Friday, November 30, 2007

Internet to crash in 2010?

Interesting if slightly hyped article during the week in IT Wire on the immediate future of the internet. The article includes a link through to the original research.

A new report from the Nemertes Research Group has studied the Internet’s infrastructure and analyzed usage patterns to predict that Internet usage by consumers and corporations could ‘outstrip network capacity’ worldwide in just over two years. The report estimates that an additional global investment of around $US137 billion is required to maintain current standards.

In the absence of this additional spend traffic will outrun capacity, leading to rolling brown-outs marked by slow or interrupted traffic.

This type of forecast is not new. Over the last ten or fifteen years, there have been recurring warnings that traffic was outrunning capacity. So far, new investment has always come in time to address the problem. However, this time there could well be a problem.

On the demand side, we have increasing use of bandwidth hungry applications such as video along with an expansion in the number of users globally. I haven't looked at the numbers, but I would guess that between them India and China each year add a block of demand at least equivalent to an Australia in size.

On the supply side, investment depends upon the combined effect of decisions made by a large number of independent players servicing different sub-markets. So it would be possible for demand and supply to get out of kilter.

While the effects of rolling brown-outs would be annoying at individual level, the real damage would arise at business level because of the increasing number of internet based business processes.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Changing Times in Australia

I am not sure that I can put what I want to say in sensible, structured, terms. Consider this a little like a painting, abstract, impressionist.

To begin by picking up two points I have made in recent posts.

Point one. Because of the accidents of life, I now longer have access to the range of views across Australia that I used too. This means, simply, that I am not able to cross-check the views of one group against another.

Point two. I have made the point a number of times that on all the evidence I have Australia has come to another change point in social attitudes. I have also cautioned that at a time of change no group should assume that their views, however self-evidently right, will be the accepted view in ten year's time.

The current cusp point in politics is an example of the change process at work.

Compare Mr Rudd and Dr Nelson, the new leader of the Liberal Party.

Had the Liberals voted for Mr Turnbull, they would to my mind have clearly voted for someone in the mainstream of metro Australia. Someone like Mr Rudd in fact who, while less conservative than Mr Rudd on social issues, would fight him on the same ground. Instead, they went for Dr Nelson.

Now Dr Nelson is, I think, to the left of Mr Rudd and even Mr Turnbull on social issues. He is certainly to the left of Mr Turnbull and Mr Rudd on many economic issues, especially those related to the distribution of economic gains. Of itself, this is strange.

But then, on certain issues, Dr Nelson is to the right of both Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull. Dr Nelson's very careful articulation of the position on "sorry" is an example. Yes, he is trying to unify the party, but the differences are more than than that.

As I read him, Dr Nelson simply does not accept certain conventional views. While passionate about Aboriginal disadvantage, he speaks of the importance of symbolism and appears to strongly reject certain view sets.

Now factor in the Greens and the Nats.

As I suggested a while ago, the Greens have probably peaked. Their core environmental views are now mainstream, leaving them as a left of centre party on other issues. Here they appeal to a limited spectrum of voters in certain areas. However, they will remain important in preference terms.

Because of demographic change, the Nats will have to move to the left.

I am sure that they will remain conservative on certain social issues because the regional vote is so split. Beyond that, I think that there will be major changes.

The Nats real enemy in their territory used to be the Liberal party. Now the major threats are independents on one side, Labor on the other. If the Nats can hold the line against these two, then they can beat the Libs.

So how will all this play out? The short answer is I do not know. I just know that it will be different.

To illustrate, take the Nats and the Greens. I would not be surprised if, ten years out, these two parties come to see themselves as natural allies!

Whichever way all this goes, I am going to watch with fascination.


I have been fascinated by the media responses to Dr Nelson. Some present him as a leader gaining position because he represents the old guard. Others have focused on his previous labor Party affiliations. Still others just seem confused.

I think that the point about Mr Turnbull, Management Man, is that with him you knew what you were going to get. Dr Nelson introduces a nice degree of uncertainty.

I have met Dr Nelson. I did not expect him to be elected. Now that he has been, I am going to watch with great interest.

Postcript 2

Having now watched Dr Nelson at a number of press conferences, I reserve the right to change my assessment of him!

The Head's New Team - Mr Rudd announces his new ministry

I managed to get a fair bit of the ABC video stream announcement by Mr Rudd on the new ministry.

We won't know the exact delineation of the boundary lines between the portfolios until the Administrative Orders come out, presumably next week. In the meantime, I thought that I might make a few comments on some of the portfolios I am most interested in, pointing to the things that I think are most significant.

In Canberra speak, the central coordinating agencies are those with cross service responsibility.

Here we start with Mr Rudd's Department, Prime Minister and Cabinet. In addition to Mr Rudd we have, presumably, John Faulkner as Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary. Now a ministerial level Cabinet secretary position is new, so I do not yet know how this will fit in.

Mr Rudd is also supported by Anthony Byrne as Parliamentary Secretary to the PM plus Maxine McKew as Parliamentary Secretary to the PM with responsibility also for early childhood and childcare. These responsibilities seem to belong to other portfolios. This cross-linking appears elsewhere, suggesting that Mr Rudd is seeking to introduce a matrix management system.

Then we have Treasury (Mr Swan) and Finance (Lindsay Tanner).

Treasury Secretary Ken Henry has already established a reputation for independence. Now Mr Rudd says that Treasury has been underutilized and he wants the Department to play an active role in new microeconomic reform.

This will sound like manna from heaven to the Department. The key issue in my mind is the capacity of the Department to distinguish between microeconomic reform and its traditional nay-saying role. I will expand on this at a later point.

Julia Gillard gets a new super-portfolio of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. This combines Education and Industrial Relations. In the short term, workplace relations is likely to dominate.In the slightly longer term, Ms Gillard has to deliver on Mr Rudd's education revolution.

The social policy area is one of the potential winners out of the changes.

Mr Rudd's language was interesting here. He spoke about his social policy team. He also referred specifically to housing and homelessness.

The key minister is Jenny Macklin as Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. She is supported by Joseph Ludwig as Minister for Human Services and Tanya Plibersek as Minister for Housing and the Status of Women. I suspect that Bill Shorten as Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children Services may also fit here.

I am hopeful that we will be able to get some new policy approaches in this area.

One appointment that surprised me was that of Anthony Albanese to Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, supported by Gary Gray as Parliamentary Secretary Infrastructure - Northern and Regional Australia.

This is a key portfolio for those living outside the metros. I have not met Mr Albanese, only heard or seen him. Accepting that he has had to play a Labor hard man role in previous statements, I find it hard to see him appealing to regional people without a major change in language and style.

At a personal level, I was very interested in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry because my wife, Denise North, is on the Board of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, so is likely to have some contact with the new minister. Here the appointment was Tony Burke.

As a former senior official with the Commonwealth Industry Department, I was also especially interested in the industry and communications portfolios.

The industry function has been regrouped, combining Innovation, Industry, Science and Research under Kim Carr. I think that this is a good combination, somewhat equivalent to the old department before the rolling changes.

Communications has become Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy under Stephen Conroy. I suspect that some of my old colleagues are going to be quite pleased with this change.

As so often happens, I have to cook tea so will stop here with the changes only half done. I will pick some of them up at a later point.


For those interested, you can find a full list of of positions here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mr Rudd - the Head strikes again for the homeless

Mr Rudd has asked all ALP parliamentarians to visit a homeless shelter. I approve.

They will find that there are not enough beds for homeless people. They will also find that the answer does not lie in more beds as such.

Many homeless people have multiple problems. They need crisis accommodation. They then need transitional accommodation. After that, they need longer term accommodation.

Through this, they need a variety of support.

There will always be people who cannot be helped. But there are many more who can be.

Australian Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey 2006

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has just released (press release here, summary here) its 2006 survey of adult literacy and life skills.

Australians will hear a fair bit tonight, will read a fair bit tomorrow, because of the headline grabbing number that 46% of adult Australians did not have the prose literacy skills required to meet the complex demands of everyday living and life. Now before one concludes that this is a disastrous failure, internationally Australia ranks in the middle across the different types of literacy with results closely aligned with those of Canada.

A number of things stood out to me from the results. Before commenting, a definitional note.

In the period after Sir Henry Parkes established the NSW public education system, the one I have written on most, literacy was defined as the capacity to write a postcard or short letter. Then there were far more unskilled and skilled jobs where literacy was not a core requirement. So definitions and the working life linked to those definitions have changed over time.

When I look at the numbers, a clear majority of those unemployed or not in the workforce score in the lowest band across every dimension measured. Now at one level this should not be surprising, because there is a clear correlation between education and the capacity to get work. At the same time, the results are another social indicator suggesting the growing presence of social deprivation in Australia.

The conventional response to this is to increase education. By all manner of means do this. However, the problem here is that there is a proportion of the population who are always going to struggle. An alternative is to look at ways of redefining jobs to reduce the educational component.

This may sound a strange solution. But there are in fact a fair number of actual or potential jobs that do not require the capacity to be literate at the degree we now demand.

A second thing stands out when I look at the numbers. Those in the 15 to 19 age cohort had lower levels of literacy than the 20 to 24 year age cohort and by a reasonable margin.


Neil Whitfield has a put up a longer post on this one.

A brief amplification on my point re jobs.

I have been concerned for a while about creeping credentialism that attaches qualifications to positions that are really not required. This actually blocks people from getting jobs.

Further, a large proportion of learning is informal, learning by doing, learning on the job. Past a certain point, attempts to formalise, to substitute formal for informal learning, can actually impede the learning process itself.

I also feel that, to some degree at least, our pursuit of efficiency and productivity has led to the abolition of certain jobs especially in the public sector that in some ways have degraded the quality of our life. Here I am not talking about make-work, but really the way in which jobs and the results from those jobs have been measured.

I don't want to argue these points now. However, I did feel the need to amplify a little because, on re-reading my post, I became concerned that it might be misread in part as some form of intellectual snobbery,

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mr Rudd - the Head or Headmaster

I have just been watching Mr Rudd on TV. He seemed very familiar in style. I have now worked out why.

Mr Rudd bears a striking resemblance to some of the old style headmasters that I have known! And we are all his recalcitrant pupils!

Changing Government in Australia - an international primer

Since the Australian blogosphere seems to have dissolved into an orgy of self-congratulation on one side, bitter thoughts on the other, I was not going to say anything more on political issues until the air cleared. Then I thought that some of the writing I have seen must seem very strange to anyone who does not know Australia.

I then thought that one useful thing that I might do is to provide some brief comments on the processes involved in changing Government. This has in fact been quite well covered in the Australian media, but may be of interest to those outside Australia, especially those from non-Westminster tradition countries. Australia is not like the West Wing.

Three things are key in the Australian tradition.

The first is that Government must go on.

Sounds self-evident I know, but during an election campaign things stop. Often they really stop a fair bit earlier, months ago in the case of the Howard Government. Things still go on, the Northern Territory intervention is a case in point, but much of the ordinary business of state starts to wind down.

All this means that any new Government comes into office with a backlog of things that need to be done, plus all the new things like the Bali conference on climate change that have to be actioned quickly. The rest of the world does not stop just because Australia is having an election.

The second key thing to note is that Australia is a Westminster country. Unlike the US, for example, where the very top officials like the Secretary of our State are appointed, in Australia they are selected from those elected to Parliament - the Ministers of the Crown including the PM.

This links to the third point, the presence of a public, or civil service to use the UK phrase, whose core role is to serve the Government elected by the people regardless of party. Despite the partial politicisation of the service, this remains true.

Once the election is announced, Government goes into caretaker mode. During this period, only routine matters can be dealt with. Any other matter must be resolved in conjunction with the opposition.

The public service is not inactive during this period.

Two sets of briefing must be prepared. One, far more voluminous, is for the opposition in the event that they should become Government. The second, slimmer, version is for the Government should it be returned.

In total, this briefing material runs to tens of thousands of pages.

Part of it is machinery. What needs to be done, how it needs to be done, covering every aspect of the establishment of a new Government.

Part of it is for immediate decision. Mr Rudd wants to ratify Kyoto and go to Bali. How might this be done? What is involved? Here there is a mixture of machinery and policy.

Then there is all the immediate material that the new Government and especially the leadership needs to know. What is the state of the budget? What things need to be taken into account?

Beyond this is all the material on individual portfolios ready for the ministers once selected. This includes initial suggestions on ways to activate new policies.

Problems can arise in this process.

Some public servants may want to defend the status quo. Some of the incoming ministers and their advisers may be very suspicious and want to preserve their cherished ideas at all costs. A public service may become so politicised as to be ineffective. Yet the reality is that any new Government in the Australian system depends on its public service to get things done.

I think that Mr Rudd has learned this.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Horrors of Tidying Up

When at home I work from a small back office, really just an extension of the kitchen. Since I do most of the cooking, office plus kitchen are my work areas. And what a mess it has all become!

I have therefore been forced to do some tidying up, something that I have been putting off for a very long time. The trigger was not just the realisation that I could not find things. More importantly, it had got to the stage that I simply could not do things properly. In fact, at all.

The cats have become an added problem. They regard any pile of papers as something to sit on or, worse, to play with. This gives rise to a constant cascade effect. The dear animals also moult everywhere.

Of all the places they like, my desk is their favourite. Preferably just in front of the monitor. Or on the mouse pad. So I am constantly trying to move them.

Ah well, back to it.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

New Directions - and thoughts for the Nationals

Yesterday was an interesting day. I for one did feel a sense of relief that the long campaign was over. It created a kind of a lock-step so far as thought was concerned. Now we can all move on.

Before doing so, I need to do some final updating on the election eve post I was doing on the New England Australia blog. Later I will do some tidy up posts, including material that I did not have time to write before.

Looking at the results, Mr Brough lost his seat, something I regret, yet Mr Turnbull retained his.

The interesting thing about the easy Turnbull victory is that it was so unexpected. In retrospect, I certainly failed to take properly into account the impact of Peter King's run last time. I should have.

In somewhat similar vein, I did not pick the swing against the Nationals in Queensland. I should have because I have some knowledge of the state's changing demography.

Take Flynn. Extending across 314,305 in the centre of the state, it includes the industrial city of Gladstone on the coast and the towns of Monto, Gayndah, Wandoan, Biloela and Moura. It then stretches west from Blackwater along the Capricornia and Landsborough Highways to include Emerald, Barcaldine, Longreach and Winton. This is an area of rapid growth with coal and industry.

Without having checked all the details, Labor in fact did very well across central and northern Queensland.

Nationally, while the Nationals retained their overall vote, the Party lost three seats - Page in Northern New South Wales, Dawson and Flynn in Queensland. The Party did in fact do a little better than I expected in Northern NSW, retaining Cowper. It also picked up Calare elsewhere in the state. Even so, its ten House of Representative seats is the lowest number since the Party's formation.

I felt a little sorry for Mark Vaile during the election campaign. He simply could not get any traction or visibility. I think that this is in part a problem of modern presidential style campaigning. However, I also think that the Party and leadership team got locked in far too tightly as a subservient junior party. One could be forgiven for thinking that Mr Costello was in fact Deputy PM. I think that Barnaby Joyce received greater publicity than Mr Vaile.

I think that the Party needs a new approach, one based solidly on the combination of changing demographics with elements in the Party's history.

Some of the commentators are already calling this the revenge of the "New Australia". Looking at the seat patterns across the board there is some truth in this. However, when you look at the details across the nation it is, at best, a partial truth and a potentially misleading one.

Others, those who have been the most vociferous defenders of the Howard approach, appear to be suffering from the bitterness of rejection. To my mind, they actually bear a significant share of the responsibility for locking in a mind set that became increasingly at variance with views in the broader community.

A number of the commentators appear to feel that the Liberal and National Party lacking any power base across the country will now enter a period of further decline.

I think that there is some truth in this, especially at Federal level. The Liberal Party and its predecessors have always displayed a measure of instability when out of office. With his current majority and degree of popular support, Mr Rudd is likely to be in power for a number of terms.

The position is very different at state level. Here the loss of the Howard Government provides an opportunity, a chance to dislodge Labor state administrations.

For the National Party, this defeat has created a very real opportunity to break out of a cycle of decline, to rebuild. This will not be easy.

In Queensland, for example, we can expect further pressures to merge Liberals and Nationals. There is, again, a historical pattern here. The problem is that failure + failure = failure. The decline in the Nationals membership base - this Party once had the largest membership base of any party in Australia - and the aging of its base create further problems.

There is, I think, a fear in the Party and among some of its supporter base that division means defeat, that the coalition must be maintained at all costs. And this from a Party that used to allow more than one candidate to run in the same electorate, both with Party endorsement!

The obsession with coalition and unity misses a key point. Previous leaders of the Federal Party - Page, Fadden, McEwen, Anthony - knew that success in coalition requires strength. Here Mark Vaile has been the most invisible leader in the Party's Federal history.

The National Party is both a regional party and a party of and for the regions. That was true at the time of the Party's formation and remains true today. To my mind, the need for effective country or regional representation is as great today as it was in the early 1920s. The Party knows this, but appears to have lost the capacity to articulate it properly.

The original Country Party was not a conservative party, nor did it see itself as just the country wing of the "conservative" forces. The Party contained a mix of views from radical populist to conservative country grazing interests. This mix varied greatly from region to region. Often conservative on social issues, this was also a Party that had the capacity to force change.

As with other parties, there was a desire for change and new directions in the 1970s. In the Country Party, this desire for change also reflected changing demographic realities, the decline in the traditional voter base, the rise of new forces.

The Party failed to meet these challenges. It is easy to be wise in retrospect, but the desire among some in the Party and especially in Queensland to become the dominant non-Labor Party put the Party on a trajectory that was bound to fail. In the midst of this, the Party lost sight of its core base.

The Party faced another challenge, one linked to the professionalisation of politics. Here I will speak of the NSW Party, the one that I knew best.

The NSW Country/National Country Party was like no other NSW party. The membership base - over 30,000 - was central. This supported a huge branch structure. While individual branches rose and fell, the Party was very strong at electorate council level.

Each election provided an opportunity to refresh the membership. This included building in new areas. When I decided to run for pre-selection in Eden-Monaro, a seat that the Party had not contested since the 1940s, there were just 33 members in the Queanbeyan-Canberra area.

Most of these were old bank-order members, some still formally paying the old guinea membership now expressed in decimal currency terms. By the time I dropped out a few years later there were over 600 members in the Queanbeyan-Canberra area.

During the second half of the seventies and the eighties I saw the professionalisation of the Party erode the membership. This was not unique to the Party, but was especially important for this Party.

The process was a bit like a death of a thousand cuts, each made for the best of professional reasons.

As a simple example, because the membership based pre-selection system sometimes threw up candidates who, in the judgement of Head Office, were not the best candidate to win the seat, the system was changed to give Head office more control.

All very professional and modern, select the best candidate. Who could argue with that? Yet the reality is that the old style pre-selection process in which candidates moved around the electorate in convoy seeking branch nominations was absolutely critical to the Party along two dimensions.

The first was that the pre-selection process itself was a critical marketing device. Unlike the modern Australian system where campaigns begin once the candidate is selected, the Country Party pre-selection process was very like an American primary.

It attracted constant media publicity - in one year I actually generated the largest volume of stories on ABC local radio Canberra from any source; that year I got a Xmas card signed by everyone in the ABC local newsroom.

People became involved in the campaign. By the time the candidate was selected every one in the electorate at least knew the name of the candidate.

Equally importantly, the process generated membership. Forget the modern obsession with branch stacking. Country party candidates were expected to recruit members. A lot would drop out, but each campaign left a core of new members.

Head Office, focused on trying to get a winning candidate, changed the process to reduce branch control. Because the pre-selection process itself was strategically important to the Party, this was actually quite disastrous in the longer term.

This has become quite a long post. I will continue later.


I see that Mark Vaile has decided to stand down as Nationals leader. He has also rejected the suggestion from Mr Tuckey that the Liberals and Nationals should merge.

For a delirious moment on Saturday night I thought that Phil Gardiner, the Nationals candidate in O'Connor, was going to get in front of the ALP candidate and then take the seat from Mr Tuckey on ALP preferences. Ah well, one can dream.

I will write some more on the challenge facing the Nationals. Perhaps better to let the dust settle first.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Saturday Morning Musings - Election Day

It is still raining lightly as I write. The drought is slowly breaking across Eastern Australia, although the change is still patchy. Perhaps Mr Rudd will be credited with this, should it continue!

Election day 2007. This will be a busy day for my family, a little less so for me.

I have to wake eldest up in ten minutes. She is working this year for the Australian Electoral Commission at one of the polling stations for some extra money. So she has to be there at seven and will remain there until the end of counting tonight. She is going to be a very tired girl indeed, since she was working at a nearby pub last night and did not get home until after 3.

My wife also has to be up early. She will be handing out how to vote cards for the ALP during the day and then will act as a scrutineer during the count. There is the usual celebration for the party workers after that.

Youngest has been in Byron Bay for schoolies. I have to pick her up from the airport at 4, then get her to a polling station so that she can vote for the first time.

I think I know pretty well how everybody will vote, but that is their business. For my part, I remain a swinging voter. Because of the decline in the Democrats I do not have a Democrat in the lower house, although the Party still has a Senate ticket.

I am going to miss the Democrats. In combination with the Nats and indeed independents, they have provided something of a natural home for me. To those who know Australia this may sound a funny combination, but it just reflects my history and strangely mixed views.

I have always been against the metro domination of Australian life, distrustful of the big party machines, hence my support for independents and Country Party/Nats. In fact, I still describe my personal politics as Country Party.

At the same time, I tend to be small l liberal in a lot of my views and support the role of the Senate in providing a check to the power of Executive Government, hence my liking for the Democrats.

I have also found it easier to vote for the Democrats because they have been a pluralist party prepared to look at issues on their merits. Here I really struggle with the concept of the Greens as a meaningful balance of power in the Senate because I find them so one-dimensional.


I have just dropped Helen of at the Clovelly Surf Club. This is a small booth that services both Wentworth (sitting member Malcolm Turnbull) and Kingsford Smith (sitting member Peter Garrett). What a lovely spot to do booth duty.

I am going to take a break from this post. I have been trying to put up details of the eleven New England seats on the New England blog because I thought that it might be of interest to fellow New England expats. I grossly underestimated the amount of time required, so should continue.

I will continue this post a little later.

Update 8.04 am

There is a traditional Australian phase, vote early and vote often. I don't know about vote often, but vote early seems true.

Wife just rang. She is on the St Joseph's booth in Kingsford Smith. No less than fifty people were lined up to vote when the booth opened at 8. Four seats up on the New England blog, seven to go!

Update 9.10am

Wife just back to pick up Kevin07 sticker. Apparently no indecision at St Joseph's. People are just going straight to party of choice, ignoring other how to votes.

Having now put up two more seats on the New England Blog, printed off the candidates for Kingsford Smith and the NSW Senate.

Not a great deal of choice in Kingsford Smith - Socialist Equality Party, Greens, Labor, Christian Democrats, Liberal.

The advantage of a first preference vote for a minority candidate who cannot win is that, for those who believe in pluralism, under our public funding rules a tiny bit of cash flows to the candidate you voted for without affecting the overall outcome.

So, as I did in the State elections, I have decided to vote for the Socialist Equality Party. Now there is rather a large tad of a difference between their platform and my views, but I do like the idea of a left party still nibbling away. My second and real preference I will keep to myself.

The Senate is both easier and more difficult.

For the benefit of international readers, candidates in the Senate are elected on a proportional system. You can vote above or below the line.

If you vote above the line, then your preferences are distributed according to the party's how to vote card. I strongly object to this because the parties work out all sorts of preference deals.

You can avoid this by voting below the line. This makes your vote really count. But to do this and record a valid vote, you must number every square, 79 in NSW, in order. If you make a mistake, your vote is invalid.

So I have decided to do this.

I am going to vote Democrat first. Now, if by some fluke the Democrat vote is higher than I expect and a Democrat gets elected, that vote will count and exhaust. I would be happy with this.

Then I am going to vote National.

The National and Liberal Parties have a combined senate ticket. The first National candidate will get in, so I am not going to vote here. My next preference will go to the National candidate who is fourth on the combined ticket.

If my vote were to count, I would be happy with this. However, this candidate will get knocked out and have his preferences distributed. In this event, my vote flows on. Now here I go to Patrice Newell and the Climate Change Coalition. I really would not mind seeing Patrice in parliament.

Confused by now? So am I. But I do love the complexity and sometimes unexpected outcomes of Upper House voting.

Update 1.26pm

Well, I have voted. Did I vote the way that I said? Who knows! As a swinging voter, I reserve the right to change my mind!

Seriously, the very small voting booths make it difficult to handle something as large as a Senate voting paper where you cannot spread it flat, but have to look backward and forwards.

I went first to St Joseph's. Big queue. So after chatting to wife, went to Rainbow Street instead. Big mistake. Bigger queue! This really made me wonder. Has the Electoral Commission changed the process in some way? This time at Rainbow Street they forced us to queue before entering. Don't know.

On the New England blog where I am still getting seats up, a query from bindieye. If that's where Cowper is, where is Page and Richmond? Ouch. Progress will be made.

If you want to chat as we go along during the day, do leave a comment! This post is likely to roll on for many hours yet.

Update 5.20pm

I still haven't finished the seats post! This is becoming ridiculous.

Just back from picking youngest up from schoolies. Then I took her to Clovelly to deliver something to Helen. There Clare voted for the first time.

Fooled me, she did, by splitting her vote and in the opposite way that I would have expected. Her reasons were very rational, but would not provide comfort to one of the political parties that might have expected her vote. Then to St Joseph's booth so she could see her mum. Then home.

The limited picture I have picked up from all the booths appears the same. People know how they are going to vote. It is very hard, obviously, to draw any conclusions, but the picture is not inconsistent with a major Labor win.

Now to finish the seat material.

Update 6 pm

Well, the polls have closed. I stand by my forecast of a Labor win between 10 and 20.

Update 7.40 pm

At this point in the count the swing is a little less than expected, but it does look as though Mr Howard will lose his seat. The ALP is still refusing to call it a victory.

Update 8.45 pm

A clear ALP victory. Mr Howard's only chance of keeping his seat are absentee and postal votes. Now the key issue is the Senate.

I will look at this once I have put up the next round of votes on the New England blog.

Update 9.36 pm

I have been listening to ABC TV in the background. When will they learn - they do it every year - that people want to know about their own seats, not just marginals and talking heads.

There seems to be an assumption that those who want the numbers can check via computer. This is not true. But in any case, do they want people to stop watching TV?

Update 11.20 pm

Mr Howard has conceded in a remarkably positive way. Mr Rudd is now speaking. And so a new era begins.

Mr Howard paid a strong tribute to Mr Brough who lost his seat. I was sorry to see Mr Brough lose.

Update 11.35 pm - the Senate

First of all, I must say how sorry I am that the Democrats in general and Andrew Bartlett in particular have exited the scene. I will miss them. Obviously I am in a tiny minority, at least so far as votes go.

Turning now to the Greens. While they will be happy at their votes in a few individual seats, their national lower house vote was only 7.8%, up o.6%. This is well below the maximum percentage the Democrats achieved.

The Greens are also likely to be disappointed in their Senate position.

A fair bit of Senate counting remains, especially of the votes of those like me who vote below the line. So the numbers are still very uncertain. However, based on the various how to vote tickets, the position appears to be this.

Western Australia: six senators - Liberal 3, Labor 2, Democrats 1 - were up for grabs. At this stage, the outcome appears to be Liberal 3, Labor 2, Greens 1.

South Australia: six senators - Liberal 3, Labor 2, Democrats 1 - were up for grabs. At this stage the outcome appears to be Liberal 2, Labor 2, Independent 1, Greens 1.

Victoria: six senators - Liberal 3, Labor 2, Democrat 1. At this stage the outcome appears to be Labor 3, Liberal 3.

Tasmania: six senators - Liberal 3, Labor 2, Green 1. At this stage the outcome appears to be Labor 3, Liberal 2, Green 1.

NSW: six senators - Liberal 2, Labor 2, Nationals 1, Green 1. At this stage the outcome appears to be Labor 3, Liberal 2, Nationals 1.

Queensland: - Liberal 2, Labor 2, Nationals 1, Democrats 1. At the stage the outcome appears to be Labor 3, Liberal 2, Nationals 1.

Northern Territory: - two senators - Country Liberal Party 1, Labor 1. At this stage the outcome appears to be just the same.

ACT: - two senators - Liberal 1, Labor 1. At this stage the outcome appears to be just the same.

Enough. It's time for bed.

Update 25 November 2007

It was an interesting day. I will do another update post once we have all the final figures.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Rudd Approach - Efficiency Dividends, Axe Wielding and Razor Gangs

Note to international readers: I am not sure to what extent the terms used in this post are just Australian, I would be interested to find out, so I have explained them.

All of a sudden Mr Rudd has given me a nasty feeling, a sense of deju vu.

Early on in the campaign there were references to Mr Rudd's razor gang. Now this flashed a bit of an amber light.

Razor gangs were criminal gangs that dominated the Sydney crime scene in the 1920s. The choice of razors as preferred weapons reflected laws imposing severe penalties for carrying concealed firearms, and the capacity of razors to inflict disfiguring scars.

In Australia, the term then transferred to politics to describe a group of Ministers charged with reducing expenditure.

Following the Federal elections in October 1980, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser formed the Committee of Review of Government Functions chaired by Sir Phillip Lynch, a former Treasurer and now Minister for Industry and Commerce. This committee came to be known as the razor gang.

Over 1980 I had been working as Assistant Secretary, Economic Analysis Branch in Industry and Commerce. I think that Sir Phillip was still suffering from Treasury withdrawal symptoms, and I and my branch were kind of his Treasury in exile. So I knew Sir Phillip quite well in a professional, reporting, sense.

By the time that the Committee really began its work, I was back in Armidale working on my PhD, so I watched developments from afar. When the Committee's report was released, I concluded that it had managed to inflict the maximum political damage for the minimum economic gains. Here in my now role as student and local, I attended a huge protest meeting in the Armidale Town Hall called to protest the recommendations.

From the Lynch razor gang, the term morphed into a common tag attached to any group of ministers reviewing expenditure. The use of the term by Mr Rudd was only a mild flashing amber light simply because of the connotations attached to the term. Pretty obviously, any incoming Government needs to review the policies, systems and structures introduced by its predecessor.

Then came the use of the term "efficiency dividend". The flashing amber light stopped flashing, showing solid amber instead.

For the benefit of those who do not know the term, it comes from the world of what I have called the New Zealand model of public administration. The argument runs this way.

Many Government agencies are not subject to market competition and, consequently, have no market incentive to improve productivity. An efficiency dividend is therefore imposed to provide a proxy for competition. This involves reducing the agency's budget by a small fixed percentage each year equivalent to projected productivity gains, thus providing a direct pressure to improve productivity.

I knew Mr Rudd came from the world of the New Zealand model because of his role in Queensland after the election of the Goss Government. Of itself, that was not a problem. However, his pledge to introduce efficiency dividends across the Federal system was, because it suggested that he had not understood the actual effects of efficiency dividends.

Quite simply, I know of no solid evidence that efficiency dividends have worked. Further, they have had quite pernicious on-ground effects.

Then Mr Rudd promised to restore the independence of the Public Service and the Westminster system. This is something that I personally think is absolutely critical, so the amber light turned green. But then it turned decisively red.

The turning point was Mr Rudd's promise to take an axe to a Public Service 'bloated" by the Howard years. I am sure that there are ineficiencies. Labor will certainly want to alter programs and structures to better meet its priorities. But this is not what Mr Rudd is talking about.

As a now somewhat remote but still interested observer, I know that there are problems in the Commonwealth Public Service. Simply put, the capacity of the Service to deliver has declined.

Beyond his comments on the Westminster system, Mr Rudd has outlined no plans to address this. Those plans he has outlined are likely to further degrade, not improve, Service performance.

This does not mean that Mr Rudd should not be elected. Other issues come into play here. However, I am saddened.

I have an enormous respect for Australia's public servants at all levels. I see them struggling, trying to get things done, within systems that have become increasingly rigid.

I am biased, but I regard the early period of the Hawke Labor Government as a great Government.

I remember where I was when that Government was elected. As a reasonably senior public servant I saw no threat, just an opportunity. Then in the Government's early days there was the tremendous liberation of putting new ideas forward.

Initially I was slow to realise what an opportunity we had. I had to work out what my Minister and the broader Government thought. Yes, I had been through the policy material, but I still had to understand the value parameters. I also had to meld this with the past, the nature of programs and institutional structures.

We could then make things happen. And we did. But then things changed.

Part of the reason for this is that the central coordinating agencies began to reassert control. A more important reason is that corporatist ideas were beginning to enter the public service.

I remember in my own Department when we suddenly acquired a Departmental executive. The relatively informal FAS (First Assistant Secretary) meetings were essentially replaced by a triumverate of the Secretary and the two Dep Secs. Control was sucked upwards. Suddenly it became harder to do new things simply because of the more rigid clearance procedures involved.

This post is not a review of public administration. My point is that I regard Mr Rudd's recent statements as the first serious mistake of what will be the new Labor administration.

All new Governments depend upon their public servants to deliver the things they want. Good Governments recognise that those public servants are likely to have very good ideas of their own.

How could it be otherwise? Any public servant with a reasonable degree of competence and enthusiasm will not only know problems in the current systems, but have ideas for new directions. The challenge is how best to capture this.

There were tens of thousands of Commonwealth Public Servants looking forward to a change in adminstration. I wonder how many are now updating their CVs?


Friday's papers, and especially the Australian Financial Review, really picked up on the Public Service issue. When Mr Howard came in, he too took an an axe to the Public Service. Some thirty thousand jobs were cut. Now the Service is back to its pre-Howard levels.

I thought when Mr Howard came in that the nature of the cuts made by his Government represented their first major mistake, and it did come back to haunt them. The AWB and Immigration scandals were signs of systemic failure.

It seems quite clear that the Commonwealth Public Service has geared for change. It's interesting and probably worth a post at some point to talk about how power transfers in a Westminster democracy like ours. The capacity to transfer power smoothly is central to the survival of our system. Governed by conventions as much as laws, its roots go back deeply into our history.

Despite all the prevailing corporatist rhetoric, running a Government is not the same as running a corporation.

As I write, the sad inquiry into the Royal North Shore Hospital drags on. For the benefit of international readers, the Hospital was one of Sydney's great teaching hospitals. The sad case of a woman who ended up giving birth in a toilet in the emergency department - the baby died - has forced a Parliamentary inquiry.

Clinician after clinician have come forward to give evidence. They paint a picture of systemic decline, a decline that took place within a world of plans, performance indicators, budget cuts, administrative centralisation.

I will write a proper review once all the evidence is in. For the moment I simply note that the evidence has been both compelling and awful.

Finally, one correction: Mr Rudd is apparently proposing a single "efficiency dividend", an across the board cut of 4%.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Australia's Crumbling Pillars

This post continues the discussion I began in Was Australia a Christian country - and what comes now.

In what now seems a very distant past, I used to think of Australia as supported by four main pillars.

The first was our constitutional system. Centred on Parliament, the Westminster System and constitutional monarchy, the Australian constitutional system was based on principles developed through war and fire in England, granted freely to Australia through representative government. This system also gave us our legal system and the common law, still the main bulwark between individual freedom and state coercion.

Our particular form of the British constitutional system was a federation, intended to provide a balance between central and regional interests.

The second pillar was Christianity. Regardless as to whether or not Australia was a Christian country, Christian values were built into our system. Further, our shared Christian heritage provided a link back to our European past, including its sectarian conflicts.

This linked to our third shared pillar, our place in British and European history, a tradition going back several thousand years.

The last pillar was our own secular and very Australian tradition, the way we interpreted and transformed our experiences into a new variant of European civilisation.

Now I accept that all this can be argued. Still, as I see it, over the last forty years we have been systematically chipping away at all these core pillars. My point in saying this is, and my link to the previous post, is that it is now quite unclear to me just what will take their place. I also suspect that we may be poorly equipped to manage future changes.

All groups need shared things, generally expressed in symbols. In the Australian case, Australian popular culture has proved remarkably robust. Beyond that, the only symbols on which we appear to agree are war and sport, both linked together by a consciously promoted Australian nationalism.

This type of thing may well be necessary, since along other dimensions Australian society may be fragmenting. Now I might be wrong here, but let me give you an example.

Our public school system has been central to Australian life. We saw in the past how the Irish influence in the Roman Catholic Church combined with the Catholic school system to extend the life of sectarian divides. Now the public school system is in decline as people vote with their feet, withdrawing their kids.

In all this, forget the middle class parents who opt for a private school education because they think that it is in some way better, some of whom actually object that their chosen school has the temerity to actually be Christian! Focus instead on those opting for particular cultural or religious education because of culture or religion.

I am not sure how big this group is, but it is clearly growing. Track forward twenty years. What proportion of the Australian population will it be? And what will be the attitudes of this growing group including the young as they begin to vote?

I really have no idea. I just know that it will be different.

I have been writing this post with multiple interruptions, making it hard to maintain coherence. So time to stop.

Next morning

Rereading, one of the difficulties in this and the previous post for the reader, and perhaps for me too, is that there are to many different threads so that the argument gets lost. I really need to disentangle some of them. I also need in some cases to make my own biases clear. While these may seem self-evident, that is not necessarily the case.

Last night proved to be a bit of a time waster because my wife's plane was delayed by more than an hour so that by the time I had cooked and served dinner it was really to late to do anything. Then this morning I have to be at work early, in part to do something that I did not have time to do last night. So I have no time beyond responding to a few comments.

Perhaps the best thing is to continue the discussion by pulling out some of the elements and looking at them in a stand-alone fashion independent of the previous context.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Was Australia a Christian country - and what comes now

Neil had an interesting post asking whether the US was a Christian country. His answer was no, except in the most general sense.

So I asked myself was Australian a Christian country? I think that the answer has to be yes.

To the evangelical Christians, Australia with its secular and perceived evil ways was clearly not and never has been a Christian country. At official level, a very clear separation between church and state was made early on with the decision not to make the Church of England the official established church. This separation has been maintained to the present day.

Yet beyond this, Australia and Christianity were closely entwined at every level. The great bulk of the population classified themselves as Christian. The first official buildings built in new settlements after police stations and pubs were churches. The rituals of the Christian Church marked every significant event at personal and, to a lesser degree, official level.

Beyond this, the fabric of a culture imported from Europe and especially the British Isles permeated everything from language to history.

Yet in all this we never developed some of the political trappings of Christianity seen in other countries. Christianity was both a personal thing and to a lesser degree an official thing. But it always remained a backdrop to official and political life.

There were, I think, two reasons for this. The first was simply the universality of the Christian faith. The second and perhaps more important was the presence of the great sectarian divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants, a divide that became inextricably mixed in politics. Keep religion out of it was a fairly universal and practical view.

That world has gone, swept away in the changes that became strong during the 1970s tip decade. As it went, so did many of the previous underpinning of Australian society.

This is not an argument about right or wrong, simply an observation on trends as I see them. The thing that interests me now is just what is coming in their place. My answer here is that I simply do not know.

All dominant groups assume that their views are self-evidently right.

If you had told me as a child that my favourite playground equipment would be banned, I would have thought you a very silly adult. If you had told me at university that within twenty years men would no longer be allowed to have exclusively men's clubs but must admit women, I would have regarded this as outrageous discrimination. If you had told me that sporting stars must submit to mandatory drug testing for drugs that had nothing to do with sport, I would have thought this outrageous.

And if you had told me that within my lifetime I would live in a society marked by constant visual surveillance combined with sophisticated computer tracking systems I would have been horrified. After all, this was the intermediate step in so many SF stories towards the establishment of a corrupt, all powerful and controlling authoritarian state.

Part of my point in all this is that none of us can assume that the values we hold dear will survive. They have to be fought for, to be constantly refreshed.

I am out of time. As so often happens, practical domestic realities like the need to cook tea interfere!

Early next morning

I see that Neil has responded with a long and quite interesting post. I don't want to respond to it here in any detail because this will take me into a different line of argument and I want to wrap this post up. However, I will make a couple of points that I think are germane to the argument in this post.

We always see the past through a prism set by current concerns and attitudes. This affects the questions we ask about the past. It can also affect the way we interpret the evidence.

Wearing my historian hat, I see the first as right and proper, although I do get upset from time to time at the way in which whole slabs of our past have been lost from sight.

Still wearing my historian hat, at times I see the second as pernicious and a-historical. To me, a key element in the discipline of history - part of its rigour - lies in the attempt to break through the veil set by the present, recognising that we must always fail.

This, by the way, is not a shot at Neil nor his post. Far from it. Neil is putting forward argument with some supporting material, not attempting to write a definitive historical piece.

Unlike the US, Australia has never been an especially religious society. When I argue that Australia was a Christian country I am talking about the overall frame in which society, including those secularists who railed against religious cant, operated.

Modern secular Australia has put aside that past frame and now struggles to deal with faith based issues. Note the words "faith based". This modern jargon is itself a sign of the change in frame. Past Australian societies would, I think, have struggled to place meaning in the words.

We live at an intensely interesting time. The previous institutional pillars that formed part of the Australian fabric have been discredited. Many in modern secular Australia are a-religious, even anti-religious. Christianity itself has become just another faith, if still the one acknowledged by a majority of Australians, especially older Australians.

Yet when we drop down, we find some interesting trends.

In the Australia of the past with its dominant Christian heritage, there was no such thing as a Christian view. Society could be both secular and Christian, religious and anti-religious. Individual churches were just that, individual churches. Putting things very simplistically, they could be told to butt out.

Things are a little different now at several levels. These are the differences that fascinate me as an observer.

During the election campaign, Mr Howard made a point of attending both Chinese and Korean Christian churches in his electorate. No-one really commented, it was just another campaign move, other than to look at the reactions of some of the attendees. Yet that attendance was a sign of profound change.

The modern secular view of Australian society is, I think, strongest in certain groups - essentially urban, generally educated in Australia or in another Western country, mainly second or more generation Australian. Things change when we move outside these groups.

I am presently working within an ethnically diverse group. The modern secular view is represented in the European segment including, for these purposes, me. Then the group has included at different times two Christians, both Chinese, plus three Muslims from three different ethnic groups.

My point here is two fold.

There is, I think, still an equation in people's minds between Christianity and being in some way European or even Anglo-Celtic when the reality is increasingly different. There is also, I think, a more complicated and implicit assumption that our new migrants will in some way accept, adopt, the secular view. Again, I think that the reality is a little different.

I do not have time to further pursue these issues now and, in any case, this post is becoming far too long. I will continue at a later point.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Do not do go gentle into that good night - a personal note

This is a personal statement. First a poem.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

This 1940 poem by Dylan Thomas captures how I feel tonight.

"Do night go gentle into that good night." It's not just the fact of death, it's what we have yet to achieve.

The young in a job can accept that what they do is just a right of passage to a better job. Those of us who are older must measure themselves not in career terms, but in terms of what they are achieving - now.

Of course, some can accept that the job is an income stream, keeping the wolf away. I cannot. For better and worse, I come from a public service and puritan tradition where contribution is measured in individual terms. I must justify what I do in terms of what I have achieved.

"Do not go gentle into that good night." Why must I accept second best? I am not talking here about perfection. I am talking about trying for the best that is possible in the circumstances.

In all this, I try as best I can. I have failed in many things. I will fail again. But I will try.

"Do not go gentle into that good night." I look at many stories of human achievement. Not at the Rich BRW lists, although I do read these, but at people who have made a difference at a personal level.

This, to me, is what life is about. When, as we all have to, we go into that good night, people will remember our contribution. This, for most of us, will not be that grand thing. It will be that small, individual, contribution.

We will not be there to know it. But we can take a small measure of satisfaction in advance.

Note to reader

Sorry about the multiple feeds on this one. This poem featured in the last episode on Sunday of Rain Shadow, an ABC drama that I have very much enjoyed. I could not get it out of my mind.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Earliest Memory Meme

Neil (Ninglun) tagged me for this one. He asked me to:

  • Describe my earliest memory where the memory is clear, and where “clear” means I can depict at least three details.
  • Give an estimate of my age at the time.
  • Tag five other bloggers with this meme.

I am not going to nominate five more bloggers at this point. Having just checked my blog list, I am not sure that I actually know five bloggers well enough to ask excluding those already participating, those like LE who are temporarily off-line or those whose blogs are in some ways not suited to this type of exercise.

Still, to please Neil I will respond myself.

When I was four, we moved from a little cottage in Rusden Street Armidale into a bigger weatherboard house on South Hill. So all my memories of Rusden Street are four or earlier.

I can remember a fair bit about Rusden Street. Not things that I have been told, but scenes in my mind. Like most Armidale houses, it had a back yard where Dad grew vegetables. I remember this, including the huge (to me) paling fence that separated the yard from the Plymouth Bretheren Church on the corner next door. I remember sitting on the back steps. I remember my bedroom, and the park just down the road in front of the hospital with the swings.

I have no idea which was the earliest memory, although I suspect that it may well have been the light and shade memories of my bedroom. However, I have to pick one memory.

Photo: Brisbane Mail crossing Quartpot Creek near Stanthorpe 1966. Eric Marggraf, Australian Railway Historical Society, Queensland Division.

When I was born the Great Northern Railway was still the main rail line between Sydney and Brisbane. Unlike Queensland where the Government kept its lines open and is now using them quite effectively as a tourism draw card, the more prosaic and I think short-sighted Sydney Government closed this historic line north of Armidale in the name of economy.

At the time I am writing of, the passenger and freight trains still went through Armidale on the long journey between the state capitals, whistling as they struggled up the long grades. Armidale railway station was still a bustling place with its long platform and refreshment room.

The Brisbane Mail itself went through Armidale at 4am in the morning on the way to Wallangarra where the passengers detrained to join the narrow gauge Queensland system.

Photo: Wallangarra Railway Station today. The Queensland station is on the left, the NSW station on the right. Passengers used to carry their luggage between the two.

I do not know why Dad needed to go to Brisbane, presumably on some business connected with the University College. I do remember, however, being allowed to get up in the early morning and then eating eating toast with Mum and Dad in the dimly lit front room before Dad left for the railway station.

Boy, those trains could be cold. The only heating came from chemical heaters, small metal containers, that we used to shake to try to warm them up. For those not lucky enough to have sleepers, the overnight train trips often meant sitting up huddled under a blanket to keep warm.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Blogs - some tidying up

I have just been through my various blogs tidying up my cross-references on the side bar to my other blogs and sites. When I began I simply added all blogs on each site. Now I feel the need to separate my personal and professional blogs and sites.

At one level this does not matter. When I began blogging I had no idea what it would do to my electronic footprint. Now a search on "Jim Belshaw" throws up 26,100 references largely shared between myself and Jim Belshaw of the Albuquerque Journal, someone whom I admire.

Now it's obviously silly to try too hard to separate the personal and the professional when anybody who searches can find so much. However, it still does make some sense to try to avoid unnecessary confusion.

So what I have done is put all eight links to Belshaw blogs/sites on this blog as my personal blog, including some not listed here before. On the other blogs, I have deleted references to non-relevant sites or blogs.

People can still find the full range through search. But this will, I think, aid clearer demarcation.

Sataurday Morning Musings - end of the culture wars

Photo: I am indebted to Gordon Smith for this photo of the dogwood in flower. For an indication of scale, look at the mosquito top right. I have included the photo as a reminder to myself of the beauty in small things.

Interesting post during the week from John Quiggin, What if they gave a culture war and nobody came?

I agree with him on some points. I think that the Australian electorate has moved on. I agree with his opinions on some of the right wing commentators. However, I also felt that there was an element of condescension, even triumphalism, in his comments that irritated me. For that reason, I wanted to put something of a counter view.

The difficulty to my mind with the so-called culture wars including the associated history wars is that they mixed together very different things.

Economic and Social Change

Just focusing on Australia, the 1970's, 80's and 90's were a period of great social, cultural and economic change.

In 1970, the welfare state and the Australian social contract were still in place. 4% was seen as a high unemployment rate. Employment was still seen in lifetime terms.

Even though change had already begun, the Australian economy still operated within a web of controls with a dual economic structure: on one side, an export oriented mining and agricultural sector, on the other inward looking manufacturing and service sectors.

All this vanished over the next thirty years in a long wave of fundamental structural change, a wave that created a differential pattern of winners and losers. Economists tend to talk in terms of aggregates and averages. Yet you can only really understand change when you look at the impact on the ground.

To illustrate with just one example. The spread of IT combined with new managerial approaches led to massive organisational restructuring. The benefits that this might offer in aggregate terms through greater productivity is small consolation to a regional community that has seen the loss of its telecoms jobs, its banks, its Government offices, its local electricity authority.

Shorter term fluctuations moved around this long wave. Each decade saw a period of economic downturn, adding to the individual woes of many. Many experienced great emotional and financial hardship.

As an example, I worked briefly as an outplacement consultant after we first moved to Sydney. One case that stands out in my mind is the sixty year old upper middle management bank worker who had worked with the one bank since leaving school. Retrenched, he was struggling to put his life back together again in the middle of a still tough labour market.

Economic change combined with social and cultural change. As part of this, a growing gap opened up between what we can loosely call "official" views and those of many in the Australian community. I do not want to get sidetracked here. My only point is that, as I see it, there was a growing gap.

Ideological Wars

All this provided a fertile Australian field for ideological wars. Looking at these as a social commentator, I have some difficulty in disentangling four very different if interlinked threads.

The first is changing views on management, including the importation of those ideas into the public sector. This is an area I have written a fair bit about, so will not repeat the arguments. The key thing from my present viewpoint is that, among other things, this has influenced the language of public debate as well as the frame in which the debate has been held.

The second is changing views on the role of the state and of the relationship between state and individual. Again I have written a fair bit about this. Without wanting to parody the views of the right wing commentators too much, they have argued that Government must get out of people's lives and activities, leaving as much as possible to the private sector. They also tend to be great exponents of the adoption of private sector and market principles in the public sector.

Paradoxically, the period of dominance of their ideas has been marked by a great expansion in state control and authoritianism. The reason for this is that the "right" in fact contains a number of very different idea streams: cold war warriors jostle with those whose focus is on state reduction and reform, libertarians jostle with social conservatives and with populists. Just as the left has fragmented, so has the right.

The third thread is changing attitudes towards work and society. Business and Government have told people that they must be responsible for themselves, the social contract has changed. The problem both now face is that we have taken them at their word. We have to look out for ourselves.

The final thread, perhaps the most complex one, is the way in which particular things have become symbols in the debate and conflict of ideas. This where the culture and history wars fit in. The culture wars have little to do with culture, the history wars little to do with history. Rather, they have become symbols around which a whole series of conflicting ideas swirl.

End of the Culture Wars

In the midst of all this, the Australian people have moved on, to the sometimes distress of both left and right. Key to this is the fact that we have had a long period of sustained economic growth.

Mr Howard won his first election because he correctly judged the changing mood of the Australian people, including the distress felt by many about change. He will lose this election because he, and especially the ideologues surrounding the Government, are out of touch and now appear old-fashioned and irrelevant.

To my mind, Mr Howard's greatest success lay in the fact that he brought Australia time, allowing previous divisions to heal. This is an area where I think that Dr Quiggan and I would be on opposite sides of the fence. He and some of his commentators appear to think that One Nation was an unrepresentative aberration, instead of a lightning rod for a far wider view.

For their part, many Labor supporters are looking forward to a Rudd victory, but worry about the conservatism of the party and of the electorate. To some degree, they have a right to worry. To my mind, the Australian electorate has moved decisively to the right.

At the same time, the electorate has put aside many (most?) of the issues that have dominated the previous period. They no longer matter.

For my part, I welcome this. I am so bored with topics like the culture wars. I am really looking forward to something new.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Australia's Indigenous Languages - a map!

At last, a clickable map of the geographic distribution of Australia's indigenous languages. I have looked for one before but without success. This included a search of the AIATSIS web site, a logical place.

I finally found a map through wikipedia. The map is in fact on the AIATSIS site, but is hard to find. At least it was for me.

If you are interested, you will find the link here.

Taiwan, history and the meaning attached to words

Reading the newspaper, I found a small story about the refusal of the Chinese Government in Beijing to accept mail from Taiwan carrying a postmark supporting Taiwan's membership of the United Nations. I was struck by the careful wording of the story, the references to Taiwan as a "self ruled island."

That got me thinking about the way in which geo-politics affects language, not just the words used, but the overlay attached to the words. It also sent me off on a quite distracting web search into the history of Taiwan, distracting because I found all sorts of fascinating things that I had not known.

If we just look at language first, at the end of the Second World control over Taiwan or Formosa was returned from Japan to the Republic of China. So we had the Republic of China with Taiwan as a province. Then, with the success of the communist uprising on the mainland, we had two China's: the Republic of China with its headquarters in Taipei, the People's Republic of China with its capital in Peking.

Initially, the western world recognised the Republic of China as the continuing legitimate Chinese Government. Then from this we moved to two China's, China (Taipei) and China (Beijing). Then, more recently in popular usage, to Taiwan and China. Throughout all this, the carefully crafted language of diplomacy has changed as it tried to accommodate the two entities, including the power shifts between them.

The thing that gets lost in all this is that Taiwan has its own independent history, a history influenced by but distinct from that of China. Current developments between Taiwan and China reflect that history in a way that I had not properly recognised.

I do not have time to write about this this morning, but will put something down for interest a little later.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A bit of a challenge from Noric

Me old mate Noric Dilanchian reckons I need more variety on my blogs. Now there's a challenge for you! He likes what I do write, but variety is important.

I always like suggestions. Let's see what I can do.

Food, Fads and Females

Dear my collective girls make life difficult for me! I love them dearly, but they have really destroyed my cooking.

I learned my initial cooking from my mum. English-Australian. I especially loved the roasts and the casseroles with their thick sauce. At university I was exposed to Asian food - Thai, Chinese, Indian. So I added this.

When I moved to Canberra there were food phases. I learned to cook more Indian curries. There was the Vietnamese arrival, so I learned to prepare a range of Vietnamese dishes. I miss the relative disappearance of Vietnamese food.

I had a big garden at times, so was always looking for new ways to prepare surplus food. Then my house mate cooked a mean East Coast Laska. And we had great steamboats. And food prepared in the back yard. Whole BBQ fish.

Canberra's Italo-Australia club. I became a member and ate there four or five times a week. I have never been very keen on pasta, but added more dishes.

In all this, I ignored food fashions. When milk products were bad for you I snorted, and went on using cheeses, drinking milk, using cream in cooking. Then red meat was bad. I ate my steaks with pleasure.

I married and had daughters. My culinary world shrunk.

Youngest will not eat curry, hates chili. Neither daughter will eat casseroles. Both dislike fresh sweet corn, even with some pepper and lashings of butter. They do like butter! One or other of 80% of sea products are disliked by someone.

My wife, worried about her weight and health, has been on a series of diets. These always seem to involve the sale of food products. So in these phases she eats alone, while I look after the rest.

All my girls like Lebanese and pasta, but I am less keen. Consequently I am less good at preparing this food.

In all this, I must have lost eighty per cent of my cooking skills. For simplicity's sake, we are back to meat and two or three veg. Or a roast. My mother would sympathise!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Welcome to Visitor 20,000 - and food prices revisited

Today visitor 20,000 arrived.

Visitor 10,000 arrived back on 23 February. My first tentative post on this blog - all it said was "this is a test" - was on 18 March 2006. So if my maths is correct, it took me eleven months to get to 10,000, eight months to get the next 10,000.

Visitor 20,000 searched google australia on food prices.

Back on 24 July 2007 I put up a post, Food Prices in Australia. A key point in that post was that at a time of apparent increases in affluence we should not forget that there were people struggling to put food on the table for whom even a $2 shift in the price of a chook could have significant consequences.

The post is still getting hits. So far it also also attracted two thoughtful comments.

On 14 September wildschwein added some thoughts from her own experience as part of a family spending more than 50% of family income on rent. Then on 13 November anon added a post linked to the establishment of a food coop in the Mollymook/Ulladulla area, an area I used to know quite well when I worked in Canberra.

I will now follow up with some new posts, maybe on several blogs, but not tonight Geraldine, I really feel too tired.

I seem to have been writing a lot more on social policy and also civil liberty issues than I used to. Here I am grateful to Club Troppo's missing link for mentioning no less than two of my recent posts. To quote:

Jim Belshaw conducts an in-depth examination of the history and current problems of the NSW Department of Community Services. Something of a dry argument but certainly an important issue. Jim also focuses on the just-revealed Tony Tran case, which appears to be an even more disgraceful and frightening example of unaccountable power in the Department of Immigration than the much better known Rau and Solon cases.

The Child Welfare post is dry, as are some of my other longer posts. But I am not writing here to entertain, just to give information and analysis. If I get one or two readers who find it valuable, then I have done my job.

Done my job? Doesn't that sound pretentious! Yet it is the way that I think about some of my more serious personal writing.

Finally, welcome to Mike who commented on Victoria's Cheeky Move. Apparently Mike is a long time reader, but this is his first comment. Do comment again!

Time to continue cooking tea. Tonight I have some beef in the oven ($11). I will serve this with baked spuds (brought in a 4kg bag for just under a dollar a kilo), broccolini (a bit over $2 for the bunch), peas (can't remember the cost) and some silver beet from the garden.

In all including gravy and spices, a bit under $4 per head with meat left over. Still a lot for some Australian families.

Victoria's Cheeky Move

In the long-standing rivalry bewteen Australia's two largest cities, Melbourne's success in reinventing itself as a life style city is clearly beginning to worry some Sydneysiders.

First came the shocking news that Melbourne was growing faster than Sydney.

Sydney's Lord Mayor began a campaign to change NSW's archaic and creaking licensing laws to allow for the creation of smaller bars and cafes, arguing that this was necessary if Sydney was to compete against Melbourne. While derided by the President of the NSW branch of the Hotels' Association on the grounds that Sydney people did not want to sit reading a book while drinking a glass of Chardonnay, the Mayor's move was successful.

This week one of the local papers, the Sydney Morning Herald, has been campaigning for changes to make the central city a more livable place.

In the midst of all this, Tourism Victoria paid a large sum of money to have the latest glossy guide to Victorian wine districts included in the Herald! And very impressive it was too.

This is not the first foray of this type into the Sydney marketplace. The enormously successful Run Rabit Run commercials promoting the Yarra Valley are an earlier example. Whereas Sydney concentrates on the steak, attractions such as the Opera House, Melbourne focuses on the sizzle. It's all starting to give Sydney quite a complex.