Monday, November 30, 2009

A note on compassion

This will be a quiet week for posts on this blog, mainly links to other writing.

Having completed the second post on Don Aitkin's book What was it all for?  I woke up this morning thinking about one issue.

At the end of the book, Don talks about the need for Australians to have a conversation about a new Australian dream to replace the now defunct social compact that used to underpin Australian life.

I woke up thinking about the importance of compassion.

The word most commonly used in recent years to describe Australia is tolerant. Australians are, or are at least meant to be, tolerant. I think that this is important, especially at a time society is becoming in some ways less tolerant.

However, tolerance of itself simply means accepting difference. Compassion is a stronger word because it means understanding other's misfortunes and indeed errors.

A society without compassion may be succesful in economic terms, but it will be poorer in human terms.     

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday Essay - What was it all for? part 2

This post continues my review that I began in Train Reading - Don Aitkin's What was it all for? 1. Just a reminder that the book looks at social change in Australia over the last fifty years in part through the prism set by the Armidale High School Leaving Certificate class of 1953.
It is men, rather than women, who have been the notable casualties in the transformation of work. It is certainly the case that nearly 30 per cent of men aged 25 and more cannot find full time work, while part-time work has to some extent been colonised by women and the young (p121).
While Don's view of the changes that have taken place in Australia is generally positive, he also recognises the negatives. Here his chapter on the world of work provides a quite penetrating picture of the changes that have taken place.

No one would deny, I think, that the position of women has improved enormously. The women in the class of 53 had far fewer opportunities open to them than their equivalents today. I also suspect, although this one is less certain, that few would would want to go back to some of the hard physical labour that still existed in the 1950s before machines reduced the load.

All this said, the working world today is in some ways less pleasant, less secure, harder, than it was when the class of 53 began work.

Working hours have increased. The once stereotypical easy going casual Australian has been replaced by a far more competitive and driven person.

To my mind, and I have monitored this quite closely, actual working hours have not increased as much as people think. What has happened is that somewhat longer working hours have combined with longer travel time to get to work. Then, most recently, the new communications technologies have led to an invasion by work into previous domestic space. We all know the people unable to put their blackberries aside.

Increased working hours have been associated with another trend. Don puts it this way:
for one overwhelming change to the world of work in the second half of the twentieth century was the end of security of tenure (p101).   
I do not think that the importance of this can be overstated. During a period of rapid change, jobs vanished, new one appeared. Again to quote Don:
one sad rule is that the people displaced are hardly ever the people who gain the new jobs (p102).
The casualisation of work, the rise of contractors, the loss of jobs, have all combined to create a pervasive sense of uncertainty. Incomes have increased, driven in part by the rise of two income families, but this has come at a cost.

Another feature of the world of work has been the the parallel rise and fall of the professions.

Professions and sub-professions have proliferated. There are now more professions and professionals than at any previous time in human history. Yet the prestige of the professions has declined in parallel. The social cachet once associated with being a professional has largely gone.

In some ways the saddest group in the class of 53 were the school teachers. Saddest is my word, not theirs. They loved their work, yet most seem to have taken early retirement. The issue was not money, although teachers' salaries have declined in relative terms and are unlikely to recover. Rather, the fun went out of it as they coped with increasing rules and complexities.

The teachers were not alone. The same pattern occurred across other professional groups and for the same reasons. In a sense, the class of 53 were lucky in that they were on old style super schemes, making it easier for them to exit. The loss to the community from early retirement, from people opting out even while working, is one of the unseen costs of social change.

Throughout the book, Don traces the rise of new concepts.

In 1951, economy was something that households and individuals practiced. Fifty years later it was one of three great collectives. Again to quote Don:
'society' describes us as individuals, families and organisations; 'polity' refers to us as citizens, voters and democrats; and 'economy' includes us as workers, spenders and investors (p41).
One of the words that Don looks at is 'choice'. Today, the concept of choice has become a central justification for many measures: people must have choice.

This concept did not exist, or did not exist in the same form, in 1953. Then Governments were simply trying to provide a basic common standard of service. Then, too, the range of options open to people was less. Whether the emphasis on choice has in fact delivered better results is open to question.

Another word Don mentions is 'compliance', indeed a very popular word today. In the professions, for example, he suggests that compliance has in fact replaced the old concept of professional independence.

He also suggests, and I found this interesting, that there has been a direct link between withdrawal of Governments from activities (another feature of the last fifty years) and the rise of compliance. As Governments withdrew, they placed greater emphasis on compliance as a way of still enforcing their position.

The last chapter in the book is entitled what happened to the dream?

While Don is positive about many of the changes that have taken to place, he also points to the way that the old social compact that used to underpin Australian has gone without anything coming in its place. He suggests, and I agree, that we need a national conversation about the ideals that should underpin the way Australia works.                      

A little more on CHOGM 2009

Further to my post, The importance of the Commonwealth, it seems that Mr Rudd agrees with me. Australia will host the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

If the Australian reporting is correct, Mr Rudd appears to have played a significant role in the climate change outcome, chairing the group that drew up the climate change communiqué. 

The importance of the Commonwealth

CHOGM 2009 Family Photo

I have a post coming up later today completing my review of Don Aitkin's book What was it all for? and so had no intention of posting.

Then driving through the early morning light to take Clare to work, I listened to the BBC World Debate, this week on the question the Commonwealth at 60: does it have a future? The program was live, so it is not up yet.

Yesterday in Saturday Morning Musings - Liberal implosion, the importance of the Commonwealth I mentioned the decline in knowledge in Australia about the Commonwealth. Listening to the program, I actually got annoyed with myself because it revealed my own lack of knowledge, showed how out of touch I was getting.

Like most of us in a time poor world I rely to a degree on the Australian media for my knowledge of the world. I do check beyond, but the Australian media is still my first source.

As I listened to a panel discussion including the foreign ministers for UK and Bangladesh, I realised that the almost complete absence of Commonwealth reporting meant that my own knowledge had atrophied. To illustrate what I mean, I thought that I should look at some of the issues covered in the panel discussion. I leave it in your hands to judge whether these issues are important from an Australian perspective.

The timing of this CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) just before Copenhagen gave it added importance.

Climate change has been an important issue within the Commonwealth for some years simply because so many Commonwealth countries are affected. We know of the Pacific island states, but (and as the Bangladesh Foreign Minister pointed out) Bangladesh faces the possibility of 20-30 million displaced people.

Successive Australian Governments have in fact been quite dismissive of the concerns of the smaller nations whether expressed through the Commonwealth or other bodies such as the Pacific Island Forum. To those nations, the Commonwealth has been important in a way outside Australia's ken because it provides a vehicle through which they can at least press their case.

The importance of this CHOGM from a climate change perspective was marked by the presence of the UN Secretary General, the Prime Minister of Denmark and the French President at the summit.

The presence of the French President was quite striking.

France has its own Francaphone equivalent to the Commonwealth and has been deeply suspicious of the Commonwealth as a threat to the French language and culture. Further, this CHOGM is considering an application for membership by Rawanda, a country that has been trying to join the Commonwealth for six years and even changed its official language from French to English to support its case! Yet there was the French President.

As Neil noted in To Senator Nick Minchin, the Queen Elizabeth's  opening address set the tone:       

And on this, the eve of the UN Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change, the Commonwealth has an opportunity to lead once more. The threat to our environment is not a new concern. But it is now a global challenge which will continue to affect the security and stability of millions for years to come.  Many of those affected are among the most vulnerable, and many of the people least well able to withstand the adverse effects of Climate Change live in the Commonwealth.

The Queen always speaks carefully because of her multiple roles. However, there can be no doubting her commitment on this issue, nor that of her husband and son.

There is, as Neil implied in his post, a kind of delicious irony in the fact that some of the strongest supporters of monarchy in Australia are leading the anti-climate change push. There is an almost more delicious irony in the fact that some of those in Australia who are most anti-monarchy and who want to dismantle traditional ties, Mr Turnbull comes to mind, find a base for support for their environmental positions within those institutions that they want to do away with!

As it happened, the French President got the support he wanted for a joint French/UK initiative to establish a climate change fund. Commonwealth leaders also called for a "legally binding" agreement on climate change to be reached in Copenhagen next month. Fifty three nations are not to be dismissed. The CHOGM did , I think, improve Copenhagen's chances.

The climate change discussion links to one of the issues canvassed in the BBC forum,the extent to which the Commonwealth can or should play an international role beyond that of talking shop. Here the British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary made a very important point.

The Commonwealth is not a United Nations. All Commonwealth countries are members of multiple bodies. Their Commonwealth ties are one and not normally the most important of their international linkages. What, then, is the use of the Commonwealth?

David Miliband suggested that it lay in the exercise of soft-power, the way the Commonwealth facilitated dialogue. I do not find this a fully satisfactory answer from a personal perspective. It is too wishy-washy.

There is no doubt that the Commonwealth is facing something of a crisis of confidence, of self-reflection, of uncertainty. In some ways the organisation reached its peak during de-colonisation where it played a key role. The very idea of international election monitors is a Commonwealth invention. Now, as the body turns sixty, people question its relevance in a more complex world.

The very fact that I did not know, nor I think do most Australians, that this year's CHOGM marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Commonwealth is a sign of the organisation's decline in popular perception.

I cannot give you a clear and unequivocal answer as to the future relevance of the Commonwealth. I can, however, point to some of the reasons why I think the Commonwealth should and probably will survive.

The first is that countries still want to belong. Even Australia, where the Commonwealth has to some degree become a dusty memory of what is now seen as an increasingly irrelevant past, has no particular desire to withdraw. Membership is simply useful. 

Actually, the question of whether countries like Australia should be excluded from the Commonwealth was raised by the moderator during the BBC discussion. The argument went this way: if Australians were no longer interested, should they then remain?

The question got short shrift and indeed it was partially rhetorical. It is in the Commonwealth's interest for Australia to remain. However, if Australia is to remain a member, then we do need to address the question of our contribution.

Beyond established developed countries like Canada or Australia where Commonwealth support has been declining, the continued wish of new countries to join the Commonwealth is a sign of continued perceived relevance.

Rawanda is a case in point. Here six year's work is likely to pay off at this CHOGM with a positive decision on membership. African members support Rawanda's application, as does at least the UK, Canada and Australia.

The issue of new Commonwealth membership is a complicated one and highlights some of the interesting tensions within the Commonwealth. What began as an Empire club began to change with the admission of the Cameroon and Mozambique in 1995.

The thought that countries outside the old Commonwealth and Empire would wish to join would have seemed inconceivable sixty years ago. Yet the combination of the Commonwealth's infrastructure (the huge web of Commonwealth institutions) with its role as a forum has attracted new members.

Joining the Commonwealth is not easy. Existing members wonder how the institution will retain its coherence. There are very specific issues about the maintenance of shared values.

The question of shared values links to democratic and human rights. Many Australian critics of the Commonwealth point to the presence of continuing human rights abuses in Commonwealth countries. Why, they suggest, should Australia belong to a club some of whose members have practices that our alien to ours? And what does the Commonwealth do about this?

I think that it is useful here to compare the UN with the Commonwealth.

The UN is a world governing body. It's role is manage the relations between nations to minimise conflict and to facilitate the achievement of joint aims. To this end, UN membership is essentially open to all, and has to be, regardless of the system of Government.

As a club, the Commonwealth is very different.

The Commonwealth is quite diverse. In religious terms, for example, its major religions are Hindu (800 million), Muslim (500 million) and Christian (400 million). It is not a governing body, just a club. The challenge is how to manage this.

In many ways the Commonwealth is a force for human rights and democratic values in a way that the UN cannot. Its strength is intangible.

There is a glass half full, half empty issue here.

The Commonwealth's failure, its inability to act at times, has been well documented. Its only weapon is exclusion from membership. Zimbabwe is no longer a member of the Commonwealth, Fiji's membership has been suspended.

So long as countries want to remain members of the Commonwealth, then the institution's commitment to human rights and democratic values remains important. This is not a small thing, even if far from perfect. In simple terms, it places pressure on national leaders and on governing institutions.

The case of Rawanda is instructive. The central issue with membership is whether that country has improved its human rights position to the point that membership can be supported. Some argue no, many national governments including Australia argue yes. If Rawanda's membership is accepted, then that country  enters into an arrangement that exposes it to further scrutiny.

In all this, one of the reason why I remain such a Commonwealth supporter is the way membership can facilitate interaction between different cultures. I just love the diversity!             

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - Liberal implosion, the importance of the Commonwealth

This week can best be described as a blogger's nightmare, just to much to write about!

In Australia, the Liberal Party implosion over the Emissions Trading Scheme has understandably dominated news to the immense, almost unseemly, pleasure of Thomas on blog, Twitter and in Facebook. Thomas, a political tragic from way-back who is usually more immersed in US events, has written some interesting stuff.

For my part, I simply don't understand the Liberal Party factions. Factions used to belong to Labor. Their emergence in the Liberal Party over the last fifteen years is a significant story because of what it may say about the nature of change within Australian society. Perhaps Thomas will explain to me some day.

One of the interesting features of the whole affray has been the inability of the media to properly understand Mr Turnbull. He has been playing the game a little outside the rules as understood by the journalists, creating interesting (to me) tensions in reporting.

I have no idea how things are going to play out. I simply don't know enough about the internal world of the Liberal Party.

Just guessing, Mr Turnbull will try to get the ETS legislation through Monday. If he does, then the dynamics of Tuesday's Party meeting will shift. If he fails, then he will certainly fall Tuesday and the Government will probably go through to a double dissolution election. All very fascinating.

  The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is being held this weekend in Trinidad and Tobago, drawing together the leaders of 53 Commonwealth countries.

As an aside, I really hate Flash. There was a rather great photo of the leaders grouped in front of the flags with the Australian PM in the front row on the far right. But is it unusable, at least to me.

CHOGM has been associated with a large variety of events - youth forums, business meetings etc, drawing together people from this very disparate entity. In population terms, the Commonwealth is the largest and most varied global entity after the United Nations. It is also a body that has been struggling to some degree to redefine itself after its earlier successes in aiding the de-colonisation process.

A major survey carried out by the Royal Commonwealth Society as part of its Commonwealth Conversation program pointed to some of the problems. Support for the Commonwealth is highest in developing countries, lower in developed countries. In all cases, there is a lack of knowledge of the Commonwealth.

Of all Commonwealth countries, Australia appears to have the least knowledge of and support for the Commonwealth. I accept that I am old fashioned, but I think that's a pity.

At a purely practical level, the Commonwealth provides an entry point into a variety of cultures that are different yet linked through history. Love or hate the Empire, its imprint is still with us.

My daughters and indeed my wife might challenge this, but I knew far more about other countries than my daughters do at the same age. Yes, it was a partial slice, the world coloured pink on the map, but it was still knowledge outside the confines set by Australia.

Things change. Yet, perhaps, I can be forgiven for continuing to argue that things like the Commonwealth are worth preserving because they broaden us.  

Friday, November 27, 2009

CEC - strangeness on the fringes

I simply report this gem from the Australian Citizens Electoral Council without comment.

Isherwood: Who would have thought? British genocidalists are liars too

The British oligarchy’s depopulation charity, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), established in 1961 by Prince Philip and “former” Nazi Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands to realise their wet dream of reducing the world’s population to two billion or so people, is a key paymaster of the lying scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU).

The CRU basically cooked up the whole global warming fraud: in another time, before hackers exposed their true nature last week, Britain’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King happily gushed that the CRU “set the agenda for the major research effort” in climate change; its “scientists” are the leading authors of the IPCC reports cited as the bible on global warming.

Well, well.

DeusExMacintosh's "I am not an underclass"

DeusExMacintosh is one of the three skepticlawyer bloggers. She is disabled, something I had not known. Her post, I am not an underclass, provides a very personal perspective on what it is like forced to live on UK disability benefits.

The problems that she refers to are not limited to the UK. We find them in Australia where structures and attitudes are not disimilar.

For reasons I won't bore you with except that they are professional rather than personal, I know the Australian benefits structure quite well.

In the absence of access to social housing or some personal income or assets, it is pretty well nigh impossible for a person outside a very low rent area to live on benefits at other than a most basic subsistence level. And I mean basic.

We then create a benefits structure that works against advancement. In social housing, for example, if you earn above a certain and low figure that varies with household type you may lose your house. If you are a single person and go off benefits, then you lose your Commonwealth Rent Assistance as well.

Of course there are people who rip the system off. However, we spend far more time chasing them, a very small minority, than we do in trying to fix the system up.

Our Federal Government has acquired the NSW habit of attaching labels to changes that confuse if not mislead.

Recent old age pension changes were announced under the mantra Secure and Sustainable Pensions. Do you know what this means?

I accept that the problems involved - technical and financial - in designing a more effective system of social services are complex.They are going to get more complicated as the population ages.

The concept of "underclass" that DeusExMacintosh refers to is, I think, relatively new so far as Australia is concerned. Until quite recently, underclass was seen as something that existed in other places, not here.

I will write further on this one in my We need to reform Australia's approach to public policy series.  


Please do browse the discussion on DEM's post. There are some thoughtful comments there that I plan to use in later posts. 

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Welcome to visitor 65,000

Visitor 65,000 arrived at this blog this afternoon searching on the importance of family history.


Australian responses to climate change - a background briefing

I have watched the manoeuvring on climate change within the Australian Opposition with fascination. I thought that it might be of interest to look at some of the background dynamics involved.

The views that follow are impressionistic, based on my overall knowledge. I stand to be corrected on errors of fact and interpretation.

I suppose that I should begin by making my own position clear. I have always been cautious about some of the climate change arguments. However, I have also felt that we simply cannot keep pumping gasses into the atmosphere without having some effect.

Given this, my personal opinion has been that we should accept the majority scientific view as a starting point and therefore focus on possible responses. This, to my mind, is the safest course. We can always alter our position should the later evidence in fact point to a contrary view.

Two years ago, it seemed that the climate change supporters held the high ground. Those with the opposite views were increasingly marginalised, driven to the fringes. They retained some influence, but had become islands surrounded by a rising climate change sea. Unseen, however, were different forces that would lead to some unravelling of the previous majority position. The degree of that unravelling has still to be seen.

Climate change is first and foremost a scientific issue. However, the responses to it are not. Yes, there is a science based measurement question, but the possible responses involve far broader issues.

The first problem with climate change is the way it moved from a scientific to an almost theological question, one enmeshed in ideological divides of left and right. A person's position on climate change became a label to to which other things might be attached. You were either pure or not pure, with the definition of purity depending on the personal position of the observer on the issue.

The attachment of so many things to the label carried across into "discussion" on possible responses. Climate change became a weapon to be used to support a variety of already existing positions and causes.

Those supporting forests now argued that maintenance and extension of forests were required to fight climate change. Those concerned about the Murray argue that recent droughts were linked to climate change and that, given future continuing lower rainfall, action must be taken now to free water flows. Those supporting Sydney's somewhat silly water restrictions justified their stance in part on climate change.

These types of responses became remarkably pervasive, generating growing resistance. Those opposed to or affected by the responses transferred their distaste from the response to the concept of climate change itself. Faced with an argument that went a (climate change) then b (stop irrigation or whatever), it is far easier to simply reject a than it is to establish that a and b are unrelated or, at least, not related in the way presented.
Rebellion began in the bush. Normally below the media horizon, dismissed as rat-baggery when it did pop up, it spread. Partly ideological, it also reflected growing dislike and resentment at the way that proposed "solutions" adversely affected the bush, a growing frustration at the way that alternatives such as carbon sequestration in soil were ignored.

There has always been a strong environmental concern in the country. Three years ago listening to programs such as the ABC's Landline from my home office I heard this all the time. However, the willingness of country people to accept arguments about climate change has been eroded by the blind and unthinking nature of some of the responses.

This concern has been capitalised on. A week or so back, for example, Professor Ian Plimer visited Armidale to speak to a packed local meeting. Professor Plimer is a well known skeptic. His visit was paid for by local rural supply companies.

The apparently combined opposition of the National Party to the proposed emission trading scheme has been treated by the media as an example of irrationality. It is not. It may be wrong, that is another issue, but it also reflects concerns in the Party's voter base.

I sympathise. After all, I have pointed in my posts to the way that certain decisions have adversely affected country people. I have also discussed new approaches.

In Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part One and then in the sequel (the link to this is in the post already quoted), I looked at new farming techniques. If the proponents of soil sequestration are to be believed, and I am not capable of making  judgements here, the process has the capacity to remove as much carbon as the ETS while improving soils at the same time. I think that's kind of important.

Australia as an urban country thinks urban responses. Even here, if the daily conversations I hear are to be believed, the climate change case has been losing ground. It's partly a matter of ideology, but it's also partly a matter of an increasing number of people seeing themselves as potentially adversely affected.

This is where the increasingly energetic and funded special interest groups come in. While the Green groups had their way initially, now those on the other side of the fence likely to be affected by the proposed ETS are arguing their case. Their arguments are affecting other elements in the Opposition.

We are now starting to talk about serious money. We are also talking about specific seats.

The Green belt inner suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne can be ignored for practical purposes. They are rusted on Labor/Green. It is swing seats potentially affected by the responses to climate change that start to become important. And the responses do stand to affect a very wide variety of people. Once people start to pay more, once they start to lose their jobs, then things become interesting.

Take the Hunter mining seats, as an example, or the La Trobe valley. Or, for that matter, the retirement belt seats.

In the Hunter, the unions are generally backing the Government position despite reservations among their membership. The unions argue that new "green" jobs will emerge to compensate. This may be true, although I have some doubts. What is true based on the experience of the last fifty years, is that those who lose their jobs through structural adjustment are not those who get the new jobs. Those losing jobs often go to the industrial scrap heap. Should this begin to happen in the Hunter in the way forecast, then expect voting changes.
It is very hard for the ordinary citizen to work their way through all this. Here, I think, another important factor comes in.

Most of the biggest changes of the last fifty years, mass migration is an example, have succeeded because they enjoy a measure of bi-partisan support. That is why Mr Rudd was wise to offer a deal to the Opposition, why Mr Turnbull was right to accept. However, the divisions in the Coalition that then resulted show just how much things have spiraled out of control.

It is easy to type those in the Coalition who oppose the deal with unfavourable epithets. Some, I must asmit, do lend themselves to this course. It is also easy to put all this in terms of left-right divides. Yet the venom and sheer size of the anti-forces, far larger than any one really expected, says there is a problem.

Assume, for the moment, that this group can be isolated and marginalised, treated as Howard supporters and yesterday's men. That would be most unwise. It creates a group that may later capitalise on the costs and uncertainties that will certainly be associated with climate change.

I am not saying that you have to agree with them, simply listen to what they have to say.
Most of all, if climate change is as projected and if it is in fact connected with human activity, we are going to need imagination and creativity - not simply the mechanics of economics - to deal with it.


Life continues to get tougher for Mr Turnbull as things spiral out of control. Today's (26 November) sudden resignation from the Opposition front bench by Tony Abbott just adds to the pressure.

The Age story simply ends More soon....

And so there was.

According to ABC news, Tony Abbott, Sophie Mirabella, Tony Smith and Senators Nick Minchin and Abetz have all quit their shadow portfolios because they cannot vote for the legislation. Senate whip Stephen Parry has also relinquished his position.

Now Mr Turnbull has held a press conference asserting his position.

Who knows what will happen? I certainly don't!

A further postscript

Earlier in this post I referred to the growth of opposition below the radar. I focused on the country because I know this best. However, I also said:
Australia as an urban country thinks urban responses. Even here, if the daily conversations I hear are to be believed, the climate change case has been losing ground. It's partly a matter of ideology, but it's also partly a matter of an increasing number of people seeing themselves as potentially adversely affected.
It seems that I was far more correct here than I realised. While many things are involved, it seems clear that Malcolm Turnbull has been side-swiped by a grass-root revolt that no-one recognised.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Climate change and a fascinating day in Canberra

Yesterday's events in Australia's capital were quite fascinating, varying between high drama and high farce.

As it happened, I had a part completed background piece looking at the growing opposition to climate change. I will try to finish this tonight. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Train Reading - Don Aitkin's What was it all for? 1

My train reading now is Don Aitkin's What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia. (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005). This is a remarkably good book for reasons I will explain in a moment.

For the benefit of international readers, Don Aitkin is a very senior academic, an historian and political economist. From his beginnings at the University of New England, he was Professor of Politics at Macquarie University in the 1970s, and then Professor of Political Science in the Research School of Social Sciences in the ANU. In 1988 he was appointed the foundation Chairman of the Australian Research Council, and it was from this post that he joined the University of Canberra in 1991 as VC.

Again for the benefit of international readers, this book is almost completely accessible to the non-Australian. It will, in fact, give you an extremely good introduction to this country in terms of post war history and society.

Don did the Leaving Certificate, the precursor of the High School Certificate, at Armidale High School in 1953. Fifty years later, he went back for a reunion of the class of 53. This led him to think of an article that became a book looking at change in Australia since the Second World war through the prism set by the experiences and attitudes of the class of 53.

Don is a very skilled writer. His two early books on the NSW Country Party have strongly influenced my own writing, although my focus is a little different. Don focused on the Party, whereas I came to see the Party as a part of what I called the broader regional movements and especially the New State movements.

His introduction provides an overview to the whole book. This is followed by a snapshot of Australia and Armidale at the time the book starts.

I found this valuable because it provides a benchmark against which to measure change. It is also, I think, a useful technique to use in general histories. Don also uses overviews to set a context for his deeper and more personal analysis.

In many ways, the lives of the class of 1953 breaks into two halves.

The first half begins with a conservative, regulated, socially constricted society. Yet this was also a world of low unemployment (2% was considered a Government breaker), of economic security and opportunity.

The second half is a word of change, of de-regulation, of downsizing, the end of permanent jobs. It was also a world of greater social freedoms, of advancements in a whole range of fields, of substantial increases in wealth. The class of 53 would generally not go back to the old world, but it is clear that by the end of the period under study a sense of unease had developed, along with a deep weariness at the pace of change.

One of Don's points is the remarkable capacity of Australia to accept social change, including especially the presence of so many migrants. Here he uses Canada as an equivalent benchmark, arguing that only Australia and Canada among developed countries went through such large social change, a remodeling of society, although the relative scale was greater in Australia.

He suggests that one reason Australia was able to absorb so many migrants from different backgrounds lay in the national consensus welcoming migration.

The term New Australian is no longer used and might today be seen as very suspect. The point, however, is that the term applied to all new migrants. They were new, but were also seen as Australian, at least Australians to be.
Today, the term Australian is applied only to citizens. There is no modern equivalent to New Australians, a term that applied regardless of formal citizenship.

I will finish this story in a later next post (here).

Monday, November 23, 2009

No post today

No post today. I just haven't had time! Back with you in the morning.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday Snippets - driving licenses, cultural clash and Prokofiev

I woke thinking this morning just how kind people are. Every day I see or experience little acts of kindness that remind me that there is good in us despite the sometimes horrors.

Clare (youngest) has a three-line whip out in a desperate drive to get to fifty hours driving time before she passes the cut-off point and then has to do 120 hours. Both Dee and I are very busy; this makes it hard for Clare. Friends with licenses, friend's parents with licenses, are all being called in to sit with her in our car to make up time. She still has twenty-one hours to get.

I was told yesterday that the NSW Government had decided in the context of the 120 hours required that hours with a driving instructor should count as three. I have been unable to confirm this.

I found Neil's Tony Parsons “My Favourite Wife” (2008) an interesting book review. This is not the type of book I would normally read; perhaps I will.

In The Promises and Perils of Mining Will Owen explores the interaction between mining and Aboriginal life. Seeing the reference to Quentin Beresford really took me back; I haven't seen Quentin since we were researching together at the University of New England. It is quite remarkable just how pervasive the UNE connection, direct and indirect, is in Aboriginal studies. Quentin wasn't writing on Aboriginal issues when I knew him, yet there he is.

Will's posts are always thoughtful and good value. The central problem underlying his post is conflict of cultures. Putting this in my words, Will may disagree, the more successful an agreement between a mining company and the Aboriginal traditional owners is, the more likely it is to affect Aboriginal culture.

The book that in many ways best captures this conflict is a science fiction novel, the third in Harry Harrison's Deathworld series.

Unable to directly overcome the warlike highland nomads, the hero Jason dinAlt facilitates the nomad's conquest of the urbanised and much wealthier lowlands, knowing that this will, in turn, destroy the central elements on which the nomad's power depends.

The dilemma involved was well put at a session I went to of mentors and Aboriginal mentees. We had gathered outside for a smoke. My mentee, a women from whom I have learned much, put it this way: our culture must change, but we want to control the change.

This is not Aboriginal self-determination in the way this phrase is so often meant. It is, in fact, a very different concept. To explore this now would take too long. I will return to the topic, because it is actually central to problems that are present globally.

Marcellous's SSO – “Russian Magic" deals in part with a Prokofiev concert. I will pass this part over: I find Prokofiev quite indigestible; and I hate Shostakovich! But what Marcellous does do in passing is provide a word picture of life in modern Sydney.

To really understand this, you need the visual backdrop to the post.

In front of you as you walk towards the concert are the brightly lit sails of the Opera House, with the Australian Idol pretend audience drifting around. To the left across the dark water dappled by light is the huge floodlit arc of the bridge. Turning slightly and looking back across Circular Quay, the office towers with their lights stand out. The Manly ferries pass, their white wakes reflecting the pattern of city lights.

It is a warm night. Tourists and locals throng the walkway. To your right, the cafes and bars along the promenade are crowded with a mixture of diners, visitors and those still just having a drink after work.

I must finish here. I have to water the garden!  

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Saturday morning musings - heat and fire in Australia

Yesterday was a very hot day, 41C where I work in Sydney, 43-44C in parts of the inland. For the benefit of non-metric readers, 41C equals 105.8F, 44C equals 111.2F.

As an aside, when the then Australian Government mandated the metric system they did what so many Australian Governments attempt to do with change. They tried to stamp out the earlier system, making it illegal to use it.

I understand their point, but it has created a growing barrier between today's young Australians and their past. All the books published, all the local records prior to the metric system, use the old Imperial system. I say to my kids that this property was 130,000 or even a million acres and they have no idea what I mean. They read about people working in 110F heat and it has no meaning.

Just how to explain the old system is a challenge faced by most modern Australian historians. I am not sure myself how to handle this. I cannot alter everything to metric, nor insert the metric value in brackets in, for example, primary sources. More precisely, I could, but it's a major calculation task.  So it's an issue I still have to resolve.

I didn't find the heat to bad, but it reminded me that the first European arrivals did not share this view. Whereas modern Australian rush to the beach at the height of summer, their wealthier ancestors fled to the hills or to Tasmanian or even to Milford Sound in New Zealand's South island, an especially beautiful spot, to escape the heat. Von Guerard Milford Sound

The painting shows Eugene  Von Guérard's image of Milford Sound. Here I quote from the National Gallery of Australia:

Von Guérard sailed into Milford Sound on the SS Otago on the evening of Monday 24 January 1876. The passengers on the eagerly anticipated four-and-a-half day voyage from Melbourne were not disappointed. Myriad waterfalls dashed down the steep sides of the granite peaks, following recent rain, and the clouds lifted to reveal Mitre Peak and Mt Pembroke – their towering forms reflected in the mirror-like surface of the fiord.

By the time that Von Guérard painted Milford sound in 1876, the beauty of the place was well known in Australia.

Heat brings fires. The photo from the ABC shows residents on South Australia's Yorke Peninsula watching the advancing fire. Yesterday there were fires in South Australia, Victoria, TasmaniaYorke Peninsular Fires and New South Wales, with some property loss in Tasmania. Cooler weather has eased the threat in the south, although high winds associated with the cool change brought down trees and left several thousand residents without power.

Reading some of the stories I was reminded of how little some Australians know of the geography of their own country. I quote:   

Five blazes are still causing concern at Inverell, Narrabri in the Hawkesbury region and two at Glen Innes.

Now it might just be sloppy editing, a comma missing after Narrabri, but Narrabri is certainly not in the Hawkesbury region. This is not an isolated example.

Continuing with the fire theme, the rugged and beautiful ranges of the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney form part of the city's natural playground. From the time the railway line reached the ranges, they became a playground for rich and poor alike. Settlement followed with the development of a series of resorts and holiday attractions. Today the mountains mix tourism with dormitory settlements for Sydney workers.

This is fire prone country. Several of my work colleagues are from the mountains. Naturally, we have been talking about fire.

A lane divides the house of one of my colleagues from an area classified as bushfire prone. He is generally not worried about fire, but does accept that in a huge blaze of the type seen in the past, his house could go under threat.  Leura 1957

This photo of Leura shows the results of the huge 1957 fires. In big fires of this type effective defence is very difficult.

There is no easy answer because fire conditions are so variable. Pine trees are flammable, yet the pine on the right of the photo survived the fire.

During the huge fires that destroyed part of Australia's national capital, one man fighting alone actually blocked a big blaze to the south of Canberra considered unstoppable. As best I can work out, his efforts created a point of resistance that nudged the fire away from a path that would have taken it into populated areas.

Train Reading - S H Roberts the Squatting Age in Australia, 1835-1847 provided my initial impressions of this 1935 book by one of Australia's pioneering historians. In it, he refers in passing to the devastating 1851 fires in Victoria, the largest recorded fires in Australia's history. This was a huge blaze that, replicated today, would have devastating consequences. The story that follows is drawn from the Romsey Chronicles.

The year 1850 had been one of exceptional heat and drought.

Pastures had withered; creeks had become fissured clay-pans; water-holes had disappeared; sheep and cattle had perished in great numbers, and the sun-burnt plains were strewn with their bleached skeletons; the very leaves upon the trees crackled in the heat, and appeared to be as inflammable as tinder.

As the summer advanced, the temperature became torrid, and on the morning of the 6th of February, 1851, the air which blew down from the north resembled the breath of a furnace. A fierce wind arose, gathering strength and velocity from hour to hour, until about noon it blew with the violence of a tornado.

The heat was indeed exceptional.

According to the Melbourne Argus by 11 in the morning the thermometer stood as high as 117 degrees ( 47.2 Celsius) in the shade; at one o'clock it had fallen to 109 degrees and at four in the afternoon was up to 113 degrees (45 Celsius). In Tasmania to the south, the Launceston Examiner recorded that at two pm the thermometer stood at 92 degrees in the shade, and 130 degrees in the sun.

This is seriously hot weather. It would cause a degree of chaos today even ignoring fires.  

The story continues:

Bushfire, Victoria, 1851 By some inexplicable means it (the wind) wrapped the whole country in a sheet of flame —fierce, awful, and irresistible. Men, women and children, sheep and cattle, birds and snakes, fled before the fire in a common panic. The air was darkened by volumes of smoke, relieved by showers of sparks; the forests were ablaze, and, on the ranges, the conflagration transformed their wooded slopes into appalling masses of incandescent columns and arches.

Farm houses, fences, crops, orchards, gardens, haystacks, bridges, wool-sheds, were swept away by the impetuous on-rush of the flames, which left behind them nothing but a charred heap of ruins, and a scene of pitiable desolation. The human fugitives fled to water, wherever it could be found, and stood in it, breathing with difficulty the suffocating atmosphere, and listening with awe to the roar of the elements and the cries of the affrighted animals.

In Melbourne to the south the Argus records that the blasts of air were so impregnated with smoke and heat, that the lungs seemed absolutely to collapse under their withering influence; the murkiness of the atmosphere was so great that the roads were actually bright by contrast.

In the evening a cool change brought relief. By then, the fire had burned some 5 million hectares.The areas affected include Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts. Approximately 12 lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost.

The lives lost may seem small, but the total population then in the affected areas was still very small. The fire was apparently man-made, starting in the Plenty Ranges when two bullock drivers left some logs burning which set fire to long, drought-parched grass.

I have always wondered how the Aborigines coped with such fires. I suspect that the very big fires date from European times. The constant burning of the landscape by the Aborigines was in part a fire defence mechanism. Many smaller fires, fewer big ones. 

Friday, November 20, 2009

Racism in Australian schools, Bebo and more issues with Australia's code red

I was going to write a story today on the report on racism in Australian schools, this attracted Australian headlines, but when I checked the source report, I decided to hold off for the present.

I have a real difficulty with the growing proliferation in this country of single issue/topic not for profits who become devoted to causes and who depend for their funding on attracting funds for the cause. I am not suggesting that the academic authors of the report in question did not apply academic rigour, although they themselves point to weaknesses in their approach. However, the accompanying press release from the Foundation for Young Australians was designed to grab headlines and indeed it did.

There is some interesting material in the report, but the way the resulting press coverage was framed distracted from key issues. I will try to do a full analysis.

I wasn't surprised by the news that Bebo was to shut its Australian office. Facebook and Google have established a dominance in this country that it, I think, the greatest in the world. Australians are remarkably heavy users of social networking systems.

I was a little in front of the pack in yesterday's story, Australia's new fire warning system - code red. The new fire danger classification was one of the major news stories in this country throughout the day, with coverage continuing this morning.

New South Wales has now declared a code red for the west and south west of the state. I quote from the SMH story:      

The Rural Fire Service Commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said people in these areas should avoid fire-prone areas. The safest option for those living there was to leave their homes this morning.

''This is not a call for alarm or panic. Simply, if you live in these areas, plan activities away from a bushfire-prone area, such as going to a friend's house, a shopping centre or a town.''

Blowed if I know. For the benefit of international readers, the area covered is significantly larger than England. I simply don't know what people are meant to do. In South Australia, they closed schools in areas covered by the code red to the confusion of parents who did not know. I don't think that they have done this in NSW because of the chaos that would result in such a huge area.

Again I quote from the story:

A spokesman for Steve Whan, the Minister for Emergency Services, said the warnings were only recommendations and the Government would not force evacuations.

In a way this statement summarises the problems that arise with a universal warning applied to a large area. The logistics involved in forcing evacuations (and to where) across an area close to half the state in size are impossible.

We shall see. These initial warnings and the consequent problems may lead to refinement of the system. Alternatively, they may simply discredit the new fire category.


This story from the Australian points to the type of problems that I am talking about with the new fire classification.

I suspect that this will be another example that I will be able to talk about in my We need to reform Australia's approach to public policy series.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Australia's new fire warning system - code red


The introduction of a new bushfire warning system and the subsequent issue of a catastrophic (code red)fire warning in South Australia confused residents. It confused me too.

Apparently the new system was introduced in September around Australia, but this escaped me. Those who are interested can find more details here.

At this stage I have no idea what to do should a code red be issued.

Growing up in a fire prone country does make one aware of the dangers. However, there has been a tendency over recent decades to what we might call bracket creep, the greater use of extreme and severe fire danger rankings.

It is very hard to describe for overseas readers just what it feels like to be in not so much a bushfire but in the middle of a high fire danger area.

Driving back to Sydney from Armidale when the kids were young, the route we followed took us down through mountainous country.

It was already in the high thirties when we left early in the morning. By the time we reached the coastal strip it was in the forties, a dry baking sort of heat. The country was covered with heat haze, there was a smoke smell in the air, and it was actually quite hard to breath.

There were fires all over the North at the time, and we could see at least some of the smoke plumes in the far distance. At a small store where we stopped to get a drink, a Rural Fire Service Tanker pulled in to do likewise. They wear quite heavy kit, and my daughters wondered just how they coped in the baking heat.

The most that you can do in these circumstances if you have to travel is to listen to the news and also ask the locals as we did at the small store.


A number of fires have indeed broken out today. Stories here and here. NSW has issued several code reds for tomorrow. I remain to be convinced about their value.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Train Reading - S H Roberts the Squatting Age in Australia, 1835-1847

I have been reading S H Roberts the Squatting Age in Australia, 1835-1847 (Melbourne, 1935).

Roberts (1901-1971) had a quite remarkable career as an academic, university administrator including long serving Vice Chancellor at Sydney University and writer. He was keenly interested in international affairs.

D. M. Schreuder notes that his most famous book, The House that Hitler Built (London, 1937), was based on meetings with Nazi leaders, attendance at their rallies and his own teaching knowledge of central European history. He exposed Hitler's Reich, condemned the persecution of the Jews, and warned that Germany was likely to involve the world in war. Aimed at the common reader, the book was translated into a dozen languages and reprinted many times.

I will write a little more on S H Robert's broader career at some point. At this stage, my interest lies in Robert's interpretation of certain historical events relevant to my own research.

Like all of us, Roberts was a man of his time. This can create difficulties in reading.

The Aborigines do have a place in his book, he recognises the facts of sometimes Aboriginal resistance, notes the absence of specific Aboriginal history, but the book is still written very much from a then European perspective of the Aborigines and very much from a squatter viewpoint.

Views change. The Roberts who wrote in 1935 was the same Roberts who strongly welcomed the graduation of Charles Perkins, the first Aborigine to complete a degree at his university.

Roberts also writes from an Australian Liberal Whig perspective. Intolerant of the Tories, pro-Australian, attracted by the myth of the Celt, he is strongly against those in early colonial society who wished to re-create the new colony along stratified, hierarchical, lines.

Roberts' book spans the early history of European settlement of New England. This was then squatter country. Supported by wool, this was also (to use a modern phase) bubble country. By this I simply mean that the ready availability of speculative capital fuelled a boom. The Australian tradition of boom and bust began very early.

Much of my recent research has been Aboriginal focused. I needed to do this to provide a solid grounding. Robert's book provides a picture from the other side.

Robert's analysis of the early politics of the colony, including relations with Westminster, is quite masterly. You can see why his writing  had such an influence because he translates complexity to simplicity.

What a wonderful story it all is.

Governor Bourke, the somewhat romantic Irishman, who played such a role in establishing civil liberties in what was still a penal colony. Then we have Governor Gipps whose term coincided with drought and economic collapse. Gipps was clearly a difficult man, but after reading Roberts I have far more sympathy for the difficulties he faced and indeed for the man himself.

I am researching and trying to write from a New England perspective. Developments in the often (always?) fractious goldfish bowl of Sydney are relevant only to the degree that they affect the New England story. This is counter history because it is written from the other side of the conventional fence.

Roberts' picture of the rise of wool, a key element in the story of colonial New England, is very Australian in its wording. But it actually looks at the rise from the perspective of the English and German wool industries and in the context of the industrial revolution.

The English wool industry, one of the drivers in the English economy and a key source of the wealth that gave England its power, simply collapsed in the face of German and then Australian colonial competition. The wool growers of Saxony and Silesia in their turn were swept away by Australian wool.

You see what I mean by a wonderful story?

The great Australian and New England squatting families, the huge firms that supported them, were built not just on the bones of the original Aboriginal inhabitants, but on the desiccated corpses of the English and German wool industries. In turn, those squatting families were to be swept aside by Australian economic change.

In the intervening period, they created a life style whose influence still lingers in Australian thinking. Their money funded not just great homes, but also key institutions, not least the New England University College. They also gave us writers such as Judith Wright and Patrick White, to use examples from New England's great squatting families. And they gave us the wine that we Australians now like to drink.

One of the reasons that I so dislike the guilt age that has (to my mind) so come to dominate Australian history, is that it creates a huge barrier between us and our past, Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal.

In writing about what Aboriginal New England I want to say what was, but also present an Aboriginal perspective. Equally, in writing about the squatting age in New England, I want to write about what was, but also present a squatting perspectives.

Most of all, I want to tell a story that will make New England history accessible to those who have no connection with New England or indeed Australia at all. 

Just a bit of a challenge!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Apology to the forgotten Australians

Ramblings was meant to be yesterday's post on this blog. I posted it to Management Perspectives by accident because I still had Live Writer set to Management Perspectives and decided to let it stand there.

I almost removed the post entirely because it lacks balance and might in fact upset those who were affected , but let it stand because it does bear upon my current argument on that post. For the benefit of non-Australian readers, the start of the story in today's Sydney Morning Herald sets a context:

THEY were called the ''forgotten Australians''.

But the more than half a million state wards, foster children and former child migrants were renamed the ''remembered Australians'' yesterday by Kevin Rudd, as he apologised on behalf of the nation for the abuse and neglect they suffered in church and state care.

Mr Rudd and the Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, fought back tears as they delivered the historic apology in the Great Hall of Parliament House.

The issue itself is quite complicated and emotional, mixing together a whole variety of things. If you like and to put it in the context of my current argument on Management Perspectives, we are dealing with 500,000 unforeseen side-effects of previous policies.

There are several things that I struggle with in the context of this apology.

One is the way that so many things have been mixed together under a simple label, the forgotten Australians. The second is the the way this apology represents another slash at the umbilical cord connecting us with our own past. In focusing on the evils without recognising both the good and the context, we actually discredit the total.

As I noted in my post, the apology took place on the same day that an Aboriginal child was brought before the courts for receiving a chocolate frog. It took place in the context of recurring problems and injustices in Australia's current child welfare systems, problems that I have written about at some length.

To my mind, one of the marks of a good society is a willingness to recognise and address past wrongs. Yet we also have to be very careful in the way we do this if we are to avoid further poison.

In the future, historians will pick over this apology and the earlier one to the stolen generations. Looking at it from the perspective of their own times, they will ask what it meant in the context of the time. I wonder what they will conclude?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday Essay - food prices and Australian primary production

The release of OECD data showing that food prices in Australia have increased 41.3 per cent since the start of 2000, the fastest rate of increase of any major developed nation, created quite a stir in this country.  

Spain had the next fastest rate of increase over that time, at 41.2 per cent, followed by the UK at 32.9 per cent. Canadians are paying 32.7 per cent more, Italians 29.7 per cent and Americans 28.4 per cent.

I haven't been able to find the original source data, so cannot comment on the detail. However, the story did trigger some thoughts.

The Australian commentary has focused especially on the big supermarket duopoly, suggesting that this leads to higher prices. I think that there is some truth in this, although the duopoly has arguably affected quality and variety more than price. However, there is more to it than this.

Historically, food in Australia has been cheap and plentiful. However, a number of of things have combined to place this under a degree of threat, at least so far as cheap is concerned.

On the supply side, the home gardens that used to provide many families with vegetables and fruit have been in decline for many years. This means that families are more exposed to retail prices.

The market gardens and small farms that used to ring major urban centres have diminished since land is worth more for housing than agriculture. While this has now triggered a back-lash, in Sydney there is heated debate over the need to preserve agricultural land, the net effect is reduced choice, less competition.

Outside the major urban centres, the water that fed expanding primary production has been reduced through a combination of drought and reduced water allocations associated with other demands including urban water and environmental needs. The effect is reduced supply.

The whole rural sector itself has been struggling as a consequence of higher input costs, increased regulation, diminished rural services, reduction in Government support of all types. Our farmers are getting older, with fewer people wanting to enter agriculture. They also struggle to attract the labour they need. This is biting home now, although the full impacts are still a decade or so away.

The effects of change vary across sectors.

Australia used to ride on the sheep's back. The wool industry, the romance of wool, is now largely forgotten in a citified nation. Slowly, insidiously, the city consumer pays more and more for lamb as sheep numbers continue to decline. At first, the most recent effects were concealed because drought induced sales kept prices down. More recently, prices have increased sharply, far beyond the average overall increase in prices.

To put a number on this, the cost of an equivalent leg of lamb has increased over the last few years from around $A11 to $A21. A lamb leg is now a special treat.

This family used to eat cutlets, the most expensive cut, once a week. At $A2 for a small cutlet we simply cannot afford to. You need two to three cutlets per person. Two cutlets per person in a four person family equals $A16. Then you have to add the other food costs to this.

Four years ago I could feed this household and well for around $A10 average ($A2.50 per person) for a meal. I cannot do so now.

On the demand side, we live in a globalised world. I have no problems with this. However, we have to accept that it has an impact on Australian food prices.

When global demand goes up, Australian food prices rise. No worries. The real problem lies in periods when food prices go down. This may sound counter intuitive, so let me explain.

There have always been gluts and famines. During glut periods, overseas food flows into Australia. Pork prices, for example fall. We as consumers benefit. Then production falls and prices rise. Herein lies the rub.

Staying with pork, Australian pork production cannot simply be turned on and off. When in times of international glut we buy cheap supermarket home brands sourced from overseas, Australian pig producers go out of production. Prices then rise as the glut ends. However, the remaining Australian pig producers cannot simply increase supply. This takes time directly linked to the breeding cycle. It may be several years before supply recovers, and during that time prices remain high.

In purely domestic terms, supply may in fact never recover, leading to an increased reliance on imports.

I am a strong supporter of free trade. I am not a supporter of the blind application of market principles, of the blind application of theoretical constructs, in the absence of analysis of the on-ground facts.

Just at present, there is a bitter dispute in Tasmania over the prices to be paid for milk by the now small number - two - of dairy companies that have replaced the old cooperatives. These two front off with the supermarket duopolists.

The arguments in the case are quite complicated. However, the key point is that Tasmanian diary farmers appear to be in the position that the offered price is below their costs of production. If this in fact the case, then they are in fact being told to go out of production. Once this happens, it will take several years for production to begin to recover.

I must emphasise that I am not making a judgement here. I said that the facts of the case were complicated. Rather, I am simply using the case to illustrate a broader point.

The decline in the importance of primary production in this country, together with the increasing disconnect of urban people from rural life, means that there is now remarkably little discussion in Australia on rural matters.

We can see this in the responses to the OECD report. The commentary all focused on two things, cost to consumers and the supermarket duopoly. There was very little discussion of underlying supply and demand issues, none linked back to changes in the Australian rural sector.

I think that's a pity.        

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Reforming Australian public policy

I am now up to post seven in my series on reforming Australian public policy.

This is the most complicated blogging exercise I have attempted. This holds for length, a whole month of posts on one blog as well as supporting posts such as this one on other blogs, and for complexity. After all, I am trying to prove a case that we do need reform, as well as indicating the directions that reform might take.

I am trying to keep the posts short, although this may not be the best way since my professional audience will want more detail.

If you want to see how I am going, you will find the first post here. Click on next post at the end of each post and you can read the series in order.  

Saturday Morning Musings - Leviathan and the practice of history

During the week a colleague gave me John Birmingham's Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney to read. It's really well written, she enthused, more like a novel. I had had a stressful morning, and decided to treat myself at lunchtime by sitting down to a proper meal and a good read.

Birmingham does indeed write well.  The book opens with an interesting device, the story of a Vietnamese boat family. Good stuff I thought. Twenty or so pages later I shut the book and returned it to its owner, saying that it was a-historical and that I did not want to read it any more. This is most unusual. When I did a search on reader comments and reviews, I found that it was most often compared to Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shores, another of the few books that I have not been able to finish.

One of the problems I face with a book like Leviathan is that I actually read a lot of history. In doing so, I am always conscious of the need to understand the author's particular perspective. To me, reading history is a dialogue between the author, the evidence and myself.

One of the major difficulties in writing about the past is the way our own views of the world affect our judgments in ways often hidden from us. We simply cannot see or understand.

To be human is to make judgments. We do this all the time. Many of those judgements deal with the mechanics of day to day life. Will that light change, is an example. Others are judgements about likes and dislikes; do I dislike this? Still others involve judgements about values; is this a good thing?

To the degree that the historian's role is to explain what was, how it worked, what it meant, then his or her own mental framework creates a fundamental difficulty.

The fact that history is of some degree of the present has been well argued. The questions asked, the evidence selected, are all determined by the historian's interests and perceptions. To a substantial degree, history is no more than the past interpreted and re-interpreted in the light of current interests and mental attitudes.

What is, I think, less well recognised, is the obligation placed upon the historian to find a way of removing or at least penetrating the veil created by his or her own perceptions.

The fact that we all write about things that interest us just is. Otherwise why bother? But once we select a topic, we need to look at the evidence in an objective way. We also need to try to understand the sometimes subtle differences between the way people thought then and now.

This may sound terribly purist and perhaps it is. However, it reflects my own deeply held views about the practice of historiography.

I approached Birmingham's book in the wrong way. Thinking of it as history, I approached it wearing my professional hat. Suddenly, reading the material on London in the early part of the book, I thought oh oh, I've seen this before.

Yesterday on the bus I sat down beside a woman. I had seen her before on the bus and thought that I recognised her from many years ago. Excuse me, I said, but I think that I know you. She looked at me blankly. Aren't you LB? Yes, she said, but the blank look was still there. I'm Jim Belshaw, I said. Her face lit up. Good lord, Jim, I didn't recognise you. The last time I saw you, you had long black hair and a beard!

LB and I actually shared a room in the history department at the University of New England. I had come back to postgraduate studies in history after a longish break as an economist and senior public servant. This made me a little different to begin with. I approached my research and writing in a different way. Then, too, I was very interested in the philosophy and method of history, an interest dating back to the very high intellectual standard set by people like Ted Tapp who taught the philosophy of history course that was then obligatory for UNE history honours students.

Because I had been out of the history loop for some time, I set myself the task of reading the journals, looking especially at the theoretical and methodological stuff. Hour after hour I sat in the library reading eye-glazingly bad writing linked to concepts that had, to my mind, little to do with history. I realised that the intellectual debate had shifted in a very odd way to the imposition of intellectual constructs on history; the history had to be interpreted within those constructs.

In the Department itself, I found that the focus had shifted from method to topic. I was interested in the methods and associated philosophical arguments that applied independent of topic, but there was not much interest in this.

As I read the London section of Leviathan I was carried back to this period. This was almost classic underdog class analysis.

I am not opposed to the use of class based constructs. I use them myself, including especially Ron Nehl's analysis of the middling class. Ron, the Professor of Economic History at UNE, wrote from a marxist perspective. I found his ideas helpful and interesting just because of his different perspective. My problem arises where things are twisted to fit the construct.

I said that I read Leviathan from the wrong perspective. I simply did not pick up the clue in the title, "the unauthorised biography of Sydney". This is not history as such, rather the biography of a city. Without getting caught in the difference between history and biography, my point is that biography is a different craft. The rules are different. Further, in using the word "unauthorised" the author is very clearly signaling his intent.

So I will try the book again with my historian's hat at least partly off, looking at the book more as a yarn with Sydney as a person. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

A walk down Nostalgia Lane

Talk about a walk down nostalgia lane. I swear I wasn't searching on myself. I was in fact trying to write a piece on Greek cafes, starting with the foundation of the Niagara at Newcastle in 1898. This cafe was the starting point for a chain of cafes established by the Karanges family. Anyway, I was searching to see if there were any links to the Masselos family. John was in my class at school and my memory was his family had a milkbar at Hurstville. This search took me to the TAS magazine, the Armidalian, and by accident to glimpses of my own past.

From the Armidalian, December 1963

Brian Harrison attends Arts I lectures if he has time after piano
practice. Besides keeping up with athletics, Brian is believed to be
a secret agent for Jim Belshaw in the New State Movement. He also
proved his versatility by playing a viola in the orchestra for the
"Pirates" this year.

So that he may join our musicians, Jim Belshaw blows the New
State trumpet for the Uni. branch society. At the first meeting of the
society Jim was thrilled at the roll-up until everyone discovered that
the aim was to fight for the New State and not against it. Undaunted,
Jim elected himself dictator, Brian Harrison played battle
hymns on the piano and Ross Lane ran all the way to Canberra with
a petition. Jim played for Wright 2nd XV this year and pursues intellectual
interests in Arts I.

Actually, we had a very big roll-up of pro people, making the New State Society the biggest on campus after the Overseas Student Association.

From the Armidalian December 1964

J. Belshaw, Arts III has gone into virtual obscurity with the New
State Movement, but appeared for brief comedy performance in the
weekly feature T.W.T.W.T.W. Can occasionally be found with fan
club at the second table on the left in the Union.

R. Blomfield, Arts I-very arty with crew cut, has been ordered
on to a diet after smashing three lecture seats this year. Has qualified
to the James Belshaw fan club by being secretary of New State. His
school day wanderings have at last borne fruit as he is now a permanent
inmate of P.L.C.

Dear this made me laugh. In fact, and this was not the first time this happened in my career, I lost the election for the New State Society President position at the end of the previous year.

That was the week that was happened every Friday in the union. Having discovered that the union offered a very good meal with wine before TWTWTW, I was an eager volunteer. I cannot tell a joke to save my life, but I taught myself to tell yarns and to be sometimes funny in a dry way.

The second table on the left. It wasn't occasionally, it was much of the time. We gathered after lectures, I can remember writing essays there, sometimes we just argued.

From the Armidalian January 1966

1965 3RD XV
Masters-in-Charge: R. W. L. Crossle, Esq., W. A. Jennings, Esq. and
J. D. Belshaw, Esq.
Captain: J. D. Page.
Vice-Captain: P. J. Housden.
Committeeman: G. B. Wilson.

This year a new method of division was introduced as numbers
were large; the boys were put into three sets, each of equal strength,
and each set entered a team in the local R.U. Saturday competition.
The aim of this was to give more boys a game. Our opponents,
chiefly from the University and Teachers' College, were older and
stronger and so defeat was common, but one set managed to get into
the semi-finals. If only one team had been entered their results
would probably have been more favourable, but the most important
factor would have been overlooked, i.e. games for more boys.

I coached one of the sets. I learned more basic stuff in coaching about Rugby than I had in my entire career. I am not a natural player. I could play well, but I had to learn what to do. I regretted that I hadn't learned the things I now discovered.

Breaking the thirds up into three sets really did weaken. We were absolutely walloped to begin with. One game the Teacher's College was really short of players and I played against my own team. They (my team) decided to start by kicking the ball in my direction. Usually this might have been quite a good move. In this case, I managed to catch the ball and they gave me room to move. The result was a straight run through for a try.

Our most exciting match was against a University under 21 side. This had some seriously good ex GPS (Greater Public School) players from NSW and Queensland. For some reason -a previous party perhaps? -some of the uni players were late. We got in front and then held the lead.

A 3rd XV was entered against Armidale High School and De La
Salle College on Wednesdays and results proved very successful in
that we won four of the five games played, with two wins against
D.L.S.C. and two wins and one loss against A.H.S. We also had a
trip north to Toowoomba early in the season and lost narrowly 11-13
after hard play in perfect surroundings. The trip was thoroughly
enjoyed by all, and Downlands hospitality was deeply appreciated.

Throughout the season we played many games internally, usually
against the Seconds and Under 15A's. The standard of football rose,
resulting in losing many players to the 2nd XV, but we developed
many promising young players, which augurs well for the future.
And even though the grassless fields were hard, injuries were few.

Hard fields is right. The fields weren't watered, so they could be very hard indeed!

The last game of the season was against the Old Boys, and
after hard play we managed to post a victory, Palmer scrambled over
the line as a result of consistent effort, and Jones followed with a
good penalty kick. In the closing stages Page was able to score to
give us a 9-5 win, the School's only victory over the Old Boys. Our
4th XV, also from the third group, failed to equal the Third's

From memory, I played in this match for the Old Boys.

On the whole it was quite a successful season, and the group
would like to take this opportunity of thanking the three coaches
for their time spent throughout the season.

The 3rd XV team was chosen from the following: J. D. Page,
P. J. Housden, G. B. Wilson, S. R. Dawson, R. D. Farrell, M. M. W.
Fletcher, G. R. T. Giblin, P. C. Gosper, H. J. K. Hall, W. R. Hannaford,
S. J. Jack, W. E. Jackson, J. Jones, J. M. McDonald, E. N. A.
Palmer, W. B. Richards, K. E. Roberts, P. J. Schofield, D. B. C.
Smith, S. E. Swain, C. D. R. Tully, D. W. Willis, P. M. Williams.

These names bring memories back. However, there must have been more. That's not enough for three teams.

Still from the same Armidalian:

Jim Belshaw-student master at school this year-how ironic
to imagine Jim telling someone to stop talking! Arts III, hopes to
go on to Honours in History or Economics next year. Valiant forward
for Wright.

Ouch. The football is incorrect by this point. I am still talkative, but it really depends on context.

More from that Armidalian:

Mr. Belshaw also leaves us at the end of this year. We would
like to thank him for his continued valuable help during the year.
We also wish him luck for the exams which he has just completed
and hope that he enjoys his trip to Thailand during the vacation.

How polite! That was the year the boss (Alan Cash) threatened to sack me for inciting industrial disturbance among the student (duty) masters. I would certainly have been sacked if he had found out about the party we had one mid term in the dorm off my room with the remaining boys as drink waiters!

Bob Graham, a fellow duty master who later became a Labor cabinet minister in Tasmania, was one of the attendees.

The year before Bob had displaced Winton Bates and I in an SRC coup as editors of the student newspaper, my second electoral defeat but not my last! Despite this, we became good friends.


Having reviewed the Armidalians, I must run some of the stories about Paul Barratt, now another fellow blogger.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Who wants to leave, to stay - net results by country

My thanks to demography.matters for his one.

Gallup did a large survey of where people would like to live covering 136 countries. The US came in number one. However, they also took into account people in individual countries who wanted to leave those countries and then expressed the net results in terms of the size of the countries' population. This dropped the US to number twelve.

So what does this mean? Well, if everybody could move freely, the top five countries measure in terms of the resulting increase in the country population compare to now are:

  • Singapore + 260%
  • Saudi Arabia + 180%
  • New Zealand + 175%
  • Canada + 170%
  • Australia + 145%.

The five countries that would lose most people would be:

  • Congo (Kinshasa) - 60%
  • Sierra Leone - 55%
  • Zimbabwe - 55%
  • Haiti - 50%
  • El Salvador - 50%.

In terms of countries in Australia's immediate region, we find

  • Malaysia +25%
  • Japan +5%
  • India, Indonesia and China all - 5%

There are all sorts of problems with the numbers, of course. Still, its interesting.

You can find all the results here.

Postscript: I see that Geoff Robinson has posted on this as well.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Blogs of interest - on mistresses, Indonesia, Israel and drinking

Just at the moment as part of my series generated from reading Norman Davies The Isles I am mulling over the concept of Celtish and the Celtic myth, and what a remarkable myth it is. I had no idea!

While I am mulling, a few brief comments on blog posts of interest.

Let's start with Legal Eagle's O Mistress Mine!. This is a fascinating exploration of the type of of relationships linked in some way, in some cases not linked in any way!, to marriage. I found it all quite complicated but still interesting,

Just at the moment, the two main blogs that I use to follow the Indonesian experience are Multibrand and the RAB Experience. Tikno and Niar have been in something of a blogging pause, although I keep in touch with Niar through Facebook, one of a number of blogging friends there.

In a perhaps strange way I found Rob Baiton's reporting on the current scandal in Indonesia enormously re-assuring because it shows the way that Indonesia is, I think, evolving towards a more open and transparent system. One of the points that flows from my own writing into the Australian experience is the importance of transparency in providing a check not just on the abuse of state power, but more generally in correcting errors in public policy.

Mind you, this transparency can be a two edge sword. I want to write a little at some point about the way that certain types of transparency have begun to cripple Government actions. You see, its a question of balance.Weekend at Bernies

In Weekend at Bernie’s for Middle East Peace Paul Barratt provides a somewhat scathing assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. All that is missing from the attached photo are the boaters and canes!

I do not pretend to understand the dynamics of this conflict, although I do know a fair bit of the history. Like many Australians, I have swung from very strong support for Israel coming out of the dynamics of World War II to something of an opposite position, almost a pox on both your houses.

Leaving aside current issues, I think that the combination of economics and demographic change is working inexorably against Israel. I suspect that if I sat down and looked at the numbers I could probably guess the point at which the balance will finally tilt. It may be that Israel has now lost its chance for a viable two state solution and that, instead, it is now staring down the barrel of a gun at some far more unpalatable outcomes.

I actually must look at the numbers, because they provide a way of analysing dynamics independent of immediate issues.

Finally, I found Adrian Neylan's Man of Lettuce through Neil Whitfield (Ninglun) as I have so many other things. Dear that man has had an influence, and for the better from my viewpoint.

This blog, a cabbies blog, is a really great blog. Looking at Adrian's photo, I suspect that I know his Dad!, who is very Australian in the best sense, an extremely nice man and a pleasure to work for as I did once for a brief period.

Adrian's post Brutal captured something that really worries me in general and as a parent with 20 and 22 year old daughters, the combination of drink and violence. Our conventional public policy answer lies in more controls. As I will try to address at some point in the current series, We need to reform Australia's approach to public policy, our current approaches are unimaginative, mechanistic and one-directional.

Well, its time to get ready for the working day.