Personal Reflections

Friday, February 12, 2016

Placing Barnaby Joyce in his Northern NSW context

The election of Barnaby Joyce as leader of the Australian Commonwealth Parliamentary National Party with Fiona Nash as his deputy marks a significant changing of the guard.

The previous leader, Warren Truss, was very much a team person within the Liberal-National Party coalition arrangements to the point of partial invisibility. This may have aided the functioning of the coalition, but created real electoral difficulties for the National Party. In electoral terms, the Liberal Party is as much a threat to the Nationals as Labor or indeed the Greens.

Describing the coalition as a business partnership, not a marriage, Mr Joyce is likely to be more assertive,

One side effect of Mr Joyce's election is that I ended up on air this morning talking to ABC New England North West's Kelly Fuller (@kelfuller) about Mr Joyce's election in the context of Northern NSW politics.

It's actually quite remarkable. Of the thirteen leaders of the Commonwealth Country/National Parties (the Nationals were previously called the Country Party) seven have come from Northern NSW. At NSW State level, six of the eleven leaders have come from Northern NSW. If we compare this to the other parties, the score is none for the Liberal Party at either state or federal level, one for the Labor Party at state level.

In addition to the parties themselves, we have to add in the New England independents including especially Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott who were instrumental in making Julia Gillard Prime Minister. There are also the separatists seeking self-government for the North.

Describing My Joyce as a retail politician, not a detail politician, Tony Windsor is considering running again against Mr Joyce. Should he do so, he will draw in particular from resentments created on the Liverpool Plains in the south of the large New England electorate over coal mining and cold seam gas extraction. This is Windsor territory. Whether his previous vote elsewhere in the electorate will be maintained, he needs that to win, is open to question. My present feeling is no.

Kelly and I chatted about Mr Joyce's somewhat larrikin style. I compared him to Earle Page, a long standing Country Party leader, but there is a strong dash there of Artie Fadden, another Country Party leader.

It will be interesting to see how all this evolves. . . .   .         .

Monday, February 08, 2016

Monday Forum - another as you will

Today's Monday Forum is another as you will. I know conversation is proceeding on other posts and I haven't responded. It's just been an odd day!

I thought that this graphic, I have no idea where I got it from, summarises certain aspects of girl-boy stuff. My female friends may disagree!

So where do you want to go in this forum? Strange digressions welcome.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Nanny State notes

Today's short post is just a note to record things that I want to come back to.

In a post on Linkedin Pulse, Would the last person in Sydney please turn the lights out?, Matt Barrie mauls the Sydney licensing laws that have turned the traditional entertainment precincts into ghost towns. Mr Barrie's fury is not limited to those laws, but extends to other aspects of the nanny state in NSW.

It's an unbalanced post, mixing together different issues. It's also a post that would seem very obscure to residents outside the harbour side city. However, he does make valid points.

Meantime, the ban on smoking in Sydney's Martin Place has been hailed as a success because it has reduced the number of discarded butts from 450 per day to less than 100 now. There are plans now to extend the ban to other areas of the CBD.

Continuing with this theme, it appears that a fashionable Sydney restaurant has been cautioned by the police (here, here) over its blackboard menu and wine list. According to a police spokesman. it is "common for police to provide advice to licensees regarding potential licensing breaches or issues during business inspections,"

Cynically, this one struck home because it affected the non-smoking fashionable majority who might otherwise support the anti-smoking, anti-alcohol restrictions.

Meantime, to use that word again while moving to another state, the Townsville Crocodiles.National Basketball League team has been forced to surrender its homemade t-shirt cannon to police after it was deemed a category B weapon. The cannon has apparently been in use for over ten years. The club CEO expressed bewilderment, but said that if that was the law, that was the law. The club would comply.

I know that you can see where I am going in all this. For the moment and as I said, I just wanted to record things for later use.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Gender equality, gender roles and flexible working arrangements for men

Interesting piece in the Australian Financial Review by Fiona Smith drawing from research by Bain and Company and Chief Executive Women. My thanks to Legal Eagle for the lead.

According to the research, "women who can set their own hours, work from home or are part-time are much more likely to recommend their employers to others, but those "freedoms" have the opposite effect on men."

Men in the same position take the opposite view. They feel unsupported and harshly judged. They take a career hit because they are often regarded as anomalies within current working cultures The differences in attitude are summarised in the chart. The report's core conclusion is that women's choices will be maximised if it is made easier for men who wish to opt for part time or flexible working arrangements.  

I wrote quite a lot in this space several years ago and for that reason was interested in the analysis. I also noted that some women's reaction could best be described as diddums. 

I will leave it to you to read Fiona's piece and the report. However, I thought that I should make some brief observations on the issues involved as a way of clarifying my own thinking, focusing especially on families and child rearing. 

We can think of the problem in terms of three overlapping circles: issues that are common regardless of gender; issues that are specific to women; issues that are specific to men. While the circles overlap, they are distinct.

Families take many different forms. There are single person households, the fastest growing household type and one that is changing the structures of our cities. Then there are share households especially but not exclusively among the young. There are single parent families where child rearing devolves upon that parent, sometimes with help from grandparents or other relatives. This is another category that grew rapidly and is now feeding into the growth of single person households as children leave home,.   Couples without children is another growth category, in part because women are choosing to have children later or (in some cases) choosing not to have children at all. The traditional two parent with children family structure may still dominate the debate, but is now a minority in terms of household types.

Note that I have put all this in gender neutral terms. A single parent, for example, may be male or female. In fact, the first case I came across as a manager which really sensitised me to the issues involved a man whose wife had left him some time before leaving him to bring up the five children on his own. This obviously affected his work and working patterns, leading to what was in effect discrimination. If we look at couples now, while the male/female combination dominates, we also have female/female and male/male combinations with and without children. Penny Wong and her partner Sophie Allouache is one prominent example of female/female with children.  

Flexibility in working arrangements is important across the spectrum regardless of gender, although its importance will vary depending on personal inclination and circumstances. For example, a working single parent who has to balance work and children needs a degree of work flexibility to accommodate the myriad things that come up in a child's life; sport, start of the school term, parent-teacher interviews, sudden illnesses that require the child to be collected from school. The list is almost endless.

Flexibility, however, is not the only need. While much of the discussion and indeed policy making in this area is driven by middle class people in relatively secure jobs in the professions or larger organisations, an increasing proportion of Australians live in a world of often insecure sometimes poorly paid part time, temporary or contract work. In these circumstances, it makes perfect sense, indeed it may be imperative, to trade of flexibility for an enhanced degree of security. Availability of other family members such as grandparents can also be important.

 Within two parent plus child or children families, arrangements again vary. At one end of the spectrum you have high powered couples pursuing careers with sufficient money to delegate a significant child care component to nannies. These couples are usually sufficiently senior for both to have a degree of flexibility in their working arrangements.

At the other end of the spectrum, one partner adopts a full time role. In the middle are a variety of sharing arrangements. However, a common feature is that one parent takes a larger role. Traditionally, this been a female role, although male participation has become more common. Roles may vary over time. Partly perhaps because male partners tend to be older, there seems to be an increasing trend for gender reversal in roles with the women playing the major role initially and then roles switching to allow the female partner to concentrate on her career.

However, it remains the case that women do more than men. The Bain and Company and Chief Executive Women report sits in this space. Increased flexibility in working arrangements for men may allow them to take on a greater childcare role, thus giving women more flexibility.

Whatever the gender of the primary child carer, the role comes with costs including reduced career opportunities, life time earnings and retirement savings that need to be considered. A significant proportion of marriages end in divorce. There are difficulties here with the statistics, but as a rough guide around 28% of marriages entered into between 1985 and 1987 can be expected to end in divorce.This proportion increases to 33% for all marriages entered into in 2000–2002.

In general, the lower earning partner (usually but not always the partner taking primary responsibility for child care) ends up worse off in terms of final retirement resources. I can't give a link here, I am quoting from memory, but this effect was clearly seen in the longer term position of women who divorced following the passage of the Family Law Act in 1975.

Turning to gender specific issues, women's issues are reasonably well covered, men's less well so.

The idea that child rearing is primarily a female responsibility remains deeply entrenched in Australia and among women as well as men. This is partly connected with the fact that women bear the child and are primarily responsible for its initial nurture, but also reflects deeply entrenched social attitudes.

From a women's perspective, this can be seen as both a curse and a blessing in career terms. It's a curse because it reinforces still extant if unsaid prejudices against female employment, thus reducing career opportunities. Regardless of the law, managers may be reluctant to appoint or promote women because they perceive pregnancy and child rearing as reducing flexibility and increasing costs. This can favour a male applicant compared to an equally competent woman. However, it's also a blessing at two levels.

At a societal level, considerable pressure has been placed on organisations to develop ways that will allow women to return to work and to work flexibly while pursuing career advancement. These may be imperfect, but they do exist and are continuing to evolve. At an individual level, women are more proactive than men in factoring pregnancy and child rearing into their career plans because they have to be.

The position facing men who might wish to adopt a larger if not primary child care role is more complicated.

The deeply entrenched societal view about the primacy of women in child care creates very real difficulties across a number of dimensions.

At a work level, there is no real expectation that men would wish to do so.A man who seeks reduced hours or greater work flexibility for child care reasons may experience considerable resistance. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that men can experience difficulty in accessing existing parental leave provisions even when legally entitled, while the decision to work flexibly is seen at best as opting out in career terms, leading to a career hit.

The figures in the above chart are quite telling. While women's willingness to recommend an organisation increase with work flexibility, men's collapses, from 26% for those who have not worked flexible hours to 11% for those who have worked flexible hours to just 4% for those currently working flexible hours. I don't think it any coincidence that nearly all of us who did play major child care roles when my daughters were at school were self-employed.

The societal view about the primacy of women in child care has other effects. The dominance of women in the daily routines of school and life, I think that this is true for boys as well although my experience is with the girls, creates difficulties for men in simply fitting in. This is compounded by suspicion, especially but not only with girls, about the presence of men, a suspicion that has got worse with the growing concerns about paedophilia. From experience, all this means that the primary child care role can be very isolating if you are a male.

Two further factors are worth mentioning.

The first is the timing effect I mentioned previously, the apparently increasing trend for gender reversal in roles with the women playing the major role initially and then roles switching to allow the female partner to concentrate on her career. Depending on the exact timing as well as the barriers I referred to earlier, a decision by a male to take a more active and especially the primary role can indeed be an effective decision to opt out of a career.

The second factor is the dependency factor. It can be extremely difficult for a man to opt for a bigger child rearing role where that makes him financially dependent on his partner.

Summarising, there is no doubt that the report has highlighted a genuine issue, that both men and women would benefit from the adoption of more flexible working arrangements for men. However, that conclusion has to be qualified in certain respects. To begin with, it is difficult to apply such arrangements to the growing proportion of the workforce in temporary, contract or part time arrangements. The proposal also has to recognise and accommodate the particular difficulties men face in opting for more flexible arrangements. Finally, it is actually hard to see significant change so long as the dominant societal attitude among women as well as men that women have the final primary responsibility for child rearing.

Note to regular readers

I'm sorry for the delay in posting. This post took me longer to complete than expected. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Iowa and the shifting sands of ideology

As I write, the results of the Iowa caucuses are coming through. The BBC has called them this way:

Iowa caucus results
Republican vote, 99% reported:
  • Ted Cruz: 28%, eight delegates
  • Donald Trump: 24%, seven delegates
  • Marco Rubio: 23%, seven delegates
  • Ben Carson: 9%, three delegates
  • Rand Paul, Jeb Bush: one delegate each. Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Rick Santorum: no delegates
Democratic vote, 99% reported:
  • Hillary Clinton: 50%, 22 delegates
  • Bernie Sanders 50%, 21 delegates
  • Martin O'Malley, 1%, no delegates
Discussion suggests that Hillary Clinton has in fact just shaded  Bernie Sanders, but there was not much in it.

My first Monday Forum after I came back from Europe last year posed the question are we seeing the return of the old left and right?  In comments, Evan wrote :I can see a return to the old left. I think it is still the neo-con's on the right." While I could see Evan's point, I wasn't sure:. "I agree that neo-con views are still influential, but there seems to be a pretty big shift underway. The new right parties that have sprouted in Europe are hardly neo-con!"

A week after the post, the photogenic Mr Trudeau somewhat unexpectedly inflicted a heavy defeat on the ruling Conservative Party in the Canadian elections and has since become something of a pin-up figure especially but not only among many on the left. In Australia, the rise of Mr Turnbull has seem something of a shift in the Government position, creating tensions within the Liberal Party among those on the right. Mr Abbott's determination to stay in Parliament and apparently position himself as factional leader for certain right views has created tensions. In an opinion piece, Peter Reith pointed to some of the apparent inconsistencies in Mr Abbott's position.

In the US, Mr Sanders remains unashamedly socialist, while Hilary Clinton is clearly centre-left. On the Republican side, Mr Trump can be allocated to the populist right. He appears to have been successful to this point in creating a coalition of dissatisfied voters that actually spans more traditional party responses. By contrast, Ted Cruz would appear to belong to the neo-conservative right.

Mr Cruz's views are clearly set out on his website. I know that he has some followers in Australia because I read their feeds, but many of his views would appear quite strange to many Australian eyes. Do have a browse and tell me what you think. 

In all this, there are some very strange overlaps in attitudes. Things are not always what they seem. I will come back to that in a later post. 

Monday, February 01, 2016

Monday Forum - favourite cars

Production of the long-running Land Rover Defender has finally come to an end. It wasn't called that originally, it didn't have a specific name, but it's the same car. This is Winston Churchill with his version.

I have many fond memories of that car, especially on history digs. It was cold, rattly but fun!

This got me wondering. So for this Monday Forum, what's your favourite car and why?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Essay - on cultural appropriation

"Cultural appropriation" is defined in Wikipedia in the first instance as the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. It is not clear when the term first emerged. Assuming that I am interpreting the results correctly, a search using Google Ngam viewer suggests the term was not used at all prior to 1985 and then infrequently after that up to 2008. A search on Google Trends shows an initial appearance at the end of 2008 with a marked acceleration from 2013.

Digging around, I found that on June 8th, 2005, the book Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law by American lawyer Susan Scafidi was released in June 2005. In May the following year, the annual feminist science fiction convention WisCon held a panel on cultural appropriation that started considerable discussion. The concept of cultural appropriation was then picked up by African-American, native American and First Nation groups in at least Canada, the US and Australia because it fitted with existing beliefs and lines of argument. It also fitted with the post colonial anti-imperialistic rhetoric and beliefs. I don't think that the apparent absolute country ranking in Google trends -   Canada followed by the US and then Australia and the UK - is a coincidence.  

Today, the concept has recently become quite prominent and intensely political. Some random examples:
  • Ruby Hamad accused the recent Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation ad on lamb on Australia Day  for its use of the word boomerang
  • The cancellation of university yoga classes at the University of Ottawa on grounds that included cultural appropriation
  • Justin Beiber's hair  
  • Beyonce's portrayal of a Bollywood character
  • Pressure over the use of the name Walkabout for a dance festival, forcing a name change
  • At the University of East Anglia, student pressure stopped a Mexican restaurant handing out sombreros on the grounds that it was racist, while in Canada Kendall Jenner's Tribal Spirit Mango ad was attacked on social media as cultural appropriation. 
The list goes on. If you do a Google news search on cultural appropriation you can browse to your heart's content. Remember that this is a phrase that barely registered eight years ago.

It would be easy to to point to the silliness of some of this as Chris Berg did in an ABC piece. It would be easy to point to some of the issues raised for intellectual and academic freedom. However, the concept is becoming institutionalised, so we need to understand some of the issues involved. 

Of itself, cultural appropriation defined as the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture seems neutral. At this level, it seems equivalent to the older term acculturation, the way in which interacting cultures affect each other. With acculturation, cultural modification of an individual, group, or people occurs through adaptation to or borrowing traits from another culture. However, appropriation has more active connotation, the taking of a cultural trait.

Absorption or some time rejection of cultural traits or ideas from other groups is a feature of all human societies. All human cultures are a meld. Sometimes the change is forced, at other times a matter of choice and evolution. Cultural appropriation has come to be defined as the adoption or taking by a majority group of a cultural attribute of a minority group. This definition is from a US website.   
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”
In the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority groups. African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and indigenous peoples generally tend to emerge as the groups targeted for cultural appropriation.

If you look at it, that's an incredibly messy definition. It starts with the concept of permission:.taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This is then amplified by example: this can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.

The concept of harm is then introduced: it's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.Now we come to the idea of the dominant culture: in the United States, cultural appropriation almost always involves members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) “borrowing” from the cultures of minority group. Note the use of the word borrowing in inverted commas. Then we have the groups most likely to be targeted: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and indigenous peoples generally tend to emerge as the groups targeted for cultural appropriation. Note that targeted is an active word, implying conscious choice. 

To illustrate the confusions that can arise, I am going to take some examples. I apologise if they seem somewhat meandering. I am using the discussion to sort out my own views. 

To start with a particularly silly one from some of the opponents of the cultural appropriation school that I just wanted to get out of the way. In response to some of the manifestations of the cultural appropriation school  you get responses sometimes such as well, why don't you stop speaking English. This is silly at several levels. The Aborigines, for example, had no choice but to speak English. That was a forced adaption, not cultural appropriation. The argument also does not really address the issues put forward by the cultural appropriation school. To do this, you have to disentangle the issues. 

To continue the discussion, this is a Christmas photo of my brother and I dressed in Indian outfits. Is this cultural appropriation? Possibly, but not of the American Indians, rather from the US cowboy and Indian movies and books that were then very popular. It is an Australian mother's attempt to make outfits from what she had (the clothes come from hessian bags, the feathers from the chook yard) that would meet her kids' interest in cowboys and Indian stuff. Why Indians rather than cowboys? Well, the Indians were more interesting. 

The point is that all cultures borrow or adopt and for different reasons. At the time this photo was take, many Australians were worried about the intrusion of US culture into Australia through film in particular. Some nationalists, not all on the left, thought of it as cultural imperialism. We weren't appropriating US culture, it was being imposed upon us.

To take another example, many Aboriginal people like country music and/or rap. Australia does have its own country music tradition, although much has been appropriated from the US and then incorporated into the local culture. Rap is a different issue. It is popular among many Australian young, it is hard to avoid its influence, but it seems especially popular among Aboriginal young people who identify as black. This is clearly appropriation from another culture, but is it a bad thing? I would have thought not. But if not, why not? When does it become a bad thing? 

We now come to the ownership issue. Many Aboriginal people assert that they own their own culture and all its elements. Permission is required to use it. Otherwise, its bad cultural appropriation. Well yes and no, recognising that views change and that it's all very messy. It really depends.

Returning to the Indian headdresses in the photo, would I wear an Indian headdress today? Probably not, with the exception of a fancy dress party and even then I'm doubtful. Why? It's a unique Indian artifact and I have no cultural connection. It would lack meaning. By contrast, I might wear a kilt because I do have a cultural connection. 

Extending, I see welcome to country and smoking ceremonies as uniquely Aboriginal events. It would be totally inappropriate for me to carry those ceremonies out. But what about the bullroarer or didgeridoo? Both have particular cultural Aboriginal significance. As a child we made bullroarers, although the didgeridoo was far beyond us. Is a non-Aboriginal person entitled to use these instruments or is that cultural appropriation of the bad type?  At the moment, the consensus view appears to be that it is acceptable to incorporate the instruments into particular pieces.  

Similar issues come up in art, language and history.

Aboriginal art has become part of the broader Australian visual landscape. There is now an apparent view that only Aboriginal people have the right to draw images from that art.To do otherwise is cultural appropriation.  This is different from the question of intellectual property protection for, say, individual Aboriginal works or indeed specific schools such as the Tiwi Island painters. It is also different from art that may be linked to specific rituals or ceremonies.  Both imply specific limitations as compared to a blanket prohibition.   . 

Australian English incorporates Aboriginal words. That is cultural appropriation, although I don't think that anyone challenges it. Aboriginal languages themselves are more complex, for here there is an assertion of ownership by particular groups that sometimes says the language may only be studied or spoken with specific approval. Something similar has emerged in history and especially prehistory.

All this becomes very wearing, raising the question of just where you draw the line. If you adopt a purist position that says everything is cultural appropriation in the absence of specific approval to the contrary, then you essentially assign Aboriginal culture to a self-imposed ghetto. In this context, part of the richness of US culture including its global reach lies in its appropriation of items from both inside the US and beyond. Based on my observations, most Aboriginal people do not want the ghetto outcome. The anti-cultural appropriation pressure comes as much if not more so from elements of the non-Aboriginal community        

I have focused especially on Aboriginal culture because it draws out some of the issues involved. When I go beyond that and return my focus to the broader environment and especially the student and social media protests, I think that some of those involved and the attitudes expressed display a marked form of dictatorial cultural arrogance including a desire to freeze things into the patterns they want. Most cultures are fusion cultures. Strong cultures exert an influence beyond their bounds. They do not need protection.

Looking specifically at minority cultures living within a frame set by a dominant culture, and ignoring issues such as racism that normally fall outside the scope of cultural appropriation as such, it is not clear to me just how opposition to cultural appropriation aids the growth and survival of specific minority cultures. The likely outcome would seem the opposite.    ..

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - visual language, contemporary art and a visit to Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art

From time to time on this blog, more often on New England Australia, I have used the term visual language. The Wikipedia article provides a useful introduction to the concept.

On the New England blog, I have experimented with language as a way of describing the physical and built environments, including variations in those environments over space and time. I have also tried to look at the relationship between writing, art and film in regard to place and variations in place both geographically and historically. In many ways I'm trying to infer or even create a visual language since no formal one presently exists covering the areas that I am interested in.

On this blog, I have been more concerned with the changing structure and impact of visual language. My observations are neither deep nor especially profound. It's just a topic that interests me. The changing way we represent or remember things is based on a structured combination of knowledge, perceptions and relationships. They may not always be articulated, but the structure is there. You can see the impact quite easily if you think how often people will look at an art work and say I don't understand that or, alternatively, I like that.

Visual language shifts with time with changes in content, form and structure. It is affected by what we learn and choose to remember or forget. It is affected by events, by changes in our environment and by changes in technology. Visual language is an integral element of culture. It changes as culture changes, but its changes also feed back into cultural change.We are as we perceive.

I am familiar with certain aspects of the changing visual landscape. It would be hard not to be with youngest as a daughter. After all, I have been following her journey for some years now through early writing and illustration through the NSW Higher School Certificate into the latest evolutions. She operates in the interstice where games, comics, fan fiction, graphics, young adult fantasy, illustration, films and conventions coincide. She constantly experiments with platforms (most recently twitch), mode and content.

While I am familiar with some aspects of the changing aspects of the visual landscape, I have become increasingly conscious of gaps in my recent knowledge, especially in art.This has been peaking through in posts. So I took myself off to the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. It was a curiously unsatisfying experience.

This piece is Mikala Dwyer's  Square Cloud Compound (2010). MCA describes it in this way:

For more than three decades, Sydney artist Mikala Dwyer has explored the alchemical and contradictory nature of objects. Pushing at the limits of sculpture and installation her work reveals an experimental approach to materials that is influenced by art povera, dada and constructivism..
Recently acquired for the MCA Collection, Dwyer’s Square Cloud Compound (2010), is made of large swathes of brightly coloured fabric sewn into cubes that create a soft architectural structure. This mysterious enclosure is held down by tersely pulled stockings attached to the ceiling, floor and to painted poles adorned with lights and trinkets that function like totem poles, lampposts or gallows. Square Cloud Compound  is presented alongside a new wall painting produced especially for the museum and the MCA Collection. .

Accepting that it is a very bad photo, I was struck by the ephemeral nature of the piece. I wandered around it at all angles, studying the stretched pantyhose and other elements.I then went to the second floor gallery. This included the Tiwi Island display plus elements from the permanent collection. It was at this point that I began to wonder about my own visual language. Was that deficient? Alternatively, was I simply showing my age? Or perhaps both?

The Tiwi Islands Exhibition was interesting. This 2015 linocut print on paper, Murtangkala, is by Bede Tungutalum. However, I found that I have been somewhat submerged by Aboriginal art in recent decades, so perhaps didn't give the display enough attention.It was beyond that point that I began to find real problems.

There were two performing art examples, both video; one involved a group in the bush with masks, the second a man playing on a skateboard at Bondi Beach as a storm rolled in. I watched neither to the end, although the visual composition of the second was appealing. .

As I see it, one of the difficulties with performance art lies in the dividing line between art and performance. A second lies in the nature of the message, the reason why the artist undertakes the activity, the expectation of our response. By its nature, performance art takes time and therein lies the rub. Our attention spans have shortened. We may simply switch off before we have had the time to absorb anything.

There are exceptions. Many years ago while still at university, I watched a film clip of people going up and down an elevator in a Canadian department store. The message was about the nature of consumer society. We were watching it as part of a discussion group and then had to write a poem on our conclusions. I absorbed that piece. However, for most performance art I just turn off. I see enough of it everyday as it is.

Overall, I found the pieces on display from the general collection curiously unsatisfying. Some were visually appealing. this is Brook Andrew's "Loop. A model of how the world operates." The MCA describes the piece in this way:
Loop..... is part of an ongoing series of wall drawings using black and white patterns inspired by his (Andrew's) matriarchal Wiradjuri cultural heritage of western New South Wales, traditionally carved into shields and trees (dendroglyphs). In Loop Andrew has overlaid these monochromatic diagonals of traditional memory with slowly throbbing spirals of neon, to challenge the relationship to the inheritance of tradition in a society built on activities of trying to forget Aboriginal culture.
That is the curator's version. I found the last sentence quite problematic. That phrase - the inheritance of tradition in a society built on activities of trying to forget Aboriginal culture - seems to me to have no meaning..More precisely, to the degree that it has a meaning, it is simply wrong.

Brook himself seems to have a more nuanced view. "I like the idea of being hypnotised by a pattern, a pattern that can break the programme of how we are supposed to behave and what we are supposed to be doing," he wrote. "For me the pattern represents a matrix. It’s covering the surface and coding this structure and the people who experience it. It can take you somewhere else and I hope that’s what it does."

That I can understand. Did he succeed? Not with me, I fear. I passed it by as just another piece of visual wall paper. Now this may actually be the MCA's fault rather than that of the artist. We live in a visual wall paper world. Images are all around us. To achieve Brooke's objectives with a big piece, you actually need lots of places to sit, freeing the brain to observe different angles, breaking the bounds set by constant exposure to images. In terms of visual language, we are all suffering from the static created by constant over-exposure. We tune out, noting in a fleeting way before moving on.

My overall impression, recognising that this may be grossly unfair?  Beyond the current fashionable political and value concerns so earnestly explained in some of the descriptions, I left the gallery no wiser about either contemporary art in general or Australian contemporary art in particular beyond the hope that what I saw was not representative. I will return, for my original objective of filling gaps in my knowledge remains unfilled.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Australia and the Transparency International Global Corruption Perceptions Index

The release by Transparency International (TI) of the latest global corruption perceptions index has attracted attention in Australia (here for example) because of Australia's slide in the index. The apparent response is that this requires Australia to tighten its anti-corruption legislation. This is quite problematic.

To begin with, the idea that new legislation should be introduced based on other peoples' perceptions is highly suspect in public policy terms. We have far too much legislation as it is based on perceptions of problems as compared to actual problems.

The methodology used by TI to generate the the results is also quite unclear. Maybe someone can help me here. I couldn't find any discussion of methodology on the TI website.

Then, too, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling that Australia's pursuit of corruption from sport to the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption has, of itself, affected perceptions and at two levels. More things are classified as corruption, while the uncovering of problems in its turn heightens perceptions about the existence of corruption. In a way, the more we do, the worse our reputation becomes.

This is not to say that corruption is not an issue, although I would argue that our systems are relatively free of the endemic corruption found in some other countries. However, it is an issue that needs to be addressed in specific contexts. To suggest that we need to introduce new legislation just because our global ranking has slipped on a particular perception index is dumb.

If the slip in our global rankings is perceived to be a problem, then we have to ask why it's a problem. Does it reflect a real problem in this country? If so, we need to identify and act. Or is is just a perception problem? If so, how important is it, noting that Australia still ranks 13, a high number? If we classify perception as a real problem, then we have to look at the way the indices are calculated and their real meaning to define how we should address it..This might include surveys to provide independent validation.

These arguments do not invalidate the broader objectives that TI is trying to achieve. They just say that Australia needs to apply a degree of common sense so far as its own position and responses are concerned.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

That Australian Life - Australia Day

Unlike India's Republic Day which falls on the same day, 26 January, Australia Day, is a funny kind of national holiday because it doesn't have a clear national significance.

By way of background, the First Fleet under Governor Phillip sailed from England on 13 May 1787 to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay, arriving between 10 and 20 January. It quickly became clear that Botany Bay was unsuitable for the intended purposes.

On 21 January, Phillip and a few officers travelled to Port Jackson, 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) to the north to see if it would be a better location for a settlement. They stayed there until 23 January, with Phillip naming the site Sydney Cove.

On the evening of 23 January the party returned to Botany Bay. Phillip gave orders to move the fleet to Sydney Cove the next morning, but a gale prevented departure.On 25 January, the fleet tried again, but only HMS Supply succeeded in leaving carrying Arthur Phillip, Philip Gidley King, some marines and about 40 convicts. The Supply anchored in Sydney Cove in the afternoon of 25 January. . Early next morning, 26 January, Phillip along with a few dozen marines, officers and oarsmen, rowed ashore and took possession of the land in the name of King George III.

After some difficulties, the remainder of the fleet joined the Supply on the 26th. It was not until 7 February 1788 that the formal proclamation establishing the colony under Phillip's governorship was read out.

The 26 January date had varying significance to different people and over time. To the new colonists and their descendants in NSW the day was celebrated early as foundation day. However, the other colonies that emerged selected other days to mark their history. The 1938 celebrations of 150 years since British settlement and the bicentenary celebrations of 1988 helped establish the date nationally, but it was not until 1994 that Australia Day became a uniform national celebration.

The Aboriginal position was more clear cut. 26 January marked the day on which ownership by the British crown was first asserted over part of their lands. Not all; dispossession would be a rolling process. 26 January became Invasion Day to distinguish from Australia Day.

I have been surprised at the extent to which Australia Day has become such a structured national celebration. This photo shows the party at eldest's Copenhagen flat to celebrate this year's Australia Day.

In the beginning, the mass celebration of Australia Day was very much an official thing, mandated and funded by governments at all levels. However, it tapped into the deep threads of patriotism and celebration, of the desire to party, within Australians. Around the world, Australia Day has become an excuse to party.

You will get a feel for this from the text on eldest's Facebook post.
Best first Australia Day celebrations away from home ever - thank you to all the fab people who came to party! ‪#‎copenhagen‬  ‪#‎australiaday2016celebrations‬ ‪#‎pavlova‬‪#‎lamingtons‬ ‪#‎homemadesausagerolls‬ ‪#‎timtams‬‪#‎teachingthedanesaboutsundaysessions‬
In terms of the discussion we have been having on Australian culture, the tags are quite interesting in terms of things Australian, as well as introducing Danes to the more informal aspects of Australian social life.

To Australia's Aboriginal peoples and their supporters, Australia Day remains deeply conflicted. Aboriginal elements have been introduced into all the official functions, but to Invasion Day theme is strong. Many want the date shifted. I have very mixed views here. I am inclined to support shifting the date to remove the conflict elements, but also recognise that this is likely to mute the protests themselves. From the viewpoint of Aboriginal activism, the present date is quite a potent weapon. That will be lost if the date is shifted.

As part of Australia Day, Australians of the Year are announced in various categories. Now here kvd in a comment pointed me to something that has been making me uncomfortable. Quoting a piece by Terry McCrann, it's behind the firewall unfortunately, kvd wrote:
Briefly he is saying that if you look at the list of AOTY recipients, it has moved from a national recognition of significant achievement (Nobel Prizes, Writers, etc.) thru sportsmen and 'celebs', to now more recently 'people with a cause' - Flannery, Batty and now the General - to which we are supposed to subscribe for our betterment. And that's all aside from the fact that (according to him) we are one of the few countries who indulge in an Of The Year award.
I suppose that we can think of this as the politicisation of the Australian of the Year process,
I don't have a problem with the Australian of the Year espousing particular causes, indeed of using the honour to promote those causes. I do have a problem when the award appears to be based on causes.

I suppose that its the republic thing that has most got up my nose in the case of the the latest recipient, David Morrison. Once you introduce cause based nominations, then one's response depends on personal reactions to to the causes.

I accept that this can be a slippery distinction, but my feeling is that it introduces a bias where the cause is important as compared to achievement. Without in any way detracting from General Morrison's achievements, I find myself wondering if I am going to have to campaign against him on issues that he espouses and wishes to use promote via his his new platform. I don't think that's appropriate.

I am much more comfortable with the idea of introducing Danes to the pavlova. Of course, even here there is a problem. Is the pavlova in fact an Australian dish? Many kiwis would say no. In any event, I love pavlovas and am glad that eldest is spreading knowledge of it in Copenhagen.


Problems attached to the advocacy role of the Australian of the Year are well captured in this Canberra Times story, Australian of the Year: Catherine McGregor sorry after saying David Morrison choice was 'weak' Apparently Australian of the Year finalist and transgender military officer Catherine McGregor branded the appointment of her former boss David Morrison to the position as a "weak and conventional choice", but then apologised.

A key paragraph in the story reads:
:The National Australia Day Council Board said it was "very disappointed by the comments made today by the Queensland Australian of the Year, Catherine McGregor, and her apology is appreciated and accepted". 
"The board stands by its decision to select David Morrison as the 2016 Australian of the Year as a champion of diversity and for marginalised communities in Australia, including the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community," the board said in a brief statement.
I don't have a problem with the Australian of the Year adopting an advocacy role. I do have difficulties with selection apparently based on that role. This gets into difficult territory. For example, if someone has been a successful advocate for particular marginalised groups or indeed for social reforms, that would seem to me to be okay, although value judgements are necessarily involved. To select someone or to consider that someone should be selected because they are in some ways best for a future advocacy role would appear to be a very different question. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - Updating Australia's cultural decline following a dash of prehistory

The discovery of an apparent human massacre dating to some 10,000 years ago (Archaeologists unearth the earliest evidence of warfare between hunter-gatherers) has attracted some interest.

There has been something of an apparent running debate between those who argue that hunter-gatherer societies were essentially violent, while others argue that warfare as such came with farming and state power. You see the second in some of the discussion on traditional Aboriginal life where it is argued that Aboriginal society was essentially peaceful. A contrast is then made with the European invaders. I have always thought that this debate was a little a-historical with a fair degree of semantic confusion. For example, what is meant by peaceful or warfare?

Meantime, since I wrote The Sulawesi discoveries: where does Australian prehistory fit? John Hawks has had a useful perspective piece, Somebody was on Sulawesi before 118,000 years ago, while University of New England's Dr Mark Moore who analysed the stone tools recovered from the excavation, reports that the tools were finely crafted with a high degree of skill involved.

Neil Whitfield had an interesting companion post, The state of Australian culture, to my last post, That Australian Life - has Australian culture entered into decline? There he quotes Myf Warhurst's review of Brilliant Creatures:
When the small screen and broader media only reflects back at us who we already are rather than challenging or educating us, surely we’re in a spot of bother? If Brilliant Creatures has a message, it’s that ruffling of feathers and robust viewpoints will be remembered. The rest is wallpaper. And currently, we’ve got plenty of that.
Australians are in danger of disappearing up their own self-reflexive, but thoughtfully designed and padded, backsides. Sadly we’re all too high on the paint fumes of home renovation to give much of a toss.
In discussion, kvd accused me of reverse myopia. There is some truth in that. Although my views have changed over time, I am in part a captive of my own past. We all are.

As part of my train reading, I am reading Clive James Cultural Amnesia.  It's a very good book but also very large! Consequently, I am reading it in bits, mainly delving just before I go to bed. The characters selected and especially the arguments presented reflect the author's times and especially European history and thought before, during and in the decades immediately after the Second World War. This covers the period when his views were formed and when he rose to prominence, something clearly indicated by the subtitle on the English edition of the book, notes in the margin of my time.

Early in the book, Clive James refers to common language that used to provide a degree of unity in intellectual traditions across European cultures. He had poetry especially in mind, the way that memorised poetry provided a linking from Australia to Germany to England to the US to Italy, but it is also a broader point. As sharing declines, understanding becomes more difficult. Reading Cultural Amnesia, I actually wondered how many people in 2016 might understand some of the essays without a knowledge of history and culture.

I digress, but this is a muse. Considering the discussion, I concluded that I had been guilty of sloppy wording, a heinous sin for one who strives if unsuccessfully for clarity in English. I have previously argued in a different context that Australian culture has not declined, that it remains as strong as ever as a unifying element despite growing diversity in Australian society. I am using the term culture here in its broadest sense. What I really meant to say, I think, is that certain aspects of Australian culture have lost their influence in Australia and beyond.

Even here, I could be (and indeed was) challenged. Part of the problem lies in time and overlap effects. If the genesis of something lies in the 1960s and 1970s but continues into the 1980s or beyond, then how do you attribute it? Pub rock is an example. This clearly dates to the 1970s, but peaked in the 1980s. How, then, do you classify it?

I will continue this discussion in a later post. For the moment, I have run out of time.


Since I  wrote this post, Legal Eagle has pointed me to this Economist piece that bears upon  the discussion of the peacefulness or otherwise of hunter gatherer societies as  compared to farming communities.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

That Australian Life - has Australian culture entered into decline?

Triggered by two TV documentaries, Monday Forum - Brilliant Creatures, Blood and Thunder and the culture that formed us concluded:
One unifying theme in these two apparently very different stories lies in a certain brashness in the Australian character and culture, a dislike of cant, that led those involved to push the boundaries. 
This brings me to my questions for this forum. We are all formed by our own experiences. What, to you, is that music or film for that matter that brings back your younger years? Are there distinct features in the Australian cultural experience? 
Since then, there seems to have been something of a wave of programs, some repeats, linked in one way or another with political or cultural history.

On such program was the repeat of Gracie Otto's The Last Impresario, the story of British impresario and film maker Michael White. White's productions included (among many others) Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The photo shows Otto with Michael White. 

A second program was the repeat of the first part of George Megalogenis' documentary Making Australia Great: Inside Our Longest Boom, which first aired in March 2015. Both programs link back to my post. 

Brilliant Creatures focused on four Australians ( Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Robert Hughes) who made their mark in London during the 1960s and 1970s. This was also the period in which Michael White first came to prominence, so there is considerable overlap between the two shows. The thing that surprised me about The Last Impresario was the strong Australian presence. This is not just linked to the fact that Gracie Otto is Australian. More, it reflects the deep penetration of Australians into London life during the period.

Blood and Thunder, a very different program, looks at Australian rock and roll and popular music more broadly. Here one of the themes is the youth rebellion that flowed from the unemployment and disillusionment of the seventies. 

The first part of the seventies was positive, captured in the Whitlam It's Time campaign of 1972. That was the first campaign that featured Australian performers. It marked a new standard in Australian political advertising.

This is the best known ad. Even for someone like me who was not an ALP supporter, it's hard not to get goosebumps.

The first oil shock came in October 1973.That shock triggered the end of the longish period of global prosperity that had been in place sine the end of the Second World Way. Unemployment and especially youth unemployment rose and rose. Megalogenis explores the political ramification, Blood and Thunder the musical.

Here we have three very different periods. Those in Brilliant Creatures came through the Australian university system at a time when, while expanding, it was still elite. Even where from poorer backgrounds, they were effectively children of privilege. Not for them the need to focus on careers or the need for vocational qualifications.

Pop culture is always more reflective of young people as a whole. The  Australian bands who stormed to success came from very different backgrounds. They may have reflected youth angst, but it was a very different angst.

And since 1980? Here I have been struggling. The period since 1980 has been one of massive change in Australian wealth and society. But I am hard pressed to identify one Australian cultural trend, movement or group of people that has had impact beyond Australian shores that doesn't actually date to the 1970s or before. Am I wrong? What do you think?