Personal Reflections

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 - soaking up the atmosphere in Cardiff

We had driven down that morning from the Cotswolds to watch two of the Rugby Union World Cup pool matches, Wales playing Fiji, followed next day by the All Blacks playing Georgia.

We found a distinct party atmosphere on our arrival in Cardiff. Rugby is something of a national religion in Wales, and the streets were thronged with both Welsh supporters and those drawn to the event from other countries. We were wearing our Wallaby jersey's and people kept patting us on the back!

We wandered around, soaking up the atmosphere before heading to the Millennium Stadium to watch the game. On the way, we stopped to get a sausage roll. Overpriced and they had run out of onions and were even low on sausages, but we needed the food.

The Welsh team were doing pre-match warm-ups as we entered. Wales normally wear red. This is there alternative stripe. We had watched the previous Wales match (they were playing England) at the Evesham Rugby Club. Somewhat unexpectedly, Wales had won 28-25 to the distress of our English hosts for the win knocked host nation England out of the finals. However, in winning Wales had added further to its injury woes and it was not clear how the team would cope against the big Fijians with their open running rugby.  

The atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium is world famous, and it was humming as it filled.In all, over 71,000 people packed in. Listening to 60,000 Welsh voices singing the national anthem in harmony was quite something.

It was a good natured crowd throughout the match who thoroughly enjoyed the match.

In the end, Wales were too strong, winning 21-13. After the match we took the long work to our car (parking was very difficult) and then went to find our motel  outside Cardiff. Tomorrow would be another day.  

Monday, October 12, 2015

Monday Forum - are we seeing the return of the old left and right?

This first Monday Forum since my return addresses two issues.

In my pre-departure post Saturday Morning Musings - Naledi Man, continued troubles in the Abbey, ministerial offices, I said in part:
The by-election next Saturday for the Western Australian seat of Canning was being seen a litmus test on Mr Abbott's leadership. Now I don't think that it matters. Even if the Liberal Party holds the seat without the expected swing, the present Australian government is probably just too accident prone for Mr Abbott to survive.
Even as I  was flying out, the moves against Mr Abbott began. I hadn't expected such a quick response! 

Given that I have been out of the country, I haven't yet formed a view on Mr Turnbull's performance to date, although I have noted the public opinion polls. I wonder what you think? What do you see from the early signs about his political style? It seems to me that this piece by the ABC's Barrie Cassidy captures some key elements. 

More broadly, it seems to me that we are presently witnessing the return of the old left and right in many countries. I need to define my terms here.

The old left stretched through marxism to doctrinaire socialism to Fabian socialism. While there were many threads in the old left, there was a common belief in state action as a means of remedying poverty and inequality and in the importance of collective action. In time, it was overtaken by the new left, itself a sometimes uneasy amalgam of left political theorists with popular social causes and then by social democrats as exemplified by the rise of the Blairites in the UK.

The old right was still more mixed. It included conservative parties that placed more weight on individual as opposed to collective responsibilities, contrasting equality of opportunity with equality, but extended to a variety of more extreme groups that merged into fascism. Like the old left, the more extreme right placed weight on state action but for different purposes. To the left, the state existed to serve the people, to the extreme right, the people existed to serve the state.

The political and economic shocks of the 1970s were associated with shifts in beliefs that affected both left and right, beliefs that focused on the limitations of state action.and the importance of market forces, This led to policy convergence among main stream parties of left and right, in effect breaking the old social contract that had existed in may countries, including Australia.  While the rhetoric differed to some degree, policy convergence was clear. Difference lay in the weighting placed on objectives and in the setting of priorities. Convergence was further reinforced by the rise of managerialism, a process that affected parties of left and right with weighting placed on activities and process.

Two further threads linked left and right. One was populism, the second cooperative action. Both left and right used populist jargon, while cooperative action could appeal to left and right depending on the exact situation and on the formulation.

The political convergence that joined parties of the centre left and right over recent decades appears to have broken. The perceived failures of ideas that evolved with Friedman and others has led to growing rejection of those ideas. Exactly the same thing happened in the seventies: the then dominant ideologies were replaced because they seem to have failed. One side effect of the perceived failure has been growing political fragmentation associated with disillusionment in the political process. New political forces have emerged on left and right. At the same time, the rhetoric and policy positions adopted have also begun to carry messages that are hauntingly similar to those of the old left and right, including the restatement of some of the old delusions.

Policy and political positions always reflect the times..The past never repeats itself in exactly the same way.And, yet, some of the popular arguments that have emerged are very familiar. The obvious cases are the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the popularity of Bernie Sanders in the United States.Both use rhetoric and propose actions that are clearly old left.

The responses of the right and centre right are also familiar. Perhaps most classically, in the UK the recent Conservative Party Conference was a mix of populism with an attempt to co-opt key Labour messages while also retaining elements of the recently dominant orthodoxy. We are, Conservative leaders proclaimed, the real guardians of the National Health Service! Here we can see convergence at work once again. The political centre has shifted to the left, and the centre/centre right parties have, to a degree, moved with that shift.    

With the US as an out-rider, the Tea Party is a very strange beast with its mix of socially conservative rhetoric, populism and somewhat distorted libertariansim, the new right parties that have gained dominance in Europe are all expressing views that combine social conservatism, populism and statist action (a key differentiatior from the Tea Party stream) The mix is a very familiar re-assertion of a significant stream in the old right.

 So am I right in thinking that we are experiencing something of a return to the past? Does Mr Abbott and the first period of his Government represent the last gasp of a previously dominant orthodoxy, with Mr Turnbull moving towards the new apparent consensus? Has "progressive" become the new left code? What do you think the new political landscape will look like?

As always, feel free to go in any direction you want, posing your own questions.        .


Sunday, October 11, 2015

And so the trip of a life time ends - jet-lagged but home

Back yesterday morning and very jet-lagged. Flying east is always harder and the airlines don't help. To minimise jet lag you need to shift to the end point, whereas the airlines focus on the start point. And the need to keep passengers sedated to minimise nuisance! Flying in bright day light with the cabin darkened and all shades shut because that fits with night at the time you left is a case in point.

I used to be able to read and write on the plane, but that is no longer possible. It's partly that that I feel that I shouldn't put the reading light on, more that space is now so cramped that real reading or real work is very hard. Business class let alone first class is out of my reach. In cattle class, if you drop something you almost have to get the entire row to move so that you can recover lost object.

The jet lag wasn't helped by my decision to stay up to see Australia play Wales in the Rugby World Cup. At one level that was crazy stuff, but I'm glad that I did.

Wales threw everything at the Australians. For ten minutes Australia, reduced to 13 men because of infringements, held the line in the face of the Welsh barrage. A try seemed inevitable, but Wales could just not get through. In the end, that defence plus the accurate kicking of Bernard Foley gave Australia a 15-6 victory.

Helen and I watched a lot of rugby this trip. We went to three games - one in Birmingham, two in Cardiff - watched more at pubs and clubs. I will share some memories of all this later. The finals are yet to come, but in a way, last night's match provided a satisfactory book mark to end the trip. Helen watched the game at the Irish pub in Copenhagen where we had seen the opening game of the World Cup, exchanging messages with me as the game went on. So the trip ended as it had begun, with shared experiences.

I feel very lucky. This whole trip was a birthday present organised by Helen before she went to Copenhagen. A number of people contributed. I could not have gone, otherwise. Apart from the pleasure of eldest's company, the trip has been something of an energising circuit breaker.

I think that we all get stale from time to time. That was certainly true of me. So now, while still jet-lagged and with my luggage stranded in Germany, while needing to clean and sort, my thoughts have begun to turn to ways to maximise and consolidate my experiences from the trip. I say begun to turn advisedly. I'm still too bloody tired to focus properly!  

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Freedom and flourishing - the Nordic model

Flying out of London Luton this morning for Copenhagen, the papers were full of UK Home Secretary Theresa May's speech on immigration. My heart sank as I read the reports and indeed some of the other reports on the Conservative Party conference. In fairness, the UK Conservative Party appears to be a broader church than the Australian Liberal Party equivalent, but there are still some depressing equivalences.

Over at his place, Winton Bates continues his pursuit of the factors determining human happiness. I thought of Winton as I walked down Edinburgh's Royal Mile past the statue of Adam Smith. I thought of him too because I have been reading Michael Booth's The Almost Perfect People: the truth about the Nordic Miracle.

I started reading the book as an introduction to the culture of the Nordic countries. The reference came from the young expatriates I have met who are working in Denmark. Then, as I read, I saw the linkages to Winton's thoughts. You see, the Nordic countries constantly score high on the happiness and fulfilment measures Winton presents, and yet they seem to have few of the attributes Winton really likes - they are communitarian, equalitarian, have high taxes, welfare state structures. They do have strong legal frameworks (Winton likes that), but I think that Winton might find some of the analysis as presented by Booth a little challenging. Then again, there is evidence there that he could use!

Personally, I like a little bit of chaos, of disorder. That may not make for maximum happiness now, but it does tend to make for longer term advancement.

One of the interesting features in Booth's work is his analysis of the famed Finnish education system. I found this very interesting because it has been so featured in the Australian press and I knew little about it. I will look at this further in a later post.   

Sunday, October 04, 2015

For those so inclined

For those so inclined, now would be a good time to donate to the keep belshaw writing fund. I have lots of new things to write about when I get back to Oz next weekend, but also need some cash to fund that writing!


I hadn't realised until now that paypal allows people to donate smaller amounts on a regular basis, say  monthly, thus creating a regular cash flow for me with less immediate pain for the donor. Like the concept!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Copenhagen bikes 1

It's been a while since I've run a writer's desk photo. This one is in Copenhagen. I'm on my way to Esplanada and I have stopped for a coffee and to write up my notes.

I gave my initial impressions of Copenhagen in my last post. I was wise to do so.

Have you ever noticed how impressions blur when you are travelling? It's like being in a cocoon. At any point we establish a familiarity; known haunts, identified corners, places to shop. And, then, suddenly, we move and a new cocoon forms, replacing the old. That previous cocoon vanishes with speed.

This shot is another Copenhagen bike scene. I want to write a proper follow up post on bikes, but have yet to find the time to do supporting research. Why, for example, does Copenhagen have so many bikes compared to most other places?

It's partly a matter of terrain. Copenhagen is flat, so you can scoot along at a fair old speed. No grinding hill climbs when it may well be easier to walk. This means (among other things) that you can use simpler bikes. Most Copenhagen bikes do not appear to have gears.

It's partly that a decision was made back in the 1990s to modify roads to include cycle ways. In some cases, this involved physical modification  to roads, in others clear markings.

Integration of car and cycling road rules helps as well. But overall, the key ingredient is simply making cycling as easy as possible. No special planning is required, just hop on your own bike or hire one at the many bike hire places.

But now there is a problem. it's called parking! Copenhagen simply does not have sufficient places to park all those bikes! More parking space is required! There is also a problem with disposal of old bikes. This leads to a cheap way to start cycling. Buy a second hand bike at a police auction! This gives you a start for as little as $10 or $20.

In my next post I will look at some of the weird and wonderful variety in Copenhagen cycling life.


Ramana kindly sent me this link recording the Japanese solution to the bike parking problem.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Initial impressions of Copenhagen September 2015

I learned about Mr Abbott's removal from eldest on my arrival in Copenhagen. When I wrote Saturday, I had not expected it to be that quick. Upon reflection, it made sense to act before the Canning by-election.

I have mixed feelings about Mr Turnbull, something that I will explore in another post. Presently, I want to give you my first fragmentary impressions of Copenhagen before they become dulled by familiarity.

The photo is of of one of the galleries, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek just down the street from where I'm staying.

My first impression of Copenhagen was the attractive architecture. While some buildings are older, much older, many of them are neoclassical, dating to the growth period during the nineteenth century. My second impression was the the bikes. They are everywhere. I mean everywhere.

Following moves that really began in the 1990s, the streets and road rules are designed to accommodate cyclists. Nary a helmet in sight, cycling is integrated into the road rules, including hand signals that I was taught at school but which have now, I think, been largely forgotten in Australia. There are bike racks everywhere, bikes leaning against walls, bikes for hire and in some cases what are clearly graveyards of old bikes. There are locals on bikes, tourists on bikes, babies and pets carried in containers set on or linked to bikes, men in business suits on bikes, laptops in the rack on the back.

They are not your standard Australian bikes of the type so beloved by Australian cyclists all dolled up in lyrcra riding in packs, but simpler and more old fashioned bikes with baskets at the front for shopping etc. So you see people popping out for groceries or riding along listening to music or indeed chatting on their headsets with briefcases or other things in the basket.

It's all very convenient and indeed heathy. There seem to be no fat people in Copenhagen. It's also a little nerve wracking until you get used to it. It's quite easy to stray unintentionally into a bike lane. You are more likely to be clobbered by a bike than a car!

Early yesterday morning I went for an orientation walk. I found myself by accident on what is called the Royal Route around the area known as Slotsholmen. It was about 7:30 by then. Central to this area is the Christiansborg Slot or Palace. Originally the home of the Royal Family, it now part museum but also houses Parliament and various offices including that of the Prime Minister.

I had no idea of any of this. I had just gone for a walk. However, conditioned as I am by Australia, I started to get very uncomfortable. I was clearly in some official area with people going to work. There were open gates displaying new vistas that looked interesting. There were no signs to indicate that I shouldn't be there, but I kept expecting to be pulled up by some uniformed figure.

It was then hat I found signs indicating that I was travelling around the Royal Route. It was then I found out that the big building was (among other things) the home of Parliament and held the PM's office. I walked on, finding a big gate that led to a large quadrangle with horse areas and beyond that a large statue and then the very impressive back facade of the Slot.

I stopped. Again, there was nothing to say that I couldn't enter, but as an Australian I have been conditioned to expect authority, guards and warning signs. As I obviously hesitated, a high vis coated man who had been checking cars entering said go in, you can go in. Obviously very proud of the building, he pointed out to me where Parliament was and the PM's Office and other special features including the tower and stables.

I walked in and around the large quadrangle. It was then that I realised I hadn't so far noticed any police in Copenhagen. They are omnipresent in Sydney. Later I was able to identify police uniforms, but they are very different from Australia's police with their flack jackets and kit including capsicum spray, large pistols, tasters etc. NSW police uniforms and associated kit are intended to convey authority and install order over and indeed fear among potential wrong-doers. This does not appear to be necessary in Denmark. No doubt Australians are less law abiding, the threats to our security greater.

More relaxed attitudes extend to smoking and drinking. There are anti-smoking rules and indeed I am sure that there are campaigns too, but cigarettes seem to be a quarter of the price in Sydney, there are more receptacles for buts, while it is still possible to have a cup of coffee outside with a fag.

Drinking rules are more relaxed too. Danes like to drink, although to this point I have seen no evidence of public drunkenness of the type you might see in some Australian cities. Drinking in public places is allowed including along the canals, while all the convenience stores carry alcohol. Mass grog shops of the type we know may exist, but I haven't seen them.

Finally, Copenhagen seems prosperous with cranes everywhere. At least in the parts of the city that I have seen, there is no evidence of the abject poverty and homelessness that you now see in parts of Sydney, nor have I seen any beggars. There are homeless people, but the problem does not appear to be at the same level.

I accept that these are superficial assessments. However,  they do provide a base for further observation.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Saturday Morning Musings - Naledi Man, continued troubles in the Abbey, ministerial offices

While I may be able to post from time to time, this will be my last regular post for a month. I leave the country tomorrow for my first significant trip since the Greek Islands in 2010 and also my first extended break. Five years! That's a long time.

So this post is a bit of a round-up on things that we have talked about from time to time.

The Origins of man

This is an artist's impression of Naledi Man. By all accounts, this is a most remarkable find.

When I first studied prehistory, so little was known of the deep human past. Since then, we have had discovery after discovery, including those coming from the application of DNA techniques.

From time to time I have referred to some of this, but I find myself a little lost now. There have been so many discoveries, some conflicting, that it is hard to keep in touch.

What is, I think, clear is that the process has absolutely ripped apart assumptions previously made, conclusions drawn, that are still deeply embedded in current thinking.

The Gillarding of Tony Abbott

During the last stages of the Gillard Government, I used to talk about the need for her to find that quiet place in the middle of turmoil that might allow her to think without pressure  It didn't happen. Now Tony Abbott finds himself in a similar position.

At one point, I spoke of the weekly crisis.that the Abbott Government was experiencing, wondering what might come next.

Last week the Government's response on the European refugee crisis provided a brief positive, even bi-partisan, positive point. Then came Minister Dutton's gaf in cracking nervous jokes, not realising that a boom mike was on.

The nature of the remarks ensured unsympathetic media coverage, as well as responses from Australia's political neighbours and Aboriginal groups. At the same time, the apparently official leak on possible ministerial changes, a move perhaps intended to show Mr Abbott in charge, seems to have just created angst and more speculation about another possible leadership challenge.

The by-election next Saturday for the Western Australian seat of Canning was being seen a litmus test on Mr Abbott's leadership. Now I don't think that it matters. Even if the Liberal Party holds the seat without the expected swing, the present Australian government is probably just too accident prone for Mr Abbott to survive.   .    

Role of the Ministerial Office

One of the issues that has become important lies in the dysfunctional nature of modern ministerial offices. 

 I am not in a position to talk about the running of Mr Abbott's office or the role played by Peta Credlin as Chief of Staff. I have had no contact with the office. I am in a position, however, to comment on ministerial offices in a general sense having dealt with so many over such a long period.

The emergence of the modern ministerial office is relatively new, the replacement of the term Principal Private Secretary by Chief of Staff even newer. There are two connected problems.The first is that they have become power centres in their own right, the second lies in their focus on winning the immediate political battle regardless.Instead of supporting the minister, they want to manage the minister. 

Mr Abbott's office is not the West Wing. The Australian system of government is not the US system. Modern ministerial offices simply don't work very well.

Productivity and all that

Finally, a brief note on productivity and economic growth.

The latest round was triggered by discussion over at Winton Bates' place.

Because of time, I'm not going to be able to follow up on our discussion in ways that I would have liked. However, I thought that I should make make a few comments since I am trying to pull ideas together in my own mind, if in a rambling way.  

I have written quite a bit on the way that human constructs such as "countries" or "economies" affect and indeed distort our thinking. Part of my aim here has been to clear out my own head, partly to challenge certain forms of thought.

The discussion in comments on "Productivity and technology in a globalised world" draws out some of the issues. I am not going to be able to comment properly now, but will try to do so later.


Interesting South African reactions to the Naledi story. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Louis Pratt's Data Blocking - Sydney Contemporary art exhibition

I have been enjoying my return as viewer to the Australian art scene. This is Louis Pratt's Data Blocking.  I mentioned another of his works in Monday Forum - art, ideology and politics.

I am talking about this now because Sydney Contemporary began today and will run to 13 September. Sadly, I will not be able to go since I will be leaving the country at the weekend. However, I see that James O'Brien has already visited. Hat tip to Neil Whitfield for alerting me to James' visit. James was clearly impressed!

The Louis Pratt piece is included in the Nanda/Hobbs display. Nanda/Hobbs was better known as Art Equity until the middle of this year.

Louis's piece is quite striking. My instinctive reaction was to say ouch!

One would really need to walk around it and think about before commenting properly. Maybe, I will see it at another time.


Wednesday, September 09, 2015

That Australian Life - that's quite a spider!

I couldn't resist this story from The Canberra Times.

It appears that Australian National University scientists have discovered a possible new species of funnel-web spider dwelling near Jervis Bay.

Biologists uncovered the unusually large specimen of the spider's tree-dwelling genus Hadronyche while canvassing Booderee National Park.

The 50-millimetre female was burrowed inside a rotting log in a silk-lined nest up to two metres long. That's quite a  spider! Something else to look out for in the bush!

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Productivity and technology in a globalised world

This morning's post is triggered by Winton Bate's recent summary post, Will future technological advances provide widespread opportunities for human flourishing?, drawing together some of his recent writing and thinking. It seemed an appropriate point to use Winton's arguments to draw together some of my own arguments and thinking. None of my points are especially profound, they are just points in the evolution of my own thinking.

I have chosen as my entry point this conclusion of Winton's: "Technological innovation is likely to destroy a substantial proportion of current jobs, but it will not necessarily be more disruptive than it has been in the past."

Looking at history, I have to agree that technological innovation is unlikely to be more disruptive of existing activities than in the past. To illustrate my point, consider the impact of the internal combustion engine and, more specifically, the motor vehicle. In two decades, entire industries were largely wiped out, while the very pattern of human life in developed countries began a process of reshaping that is still working its way through.

I put existing activities in bold for a very specific reason. In the case of the motor vehicle, more jobs were created than lost. They were in different places and involved different people, but the net employment gain was still positive.In the current case, that outcome is less clear to me. I note that Winton has considered this issue. I am just less sanguine than he.

In considering the case of gains versus losses, we need to make a distinction between the wealthier countries and the rest of the world. So far as the world as a whole is concerned, improvements in transport and in computing and communications technology makes it easier for activities to shift to take advantage of differences in factor prices and especially labour. This suppresses labour price increases in certain countries while increasing incomes in other places. Whereas trade used to be the transmission mechanism, we now live in a world where entire industries or economic activities can shift.

If we now turn to the wealthier countries, I can see no a prior reason based on economic theory why we should assume that wealthier countries will (or can) continue to get wealthier. I would have thought that the most that they can hope to achieve as a group is to hold their own, to maintain current income levels with zero or low increases.

Demographic factors contribute to this result. Many developed countries face declining populations and work forces Their challenge is just to maintain GDP. If they can do that, per capita incomes will increase, if slowly. Japan can be taken as a case in point. Japanese economic growth has been relatively stagnant, but per capita incomes have actually increased.

Beyond the demographic challenge is a more fundamental one. How do you continue to grow, even maintain income standards, if other countries can do things things more cheaply? We talk about this in the context of productivity. We must raise productivity so that we can compete, to continue to grow. But what happens if those productivity increases have the effect of suppressing wages? In this case, productivity improvement becomes the device necessary to assist a country to adjust to its decline in relative and perhaps absolute incomes.

We speak of the hollowing out of the middle, the way that structural change in developed countries has created a gap between the top and bottom.  My history of New England maps this for an area, tracing the decline of middle income jobs. In Australian terms, this is seen as as an inevitable and indeed necessary result of structural adjustment. Jobs lost in New England are replaced by jobs created elsewhere in Australia. But what happens if Australia is New England writ large?

If we look globally, there are more middle class jobs now than there have been at any time in human history. I stand to be corrected, but it seems to me that the hollowing out of the middle class in wealthy Western countries is a localised phenomenon. For every middle class job lost in Australia or the US, one or more is created elsewhere. Those jobs may be paid less, but that is part of the adjustment phenomenon.  

I have spoken before about the way boundaries affect thinking.We should not assume that technological advances will lift average real wages in high income countries.The key issue is the way that technological advances create prosperity across the globe. The adjustment processes in a country like Australia. a political construct, will be determined in large part by those global trends.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Monday Forum - The Limits of Power

Somehow it's much more fun writing on Thea Proctor (Musings on Thea Proctor) than it is on current events. Certainly it's more relaxing.

The sheer scale of the migrant/refugee problem unfolding in Europe is mind-boggling. I deliberately used migrant/refugee. The BBC feels obliged to explain why it is using migrant as a term  I quote:
A note on terminology: The BBC uses the term migrant to refer to all people on the move who have yet to complete the legal process of claiming asylum. This group includes people fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria, who are likely to be granted refugee status, as well as people who are seeking jobs and better lives, who governments are likely to rule are economic migrants.
Meantime, Al Jazeera has decided to stop using the term migrant and instead use refugee: Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean 'migrants'. To quote: "The word migrant has become a largely inaccurate umbrella term for this complex story."

Here in Australia, Prime Minister Abbott has been quite wrong-footed. Instead of recognising the complexity of the European problem, his instinctive reaction was to restate the stop the boats mantra. This time, his own side has broken away. Again I quote:
It was Craig Laundy​, one of Abbott's own MPs, who articulated the public response to those harrowing images of a dead toddler washed up on a Turkish beach in a single phrase: "Can we please do more?" 
Laundy's emphatic view is that the Australian response should extend above and beyond the existing refugee intake. It is shared by many others in the Coalition, including New South Wales Premier Mike Baird.
More importantly, it resonates with the broader community reaction to the largest forced movement of people since World War II.
Mr Abbott is moving, being dragged, I guess, but he was too locked in to his domestic rhetoric to be able to respond in a compassionate way. Even now, he is emphasizing that an extra refugee intake must fit within existing quotas.We control our own borders, he says.This resonates with some, but is increasingly being seen as a limited blinkered response.

The human tragedy unfolding in Europe, Africa and the Middle East is significant. However, to my mind the bigger tragedy lies in the progressive erosion of trust in existing institutions. In the Middle East, there are increasing responses on social media pointing, rightly, to the failure of Gulf States in particular to do anything to assist the refugee crisis. In Europe, national and EU institutions have been placed under great strain, accentuating already existing divisions within and between countries. In Australia, there has been a progressive diminution of trust in the national government.

I am not being a bleeding heart liberal when I say this, although my own views are reasonably clear. One can ignore the constant social media stream from those opposed to the Government's position on refugees, terrorism, citizenship and the borders, although it does have an erosive effect. Of more importance are the increasing doubts and concerns held by those who are traditional Liberal Party supporters. I cannot give you hard evidence here, I am basing my view just on those I talk too.

Things tend to balance over time. As an optimist, I feel that the EU institutions will, finally, emerge stronger, while the current position of the Australian Government will come to be seen as an unfortunate aberration. For the moment, however, the loss of trust is quite palpable.    

I think that one of the lessons to be drawn from the current turmoil is the limits of power.As a traditional liberal, it is a tad humiliating too conclude that the world would be a better place if Colonel Gaddalfi or Saddam Hussein had remained in power, if the Arab Spring had not occurred, if the Ukrainians had been more subtle in managing Russia. The West's reliance on air power as a weapon of choice has severe limitations. You can destroy, but you can't build.

In the end, the West is not prepared to put boots on the ground. It would be easier if the West did not suffer from an imperial angst dating back to the break-up of colonialism. Then the gun boats could go in, withdrawing if the calculus of power dictated otherwise. Now we have to just oh-so polite. We talk the talk, but can no longer walk the walk.

I am not arguing for ground troop military intervention in Syria. I am saying that we need a realistic assessment on the limits of power. Australia should not commit war planes within Syria because there is no military gain that I can see. Better to spend the money on dealing with the collateral damage from decisions already taken.