Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How do you deal with frustration?

I am sitting here tonight just feeling frustrated and bored. I know that I shouldn't.

My stats show me this blog will achieve record figures in May on both visits and page views. There are many things around that I am interested in, some good stories that would probably interest a broader readership. I have been invited to write a short piece on the Vincent family for the new companion to the Australian Media. My old school first VI has beaten both Grammar and Sydney High School. My eldest daughter who I dearly love will be home soon. Yet it's all ashes in my mouth.

Have you ever read John Buchan's John McNab? It's actually a very good yarn about successful British leaders in the first part of the last century who get bored and need to do something new. They become poachers.

I am not like them. National politics doesn't quake at my very word, much as I would like it. Yet the feeling is the same.

This morning when I was trying to write my Armidale Express column I really didn't feel like it. At 5am I was trying to drag the words out. Mind you, I am annoyed with the Express. They have cropped my photo and reduced my prominence as part of their new layout. I would swear the typeface is smaller. This certainly doesn't help my mood. Or has my mood affected my perceptions?

Assuming that I am one of the characters in John McNab. What would you advise me? And no, horse stealing in a country where this is a capital offence is not on the list, nor am I prepared to join the crew of a tramp steamer! 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Storm clouds over the Australian Federation

Just over a week ago in Saturday Morning Musings - the WA royalties stoush I reported on the growing financial clash between the Australian and West Australian Governments. There I said in part that if I was in the WA Treasury I would be advising the Government to hold to their line. I also commented that the results of this dispute may well be critical in the evolution of the next stage of the Australian Federation.

Since then the issue has continued to gather steam. See, as examples, Fiscal Federalism pushed to breaking point and Western Australia shuns Canberra, eyes China.

I will comment in more detail later and also try to put the dispute into a broader context. There is, I think, a tendency in Australia's eastern states still to treat the whole matter as a bit of a side-show. However, to my mind it is actually more important than most of the political issues dominating present main stream media coverage because the outcome may actually change the way Australian Government works.

I also have a personal interest because back in the early 1990s my then research group made a number of long term forecasts about likely changes in Australia including fragmentation in the Australian economy. Some of those changes have not happened, others have happened more slowly than expected, but our then thinking remains relevant.

For the present, I just wanted to record the latest reports.


Just adding another link: Colin Barnett is doing us all a favour by standing up to Canberra.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sunday short story - a night in Burnie

The lad had caught the bus from Queenstown to Zeehan to join the Westcoaster, the mixed passenger/freight service run by the Emu Bay Railway Company between Zeeehan and Burnie on Tasmania’s North Coast.

The sixteen year old had stayed the night before in Queenstown. Now very short of money at the end of his trip, he had found the cheapest hotel that he could. It was an odd place; the first floor room was small with a rickety old bed, while the bathroom and toilet for the floor actually stuck out at the back of the hotel with large gaps in the wall between the planks providing an expectedly panoramic view of the town.

Queenstown had fascinated him. The raw buildings, the moonlike landscape created by tree felling and pollution, the very sights and sounds of the town, had all exercised a powerful attraction. While he couldn’t afford it, he had spent some of his last money on a guided tour of the Mount Lyell mine workings, one of Australia’s best known mines.

The bus run to Zeehan and Zeehan itself had also interested the lad. Zeehan was like a faded lady whose better times were marked by some grand old buildings now separated by empty paddocks and decay. He found out later that the town had once had a population of 10,000, then rivaling Launceston and Hobart in size.

The lad had grown up in a mining area, and was used to mining ghost towns such as Hillgrove. There he and his brother had clambered all over the workings and played with the old mining equipment. However, West Coast Tasmania was different because of the scale of the remains.

Hillgrove had been quite a big place and for some time. More than 3,000 people had lived there. There had been four churches, six hotels, two schools, a school of arts, a hospital, several banks, a stock exchange, a court house, police station, a technical college, debating society, a temperance league and a cordial factory. The town had its own local paper and was lit by the first hydro-electric plant in Australia.

All that had long gone when the boys first visited Hillgrove, leaving mainly the decaying mining workings and treatment plants. Hillgrove’s closeness to nearby Armidale was part of the reason for the town’s disappearance. Houses had been picked up holus bolus and shipped to Armidale, while other buildings had provided building materials for a growing Armidale.

The lad had wanted to travel on the Emu Bay Railway for some time. Earlier he had acquired a fascination with the stock exchange and its companies. One of those was the Emu Bay Railway, Australia’s only listed private railway. The lad had even tried to buy shares in the company, lured in some way by the notion of the US railway barons that had featured so strongly in some of the books that he had read. Ideas of taking over the railway and in some way building a personal railway empire had toyed with his imagination.

The lad was excited when he joined the train, looking forward to the trip and the wild country that could only then be seen by train. Sadly, lack of sleep from the night before caught up with him, and in the warmth of the train he slept most of the way.

Burnie was a much bigger place than the lad had expected. He decided to sleep out to save money, and found a place in a park near the water. There he put his pack against a tree and got out his sleeping bag to sit on. “You can’t sleep there, dear,” a woman walking her dog in the late afternoon told him. “The police patrol this park, and you will be arrested. There is a camping area just down the road.”

“Bloody civilization”, the lad thought. He put his sleeping bag and groundsheet back in his pack, and decided to wait until dark. In a way, that (waiting) had been a feature of his trip; waiting for lifts, waiting for youth hostels to open, sometimes just waiting for something to happen.

Carrying his pack along the back roads waiting for the next car, he had taken to singing songs from his childhood. “I will go a wandering” was somehow especially satisfying. On those roads, the issues of loneliness or where to stay weren’t so bad. Even though he didn’t have a tent, he had his sleeping bag and knew how to light a fire.

Ideas such as stranger danger and the whole paraphernalia of risk avoidance still lay well in the future. The lad wasn’t oblivious to personal danger – he had taken some pretty hairy hitches – but here in Burnie he wasn’t worried about personal safety at all beyond any risk posed by the police. It was more that he could neither sing nor light a fire. He just had to wait.

With dark, he picked up his pack and walked down the road to find the camping area. He could see no-one, so stepped over the low hedge and found a spot to camp. After the long day, he went to sleep immediately.

It was only waking in the grey light of dawn that the lad realised that he actually had done something silly. Even though the park was largely deserted, it was a caravan park. He had slept on green grass near a green hedge in a green sleeping bag. If a car or van had arrived, they would never have seen him.

Looking around in the dawn light, there was non-one stirring. Quickly re-packing his gear, the lad left the caravan park to find a public toilet he had seen the day before. There he cleaned himself up and started along the road out of town. He was very hungry, but decided to keep the remaining food in his pack until he could find a place to camp.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

People, biography & the New England tradition

In a post earlier in the week, Judith Wright, smoking, pokies, Armidale floods & policy misinformation (26 May), I said in part:

My train reading at the moment is Fiona Capp's My Blood's Country (Allen & Unwin), subtitled a journey through the landscapes that inspired Judith Wright's poetry.

Inspired by that book, I am working on a post for my New England History blog called multi-layered history. This centres in part on the way that the stories of major figures like Judith Wright actually become historical actors in their own right. From a purely personal viewpoint, there is a strange disconnect when people and areas one knows acquire an external independent life.

The post in question is simply called Writing multi-layered history. This post is a follow up muse on some elements of that post .

I am very fond of autobiography and especially biography as genres because they draw me into different worlds. I say biography first, because with autobiography the personal tone can put me off where I disagree with the person. For some reason, the life of an equally repulsive person is more palatable when told told in biographical form.

Very good biography stands on its own. You don't need to have any historical or personal knowledge of the subject to understand the book. It's a self-contained world. The skill involved in doing this is substantial. I stand in awe of the writing skills of some biographers. They are both good researchers and writers capable of creating a real story based on evidence.

While good biographies are self-contained, I do find that they draw me into wanting to know more. I start reading around the topic. I read Harrod's The Life of John Maynard Keynes while at school. This drew me into the world of Cambridge, the Bloomsbury Set and the Apostles. I maintained this interest for over ten years, then I stopped very suddenly and have taken no interest since. Almost overnight, I went from great interest to something approaching detestation.

In the end, the trigger was cumulative exposure through books and letters to what I came to think of as indulgent, self-centred and parochial little Englishness. This was too small, too narrow and too incestuous a world to maintain interest after a certain point. I suppose that I decided that they were not very nice people and I simply didn't want to know them any more.

I know that others will disagree with this perspective. I am just reporting a purely personal reaction. In a way I had become too close to them and their world, a little like living in the same village. Here you can see how local feuds begin. In my case, I had just had enough of Lytton Strachey in particular. Had we actually been living in a village, I think that I would have been very rude!

When I first became interested in Australian history there was very little around in the way of biography or autobiography. I did immerse myself in some things and especially some of the writers and painters, I read omnivorously, but there wasn't the type of depth that would give rise to the Bloomsbury style effect.

I am not saying that I didn't form views, but they were more about patterns than people. They also built on my very wide childhood reading.  I was a bookish child living in a world surrounded by books. I read anything I could get my hands-on, including children's books and popular fiction from both my grandfather's and parent's generation, as well as my own. This included a lot of Australian material, but was not limited to that. 

I was not reading critically, just for pleasure. Still, the sheer breadth of the reading provided it's own corrective. By the time I really became interested in Australian history, I knew a fair bit about differing patterns in society and life between different parts of Australia. I also slotted this into my perceptions of life and culture in other places. This was to affect my approach to Australian history in an odd way; I quickly became dissatisfied with the Australian history I did read because it didn't seem quite to fit with the immediate world I lived in, nor the patterns that had emerged in my own mind. It wasn't quite the same country, so to speak.   

I guess, too, that I just wasn't interested in emerging popular topics such as Ned Kelly or the Lawsons, mother and son.  They weren't especially relevant to the things that I was interested in. I read all of Lawson as a child, but that was Lawson the story teller or poet, not Lawson the man nor the world he lived in.

As part of my interest in Australian art and writing, I started collecting older Australian books and paintings during the 1970s. I also started my first and so far only major attempt at biography, the story of my grandfather. Both coincided with the dramatic increase in publishing on Australian topics that in some ways peaked around the 1988 Australian bicentennial. It's not that the total number of books is necessarily less, just that their range seems to have narrowed.

Writing my biography of the first part of Drummond's life meant looking at people. Now there were two problems.

The first was mechanical, simply keeping track. By the end, several hundred people were mentioned in the thesis, some many times. References to them were drawn from many sources, so there were inconsistencies. This plus things such as consistency in style, how to write per cent for example, had to be checked.

This is before modern word processing with its mechanical tools. In the final drafting stages, each person was recorded on a card to allow for checking, while an alphabetical list of styles was created.

While I have spoken of the thesis and it's aftermath before, I have never properly acknowledged the help I received. I was remarkably fortunate. We all knew that the thesis was a bit of a gamble. I was writing on a topic and about views that were even then increasingly outside the mainstream. The biographical form was seen by many as unsuitable for a PhD thesis. Then, too, I shifted the focus in part from Drummond's public life in politics and as a minister for education to Drummond in his role as a regional politician.

In retrospect, this was quite ambitious. I still had to deal with public life and to the same level of rigour, but I now had to write a regional history centred on the man and his interaction with an area he came to love.

I came back to Canberra from full time study at the start of 1983. Over the coming months, the thesis went through multiple drafts mainly written at night after my busy day as a senior public servant. Professor Colin Hughes, my Canberra supervisor, went through draft after draft with a red pen.

At home sitting in the backroom, my housemate Sue Rosly and her friend David went through the drafts, recording details of people on cards and identifying inconsistencies in detail and style. I wrote at the same time, answering queries as we went along. I cannot begin to say how important this was. The marking imbroglio that subsequently submerged the thesis, an imbroglio that still nags at me even though I know that I should put it aside, was a poor reward for their work. I remain incredibly grateful for their support.

My second problem lay in the fact that I knew or at least knew of so many of the people I was writing about. They weren't just names, but people who occupied a place in my mind based on contact and family stories.

Take Country Party politician Earle Page as an example. Page, for those who have never heard of him, was one of the founders of the Australian Country Party, Deputy Prime Minister and then Australian PM for a very brief period.

I don't remember that I ever met Page, although I almost certainly did as a child given his connections with my grandfather. But he was a figure in family conversation.

In December 1961, my grandfather fulfilled a promise and took my cousin and I on his last election campaign as member for New England. I was sixteen. In Tenterfield we received the news that Page had collapsed. My grandfather dropped everything and left for the Clarence to try to save the seat for his former mentor, while I hitchhiked back to Armidale.

When I came to write my biography, I knew Drummond's views on Page. I read them again in his letters and manuscript autobiography. I also knew some of Page's grandchildren; Australian poet Geoff Page was one, current NSW MP Don Page a second. Geoff went out with the elder sister of two of my friends, while Don and  I worked together on efforts to reform the Country Party. I knew, too, of things like the disputes over the writing of Page's autobiography, while Earle Pages' second wife Jean was good friends with one of my aunts. Then, too, I knew Ulrich Ellis, Page's long standing amanuensis.

My point in all this is that when I came to write about  my grandfather's life I had to filter my already formed views views on Page through the sieve created by the evidence. My views on Page are not the same as my grandfather's. I recognise that Page was a remarkable man, perhaps more remarkable than recognised today, but he had his major weaknesses. Drummond's idealisation of the man blinded him to them.

Now I want to link this muse back to my opening points.

Since I started writing my history of New England I have gone back in depth into the people of New England. Like the Bloomsbury Set but unlike my early experiences with Australian history, the people in my history of New England have become people, not just patterns.

Unlike Bloomsbury, this greater exposure has not alienated me. I am aware of their weaknesses, I dislike some of their views, but they are there as characters. Herein lies problems.

One problem lies in my recognition that I am dealing with people with living relatives who are still alive as people in popular consciousness. The things that I say may hurt or even have practical effects like affecting Aboriginal land claims. This does not mean that I should not be objective. After all, I try to consciously recognise my own family's weaknesses in my writing. However, it does mean (at least as I see it) that I should exercise a degree of restraint so long as this does not interfere with the history itself. I can't write just to grab attention and interest.

A second problem lies in the way that my characters have gained a life of their own in my mind and others. Judith Wright, to take an example from an earlier post, is not just a major Australian poet nor a New England figure, but is now an entity examined and counter-examined by many. You have Judith the person, Judith the historical figure, Judith the writer, Judith the symbol of causes; just so many Judith's!

In dealing with so many New Englanders like Drummond, Page or Wright and the interactions between them, I find that they become like characters in novels, people with lives of their own who dictate the story. I as writer am loosely in charge of a plot of many characters who have their own minds. This is not a problem in fiction, but is an issue in history.

Finally, and this is not really a problem from my perspective, there is the constant desire to bring a New England past alive that has in some ways become lost. I am not alone here.

As an historian, I suppose I write from a right wing perspective.

I need to be very careful in what I say here. I am not right wing in the way that term is often used today. I am not a neo-liberal, nor do I necessarily espouse current right wing nostrums. However, I do write about topics and past issues that are generally classified today as right wing. Further, I write about them from a sympathetic or at least understanding position.

All this comes about because of my role as a regional historian, someone concerned with the history and ideas of a particular area. Scratch a New Englander, and you will quickly find common attitudes that don't quite fit with "mainstream" thought.    

My blogging colleague Paul Barratt would be classified as a left winger. His support for the Greens, his pro-Palestine position, his media appearances including chairing the wikileaks session at the Sydney Writers' Festival, all place him on the left. He would, I think, classify himself as a left winger. Yet scratch Paul and he is a New Englander.

Like me, he has the same love of country. Like me, he thinks that the old Country Party was a good thing. Like me, he understands and supports Tony Windsor. Like me, he is a New England New Stater. Like me, he promotes the history and life of New England. Like me, he complains about the acceptance of currently common nostrums that prevent regional development. Yet we are very different.

People who come from our New England tradition don't easily fit in with current stereotypes. And that's part of the fascination of the writing that I, Paul, and others are now doing. We are mounting a challenge. And that's fun.                             

Friday, May 27, 2011

Two Australian poetry resources

Both Lynne and Neil referred me to the just launched Australian Poetry Library. This contains tens of thousands of Australian poems by several hundred Australian poets. There is some good material there, although I spotted a few errors in the biography sections. 

Judith Wright was born at Thalgarrah Station not Thalgaroch Station, while Les Murray's home town of Nabiac is on the Mid North Coast, not Central Coast. That said, it is a valuable resource.

While on poetry resources, I also wanted to mention the international Lyrikline site. This has a number of poems by Australian poets including Les Murray and Judith Wright in both text and as read by the author.   

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Judith Wright, smoking, pokies, Armidale floods & policy misinformation

I ended up not posting yesterday because there were a number of things that I need to complete. Ditto today. However, I did want to note a few things that I am working on, plan to comment on or simply noted in passing.

My train reading at the moment is Fiona Capp's My Blood's Country (Allen & Unwin), subtitled a journey through the landscapes that inspired Judith Wright's poetry.

Inspired by that book, I am working on a post for my New England History blog called multi-layered history. This centres in part on the way that the stories of major figures like Judith Wright actually become historical actors in their own right. From a purely personal viewpoint, there is a strange disconnect when people and areas one knows acquire an external independent life.

In Smoking, drinking & problems in public policy I talked about issues associated with the current fight in Australia over plain packaging for cigarettes. On Sunday morning, I listened to the broader pontifications on the ABC Insiders program; this, I thought, is commentary, but it is commentary coming from reporters whose job is to report. How can they report when it is clear that they think that they are players, that their personal opinions matter? Then this morning, I listened to discussion on plain paper packaging for cigarettes.

I have a high opinion of the Ages's Michelle Grattan. In commenting on the views of Barnaby Joyce on plain paper packaging, she expressed the opinion that she hoped that he would not oppose it. My heart sank. She was there to interpret, but that was absent.

In a way, I don't give a damn about plain paper packaging for tobacco products. It just doesn't matter. It will add to costs, but have no practical effect that I can see beyond shifts at the margin between brands. If it makes people happy, okay. Yet it is also another feature of what, in a different context, I called the New South Walesing of the then Rudd Government.

New South Walesing is the process whereby Governments go by the immediately popular regardless of the longer term or substantive arguments. X is considered to be bad, do something about it regardless.

Michelle Grattan has been New South Walesed. I am not suggesting that Michelle was playing to popular opinion in her response. She was expressing her opinion. But then, that wasn't her role. She responded personally, not professionally.

It's interesting to compare plain packaging with Andrew Wilkie's poker machine proposal. You get the same type of gut reactions. On the other hand, no one can deny, I think, that problem gambling is a social problem. Further, the Wilkie proposal is an attempt to address that social problem. Yet the Wilkie proposal is likely to fail because of very specific adverse effects on particular activities in particular areas.

Whether the Wilkie proposals can be amended sufficiently to overcome the problem, whether they are in fact the best solution, is open to question. However, the Wilkie proposals are a genuine attempt to address a real social problem.

I was trying to think just how to explain all this. The problem, that I see it, is that the argument around some of these issues can be summarised this way:

  • x is a problem
  • the proposed measure is attended to address x
  • therefore the proposed measure is a good thing.

Anybody who challenges the measure immediately attracts the response "don't you recognise that x's a problem?" This is actually very silly. These things have to be debated on fact, not emotion.

I had intended to write a full story on a very interesting local case study of just how blind application goes wrong. Instead, I might just summarise it here.

New insurance notices went out in Armidale. A number of Armidale people found that they could not get flood insurance, or could only get it at a huge premium increase. In one case, an Armidale women was quoted $6,000 in annual premiums. When she challenged this, she was told that on actuarial grounds based on new flood maps, she should have been charged $17,000; the top premium was capped at $6,000.

Now if this had happened in Brisbane or Sydney, it might have gone through to the keeper. However, Armidale is a geographically concentrated area in which everybody knows the flood patterns. The small creek that runs through the centre of the city floods rapidly, but also drops quickly because it has a very small catchment area.

Inevitably, stories about flood premiums made the local newspapers and everybody began to compare notes. Some very silly cases emerged. As an example, the women charged $6,000 was well outside the official one hundred years flood maps. It would require a gigantic flood of a type never seen before for water to reach her property.

For many weeks, the insurance companies held the line, arguing that they were working on official data. Finally, one insurance company did the sensible thing and actually sought information on the basis of the data being used to make flood assessments. Turns out that there was a data entry error. Insurance premiums then dropped sharply.

My point is that you simply cannot accept arguments about proposals or responses that use official data without checking both the data and the arguments.

During the week there was another example of this problem. The Grattan Institute, an Australian think tank, released a report on regional programs that made national headlines.           

I quote from Lenore Taylor in the Sydney Morning Herald

GOVERNMENTS are wasting more than $2 billion a year trying to lure Australians to the regions and are short-changing the ''bolting'' growth areas of western Sydney and coastal cities such as Coffs Harbour and Nowra where people are choosing to move, a new report has found.

The study by the Grattan Institute found no evidence that years of government spending on regional universities, ''adjustment'' plans or regional development schemes had done anything to boost population or economic growth, but said it had resulted in chronic under-investment in fast-growing areas close to the capitals and coastal cities where population was increasing.

''We conclude that government spending cannot make economic water flow uphill and accelerate slow-growing regions,'' the report says. ''The current approach to services of 'regional equity' is unfair to residents of bolting regions. They are not getting their fair share of services.''

The problem is that this report is one of the sloppiest examples of policy analysis that I have seen. Because of its importance to the things that I am interested in, I actually downloaded it and spent more than four hours yesterday working my way through the analysis and assumptions.

Do you know, for someone without my knowledge of history and statistics, this report could seem just so reasonable. Indeed, it did to many.

If it had been just a thought piece, a discussion draft, then its challenges to some current nostrums would have been valuable. But in presenting as more than that, it became another piece of policy misinformation.

I have to be fair. Without back-up evidence and analysis, my interpretation is simply another opinion piece. However, I will present my evidence and analysis later and let you make your own judgments.        

Well, time to return to today's priorities.  


In a comment, Winton Bates wrote:

Re smoking and the nanny state: Jim you might be interested in this article on 'spiked' that refers to a recent report by something called the Preventative Health Taskforce.

You can find the Taskforce report and Government response here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Culture, locality & prejudice in Sydney

This one comes from the University of New South Wales via eldest in Europe. It captures some of the differing views across Sydney about other parts of Sydney. I did laugh. Map of sydney

Monday, May 23, 2011

Fire daughter

Clare (youngest) asked me which photo I preferred. I picked this one. Be afraid, be very afraid!

Fire sword

Being realistic about the NBN

Driving back from Canberra yesterday, my mind was full of possible stories, of things to write about. Too full, I fear. I woke this morning to a mental impasse, brain too crowded. I took a while to sort things through.

Yesterday's post, Reporting on the NBN - a local perspective was as the name says. Then I found the University of New England news release associated with the NBN launch, Broadband launch puts UNE and Armidale at the forefront. Reading about the three projects mentioned gave me a sense of déjà vu.

I should mention the projects first:

  • SmartFarm technology which includes sensor platforms for crops, pasture and livestock, mentoring and diagnostic applications for farm machinery, and high-definition videoconferencing
  • UNE’s collaboration with the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, which brings high-tech broadband-enabled educational applications to regional Australian medical students
  • the EDUONE portal - a joint project between the New England Institute of TAFE and UNE, in which the project partners will lead the dissemination of free media-rich open-source digital educational materials and communication applications for individual and workplace training, including lead-in to VET and university courses

When I say a sense of déjà vu, I am not being critical of the projects themselves. it's just that I have been around the high technology scene for a long time, including involvement in Armidale and UNE projects. Hype like the following actually makes me uncomfortable: 

Speaking at the launch, the Prime Minister said: “The NBN will end the tyranny of distance between rural and regional Australia and our capital cities, literally changing the way Australians live and work.”

While I am a supporter of the NBN concept, I think a degree of realism is required.

I am old enough to have been though a number of waves in the electronics, computing and communications environment. Each was seen as creating a new golden age. It hasn't quite worked that way. 

Part of the problem is that results at project or even technology level are often far less than expected by protagonists. As a broad generalisation, the short term impact from new technology tends to be less than expected, while the long term impact is often greater than expected, although the effects themselves may be unexpected!

Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

The idea that the combination of computing and communications technology might overcome the tyranny of distance is quite old. By the mid eighties, it was quite clear that the affects were going to be different than expected.

Within Australia, the new technologies led to the transfer of activities from regional areas because they facilitated centralisation. A similar effect happened globally. The new technologies created what were called footloose activities that could be carried out anywhere and moved to lowest cost points.

This process continues. Nobody should assume that any part of Australia nor indeed Australia itself will benefit in terms of new economic activities after adjusting for transfers of activities.

Nor should one assume that computing and communications technologies of themselves will overcome disadvantage where those disadvantages are based on other variables not affected by the technology.

Take e-health as an example. It may give people better notional access to health services. However, there are still just so many doctors. If you assume that doctors are already busy, then the new technology may in fact simply increase pressure on already stretched time.

Similar effects can arise in e-education. The new technology may facilitate access, but the teachers or lecturers involved still have to prepare material and provide student support. This can actually take more time than traditional approaches.

E-activities may, in fact, reduce the standard of service offered because cost considerations dictate the form of the service: it allows costs to be shifted from supplier to customer; it encourages forms of activity that centre on the economics of maximum on-line delivery even though this may not be as good; and it may lock us into delivery modes even though we know that they are not the best simply because of the size of system replacement costs. 

None of this means that I do not support the NBN. I just wanted to register a caution re expectations.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reporting on the NBN - a local perspective

Just back from Canberra, something that I will write a full post on. But for now, I want to introduce you to a most wonderful post  providing a very particular and personal country journalistic context to a major national event.

In NBN & Armidale, I talked about the mainland launch in Armidale of the new National Broadband Network.

I have mentioned Janene Carey before. She is a very good writer living in Armidale who works part time for the Armidale Express. Some of her pieces have achieved national coverage.

This piece on her personal blog, Covering the PM's visit to Armidale on Wednesday May 18, gives a particular local perspective on the national media caravan as it hits a particular area. I quote just one para: 

At the press conference, I was struck by the boldness of the young female reporters, particularly one sporting jeans and long hair with an insouciant I'm-not-impressed-by-you attitude and no qualms at all about asking questions designed to be confrontational. I asked no questions myself - I just took notes, and the criticisms and responses became one of my stories. The only question I did consider asking - do you all (the panel was Gillard, Conroy, Windsor, Quigley) - see the NBN as an important legacy of your time in office? - seemed too nice, too polite, almost a Dorothy Dixer. Given the negative tone of what had been posed previously, I thought it would probably be greeted with howls of derision. I did try it on Windsor as he left, but he was rushing to catch up with the rest of the gang and seemed wary of sounding immodest and claiming too much credit for himself.

Do have a look at the full post. It's really quite funny while providing insights into the media circus. I suppose that it points (among other things) to the difference between reporting, telling a story, and reporting, creating to story.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - the WA royalties stoush

In yesterday's post I mentioned the growing financial stoush between the West Australian and Commonwealth Governments over mining royalties. This continued to grow as a political storm during the day. This story is an example, this another.

For the benefit on international readers, the basic facts are these:

  1. The Australian Government has decided to introduce a resource rent tax on the profits of mining companies to take advantage of the current mining boom so that it has money to spend on what it considers to be national priorities.
  2. Under the Australian constitution, mineral resources belong the crown in the right of each state. The states levy royalties on mineral extraction so that they have money to spend on what they consider to be state priorities.
  3. Given the constitutional position, the Commonwealth has indicated that royalties paid to the states can be deducted from payments that would be made to the Commonwealth under the resource rent tax, However, the Commonwealth has made it clear to the states that it expects them not to increase royalties. The practical effect is to shift revenue from the states to the Commonwealth; Commonwealth spending priorities have been placed in front of state spending priorities.
  4. To sweeten the deal, the Commonwealth has offered to spend part of the money raised from the new tax on infrastructure in individual states.
  5. The Commonwealth's financial power has made the states increasingly dependent on Commonwealth funding in their traditional areas of responsibility, funding increasingly tied up in Commonwealth requirements of one type or another. States must meet and report on an increasing variety of centrally imposed requirements with constantly reducing spending discretion.
  6. West Australia has become increasingly unwilling to agree to Commonwealth requirements to the point that they have refused to participate in new health arrangements even if it meant loss of funding.
  7. West Australia has now varied royalty arrangements to increase revenue, in so doing creating a $2 billion hole in Federal revenue projections.   

Now if I was in the WA Treasury, I think that my advice to my Treasurer would be as follows:

  1. It has become increasingly difficult to manage our budget with so much spend tied up in unstable and prescriptive Commonwealth programs.
  2. It has become increasingly difficult to set any meaningful state priorities when we can't control what we do.
  3. Mining royalties are our main growth revenue source and fund programs including royalties for the regions. There can be no certainty in any countervailing Commonwealth funding offer because of  excessive policy prescriptions and policy instability.
  4. We must draw a line in the sand now. If the Commonwealth responds by cutting grants or if the Grants Commission reduces our share of the Goods and Services Tax, then we may have to increase royalties further, increase other state taxes, reduce spend or some combination of them all.
  5. We should only move from this position if we are convinced that any Commonwealth counter offer will both meet immediate needs and be sustainable in the longer term.

There are obviously going to be moves and counter moves in all this, and no one can be sure how things will work out. The most likely worst case scenario for WA is no real increase in money, but greater freedom to spend the money that is does have. 

The issue to my mind is whether or not the WA Government has the political fortitude to stick it out. I suspect it does. The results of this dispute may well be critical in the evolution of the next stage of the Federation.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Ramble

I woke up this morning feeling far less the crusty curmudgeon that inspired Smoking, drinking & problems in public policy. While the house was quiet, I had a gentle wander around the on-line papers, some fellow bloggers and some of my own past posts.

As I watched the news last night of the Queen's historic visit to Ireland, I couldn't help thinking what a remarkable women. The full text of her short speech is in the Irish Times. The visit was of considerable symbolic importance, and not without personal importance to the Queen herself.

By happenstance, in Day 631 May 23, 1941, World War II Day-By Day records:

Crete. Overnight, British destroyers HMS Kelly (captained by Lord Louis Mountbatten, 2nd cousin of King George VI) and HMS Kashmir shell German positions at Maleme airfield. They retire 35 miles South of Crete but they are sunk by Stukas at 8 AM (181 killed). Destroyer HMS Kipling rescues 297 survivors, including Mountbatten, but is then badly damaged by HMS Kelly as she sinks (under repair at Alexandria, Egypt, until June). 

The Queen was personally close to Mountbatten, who was killed by the Provisional Irish Republican  Army on  27 August 1979.

In all this, I wondered what the Irish street reaction was. According to the Irish Times, there was some annoyance at all the security arrangements, while many were disappointed at not being able to see the Queen.

Dear it's difficult. This was a high risk visit. There were threats against her, with one defused bomb. Had she been killed, the results would have been disastrous.

The quote from World War II Day-By-Day refers to German positions at Maleme airfield on Crete.

At 8am, 20 May, German paratroopers began landing between Suda Bay and Maleme. New Zealand General Freyberg who is in charge of the defence of Crete is still misreading Ultra signals. Expecting amphibious landings, he holds back artillery & reserve troops, allowing the Germans to establish a position.

If you are a new reader who just wandered in via Google, I became very interested in Greece, the Greek Islands and Crete in particular during a family visit last year.

Turning in a totally different direction, my post on the New England Australia blog, NBN & Armidale, attracted a fair bit of traffic because of its topicality. Traffic doubled.

The post drew an email from Janene Carey. Janene is a very good freelance writer who also writes for the Armidale Express.

Saw your blog post on yesterday's NBN launch. I was there and thought the whole event quite impressive and significant but the metro media only seem to want to cover the (largely imagined) negatives. You beat me to the punch - I only finished my four stories about it this morning.

I first came in contact with Janene when one of her stories made the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. It was a very good story, I wrote a post referring to the story, and she emailed me. I had no idea then that she was from Armidale and was connected to the Express.

My contact with Janene gives me at least the illusion of being part of the modern journalistic world instead of being just a ponderous pontificator blogging alone from my study!

In her email, Janene  referred to one of my Armidale Express columns, Belshaw's World - New England masterchefs ponder regional dish. One of the local CWA ladies not on internet contacted her offering me help in identifying uniquely New England dishes.

The CWA, the Country Women's Association, is Australia's largest women's organisation with a remarkable record of achievement over a very long time. Last year on Masterchef, one of Australia's most successful TV programs, the challenge set for Masterchef contestants was to cook certain recipes from the CWA cookbook - scones, lamingtons, jam, a fruit cake - and then serve to 100 CWA ladies. An experienced CWA judge critiqued their efforts. I quote from my then post Masterchef meets the CWA.

Now we know the CWA pretty well, and have eaten a lot of country cooking. My wife also learned to bake from her nan. I guess because of all this, we had a feel as to what might happen.

These contestants have cooked in challenge after challenge, managing often complicated dishes that I could never cook. There have been individual failures, but overall the results have been good. This time, with few exceptions, they bombed big time. It's just not as easy as it seems.

As the contest proceeded, I noticed that eldest had got out the cookbook I gave her some time ago. I feel like scones, she explained. Mixing bowls and ingredients appeared on the coffee table. With guidance from her mum, the process continued.

After the show finished, we discussed it over scones, blackberry jam and whipped cream. Our feeling was CWA 8, Masterchef 2.

Seriously, for us the show was as funny as a circus! Janene, I will follow up.

Segueing into different directions via volunteers (the CWA is all about volunteers), Winton Bates' Freedom and Flourishing had a guest post, What determines who volunteers?, by Shona. Shona talks about her own experiences in the hope that it will encourage discussion.

I have had a fair bit of experience in the volunteer world and regard it as very important. I will try to write a companion post. For example, I don't think that the economic concept of free rider that Winton refers to is especially relevant.

Continuing the segue, the link this time is other people's posts that I want to write about, I found two posts on Club Troppo of special interest.

The first was Don Arthur's Bleg: Can you explain this graph? (changes in male full-time employment).

Over the last twenty three years, the proportion of working age Australian males in full time employment has fallen quite dramatically. To illustrate this, I include one of Don's graphs. Comments follow.

As a male, I found this quite a depressing graph and want to follow up with comments based on my own experience and writing.

In The future of tertiary education – a teacher’s perspective, Ken Parish looks at issues associated with e-learning an universities. I have strong views on this one, and want to do a full response.

Finally, within the Australian Federation the growing conflict between Western Australia and the central administration has reached an interesting stage, with WA increasing mining royalties as part of its budget. I have explored some of the issues involved.

Bluntly, we have two different world views about governance and constitutional arrangements in Australia that are irreconcilable. One asserts rights under the existing constitution, the second actually asserts rights independent of the constitution based on presumed rights of national government. How all this plays out is quite important.       

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why acknowledgment of country is important

In Victoria, the Premier:

has confirmed he will no longer force ministers and public servants to acknowledge traditional Aboriginal land owners at official events.

In a major policy shift that has upset some indigenous leaders, the State Government has dumped a Labor protocol as too politically correct.

You will find the story here, along with a video clip of the Premier's alternative. I think that the Premier is wrong.

Before explaining why, let me outline my previous position in blunt terms. I thought that the acknowledgement was sanctimonious politically correct crap enforced by generally white Australians on a guilt trip. Is that clear enough?

If you look at the comments on the News story, you can see how the commenters are conflicted by the issue.

I no longer hold my original view, although some rote aspects still make me uncomfortable. People are saying it not because they think that it's right, but because it's the thing to do.

  Aboriginal peoples occupied this land for a long term before 1788. The Aboriginal peoples who occupied this land in 1788 did not have the same culture or indeed possibly the same ethnicity as the first small number of human settlers on our land. The world changes. However, they could claim a historical continuity and connection to a very long past.

To my mind, acknowledgement of country is a formal ceremonial affirmation of the connection between modern multicultural Australia and the land's long past. I rarely use the word multicultural, but it is appropriate in this context.

Through the ceremony, Australians who come from many lands recognise, assert if you like, their present connection to Australia's long past. This is our land, and we recognise its history. To Aboriginal Australians of all types, it is an affirmation that modern Australia recognises their past in the long history of human occupation of this continent.     

If we put aside all the overlays that have been attached to the ceremony, I cannot see this as a bad thing.

Australia needs ceremonials. We use them all the time. I think that both acknowledgment and welcome to country are good ones so long as we understand the context and purpose.   

Smoking, drinking & problems in public policy

I woke up this morning feeling like a crusty curmudgeon, something that has been happening more frequently.

The proximate cause was plain packaging laws on cigarettes, another in a series of restrictive social measures that will add to cost and complexity without positive effect, at least in terms of stated aims. My old blogging colleague Neil Whitfield put his support for the measure in these terms: "Of course anything which inconveniences the tobacco industry gets my support nowadays."

Neil has just given up smoking by the way, a decision that I support. I quote from one of his Facebook messages:        

78 days, 22 hours, 29 minutes and 38 seconds smoke free.
3947 cigarettes not smoked.
$2,528.00 saved.

Well done!

As it happened, a day or so before my exchange with Neil I passed a group of those young people that now litter Sydney streets collecting money for charities, in this case the Cancer Council. They were a bit taken aback when I said that I would not contribute, that I thought that the Cancer Council had become a bad thing!  I could have added, but did not that, the Cancer Council had become just one of a series of bodies including the RSPCA that I could no longer support.

See what I mean by a crusty curmudgeon?

My core problem is a simple one. I am sick of social control measures that reduce individual freedom but don't work. I am sick of the growing number of not-for-profits that support such measures because it aids their survival, feeds their raison d'être. These bodies do not provide evidence nor objective advice, but act as advocacy groups for particular positions in isolation of other considerations. In a competitive market place, they survive by promoting the importance of the particular axe they have to grind.

Take the packaging laws. If their purpose is to punish the cigarette companies or smokers, then let's debate that. If their purpose is to reduce smoking, then let's focus on that.

In NSW, the previous Government introduced regulations requiring retailers to limit cigarette sales to just one cash register. Retailers were also required to alter fittings so that cigarettes could not be seen. These moves were intended to reduce smoking. Did they have any affect? No. Worse, blind Freddy could have seen this.

Now the new packaging laws are highly unlikely to reduce smoking. In fact, they may well entrench consumption while encouraging smuggling. Entrench smoking? How might this happen?

Laws and regulations such as those concerned with smoking are dealing with a multi-faceted issue in which different measures can conflict.

Laws banning cigarette advertising were, I think, effective in limiting new cigarette consumption, in part because they combined with changing social attitudes. I might have had doubts about them at the time, but I would now give them a tick. In similar vein, health education programs in schools pointing to the dangers of smoking were effective for a period because they provided factual information that kids could comprehend. Now this has turned around.

The previous combined message was simply don't smoke, it's not good for you. Here are the risks. That seemed to work.

Now that smoking has turned from a social habit to something more akin to a drug habit, it has become an identified act of rebellion, something illicit. I am sure that this will be added to as the plain packages circulate. Now I have the strong impression that the number of younger smokers is increasing.

I don't want to deal just with smoking in this post. However, I did want to add one side-effect of the various laws. They have actually increased the health risks among those who do smoke because the way smokers now smoke has changed.

Non-smokers find this hard to understand.

Take a single cigarette. When I first started smoking, when it was more a social habit, smokers would light a cigarette, take a draw and put it down. You might actually smoke only half a cigarette measured by direct smoke drawn into your lungs. Chain smokers, those who smoked and smoked, were somewhat looked down on. 

Now what happens? As smokers rush outside for a smoke break, they smoke as fast as they can. Far more of each cigarette is drawn into the lungs than used to be the case. In broad terms, the practical effect of the restrictions is to approximately double the intake of adverse toxins.

Drinking among young people in Australia is a problem.

I actually find it hard to understand, and I grew up in an environment in which drinking among the young was common, how a sometimes abused right of passage has turned into a modern Australian drinking culture.

No, I don't think that I am being naive. I have a very clear recognition of my youth, and of some of the Barry Humphries' songs. Just for nostalgia's sake, here is a video clip from that past.  

Okay, so what's changed? Well, the level of acceptable serial drunkenness is, to my mind, unbelievable, as is willingness among the young to actually accept what should be unacceptable behaviour.

It must be clear that I am not a puritan. However, there is a balance question.

As with smoking, one of the difficulties is that Government responses are not very sensible.

Sale of certain mixed drinks called alcopops were seen as a special problem. The Government put a special tax on them. As a revenue measure it was effective. As a measure to control levels of drinking, it had no measurable affect because people switched drinks.

This has become a long post, so I will pause my curmudgeonly moan here.

I would only note in finishing that over the last few years I have analysed more than twenty examples on this blog of policy making in the "it seems like a good idea class" that had no real chance of working. Each case was supported by particular special interest groups. When they failed, the reaction of the special interest groups and of politicians was to go for more restrictions.

It's a case of when you are on a bad thing, stick to it!


In a comment, Winton Bates pointed me to a rather remarkable story, Bhutan: Twenty Four. How many more?.

Maybe this is what Australia needs to maximise gross national happiness. 

Postscript 2

Neil has restated his position in Selling dog turds as pearls and diamonds. I was going to add a comment, but find that I don't really care. Life's too short.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A blogging pot-pouri

Interesting but nor surprising that the mainland launch of the new National Broadband Network will take place in Armidale today. It's not just that this is Tony Windsor's seat. As a university and educational centre, Armidale has, I think, been the most welcoming centre for the NBN. If NBN doesn't work in Armidale, then its not going to work anywhere!

Now turning to blogging matters. I have deliberately selected blogs that show something of the wonderful variety of the blogging world. 

Congratulations to fellow blogger Sophie Masson (A la mode frangourou) on winning the Patricia Wrightson Prize, the children's literature section of the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, for her book The Hunt for Ned Kelly (Scholastic).

On Ochre Archives, Phillip Diprose deals with the problems involved in cleaning polyethylene lined steel rainwater tanks. I really enjoy this blog. Phillip doesn't post often, but his posts provide a picture of life on a country property run by someone interested in environmental issues and prepared to try new things.

Staying with specialist interests, I note from A Woodsrunners Diary that the winter trekking dates for the New England Colonial Living History Group have been set for the 3rd, 4th, & 5th of June. The weather is already turned cold with heavy frosts & ice at night. I enjoy this blog because of its arcane aspects. I quote at random:

It is generally accepted that when moulding lead it is a good idea to add beeswax to help clear the lead. In this video I do not use beeswax because I am only using a small amount of lead at any one time. If you are dipping from a lead pot, then using beeswax is a good idea. DO NOT breath in the fumes from the lead. I am doing this in an open fireplace & I have windows & doors open. This is best done in the open air using a camp fire, but DO NOT do this in the rain. Water hitting the hot lead will make the moulten lead explode.

Marcellous continues his focus on music. His a Sudden realisation of tragiC situation of Mendelssohn took me into a world that I still do not fully understand. The capital C is not a mistake, by the way.

On World War II Day-By-Day, the German invasion of Crete has been delayed until May 20 by the late arrival in Southern Greece of tanker Rondine with 5,000 tons of aviation fuel. Meantime, fighting continues in Iraq. I want to write a little more on the last.

In The End of Schengenland?, Martin Lewis deals with the growing challenge to the free movement of people within the EU. This one is actually relevant to my last post, Populism, people and geography. As the EU has become larger and more disparate, maintenance and development of central coherence has become more difficult. A number of the political movements within Europe play directly to the populist card.

Meantime, on Demography Matters, Randy McDonald's A brief note on Lithuania's depopulation looks at the decline in Lithuania's population, down 10 per cent over the last decade.

In a different post on another blog,- [LINK] "Parti Quebecois toasts success of Scottish separatists, shares referendum ideas" - Randy reports on the desire of Quebec separatists to establish links with the Scots Nats. In a comment on the skepticslawyers post, Glasgae Says Nae, I made a passing comment on the links between one New England separatist and the Scottish National Movement.

Turning in a completely different direction, in Ann, Will Owen reports on the death of Sydney art patron Anne Lewis, a women with a strong interest in Australian Aboriginal art. It's a nice personal tribute.

In another post, Side by Side, Yolngu and Balanda, Will provides an insight into the complex Aboriginal world of the Northern Territory. One quote to illustrate:

Clarke brings to his discussion of this era an exposition of some fine points of distinction that are too often lost in the heated arguments over Aboriginal policy.  Chief among these is the difference between self-determination, which the Yolngu desired but did not achieve, and self-management, whereby “the Government gave them control over the very domain they had never sought to control,” that is, education, health care, and management of the township and the mission.  These were areas over which Wonggu had ceded control to the mission many years ago (Clarke, p. 92).  The shift that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s sacrificed Yolngu values that ought to have been enshrined in a policy of self-determination to a Balanda bureaucracy imposed through a regime of “self-management” that was never in fact managed, nor meant to be managed, by the Yolngu themselves.  The Yolngu wanted consultation, not intervention.

I suppose that one of my blogging themes is the need to recognise variety, that the imposition of universals, the application of standard approaches developed in one place to another place or in a different context, often has locally devastating affects.

To finish this post with a final point that I have made before.

For those like me interested in many things, blogs and blogging provides a liberal education, an introduction into many different worlds and ways of thinking. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Populism, people and geography

In a comment on The New England populist tradition, KVD asked what populism was. The on-line dictionary defines it as appealing to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people. The Wikipedia article is not bad.

If you look at the general definition, populism can take many forms. The Tea Party in the US, for  example, is a populist movement on the right, but one with radical and even libertarian tendencies that appear to combine in an odd way with social conservatism.  In Canada, the New Democratic Party (the Canadian equivalent to the Labor Party and now the official opposition) has deep agrarian and populist roots, but  is far more progressive (to use a code word) on social issues such as gay rights than the Australian Labor Party. 

No political movement is perfect, nor immune from inconsistencies. Each draws from its own bedrock, and has to rationalise and codify its political views in light of its changing base and the people it represents.

The idea of the people is common in most populist parties. Yet what people and when?

In the Australian federal Seat of New England, independent member Tony Windsor regularly surveys his electorate, he represents the people of New England, yet when it came to deciding whether to support Labor or Liberal, he voted  for the Gillard Government even though the majority of his people in his electorate were arguably against the idea. Here he overrode one definition of people, those in his electorate, in the interests of a second group of people, country people and, more broadly still, Mr Windsor's perception of the national interest and the need for national stability. This position was challenged by the National's Barnaby Joyce using populist language. Was Tony inconsistent? No, because his position actually fitted directly into the New England populist tradition with its specific constitutional focus.

In part of that tradition, Parliament as the body representing the people was central, the body that represented people against state oppression. When a person was elected, they acquired responsibilities to that body. They had to put aside narrower interests and consider Parliament as an institution. This view was quite deeply held. When late in his life NSW Country Party leader Mick Bruxner was expelled from the Lower House chamber for a period because he tried to uphold a point of principle, his biographer Don Aitkin records that he was white and shaking. It's a bit hard to believe today when periodic expulsion is just part of the party political game.

Most populist parties, indeed all parties, have their images and rhetoric. Central to these is often the concept of the oppressed and the oppressors. Political correctness and the chattering classes is actually an example of this rhetoric in practice, as is the idea of oppression of the workers.

Populist movements often emerge because their supporters perceive that existing political machines tied up with existing economic and social power structures are interested in power for its own sake and not in the interests of people however defined. This was true in Australia in the first decades of the twentieth century when the country movements saw the new Labor controlled by unions, the then equivalent of the Liberals by the bosses and city capital. 

In the case of the Australian Country Parties, the idea of the virtues of farming and grazing, of an oppressed country and an oppressing city, of the virtues of a country life, were deeply held and not without some justice. Here we have the appeal to one set of people (country people) who are oppressed by metropolitan control.

In the New England political tradition, this found expression in the concept of the oppression of minorities. Those who have power will use it. If the majority always controlled the levers of power, they would abuse that power. In the recent ABC Q&A session in Albury, Tony Windsor commented that country people must organise to exert the total power of their vote. If not, their interests would be overridden. This is the old Country Party argument.

The exact form taken by the emerging country movements varied across Australia.

In Victoria,the emerging country party was dominated by the more radical small farmer vote. Discipline was everything. Parliamentary members must be responsible and bound by Party policy. A pledge was introduced, based on the equivalent in the ALP.

By contrast, the country party in NSW emerged with the slogan no pre-selection or pledge. These were the devices used by the other parties to control. Any member of the party in good standing should be able to run for election. The very concept of machine control was denied, as was the idea of workers vs bosses.

Although this view atrophied with time, so long as there was either multi-member or compulsory preferential voting it maintained its supporters. To the Country (later National) Party political machines with their growing professionalisation and focus on power, the old approach was a waste of resources that risked electoral loss. This was reinforced by the decline in the Party's independence within coalition. Even at the end of the 1950s, founding NSW members such as Drummond and Bruxner held the line to some degree, although by then they were seen as increasingly out of touch to the needs of modern politics.

One of the distinctive features of the Country Party in Northern NSW was the presence of parallel new state agitation.  A second thing was the linking of farmers and graziers.

In Victoria, and to a lesser extent the Riverina and south-western NSW, the wealthier graziers stayed away from the Country Party, preferring the status quo. In Northern NSW they combined. Further, the Country Party gained support among the town elites. Support for new state agitation was strong among some of the leading graziers, stronger still among town elites, including especially the local papers. Country Party support for a Northern NSW New State allowed it to capture a much broader support base. Outside the lower Hunter, the Country Party became the natural party of Government.

The Party was still populist in its language and some of its thinking, but it was noticeably less radical than some of the other country parties. The new state movement had another impact as well, for it forced a focus on constitutional issues and principles. If, as both the Party and New State Movement argued, New England people must always be subject to oppression by the Sydney majority, then self-government for New England was the only answer. Since no political entity in history had willingly given up control over part of its territory, this had to be forced. This required those advocating separation to develop their own theories of Government that could then be argued.

Now we come back to the definition of the people.

At the 1967 plebiscite on New England self-government, both the Country and Liberal Parties were officially neutral. Both parties had representatives from different parts of NSW, many of whom were concerned that statehood for New England would leave the ALP in NSW in a strengthened position. However, individual parliamentarians were allowed to campaign for the yes case. 

By contrast, the NSW Labor Party strongly opposed a yes vote and used Party discipline to enforce that position. Statehood, the Party argued, would permanently disadvantage the working people and industrial interests of the lower Hunter, leaving them in a minority in a new Country Party dominated state. This is, of course, another variant of the oppression of the minority argument.

  Now we have three different versions of "the people" in play; the people of NSW, the people of New England and the people of the lower Hunter!

The arguments used by the New State Movement to try to counter the Labor attack drew directly from the New England populist tradition.

NSW lacked the geographic coherence and common interests to form a natural unity. This was what the Movement called the geographic basis of Government. As a consequence, the people of New England had been directly disadvantaged and would continue to be disadvantaged by inclusion in NSW. Oppression of the New England minority was inevitable.

The people of Newcastle and the coal fields had been largely ignored by Sydney. They had more in common with those further north than they did in Sydney. Should a New England state fail to deliver, fail to take into account their interests, then the Hunter would be entitled to seek self-government in its own right.

This post is not an argument for or against new states, although my own sympathies are clear. Rather, it is an attempt to illustrate issues using New England in part as a case study. Because of the particular circumstances of geography and history, and these are always critical to the form taken by populist movements of all types, New England populism has been by far the longest running and most clearly articulated of all of Australia's populist movements.         


Monday, May 16, 2011

Ripping yarns - the story of German raider Pinguin

Reading World war II Day by Day I was struck by regular references to ships destroyed by the German raider Pinguin. Then I read that it was finally destroyed on Day 616, May 8 1941.

Curious now, I followed the link given through to the story of the ship. It's really a ripping sea yarn, so thought that I would share it with you.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday Short Story - fruit & strong black tea

“Look, the lad should earn some money before he starts university and I need some work done,” his uncle said.

It was warm in the small kitchen despite the cold night. The lad’s uncle stood by the yellow enamel fuel stove that burned twenty four hours a day to heat the water, while his aunt sat at the kitchen table with his parents.

That table was the nerve centre of the house. Little happened that wasn’t discussed first around it.

“What type of work?” his father asked. “Thinning fruit”, his uncle replied “He can stay with us and go up to the orchard each morning”. “I’ll pay award wages”.

“What do you think, son?”

The lad wasn’t sure. The idea of earning some money sounded good, but he was also enjoying doing little, reading and seeing his friends round town. Still, he couldn’t really say that. So, in the absence of any objections on his part, it was decided.

It was cold that first morning when his aunt woke him at 6am. He dragged himself out of bed and went to have a quick bath to wake up. “No more than three inches, dear”, his aunt said. The house relied on tanks, and water was tight.

Just after seven, the lad and his uncle left the homestead flanked by the two sheep dogs and walked through the damp grass towards the orchard.  This was about a mile away on a small hill overlooking the property. It was a bright, cool, morning with a promise of heat in the air. The lad carried a basket with a thermos full of milky tea plus his lunch and something for morning and afternoon tea, all packed by his aunt.

“I’ll introduce you to Jack”, his uncle said. “He’s done a fair bit of work for me and can show you the ropes” Jack turned out to be a small, somewhat wizened, man wearing old pants and an ancient khaki shirt with the makings stuck in one of its pockets. He and the lad looked somewhat suspiciously at each other. It was pretty clear that Jack wasn’t all that comfortable with the idea of the boss’s nephew working for him. But then, at 7.30 in the morning the nephew wasn’t too comfortable with the idea either when he could have been at home in bed or just getting up.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it”, said his uncle. “I have to shift the sheep in the top paddock, and then go into Uralla to pick up supplies.”

“Done this before, son?”, Jack asked. “No”, the lad replied. “Well, it’s not hard. C’mon, I’ll show you”.

They walked towards the first row. It had been a good season, and the apples trees were heavily laden with fruit. “We have to get rid of the smaller apples,” Jack explained, “otherwise the fruit will just be too small to sell. There’s not much money in apples; they’ve got to be the right size for people to buy”.

He showed the lad how to pinch off the fruit so as not to damage the branches. Together they worked their way down the first row, using step ladders to reach the higher branches. There was little conversation; Jack seemed disinclined to talk.

At the end of the first row, Jack paused and said “time for a smoke, son.” He squatted on his heel in that characteristically Australian way, and rolled a smoke. Plucking up his courage, the lad asked if he might roll one too. “Sure son, help yourself”. It wasn’t a very good rollie, thick in some spots, thin in others. Pushing the tobacco in at the end with a match, the two sat there and smoked.

“You going to uni, son?” Jack asked. “Yes”, replied the lad. “Start first year in a few weeks.” “That’s good. I left school at twelve. You can’t get anywhere without learning. Well, back to work.”

The two started work down the next row. Jack had clearly decide that the lad was okay, so started yarning about the district and his life. “Where do you live?” the lad asked. “Uralla,” Jack replied, “but I go where the work takes me.”

They yarned on, stopping for morning tea. The lad poured himself a cup of milky tea, Jack a thick black tea. “You don’t want to drink that stuff, son”, Jack said. “Black’s much better when it’s hot. I like mine with lots of sugar. Gives me energy”.

The two resumed worked. Jack proved to be a bit of a radical, a strong Labor Party man and unionist, not impressed with most bosses. “Your uncle’s okay”, he said. “Pays properly and leaves me alone.” The lad heard about Jack’s experiences shearing. He seemed to have done most farm jobs.

Over lunch, the conversation turned to mining and gold. This was a mining area, and a recent discovery of a nugget had aroused interest. The lad told Jack about a girlfriend who had a gully on her place near Inverell where sapphires could be found.

“Old Charlie”, Jack responded, “has a mine somewhere. We all know it, but we don’t know where. Goes bush every so often and then comes back with gold dust. Everybody’s curious, but he’s a silent bugger.”

As the lad walked back to the house, he felt that he had learned a lot. That night he asked his aunt if he could have black tea the next day, strong with lots of sugar. He drank it that way for several years.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saturday Morning Meander

The post I brought up this morning, The New England populist tradition, was not intended to be today's post, simply a statement of personal position to which I could link a change on the sidebar.

I made the change because there is something discomforting about so often writing posts that don't quite fit in to current discourse, that in aggregate can actually appear inconsistent. They are not, in fact, but they can appear that way because they shift so much in terms of placement on today's opinion spectrum.

My intent in writing the post and in putting the statement on the sidebar is partly to alert readers to my position, more to assert that that position, while different, is still legitimate.

Yesterday blogger was down all day. I found this quite frustrating. Bloggers' technical reliability is very good, so when something goes wrong one feels it. More importantly, it  slowed me on two key projects.

The first is a longer term project, Introducing New England Aboriginal life. I have so far written seven posts in this series, with at least twenty to go. After that, it will slow down. By writing on New England's Aboriginal peoples past and present, I hope to show them as a living identity with a past, present and future.

Of course, the very idea of New England is a European construct, as is Australia or NSW. However, geography as well as history  provides a continuity. By writing in depth I am hoping to create a resource not available elsewhere, as well as showing a living present.

Something of the same thing applies with another project, New England's Aborigines stocktake May 2011.

This one is simply a total stocktake on of all the posts I have written to this point on all blogs on the history of New England's Aboriginal peoples. So far I have links to fifteen posts up, with a lot to go. Again, I hope that this will help create a resource.

In The WA Premier's ANZAC tour I wrote about the visit of a group of WA kids to Athens and Crete to experience something of what the ANZAC diggers experienced. The post was triggered by one of those nice things about blogging, a very kind email from Robyn Cleaver of the WA Department of Educations answering a query I raised in an earlier post.

In date terms, the German invasion of Crete in 1941 is just six days away. You can expect more Greek stuff in the next week, specially since eldest is going there.

Speaking of Greece & eldest. Ah, the wonders of Facebook! From Wednesday, slightly edited:

Eldest: Ok people who will be in Croatia, Turkey or Greece in June??
AW: Me! Croatia!
JG: Dude, remember when i wanted to come visit you for the specific reason to come to these countries, to party on the islands! grrrr
Eldest: I do. And yet? Still no j!! tut tut
MB: I'll be in Italy?
Eldest: question mark m?
HL: Yes :) Ill be in croatia, greece and italy.. when r u guys there? a and ma too?
MB: question mark yoself helly welly! I'm at a symposium in Italy 22 June-24 July so conference in the week but weekends offffffff!

Here am I, stuck in Sydney!

Also on Facebook, I thought of Neil when I saw this badge courtesy of Dave Lee. I really thought that it would strike a chord with him.

Youngest came in while I was writing this to tell me about last night's medical student's review at the University of New south Wales. She has a great ear for dialogue. I wish I did.

Revues always catch current topics, parodying student's views of current aspects of Australian life.

Chinese student: Dad, my blood test was AB negative.
Father: Why couldn't you at least get a plus!

Changing platforms, this one from Thomas on Twitter: "Late, late last night I was informed that there was a whole family BBQ on today. I was told late because it left me no way to get out of it."

Thomas, Thomas!

Yesterday while blogger was off, I did some tidying up trying to get things from the move back into filing cabinets. In so doing, I actually found some stuff that I thought I had lost.

Triggered by that, I am thinking of trying my hand at some short story style stuff on this blog, partly my own, partly excerpts from others. Not too much, maybe once a week or a fortnight. I have been jotting down thoughts because the idea excited me as a way of doing some new things.

What do you think?   


Just a short postscript on the last point.

One of the problems I find in writing about some things is that if I am writing them as fact or analysis I have to check my facts, qualify and be cautious. Sometimes I don't write because I can't be sure. At other times, the emotional content is removed.

By writing of some things as a story, as fiction, I can capture the story and emotion without worrying about the factual content. That way I can tell the story as it stands in my memory, not as it was.  

The New England populist tradition

I am about to bring up on the side bar a short notice explaining my political bias that I come from and am influenced by, the New England populist tradition. I feel the need to do this because of the way that my analysis often doesn't quite fit conventional modes. Sometimes it appears left, sometimes right, sometimes conservative, sometimes not.

Our views are influenced by our collective experiences. In my case, that includes quite a wide range of experiences in public and private sectors, as a policy adviser and consultant, as an economist and historian, plus the simple day to day things of life.

In all this, many of my political values and views were formed during my childhood and younger adulthood and then refined through experience. I grew up in a household that was, in retrospect, intensely political.

On one side, there was the Country Party and New England New State Movement. My grandfather, David Drummond, was a senior Country Party politician and a leader of the New England New State Movement. On the other side was an internationalist, academic and, in today's terms, left tradition whose roots lay in the industrial towns of Lancashire transmuted through New Zealand and the close-linked world of the Empire and Commonwealth universities.

These traditions may seem very different, but they actually coalesced around a series of common concerns and values. In some ways my father and grandfather were very different and certainly did not always agree. Yet there was a remarkably high degree of overlap in many of their core values and concerns, with one core unifying feature their concerns for social justice, for education and community development and for the development of Northern NSW.

I absorbed all this and was actively involved. Then I moved away. In the intensely fascinating world of Canberra, the very specific and apparently New England issues that had concerned me seemed less relevant.  

It is hard to escape one's past. I started writing a biography of my grandfather as a PhD topic. I had planned to focus on his public career and especially his role as NSW Education Minister. As I researched, I found that Northern NSW, the broader New England, moved to centre stage.

Drummond had a very troubled childhood, including a period as ward of the state. In his partial autobiographical manuscript he describes his early childhood and his first period as a ward in detail, and then there is a gap until his arrival in Armidale in 1907 as seventeen year old farm labourer.

It is from this point that the troubled child found success and, in a sense, redemption. In this process, the North (the broader New England) became central.

As first a farm labourer and then share farmer, Drummond became involved in the Farmers and Settlers Association and the agitation that would lead to the formation of the country parties. He shared the ideal of country, of an oppressed country and oppressing city. He also shared some of the radical and populist views that marked the early country parties.

In New England, the exact expression of country ideals was affected by a parallel movement that arose at the same time, that seeking statehood for the North.

Both the Country Party and New State Movement drew from common perceptions and grievances, but they were not the same. Concerned to address specific regional grievances and to force change in constitutional structures, the New State Movement crossed party divides and drew support from town groups not necessarily aligned with the emerging farm movements. Further, it had a very specific focus on constitutional issues.

The Country Party proved best able to capture the new sentiments in political terms because it was not then bound to existing political structures, but the distinction remained.

What I call New England populism is an amalgam of the different threads in the political history of New England. In that amalgam, Drummond played an important role because he articulated the constitutional views that, with some arguments over time, formed a common base. New England populism is a populist movement, but one with its own very specific constitutional base linked to separatist arguments and the need to justify the separatist position.

As I researched my grandfather’s life, I found the past flooding back. The thesis became, in part, an exploration of my own history and views.

I was now looking at the evidence and arguments from my position as a reasonably senior SES level Commonwealth Public Servant, judging the arguments from my experience in politics and policy. I found them good, quite unexpectedly so! That set me in new directions for both better and worse.

Well, what is New England populism and why is it still relevant beyond my own beliefs?

In terms of what it is, you won’t find it in any history books. It’s actually not recognised as a formal form of political expression. It just doesn’t fit in with conventional frames. However, I have given some of my posts at the end of this post that will give you an idea.

Is it still relevant?

Well, try Tony Windsor. I don’t think that he would call himself a New England populist, that’s my term. Yet he fits squarely in the New England populist tradition.

There is great debate within New England about the role played by Messrs Windsor and Oakshott because they cut across local political divides. New England itself had diminished, absorbed into conventional frames.

Outside New England, the support that Mr Windsor has gathered across the conventional political and ideological divides, the reason why Mr Windsor seems so fresh, lies in the fact that he is not bound by conventional divides.

Past posts on New England populism

On some of Drummond's constitutional views: