Ben Rimmer asks the hard questions – Listen Now

2 November, 2018

Published by ABC

Ben Rimmer unpacks the ‘Ethics of Gravity’ 

City of Melbourne’s CEO, Ben Rimmer, has been faced with immense challenges in recent years, leading him to think deeply about the ‘ethics of gravity’ and the interconnectedness of our community. As a senior public servant, he argues the need for public servants and politicians to build stronger, more connected relationships to inform better decision making for all that will be impacted.

Recorded 6 September 2018 Cranlana Programme Alumni Speaker Series


Ben Rimmer, CEO City of Melbourne
Peter Mares, Moderator

The Ethics of Gravity[1]

It’s a great honour to be speaking here tonight and, of course, I’d like to acknowledge the work of Cranlana over the past 25 years.

I am a passionate believer in the mission of Cranlana to promote informed discussion on matters of responsible leadership and ethical practice. I valued my own time here very highly, and I know that it has continuing impact on my life and work.

Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the Wurunjderi and Boonwoorung people of the Kulin nation. They are an integral part of Melbourne, of this country that we’re standing on, and of the nation’s rich story of indigenous history, knowledge and contemporary culture.

When I acknowledge elders, I like to acknowledge the elders of the past, those of the present, and in particular the elders of the future – those who will inherit all of our efforts to leave the world a better place for future generations.

We have much work to do as a nation on indigenous affairs and reconciliation, and we have a significant shared obligation as a community to nurture and extend the elders of the future.

For reasons that will also become apparent in this discussion, I’m now convinced that revisiting the massive breach in our nation’s foundations on these issues is our sacred duty as Australians. But I digress; more of that later.

I’ve had some significant challenges over the past few years – challenges that have deepened my thinking about our individual decisions and ethical choices, and that have stretched me in all kinds of new directions.

A little over two years ago, one otherwise inauspicious Thursday evening, I found myself the first patient admitted to the brand new, very shiny, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre here in Melbourne.

I’m an ambitious person, but that was not a first that I ever particularly aspired to.

A week earlier, I had been a little unwell, but still at work. On the Monday morning, I went to the GP instead of going to work. As it turns out I didn’t return to work full time for the next 14 months.

So here I was, age 44, 7pm at night, just a few days later, raining outside, diagnosed with cancer – Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma for those more medically minded.

Being connected to the drip for my first dose of chemotherapy.

My wife was there.

We were crying.

In the first of very many tender, caring and utterly professional moments of care that I received from my medical team, I felt completely supported by those around me. While I was terrified, I also felt lucky to have such care, and to live in Melbourne.

And my wonderful doctor (about whom more later) said to me, “It’s good that you’re crying; it means that you understand the gravity of the situation”.

I’ve since thought often about this moment, and the multiple uses of the word gravity. It is a force that pulls a body towards the centre of the earth – towards the ground. It is also a situation of extreme importance or seriousness. If you think about it these two meanings are actually not all that different, and derive from the same origins. As my teenagers might have said to me: “dad, that’s heavy.”

To avoid any suspense or discomfort, I need to add that after seven months of intensive treatment, and a year off full time work, I have now been back at work for a year and currently have a clean bill of health. In my haematologist’s words, “we’re still on Plan A”. Or, in our family’s favourite saying: “it’s better than the alternative”.

You may at this point be wondering what all of this has to do with Cranlana, with ethics, with the search for what it takes to live the good life.

And I must admit, at this point, that I am no real philosopher. I apologise if I have you here on false pretences.

I have a friend who did her doctorate in the study of philosophy. Impressive! I am more of a practitioner than a theoretician – and it turns out that the last few very difficult years have made me more so.

Of course it’s natural that my own experiences as a patient, as someone coming to grips with a near-death experience, should have some impact. You see the world through the haze and the clarity of chemotherapy-induced perspective.

In particular, I keep on coming back to that moment, on that first night, and to what I now call the ethics of gravity.

What I mean by this phrase is the ethics of groundedness, of heaviness, of connection to place, and to circumstance, of interconnectedness with people.

The question I ask tonight is whether we have sufficient regard for the importance of underlying human experience, knowledge and capacity. Are our lives sufficiently grounded, or pulled down towards earth, by the knowledge and experience gained in a place, with those connections?

By the way, in asking this question I am absolutely not putting myself on a pedestal and claiming virtue. Those here who know me the best will know how inadvisable that would be!

For me, that question is asked through the lens of life in public service. As a public servant, the way I encounter gravity is through the lens of service to the community, through the government of the day.

Better understanding the ethics of gravity has the potential to help us understand some of what is going on in our world today, and it has the potential to help each of us make the small changes that are necessary to tackle our current challenging circumstances.

But first, I will explain a bit more what I mean about the ethics of gravity, and what it looks like in practice.

Second, I will put this into a broader context looking back in time, and forward, and argue that this kind of thinking is going to get even more important over the next period.

Third, I will bring us back to right here and right now, by exploring seemingly disconnected current issues through this lens.

In doing that, I hope to shed light on the hard question at the heart of all of this: what we should do about it.

I have asked the question: who is accountable for the frangible and unsatisfactory state of contemporary political debate?

And of course, my answer is: each of us. Or to put it in a slightly more tabloid setting, we are all accountable for Donald Trump, and for the state of our federal parliament, and more broadly for the disconnect between the rich, difficult and messy reality of life and the stark, nasty and reflexive reality of so many current debates.

So, what does the ethics of gravity look like in action?

You get a different perspective from a hospital bed – and the best way I can think of to describe the ethics of gravity in practice comes from that time.

My haematologist is a wonderful man called John. He may be shy, so I’ll only use his first name. He is a clinician, of course, and that is how I know him – a skilled, careful and experienced clinician in a field where Melbourne is arguably the best place in the world to require treatment.

He is also a scientist. Haematologists spend a significant portion of their training in a lab, looking through microscopes at slides of blood, marrow and tumour, and John is no exception.

As a clinician, he knew me well enough and quickly enough to share some selected academic research that helped me understand the realities of my illness. And as a scientist, he has built on his clinical experience to lead new discoveries and help to bring new treatments to widespread use.

Most recently, he played an important part in a Melbourne biotechnology breakthrough, about which all Melburnians and all Australians should be immensely proud: a new drug called Venetoclax for the treatment of a particular form of Leukaemia. It was first approved for clinical use in the US and Europe and has now received approvals here in Australia.

This is actually an important and interesting story in its own right, involving a thirty year history of research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and Melbourne’s world-leading strength in haematology and cancer research. And, importantly, it will lead to the kind of commercial outcome that we need to do more of here in Australia.

But for my purposes today I am most interested in another aspect of John’s story – the linkage between his frontline, base level, gravity affected clinical work and his other leadership roles in science and management. His clinical work gains strength from his scientific life, and his scientific work gains enormous strength from his engagement with real patients. My thesis is that his strength, to our collective benefit, is the connection between those roles.

What would our community look like if we built on those kinds of connections, if we rewarded that kind of engagement?

We have words to describe the ethics of gravity: Respect; Curiosity; the Search for knowledge; Empathy; Accountability for behaviour; Humility. On their own they do little to excite – they can be just words. Our challenge is to make discussion of those words, and acting on them, a bigger part of our community life.

I’ve said I’m not a philosopher, and I’m also not a historian. But it seems to me that some answers to these questions might come from looking back, and from projecting forward.

Looking back, it seems to me that the ethics of gravity was so obvious as to be inconsequential two hundred years ago. Communities were local, lives were grounded, conditions were tougher. Doctors knew their patients, relationships were longer lasting, and more intricate – your neighbour with cattle loose was going to be your neighbour for a while.

Modernity, and more recently globalisation and the internet have changed all of this. People travel, can access any content in the world whenever they want and wherever they want, and often have more fleeting and surface relationships. Your neighbour with a fence dispute has probably only been your neighbour for a few years, and you may well see a different doctor every time you visit a clinic.

What makes this topic all the more important is that the next twenty years will continue these trends. Artificial intelligence has the potential to further abstract us from a grounded, connected existence, and reduce relationships and intimacy to code. Do you know your neighbour? What kind of doctor will you need? Or, to paraphrase a friend of mind, what answers will a machine never have?

Right here, right now, because of these directions, we can see two completely contradictory trends. On one hand we see human interaction that is reflexive, harsh and unforgiving. But on the other an increasing awareness of the ethical frame in our work and lives. Simultaneously, our youngest generations are faster to flame someone on social media, yet also more likely to say that they are looking for purpose and values in their employer.

This seeming contradiction has a parallel in economic geography – the idea that globalisation is also leading to a resurgence of local issues, ideas and engagement – somewhat jingoistically this sometimes gets called ‘glocalisation’. So perhaps the ethics of gravity is a more philosophical version of the same issue – we are less likely to have strong, connected relationships to country and community, but that is now leading to a resurgence of ideas and institutions that value groundedness and gravity more highly.

Democracy and trust

It’s perhaps a little trite to point to the decline in our democratic institutions given the events of the last few weeks, but we need to have that discussion.

We have seen in recent years the partial implosion of the world’s leading democracy –  the truly depressing spectacle of our closest ally elevating a man to high office of inconceivably low and base personal attributes and ambitions.

We have seen the spectacle of Brexit. We have seen the extraordinarily concerning alliance between the so called ‘strong men’ of the world in Trump, Putin and Xi.

Closer to home, we have watched politicians who are clever, principled and visionary debase themselves, leaving us in no doubt about the fact that we are in no better standing than the United States. We have watched a number of Prime Ministers straddling the fence between their own beliefs and those of the ragtag group that kept them, for a while, in office and able to legislate.

Most recently, sometimes it felt like our Prime Minister was straddling a barbed wire fence that was also electrified – caught on the barbs, not able to move on, not able to free himself from the baggage that politicians sometimes accumulate, and subjected to the periodic humiliating shock of some or other conservative incursion.

Many of us now question the ability of our national Parliament to identify and tackle the big issues important to our future, and there is no doubt that much of the behaviour is deeply disturbing.

Simplistically, our system currently produces, for whatever reason, individuals and groups who value games, power and conflict, rather than valuing connection, expertise and insight. In other words our culture values office, not outcomes; the means, not the ends.

But my point is that the solution to this challenge does not rely on a small number of individual politicians changing, nor does it rely on a ‘silver bullet’ strategy like citizen’s juries or party reform, though these may have a place. It relies on changed behaviour from all of us, and from the tens of thousands of people directly engaged in our national government.

Complex policy issues

A further example of how the ethics of gravity play our in practice is how complex policy issues are managed in our country.

Some years ago, I spent time deeply engaged at state and federal levels in debates about national health reform in Australia – about how to ensure that our world-class health system is sustainable, equitable, affordable and effective. But those debates were too abstracted from life in real hospitals, the experience of actual nurses, the knowledge of managers and clinical staff: the incredible knowledge of oncology nurses, for example, who handle, on a daily basis, very sick patients, very toxic drugs, and very stressed work environments.

This experience, where the conduct of a policy or political debate is too abstracted, insufficiently grounded, is very frequent.

This is not to say that abstracted, national level reform thinking is irrelevant. Far from it – we need more, and more effective, national scale work on the crucial problems facing our country over the next decades. It is simply to say that we need to work harder to connect that national level thinking with the local, the grounded, the practical.

I’m by no means the first to identify this phenomenon. For example, I would highly recommend the book by Tom Nichols called The Death of Expertise, which describes the descent of American public debate to a level where many participants have little knowledge, are ‘aggressively wrong’, and have a perverted view of democracy as a system in which every opinion is equal and is as good as any other, regardless of how ill-informed it is.

There are of course many other examples in our national debates. Take homelessness, for example.

My leadership role at the City of Melbourne has given me a different set of opportunities to engage on many of these issues. Of course, no organisation is perfect, but I feel blessed in that every day my team are out and engaged in grass roots endeavours – working with new parents in maternal and child health, for example, or increasing our tree canopy to try to combat some of the worst impacts of climate change. And of course, we are deeply engaged in the homelessness crisis facing our city and our country.

The current circumstance is that there is very little by way of national level debate or engagement on this crisis regarding homelessness. The current government does not understand the issue well, and does not rate it as a priority. Kevin Rudd during his time as Prime Minister worked hard to instil priority, but we all know how that ended.

And, to be frank, my experience in Canberra is that some in the bureaucracy are so disconnected from practical, front-line experience that they could offer little useful advice, even if we had a Government that saw tackling homelessness as a priority.

In other words, our lack of appreciation for the ethics of gravity is causing two related problems – it means that our national government is not taking seriously a challenge that in practice, on the ground, is a significant issue. And it means that even if the government were to call for advice, that advice would be so little informed by actual experience that it is likely to be ineffective.

Some of the challenge is about structures of government – our approach to federalism, for example, and quality of public service advice, and the extent to which we use agile, adaptive approaches to policy reform.

But a large part of the challenge is also about ethics, about personal philosophy, about how we all carry ourselves and go about our business. It’s about how we engage in our work, and how we engage as citizens.


In all of this, Gravity is the best antidote to fundamentalism.

My nine-year-old asked me a few days ago why I was giving a speech about gravy.

Well, this hasn’t been a speech about gravy. It’s been about gravity.

I want to honour those who spend their time engaged and grounded, including for example doctors and other members of medical teams around the country. I want us to spend more time thinking about the nature and quality of interactions between students and teachers, and what supports those. I want us to spend more time engaged with the personal experiences of those who live on the fringes, who feel marginal.. I want us to think, have empathy, and seek knowledge, before tweeting.

And for those of us who are public servants, I believe we have a particular role in driving this kind of conversation. We can instil it into our organisations, we can thread it through our advice and support to politicians, and we can take accountability when it goes wrong.

Public service, or public duty, does not necessarily entail holding high office. It is about bringing together a combination of real, practical and grounded insight together with a national and indeed global perspective, and using that combination of perspectives to drive tangible benefits for the community.

I can’t avoid circling back to my starting point, acknowledging the elders of this land, this country, that we’re standing on. The connection between Aboriginal peoples and their land is full of gravity – of history, of connection, of being grounded.

So when Indigenous peoples from all over the country gathered in Uluru in May 2017, following discussion, engagement and debate across the country, and building off decades of endeavour by many Aboriginal leaders, it was a significant moment in our history. Famously, through the Uluru Statement from the Heart, non-indigenous Australians were invited to join with Indigenous peoples in a process of truth telling and political attention. It was an invitation to repair a massive breach in our nation’s foundations.

This was no snapchat message or shock jock rant. It was heart-felt, grounded, connected, debated stuff. It was deeply connected to country. It was painstakingly thought through from a political and ideological perspective, to ensure that it could get and maintain support within both Aboriginal culture and our nation’s liberal democracy. It had taken years, and its impact will last for centuries.

And yet, our political culture attempted to kill it. With one political operative’s media release issued at 7pm on a Thursday night, our national government dismissed that work, that history, that invitation. If we needed a perfect example of how far we have to go to embrace the ethics of gravity, we had found it.

I am an optimist, and I think the underlying courage and strength involved in the Uluru Statement will one day mean that it takes its rightful place in our nation’s foundations. But it will take all of us engaging, being respectful, having empathy, searching for knowledge, in order to achieve that.

I’m not proposing a new self-help movement, or that any of us radically change our lives tomorrow morning. It would be nice if things were that simple, but they aren’t; the ethics of gravity shows us that they aren’t.

Instead, I believe we need to talk and engage more – individually, in families and workplaces, as a community – about ethical issues and choices, and about those things that have the potential to make us stronger. That is why places such as Cranlana are so important. And I believe that a better understanding of the ethics of gravity helps with that conversation.

Thank you.

[1] Ben Rimmer is the Chief Executive Officer of the City of Melbourne. He gave this talk in a personal capacity and the views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the City of Melbourne.