Personal Reflections

Monday, March 02, 2015

Monday Forum - role of writers in shaping language, populist responses to hep A, decline of the intellectual right

Start of another week, another opinion poll. Mark Kenny considers Tony Abbott thrown lifeline in Fairfax-Ipsos poll. Peter Hartcher takes a different view: PM Tony Abbott's 'positive' poll shows he's a dead man walking. In an earlier piece, Exit Abbott, pursued by a bear, Jack Waterford likened the current position to the fifth act of a Shakespearean tragedy.

 This last led me down a sidetrack, the role of literature in shaping languages. I am not a linguist, nor am I really familiar with the history of individual languages. However, I have a possibly ill-informed view that individual writers or pieces of work such as Shakespeare or the King James Bible have been especially important.

Is this true? Who are the writers or pieces of work that have affected particular languages?

The current hepatitis A outbreak in Australia has been apparently linked to frozen berries picked in China. This has lead to moves to change labelling laws to provide better country of origin information. In the same week, the Australian Government announced new measures to restrict foreign investment in real estate.

Both strike me as populist over-reactions. Is this a fair assessment?

Finally, in the interests of balance, should we encourage the Australian to reduce its rigid pay walls? The paper is the main exponent of certain right wing views. If you look at its on-line edition, you can see how 90% of the paper is accessible only to subscribers.The practical effect is that the paper has vacated the public space, allowing papers of the left, center-left or center to dominate. The right complains about left bias in the ABC, but does not object to pay-wall restrictions that actually take them (the right) out of the public debate. Increasingly, the right chatters to itself.

Mind you, Sydney's Daily Telegraph remains as the on-line voice piece of the populist right. This is the paper's take on the latest opinion polls: Leadership spill now unlikely as Liberals roar back in the polls. It's a very different view from those I cited earlier.

Still, the Australian is the voice of the more intellectual right So long as it remains behind its present pay-walls, its influence will continue to diminish.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Sunday Essay - New England historiography and the decline of Australia's universities

In his latest post on family history, Neil’s personal decades 30: Roy Christison 1924, Neil managed to find  A Singleton Argus story from 7 August 1924 linking our respective pasts.
On Tuesday night in the Methodist Hall a public debate was held between the W.E.A.. and the R.S. and S.I.L. In the absence of the Mayor, Mr J. Ogilvy presided, Rev. D. Weatherall, who led the W.E.A. team, moved “That the people of Singleton should support the New State Movement.”
Neil's grandfather, R H Christison, was one of the WEA speakers arguing in favour of self-government. Although not mentioned in the newspaper piece, the debate took place against a backdrop of the Cohen Royal Commission inquiry into new states which had been conducting public hearings across NSW.  For those who want a little more background on all this, you can find it here. I have yet to add the later columns in the series.

There is another connection as well with Neil's story, for my family was also involved with the WEA, especially in New Zealand.

Last Sunday's Essay was Sunday Essay – musings on the rise and fall of New England historiographyIn discussion, Evan and I were talking about institutional influences. In this context, I want to quote one paragraph from my New England  historiography post: 
In the New England case, New England historiography is important because it arose in a context where local elites had sufficient power to create institutional structures that, for a period, could survive despite their isolation from the dominant structures. That isolation was both the reason for their creation and the driver in terms of subsequent focus. As the New England power structures declined in importance, as their ability to assert the separate case declined, so did New England historiography decline. Today it is a shadow of itself.
Talking to a friend about all this, I said that I regarded my historical writing as in some way akin to an archaeological rescue did. A new building is to be constructed, so archaeologists are commissioned to do a dig to record that which might, often will be, destroyed by a new building. In some ways, that's the position I find myself in with New England history..

My current series of columns in the Armidale Express traces the rise and fall of New England historiography. Without repeating the whole story, New England historical writing was affected by broader trends such as the interest in Australian history at the end of the nineteenth century as well as the rise of the museum movement. However, it took particular local form as a consequence of the fight for Northern self-government.

In this context, the establishment in 1928 of the Armidale Teachers' College and then the University College in 1938 were critical because they created institutional structures with a particular Northern focus including local and regional history. From their establishment, came historical writing first by academics and then by students in Litt B, Honours, Masters and PHD theses. This then laid the basis for books. It also created an interest in family and local history.

By 1981, you had two very different but complimentary institutional focuses.The TC now the Armidale College of Advance Education had a powerful local history school, while the University had a broader focus, if still including a powerful New England element. From the mid 1970, there was a publishing explosion by local writers, students and academics. Their books sit on my shelves now (few are on-line or in print) and are critical to to the work I do. Then it all collapsed.

Central to that collapse was the forced merger of the ACAE, the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education and UNE as part of the Dawkins reforms of higher education. Dictated by the demands of efficiency and effectiveness in the name of national improvement, the reforms led to the collapse of New England historiography. There was no real place then or now for such a limited focus. Today, fewer thesis are completed in history in general, in Northern history in particular, than were completed in the 1960s.

Does this matter?  I think that it does. We live in an age of universals, of national KPIs concerned with some concept of improved national performance. There is no real scope for variety in such a world, especially when you shift focus to the local and the regional.

I don't really care how many Australian universities make to top 100 in global rankings. I don't see this as relevant except in narrowly defined marketing terms. I do care when the effect of the process is to damage teaching or, especially, research in the areas in which I have very particular interests.

Now let me really stick my neck out.

I know of no evidence that shows that that the standard of teaching in Australian universities is better today than it was in the 1960s. I know of no evidence that shows that it has improved over the last twenty years despite the ever-growing emphasis on standards or quality improvement, although compliance costs have clearly risen. I know of no evidence to show that the contribution of Australian universities to local or indeed global intellectual life is higher now that it was fifty or even ninety years ago. Indeed, I would argue the opposite.

So in considering my own interest, the decline of New England historiography, I see this  as part of a broader pattern. I stand to be corrected, of course. Perhaps I'm just an old troglodyte, pining for the old age of universities for the elites. I think not, but tell me why I am wrong.

.       .


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Saturday Morning Musings - NSW elections and the vagaries of optional preferential voting

For the election tragics among us, NSW goes to the polls on 28 March. The ABC has its usual election site up. If you play with the Legislative Assembly election calculator included in the site, you can see that a very large swing is required to put Labor into Government. Based on the polls, a Labor victory would seem impossible.Still, as this useful post from Kevin Bonham suggests, who knows after Queensland?

The Queensland polls actually got the primary votes about right. However, the models used to allocate preferences in an optional preferential system got it all wrong. Even such an astute observer ABC election analyst Antony Green was taken by surprise, something he seemed to enjoy greatly. It can get very boring when results are, more.or less, just as you predicted!

Like Queensland, NSW has an optional preferential system. In a full preferential system, you have to rank candidates by preference. If no candidate gets a majority of votes, then the lowest vote candidate is excluded and their second preferences distributed to other candidates. This process continues until one candidate gets a majority,

An optional preference system works in the same way, except that voters do not have to allocate preferences. They can vote just 1, but may add preferences if they want. This has introduced a wonderfully random element into the political process.

As an aside, I do miss the compulsory preference system. I grew up in a Country Party world. The old Country Party would sometimes run several candidates in the one seat. The official Party view was that this left the final choice to the electors. This view was deeply held.

As politics became more professional, the Party machine tried to stop the process, but it was strongly defended by the older Parliamentarians such as David Drummond or Mick Bruxner.  Optional preferences finally killed to concept, while also making two cornered contests (Liberal vs Country or National) much more difficult.

Whatever the arguments, optional preference voting has acted to reduce the choices available to someone like me. I have more candidates to choose from, but fewer candidates falling within my conventional political preferences. It makes my vote much more variable. .

Returning to my main theme, the Liberal National Government should win in NSW, if with a significantly reduced majority. However, no one can say with certainty what proportion of people will vote just one, nor how the preferences will flow for those who do preference. The uncertainty does add a certain spice to the election.            

Friday, February 27, 2015

2tanners Burmese chicken curry

2tanners wrote in a comment:
Take 0.5 kilo of chicken thigh fillet. Finely slice a large onion, 3 cloves of garlic and gently fry until golden brown. Add a heaped teaspoon of turmeric powder (or the actual root, shredded, if you can get it) and two aromatic chilis. For those with sensitive tastes or stomachs, also add coconut cream until the heat is tolerable. Coarsely dice the thigh fillet and slowly braise for about 40 minutes. During this time, cook rice (google 'absorption method'). 5 minutes from the end, add some green veggies. Let stand for 5 minutes after cooking. Serve rice and Burmese chicken curry. 
Congratulations. Delicious meal, heaps of praise and you haven't thought about Federal politics for an hour.
Yum and I like the bit about Federal politics too!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A small rich country - revisiting threads in Australia's future

Back in March 2009, Saturday Morning Musings - threads in Australia's future attempted to draw together some of the threads of my thinking. In this post, I want to return to one  thread.

"In economic and population terms", I then wrote, "Australia is a small rich country perched on the edge of the Asian land mass.

In population terms, we presently rank around 53 in the world. In economic terms, 14 or 15th. In military terms, the combination of our wealth with access to technology makes us something of a regional super power.

On current ABS projections, the Australian population in 2051 is projected to increase to between 30 and 40 million people. While this is a large increase in absolute terms, we still drop sharply in global population rankings.

We will also drop sharply in economic ranking.The process here will be a little slower in terms of country rankings because of the big gap between Australian GDP and that holding in countries behind us.

Of more importance, the gap between our GDP and the countries in front of us is likely to widen very sharply. We may retain our nominal place in the G20, but our share of world GDP is likely to fall from the current level of around 1.4% to below 1%.

In military terms, we are going to struggle to maintain a military edge as other countries catch up in technological terms."

Nothing has changed since I wrote this, although the subsequent mining boom has somewhat concealed the economic and demographic trends, at least in our own minds. The country's relative decline in population and GDP rankings is underway, while our ability to maintain a military edge is certainly under a degree of threat.    . .
In 2009, I suggested that this basic pattern had driven Australian trade, foreign and defence policy. I also thought that successive Australian Governments have been quite clever in these areas and especially in trade policy.

At one level, we had worked for freer global trade, while also establishing a growing network of free trade agreements that reflects the dynamics of future world economic power. The Australian Government's greater emphasis on Africa - previously the ignored continent - was the latest building block. From this point, I thought that our life was likely to get a lot more complicated. How we handled those complications would be very important to our future as a nation.

Life has indeed got a lot more complicated! From my perspective, I did not expect the effects of the global financial crisis to linger in the way they have. I completely failed to foresee the Arab Spring with its subsequent domino effects, including the rise of ISIS. I did not expect that terrorism would, once again, become such a dominant theme,

In March 2009, I chose to write about four issues.

The first was the likely Pacification of Australia.

Australia used to think of itself as a Pacific Country, but then we started to ignore the Pacific as our focus shifted to Asia. This was a mistake, one that the Howard Government had to struggle to correct.

Absolute population numbers in the Pacific are not high in absolute terms. However, they are high relative to the populations of Australia and especially New Zealand. They are also growing quite fast. By 2050, there is likely to be one Papuan for every three of the then Australian population.

Australia, I suggested, had a powerful vested interest in the resolution of Pacific problems. If we failed, we were going to face powerful pressures on our borders. Even with success, we were still going to see a rapid rise in the absolute numbers of Melanesians and Polynesians living in Australia.

I should note that I had no problem with this. Apart from my dislike of the way Australia had forgotten its Pacific heritage, my underlying concern lay in the the way that evolving problems especially in PNG might have wash-on effects in this country. I am actually less concerned about this one than I was, although it remains an issue.  

The second issue was the importance of ASEAN.

ASEAN is critical to us along three dimensions; it sits across key trade routes; it is Australia's northern strategic buffer; and it is a key economic partner. The successful development of and relations with the ASEAN countries and especially Indonesia was arguably, I thought,  the key strategic issue from an Australian perspective.

I give Australia a fail here. We have literally lost sight of ASEAN. We do not have a coherent policy, at least one that I can understand, for dealing with our nearest neighbors as a group.  

The third issue I identified was the need to find a balance in our evolving relations with the US, China, Japan and India. This was seen as perhaps the key strategic issue, although I would still have placed ASEAN first from a longer term perspective. The need for this balance is still a continuing meme in Australian foreign policy.

The last issue was the need to avoid Australian hubris and arrogance.

As I had commented in some of my posts on Mr Rudd, I got very uncomfortable when I saw an Australian leader big-noting this country. Among other things, this played to a continued inward looking prejudice within the Australian community about our superiority and place in the world.

I would, I suggested, feel far more comfortable if our approach were more low key, displaying greater recognition of the need to be subtle and clever if we were to properly manage the challenges we faced as a country.

What can I say? I would mark this area as a double F.For time reasons, I will deal with this in another post.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

hash tag #timetogoTony

This was not my intended post tonight. I had a for more interesting topic. But the unfolding attack on  Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs is a step too far.

I accept that this may be seen as partisan, but in all my criticisms of Mr Abbott I have tried to be balanced. Whether Professor Triggs was partisan or unbalanced is neither here nor there. You don't play the man or women in this way. The new hash tag 

Seriously, this is just a bridge too far. I find the hash tag already exists, perhaps that's not surprising, but please promote.

Postscript 2
This is some of this morning's media coverage on the Triggs matter: here, here, here, here, here, here and also Michelle Grattan and then on the ABC's the Drum. I have included the last because of the comment stream. I think that the Grattan piece is especially worth reading. It concludes:
Abbott, in a blustering question time performance, professed to know nothing about the Brandis offer. “I do not claim to be across what may or may not have been canvassed between the President of the Human Rights Commission and the Attorney or indeed any other member of this government,” he told the House. 
“All I know is that this government has lost confidence in the President of the Human Rights Commission,” repeating his claim that the inquiry had been a stitch up. 
Is it really credible Abbott wasn’t briefed on the discussions with Triggs? 
The government is trying to force out the head of a statutory body, the issue is being fiercely contested at a committee hearing on the day, and the Prime Minister says he is not across it!
If this is true, he is guilty of arrogance or negligence.
Reflecting on the situation towards the end of the day, Brandis told the committee, “I don’t know where we go from here”. Indeed. The government, one might say, had stitched itself up.
I am not close enough to understand the detail of the Triggs matter. However, I struggle to understand the pattern of behavior of the Government and especially that displayed by the PM. I am tired of it and just wish it would go away!

Postscript 3

In the midst of the debate over Gillian Triggs' role, kvd wondered why there had been so little discussion on the matters revealed by the Liberal Party's Federal Treasurer and particularly this quote:
Mr Higginson wrote that he had raised $70 million since 2011 and recently "laid out my plans to the PM" to travel to the United States to raise "tens of millions" from donors.
kvd wondered why there had "been little outcry over the email from the treasurer of the Libs calmly stating that he was/is seeking financial support from US corporations?"

Returning to Professor Triggs, it appears that Malcolm Turnbull does not quite share the Abbott/Brandis angst.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Monday Forum - terrorism and civil protection, the emerging digital dark age

Today Australian PM Abbott unveils the Government's proposed new security measures. Yesterday , the preliminary report into the Martin Place siege was released. This is the transcript of the joint press conference with NSW Premier Baird, this the joint statement, this is the NSW Government response, here is the report itself.

The PM has made it quite clear that he believes that the balance needs to be tipped between individual freedom and civil safety in favour of civil safety: "we are determined to learn whatever lessons we can and take whatever action is required to address the threat of such an event because the first priority of government is to keep our country safe."

I do wonder just what price we have to pay "to keep our country safe" and indeed just what the existential threat is that justifies the level of rhetoric. None of this makes me feel any safer. I just feel threatened. Am I wrong to feel that the core threat that I face is not terrorism but governments themselves?

Driving home from tennis yesterday, youngest commented on the coming digital dark age, the difficulty posed by the combination of ever increasing digital processing and storage demands with continuous technological obsolescence. The effect is that we store ever more records and information but for ever shorter periods, leading to permanent losses of slabs of critical personal and public material.

You can see all this at personal level in the way emails have replaced letters. Emails are a useful if increasingly overloaded communications device, but a hopeless way of record keeping. That got me wondering. How do you select and store information for future use, or do you just not worry?


I took the Review of Australia's Counter Terrorism Machinery out to lunch. That was an error. Quite spoiled my appetite. This is the PM's Statement on National Security. In reading the Review, focus not on all the recommended actions but on the threat analysis and the measures already taken, including the way that increased activity indicators are in fact directly connected with previous  actions. Look too at the language used.

Postscript 2

First, a further brief note on the terror stuff, triggered by further reading.

I don't know, but just to further explain my position.

I supported the first Gulf War. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan. Reluctantly, I supported the Second Gulf War. Then from the current position in Ukraine back to Afghanistan I now find fundamental foreign policy errors. In regard to the War on Terror, I started by worrying that the approach and rhetoric used would create the very thing that was feared. Then came the growing and egregious personal injustices supported on public interest grounds.

I find now that I have limited faith in the foreign policy judgments of Australian Governments, less faith in the ability of this Government to argue coolly and objectively, no faith that either it or a Labor Government won't misuse power in the name of the public good or national interest. Lost trust is hard to regain.

On a more positive note, on the emerging digital dark age, kvd pointed me to this piece by Jill Lepore, The Cobweb. He suggested that youngest might like this piece too, The Last Amazon. Lepore is a very good writer.     .


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sunday Essay – musings on the rise and fall of New England historiography

One of the traps of having broad interests while writing a general history lies in the way it takes me down by-ways. R. H. MathewsIt’s not helped by my weekly history column in the Armidale Express

Each week for the best part of three years now excluding Christmas and sometimes Easter, I have written 500 words on some aspect of local history. I am given some latitude, I can wander where I like, but there needs to be some direct or indirect connection with Armidale.

You would think that I would run out of things to say. After all, just how much can you say connected to the history of a city of 23,000 people?  Quite a lot, it would seem. I have more unfinished story ideas now than when I started.

As best I can work out, my readers seem to like my sometimes meanders and even seem to put up with my series, multiple posts on a single topic. I know that people do not read every column. I know that those who do read regularly are generally older with either some long-standing connection to Armidale or a strong interest in history itself.

Even with a backlog of ideas, sometimes I come up on a copy deadline with my mind a blank. Worse, sometimes the piece I am meant to write actually requires more research than I have time. In both cases, I scrabble to make do.

Still, in all this, the by-ways I find myself in can be fun. The photo is R H Mathews (1841-1918), a surveyor, magistrate and self-taught anthropologist who devoted the last three decades of his life to the study of the Aboriginal peoples of Eastern Australia.

I was twenty one when I first came across RHM. I was writing my honours thesis on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life. I must say that I found his work somewhat bitsy and repetitive. It was much later that I came to realise his significance and indeed became interested in him as a human being.resized_9781741757811_224_297_FitSquare

Incidentally, I have only just come across Martin Thomas’s 2011 study of RHM and have yet to acquire a copy.

RHM came back on my radar a week ago because I decided to do a short series on New England historiography, the history of history in New England. This was triggered by the recent death of Lionel Gilbert, one of the doyens of New England historiography.  This is where by-ways comes in. To start writing the series, I needed to set a context, starting in the nineteenth century. I also needed to link that context to key features of New England historiography. So I started wandering.

There is a commonly accepted view that the interest in Australian history sort of began with the First World War and a dawning sense of nationalism and self identity. You can see this today in some of the hagiography associated with Gallipoli. Yes, I know that the term hagiography applies to lives of the saints, but we have actually sanctified Gallipoli. Indeed, some of the writing and broadcasting on Gallipoli seems to me to represent the worst type of hagiography.

There is also a commonly accepted view that no real Australian history was written until after the Second World War, nor was it available in schools until well after the war. Then we overcame the cultural cringe and really discovered ourselves.  

In talking about Australian history in the way I’m using the term, I am of course referring to the history of the European settlers and their societies. Writing on Aboriginal history came later.

The first writing on Australian history began early. There was great interest in Britain and indeed Europe in the new colonies being established in the Great Southern Land, so a range of books appeared on the early history of NSW telling the story of the colony, along with a range of settler reminiscences. In 1880, the new school text books introduced into NSW schools contained a segment on Australian history. That same year saw the founding of the Bulletin magazine. The 1880 and 1890s saw rapid growth in interest in Australian history. In 1901, the Royal Australian Historical Society was established, publishing its own journal from 1908.

The nineteenth century was a period of considerable intellectual turbulence that also combined a belief in the importance of progress and self-improvement. This was the age of the gifted amateur, the auto-didact or self taught man, as compared to the institutionalised professionals that we know today.

R H Mathews was one such gifted amateur. He devoted the last part of his life and his resources to investigating the structure of Aboriginal life, driven by curiosity as well as a powerful belief in the importance of his task. In so doing, he stood outside the accepted canons of thought. Then as now, established thought had a powerful tendency to exclude the outsider, a tendency not helped in Mathew’s case by his own sometimes difficult personality.

One of the features of the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century lies in the growth of state funded cultural institutions that came to control what we thought, how we thought and what we thought about. In a way, this gave added power to the established and the big, for those institutions interlocked with other mechanisms including publishing houses to determine what was important and why.

Consider the Bloomsbury Set, Do they actually warrant the importance now awarded to them?

In the New England case, New England historiography is important because it arose in a context where local elites had sufficient power to create institutional structures that, for a period, could survive despite their isolation from the dominant structures. That isolation was both the reason for the reason for their creation and the driver in terms of subsequent focus. As the New England power structures declined in importance, as their ability to assert the separate case declined, so did New England historiography decline. Today it is a shadow of itself.  

This probably sounds depressing and indeed it is from my viewpoint. Yet in this latest by-way that my interests have taken me, I have learned more about my own peoples and about the importance of structures in aiding continuity and in preserving the past.  


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Train reading: the lessons of Don Aitkin's Stability and change in Australian politics for current events

In 1977, Don Aitkin published a book called Stability and change in Australian politics (Australian University Press, 1977, reprinted 1978). I was updated later, but my copy is the earlier version. Don referred to the book in a post on 15 January, ‘The political system is failing to deliver’. A little later I made a passing reference to the post, mainly to challenge the idea that real change was no longer possible. In my view it is. What has changed is the way people go about it.

This morning I plucked Don's book off the shelf for my train reading. While I read the book at the time it was published, I thought that it would be interesting to look back and especially at the then survey results and subsequent analysis.  I am only part way through the book, but I thought that I would make two brief observations now.

The first is that among the less party connected swinging voters, there seemed to be a view that you could switch your vote without too much risk because both of the main sides operated within a common framework despite the sometimes political rhetoric. Call it not too many surprises.

I think that's still broadly true, as Mr Abbott is discovering now. We didn't vote for that. We respond as a consequence. . However, I think that there is a broader factor as well, what I have called the dreaded policy instability.

In our personal budgets and planning, we all depend on a degree of stability. Back in the sixties, likely changes were relatively limited. Now in a world of constant changes at the margin with continuous re-packaging, there is no certainty. You can't introduce bigger changes when the electorate is constantly worried about smaller changes that affect them personally and make life difficult. You can't attack the electorate for that, it's a perfectly rational response.

The second thing that struck me was the sophistication about the role of elections, a sophistication now (perhaps) lacking. One big school saw elections as a two-way feedback loop. The parties took their policies to the electorate to test and refine. As the campaign proceeded, they modified and indeed introduced new approaches based on what they learned. Looking at it in this way, it was a continuous change process at party and candidate level.

Is that true today? I don't think so. The only thing that changes is the campaign packaging, while the capacity of local candidates to actually develop new ideas tailored to electoral circumstance is severely constrained. Of course, there were always practical limitations. But, speaking as a past pre-selection candidate and party organiser, the thought that I must stay on a centrally imposed message regardless of circumstances would have seemed very alien. My job was to win the seat, to help us represent the voters in that seat. That's it. That's all.

 I am not saying anything profound here. I just want to connect these two observations in a slightly different way.

In discussion, commenters often comment on the end of the old Deakinite social contract. That's true, although you have to add the policy instability that I referred too. In discussion, commenters complain about poll driven policy.That's true too.

But when you look at the changing rhetoric surrounding elections with its emphasis on mandates and shopping list promises, something a little different emerges.Since people can no longer rely on Governments not to change things, to even provide stability in daily life in the little things, election campaigns have become something akin to contractual negotiations between tightly organised political forces on one side, the electorate on the other.

The fact is that this can't work, nor is it necessary.

Recognising that I am presently not close enough to New Zealand to make detailed judgments, I am attracted by the Key's model. Mr Key promises stability. This does not mean no change. Rather, it seems to have these elements to it.
  • greater short term stability in the detail of policy and programs that affect daily lives
  • foreshadowing of larger longer term changes, but on the basis that we will discuss these with you the electorate, we will introduce those that we consider to be right, but we will give you notice so that you have plenty of time to adjust your personal affairs.
  • Then, if we are wrong, you can turf us out at the next election.
Mr Hockey's last budget affected the detail of every Australian's daily life. It left us all struggling to understand, to adjust, to work out what to do. It was just too much to absorb. The back benchers who rebelled were not the party professionals nor the ideologues, but the more traditional electorate focused members dealing with the on-ground effects in their electorates.

Can Mr Abbott or Mr Shorten for that matter now adopt the Key's approach? It would be nice if they tried.


I thought that Mr Abbott's response on the US decision to quash Mr Hick's conviction was quite revealing. I quote from the story:
"I'm not in the business of apologising for the actions that Australian governments take to protect our country. Not now, not ever." 
Asked if Australia had done enough to help Mr Hicks, Mr Abbott said: "We did what was needed."
"We did what was needed but, look, let's not forget whatever the legalities, and this was essentially a matter for an American court dealing with American law. He was up to no good on his own admission," he said.
To my mind, that response in the first two paras is without moral content. It is a statement that effectively mandates the most extreme actions so long as they are intended to protect the country. Could Mr Abbott have made his intended point in a different way? I believe that he could. He could have said something like this:.
The Australian Government does not intend to apologise to Mr Hicks. Mr Hicks was dealt with under the US legal system, a system that has now quashed his conviction. Our primary concern was the protection of Australia and Australians in the face of a terrorist threat. It is time for us to put this matter behind us. 
No apology, If it were factually true, he might add something like this. "Even though Mr Hicks had clearly become involved with al-Qaeda and was seen as a potential threat to Australia, the Australian Government did supply consular support and encouraged the US Government to find a solution that would help Mr Hicks return to his family." That could go before the last sentence in the above. 

Explanation, no apology. Now we have Mr Abbott stating a categorical position that frankly terrifies the living daylights out of me.   


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

That Australian life - community gardens

In our conversation on least liked vegetables and related matters, 2T argued that all foods could taste good, even karela or the bitter gourd. There was a reference in the discussion to a poem by Kipling. I couldn't remember, but had to look it up. Mowgli's Song against People from the second Jungle Book. The poem begins:
I WILL let loose against you the fleet-footed vines -
I will call in the Jungle to stamp out your lines !
The roofs shall fade before it,
The house-beams shall fall;
And the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall cover it all ! 
In the gates of these your councils my people shall sing.
In the doors of these your garners the Bat-folk shall cling;
And the snake shall be your watchman,
By a hearthstone unswept;
For the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall fruit where ye slept !
I suspect that 2T is a considerable cook. Certainly his passing references to curries made me feel quite hungry! But the point about combination of tastes where the flavour comes from combination is well taken, and not just about food either.

In another comment, Evan outlined
Moving to sustainability.Which means renewable sources of power and other necessities.
Suburban sufficiency in food and as much else as possible.
Tax breaks and other support for new industries.
Education that values children.
City and suburb design that value people and their health.
You will see from this story that ACT Territories and Municipal Services Minister Shane Rattenbury and the leader of the Greens in the ACT Legislative Assembly clearly shares some of Evan's views.The piece begins:
Territories and Municipal Services Minister Shane Rattenbury aims to free up more unused public land for growing food in Canberra and plans a registration system for backyard beekeepers this year, among measures to boost food self-sufficiency in Canberra. 
The roundtable convened by the Minister also looked at areas where Canberra was over-regulated, "including a requirement to weigh individual eggs, a specified size for hand-washing sinks and rules covering selling food"!

The rise in Australia of the community garden and indeed of more communal ways of living  is a reaction to an increasingly pressured and restrictive urban life style.

I am not a Green supporter. Like other groups, they wish to regulate and control the things they disagree with while promoting or allowing those things that they approve. Since I am predisposed to dislike regulation and controls (Australia is choking on the stuff) and have a particular dislike of some elements of Green thinking on things like National Parks, I tend to see Green thinking as soft-headed dictatorial thinking. However, that doesn't mean that I am not sympathetic to some of the arguments involved.

 As an observer fascinated by the evolving texture of Australian life, I am a strong supporter of things like communal gardens or indeed anything that provides individual fulfillment and allows variety. To return to 2T, the flavour lies in the combination.      

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

School fees, incomes, VR and the next employment boom

Interesting piece by Tim Dodd in the Australian Financial Review, End to 40 year flight from public schools.I think that its based on the detailed tables attached to this ABS release. In simplest terms, the number in the public education system have stabilised, the rise in primary enrollments offsetting a continued decline in public high school enrollments.

Tim concludes, correctly in my view, that rising private school fees mean that more parents are choosing public primary education, shifting to the private sector in secondary. I suspect that it's only a matter of time before public secondary school enrollments start rising, giving the rising real costs of private education at a time when so many Australians have stagnant or declining incomes.

A related story, Young people are heavily underrepresented in the public service, latest figures show, suggests that the number of Commonwealth public servants under 25 has now dropped to 2.5% of the total number of Commonwealth public servants. Not unexpectedly, it's is also taking longer to be promoted. Conversely, the number (and pay) of contractors appears to be rising.

Workforce aging has been a feature  of the public sector for some time, as has the rise of the contractor. A contractor can be fired more easily, while cut backs create gaps that need to filled since work must get out the door.

The aging of the workforce is more complicated. Its partly a feature of the end of mandatory retirement rules, together with the end or substantial reduction of entry level recruitment. The difficult is that at some point in the future, perhaps five to ten years, the public sector workforce is going to start walking over a lemming style cliff. Then where will the new workers come from?

VR or voluntary redundancy creates a further problem. Rules have been introduced to stop VR recycling (I have a friend who has has taken no less than three NSW VR packages!), but that actually doesn't stop it, just defers it until the end of the mandatory rules. Then the loss of knowledge and skills kicks in. Managers have to grab people to do their jobs.

Is the private sector different? No, although the effects are perhaps less pronounced. I say perhaps, for I am not sure.

I and my economist friends talk about externalities. Externalities are costs of benefits that extend beyond the individual organisation. I could wish that more attention were paid to externalities in a labour market context

I am not worried about my daughters in all this, although I am worried about younger graduates who are struggling just to get a job. Both my girls are able and in work. To my mind, they are sitting pretty. They will be there with experience when the next explosion in recruitment comes.    .