Personal Reflections

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Train reading – introducing H R Carter’s The Upper Mooki Valley

Arguably, this should go  on my history blog. But it is train reading, and Wednesday is my sometimes irregular day for Australiana.

I mentioned the Mooki River in my post Sunday Essay – maps, myopia and the Aboriginal story. Now I am reading H R Carter’s The Upper Mooki (published by the author in association with the Quirindi and District Historical Society, second edition, Quirindi 1975).

The following map, I apologise for the resolution, is to help you orient yourself. The map is an excerpt from the Namoi River catchment map. It’s actually quite an interesting map beyond my interest in Mr Carter’s book.  Let me explain.

This little slice of country lies at the heart of a fair bit of Australian politics in recent years. The Naomi River flows through the Liverpool Plains. This is Tony Windsor Country. Just of to the right of the map at Woolbrook Barnaby Joyce, Tony’s replacement as member for New England, grew up before going to school in Tamworth and then to to the  University of New England.

Now focus on that yellow line that runs though Gunnedah, Boggabri and Narrabri. That’s the Namoi. The Gunnedah, Boggabri, Narrabri strip is part of coal central. This is where some of the fiercest environmental battles are being fought out, including the case of Jonathon Moylan and Whitehaven Coal. That green hatched strip on the left is the Pilliga Scrub. That’s where environmentalists and Santos are fighting it out over coal seam gas. Further comments follow the map.

Lower Namoi  If you look at the bottom centre of the map, you will see the Mooki River. The river rises in the Liverpool Ranges at the southern edge of the map, part of the great dividing range that forms the northern edge of the Hunter Valley. Unlike the barrier imposed by the Blue Mountains east of Sydney, the range here is relatively low.  Once stock reached the Hunter Valley, they could move north. By 1827, an estimated 10,000  cattle had already reached the Liverpool Plains.

Because one of the the easiest paths led into the into the Mooki River valley, this area was quickly occupied by European settlers, It was also an area of some conflict with Aboriginal people. The story here is complicated. I will deal with it in a separate post.

The strength of Mr Carter’s book lies in its detail. He traces the history of every property from the first European settlement to the start of the 1970s. He provides short biographical details on each landowner and many of the people who worked for them. He also adds some specific details on things such as changing farming practices. The book is, in fact, the results of almost a lifetime of research into that particular small area Mr Carter called home. Mr Carter himself was a long standing president of the Quirindi and District Historical Society.

The book’s strength is also its weakness. The detail involved would probably be very boring for a reader who does not know the area, although even then there would be parts of interest.  To someone like me who has some knowledge of the area and who is already familiar with many of the names, it is very interesting indeed.

There is also a connection with our own small blogging village. Neil Whitfield’s grandfather taught at Braefield, a small school near the Mooki Valley. Neil described this experience in a family history post back in 2008, More tales from my mother 3 — Braefield NSW 1916-1923. Note the picture of the phaeton in that post. I will come back to that in another post.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

An economic & political miscellany

A lot of Australian economic and political news around at the moment. Just a snapshot.

It appears that the income share of Australia’s top 1 per cent tax payers has not increased in recent years and is lower than in many comparable countries. 

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) has called for a more targeted approach to industrial development and economic reform. This is the entry point to the various papers. Sour grapes perhaps, but why weren’t you around when we tried to do something very similar back in the 1980s only to run up against the entrenched status quo in the Canberra coordinating agencies? I find it sad, actually, that the Australian economy has thinned out so much if the commissioned report is to be believed.

The Abbott Government has announced new work for the dole arrangements as part of a broader package. They are just proposals at this point, released for discussion.

As part of its response, the BCA believes that workers need to go where the jobs are, criticising the Fly-in/Fly-out syndrome as something strangely Australian. Again, I wish that they had done something about this before by encouraging mining companies to adopt longer term local development planning before the boom.

I struggle to understand either the economic or policy rationale behind the Government’s proposed approach. The broad principles would make more sense if the dole was higher. A higher Newstart Allowance would increase the incentive to stay on the benefit, hence increase the need for rules to encourage people to look for work, but also give people the actual cash they need to look for work.

It’s hard to believe that just two years ago business and welfare groups combined to argue for an increase in the Newstart Allowance on the grounds that the level had become manifestly wrong. 

The detailed system design is also flawed. I was just trying to imagine how someone in in say, Uralla population about 2,500, could meaningfully apply for 40 jobs a month. There aren’t that many real new jobs in total. Even the Government admits that they are setting up a rule to be broken.

Assuming that you have access to the internet, log onto Seek and submit pro-forma applications for any apparently suitable job anywhere to meet the rules, then get on with actually looking for a real job. You might even find one through Seek!

On Business Spectator, Daniel Palmer reports that confidence in the Australian mining industry is at a five year low.  Hardly surprising at this stage in the business cycle. Of more importance, Australian consumer confidence has apparently rebounded quite strongly from its post budget low. That’s good news.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Monday Morning Forum – another whatever you like

My mind is still tied up in geography and especially that of Northern NSW. I am trying to clarify a particular conundrum connected with that area where the Hunter Valley, the North Coast, the Tablelands and Liverpool Plains meet. It’s the same area that I referred to in my last post (Sunday Essay – maps, myopia and the Aboriginal story).

All this means that I have absolutely no idea as to what topic to suggest for this Monday’s discussion. So what has attracted your attention during the week? What would you like to raise?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Essay – maps, myopia and the Aboriginal story

I have always been fascinated by maps. As a child, I had maps pinned all over my bedroom walls. Maps of country towns, road maps, a map of the world with the Empire and Commonwealth still marked in red as it was on the little globe of the world. Then there were the many atlases around the house of varying ages, some dating back to my parents’ childhood with their political boundaries of now van463px-J_Davis_1861-5cished countries.

On wet Saturday afternoons, Brother David and I would sort our stamps, counting them, putting them in order. Here we used the Stanley & Gibbons catalogue as a basic resource,  Again, it was a geography and history lesson. This is the first Confederate postage stamp showing Jefferson Davis and placed in circulation in October 1861, five months after postal service between the North and South had ended.

This love of maps carried through into an interest in geography despite the sometimes boredom at primary school of having to draw maps of Australia or NSW with the rivers and boundaries carefully marked. Indeed, at one point that interest was so great that I expected to major in geography at university.

That was not to be. I was more interested in human rather than physical geography, The broad introductory nature of that first year course simply didn’t grab. In fact, I found it quite boring. I therefore put geography aside for history and economics, although my general interest in the subject continued.

Despite my interest in maps and in geography, my sense of spatial awareness was not well developed. By spatial awareness, I simply mean the geography of a place or area; size, distances, rivers, plains and mountains; I understood in a general abstract sense, but I didn’t feel it. This was a bigger weakness than I realised at  time. 

I am not a geographical determinist, but life is shaped by geography. P1100538I was researching and writing on the history of places and periods when I didn’t actually properly understand the geography.  These are the ruins of Ancient Thera on the Greek island of Santorini. It took a visit to the Greek Islands in 2010  for me to begin to properly understand the geography involved, including the importance of water; water to sail on, water to drink.

Just as I didn’t properly recognise my limited spatial awareness, I didn’t recognise the way that those maps I loved were affecting my sense of geography, creating hard lines in my mind based on boundaries and human constructions such as railway lines. Those lines helped determine what I looked at, how I interpreted things. Actually, the world wasn’t like that at all. Our obsession with hard lines, with order, actually distorts the way we see the past.

Today, we have a further very particular problem. Modern communications and transport patterns are actually destroying our sense of spatial awareness. The loss of MH70 is a case in point. There was genuine surprise at our inability to find the plane. People had simply forgotten how big the Southern Indian Ocean is. 

Our diminishing sense of spatial awareness combines with our interest in lines and maps to change the mental mudmaps we use to interpret the world. We see the world in terms of a series of dots linked by lines along which we travel. While the length of those lines is determined by travel times, instant communications effectively compresses the dots. The world outside those dots and lines progressively vanishes from our consciousness.

If you look, you can see this effect in operation in your own world.

Do you use Google maps? Ten years ago, you would have got a road map or street directory to plan your trip. You would have had to check the route in some detail, work out where to turn etc. Now many people rely on the GPS system and just do as they are told. It’s convenient, but it means that at the end of your trip your knowledge of the route is far less than it once would have been.

As an alternative, consider the expressway. Even twenty year ago, you would have wound through towns and villages, stopping as required. Today, the modern expressway bypasses all those places, with people stopping at the now ubiquitous service centres. The towns and villages that you once knew are progressively being expunged from memory unless, of course, you have a particular personal or business reason to go to them.  

Thomas Dick Collection Birpai These issues are on my mind at present for a number of reasons, partly professional, partly personal.

The recreation of the Aboriginal history of what is now Northern NSW before 1788 is like putting together a jigsaw made up of many fragments. It is not possible to be definitive, merely plausible. So long as you provide your evidence, your story can then be challenged by others.

I am often asked how do I know, how can I know, what is my evidence?  Part of the answer lies in the archaeological record, the material that survives from various periods of the long Aboriginal occupation of this continent. Part comes from early settler records or ethnographic studies. This material dates from the time of disruption and poses many problems, not least of which is our inability to draw any certain connections between the the position at the time of European intrusion and that holding in past aeons. This problem become progressively more intense the further back into the past we go.

A further complication lies in the way in that Aboriginal history, our views of the Aboriginal past, have acquired accretions, barnacles if you like, from evolving perceptions of that past within the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities alike. People always re-interpret history to suit current needs. It can be extremely uncomfortable for both historian and reader where the evidence fails to support or even conflict with current beliefs.

Geography is central to any navigation of this mine field. In his 1832 book, the writer William Breton refers to Corborn Comleroy as the name given to the large area occupied by what we would now call, among other things, the Kamilaroi. He notes that the Corborn Comleroy travelled to Port Macquarie for ceremonies.  So far so good, but where did they come from, how did they get to Port Macquarie, what does it tell us about links?

The Kamilaroi  language group occupied a large swath of inland NSW from the Upper Hunter probably into what is now Queensland. Michael O’Rourke considers that those attending the Port Macquarie ceremonies would have travelled from the Mooki or Peel Rivers up onto the southern tip of the New England Tablelands through the Nowendoc district, across the tributaries of the Manning River to the Ellenborough River and then down to the Hastings. This makes sense, but only if you know the complex geography of the area.

It is, by the way, remarkably difficult to avoid errors in all this. The Wikipedia entry on the Manning River given above suggest that the traditional custodians of the land surrounding the Manning River and its associated valleys are the Birpai people of the Bundjalung nation. That is factually incorrect. The Bundjalung lay far to the north separated from the Birpai by two other language groups.

To try to understand all this, I am constantly map checking. Herein there is now a problem. Whatever the strength of Google maps, it does not provide me with the right map size and detail that I need. What I really need is a good old fashioned Atlas that allows me to visually see the relationships between areas and especially rivers and mountain systems. Then and only then can I get full value from Google.

I accept that all this is probably a bit eye glazing, leading the reader to ask but does it matter? Yes, to my mind it does. If we can establish the broad pattern of Aboriginal life in Northern NSW and surrounding linked areas in 1788, then we have brought part of the Australian past into the light. If we do this, we have a better chance of interpreting some of the changing archaeological data, thus adding texture and depth to Aboriginal story over thousands of years.    

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings – rules, enforcement and the case of Mrs Deshong

Dorothy Deshong

Sometimes I shake me head. This story, Cairns Grandma held in custody by police over $20 parking fine from 22 years ago, was one such.

The basis story is a simple one. Mrs Deshong was robbed. She called the police. She was arrested and held until a $22 parking fine incurred twenty two years ago could be paid. The amount with interest now totalled $131.

Mrs Deshong is an Aboriginal woman who has worked with the police and community to try to improve conditions for Aboriginal people. The story says:

Cairns Crime Prevention Sergeant Cary Coolican said executing warrants was one of a variety of jobs police faced on a daily basis.

“At the time this initial fine was issued, unpaid fines were converted into warrants,” she said, adding that once it came to the attention of the officers involved that a warrant existed, they were required to execute it.

“The officers acted lawfully and actually took steps to reduce any potential discomfort for the woman by bringing her to the main police station rather than the watch-house.”

They also quickly made arrangements for family to pay the associated fine and finalised the matter as soon as it was, she said.

Ms Deshong said she still hoped the thieves would return her handbag anonymously into her letterbox.”

Let me disentangle this story a little.

We live in a rules based society in which the range of rules has increased. We also live in a society where discretion in enforcing rules has constantly decreased. Indeed, it can be a criminal offence to do do so. Then, too, we live in a society where with time, considerable cost and through the miracles of computing, past offences of all types can be tracked. This is absolutely necessary for the rigid  application of the current rules.

It is sad but true that Governments like to enforce rules. They also like to collect cash. So they use the wonders of computing to cross-link, to enforce.

I was listening to a friend the other day on the phone. Her son had incurred a speeding fine while driving her car, but had not told her. The car had had its registration suspended for non-payment of the fine. She found out by accident. She had been driving an un-registered vehicle, a criminal offence. She could have been arrested and heavily fined. Now she was trying to pay the fine, to fix things up. She could do so, by credit card. but it would all take time to process. Meantime, she had the car at a parking station. She couldn’t leave it there.

In NSW at least, traffic offences have become a growing cause of incarceration among the young, especially the Aboriginal young. The root cause is not serious accidents or even misuse of cars in a conventional sense. It is failure to observe rules, to pay penalties.

We have made it harder and more expensive to gain driver licenses. Many Aboriginal kids live in the country. Some have been able to drive since they were very young. Cars were around, they drove. Those kids can’t necessarily get their licenses now. Just being able to drive is not enough. You have to comply with all the formal requirements. Then you can have your license suspended for ever more reasons. 

Among the Australian young as a whole, the proportion with driver licenses is in decline. I think that’s a problem.

Car registration costs have increased, while the standards have become tougher. Then you can lose registration for offences. There are more unregistered cars in some areas. More unlicensed drivers more unregistered cars, more fines.  

Traffic offences including non-payment of fines have been a main cause of rising prison numbers among the young, especially the Aboriginal young. It costs a lot of money to put and keep someone in jail. There they learn new things, including new ways of making cash through crime. Back to jail they go. Up go the costs.

I was at a meeting this week on a policy change. We were considering a rule change introduced in a bigger agency. There was pressure to apply it to us. I thought that this was actually crazy stuff. I first ran numbers on this last year. It did not compute then and does not compute now. 

The change addresses a real problem. I don’t actually have a difficulty with introducing it in the bigger agency subject to review. I can see the argument. Let’s test the results. I can also see the argument for introducing elements of it on a carefully targeted basis in the agency I am presently supporting as a trial. No matter which way I cut the numbers, I cannot see any positive results from mandatory application. But as a trial focused on our client needs, let’s test to see what we can do.

In working on this project, I am working with two colleagues in particular. One has immense knowledge in the general subject area, the second is an Aboriginal women who knows her community and has front line experience. I respect them both.  My challenge is to find a path that meets Government needs and the incredibly complex NSW decision paths and pecking order, while also making real sense for my agency, it’s role and those it is meant to serve.

I must say I’m struggling. I have two tasks. I have to drive home what won’t work even though it is also mandated. Then I have to suggest an alternative path. It’s not easy.

Returning to Mrs Deshong. Accepting possible misreporting, accepting all the complex issues involved, what happened is just wrong. Mrs Deshong’s experience should not have happened.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The aging of the Australian economy

Across the ditch, New Zealand's Reserve Bank has lifted interest rates for the fourth meeting in row, taking the cash rate to 3.5 per cent. Boosted by diary and construction booms, growth is forecast to hit 3.7 per cent this year.

The Australian economic outlook is far patchier. One side effect is a drop in beer sales, apparently driven in part by reactions to the recent Federal budget.  Another sign is May’s drop in retail sales. Yet apartment construction continues. 

My daily trip too and from the office draws out the contrast. As the 343 bus crawls its way through Rosebery towards Green Square, the cranes are everywhere with the new apartments. Traffic is becoming a  nightmare. The road systems are simply not designed for this increase in density. By contrast, when I reach Parramatta, the big Westfield Shopping Centre has had sales signs everywhere. It is connected with the previous warm weather, this reduced clothing sales in particular, but it a little more than that. People are still cautious, reluctant to spend. 

That’s not limited to consumers. Business is reluctant to invest too. The Australian economy is going through an interesting if difficult re-balancing period.  Private and business savings including the growing superannuation pool slosh around seeking opportunities. Interest rates on savings are at a level not seen since the controlled interest rates of the 1950s.

Housing and share prices are at record highs. “Give us our infrastructure projects” is the daily cry of superannuation fund managers. “Please privatise ASAP”.

I am a strong supporter of the compulsory superannuation levy, but I didn’t properly realise the extent to which the growing pool of funds would out-run the capacity of the Australian economy to provide local investment opportunities. I always saw international investment as a diversification strategy, not something that would be driven by the absence of local opportunities. To a degree, we seem to be in the Japanese position. Lots of local savings with no where to go.

I haven’t followed the stats in detail, this is not a properly informed comment, but to my mind the growth in Australia’s international investment has been quite remarkable. It began from a low base and then just grew.

The net figures concealed the growth to some degree. We were, as we had always done, drawing money in to fund particular local projects especially in mining. But we were also, and to a growing extent, sending money out from areas lacking investment opportunities.

Its an odd thing, really. I am not used to thinking of Australia as an aging, mature economy, yet that’s we seem to be becoming. As the debts incurred during the mining boom are paid off, Australia Our gilrsmay become a net capital exporter, living off its accumulating savings. 


As an aside, that has nothing to do with economics, that dratted man kvd drew my attention to the Commonwealth Games hockey.

Since youngest began playing as hockey goalie, I have spent much time watching the those remarkable hockey girls of all ages and levels.  

Subtitled the Queen photo-bombed our selfie, it’s gone viral, I doubt that the Queen knew she was in the shot, but she is clearly enjoying it as much as the girls.

Oh, kvd, no scores please. I started watching the Malaysia-Australia game, I am reasonably sure Australia won, but I had to stop.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Commonwealth Games, TB, with a dash of economics

The Commonwealth Games begin today Australian time with the opening ceremony. Over on the Drum, Greg Jericho’s In defence of the poor person's Olympics takes a somewhat nostalgic look back. I have always enjoyed the Games. No doubt I will do so again. It’s a sort of family thing I guess.

One thing I will watching if I can is the Rugby Sevens. 

Australians are used to living in a relatively disease free society, at least so far as certain diseases are concerned. It wasn’t always thus. One thing that surprised me a little in my research into the history of Northern NSW was the prevalence of infectious and also mosquito bourn diseases in the nineteenth century.

I was reminded of this by a recent story on TB in PNG. While the story itself had a positive note, a new discovery for the treatment of TB, it is also a reminder that PNG is one of the world’s TB hot spots with over 15,000 new cases per annum. Despite Australia’s modern health system, a real risk remains that diseases such as TB or malaria will spill into the country from its neighbours.

During the lead-up to the last Australian Federal elections, I complained that the election campaign had become an effective policy-free zone. I think that was true, although I forgot one thing, the need to dig below the slogans and rhetoric to determine the underlying mental constructs. Annoying, actually. I shouldn’t have.

One of the problems with the absence of real debate prior to the last election is that now, when a real discussion is underway, it lacks an effective framework. A group of Melbourne economists has now entered the fray, attempting to argue the need for fundamental change if Australia’s living standards are to be maintained.  

Again, I think that the debate is wrongly framed, It also runs into disagreement: see this piece from Warwick Smith in the Guardian. Are we talking about the same economics’ profession/

I have argued that Australia does need to take action to improve productivity. But to what end?

Many Australians either do not accept the arguments put forward or, to the degree they do, feel that they will suffer the pain, others the gain. In these circumstances, putting off the pain is a perfectly rational response.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The importance of a Town like Alice

Nevil Shute Norway was a fascinating man whose writing reflected his deep involvement in engineering and aviation. His vivid depictions of the early days of aviation were vivid in part because he was there.

In writing, Schute chose to drop the Norway to avoid conflict with his engineering career. He was Norway as an engineer, Schute as a writer.

I loved nearly all of Schute’s books as a child, I still do, but of them all A Town Like Alice was my favourite. It is also a book that has had a significant influence on my life.

A Town like Alice breaks into two parts. The first part is set in Malaya and tells the story of a group of women and children captured by the Japanese. The second part centres on Willstown, a small town in the Queensland outback. Linking the two is the love story of Jean Paget, a young English women who is part of the group of captured women, and Sergeant Joe Harman, an Australian POW.   

The book was immensely popular. In 1956, it provided the source for a very popular feature film, A Town like Alice, with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch in the leading roles. Now, through the miracles of YouTube, you can watch it at your leisure.

I first watched the film in the school assembly hall during the Saturday screenings put on for the boarders. I was a dayboy, but it was a good night out, so I would walk across from home to join the other boys.

The film focuses on the first part of the story, the Malayan experience. It ends with Joe and Jean meeting at the Alice Springs Airport. However, it was the second part of the story that really influenced me.

In 1981, Bryan Brown and Helen Morse starred in an Australian mini-series based on the book. This time, it included the second part of the story. Here is the first part of the miniseries. You can see the next two parts by following the YouTube links shown with the first part.

What can a girl to do? You follow a man halfway round the world to find that he lives in a fly-struck hole.  Well, you change the town, As Jean says to the local bank manager, get of your bum and stop scratching.

To turn Willstown into a Town like Alice, she starts with a basic fact. There are 50 young blokes in the district, but only two eligible women. The women leave because there are no jobs. No women, and the young blokes leave. So Jean uses some of her inheritance to start a shoe factory based on crocodile skin. Then she starts adding other businesses especially addressing women’s needs. The girls in the factory pick up men, babies are born, and so it goes on. By the end of the book, the shoe factory is no longer economic, but it doesn’t matter. It has done its job.

Yes, I know that there are al sorts of ideologically unsound things in the books and films. In Malaya, Jean is Mrs Boong. In the mini-series, there are references to Abos, although it shows working Aborigines in a positive light, with Aborigines invited to the wedding. And the idea of effectively creating a baby factory? Heaven forbid!

Still, in the middle of all these ideologically unsound things, it was the idea of community development that grabbed me. How might one grow a  Town like Alice? That is what has stayed with me all these years. And yes, I still cry at aspects of the book, film and TV series. Sooky, aren’t I?    

Monday, July 21, 2014

Monday Morning Forum – Australia’s apparent rediscovery of Canada

Back in 2009, I rediscovered Canada. It had been growing on me for a little while, starting with an interest in the war of 1812. Then I went there on a visit.

I am not sure when I lost Canada. Growing up, I had Canadian relatives on both sides of my family. The place was quite real. At university I had Canadian friends who created a desire in me to go and work for Frontier College. I actually went to the Canadian High Commission to inquire about emigration to Canada or at least a long term working stay. By then, the rules that had facilitated movement among the UK and dominions had begun the break down. I found the immigration and work rules very complicated and put the matter aside.

Then during the Australian nationalist phase of the 1970s when the old links were effectively written out, Canada dropped off the Australian horizon. Recently, it’s been coming back. My own rediscovery is an example. Mr Abbott’s conversion a more recent one.

Canada is far more complex than Australia because of its longer and more complicated history, yet Australians are often struck by the continued similarities. I thought therefore that for this Monday forum might focus on Canada.

Obviously I have my own views, but I want to leave the forum as open as possible.  So just a few questions:

  • What are your perceptions of Canada? What images (if any) come to mind when the word Canada is mentioned?
  • What do you see as the similarities/differences between the two countries? 
  • Canada is often seen as left of Australia on the political spectrum. How, then, do you explain the apparent love affair between Australian PM Abbott and Canadian PM Harper?  Do both countries suffer from inferiority complexes?

I am not sure that these are the best questions. I leave it to you as to how you should respond.

Update One

Playing his usual role, kvd has pointed me to a number of links:

And for a quick scan, here is one of my traditional Canadian favourites, Christopher Moore's History News along with Randy’s A Bit more Detail.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Essay – NSW GPS rugby: when excellence destroys


The NSW GPS (Greater Public Schools) rugby competition is on again, so I spent much of yesterday watching my old school, TAS  (The Armidale School) play St Joseph's College. TAS is in the blue and white.

It’s a big logistics exercise for the school. Every second week during the rugby season, some 150 boys board buses on the Friday afternoon for the seven hour drive to Sydney. They spend Friday night camped in school facilities such as gyms, Saturday play their games and then re-board the buses for the drive back to Armidale.

On the other weekend, a Sydney school repeats the exercise by coming to Armidale. While in Amidale, the 150 or so Sydney visitors are housed and fed at TAS, again a big logistics task. There are eight Sydney schools in the competition, so they only have to do the trek once every two years, but TAS is involved every weekend. 

Why bother, one might ask? Surely the resources so involved could be put to better use?

It’s partly a matter of tradition and sentiment. TAS is a traditional rugby school, although other sports including soccer are strong and growing. The boys want it, while the parents and old boys support it. TAS is also quite important to the Australian Rugby Union.

The school competitions that act as feeders to the game at national level have become quite unbalanced. Unlike New Zealand where the sheer dominance of rugby means that every school participates so you have a wide spread of top schools, a huge gap has opened in Australia between the smaller schools and the bigger ones with their large student bases and capacity to afford professional coaching. The number of boys playing rugby has dropped as a consequence.

The NSW GPS competition can be taken as an example. There were eight teams in the Sydney competition, with TAS participating on an irregular basis, limited by distance and the unwillingness of some Sydney schools to travel. Faced with cricket score results as well as dangers to the boys from the increasing speed and physicality of the modern school boy game, first Sydney Boys High School and then Sydney Grammar school, both once big rugby schools, pulled out of the first grade competition. Even among the remaining six, differences in standards made for a potentially unbalanced competition.

I mentioned the increasing speed and physicality of the modern school boy game. While I was writing, this video came up of Saturday’s Scots (yellow) vs Shore game. Scots won 64-7. Scots is playing some very good running rugby, but look at the size and speed of the Scots’ boys. 

   Returning to my main theme, the NSW GPS had a problem. Would rugby survive as a core GPS sport or would it become a sport played among just six of the nine GPS schools? All this created an opportunity for TAS. First it joined with Sydney Grammar who wanted to stay in top grade, playing some TAS teams in place of Grammar in lower grades. Then when Grammar pulled out of the top two grades in the face of continuing losses, TAS supported moves to create a new official NSW GPS competition level, the thirds. This allowed the TAS, Grammar and High First Fifteens to participate by playing against the Third Fifteens of the other six schools, thus continuing the involvement of all nine schools in rugby.

I said that TAS was quite important to the Australian Rugby Union. This is true over and beyond any  involvement in the NSW GPS. The school’s numbers make it difficult for it to consistently field teams that can match the Sydney big six. the total number of boys playing Rugby at the bigger schools is larger than the total number of TAS boys, far larger than the number of TAS boys who play Rugby. However, it is a high quality rugby school with facilities and coaching staff that match those in Sydney.  Further, as a traditional boarding school its facilities allow it to host major competitions.

The TAS Rugby Carnival is, I think, the largest junior rugby carnival in the country for 11-12 year olds open to both schools and clubs. In 2013, the Carnival hosted 48 different schools and clubs with over 1,000 kids plus management staff. The school hosts visiting school teams such as the Fijian schoolboys side; it acts as a feeder for country and indigenous representative sides; its coaching staff coach a number of representative sides; while it provides facilities and personnel to support ARU development activities in Northern NSW. All this is important in keeping rugby union alive as a participation sport.

Beyond sentiment and TAS’s contribution to rugby as a sport, rugby is important to the school for economic reasons. While TAS now attracts a large number of day students from its immediate region, boarding is still very important because, among other things, it supports the physical infrastructure that allows the school to offer a wider range of facilities and services.

The boarding marketplace has become incredibly competitive. The number of schools offering boarding facilities has increased; the number of of schools offering options such as week day boarding as increased, something of a problem for TAS located away from the metro centres; the absolute number of boarders has declined. Rugby is one, not the only, edge TAS has to offer in a highly c1962-2nd-XV-Rugbycompetitive marketplace.

Rugby has been in decline as a school game. As someone who loves rugby, who played in the school seconds against those Sydney schools for no less than three years, I want to see the game grow. Oh, I am sitting middle row, second on the left, in this photo.

One of the things that worries me about the constant emphasis on performance is what do you do when the good starts crowding out the not so good to the point that it starts destroying the very thing that the competition is all about in the first place?

I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. Meantime, I will enjoy watching my old school play.  

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings – the complexities of recent European history with more than a dash of Poland including Once My Mother

Australian PM and Foreign Affairs Minister Bishop have a highly developed sense of moral outrage. It comes, I think, from the desire to play to a domestic audience in circumstances where the external impact of their remarks beyond the nation’s borders has been relatively low. This attitude is not unique to them. It infected previous PM’s and the Australian media as well.

I make this point now because of MH17. Here I did  as I often do, spending some time to check press reporting in other countries. Noticeably, the official responses in other countries outside the US has been far more tempered. This includes the Dutch who, after all, have suffered the greatest loss of life and also the Malaysians whose PM lost a relative on the plane. .

I don’t know that I am very comfortable with a situation where Australia appears to be leading the global sense of international outrage. It’s not a universal sense of outrage, other stories such as Gaza are more important in some areas, but is certainly so among many countries who have been affected or where people travel. We can be as outraged as we like, but in the end it takes cool heads not domestic posturing to get results.

Mind you, my use of the words “domestic posturing” may be unfair. If my own emotional reactions are any guide, I am sure that that the PM feels very strongly. And yet, neither he nor Ms Bishop can actually afford to let emotions within a 24 hours news cycle set the Australian response. OMM_1Sht_poster_v2

Frankly, I find the Russian response to the whole thing unbelievable. But cold, forensic analysis is required now if we are to have any chance of getting to the truth. 

Last year I watched Remembrance, a film partly set in Poland. The film is based on the true story of      Jerzy Bielecki  and Cyla Cybulska. Jerzy was a Polish political prisoner sent to Auschwitz, Cyla a Polish Jew at the same camp. They met, fell in love, escaped, but were later separated.  Told that the other had died, they went their separate ways only to meet many years later.

The film changes key elements of the story, but provides a gripping picture of a part of Polish history. I mention this now in part because events in Ukraine reflect the historic past of that part of Europe, more because of the imminent release  of  Sophia Turkiewicz’s new documentary film, Once My Mother, another film with Polish connections.

The term New Australians has been largely forgotten now, almost discredited. It was, in fact, a public relations coup. How do you persuade an insular society still reeling from the Second World War, worried about its future and cautious of change, that  it must admit millions of new residents including refugees from countries that had recently been enemies? You make them one of us.

Assimilation is another now discredited term. However, it was also part of the necessary dialectic. These New Australians will assimilate and become one with us.

Many modern Australians have, I think, lost sight of the tragedy and complexity of European history over the first half of the twentieth century. I make this as a general comment, for at the same time many of the children and grandchildren of that first post war immigration wave are now (like Andrew Denton) seeking details of that past connection to illuminate their own life. In Andrew’s case, the story took him in part to Poland and the holocaust.  

The story of Sophia and her mother Helen is a little different, but also part of the chaos of the time.

Sophia Turkiewicz is best known in Australia for her 1984 film Silver City focused on the story a shipload of Polish refugees coming to Australia. I haven’t seen the film. I must do so now.

Sophia’s relationship with her mother was complicated, in part because Helen placed her in an orphanage for two years. Sophia never properly understood why. She decided to do her mother’s story as a student film project, collected some material and undertook some filming, but the put the matter aside. Now, with her mother sliding into dementia,she took the project up again bef2.-Once-My-Mother-Young-Helen-silhouette-copyore it was too late. In doing so, she found a little of her mother’s remarkable story, including the reasons why Helen had put her aside for a period.

The story is complex, but its start can be summarised in this way.

Following the German-Russian pact and the subsequent invasion and partition of Poland, up to 1.5 million Poles were deported from Soviet occupied Poland to Siberia. Conditions were very poor; tens of thousands died. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the exiled Polish Government and Stalin reached a peace agreement. As part of this, an “amnesty” was granted to many Polish detainees who were to be allowed to join a new Polish army to be formed under the command of General Władysław Anders. The new army was to be under the control of the exiled Polish Government.

Tens of thousands of Poles including many civilians were released from the Gulags but without food or transport to find their way to the new force. Again, thousands died trekking to the new headquarters. Sophia’s mother was one of those who had been exiled and then found their way to the Polish Army headquarters.

There were inevitable tensions between the Soviet authorities and what was, in effect, a foreign army on Soviet soil. Anders therefore decided to move his his newly formed force and the civilians who had joined them to Persia where they would come under British control. AOnce-My-Mother-Helen-with-newborn-Sophia-in-Lusaka-refugee-campgain, there was limited transport so that people had to trek to to the Persian border. Again, thousands died.

  Helen accompanied the movement to Persia. Then when the troops went on, she was relocated to a refugee camp in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia where she was to sty for the next six years.

For the first time in her life, Helen had now found now found security and peace.  She also found love in the person of an Italian POW held in an adjoining POW  camp. Sophia was born.

With the end of the war, the Italian POWs are repatriated, leaving Helen alone again. Finally, as a single mother, she arrives by boat in Australia with her baby daughter. She speaks no English, has had no formal education and knows nobody. She puts Sophia in an orphanage. This is where the story begins. I gave the link to the film above, but just repeating it. It includes the trailer and background material.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Musings on Flight MH17

The downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine has transfixed Australia, making a distant conflict very real. It’s not just the Australians killed, the count here has risen to 28, but also the loss of delegates coming to the international AIDS conference.

One interesting feature of the coverage was its sheer speed, combining traditional and new media. The information provided effectively framed discussion. It also made almost impossible the task of the Russian ambassador to Australia in arguing that the incident was the responsibility of the Ukrainian Government.

It will take time for all this to work through. We need to give it that time. Meantime, it has changed the political dynamics in ways that none of us can see.