Personal Reflections

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mr Shorten is just so 1990s

There was something just so 1990s about Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's remarks (and here) on the question of an Australian republic et al.
"Let us have the courage to ask ourselves if we measure up to more than just a grab-bag of cliches," he said.
"Let us declare that our head of state should be one of us. 
"Let us rally behind an Australian republic - a model that truly speaks for who we are, our modern identity, our place in our region and our world."

Cliches anyone? Really. It gets worse if you look at Mr Shorten's apparent views on Australian history.

The one really important issue that Mr Shorten raised was the need for constitutional recognition of Australia's Aboriginal heritage. This is something that I support as a way of putting one aspect of Australia's past behind us. Sadly, it has all become highly problematic. There is no agreement that I can see within the Aboriginal community, while the non-Aboriginal community doesn't care a great deal and is equally divided. Then to mix the question, as Mr Shorten did, with other issues is to add too division.

 Fortunately, as an historian I do not have to buy into Mr Shorten's apparent interpretation of the Australian past. I don't want to play in the history wars.In writing, my task is to present the evidence and (hopefully) make it interesting.    

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Blogging, platforms and PR: how to maximise the fun?

Tonight's brief post goes to an old theme, blogging and the business of blogging.

First, my thanks to Evan for his kind donation. Evan, it wasn't just that your donation came at a good time, Christmas is an income sparse time for me, but it was an affirmation of the value of what I try to write. That motivates me to keep going!

One of the things that I find interesting, one that I have mentioned before, is the progressive inclusion of the blog world in the reach of those seeking to spread a message. One measure of this is the increasing volume of press releases in my in box, a second an increasing invitation to launches or events, including offers of interview. There is a wonderfully random element in all this, but sometimes it can be quite fun.

As part of this, I received an invitation from Rachel at PitchIt2Me to participate in their journo and blogger survey. This is an example of the survey from 2012. It seems to be very similar.

I get a fair number of requests to participate in surveys. Most I ignore, others I start and then stop because I get bored. In this case, I found the survey quite interesting and continued to the end because it made me think about what I did - and why.

A journalist, trainer and blogger,  Rachel lives in the PR world. This comes through in the language, the use of words such as famil. Her clients are people and firms wishing to get their message across in an increasingly fragmented media environment.

I blog because it's fun, because of the interaction. I blog because I seek to get messages across, to influence, on things that I consider to be important. At this stage in my life, my ability to have direct influence is more constrained than it once was, so blogging is a way of keeping me relevant. I blog, too, because  blogging is a central part of a suite of activities, the things that I do.

In  blogging, I think that part of my value lies in my independence. If you write something, you know that it is my view. In December I ran a press release (CEDA announces results of its 2014 business big issues survey), but I made it clear that that was what I was doing. I am not saying that I am perfect, simply that I like to make my position clear. In turn, this allows my commenters to express their own opinions, including opinions about the source of the press release!

In all this, I do have to think about cash. I also have to think about fun.Cash is important because it gives me the freedom to do what I want to do. Fun is important because it motivates and stimulates me. So here I have an incentive to take up some of the offers, including taking advantage of the interview opportunities that I am given.

I have been thinking about the second a fair bit. There is a reluctance on my part to waste people's time. There is also a problem if it is in work time. I have done some radio interviews myself from the office, but in an open plan office everybody can listen in! Still, if the offer is made, then its not my fault if I waste the interviewee's time. I might get something of value to my readers or learn something that will shift my views.

To my regular readers, I know that .I am re-canvassing issues. Still, it's interesting so far as I am concerned. In 2015 I am going to follow up some of these opportunities and report back!



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Australian public policy approaches, - refugees, confusion over objectives and private school funding

In Australia, the Abbott Government remains deep in troubles of its own making.

The latest troubles on Manus Island continue the running sore that is refugee policy. The first problem for the Government is that its own policy of controlling, or attempting to control, the flow of information has created a vacuum that has to be filled from other sources. The second problem is that the Government's responses seem inadequate.

Based on the polls, a majority of Australians still support Mr Abbott's border protection policy, but the constant drip of what seems to be inhumane news about the policy's application is erosive. Put simply, by criminalising and militarising its approach, the Government created a political and policy framework that ruled out specific actions that might have helped ameliorate problems while still preserving the intent of Government policies. Even those who support the Government's policy objective have some difficulties with its application in practice.

Fresh from the debacle over medicare, the Government is trying to save elements of its proposed university reforms. Back at the start of June last year (Over-reach: deregulation, fees and university education) I explained my own difficulties in understanding what all the changes meant. Now, stripped down, the most important element, the one that the Government appears to be trying to save, is deregulation of university fees. I actually support that, if with some reservations.

The Government's core problem, and the core weakness in Mr Hockey's budget, lies in the way it established a nexus between two very different things. The first was the need to fix the budget deficit, the second the desire to achieve reforms in specific policy area.

I dealt with one aspect of this back in September in If a equals b – testing the proposed Australian terrorism legislation and indeed any public policy. We need to fix the budget deficit (a), therefore you should support our university (or health) reforms (b). The two are in fact disconnected.

On an apparently different but connected matter, the Australian Scholarships Group released analysis suggesting that the cost of educating a child born in 2015 at a private school through to year twelve was now close to or in excess of $500,000.

I could believe that. When we came down to Sydney, we enrolled the girls at a private school in part because they had been going to one in Armidale, in part because time pressures made it difficult to evaluate the public option. Each years the costs went up more than the rate of inflation, so that school fees progressively absorbed a higher proportion of our family income. It's a bit like the old myth about frogs and boiling water: the frog is cooked before he realises it.

I haven't checked the numbers, but Commonwealth Government subsidisation of private schools must be one of the largest elements in middle class welfare payments. Perhaps its time to at least cap this until the budget improves.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

That Australian life - the sporting Australia

January is always a sports mad period in Australia. However, this year is unusually busy, with the Australian Open tennis and its growing satellite tournaments, the Tour Down Under in cycling, international cricket including the current tri-nation (England, Australia, India) one day series and, of course, the Asian Cup in soccer. That's a lot of sport even for a sports mad nation.

In honour of the tennis, this is shot from our family album is a country tennis party from the 1930s. Tennis had the supreme advantage that social tennis involved both sexes.It was a way for girls and boys to meet.

 Growing up, I played cricket (not very well), tennis, rugby union and league. I ran, walked and swam.

This photo was taken at the Armidale swimming pool. From left to right me, Michael Halpin, Aunt Kay, Richard Halpin, brother David. The Halpin twins were an important part of our life at the time. They lived just down the road and we did many things together.

Richard died young. On the day before the funeral, Michael and I went to the pub to talk about him. Neither of us could understand the why. It just was.

The Australian love of sport began in the very early period of European settlement. There was space and opportunity. Unlike the home countries, Australians just had more time. They also had a climate that encouraged out door activity.

I spend a lot of time studying Australian history. Thinking about it, one of the big shifts over time in my thinking was the realisation of just how fortunate those early Australians were. Not the Australian Aborigines, of course,  but the new European Australians. I should write something at some point about the success of Australia as a penal experiment. There are some lessons there for current Australian governments.

In modern Australia we have gyms that provide facilities that as a child I could not have imagined. Still, there is something to be said for a life in which activity and sport is embedded from morning to night, not something that you have to do to stay fit. Ah well, time to move on.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Are you going to Canberra Rep's The Importance of Being Earnest?

This one is an unadulterated plug. Are you you going to Canberra Rep's production of The Importance of Being Earnest? If not, and if going is at all possible, Judi Crane will rip your arms off! You know you really want to go.  Otherwise, be afraid, very afraid!

As an aside, I did like the caption on the flyer: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." How very Earnest!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Monday Forum - Huntington, civilisation, language with a dash of verandahs

Today's Monday Forum is a another mixed forum, picking things up that may draw comment.

Over at his place, Winton muses on  How long will the "Clash of Civilizations" last?, a post triggered by the work of Samuel Phillips HuntingtonThe map is drawn from the Wikipedia entry on Huntington. I haven't read Huntington, but his views as reported strike me as dangerously simplistic in theory and what appears to be practice.

The Macquarie Dictionary word of the year competition is underway again.All dictionaries seem to do this now as a way of attracting publicity. So what are the new words that you most like or hate? Interested that phrases get quoted. I would have thought they were a completely different thing.

Down in Canberra, the creation of Border Force drags on, with the SES (Senior Executive Service) officers soon to learn who will be fired. The sword is expected to fall most heavily on the Immigration Department side. I know that we have talked about this one before, but who would want to work there in such unpleasant conditions?

I have continued beavering away on matters architectural.In a response to Sunday Essay – have Australian architects (and clients) become disconnected from the world in which they live?, kvd wrote:
Been to Lanyon; it wouldn't fit on your average quarter acre plot. A cut down version might, but then you'd be sitting on your verandah, staring into your next door neighbour's back/front yard, and bathroom, and listening to the dulcet tones of the toilet flush, intermingled with their stupid dog barking at you. 
You say homes "don't look out", but they developed from caves - the complete antithesis of looking out. 
Personally I like my verandah, but then, my next door neighbour is half a km away and, after 10 years, I still can't remember his name - which I regard as a good thing. We nod at each other maybe once a month; that's about the right amount of human interaction, I think.
He followed this up with:
Actually, thinking about it more, when I moved to this valley I "did the right thing" by introducing myself to the neighbours, and then in the village shortly after, my wife and I bumped into Bob, so I made introductions, as you do. 
"This is our neighbour Bob M". He replied "Robert, actually".

This is a guy who has won the Bathurst 500 (as it then was) and several other noisy things, but never reported as "Robert"; always "Bob". What to do? 
Anyway, now he breeds pigeons, and they regularly travel to my home, and shit on the roof, and stomp up and down cooing. Not that I mind too much, except I am actually on tank water, so it's sort of unsettling to think of all that pigeon shit that I shower in. 
Anyway, he's got a verandah as well, so I suppose that's sort of ok.
I have included the quotes because they amused me. However, they also raise another point, the changing nature of social interaction. Wandering around suburban streets, I have been struck by the lack of use of front verandahs. In many cases, they are the coolest place in the house at certain times during hot days, and are often set in nice surrounds. 

Verandahs came in in part because they shaded walls, stopping them heating. However, they were also social centres in the way that, say, the porch is in the US. So I was wondering when, in an Australian context, this usage stopped? 

Enough for now!


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Essay – have Australian architects (and clients) become disconnected from the world in which they live?

It’s been very hot. In some areas, it’s not just the heat, but alsoOxley Homestead Hay the high humidity. I don’t cope well with high humidity.

This is the Oxley Homestead near Hay. This is hot country. The homestead sprawls with deep verandas, providing living areas where people can gather on hot days,

I grew up on the New England Tablelands, a cool area by Australian standards because of its height above sea level. Even then, both my parents’ and grandparents’ houses had extensive verandas.

Mind you, Armidale had a different problem, cold in winter. A weatherboard house with no insulation can be very cold indeed. Still, and it’s hard to believe now, I could sit on top of the bed and read with no heating. Mind you, that’s partly a matter of self-defense. The kerosene heater that I could have used smelt just so badly!

Lanyon homestead, Canberra This  is Lanyon Homestead near Canberra. Again, you will see the same verandas.

What you won’t see are the trees in the drive. They spread and provide a deeply shaded area that is quite wonderful on hot days.  

Growing up, I valued those English trees. A little later, I couldn’t quite understand the native garden movement that said we must have Australian natives even if they were fire prone and provided less shade. Actually, I still don’t!

I am not sure who first invented the veranda. I have seen a passing suggestion from architect Peter Freeman that the first verandas may have come from British Indian designs in pattern books. Whoever they were, they deserve great praise!

Another of the nice features of some of the earlier Australian country designs was the courtyard. Here you had an area flanked by buildings, often a u shape, where verandas with chairs and grape vines or other climbers faced onto a central space with its own shade trees.

Let me finish this brief essay with an expression of prejudice. I accept that it is prejudice and stand to be corrected. To my mind, both customers and Australian architects since the Second World War and perhaps earlier have actually lost sight of the Australian climate. They build homes that you can’t live in without air conditioning. They also build homes – and here I blame customers not architects – that look inward where the role of the outdoor is limited to the required single entertainment space. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday incidentals

A brief round-up post today. There won't be a post tomorrow because I will be away.

Out of sight, out of mind. We worry about Martin Place of the French attacks, but do nothing about Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Mr Abbott's back down over one part of the medicare changes was, I suspect, inevitable.  It continues a pattern of Government proposals that simply can't be got through. I don't quite understand why Mr Abbott took the course he did when he must have known that it would fail.

In ‘The political system is failing to deliver’, Don Aitkin picked up Paul Kelly's point that the current Australian political system makes real change possible. I don't accept that, nor do I accept the view that the failure of an electorate to accept particular changes jammed down its throat is an example of the electorate's unwillingness to accept change. It's a-historical and also conflicts with my own experience.

Finally, the case of the Swiss National Bank is interesting. However, further comment here will have to wait until Sunday.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


I hadn't really been following the rise of Uber and its competitors, nor the response of authorities until I saw this fascinating ABC story on the attempts by the Queensland authorities to crack down on the service. I was also interested in the pro and anti comments on the ABC story.

Uber is one of those fascinating examples of the disruptive effects of internet technology on existing businesses. The company obviously has deep pockets to be able to fight on so many fronts at the one time, including paying the fines of drivers in Queensland. I was also interested in this piece on Wired about the Rideshare Guy.

The economics of Uber seem to depend on the capacity to offer a lower cost guaranteed service in markets with restricted entry where regulation imposes costs on existing operators. Uber is also using a pricing algorithm, not always successfully as we saw in Sydney during the Martin Place hostage crisis, that allows it to surge prices at high demand periods.

To offer a guaranteed service,  Uber has to have sufficient cars and drivers available. As a niche service, Uber could depend on amateurs. As the service grows, it has to effectively create its own cottage industry, its own taxi service. The Wired article highlights some of the issues here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Can you help me scope the dynamic patient costs of the proposed Medicare changes?

On 9 December, Prime Minister Abbott announced changes to medicare arrangements. You will find details of that announcement here. Elements of those arrangements are in trouble with the Senate.Leave that and the broader politics of the changes aside. I am trying to understand what all this means by way of costs to individual patients. So a few questions.

 At  present some 30% of non-concessional patients are not bulk billed. Non bulk billing appears to be concentrated in particular areas, Tamworth is an example, whereas bulk billing seems to be concentrated in high volume areas with commercial practices. Does anybody know the present geographic distribution of bulk billing vs non bulk billing?

 Where doctors set their own fees and do not bulk bill, patients seem to pay a premium (call it a co-payment) that seems to vary from $25 to $75 per visit. That's not a rigorous figure, just a rough estimate based on anecdotal evidence. Is there any information on the present level of that additional payment?

While most non bulk billing doctors seem to have systems that allow the medicare rebate to be claimed at visit, some seem to require the patient to claim the rebate themselves. In this case, the patient has to find the full fee up front. Am I right here? Does anybody know what proportion of doctors require the patient to claim back themselves?

Turning to the future, whichever way you cut the numbers and whatever the configuration of fee rebates, it seems clear that the real value of the medicare rebate will decline. I have seen various reports of the impact of this, but is anybody aware of modelling that shows the likely impact on the proportion of doctors who bulk bill, on general patients costs?

Finally, are all these the wrong questions? What questions should I be asking? Here I am not interested in the question of whether or not the country can afford the maintenance of the current system. That's a different issue. I am interested in the dynamic effects of the changes as they stand now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Exploring the changing world of comics: The Immortal Iron Fist

The immortal iron fist

For Christmas, Clare gave me The Immortal Iron Fist: The Complete Collection (Marvel 2013.

Now you can’t be around Clare for long before discovering the world of comics and the cross-overs into games, graphics, films, popular culture and indeed the commercial world that surrounds/promotes the whole genre. Or should that be genres? However, this was the first time that I had actually read a comic in many years.

For those unfamiliar with The immortal Iron Fist, one of the blurbs describes the book in this way:

Experience a new kind of Iron Fist story, steeped in legends and fables stretching back through the centuries! Orphaned as a child and raised in the lost city of K'un Lun, Danny Rand returned to America as the mystical martial artist Iron Fist - but all his kung-fu skills can't help him find his place in the modern world. After learning the legacy of the Iron Fist holds more secrets than he ever dreamed, Danny is invited to fight in a tournament against the Immortal Weapons.

I came to the book quite cold and had an initial strange, mixed, reaction. To begin with, I couldn’t quite date it. It looked like an updated version of an older series, but that didn’t quite fit with the visual clues. Some of the underlying assumptions/messages built into the sub-plots as well as the very particular art styles struck me as quite The immortal iron fist 2recent. Was that due to updating, or was the series itself recent? It seems a bit off both.

The series itself began in November 2006, so it is recent. However, the artists also took the opportunity to update some of the styles.

The book is visually very rich, something that made it initially hard to read. I actually had to work out how to read it. In the end, I looked at the art work first and then read the dialogue. I am a very fast natural reader, so this process forced me to slow to a crawl, creating a degree of impatience. Still, the story slowly dragged me in. 

As Mick Martin noted in a review of an earlier Iron Fist book (The Whole Story - Immortal Iron Fist), the plot is fragmented, disconnected. I was drawn in to the point that in I could ignore the disconnects, but I was always conscious of them. I was also conscious of the total melange of messages/styles. Think old style comic meets kung fu meets Raiders of the Lost Ark meets a variant of Chinese mysticism meets the evils of the British Empire meets Mathew Reilly meets video game. Lost?

As a franchise, Marvel comics date back to 1939. Its history reflects the ups and downs of comics as a genre, as does that of its older (1934) rival DC Comics.  Marvel is now owned by Disney, DC by Time Warner. Both seek to maximise the value of their respective franchises – their original comic book heroes with modern add-ons - across multiple platforms supported by merchandising. This is big business, very much part of the modern age. The comic is dead. Long live the comic!  

Monday, January 12, 2015

A note on Australian architecture

Regular readers will know that I write the weekly history column for the Armidale Express. This gives me an excuse to delve into all sorts of things that I might not otherwise find. However, it also creates a problem, Sometimes, I find myself all myself all adrift with just too many topics to make any sense of it all. I am in this position at the moment.

This is Camden Park House near Sydney. Completed in 1835, the house was designed by architect John Verge. Born in Hampshire in 1782, Verge emigrated to NSW in 1828, taking up land first near Dungog (Lyndhurst Vale) and then in the Macleay Valley (Austral Eden).

Verge's primary interests were in agriculture. His active practice as an architect (1831-37) lasted just so long as it took for his agricultural interests to prosper. Thereafter he lived on Austral Eden until his death in 1861.In that brief period, his output was quite prolific, leaving some beautiful regency style buildings.

This is Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney designed and built by Verge (1835-39) for Alexander McLeay. Whereas Camden Park House is still in family hands, Elizabeth Bay House is now a museum.

While the first major colonial architect, the convict Francis Greenway, necessarily focused on official projects, Verge had a private client focus drawing from the wealth that had been created in the new colony since its formation in 1788.

I hadn't realised that Verge had Northern NSW connections. I knew that a John Verge had taken up Austral Eden, but didn't actually connect settler Verge with architect Verge.Mind you, I didn't discover Verge had New England connections through my research in this area. All this came about because of flaneurring, strolling streets to see what I could find. Call it sticky-beaking if you like.

All this led into an investigation of Federation architecture because the houses I was looking at were largely from that period. This is an example of the Gothic stream in Federation architecture, Booloominbah designed by architect John Horbury Hunt. Life's a fragile business, as you can see if you look at Hunt's story.

Arguably one of Australia's greatest architects, the last year's of Hunt's life were difficult. Somehow it seems unfair that he should die not knowing that his contribution to Australia's built environment would be a lasting and recognised legacy.

Unlike Booloominbah, most of the examples I was looking at were not Gothic but Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts or Federation Bungalow style. I'm still not sure that I can always tell the differences between them!