Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Poetry's Decline Revisited

Ninglun (Neil) had a rather nice response to my post on Poetry's Decline and the Sound of Words. He knows far more about poetry than I do, but his response triggered more thoughts.

I have just put up a first post on the New England Australia blog using one of Judith Wright's poems, Bora Ring, as a device to look at one aspect of Aboriginal life in New England. This is a wonderfully evocative poem, but also one written from a very European perspective. Over the next week or so I will follow up with a few more posts using the same approach.

In my post on Poetry's Decline, I said in part: reading (I could also have added listening to) poetry is an interaction between the reader and the poet's words. The poet's intent is a matter for the poet, perhaps a subject of literary study. To the reader, the value of the poem lies in that reader's personal response to the poem.

To me, this dichotomy between reader/listener and poet is critical because there are two very different creative processes at work. To the poet, writing is the creative process. But once the poem is finished, the poet leaves and a second creative process comes into play as the reader/ listener takes the poem and attaches his/her meaning to it.

In pre-literate societies poetry was oral, designed to be heard, directly transferred from speaker to listeners. Language - sounds - were critical to this process. As writing emerged and poems came to be written down, poet and audience came increasingly to be separated in space and time. However, language remained critical.

I am normally a fast and silent reader, silent in that I do not sound the words in my head. Indeed, one of the key aims of most speed reading courses is to stop participants vocalising. I cannot follow my normal approach when I read poetry. If I like the poem I have to slow and sound the words in my head. If I really like the poem, I will read the words out, trying to get the rhythm right.

In his post, Neil quoted an interview with the Australian poet Robert Gray emphasising the importance of imagery. I struggled with Gray's words at several different levels. In fact, I think that an over-emphasis on imagery may even be part of the problem.

People read or listen, perhaps in Australia used to read or listen, to poetry for a whole variety of individual reasons. In all cases we use our own imagination and our emotions to create an individual response.

I have always liked W B Yeat's The Second Coming because his wonderful words say something to me about the human condition at a deeply emotional level:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

At a different level, in my post on Australia and its people - a funny upside down land, I used Dorothea McKellar's I Love a Sunburned Country, one of most famous part remembered poems in Australia, to illustrate the process by which European Australians came to create and internalise their own view of Australia. In this case, we have a poem that remains in our memory because it speaks to us of ourselves.

The most popular mass poetry today, perhaps the only remaining mass poetry in the country, are the bush ballads. Otherwise poetry has been relegated to English Departments, literary magazines, to small publishers, to poets talking to poets and a few of the poetic faithful. The phrases and jingles that we remember come to us from advertising, not poetry. Not happy, Jan!

While I was aware of the decline in the popularity of poetry, I really did not really focus on it until I started writing on this blog about change in Australia. Now here I note Neil's comment about the continued importance of poetry in other cultures.

I suspect in those cultures, I do not know because I simply do not know enough, that poetry remains important because it still speaks to people about themselves.

Poetry's Decline and the Sound of Words

I have been re-reading some of Judith Wright's earlier poems. For the benefit of my international readers, Judith Wright is one of Australia's greatest poets.

I wanted to re-read Judith's work because she comes from New England and I was looking for new ways to present the New England experience. But I also love the sound of her words. "Voice from the hills and the river drunken with rain" (Trapped Dingo) just sounds good, as does "South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country" (South of My Days).

Coincidentally, at the same time I started listening to a poetry reading on ABC while driving. I switched stations. The words jarred.

When I was growing up, poetry was a natural part of life. Today, poetry seems to have been relegated to a small literary ghetto. I think that this is partly due to changes in life style, including the proliferation of audio and visual media crowding out personal time. But I also think that it's due in part to changes in poetry itself.

Reading poetry is an interaction between the reader and the poet's words. The poet's intent is a matter for the poet, perhaps a subject of literary study. To the reader, the value of the poem lies in that reader's personal response to the poem.

We may love the poem because - like the poems of Banjo Patterson - it tells a story or makes us laugh. We may love the poem because of the sound and rhythm of the words. We may love the poem because it tells us something about ourselves or our world. The reasons vary.

When I look at the reasons why I stopped reading poetry it's partly a matter of crowded life style. I also find that too many of the topics selected now do not resonate with me. Most of all, I find that I do not like the flow of words.

I am not saying that all poetry must have the old formal structures. I am saying that, for me at least, sound and rhythm are central to my side of the poetry experience.

Monday, January 29, 2007


I wasn't happy with the post I finally put on the NSW Government's coastal strategies. The post was far too long to be easily readable. Still, it does provide another building block in the material I am trying to build.

I can understand why everything today has to be shortened and put into the equivalent of sound bites. But you can't make real policy out of soundbites. This requires thought, writing, argumentation.

Yes, policy has to be simplified to get the story across. But if you simplify before you have worked the issues through you get crap. And we get a lot of that.

We cannot rely on the press to do the critical analysis. Journalists have stories to write against deadlines. They cannot sit down and research every issue, they simply have to do the best they can. So how do we deal with this?

Maybe blogging is part of the answer. I hope so, because otherwise I am wasting a lot of time.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Demographic Change in NSW - the future

In my Australia Day personal reflections I suggested the NSW Government's coastal strategies were flawed, perhaps dangerously so. I also provided a heads-up on the thinking that I had been doing.

This post extends my analysis. I do not pretend that this is definitive or even totally rigorous. I am simply trying to present a different view from that built into the official thinking. This comes both from my own personal biases - these cause me to ask different questions - and my insatiable curiosity.

So when I came to look at the NSW coastal strategies, one thing that stood out to me, one that I have been mulling over since is just why nobody, or at least nobody that I am aware of, has been looking at the overall patterns of development and change in the current state, starting with the demographic base, that must provide the real underpinnings for any strategies.

Macro View: Are the Projections Achievable?

The Government's various strategies suggest, if my maths are correct, that the population along the NSW coastal strip will increase by an average of 68,000 people per annum over the next twenty-five years, adding 1.69 million to the State's population, bringing that population to 8.49 million.

Are these projections achievable?

In 2005-2006, NSW gained 40,492 from natural increase (births minus deaths) , lost 23,970 through internal migration to other states and territories, but gained 42,231 from overseas migration for a net gain of 58,753.

There is a significant gap between this 58,753 and the 68,000 projected in the plan for the coastal strip. How might this gap be filled?

The pattern shown by the 05-06 numbers of gains from overseas migration partially offset by internal migration has been in existence for some years. It means that a 68,000 annual average increase in State population requires some combination of an increase in the rate of natural increase and/or some reduction in the rate of internal migration and/or some increase in the number of overseas migrants settling in NSW.

It seems to me that these outcomes are very uncertain.

Start with the natural increase. There has recently been a small but significant increase in the Australian birth rate. If maintained, will this be sufficient to increase the absolute size of natural population increase?

I think not. I am not sure how many people realise that the number of Australian women in the under thirty age cohorts is significantly less than the numbers in the over thirty cohorts. This smaller number of women will have to have significantly more children if the absolute size of natural increase is to rise. Further, and I have not calculated the effect of this, the absolute number of deaths will rise steadily over the twenty year planning horizon as a consequence of aging, adding further pressures.

What about internal migration? Will this fall?. Here I cannot see the rate of internal migration to other states and territories dropping simply because it the pattern seems so well entrenched.

All this means that migration to Australia remains (as it has been for many years) the key variable affecting NSW, predominantly Sydney, population growth. Here we strike a further set of problems.

Immigrant Numbers

To amplify this, take the 2005-2006 migration stats.

In that year, there were 131,593 settler arrivals, people migrating to Australia with permission to stay permanently, an increase of 7.5 per cent over the previous year. This was the headline figure reported in the media. But in that same year 67,853 permanent residents emigrated from Australia, an increase of 8.4 per cent. So Australia gained 131,593, lost 67,853, for a net gain of 63,740.

In addition to the settler arrivals, there are a substantial number of people coming to Australia as non-permanent residents - refugees and students - who may later become permanent residents. Once this happens they are added to the migration and main population numbers.

In 2005-2006, NSW made a net population gain of 42,231 from overseas migration. Of this, 19,325 came from those already here achieving permanent residence, leaving a net gain from settler arrivals/departures of just 22,906. Not a large number given the size of the state's population.

I must say that I had not realised the significance in statistical terms of the numbers of people already here achieving citizenship. So we now have three sets of variables - the number of people aready in NSW on a temporary basis who might achieve permanent residency and thus appear in the population numbers; the number of future people entering NSW on a temporary basis who might then achieve permanent residence; and the net number of new settlers (arrivals minus departures).

I think that the bottom line in all this is that we cannot actually assume that net international migration will yield the numbers built into the coastal strategies.

Internal Migration within NSW

There is another way the coastal strip could gain population, continued internal migration from inland to coastal areas. This has in fact been a pattern since the 1900s.

Leaving aside the question of desirability, there is actually an issue as to the extent to which this is either possible or likely over the 25 years covered by the coastal strategies.

Achievement of an annual average increase in the coastal population of 68,000 over twenty five years requires the coast to absorb all of last year's total state population growth from all sources including all migrants and the natural increase in inland NSW plus a further 9,000 per annum.
If this 9,000 were to come from internal migration from inland NSW, it implies a decline in the inland population over the period of 225,000 people, more than a quarter of the existing population.

I don't think that this is possible. If anything, my feeling is that the NSW population dynamics are shifting such that the inland population is actually likely to increase. To understand this we need to look at the evolving population pattern in inland NSW.

Inland Development

From my viewpoint, one of the interesting things about NSW is the way the state is evolving into two very different populations strips, one along the coast, the second along the Tablelands, Slopes and immediate Western Plains.

To illustrate this, lets start in the south east of the state. Here we begin with a tiger called Canberra and the ACT, a tiger whose influence is concealed by the myopia created by state borders.

Canberra is by far the most successful decentralisation experiment in Australian history.

At the end of June 2006, the ACT had a population of 329,000. Its growth has affected surrounding NSW areas for more than a 150 kilometres. The NSW city of Queanbeayan just across the ACT border has grown from perhaps 12,000 when I moved to live there in 1972 to 38,000 today. This growth continues to spread, with increasing number of ACT people moving to further out to Yass whose population has grown from a few thousand to thirteen thousand today.

The story does not end here. In South Easten NSW we also have Albury (41,000 plus those in Woodonga just across the boarder), Wagga Wagga (around 58,000), Goulburn (27,000), a little further out Griffith (over 15,000). The pattern of rise and fall in populations across this area is varied, but the total population including the ACT is now large enough to affect overall NSW patterns.

Moving further north to the central west we have Dubbo (40,000), Orange (34,000), Bathurst (33,000). While the bigger centres are a little smaller, they have been growing as have smaller centres such as Mudgee.

Further north we move into New England, my home territory and an area of deprivation whose relative influence has been declining for one hundred years. Even here we can see the same pattern in Tamworth (around 35,000), Armidale (22-25,000 depending on definitions), Inverell and Moree (each around 11,000). These centres have grown to the point that they are attracting people from elsewhere.

This total inland strip has a life increasingly independent of Sydney influences. Armidale, for example, has more people living within an eight hour car drive than Sydney. Road traffic between the major conurbations of Melbourne and Brisbane goes through inland NSW. Canberra growth spreads across a broad region.

All this makes me feel that inland NSW is at the cusp of a major change point and that, consequently, net migration from the inland to the coastal strip is unlikely to add to coastal populations in the way it has in recent years.

Migration and Changing Population Structures

We can look at the population statistic in another way.

For the sake of simplicity, assume that the 05-06 numbers continue for the next ten years.

During this period, NSW will:

  • add 405,000 people from natural increase
  • add 422,000 from overseas migration
  • lose 240,000 from internal migration to other states or territories
  • for a net gain of 587,000, bringing the total state population to 7,387,000.

All very simple, isn't it? But look again:

  • if internal migration doubles, population growth almost halves
  • if net oveseas migration to NSW halves, the NSW population growth turns to zero

Assuming that all the figures hold, the overseas born share of the NSW population will rise by a further 2.5 per cent. Because Sydney is the port of destination for most overseas migrants, the percentage rise in the overseas born in Sydney will be greater.

Now where will these migrants come from, what might this mean for planning purposes?

If we look at the break-up of the total 05-06 Australian numbers for settler arrivals, we find that:

  • there were 59,507 in the skills stream
  • there were 34,771 in the family stream, people coming to join relatives.
  • there were 12,113 in the humanitarian stream
  • with a further 25,098 non program arrivals, mainly Kiwis.

If we look at some other features of national settler arrivals we find:

  • 48.1 per cent (around 63,296) of settlers reported an occupation prior to settlement, 41.8 per cent were not in the work force (presumably children, partners) , 3.1 per cent were unemployed.
  • of the settlers reporting an occupation, 42.4 per cent (26,838) cent were professionals, 12.6 per cent (7,975) trades, 11.6 per cent (7,342) associate professionals. The rest - 21,141 - are not identified but are presumably unskilled.
  • of those in the humanitarian program, 52.1 per cent came from North Africa and the Middle east, 27.2 per cent from Sub-Saharan Africa, 12.9 per cent from Central Asia, 6.3 per cent from SE Asia.
  • Overall, the three largest source countries for NSW were the PRC 11.9 per cent, India 10.3 per cent and the UK 10.2 per cent.

Now what might all this mean for NSW planning?

First and perhaps least important, note the relative importance of New Zealanders in the overall numbers. This makes New Zealand developments quite important in terms of overall migration numbers, increasing the uncertainty attached to the numbers.

The second thing, one that I found interesting and even surprising, was the relatively large number of new settlers not in the workforce. This means that migration is contributing less than I had expected to work force growth, while adding to demands in areas such as schooling.

Now look at the different streams because each has different settlement implications.

Professionals and para-professionals appear to dominate the skilled stream. This is also the area where Australia has the greatest immigration, so the net effect is likely to be much smaller than the absolute numbers. If these groups behave like their Australian counterparts, then in locational terms, the NSW share is likely to be concentrated in particular parts of Sydney such as the Eastern Suburbs with the rest fairly evenly if thinly spread, while the trades component will tend to go where the work is.

The family reunion stream represents chain migration and will go in the first instance to where the families are. In the NSW case this mainly means certain parts of Sydney. This also holds to some degree for the non-program, mainly Kiwi arrivals.

The final stream, the often unskilled humanitarian stream, spreads much more widely because of the impact of Government policies. We can see this clearly in the debate about Tamworth Council's decision on refugees since this revealed that the Government's refugee settlement program is consciously settling humanitarian refugees such as the Sudanese in a wide variety of locations.

Migration and the NSW Government's Coastal Strategies

Now look at all this in the context of the NSW Government's coastal strategies, assuming that the basic population growth is there. Before doing so, I need to add one more piece of demographic data.

Sydney's population especially in the suburbs ringing the city from the south west to the north west is younger than than the national average and hence has a higher number of births. Conversely, with some exceptions the population elsewhere along much of the coastal strip is older than the national average and hence has a lower number of births.

Given this, the strategies seem to imply that the coastal strip outside Sydney, and especially the mid North Coast, will attract substantial numbers of new migrants from elsewhere. Since the majority of these are unlikely to come from overseas migration for the reasons given above, this means attracting locally born from elsewhere in the state and this means especially Sydney.

Will this happen and, if so, to what degree? I am very cautious.

I can see further retirement movements, although the net effect here will depend upon the balance of births and deaths given aging populations in retirement areas. By the 2032 deaths of current baby boomers will be having a very major impact in these areas.

I can also see some continued movement of people squeezed out of Sydney by that city's high prices. However, if these and any others who move are not to simply add to the pool of unemployed, there have to be jobs. Here all the strategies are very weak on job creation, assuming that the jobs will be there. I think that the Mid North Coast and Far North Coast strategies are especially vulnerable.

If we now look at Sydney, the Sydney strategy postulates that between 420,000 and 480,000 of the extra 1.2 million people projected for the conurbation over the next 25 years will be located in new urban developments in south-western and north-western Sydney. The balance of the population will be accommodated through more intense occupation of existing areas. The plan also provides for the further development of ring cities based on centres such as Liverpool or Penrith, each replicating in some way CBD style developments.

Will all this happen and, if so, what might it mean? Here I really do not know enough to make firm judgements.

I can certainly see more intense occupation of existing areas as a consequence of skilled migration and family reunions. As indicated, professional migrants are likely to cluster in areas already attracting professionals, while family reunion migrants and, to a lesser degree, humanitarian refugees will go in the first place to existing migrant suburbs where their kin or ethnic groups already reside. The second is likely to reinforce existing ethnic and migrant patterns.

I can also see some flow over into new suburbs as a consequence of pressures in existing suburbs. My primary concern here is the need to avoid the pattern of recent decades in which at least some outer new suburbs become centres of isolation and social deprivation. To the degree those suburbs are also marked by enduring ethnic differences, then we risk replicating Paris.

In the midst of all this, I am also fascinated by what it all means for Sydney's internal dynamics. We have already seen the city break up into a series of very different sub-cities that rarely interact. We have also seen waves of development progressively transforming and re-transforming individual areas. Social, economic and ethnic differences between different areas within Sydney are now very substantial. So we are going to see some interesting changes over the next 25 years.?

Migration and Ethnic Divergence

All of this has some interesting implications for population patterns across NSW.

Starting with NSW as a whole.

It seems to me that the current drivers of NSW population growth - natural increase, internal migration to other states and territories, the size of overseas migration - will continue their current pattern. This means that the size of overseas migration will continue to be the main driver. The aggregate population projections assumed in the coastal strategies will be achieved if and only if overseas migration levels increase to the extent required to bring the necessary population growth about.

If population growth continues just at its current levels and composition, the proportion of overseas born in the NSW population will continue to rise as a consequence of the combination of of overseas and internal migration, while the proportion of non Anglo-Celts in the population will continue to rise. The greater migration, the faster population growth, the greater these trends.

These aggregate changes conceal major distributional differences within NSW.

Sydney's younger population compared with other parts of NSW means that the city's natural increase will be higher in absolute and relative terms to the rest of the state. However, migration from Sydney to other parts of NSW as well as other states and territories will, as it has for at least the last twenty years, continue to be concentrated in the Australian born group. This will probably at least halve natural population increase.

The professional, and family reunion migration streams will continue to favour the city. Humanitarian migration will be more widely spread. This means that the non Australian born, non Anglo-Celtic proportion of Sydney's population will continue to rise faster than the state or national average. The greater our migration, the greater the impact.

Without going into details because this opens a complete new topic, there are considerable variations in the ethnic composition of the migrant intake between different cities and regions within Australia. The Asian feel of Sydney as compared to Melbourne's European feel in part reflects continuing differences in the composition of migrants. I think it likely that by 2032, the end of the 25 year planning period, the two cities will feel as though they are in different countries. Some would say that they already do!

I should add that I see nothing necessarily wrong with this. I love Melbourne's European cafe feel, but also like Sydney's Asian feel. The growing diversity should simply add to the Australian experience.

Internal migration from inland NSW including the ACT to the coastal strip will decline and may even go into reverse. Inland NSW will receive a proportion of the humanitarian and, to a much lesser extent, professional and skilled, migration, leading to a more diverse ethnic structure. However, the diversity gap between Sydney and inland NSW will continue to widen.

The coastal strip outside Sydney is the big unknown. Just because it is coastal does not mean that it is the same. In fact, I would expect very varying patterns.

The south coast south of Milton has always been the ACT-Monaro playground. Given the growth in the ACT and surrounding population, I would expect a flow of inland retirees to boost population over the next twenty years. I would also expect the Anglos-Celtic proportion of the population to remain higher, the migrant proportion lower, than the national or state average.

The lower Hunter and, to a lesser degree, the Illawarra have always had economic activity independent of Sydney. Newcastle in particular has its own hinterland and its own port. While the city and the Lower Hunter are now increasingly treated by Sydney as part of Sydney, they are very different. I would expect the area to grow of its own accord. In doing so, I would also expect the area to attract a higher proportion of migrants.

The Mid North Coast and, to a lesser extent, the Far North Coast are the biggest question marks. Yes, there are non-tourism growth hot spots such as Taree, but the overall job creation process appears far lower than that required to support the population growth numbers.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Water, new states and the intellectual poverty of current Australian discussions on Federalism

Graphic: New England Flag. Since the decline of the new state movements, especially the New England Movement, the standard of constitutional debate in Australia has been impoverished.

In a post on the Prime Minister's water grab, Ninglun (Neil) suggested that I might be writing something on this. He was, of course, right. In the meantime, I wanted to comment on a related issue, the quite remarkable intellectual poverty of the current Australian debate on Federalism.

Why do I say this?

When you look at the current discussions it is all about specific topics, about relative power or, alternatively, very generalised stuff about abolition of the states or redistribution of power.

Where is the debate about the conceptual underpinnings of the Federal system, about the principles that might be followed in any constitutional restructuring? Why is there so little reference to the rich previous history of constitutional discussions, to the debates on principles that have taken place in a variety of areas from economics to geography to public administration to political theory? Why are there so few references to the principles and issues canvassed in the past?

When I think about all this, I come back to a single factor, the decline of the new state movements and especially the New England Movement after the 1967 plebiscite loss.

Today the new state cause seems arcane, even odd. Yet the New England Movement in particular was important because it presented an alternative view in a sustained and powerful way over a very long period. In saying this I am not arguing for new states, although I remain both a new stater and a proud New Englander. I am concerned with the reasons, at least as I see it, for the intellectual poverty of the Federation debate.

The Australian constitution provides for the creation of new states. However, the wording adopted created a major problem because it essentially left subdivision power in the hands of the existing states and no state government was going to agree to subdivision on a voluntary basis. The effect of the provision was to set the existing structure into stone. This meant that the new state movements were committed to constitutional reform from the beginning.

The new state movements could be and were ridiculed by the Sydney media committed to the protection of their own patch. But the movements, and especially the New England Movement, could not be ignored. Why? Consider this.

  • The New England Movement had the direct and explicit support of the great majority of the New England press and the local families who then controlled that press.
  • With some exceptions in particular areas and for particular individuals, the New England Movement was supported by the majority of the local elites.
  • Leading politicians, largely Country Party which was then the dominant political party across New England outside the lower Hunter, were committed new state supporters.
  • The Movement included some active writers and pamphleteers such as Ulrich Ellis, David Drummond or Ernest Sommerlad who occupied prominent positions and used their pen as a sword.
  • When local support was running its way - support waxed and waned depending on local conditions - the New England Movement had the capacity to mobilise in a big way. In 1961, for example, it raised 100,000 pounds - probably around $1.7 million in today's terms - to fund the next stage of its then campaign.

So the Movement had an impact.

To support its case, the Movement worked at two linked levels in constitutional terms.

At one level it had to define a constitutional basis to support its broad case for New England self government. At a second level it worked to force a change in the Australian constitution to facilitate the creation of new states. The two were linked, in that the first provided the bullets for the second.

All this meant that the New England Movement was the single most consistent contributor to Australian constitutional debate over the sixty years from the First World War, arguing through books, pamphlets and political action for change. During this period it forced two Royal Commissions and one plebiscite at state level, at least one Royal Commission plus a Parliamentary Committee at Federal level.

In doing so, it drew in members of the metro elites including Sir John Latham, Professor Bland who founded the academic study of public administration in Australia and Professor MacDonald Holmes, Professor of Geography at Sydney University, who further articulated some of the Movement's ideas in his work on the geographic basis of government.

When the New England Movement went into decline after the 1967 plebiscite loss, its constitutional ginger role went into decline as well. As it did, so did constitutional debate.

David Drummond left school at twelve in 1902. The wording and some of the ideas expressed in his 1926 pamphlet on reforming the Australian constitution would seem old fashioned in today's terms. But the depth and logical coherence of his ideas makes recent discussion on constitutional change seem, as they are, shallow in the extreme.

We have a choice. We can proceed as of now allowing constitutional change to proceed by a series of ad hoc incremental steps. Alternatively, we can stand back from the immediate issues and try to re-articulate the principles that we think should guide our Federal structure, taking previous thinking into account.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Australia Day and the Dangers of Personal Pontification

Photo: Australian Winter Olympian Alisa Camplin honoured in the Australia Day honours

While I am a naturally serious person, it's just as well that I do not take myself too seriously!

In my last story I expressed the concern in the context of Australia Day that the whole thing had become all too nationalistic, that we had lost the capacity poke fun at ourselves as Australians, taking ourselves far too seriously. It seems that I was wrong.

Straight after posting the story I took Helen, eldest, to a beach gathering that marked the start of a day of social activities.

We were driving past Royal Randwick race course when we passed this amazing sight. There were all the girls in their fancy race frocks plus a bloke who had managed to get the Australian flag into a cap, a cape, a top and his pants. I had never seen such a sight, laughed, pointed him out to Helen who also laughed. So we started talking about the flag.

Helen said that most of the boys in her group would be wearing an Australian flag in some way, then added, so will a lot of the girls. I asked her why? She said that it was a fashion statement! How a fashion statement? Well, she said, we are ozzies and it's Australia Day. So some will wear the flag, others hats with corks, others even wife beater tee shirts (?!).

So who says the sense of irreverence is not there!

For the benefit of international readers, I do not know of any country that can treat its flag in so many different ways.

Australian Olympians such as Alisa Camplin (photo) wrap themselves in the flag as a way of demonstrating pride in achievement as Australians. We use the flag and other symbols at sporting events to show support for our team and country. But we can also wear the flag or parts thereof as an irreverent fashion statement. And that is very much the Australian Way.

Personal Reflections 26 January 2007

Youngest Daughter on phone to friend: "And Happy Invasion Day to you too".

Today is Australia Day. Lexcen had a good post that drew out some of the internal tensions involved, as well as a list capturing some Australian things.

Reflecting the period in which I grew up, the current obsession with Australia Day - this year it was apparently Australia Week - makes me very uncomfortable.

Even when I was a kid there were those on the right and left of Australian politics who tried to use nationalism, if in different ways, to achieve their political ends. But for most Australians we were just that, Australians, and did not feel the need to take ourselves too seriously. In fact, we knocked those who did.

I remember when I went overseas for the first time on official business back in the eighties, I received a little pack from the Department of Foreign Affairs containing various Australian stick pins - flag, kangaroo etc - that I was apparently meant to wear and hand out. I thought that this was all very American and silly. Now I see that the little flag worn on the lapel has become common.

The problem, at least as I see it, with the way that Australia's political leaders such as PM Howard, NSW Premier Iemma and Opposition Leader Rudd and the media are promoting and playing on Australian nationalism is that it's actually creating or perhaps bringing out a sometimes nasty, exclusionist streak. In some ways we have a strange, bizarre, bidding war as to who can be the most "Australian". I think that this is all a bit silly.

All this said, I am always in favour of a good party, especially a family friendly one like Australia Day.

I write a lot on this blog about Australian culture, character and history, trying to explore different aspects of the Australian experience.

I am driven here in part by the need to better understand my own experiences and the changing nature of Australian society and culture, to explain them to others. However, I am also driven by my persistent curiosity, finding great fascination in the way this takes me down new paths, teaching me things that I did not know before. A case in point.

I did a story on the New England, Australia blog on the Sydney Government's new set of planning strategies for the NSW coastal strip. You will see from the story that I was not very impressed. I said in part:

None of the planning documentation that I have seen actually discusses the various demographic drivers likely to affect population outcomes, nor are there any discussions of alternative scenarios. None of the documentation looks at issues associated with changing population composition that might flow from different combinations of outcomes from the demographic variables. There is little discussion about the flow on effects of the various planning assumptions.

The difficulty in all this is that specific investment decisions based on flawed planning then create new self-fulfilling but sub-optimal outcomes.

I have been mulling all this over since, trying to look further at the underlying numbers. This has further confirmed my view that the strategies are flawed, perhaps even dangerous. But it has also raised all sorts of issues about the evolving nature of patterns and interactions within NSW.

I am in the process of writing a full story or perhaps stories about this, but in the meantime thought that I would give you a heads-up on some of my conclusions minus evidence and supporting analysis.

The Government's various coastal strategies assume that the NSW coastal strip will experience annual average population growth of 68,000 - 71 per cent of this in Sydney - over the next twenty five years. Part of this growth will come from new population, part from continued internal migration from inland NSW. The overall planning focus is on controlling and managing this projected growth.

Initially I focused on the realism of the population growth assumptions, concluding that they could well be far too high since they depended critically on assumptions about net overseas migration to NSW. Looking at all this led me to ask some new questions.

One question was the extent to which the current drift of inland population to the coast might continue. Here - and this conclusion may surprise given history and the way the recent drought colours thinking - I actually think that we are coming to the end of the drift. If anything, the flow may well be the other way over the next twenty five years.

A second question was just what the NSW population structure might look like in twenty five year's time given current trends. This led me into a broader question, diverging population structures across Australia.

Prior to mass migration, the Australian population was relatively homogeneous. There were area differences, something that I have always been interested in as a historian, but the overall pattern across the country was broadly the same.

This is no longer true.

In the case of NSW, for example, Sydney's population structure is different from much of the rest of the state in terms of age (younger), Australian born (lower) and ethnic mix (more varied with a lower proportion of Anglo-Celts). Further, these area divergences are growing and will continue to do so because of the dynamics of chain migration and child birth.

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with this. I am simply interested in the way it is creating varying geographically based sub cultures within the broader Australian culture. We can see this at city level by comparing the very European feel of Melbourne with its cafe society with Sydney's more Asian feel.

These varying population structures need to be taken into account in public policy, something that is actually difficult to do at times because we are effectively not allowed to talk about certain issues for fear of being branded as racist.

You can see the problem if you look at Neil's (Ninglun's) story on the Granville Lebanese video. Suddenly everybody is frothing at the mouth as Sydney talk back radio, the print press and the polies beat it all up. Something similar happened with Tamworth and refugees. Then look at Neil's story on the Big Day Out and the flag.

All this makes it hard to address the underling public policy issues. Well, get used to it. We cannot turn the clock back. Things such as these going to keep on happening as we work our way as a nation through the issues.

How does all this link to the NSW Government's coastal strategies?

Well, given the importance of overseas migration to the projected population growth I looked at the relationship between some of the Plan's proposals and migration patterns, asking myself where the people were to come from that would go into the new housing estates and cities, what did this mean for public policy? I may be wrong, but I think that there are some very real problems that will need to be addressed.

Just to illustrate. Of the projected increase of 1.2 million in the Sydney population over the next 25 years, between 420,000 and 480,000 are to be located in new urban developments in south-western and north-western Sydney.

For the benefit of overseas readers, the Sydney conurbation now stretches 95k (59 miles) to the south west. New developments will be fitted along this existing strip.

What type of person will go there, what will they do, where will they come from? How do we avoid the problems of isolation and social deprivation that have progressively marked so many new developments in western Sydney, made worse where the areas acquire a specific ethnic culture?

We live in interesting times.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Australian Politics Test

My thanks to Legal Eagle for drawing my attention to a fun test on the Oz Politics Blog. This gives you fifty questions to test your place on the current Australian left right political spectrum.

I found something that I had expected, that my views appeared to have shifted to the left or, alternatively, Australian views have shifter to the right. Or a bit of both.

According to the test my overall political position is centre left, I am exactly in the centre on economic policy, centre left on both social policy and traditional values. My best fit political parties are given as Democrat (77.8 per cent), Greens (67.2 per cent) and Labor (67.1 per cent).

Now those who read this blog will know that I classify my traditional politics as Country Party and therefore tend to vote National. I have in fact voted Democrat. However, I would not vote Green and struggle to vote Labor or Liberal.

All this started me mulling over two things.

The first was just what the aggregate results of the Oz Politics test showed us about Australian attitudes, accepting the limitations of the poll. There were actually some interesting things here that are worth pursuing such as the fit, or lack of it, between the best fit party as indicated by the poll as compared to the way that people actually voted.

The second thing was the nature of the changes in my own views and values over my life to this point. There have clearly been changes and quite significant ones. But I have never stood back to try to analyse these changes as a whole. Have my fundamental values changed or is it just that the way I express or apply them has changed? My feeling is that it's a bit of both.

All very introspective I know. But I find the fact that I have held certain beliefs and strongly gives me a capacity to some degree to understand and empathise with those who still hold similar views even where my own views have shifted.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Australia and its People - a funny upside down land

Photo: Australian Bush Fire Scene, Al Jazeera International Service

On Saturday night Clare (youngest) had some friends over for a sleep over. I was talking to one of boys who is just completing first year university, talking about the features that gave Australia such a distinct culture. He couldn't see it, arguing that we were too young a country to have our own distinct culture.

He then went on to talk about an overseas trip he had just been on, in so doing actually making my point for me, because his insouciant attitudes to his travel was itself very Australian. Despite all the efforts of our political leaders to get us to do otherwise, we still do not take ourselves very seriously. On the other hand, we are nearly always prepared to muck in to fix things up if that is needed.

As I write, bushfires have cut the road and rail connections between Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle. This comes on top of a series of fires in all Australia's eastern states, some of the biggest fires on record.

Our political leaders are engaged in a spat over water and the need to drought proof the country, while the small New England town of Wallabadah has suddenly had its well run dry requiring the local Council to cart water for domestic use. At the same time, parts of Central and South Australia previously in drought have just had some of the biggest rainfalls on record. So contradictions abound.

Like all people, Australians have been formed by the geography of the world in which they live.

The Australian poet Dorothea McKellar begins her poem "I Love a Sunburned Country" this way.

The love of field and coppice, of green and shaded lanes

Of ordered woods and gardens is running in your veins.

Strong love of grey-blue distance, brown streams and soft, dim skies-

I know but cannot share it, my love is otherwise.

Unlike the Australian Aborigines whose view of the Australian landscape had been formed over perhaps a thousand generations, the first Europeans found the landscape strange, alien, different.

The bright light in particular was very different, as was the smell. Many sea travellers commented on the second because they could smell the land some distance out to sea. Modern Australians say very similar things, although now the smell is caught outside the air terminal.

We can see this in some of the first European painters who presented the Australian landscape either in grandiose forms or, alternatively as in the case of John Glover (Aborigines at Brighton), somehow fitted it to English forms.

Photo: Gorge in Flood, Armidale

The second verse of the poem, one of the best known Australian verses, presents a different view.

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,

Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.

I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea,

Her beauty and her terror- the wide brown land for me!

By now the European Australian had internalised the landscape as theirs. This happened early with the currency lads and lasses, the first European children born in Australia, much later with the overseas born.

But while the landscape had been internalised for most Australian born, it was not until the last part of the nineteenth century that both art and literature provided iconic representation of the new forms that had emerged. These retain remarkable power even in today's now highly urbanised coastal hugging community.

I have written before about the Australian volunteer spirit, a post triggered by similar events.

In small dispersed communities dispersed across a sometimes harsh landscape, people needed to meet crises together to survive. They had to be collectivist and cooperative.

One of the motifs of Australia from early days has been the lost child, a motif expressed in painting, writing and song. This remains a recurring Australian fear. So the gathering of people to find a lost child remains a potent symbol. Here the story of four year old Stephen Wall somehow captures the Australian experience.

In 1960 four year old Stephen went missing in the bush near the New England town of Guyra. Over the next four days a huge search was mounted ultimately involving 5,000 volunteers and multiple aircraft.

Stephen was finally found over 12 kilometres from the start point when an Aboriginal tracker - Aboriginal trackers played major roles in many early searches - realised that the boy was actually doubling back to avoid search parties. Stephen, who had been told to avoid strangers (an early example of what we now call stranger danger), had never seen so many people in his life and was simply following his parent's instructions! Upon discovery, the boy's first words were "Where's my daddy".

Stephen's story captured the national imagination. Johnny Ashcroft's song "Little Boy Lost" went to the top of the charts, while a film was also made directed by Terry Bourke.

The continuing scale of the Australian volunteer effort is insufficiently recognised even by Australians.

We can see it and recognise it when we have something like the current Victorian bushfires where something like 10,000 volunteers have been involved in fighting the fires, some for weeks, losing income and risking life for their communities.

The scale of current fires in south eastern Australia has been such that for the first time the various state volunteer bush fire brigades have not been able to help each other, with fire fighting support brought in from Canada, New Zealand and the US. These experienced fire fighters have been used in combination with less experienced local volunteers - the group most at risk because of limited experience - to flesh out teams.

Photo: SES Volunteers on Parade, NSW

Such high visibility activities are in fact only the tip of the on-going volunteer iceberg. We can see this just by looking at the NSW State Emergency Services web site.

Like their counterparts in other states, the NSW SES is made up of volunteers helping their communities cope with emergencies. More than 10,000 volunteers give up their time in over 230 locations throughout NSW to assist their communities during floods, storms and other emergencies.

If you look at the web site, you will see that in the first three weeks of January the SES was involved in providing support to help Broken Hill cope with flash flooding and both Wagga Wagga and Nyngan cope with damage from severe storms. Today in Sydney SES volunteers have been involved in helping commuters stranded by the bush fires.

These volunteer efforts draw from and are supported by a whole network of voluntary activities at community level. I saw an interesting example of this at first hand back in the seventies.

I was then working in Canberra and living nearby in Queanbeyan and was active in community organisations. There had been torrential rain, the river was in flood, and there were real fears that the partially built Googong dam upstream might collapse, sending a wall of water into the Queanbeyan central business district. So the SES called for added support from local service clubs to try to do what we could to prepare the town for the worst.

I and my colleagues in the Queanbeyan Apex Club were part of a group working in the main street. Our immediate assignment was one of the local banks. Here we did simple things like putting chairs onto tables and, under bank supervision, moved key papers into the big bank vault. We then put grease along all the door edges to provide a measure of additional water proofing, a messy job.

There was a degree of fear in all this, we were all conscious that the dam might go and had to rely on alarm systems to get the word to us in time, but also a high degree of camaraderie.

Having finished, we were standing on the bridge looking at the rising flood waters when some bloody idiot for a joke yelled out that the dam had gone. There was panic, during which one of my friends moved out into the middle of the bridge. When I yelled to ask him what he was doing, he simply said, well, we are not going anywhere in time. So I thought that I may as well get the best view!

The volunteer system is under a degree of stress just at present. Demands have been rising, while the number of available volunteers especially in critical country areas has been diminishing because of the loss of young people. As a consequence, groups such as our volunteer bush fire brigades are getting older. Hopefully, we can work this through.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Kitlers - Cats who look like Hitler

Photo: Kitlers, Cats who look like Hitler. This post is dedicated to Lexcen, since I suspect that it will tickle his sense of humour.

My thanks to Leagle Soapbox for drawing my attention to the Kitler site. I showed it to Clare, and we both roared with laughter.

Muslims - part of the Australian Way

Neil, Ninglun, has just put up what I think is a remarkably good post - Extended comment: On the extreme ugliness of fanatics of all kinds…. The post deals in part with fanaticism, with varying views within the Muslim community, with Neil's experience in teaching Muslim students, with the need to avoid stereotyping in case we create the very things we fear.

I will add a fuller comment later because it bears upon the Australian Way, the concept of a uniquely Australian approach based on our culture and history that I have been trying to articulate on this blog. For the moment, I simply recommend the post.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Another Funny Mixed up Day

This has been another of those funny mixed up days.

Earlier this week I passed 6,000 visitors on both the Managing the Professional Services firm blog and the New England Australia blog. Then today I passed 9,000 visitors on this blog, 3,000 visitors on the Regional Living Australia blog. Not huge numbers, but still over 24,000 in total is not to be sneezed at since I only started last year.

The day began well simply because I knew that I would pass these milestones. Then it kind of tailed away simply because I was not able to achieve the things that I wanted to achieve. A pain really. But then it all came back with Jack's return.

Generation Y and People Management

During the day I read some stuff, I won't bother sourcing it, on generation y that I found profoundly depressing. I wasn't depressed about generation y as such, just the assumption that nobody over a certain age could possibly manage them because they could not understand them.

I found this profoundly disturbing at several different levels.

At level one, managing people is all about just that, managing people.

My experience has been that all people regardless of age or culture respond well to a small number of things.

Number one is fairness. Treat people fairly and they will respond well.

Number two is consistency. People like to know where they stand, what is expected of them, how you will respond to them. Do all this, and they will respond well.

Number three is courtesy. We have all seen work place bullies, and they can get short term results. But for most of us, if you treat people with courtesy they will respond well.

Number four is individuality. We are all individuals, not numbers or groups, and like to be recognised as such.

Number five is loyalty. Look after your people and they will look after you.

In all this, there will always be individual exceptions. But over the years I must have had a thousand direct reports from more than a dozen nationalities. The number who have let me down is very small.

So when I look at HR people who treat people as groups, categories, rather than individuals I get depressed.

The case of epidemiology is instructive here.

Epidemiology looks at patterns in populations as a whole. So in medicine we may look, for example, at patterns of cancer and conclude that certain types of screening may have certain public benefits across a population as a whole. However, this says nothing about the value of screening for particular individuals, the societal value lies in the aggregate impact.

When we talk about generation x, generation y or nextgen, we are are actually engaged in rather crude epidemiological analysis. This may be useful in looking at patterns of change at societal level, but actually says very little about the management of individuals as individuals or small groups. Its application to people management can in fact be quite dangerous.


I also get depressed at the implicit ageism in the discussion.

At any time, you want to (or should want to) appoint the best person to the job regardless of whether they are 22 or 62. Once you conclude that any age group cannot do a job simply because of age, then you have already moved away from the idea of promotion on individual merit.

Here organisational thinking - public and private - is lagging behind social change at a number of different levels. But I think that further comment here should wait until another post because of the size of the topic!

On Choice, Family Roles and Gender

On a linked question, I have been thinking about issues associated with choice, gender and family roles. This topic, itself mildly depressing at times, is presently a hot one or, at least, a popular one measured by it current prominence on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

The Legal Soapbox had a heartfelt post here entitled "Motherhood and career - what is the answer" on the problem of choice between these two. She concluded: "Perhaps we should look even further outside the square and give women even more of a choice."

I think that she is right, although as someone who has had the primary child care role in recent years I would make it less gender specific, recognising that women do face specific problems because of child birth.

Driven in part by my own personal experience, as well as my musings about my daughters, I think that we need to look at giving people more help in planning and managing their career over a more complicated working life.

Everything at the moment is bitsy and disconnected. Worse, the way our systems - at least in Australia - are evolving acts to reduce flexibility. One example on both, just to make the point.

As with many countries, Australia faces a demographic problem because of an aging population, a problem that is going to bite progressively harder over the next thirty years. To manage this, we want to increase the birth rate and the also the participation rate. By participation rate I simply mean the proportion of the population in the work force.

There is a fundamental conflict between these two. More babies, lower participation. Higher participation, fewer babies. This conflict needs to be managed in some coherent way.

Education and training is an example of the second, reduced flexibility.

In an earlier post - Australia's Universities - a personal Mea Culpa - I spoke of the economic underpinnings of the current education fees and funding arrangements. Essentially, the HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme) fee was intended to capture part of the income benefit flowing to the individual from higher education, while the Government subsidy reflected the broader economic benefit flowing to the economy. I also suggested that these two were now out of kilter, meaning fewer students than we really needed.

In this discussion, I did not address the age question. Quite simply, the older you are, the less the potential economic benefit you get from further education simply because of a shorter remaining working life. So as the costs, direct and indirect, of university education have increased, the proportion of older people studying has declined. The outcome is reduced flexibility.

I will give a second, smaller, but important example.

The Howard Government has replaced the old CES (Commonwealth Employment Service) with the Job Network. Government policy here has a particular stated policy focus on the longer term unemployed. This is praiseworthy. But did you know that access to Job Network consultants is restricted to those on benefits? That is, it is really designed to get people off benefits.

Because the income level for benefits is so low, this restriction effectively rules out a very significant proportion of the population. It bites hardest for older long term middle class unemployed since this group is most likely to have a partner working. This group is also often the one in most need of help given current job market structures.

In all this, there is in fact a simple mechanism that can be used to analyse and integrate public policy responses, although I have not seen it used. That mechanism is the individual and family life cycle. The process involved is simple:

1. Prepare two flow charts, one setting out the individual life cycle, the second the family life cycle.

2. Link existing policies and programs to those two flow charts.

3. Then look for conflicts and gaps.

Return of Jack

In the midst of all these sometimes depressing musings there was a major plus.

Jack is our original and favourite cat. I don't have a photo, but will get one and put it up on the blog. He is a lovely boy in terms of personality and appearance. He is also a wanderer.

Last year he vanished for weeks, finally to be found (he is micro-chipped) in a pound no less than 6k from here. He came back and then vanished again. Yesterday the local vet rang us to say that he had been brought in. He had adopted a nearby (three blocks away) family who wanted to keep him, but were also concerned about ownership. Now he is back.

He may well wander again. But it's nice to have him home. The only problem is that there is now another family (there may well be more) in love with him too. So we may have to share!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Community Creativity and Development - update

Community development has been one of my long standing interest both as a sometimes community activist and in terms of the processes involved. Why do some communities develop, others stagnate?

Reflecting this, early in this history of this blog I began a series of posts on community development and creativity:

At this stage, as so often happens, I got side-tracked. However, I was reminded of the need to do a stocktake by an update I have just done on a story on the Regional Living Australia blog.

The story is about the Birds of Bradley Street, a rather remarkable group of women who have helped transform the New England town of Guyra. It's a good case study on the impact individuals can have at community level.

UAI Offers Released - a personal note

Well, the first round UAI offers are out. I have still to look at the details, but I can report one pleasing thing. Eldest (Helen) has been offered the place she wanted.

Helen's decision to move universities and courses and the issues that raised was the trigger for my latest round of posts on the NSW HSC and the UAI. We were all worried that the move might not be possible. Now we can relax.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Musings - UAI offers, Tamworth and refugees

I have noticed a real spike in traffic on this blog in the last few days. When I look at the details, this has come from two topics.

The first is people doing searches on topics relating to the NSW Higher School Certificate or the UAI. I think that this simply reflects the fact that first round offers for NSW and ACT universities will become available from 9 oclock tonight.

Based on news reports, there are 3,000 more places being offered this year, but 10,000 students who want to go to university will still miss out on Government funded places. That's a fair size number. So parents are worried. This includes us, since Helen has applied for a new course at a new university. She would have got in last year with her then UAI ranking. This year who knows.

Looking at the pattern of searches, parents obviously remain confused. One of the difficulties here appears to be that there is no single site that supplies all the information in simple terms that concerned parents need. Certainly I have found this. Given that youngest (Clare) is doing the HSC this year, maybe one thing that I should do later in the year is to put up some straight information material with supporting links written from a parent perspective.

On youngest, Clare is not well today, spending the entire day lying down on the coach.

Tamworth and refugees is the second traffic spike. Part of this has come from search engines, part from redirects from Ninglun's site, and especially from his Jim Belshaw on Tamworth story. I have watched this post climb up the most visited rankings on Neil's site, again reflecting interest.

The fact that Tamworth Council has changed directions has now been well reported. I will comment, but I am also forming the view that we are missing the real story.

I like to provide a different perspective. When I began reporting on Tamworth, I tried to draw out some of the issues from both a Tamworth and process perspective. Yes, I was critical, but I also tried to avoid stereotypes.

Out of all this has come my view that we are missing a most remarkable story.

The Australian Government has been saying for some time that Australia remains a world leader in accepting refugees. Often, this claim is made in the context of debates over things like our detention policy, so the facts tend to get submerged. Further, the way we organise our statistics makes it difficult to get accurate numbers.

So let's put numbers aside and look at what we (I) learned from the Tamworth case.

1. Recognising that the official statistics are biased because of the way we classify refugees, in the last financial year we appear to have accepted around 17,000 refugees for permanent settlement, over half from trouble spots in Africa including Sudan.

2. The African refugees are very different from those we have accepted in the past. They look different, have less education and in many cases have been severely traumatised. This was one of the points made by Tamworth City Council.

3. We have an official program for settling these refugees in specific communities. This may have weaknesses, another Tamworth point, but dozens of communities (especially it seems in Regional Australia) have agreed to participate. For those who do not know Regional Australia, because most migrants go the capital cities the ethnic mix in Regional Australia is much less varied. So these communities are accepting people who are very different from those already living there.

4. When the Tamworth imbroglio broke, many of these communities who had accepted Sudanese refugees came to the defence of their people. I am not saying that things are perfect, simply that things seem to be working.

So why don't we promote the things that are working? This, or so it seems to me, is the real story.

Here I must admit to a prejudice that those who read my blogs can infer.

I know country Australia pretty well. I know that country people including those in the regional centres have prejudices. However, country people with their sense of community have something that I fear has been lost by many metro Australians. They can distinguish between their general prejudices and their responses to individuals.

A country person may be prejudiced against a specific group and may express those views in both private and public conversation in a way no longer acceptable in the more politically correct metro centres. But a country person also has the capacity to decide that a particular individual, family or group is okay because of their contribution to the community. This capacity, once and maybe still a mainstream Australian capacity, is the reason why Australia was able to accept so many migrants after the second world war.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Armidale: Death of Mark Hutchinson

I haven't said anything about the awful and bizarre death of Mark Hutchinson whose decapitated body was found in the backyard of his Armidale home because I haven't known what to say. I also wasn't sure about the exact family connections.

A gentle man who was a gunner during the second world war and then played an active role in community activities including Legacy upon his return to Australia, Mark was 82 when he died. My thoughts are with Mark's cousin Peter and other members of the family as well as the locals who have been so directly affected.

I hope that the matter is resolved quickly.

So that's what a "burqini" looks like!

Photo: The two piece "burqini", Sydney Morning Herald, 16 January 2006

I have been wondering just what this "burqini" was that people were referring to in the context of the muslim Lebanese kids training to become lifesavers. Now I know thanks to an interesting story in the SMH.

As the paper says, the full-length lycra suit with hijab head-covering is not too figure hugging to embarrass, but is tight enough to allow its wearer to swim freely. It will soon be manufactured in the iconic red and yellow of Australia's surf life saving movement.

For the benefit of international readers, the Australian life saving movement has almost iconic status in Australia because of its very long standing role in protecting swimmers at our beaches. Originally a male bastion, the movement has admitted a rapidly increasing number of women in recent years.

When trouble broke out at the Sydney beach side suburb of Cronulla between locals and muslim Lebanese from western Sydney who liked visiting Cronulla, involvement of the Lebanese- boys and girls - in the the life saving movement was seen as one way of overcoming tribal divides. But this had to be done in a way that fitted mores on both sides.

I must say that it the "burqini"strikes me as the perfect work-around, especially once it goes into life saving colours because then, in a little while, it will become a feature of the beach.

The "burqini" may well be a useful costume, too, for all Australian girls with sensitive skins.

Education, Measurement and Performance - an aide memoire

An interesting radio discussion triggered a number of thoughts that I wanted to get down for later reflection.

A World Economic Forum report has apparently ranked Australia just number 29 in the world when it comes to science and maths education. This is apparently a bad performance but one needs to know the basis of the ranking to really comment.

A science teacher at a Queensland high school - public, non-selective with a feeder area including areas with significant disadvantage, around 40 in the final year science class - has apparently had no less that 13 students who have apparently subsequently achieved an award under the Australian Government's Eureka Science awards. This is an astonishing result by any standard.

Helen's reaction (Helen's old school has about the same number of final year science students but without this scale of later success) was that after the first few awards this might become self reinforcing through attraction of new students.

This seemed plausible but does not appear to be the case. The method of teaching itself as well as the enthusiasm of the individual teacher is obviously important. However, a key reason also appears to be the fact that the Queensland education system itself is more flexible - there were things here that I had not known - giving teachers greater freedom in the way they taught as compared to NSW with its HSC exam obsession.

All this comes back to what has become one of the most important things that I have been trying to explore - and not just in education - the way in which in standards based approaches what we measure affects, can distort, the thing we are trying to measure.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Tamworth and Refugees - follow up note

Photo: Tony Windsor (Independent, New England)

A brief follow up to my previous stories on the Tamworth Refugee imbroglio.

I have listed previous posts at the end of this post.Tamworth Regional Council is to reconsider this matter tomorrow. I will report on the outcome, although the news media will probably beat me in this case given the interest.

In the meantime, I see from the Northern Daily Leader (14 January) that Federal Member Tony Windsor has provided the Council with the sensible advice that if, as has been suggested several times, Council is concerned about weaknesses in the Refugee Resettlement Program then they should discuss this with the Immigration Department. I must say that this took me by surprise in that I had assumed that this would have been done as a matter of course.

Tony Windsor also made the interesting point that there was nothing to stop a community group taking up the program, that Council could not stop this and indeed had only become involved in the matter in the first place as a facilitator.

If this is true, it makes the whole thing even stranger.

A little later

I see the planned Council meeting has, as expected, become a major national news item although transcripts of the Australian Broadcasting Commission's 7.30 report stories are not yet available.It looks as though, as I had feared, the political dynamics involved have entrenched positions.

One interesting side issue in all this that I had forgotten is that Tamworth Regional Council is just that, a regional council formed out of the amalgamation of a number of local government areas. I do not know the break-up of Council numbers, on population terms Tamworth City will dominate, but at least one of the Councilors involved from the no side is not from Tamworth at all.

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