Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Living on the edge Australian style

Interesting piece by Ian Hoskins on the ABC's The Drum, Australia's love affair with the jewel sea. It's part promotion for his book, but there is nothing wrong with that.

Ian suggests that Australia's love with the coastal strip, more precisely that narrow strip of land fronting the sea and the immediately adjacent water, began early in the twentieth century, progressively replacing the land based images of the country. It's actually more recent than that, a creature of the last decades of the twentieth century.

Of course the Australian love affair with the beach is old. You only have to look at the seaside crowds in the old photos to know that. Yet the modern obsession with beach/surf/seaside is very recent.

Australians aren't in love with the sea as such. Our maritime culture, our involvement with sea, sailing and shipping, is far less than it once was measured by awareness and the proportion of the population involved. As late as the 1950s, sea travel was something that most Australians had experienced in their lifetime, often many times. All our imports came by sea, the tramp steamers including the coastal ships were familiar figures. Images such as the clippers were still familiar even for people living inland.

Today, air has replaced sea. In Sydney, the working ships that once made the harbour so interesting have been largely phased out, leaving the naval ships and the ubiquitous cruise ships as the only working ships. The Australians who join the cruise ships are not really experiencing the sea. These are giant floating hotels. The ribbons that used to link the steamers going to distant parts, the tears and joys of arrivals and departures, have been replaced by a rush to get in place and to the nearest on-board attraction. 

An entire life experience has been replaced, vanished and increasingly unknown. The ships and shipping lines that once formed part of the living Australian memory have gone. The Union Steamship Company, Burns Philp South Seas, the North Coast Steam Navigation Company have vanished from memory. Today, the love of the sea has become a lifestyle phenomenon.

Even then, it is shared by far fewer Australians than people realise, Those living on the edges of the sprawling cities do not share the love of the sea, except as a place to visit from time to time. Here they are more like the inland people of old. It isn't relevant to their day to day world. How could it be? Travel times are such that a beach visit is a full day trip.

The Australians who have retired to the coast are in some ways a sad group. They moved to coastal spots for the perceived life style benefits. Now they travel in narrow bands north and south to the bigger centres, rarely looking inland. The lowest income areas in NSW are the retirement/resort areas. Increasingly, this is the domain of the old and those who look after  them. The distant blue escarpments that mark the edge of the inland have become barriers instead of entry points. Few visit.

I accept that I am generalising. Still, I think that there is some truth in my comments.


Monday, December 30, 2013

Musings on history, complexity and the monarchy

Interesting piece in The Telegraph (London) by Peter Osborne, Only the Queen understands the true value of the Commonwealth. Triggered by a new book, Monarchy and the End of Empire by Professor Philip Murphy (OUP), the article discusses the interrelationship between the Queen's role as British head of state and as head of the Commonwealth. When speaking on British matters, convention dictates that she must speak as directed by the British Government. However, as head of the Commonwealth she speaks independently, The British Government cannot dictate her words, nor indeed her role.

Peter writes from a British perspective. However, the actual position is a little more complex than that, for the Queen is head of state of 15 Commonwealth Realms in addition to the UK: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Papua New Guinea, St Christopher and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Barbados, Grenada, Solomon Islands, St Lucia and The Bahamas.

While national constitutions vary, the Queen's central role in each Realm is identical to that holding in the UK. In Australia, for example, her formal title is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth. The wording in Canada is a little different, an older form, but the principle is the same. When acting as Queen of Canada, the Queen does so totally independent of her role as Queen of the UK or Australia, working within the same constitutional conventions that hold in the UK. In all cases, her role as head of the Commonwealth is a separate role.

There are republican movements of one sort or another in all the Queen's major Realms from the UK to Australia. In all cases, the focus is on the appropriateness or otherwise of the Queen's role as head of state in that country. There is less focus on the overall complexity of the Queen's role.

If you think about it, being head of state in sixteen sometimes conflicting countries is no mean feat. Add in her role in the different nations within the UK, Scotland is not the same as England or Wales or Northern Island, plus the Commonwealth. In all, the Queen has to be conscious of the sensibilities of fifty five countries, including many of their constituent parts.

This piece is not an argument for or against constitutional monarchy. My musings have taken me in a different direction. Given the complexities involved, can the current system survive and, if so, for how long?  

The present system works because of precise role separation that has evolved over a long period. The Queen reigns, but does not rule, providing a ceremonial and constitutional focus that has proved far more durable than might have been expected. It works because the monarchy stands above the cut and thrust of politics, providing a sense of ceremonial continuity. It works because of acceptance of often unwritten constitutional conventions. It works because of the Queen's self-discipline, her capacity to distinguish between her roles, her willingness to limit what she says and does despite her personal feelings.

Last year, Australia's retiring Governor-General Quentin Bryce delivered the ABC's Boyer lectures. In her last lecture, she publicly backed both Australia becoming a republic and gay marriage. Depending on points of view, it was variously hailed as a landmark speech or as a breach of the Governor-General's ceremonial role as the Queen's representative.

The Queen in her various roles as Queen does not have this type of freedom, no matter what she may think or feel. She must always exercise care in public utterances, conscious always of roles and responsibilities. Governor-Generals have a little more freedom, in part because the Queen stands above them. To a degree, they can become embroiled in political controversy without affecting the standing of the office they hold. But only to a degree.

The current system will certainly survive for the present. If anything, the monarchy has recently regained support in Australia and especially New Zealand and Canada. Interestingly, the ABC's Vote Compass (link above) suggests that support for a republic in Australia is inversely related to age, with lowest support among those aged 18-34, highest among those aged 55+

In the longer term?  I don't know. The odds seem against it.

To greater or lesser extent, human institutions are always ephemeral. The monarchy's greatest strength, its reliance on history, roles and conventions, is also its greatest weakness. It survives only so long as those conventions are accepted on all sides.  We have already seen in places including South Africa and Fiji how the constitutional monarchy was simply swept aside, replaced by a republic, when it became a perceived impediment to those in power. It also depends on the capacity and willingness of the Royal Family to continue to fulfil their traditional role. Both make the current system vulnerable in the longer term. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday Essay - Sydney's sub-metro centres

I write surrounded by chaos! It's been a pleasant Christmas. Far too much food, of course, but I'm not complaining about that, nor am I complaining about the books I received. Some say, and with some justice, that I have too many books! But, hey, I wouldn't be without them.

This year circumstances meant that I shopped across Sydney for presents, mainly in the sub-metro centres. This photo shows the evolving Chatswood skyline from the top of the Chatswood Chase Shopping Centre. 

I visited Los Angeles for the first time back in the 1980s. LA is flat, at least it seems to be so to me. We drove across the greater metro area through low buildings. Then, every so often, we would find a cluster of higher rise. This is happening in Sydney, if with some differences. Further comments follow the photo.P1010088 2

Sydney is far from flat, although the buildings flatten the landscape. It's not until you walk Sydney that you realise from the strain on your leg muscles along with the sudden vistas just how hilly the place is.

Unlike LA, Sydney is linked by its railway lines. Yes, roads are important and have facilitated the urban sprawl, but the spreading nineteenth century railway system supported by the tramways provided the bones of the place. The sub-metros are all on the railway lines. with medium density development following the lines.

While State Government policy has favoured the development of the sub-metros for some time, their evolution has actually been quite slow. North Sydney was the first, encouraged by closeness to the city. Parramatta, always a major centre, was slower to acquire a metro feel. It took the forced re-location of Government agencies to give it it's initial spurt, but growth then stalled. Chatswood took a different path, for here growth seems to have been essentially private sector, attracted by somewhat cheaper rents, leading to the first office towers.

My Christmas shopping began and finished at Parramatta.

Parramatta has only one big shopping centre, Westfield Parramatta. This is melting pot Sydney, but poorer melting pot. I walked into the shopping centre past the TV crews and police cars with their lights flashing. I learned later from work colleagues that a mentally distressed man had king hit someone in the food court. Outside, the homeless occupied their usual benches, shopping trolleys nearby. Shopping trolleys are important. You can put your possessions in them and keep them near you.

Westfield Parramatta has that vanishing but very useful thing, a bookshop. Many shopping centres, Chatswood Chase or Westfield Eastgardens are examples, do not.

Business was absolutely booming at  Dymocks Parra. Unlike the rest of the shopping centre where business was quite busy but not frenetic, the queues were long. Standing there carrying my books, watching and listening, I started counting in my mind. Fifteen people times average purchase of $100+ equals $1,500+, and all that in a few minutes. That's good business.

I used to do my main Christmas shopping at Westfield Eastgardens. They lost their last bookshop some time ago.  My shopping dropped. Yesterday I went back for the first time iVancouver skyscrapen four months. Chaps, get a bookshop even if you have to subsidise it!

This shot shows the high density living in Vancouver, Canada.   It's a shot from my cousin's apartment. Its not unattractive, just different.

One of the difficulties in Australia is the way we are a rule based society. Like all communities, urban based communities have their own dynamics. We have to have rules governing development, but those rules control the natural dynamics of society. The problem with rules based systems is that they tell you what to do, too seek to control, rather than remove natural excesses. The results are sometimes unexpected. Real estate is so profitable in Sydney because controls create scarcity based economic rents that can be captured by the clever.

At Chatswood, I was struck by the high rise explosion. In many ways, Chatswood has leap frogged Parramatta. Parramatta began as a government town and in many ways still is. In Parramatta, Government agencies occupy major office blocks.

The Western rail line is a government line in sometimes unseen ways. It is not just the public servants who flood into Parramatta each morning, it's not just the way that the line allows communication between Parramatta's generally branch offices and the head offices, but it's also the places along the line such as Ashfield or Burwood. Ashfield with its smaller multi-story office blocks is a government town. Without the public servants occupying those blocks, Ashfield would be just a bigger strip shopping centre. Now it's a place that other public servants have to come too to report, to be managed.

The northern line to Chatswood runs through leafy suburbs, the line to Parramatta through the sprawling post industrial melting pot suburbs. Chatswood has become Chinese, the locals say. Indeed, the Chinese make up 26.3% of the population of the immediate Chatswood area, However, Parramatta is more diverse still. Only 27.5% of people are Australian born as compared to Chatswood's 37%, Both localities have an equivalent number of Asian born, (Chatswood 39.2%, Parramatta 39.9%), but Parramatta has a greater mix with Indian born outnumbering Chinese.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Parramatta draws from a remarkably diverse ethnic mix in nearby suburbs. You see it on the trains or in Westfield. This is multi-ethnic Sydney. In many ways, it's also poorer Sydney. You see poverty here in a way that you don't in Chatswood.

Bondi Junction is another of the evolving sub-metros. This is shopping Sydney, a centre that has evolved to meet the needs of the Eastern Suburbs. I did not shop at BJ this year, although I received some presents sourced from there.

Bondi Junction is less ethnically diverse than either Chatswood or Parramatta. Well over half of the population is locally born, while relatively few of those born outside Australia come from Asia. This is also Jewish Sydney, with almost 13% of the population identifying as Jewish in religious terms. It's also wealthier Sydney. Store prices reflect this. Food is often nicely packaged, but it's almost always more expensive.

In this short essay, I have focused on three of Sydney's sub-metros, each very different. If you look at the evolution of the city, Sydney needs its own government free from the trammels of having to take the rest of NSW into account. 

The broader city's planning is struggling. You can clearly see this in this new's story on the problems the O'Farrell Government faces in trying to bring about urban renewal. There is no mechanism at present that will allow Sydney's broader problems to be addressed in a holistic way. That is why some form of Sydney government is important. 


As he so often does, kvd came up with a fascinating link on the flattening of of Los Angeles - How Los Angeles Erased Hills From Its Urban Core. It's worth a read.


Monday, December 23, 2013

A last message from Denis, gender roles and the sound of a crow in the hot still distance

Having resolved her comments problem, AC has resumed posting in My Observations. Her Christmas Eve Polish style Wigilia gives a rather nice description of that traditional celebration in Poland.

Over at his place, Neil Whitfield has been doing an end year review across all his blogs, looking at the main posts visited over the last twelve months. There are some old friends there.

I no longer follow my own stats in the intense way that I did in the past, but year end always brings on a sense of introspection, of looking back. A month back, I passed 100,000 visitors on New England Australlia, I'm coming up on 200,000 here. On this blog, there have been 282,472 page views since 7 August 2008. That's quite a lot.

My  blogging activity has been down this year, and that's reflected in the stats, with overall traffic on a downward trend since the middle of the year. I noticed that my search engine rankings have slipped as well. Those search algorithms are hard task masters!

To a degree, the lower post rate reflects an increased focus on other ways of expression including print. However, it probably also reflects a lack of focus on my part, associated in part with a period of experimentation.

Ceasing introspection, Denis Wright's blog carries A Last Message from Denis. This includes a eulogy by his friend and colleague David Kent providing details of Denis' varied life. I knew of Denis' connection with Bangladesh, but didn't realise its depth, including his naming as the 'white Bengali’, speaking and reading both Hindi and Bengali. He will be missed.

Switching directions, on A la mode frangourou, Sophie Masson provided a rather nice and simple recipe for  fruit ice. It sounds yummy. I don't have either electric blenders or beaters in my kitchen, Perhaps time to rectify that! 

Over on a Good Whine, Clare Belshaw's Just a thought - A hero's weakness and gender coding explores the question of gender stereotyping in fiction. This quote sets the scene:

While working on some of my own novels and reading a few others I noticed a number of trends about what weakness audiences will and won't accept from their hero's, and that these fell along gender lines. Male hero's are allowed to have certain weakness, and female's their own, often regardless of the character of those individuals regardless of gender.

Have you come across the Ministry of Harmony? I hadn't until I saw the link on the Lowy Institute blog. Classifying itself as the onion for China, it has some quite funny stuff. This is one quote:   

Following the successful launch of its first lunar rover, the Chinese government has declared a defensive zone extending vertically from China into space and encompassing the moon. The Lunar Defense Obliteration Zone, according to newly appointed space minister Wu Houyi, “will protect China’s core interests and interplanetary sovereignty.” All foreign spacecraft, satellites, comets and space debris must notify China before passing through or into the zone.

Due to orbital complications, the boundaries of the LDOZ will shift daily in accordance with the position of the moon relative to its sovereign power. China’s Ministry of Space has issued diagrams of the shifting boundaries, dubbed “the lasso.”

Many countries have disputed China’s ability to establish such a zone, but Chinese officials are adamant about the country’s claim to Earth’s only natural satellite. “China’s historical ties to the moon date back at least five thousand years, perhaps more,” said Chen Guang, an official historian from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “We made a whole calendar based on it for Christ’s sake.”

Funny, but with a serious edge.

Don Aitkin's How important is the ‘first hundred days’? looks at the derivation of this term. at the way importance has come to be attached to it. It's not a term or approach that I particularly like. For the life of me, I cannot see why we should expect a new or newly elected government to spring into instant action. There may be circumstances, a national emergency for example, where this is required, although then people are likely to be too busy to worry about counting days. Otherwise, taking a bit of time to work out how things work, to settle in, is sensible.

The focus on the need for instant action is not limited to government. How many new broom CEO's have we seen? I am at the stage now that where I see a new broom, activist CEO, I put my money firmly in my pocket. Statistically, the percentage that subsequently fail to deliver is just too high for comfort.

Returning to Don Aitkin,it seems that he is planning to change his format from daily posts to longer, essay, style posts three times a week. This, Don feels, will give him more time to explore issues. In response, a commenter wrote:    

Sorry to hear you will reduce posts to 3 a week in the New Year. I’ve looked forward to reading you with my weet-bix each morning.

I can see both points of view. We all write for different audiences. We also write for different reasons, requiring different forms. We also struggle with time. For my part, I like the weet-bix analogy.

Over the last few years, my two main blogs have got the most return traffic and interaction when I do post daily or, at least, close to daily. When, as happened this year, my posting frequency declines, so does the traffic. More importantly. so does the interaction.

There is so much to write about. Over the last week, my train reading has been a book on African history. As I write today, South Sudan has dissolved in chaos. How does this link to the past? Another book I am reading is Clive James' Cultural Amnesia. That book, it's a very good book, really makes me feel inadequate!

Talking to a friend over the weekend, I mused on the reasons for the cultural flowering that took place in Australia in the late 1950s and 1960s. I think that it was partly due to release from the War, the way barriers broke. Then, too, we had the infusion of new ideas from our new European migrants and especially the displaced intellectuals who came to us from Central Europe.

We did the right thing, we accepted them, but then we gained. Their ideas gave us access to new streams of intellectual thought that melded with local streams. I think that you can see this most clearly in painting. I love Australian art, it is my art; the visual images created have become part of my personal mental wall-paper. The names and the interactions between the names are real to me.

A few weeks back, a friend and I visited the Sydney Art Gallery. This followed a visit to the New England Regional Art Museum, something I wrote about in A morning at NERAM - Flora, Cobcroft and Badham's Observing the Everyday. Part  of our reason for going was to find more paintings by Badham, but I found myself running around showing my friend the paintings with New England connections. These were the black soil plains, this what it was like on the Upper Clarence gold fields, here is that famous scene of sheep shearing, this is Thunderbolt's death.

The artists were famous in national terms, my interpretations local, personal. See how they are throwing the cut fleece out so that it can be classed? There are the shearers with their hand sheers. See how they push the shorn sheep down the runs? I tried to explain the heat, the smell. That black soil plains scene? See how the team pulling the dray laden with wool bales is struggling to pull the load through the bog? Why bog? Well, that's because of the structure of the soil. And so it went on. 

Looking at the time, I really must get ready for work. Most are already on leave. The office should be quiet allowing me to catch up. Still, as I write, the sound of a crow on a hot stil, day echoes in my ears.

I am not setting big objectives for 2014, just a little one. I want to learn how to research and write so that I can better share the things that I love or which interest me: how to set a context, how to explain difficulties, how to bring things alive. That's not a bad objective.        

Friday, December 20, 2013

Belshaw's assessment of the Australian economic outlook 2014

My main post today is on my sadly neglected professional blog: Friday Economics- economic outlook 2014. This post follows some of the discussion we have been having on economics issues.

At the start of November, I prepared my economic assessment for the state of the Australian economy in 2014. Think of it as a personal benchmark subject to checking against developments with modification as required. Now, two months later, I put it on-line with a commentary on what has happened since.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Monday Forum - what is the real meaning of current economic debate in Australia?

I am not sure that I can phase this helpfully as a Monday Forum topic, but I will try.

In advance of the release of the Australian Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook tomorrow, the Australian Government is clearly trying to clear its lines to present the whole thing as another Labor disaster, a clean-out by the new management. Then, too, we have the debate now raging over the NBN (National Broadband Network) whose message seems to be that everybody's plans are too costly!

Now this is your  mission, should you choose to accept it. Stand back from party affiliations and look at the discussion over the last week, the MYEFO that will come out tomorrow and the response. What conclusions would you draw?

That's an open-ended question, allowing you to go in any direction you want.   

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday snippets - a note on population aging

After the sometimes turmoil of the first 100 days, Friday's meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) probably came as a relief to Prime Minister Abbott. He was determined to be conciliatory and consultative; sweetness and light shines through in the joint press conference held at the end of the meeting.

Seriously, that's no bad thing. Under the sometimes command and control style adopted by the previous Government, COAG became bogged down. Australia is a federation of generally sovereign governments (the territories are not sovereign governments) and the my way or the highway approach actually doesn't work very well.

The decision on a streamlined environmental approval process was not welcomed by the Greens, but will be welcomed by business who had become increasingly frustrated at the way that dual approval systems were being played as a political tool by individual interest groups.

Turning to other matters, last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics released an interesting set of statistics entitled Retirement and Retirement Intentions. This presents information about the retirement status and retirement intentions of people aged 45 years and over who have, at some time, worked for two
weeks or more. Sounds dry, doesn't it? However, the reality is a little different.

One of the big underlying issues in public policy in Australia and many other countries, think China as an example, is the impact of an aging population. Full credit to former Australian Treasurer Costello who tried to create a focus on this through the release of the Intergenerational Reports. I am interested in the issue in part because I am older, more because policy in this area is written by those presently in secure jobs to whom the issue is still academic in a personal sense. As a consequence, they tend to apply currently popular nostrums focused on things like rising health care costs and the need to cut spending

The reality is a little different.

Let's start with a simple statistic. Sixteen per cent of Australians aged seventy or over are still in the workforce. That's a very big structural shift. Almost one Australian in five in an age group well past normal retirement still wishes to work whether through choice or need. The work problem actually lies much earlier.

If we focus on men now retired, 25% had retired aged less than 55 years, a further 50% had retired aged 55–64 years. Think about it, Seventy five of currently retired men retired before the nominal retirement age of 65. We focus on how to keep people working after 65, but that's not where the problem is. It lies much earlier, and that's not discussed.  

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Australian living standards and the importance of arithmetic

I have been travelling and have not been able to post. On my travels, I saw in passing an interview with WA Premier where he seemed to say that real Australian living standards must fall because Australians had been living above their means. The first is true, but it has little to do with the second.

The previous increase in the value of the Australian dollar meant that Australians could buy more imported goods for the same amount of cash whether it be cars or overseas travel. This increased real living standards. This process has gone into reverse with the decline in the value of the dollar. People have the same number of dollars, but get less for those dollars. Real standards of living decline as a consequence.

The Australian dollar had become grossly over-valued. This provided a windfall gain to those who had cash, but also squeezed domestic economic activity for both import competing and export activities. Effects here were not clear cut, since many economic activities including export activities rely on imported inputs. However, the net effect was forced restructuring. Would Holden have closed if the Australian dollar was still at 57 cents US?  Quite possibly not.

A lower Australian dollar will bring price pressures, but it will also ease adjustment within the Australian economy. That's a good thing, but it has nothing to do with Australians living above their means. It's just a matter of arithmetic.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Australian life - transforming Raymond Terrace to Wirrawee

On a recent trip, we stopped at Raymond Terrace for lunch to allow me to take photos. Founded in 1837, Raymond Terrace lies at the junction of the Hunter and Williams Rivers. It is an interesting place, now a little off the beaten track.

This is King Street, the old main street. The river lies just to the left of the photo, the current main street is out of sight on the right.


This is another shot of the street taken a little further along. You can get a feel for the buildings.


In 2009, King Street was transformed into the main street of Wirrawee for the filming of Tomorrow, When the War Began. The girls loved the books, we enjoyed the film, hence my visit.

King Street was chosen for the film because of its original buildings that could be modified to present the appearance of an older country town in the current era. This next shot shows the Bendigo Bank building. It's the same building that appears in the top shot on the far right hand side. Only cosmetic changes were required. The building on the left is, I think, the Lee family's Thai restaurant. 


I enjoyed my excursion. I hope you do too.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mr Abbott's rubber band and the need for longer term perspectives in economics

The Melbourne Age used to be called the old thunderer. By contrast, the Sydney Morning Herald was known as Granny Herald. I fear Granny felt obliged today to give young Tony Abbott an editorial lecture: Abbott is failing to live up to his promises - or his purpose. Tsk. Meantime, the latest polls show Labor close to pulling ahead if not ahead.

I make no detailed comment, beyond noting that  that the government's problems are self-inflicted, something that I alluded to in Mr Abbott's rabbit trap. Now I'm thinking in terms of Mr Abbott's rubber bands, pulled so tight that they have lost all elasticity. All they can do is break. This won't be aided by the likely half senate election in WA.

Meantime, the economic commentary across the media has become, if not confused, at least confusing. Or so I find it. This one is really important. The Australian Government will muddle through, However, what happens to the economy sets the tone.

Back in May I said in a very short post on quantitative easing (The world is awash with money) I said:

The thing that is making me increasingly uneasy is the feeling that the pre-conditions are being set for an economic crash. What makes perfect sense for one country, becomes a mess when multiple countries do it. What I'm trying to work out in my mind is a scenario that would allow multiple quantitative easing to be unwound without tipping the wheelbarrow  over and us all onto the ground.

That remains my position. I still don't have an answer. However, in a long piece I wrote for a national business magazine at the start of November (it's not yet on-line), I took a more positive view, arguing that Australian economic conditions would be better in 2014 than they were in 2013. That, too, remains my view.

Am I conflicted? Perhaps. Certainly I am a little confused. If you are going to make judgements about the future, as opposed to writing about current events, you have to specify your assumptions. Then you must judge what happens in terms of those assumptions, modifying as required.    

Monday, December 09, 2013

QANTAS and Holden: do we assist?

Two important issues in Australia at the present time are the survival of QANTAS, the local carrier, and Holden as a car manufacturer. Both are iconic because of the place they occupied in the history of twentieth century Australia. Their problems have generated discussion focused on costs and workforce flexibility, feeding into current Australian political and economic debate on these issues. I take a somewhat different view.

Back in August 2011, I wrote of Qantas's problems in Visitor 120,000, structural change and QANTAS. A key point then was the progressive erosion of my own loyalty to QANTAS as a consequence of decisions the airline had made. Some of those decisions date back to the nineties, many came under the rule of Geoff Dixon, head of QANTAS from March 2001, others were made under current CEO Alan Joyce. Central to them was a regime that placed cost before customer. Cost is important, but if you lose your customers as a consequence then you have nothing.

I see QANTAS as an example of the problems associated with current management styles. Holden was always different, for here we have a branch office problem.

Even at its peak, General Motors Holden was always a small part of a global business empire, as were the other parts of the Australian automotive industry. Local operations were always going to be affected by global decisions. The Button car plan as well as subsequent plans centered on actions intended to influence decisions made within a global business structure.

That's fine, but the problem is that the success of those actions depended on influencing business decisions made elsewhere that were always going to be unstable. It's a bit like building a house on shifting sand where all you can do is shore up the foundations. The house survives for the moment, but only until the next shift.

Arguably, Australia got quite a good economic return from the early car plans. They facilitated lower tariff barriers, so we got cheaper cars. They encouraged growth of automotive exports, including components, to the point that these exports were Australia's biggest manufacturing export. However, the base was always unstable since it focused on the local rather than the broader industry dynamics.

In all these things, there comes an end point where additional resources simply try to ring fence what remains. On the evidence I have seen, we seem to be at that point with Holden. Perhaps time to let go, even if it means the end of the Australian automotive industry?

QANTAS is a little different. Maybe there is a case here for action, although I do object to providing funds to compensate for what I see as bad management decisions. Still, the case is arguable.  


On QANTAS, a piece in Macrobusiness  summarises an article by the former chief economist at Qantas, Tony Webber, on some of the causes of the airline's woes. On Holden, there has been a variety of opinions that I won't attempt to summarise. This is one example.

Meantime, the Government's calls for Holden to "come clean" on its intentions (this letter is an example) is just dumb policy and politics. You don't play like that in Government, no matter what you might do in opposition.          

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Wright, Newman and the nature of individual contribution

While Denis Wright's death was not unexpected, it still came as something of a shock. Meantime, there has been a race in Tamworth to recognise gravely ill local historian Dr Warren Newman as a Freeman of the city before his death. They made it, but only just

On twitter, Kate Doak wrote: "Feeling positively shattered right now…. Just heard from @SatanicBambi that my friend & Uni mentor @deniswright passed away today. :’(." The Northern Daily Leader wrote on Dr Newman

HE was gravely ill in hospital last night but his friends and civic leaders were praying the noted historian Warren Newman will be able to accept the highest honour Tamworth can bestow on a person at a special dedication ceremony this morning.

The man who has become the most recent and most dedicated custodian of our history will be made a Freeman of the City at a hospital bedside sitting today in a race against time to honour his services while he is still able to appreciate the fuss and fanfare.

Two men, both historians, whose work touched people if in different ways. The words that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Mark Antony are often quoted:

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;

Recognising the irony, I don't think that's right. The good lives on, even if we cannot always see it. Evil does too, but it is actually more likely to be interred with the bones. The scars continue, of course, but in the end, evil becomes a lesson on not what to do. Good is more subtle, less seen.P1010005 2 

This is an inscription from an Armidale monument. The plaque is already marked, damaged, starting to fade, the person to be forgotten. Still, I love those words.

Warren Newman and Denis Wright. I am not sure that they were dreamers of dreams in the grand sense, but both focused on making a contribution now, both had a broader idea, both took pleasure from what they did, from making a contribution now.

We live in a fairly self-centred world, one where success is measured (and measurable) by immediate achievement. Can I become a board member, a CEO, or just wealthy?

I'm not blind to that allure. However, one thing that I am conscious of as an historian is the enduring nature of human contribution. I am not talking of big picture stuff, but the way that individuals contribute. I suppose that I am especially conscious of this because so much of my historical research is at local or regional level. By its nature, this tends to highlight individual endeavour.

All human activity and institutions are ephemeral. The forces of entropy are strong. As the span covered by any history increases, individual contribution becomes less visible, civilisations rise and then fall, wars that tore civilisations or communities apart diminish to pages or even paragraphs. Things that appear stable, fixed, secure over generations, vanish in chaos.

Does this make individual contribution less important? I don't think so, for in the end that, love and compassion are all we have. Our attempts to create order and continuity, to contribute, must fail in the end, but they are none the less important for all that.    

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Imminent death of a friend & fellow blogger

Like most Australians, I felt sadness at the the death of Nelson Mandela. He was a remarkable man. It seems, too, that we have come to another passing. I have often mentioned Denis Wright and his blog, My Unwelcome Stranger. On Tuesday, Tracey posted An Update from Tracey. I give it in full:


Today is an anniversary. It is exactly four years today since 'discovery'. That is, the first seizure which announced the presence of the Unwelcome Stranger. Against all the odds, Denis is still here.

You have not heard from Denis for a little while and I know everyone is wondering how he is doing.

Not so good.

That is the problem with dying. When everyone most wants to know what is happening, it is the time when you are least able to tell them.

Some protracted 'new' seizures on Saturday night, and the subsequent increased deficits in communication and mobility, mean that Denis is extremely unlikely to write on here again.

He has seen the people that he wants to see. He is weary and content to sleep.

The problem for me is that Denis, through this blog and social media, has come to feel a bit like public property for many people. Unsurprisingly, he does not feel like that for me.

With upwards of 100 requests, texts, emails, private Facebook and Twitter messages in the last week, from people who would like to be kept personally informed, you will all be disappointed to read that I don't plan on doing that.

This is not the time for me to be looking at a keyboard and answering questions.

It is the time for me to sit holding Den's hand and loving him while he is still here.

Thanks for all your messages of support.

Denis says thank you all for your friendship. It has meant more to him than you will know.

This is our time now.

It made me cry. While I have known Denis for a long while, over thirty years, it is through blogging that I have come to know him better. As I see him, he was, still is, a wise and gentle man.


Denis died Saturday 7 December at 5.10 pm. You can read the last messages here.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Debt ceilings, competition policy & economic growth

The deal reached between the Australian Government and the Greens to abolish the Commonwealth's debt ceiling (here, here) seems sensible to me. It avoids a US style deadlock, while providing some additional information on Commonwealth government finances.

As I said at the time, the Opposition's stance on this one seemed silly to me. Leaving aside the substantive issues, from a purely tactical viewpoint it denied the Opposition a chance to appear reasonable at a time when they have dug in to oppose the Government on other issues. We are all such reasonable people. We don't oppose just for the sake of opposing, that sort of thing. Meantime, the gap between Government and Opposition in the opinion polls has narrowed.Tony Abbott

The Australian Government has now announced a review of national competition policy. Given that its twenty years since the Hilmer Review, its probably about time.

Its probably also time for me to revisit the Hilmer review in a historical context because its local impacts fall within the scope of the history of New England that I am writing.

As an aside, the photo of Mr Abbott comes from The New Daily story (link above). I have been struck in a few recent photos at the way he seems to have suddenly aged. The physical demands placed upon modern political leaders are very high. 

Yesterday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest national accounts data. This showed estimated growth in GPP for the September quarter of o.6%, with annual growth of 2.3%. The figures were a little weaker than some econGDP dataomists expected, leading to phrases such as "weak growth."

I took a different view. If you look at the graph from the ABS for quarterly GDP, you can see how growth peaked, fell and then flattened. My feeling is that we have come through the end of the the mining investment boom better than anyone might have expected, with economic re-balancing underway.

The Australian Reserve bank remains concerned about the high level of the Australian dollar. However, this is highly likely to fall as quantitative easing comes to an end in the US, and that will happen.

A lower exchange rate is not a total blessing, for it will force up costs and reduce real incomes in the short term. As part of the process, Australian interest rates will rise next year. However, the net effect of all the changes is likely to be better than expected economic growth over 2014.

One side-effect is that Commonwealth Government tax revenues will rise. Just as we saw constant over-estimating of revenue in the immediate past, I wonder whether we will now see underestimation of revenue? It's already happened at state level because rising house sales mean that stamp duty collections have been greater than projected.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Australian life - varying colours

Gordon Smith's Australian outback tour continues. This shot shows the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. 20130708-flinders-ranges

Even though most modern Australians have not been to the outback, the colours have become very familiar through visual representation. However, they are not the colours I grew up with, something I explored in The colours of New England photo essay back in 2009.

As that post shows, colour varies with geography, geology and climate, making for considerable variations across space.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Canadian Encyclopedia online - have a browse

One of the nice things about the internet age is the way it makes material more broadly accessible. In this context, I hadn't discovered the online Canadian Encyclopedia until Canadian historian Christopher Moore mentioned it. The blurb describes the Encyclopedia in this way.

This version of The Canadian Encyclopedia, released in enhanced digital interactive form in October 2013, represents the latest incarnation of a project with a unique history. Since the first edition arrived in 1985, Canadians have held a claim few others can make: we have our own national encyclopedia. The idea of covering all branches of knowledge or aspects of a subject in one body of work dates back to 1728 in England. However, a bilingual national edition produced by, for and about the people of a single country, charting its events, culture, history and landscape, remains rare.

Have a browse, for it's a good way of learning about Canada.

Monday, December 02, 2013

A Monday round-up - loss at Lone Pyne, MIKITA, dispute over territory, Graincorp and Mr Hockey's two bob each way

It's been a busy period. Today's post focuses on things that I have noticed or that have been swirling around in that stew that counts as my brain. It's actually a sort of note to myself to jot things down before I forget them.

Retreat from Lone Pyne

It's been quite funny really, if a bit sad also. First we had Gonski, then retreat from Gonski and now its Gonski reborn. Or is it? I don't feel able yo comment on the education policy issues involved for I don't yet actually know what the policy is. 

Foreign Policy

I tend not to write on foreign policy because of my own lack of knowledge of the immediate context, but its been an interesting period. We have the continuing standoff between Australia and Indonesia triggered in part by the spy row. Then there was the imbroglio over the Chinese declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea where the Australian position resulted in a Chinese rebuke. Then there was something that I hadn't actually heard of, the first meeting a month back of MIKTA.

Ever heard of MIKTA? I hadn't. Alex Oliver on the Lowy Institute Blog speaks of it this way.

A month or so ago, with little fanfare, Australia participated in the first meeting of MIKTA, an informal grouping of five nations — Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia — described in press releases by Turkey and South Korea as an informal and non-exclusive group of 'middle powers', cooperating to address some of the diverse challenges of an increasingly complex international environment.

Leave aside the question of whether Australia is a middle power or a pivotal power, I find both terms misleading, the meeting was an interesting response to the complexity faced by countries who are big enough to have some importance, but not big enough to be real players.

Names, Language and Territory in Modern Aboriginal Society

Turning to my traditional country, a story in the Armidale Express begins:    

ABORIGINAL tribes have gone to war over a planned Welcome to Country sign at Armidale’s gateways.

The Anaiwan tribe want to be solely recognised in the sign.

But members of the Gumbaynggirr tribe claim the city is also part of their traditional land.

They want wording on the sign to  reflect all Aboriginal tribes in the area.

Leaving aside the use of the word "tribes", there were no such things, the story is an example of disputes running across Northern NSW and beyond over boundaries inspired by the European obsession with hard lines on a map. Europe wasn't like that for nearly all its history, nor was Aboriginal Australia.

Armidale Express editor Lydia Roberts has given me the okay to write on this in my next History revisited column, and also suggested that I put forward my suggested solutions in a letter to the editor. I will do so, having consulted some of my Aboriginal friends.

It's interesting and also important to me that feedback informs. Two example,

The first was a comment from a work friend that many of the big New England Aboriginal ceremonial sites appear to lie at the junctions of multiple traditional Aboriginal languages. They were gathering points for the nations, to use a modern phrase that would not have been recognised by traditional Aborigines. While i more or less knew it, I hadn't focused on it at local level. 

The second is the concept of the elders. Like many modern Australians I have equated this with age. That's not true. It equates to knowledge and respect, so that a younger person might be an elder, an older person not. Here we have a problem that I might write about later. 

South Grafton

Staying briefly with New England, Ursh Tunks is focusing on the history of South Grafton (Facebook page). One of the joys of my writing, including my writing as a regional historian, is the way it leads me to connections that then feed my thoughts. This is an example. Because of Ursh's interest, I have focused on South Grafton as an example. It's a fascinating place, at least to me.  

Economic Outlook

The economic outlook and the associated policy discussions continue to fascinate me. Writing in a long piece on the outlook for 2014 prepared a month ago for another publication, I commented:

Doubts linger, casting a continuing cloud as we move towards 2014. Uncertainty over the ending of quantitative easing and the impact that this might have on markets adds to doubt, as do continuing uncertainties over the Chinese economy. Despite these doubts, I think that 2014 is likely to be a better year in economic terms, far better than some analysts allow.

That remains my view, although pessimism continues to abound. Here the discussion on the budget deficit continues to exercise a distorting effect, pushing policy discussion towards mechanical solutions. Now Canberra based economics consultants Macroeconomics have released a new report arguing for drastic cuts budget cuts to restore fiscal balance. Now in the arguments they put forward was one point that genuinely puzzled me. If we cut spending, they apparently suggested, the value of the Australian dollar will fall. Huh?

For the life of me, I cannot understand just how this might happen. Perhaps someone can explain to me the arguments involved,

Graincorp and the FIRB

The Treasurer's decision to block the proposed acquisition by Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) of 100 per cent of the shareholding in GrainCorp Limited (GrainCorp) has been greeted with outrage in many quarters, as has the role of the National Party in arguing for rejection. This is, it is argued, a case of special pleading, of the National's sectional interests over-riding the national good.

This argument misses a key feature. Wheat growers are concerned about the impact on their international sales activities, nor do they have any special trust for corporate promises. The National Party is reflecting those concerns. Leaving aside emotional arguments about foreign ownership of Australian land, arguments that I do not support, the grower arguments about the impact are at least arguable. Further, they are the ones that will suffer if their concerns are correct, while any benefits will go elsewhere.

Interestingly, Treasurer Hockey appears to be having a two way bet on this one. At the end of his statement he says:

ADM has advised me that it wishes to be involved in the Australian market place for the long term.

ADM currently owns 19.85 per cent of GrainCorp. It was open to me, under the Act, to continue to cap ADM’s shareholding in GrainCorp at its current level. I have decided not to do so.

In fact, to encourage ADM to demonstrate its commitment to the Australian grains industry through its continued investment in GrainCorp, I am inclined, based on current circumstances, to approve any proposals from ADM to increase its shareholding in GrainCorp up to an interest of 24.9 per cent. This would also provide a platform for ADM to build stakeholder support for potentially greater participation in the Australian industry as it develops.

The Australian Government recognises that our nation needs foreign investment so that we continue to grow and prosper.

That's very definitely two bob each way! Now come on chaps, he appears to be telling ADM, increase your share. That will give you greater influence, a chance to refine your proposals and gather support. Do this, and we will have a further chat.