Personal Reflections

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Problems of employment and free speech - Folau, Ridd and Anderson

"Rugby Australia Chief Executive, Raelene Castle said: “At its core, this is an issue of the responsibilities an employee owes to their employer and the commitments they make to their employer to abide by their employer’s policies and procedures and adhere to their employer’s values." Australian Rugby Union media statement, 15 April 2019 on the breach notice served on Israel  Folau
Israel Folau is, arguably, Australia's best Rugby back. A devout Christian, he was sanctioned by Australian Rugby Union for his comments during the debate in Australia on gay marriage. Folau did not believe that it should be approved, that  homosexuality was a sin. Now he has posted on Instagram that people engaging in certain behaviour including drunkenness, idolatry, theft, adultery and homosexuality must repent or go to hell. The quotes appear to have been drawn directly from passages in the Christian bible.

The posts created a storm, focused on the comments on homosexuality. Other elements were ignored.
The ARU gave notice to Folau that his contract was to be terminated. Folau is fighting the case.
 "What we are expecting, through the (university's) code of conduct and our enterprise agreement, is that we have a safe, respectful, ethical and professional workplace," deputy vice chancellor Iain Gordon told 7.30. James Cook University's Deputy VC commenting on the sacking of Professor  Peter Ridd  for the way he criticised colleagues on Sky TV and in private emails over their views on climate change. 
Professor Ridd was sacked. He appealed to the Federal Court. The Court found that his sacking was unlawful. The judge's views were reported as following:
In his judgement, Judge Sal Vasta found Dr Ridd's termination was unlawful, as JCU's enterprise agreement protected his comments over and above the university's code of conduct. 
"It is actually [Clause 14] that is the lens through which the behaviour of Professor Ridd must be viewed," Judge Vasta wrote. 
"To use the vernacular, the University has 'played the man and not the ball'. 
"Clause 14 means that it is the right of Professor Ridd to say what he has said in any manner that he likes, so long as he does not contravene the sanctions embedded in cl.14 — that is at the heart of intellectual freedom." 
Judge Vasta wrote that the university had "not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom". 
"In the search for truth, it is an unfortunate consequence that some people may feel denigrated, offended, hurt or upset. 
"It may not always be possible to act collegiately when diametrically opposed views clash in the search for truth."
Note that here we have an apparent conflict between two different policies and procedures, a conflict between general behaviour expected of an employee and academic freedom. This has been a vexed issue in the United States.
Sydney University has sacked a controversial lecturer who showed students a lecture slide featuring the Nazi swastika imposed over Israel's flag. 
Two months after senior lecturer in political economy, Tim Anderson, was first suspended and asked to show cause why his employment should not be terminated for "serious misconduct", the university rejected his appeal. Sydney Morning Herald report.
In commenting on the matter, Sydney University Provost Stephen Garton reportedly said:
All staff were required to meet behavioural expectations. “We have always supported and encouraged our staff to engage in public debate and accept that sometimes those views might be controversial," he said. 
“We will continue to defend the right of our academic staff to express unpopular views as part of their teaching and research, and recognise this as a vital part of the academic process. 
“At the same time, staff must also meet their obligation to engage in debate in a civil manner, and in accordance with our policies and codes of conduct.”
So here, too, we have a conflict between the imposition of two different codes of conduct imposed through contracts of employment.

I have chosen these three cases because they illustrate a point I want to make, one that confuses me.

In recent years, I have mainly done contract work because I wanted an income stream that would support my writing addiction, This means that I have worked for a number of biggish organisations predominantly in the public and not-for-profit sectors. In each case, I have had to do on-line induction training on things like organisational values, code of conduct and, in recent years, social media policies.. This has made me increasingly uncomfortable.

I suppose that this came to a head during the plebiscite on same sex marriage in Australia. I voted yes for reasons I have explained. But when I saw Qantas, a major sponsor of the Australian Rugby Union, come out formally and strongly in favour of a yes vote, I thought what would I do if I worked for Qantas and wanted to campaign for no? Would they fire me or would I just be marked never to be employed again? I concluded that the only way to save my job (or contract) would have been to shut up.

I support the idea of humane and comfortable work places, although I have reservations about the way this may work in practice. Bullying is an example I referred to. Having being involved in a bullying case (I was the one who was allegedly being bullied), I wish that that I had never been.

I was tired and under stress and mishandled it very badly. Instead of calming things down as I had hoped, we ended in a situation where no-one gained. There were only costs.It was a failure on my part.

Linking this back to my my starting point, does an employer have the right to impose limitations on the comments of employees or indeed behaviour outside the workplace? I am driven to the position that the answer is yes.

Employment is a contract, a payment for service. The employee does not have the right to object .to behaviour that conflicts with it's objectives.  One can say that Qantas is hypocritical because it has strategic alliances that are in fundamental variance with its stated values.  But, at the end of the day, that is a matter for Qantas. I's staff can choose to work for it oar not., 

I know that this isn't a comfortable position,There is  are obvious legal questions. But Qantas can only impose its views if it complies with Australian law.

Our universities are now big businesses. They, too, as employers have the right to limit our speech where it conflicts with their commercial objectives. Again, only if it does not conflict with local law.

 If you disagree with me, I think that you must address this question. What gives Folau, Ridd or  Anderson the right to object to restrictions placed upon their view by employers? Where do we draw the line?     . 

Monday, April 08, 2019

Monday Forum - How do we preserve civility and cooperation in a polarised world?

I suppose that this Monday Forum owes its existence to drinks I had last Thursday with Harry Creamer and his friend Andrew Waterworth. Both were in Sydney for a reunion of their old college. It was fun.

I regard Harry as a thoroughly good thing.  We really met when I was chair of Tourism Armidale and he was deputy chair.

I was trying to get people to see Armidale and tourism promotion in a new way. Forget the focus on just what Armidale and the immediate environs had. Think of Armidale as a base to explore a much greater area. It was a good base because of its attractions and life style, but there was so much more to be found beyond Armidale.

I was also suggesting that we should promote Armidale as the place that would have been capital of the New England New State. The existence of the separatist movement was a story in its own right, while Armidale as capital was to New England as  Edinburgh was the Scotland. I had some difficulties in getting both ideas across, but Harry was a supporter.

At the time, Harry was working for NSW National Parks. I did not know until later the work that he was doing on documenting Aboriginal languages and history across the broader New England.. His photos are now being digitised by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS.). I look forward to seeing them.

Harry has retired to Port Macquarie. There has campaigned for recognition of climate change through the North Coast press. He has also been involved in efforts to continue the work of Ned Iceton. Most recently, he has become a campaign volunteer for Rob Oakeshott, one of now 500.

Andrew Waterworth was also fun. A film maker and journalist, he moved to Dunedin and is now living in Central Otago. This is Pullar country, part of the New ZealandBbelshaws. so we had a lot to talk about.

I relaxed and enjoyed myself but, relaxed, I made some very rude comments about the Greens. Now I should have known better. A year or so back I did the same in Armidale, adding insult to injury with some positive comments about the Nationals. A long standing friend left the party to avoid getting into a fight.

Now this Forum was going to be about some of the inanities of certain parts of the environmental movement and especially the vegans, a follow up to this post,That Aussie Farms' map - a vacuous gesture that poses some individual dangers but has no meaning beyond.  But since I started writing, my thoughts have gone in a different direction. How do we preserve civility and cooperation in a polarised world?

I an mot sure that this is really a sensible topic for a forum, it's too amorphous.  But I think it's important. My friends span opinions. I like them personally and want to retain links. I also want to be able to pull people together to campaign on common issues where divides would otherwise prevent real cooperation. But how do we do that?

Over to you. As always, feel free to go in whatever direction you want. . 

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Sunday Essay - Tibsy and the pleasure of watching birds

In December I mentioned  that I had acquired a new friend, a young magpie subsequently named Tibsy.

With Avenger's death, the cat food that had been outside and which acted as a magnet for multiple birds ceased. However, Tibsy does come back from time to time and stands there, looking hopeful.

Friday, a friend and I were having lunch outside. Tibsy landed and walked right up to the table. We threw him bits and pieces which he ate with apparent satisfaction.

This morning he was back. He is a bigger bird now with glossy feathers, although that's not clear from the second photo. I gave him a little more bread and he then flew happily away, providing a chorus first from the back of a chair.

I spend a fair bit of time sitting out the back. It's peaceful despite the constant background murmur of traffic and the sometimes noise of planes when the flight path brings them this way.  The birds also provide constant if sometimes noisy entertainment especially in the mornings and evenings.

There are a lot of birds in this area, despite the presence of some cats. The Botany Wetlands used to stretch from Centennial Park down to Botany Bay. The remnant wetlands start just down my street and are a haven for a variety of birds.

Then you have all the birds that have adapted to living with humans in urban areas. These include that now ubiquitous pest,  the Indian Myna bird as well as the bin chickens, the White Ibis.

I have a love hate/relationship with the Mynas. They are very noisy, talking all the time. They are also aggressive - I think of them as ether the spitfires or perhaps stukas of the bird world, grouping together in a wing formation to mob and chase away much bigger birds.

The rise of the urban bin chicken is relatively recent. Ibis are wading birds that have adapted to the availability of food. They are very common in this area as are pigeons. Ibis may be a royal bird in Europe, but they hardly seem royal when pecking at a garbage bag to open it. And they shit. I know all birds do, but the Ibis roost in the tall palm trees and deposit their droppings from a great height to the sometimes distress of passer-byes. The bus stop I go to is quite dangerous with Ibis roosting on both sides of the bus stop.

My interest in birds is relatively recent. Growing up we had bird books and used to colour them in, but then my life style took me well away from any bird studies. Indeed, I used to regard bird watching as a rather quaint hobby, a bit like watching grass grow.

I appear to have changed my mind. It's hard not to become interested when one's own backyard is part of bird central to the point that I can even recognise individual characters. It's not an addiction yet, but it a very pleasnt way of passing the time while thinking of other things.     

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The importance of a treaty with Australia's Aboriginal peoples - reflections on 13 years of blogging 2

Posed photo. Thomas Dick collection, Aborigines, Port Macquarie

"I first became interested in the idea of culture and cultural change in studying prehistory. 
Here culture was defined in simple terms as nurture, not nature, all the things that were learned. Necessarily in pre-history, this had a material focus, but anthropological and sociological studies dealt with culture in a broader sense, including interactions between individuals and societies. 
During this period I came in contact with what is now called mirroring, the way in which individuals or minority groups (in this case the Australian Aborigines) could come to reflect or mirror the attitudes held about them in the broader society. 
You can see this today in the way I approach Aboriginal policy issues - I argue (among other things) that our focus on Aboriginal disadvantage and failures not only stigmatises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the broader community, but feeds back into attitudes and perceptions within the Aboriginal community". Belshaw, 23 May 2010 
This post follows from We create the things we most fear - reflections on 13 years of blogging 1.

In all the areas that I write about, the one that I have found most difficult, the one where I have lost most joy, is the history of, and policy relating to, Australia's Aboriginal peoples. I find it all just so complicated, complications that have continued to increase since I wrote the above in 2010.

Looking back over my writing, I can see many things that are worthy of republication, a few that are wrong and deserve retraction. I may look back as part of this series on some of the things I have said that are worthy of repeat or retraction, but in this short post I want to focus on just a few things.

Back on 20 December 2006 I wrote Australia's Aborigines - an introductory post. It was, I suppose, something of a manifesto. Over the thirteen years since I have written 146 posts here, more elsewhere. I have also given one major seminar paper on New England's Aboriginal languages. I really have no idea of the total word length. I guess that it would be well over 200,000 words in all.

When I wrote that first post I had nor met many Aboriginal people. Later, I would work for the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office. I would have an Aboriginal mentee. At AHO we also shared a building with the NSW Aboriginal Land Corporation.

During the four and a bit years I worked with AHO I met many hundreds of Aboriginal people, I attended community meetings, meetings with Aboriginal housing groups. I saw Aboriginal politics and policy making at first hand. I did not change my basic views, but those views were tempered by a better understanding of prejudice and disadvantage.

I respect the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to express views about their own communities. This may sound trite, even condescending. Surely it is self-evident that the rights of any group to make comments about their community should be respected? Well yes, but in the Aboriginal cases it goes to something more important, the right of self determination.

Here I am always conscious of the words of my Aboriginal mentee. We had been at a combined session of mentors and mentees and had gathered outside for a fag. "We know our culture must change", Jenny told the assembled group, "but we want to control that change." I accept that viewpoint. I also accept the right of Aboriginal people to point to and highlight the ills of the past. I may disagree on historical fact, but we are dealing with feelings and emotions that must be respected. This bears upon something that I argued for many years  ago, the need for a new compact with our Aboriginal peoples.

Reflecting on my historical research over the colonial and post-colonial periods, I have often found myself shaking my head .and saying you could not think that. I am not talking about race, although racial prejudice has been and remains a factor. Rather, I am thinking of those who for the best of reasons wanted to "do something to help" our Aboriginal peoples. Bluntly, the Aborigines would have been better off if none of those things had occurred, if there had been no Aboriginal specific policies at all.

Paternalism, the desire to do good for others, the belief that officials and social reformers knew best, had quite devastating effects. This remains a factor today. The Intervention is an example. I wrote a fair bit on this at the time. I was prepared to suspend judgement. Now, with the passage of time, I'm hard pressed to identify a single positive that might justify the expense or the disruption of people's lives. It's just another failure in a long line of policy failures.

I mentioned mirroring in my introductory quote. I came across this in an article in Oceania in the 1960s, I no longer have the reference, looking at the way that prejudices and stereotypes about Aboriginal people affected the views of those people about themselves. I think that it's an important concept that I have carried with me over the years. 

The effects of mirroring combined with paternalism and prejudice have been quite profound. They largely destroyed Aboriginal agency, the affected culture, they created structures and policiesthat were bound to fail. In recent years, their effects have been compounded by "white" guilt which is, in its own way,quite as destructive and paternalistic as its predecessors. 

I have been deliberately provocative here to make a simple point. If, as I believe. Aboriginal people have to determine their own future, then they should be allowed to do so. The question of how the broader community responds is a separate question.

My personal view is that we require a treaty to move forward. The creation of that treaty will be a messy process since neither side presently has a common position. Still, I believe that it can be done. I also think that it needs to be done to allow us to put the past aside. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

We create the things we most fear - reflections on 13 years of blogging 1

This post is an initial follow up on my last post, Initial reflections on thirteen years of blogging. There I said "Over the next few weeks, I plan to reflect on some of the past events and my associated writing here and on my other blogs". This is the first follow up post. I will keep each post short, centred on  a single idea.

Back on 23 May 2010 in Sunday Essay - threads in Belshaw thought, I provided an update on the evolution of my own thinking over time. I think that the post does draw out some of the evolving threads in my thinking. While my core framework remains the same, my views have continued to evolve.

 One thread in that May post was the way our mental constructs, what I call mudmaps, affect our view of the world. A second was the way that our views can affect the behaviour of others through a process called mirroring. I think that we are in that position now in some of our current debates.

In my brief writing on the "War on Terror", I suggested that the mental construct, the rhetoric attached to it, was misleading. A war implied a structured conflict between two sides. That was not the case. However, in applying the rhetoric and in forcing other people to respond. to it, we actually risked creating a war  by creating the very thing that we feared, a structured response that took the rhetoric and used it to it;s own ends.

I think that we are now in that position in the currently confused discussion on race and racial prejudice with its constant emphasis on the past and current evils of "whites", on the need for society to protect itself from right wing aka white extremism. As someone involved in country politics over a long period who sits to some degree on the right of politics but who also straddles from left to right, I have been amazed at the way that rhetoric and response has created patterns that I never expected.

 In the "war on terror", the West's response helped create the demon so painted. Now, I think, we are doing it again, but in the opposite direction.

Brief Update 28 March 2019

I wanted to provide a brief update before moving on.

Remember in this post I am not talking about whether particular views or episodes but the way in which particular mental constructs, particular forms of rhetoric, can actually create the thing attacked. In this case, the growth of certain right wing political views.

It does become complicated because of the emotional and value overlays involved in discussion. Take some of the discussion and responses around that Al Jazeera sting on One Nation.

Former Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste called the story unethical. I think that's right. It's like what we have come to expect from certain Australian media outlets. It lowered my opinion of Al Jazeera as a serious media outlet.

At a second level, it told us little that we did not know before, although the sheer stupidity in getting caught is a bit mind-blowing. But then, and you may call this a personal bias, I have long thought of One Nation as distinctly unprofessional and silly. Here former One Nation David Ettridge made a remarkably lucid point.

Interviewed by, I think, the ABC's Patricia Karvelas, he said that the whole thing would have little impact on the One Nation vote because it played into an already established trope, Ms Hanson and One Nation as victim of the main stream media and parties.

I think that is probably right, although PK was a bit incredulous. You see, we are not dealing with a conversation or even a conventional political debate, but views expressed by two groups that are now disconnected. And, my argument is, we have created that second smaller group through the frames we have adopted.     

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Initial reflections on thirteen years of blogging

My first post on this blog came on 19 March 2006, so the blog turned 13 last Tuesday. In human terms, that makes the blog a teenager. In blogging terms, I fear that it may have entered old age for there have been so many changes over that period.

Since starting, I have published 3,339 posts here, some very short, most middling length, some very long. I don't know how many words I have written here, somewhere over two million would be my guess. While my posting has sometimes been irregular, the blog provides a record of issues, events and changing attitudes over that period, in general and in a personal sense. I am not the same person I was in March 2006, nor are my attitudes the same. Just so much has happened.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to reflect on some of the past events and my associated writing here and on my other blogs. In saying this, I don't want to make a rod for my own back. I remain busy and somewhat disorganised. But at a time of another fundamental change in my own life, it seems a sensible thing to do. I note that the change is not bad, it's just change.

Inevitably with so many words, there is a lot of dross. However, I also think that I have said some useful things that are worth repeating and discussing. 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

A Dane meets Australia's democracy sausage

From left to right. Helen's mum, Helen's Danish partner Christian, Helen Belshaw. This morning Denise and Helen introduced Christian to Australia's democracy sausage, Randwick Public School. 

Today is election day in New South Wales as the people elect a new state government. It's been a complex campaign and no one knows who might win.

Australia has compulsory voting. Everybody must vote or be fined unless they have an acceptable excuse. This means that much of the Australian population must go to the polling place. Further, elections are held on a Saturday, making it easier for people to vote and to participate in election activities.

Many of the Australian polling places are at schools. Many years ago, school Parents' and Citizens' Associations or Parents' and Friends' Associations worked out that this gave them a captive market to sell things to voters to raise money for school activities. One popular result was sausage sizzles, BBQ sausages in buns with onions and sauce.

 Probably ten years ago now, I have not traced the exact date, these sausages came to be called democracy sausages, a celebration of Australia's democratic traditions. The name stuck, and has become globally recognised.

Clare's birthday brought Helen and Christian to Australia to celebrate. Helen had to vote and decided that as part of Christian's introduction into things Australian he must experience a democracy sausage.

Now not all polling booths have sausage sizzles. In fact, the nearest booth to the place they were staying did not. Fortunately, there is now an organisation called that provides details of the booths where democracy sausages can be found. Helen, a modern lass, checked the internet and took her mother and partner of the Randwick Public School where the aforesaid delicacy could be found.

Now here stories differ. Christian was hungry and ordered three. Helen ordered two. Then she, or so Christian claims, had half of his last one. making two and a half. Helen denies this, of course. She had, she says. just a bite. Two rather large bites responded Christian.

Whatever the truth of the story, and at the risk of getting into trouble with eldest I'm inclined to believe Christian, I think that the idea of a democracy sausage is one of those really nice concepts at a time when life sometimes seems just too serious.       


Monday, March 18, 2019

Beating the cockroaches - reflections on the events in Christchurch

It's been a funny mixed up period, one that reminds me of the fragility of life.

On the 9th of  March I found Avenger dead in the drive way. He had not been well.

Since I started living on my own, he has been a companion., sometimes annoying, but a companion. He was the last of our family cats. He came with me when the family broke up in 2012. 

The last few months have not been especially good and the death hit me more than expected. Even today, I found myself almost turning into the supermarket  to buy cat food.

Things picked up. After a month and many hours talking to Optus I finally got my email re-connected. In the end, it wasn't complicated. I just had to find someone who knew what they were doing!

That was good, although I had over 2,000 back emails to sort through. I now have that down to thirty that require a substantive reply. But then on Friday we had the dreadful news from Christchurch and then news of Anna's death, something I wrote about briefly in Death of Anna Carlborg.

But life goes on. On Saturday was youngest's. Clare's, wedding. It was a lovely ceremony, and both were so happy. so in the midst of difficulty and death, there is love and life.

This is a fairly long preamble for brief reflections on the events in Christchurch,

I am half  Kiwi, my father was born in Christchurch, I still have family living on the South Island, so there was an area and family connection. Then I found that the arrested person was an Australian, from Grafton in the broader New England that I write about so often.

Like many, I struggle to understand events like this, although as an historian I have seen many similar cases over the millennia. Trying to think it through, I come down to a small number of points.

I have argued before in the context of terrorist attacks of all types, and there have been so many over the years, that our ability to control them is limited. Sometimes, our attempts to do so create make for a far worse outcome, the prescribed cure is far worse than the disease.The only thing that we can control is the nature of our response.

 Here, wearing my New Zealand hat, I am just so proud of the New Zealand response.

Prime Minister Adern's response was measured, compassionate. Her action in reaching out to the small Muslim community in that personal way went around the world.

The New Zealand officials interviewed were balanced, objective. The response of the Christchurch community and that more broadly within New Zealand was loving and caring, denying the very validity of the message that that Australian alleged  killer had tried to impart.

“They are us,”Adern said of those killed and affected during the attack. “The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand." The New Zealand public agreed.

The reactions in Australia have been more complicated because our politics is more complicated, more adversarial, more identity based. The million Australians who signed a petition calling for a certain Australian senator to be expelled from Parliament for his views miss the point, although I can understand their reactions.

To begin with, Parliament does not have that power. Then, too, the senator in question is running for re-election where he is consciously targeting, trying to build, enough of a small base vote to get him back into the senate. He doesn't need than many. To him, publicity is the breath of life. And he is getting that in quids.

I do not object to the idea of a Parliamentary vote condemning him. although it may play into his hands. I think that the Parliament needs to make a statement for the broader community. However, the best way of dealing with a cockroach is to get a broom and sweep him out of the door at the next election.

I am not a leftie. I really dislike some of the "progressive" views. I have attacked them. But this is not a matter of left or right. Both can be equally dangerous. It is a question of survival for those who believe in a just but compassionate society.

I said that I was proud of the New Zealand response. Looking at it gave me hope that good might come from even the most horrendous circumstances, that New Zealand will use this horror to build. Tonight, I am proud to say that I am a Kiwi - well at least half! 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Death of Anna Carlborg

For those who knew her, I am sad to report that Anna Carlborg (AC) died last week. Several years ago she had cancer which they thought had been caught. It returned last last year.

Anna was a remarkable woman, Born in Poland towards the end of the war, she grew up under the communist system, training as a mathematician. She left Poland when her then husband took a job at IBM in Paris. They came to Australia where Anna worked in IT at IBM and Westpac.

Anna lived between Poland and Australia, appreciating both although sometimes not sure just where she belonged. She was widely read with a love of film and theatre as well as literature. It was Anna who introduced me to the art of flânerie, something that became an addiction. I guess that I was doing it anyway!

Anna began blogging in 2013. Her blog, My Observations, captures her interests and sometimes idiosyncratic English, thinking Polish but then writing English. She was very kind and much loved by her small group of friends including those she met through blogging.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

When to use the Oxford comma?

Just where do you place, or not place, the comma? Image Madam Grammar

I am not a grammar nerd. I fear the controversy over the Oxford or serial comma escaped my attention for a very long time. Wikipedia defines such a comma in this way: "In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called an Oxford comma or a Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms." In the graphic above from Madam Grammar, you can see the Oxford comma in the second example.

I grew up in a world without Oxford commas. A comma marks a pause as does and, so you don't use them both. Indeed, just last week in editing documents originally written by someone enamoured of the Oxford comma I removed them with a degree of frustration, However, the March 2017 decision of a an Appeal Court in Maine, a decision that I have only just become aware of, made me reflect.

The case involved the question of whether drivers for the Oakhurst dairy in Maine were entitled to get paid overtime for some types of work. Under state law, drivers were supposed to get 1.5 times their normal pay for working overtime (more than 40 hours per week). However, the law provided some exceptions. Specifically in this case, you do not get special overtime pay for the following:

"The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
1. Agricultural produce;
2. Meat and fish product; and
3. Perishable foods."

The case revolved around the absence of a comma after the word shipment. That missing comma cost Oakhurst $US5 million. You will find the full judgement here. It may appeal if you are a grammar nerd. 

Now before going on, Liz Bureman has a rather simple even masterly piece on the Oxford comma that  is worth reading.

I struggled a little with the judgement because it seemed to me that it wasn't just a question of a missing comma, but one of bad drafting that could have been avoided. 

A key thing in good drafting, it's something that lawyers such as Legal Eagle or marcellous have in spades, is the avoidance of ambiguity, the establishment of clarity. I sometimes struggle with that.

Had that clause come before me as an editor, my instinctive reaction would have been to insert commas after packing and distribution, thus reading " storing, packing, for shipment or distribution, of". In this case you have a series of activities which are exempted from overtime if they are being carried out for shipping or distribution. The acts of shipment and distribution would still have attracted overtime. To provide greater clarity still, the comma between storing and packing could have been replaced with and.  

Now say someone had said to me in response, "that's not right, we want to cover shipment and distribution as well. Then the clause would be amended to read "storing, packing, shipment and distribution of", replacing or with and. 

I said that I am not a grammar nerd. I reserve the right to continue to delete the Oxford comma in simple lists because it adds nothing, just detracts from the flow. Where there are ambiguities, then it comes back to the construction that provides the greatest clarity and, in my case, sounds best!  

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Saturday Morning Musings - Mr Dutton doubles down: refugees, social housing and health services

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has used the departure of the last refugee children off Nauru to increase the pressure on Labor over the medical transfers legislation and claim Australians will be "kicked off" waiting lists for healthcare and public housing. Source

I was going to write something on the environment this morning looking back at some of the things that I had previously written. Then in conversation with a friend, I realised that I couldn't go past the latest spray from Australia's Home Affairs' Minister Peter Dutton. 

This as been well covered in the Australian media, I tried to find a release or transcript of Mr Dutton's remarks because I like to check the original material but without success so am relying on the press reports.

The idea that Australians will be "kicked off" waiting lists for social housing or health care is factually incorrect. Waiting lists will not be affected. What will be affected is allocations. For example, if I am on the social housing wait list I will remain on the wait list but may drop down a little in terms of the allocation of social housing, thus delaying my access. The same holds for the public health system.

Social housing is in short supply because of previous underinvestment. In NSW, for example, there are more than 50,000 people on the housing wait-list. Housing is allocated first to priority applicants, which means that those on the general wait list can wait a very long time for a house. This wait varies from place to place, but is highest in the cities. 

 Assume that every person on Nauru or Manus Island ended up in Australia as a consequence of medical transfers and was given NSW social housing. At present, there are something like 150,000 social housing properties in NSW. As I said, there are around 50,000 on the wait-list. As housing has become tighter and more expensive in general, as the proportion of very low income or welfare households has risen, families are staying longer in social housing. 

Herein lies the rub, for it means that the number of properties becoming vacant each year has been falling. I don't have the numbers here, but I'm guessing that the number of properties becoming vacant each year may now be as low as 5%,  

 So if every refugee household, household includes single men, was evacuated to Australia and given social housing in NSW it would be a tiny proportion of the total housing stock, but might amount to a reasonably significant proportion of social housing becoming vacant. This would push out wait-lists. However, the final impact would depend upon the actual number of properties required and their distribution,  

The position in the public health system is a little different because of scale differences. I haven't had time to check numbers, but I suspect the effect would not be statistically significant.  

In a way, all my analysis to this point misses the point, but I wanted to provide a minimal statistical base. You see, Mr Dutton's remarks are misleading, playing to concerns in the Australian community for political effect.

If this were a serious public policy issue, Minister Dutton, and the PM who later echoed Mr Dutton's remarks. would need to provide information. How many might actually end up In Australia and how much might this cost? They do not want to do this.

Consider social housing where the impact may be greatest. Here we have one problem, underinvestment in social housing, conflated with a second one, the impact of new demand on constrained social housing supply. Even if every detainee ended up in Australia, and that won't happen , we could fix this with a one-off total spend of perhaps $500 million. That may sound a lot of money, but it's a relatively small spend compared with the current recurrent costs of offshore detention. It would also create a government asset available for later use. 

The Government does not want to engage in this type of discussion for fairly obvious reasons, it distracts from its primary narrative, the need to protect Australia's borders, stop the boats, they shall not come. While I have previously expressed reservations about the Government's approach, I think it reasonably clear that it has majority Australian support. It is also one of the small number of things that actually favour the Government. 

The Parliament's decision to facilitate certain medical transfers was vehemently opposed by the Government. The amendments made by Labor addressed some of the Government's core concerns. The Government was not prepared to accept this and basically doubled down. Mr Dutton's remarks are part of this process.

I have said before that I follow a range of social media and news feeds despite  my sometimes discomfort. One thread is the constant repetition that refugees receive unwarranted preference in housing and welfare benefits, that the ordinary citizen loses access,is disadvantaged, and bears the costs. The Australian threads also constantly recirculate similar material from other countries and especially Europe, 

Mr Dutton is, I think, well aware of these views. His latest comments play to them. They also reinforce the underlying theme that if the floodgates are opened through things such as medical transfers then welfare access and costs will blow out to the disadvantage of ordinary Australians. There is a problem here. 

It is possible to argue against the preference issue on the facts. To the degree preference does exist, and it does in rationed social housing, it is also possible to argue on the basis of values and judgements. It is also possible to argue on the basis of alternative solutions such as the successful placements of refugees in certain country areas. It's possible to argue, too, that Australia as a wealthy and successful country has certain responsibilities. But once an issue or conclusion becomes a matter of belief, of faith, argument is no longer possible in a world of simplistic black and whites. 

To my mind, Mr Dutton's double-down response plays to emotion, reinforces divisions, is designed to stop discussion. I think Australia is the worse for it.  

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sunday Essay - the importance of local adaptation in buildings

I have mentioned before my liking for the UK TV program Grand Designs. Finally, after so many episodes, I fear that I have largely, not totally, lost interest. There is a certain sameness that has become wearing, sameness in many ways: in design, in building materials, in the huge use of glass, in the hermetic sealing. I had no idea that house airtightness had become a measurable building requirement. at least in the UK..

This comment on sameness may seem strange when there are variations in building materials and apparent differences in design, but there is a certain sameness nevertheless.

I was thinking about this while listening to a radio program on the unsuitability of modern Australian houses to hot weather in the absence of air conditioning. One comment was that younger Australians have lost the folk  memory of managing a house in hot and cold. I suspect that's right.

I have only lived in two houses with air conditioning and then only for brief periods. We rarely used it, in part because of expense. I suppose I have a bit of a phobia about air conditioning. All cars now have it, people insist on using it, but it gives me a headache. I need the windows open, something that can be a cause of dispute.

I first came across the concept of breezeways in looking at colonial Australian architecture where many homesteads were consciously designed to maximise shade and air flows. I immediately recognised It and have been thinking about it since.

The old semi I live in now starts cool but the warms up as the bricks absorb heat. So it starts cool and then can become and stay hot, even when the outside is cooling. This can be a real problem if I am working elsewhere and come home to a sealed and very hot house. Nothing worse than going to bed in heat when it's cool outside.  

But the house does have eaves. That's important. It may be hot in the sun, but the temperature does drop when you move into shade. There is also some shade on the western side. So I have found by judicious use of blinds and open doors and windows I can stabilise the temperature at lower levels even when it is over 30c outside. Just as well, since I find it hard to work in a hot house.

I think that Australians have to relearn how to live in hot and indeed cold temperatures. 

Consider street trees. There was a period when councils replaced the large street trees with smaller trees. This was done partly because the bigger trees interfered with power lines, partly because the trees dropped leaves and small branches (my present local council comes round with blowers to get leaves out of gutters so that their council sweeper trucks can then gather them up), partly because they were seen as more decorative. The result exposed the footpaths to direct sun, making them unpleasant in hot weather.

I grew up in cold country, well cold by Australian standards. Those wanting gardens learned of the need to create micro-climates, areas protected from the cold winds with their wind chills and from frost. Australians now have ceased to be gardeners and that knowledge is progressively being lost.

This idea of microclimates is slowly coming back and not before time. Those urban councils who took out trees are suddenly recognising the value of deep shade, the way that greenery can lower temperatures across entire areas. Councils, whose belief in development created concrete spaces that turned into heat sinks that finally chased people away, are experimenting with ways to drop temperatures and bring people back.

Those living in the country have, I think, always been more conscious of just what can be done to ameliorate the effects of climatic extremes. They have had to be, although even here some of this knowledge was lost for a time. we can, I think, see this in homestead architecture where the older houses with their verandahs were replaced by modern homes influenced by urban architecture. Now verandahs are back. We can also see it in the re-greening of the country.

Townsville has recently suffered major floods, the largest in the city's history. In those floods, the ground level modern homes suffered more than the classic Queenslander raised above the ground to provide air flows - and greater freedom from flooding.

Today we believe in uniformity, in the application of standard rules and standards. You see this in every aspect of public policy - and indeed politics. The problem with this approach lies in the way that it ignores local variation.

An example is the 1950s push in NSW to remove shop verandahs, replacing them with awnings. There were  practical reasons for this including safety and the desire to make street parking easier, but there was also the acceptance of a certain idea of modernity, a desire to show civic progress. The end result was a sometimes cloying uniformity.

Beardy Street Armidale early 1960s before removal of the last shop verandahs. The few remaining nineteenth century buildings with their iron lacework are now highly valued.

Our new city subdivisions are much worse, in part because of their size. You can drive for miles through outer Sydney or Melbourne or the lower Hunter Valley and see no variation.

In the new apartment areas that you find in in, say, Sydney's Green Square development, the use of cladding can create individually attractive buildings, but the total affect is one of sameness.

It has always been true that changing fashions in architecture combined with the development of new building technology does impose a certain uniformity based upon time of construction. This allows us to classify architectural styles, to create categories such as Federation or California Bungalow.

55 Mann Street Armidale, an example of the Federation style. This was also my grandparents' home in the 1930s.

This type of patterning adds to adds to the visual value of the built landscape, a value reflected in changing patterns of use. That row of humble workers' terraces suitably modified become the valued residences of young urban professionals attracted by closeness and an inner city vibe. However, I do wonder about the overwhelming impact of present building approaches associated with rapid urbanisation.

My grandfather once said that God invented the country, man invented the city, but the devil created the suburbs and built flats. I have some sympathy with that view, although now the flats increasingly dominate the inner city landscape. There is something biblical about the idea of developer Meriton as an agent of the devil!

I may seem to have drifted a little from my starting point. I think that my key point is that in reinventing both the built and to a degree rural landscape, we need to focus less on universal standards or styles, more on creating a landscape that recognises basic variation at a microlevel, A building, urban and rural design, should accommodate, be related too, the local environment, not engineered to be independent of it.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation on heat effects in Western Sydney: Sophie Coombes loved her Penrith life, this is why she's left it behind.