Personal Reflections

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - Christian Porter's overreach?

The announcement on Tuesday 20 September 2016 by Australian Social Services Minister Christian Porter that the Government was adopting the New Zealand investment approach in the social security arena received considerable press coverage. You will find the press release here, the Minister's Press Club speech here, while the Department of Social Services' website provides further information including a link to the PwC baseline report.

In very simple terms, the approach requires you to assemble masses of data. In the Australian case, the Government used PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to mine fifteen years of data. You then use this to estimate future costs of particular programs or types of spend. This generates a baseline report. This might suggest that people in a particular cohort were going to cost so much over a particular time frame. However, if you can spend (invest) now so that those people do not need the later support, you may generate significant future savings. The gain reflects your return on investment. Its the same type of calculation you might do if you were investing in a new machine to lower future production costs.

One of the difficulties with the approach in the social policy area is that calculating returns from particular initiatives is highly problematic. You just don't know what will work because of the number of variables involved. This means that you experiment, trying small things knowing that many will fail in the hope of getting some that do work and can be rolled-out on a larger scale.
In Minister Porter's case, he identified certain key groups from the PwC analysis:
  • 11,000 young carers - it is forecast, on average, they will access income support in 43 years over their future lifetime;
  • 4,370 young parents - it is forecast, on average, they will access income support in 45 years over their future lifetime; and
  • 6,600 young students - it is forecast, on average, they will access income support in 37 years over their future lifetime.
The Government then created a $96 million "Try, Test and Learn Fund" (don't you love the jargon?) to "enable organisations to compete for a chance to try a policy that proposes to create a path out of the welfare system."

I heard the initial interview with Mr Porter just before I left for a training course. I like the investment approach, although I am not blind to its weaknesses. Then I bought The Australian at lunchtime and found the equivalent of a three page spread involving multiple writers and commentators all about Mr Porter and the approach.

It was actually quite funny. The paper wanted to differentiate the approach from that of the Abbott Government, it wanted to put it in a New Zealand context quoting Bill English admiringly, yet it wanted to stick to its traditional lines. For his part, Mr Porter clearly wanted to emphasis the revolution of it all, to place it in a broader policy context, but in so doing used rhetoric that exactly fitted within the ideological frame of the previous Government.

I will call this one now. I think that Mr Porter's approach is likely to fail. I say so for a number of reasons.

The investment approach can be applied in multiple contexts and political frames. It is a tool. In linking it to ideology, in suggesting that it is the start of a revolution, Minister Porter is attempting to use a tool to justify, support, a broader position.

That broader position has been tarnished by the previous over-reach of the Abbott Government. The New Zealand approach of explain, incremental change, test, explain, more change, test, explain etc doesn't work when people don't trust you. Here Mr Porter's position on the New Start Allowance (the Australian equivalent of the dole) is indefensible.

It may be true, as Mr Porter argues, that dole recipients receive (on average) several benefits, but when you total them up, the value of the dole remains penurious. That was accepted several years ago by both business and social welfare groups  It remains true. But the image of a man who receives more in daily travel allowance than anybody on the dole receives in total is not good atmospherics.

Finally, there appears to be a growing disconnect between the data itself and Mr Porter's arguments. The main cost drivers are not those Mr Porter focuses on, but reflect changes (among other things) in the demographic structure of society, including the growing importance of the old age pension.

There are instabilities as well as conflicts in the Australian welfare system. Consider this. The housing that underpins much of our welfare system is based on a single payment, Commonwealth Rent Assistance.  This has been going down in value, but it's still critical.

In Mr Porter's case, rent assistance was one of the benefits that people on Newstart might receive, In the case of the NDIS, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, rent assistance is included in the reasonable rent contribution that people pay. In the community housing sector, rent assistance is absolutely critical to viability because it is included in the rent collected.

So what would happen to all this if the Commonwealth decide to abolish or significantly alter rent assistance?  There is a case to say that they should. Its really not fair that a person on welfare should get rent assistance (it's only paid to people on Commonwealth benefits) while a working person on the same income does not. But the impact would be dramatic.

Writing in The Conversation, Michelle Grattan commented:
But some of the negative reaction this week – for example from young carers and welfare sector representatives – reinforces the point that it’s not easy to prosecute reform. Suspicion about the government’s motives affects the debate, and whenever payments are involved there is resistance to anything that could threaten them.
I think that's a fair summary. The suspicion about government motives is deeply embedded. In retrospect, a key feature of the reaction to the 2014 Australian Government budget is that it was seen as ideological, inequitable, thus creating a climate of distrust, of suspicion. The Government overreached, in so doing damaging the very things it was trying to achieve. I think that Minister Porter has made the same error.

Postscript

The Australian Productivity Commission has released a preliminary report on Human Services delivery that includes some comments on social housing relevant to the discussion here in comments. You will find the report here.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Problems in Australian profit patterns

Interesting piece by Peter Durkin in the Australian Financial Review,
Accounting skulduggery hides $26b in losses

The article mixes together a few things, but I was struck by this graph from KPMG showing the profit patterns over the last eight years for Australia's top 50 listed companies. The numbers on the right hand side of the graph relate to revenue, on the left profits.

The graph suggests (I am just working from the visuals) that reported revenues have gone up by around 50 per cent. During that same eight year period, statutory profit before tax (the profit of the business after write-downs and charges) after rising sharply have trended down and are now lower in money terms than eight years' ago. Underlying profits have been trending down, but at a much slower rate and are still higher than they were eight years ago, leading to a growing gap between underlying earnings and statutory earnings.

Some measure of asset write-down is perfectly normal. Businesses make investment decisions. Some go wrong, some go right for a period and then go wrong. The most recent impairments reflect, at least in part, the end of the mining boom and consequent write-downs. However, the growing gap between underlying earnings and statutory earnings is a worry as is the poor performance of statutory earnings.

Both sets of measurement are subject to manipulation. New CEOs, for example, often seem to write of as much as they can in their first year to boost later performance in statutory earnings. Both businesses and investors focus on underlying earnings because they are meant to provide the best measure of the core strength of the business. We have had to make this financial write-off, but the underlying business is doing well. This creates an incentive to manipulate underlying earnings.

Accepting that both measures are subject to a degree of manipulation, the decline in both profitability measures relative to revenue is reasonably striking. Statutory earnings this financial year are likely to pick up because impairments will be less, narrowing the gap between the two measures, but I don't think that that will affect the overall trend unless underlying earnings increase.      

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reflections on Father F

Back on 4 July 2012 I wrote this post, Four Corners, the Armidale Express and Father F,  At the time, my immediate concern was with what I saw as a failure in fairness, a failure to let  justice take its course. Since then, John has been sentenced to 18 years in goal for multiple child sex offences.

I read this latest story in the Sydney Morning Herald with a queasy feeling. An updated story in the same paper made me feel even queasier.

I didn't know John well. I quite liked him, although I always thought that he was very self-absorbed. He also craved (or so it seemed to me) acceptance and status. He promoted and wrote about the good things that the Church had done, about the laity and their stories.  He wanted to be seen in the community as an historical authority.

I said that John seemed self-absorbed. We have all done things in our lives that we know to be wrong. Most of us live with that, recognising and trying to compensate in some way. I cannot get within John's mind, but he seems to have lacked that most basic sense of compassion.

I suppose that there is a dreadful irony in the fact that he so damaged the very institution that he presented and promoted in his historical writing. It's not an irony I take any pleasure in. We all know that human institutions are imperfect. We know that injustices (and evil) occur. Yet when that happens in institutions that occupy a higher place in our society, there is a profound sense of betrayal. When that happens, we are all the poorer for it.        

Friday, September 16, 2016

Reflections on a bus fire and the fragility of modern complex systems

"There's been a fire on a bus." I jumped.

Thursday evening I had got away from work reasonably early with the aim of doing some writing. I had been standing at the bus stop at Central, Sydney's main railway station, for over twenty minutes and had not seen a single 343 bus. It's not unusual to see the buses overcrowded to the point they cannot stop, but not to see one at all is unusual.

Under the newish bus timetable, the 343 begins its journey at Chatswood in Sydney's North Shore. From there it travels down the main drag and across Sydney Harbour Bridge before wending its way through the city to Central. At peak hour, the 343 is always over crowded by Central because it is the main bus for Apartment Central, the Green Square/Victoria Park development. The buses are generally older because the more modern people movers can't get past the narrow streets and round-abouts along the 343 route. Even the 343 buses have to stop sometimes, to move slowly, even to back up, to get past some of the corners.

I turned to the person who had spoken : "What's happened? A bus caught fire on the Bridge", she responded. "The buses aren't running."  I knew at once what was happening, even assumed that it was a 343 that had caught fire. I caught a bus that was running and then tracked back to home. It was well after seven before I got there, twelve hours since leaving for work, over fourteen hours since rising. I cleaned and cooked a meal. After a few glasses of wine while cooking I no longer felt like doing anything, I knew Friday was a heavy day, I had to be up early, so really all I wanted to do was to go to bed.

That started me reflecting. Working in Canberra or then in Armidale, the shorter travel times made so much more time available. Life was more flexible, too. If you had to go back to the office to spend a few hours catching up, you did so. That's not practical if three hours at the office requires 3+ hours travel time. There is also an age factor. To meet demands, the young Jim could simply deduct time from sleep and then catch up. This is not quite as easy for the older Jim. I am trying to squeeze a lot of things into reduced time after travel and I just get tired.

But the thing that really stood out in my mind was the reminder of just how fragile and interdependent life had become. We have become system dependent. That bus fire disrupted the lives of more than a million commuters. It was a major event. The just in time world we live in means that our lives are dependent on complex systems to allow us to function. Because those systems are generally efficient and make it easy for us to do things we use them heavily, letting alternatives atrophy and finally die. The problem is that if one thing goes wrong anywhere in one of the complex interacting systems, the costs can vary from annoying to catastrophic.

I don't have an answer, but I think that we need to pause a little and think.

During the week, I was working on a funding proposal. As systems become more centralised and internet dependent, an increasing number of people no longer have real access. It may be that they are functionally illiterate. It maybe that they are not computer literate. It maybe that they do not have on-line access either because they do not have a computer or access to a computer or access to the necessary bandwidth.

It's not just a question of basic access, but also navigating the way through the increasing volume of evidential material now demanded for so many things. I am reasonably bright, I am certainly computer literate, but I struggle sometimes. Often, there is no one to help. The call centre has become a source of frustrated modern jokes.

The question I was addressing in the funding proposal was how to help.a particular group cope in this world. As I worked my way through the issues, I was conscious of a sense of frustration. You can't say to government or indeed to firms, mate, you have got it wrong, you have to change. More precisely, you can say it, but it will get you nowhere. So you have to work out what might help, recognising that it is at best a band-aid, unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term because, in the end, it depends on funding from government or donors. The gains that come from our new systems are measurable, can be internalised, while the costs are often not.

At a purely personal level, I reminded myself last night of the need to make myself less system dependent no matter how convenient the system maybe. The rub is that this takes focus and time, both things difficult in an increasingly time poor world.

Consider the question of cash. Like many, I now carry very little in my wallet. It's just so easy to wave and go. Now they are talking about abolishing physical cash entirely, making us all dependent on electronic money.

A week back, I went into a store. I wanted to buy something quickly, but their EFTPOS was down. I haven't tracked our many many major electronic outages there have been in the payments system over the last six months, certainly more than a half a dozen. A few years ago, the cable to a Victorian country town was cut and could not be repaired quickly. The whole town and surrounding countryside ground to a halt because nobody could buy petrol or food, farm supplies or building materials.

There are major pluses in carrying cash. You can buy things when the system is down. Big brother cannot track your purchases via data mining. It's easier to control your spend. And yet, the cashless equivalent is so seductive and convenient, at least until something goes wrong. It takes an additional effort to drop out.  

So perhaps my first step is to go back to cash, at least in part. It won't make the 343 come more quickly or be less crowded. It won't stop problems from a bus fire. But it will make me a little less dependent on complex systems that can and will go wrong.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Monday Forum - watch out for the crocks

The Australian salt water crocodile is the subject of many stories and indeed it's a fearsome beast. Now here are a few warnings about these animals from the Outback Australia Travel Guide.
  • First of all: always, always observe crocodile warning signs!
  • Don't assume it's safe to swim if there is no sign! Crocodiles attack out of deep, still or muddy waters, where they can't be seen. Always stay well away from those.
  • Small creeks, waterfalls, rock pools etc. are usually fine, but if you're not sure stay out of the water. Ask first! Either the locals or the next tourist information centre.
  • Stay away from the water's edge. No matter if you are camping, fishing or taking an evening stroll: stay away from the water's edge.
  • Never stand on logs or similar overhanging the water. Australian saltwater crocodiles can jump to attack! Also, never turn your back, always face the water.
  • Don't return to exactly the same place at the water every day, or on a regular basis. Or one day a croc will be waiting there for you...
  • Fishermen, don't clean fish near the water, or discard fish scraps in the water. Be careful when launching boats. Avoid going in the water if at all possible. Don't dangle your arms or legs over the side of the boat.
  • Don't feed Australian crocodiles. Also, don't harass or provoke them, don't interfere with them. Even the small ones, leave them alone!
  • Don't leave food scraps at your camp site.
  • If you see a crocodile sliding mark (a crocodile sliding into the water from a river bank will leave a characteristic mark), stay well clear of that area.
  • Avoid places where native animals or cattle drink. That's exactly where a lazy crocodile would be waiting for an opportunity to attack. (Saltwater crocodiles are very conservative with their energy, and therefore opportunists when it comes to hunting. They stalk their prey, hide under water and wait. A crocodile you can see is less dangerous than one you can't see...)
  • Australian crocodiles are most aggressive during the breeding season, September to May. The warmer weather also makes the cold-blooded animals even faster...
  • Naturally, be particularly careful at night time...
Now the challenge for this Monday Forum is to take these particular rules and apply them in any direction you like.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sunday Snippets - lessons from the Murray Goulburn affair

Its a beautiful day here in Sydney. First load of washing hung out, second in machine. It's birthday season. Eldest's birthday was on the second, youngest today. Where have all the years gone?  I don't feel much like serious thought, so a random chat while I wait for the washing.

I briefly mentioned  the Northern Territory elections in Saturday Morning Musings - a changing Australia. The thumping that former Chief Minister Giles referred too has indeed been a thumping, with the Country Liberal Party reduced to two seats not including Mr Giles' own seat which he lost by just a few votes. There is some angst among the five independents that the CLP has been awarded official opposition status with the perks that go with that, but I guess that's the price you pay for being an independent.

I thought that I had commented on the Murray Goulburn affair. Apparently not, although  I have certainly written on cooperatives. It seems that the discussion was in comments, that I meant to write.

On its web site, the big dairy co-op bills itself (among other things) as The "Aussi farmer co-op." Therein lies the rub. Under the previous CEO, Gary Helou,  Murray Goulburn admitted external investors to raise additional funds utlising a reasonably complex financial arrangement in which the new non-voting shareholders were effectively guaranteed a return.The company pursued an expansionist policy to grow the business. In doing so, it got the milk-price wrong, creating a conflict between the needs of the business, the external shareholders and the co-op members.

I'm not sure that I fully understand the maths of what followed. However, as I interpret it, Murray Goulburn sets a milk price based on the price they expect to receive. This is then adjusted based on actual prices received. Murray Goulburn was slow to see that the market had changed. Then, when they did adjust prices, they declared that farmers had been overpaid and that this amount would need to be recovered from dairy farmers via future prices. So farmers were to receive a lower price because market prices had fallen, a lower price still to recover the "over-payment". This allowed the co-op to shift the amount of the "over-payment" from the profit and loss statement as an expense to the balance sheet as a capital item, one to be repaid by the farmers. In turn, this allowed Murray Goulburn to declare a profit and pay a dividend to the new external shareholders.

Farmers were outraged. Those who could, and they seem to be the bigger farmers, began to shift to other processors. Murray Goulburn's milk supply fell as a consequence, affecting production but also leaving the $183 million "over-payment" to be recovered from a diminishing group of farmers.

The problem now for Murray Goulburn is that the "over-payment" can only be "recovered" via future lower milk prices to producers. There is no legal obligation on farmers to repay the "over-payment", something you would expect from a capitalised item. By capitalising the item, they kicked the problem down the road a little, but also increased the incentive for farmers to move. If have interpreted the maths correctly, sooner or later Murray Goulburn is going to have to write a substantial portion of the "over-payment" off, thus reversing the previous "gain." In all, it's a bit of a mess.

Former CEO Gary Helou was clearly a charismatic leader with grand visions for Murray Goulburn. No doubt if he had got it right, much would have been forgiven. However, he lost sight of the principle that a co-op's first responsibility is towards its members and this inevitably dictates a degree of conservatism in approach. Growing the business has value if and only if it benefits the members. The business is a vehicle, not an end in itself.  


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - reflections on Glenn Steven's retirement

The retirement of Australian Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens is worth recording. I don't know Mr Stevens personally, but I have been observing him for many years.

Thinking of words that would describe the man, the first two that come to mind are calm and measured. I could add objective to this list. Whether appearing before a Parliamentary Committee, or in his speeches and other pronouncements, there was caution, a careful use of words to express often complex issues in a balanced way. This built trust, a feeling (to use a cliche) of a safe pair of hands. This was especially important during the Global Financial Crisis.

Mr Stevens is clearly a very intelligent man and an expert in his field, an expertise built through years of service to a single institution To my mind, he is the ultimate technocratic mandarin. The institution he headed, Australia's Reserve Bank, has established a reputation for independent objective advice. This began before Mr Stevens term, but he has maintained the Bank's role and position.

The one scandal that affected his term, the note issue scandal, came about because the Bank desired to commercialise technology and in so doing moved into a new arena outside its core activities that it was not well equipped to deal with. The fact that the Bank survived the scandal without lasting damage to its reputation is a reflection of just how good it is at its core business.

One very good feature of the Bank is the way it allows, encourages, its senior staff to speak in public on issues falling within its remit. Of course they speak in careful terms, taking into account the Bank's position, but they do so with objectivity, presenting evidence with considerable clarity. Here I want to pay the Bank what, to me, is the ultimate compliment.

The Bank is one of the few public institutions in Australia where I read stuff without worrying that the evidence has been tailored to the message, In the Bank's case, the message is meant to flow from the evidence. Further, the presentations reflect the ambiguities and uncertainties associated with imperfect evidence. The result is that I know what the Bank's position is, but can engage at an intellectual level. When pressed for time as I so often am, I can take the Bank's position as a starting point, knowing that I won't go too far wrong.  

We live in a world that demands answers, certainties, fixed deliverables. In most cases, these do  not, cannot, exist. In this world, it's rather nice to have an institution that one can still trust.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

That Australian Life - Threads: Morella, the Parers from Catalan, Australian War photographers

I must have walked past this Mosman house, Morella, and never noticed it. It's now on the market with an expected price of between $7 and $ 8 million and possibly more. Looking at it I was struck by the art deco style and indeed it was one of the grand art deco mansions.

According to a rather dramatic piece by Dana McCauley, The derelict mansion, the ‘de facto’ nurse and the family curse: Morella mystery deepensMorella was designed by Burley Griffin protege Eric Nicholls and built in 1939 for Leo Parer, who founded and ran the Stanford X-Ray Company with his cousin Stan Parer. Stanford built X-Ray machines.

Apparently Leo Parer entertained quite lavishly and it does seem to be a good house for that purpose. This is another detail from the house. It must have been reasonably spectacular

The Parer name was familiar because of war photographer Damien Parer. Here I quote Dana McCauley: "Generations of Parers have forged a distinguished record throughout Australian history, from war photographer Damien Parer to aviator Ray Parer and, more recently, the late Warwick Parer— a Queensland Senator under the Howard Government."

I was curious about the way those various Parers might fit together. My initial web search was quite frustrating for it was difficult to find the links. Then I found this piece, Pioneering family: The story of the audacious Parers of New Guinea. No wonder I got confused.

According to Mary Mennis, the Parer family came originally from Alella in Spain and were the anchor of the Catalan community in Australia for 50 years.

The first brother to leave Spain was Josep, who decided to migrate to South America in 1851, following his sense of adventure and eye for business. He left Montevideo in Uruguay on board the Alabama and landed in Australia in 1855. A year later his half-brother Francisco joined him and they started breeding poultry in Petersham near Sydney. This was was not successful. They moved to Bendigo looking for gold and finally settled on the banks of the Yarra River, a tent town to cope with the rapid expansion of Melbourne during the gold rush.

They had their entrepreneurial character and perseverance and also a spark of luck, building the a Parer Empire in Melbourne. In less than 40 years they invested in more than 30 hotels and restaurants. And they are believed to be the first people to have commercialised meat pies in Australia. For that reason alone, they deserve a place in Australian history.

Josep and Francisco pioneered the Parer dynasty in Australia. Seven brothers and sisters plus nephews and friends of the family joined them. You can see why I might have got confused!

A significant part of the family ended up in New
Guinea, including Oscar award winner Damien Parer. This photo on the right shows a very significant group of photographers in New Guinea, all famous in their own right.

Damien Parer is at the back left. Standing to his right is Frank Hurley, one of Australia's best known photographers and cinematographers. 

At the front left is documentary film maker and writer Maslyn Williams.The Wikipedia article on him is really just a stub. Born in England, his uncle arranged for him to come to Australia to work as a jackeroo on a property outside Tenterfield. There he fell in love with Australia. His memoir of the time,  His Mother's Country, remains a New England classic. 

Beside Williams on the far right is photographer George Silk, New Zealand born, Silk became an Australian war correspondent an went on the long career as a photographer for Life Magazine.

This photograph by Silk showing an Australian soldier, Private George "Dick" Whittington, aided by Papuan orderly Raphael Oimbari, near Buna on 25 December 1942 has become one of the classic images of the New Guinea campaign.

All four men were adventurous, following the camera into different places. Parer died, but the others had long careers. Hurley in particular had a career that spanned over fifty years including two World Wars. 


Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Reflections on the death of Richard Neville

I knew that Richard Neville was unwell, but I had not expected him to die so soon after I wrote Reflections on Richard Neville's Play Power 1. That was a critical piece, something that I shall come back to in a moment.

The long story on his death in the Guardian, this ABC piece, this piece in the Australian by Richard Walsh who shared large elements of the journey, this piece in the Financial Review, all draw out certain common themes. The photo is of the Oz London team, Richard Neville on the far right.

Reading the various pieces as well as the comment threads,  I was struck by the degree of liking for Neville as a persona as well as a sense of nostalgia.

Speaking on the ABC's Q&A program, and my thanks to kvd for the quote, Germaine Greer commented:
He looked forward to the new. I'm afraid I'm not really like that, I'm kind of a bit suspicious of the new. I used to tease him and say that he was the ad man for the revolution, because he didn't actually have any ideology. His ideology was endlessly supple, but in some ways that's important, that you are open to new ideas in that way, and not doctrinaire like me.
I said that my piece was a critical one.  I think that part of the reason was a sense of shock on reading the book, but part too lay in the difficulty of capturing, even sometimes of remembering, that brief past moment. While I am younger than Richard Neville, I too remember elements of that period. They are embedded in my memory because they are are part of a certain period of my life.  

My historical research has required me to look back, to examine patterns of social change in the second half  of the twentieth century. It makes me quite uncomfortable. Looking back, I am struck by the naivety, the innocence, of some of my own beliefs. It's quite difficult to explain because it is intimately connected not just with a belief that change was necessary and desirable, that new things could be done, but with the froth and bubble of events and life style at an impressionable age.

I was never a rebel in the sense that others were, wishing to break convention just because it was convention. But the idea of a different life style was deeply appealing even if I was enjoying the sybaritic present too much to really want to make the switch.

The period represented by Richard Neville was really very short, probably less than ten years, certainly less than twenty. While I no longer regard the 1950s as socially conformist and boring as I once did, it was fairly conformist as society re-asserted itself after the chaos of war. In 1955, the fifties were in full swing. By 1965, the wave of new ideas, of initial rebellion and change was well underway. By 1975 it had passed, although elements of course continued.

You can see the wave clearly in Australia's universities, something worthy of a piece in its own right. I sometimes think that in challenging conventions, in tearing down structures, all that grew from the resulting rubble were weeds, and that's ultimately a most depressing thought.      


Saturday, September 03, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - Prime Minister Turnbull's unfortunate week

It's not been a good week for the Turnbull Government. On Thursday 1 September 2016, the first day of spring, the House of Representatives was due to adjourn. A number of members including senior ministers decided to leave early.

You can understand their desire to sneak away. Australia is a large country with long travel times. They wanted to get home. However, the result was that when the motion to adjourn the house was put, the Government lost the vote. The Labor opposition, aware of the departures, had decided to oppose the adjournment motion. Chaotic scenes then followed as the Government recalled missing members to try to gain control of the House and to pass the adjournment motion. Finally, at 7.22 pm, the adjournment vote was passed.

It left PM Turnbull an angry man. If you have a one vote majority, you simply can't afford to take for granted even an adjournment vote where all members want to get away. It won't happen again, but it did display a lack of discipline. Don't think I'm not sympathetic to the individuals. I know those plane connections and if you don't get out at certain times you won't get home for up to another twenty four hours. But still. It wasn't a good look.

The slow unwinding of the Australian off-shore refugee detention regime continues. Broadspectrum which operates the offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus had already indicated that it would not re-tender for the contracts. Now the privately owned Wilson Security who provides guards for Broadspectrum has announced that it is pulling out when its current contract with Broadspectrum ends. As with Broadspectrum, offshore detention is no longer "core business".

The "omnibus" financial savings bill introduced into the Australian Parliament during the week looks to me like another Turnbull Government own goal. The Government wished to shaft Labor by introducing a measure containing expenditure reduction proposals that Labor had previously supported. But then, it seems, they could not resist adding things.

The abolition of the Clean Energy supplement is a particular problem. The supplement was introduced as a  measure to compensate welfare recipients for the impact of the Carbon Tax, a tax subsequently abolished by the Abbott Government. The sums involved do not appear large: $4.40 a week for single unemployed, $7.05 a week for a single person on the aged or disability pension.On the surface, its abolition for new welfare recipients seems eminently fair. It's also a measure previously proposed by Labor as part of its savings.

The graph shows the difference between the Henderson poverty line and the amount of government assistance going to an unemployed family of four. It includes projections modelling the effects of the proposed change. The graph would be more dramatic, I think, if it was based on the single person Newstart allowance, the Australian equivalent of the dole.

Asked on radio if he could live on the allowance, new Social Services Minister Christian Porter temporised. The problem for the Government is that there is general agreement that the Newstart allowance has become just too low in real terms, so low that the abolition of the clean energy supplement represents a more significant cut than the raw numbers would suggest. The present weekly base rate for a single person on Newstart is only $263.80 per week.

I think that there is a broad measure of agreement that some form of budget repair is required. However, after the 2014 budget there was also a perception that the Coalition Government approach to the task was inequitable. I think that this proposed measure reinforces that perception.

The full roll-out of the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) was always going to experience some difficulties. This is the most complex piece of new policy that I have ever seen. However, the partial collapse of the NDIS on-line portal under the initial pressure was unfortunate for the Government, coming as it did at the same time as the census failure. In both cases, under-resourcing appears to have been a contributing factor. Our public sector organisations now are just so stretched that a degree of failure is inevitable.

I am sure that Prime Minister Turnbull will welcome this short break from Parliament, but must be wondering what might go wrong next.



Thursday, September 01, 2016

Establishing NSW - when speed was once possible in Government

I remain surprised at how fast Governments could once act. I'm not talking about war time or other crises, simply the capacity to do major things quickly.

The decision to establish a penal colony in NSW was made some time in 1786. On 18 August 1786, Lord Sydney wrote to the Lord Commissioners of the Treasury. After outlining the reasons for the decision, he asked for ships to carry 750 convicts and for suitable equipment. On 31 August 1786, Sydney requested the Lords of the Admiralty to provide a ship of war, a tender and a force of 160 marines with the appropriate number of other ranks.

On 12 October 1786, a Commission was issued to Captain Arthur Phillip appointing him Governor of the new colony. Later that month, commissions were issued to the subordinate officers necessary to the administration of the new settlement.

On 6 December. two Orders-in-Council were passed declaring the eastern coast of NSW a place to which offenders sentenced to transportation might be conveyed.

Early in 1787, the administrative arrangements for the new colony were completed. An act of Parliament was passed creating a Court of Criminal Jurisdiction in NSW, while on April 2 a more detailed Commission was granted Arthur Phillip appointing him "Captain-General and Commander-in-Chief" followed by detailed Instructions on April 29.

The difference between the two is that the Commission gave Phillip his powers, the Instructions told him how to exercise those powers. It was easier to issue a broad Commission since these could be hard to alter but then qualify it by the more easily alterable Instructions. The last piece of paper work was completed on 5 May, with the fleet sailing on May 13 1787

If you think about it, the time lapse between the decision to establish a new penal colony on the other side of the world and the departure was well under twelve months. We know that Phillip experienced a range of difficulties in getting the fleet properly kitted out, but the time period is still remarkably short.  Quite remarkable, really.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Painting the colours of Greek statues

As late as my 2010 visit to the Greek Isles, I thought that while marble Greek statues were just that, white marble. I always thought that they were a bit cold, but they had become a sort of taste thing, an exemplar of Greek taste. Then I found that they were painted.

The Wikipedia article on Ancient Greek Sculpture tells a little of the story. Paint flakes had often been found on the statues but had been ignored, even denied. It wasn't until modern technology and the work of Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann that the light (and colour) dawned upon the scene.

This 2014 piece tells a little of the story. This 2016 piece on a current exhibition a little more.

I have to say that the colours are a little garish by current tastes. This one makes the lion look a little like a stuffed toy sitting on a child's bed!

Still, it is nice to know that there was colour around. Some of those Greek homes and temples would actually have been very drab without it.

Another reminder too about the difficulty of actually knowing the real texture of the past. As an example, it wasn't until my visit to the Greek Isles that I realised just how important water was to settlement. I did know how important trade was, but it didn't form a real pattern in my mind until the visit.

The same sort of thing applies to Australian history. When I first studied Australian history, the near starvation of the early settlement at Port Jackson was attributed to poor farming techniques. That may have been a factor, but we also now know that there was an El Nino induced drought.

I should leave the last word on Greek statues to a comment from JCW at another place:
Funny, innit; whole literary/dramatic theories have been written about the differences between Apollonian (cool/white/ classical/contained) and Dionysian (unrestrained/colourful/extreme), based on modern(ish) observation of classical statues, wot were never white in the first place. I bet Apollo and Dionysus are laughing their silly heads off after getting pissed on nectar, and agreeing that humans are pretty stupid for getting it SOOOOO wrong.