My latest article is titled The Immature Mature, as flagged in my June 1 blog entry.


On April 16 2009 an explosion killed five people and injured many more on an asylum seeker boat carrying 49 Afghans being escorted to Christmas Island by an Australian navy vessel.  The reaction among journalists was a childish impatience in their demand to be told immediately and as of right, exactly what occurred when the news of this complex event far out to sea, broke. However, within hours, the Premier of Western Australia, pandering to the journalists and perhaps also to highlight the lack of information from the Federal Government, claimed to know, when he stated that asylum seekers had doused their boat with petrol. At the time the Federal Government had other priorities, such as evacuating the injured, announcing defence force and police enquiries into the incident, and adopting the position that in the interim, to drip-feed news would do more harm than good. In the ensuing days, journalists and the government’s political opponents, blinded by the fact that their attitude of righteous indignation reflected nothing other than their own unrealistic expectations, had little difficulty in gratuitously inflaming public opinion because information about the incident remained scant. On the 19th, the leader of the federal opposition, as impatient as the journalists and betraying a lack of judgement, accused the government of a cover-up.

Welcome to a seductive world of current affairs (and entertainment) which too many people frequent, where supposedly mature adults behave as if they were in a kinder-garden – the world of the immature mature. You can avoid it by thinking for yourself and behaving accordingly, which may be more easily said than done.

The reporting of this deadly incident is an object lesson in how nursery tantrums subvert the quest to identify and uphold the public interest. It is in my view more important to discover why the explosion happened than to provide a factual account of what took place. Hopefully this will all be revealed by the enquiries. To anyone not influenced by the media and political outcry for definitive information, it was evident straight away that the process would be laborious and lengthy, given the number of people to be interviewed, the state of mind of the asylum seekers (many having suffered horrific injuries) and the inherent language difficulties. The media contagion infected journalists I hoped would have known better, including a popular ABC Brisbane radio presenter who peevishly refused to accept that she would have to wait  to find out more.

The people’s right to know is one of those stirring concepts which are intimately associated with democracy, in this case media freedom, and implies, I suggest, that what people need to know equates with what they want to know. It harks back to the long, formative period of a free press. In theory then, it is about telling people what they need to know, that is, keeping them responsibly informed about events. In practice it is as likely to be about telling them what they don’t need to know, that is, diverting their attention from what may really be happening through a focus on entertainment or fear. The intended consequence is that people increasingly end up wanting to know what they don’t need to know and not knowing what they need to know. Either way media freedom is inherently compromised because it functions in a commercial world with its competitive ethos of ‘selling papers’ and not letting the truth get in the way of a good story. It is also in the hands of human beings who may be autocrats, fearless defenders of freedom, or just earning a more or less ethical living.

The April 16th story is an example of immature behaviour by impatient journalists, by the politicians who added their weight to the media outcry and by the members of the public who resented being starved of news about the incident, in other words by the immature mature. It is not an isolated instance in current affairs. The bending and twisting which politicians, the media and seemingly vast numbers of the electorate manage over taxation at federal or state budget time, would be the envy of the most gifted contortionist.  The dreaded t word is taboo. Politicians do their utmost to avoid mentioning it, while journalists try and goad them into saying  it and taxpayers baulk at the very thought of increases while demanding better roads, improved health and education services and more money for pensioners. Recently the Queensland premier, faced with an onslaught from the opposition, the media and the electorate over the level of state debt and borrowing, removed the fuel subsidy. She was greeted with howls of anguish and anger and a petition containing tens of thousands of signatures. It is utterly remarkable behaviour by people who really should know better.

Where politicians go to excruciating lengths to avoid using the t word, they are reckless in using the p word – promise – and the media and the electorate are ever ready to hold them to their pledge. In my experience, to make or demand a promise is wrong-headed and may well be the apotheosis of the immature mature. The reality is that no-one can know what is going to happen next in their life, even the next moment. You may think you know. You may believe you can prove you know, but the unexpected happens. And promises are not generally about the next moment, but about the more distant future. I do not make promises because I don’t know what is going to happen in the future. I may agree to try and do, in the future, what someone asks me, and the likelihood of my not being able to do so may be extremely remote. But I don’t promise to do so because, with the best will in the world, I may be unable to. Politicians make promises because of this very widespread ignorance and set a trap for themselves by needlessly becoming hostages to chance. The seemingly careless way in which promises are made can bode very ill whether in public or private life. A promise ‘kept’ is a fortunate if fortuitous event, but how bitter and above all avoidable, are broken promises and their attendant whirl of emotions.

The fact of the immature mature does not surprise me, but its extent does; that there seem to be quite so many people who play the tax and promises games and the all-encompassing blame game, that there were so many professionals who played the asylum seeker boat game. Perhaps other than those rare beings living totally considered and conscious lives, we all behave childishly, for instance, when we refuse to think for ourselves, are petulant when things don’t go our way, refuse to be responsible for our actions, or confuse make-believe with real life. I wonder how many people in real life would engage in banter with someone pointing a gun at them; a scene which occurs in any number of films.

To be an adult implies a certain maturity, such as being serious-minded enough to take on the cares of holding down a job, having children and providing food and shelter for them. Beyond that it may mean going to war or becoming a leader in local, national or global circles. It can be heavy stuff and hard to sustain, hence the temptation to relapse into the kinder-garden world of the immature mature. In our society it is accepted that children are looked after and cared for by adults. This does not mean that as they grow they are free from liability or worry, but that they are not expected to be responsible for their own welfare because children are not emotionally and psychologically mature. To paraphrase a familiar patriarchal saying – the child is parent of the adult. In some essential form the child that we were lives on within us. This can refer to both our good and bad traits. There are inspirational educators who consider a young child’s innate creativity, which includes game playing, to be a priceless yet undervalued human resource which is soon lost to society, instead of being developed and utilised. It seems a given that we lose our childhood innocence, but in truth I think it does not completely vanish. I have long felt that my innocence protects me. Yet the older I become the greater seems to be the gulf between the child I was and the adult I am. That gulf is my life experience.

Peter Kuttner

August 2009