With all the exhaustion of a middle aged man, my five-year-old son declared that he was struggling to get to sleep. He didn’t know precisely why. He was forlornly resigned to his fate. But it would surely be nice if slumber was an easier bedfellow.

Heh Dad, tell me something useful! Picture: Thinkstock

Amen to that brother. I know exactly what you mean.

Leaning over, seizing an opportunity to impart fatherly wisdom, I told him the answer was lists. Try and name every kid in your class and keep count. Name as many TV shows as you can and keep count. Before you are half way through your first list, I assured him, you will be fast asleep.

The next morning he looked me in the eye and said that lists work. Dads were good for something after all.

As a foreign affairs portfolio holder sleep is now an enduring preoccupation of mine. As I traverse time zones and attempt to work, jet lag has become my constant foe.

Meticulously I wake up early on the day of my departure in order to induce the necessary tiredness to sleep on the plane.  I refuse the meals I shouldn’t eat and give firm instructions not to wake me for breakfast.

I use caffeine to get me up and a night cap to put me to sleep. But when it is all said and done I always end up in the same place: 3am in my hotel room, totally buggered, but I just can’t sleep.

It is in this moment, in the depth of the night, that I have discovered the comatosing effect of the list: the capitals of Africa, the periodic table, or the name and number of recent Geelong premiership players.

But there is one list which has had more slumber success than any other: airports I have visited.

In 1993, having just finished university, I was backpacking in Vietnam and Laos with a close friend, now a Labor colleague. In need of a distraction to pass long hours on trains, planes and automobiles, we played endless hands of German Whist and engaged in meaningless competition.

The most significant and competitive contest was who had landed at the most airports.

At about fifty apiece the scores were even. As we parted ways for the return home I picked up an extra airport putting me one in front. My mate was not pleased. And so began a contest which has now been running for almost twenty years.

It is a competition so fierce that we have barely avoided litigation.

Having the occasion to visit the oil fields of Bass Strait, my competitor was helicoptered into three off-shore rigs and attempted to claim each of them as an airport. Fat chance. You’d need a runway and wings for that.

A month later, as a guest of the US Navy, my mate was flown onto the USS Stennis, a passing aircraft carrier about an hour’s flight south of Adelaide. He assured me that both a runway and wings were present. Bugger.

Last year, in Bangladesh, I was taken in a seaplane to the Ganges River Delta to visit an island which was being helped to adapt to climate change with support from Australian aid. As we came in for a perfect landing on the water I texted my rival right then to claim the airport. An immediate text returned saying that he was happy to count seaplanes given he’d been on three. Double bugger.

In an age devoid of jousting, the need for men to engage in needless competition is given expression in many ways. For us it is airports.

My friend moved on in the world and began to travel far and wide across Australia visiting obscure airports in every outback town. He built a big lead in our competition which in turn stopped being much fun.

But then I was appointed the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and I have since made a spectacular comeback. Suddenly counting airports has become eminently satisfying.

Whether it is the list or the contentment that comes with triumph, airports are definitely helping me to sleep.

Now I know that in a year or two fortunes may change. At that point I will need to turn to other lists - golf stats, my current rose bush audit, Star Wars characters - to put me to sleep when slumber is an elusive friend.

But lists really do work in the middle of the night and it felt good to teach Harvey that. And nothing is more fun than beating a mate in contest and that critical paternal advice will have its day as well.

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEST

Most commented


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    • Mahhrat says:

      06:33am | 01/11/12


      So that’s why we do it.

      I like the article well enough, but it astonishes me how this isn’t more common knowledge than it appears to be.

    • the cynic says:

      01:36pm | 01/11/12

      Seriously Richard   counting airports! I don’t know what you are on all this time you travel. Having travelled the world myself for 45 years with over 18000 hours of flying time as a professional Aircrew member I have eaten, toured, partied got drunk and slept in every major city in the alphabet in all time zones.  Had no problem putting my head down and getting up in any one of them day or night. Never popped an upper, downer, sleeping pill or make up lists and counting airports in all that travelling. Jet lag is a state of mind no need to revert to rote to accept what your body knows best.

    • marley says:

      06:31pm | 01/11/12

      @the cynic - air crew get rests between flights.  Business people/politicians and the like have to be up and at ‘em as soon as they arrive in the next place.  For air crew, the flight is the job.  For the guys like Richard, the flight is a long taxi ride to the job.  Take a 30 hour series of flights to get to where you have to be sparkling and on the job, and not having a day off by the pool, and you might get what he’s saying.

      I’ve been there and done that, and it’s nothing like arriving after a long flight and having a bit of time off to sort yourself out.

    • Philosopher says:

      07:43am | 01/11/12

      Now we have read an edited extract from Richard’s memoir, my appetite is whet! Please Richard, tell us more of your fascinating travails… you sound both sophisticated and down to earth… I can’t wait to get the juicy details of your stalking the alleys of power for so many years. And modest too! Is a signed copy of your book too much to ask?

    • Gregg says:

      07:43am | 01/11/12

      Well, there you go Richard, I have something in common with you, backpacking around Vietnam and other parts in 1993 though not a small enough world that I can recall coming across any Aussie looking a more youthful you, I there earlier in the year and if you were there following Uni studies, is it you were there later in 1993.

      What a memorable year though, Bombers had won the pre season comp if I recall and I had not been keeping up with results so much in about three months abroad and was mighty surprised on returning to Oz terra firma to find them up near the top, the year of the baby bombers it was and also first night final they lost against Carlton by 2 points.
      My elation was punctured at that point but then a win against West Coast and a come from six goals down against the Crows at half time ( and Crows scoring first two after half time had me considering leaving to make use of the golf clubs in the boot of the car )  had the bombers meeting up again with Carlton in the GF, a game the bombers always looked like winning, a good clout of Milhan Hanna by Wallis in the pocket to take the ball, a mark was it? and to swing around to goal from the Richmond end northern pocket rememborable but still nerves aflutter even with a five goal lead in the last quarter.

      Luckily, sleep has never been too much of an issue for me.

    • Joan Bennett says:

      07:48am | 01/11/12

      Richard, if only all Dads were like this!  If I had a dollar for ever Dad I’d met who was a controlling nutcase who made life hell for their kids and the Mother of said children while they lived under the same roof.  Perhaps if these guys took up more competitive activities with other men, they would not feel the need to dominate women and children?  Even my own Father had to repress his natural urge to rule our house (including his wife) with an iron fist when we were all growing up (I can understand doing that with children, but not your adult partner).  Luckily, he knew it wasn’t good to behave like that (perhaps that’s a generational thing?) and did repress that part of himself.  It’s one of the reasons I chose not to have children - couldn’t imagine shackling myself to someone like that for 18 years.  Thank goodness we have the choice these days!  My poor Mother’s generation (she was born in 1939) had to go down the traditional path…
      Some Dads are excellent, but I don’t know why the majority I’ve met feel the need to do the controlling thing and stalk the woman if she leaves.  Crazy world we live in…

    • GigaStar says:

      08:49am | 01/11/12

      Oh boy ... I’m getting the popcorn out for this one ...

    • Gregg says:

      09:14am | 01/11/12

      I cannot answer for the nutcase dads Joan though they do no doubt exist and I have possibly even see that in some within my own extended family circle whereas I would consider myself more of the door mat type, never having been a disciplinarian with the kids.

      I reckon re ” Perhaps if these guys took up more competitive activities with other men, they would not feel the need to dominate women and children?  ” it could even work in reverse for some as though I had enjoyment through sport and in some you play against both men and women, squash for example, my own thoughts is that those I’ve seen as being a controlling type can also have something of a more aggressive nature in sporting competitions.

      I reckon it is all about how the genes come out in individuals for I’ve known of families where even with daughters you can have variations from one being of a softer yet still competitive nature to another where competition brings out more aggression and that can also flow through in other personal traits.

      As for having kids yourself, it’s all a bit of luck of the draw.

    • Ando says:

      11:03am | 01/11/12

      “the majority I’ve met ”
      Weird circles you mix in. What a one sided load of rubbish. Believe it or not there are controlling women as well. My mum was born before 1939 and she was the boss of everything.

    • PsychoHyena says:

      11:25am | 01/11/12

      @Ando, personally I think it’s just bad luck and the fact that the despicable ones are those that stick in your head the most. I know a few decent ones and a few crap ones (fairly equally balanced when I think about it), however the ones that I immediately thought of were the crap ones. The decent ones don’t make a huge impression unless they are truly exceptional.

      The circles people mix in also have no influence on the quality of parents, you can get a poor excuse in even the best class of people and near perfect people in the worst class of people.

    • Chris L says:

      01:39pm | 01/11/12

      My only experience with this sort of situation was a girlfriend who made all the plans, who would make me miserable if I had friends over more than once a week and worse if I actually tried to leave the house. When I booted her to the curb she accused me of being controlling.

      Joan, it might be worth double checking to ensure your judgement of all these men isn’t simply due to them refusing to respect your authoritae (deliberate sic)

    • Ando says:

      02:18pm | 01/11/12

      Psyhco Heyena,
      If the majority of dads Joan has met are the way she describes then she mixes in weird circles.
      “you can get a poor excuse in even the best class of people and near perfect people in the worst class”  Who mentioned class

    • Rose says:

      03:11pm | 01/11/12

      I’d really like to hear a definition of the ‘best class’ of people!!

    • PsychoHyena says:

      03:12pm | 01/11/12

      @Ando, firstly, class when discussing humans is not just used as in upper-class, middle-class, lower-class. Class can be used to group people based on a set of behaviours that distinguish them from others. So someone who is an absolute deadbeat in a majority of other areas could actually be a decent parent.

      Joan never mentioned that the Dads were a part of the circles that she mixes in, the people she mixes with may just happen to be linked to the idiot Dads. Through the circles that I mix in I may know a large number of high-flyers, that doesn’t mean that the high-flyers are part of the circles.

      Your assumption is also based on Joan continuing to have interaction with these people after finding out that the Dads are idiots. I know myself I have been in a group of friends and then found out they all use illicit drugs and so removed myself in order to avoid having any of their reputation fall onto me.

    • Bob Amery says:

      08:14am | 01/11/12

      thanks Richard it’s reassuring to know that our taxes which pay for your presumably business class globetrotting also allow you to come up trumps in your game of undergraduate one-upmanship

      only a career politician would write such a piece and not expect working people to recoil

    • Philosopher says:

      08:58am | 01/11/12

      *adopts the voice of Bane* Bob, you misunderstand Richard! He is better than us, why not accept his benedictions rather than complain? You must learn your place! *shakes massive head in ironic regret*

    • Huey says:

      09:10am | 01/11/12

      @ Bob, lighten up will ya!

    • Economist says:

      09:19am | 01/11/12

      This was expected how dare a politician have personality, a story not related to political one-upmanship. I suggest you understand the role of a Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and Pacific Island Affairs

    • Tim the Toolman says:

      10:08am | 01/11/12

      “only a career politician would write such a piece and not expect working people to recoil”

      I work, I’m not recoiling and I’m rather fond of the concept that politicians are, by and large, corrupt and self-serving to the core.  At least this guy appears to have his humanity more or less in tact.

    • PsychoHyena says:

      10:20am | 01/11/12

      @Bob, I expect that you will be making the same comments regarding sportspeople, etc who receive taxpayer money in order to compete at international events.

      Personally I find nothing wrong with it. I know many working class people who do a similar thing, though normally it’s a tally of how many beers they’ve had or men/women they’ve slept with.

      I also think it’s a great article to kick Movember off with, thanks Richard.

    • Rebecca says:

      11:08am | 01/11/12

      I’d rather our politicians be well travelled and well educated than head-in-the-sand bogans who have never left the country.

    • Greg says:

      11:32am | 01/11/12

      As I was reading this nice, light-hearted piece I was thinking how Richard is my favourite politician contributer to The Punch because he writes enjoyable, informative, non-partisan articles.

      But then towards the end I realized that in the comments there would be someone like you doing their best to ruin it by turning it into a childish exercise in political point scoring.

      Yes, those in the government involved in foreign affairs do travel a lot, and yes, that is paid for by the government. Shock, horror! This is because diplomacy is in our national interest, and the costs when put in perspective are tiny.

    • martinX says:

      11:41am | 01/11/12

      You say it like travelling is fun. Airports, noisy planes, plane food, fellow travellers, customs, airports again, taxis, living out of a suitcase ... he can have it. He’s going to work (Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs and all that), not spending 2 weeks with the family at the beach, and I don’t envy anyone having to do all that travelling.

    • I hate pies says:

      10:52am | 01/11/12

      I always compete with my mates, and more importantly, I always win…whatever it takes

    • David V. says:

      11:04am | 01/11/12

      Sadly, decades of leftism and feminism have undermined the irreplaceable institution of the father (in the UK we now have a class of single mums leaching off taxpayers’ money). Fathers are unfairly treated by courts- and then you wonder why we have such disparities in statistics like alcoholism, mental illness and suicide.

    • sami says:

      03:03pm | 01/11/12

      Don’t blame feminism. I’m a feminist and the situation pisses me off too. And I don’t even have kids! I can see that the system is geared towards giving mothers greater access rights to kids than fathers and it’s not right. Each case should be treated on it’s merits. But to blame feminism is a cop out. Blame the men who ARE shit parents. Blame the women making up lies to manipulate the system (they are not feminists, let me tell you). Blame the (mostly male) members of the justice system.
      In the meantime, I hope you are involved in some sort of activism or assistance programs to help these blokes that need it and to advocate for change.

      And bear in mind that kids grow up and learn to think for themselves. I hope that these men in crap situations can stick it out for the sake of their kids futures. I’m really close with my dad these days (but not my mum) and I’m glad about that. I think if he’d lost the plot at some point and given up on me things would be different now.

      Anyway, feminism is not a bad thing. That is all.

    • David V. says:

      04:14pm | 01/11/12

      Men are bad parents? I highly doubt that because I’ve never seen and heard about fathers who were cruel, incompetent or otherwise. On the other hand we’ve seen mothers and young siblings who’ve abused children and gotten away with it. Remember the Hannah Milbrandt case where the girl’s MOTHER tried to fake her daughter’s illness for charity? Men are almost always wronged in these cases.

    • Baldricke says:

      04:45pm | 01/11/12

      “Blame the (mostly male) members of the justice system.”

      Yes…if only we had more women like the ones who write for Daily Life over on Fairfax, things would just be peachy for men.  Separate public transport for men and women, men banned from being near a woman in public and men forbidden from initiating a conversation with women (and that’s just from a post yesterday).

    • ted says:

      12:32pm | 01/11/12

      Be nice to hear a man in the ALP say something in defence of Tony Abbott as a father ......

    • David V. says:

      01:21pm | 01/11/12

      Australian men are invariably model fathers and husbands, which is why you never hear about the sort of cruelty that is rampant in many other countries and cultures, or the violent and incompetent fathers that have been imported into this country. Problem is we fail to warn women and girls about going with the wrong guy and we all end up paying for it dearly.

    • sami says:

      03:08pm | 01/11/12

      @David V.
      How about instead of focusing solely on warning women we instead raise boys to be decent men so that it’s normal for women to be treated with respect and kindness. Then no woman will stand for being treated like dirt.
      Simplistic and unlikely I know, but so is the solution of putting the onus on women.

    • Rose says:

      03:18pm | 01/11/12

      Tony’s wife came out and defended him, why should anyone else. I think one of the big problems we have is that people are coming out in defence of Gillard and Abbott and quite frankly neither of them need it. Gillard proved in Parliament that she is perfectly capable of standing up for herself and Tony is no easy beat either.
      Of course the other thing is, how could any one, in all conscience defend another person as a parent? Most parenting is done behind closed doors and the only ones who are truly fit to judge are the ones who live with it. I’ve known parents who appear to be top notch who turned out to be quite horrible to their children, and others who seem rough around the edges but who are in fact, model parents we could all learn a lot from.

    • Rose says:

      03:25pm | 01/11/12

      Sami and David, the truth is that we need to do both. We need to teach our girls to beware of ‘bad boys’ and more importantly, to recognize warning signs that men are potentially controlling, abusive or just plain mean. At the same time we need to teach our sons to be good, decent human beings (we need to teach our daughters to be good and decent human beings to).
      I figure, as I have both sons and daughters, that I need to teach them all these things, because I have no idea what their prospective partners have been taught, so I need to make sure that I cover all bases!!

    • PsychoHyena says:

      03:29pm | 01/11/12

      @sami, the problem is this: many people are raised to be good people, however something inside overwrites this within some people. So making sure that both MEN and WOMEN are aware that there are idiots out there and to be careful would be important anyway.

      I don’t know how many times we hear of murderers, rapists, etc all being described as being perfect children when growing up, but obviously there is something after that point that causes a switch to flick.

    • Baldricke says:

      04:47pm | 01/11/12

      “At the same time we need to teach our sons to be good, decent human beings”

      Oh, you didn’t get the memo?  That’s not possible.  We’re all fundamentally evil.

    • David V. says:

      04:56pm | 01/11/12

      I know that but the left-liberal cultural and moral relativists won’t have a bar of it, for them it’s all down to the individual and different standards for people, allegedly. So no justice for victims, and the number of victims keeps piling up.

    • Gman says:

      01:22pm | 01/11/12

      Talk about grandstanding….fair dinkum. Finished Uni then went all over the place travelling, then Slater and Gordon, then into the labor party..naturally.
      Never lived a normal taxpayer day in your life. Give me a break please. We all wish we had your problem and had time for ‘Lists’ all over the globe.

    • Rose says:

      04:05pm | 01/11/12

      I’m sorry, should he pretend that he didn’t finish uni, didn’t go travelling, didn’t come up through the ranks and doesn’t travel for his job, just to make you feel better.
      I’m happy for him that he can find the humour in what would be quite lonely and difficult working conditions.


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