Like all good speakers, Doctor Kelvin Kong began his speech to the National Press Club with a simple story. It began with a child in primary school, happening to be Indigenous, and highly disruptive in class. Here, Kong's voice faded off, and the audience imagined the obvious trajectory that can rapidly swallow such lives: failure at school, few job options, and uninterrupted spiral into alienation.
The kicker? Well, the boy's problem didn't turn out to be his sociological background after all. Kong, an otolaryngologist (a lovely word I've wanted to use in a column for a long time - it simply means ear, nose & throat surgeon) realised the young boy simply couldn't hear properly. In fact, and probably because the child was so remarkably clever, nobody had earlier picked up on the fact that his problem was so simple.
At this point, the story takes on all the attributes of a fairytale - except that it actually happened. Correct diagnosis, an operation (at this point Kong beamed) and today the boy is at the top, not just of his class, but of the whole school. A story of a simple medical intervention in a critical period completely turning lives around.
The downstream benefits of such stories are incalculable - not just for the child, the family and other kids in class, but for our entire society for years and years to come. So if it's all so easy, why don't we hear more stories like this?
Possibly because the answer relies on recognising problems early.
It's much easier for politicians to focus on symptoms, instead of causes. Money's thrown, for example, at policing, rather than early childhood healthcare. Building jails is simple, whereas it takes much longer to see the payoff from building society. If the payback won't be seen for years, politicians have no incentive to deal with the real chasms that are emerging in communities. The split-second attention of our politicians encourages the media to skip quickly across the chasms that divide real solutions from causes. It doesn't need to be that way.
Kong demonstrated how telling a simple story, brilliantly, can shift the entire agenda. The problem is the story needs to be told and retold for the basic meaning to sink in. Perhaps most critically, we need, as a country, to invest in research.
Research funding is under more dramatic pressure today than it's been for years. As Covid slashed the number of overseas students, it cut a swathe through the university funding streams that supported our research. Unless politicians can be made to focus (and pay for) the urgent resuscitation of this sector, Australia will rapidly be left behind.
This week Kong became the first Indigenous doctor to receive the Australian Society for Medical Research's medal. We can't rely on the enthusiasm of individuals struggling against the system. It's time to pave the way.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.