Personal Reflections

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Senators Ludlum, Waters and the emerging Section 44(i) mess

The sudden resignation from the Australia Senate of first Scott Ludlum and then Larissa Waters has further opened a constitutional can of worms. The two were joint deputy leaders of the Australian Greens in the Federal Parliament, both were young seasoned performers with considerable promise. Their resignations came about because they were found to be dual citizens and thus precluded from membership of the Australian Parliament under Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution.

Born in New Zealand in 1970, Senator Ludlum came to Australia with his family when he was three. He became a naturalised Australian citizen in his teens and assumed that his New Zealand citizenship had lapsed as a consequence. It was Perth barrister Dr John Cameron who investigated New Zealand official records who found that Mr Ludlum was also still officially classified in New Zealand as a New Zealand citizen.

Born in Canada in 1977 to Australian parents, Larissa Waters came to Australia as a baby. When she found out about Sentaor Ludlum's status, she checked her own position only to find out that she, too, was technically a dual citizen and hence not eligible to serve in the Senate. She resigned as a consequence.

Section 44(i) of the Australian Constitution reads:
44. Any person who -
(i.) Is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power:
shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.
The Constitution was passed as an Act of the British Parliament in 1900. This was a very different world, one of Empire and emerging Commonwealth. As you can see from the Wikipedia article on Australian nationality law, concepts of citizenship have evolved, as has the definition of a foreign power. In 1900, it would have been seen as inconceivable that Canada or New Zealand could or would be classified as foreign powers for the purpose of Section 44(i) as compared to, say, the United States or Germany. When Canberra founder King O'Malley, for example, wanted to run for Parliament, he appears to have changed his birthplace from the US to Canada so that he was not precluded by Section 44(i).

The problem now can be simply put: something like 28% of the Australian population was born overseas, while almost 50% of the Australian population has one parent born overseas. Perhaps as many as 4.5 million Australians are or may be eligible for dual citizenship depending on the laws in the other country and hence not be eligible to stand for the Australian Parliament on a strict interpretation of the wording of Section 44(i).
Consider my own case as someone who has run for preselection for Federal Parliament. At the time I ran, I was eligible to apply for both British and New Zealand passports, to become a citizen of those countries. Indeed, my family later pushed me to apply for a British passport while I still could because of then EU access. Was I therefore ineligible to stand for Parliament?
One of the arguments in the current debate is that people should renounce their alternative citizenships and that they have only themselves to blame if they have not done so. There are a number of problems with this argument. You have to know exactly what your position is. Further, you have to be able to do so in some meaningful way given the laws of the other country. This actually makes membership of the Australian Parliament dependent on other countries' changing laws, something of an absurdity.

To take an extreme case, say the Irish Parliament changed its laws so that every person of Irish ancestry had an automatic right to apply for and be awarded Irish citizenship. On a strict reading of 44(i), that could immediately disqualify many of our current Parliamentarians. Perhaps a more relevant example is Israel's Law of Return that gives Jewish people an automatic right to Israeli citizenship. Are we therefore to exclude all Jews from the Australian Parliament?

A fair bit of point scoring from all sides has gone on around  the question of  Section 44 as they seek to use it for immediate political advantage. At a low level, this includes Mr Turnbull's comment on Senator Ludlum:
 "Obviously Senator Ludlam's oversight is a pretty remarkable one when you think about it - he's been in the Senate for so long," Mr Turnbull said. 
"Anyway, there it is, he's ineligible, and so there'll have to be, I assume, a countback ordered by the High Court to produce a replacement for him."  .
Maybe that's fair, but it ignores the way this issue has been developing and the implications it has for the operations of Parliament. Do we really want to place ourselves in the position that more than 25% of the Australian electorate may be excluded from running for Parliament?

In the end, it comes back to the High Court and the way it might interpret Section 44(i) in the light of current events. Perhaps Dr Cameron as a concerned citizen who has already brought down two Senators might consider doing a Bryan Pape and taking a citizen's case to the High Court. I, for one, would like to know just how that clause might be interpreted so that we know who is actually eligible to run.  

Postscript later on 18 July

Interesting piece by Amy Remeikis and Eryk Bagshawin the Brisbane Times: Greens senator Larissa Waters resignation triggers wave of MPs declaring Australian allegiance. Settled one issue to begin with. Tony Abbott renounced his British citizenship before entering Parliament. On Ms Waters:
Senator Waters, who was born to Australian parents studying in Winnipeg, said she had been assured as a teenager that she needed to "opt-in" for Canadian citizenship by her 21st birthday, an option she declined after not visiting the country since she was 11 months old. 
But her lawyers this week revealed that while Canada had changed its citizenship laws to the opt-in model in 1977, the year Senator Waters was born, it did not take effect until the week after her birth and she was automatically a citizen. 
An update too on ABC, including information that it cost Senator Sam Dastyari $25,000 giving up his Iranian citizenship cost $25,000 and involved two teams of lawyers — one from Australia and one in Iran.

It all remains a bit of a mess.

Postscript still later 18 July

I had not seen this High Court Decision that bears upon the application of Section 44. Recorded for later reference.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reflections triggered by Mr Turnbull's London speech

Australian Prime Minister Turnbull's speech in London accepting the Disraeli Prize has been much reported. It has also been much misreported. This piece by John Lyons in the Australian, Not the time to pick this fight,  is an example of the second. I do wonder if Mr Lyons undertook more than a very quick and rough scan before writing. 
The tenor of our times is change and at a pace and scale utterly unprecedented in human history.
In a way, this line set the tenor for Mr Turnbull's speech, a justification for some of what was to follow.

Mr Turnbull went on to attack labels. "The truth is", Mr Turnbull said,  that political labels "have lost almost all meaning in the furious outrage cycle of social media politics, long cast adrift to be appropriated, often cynically, by one politician or another as it suits their purpose." This provided an opportunity to restate what he perceived to be the key principle espoused by the UK Conservatives and the Liberal Party:
respect for humanity not in the mass, as the Left like to see us, but as individuals and families, Edmond Burke’s small platoons, Robert Menzies “forgotten people”.  
So what we admire about our distinguished predecessors, from Churchill to Thatcher, from Menzies to Howard, is not their label but their dogged devotion to the principles of a free society under the law.
From here Mr Turnbull went on to discuss the issue that attracted so much attention in Australia:
In 1944 Menzies went to great pains not to call his new political party, consolidating the centre right of Australian politics, “conservative” - but rather the Liberal Party, which he firmly anchored in the centre of Australian politics. 
He wanted to stand apart from the big money, business establishment politics of traditional “conservative” parties so styled of the right, as well as from the socialist tradition of the Australian Labor Party - the political wing of the union movement. Menzies said at the time: 
“We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”
He then stated that the "sensible centre, to use my predecessor Tony Abbott’s phrase, was the place to be and it remains the place to be now."
Sovereignty. Law. Security. Liberty.
This line came a little earlier in the speech, but I have included it here because it captures the rest of the speech. Context is everything,. Mr Turnbull suggested. What Disraeli or Churchill or Menzies said had to be seen in the context of their time:
But a strong thread of principle, of value, connects our party, the Liberal Party, to that of Menzies - one that combines both the liberal and conservative traditions - John Howard’s broad church. 
And it is best summed up in this way. 
From its foundation more than sixty years ago, the Liberal Party has stood for freedom.     
From this point, the Prime Minister attempts to mount a case linking the Government's approach to terrorism,  internet control and border protection. One quote will capture the flavour:
Terrorism is the starkest and most urgent enemy of freedom. Terrorists seek to disrupt our freedoms and disable our societies based on trust through fear. They seek to create a society in which people are neither free nor secure. 
It is in the very pursuit of freedom that we seek a stronger role for the State in protecting citizens against the terrorist threat. By fighting terrorism - with proportionate means - we are defending liberal values. 
In order to be free a person must first be safe. 
The reality is that individual freedom, liberty, the rule of law, and indeed national sovereignty, are under threat. 
In a world of rapid change, we must constantly review and improve the policies and laws that will best keep us safe.  To set and forget would be easy, but it would not be right.
 I will leave you to read the whole speech to determine whether my reporting is accurate.

Fairly obviously,  "the tenor of our times is change and at a pace and scale utterly unprecedented in human history" is political hyperbole and is, in a factual sense, grossly incorrect. Equally, the idea that in "order to be free a person must first be safe' is both incorrect and dangerous. How much freedom must we give up in the name of safety?

All this said, the desire to restate the role of the Liberal Party as a party of the centre right strikes me as sensible, although just what constitutes the "sensible centre" is open to dispute. All organisations need to restate their culture and traditions as the world changes if they are to stay relevant. In his own way, Mr Abbott has been doing this as well. In doing so, they will reach back into their past to heroic figures, although coming from a Country Party tradition I am hardly likely to agree with the deification of Mr Menzies or indeed some of the Liberal Party assertions about being a broad universal church. There is too much history there.

At the same time, just being at the centre is not of itself a good thing. During the professionalisation of Australian politics, both Liberal and Labor moved to the centre, becoming in some ways indistinguishable apart from points of emphasis. In turn, this opened the way for new political movements. Now we see all the parties including the newer forces seeking to articulate approaches and differences, to reconcile internal conflicts of values, to restate their positions.

In the case of the Australian Greens, for example, the conflict over Lee Rhiannon is in part about ideology (watermelons versus tree huggers), in part about the desire to operate at a national level in an integrated and professional way to maximise the vote. It also reflects fundamentally different beliefs about the way the Party should organise itself. In the case of the National Party, there has been a drive to re-state the Party's separate identity and policies, most noticeably the renewed focus on decentralisation.

In all this, commentary has tended to focus on the immediate political conflicts, with an underlying message about the need for stability in Government. I just don't share this position. Disunity may damage individual parties, but in a practical sense Government is no more unstable than it has been in the past.

What is more interesting is the way the changes might work themselves out in shaping new political arrangements. Perhaps in all this, I should allow the last word to Mr Turnbull:
The genius of Australia is that we define our national identity not by race or religion or ethnicity but rather by a commitment to shared political values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality of men and women, mutual respect - values accessible to all.
I agree.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The photography of Gregory Crewdson

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled, 2003
I hadn't heard of the American photographer Gregory Crewdson until I read CNN Nick Glass's piece Photographer Gregory Crewdson captures the dark side of rural America. The photos are really quite striking.

Wikipedia records that Crewdson was born on 26 September 1962. He grew up in New York and in a way drifted into photography, a hobby that became an obsession.

Crewdson's photographs usually take place in small-town America and are dramatic and cinematic, featuring often disturbing, surreal events. The photographs are elaborately staged and lit using crews familiar with motion picture production and lighting large scenes using motion picture film equipment and techniques.

Both the Nick Glass piece and the Wikipedia article cited above explore some of the influences on Crewdson's work. He is, I think, truly brilliant, creating a surreal world that remains somehow linked to the original reality. In a way, they capture the loneliness that lies at the heart of the human condition.

I leave it to you to explore his work. If you are in or will be in London soon, his latest exhibition  CATHEDRAL OF THE PINES is on at the Photographers' Gallery from 23 June to 8 October 2017.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Malcolm Turnbull, Alastair MacGibbon and the latest proposed internet controls

The Latin phrase "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?",   "who will guard the guards themselves?", first appears in the Roman poet Juvenal's Satires (Satire VI, lines 347–348). According to Wikipedia, the original context deals with the problem of ensuring marital fidelity, though it is now commonly used more generally to refer to the problem of controlling the actions of persons in positions of power.

I was reminded of this phrase listening to an interview with Australian Prime Minister Turnbull's National Cybersecurity Adviser Alastair MacGibbon on the need to crack down on encrypted technology in the fight against terrorism. In response to civil liberty questions. Mr MacGibbon used phrases such as "lawful access to information" and "the reality is" to assure us that action was necessary for our own security and that Government would not misuse the powers, that safeguards exist to prevent that misuse.

Two questions arise. First, can we trust the Australian Government not to misuse added powers? Secondly, even if we can, can we assume that our existing system of Government will survive, that a future Australian government might not take a different approach?

Many years ago, I was acting branch head in the Commonwealth Treasury's Foreign Investment Division. We were dealing with a foreign takeover application. The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) asked us to place a freeze on the takeover, but could not explain for confidentiality reasons beyond a broad statement that Australian taxation evasion might be involved. It was a slightly murky case involving possible loans and transfer payments. When I modelled it, I realised that the only way in which evasion might be relevant is if the Australian company and foreign company were in fact owned by the same Australian residents. The problem then was that if that was the case, a blocking order under the Foreign Takeovers Act would be invalid since the Act did not apply to takeovers by Australian owned entities. We therefore had to ignore the taxation issue and recommended that a blocking order not be issued.

Two points to note about this case. The first is the clear separation between Government functions and powers. We would not misuse one power to support another. The second is protection of taxpayer information, the consequent inability to provide taxpayer information to another agency. There were good practical reasons for this. ATO data was sacrosanct not just because ATO was bound by its Act but because this maximised revenue. In very simple terms, if you made money illegally, you were still expected to pay tax on it. The question of legality or otherwise of the activity was a matter for other agencies. If you broke this principle, then people would become even more reluctant to provide taxation information - and cash.

Both principles, separation and confidentiality, have been eroded in the years since. It is just too attractive for Government not to use one power to reinforce another or to seek the immediate benefits offered by big data consolidation and matching to achieve policy objectives. This provides an immediate sugar hit, a short term benefit, but has also resulted in growing mistrust within the community. I think most Australians would now believe that if they provide (or Government is able to access) information to government for one purpose, they will ultimately use it for another regardless of promises at the time.

That said, while more wary, most Australians still trust Australian governments in a general sense. There are protections built into our system, including the rule of law. That brings me to my second question, .can we assume that our existing system of Government will survive, that a future Australian government might not take a different approach?

The short answer has to be no. I don't think many Germans in the Weimar Republic foresaw the rise of Hitler nor the form the Nazi regime would take, none would have foreseen East Germany and the Stasi. Think how those regimes could have used big data and data matching. Could Oscar Schindler have survived if there was someone in Berlin monitoring his KPIs and every movement using modern computer technology?

In similar vein, the question of what determines a terrorist is really only decided after the event and by the winners. This really takes me down a different track. For the moment, I would just note to Alastair MacGibbon that the question of lawful access to information depends on the laws, on legal systems, that can be changed; that there is growing distrust of Government even in Australia: that we cannot assume that information and processes will not be misused; and that short term fixes often create long-term problems,

To use one of his phrases,  the reality is that quis custodiet ipsos custodes continues to apply and continues to be a problem. I think that we need a a lot more information on possible changes that will be used equally by the governments of Malcolm Turnbull and Vladimir Putin.  

Monday, July 03, 2017

ATSI aspects of the 2016 census

The release by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) of the 2016 census results provides a picture of continuing social and demographic change within Australia. This brief post deals with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) population drawn especially from this ABS release.

This focus seems appropriate for this week is NAIDOC Week, an annual week falling in the first full week of July that celebrates the achievements of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. You will find the history of NAIDOC Week here.  

A unifying theme is selected each year. This year the theme is "Our Languages Matter." Again appropriately, my current Armidale Express series focuses on the mystery around the the Aboriginal Anaiwan or Nganjaywana language found on the New England Tablelands.You will find the opening column here.

I have written a fair bit on the language question because it interests me and I have thought it important. With so many Aboriginal languages each with different dialects, retention and revival is a significant problem. We missed a huge opportunity in the sixties and early seventies to record many languages still spoken in at least some form by elderly men and women. Sadly, the then strong interest dissipated in the absence of funding.  

Returning to the census, it records that 649,171 people identified as being of ATSI origin in 2016. This represented 2.8% of the population in the 2016  – up from 2.5% in 2011, and 2.3% in 2006.

The number and proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in each state/territory, and  within that state/territory.The rise in the proportion is due partly to a higher birth rate, more I think to growing identification of people as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. As a simple example of this process, children with one ATSI parent may choose to identify as ATSI, compounding numbers..

The ATSI population is dominated by Aboriginal people.  Of the 649,1710 people who identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in 2016, 91% were of Aboriginal origin, 5.0% were of Torres Strait Islander origin and 4.1% identified as being of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin.

Many Australians think that the ATSI population is predominantly to be found in Northern Territory. In fact, NSW with 33.3% of the ATSI population remains, as it has done for many years, the state or territory with the largest ATSI population. However, expressed as a percentage of the total population, the proportion is highest in the Northern Territory (25.5%) followed surprisingly by Tasmania (4.6%) and then Queensland (4.0%) and WA (3.1%).  

Number and proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within each capital city in 2016.Unlike the majority of other Australians, most ATSI people live outside outside the capital cities. Only Canberra (99.5%), Adelaide (53.8%) and Melbourne (50.4%) hold more than half their state or territory ATSI population.

Greater Sydney has the largest absolute number of ATSI residents by a considerable margin, more than the total ATSI population in the Northern territory, but only 32.4% of the NSW ATSI population.  

One side effect of this is that as the regional and especially the inland populations stagnates or even declines, the proportion of the ATSI population increases through a combination of natural increases and migration on the Aboriginal side, emmigration on the non-Aboriginal side. . .

While I have looked at this trend in the past, I don't presently have access to my previous NSW spreadsheets, my impression is that the trend is accelerating.

As a snapshot, Tamworth Regional Council has 6,031 ATSI residents out of a total population of 59,63 or 10.1%; Moree Plains Shire has 2,945 ATSI residents out of a population of 13,195 or 21.6%; Armidale Regional Council has 2,174 ATSI residents out of a population of 29,449 or 7.4%; Kempsey has 3,353 ATSI residents out of a population of 28 885 or 11.6%. I haven't checked properly the numbers for Dubbo, there is some form of statistical definition problem there, but I think the ATSI numbers are over 10,000 now. In Barnaby Joyce's New England electorate, the ATSI population is now 12,946 or 8.4%. In the huge Parkes electorate, the ATSI population is 24,506 or 15.9%.

Just to put these numbers in perspective, the City of Sydney which includes the inner city areas such as Redfern long regarded as Aboriginal centres has 2, 413 ATSI residents out of a population of 200, 374 or 1.2%.

These types of changes have significant statistical, political and policy implications.

As recently as ten years ago, the common policy assumption was that Aboriginal people should and were moving to the city because of employment opportunities. The 2006 census showed out-migration from at least Sydney and especially from places like Blactown within Sydney because there were no jobs. Conditions on the social housing estates in which many Aboriginal people lived were also deteriorating, while others found themselves socially isolated as the estates were broken up in an attempt to alleviate the social problems that had emerged. Many Aboriginal people and especially those with families began to move back to home country.

There was also migration to the bigger regional centres where market rents were lower, social housing more readily available, with at least some jobs.This created another set of difficulties.

These trends seem to have accelerated, although I have not done the detailed analysis required to really support that conclusion. The problem with evidence based policy is that if you ask the wrong questions, if you select the wrong evidence you are going to get the wrong conclusions. If I'm right on the trends, a fair bit of current policy requires a fundamental rethink.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dinna fash yersel

Dinna fash yersel(f) is a Scots' phrase meaning don't get annoyed, don't worry yourself. A rough Australian equivalent is not to worry. I'm not sure when I first came across the Scots' phrase, Certainly it was quite early in my life. I liked it and have used it from time to time.

I used it again the other day in a conversation, and this time took it to heart a little myself in regard to some of the discussion on current political and social issues.

Growing up, we were told that we should be interested in current affairs. Indeed, the Adult Education Department at Sydney University had a publication called Current Affairs Bulletin that was intended to help us to do just that. Then there was limited information around about current events. A good citizen, it was argued, should be aware of what is happening in the world and that required reading and awareness.

I don't have a problem with that. It's just now that we are awash with information to the point that people simply tune out for the sake of their own sanity. The problem is not to be aware, but to actually identify what it is that we should be aware of and, more importantly, why!

As a citizen, I have a responsibility to be aware of what Governments (local, state and federal) are doing. In most cases I can't affect what they do,  In most cases, it doesn't matter in a long term sense, although it may greatly affect particular individuals or groups. Broadly speaking, the Australian system of Government works despite all the discussion to the contrary. In particular, we have the capacity to change governments.  

As a parent, too, I am concerned about the implications for my daughters and broader family of events. Eldest, for example, is presently working in the EU and has a Danish partner..That means that I am far more interested in the EU than I was and am very conscious of Australian changes such as changes to citizenship and entry arrangements that may affect her.

As a person, I am affected by events such as the recent London fire or the London terrorist attacks. I was more worried by the fire rather than the terrorist attacks because of a recurrent fear of fire in tall buildings. I am not worried by the risk of terrorist attacks, although I might be if I lived in Kenya or Mali.

I visited London during the height of the IRA bombings, I remember the Red Brigade in Europe, but the chances of me being killed today are less than the risk I take in my daily walks to the local shops. I support most security requirements on aircraft because they are sensible, but worry about many government imposed restrictions linked to terrorism because they infringe long term liberties for very little obvious return.      

I used to be a political and current affairs junky. To a degree I still am because it is just so interesting, but there a limits. Take Gonski 2.0, the latest Australian Government school funding package that has just passed the Senate. To my mind, the most significant feature is that it has reinforced needs based funding. The political posturing around it is neither here nor there, although the split created in the Greens as a consequence may be of longer term political term significance. If, as seems likely at the moment, Labor wins the next election, they will no doubt make some changes, probably glad that the Coalition has blunted the fangs of the Catholic school lobby. But in the meantime, life goes on.  

All this is not to say that I won't continue to try to make my views known on particular current events, thus adding to the cacophony. I do so for two reasons. It helps me clarify my thinking, something that is important to me. And then, there is the hope that in combination with others, it may have impact at the margin.

Meantime, I remind myself dinna fash yersel.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Brexit outcomes: a stronger EU, a diminished UK? revisited

Back on 30 April 2017 I briefly reviewed Brexit in Brexit outcomes: a stronger EU, a diminished UK? A number of things have happened since then.

We had British Prime Minister May do a Turnbull and go to the people to take advantage of an apparently strong electoral position only to suffer a similar fate.Well, worse actually since her Government now appears to depend upon support from the Democratic Unionist Party.  

Meantime on the continent, the anti-EU forces that seemed to be gathering strength have weakened with the win of Macron in France and the apparent growth in support for Angela Merkel in Germany. There is clear acceptance that change is required within the EU, although there does not appear to be agreement on the form of change. Even the EU economy is picking up and is now out-performing the UK. Importantly, growth appears to be reasonably broadly based, with unemployment falling in Spain and Greece for example. Improved growth has strengthened popular support for the EU within Europe.

The opening negotiations on Brexit have now been held, with the EU sticking to its original negotiating line. The British Government had wanted parallel negotiations on issues including trade, while the EU wanted sequential negotiations based on the initial priority areas it had set out. The initial negotiations suggested that in practice the UK will have little choice but to follow the EU agenda, although I suspect that there is some scope for flexibility. Meanwhile, the Queen's Speech at the opening of Parliament demonstrated the size of the legislative task associated with Brexit with eight foreshadowed bills.
“This country is fucked,” one senior Tory said. “We are tethered to the mast of Brexit and when it goes wrong we’re screwed. They all know it. All Labour have to do is hedge their bets. When the public realize they have been sold a pup they will turn on the party.”
This quote comes from a piece in Politico by Tom McTague,  Battered and bruised, Theresa May limps into enemy territory. I'm not sure I agree with it, but there is no doubt that prime Minister may faces a formidable task in both political and policy terms. I think things will be worked through, at least so far as Brexit is concerned. My feeling remains that the most likely outcome is somewhere between a hard and soft Brexit with a strengthened EU and a somewhat diminished UK..   .

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Looking back at the Howard Brough Intervention after ten years - what was achieved?

In a comment, Jim Kable reminded me that it was ten years since the Howard Brough Intervention in remote Aboriginal communities and of the posts I had written at the time. These are listed below.

In writing, I tried to be objective, examining the issues within a framework set by my knowledge and experience. That included a discussion of the problems involved in bringing about real change.

Looking at the posts now from a ten year perspective, I wonder just what was achieved?  What positive results came from the whole thing?

This is a genuine question because I am hard pressed to think of any.

The Posts

Some of the posts that I wrote at the time are listed below:

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Reflections on David Stratton's Stories of Australian cinema

ABC is presently running a series featuring David Stratton looking at aspects of the history of Australian film. I am not giving links partly because of geoblocking, partly because the link will only survive for a little while anyway.

David is deservedly one of Australia's best known and most loved film commentators.  He is also writing on something I am interested in, attracted too. Despite all this, I ended up turning off the second episode, Outsiders, in the middle. I did come back to it and finally enjoyed it, but it was a battle.

I have been trying to work out why I felt this way. Certainly part of the reason was that I felt the selection of film and indeed the commentary reflected current angsts, popular causes. I also felt that the commentary reflected a current trope, that somehow Australians are not comfortable in their own country, that they are here as occupiers and are therefore disconnected in some way from the land. Finally, there were comments about small town Australia that really annoyed me.

I would be the first to accept that there is a growing disconnect between many urban Australians and the country outside their immediate neighbourhoods and circles of contact. Increasingly, our big metro centres are made up of large villages that have little contact elsewhere in the metro area, let alone with the country beyond the metros outside popular holiday resorts. They occupy land but are not connected with the land in any real sense.  This affects portrayal in film. You get film that is message rather than story focused. I think that this is one reason why Australian films so often fail at the box office.

I accept that this is a biased view, but I do think that it is not without some substance.To illustrate, take a second current trope in discussion, the need for film to adequately reflect Australian "diversity". I have put diversity into inverted commas, for it tends to be a very particular type of diversity that is required to be recognised. In the end, the success of a movie, and Australia has too few successful movies relative to the size of output, depends upon a story that people want to watch. If we want diversity, then we need good stories that reflect that diversity, or at least the form you want. To argue for diversity for the sake of diversity is to miss the point.

Australia does have "message" movies that have achieved at least some box office success. Rachel Perkin's Bran Nue Dai is a case in point. This is very much a message film, but it's also a rollicking and thoroughly enjoyable musical. Others seemed to me to have failed because they fall in the should see rather than want to see class.

I wondered if I was wrong in all this and started digging into past box office records to answer the question what had been successful or failed compared to my own preconceptions. This proved to be at least a short term error. The Screen Australia web site provides some information on more recent films, but the box office data is in current dollars, knocking out older films. I found some other material, but not enough for my purposes without hours of work. And, in any case, I had become sidetracked onto another issue that I will mention in a moment.

 I did find enough material, however, to suggest that the position was more complex than I had realised and indeed worthy of further work.

I said that I had become sidetracked onto another issue. David started talking about Muriel's Wedding in the context of outsiders and small town life. I have yet to see Muriel's Wedding. I was put off when it first came out in 1994 because of the way it was described as a parody of small town life, another trope and one that I had become very sick of. I reacted by sticking my finger up in the air on behalf of all my fellow townies and going in the opposite direction.

Now researching it, I found to my surprise that it was in fact a New England film. David Stratton would not think of it in that way, nor indeed would most other people including probably writer and director P J Hogan. However, as part of my work on life, history and culture in Northern New South Wales, the broader New England,  I have been recording all the films that I can find with New England connections, looking at them in their Northern context.

Both Muriel's Wedding and Hogan's 2012 film Mental are part autobiographical. While Hogan was born in Queensland, he grew up in Tweed Heads just south of the Queensland border where his father Tom was a Shire Councilor, a community activist, an ALP candidate at the 1978 NSW State elections and the subject of an ICAC (NSW Independent Commission against Corruption) into local government corruption on the North Coast associated with real estate development.

The family was somewhat dysfunctional and colourful, something that Hogan has mined for material for both films. He has also mined his school and town experiences as something of a misfit.

You can see why I got sidetracked! I ended spending hours trawling though the fragmentary on-line material, something that I will write up as a full post on the New England blog. Meantime, I note that there are now three modern movies linked in some way to the Tweed Valley, writer/director Belinda Chayko's 2010 production Lou staring  John Hurt, Lily Bell Tindley and Emily Barclay being the third.

Lou is a very different movie, a domestic movie, one that I feel was sadly neglected when it came out. Like Hogan, Chayko grew up in the Tweed Valley and the visuals reflect her love of the area.

Growing up in Northern NSW, I was very conscious of the differences across the North, as well as the linkages and similarities. Each place, each region, has its own style and stories, stories which have changed with time. There are enormous differences between Stockton, Armidale, Bellingen, Scone, Moree, Gwabegar and .Lismore. Films have to tell a story that will appeal to a broader audience.

In the end, I think that New England and Australia more broadly are lucky to have as many films as we do. They do make our life richer.


I also struggled a little with the third episode in David's series. I may come back to that. In the meantime, I re-watched and then listed all the films mentioned because I found them an interesting combination.
In addition to these films, there were references to the multiple renditions of Ned Kelly!

Postscript 2 24 June 2017

In a comment, kvd pointed to two movies that he wondered why had not been included, Somersault (2004) and Jindabyne (2006). He also suggested that Kidman's role in Dead Calm (1989) was one of the most disturbing he had seen on film.

I did see Jindabyne, but had never heard of Somersault. I decided not to see Dead Calm. It put me off. That leads me to my another point.

There was a period when I tried to watch every new Australian film. Then as there were more, I found myself treating Australian films the same way as other films and largely stopped going, only going to those films I really wanted to see based on how I felt. And they didn't grab me.

Now I find that i need to revisit films that I missed. Mind you, I still don't want to watch Dead Calm! 

kvd's comment reminded me of another early Canberra linked film that I did see and quite enjoyed although I thought that it wasn't very good, the 1971 production Demonstrator.    ..

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wanderings - history, politics and institutional fragility

This post is both a round-up and the Monday Forum even if its coming out on Tuesday!. As always, go in whatever direction you want.

I have been on something of a roll on the history side in the almost two weeks since I wrote Bogged down in writing.

I have now bought up a consolidated post on the first part of the series on the early days of higher education in New England. After eight parts, I felt that readers deserved a break!

Hels from Art and Architecture, Mainly  commented on the male dominance in photos. In response, I pointed to this photo of the pioneer group at the Armidale Teachers' College in 1928 with 33 women and 30 men.

Hels is right in a general sense of course, although primary teaching was one field which provided a career path for women. Hels also commented on the difference between sex segregation in NSW and Victoria, suggesting that NSW was more highly sex segregated in things such as single sex schools. Hadn't though of that.

New African discoveries about the deep past of homo sapiens keep rolling out. Yesterday's history post, Paleoanthropologists having fun - Almost Human, new discoveries from Jebel Irhoud, outlines details of the latest results. If you follow the links through, you will get a quick Cooks tour of the evolution of African prehistory. This stuff is actually important, because the research coming out now is invalidating certain preconceptions deeply embedded in elements of Western thinking. One example is the progressive discrediting of the simple linear view of the evolution of homo sapiens.

Having finished the first series on the early days of higher education in New England, my Express focus has shifted to the mystery of the  Anaiwan or Nganjaywana language spoken on the New England Tablelands. This link will take you through to the latest column.

The Express has taken to re-posting most of my columns on their Facebook page. This one got 24 likes. That's unusual, so I was rather pleased. They have also changed the layout a little so that the story includes links back to past posts in the series. That also pleased me.

 Staying with history, I want to link two apparently unrelated posts by two of my favourite bloggers.

I have already mentioned hels. This year is 150 years since the Queen Victoria signed the British North America Act, thus allowing the creation of Canadian Confederation. Hel's Let's celebrate Canada's 150 years since Confederation provides an overview.The second post comes from the Resident Judge of Port Phillip, Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir’ by Olivera Simic, a book review that deals with the sense of loss that followed the break-up of the old Yugoslavia.

The linkage between the two, and it is only a linkage in my mind, lies in the fragility of human institutions and the loss we can experience when the familiar and accepted is taken away. This can be hard to recognise in circumstances where subsequent perceptions are so strongly set by the victors.   .

The American Revolution, the first North American civil war, is a case in point. In the glorification attached to the Revolution it is easy to forget that there were losing sides. One losing side was the various Indian nations, for one of the proximate causes of the conflict lay in concerns that the Government in London would inhibit westward expansion.

The second losing side were the Loyalists who according to Wikipedia were barred from public office, forbidden from practising medicine and law, forced to pay increased taxes, barred from executing wills or becoming guardians to orphans.Congress enabled states to confiscate Loyalist property to fund the war, and offered them a choice between swearing loyalty to the republic, or either face exile, or forfeit the right to protection. Quakers, who remained neutral, had their property confiscated. States later prevented Loyalists from collecting any debts they were owed. Tens of thousands escaped to what would become Canada including former slaves who had fought for Britain in return for the promise of freedom.  .

As Hels column draws out, the processes involved in the creation of what we now call Canada were slow. She starts her story with the British North America Act. However, the period from the end of the Revolutionary War with the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and 1867 when the Act was proclaimed involved a variety of change processes including the War of 1812, the failed attempt by the US to invade the Canadian colonies.

While Canada today is seen as having a distinct identity, the evolving sense of Canadian identity was fragile and often fractious involving different colonies with different histories, including the large French speaking presence. This remains true today.

The Yugoslavia case also demonstrates institutional fragility, as well as the sense of loss that come from change. Formed in 1918 following the end of the First World War (the name Yugoslavia itself was adopted in 1929), Yugoslavia had a turbulent history including the Second World Way, the creation of a communist state and then break-up during the Balkan or Yugoslav Wars. The break-up left those who did not identify with particular groups with a profound sense of loss.

I accept that I have wandered. There are, in fact, two quite different issues in my mind. The first is the need to break through the barriers created by the winning side to understand the sense of loss on the other side, the second question of institutional fragility.

Without going into details at this point, if we look at the UK the decision first by Prime Minister Cameron to go for a Brexit referendum and then Prime Minister May's decision to go to an early election has graphically revealed UK fault lines that leave the very survival of the United Kingdom at risk.         

Thursday, June 08, 2017

The irrelevance of US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

So much has been happening that it constantly out-runs my capacity to comment!

President Trump's decision that the US should withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation did not come as a surprise given his previous stated positions. What was a little uprising was the apparent temporising at the end. What was also a surprise, at least to me, was the President's statement that he was in some way open to the renegotiation of the Agreement. This struck me a little like having a bob each way, although it may just have been a gesture to atmospherics.

On 30 January 2017 in Monday Forum - the administrative competence of the Trump Administration, I concluded that the thing that most surprised me about President Trump's initial immigration Executive Order was the apparent administrative incompetence involved, something that I thought may be becoming a feature of the new US Administration at this point in its life. I think that's a fair assessment, although there were two qualifying themes in comment. One that we should wait and see for at least 100 days, a second that the end result of the Trump administration as a whole would be somewhere between worst and best expectations. Don't you hate it when people are reasonable?

In the lead-up to the President's announcement, the leader of the National Party and deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce captured things rather well: "Well, um, to speculate on a whole range of things is dangerous, to speculate on what Donald Trump might do is insanity.”  One can only agree.

I think the main conclusion that I drew at the time, one that has been reinforced by events since, is that this is a Presidential decision that really doesn't matter: no other country followed the US lead; counter action by the bigger US states and cities will probably keep US outcomes on track re existing commitments; and in any case, US withdrawal cannot be completed until quite close to the next US presidential election.Who knows what will have then?

In Australia, the response revealed the growing impotence of the conservative right. including former Prime Minister Abbott. While Liberal MP Craig Kelly wanted to get out the champagne, it was remarkable just how little support President Trump's decision attracted. I think that people have just moved on.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Bogged down in writing

I have been bogged down on my major historical writing projects.

Back in November 2015 when Clare B and I reviewed my writing targets, we agreed that one simple way of getting a book ready quickly would be to consolidate and then edit the collected Belshaw's World columns written for the Armidale Express over the period 2009-2012. On 22 December 2015 I reported on Facebook:
I completed the consolidation process in the early hours of this morning, giving me a first draft of 120,000 words. A fair bit of editing is required to consolidate, improve English, add explanatory material etc. Writing a weekly column under deadlines does not always make for good English, while some columns would be far too obscure for general reading.. Still, this type of editing is a process I quite enjoy.
 So far so good, but I then became dissatisfied. I didn't think that the draft was of the right standard and required far more editing than I had expected. I still hadn't given up on the project, but ended putting it aside for the moment, returning to my two main writing projects.

The first is the history of Northern New South Wales, the broader New England, over the last 50,000 years. This is broken into four parts: an introduction to set the scene and to help integrate the entire book; Aboriginal New England up to 1788; Colonial New England; and then New England in the Twentieth Century.

Those who have followed my blogs will know from the occasional references to this project that it seems to have stretched on and on. I accept that I lack discipline, but I keep finding new topics, new themes, that demand to be included. I also keep finding gaps in my knowledge that I wasn't aware of and which now need to be filled.

The final book will, I hope, be all the better for all this. Certainly it will be very different from the original work as envisaged. The first outline had a strong political focus with the 150+ year fight for self-government as the unifying theme in the last two sections of the book. That's still there, but the book has become much more a social and cultural history.

One particular difficulty is the way the present keeps intruding on the past, forcing me to ask new questions, to decide on new questions of balance. One example here is the concern with child sexual abuse, for many of the issues raised at the Royal Commission relate to the Hunter and Northern Rivers, but came to light after my cut-off date.  A second example is the stolen generation. This had become a major issue by 2000 following the 1997 Bringing Them Home Report, but has continued to run since.

I need to reference both and especially the second, but how much to say, how much extra work to do? I could just reference the later work, but I have a particular problem with the stolen generation that makes me reluctant to do so because it is part of and indeed conflicts to a degree with a theme I already have in draft. I need to understand what has happened and I can't just rely on the report for that. The photo is of the Kinchela Boys' Home outide kempsey. .  

The second major project is New England Travels: journeys through space and time. I announced this project at the end of May 2014 -  New England Travels – journeys through space and time. I described the project in this way:
The working title is New England Travels – journeys through space and time. Part autobiographical memoir, part travel story, part history, my story meanders wherever it will take me. New England provides the unifying element, the frame if you like, but I am not restricted to that; the sands of Arabia, Lugard’s Nigeria, spying in Japan, boxing and boxing tents, life and death on the frontier, the rise and fall of dynasties and the strange by-ways of family life are already there, sketched on the canvas I have created; my choice now is to select. 
I am not being too ambitious. For the moment, I have an income to earn, other things to write. My writing target is 300 words per day. So far I am sticking to it, although it’s very early days. For the present at least, I am finding the process liberating, an anodyne to other frustrations that bedevil me. I know that the draft will change greatly as I write. Even now it has changed several times as I strive to capture the right words, to achieve the balance I want.
Mmmm. What I hadn't properly realised was the extent of new research required to deliver the project as defined. I was, in fact, trying to research two major if somewhat overlapping book projects at the same time. I simply couldn't achieve 300 original words a day.

It was this realisation that finally led to the decision to go for Belshaw's World as a way of  getting something out the door. Then after I put that project on hold at the first draft stage, an intense work period intervened, so I just jogged along trying to do some blogging while also pushing forward with some research on the history. As part of this, I actually developed a somewhat better research approach, if still a tad inefficient.

My weekly history column provided the next building block. A number of people suggested to me that I should publish the columns. Even though I already had the words for a book, I didn't think that was sensible because the columns were only 500 words. I thought that the result would be too bitsy. I was truly a puzzled panda.

In writing the columns, I had begun to experiment with series, groups of up to eight or nine columns grouped around a theme or story. Initially I just fell into the approach, but when I started to get good reader feedback I adopted it as a practice. There were some good stories too such as Camp Victory and the Casino Boys.

At this point things began to gell a little. I was doing research that could be used for both projects so long as I recorded the sources for the main history project. New England Travels emerged from the mists as a book of 90 to 100,000 words made up of a mix of short and longer pieces roughly grouped around themes combining existing and new material. Once I had a basic draft in place, then I could edit and rewrite to make it interesting to a general audience, not just those with an interest in New England history. Which brings me back to my opening graphic!

Its taken quite a while to get to this point and I am hesitant about attaching firm public deadlines to the project.

I am fortunate at this point that I have been given a window to write full time. Mind you, I am finding this quite challenging. Sitting there for extended periods with no direct human contact tends to send me quite stir crazy.

Still, I mustn't complain. I am making progress even if my regular blogging is down as a consequence.