Personal Reflections

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The importance of community of interest in government 1

Back in September 2017 in the context of the NSW local government elections I mused on the strange case of Bayside Council. Bayside was formed by the merger of the old Botany Bay and Rockdale Councils as part of the NSW Government's push to merge councils with the aim of reducing the cost of service delivery. Bigger is cheaper.

The move cause outrage because it forcibly merged two areas separated by Sydney airport that had nothing in common beyond a location around Botany Bay. There was, I suggested, no community of interest in the new Bayside Council. The areas had nothing in common. That remains the view of many of those north of Botany Bay in the old Botany Bay Council area to the point that the current NSW Labor opposition has promised a vote on demerger if elected.

I'm sorry I can't give you a link here because the story is behind a firewall. I note that I want to come back to this question, the firewalls, in a later post because I now have an absolute bee in my bonnet about it after some recent changes.

Botany Bay was not the only firestorm triggered by the NSW Government's council merger plans, nor indeed the biggest. So bad was the reaction that the Government was forced to stop the process midway, stating that mergers that had occurred would stand, others would not be forced. This created a new set of dissatisfactions among those who had lost their council and still wanted it back.

Earlier I used the phrase community of interest. As a matter of curiosity and as I normally do, I checked the term on Wikipedia. There I see that a:
community of interest, or interest-based community, is a community of people who share a common interest or passion. These people exchange ideas and thoughts about the given passion, but may know (or care) little about each other outside this area ......a community of interest is a gathering of people assembled around a topic of common interest. Its members take part in the community to exchange information, to obtain answers to personal questions or problems, to improve their understanding of a subject, to share common passions or to play.  In contrast to a spatial community, "a 'community of interest' is defined not by space, but by some common bond (e.g. feeling of attachment) or entity (e.g. farming, church group).
In turn, a spatial community is defined as:
A community of place or place-based community is a community of people who are bound together because of where they reside, work, visit or otherwise spend a continuous portion of their time.  Such a community can be a neighborhood, town, coffeehouse, workplace, gathering place, public space or any other geographically specific place that a number of people share, have in common or visit frequently. A community offers many appealing features of a broader social relationship: Safety, familiarity, support and loyalties as well as appreciation. Appreciation that is founded on efforts and contribution to the community, rather than the efforts, rank or status of an individual.
These definitions have only tangential connection to the way I use the term, a usage drawn from the New England populist tradition. There community of interest is seen as the essential geographic or spatial basis of governance and of governance structures. Like many principles, it has been commonly used but not not fully defined beyond the idea that governance and governance structures have to be based on shared interests and concerns. Where that principle is breached, government is likely to fail.

Consider the Bayside Council example. To the Government in Macquarie Street concerned with politics, governance and service delivery across an increasingly disparate state that owes its existence and boundaries to accidents of history, local government is seen as a subordinate creature, a vehicle for the delivery of certain services including administrative delivery of decisions made centrally.

Locals see things differently. To them, local government is the form of government that most closely reflects (or should most closely reflect) their local identity and concerns. When Botany Bay Council was submerged in Rockdale, those north of Botany Bay felt a real sense of loss. That may change. In the fight over Astrolabe Park, Bayside did play a positive role. However, the difficulty remains that there really is no community of interest between north and south.

When I get the regular Council newsletter in the mailbox, it refers to places I rarely go or, in some cases, places that I had never heard of prior to the merger.

This need not matter if there were separate plans and processes focused on the northern end, but the existence of Bayside as an entity together with State Government requirements effectively requires the Council to develop common policies and approaches as though Bayside LGA was in fact a geographic as opposed to administrative entity.

While government is likely to fail or at least be less effective if it ignores or does not properly take community of interest into account in structures and approach, defining community of interest can be difficult, accommodating it still more so where political and administrative structures are rigid. Problems here are compounded where, as is the case today, there is a belief that a single standard or approach is desirable. We can see this clearly at national level in Australia where Commonwealth Governments of all ilks seek to impose common policies and uniform standards even where evidence suggests that this is not sensible.

As a broad generalisation, community of interest diminishes as governing or institutional structures become geographically and demographically larger and more diverse. Even where there are shared needs, the expression of those needs varies between areas.

Consider the Commonwealth electoral division of Parkes, the largest in NSW. This covers 393,413 square kilometres, 49% of NSW. This compares to the smallest electorate, the inner Sydney electorate of Grayndler at just 32 square kilometres. While electors in both have some common interests very broadly defined such as health or education, those interests vary greatly between the two electorates. There is in fact no community of interest between the two electorates except at the most macro level.

Further, within Parkes distance means that there are a variety of geographically defined communities of interest. The electorate itself is so big that it lacks community of interest in its own right. Broken Hill is far removed from Narrabri.

One of the deeply held myths in Australia lies in the importance of the majority. Because the New England populist tradition grew up outside the metros, another theme was the way that majorities would always oppress the minority in the absence of some countervailing force. In practice, the way that the absence of community interest is handled, the way that oppression of the majority is managed to some degree in the Australian system, lies in the way that all the main Australian parties are interest based with their base support geographically concentrated appealing to particular communities of interest. I am not saying that there are not ideological differences. There are, but these interconnect with the parties' history and support areas.

Consider the Greens as a case in point. They began as a cause based party, but succeeded because the views they developed appealed to people concentrated in particular areas. An interaction developed between those communities and the Party. Outside core areas, Green support is very patchy.

In competing against each other, the various parties need to reach out to other voters while also looking after traditional interests, then in power they have to compromise. The National Party is important in this mix because it is the only party that explicitly defines its role in geographic terms, forcing more targeted competition for a regional vote that might otherwise be seen as secondary.

The effect of all this is to temper the potential oppression of the majority, to better link political processes to varying communities of interest.

Tomorrow I will look at the way community of interest is handled at policy and institutional terms and the reasons these approaches so often fail to deliver the desired results.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Monday Forum: What, exactly, is the hard right in Australia, what does it believe?

I have been reading and writing, but just not on line, as I try to finish stuff. Hopefully this will ease as stuff starts coming out. It will need to since I have just started a three month part time writing gig.

While I have been reading and writing I have not been totally oblivious to the world. Here I want to pose two questions: what, exactly, is the hard right in Australia? What does it believe?

These are real questions for I am genuinely puzzled. I have either been involved in or at least followed Australian politics for a long time. I do understand both our history and political structures. However, as I read the current feeds and the commentary I am left with a sense of confusion. It seems to me that we is called the hard right is no more than an amalgam of inconsistent bedfellows that, in the end, are marked more by what divides them.

In April, the Conversation ran a series of articles on the battle for conservative hearts and minds in Australian politics, You will find the last article here. It includes links to the three earlier articles including one written by Chris Berg. I suppose that one could describe the approach adopted as structural with some focus on relationships between groups.

I actually had a problem with the title. It is not clear to me that those organisations or people included in the hard right are actually battling for conservative hearts and minds but rather, at least in part, for the hearts and minds of those who can be swung to more radical positions. I have another problem in that I struggle to see any real connection between apparently Libertarian Senator David  Leyonhjelm and  the Australian Conservatives such as Lyle Shelton beyond a marriage of convenience over religious freedom.

Later, I will try to do a proper structural and values analysis, for the moment i simply pose the questions.      

 

Monday, November 05, 2018

Threads - Khashoggi murder, Wentworth by-election

It's been an interesting if chaotic few weeks in news terms, one that has quite out-run my ability to say anything useful. I don't like just reporting or joining in the often breathless commentary that passes for analysis in Australia and elsewhere for that matter. I write to clarify my own views and, hopefully, add some value to the public discussion. Because I have been writing for such a long time, I also like checking back to see what I have said before, to measure what I said then against later events. All this takes time, something that is in short supply given my focus on the need to draw some form of line under some of my historical research.

Against this background, this morning's short muse simply points to a few things that I think are important within the political swirl. Here the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi provides a useful entry point.

Khashoggi Murder

I watched this story break on the news feeds with bemusement. It was like something out of a bad spy thriller. I took the initial leaks from the Turkish side with a high degree of caution, although it now seems clear that they were actually a fairly accurate description of what happened. The murder came at a somewhat chaotic time in Middle Eastern politics. 

Under the influence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia had adopted an activist foreign policy. This included the intervention in Yemen and the attempt to isolate Qatar. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had taken actions following the coup attempt to assert his authority in ways that were widely seen as undemocratic. Turkey was also actively engaged in Syria, working in a sometimes uneasy relationship with Russia. 

Beyond the Middle East, President Trump had decided to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and had withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran. So complexities piled on complexities. 

The murder of Mr Khashoggi appears to have been carried out for domestic reasons, but threw a major curve ball into the broader equation. In media terms, it has "rehabilitated" President Erdogan in ways that I had not expected. It has undermined Saudi involvement in Yemen, as well as the campaign against Qatar. It has also affected President Trump's approach to to the Middle East since the President is dependent in some ways upon the Saudis, among other things,  to make the Iranian sanctions, including those just announced, effective. 

I am moderately familiar with Middle Eastern history and politics, but have no idea how all this will work out. I have no basis for making a sensible judgement. However, from a narrow Australian perspective, I think two things are important. 

The first is the extent to which events are undermining US authority, an authority which has been central to Australian foreign policy. By authority I do not mean moral authority, although that's not insignificant. Rather, I am thinking of the capacity of the US to enforce its authority through global structures that are being weakened by its own actions.

Consider sanctions as an example. US Authority here depends upon its central position in global payments, a position that allows it to punish non-compliance. This position remains powerful as evidenced by the problems created for the EU which does not agree with the US position on Iran. However, US policy has created powerful incentives to develop new structures and processes that by-pass the US dominated payments system.

This type of process takes time. Looking back over some of my writing, I have sometimes over-estimated the pace of change, underestimated the stickiness in existing systems, underestimated the way extend to which other shocks can affect the change process. I had not expected, for example, that China would adopt such an aggressive foreign policy. To my mind, this has reduced China's ability to position itself at the centre of the global economic order, Belt and Road notwithstanding. However, if we take a ten year time horizon, it's not hard to see how new payment structures might emerge.              

These changes are important to Australia at two levels. As a relatively small rich country, we depend upon an open global trade and economic order. As a US ally, we are affected by changes that affect US power and authority. This brings me to my second point.

The Middle East is important to Australia, but it is not a core strategic concern. It is also not an area where we have or can have much strategic influence. For both reasons, it pays Australia to keep a lower profile. This segues neatly into the Wentworth by-election.

The Wentworth By-election

The Wentworth by-election was held on Saturday 20 October 2018 to select a replacement MP for Malcolm Turnbull who had resigned from Parliament for his loss of the PM role. It was seen as important because a loss would reduce the Government to a minority position in the House of Representatives, although this did not mean loss of Government given the number of cross-benchers, members not belonging to either Government or Opposition. The election was important, too, as a first test for new Prime Minister Morrison after the turmoil associated with Mr Turnbull's removal from power.

For the benefit of those outside Sydney, Wentworth covers the Sydney eastern suburbs that lie along the south shores of Sydney Harbour. All of Australia's electoral divisions have their own special features. In Wentworth's case it covers an area that is traditionally wealthy and conservative. It also has a relatively high proportion of Jewish voters, from memory around 13%.

The seat has been presented as blue ribbon Liberal. That's not quite true, although it is true that Labor has never won it.

Wentworth has been undergoing basic change along two dimensions, size and composition.

The number of Federal electorates is relatively fixed. Each seat must have a an equivalent number of electors within a defined bound, with boundaries adjusted at regular intervals in light of population change. In rural areas facing slow or declining population growth the outcome has been a massive expansion in the geographic size of electorates. These changes are less acute in urban areas, but even there boundaries have tended to expand while there have been constant boundary variations  Wentworth remains a geographically small electorate, the second smallest in the Federal Parliament, but it has added and sometimes subtracted areas with history and composition different from the original core.

The composition of the electorate has also been greatly affected by social, economic and demographic change. Its location close to the city, its proximity to beaches and parks, has attracted young professionals, many of whom rent the growing number of apartments; some 48% of the electorate now rents. For at least the last three decades, the seat has been seen as socially progressive while still conservative on economic issues. However, there has been something of a divide between the inner core of exclusive older suburbs and the surrounding areas that have moved in and out of the electorate. As we shall see in a moment, this division was reflected in the latest vote.

For those who are interested, Antony Green's overview of the seat provides more information on boundaries and composition of the electorate, while Wikipedia provides an overview of the vote in the seat since federation.

Malcolm Turnbull won the seat in 2004 after a bitter pre-selection battle with the sitting Liberal Member Peter King. There were concerns at the time about expansion in the Green vote. Mr King was seen as too conservative, while Mr Turnbull was a high profile candidate who combined wealth and corporate success with more progressive attitudes seen as better attuned to the majority view in Wentworth. Mr Turnbull won the seat with a 55.48% two party preferred vote, down from the 57.86% recorded by Mr King at the previous election.

Again for the benefit of international readers, many Australian jurisdictions operate a preferential vote system in which you vote 1 for your first preference and then number the other candidates in order of preference. Should no candidate receive a majority on the primary vote, the second preferences of the other candidates are distributed starting with the candidate with the lowest number of votes who is then eliminated. The process continues until a candidate achieves a a majority.

The term two part preferred, 2pp or TPP, is used to describe the vote between the top two candidates after distribution of preferences. While preferences are not formally distributed where a candidate achieves a majority on the primary vote, it has become practice to calculate the 2PP figure even in these cases.

In his first election with former member Peter King running as an independent, Mr Turnbull achieved 41.79% of the primary vote, 55.48% in 2PP terms. By the 2016 election, Mr Turnbull had increased his primary vote to 62.26%, his 2PP vote to 67.5%, making this a very safe Liberal seat. The question then became whether or not the dumping of Mr Turnbull as PM and his sudden resignation might change the equation.

A large field of candidates nominated, of which the four main ones were Dave Sharma (Liberal), Kerryn Phelps (Independent), Tim Murray (Labor) and Dominic Wy Kanak (Greens).

The Liberal party preselection campaign had been a little messy. It coincided with allegations of bullying and sexist discrimination in Federal Parliament. There were arguments that the Liberal party should endorse a woman, with the lead candidate for Liberal preselection withdrawing on the grounds that the Party should do just that. This opened the way for Mr Sharma, a former diplomat and ambassador to Israel, to win the nomination with Mr Turnbull's apparent endorsement.

Labor's Tim Murray, already preselected, began campaigning early and seemed to be attracting support if the enthusiasm of his campaign workers, including youngest. is any guide. The decision of Kerryn Phelps to run as an independent changed the equation. Dr Phelps is a former AMA president, a well known local doctor and a councilor of the City of Sydney. Phelps is also married to Jackie Stricker, a former primary school teacher, converted to Judaism after her marriage and is a well known campaigner for gay rights. With her nomination, the real contest became Sharma v Phelps. To a degree Labor and especially the Greens ran dead to maximize the chances of a Phelps victory. Both lost votes as a consequence.

The Liberals had a difficult and sometimes chaotic campaign in which the popular fault lines in Australian politics were clearly on display.

The environment is an important issue in Wentworth. Having just rejected Mr Turnbull's National Energy Guarantee, the Government went into the by-election without a really coherent environmental narrative. Difficulties here were compounded later in the campaign when Mr Turnbull's son entered the campaign to argue that the Liberal Party candidate must be defeated to deliver an environmental message to the Government. With Mr Turnbull refusing to be involved in the election on the grounds that he had left Parliament, this gathered a lot of media attention.

The campaign began against a backdrop of allegations about bullying and discrimination against women in the Federal Parliament. Then someone leaked the recommendations of the Ruddock inquiry into  the adequacy of legislative protection for religious freedom. This ignited a debate about existing provisions that might allow discrimination against gay students and teachers. The Government tried to hose this down, but this is another Wentworth hot button issue.

Then came the fiasco of the Government's apparent support subsequently withdrawn for Senator Hanson's it's ok to be white motion. At the very least, this suggested continued disorganisation within the Government at a time when it was trying to present a degree of coherence. To compound the problem further, the papers started carrying stories of a possible leadership challenge within the National Party apparently triggered by an interview with New England MP Barnaby Joyce in which he said that he wasn't seeking to regain the leadership but would accept it if he was drafted. While there is some dissatisfaction with Michael McCormack's leadership, I couldn't see a challenge as a real possibility and indeed the Party lined up behind the leader. However, the coverage certainly wasn't helpful to the Liberal campaign in Wentworth.  

Prime Minister Morrison then threw another curled ball, announcing that at the suggestion of Dave Sharma the Government was considering shifting the Australian embassy to Jerusalem. This was in fact part of a broader statement including apparent continuing recognition of East Jerusalem as capital of an independent Palestinian state and needs to be seen in that context, but the timing and the reference suggested an attempt to woo the Jewish vote. If so, that was a serious error of judgement at several levels. Wentworth includes many Liberal Jews who do not necessarily support the current Israeli Government position as well as many centre or centre left voters sympathetic to the Palestinian position.

With apparent defeat looming, the Liberals including former PM John Howard made last minute appeals to voters to vote for Mr Sharma to preserve stability in Government. You can imagine how that went down given the circumstances that had triggered the by-election in the first place!  It also exposed the Government to subsequent attack that since it had lost the by-election it could not, on its own words, guarantee stable government and should therefore call a general election.

By-election Results and Aftermath

Counting on election night quickly showed a strong swing against the Liberal Party with its vote down 24% at one stage to below 40%. This led ABC election analyst Antony Green to call the seat for Dr Phelps around 7.14pm. I went to bed reasonably early The results seemed quite clear-cut and I had become tired of talking heads pontificating about the scale of the loss, what a disaster it was for the Government and the reasons for the defeat.

I woke to similar commentary in the morning. Blame shifting had also begun, with some coalition MPs blaming the loss on Mr Turnbull's failure to campaign. I thought that was a bit rich in the circumstances. However, in the count itself, things were not quite what they seemed. Towards the end of the count on Saturday, counting of postal votes strongly favoured Mr Sharma. By Sunday night, there was an outside chance that Mr Sharma might still win. In the end, Dr Phelps won with 51.22% of the vote after preferences compared to 48.79% for Mr Sharma, a margin of 1.849 votes. In the primary vote, Mr Sharma received 43.08%  of the vote, down 19.10%, compared to Dr Phelp's 29.19%.

Looking at the full numbers, a few things stand out.

The first is the relative narrowness of Dr Phelp's final victory. If only 925 additional voters had voted Liberal 1 or Liberal 2 Mr Sharma would have won. I bolded the or because in this by-election with its likely protest vote against the dumping of Mr Turnbull, the Liberals needed disaffected protesting Liberals to make the part number 2, thus registering a protest vote while ensuring that at least some of those votes still flowed to Mr Sharma once preferences were distributed. The decision of Labor and Greens to run dead was, I think, designed in part to prevent this.

The second thing to stand out is the divided nature of the electorate, with a relative divide between the Northern harbour suburbs (Sharma) and the booths in the western and southern portions of the electorate (Phelps) reflecting their different demographics.

The third thing to stand out is the way the postal votes favoured Mr Sharma. These were generally cast earlier. There seems to have been a shift to Dr Phelps in the last week or ten days of the campaign.

I am left with the strong impression that the Liberals could have won Wentworth despite external factors, including Mr Turnbull's sacking. They failed because they ran a bad campaign, especially in the last week or ten days. Instead of keeping their campaign focused on positive issues, economic management and local needs, they became distracted. The appeal to voters to vote for Mr Sharma, the Jerusalem announcement, smacked of a certain level of desperation. I think that this failure is the real lesson from Wentworth.

Postscript

On his blog Happy Antipodean, Matthew da Silva had a rather nice piece What motivates Malcolm Turnbull?  I have included it here because of, among other things, its description of Sydney's Eastern Suburbs.    

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

When the alt-left helps create the alt-right

There was more than one thing farcical about the vote in the Australian Senate on One Nation leader Pauline Hanson's motion in the Australian Senate that  "it is OK to be white".

The motion itself was farcical if actually a very successful example in wedge politics. . Of course it's okay to be white. That's just a loosely defined skin colouring. The decision by the opposition and cross-bench to vote against and defeat the motion on the grounds that the motion was racist code was silly because in doing so the Australian Senate has actually affirmed that it's not OK to be white.

Then we have the absolutely farcical position where the Government voted in favour of the motion and then revoked its vote. It is clear that the Government had not properly worked out a position, clearer still that Coalition Senators were trying to follow voting instructions that they were uncomfortable with and made a mockery of Senate independence.

Let me be quite clear. There was only one way to effectively handle Ms Hanson's motion. The Senate should have passed it unanimously  as self-evidently correct, while hammering the underlying assumptions behind the motion. Instead, we now have the position that it's apparently not ok to be white, whatever that might mean, feeding into a narrative that threatens Australia's social cohesion.

I am old enough to remember the Second World War if not personally but as a living memory around me. I am old enough to remember the revulsion created by the holocaust, the discrediting of the race based eugenic views  

I am old enough, too, to remember the White Australia policy and its progressive dismantling. This was a rejection of something that had been deeply embedded in the Australian consciousness, a most profound social revolution. It is something I take pride in.

I also remember the American civil rights movement, something that energised my generation, and its belated application to the Australian Aborigines. There is some distance to go, disadvantage and prejudice still exists, but progress had been made.

In the period after the war racist, perhaps more accurately ethnicist, views still existed in Australia but the more extreme views were pushed to the fringe where small groups played with Nazi symbols and preserved the illusion of a global Jewish conspiracy, of the supremacy of the "white race."  Now those views are back, somewhat ironically given the way that DNA and associated scientific advances have discredited the very basis on which racism existed. We are all mongrels, so to speak.

The left has been a major factor here with their simple guilt/identity focus. Consider the oft-used phrase white patriarchal male. As used, this is deeply sexist and racist. Sexist because it implies that all males are patriarchal, racist because it attaches implicit attributes to white males. I see little difference between this and Ms Hanson's "it's ok to be white". Both are code phrases into which can be read a range of attributes.

The difficulty is that when you create a them/us construct, when you demonise a group, you can create the very thing that you wish to attack. We saw this in the so-called "war on terror' where the rhetoric used and associated policies arguably turned a fiction into a reality. Now the left is helping create the very thing they wish to challenge. This is fine if your are Antifa, for there your very validity depends upon having something to fight. It doesn't make a lot of sense for the sensible left
who actually want to achieve social advancement.
 
I don't have a solution. I just wish some people on both sides would shut-up!
    

Friday, October 12, 2018

Australian confusions over religious and other freedoms

During the postal vote in Australia over same-sex marriage. one of the arguments put forward against a yes vote was that it would lead to further restrictions on freedom of religion. I had a certain sympathy with that view, if not for all the reasons put forward. For example, I thought that the support by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce for a yes vote, a stand which became effective company policy, made the position of any Qantas staff supporting the no position highly problematic. They had every right to do so, but it would not be wise to do so publicly.

Following the vote, the Australian Government established an Expert Panel, the Ruddock Panel, to examine and report on whether Australian law adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion. This decision reflected divisions in the Coalition over the same-sex marriage issue and appeared designed to placate the Christian right within the Coalition.

The terms of reference for the inquiry are set out below.
OBJECTIVEThe Panel shall examine and report on whether Australian law (Commonwealth, State and Territory) adequately protects the human right to freedom of religion.
SCOPEIn undertaking this Review, the Panel should:
  • Consider the intersections between the enjoyment of the freedom of religion and other human rights.
  • Have regard to any previous or ongoing reviews or inquiries that it considers relevant.
  • Consult as widely as it considers necessary.
MEMBERSHIP OF THE PANELThe review will be conducted by an Expert Panel, chaired by the Hon Philip Ruddock, which will consist of:
  • Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM
  • the Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett AO SC
  • Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO
  • Professor Nicholas Aroney
The Panel will be supported by a secretariat led by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
TIMINGFollowing the Prime Minister’s agreement to an extension of its reporting date, the Panel will report its findings to the Prime Minister by 18 May 2018.
The report was submitted to the Government some time ago but has not been released. Recently a series of leaks have generated considerable controversy, along with demands for immediate release. The Government's stated position has been that the matter has not yet been considered nor an official position developed. Once this had been done, the report would be released. along with the Government's response. Given the highly polarised nature of public discussion in this area, this created suspicions that there was some deal on the way that would be announced after the forthcoming by-election.

The 20 recommendations of the  review have now been leaked. They surprised me a little. The fact that the Panel went for a minimalist position, one essentially designed to harmonise and make transparent existing laws, did not surprise me. I would have expected that, given its composition. What did surprise me a little were the varying exemptions from discrimination legislation for religious organisations across state jurisdictions. I did not know, for example, that students could apparently be excluded in some states on the grounds of sexual orientation. I think that this raises real issues. Further, and despite my comments on the minimalist approach, I was a little surprised at the apparent narrowness of the approach. I think that there are issues here that need to be discussed.

It's difficult to see what the Government might do with this report. It will not satisfy the right within the Coalition. The Government lacks the power to do anything effective to meet their concerns. The report's narrow focus has already focused attention on variations across the states and territories. One result may be the narrowing of religious exemptions that already exist. In all, I have the strong impression that the decision to set up the Expert Panel is another example of a decision made to meet an immediate need with long term adverse consequences.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A Wednesday wander - Ancient Thera, John Peter Russell, a video shoot and the Parramatta Lanes

I am tired tonight. Today has been a catch-up day after a busy few days. So I only feel like rambling.

I was struck by the Artdaily photo of the temple of Zeus among the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene, now Shahat, some two hundred kilometers from Benghazi, northeastern Libya. Cyrene was a colony of the Greeks of Thera (Santorini) and a principal city in the Hellenic world.

Back in 2010,  I spoke of my trip to Ancient Thera. When I first studied ancient history I took the period of colonisation, the establishment of colonies around the Mediterranean by various Greek city states, for granted. It wasn't until I visited Greek Islands that I realised just how small and dry they were. Then the colonisation process became more understandable, but also more remarkable.

Staying with things ancient, I really would like to visit the new exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, Rome: City and Empire, which showcases 200 pieces from the British Museum. By all accounts, it is a spectacular exhibition including pieces not displayed in London because of space limitations that cover Roman history from the establishment of the city to the end of the Eastern Empire. That's a very long period indeed. some 2,000 years.

I was going to leave this item till the end, but then I thought that you might like to listen to it as you read. I am not naturally a musical person, but I have taken to having classical music on softly in the background as I work. I especially like this piece, in part because of the combination of the music with the changing impressionist scenes of Paris.


The story of the Australian impressionist painter John Peter Russell is quite a remarkable if sometimes tragic one. He was, among other things, the only Australian artist at the centre of the Impressionist movement in France. His famous friendships forever changed the way the world sees colour. Now Russell's life features in a new documentary, Australia’s Lost Impressionist – John Russell, to be screened  on ABC TV, Tuesday, October 30 at 9.30pm.

I wasn't aware of the documentary until yesterday's short video shoot on the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the New England University College where the shoot was carried out by director Catherine Hunter and cameraman Bruce Inglis, the same people who produced Australia’s Lost Impressionist – John Russell. Catherine mentioned the documentary during the shoot, so I hastily looked it up today. I also found that Catherine and Bruce have a very considerable body of work.

There are New England connections in all this. Aren't there always? Armidale born artist Thea Proctor was John Russell's cousin who played a major role in later promoting his work in Australia, while one project that Catherine and Bruce are working in is a documentary on another New England born artist, sculptor Bronwyn Oliver.

I wasn't completely happy with my role in the shoot. I had done some preparation, but the filming was being done partly for archival purposes, partly to provide stand-alone grabs for a short video to mark the 60th anniversary of the College. These two can conflict, so Catherine had to get me to stop and start again  with a clear opening response that would allow the grab to stand independent of what I had said before.

I came home from the shoot mid-afternoon and then left immediately for Parramatta for an alumni function being held in conjunction with the first night of the Parramatta Lanes festival. This featured performances by New England connected artists including Blush Opera's 'How to Build a Billy' perhaps better subtitled "I hate Ikea".

I enjoyed the evening, but it was almost twelve before I got home after what had already been a tiring day. Still, I'm not complaining!

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Randwick Council's problems with cats

Down here in the deep south Randwick City Council, the adjoining council to the little suburb where I live, has a problem with cats. A serious problem.

Now, it will be no secret that I have a cat. I had two if you count my share of Scrawny, but he died in January.

I inherited Avenger when the household broke up and he has been something a nuisance, but also a godsend: a nuisance because (among other things) he persists on sitting on and indeed marking my papers when I am trying to work; a godsend because he provides company.

We have worked out a reasonable working arrangement. Avenger is an indoor-outdoor cat. The house has a cat door, so he can get in or out when he wants. I feed him inside, but I don't need to keep kitty litter because he goes, very neatly, in the garden beds. I can go away for a few days without worrying because I leave food for him inside and he can access that and also sleep inside. He does that more now as he has got older. He is a good mouser, although he will insist on sharing his prizes with me, leading me to carry him promptly outside!

Avenger is one of the issues that I have had to address in considering a move. A large proportion of rentals carry a no pets allowed tag. Of those that allow pets, a considerable proportion allow outdoor pets only. Very few rentals also have cat doors.  All this brings me to Randwick Council's problem with cats.

Randwick Council has a sort of power-sharing arrangement between the Greens and Labor under which a Green councilor would become mayor for twelve months to be followed by a Labor mayor. The Green mayor stood down because she was going to run as Green candidate for Coogee in the next state election. Her place  was taken by Labor councillor Kathy Neilson. Her first action was a call for action to control cats.

Ms Neilson moved a motion calling for the creation of a committee to look at ways of keeping cats indoors as well as fines for cats that "run free or defecate in public." She also proposed higher registration fees for cat owners, The measures were designed to protect native habitat and fauna.

Independent councillor Carlos da Rocha who apparently works as a ranger supported the motion. He said he chased and would continue to chase misbehaving cats, adding that he did chase fences, They should be fined, maybe not as much as a dog, but they should be fined because they cause more damage to people's garden.

The motion was narrowly carried.

As I write, Avenger is again sitting on my work log demanding attention. I asked him if he damaged the neighbours' gardens or had indeed been chased by a fence-jumping council ranger. He just looked at me then jumped down for a snack and demanded to be let out. As he wandered out into the rain, I wondered just what he might be up to. Should i be concerned?

Story source: Southern courier, 2 October 2018



 

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

A certain weariness of the spirit

I have been suffering from a certain weariness of the spirit, a weariness that has affected my writing. It's not depression, rather a withdrawal of joy from life. I have been trying to work out why.

I think that it's partly a function of age. Unlike some of my friends who retired some time ago, I still live in the modern world. I am still working, writing and trying to contribute. I doubt that I will ever stop until the years condemn to the point that I have no choice. Rather, it seems to be combination of two things.

The first is shortening time horizons. I am by nature something of a campaigner, someone who wants to make a contribution. As time horizons shorten, priorities becomes more important as does recognition that I will never know the results of things that I campaign for. These are hard to accept, given that I still feel much the same as did all those years ago.

The second is just accommodating to the pace of change. I was born at the end of the war. I have been though the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties and now into the 2000s. Institution after institution, belief after belief, new vision after new vision, has been discredited and replaced.

It's probably always been the case that those living at any point believe in the divine rectitude of their own beliefs, that what they assert is right and will live for ever. I see this all the time on the social media feeds.

I know that's not true. I also know that there is no point in saying so. To a degree now. we are good at tearing down, not so good at building. We have, to my mind, moved to a more puritan age in which risk minimsation, harm minimisation, compliance have become central. I see no solution to this.

Those at least in the wealthy West no longer recognise the other. They are divided into chattering tribes who assert the rectitude of their own position and who believe, somehow, that the rest will recognise the validity of their position or, worse, must be compelled to comply. I sometimes feel that we live in an age of moral funk incapable of recognising shades, incapable of recognising that the world is not and cannot be made perfect.

I am sorry for the diatribe. I know that I am lucky. I am still relevant.

Next week I should start some contract work that will help fund my move home to Armidale. Tuesday I do a video to mark the eightieth anniversary of the foundation of the New England university College. Each day I get feedback from people who find my writing relevant. Few people could ask for more.

And yet, the weariness persists.      

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Enjoying Ladies in Black

Last Friday, 21 September, a friend and I went to see the new Bruce Beresford film Ladies in Black. I had really wanted to see it.

The film is based on the 1993 book Women in Black written by Australian writer Madeleine St John (pronounced Sinjun). Madeleine was born at Castlecrag on Sydney's North Shore on 12 November 1941, the daughter of Edward St John and French mother, Sylvette (Cargher). Her maternal grandparents were Romanian Jews.

Edward was a prominent Sydney barrister, a civil activist and a sometimes renegade Liberal Party parliamentarian in the 1960s. Madeleine's mother committed suicide in 1954 when Madeleaine was 12. The following year her father married Valerie Winslow.

Madeleine grew up in the urbane upper middle class world on Sydney's North Shore. She went to Queenwood School for Girls, Mosman before going the Sydney University where she was a contemporary of Beresford, John Bell, Clive James, Germaine Greer, Arthur Dignam, Robert Hughes and Richard Walsh. Her father defended Walsh in the first Oz obscenity trial in 1964.

Madeleine turned to novel writing quite late following a failed eight year attempt to write a biography of Helena Blavatsky. She then gave up, destroyed the manuscript and tuned to fiction.


Women in Black was published in 1993 followed by three more books including The Essence of the Thing, a book shortlisted for the Booker prize. Her career was cut short because of her death from emphysema. She was just 64.

I am very out of touch with some things. I had not heard of the book, nor that it had been turned into a successful musical under the title Ladies in Black. I was attracted to the film by the posters and by snippets of news that suggested that it was a film that I might enjoy. As I did.

The film is set in Sydney in the summer of 1959. This was a time of change in Australia. The austerity of the immediate post war period had been replaced by relative affluence with full employment and growing wealth. The mass migration program launched at the end of the Second World war was well underway bringing changes within Australian society,

The story begins when a shy schoolgirl, Lisa Miles (Angourie Rice)) takes a summer job at the grand city department store, Goode’s, while awaiting the results of her final exams. Goode's is clearly based on David Jones, then Sydney's poshest store, where Madeleine worked as a casual.

At Goode's Lisa is befriended by fellow assistants in the cocktail frock section Fay (Rachel Taylor) and Patty (Alison McGirr) and is drawn into the ambit of Magda Szombatheli (Julia Ormond), the charming and sophisticated Slovenian émigré who in charge of Goode's high fashion end. Between them, they are the ladies in black named because of the uniform they wear.

We watch Lisa grow from a bookish girl to a glamorous and positive young woman as she herself becomes a catalyst for a cultural change in everyone’s lives.

I really enjoyed the movie as did our fellow blogger AC. You will find her review here. It does have weaknesses, but it's good fun.

Following the movie I read some of the reviews as well as investigating the film's background. I am glad that I did this after rather than before, because I got seriously annoyed at spots. Sometimes, it is better not to read reviews because of the way it affects, conditions, thinking. I may come back to this point later once the film is out of the cinemas.  


Monday, September 17, 2018

Monday Forum - things that inspire

My internet connection has been down, system outage, which proved a complete pain! Forcibly removed from my screen, I was sitting there in the battered armchair in the kitchen reading with the radio on in the background. Then a most wonderful interview on ABC Radio National's Conversations came on with writer Louisa Deasey about her new book A Letter from Paris. I put the book down and listened, tearing up at several spots.

The ABC RN web page describes the story in this way:
In 2016 Louisa Deasey received a message, out of the blue, from a stranger in France. 
The woman's grandmother had died, and in her attic was a bundle of love letters. 
They told the story of a dashing Australian man named Denison Deasey, and his love story with a young French girl. 
Denison was Louisa’s late father, and when she was growing up, the family rarely spoke about him. 
The message from France sent Louisa on a voyage of discovery about her father, and herself.
These fairly bland words only hint at the texture of the story. I am not going to tell you more about the story. Instead, this is the link to the Radio National conversation, this a link to another description that includes a chapter from the book. I leave it to you to follow up.

 Think about the conversation, I thought that things that inspire might be a suitable topic for this week's Monday Forum. What thing's have inspired you? They might be a book or film, a scene, a person. Whatever.

As always, feel free to wander as you like.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Can Mr Dutton survive?

There was something quite unseemly about Australian Immigration Minister Dutton's attacks on the former Border Force commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg, accusing  him (among other things) of  "grooming" a younger woman (and here). I am no fan of Mr Quaedvlieg, but this was over the top.

How things change.

Just a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Turnbull seemed relatively secure with a functioning government that seemed to be making some progress. Then came his collapse on the National Energy Guarantee followed immediately by his decision to call a Liberal leadership spill with the aim of shoring up his position against the emerging Dutton challenge. From this came the confusing fiasco of the subsequent Dutton challenge that saw Mr Morrison become Prime Minister with Mr Turnbull exiting politics.In the end, everybody, including many Liberal and National Party Parliamentarians, was left wondering what was all that about!

I'm not fond of Mr Dutton. I dislike what I perceive to be his policies and indeed his values. I was also deeply distrustful about the creation of Border Force and the militarisation of previous civil functions. I make this point because it affects my judgments. Accepting this, I would make two points.

The first is that many in the Liberal Party must be feeling a sense of relief that Mr Dutton's challenge failed. Imagine how the Government would be coping now if Mr Dutton were PM instead of a just a Minister.

My second point is that I struggle to see how Mr Dutton can survive as Minister. I am not talking here about the visa issues including Mr Quaedvlieg's attacks. I think Mr Dutton could have survived this, although it is yet another unwelcome distraction for the Government. However. now that he has got down in the ditch to pick up scoops of mud to throw at Mr Quaedvlieg he has lost all the benefits of the high ground. I may be wrong, but I don't think that he can survive that.
     

Monday, September 10, 2018

Reflections on my latest Armidale trip - drought, Airbnb and still more New England writers

I was up country last week. As I topped the mountain, the southern New England was showing traces of green, but the country then got very dry indeed. All the verges along Thunderbolt's Way showed signs of grazing from travelling stock, although this time there were no stock on the road either coming or going.

I kept a wary eye out for roos, there have been a number of accidents with hungry roos crossing roads looking for grazing. but while I saw some roadkill there were no live ones. Just as well. I was a little tired driving in both directions and it was also raining for a lot of the time. Not enough to break the drought, but it should give some greenpick if the frosts hold off.

I was thinking as I drove about the droughts I have known. The grass gets a gray colour, almost transparent.Then there is the blowing dust coming in especially from the west. This drought has attracted a lot of mainstream media attention, that's good, but its not the worst drought I have seen.

Armidale was cold and damp. It's a pretty place, really quite beautiful in spots even at the end of winter, but I was glad to spend some time in my warm motel room, just reading. I had planned to go the week before, but the city was booked out. Last week, too, accommodation was quite limited with most of the motels showing no vacancy signs. In addition to the hotels and motels, Armidale now has 133 Airbnb places. Most of these were booked as well.

Armidale is a funny accommodation marketplace because of its peaks. There is normally plenty of accommodation, but then you have graduation or some other special event that soaks it all up. From the viewpoint of the provider, it's feast or famine.

I have the strong impression that both base load and peak demand has increased. This is where Airbnb has its advantages, for it has effectively double available bed nights.

In February I saw a small heritage cottage listed for sale at $275,000. It was a funny little three bedroom place, then rented for $275 per week. It was proving hard to sell even though that's a good rental yield by Sydney standards because it didn't quite fit the family market. Checking, it finally seems to have sold for $250,000. It's now on Airbnb at $200 per night and seems to be renting quite well.

Looking at the photos, I estimate that the new owners probably spent $50,000 on a new kitchen and other repairs. Even at an average of just two nights per week, and occupancy seems far higher than this, $400 per week is not a bad gross yield.

I know that problems can arise with Airbnb, but for many places outside the high traffic areas it can really add to tourism opportunities. You can't get the visitors without the accommodation, but the accommodation won't come without the visitors. Airbnb acts as something of a circuit breaker.

There is also a ripple effect. Armidale, for example, does have a certain draw-power. Airbnb adds to Armidale's options but also spreads its effects around Armidale, creating new choices.

I mentioned that I spent a fair bit of time reading. I had one of those green shopping bags with me full of new, well mainly new to me, second hand books. Yes, I know that I am meant to be clearing out my collection and it has shrunk a little, but there have been some opportunities to buy some really good stuff cheaply . As you might expect, my new treasures include history and biography with an especial focus on Northern NSW, my broader New England.

I read very little current fiction. It's partly time, but it's also true that I am put off by the now many writers' festivals. I don't attend, but I hear a fair bit about them including multiple festival sessions repeated on ABC Radio National. Maybe I'm just getting old, but as the festivals search for audience they go more and more into particular types of niche areas that target elements in the audience that do go. And I'm not interested.

I have the same reaction to ABC Radio National's Hub on Books. I have never been very keen on arts or cultural programs. I tell myself I should be, but then I find myself turning the radio or TV off, retreating into silence and my own thoughts. There is so much produced now, so little that I am interested in, that I find myself submerged. I can't process it all. I am out of their frames. I am also tired of angst.

The things that I am most interested in, the stories that I want to tell, relate to my own life and, more importantly, my own area.

On Wednesday I visited Boobooks (on Facebook) and the Readers Companion (on Facebook). These two nearby stores in the Armidale Mall really compliment each other.

Boobooks has taken over the artdeco banking chambers built for the Commonwealth Bank. Now the bank that I knew as a child is the home to 70,000 second hand books. Happiness.

Reader's Companion is a new book shop. It's not easy making money today from a bookshop. Reader's Companion has responded by making the store a centre for new releases and writer activities, including the ever-increasing range of local publications. They also have a Kombi van that takes new books to all the surroundinf centres that lack bookshops.

I sat in the coffee shop across the Mall from Boobooks to review my latest treasures. It was just too cold to sit outside as I normally do,

From Boobooks, I had a signed copy of Zeny Giles' Caught in the Light: A Celebration of Newcastle.  I hadn't heard of Zeny, so many people I haven't heard of!, but she is quite a well known writer.The book was published by Newcastle's Catchfire Press, another small publisher that I did not know.

From Reader's Companion, I bought Jimmy Barnes' Working Class Man, the second volume in his autobiography. Now I here I found myself caught in cross-links between recent purchases.

Jimmy Barnes' first chapter is headed I was a serial runner and is subtitled  On the way to Armidale, 1974. The first 32 pages are a picture of hippy Armidale in the mid 1970s.

I have previously mentioned the New England writer Shirley Walker. Recently. I was able to buy her memoir, Roundabout at Bangalow: an intimate chronicle which includes details of her life on the North Coast and in Armidale. It was Shirley's son, singer and song writer Don Walker, who brought Jimmy Barnes to Armidale when Don decided to do postgraduate studies at the University of New England.

The hippy connection linked to another of my recent purchases, Judy Cassab's Diaries. I first read the diaries because I was interested in Judy Cassab as a painter. There I found that son John had become involved in the counter-culture movement on the North Coast in its early days, so the diaries include references directly relevant to my historical interests. Here the social change that took place in the 1960s and 1970s is part of my story, personal as well as historical.

The copy of the diaries  I was reading belonged to a friend. It's only in the last four week's that I have been able to acquire my own copy.

As so often happens, I drove back from Armidale with more to write about. On the way, I sat in the cafe cum general store and post office at Barrington and tried to gather my thoughts. So much to think about, so much to say. How was I too manage? I still don't have an answer!