Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: parliamentary politics, freedom of the press, climate change, surveillance

This is part of a short (albeit growing at the rate of one entry per entry…) series on one person’s perspective on what people might want to know before considering immigrating to Australia as a person with progressive politics, in 2016.

The goal of this series is, if there’s issues that affect you and/or you are active in and/or you want to know more about, to give you a capsule summary of the issue from my point of view, with links for further reading. Where I have them, I’ll give details of activists and organisations I follow in the space, and in some cases well known organisations that I don’t personally follow.

It’s worth noting that I’m not especially radical; I consider myself a social democrat. If you’re interested in, say, anarchism or communism in Australia, I don’t have pointers here, but it may still give you a sense of some places to begin asking questions. I’m also more accustomed to the lens of intersectional feminism (sometimes badly wielded) than other styles of progressive analysis. I’m not a member of any political party and don’t comment here on what it’s like to get involved in party political activity. I’ve tended to read and write more than I have to organise, or to take to the streets. This may change.

Apologies to everyone for either sketchy or no treatment of things that are important to you; this is a personal overview and necessarily partial and biased. Thanks to the many folks over the years who’ve developed the resources I relied on for this, ranging from Twitter to Wikipedia to our beleagured ABC.

Published:

  1. Introduction: what I’m doing in this short series and why
  2. Logistics: mostly practical issues like the cost of housing, but not entirely depoliticised
  3. Authoritarianism: some imperfect thoughts on Australia’s ability to resist
  4. Politics I parliamentary politics, freedom of the press, climate change, surveillance

Unpublished:

  • More politics: at least some of Indigenous dispossession, refugee rights, economy and employment, racial equality, LGBT rights, women’s rights, disability rights…

Thumbnail sketch of parliament politics

Australia is a Commonwealth of states, formed in 1901 from British colonies (now our states) that were established by European invasion of Australian lands from 1788 onwards. The colonies were granted limited self-government in the period 1856–1890, and nationalism grew from 1870 onwards leading to federation.

Like other federations, states have some self-governance, maintaining their own parliaments and a substantial body of law. They also provide a great deal of the services. However, since it is the federal government which raises revenue and doles it out to the states, state policy tends to be harmonised more or less willingly under federal pressure. There’s occasional serious commentary calling for the states to be abolished entirely but it’s never been seriously picked up politically and I don’t know how practical it is constitutionally. I don’t expect to see abolition of the states any time soon.

Australia holds federal elections roughly every two and a half to three years largely at the behest of the government at the time (they can’t hold out forever, Parliament has a maximum term limit, but there’s roughly a six month window in which Parliament can be dissolved for an election). States hold separate elections, some on fixed terms, some also based on the government’s choice of timing. It’s broadly speaking normal for a change of government to occur every three terms or so (so every seven to nine years). Australia has a strong two party system formed by the Liberal-National coalition (conservative) and the Australian Labor Party (has ranged from socialist to centre-ish at various times) which have between them held government since 1944 when the Liberal Party was created.

Enrolment to vote and actually voting (in the sense of having your name checked off the register for an election, not in the sense of casting a valid vote) are compulsory for resident Australian citizens aged 18 and over. There are some British citizens also on the roll; they need to have been on it continuously since January 1984. Non-resident Australian citizens lose the right to vote after six years living outside Australia unless/until they return. (Worth noting: non-resident citizens also generally aren’t taxed.)

Some properties of the Australian parliamentary democracy that might not be obvious if you’re from the United States:

  • We don’t have an elected head of state (a president, in other words). We have a monarch who has to date always had an essentially ceremonial role and who lives in the UK, and a vice-regent the Governor-General, who lives in Australia and who is usually ceremonial but see the 1975 constitutional crisis for the major exception.
  • The leader of Australia from the point of view of both domestic politics and foreign affairs is the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is elected from among themselves by government House of Representative MPs when the Coalition has government, and (since 2013) by a combination of the MPs and the ALP party members when the ALP has government. In practice the party leader is determined well before the election and only if that leader doesn’t win a seat would a new leader become PM right away. Prospective Prime Ministers are usually “the face” of an election campaign, but unless you live in their electorate, won’t appear on your ballot paper.
  • The Prime Minister can be and has been (quite regularly, most recently last year) replaced by their party without holding a federal election.
  • Our vote counting system is preferential rather than first past the post. That is, if you vote for Candidate A within an electorate, you can still express a preference between Candidate B and Candidate C, and if the election comes down to B and C, your preference between them counts in the decision. In more detail, it’s usually instant-runoff voting in electorates where only one winner is possible and single transferable voting in electorates where multiple winners are needed (Senate/upper house seats).
  • It’s unusual, although not unheard of, for the party forming federal government (in majority in the House of Representatives) to also have a majority of the Senate. The most usual state is for the government to need to negotiate with either the opposition, or with cross-benchers from smaller parties, to pass legislation through the Senate. To date, oppositions don’t tend to roadblock legislation as a matter of course in Australia; much legislation passes with bipartisan support.
  • Australia does not have proportional or mixed-member elections; that is, candidates still need to be elected within an electorate. If party A wins 5% of the vote nationwide, they don’t get 5% of the seats. They may well get 0% if they didn’t manage to win any electorates.
  • There’s no “natural born” provision or additional age limit for Australian Prime Ministers over voters; as an Australian citizen you can be elected to Parliament and become the Prime Minister any time after your 18th birthday. Former PMs Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard were both born in the UK (in Abbott’s case, to an Australian mother) and are naturalised citizens. However, dual citizens cannot enter Parliament, they need to resign other citizenships first. (There seem to be somewhere between 4–5 million dual citizens here, so close to a quarter of the population.)

Indigenous men had voting rights in some but not all of the colonies, and women in South Australia, but almost all Indigenous people were stripped of a federal right to vote in 1902. They were gradually re-enfranchised from 1949–1965. Neville Bonner was the first Indigenous person in federal Parliament, appointed to the Senate in 1971 and later re-elected. Ken Wyatt was the first Indigenous person in the House of Representatives, elected in 2010. Nova Peris was the first Indigenous woman in federal Parliament, elected to the Senate in 2013. There has not been an Indigenous Prime Minister or leader of the opposition. More on Indigenous politicians in Australia.

Non-Indigenous women have had the right to vote and stand for federal Parliament in Australia since 1902. Enid Lyons became the first woman federal MP in 1943. Julia Gillard became the first and to date only woman Prime Minister in 2010. There has been no woman leading the federal opposition in Parliament to date although minor parties have also had women parliamentary leaders, as have the states. More on women politicians in Australia.

To begin to find out which political party if any you’re aligned with in Australia, check out the ABC’s Vote Compass and Sam Thorp’s Donkey Votie (very snarky, but I found it extremely useful for differentiating the minor parties, which does matter in Australian Senate elections).

Freedom of speech & press

As background, I’m not a free speech absolutist, so might not be the best source of information for those who are. However, a quick selection of statements from the government:

  • “A well established principle of statutory interpretation in Australian courts is that Parliament is presumed not to have intended to limit fundamental rights, unless it indicates this intention in clear terms. This includes freedom of expression.”
  • “The Australian Constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of expression. However, the High Court has held that an implied freedom of political communication exists as an indispensible part of the system of representative and responsible government created by the Constitution. It operates as a freedom from government restraint, rather than a right conferred directly on individuals.”

I think it’s worth noting that the High Court’s finding there only dates from 1992 (Nationwide News Pty Ltd v Wills).

There are hate speech restrictions in Australia both federally and within state law. This is an active political debate, particularly around section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. Here’s a few links: an explainer from a legal academic who supports the provisions; the parliamentary inquiry into sections 18C and 18D.

Here’s Reporters Without Borders on press freedom in Australia:

Australia has good public media but print media ownership is heavily concentrated. Two media groups – News Corporation (owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch) and Fairfax Media – are responsible for 85 percent of newspaper sales. Overall, the media enjoy a great deal of freedom although protection of journalists’ sources varies from state to state. Coverage of Australia’s refugee detention centres on Manus Island (off Papua New Guinea) and the Pacific Ocean island of Nauru is nonetheless restricted. New laws in 2014 and 2015 provide for prison sentences for whistleblowers who disclose information about conditions in the refugee centres or operations by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

I’d add that Australia is regarded as having pretty plaintiff-friendly defamation law, at least relative to the United States. Here’s a review by Electronic Frontiers Australia as of 2006 (after state laws were harmonised) with particular reference to online publication.

The public broadcaster is comprised of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), and National Indigenous Television (NITV). The ABC’s funding is around $1 billion a year, and it tends to serve as something of a focal point for accusations of left-leaning editorial bias. Their editorial policies are here. In the privately owned press, major mastheads of Fairfax Media have maintained editorial independence from their owners for about 25 years.

Australia has content censorship. For books, images, mass media and so on, the Classification Review Board has the ability to refuse classification of content and thus make it illegal to distribute in Australia. There is also a blacklist of websites which is small compared to the web as a whole. As best I understand it, political opinions are currently not a major focus of this regime. Here’s a legal explainer aimed at artists. I’ve found it difficult to find an authoritative source for this, but my understanding is that Australian law criminalises both child pornography showing abuse of children, and fictional child pornography (cartoons etc).

Follow: if you’re thinking of moving to Australia, you probably should start reading our press. The Australian is the biggest selling national newspaper, it’s a Murdoch paper and is right/centre right editorially. Most state capitals have a Murdoch paper and a Fairfax paper (eg the Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald in Sydney/NSW) focussed on capital and state news. (Australia is very urbanised into state capitals, and a “the capital and occasionally other areas” approach is common.) The Monthly and The Saturday Paper from Black Inc are often good sources of long form journalism. Crikey grew out of a email newsletter aimed at political and media insiders and while it’s less scrappy and maybe/maybe not more professional now, it is worth a look if you want something with that viewpoint,

Disclosure: my sister works for Fairfax Media.

Climate change

Australia is hardly at the forefront of international action on climate change. The Liberal-National Coalition has a fair few climate change deniers and they have tended to control party policy particularly when in government. Coal mining is a major industry in Australia and coal and fossil fuel in general seem to me to have pretty well aligned themselves with the government.

In terms of international treaties and economic action, Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 but didn’t ratify until 2007. In 2010 then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed an emissions trading scheme, which was blocked in the Senate. Malcolm Turnbull (then the leader of the opposition) lost the support of his party in advocating Coalition support for the scheme. In the 2010 election Julia Gillard pledged there was to be no carbon tax during the election campaign, and introduced one in government in 2011. This was very effectively weaponised against her by the Tony Abbott-led opposition. (Here’s a timeline to July 2014.) Once in government the Liberal-National Coalition repealed the tax and generally dismantled what climate change initiatives they could. Turnbull became the Prime Minister in 2015 but it seems to be understood that he remains so, in part, as long as he does not start supporting significant anti-climate change action again.

More recently, this month, the Turnbull Liberal-National government has announced we will ratify the Paris climate change agreement. Here’s our 2030 climate targets and some breaking news of political tensions.

In summary, expect Australia to be shamefully timid on this subject.

Follow: Greens climate change policy, the Climate Council.

Surveillance

Fairly pervasive. Wikipedia has what seems to be a pretty accurate summary as of 2014 (not all the 2014 proposals became law). Mandatory user Internet metadata retention by ISPs began a year ago. Internationally, Australia is a party to Five Eyes.

Follow: Electronic Frontiers Australia, Pirate Party Australia, Greens digital rights policy

Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: authoritarianism

This is part of a short series on one person’s perspective on what people might want to know before considering immigrating to Australia as a person with progressive politics, in 2016.

The series::

  1. Introduction: what I’m doing in this short series and why
  2. Logistics: mostly practical issues like the cost of housing, but not entirely depoliticised
  3. Authoritarianism: some imperfect thoughts on Australia’s ability to resist
  4. Politics I: parliamentary politics, freedom of the press, climate change, surveillance

Unpublished:

  • More politics: at least some of Indigenous dispossession, refugee rights, economy and employment, racial equality, LGBT rights, women’s rights, disability rights…

Someone I discussed this series with said that what they were really looking for was an answer to the question (extremely paraphrased) “which country would let me in, would be physically safe, and has the least chance of being governed by fascists?”

If I could answer it I’d be a much better person in the world, more likely to leave it in a better place than I found it. I’m sorry.

Something I’ve been thinking on, from John Quiggin, Australian Research Council Federation Fellow, University of Queensland, in There’s a lot of ruin in a country:

The political reality, however, is that the initiative is with the other side, not only in the US, but in the UK, Australia and much of Europe. The collapse of neoliberalism as a dominant ideology (though not yet as a policy reality), has so far favored the tribalist right rather than the still disorganised left. The tribalists now have the chance to prove that their policies can work, or be perceived to work. If Trump can create and sustain an illusion of restored national greatness, as Putin has done (so far) in Russia, it won’t matter much what the Democrats do. The same will be true in Britain if Brexit can be made to work, or at least be seen to work.

At the same time I don’t want to fall into a false equivalence; I personally am glad to be a resident of Australia right now rather than of the US, and if I was, as I’ve considered becoming several times, an immigrant worker in the US, I would be at least evaluating and if possible maintaining my ability to move back at short notice. But…

I feel like there’s two questions: how likely is Australia to maintain its current social democracy? and is there any just political system robust against authoritarianism for the next 50–100 years?

I can grab at a few things in the fog on the first question only. So here we are, I’ll give you what I have on authoritarianism and Australian social democracy in all its imperfect and awful reality. It is crumbs. My faith in Australia’s ability to keep its authoritarianism from getting worse in the face of global trends is not high (but I cannot easily think of any other country I think is definitely better placed, I think we all must beware). I hope I can give people with better instincts than me some starting points for their research.

One thing I wasn’t able to assign to a bin here was the way human rights law works in Australia. Here’s how the government itself puts it:

In Australia, human rights are protected in different ways. Unlike most similar liberal democracies, Australia has no Bill of Rights to protect human rights in a single document.

Rather rights may be found in the Constitution, common law and legislation – Acts passed by the Commonwealth Parliament or State or Territory Parliaments.

I’m genuinely unclear which is likely to survive longer: one document, or a bundle of legal traditions.

Likewise, income inequality is markedly lower than in the US or the UK, but is above the OECD average and is getting worse. Here’s a report by the Australian Council of Social Service in 2015.

Positive signs

There isn’t an Australian Federal election due until, at the earliest, August 2018, absent special circumstances (which admittedly aren’t that hard to create, even without anything extra-constitutional going on), and perhaps not until early 2019. This isn’t at all entirely good news — I’m thinking about continued abuse of asylum seekers for example — but the direction and harm caused by the Republican Trump presidency in the US and the Conservative May government in the UK will be clearer by then, and there may be time for increasingly organised ideological opposition to play a role here and for facts on the ground in the US and UK to be incorporated into the campaigns and policies.

Australia is very able, both constitutionally, and in practice, to change Prime Ministers. This has been something of a joke nationally and internationally recently, but does suggest we’re not immediately ideally set up for a charismatic authoritarian strong man to get established free of any pending election or partyroom overthrow.

Australia does not have anything like as strong a union movement as it did in the 20th century, but it is strong enough that it still has significant party-political power in the Australian Labor Party (one of the two majors), and also made a major contribution to an ALP electoral victory comparitively recently.

Australia is a low population country that has never been a singular world leader economically, politically, culturally. We are not a humbled superpower. We have not been defeated in a recent war, suffered a recent economic reversal of fortunes, or had significant loss of territory recently. We were in an empire, its privileged and beloved and spoiled children, but we didn’t run the empire.

We were fairly recently presented with a policy package that represented a significant dismantling of our public infrastructure in health and education, and it was deeply unpopular and could not be implemented by the government. Significant parts of our public spending enjoy widespread support.

Negative signs

We demonise and abuse outsiders, presently asylum seekers and Muslims among others. Our politicians have actively created outgroups and nurtured xenophobic sentiments for political gain. It worked. So they’ll do it again, and probably better.

Individual politicians with structural power, either powerful partyroom members of the (conservative) Federal government or people holding some of the balance of the power in the Federal Senate, were pleased with Donald Trump’s policy platform and were either openly pleased he was elected or signalled their alignment with voters who embraced his platform.. Have some names: Tony Abbott (who was Prime Minister 2013–2015, and who is widely understood to be planning to be so again), Cory Bernardi, Pauline Hanson. Here’s one article for you. (If you’d like to learn more about the electoral popularity of various political parties in one place, I think the 2016 Federal Senate votes would be the first place I’d look.)

There are plenty of people left out of Australia’s economic success and who don’t see themselves portrayed in our national picture of what is good about Australia. And per the last entry, I think we’re at serious risk of the first economic downturn in a generation, and everyone holding more tightly to anything that promises they can keep what they have, or get back what they lost.

Rupert Murdoch was born in Australia and lived here until he was in his forties (he’s now a US citizen and forfeited Australian citizenship), News Corp was founded here and the Australian arm is one of our largest media companies. We do not have a direct equivalent of Fox News, but Murdoch is actively interested in Australian politics and involved to the point of being a kingmaker, both because of his outlets’ editorialising, and through direct regular contact with senior Australian politicians.

Australian Prime Ministerial changes have largely been brought about by party anxiety about medium-term polling of said Prime Minister (particularly in the case where they are also personally disliked by their party colleagues, which has apparently been true of several recent PMs). The kind of charismatic authoritarian strong men we worry about would be popular with the public pretty much by definition and if he (or perhaps she or they, but less likely) had decent partyroom skills, I don’t see any particular reason why he’d necessarily join the rotating line of recent PMs.

Speaking of which, my impression is that polling still seems to work in Australia in a way that wasn’t true of this US presidential election or of the last UK parliamentary election or the Brexit referendum. It may stop working someday soon, perhaps leaving people misled about the popularity of an authoritarian politician or a damaging change to the constitution in the same way as happened in the US and UK. (Australia is one of comparitively few countries where voting is compulsory, whether this makes our polling more robust I don’t know.)

Less immediate negative signs

I separated these into a separate section because they’re much more dependent on unknowable global changes in the coming years and decades.

Australia is a large country with substantial natural resources, including coal, sunshine, and uranium. I have no great sense of our immediate desirability as a conquest target, but some reasons are there.

This may seem a bit out there given the stability of this setup over a couple of lifetimes, but we’re talking world-historical here. So: Australia is a constitutional monarchy. Our head of state is Elizabeth II, the Queen of Australia, the same woman you may know better as the Queen of England. (Or Canada. Or New Zealand. Or 12 other countries.) This arrangement enjoys majority support from the Australian people, and even if it didn’t, amending the Australian constitution is more difficult than winning a majority vote. Elizabeth II is fairly discreet about her political opinions, but she is also 90 years old and I expect to see two or three more monarchs in her line in my lifetime. Her son and heir seems likely to be a more politically active King at least of the United Kingdom. Clearly a constitutional monarchy is not necessarily terrible — it’s keeping me up at night the least of everything here — but it’s authoritarian by definition.

Conclusion

Such as it is: I want to acknowledge again that to many people who live here or are trying to come here, Australia is plenty authoritarian and punitive. I deeply feel my lack of ability to forecast and warn here. I hope I’ve given a starting point to folks who don’t have a lot of Australia-specific political context to do their risk assessment.

Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: logistics

This is part of a short series on one person’s perspective on what people might want to know before considering immigrating to Australia as a person with progressive politics, in 2016.

The series::

  1. Introduction: what I’m doing in this short series and why
  2. Logistics: mostly practical issues like the cost of housing, but not entirely depoliticised
  3. Authoritarianism: some imperfect thoughts on Australia’s ability to resist
  4. Politics I: parliamentary politics, freedom of the press, climate change, surveillance

Unpublished:

  • More politics: at least some of Indigenous dispossession, refugee rights, economy and employment, racial equality, LGBT rights, women’s rights, disability rights…

Money and privilege

While there are innumerable ways of immigrating to Australia ranging from skilled migration to attempting to seek asylum as a refugee (there’s a more comprehensive list here) it is very hard to move to Australia unless you are on an above average income for a rich country, and have other privileges such as education and health.

I’m not in a position to advise on getting around that, but I do want to acknowledge it, and I will focus on the big costs of living in Australia, now and in the future, in this post so you know what you’re getting into.

If you need to seek asylum, you probably know that Australia’s refugee policies are cruel and inhumane. I’ll come to that in the politics entry. I am profoundly sorry you are in this position and that Australia is making it worse.

Skilled migration

In this section I’ll talk about skilled migration as I understand it. If you may be eligible for other Australian immigration pathways such as having close relatives who are citizens or possibly being a citizen (for example, you were born here prior to August 1986) I won’t touch on that here, be sure to look over your connections to Australia and the different visas for possibilities.

Very important: I am not a lawyer or immigration expert. If attempting to immigrate to Australia under our visa regime, you should make use of official advice and, if possible, advice from an immigration lawyer. You may also want to seek perspectives from Australian immigrants; I’m an Australian citizen by right of birth and have been a resident my entire life, so my perspective is from second hand experiences.

First: skilled migration to Australia is considered to be pretty tough to do. I have no special insight into New Zealand’s equivalent regime, but I have known people in the past who chose to naturalise as a New Zealand citizen and then work in Australia (most New Zealand citizens can enter Australia and work here under a special visa category) rather than attempt to immigrate through Australia’s system. That should give you some idea.

Australia’s immigration regime, particularly for permanent residency, discriminates in many ways, specifically, in favour of young, healthy, highly educated people in particular professions. Your education will be assessed. Your ability to work in a targeted profession will be assessed. Your health will be assessed. It is a points-based system where certain attributes give you “points” and you must pass a certain threshold to be granted residency. The older you are the more points you will need. Again, I am not an expert but the last time I saw the points assessment applying for permanent residency on the basis of skills was increasingly difficult after age 30 and close to impossible after age 45.

A permanent residency skilled migration visa presently costs AUD 3600 to apply, which is not refundable if your application is denied. Assessment of your skills and your health check are not included, and can cost AUD 500 or more each.

Smaller but still substantial difficulties I have had friends encounter:

  • bridging visas: these visas are often granted to people transitioning between Australian visas, such as between a student and a residency visa. Bridging visas very frequently last for a year or more and on some of them you cannot leave Australia without a good reason, at penalty of forfeiting your right to return.
  • wait times for visa assessment can be long, and may hinder any travel to Australia in the meantime
  • targeted professions: these change, and changes can apply to existing applications, not just to new ones

The main alternative is entering temporarily on a work visa, usually a 457. These last up to four years after which the normal pathway is transitioning to skilled migration in any event. They obviously require a sponsoring employer with all the difficulties that entails, including the risk of needing to leave Australia if your employment ends or you can’t get permanent residency.

Finally, if you are considering (further) tertiary education or are open to it, you could apply to an Australian university and enter on a student visa. Holding a specifically Australian university degree is in turn a boost to your later skilled migration case. Major cautions: there are some scholarships, particularly for research degrees, but if you aren’t awarded one, tuition fees may be tens of thousands of dollars per year; and the university application cycle may not suit your plans to move. You can typically work on a student visa but only for a limited number of hours a week.

My understanding is that Australia typically does extend visas to your immediate family (under a certain definition of family that you can more or less guess at) if you are a permanent resident or on a long term work visa, and these include the ability for your spouse or partner to work. (This also includes student visas, last I heard.)

While Australian law does not recognise same-gender marriages for immigration or any other purpose (coming in the politics entry), you are recognised as de facto spouses along with unmarried woman-man partners, and de facto partners including same-gender partners can get visas. Either marriages or de facto relationships may be examined for being whatever the immigration authorities consider genuine relationships to be. It looks like marriages and de facto partnerships are, among other things, expected to be “exclusive”, ie, there is not support for your multiple spouses or partners obtaining a visa when you get one.

Again, there are visa categories not discussed here, definitely do some research.

Other experiences

As a special and very terrible example of the way that health and ability status can interfere with Australian immigration, there are many folks with Down syndrome whose diagnosis caused their or their family’s visa applications to be declined: Lukas Moeller in 2008, David Robinson in 2008, Eliza Fonseka in 2016 (all these cases were overturned in the applicant’s favour by the Immigration Minister, but presumably most aren’t).

Earning money in Australia

Australia has a highly educated workforce and a resources and service economy; we mine raw materials, and we sell things to each other. The resources economy is boom and bust, and presently more towards bust. The wealth and education level of the country means that R&D certainly happens here, but it isn’t a major economic driver and political interest in it and support for it waxes and wanes.

Australia was one of the few wealthy countries to avoid a major recession and employment crisis circa 2009 and has had around 20 years of continuous economic growth. For an aggressively pro-Australia take on this — much more than I’m willing to go with — here’s former Prime Minister Paul Keating this last week (warning for some mention of gun violence):

[T]his society of ours is a better society than the United States, than the society of the United States.

I mean, it’s more even, it’s more fair, we’ve had a 50 per cent increase in real incomes in the last 20 years, median America has had zero, zero.

(As a note in interpreting Keating if you read that interview: he is a famous advocate of much closer ties with Asian countries; that isn’t a truly mainstream foreign policy position in Australia. He’s also famously provocative. And… he was the Prime Minister ending those 20 years ago. the story of his relationship with Australian economic growth is a long one and I’m not the person to tell it.)

Many of my readers would be interested in software jobs. There is a comparatively immature but growing software startup scene (with major involvement from Australians and other residents who have lived in the US) and a growing amount of funding. Several major US technical employers have a long-time presence in Australia, including Google and Microsoft, and due to the timezone, it’s also a reasonably popular base for at least a small ops/SRE site. Atlassian is the best known company that is the other way around: Australian founded, expanded to the US, and there are others. Major banks, both retail and investment, are fairly large technical employers. I feel that Sydney and Melbourne are not the Bay Area, or New York, or Boston, but there are certainly software jobs, including very senior ones, around, and increasingly so.

Unemployment stands at 5.8 percent. It was slightly worse in 2014–2015, but that’s because those two years were the worst two in the last ten. (That said, it was above 10 percent in the 1990s — again, when Keating was Prime Minister… — so it is far from historically high.)

This may be stating the obvious but there are big regional variations in employment, income and wealth, with urban residents of inner cities doing the best.

There are welfare payments for unemployed citizens and permanent residents funded by the state, they’re subject to increasing restrictions and strict interpretations of the rules and recipients are an easy target for any government that wants to look tough.

Risks: I think there’s a strong risk that Australia’s growth trend will not continue much longer. There’s a resources bust. Graduate un- and under-employment is at a record high. Our interest rates are now very low (although not as low as in many countries) and the Reserve Bank therefore has less levers to pull to stimulate the economy in the event of a slump, particularly without further stimulating the housing market which really doesn’t need their help. And we’re strongly vulnerable to global shocks, although not more than anywhere else I think. If I had a choice — and anyone looking at skilled migration has some financial resources unfortunately — I would be cautious about immigrating to Australia without an offer of employment in a seemingly stable workplace, or else savings or an independent income stream.

Paying for big stuff in Australia

Short version: a lot of stuff is pretty expensive in Australia. Consumer stuff-wise: it’s a wealthy country with a small population that’s a long way from most other places. Food and consumer goods are priced accordingly and this can be tough. I’m sticking with big ticket things here.

Housing

Real estate in Australian capital cities, especially Sydney, is world-leadingly expensive and likely to be a shock unless you are moving from Manhattan, the San Francisco Bay area, or Tokyo, and perhaps even then if you were hoping to save money. Presently in Sydney, houses have a median price of AUD 1,000,000 and apartments AUD 650,000. And keep in mind that Sydney is a large metro, and that data includes dwellings with a commute to the business district in the order of two hours each way. Those aren’t the prices of “lifestyle” suburbs. Meanwhile, Sydney rents are a AUD 490 weekly median for houses (about AUD 2200 monthly) and AUD 465 weekly (AUD 2100 monthly) for an apartment. Expect other cities to be cheaper, research how much. Prices vary a lot by city and local conditions.

At present in Sydney rents are quite stable, even arguably about to fall. Purchase prices continue to climb. There is a heated and long-running debate about whether Sydney in particular or Australia in general are in a housing bubble, if so when it will burst, and if it bursts how big the falls will be. As with, as far as I can tell, all bubbles, almost no one will be close to the mark on the details and the person who is will have done it by accident. It’s been seven years since the Mount Kosciuszko bet now and as far as I can tell the various arguments remain. But at the very least if you buy a dwelling in a major Australian city, you are buying it in what could be a bubble.

Personal opinion: Australia needs higher density housing in major cities. I’d prefer that housing prices flatlined for a long time while inflation degrades their real value rather than collapsed because of knock-on effects.

Medical care

Right now, as best I can tell, acute medical care in Australia is fairly cheap by the standards of rich countries, and of excellent quality. There is universal healthcare for citizens and permanent residents, some of which is free, particularly acute care in a public hospital, and, for many people, regular care from a GP. There’s a set fee called the Medicare Benefits Schedule. Medical practitioners are free to bill the MBS (called “bulk billing”, free to you) or charge what they want above the MBS and you pay what is called a “gap” (the term “co-pay” is only starting to show up).

The best specialist tertiary acute services such as neonatal intensive care are most commonly only available in the free-to-the-patient public hospitals.

Likewise, there is a single payer for pharmaceuticals, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The upshot of this is that typically, if a medication is PBS listed, you pay around $30 to $40 for it (less if a low income earner, there’s an additional scheme) and the balance is paid by the PBS as negotiated between the PBS and the supplier.

The existence of the PBS and the MBS apparently often mean that even unlisted drugs and procedures are cheaper than they would be in the United States, as they drive down consumer expectations of cost. If everything else costs $40, you’re less likely to pay $5000 for a particular drug even if you can afford it.

Bulk billing is offered by many but far from all GPs (and more often to children, students and pensioners) and some specialists, but specialists less so. A gap is common there. To give a sense of it, as a thyroid cancer patient, I end up about $100 out of pocket to see my endocrinologist, my endocrine surgeon bulk bills for office consultations but decidedly not for the surgery itself, and my imaging can run to a few hundred dollars. However I’m lucky enough to be a bit price-insensitive: I could have had the surgery for free in a public hospital by the surgeon’s registrar, and I could get cheaper imaging in a few other places.

Billing is usually quite predictable to the practitioners and they (and especially their receptionists) can usually state it entirely accurately in advance. There are esoteric exceptions, the main one that’s happened to me was a couple of genetic tests where the exact price was uncertain.

Holders of 457 visas and student visas and similar will need to buy health insurance, both in case they get sick but also as a condition of the visa. A quick look places it at between $20 a week for singles to $60–$100 a week for families. Private health insurance in Australia, both the kind citizens and residents can buy to afford care in the private system, and the kind that visa holders need to get access to the public system, has strong regulatory restrictions avoiding much health risk discrimination; it’s group risk. The major form of restriction they can and do apply is waiting periods; usually six to twelve months for pre-existing conditions to be covered. I am not sure how this applies to visa-holders who need care for a chronic condition, or preventative care to prevent a pre-existing condition worsening; this would obviously be something you’d need to seek advice on.

As for the private system, there is a parallel health system of non-emergency care with some benefits, such as choice of doctor and ability to be on shorter waiting lists. Public benefits apply to procedures but not in-patient stays in the private system; many Australians carry optional additional health insurance against such stays. Honestly, it’s a complicated and weird system and I won’t get into it here.

I like our medical system a lot, and I’ve been its reluctant guest several times. However it is of course not all bright side. Some downsides:

  • It’s completely possible for all the little gaps to not be so little to you, and for this to be too expensive.
  • Non-emergency care for public patients is accessed in order of urgency; as a public patient, you can wait months or years for a procedure that would substantially improve your quality of life but is not putting your life at risk.
  • Just as the MBS and PBS spare you detailed arguments with your insurer about a procedure or drug, they deny you arguments. If a procedure or drug isn’t on the schedule, it isn’t on there. You or your doctor may be part of a group making a case for it to be on there, but in the meantime, you’re buying the drug out of pocket; there’s no individual consideration. For some newer cancer therapies for example, this can cost tens of thousands.
  • New drugs tend to be accepted for coverage by the PBS later than they are by, say, good US medical insurers, and the alternative is out of pocket. I’ve only twice in my life encountered this situation, once was for the Nuvaring contraceptive which I bought out of pocket for about $1 a day, and the other, unfortunately, is potentially far more impactful but it’s a thyroid cancer specific case.

Risks: this system has never been beloved of our conservative (currently governing) Liberal-National coalition. They developed an active policy a few years ago to begin charging $7 gap fees on all medical care (if applied to all GP visits, and all blood tests ordered, and all imaging ordered, this adds up; trust me, I’m a cancer patient with regular lifetime monitoring requirements) and I assume that was an opening salvo in a move towards a much more user-pays health system. It was a deeply unpopular proposal and failed. It was popular with neither doctors nor the public. However, I can’t see very far into the future on this one, and I’m not assuming that the current system will substantially survive into my old age.

Trans care

Briefly, I researched this and it seems that top surgery is sometimes covered under MBS codes for mastectomies and similar breast surgeries. Other affirming surgeries often have no MBS coverage, and hormones also have patchy if any coverage under the PBS. Here’s a 2014 statement calling for change from the National LGBTI Health Alliance.

Movement on this seems generally slightly towards improved coverage. Eg, in 2013, several procedures related to eg uteruses stopped being restricted by gender on the MBS. There’s a long way to go.

In terms of papers, for federal government paperwork see Australian Government Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender. In very very short form, there’s an ‘F’, ‘M’, and ‘X’ designation and the preference is to collect identity unless your assignment at birth is considered specifically relevant. (Note: there’s the fairly common distinction between sex and gender in those guidelines, which I know does not capture the experience of many people.)

Updating birth certificates is a state-based issue, and some states, including NSW, require affirmation surgery as a prerequisite.

Personal opinion: this sucks badly, I’m sorry.

Reproductive choice

Contraception is widely available in Australia and many medical methods are covered under the PBS. For example, the Mirena IUD costs around $40 for the device plus (potentially) any private fee to have it inserted by a privately billing gynaecologist if you don’t or can’t wait for a public clinic. (Family Planning Australia also trains GPs to insert them but I’ve only ever met one who has done the training; I’ve known quite a few who can do Implanon insertion.) Many common formulations of the contraceptive pill are covered on the PBS, resulting in a cost of around $0.30 a day. Condoms are available in pharmacies and supermarkets.

Risks: Denying or restricting contraceptive access is not a topic of regular political debate; I can recall it arising once in my adulthood. I don’t fear loss of access to contraceptives absent a major change in public opinion or national politics. (Obviously, that’s not zero risk.)

Doctors and pharmacists can refuse to issue or fill prescriptions. (See a 2015 news story.) This has never happened to me, and in major cities there’s a lot of ability to switch practitioner if this happened. In isolated rural areas it can be a problem, as can access to medical care at all without considerable travel and cost.

Abortion availability is governed by state law, because the states inherited the English Crimes Act which forbade it. At the present time, abortion is fully legal in several Australian states up to a certain week of pregnancy, some time between week 14 and 24; state-by-state details here. In some states doctors who personally refuse to perform or refer for abortions must at least provide a list of willing doctors to patients. Abortion remains illegal in NSW and Queensland. In practice in NSW at least there’s case law which gives a fairly wide definition of “harm to the mother” that includes social and economic factors and abortion can be accessed in NSW but it’s more expensive, more tightly overseen by doctors and ethics committees, than it would be if it were decriminalised. Several years ago I transcribed a detailed talk by a lawyer about the NSW situation.

In general, the legality of abortion is supported by a reasonably sized majority of the Australian voting population (albeit increasingly less so in late pregnancy) and it is not a central political issue. This has some cons in that legalising it in NSW and Queensland is not perceived as an urgent issue. In NSW Upper House member Mehreen Faruqi is championing the decriminalisation of abortion, you can learn more at #end12.

Risks: Aggressive restriction of abortion is not something I see looming or worry about but it’s possible and more likely than aggressive restriction of contraceptive access. There have been attempts to establish fetal personhood under law in several Australian states, notionally aimed at injuries to the fetus incurred when the mother is harmed, but championed by politicians who are anti-abortion and presumably therefore ultimately aimed at (further) criminalising abortion. To date they have not become law but it remains a risk. In addition, my sense is that there is some complacency that the current status quo is good enough, even though Queensland criminally tried a woman for an alleged home abortion in 2009 and abortions stopped throughout the state for periods of time due to the legal danger to doctors.

I won’t deal with reproductive rights of people who are pregnant and plan to continue in as much detail, but Australian birthing largely takes place in hospitals, with access to midwifery care and especially homebirth often not available or based on very strict medical criteria (eg, most or all of: normal BMI, no prior birth over 4kg, at least one prior full term birth, no diabetes or blood pressure issues, singleton…). Caesarean section rates are around 30% of births; choice-wise I believe requests for maternal-choice Caesareans are frequently denied, especially in the public system.

Disability resources

Could be vastly improved, although I am not myself disabled or experienced with navigating the system so cannot speak to it in great detail. One major issue disability advocates talk about is a continuing political focus on “return to work” if at all possible, including if returning to (or starting) work is technically possible for you but would leave you unable to do anything else.

If disability resources and caretaking are part of what you need to consider, you should carefully evaluate the National Disability Insurance Scheme rollout, its scope, and the political threats to it. A small sample of writers and activists you could learn more from are:

Mental health care

A limited amount of outpatient mental health care is available under the MBS, for more details see the Department of Health. Private health insurance often has some cover for additional therapy.

I have some limited experience of this process, and it was that MBS funded therapy tends to be focused on whether you have a DSM diagnosis, and on discharge if and when it appears that you don’t. Most folks I know have had slightly better experiences although the number of sessions funded per year is very low for a lot of people.

Acute mental health care is somewhat available through the public hospital system, but my understanding is that the availability of acute care hospital beds has basically never met demand.

Education

There is publicly funded primary and secondary education in Australia for permanent residents. In NSW, schooling is Monday to Friday, 9am to 3pm, roughly 40 weeks of the year.

Primary and secondary schooling are funded by the states (recall though: we only have six states and two territories). The states also set the curriculum. My belief is that this somewhat evens out inequality relative to a local funding and curriculum model, but it’s not magical. There are seriously disadvantaged schools in Australia. There’s also the outsourcing of tuition fees to the housing market: schools perceived as desirable drive up local housing costs. And there’s increasing discussion of race-based moves away from local public schools. I have definitely had white Australians tell me (usually subtly) about their schooling and housing choices being driven by wanting their child to attend a majority-white school.

Free schooling is not necessarily available at all to children in families without permanent residency.

There is a competing private school system, which by and large adheres to the same curricula as public schools with the odd exception (mostly offering the International Baccalaureate). Many but not all of the system is run by religious organisations, and since religious organisations in Australia are allowed to discriminate, so too are their schools. Private schools also receive substantial public funding, but charge tuition fees ranging from nominal to astronomical.

Personal opinion: public funding of private schools should be abolished. I don’t expect to see this any time soon; I expect this would be exceptionally difficult both politically and in terms of planning (as there would be increased demand for public schooling), but, it should be.

Risks: means-testing of public education is on the table, and some members of the government are of the opinion that all education should be private. I think in the medium term this would only go as far as some kind of mandated but not large fee for wealthy children attending public schools (and a corresponding move of some of those families to equivalently priced private schools, which is probably the policy goal).

There is public funding of tertiary education in Australia, but tertiary education is not free; universities charge a regulated and often substantial amount. In addition, the public funding is attached to, you guessed it, Australian citizens and permanent residents; full tuition is charged to others and is usually in the multiple tens of thousands per year.

Australian citizens (only) admitted to eligible university places can borrow their tuition fees from the Australian government at (presently) only CPI-linked interest rates and with repayment through the tax system once your income is high enough.

Risks: I think there is a serious risk of tertiary tuition fees being fully deregulated in Australia in the next ten years, especially since some of the universities support deregulation. There is also serious risk of the loans scheme moving more towards a private model with market interest rates and the ability of the lender to, eg, have input into the jobs you choose. I don’t think our tuition would rise as high as the United States for two reasons: one is that the universities aren’t held in as high regard as some in the US, and the other is that there’s an entire generation of wealthy children whose parents have not been saving for their university tuition since birth, so there’s a medium-term limit to the fees that even rich people would accept.

Caretaking

There is only very limited fully publicly funded childcare in Australia, and most of it is educational in nature (ie, focuses on children at a preschool age). Childcare that is more designed for the benefit of adults in the household (ie, childcare so you can work) is privately provided, sometimes not-for-profit and sometimes for-profit. Centre daycare is pretty tightly regulated, daycare in the carers’ home increasingly regulated, nannies not very regulated. There is some public contribution to centre fees for permanent residents and citizens, particularly those on low incomes. Unfortunately, because the fees aren’t regulated, they have arguably simply risen to absorb the public contribution while keeping out of pocket costs the same, which is bad news for folks who aren’t eligible for the public contribution.

There is no universal daycare right recognised in Australia. Your ability to find care depends on a private market. My experience is that people usually can find it, but needing to alter your workdays or defer working to wait for a place, commuting out of your way to daycare, accepting a daycare place at a place neither you nor your child like, and an awful lot of anxiousness, are all very normal.

Out of school hours care for school-aged children (eg, 3pm to 6pm, school vacations) is similarly privately provided. Individual schools may or may not have an arrangement with a particular provider and that provider may or may not be able to accommodate demand.

Personal opinion: I think having a scheme involving public contributions to private unregulated fees are pretty silly.

Risks: there is no question that the funding for childcare is changing radically because policies are actively being worked on. I haven’t read them closely but some of the changes seemed progressive if anything: moving an already means-tested system towards supporting low income people. (I’m agnostic on whether means-testing for state benefits is a good thing, but when it exists it should be clearly progressive.)

I unfortunately have little insight into accessing and affording paid caretaking for young or old adults who need or want it.

Conclusion

As you can tell, there’s two big issues here: migration is by far the easiest if you are financially well-off and basically the same kind of person who is less at immediate risk of punitive economic policies and severe employment discrimination in your own country, and the other is that as in any country, Australia’s publicly funded medical and educational resources, and policies in general, are always at risk from our governments and economic conditions. I partly wrote this so that you know that.

In the next entry I will discuss how some issues that progressives may care about are dealt with in Australia.

Moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016: introduction

Many of my US friends are frightened of the Donald Trump presidency for very good reasons. I have no special insight (less so than them) but the bad and worst cases seem very very frightening to me too, far more so than for a typical Republican or generally conservative government. Some folks I know are considering or actively planning emigration and I greatly sympathise, although I don’t know what I would choose or when I would pursue my choice.

This has caused me to think over what I know about Australia, good, bad, and terrible, Hopefully if you are considering immigrating to Australia you have time and resources and are able to seek out many voices inside and outside Australia. Some of this may also be useful to people who are simply interested in Australia as a place to visit or in Australian news.

I am one person. More specifically I’m a white cis heterosexual partnered mother of young children who works in a well compensated job in the tech industry (in fact for Google, a US company), as does my spouse. I’m able-bodied but not strictly healthy; I have a few acute and chronic illnesses that aren’t disabling at present and I have some experience of being seriously and, once, life-threateningly ill in Australia. I’m Australian-born, I’m a citizen, and I’ve never lived in any other country. My insight is limited, the more so the less these are true of you too. I will try and link to a number of other voices and sources of information in these pieces from other perspectives. I’d be very interested in comparative pieces of all kinds and for many regions and countries!

I honour the Wongal people of the Eora nation, on whose land I live, and I pay my respects to elders both past and present.

Over the next few days, I will be publishing two articles with my best assessment of things you might want to know before you seriously consider moving to Australia as a progressive in 2016, for any reason.

The series::

  1. Introduction: what I’m doing in this short series and why
  2. Logistics: mostly practical issues like the cost of housing, but not entirely depoliticised
  3. Authoritarianism: some imperfect thoughts on Australia’s ability to resist
  4. Politics I: parliamentary politics, freedom of the press, climate change, surveillance

Unpublished:

  • More politics: at least some of Indigenous dispossession, refugee rights, economy and employment, racial equality, LGBT rights, women’s rights, disability rights…

Thursday November 10 2016

The end of known bad things, huh?

I got out of hospital yesterday but still needed to spend yesterday mostly alone for other people’s safety. I drove across the mountains to visit my parents and checked the US election news high up in the fog and the rain, and again on the other side of the mountains in the sunshine green and gold after the rainiest season here in well over a decade, and it was bad both times.

This isn’t where I write about politics and what could I say? On Sunday I can go back home to my children, one of several reasons I’m not as politically active (online, anywhere) as I used to be. I’ll soon do some of what I can, almost certainly more for Australia because that’s where I have most of what power I have and we have more than enough to change and save here. If you too are in Australia, things australians can do to support asylum seekers is one place to start.

Love and solidarity to people despairing, and hoping against despair, in the US.

Tuesday November 8 2016

This coming Sunday is the end of known bad things in my life. Obviously not bad things, but all the bad things that I’ve known were coming.

Sunday is the day I can return home to my kids after completing radioiodine ablation for thyroid cancer. I’ve known about having thyroid cancer for a long time but this year the primary showed up; I had surgery to remove my thyroid in July, and a dose of I131 administered yesterday. Tomorrow I can leave the isolation room at hospital, on Thursday I can spend time around adults again, but I can’t safely touch or spend extended time with children until Sunday. Thus, Sunday, the end of the known bad times that have included the end of my business, having three jobs in the last year and change, V’s broken leg, and the neverending saga of cleaning up our life after moving house.

Thyroid cancer is a bit of a strange one in cancer narratives. It has a really good prognosis (especially at my age and current staging) and it’s not treated with chemotherapy or beam radiation until about the third line, so definitely a lot of physical trauma of having cancer and end of life thoughts and planning aren’t a big part of it. It’s “the good cancer”, “if you had to have any cancer!” from the point of view of people who see a lot of cancer. But there’s still a lot of bad stuff by the standards of healthy people. A second neck surgery for me (I’ve previously had parathyroid disease) with the increased risk of permanent damage to my voice or even, maybe, my breathing. More scarring. Four nights in hospital this year. A really rough anaesthetic recovery. My first experience of solitary confinement, however comfortable and cheery they try and make the isolation rooms (it has a kettle for making tea, a fridge, a window, I’m told I can get takeout if I want, and while the staff apparently have been refused their requests to get wifi here, the partly lead shielded room has surprisingly good cell reception). Surveillance for the rest of my life (recurrence is common), plus being completely dependent on thyroid replacement hormone, and all the niggles that go with that: for one thing it’s difficult to get blood from me ever and hormone testing every six weeks is actively making the situation worse.

So more on the chronic illness end of having cancer. But it’s been a rough year. At some point people started saying “I wonder what else could possibly go wrong for you this year?!”… and then at some later point, they stopped saying that because they started getting answers.

The other thing worth keeping in mind if you ever want to tell someone they got “the good cancer” is that there’s hardly a law saying that you’ll only ever get one cancer. In fact, given that there’s some genetic susceptibility involved in a lot of cancers, and a lot of treatments are carcinogenic, somewhat the opposite. Not really a lot to be said about that, although luckily radioiodine is fairly safe that way unless I turn out to need several doses.

Outside of that, the most memorable thing of the last four months or so was also time away from my family; visiting Mountain View and Los Angeles for work. Mountain View was a chance to get into bike riding again, as I could ride to work up the Stevens Creek Trail every day. A lot of it is wooded and autumnal, but my favourite part is the bleak portion under the powerlines between NASA Ames, Moffett airfield, and the tech company campuses. A storm rolled up one day (a somewhat pathetic storm by Sydney’s standards, but it was good looking) and I thought about Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom.

I’ve spent enough time in the Bay Area to constantly get the count of my visits wrong. It is, I think, eleven visits. One during my post university round the world trip in 2004; 2012 after Wikimania; twice in 2013 for PyCon 2013, and then AdaCamp San Francisco; once in 2014 before AdaCamp Portland; three times in 2015: after AdaCamp Montreal in April, shutting down the Ada Initiative in August, and for a job interview in September; and then three times this year, January, May, and October. But I’d never been to LA before outside of transiting LAX, an experience most people think is hellish but I think of as the first place I can buy cheap berries after arrival. I spent four days in Santa Monica commuting to Venice again on a bicycle, that time a bike share bike that I described to someone as having the turning circle of a hearse and probably weighing about the same too. A good thing to cycle up the beach slowly in any case. I didn’t know anything about Santa Monica before I arrived so everything came as a pleasant surprise; the bike share bikes, the hugeness of the beach, the people working out on the ropes and the travelling rings, the pier and the amusement park.

This was a work trip, and we went to Universal Studios as an off-site. I was decidedly mixed on that; it was a very hot day and extremely crowded considering it was a non-holiday Thursday. I would have enjoyed roaming more on a cool day perhaps. The best part was the Jurassic Park ride, which I compared to the Portal aesthetic. Everything is great in this futuristic faux-past parkland with peaceful herbivores and the calming voice of a senior scientist playing to us. Until more electric fences and empty boats filled with small, well-fed looking dinosaurs appear. And then the boat is “evacuated” into an industrial tunnel, “attacked” by an oversized T-Rex emerging from a waterfall (I’ve seen a T-Rex skeleton, this thing was oversized by at least three times) and dropped down the free fall part of the ride into a splash zone. The fastest fall is thus at the end, unlike most rollercoasters, I liked the tension building aspect a great deal. I also took the studio tour but wish that it took itself more seriously. I’d be more than fine spending an hour or two learning about the physical business of making movies without also needing to go through cheesy fake car chases, monster attacks, earthquakes, and Jaws reenactments. There’s probably nerdier movie-business tours I could take elsewhere in LA someday.

It looks like the shorter term travel I will do will be to New York though, which I am excited for. I’ve been twice, both times in summer, and both times overwhelmed by summer and New York together. I’m looking forward to learning more about New York when it’s not August.

Note: a lot of people are finding out about my thyroid cancer for the first time from this entry. I didn’t have a lot of energy to talk about it with folks… and I still don’t. You don’t have to reach out; but if you want to, I’d prefer something like a pretty or amusing photo to discussing my health or how I’m feeling or how you hope I am feeling.

No medical or other advice of any kind please, and I don’t want cancer or radiation themed jokes either.

Superhumanised methyl: an infallible process for naming things

“I’m no good at names” said pretty much everyone I’ve ever founded and named a project with. Of course you aren’t because how often does one found and name a project? It’s a learned skill. You’ll get better at naming things as you name more things.

I’ve been following the same naming process since we named the Ada Initiative and it’s worked well several times; we came up with a name that we liked and the project didn’t split up over the issue of naming. I thus feel like it’s ready for public release and declaration of infallibility.

What are you trying to name?

Get down a short description of the thing you are trying to name: a two sentence summary, a mission statement, or similar. Eg: “a group blog for people who both knit and crochet”, “a future multinational oil company” or “a street festival”.

This may sound really obvious — why would you be naming something before you know what it is? — but in fact often you have to name things before almost anything else happens, because the name will need to go in your domain, in your incorporation paperwork, in your Twitter handle and so on. Often the need for a name arrives simultaneously with the need for a mission statement; get a short summary down as you currently understand your project.

Consider the obvious

I tend to lean to names that are fairly abstract, because I want to avoid asserting a particular kind of authority for a new project. For example, the Ada Initiative was not named “the Women in Open Source Initiative” for the reason that we weren’t intending to be an umbrella group or a one-stop-shop. Separately, abstract names are apparently easier to establish as a trademark (of course, if trademarkability is an important consideration for you, involve an intellectual property lawyer in your naming process).

But that said, it’s worth considering if you should be “the Winter Street Fair” or “the Crafters Blog” or “Oil, Incorporated” before you disappear into the web of name possibilities.

Assuming you’ve decided not to go with a descriptive name, it’s time to…

Come up with sources of metaphors

This is the part where I personally get stuck on “but I’m terrible at coming up with metaphors”. But again, you don’t have to do this cold. Think about:

  • your field: tools and technologies, sources of meaning and difference and status within it (quality, skill, design, distinctiveness, price, reliability, longevity, sub-cultural elements…)
  • history: early figures in the field/region, early tools and technologies, important places and their names
  • related fields and their tools and technologies, important places and so on
  • natural phenomena are very established metaphors: weather for energy/change, fire for destruction/renewal, wilderness (and space) for adventurousness, water for soothing/endurance/relentlessness

Your craft blog: historical crafters, historical technologies (eg the names of early looms), current technologies, colours, stitches, patterns, garments.

Your street festival: historical residents of the area, earlier names for the locality, street names, seasons and weather, local wares.

Your oil company: earth, power… varieties of hats? Pollution? Seriously, don’t get me to name your oil company.

Quite a lot of fields have a well-established metaphor, eg, “cloud” for computer servers hosted by other people (and earlier, for the wider Internet in general, often depicted as a cloud in diagrams). Add this and related metaphors to your sources of metaphor.

Create a list of possible names or part names.

Now you have your sources of metaphor, use them to come up with specific possible names. This is brainstorming with reference materials. I use either a thesaurus or Wikipedia to get down as many ideas as possible.

Valerie wanted to name the Ada Initiative for Ada Lovelace, but the second part of the name came from thinking about wanting to capture, essentially, activity, and then following networks of words related to activity, forward motion, and change around a thesaurus. I’ve named other things by working my way through Wikipedia categories and lists.

If I was naming a provider of cloud computing services and wanted to stick close to the cloud metaphor, this is some of what I’d end up with from this process:

  • from thesauruses, based on “cloud”: steam, vapour, nebula, dapple(d), overcast
  • from Wikipedia, poking around cloud and weather categories: hector, cloudburst, flanking line, cumulus, stratus, mushroom

If I was going to be going for high reliability, I might go with ground/grounded as a metaphor instead, and some of the following might end up on the list:

  • from thesauruses, based on “earth”: clay, loam, pottery, cave, nest, field, holding, home, soil, tillage
  • from Wikipedia, looking around soil-related categories: brown earth, mire, loam, terra, peat

This is the long-listing phase: Put down every possible name that you vaguely like. Don’t be bound by your sources of metaphor, consider adding words you’ve always liked or cool words you find randomly flipping in a dictionary, fragments of your personal motto, abandoned names from previous projects. There’s already a ton of filtering going on here (eg, it turns out there’s a whole lot of trademarked soil products ending in -sol I didn’t include) but don’t do it systematically yet. Just avoid writing down stuff you hate.

If I was looking for/open to a two word phrase, I’d both allow them here (“red soil”) and do the same process for the second half of a name (“initiative”).

You can cautiously branch out into other languages. I tend to end up at Latin pretty quickly because there’s less cultural appropriation issues than with many living languages, and English speakers can usually figure out a plausible pronunciation of the name.

Whittle down the list.

It’s time for the short-listing phase. You can do this by gut: get rid of “meh” names. This is also a good time to add a bunch of practical constraints to help cut it down. For example:

  • does it have connotations you don’t intend? (eg “girls” for a women’s group will at some point cause people to start asking questions about the age range of members)
  • how formal is the name, compared with your intentions?
  • is it striking and memorable?
  • is the origin story of the name entertaining and OK to share? (you may be asked for it)
  • is an appropriate domain name/Twitter handle/your landgrab here available?
  • is it easy to spell? (joke is on me: it took me ages to learn to type “initiative” reliably)
  • will people understand it when you say it over the phone? (trick question, this is never true, barring naming your new project “John” — or wait, was that “Jon”? — but if you keep it short at least spelling it out won’t be time consuming)
  • do you like the acronym or short form? does it have its own spelling or confusion issues? (the Ada Initiative used to receive a fair bit of correspondence concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act and the American Diabetes Association, both known as ADA)
  • is there a similar trademark?
  • is it a “style” of name widespread in your market (eg, two word names are common, or single syllables are common, or naming things in memory of is common) and do you want to nod to that or depart from it?
  • is it a word in other languages, and if so, what does it mean?
  • are you borrowing a term from a dispossessed or disadvantaged group? (eg using an Indigenous word for a non-Indigenous-centered thing in Australia)

The specific constraints will vary: I’ve rarely had to care about trademarks so far, and the fewer things I have to spell out over the phone the better. You’ll probably refine your criteria as you strike individual names.

Often at the end of this process you’ll be down to five names or less. One catch: you are pretty tired and bored by this point. Be sure you get rid of any name you in fact hate, no matter how good it seems by your criteria, because otherwise you risk choosing it out of exhaustion or inertia. In a group setting, you will need to risk a bit of conflict by trying to draw out “does anyone actually just hate any of these?”

The last one

Sometimes if you are lucky, you only have one candidate left, or else one that is just the best by far. You have a winner!

Otherwise, this is tricky. You’ve looked at the names so long you’ve started to lose any sense of their goodness. However, the whole painful preceeding process means that something that has made it this far is likely to be a perfectly fine name that you will grow attached to over time. Possibilities for making the final decision include: allowing no-reason vetos, votes, tasking one person with making the call. It can be worth taking an hour or two imagining the name in use: on your posters, your business card, your graffiti.

Postscript: what’s up with “superhumanised methyl”? Super? Human? Ised? Methyl? Well, I knew I needed to perform flawlessly in naming this entry, and so I did not do any of the above process but instead ran my random word generator a bunch of times until I got something I vaguely liked. However, in the spirit of full disclosure: I did change it to Commonwealth spelling.

All my custom emoji secrets, revealed

I’m known in a few Slacks as the emoji whisperer for adding obviously necessary yet inexplicably absent emoji.

Sometimes, as in the case of the nopetopus and the WTF cake, a certain amount of time in Inkscape is going to be necessary, but I’d say that I whisper around ⅔ of my emoji via downloading images just two websites, and what’s more you can too! (It’s just that easy!)

Emojipedia contains existing and, importantly, upcoming and proposed Unicode emoji. I used it to get hold of unauthorised pre-approval user-beware emoji for avocado, duck, and fingers crossed.

openclipart contains whatever people want it to contain. Aside from providing sources for many of the puzzlemoji, I’ve recently found good witch and wizard hats there. Most of the images can’t be shrunk to 128px and still be made out, but there’s enough that can to make the search worth it.

Learning more about a remote working position

I’m in the process of wrapping up a long period of working remotely at least part-time from home, beginning in 2006 when I enrolled in a PhD program and continuing through my time at the Ada Initiative and at Stripe to this year.

My take on working remotely in future is really “it depends on the details” (and likely different details for different organizations). To that end, I contributed some suggested questions you could ask to Hypothesis’s Working remotely guide, which they’ve incorporated in a slightly edited form. Here’s my original questions; I’ve also added a few more at my end after some feedback from Andrew (himself a veteran of around seven years of remote work).

Introduction

Before you start working remotely at a new organization, you should explore how they structure remote working and if there are any expectations mismatches between you and the organization. A particular remote job may or may not be a match for a particular remote worker.

Important: I don’t think there is any one right answer to any of these questions. It’s a question of fit between your working style, the position itself, and the relationship of the position to the rest of the organization. But the answers are worth knowing so that you can evaluate your fit and make plans for effective remote working.

Sources of information

This entry has a lot of questions, too many for a “do you have any questions?” section of an interview. But you can use other sources of information to get most answers, especially about organization-wide questions:

  • the job description, and descriptions of similar roles
  • the organization’s website, particularly the About and Careers pages
  • the section of the employee handbook dealing with remote work
  • the LinkedIn pages or websites of your future manager and colleagues
  • longer, separate, conversations with your recruiter or hiring manager
  • your offer conversation or letter, or your contract

Some questions you also may only need to ask if you hear of concrete plans to make a change to the organization (eg, you learn that a new office is about to open near you).

Questions

How are you remote and who are you remote from? This post is using ‘remote’ to mean something like “most days, you are not in face to face contact with any colleagues.” But you should be aware of the details: will you be working without in person contact with teammates or with the wider organization almost all of the time? Do you have any colleagues in your team or your wider organization in your city or region, or who regularly visit? Will you work on any joint projects with them? Will you be able or be expected to sometimes work with them in person even if there’s not a permanent office space?

Separately, is in-person contact with vendors or customers part of the job?

Is your immediate team remote? Is your manager remote? Being a remote member of a team that is all working remotely from each other is different from a team which is mostly located in an office with each other. Likewise, being managed by someone who is in an office has some potential advantages (for example, access to information circulating through verbal grapevines, being able to access answers from colleagues for you quickly), as does being managed by someone who is themselves remote (a direct appreciation for experiences specific to remote workers, a personal interest in advocating for them).

How many remote workers are there at the rest of the organization? What percentage of teams you will work closely with are working remotely, and what percentage of employees overall are working remotely? Working as one of very few remote workers for an organization where most employees are in an office together is different from a mostly or entirely remote-working organization.

What’s the future of remote work at the organization? If the organization is mostly or entirely remote, are there any plans to change that? If the organization is mostly office-based, are there any plans to change that? If an office is likely to be founded in your city or region soon, will you be able or be expected to work from it?

You may be considering a job on the understanding that the remote work will be of very short duration (eg, an office is opening in your city in two months time). Is there any chance the time will be longer, and are you OK with that?

What is your manager’s approach to remote workers? How frequently will they speak with you and through what media? Will they expect you to travel to them? Will they sometimes travel to you? Have they managed remote workers before?

How long have there been remote workers for? Is the organization new to having remote workers or has it had remote workers for a long time and bedded down a remote working style?

What is the remote working culture like? Is most collaboration over email, text chat, phone, video conf, or some other means? Are there watercooler-equivalents like social IRC channels or video chats? How active are they? Are remote workers mainly working from home or from co-working spaces? Are there occasional team gatherings for remote workers to meet colleagues in person and are they optional or compulsory?

How flexible are the hours? Not all remote work has flexible hours; you may have mandated work hours, or core hours, or shifts, as in any other role.

Are the remote workers spread across multiple timezones? If so, are your team and closest collagues in your timezone or another one? Are you expected to adapt your working hours to overlap better with your colleagues? How are meetings and other commitments scheduled across timezones? Do they rotate through timezones or are they always held in a certain timezone? Are you ever expected to attend meetings well outside your working hours, and if so, how often is this expected and do your colleagues in other timezones face the same expectations?

What are the benefits for remote workers? Will the organization reimburse any of your remote working expenses, such as membership of a co-working space, home office furniture, or your home Internet connection costs? If you’re working in a different country from most of your colleagues, will you get equivalent benefits to your colleagues (eg, health insurance coverage)?

What are the travel expectations for remote workers? Are you expected to travel to headquarters or other offices or customers, and if so, how often and for how long? What are the travel policies and allowances for remote workers? How do these travel expectations compare to those of non-remote colleagues?

Sometimes you will be remote from an organization with an office or even headquarters in the same city as you. Will you be able or expected to visit the office? How often? Will there be resources for you (eg, hot desks, meal provisioning)?

What are the career progression possibilities for remote workers? As a remote worker in a partly non-remote organization, could you move into more senior positions over time, such as team leader, middle manager, or executive? Could you move into other teams in the organization, and if so, which ones? Are there some roles that are closed to remote workers? Match these answers to your own career goals.

What’s the training process like? Must you or can you spend a period of time in an office or visiting a colleague for training? Must you or can you do your training remotely using documentation, videos and similar? Will a trainer or colleague have some time assigned to remotely train you?

Is there support for first-time remote workers? If you haven’t worked remotely before, will the organization support you in learning how to work remotely, and if so, how?

See also

A very partial list of resources, focussing on individual remote workers and their experiences and strategies:

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Learning more about a remote working position by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

How to tell if you are in an October Daye novel

In the style of The Toast‘s How To Tell If You’re In a Novel series, I present a How to Tell for Seanan McGuire’s ongoing October Daye novels (spoilers through to the end of book 9).

You love and grieve for your estranged teenage daughter enormously, enough to mention her in passing periodically.

Your mother is so beautiful that those looking her directly literally risk heart failure. Almost every man you know is in love with her, except for the ones who are in love with you.

One of your best friends has staked first claim on being the one who kills you. Bringing her donuts often smooths things over though.

Your loving and infinitely patient and giving substitute father figure is probably a small-minded villain. However, his identical twin brother, who arranged the years-long torture of his sister-in-law and his young niece, may be redeemable.

Most men you know are either royalty or royalty-in-hiding.

Everyone sufficiently important smells of roses.

Your cats are known spies for the monarch of a kingdom unanswerable to you or your allies. This does not significantly alter your opinion of them. Or of him for that matter.

You got your blood on the carpet again. And on your clothes. And on the walls. And on your enemies, woe betide them.

One of the major relationship issues you and your friends worry about is having a lover who needs to sleep at night-time.

You’re getting a bit tired of everyone harping on about how you have overthrown two monarchs and that you also killed a man that one time.

You like to get high so much that you sometimes alter your biology for an optimal experience.

Teenage boys look up to you and never ever rebel against you.

You drink people’s blood in order to enter their dreams and strip them of half of who they are. They are usually pretty OK about this. You’re somewhat surprised when they aren’t.

You own the knife of a teenage girl who died thinking of you as her hero, and you live with a housemate who ate her soul and later went on to assume your face and memories too. You get on great and think of each other as sisters. It’s somehow clear to everyone that you get to keep the knife.

Prejudice against people who have an animal form or characteristics is deeply disgusting to you, but you know for sure that certain lineages of magic should never ever interbreed. You’re becoming a bit ambivalent about folks with recent ancestors from the plant kingdom too.

You aren’t the species your mother always told you you were. Your friend the part-time cat would have told you this, but he didn’t think you’d believe him.

You ultimately answer to Canada.