Long ago, after receiving an ABC cadetship, I heard there had been more than 5000 applicants, although I suspect that may have been a slight exaggeration. What were the odds, though, that two of the five of us selected just happened to have attended the same Sydney private school and another was the daughter of a senior executive?
Just luck? Really?
Yet that's the way I rationalised such coincidences away for years, even as I realised my old school produced far more reporters than, proportionally, was possible. And this was just a school, for goodness' sake - not even a university or a journalism course!
Of course the system was rigged.
Nevertheless I worked hard, as did all those others. I categorised myself as deserving, rather than privileged. Nonsense, really, but the way we advanced simply seemed to confirm the original choices of those many different selection panels. Perhaps we'd acquired the soft, modulated tones of the national broadcaster in utero; possibly its democratic, Western, civilised ideals had been inculcated with our mother's milk. Maybe that's why we were ideal candidates chosen to reproduce those values when the time came.
Nobody ever talked about school because we didn't need to. And that's exactly the way privilege works. It's something you never really appreciate until you find yourself without it.
A few years earlier I'd been attached to a British Guards Cavalry Regiment. I abruptly realised none of my fellow officers thought me privileged at all - rather the opposite. Lacking a title, an estate, a famous (or even infamous) ancestor, it rapidly became evident that, although quite welcome, I was not, obviously, the sort of person one would ever bother introducing to an eligible sister.
It's always easy to feel you're disadvantaged, if you choose your comparisons wisely.
Yes, it does mean offering one particular group of people what some ... may feel is an unwarranted helping hand. In an ideal world we wouldn't do this, but we don't live in an ideal world.
The numbers are the key. Look for the big patterns and you'll find out who really is disadvantaged and where the problems actually lie.
Draw back from the circumstances of each individual death in custody and look at the horrific total. This can't be dismissed. It screams out to us urgently, telling us that there is something terribly wrong; the "system" is not working.
Scott Morrison so quickly walked back his incorrect claim that there was never any slavery in Australia.
"I don't think it's helpful," he said, "to go into an endless historical discussion about this."
Which is a bit like me not wanting to talk about how and why I was really lucky enough to get that initial job with the ABC. It's not possible to simply ignore the historical forces that have created the present - it's silly to try. The genuine question is how to transition to a better future. That's where we expect the government to take us.
That's why the new health measures recently announced by Greg Hunt and targeted at the Indigenous community represent a welcome initiative. They won't, by themselves, suddenly change the mortality rate - but they are good. What's more important, though, is that it demonstrates a new way of conceptualising the issue.
You'd be pretty annoyed if you went into hospital and were given a generic treatment, rather than procedures tailored for the your particular disease. Similarly, we don't expect police to treat somebody who doesn't pay a speeding fine as if they're a suspected murderer. It's simple intelligence. Treat people as individuals but, at the same time, understand how they might fit into categories. This means there's a requirement to think and, sometimes act, differently.
The Defence Force is doing this with a recruitment campaign aimed specifically at encouraging Indigenous people to join up. The forces have, proactively, identified a problem (fewer recruits from a specific cultural group) and crafted a solution that will work for both that group (providing specialised training) and the military itself (filling the ranks). This is exactly the model that needs to be adopted elsewhere.
Yes, it does mean offering one particular group of people what some other, also marginalised, individuals may feel is an unwarranted helping hand. In an ideal world we wouldn't do this, but we don't live in an ideal world, and that's why we've got to go out of our way to break down existing barriers.
It's great to see SBS and the ABC are, today, encouraging and promoting Indigenous reporters, just as at one time they funnelled people from my old school into public life.
In time we might move on to other unrepresented groups. Perhaps Defence might even attempt to recruit Australians of Asian ethnicity into the forces in the same proportion as they're found in the broader community. University medical schools seem to have found ways to get lower ATAR-scoring Australians - often from ethnically "Anglo" backgrounds - into doctor training programs, which just seems to show: where there's a will, there's a way.
So don't let the politicians speak to our subliminal, urgent, unacknowledged instincts and desires and try to whip them up for their own purposes. Don't let them think that they can get away with just shaking their heads and ignore what the numbers are telling us about the tragic, calamitous and repetitive situation we are inflicting on one group of Australians.
Yes, others are being excluded as well. The answer, however, is not to force everybody into a straitjacket that ignores the real issues.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.