Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Macquarie University Ancient History Review

Just back from the review put on by the Macquarie University Ancient History Society. Clare took part and wrote some of the scripts. A little rough around the edges because of lack of rehearsal time, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Given the hour, its not late but I left for work before seven, this will be all for tonight.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Biography, and the eternal fascination of learning about people

I wasn't well today and stayed home. In the midst of rests I spent some time filling in a few gaps on my history of New England. I have decided to try to complete at least a first rough draft by the end of the year.

I have always loved a well written biography. I like the way they bring a person's life alive, providing us with a window into another world. This is not a post about biography, more my changing attitudes to the craft.

When I first came across biographies in an Australian context, I found them like a still photo, flat and without real emotion. Later I re-read some of these and found them interesting, but by then I had a context and was interested in that.

Looking back, their core problem was lack of texture, the detail required to bring their subject alive as a person.

When I was doing my PhD thesis, a biography, there was a strong school among historians that said that biography was an inappropriate subject for a thesis. You had to write and surmise about things that could not necessarily be supported by the evidence.

To a degree, but only to a degree, they were right. To present a person you have to attempt to understand not just how they think, but also what they feel. To a degree, that's the province of fiction. Yet you can still present things in a way that your conclusions can be tested.

In writing about New England, I would love to have the capacity to bring the people alive as people outside their roles.

What was it like to be Annie Baxter who had an affair with Crown Land Commissioner Robert Massie? Was Annie a selfish person who placed her own needs first, or was she someone adrift in a new world where realities lay far outside her romantic sensibilities, trapped with an insensitive husband?

He could not have been all that insensitive. He destroyed only those sections of Annie's diaries relating to the affair. Yet he was a deeply troubled man who finally killed himself.

Robert Massie himself appears in the historical record because of his official reports. Yet he was clearly more than this. In the wording of some of his letters in trying to resolve land disputes he could be a modern public servant, part facilitator, part conciliator, part coercer. As an educated man, I suspect that he was also lonely, dreaming too of financial success.

Suicide, despair, illness, failure and accident litter the historical record along with success and even great happiness.

What was it like to be a women who lost eleven of her twelve children in sickness? What was it like to be an ill man who started the six day walk to find medical help only to stop half way through, returning to die?

You see what I mean?

The writing of history is necessarily selective. The issue is how to select, how to present.

The best histories are also good literature.

I should qualify that statement. Some brilliant and influential histories are far from literature. They are great because of the ideas they present.

This is not the type of history I want to write. I simply want to bring a slice of the past alive in a way that will interest, even enthral. But there's the rub. To do this requires not just good writing but also discipline, the capacity as necessary to write in bare bones, to say just what is required and no more. That's hard.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Missing Post

I was working on a post on livewriter and must have hit publish instead of save. I was in a hurry and did not know that I had done it until I saw it on Neil's Google reader.

I have taken it off line until I can finish it properly!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - South African elections

The South African election results were interesting.

Like many Australians, I knew so little about the political landscape that I wrote South Africa - political parties and the 2004 elections just to set a small benchmark for future reference. I am glad that I did.

Looking back at that post, a few things stood out.

The first was the dominance of the ANC. In 2004 it scored 69.69% of the vote, up 3.34%, gaining 279 seats (up 13) in the 400 seat National Assembly.

The second was the plethora of parties with at least one seat, no less than twelve. This made it very difficult to create a credible opposition.

The Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, received 12.37% of the vote and 50 seats at the 2004 elections, followed by the Inkatha Freedom Party on 6.97%  of the vote and 28 seats. Compared to the election before, the Alliance increased its share of the vote by 2.81%, adding 12 seats, while Inkatha's vote slipped by 1.61%, losing 6 seats.

This year's South African elections attracted global interest because of the presence of Jacob Zuma - he is simply an interesting figure, regardless of what one thinks about him. It also attracted attention because of the emergence of the Congress of the People (COPE) as a break-away from the ANC triggered by the treatment of Thabo Mbeki. Could COPE cope by defeating the ANC?

As an outsider, this always seemed unlikely. It is very hard in a practical sense to defeat a powerful incumbent.

To my mind, these elections represented a further maturation in the South African political process. They were free and fair with huge voter turn-out. They also marked, I think, a further consolidation in the South African political system. I am writing here with care because I am conscious of my own lack of knowledge. 

The overall party votes can be found here.

The ANC proportion of the national vote declined to 66.11%, reversing the gains made at the 2004 election. This is still a remarkably high result, considering the in-fighting that had occurred. The ANC's provincial vote was a little less at 65.13%.

COPE did not do as well as it had hoped, coming in third with 7.46% of the national vote, 7.39% of the provincial vote. Still, this will give it a base.

The big winner was the Democratic Alliance with 16.37% of the national vote, 16.57% of the provincial vote. While this percentage is still dwarfed by the ANC, it is still a good result considering that that the DA had less than 10% of the vote prior to the 2004 elections. Importantly, the DA won the provincial elections in Western Cape, giving it a base in Government.

The increase in the DA vote plus the new COPE vote came partly from the ANC, more from other smaller parties and especially from the Inkatha Freedom Party whose share of the national vote dropped from 6.97% to 4.59%.  In KwaZulu-Natal, Inkatha's former heartland, the Party was trounced by the ANC.

This suggests that the while losing votes in some areas, the ANC still gained in others. Jacob Zuma seems to have done well in appealing to Zulu patriotism without alienating other groups. 

Counting continues, so final results may vary somewhat.

It will be interesting to see the final geographic support for the various parties. For example, COPES' longer term position is likely to be influenced by its final position in the various provincial parliaments.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thursday notes - LE's Through a glass darkly

I read Legal Eagle's post Through a glass, darkly with interest, but also a degree of depression.

The post deals with the legal problems that can arise from posts to social networking sites and is worth reading at a number of levels.

From my own viewpoint, and I am a reasonably sophisticated on-line user because I have been involved for such a long time, the explosion in my visible on-line presence that flowed especially from blogging came as a surprise.

When I first started using the internet all those years ago as a professional and business tool, I wanted to attract search engine coverage to ensure a visible internet presence. It never occurred to me that I might be too successful to the point that management of my internet presence would become a problem.

Given that I have a problem, you can see why I might be concerned especially for the young who chat freely in this new world.

The big problem with sites like Facebook is that they give at least a semi-permanent presence to what is and should remain the ephemeral.

I don't judge the people I know on Facebook by individual remarks or even actions like joining groups because I usually know them well enough to set remarks in a broader context. Taken out of context, remarks and actions can become a problem for the individuals involved.

LE notes that a newly formed Sydney company called SR7 specialises in digging up dirt on staff by spying on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube posts for employers. LE also reports on two cases where police officers' on-line presence caused cases to fail.

There are issues here that I do not fully understand. I am not sure, for example, how Facebook material can be apparently so easily accessed. The point is that it can, and may be used in evidence against you.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Back of envelope calculations - is the purchase of Toorale Station a waste of money?

A note on the role of back of envelope calculations before I go on.

The term is used to refer to rough calculations intended to test something. I use them all the time because they quickly establish rough benchmarks or can be used to quick test an idea.

Tonight's SBS news carried a story - I cannot give a link - of Bourke locals complaining about the cost and lack of value of the purchase by the NSW and Commonwealth Governments of Tooralee Station. Australian environment mister Wong responded by simply referring to the volume of water released to the Darling River. She did not equate this in any way to the costs.

In End of Historic Toorale Station, I did some very rough back of envelope calculations on this purchase. I suggested that this might be an annual cost of $7.44 million, falling to $7.14 million after three years. Note that this is the continuing cost for ever expressed in 2008 dollars.

I did not try to argue whether this was value for money. My point was that this cost had to be related to the real value of the water released. No one has ever calculated this.

At a personal level, I was also concerned about the impact on the local community. I was also concerned at the failure to pay any form of economic compensation. If Australia as a whole is to get benefits, then those who pay the price should be compensated. If the benefits do not exceed that price, then the project is of doubtful value.

Without going into detailed discussions, Bourke is one of the poorest communities in Australia. It is also one where the Indigenous community represents a growing proportion of the population. The costs to this community are high.

If this action, the purchase of Toorale Station, is worthwhile, then I expect Environment Minister Wong and her NSW colleagues to show why beyond mere generalities.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Refugees, trouble at UNE

The responses, media as well as political, to the tragedy that struck the refugee boat off the Western Australian coast has, to my mind, been quite unbalanced. Listening to Opposition Leader Turnbull reminded me just how much I had come to dislike the Howard Government's approach to asylum seekers. I really don't want to go there again.

Re-reading past posts also reminded me of the basic inhumanity that had crept into the rhetoric and actions of the Howard Government.

Of course Australia has a right to determine its migration policies. However, the mark of a civilised society lies in the way things are done. The Howard Government breached the rules of what I see as a civilised society. Mr Turnbull appears no better, acting like a linear throwback who cannot let the past go.

The world is full of elections at the moment to the point I can't keep up! My position here is not helped by the fact that my train reading has been so obsessive on other things that I have barely read a newspaper in the last two weeks. I have caught the TV news in the evening and also looked at the on-line editions, but these are hardly a substitute for the papers themselves.

One of the points about elections in the Australian context is that they provide a way of changing things. We may not always like the changes, but they are necessary to overcome the staleness that creeps into all long-standing administrations.

When I wrote yesterday's post, The University of New England's senior management blog, I had no idea that the troubles between the former Chancellor and the VC would again grab today's headlines. Academic quits amid blistering dispute is the Sydney Morning Herald headline.

As Richard Torbay, the new Chancellor notes, student numbers this year at UNE are up 10 per cent. So its not all bad.

I plan to write a full post on this dispute looking at it from the personal perspective of someone who has known the University well over many years. I accept that some of my attitudes may seem old fashioned, I have very particular views on the role of universities, but it is an important dispute in terms of what it tells us about the current state of and directions in Australian higher education.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The University of New England's senior management blog

I was interested to learn that the University of New England has established a senior management blog. Hat tip to Gordon Smith for the lead.

When I first started blogging, one of my interests lay in the way that blogs and blogging might be used as a communications device within organisations. I teased out some of the issues here in Case Study: Potential use of Blogs as a communications device within specialist medical colleges.

While the primary audience for the UNE blog is internal, many of the posts will be of much broader interest to all those with an interest in Australian higher education.

In this context, I was struck by the latest post, Prof Graham Webb, DVC, on academic standards. This is an interesting post not just because of the topic, but because of the way it actually draws out some of the tensions within the Australian higher education system.

The question of the relationships between performance in final school exams and subsequent university performance is an old and vexed one.

When the University of New England itself began as a college of Sydney University back in 1938, there were serious concerns within Sydney about the likelihood of the new institution being able to maintain standards. This was due in part to the lower Leaving Certificate marks, in part remoteness from the mother campus.

To meet these fears, Sydney initially insisted on all exam papers being marked in Sydney. Embarrassment resulted as students from the new college started out-performing their Sydney counterparts.

The reason for this lay in part in differences in the composition of the student bodies. NEUC was admitting country students who had not had the same school access as their Sydney counterparts, but who were in fact just as bright and had higher motivation. Smaller student numbers, the residential nature of the new college and high staff motivation at NEUC all helped as well.

These were still issues when I became a student at the tail end of the old Leaving Certificate system. Most of the students I knew were the first in their families to attend university. Outside the relatively large international student cohort, most students had attended country schools. Again, average entry marks were lower.

Ideas of selection and cramming to get maximum Leaving marks were already well entrenched within the NSW school system. The problem was that relative performance in the Leaving certificate had become a very poor predictor of subsequent success as many force-fed students struggled.

Track forward, and we find similar problems today with the Higher School Certificate and subsequent UAI rankings. I have written a fair bit on this over time, driven by my own daughters' experiences with the system.

The Gang of Eight has a vested interest in the UAI system because it feeds their perceived competitive advantage.

With the exception of Western Sydney where distance has limited contact, I know the older Sydney Universities pretty well. My daughters have been students at three of them, many of their friends go to the fourth.

I accept that I am biased because of my UNE connections. My use of the term Gang of Eight shows my bias. However, as I see it, UAI rankings remain a poor predictor of subsequent long term performance. Worse, variations in UAI cut-off marks between institutions and courses say nothing at all about the relative standards of the education received. 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

No post today

No post today. I simply have too many things to catch up on. Talk to you tomorrow.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - death of the Australian yarn

I have no idea what to write about this morning! There are lots of things I could say flowing from my current train reading, but they are all mixed together in my mind a bit like one of my bookcases; an untidy pile of books in no particular order. So, as often happens in these circumstances, I turn to others for my inspiration.

A blogging conversation with Lynne inspired me to write  Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast - Introduction, an initial trawl done one memory lane.

I am constantly struck by how little modern Australians know about their past. No, this is not a comment on the school system, nor on the teaching of Australian history, simply a reality of modern Australian life.

Last year, Australia had record emigration and immigration. One current Australian resident in fifty did not live in this country twelve months ago. That's a lot.

Australia's size also makes it very difficult for people to see, let alone come to grips with, the variety in our past.

I think that we all assume to some degree that others do understand, that there are shared experiences and knowledge. Then something happens to remind us that this is far from true.

In my case, the trigger was a recent work conversation. I mentioned something, used an Australian phrase, then realised that no-one knew what I was talking about. How could they?

The group included a Chinese women originally from Malaysia married to a Chinese whose family came from a different part of China. Then there was a woman born in England who had come to Australia as a child. Her partner was the son of Croatian immigrants. And so on.

This type of mix makes for some fascinating conversations, but it also explains why gaps can emerge in understanding.

My knowledge of history is quite good. This makes it easier for me to talk to people from different backgrounds since I usually know something of their pasts. However, in conversation I also sometimes use examples and idioms drawn from the Australian past that people do not understand.

I have never been able to tell jokes. The funniest jokes become clay when I repeat them. However, I did teach myself to yarn.

A yarn is a short story in words told to entertain. In the Australian case, it relies on understatement, irony, unexpected twists. The cadence of a yarn is slower than normal speech, the language often laconic.

The Australian yarn is, I think, a dieing art form.

It's partly a time thing. Yarning began sitting round a camp fire or in a pub. You have to have a captive audience. Yarning as an art form cannot compete with electronic entertainment. It takes too long, there are too many distractions.

It's also a language thing. Modern Australian English is faster, urbanised, chunked and in some ways less coherent. Especially among the young, this is the world of the ubiquitous like, of txt messages. Its codes - and all language involves codes - centre on new things.

Back in December 2007 in Saturday Morning Musings - endings, beginning and the role of the tribal elder, I wrote that I was struggling with an odd problem, that of becoming in some strange and peculiar way a tribal elder.

In Aboriginal times, the elders were the keepers of the lore. They preserved the continuity of the group, linking past, present and future.

This was an oral world. Today we have books, records the internet. We assume that this will provide continuity. It's not true. The past dies all the time and at a faster rate today because of the crowded nature of modern life. I am reminded of this each time I say something and then have to explain.

I cannot bring back the past, nor would I want to. Despite my gripes, I find modern Australia endlessly fascinating. However, I reserve the right to continue to link past and present, to try to teach while also hopefully entertaining.

Fortunately, people are remarkably tolerant. They forgive me my sometimes excesses when what I say verges on a history lesson!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Musings on India's fascinating election


What a remarkable thing this Indian election is for its scale and complexity. Two stories will bring this out: Election 2009 seems like 543 mini elections and India: The world's most remarkable election. My thanks to Ramana for the link to the second. By the way, Ramana, I chuckled at your post  Why Do Men Wear Earrings?.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to run in an election campaign where 543 members represented 714 million registered voters. That's 1.3 million or so voters per MP. Say 3 MPs for Sydney, 5 or 6 for NSW. With looser party affiliations and a much wider political spectrum than, say, Australia, there is a personalised and indeed localised element to campaigns now rarely found in Australia.

While Indians and indeed many Australians may disagree, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I miss the colour and variety associated with past elections in this country. Modern Australian elections are narrowly stylised, professionalised. We vote for a diminished range of people in a process dominated by shopping lists and marginal seat campaigning.

I suspect that many of Australia's past leaders at State and federal level could not be elected today or, if elected, would quickly loose their seats.

Sir Henry Parkes who created the NSW public education had such financial problems that public appeals for donations were required to prevent bankruptcy. John Curtin drank far too much for his own good, a not uncommon problem. The NSW Parliament was famous for its sometimes drunken early morning debates. William Morris Hughes, while a great stump orator, would have been far too untelegenic for today's world. The list goes on.

Train drivers, shop keepers, miners, farmers, teachers - a representative slice of the community - have been replaced by lawyers, union officials, ministerial staffers. There were always lawyers or former union officials, for example, in Parliament. It's just that the slice of Australia from which we select our representatives has become narrower, our expectations about behaviour narrower, our expectations about real performance less.

There were much closer relationships in the past between MPs and their electorates than is the case today, even in city areas where personal relations are more difficult. This is partially a matter of size - each MP represents a larger number of people. However, it's also linked in a complicated way to the rise of the power of Executive Government with its commensurate decline in the influence and prominence of the backbenchers.

With exceptions - country Australia is still different - our MPs have simply become less important to their electorates. It has become much harder to make a local difference.  

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Train Reading Josephine Flood's Archaeology of the Dreamtime


Image:  The diprotodon, one of Australia's now vanished megafauna, was a hippopotamus-sized marsupial, most closely related to the wombat.

My train reading has shifted to Josephine Flood's Archaeology of the Dreamtime (JB Publishing, Marleston, 2004). My original notes on New England in the Pleistocene drew very heavily from John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga's Prehistory of Australia and I wanted to get an alternative view.

I am treating the previous paper as a work in progress, adding proper footnotes as I go along so that it becomes a proper piece of work from an academic perspective. That way I have something that can be published on its own and/or form part of my history of New England.

The two books were originally written about the same time, have both been updated, and have a lot of core material in common. Yet they also come from different perspectives, taking varying views on particular issues. Age of Aboriginal colonisation of the continent is one, with Flood favouring an earlier date.

Reading both, as well as the material I looked at in supporting web searches, I was struck by the way in which Aboriginal history/pre-history is enmeshed in other debates. Take, as an example, the question of the extinction of Australia's megafauna.

On the surface, this seems a simple enough issue. The megafauna vanished during a period that included both major climate change and the arrival of the Aborigines. A reasonable working hypothesis would be that both might have contributed. From that point, its a matter for research and analysis based on the evolving evidence. In fact, it's a matter of controversy.

Part of the debate is professional. I enjoy this aspect. Australian archaeology is a small world in which some admixture of the personal and professional is inevitable, aided by the uncertainties of evidence and of scientific technique. However, part of the debate within and especially as it spreads beyond the profession appears to link to other issues, deeply held views about the role  of the Aborigines and of the perceived relationships between the Aborigines and the environment. At this level, the debate has little to do with history, much to do with current conflicts in ideas. This is the Aborigines as symbols, not as a historical people.

These conflicts in ideas are interesting and no-doubt will be the subject of many theses someday . However, from my viewpoint they are something of a distraction in trying to understand the history. They stand between me and the "realities" I am trying to discover.

I have put the word realities in inverted commas because understanding is always partial even when dealing with the apparently familiar, more so when dealing with the unfamiliar.

In Stranger Among the Martu, Will Owen reviews the experiences  of Maureen Helen as a nurse in the remote Western Australia settlement of Jigalong. The post brings out the difficulties that can arise in understanding another culture.

In the type of history/pre-history that I am trying to study at present, it is not possible to understand the type of social detail that comes through in Maureen Helen's story. However, it is possible to focus on the patterns and relationships suggested by the evidence . 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Happy Hindu New Year

Leaving work last night, an Indian colleague mentioned that he was going to the temple to celebrate Hindu new year. Apparently it's a low key celebration this year because of things like Bombay.

I hadn't known that it was the Hindu New Year, so did a web search. Very confusing, because apparently dates apparently vary across India. My colleague's year end is, I think, southern Indian.

Still, happy new year to all even if you celebrated it a little while ago!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

National differences in management

A comment from Ramana on Belshaw’s World: Seven deadly sins of performance measurement got me wondering about national differences in management structures and styles.

Like me, Ramana has worked as a management professional, but in an Indian context.

I know that management styles are influenced by culture. However, I am also wondering how national and cultural differences affect things such as the approach to performance measurement that I discussed in my post. This involves a combination of culture with particular institutional structures and approaches.

To what degree is my thinking to Australian-centric?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sunday and now Monday Essay - personal reflections on Australia's Indigenous peoples

Noel Pearson has resigned as the director of north Queensland's Cape York Institute in protest at the State Government's decision to preserve three Cape York regions under the 'wild rivers' legislation. He is rejoining the Cape York Land Council in an activist role to fight the legislation.

Back in February 2007 in Stocktake - Belshaw Writings on Australian Aborigines 4; Policy Interlude I suggested that Cape York locals appeared caught between a rock and a hard place, between their own needs including the right of indigenous people to manage their land and the externally imposed desire of the conservation movement to preserve Cape York as a heritage area.

At the time I did not know what local attitudes were to the environmental moves. Clearly not positive.

There has not been a lot of response to Mr Peason's resignation, with very limited discussion in the blogosphere. Those comments have largely split on party, more precisely cause, lines. I think it fair to say that Mr Pearson's actions have not (to this point at least) attracted a lot of support.   

In looking for background material on the resignation, I revisited some of the posts I have written on Australian indigenous issues. 

My first post, Australia's Aborigines - an introductory post, was published on 20 December 2006. Since then, I have written something over 120 posts. I have also tried to read as widely as possible. More recently, I have had the opportunity to work with Indigenous people. 

It's been a funny, sometimes bumpy, ride. The essay that follows reviews the some elements of the journey. In writing, I am not arguing cases or lines, although my own views will be clear. I am more concerned with the way my thinking has evolved.  

The Opening Post

I started that first post with a statement:

I have so far hesitated to write anything on issues connected with Australia's aborigines because this area has become a bit of a mine field, especially for some one like me who does not have much direct contact with aboriginal people. However, events have conspired to create a need for me to make some comments.

The brief arguments that followed in that post set a framework that has guided much of my thinking and writing since. In all this, some of my views have changed, others have not.

I went on in that first post to explain that I had been interested in Aboriginal issues for a long time.  By the 1980s I thought that the Aborigines had come an enormous distance. From my perspective, the wheels then seemed to come off.

I found myself resenting the sudden overall emphasis on the wrongs of the past that dominated discussion over the next twenty years. In parallel, all the reporting on aboriginal issues appeared to turn negative. I do not mean that it was anti-aboriginal, simply that all the stories were about problems, creating a constant negative flow that seemed to affect both aboriginal and non-aboriginal views. I started wondering just how things had gone so badly wrong.

Even then I thought that it was not all bad.

... rise in pride in aboriginality is now having a clear impact. I have a colleague whose grandmother was aboriginal. Twenty years ago, this was never mentioned. Today it is. I suspect that twenty years from now having some aboriginal ancestry will be a badge of pride among the broader Australian community. Indeed, it already is to some degree.

The only thing that will stop this happening is if we ourselves destroy it.

Drawing from my own experiences with Aboriginal eye care, I wrote:

This lead me to a simple conclusion. We should stop talking about specific aboriginal problems as though all aborigines were a uniform group quite distinct from the broader community, but instead should focus on disentangling the facts so that we knew just what we were really talking about.

I must say that this remains a real frustration. We simply don't get the information we need to be able to understand, let along make informed judgements.

I concluded by talking about the New England experience, expressing my frustration that the fragmentation imposed on New England by current systems made it very hard to see and understand changing patterns. I concluded:

In the absence of any integrated material I am forced to try to dig down location by location to discover the facts. Without these, anything I might say is likely to have little real meaning. Further, I have found little on some of the questions that I am interested in, such as the nature of modern internal migration patterns. It becomes yet another total story that needs to be written from ground up.

A Focus on History

A lot has happened since I wrote this post.

At a purely personal level, my resentment at the sudden and overwhelming emphasis on the wrongs of the past was part of my broader resentment at what I saw as the trashing of Australia's past, the imposition of politically correct views, a trend that reached a peak during the Keating years.

Looking back, I had no idea just how angry I had become. Looking back, my ability to write and express my ideas through blogging lanced a boil that had really begun to fester. Even now, I cannot listen to Mr Keating speak without a visceral reaction.

I wasn't alone in this type of reaction. Resentment still lingers in many sections of the Australian community.

In my case, the capacity to write, the need to understand, led me to investigate Aboriginal history with a special focus on NSW. 

This may sound like a small thing, but it is actually almost impossible to undertake historical research of any type if your starting point is resentment at a topic and the way the topic is presented. If you cannot put that resentment aside, then the automatic tendency is to debunk, to disprove; understanding comes a distant second.

All those interested in history ask questions of the material they read. In my case, I was reading from several perspectives.

Part of my interest lay in simply understanding what had happened. I may have been putting my resentment aside, but I was still deeply suspicious of  what had become the "conventional" interpretations. 

Part of my interest lay in understanding New England's specific past, given that I still wanted to write a history of New England. Here I became increasingly interested in the emerging linkages between present and past, at the way in which it might be possible to write a real story about the Aboriginal past.

Part of my interest, too, lay in the way that history helped me better understand current policy debates. Here I pointed and counter-pointed between my analysis of current issues and the past, always conscious of my New England/NSW focus.

I make this point because the diversity of Australian Indigenous history and experience actually makes it difficult to generalise. I rarely write about Northern Territory issues, for example, because I lack detailed understanding.

Reading about Aboriginal history in the European period can be distressing, in part because of the damage done by people through misguided policies introduced with the best of intentions. The effects of these changing policies still play out today in often unseen ways within the Indigenous community.

To illustrate what I mean, Judith Burn's PhD thesis looked at housing and mobility among Aboriginal people in Western NSW. By way of background to this, patterns of mobility and migration among Aboriginal people are important to things such as social housing demand.

Judith used interviews in a number of Western NSW towns to trace people's movements over time, assessing the number, direction and reasons for moves. As part of this, she used maps to show varying patterns of in and out migration between centres. These patterns are very different from those holding in the broader community and directly reflect the various stages in Aboriginal history in Western New South Wales.

To begin with, Aboriginal life at the time of European intrusion was marked by complex patterns of seasonal migration and of varying interactions between friendly and less-friendly or enemy groups. People knew their land and their place within it.

Much of this was destroyed quite quickly, yet the traditional patterns can still be seen in the movements along the River.

The creation of missions and reserves, together with the policies of the Aboriginal Protection (later Welfare) Board of moving and concentrating people, created a second set of geographic linkages linked to specific missions and reserves, past as well as present. Many Aboriginal people people have multiple places they think of as home - the place they think of as traditional country, the reserve or mission where their families were moved, the place they live now.

Another set of continuing linkages was created by the later Family Resettlement Aboriginal Corporation. This was created as a voluntary program to encourage Aboriginal people to move to areas such as Newcastle where there was available work.

While the early evaluations of this program were generally positive, it ended badly because it coincided with the sharp decline in Australian manufacturing and rising unemployment that marked the second half of the 1970s. Many of those who did move and obtained work lost their jobs and returned home. However, the links established then still appear in the migration patterns. People come and go to those centres. 

One of the difficulties in the migration patterns can be summarised this way: if you don't have work, then you may as well return home where you at least have country, friends and family. This explains why some Aboriginal young go to the regional centres or the big smoke, then return.

The Aborigines as People

One of the things that I have tried to do in my still limited historical research is to focus on the Aborigines as people. This may sound a simple thing, but in fact much historical discussion (and public policy for that matter) focuses on institutions and institutional changes. We recognise that there are people beyond this, but they largely disappear from view.

Take, as an example, the policies of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board in relocating Aboriginal groups. We can write about this in institutional terms, the reasons for, the general effects. But which people were relocated and where?

Previously I spoke of this in the context of the impact on current patterns of mobility in Western NSW. However, it goes far beyond this.

Some Aborigines lived on missions or reserves under the control of the Aboriginal Protection or Welfare Board, others chose to live on the fringes of town to avoid Board control.

This still plays out in NSW today.

Describing his own family, one Aboriginal person told me with pride that his family were fringe dwellers, not mish.

This simple statement had all sorts of distinction attached to it that I do not yet fully understand. However, fringe dwellers were for more likely to be mobile, more likely to be in the workforce, more likely to attend normal public schools instead of the separate Aboriginal schools found on the missions or reserves. Yet this distinction is not necessarily as clear cut as I am presenting here.

To understand all of this you have to find some way to break through the institutions and labels to the people underneath.

Diversity within the Aboriginal Community

Working in an environment where I come in daily contact with Indigenous people has altered and refined my views in a variety of ways. I am helped here by the fact that I am interested in Indigenous issues, I now know a fair bit about the history of Aboriginal people in NSW, I am from the country and I smoke!

In an article in, Blacker Than Thou, Sarah Maddison pointed to some of the complexities and divisions within the Indigenous community. Many of the same issues play out in NSW, although their expression is greatly affected by the State's specific history.

There are a number of issues here that I have to be careful in writing about. I do not necessarily understand the full complexity, I am not Indigenous, while there can be considerable sensitivities involved.       

The standard working definition of Aboriginality has been expressed this way:

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.

This definition thus has three parts: descent, self-identification and community recognition. Of these three, self-identification and community recognition are the most important.

Looking at descent first, the definition means that there are NSW Aborigines who are Aboriginal in the same way that I might variously classify myself (and do from time to time) as English, Scottish or Kiwi. To these three, my daughters can add Irish.

Of itself, this leads to great variety in the appearance and actual ethnicity of NSW Aboriginal people.

The second leg, self-identification, is important because it goes to the heart of people's perceptions of themselves. To be Aboriginal is to think of one's self as Aboriginal. This is one of the reasons for the quite rapid growth in Indigenous numbers as more people self-identify. It is also a reason why growth will continue because with inter-marriage between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal groups, the children may choose to be classified as Indigenous.

The self-identification leg worries some Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. However, the previous ethnicity based definition created major problems rather dramatically illustrated by the following quote from the historian Peter Read:

In 1935 a fair-skinned Australian of part-indigenous descent was ejected from a hotel for being an Aboriginal. He returned to his home on the mission station to find himself refused entry because he was not an Aboriginal. He tried to remove his children but was told he could not because they were Aboriginal. He walked to the next town where he was arrested for being an Aboriginal vagrant and placed on the local reserve. During the Second World War he tried to enlist but was told he could not because he was Aboriginal. He went interstate and joined up as a non-Aboriginal. After the war he could not acquire a passport without permission because he was Aboriginal. He received exemption from the Aborigines Protection Act-and was told that he could no longer visit his relations on the reserve because he was not an Aboriginal. He was denied permission to enter the Returned Servicemen's Club because he was.

You can see the mess that was created. However, with time the broader self-identification approach has all sorts of policy implications.

Just as my wife and children are angry with me for my failure to get a British passport when it was possible (this would have given us better access to the EU), so now the presence of Indigenous specific programs may under some conditions provide benefits encouraging people to claim Aboriginality.

This brings me to the third leg, community recognition. You must not only claim to be Aboriginal, but also be recognised as Aboriginal. Again, this one has its problems leading, among other things, to conflict within Aboriginal communities.

The point of this analysis is that there is no easy way of dealing with the definition of Aboriginality. To make things easier for myself, I have come to make a two fold distinction in my mind.

Distinction one is a claim to ethnic connection based on ancestry in the same way that I sometimes think of myself as Scottish. This is a matter of historical pride. Distinction two is a direct cultural/historical linkage.

There are some people who I would classify as Indigenous in my mind even though in blood terms they are as much Indigenous as I am Scottish because they grew up in Indigenous communities and have always been seen as part of their community.

This brings me to my final point in this section, the need to drop down from the broad macro State wide level to the local and the individual.

When you do this, many of the broad problems associated with things such as the definition of Aboriginality vanish. It does not matter what people's precise ethnicity is: they have clearly shared and are part of what I think if as the NSW or New England Aboriginal experience. End of argument.

The problem, however, is that a new and far more complex set of differences now emerge.

At this stage in my thinking, I have barely begun to sketch these out.

At the most basic level, we have the continued existence of alliances and rivalries that existed eons ago. Just listening to conversations, many Aboriginal people know who their traditional friends and enemies were, who can marry who, whom cannot be trusted.

Superimposed on this, we have the patterns created by subsequent history such as the actions of the Aboriginal Protection or Welfare Board. Then we have the results of most recent changes, including the concept of self-determination and the creation of the Land Councils in NSW.

On top we have broader changes, such as the decline of inland NSW where so many Aboriginal people live. It all gets very confusing!        

Government Policy towards our Indigenous Peoples

In their book Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with indigenous Australia (Seaview Press, South Australia, 2007), Michael C Dillon and Neil D Westbury point to a number of problems with the policies of various Governments towards Australia's indigenous people.

This is an important book because of Michael's links with Minister Jenny Macklin. It is also an important, if also deeply flawed, book because of the arguments it puts forward.

The book argues, correctly to my mind, that one problem is a lack of rigour in policy making. It also argues, again correctly to my mind, that a second problem lies in the failure to recognise Indigenous difference, leading to a one size fits all approach.

All this said, the flaw in the book lies in the way that the authors, having made these points, actually generalise from Northern Territory experience.  The NT is only a small part of Indigenous Australia.

Despite these faults, the book is a must read for anyone interested in improving the real condition of Australia's Indigenous peoples. 

In my own policy writing, I have tried to get across the importance of Indigenous variation. I have also tried, as Dillon and Westbury argue, to get across the need to distinguish between problems that are uniquely Indigenous, those that are sub-sets of broader problems.

So far I have not been very successful. Still, I have come a long way in at least my own thinking since that first post in December 2006.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - round the blogs

This morning I have deliberately set time aside for a wander around the blogging world, looking especially at blogs on my visit list.

IMGP0018_edited To start with one that I have not mentioned before, Adventures in Timor Leste. The sub-title says it all: TRAVEL HOPEFULLY, AND HAVE A BACKUP PLAN: The online diary of a family working in Timor Leste (East Timor) in 2009.

The writer is an Australian now on secondment in East Timor. The photo shows the official offices in Dili where he is working. 

On his English, ESL ...and more blog, Neil's featured post is On welfare issues with Korean-Australian students.I remember this post well. It's hard to believe that it's coming up on two years since it (the post) began to grow like topsy. The issue that Neil addresses - cultural conflicts and pressures - is just as relevant today.

Tatoo Parlour On Neil's Modest Photo blog, he has chosen this one for his archival post.

Working in Parramatta just at present, nearly every second person seems to have a tattoo. In the case of some of the blokes, their legs and arms are covered.

Its actually a bit off-putting if you get a big bloke who is also tattooed. It can become a visual threat.

It has been a little while since Niar last posted. Then she hoped to find the time to do some more blogging. I wonder how life is in Djakarta?

The Indonesia elections are on at present, with the early quick count results putting President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party in the lead. This reminded me that last November Niar reported on her own experience as a quick counter.

In What is your inner economist?, Winton Bates explores Tyler Cowen’s book “Discover Your Inner Economist”. Like Winton, I would normally not read a book with this title. Who wants to discover their inner economist? Apparently its quite good, title notwithstanding.

Ramanaclip-image001-thumb1 drew my attention to this one. It is a photo of the tear drop, a Russian present to the American people in memory of the 9/11 attacks.

I found the story a bit obscure. The core appears to be that no-one knows that it is there.

Checking around, it appears from a story in the New York Times (30 June 2004) that the decision to build raised some controversy in New Jersey mainly on aesthetic grounds. Then Artinfo carried a story in advance of the unveiling, while there are other stories as well. Now, all of a sudden, there is a burst of stories asking why no-body knows.

In  Life is hard and vodka’s cheap. Why not drink yourself to sleep?, Marcellous starts with his accounts, proceeds to the memorial service for Jorn Utzon, the original architect for the Sydney Opera House, then ends the day with a performance of  Lady Macbeth of Mstensk.

In a funny way, this post reminded me just how much I am an outsider in Sydney. You will get a feel for this from The Sydney Harbour Bridge - a mixed symbol and Bill Hughes - a personal memoir. I just don't react in the same way.

In WTF - career counselling for toddlers?, Legal Eagle had an example of what I think of as the growing insanity within our society, the emergence of a world of measurement and intervention, an obsessive desire to do things right, and a growing fear of failure.

I picked some of this up in  Belshaw’s World: Seven deadly sins of performance measurement, a post that Lynne kindly picked up with a link.

I do not know properly how to get this message - the problems with current systems - across in a way that will influence action.

While I can work within current systems - the work that I am doing just at present actually has the words "Planning and Reporting" in its title - I sometimes find it hard. We plan when we should be doing, do when we should be planning, worry about things that we cannot affect, ignore things that we can change, focus on the wrong things.

I am generally results oriented and can be stubborn, so I have not always made myself popular. I must say, though, that the pleasure of actually getting something through is still there! We just have to Fallen treetry to keep the faith, I guess.

Finishing with a photo from Lynne. This shows the branch that fell on their house during a recent storm.

This is in fact a very North Coast New England scene. Green and open.

As you might imagine, I know the coast very well and have done so over many years. There are parts that I have still to visit, parts that I have only visited once. Despite the recent spread of suburbia in  a huge strip from Newcastle to the border, this is still a place made up of very different worlds.

Looking at the photo, I felt that Lynne and Peter had a very lucky escape from serious damage.           

Friday, April 10, 2009

Inverell, the Chinese and links to a past world

I have now completed two posts on my latest train reading: Train Reading - Elizabeth Wiedemanns' "World of its own: Inverell's early years" and then a fuller review in Book review - Elizabeth Wiedemann's World of its own: Inverell's early years 1827-1920.

There is some fascinating stuff in this book. As a simple example, how many Australian local histories have Chinese as a constant theme for more than fifty years?

In 1889, for example, the ringer of the Wallangra shed was Ah Pow. Ringer is the head shearer, Wallangra was a large sheep station near Inverell. Eight of the twenty shearers employed that year were Chinese.

As Elizabeth notes, Chinese names were evidently a problem for those of English origin. The list of employees at Wallangra in 1872 included Ah Sue no 1, Ah Sue no 2, Ah Sue no 3, Ah Nee, Ah See, Aquie no 2, Ah Fatt, Ah Yong , Ah Leep, Ah Hong, Ah Chong and Lee Chong!

Like so many New England things I write about, there is a family connection. The following photo from cousin Jamie's collection shows Great Aunt Ellie on a horse at Maxwellton.

Aunt Ellie Inverell

In 1912, the newly married David Drummond (my grandfather) packed his new wife and possessions into a sulky at Arding near Uralla and drove to Maxwellton near Inverell where he had accepted a manager position on a share farmer basis. This meant that he was not paid a wage, but received a share of the return from the crop.

Maxwellton itself had been formed from the subdivision of Bannockburn Station a few years before, something that Elizabeth writes about in her book.

Prior to the opening of the railway in 1901, Inverell farmers were largely limited to local markets. The railway changed all this, supporting subdivision of the bigger grazing properties. 

The year is 1916. Ellie is wearing the heavy full skirts of the period.

Two of her brothers are serving overseas.

Will, a conscientious objector on religious grounds, still joined the military as a stretcher bearer because he felt he had to do his bit. He went ashore at Gallipoli in the first wave.

Morris, the head of the family following the death of father, mother and step-mother, had enlisted as well. "I feel it coming on like a cold", he wrote to Brother David.

He was to die in France the following year. His presence and magnetic personality came down through the years in the memory of his brothers and half sister.

The family agreed that David could best serve by staying on the farm. He was also very deaf, unable to hear well without a hearing trumpet.

Aunt Ellie idolised half brother Morris. He was and would remain, with justice, the ideal brother. When Morris left for France, he asked David to look after their sister. David did so.

The Drummonds were a long-lived family. Aunt Ellie was still alive when my daughters were young, creating a link from this 1916 photo to the Armidale of the late 1980s.         

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Thursday note

Is it really Monday since I last posted? What on earth have I been doing?

Two posts on the New England Australia blog since Monday. The first, Belshaw’s World: Seven deadly sins of performance measurement, simply brings my Express columns up to date. The second, Random thoughts for a Thursday, is as the name says.

There has been one post on Management Perspectives, A further meander through recent economic developments April 09 - engineering construction, short term visitor movements.

It is very hard just at present to keep any sane perspective on economic developments because of the nature of the commentary.

Assume, as we economists say, that there had not been a global financial crisis.

It is clear that the Australian economy had entered a downturn before September last year. In the absence of the global downturn and with a recession of the current scale, we would be worrying whether or not it might be as bad as 1991. So far we are well short of that, although in worst case we could see 1991 again.

My point? Simply this. By referencing everything back to the global downturn we are losing sight of the local, twisting our perspective.

In responding to the G20 summit, a Sydney newspaper carried the headline Australian Government declares war on risk.

At one level, this has to one of the silliest headlines of all time. How can you have a war on risk? At a second level, it actually captures some of the more crazy elements in current thinking and responses.

If, as some argue, the current global downturn is the outcome of sustained over-consumption in some countries matched by over-saving in others, then the downturn will not end until the imbalances correct themselves.    

There are some issues here that I want to write about in more detail, but I will do that on Management Perspectives. For the moment, my point is that we cannot control the world, only our responses to it.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Train Reading - Elizabeth Wiedemanns' "World of its own: Inverell's early years"

My train reading has now shifted to Elizabeth Wiedemann's World of its own: Inverell's early years (Inverell Shire Council and Devill Publicity, Inverell 1981).

Inverell Court House For my many readers who do not know Inverell, the town lies in New England on the Western Slopes just over 800k (eight hours driving time) north west of Sydney.

The photo shows the Inverell Court House completed in 1886.

I hadn't read this book for many years. I bought it after first meeting Elizabeth. We were both doing post-graduate history at the University of New England.

This is a good history, one that I will write about about in more detail later. However, it also brings out a problem with local histories.

Elizabeth was writing for a local audience. She is a good historian, so the book contains a lot of interest even for a reader who does not know Inverell. Yet her focus makes the book less accessible to a broader audience.

This raises an issue that I am really conscious of just at present. How do I, as someone interested in the history of a region, make that history real and relevant to a person who does not know the area?

Let me try to illustrate with a quote from a diary entry, 23 March 1839:

One of McIntyre's men was killed by the blacks ... he was much bruised and cut.

He was probably killed by a war spear or spears, although he might have been hacked to death.

War spears took several forms but were designed to kill. In one form, microliths (sharp stone flakes) were embedded side-on along the head. They would rip the flesh as the head of the spear was pulled out.

In one reported case, the victim was found with no less than ten spears embedded in the body. Sort of a spear pin-cushion.

See what I mean? These comments were written from a settler perspective. The Aborigines would obviously have had a different perspective.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Brief Sunday Snippets - technology, writing etc

In response to my complaint in Depression on tidying up, Gordon smith wrote:

Purchase or borrow a decent scanner. Scan the material to your PC. Add appropriate keywords. Do a backup of your PC. Keep the backup elsewhere. Discard paper-based material (or put it into commercial storage space).

It's time consuming (sorry), but everything you have will be on hand and not take up too much space (OK, you may need a larger hard disk).

Gordon is largely right, of course. I should do something like this. It's just that the process is very time consuming. And I also find paper helpful.

For someone like me with broad interests and limited time, finding the best way of using new technology is quite important. Part of my problem is to find the time to learn how to use it.

Yesterday at work I was chatting with a colleague about bibliographies and references, finding a way to automate this process. She suggested the use of endnotes, or an equivalent package. This allows you to record and sort references and then to automate the process of inserting them in the text. You can use a variety of labels.

I had not come across this before, so its something else I have to learn. Sigh!

I am a technology lagger rather than leader, although the way I have worked in recent decades means that I am a very heavy technology user. Heavy to the point that it is quite difficult to stay in touch, upgrade, as things change.

One little thing that I have just discovered is that if I use endnotes in a word document I can then transfer it to Livewriter and post, preserving the endnotes. This is quite important from my viewpoint since I now want to move to a more academic form of writing - academic in terms of use of references, not style. This makes it easier to re-use material.

To get a feel for what I mean, have a look at New England in the Pleistocene Period.

This post took me quite a long time to write, it's part of my catch-up work.

Most of the pre-history material on New England really starts with the Holocene since this is the period of most sites. I wanted to get my mind around what New England might have looked before this.

To do this, I used the work of Mulvaney and Kamminga as a base. They tell a continent wide story, so I had to take this and apply it within a narrower geographic frame. This was quite time consuming; my train reading has stalled on one book while I took notes.   

By adding footnotes to the post, I hope that I have created something that other people can legitimately reference, while also making it easier for me to re-use.

My posts on this blog are going to continue to be skimpy for a little while I continue to catch up. However, I will continue to cross-link on this blog so that you can see what I am doing. 

Time to write my Express column.  

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Depression on tidying up

As part of my current regroup, I am trying to tidy up past papers. Our new house may be bigger in some respects, but my personal real space is less. Things have to go.

It's quite depressing.

What do I keep, what should go? Yes, my life has gone in new directions, past things are past. Yet going through my material, what should be kept to allow me to write about past things, what might I want to use in the future?

Take, as an example, my training material. All the training notes, the presentations, the supporting material. What do I do about the cross-cultural material? The articles and course material on the differences between cultures are quite good. But will I use it again. And where will I store it?


The absence of Saturday Morning Musings

I said on Thursday in Never enough time - and a pause in posts that I was taking a break in posting here to catch up, among other things, on my other writing.

As part of this, I have completed two posts over on Management Perspectives:

I want to continue my writing on current economics because I think that it is important, at least to me.

If you look at the current reporting on economic conditions, and some of it is very good, it is driven by daily events. I want to get a longer term focus.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Never enough time - and a pause in posts

Sitting on the train yesterday morning trying to write up notes from my reading, I came to the grim conclusion that I am going backwards in my writing. There is just too little time.

It is now 5.50am. The early mornings are the time when I do much of my writing during the week. During the day I can check emails or do some searches in bits, but my time is obviously limited by normal work demands. Week nights are simply too chaotic to do much.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I am taking a very short break in posting on this blog to allow me to catch up a little.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The High Court, cane toads and ants

Hearings in the High Court on the Pape case continue today. I am not close enough to comment on the detail of the argument. The Commonwealth's fall-back position, Senior Counsel for NSW argue that it is the only constitutionally valid position, is to link the stimulus payment to the Commonwealth's tax power. The payment would then be made as a tax refund, but only if the tax payer had paid tax and up to the limit of the tax paid.

Reading some of the commentary, people don't care about the issue, they want the money. So if Mr Pape wins they are going to chew him over like a mob of angry bull-ants.

Ants are not to be sneezed at. I was struck by a story in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald. Apparently, Australia's meat ant can eat cane toad young (picture).

meatant-470x0 Cane toads were deliberately introduced from Hawaii to Australia in 1935 to control scarab beetles that were pests of sugar cane. Large, poisonous and with no natural predators, they have spread and spread throughout the more tropical parts of the continent.

Much excitement, since the cane toads really a blight on the landscape.

Living in an Australian urban environment as I now do, I had really forgotten the role that ants play in the bush. Brought memories back - a bull-ant bite really hurts.