had been campaigning relentlessly to restore the single parenting payment. Terese Edwards, chief executive of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, had been pounding the corridors of parliament since Julia Gillard was prime minister, using every available resource to revoke then prime minister John Howard’s 2006 policy. Howard’s “Welfare to Work” reforms pushed single parents with kids over eight onto Newstart (now JobSeeker) and mandated single parents with children over six to do 30 hours per fortnight of “approved activity” (to gain exemption from making job applications). The policy was built on a fallacy: that single mothers were essentially “dole bludgers” who would remain unmotivated to work unless the government intervened.

When Edwards started campaigning in 2009, she was convinced the Gillard government would see that Howard’s policy was wrong and cruel, and would overturn it. Her campaign was grassroots – a busload of single mothers drove from Western Sydney to Parliament House and marched, and Edwards had more than 50 meetings with MPs. It was “all managed with one mobile phone and a plastic clipboard,” she says. But to no avail. The Gillard government was looking for cost-cutting measures to repair the budget in the wake of the global financial crisis. Federal cabinet’s expenditure review committee identified an easy saving of $685.8 million over four years – by ending the grandfathering provision on the single parenting payment, which would move every single parent (more than 80,000) onto unemployment benefits. As Nine’s David Crowe would later write, the decision was effectively made by the ERC and brought to cabinet as a “done deal”.

The day it passed through the Senate is now infamous – not for stripping single parents of their entitlements, but for the “misogyny speech” Gillard delivered the same afternoon in the House of Representatives. Edwards was present to protest along with other single mothers at Parliament House and cried in the bathrooms as Gillard’s speech went viral around the world. That night, Gillard bumped a scheduled meeting with Edwards, who instead met with the PM’s staff.

By the time Labor lost government the following year, many of its ministers were already disavowing the policy (except for Gillard herself, who has never expressed any regret publicly). For Edwards, 2013 would mark the start of almost a decade in the political wilderness. For much of its decade in power, the Coalition government would further entrench the myth of the “dole bludger” through punitive (and illegal) policies such as robodebt, and, in 2018, the cruel and ineffective mutual obligations program, ParentsNext. All this time, Edwards was trying in vain to get the government to at least analyse how its policies were impacting single parents. A private members’ bill from independent MP Andrew Wilkie to commission a study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies was voted down in the Senate. “The lack of data was a political decision,” says Edwards. Little did she know that by the time ParentsNext became a nationwide program in 2018, the statistics she needed to make her case were already available – albeit concealed within the microdata of the 2016 Personal Safety Survey. That crucial data would lay dormant for another three years, until an intervention from one of Australia’s foremost feminist thinkers 16,000 kilometres away.


After surviving an arduous lockdown through 2020 in New York City, Anne Summers saw something that kept her thinking about Australia. A figure in the ABS’s Personal Safety Survey suggested that single mothers experienced violence at a higher rate than other women, which stood to reason. But how much higher? “I thought, where are the papers and books and discussions about this? Because I hadn’t read anything about that.” The former journalist and political operator immediately sensed a promising area of research; not only was the gap between single mothers’ and other women’s experience of violence so glaring, but the tropes about single mothers had become so poisonous. “I’m not a single mother myself,” says Summers, “but I feel very strongly about the way in which single mothers in this country have been treated, particularly in the last 20 years, and the way they’ve been demonised and treated so appallingly – not just financially but culturally.”

With a fellowship from the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Summers embarked on a year-long project to precisely quantify the impact of domestic violence on single mothers in Australia. She soon confronted the same challenge as Edwards – there was no publicly available data. She worried it might not exist, but when she went to the ABS they said, “We’ve got it – it’s all down there in the microdata. We’ll do a customised study.” To her great surprise, the ABS agreed to work closely with her, for a small fee. Several months later, when she first saw the figures, she didn’t believe them: 60 per cent of single mothers had experienced domestic violence, and 50 per cent of those were living in poverty on government benefits. “I thought I didn’t understand statistics, or that I’d read it wrong.”

The data revealed an even bigger story. “There were 275,000 women in Australia then, living in violent relationships,” says Summers. “Many of them had tried to leave or left and then returned. Many others wanted to leave but didn’t, because they had nowhere to go and no money.” For women without a job or family money behind them, there was a clear future – they would be forced to live on government benefits, which meant living in poverty. “So, women are forced to make this choice between violence and poverty. That finding was so stark, and no one had presented it that way before. The conclusion from that was inescapable.”

In her report, Summers did not mince words: survivors of domestic violence were being forced into “policy-induced poverty”. The government could not stop domestic violence occurring, but it could end, or at least reduce, single mother poverty. She made six recommendations for doing that; at the top of the list was restoring the single parenting payment, and second was the abolishment of ParentsNext, which was exacerbating the problem.

When the report came out, Edwards recognised immediately it was a game-changer. As she saw it, politicians had been hiding for years behind a kind of doublethink: they knew that no individual could survive on JobSeeker – let alone a single parent family – but they also bought the myth that if these recipients really wanted a better life, they could just work their way out of poverty. “The answer, therefore, was that these single mothers just needed to try harder,” says Edwards. But the new data blew that myth apart. Here was a cohort of single mothers who had left violent partners, as the government had urged them to, who were more likely to have post-school qualifications (73 per cent compared to 61 per cent of the overall population of women), and who had not been living in poverty before they left their violent partners. Furthermore, the government’s policy on single parent benefits had demonstrably failed. Only about a third of single mothers had moved into the workforce since the 2012 changes. The others took a cut to their income, which meant less money to raise their children. “Here were women who had used every last drop of emotional, spiritual and financial resources, and their networks, to carve out a safer life for them and their children,” says Edwards. “And what we were saying to them was ‘You now have to do all of that on JobSeeker, unless your youngest child happens to be younger than eight…’ The title of Anne’s report, ‘Poverty or Violence’, is exactly what we’d been saying for years. For these women, it’s violence or poverty – that’s the choice.”

Summers did not want to see her report languish in the proverbial bottom drawer. When she released it in July 2022, the new Labor government had been in Canberra for just over two months, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese – now the most famous son of a single mother in Australia. Albanese had made his upbringing – in council housing in Marrickville, with a single mother who survived on the disability support pension – the centrepiece of his personal story. In his victory speech he had vowed to leave no door unopened for those suffering from disadvantage. Now was the first opportunity for Labor – and particularly Albanese – to correct the shameful mistake it made in 2012. Summers knew the political conditions for change couldn’t be more favourable, but it had to happen quickly or the opportunity to restore the single parenting payment could be lost. The report not only had to land with fanfare, it had to be placed directly into the hands of ministers and bureaucrats.

Bureaucrats especially. Summers had learnt the hard way that bureaucrats could make or break a campaign – even if you had the prime minister on side – and that getting them on board was crucial. In 1985, when she was working in the Office of the Status of Women, she had gone directly to the prime minister, Bob Hawke, to push for childcare reforms. “I went behind the back of bureaucrats to do it, literally meeting [one of Hawke’s advisers] in secret in a hotel room, and things like that. I really thought that once he announced [the reform], that would be it. But the bureaucracy reacted with such fury and, having been outwitted, they did their best to stop it.” They didn’t succeed ultimately, but they did weaken the policy.


Two days before the report was released, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) hosted a Chatham House rules event specifically for the government, to explain the report. “I think the most important thing about that event was that word about the report had spread through the key ministerial offices before it was even released,” says Summers. “We had senior staff from the treasurer’s office, the ministers for finance and social security, as well as people from their departments. We had someone from the ABS, someone from [Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety] – probably about 30 people altogether. And it was a very compelling presentation, simply because of the data, which was news to all of them. After the presentation, we adjourned to a room next door and had a very, very productive roundtable for about an hour.” Productive because, finally, there was data – not just anecdotes – to focus the conversation about the connective tissue linking single mothers to violence and poverty, and proof that government policies had dramatically failed them and their children.

Mainstream media coverage was strong – an episode of Q&A devoted to discussing the report, coverage in major newspapers, radio, even a spread in The Australian Women’s Weekly. Podcast interviews were also key to getting the word out. But more than anything, Summers was focused on getting herself and the report inside ministerial offices at Parliament House.

Not only was the son of a single mother now living in the Lodge, there was also a powerful combination of ministerial roles that had the potential to connect the financial concerns of single mothers with a department that could fix them. Former ACT chief minister Katy Gallagher had just been appointed minister for women and for finance, a double act that had already made history in 2017, when Kelly O’Dwyer held the same dual appointment under Malcolm Turnbull and commissioned then Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to conduct a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australia. That inquiry resulted in the history-making “Respect @ Work” report and the key recommendation that employers be legally obliged to act to prevent sexual harassment, just as they were obliged to prevent workplace injury.

Summers secured a meeting with Gallagher, and when she arrived at the minister’s office, the report was on her table, annotated and tagged. “She’d clearly read it very, very thoroughly. I said to her, ‘What we really need you to do is to reverse the Gillard decision and restore the payment to single mothers.’” Gallagher, a single mother herself who had survived as a young widow on the single parenting payment, recommended Summers meet with Treasurer Jim Chalmers.

Summers was largely on her own at that point, guided by advice from colleagues at UTS. But she would soon team up with some of the most formidable campaigners in the country.


In September 2022, Gallagher announced the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, with Sam Mostyn as chairperson. One could naively mistake Mostyn, one of Australia’s most influential businesswomen, as the kind of feminist who measures gender equality by the percentage of women on boards. But she is something else entirely: a thought leader with impeccable credentials and connections who maintains strong ties to women working at the barricades. What makes Mostyn such an effective leader is her embodiment of feminist principles – especially collaboration and courage – and her ability to comprehend systems.

When Terese Edwards got the phone call inviting her to be on the taskforce, she knew this was her chance to barrack for women “who have no platform, no agency and no capacity”. Mostyn had read Summers’ report and attended its launch and was already keen to make restoring the single parenting payment a priority. Edwards took that to the next level. At the taskforce’s first meeting, after Senator Gallagher had urged them to “be bold”, Edwards spoke first. She asked the panel, please, could they look at what needs to be done for the most disadvantaged women in Australia today? Specifically, could they make restoring the single parenting payment the taskforce’s number one priority? She tells me: “I remember saying to them, ‘I know I’m sounding desperate, but I am. If we don’t get it up this time, we will never get it up.’”

The taskforce saw the wisdom in this proposal, and instead of the usual economic priorities – the gender pay gap, paid parental leave – they focused on the nation’s most vulnerable and ignored women. “We started with Anne’s report and looked at single mothers particularly,” Mostyn says, “but also other women fleeing violence, women – older women – with homelessness issues, no superannuation balances, in poverty. They were the women we wanted to care about first. We were able to go to the October budget with a series of asks of government, particularly around single mothers.” When Gallagher asked for an urgent set of budget recommendations, they drew up six. First up was restoring the single parenting payment, and second, abolishing ParentsNext.

In persuading the government to act, they certainly had the wind behind them. As Mostyn outlines, not only was the prime minister personally connected to this issue, but he knew he’d come to power on the back of the women’s vote. The female “teal” independents, who had demolished the Coalition in so many inner-city seats, had campaigned on platforms of gender and economic equity. Gendered violence was at the forefront of people’s minds, after a blockbuster year of marches and advocacy from young women such as Chanel Contos, Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, “so you had a lot of women demanding the government do something about this profound level of violence”. And then you had Gallagher, whose powerful ministerial combination made her a key member in the expenditure review committee of cabinet, which meant that “suddenly women’s issues are in the most important rooms of the cabinet, not just at the cabinet table”.

That wasn’t all. As 7.30’s political editor, Laura Tingle, observed at a UTS forum on the policy change, there was also massive shame within the Labor Party for its role in reinforcing Howard’s reforms. Especially now, since the Summers report had linked single mothers so explicitly with domestic violence. “You had research which said, actually, this policy is completely counterproductive,” said Tingle. “You’re not actually forcing women to go back into the workforce and making something of themselves … [you’re] doing the exact opposite.” The data, combined with the policy analysis, changed the narrative. “Instead of a story where you just had one case study of a woman making lunch for her kids and saying, ‘I’m doing it really tough,’ you had all these different voices arguing all these different cases and that made it an incredibly potent argument, which was very hard for the government to ignore.”

What was also now clear was that the single parent policies had been designed for a kind of woman who mostly existed in tropes and ideology, not in real life. “The women we were meeting, who had become single parents after escaping violence, were certainly not characterised by coming from a low socioeconomic background, nor the kind of woman that had been the classic misuser of a welfare payment,” says Mostyn. “These were women who had good decent lives until they did not. They were leaving security, with children, having nowhere to go, and they were going to be using this welfare payment for the first time. And they were going into poverty, which would affect not just them and their ability to work … their children were being affected and their educational outcomes compromised.”

Despite this momentum, it would require a lot more work to get this change across the line. “We were all operating and making calls,” says Mostyn. “I sent many copies of certain pages of Anne’s report to the prime minister. We went down every path, and we knew that we had … women speaking out in the community at different levels on every aspect of this, turning up on radio and television.”

One of those women was Angela Finch, a sole parent of three girls, living in Tasmania. Finch had written for Guardian Australia about what it was like to live on the single parenting payment, and was advocating with Edwards behind the scenes. She, like most single mothers, had left a violent and controlling partner, after he strangled her in front of her family outside a restaurant where they had been celebrating her 40th birthday. Surviving on government benefits was virtually impossible, but finding casual work wasn’t the answer either: if Angela worked beyond a tightly restricted number of hours, she would have her other benefits cut and end up worse off. After a life of financial security, leaving a domestic violence situation had impoverished Angela and her children, and government policies were ensuring they remained impoverished. “[P]overty … is in every waking and sleeping thought,” she wrote in June 2022. “I try every day not to show my little humans how heavy, isolating, demoralising and agonising it is to be living this.” In September, around the same time Summers was meeting with Jim Chalmers, Angela told Guardian Australia that the new prime minister’s narrative about his single mother upbringing was “wearing thin”. “[Albanese’s] mum could not do what she did today, like, she just couldn’t. It’s really great for you to have that story, and for you to tell kids in this country, ‘I’m from [public] housing, I could do it, so can you,’ ” she said. “We could when there was safety in the safety net, but it’s not there anymore.”

The October budget contained no change to the single parenting payment. But by March 2023, it was clear that the eligible age would be lifted, but just how high the government would go was unknown. The bureaucracy was testing how much it would cost to restore the parenting payment single to families with kids aged up to 12, 14 and 16. Independent MP Zoe Daniel had costings done by the independent parliamentary budget office, which showed a restoration to age 12 would cost around $640 million over the next three years; restoring it to 16 would cost $1.1 billion.

Summers and Mostyn were hearing of great disquiet within parts of the bureaucracy – particularly within the Department of Finance. Despite all they had done to get the bureaucrats on side, many were actively opposing the policy change, even when their minister supported it. “It was reported in the press that the government was going to stop [the payment] at 12,” says Summers. “I was just beside myself with rage. I thought, we have not done all of this – we have not come this far – to have this kind of compromise … That’s when I went apeshit.” Summers first wrote to Albanese, reminding him that 50 years ago, Gough Whitlam had given single mothers a payment that supported their full-time job as a parent – the government didn’t expect them to find paid work while their kids were dependent, because it recognised that care was work. Labor now had the chance to revive that great legacy.

Summers knew she had to make it personal for Albanese. With decades of media experience behind her, she also knew how to land a killer line. At an event in the House of Representatives committee room, Summers dialled up the rhetoric: if the prime minister was growing up today with a mother reliant on welfare benefits, he would not be leading the country, he would more likely be in juvenile detention. The power of that line struck Mostyn immediately. She called Channel 7’s Mark Riley, her brother-in-law. “I thought it was an extraordinary moment from a campaigner and feminist of such standing that might just shift the mood,” says Mostyn. “It was compelling … because it took it back to the children affected by this.” Riley chased Summers out to the airport, got her line on camera and broadcast it that night on prime-time news.

This was a do-or-die moment in the campaign, and everything had to be thrown at it. “The age of 12 was probably one of the worst compromises because these mothers would be … dealing with poverty [as] kids …were going into high school,” Mostyn continues. “That would be catastrophic … A number of us were doing radio all over the country reminding people what was happening to children at the age of 12.”

Edwards knew she had to throw everything she had at this last phase of the campaign, too. With financial support from the Paul Ramsay Foundation, she organised a forum in Parliament House. She asked Mostyn and Summers to speak, and brought with her five single mothers who were living in poverty. The night before the forum, they all went for dinner, and Edwards and Summers met for the first time. What struck Edwards the most that night was how truly egalitarian that gathering was. “I sat back and I thought, no one in this restaurant would be able to pick out who is in poverty and who isn’t. None of that stress – the stress that keeps you awake at night, that has you believing you have failed – none of that was there that night. So those women were so ready to go the next day [at the forum] – ready to speak their truth.”

One of the mothers Edwards brought to Canberra was Angela Finch. She had taken part in social justice campaigns before, but this was different: instead of feeling like just another case study on display, Finch felt like an equal. More importantly, she felt like politicians were actually listening. “For the first time, it felt like retelling my story over and over and over might pay off. The powers that be were actually actively listening, instead of just saying they were listening.”

The momentum was undeniable. As March was coming to an end, the clamour leading up to the budget was approaching fever pitch. At this critical moment came an intervention from independent MPs Monique Ryan, Allegra Spender, Kylea Tink, Sophie Scamps, Zali Steggall and Zoe Daniel, who organised a press conference calling for the single parenting payment to be restored. The comment from Tink was perhaps the most stark: “The reality is that single mothers in this country are currently being punished … [The government policy is] putting them into a position where they need to decide: Do they eat? Do they move locations? Do they move into their car? Or, in some instances, do they give their children up to social services?” For Edwards, this media call was the moment she felt something really shift. “[It] moved the stubborn cultural dial from positioning single mothers as the cause of social problems to a process of examining the social structures.”

In the background, the campaign was also getting a boost from both the Centre for Social Justice & Inclusion and the Business School at UTS. Throughout the campaign, the centre had hosted webinars, promoted Summers’ report and supported her political lobbying. Now, in the lead-up to the budget, it stepped up its involvement, sending an email campaign to more than 1500 contacts encouraging them to share their stories with the government’s expenditure review committee.

Two months later, just before the budget, Chalmers announced that ParentsNext, which experts and inquiries had deemed punitive and ineffective, would be abolished. Then the next bombshell dropped, and Edwards heard it first in a phone call from Mostyn. “She said, ‘Terese, it’s in the budget.’ And I was just waiting because I thought I could live with 14, but I couldn’t live with 12. Then Sam said, ‘It’s 14,’ and I lost all my power of words. I just burst into tears with her on the phone. All I could say was, ‘Oh my god, Sam. Oh my god, Sam!’ I was thinking of all the mothers that have gone back to abuse and shit because the youngest one had already turned eight, and all the mums that didn’t leave because they couldn’t.” Edwards says she will never forget where she was when she received the phone call. “Whenever I feel, you know, a bit sad about a call that I’ve had [from a single mother], I actually just sit there and look at that place and go, Yeah, magic shit happened right there.

The day after the budget, Edwards walked the blue-carpeted halls of Parliament House, thanking every minister she could find. “I wanted them to know, to hear firsthand how powerful this impact was. And it was during my solidarity walk that I managed to gain a meeting with the prime minister. I played him a voice message from a single mum. He told me he had retweeted my media release about the policy change, because it was about restoring respect for single mothers. It was real and personal.”

When asked if this was just a change whose time had come, Edwards demurs. “If it had been in the wind, as was paid parental leave, we would have got it in the October budget. And I think how hard we had to work to get it lifted from 12 to 14, and that we couldn’t even get it to 16 with the might of my allies. So, this was not just a policy whose time had come – we needed Sam Mostyn and we needed Anne Summers. And we needed women to just keep talking. That was the hardest bit, because they had been talking for so long.”

So what made the difference? Why did this campaign succeed? And what can other campaigners learn from it? Summers is clear: successful campaigns have a clear and specific “ask”. “You have to know what you want, and how to explain it. It has to be attainable – it can’t be, like, ‘Let’s stop nuclear war.’ You have to have done your research, and you have to understand the impact of what you’re talking about. You need to know the details, because politicians know them – it’s easy to think of them as all a bunch of yobbos, but they’re really not. At our meeting with [Employment Minister] Tony Burke, he was across so many details.”

For campaigners without her public profile, Summers advises to do as Terese Edwards did. “You get known through campaigning. Terese was not a national figure, but she just stalked the corridors of power and went to every opportunity she possibly could, to put her case.”

 

This essay was written with support from the University of Technology Sydney Business School.

Jess Hill

Jess Hill is a journalist, public speaker and the author of See What You Made Me Do.

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