Personal Reflections

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

China and Australia; China's economic power is less than we think

My post, China's apparently expanding Great Wall against Australia (18 November 2020), was an attempt to sort out my own views in the face of deteriorating relations between China and Australia. The position has continued to deteriorate since I wrote:

  • Temporary "anti-dumping security deposits" have been imposed on Australian wine deposits, equivalent to tariffs ranging from 107 to more than 200 per cent. The effect is to block Australian wine from the Chinese market 
  • Some seventy bulk coal carriers are still held up waiting to dock in China, entry blocked by Chinese "environmental" concerns. Coal is now being diverted to other markets
  • An image, depicting a grinning Australian soldier holding a blood-stained knife to the throat of an Afghan child, was posted yesterday on the verified account of China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. An angry Australian Prime Minister demanded an apology, leading to the Chinese Foreign Ministry apparently doubling down on the issue. 
    In my previous post I suggested that the Australian Government's position suffered from lack of subtlety, noting that Mr Morrison was not an especially subtle man. I also noted that we had no control over the Chinese Government. It will  do what it will do. If we are to be punished, we will be punished. We just have to get on with life regardless. Our responses are the only things that we can control. 

    I'm not sure that Mr Morrison could have handled the image matter differently given local circumstances. You will find Mr Morrison's press conference on the matter here. I suspect that I might have said that, unlike China, Australia was prepared to deal with its problems in an open, transparent fashion and then moved on.  Still, that might not have been wise either! The alternative would have been to trivialize the tweet.

    As I write, the Chinese Embassy has apparently just issued a press release. I quote from Sky News:
     The Chinese Embassy has responded to the uproar from federal government ministers and media over a fake social media post from Chinese Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, claiming Australia was misreading and overreacting to the image.

    The embassy claimed the "the rage and roar" of some Australian politicians and media was designed to "deflect public attention from the horrible atrocities by certain Australian soldiers" and to "blame China for the worsening of bilateral ties". 

    "These may be another attempt to stoke domestic nationalism," the embassy said.

    "All of this is obviously not helpful to the resetting of the bilateral relationship. It's our advice the Australian side faces up to crimes committed by the Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, hold those perpetrators accountable, and bring justice to the victims.

    "We also urge the Australian side to face up to the crux of the current setback of the bilateral relationship and take constructive, practical steps to help bring it back on track."
    I said that Australian responses lacked subtlety. In fairness to Australian ministers, they have tried hard to focus on specific issues, treating Chinese trade claims in due process terms, Mr Morrison himself has also tried to restate Australia's position. Here I quote from Mr Morrison's answer to a question at the BCA AGM.
    QUESTION: Thank you Jennifer. Good evening Prime Minister, and thank you again. My question is also about a topic that not be so concise and what’s your views on our relationship with China and the various trade bans and export bans that some sectors face and importantly your comments on what we can do as business to manage business to business relationship and trading partnerships from a business point of view? 

    PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is a very difficult issue and I won't pretend it's not. There are clearly tensions there and have been played out again over the last couple of days but I think what we've seen over the last couple of days is you know what is more at the source of these tensions. Australia has always been keen for a productive, open, respectful, mutually beneficial partnership with China and we've put a lot of effort into that over a long period of time as have, as have the members of the BCA who sit around this table and so many outside. Australia has not changed, our view is the same. Our view about our national interests, our view about securing those interests, whether it's on foreign investment or technology or communications or wherever it happened to be, our Ag sector, how our polity runs, how our freedom of our press, our parliaments, our views on all of these things haven't changed they're exactly the same but I, I had not seen before say, 10 or 20 years ago, and I often have these conversations with former Prime Minister Howard. It was a very different China back then. You wouldn't have seen a list of alleged grievances come out of the Chinese Embassy that we've seen in the last 24 hours. You wouldn't have seen that list 15 years ago. That was not the outlook that was there about Australia but Australia is no different to back then. Australia's democracy, what we stand for how we stand up for those things when we speak out, what we believe is important, the integrity of our systems. These are things that we won't compromise and I understand that others understand this as well. It struck me, as I said on the media this morning, that the tension is based on Australia just being Australia. Now, some suggest that this all could be fixed by a phone call. I think that doesn't really appreciate what's really at stake here. Australia has never, at any stage, not been willing to have a meeting or pick up the phone but I'll tell you what I'm not prepared to do. I'm not prepared to agree to a meeting on the condition that Australia compromise and trade away any of those things that were frankly listed in that, in that unofficial list of grievances. Some of them were misconstrued. The other thing that we struggle with and I've mentioned this in some of my national international speeches this year, is it's important that people understand, those who are dealing with Australia, that we set our own agenda, that we have our own interests and we make our own decisions. We don't make decisions at the behest of other countries. Never have, never will. We make our own decisions. If people or countries are unhappy with decisions Australia has made, that's not because someone else told us to do it. It's because we've decided to do it. So we're the ones who can talk about it and we can sit down and help to build understanding about the decisions we’ve taken. I think that's very important. Australia's relationship with both the US and China can't be seen through the prism of China's relationship with the United States or the US's relationship with China. That's their relationship. Where they've got issues in that relationship, that's up to them. We have relationships with both of them, just as Japan does where I was just yesterday and the day before and so it would be, I think, unfair to look at Australia's decisions and Australia's policies as somehow a function of our relationships with other countries and so I would hope that we can make this point, that we remain always very keen to continue to pursue a mutually beneficial relationship but if Australia just being itself, is the cause for tensions, then that's not something that we can change and so we need to be able to push through that and continue to hold to those perspectives in a polite and respectful way as we can but it's, being Australia is something we should never apologise for. Now, it's important that we work through the technical issues that are raised in relation to trade. Now, the Chinese government rejects any notion that, I assume, that the issues that have been raised as the source of the tension is is is the product is being worked out through these trade, these trade issues. That's a matter for them. But we just have to practically work through those through the channels we've got and we will and if others are introduced into that for whatever reason, then we'll just have to practically and patiently work through that as well. But you know, the Indo-Pacific will benefit from trading relationships like the RCEP we agreed to last weekend, where partners can deal openly and confidently with each other and in a transparent way, and where there are tensions and I said this at the RCEP meeting on the weekend that where there are issues that arise, then leaders and ministers have to be prepared to talk to each other. Now, I'm very prepared to do that but all it takes is for that to be arranged. 
    I have quoted this in full despite it's length because it is a quite important foreign policy response. 

    As I said, we cannot control China, only our responses. 

    My personal view is that China's so called "wolf diplomats" have overreached.  They have mixed together too many messages, in so doing ensuring that their apparent external aims cannot be achieved. This is a big topic, so I just want to focus on one thing, trade.

    In a piece in the Conversation, Rod Tyers and Yixiao Zhou argued that an all-out trade war with China would cost Australia 6% of GDP. I actually think that Australians might accept that just at present, but it's not as clear cut as that. 

    We have seen with President Trump that trade restrictions are a very imperfect weapon. As a simple example, according to the Hellenic Shipping News the diversion of high grade Australian coking coal from China to India and Japan as a consequence of trade blockages has already delivered China an own goal by giving the Japanese and Indian steel industries a price advantage over their Chinese competitors. 

    Still, for the purposes of discussion, let's assume that over the next few years China moves to cut Australian imports to zero. It won't happen, but it's a good working assumption. The arguments about relative costs and benefits assume, correctly enough, that Australia is a small economy relative to the size of China's and that Australia will therefore suffer more. It's not quite as clear cut as that. 

    Take coal as an example. The loss of the Chinese market to Australia coal will open the Chinese market place to others. That coal will be sourced from local Chinese higher cost producers, that imposes a cost on China,  or from other other producers. As coal is sent to China from other sources, that will open a market for Australian coal in other markets, The end result may be lower prices for Australian coal, but this is actually not clear. 

    Or consider all the imported inputs in Australian production that come from China. Australian producers or importers would shift from China to other sources such as Vietnam. Australian is not a huge market in global terms, between one and three percent, but it's not insignificant. The shift of Australian demand to other suppliers would give those suppliers a scale advantage in competing against China. 

    As I said, a total trade ban is not likely, but Chinese trade restrictions can only really hurt Australia in the short term. Perhaps more importantly, China is still proclaiming its support for an open trading order. It can only impose so much cost on Australia before its claims become absurd. 

    So in all this, I think that we can just take a cool head, at least in trade terms. China can hurt, but it's economic power is more limited than people realise.           


    Thursday, November 26, 2020

    Discomfort and discordance when your own past becomes part of history

     It’s strange when you read a history that is analysing events that you lived through yourself. The events are familiar, of course, but there’s also an element of surprise at things you didn’t realize at the time, and at the matters that the historian has placed emphasis on, when you weigh them against your own perspectives and memories. It’s also rather disconcerting to realize that your own lifespan is now considered ‘history’.‘ The Resident Judge of Port Phillip reviewing Michelle Arrow's "The Seventies: The personal, the political and the making of modern Australia." 

    I must say that this comment struck a real cord. There is something disconcerting about about finding part of your life the subject of history, to find that what individual historians select as important jars with your own recollections and lived experience. 

    Aquarius Festival Nimbin, May 1973

    Historians select their own questions based on what they are interested in and consider to be important. Inevitably this is based on the present. But if you lived through a period, if it's still in your current memory, then those selected topics may seem peripheral or, if important, less important than other questions you considered to be important at the time. Your views may be re-balanced with time and new experiences, that is inevitable and indeed desirable, but there is a discordance.

    This has been much on my mind because of the introductory course I have been delivering on the history of the broader New England, the New England Tablelands and surrounding river valleys. The last part of the course covered the period from 1945 to 2000, including the 1970s. Here I had to choose what I should focus on, what to include and exclude, how much weight to place on particular issues, recognising that I could not cover everything. I also had to recognise my own biases. 

    The approach I followed was based in part on the geographic area under study. Was it relevant to the history of the area under study.? As an example, I said very little about the Whitlam period because much of that story including the dismissal was not relevant to my story. 

    My approach was also influenced by the fact that I was looking forward, not back. By the time I came to the 1970s I had spent multiple lectures sketching out the area's history. I needed to address change from the perspective of what had come before. Looking forward with questions dictated by the past is very different from looking back with  questions dictated by the present. 

    Let me try to illustrate.The 1970s were a tip decade, one that marked a break between the Australian present and past. This was also a period that marked the start of a structural decline within New England, this actually began earlier but accelerated, that would consign many of the things that we had talked about on the course, the dreams and aspirations, to the dustbins of history. I had to address this, to try to explain.        

    Consider the rise of the counter-culture movement that included the Aquarius Festival but began in the sixties. 

    This was part of a global phenomenon that had considerable local impacts in social and cultural terms. I tried to explain that. However, the combination of cheap rural land associated with the decline of dairying, the rise of the surfing culture and the counter-culture movement marked the start of a sea-change rush in the 1980s that would, among other things, totally disrupt the balance that had existed in populations terms between coastal and inland New England. In so doing, it would disrupt and then break the sense of Northern identity that had previously facilitated cooperation between local and regional areas despite intense parochialism. 

    That is one example. There are many others. 

    I was at least a bit player in many of the events I am trying to teach. In some case, I am still a player.

    This raises obvious questions of perception and bias.  But it also creates a sense of dislocation at many levels. I read histories that conflict with my lived experience. Then in trying to teach, I have to challenge my own perceptions and memories. It's a sometimes uncomfortable experience!  


    Sunday, November 22, 2020

    Sunday Essay - Armidale: avoiding submergence in the local


    Beardy Street Armidale, 1964

    It's very hot in Armidale today, 28.0C as I write. I find the heat enervating. I suppose that's a sign of just how much I have acclimatised in the twelve months since my return to Armidale. 

    Writing of growing up in Armidale. I said that it was an unusual experience, intensely local on one side, international on the other.

    The very particular rhythms  of life in Armidale and, to a lesser degree, the North dominated life. Sydney was remote, Oxford and Cambridge closer. I was more aware of global developments than I was of events in that parochial metro centre huddled round its harbour. Even then, the city's growth had created its own urban sprawl with outlying suburbs that few visited or knew much about. 

    From birth until my twentieth birthday I visited Sydney perhaps eight times. 

    Three of those trips were to Manly for holidays, creating an image in my mind of central Manly, the harbour and ferries and the Sydney CBD. Childhood memories are vivid, I remember the way that pineapple crush made my nose sting with the cold. 

    Two of the trips were were for sporting events, one running in the GPS athletics, one  to play rugby.against Cranbrook. Two more were transiting Sydney on the way too or from New Zealand. In all cases I stayed in what might be called the inner city or at least that area and immediate suburbs. In the remaining trips I transited Sydney, spending the day wandering around Central waiting for my next train.  

    Later and especially after I moved to Canberra, I would visit Sydney many times, For the moment, I am simply trying to illustrate how remote Sydney was when I was growing up. I came from a middle class family. Many people had less money and fewer opportunities to interact with Sydney. Many had never been to Sydney at all. 

    Tattersall's Hotel, Armidale, before modifications in the 1930s

    Once I decided to return to Armidale to live, I started to dig back in to create and recreate links. I knew that the city had changed and had no automatic expectation that I would fit in. I had to earn my place. As it happened, I need not have worried. My newspaper columns have given me a continuing base in town. Indeed, many did not realise that I was not living in Armidale and indeed had not for twenty years.  I also found that the combination of my personal history  with the work done in rebuilding my connections had paid of in ways I could never have expected. But I also found a problem.

    Armidale is a scarred city, scarred by history and present lack of vision. I find this difficult to describe. 

    Arnidale as a city has been greatly affected by external decisions and especially by externally imposed changes in education, now the city's main industry. Those changes are externally imposed I find that people are focused on internal responses, on the failure of those responses, not the challenges themselves I find that people are so concerned with parry and issues divides, areas dealt in absolutes, that they cannot respond to cross-areas except in political or preferred issues framework, 

    I experienced this in the context of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Authority (APVMA)  move to Armidale. In the face of virulent attack from ACM's Canberra Times, I attempted to mount a counter case based on economic and policy analysis. I struggled. 

    The Armidale Express simply picked up the arguments from its fellow ACM masthead. Those opposed to Mr Joyce attacked the move. Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon said that anybody who expected the move to happen had rocks in their head. There were arguments about the procurement process, arguments picked up in detail by the Canberra Times.  In the end, APVMA did move, but Armidale did not deserve the move. It had worked very hard to stop it. 

    During the APVMA discussion, Col Murray as Mayor of Tamworth attacked the  APVMA move. It was, he suggested, featherbedding Armidale. Why shouldn't Tamworth get benefits from decentralisation? While I attacked him at the time, I have to say that I have some sympathy with the Mayor. 

    When both the Teachers' College (!929) and the University College (1938) were established in Armidal,e there was no opposition from the Northern Press nor from other Northern towns. Ii was seen a a logical extension that would benefit all, Today, Armidale residents and many civic leaders oppose water to the Costa tomato plant in Guyra, the extension of university education in Tamworth, on the grounds that it might damage Armidale. And then Armidale people wonder why those outside the city oppose things that might benefit Armidale! 

    At the moment, I am working on a new project, the development of a new approach to UNE's Heritage Centre.   Success depends on getting people to recognise the benefits that the Centre offers to Northern NSW and beyond. Sometimes I regard Armidale as the greatest impediment to success.  

    If this is seen as an Armidale focused initiative it's dead, wrecked on the rocks of dislike of Armidale. I really had no idea how great this had become until I returned. If we come up with a model that involves diminution of the Armidale role, can we sell it in Armidale?

    Bluntly,  Armidale needs to ship up, to adopt a a broader Northern perspective, or it should really ship out.

    Wednesday, November 18, 2020

    China's apparently expanding Great Wall against Australia


    The signature on Sunday 15 November 2020 of  the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) after eight years of negotiations should mark a step forward, combining China, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea alongside members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), 

    I say this with a considerable degree of caution because it comes at a time when China is apparently raising barriers against Australian trade in retaliation for what it sees as Australian wrong doing. The latest escalation came when a defence pact, the Reciprocal Access Agreement, was agreed to '"in principle" during Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's state visit to Japan, The agreement would pave the way for the Australian and Japanese militaries to have access to each other's bases, and would deepen cooperation between the two countries. China, correctly, sees this as a reaction to its international objectives.

    According to the ABC,  an editorial in the Global Times published in both Chinese and English for domestic and foreign audiences framed the two countries as pawns of the United States.
    "China is unlikely to remain indifferent to US moves aimed at inciting countries to gang up against China in the long run," it read.
    "It's inevitable that China will take some sort of countermeasures.
    "Countries like Japan and Australia have been used as US tools. The strategic risk for a tool to be damaged is certainly higher than that of a user." 
    We do not know what form those counter measures might take, but they could well involve further trade retaliation. The process here has been interesting. Apart from not taking Australian ministerial calls, trade retaliation has involved a series of apparently actual or threatened ad hoc decisions that act to impede or sometimes stop Australian exports of particular products. The process is opaque in that actions or potential actions can come at local or regional level Chinese level via reports in the Chinese media allowing a measure of deniability. This can have the same chilling effect on trade because it means that Australian exporters have to make commercial decisions based on the costs and risks of possible Chinese decisions. The measures taken skirt the WTO rules as China tries to balance its official support for free global trade with the need to punish Australia.

    The Australian Government's position suffers from lack of subtlety. Australian PM Morrison is not an especially subtle man. He is not helped by ideological warriors such as Senator Abetz whose treatment of Chinese witnesses to a senate inquiry where he called on them to  “unconditionally condemn” the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was to my mind unconscionable, reminiscent of a certain US Senator in the immediate post war period. If I had been a witness and had been asked that question I would have refused and fired right back. 

     In all this, I think that there are certain things that we should remember:
    • Chinese Australians are an integral part of our community. Some have been here for many generations. Others, like Senator Arbetz himself, were brought here by their parents. Others are more recent migrants.They are valuable members of our community. Some, I would like more, have been my friends
    • The Government's present focus on national security and the avoidance of foreign interference may or may not be right. More likely, it's partly right. However, it strikes me as very ham fisted and poorly implemented 
    • Australia is, at best, a mid-size power. We need to recognise that. Theodore Roosevelt reportedly said, "speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." We need to speak still more softly because our stick is small. This does not mean giving up on our values or core interests. It does affect how we express them. It also means that we need allies
    • We need to recognise that other people's values are different from ours. This does not mean that that we should not protest abuses. We just need to recognise limitations, as well as the beams in our own eyes. I winder how many recognise the allusion? It comes from the Bible where criticism of the mote in some one else's eyes is contrasted with the failure to recognise the beam in our own
    • We have no control over the Chinese Government. It will  do what it will do. If we are to be punished, we will be punished. We just have to get on with life regardless. Our responses are the only things that we can control.   
    I suppose, in conclusion, that we are trying to build a new and different society in Australia, I think that we need to focus on that, for that gives us the best chance of a future. 

    Postscript 191120

    Even as I wrote this, the position was deteriorating. This ABC story, Australian officials respond angrily to fresh attacks from Chinese diplomat, provides a picture. 

    A new phrase has been added to the English language, Chinese "wolf diplomats", diplomats who see their role not in traditional terms but in the aggressive public pursuit of their country's interests.  I corrected this. I had written tiger eather than wolf. 

    Postscript 201120

    More from the BBC

    Sunday, November 15, 2020

    Covid-19, lunch in Uralla and the Great Barrington Declaration

    Lunch today at Uralla's Top Pub. It's a pretty pub. 

    Sitting there on the shaded verandah watching the passing parade, I thought how lucky we were. Yes, the covid-19 distancing regulations are still in place, and indeed the pub has a very active covid safety plan, but it's close to normal life. 

    On 24 October in Have we got the balance right between freedom and protecting the vulnerable?, Winton argues that restrictions have now gone too far.

    "It seems to me that Australians should be giving serious consideration to the approach advocated in the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) of a group of infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists. The GBD advocates focused protection of those most vulnerable, whilst allowing the rest of the community to live their lives normally and to build up immunity through natural infection.

    The GBD approach offers the best hope we have of life returning to normal in a reasonable time frame. If we do not get an effective vaccine or treatment, natural immunity offers the only hope that life can ever return to normal. If an effective vaccine or treatment becomes available over the next few months, that will remove most of the risks associated with the GBD approach. As I see it, there is no good reason why life in Australia should not return to normal very soon after vulnerable people have been offered the protection of a vaccine." 

    The Declaration has come under attack. This piece in the Conversation, 5 failings of the Great Barrington Declaration’s dangerous plan for COVID-19 natural herd immunity, is an example. 

    I have argued that that the restrictions in this country have lacked subtlety and nuance. However, it is hard to argue that they have been unsuccessful. They contrast with an explosion of cases in the UK, Europe and the US leading to the imposition of  renewed lock-downs.

    I don't think that anyone believes that there will not be more covid cases in Australia. I also think that once international travel opens up as it must, the probability of new cases will increase. But what the restrictions have done is buy us time. 

    I am not an epidemiological expert, but what does stand out to me are the variations in the pattern of both the pandemic and responses between jurisdictions and, possibly, ethnic groups. I'm not sure what I make of this. My feeling is that later analysis  of these variations will tell us much, including the extent to which herd immunity has worked and in what time horizon. 

    Meantime, I'm just glad that we were able to have our lunch in Uralla!   

    Postscript 18/11/20

    The current covid outbreak in Adelaide and the subsequent imposition of a six day lockdown across South Australia shows just how quickly things can change. The outbreak seems to have begun in a "medi-hotel", the name used in SA for hotels providing quarantine facilities for returned travellers. 

    This outbreak seems to have some new features. The SA Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier is reported as saying that the particular strain of the virus is breeding “very, very rapidly” with a short incubation period of about 24 hours, and with infected people showing only minimal symptoms. The last sounds good!  


    Monday, November 09, 2020

    Differences in interview techniques - Geraldine Doogue V Fran Kelly


    I spend a fair bit of time listening to radio. One of my all time favourite programs is the ABC's Saturday Extra, hosted by Geraldine Doogue. I always learn something new.

    Thinking about this, it's partly a question of topic and guest selection, partly a matter of interview style.

    Unlike, say, the ABC's Fran Kelly who uses closed questions in which she states an opinion and then demands that the interviewee agree with it, Geraldine uses more open questions. While she expresses opinions, her questions are more open, more inviting a dialogue. 

    I have been listening to Fran for a long time and am fond of her, but do wish that she would change her approach. I accept that there are format differences between the programs including less time that impose additional constraints on Fran. But too often I find myself saying shut-up Fran. You are standing between your guest and me. I know what you believe, I want to find out about your guest's views. And if you want to pin your guest down, you need to change your question format. At the moment, your encourage set piece responses that allow the guest to simply sit on and hold a standard line independent of the question. 


    Thursday, November 05, 2020

    Which day would you nominate for "Bad Management Day."

    Custer's last stand. When leadership goes wrong!

    In a response to my post Saturday Morning Musings - on the modern fallacy of leadership, my old friend Noric Dilanchian came up with three rather good topics for me to write about: 

    •  “Desperately seeking great managers”
    • “Theory and management sausage, leadership sizzle”
    • “Great leaders at dawn, failed managers at sunset”
    I will do so, but for the moment I am just recording his suggestions for later use, 

    Searching around, I found the Custer graphic in a 2015 post by John Hollon, The Lessons of Custer: Five Things to Consider on “Bad Management Day” John suggests that 25 June should be "commemorated" as bad management day because it is the date of Custer's last stand.  

    I see his point, but there are other choices. I wondered which date you might nominate to be selected for Bad Management Day?

    Wednesday, November 04, 2020

    Merle Curti and the US elections

    Merle Curti in 1929. First published in 1944, his book, The Growth of American Thought, remains a masterpiece. 

    The American elections are on as I write. While I think that Mr Biden is in front, I  am still unsure as to the final result. It could go either way, I think. We may know by the time that you read this. 

    Reading and listening to the election commentary, I was reminded of just what a complex place the US is. 

    I had come home to Armidale to work on my thesis, staying with my parents once again after many years. I did not know it, but both would be dead within three years, making the time very important in retrospect. 

    In many ways, these were a golden two years. I had no responsibilities and could just enjoy myself, dropping back into patterns from my undergraduate years. As part of this, I read and read, books that had nothing to do with my thesis. One of those books was Merle Curti's The Growth of American Thought.  

    I had no idea that it was quite a famous work. I just plucked it off my father's shelves. There, sitting at night on the bed in my unheated bedroom (it was winter in Armidale), I devoured the book over a week. I had studied US history to some degree, I was interested in US politics, but the book showed me how little I knew.  That view was re-affirmed later when I visited the US for the first time. Sure, I was knowledgeable, sometimes knowing more of US history than the people I spoke too, but I knew that I didn't properly understand the variety and complexity of regional variation across America. 

    Later the book would inform my own own approach to writing about the history of New England. Curti dealt not just with the headline, big picture stuff, but with the patterns of thought that evolved in the homes and on the farms; with the agricultural societies, the almanacks, land grant universities and the fight for education. He deals not just with the elites, the educated classes that feature in so much discussion, but with the broader society with all its regional and other variation. 

    I have not read the book for many years, my memory may be imperfect, but I am talking about its lasting impact in my memory. I hadn't realised until quite recently how much it had affected me. Now when I am trying to talk about patterns of thought and regional life in my area of interest, when I switch from history societies to museums to agricultural shows, to books and art, to varying political views and philosophies,  I feel that I am following Curti.

    The US elections will work themselves out.  The patterns across the US show the variety in US life and society. I don't think that it helps, although it may be interesting, to apply universal standards or conclusions, dictated by particular view sets. Better, I think, just to watch and then conclude.   

    Monday, November 02, 2020

    Can R M Williams regain its traditional Australian marketplace?


    Back in 2013 in Australian life - R M Williams & Australian Country Style I wrote that a 49.9 per cent share in the iconic Australian brand had been sold to L Capital Asia, a private equity fund sponsored by French luxury giant LVMH Group. The intent was to extend the global reach of the R M Williams' brand.

    The company has now been purchased by Australian billionaire Twiggy Forrest, bringing it back under Australian control. Like many Australians, I am pleased at that. 

    I do wonder, however, if R M Williams can reclaim its traditional country market place following its shift towards the urban and fashion market place, Reflecting, it's a number of years since I bought R M Williams because the brand had become very expensive and ceased to meet my needs. I would like to return! We will see.  

    Sunday, November 01, 2020

    Queensland elections give a status quo result

    Winners are grinners: Queensland Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk 

    While votes are still being counted in yesterday's Queensland election, it seems clear that Annastacia Palaszczuk's Labor Government has achieved a comfortable win.

    Going into the election I wasn't sure of the results. My reading of the opinion polls suggested a Labor victory. but everyone was hedging their bets, suggesting that regional and seat variations might affect the results.

    As has happened before, both commentary and social media feeds were affected by starting partisan positions. This is normal. Social media is a vehicle for attempted persuasion, for the repetition or reinforcement of personal views. This creates an echo chamber effects At best, it provides a rough guide to issues and the beliefs of individual protagonists or groups. 

    I mention this because I once allowed myself to be influenced by the volume of social media commentary in a particular by-election. It was a salutatory lesson because the final result bore no relationship to the picture presenting over social media. I was actually mortified. This was an electorate I knew very well  and I should have just followed my own instincts.

    Analysts, commentators and the parties are already chewing over the entrails of the election. I'm reluctant to add to this process, but cannot help myself by adding a few comments of my own. 

    I would be very careful about reading too much into the results. In a strange way, this was a status quo election, dominated by covid-19. We have already seen in Australia how covid-19 benefits governments in power so long as they are seen to have performed acceptably. It's a steady ship mentality.

    This benefited Labor at the expense of the LNP (Liberal National Party). The LNP was already behind at State level and struggled to come back, That said, the LNP lost seats but was not decimated, It retains a base for the future, 

    The Greens have won a second seat with the benefit of LNP preferences. The Greens and LNP may be opposing ideological warriors, but both see Labor as an enemy, The preference deal gave the Greens a boost, thus keeping them nibbling away at the Labor Party.

    The fall in the One Nation vote has been hailed as a success, the end of the ONP. I don't see it that way. The ONP retained its one seat (the incumbency factor) and also scored quite well in individual seats.They retain a base for the future as a right wing Green equivalent. 

    The Katter Australia Party (KAP) retained its three seats as did the one independent. It did so in the face of multiple challenges. Again, a status quo result. KAP is a regional party. It retains a base for the future to be actioned once covid-19 has gone. 

    Vovid-19 made this election a one-off. Despite this, I am struck by how little changed.    

    Saturday, October 31, 2020

    The importance of nuanced history - a note

    There was an interesting short post on Christopher Moore's History News, Historical Ethics. The post begins:

    In 2017 the Law Society of British Columbia removed all the honours and distinctions it had previously given to Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, appointed in 1858 as the first and for a long time only judge in the new colony of British Columbia. Statues were taken down, etc. The Society was acting on a report that condemned Begbie for disregarding indigenous law, putting to death warriors of the Chilcotin war of 1864, and having "negative" and racist views.  

    This decision was challenged by a group of B.C. lawyers, many of them long active in indigenous legal matters and legal history, put it to the Society that, while it was appropriate that Begbie no longer be considered the symbol of justice in British Columbia, the report was inaccurate and misleading and unworthy of the Society. They provided evidence to the contrary to the Law Society. When they got no response,  they took their case to the (virtual) annual general meeting of the Law Society, put forward their case as a motion -- and got it passed. I leave you to read Christopher's post for more details. 

    Christopher is concerned with questions of both accuracy and nuance in history or, perhaps more precisely, the use of history. The case against Begbie was apparently both inaccurate and also failed to recognise his other achievements. 

    My first instinctive reaction was highly sympathetic to Christopher's position, Indeed it still is. However, reflections on my own experience illustrated how difficult the whole area is.

    I have written a fair bit over time on questions of selection, perception and bias in the writing of history. I have tried to suggest that bias is inevitable in the questions we ask and the way we frame our arguments. However, in practising our craft we have to be guided by the evidence even where it is contrary to our views. More importantly, we have to present the history in such a way that it is checkable and potentially refutable. 

    When I was CEO of the then Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists I consciously used the College's history to support changes that I wanted to make. In that sense, I was no different from those today who are seeking to use history to bring about change including removal of monuments. I was trying to select and weight elements in the College's history to bring about the changes I wanted. However, my selections had to be defensible in terms of evidence. I could not just use history willy-nilly regardless of the evidence.   

    I have been running an introductory course on the history of Australia's New England, the Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys to the north, south, east and west. It's an adult education class and a fairly big effort with 20 lectures and 9 discussion groups. I have found it more time consuming than I expected because the material that I am delivering is new. There are no overall texts. My blogging has suffered as a consequence. I console myself that once the task is complete I will be able to use the material to complete some other writing projects.

    I have found that the act of teaching has forced me to address some of the questions that Christopher raises. This is an area where I have some strong beliefs, where I and my own family have been involved in events. I have tried to manage this by pointing to my own biases,

    The course also involves contested territories. I have consciously put that in plural. 

    The impact of European settlement on New England's Aboriginal peoples is an example. 

    I had already presented three lectures on Aboriginal history up to 1788. This is contested territory in itself. I was challenged by Aboriginal people who held different views, including the belief that Aboriginal people had been here from time immemorial. 

    I then described the spread of European settlement over the penal and pastoral expansion periods. In doing so, I said that I was consciously leaving the impact on the Aboriginal peoples aside to set a context, for later discussion.

    I then devoted two lectures to the impact of occupation against the framework of the pattern of early European occupation, This allowed me to some degree to sketch out the differing patterns of occupation and response. I then took two case studies, the Hunter and the New England Tablelands, to show how patterns replicated while varying, to explain nuances.  

    The invasion period is contested territory. My approach meant that I barely mentioned massacres, a dominant trope today. Instead, I focused on the patterns of impact and response, starting with impacts such as disease that extended beyond the moving frontier and on the Aboriginal response. I had wanted to use this as a base for telling the story of later Aboriginal history. It's important because it hasn't been written, but I ran out of time and could only sketch later elements. 

    Dealing with these type of issues is obviously uncomfortable. This is where nuance comes in. We are concerned with what happened and the pattern is rarely black and white.   


    Saturday, October 17, 2020

    Saturday Morning Musings - on the modern fallacy of leadership

    I have commented before about the sometimes inverse correlation between the public prominence of an issue and on-ground reality. 

    The 1990s were a period of restructuring during which many older workers in particular lost their jobs, many never to find work again. This was also the time when the literature and commentary focused on the importance of HR and proper people management. 

    As we moved into the 2000s there was a growing focus on maximising the value of the brand. This was the time that newspapers stopped being newspapers and became mastheads instead. While the trend was pronounced at this time, it really dates back to an earlier idea, the idea that managing a larger firm was in fact managing a portfolio of businesses rather than a firm and its individual businesses as organic entities. Value maximisation came from managing the portfolio to extract maximum short term cash either directly or though buying and selling operations or trademarks. Perhaps not surprisingly, the focus on maximising the value of the brand coincided with a period of brand destruction.   

    I recognise that what I have written is a bit rough and ready. I really need to go through and consolidate my business and management posts to tease things out. I have been writing on this stuff for long enough so that my posts and my own changing views provide something of an historical context, including the role of management fads and fancies. Still, it sets a context for this morning's brief muse. 

    Listening to the radio I was struck by the focus on leadership and failings in leadership. In political terms we have the focus on the role of Premier Andrews in Victoria, in NSW on the extent to which Premier Berejiklian's status as leader has been diminished by the problems surrounding her personal life. In business, the problems facing Crown Casino are being attributed to a lack of leadership combined with failures in compliance. 

    I'm not quite sure when this focus on leadership and failures in leadership first emerged and then became dominant. I am old enough to remember the older focus on management that was then swept away, replaced by leadership. 

    To my mind, our current leadership focus is highly problematic. 

    The word leader literally means the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country. This compares with one standard definition of manager, a person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff. These two functions are different. 

    Hitler was clearly a great leader, one who could command loyalty. However, he was a hopeless manager who led his country into a disastrous war where his incompetence as a manger guaranteed Germany's final loss. Alexander the Great was another great leader, but his empire fell to bits with his death. Churchill was a great leader, one whose leadership attributes were uniquely suited to the times. but he was not an especially effective manager. In business, Harold  Geneen built International Telephone and Telegraph into a great conglomerate, but his centralised authoritarian style left the company ill-equipped to survive his death.     

    I have given these examples to try to illustrate the difference between leadership and management. To my mind, many of the problems that people attribute to poor leadership are actually management problems. In NSW and Victoria, the problems that emerged in the covid-19 responses did not reflect lack of leadership - both premiers were playing leadership roles in their own effective ways - but instead represented management failures.  Despite my reasonably extensive public and private sector management experience, I could not understand why the decision processes were so chaotic, why decisions were undocumented. Then I reflected on my own experience. 

    Some years ago I chose to drop back down the hierarchy, to do contract work to try to support my writing addition. I ended up doing contract work within the NSW Public Service, working at a level I last worked at in my twenties. I was struck by just how sclerotic, centralised and hierarchical the system had become. As a simple example, there were five reporting levels between my policy position and the minister, each level with its own sign-off requirements. 

    I was also struck by the absence of real management in the sense of managing people and resources to achieve objectives. Many old management functions had been taken over by centralised computer systems where the role of the "manager" had diminished to a tick-box compliance role. The "manager" had also to ensure compliance with a far greater range of policies, procedures and training requirements that, while no doubt important, had peripheral relevance to primary roles. Something akin to the older structures continued in some functional delivery areas for practical reasons, but in broad terms I was struck by the absence of management as I had known it.   

    During this period I had to undergo ethics training. This wasn't ethics training as I had known it with its focus on the role and responsibilities, rather more training in compliance and fraud prevention. As part of the training, we were given a number of actual case studies. Talking to the trainer later, I said that the thing that stood out to me in the cases was the absence of over-sight. As a reasonably hands-on manger, I would have expected to pick the problems up early from direct observation or through the management information systems. Now there appeared to be two problems: the management information that might have revealed the problems was not necessarily accessible to the line manager, while the role and responsibility of those in "management" roles had diminished. They simply didn't have the supervisory access or responsibility that might have triggered an early response or even prevented the problem in the first place.

    One feature of the decline in management has been a diminution in the role of and number of middle managers. We call this thinning out. The argument is that reducing the number of middle managers will save money and create efficiencies and responsiveness through flatter structures. This process is facilitated by modern computer systems. In practice, I have come to think that it actually increases hierarchy and centralisation, reducing the scope and role of managers.

    I am, I think, a reasonably good manager measured by results and the loyalty and enthusiasm of my people. In becoming so, I went through a seasoning process combining a genuine interest in management with a staged increase in responsibility. 

    By the time I became a section head I had been both 2IC and acting section head. It was a reasonably big section, nine staff, combining policy and processing responsibilities in a particular area. I then had considerable experience as an acting branch head before being appointed a branch head. Now managing branches with up to 39 staff and multimillion dollar program budgets I wasn't worried about the management role. In retrospect I was lucky because I had more scope and responsibility than equivalent levels today. 

    If you had asked me during this period whether I thought of myself as a leader, I would have replied yes, but this wasn't my primary focus. I was a policy adviser and program manager focused on the management of my people to get results that I wanted. Leadership was something I tried to provide, but it wasn't my core responsibility. Management was.

    Today when we talk about leadership I worry that we are talking about a concept of slippery meaning, setting up a straw horse that must lead to disappointment, that has limited relevance to what people have to do, that is hard to teach, 

    Take your middle manager with limited power and authority. Now say that he or she must aspire to be a leader, that that is his or her core function. What does this actually mean? It is much easier to talk about and focus on the management role, recognising that not everybody can be a good manager. 

    As we move up the organisation, leadership may acquire more meaning, but it is still a very limited and hierarchical concept, one lacking definition. Most CEO's will tell you that they want to empower their people. That is management speak, but it carries a truth: you may articulate a vision, but you require managers to carry it out. 

    Many years ago when I first studied the emergence of new political movements, I was struck by a typology that said that all successful movements required three things: the agitator, the leader who articulated the need, the dream; the theoretician who codified the ideas so that they could be explained and used; and the administrator who actually made things work. These roles can overlap. 

    1920 marks 100 years since the emergence of the party that became the NSW Country Party, something that I have been writing on, Within that new movement, we have Earle Page as the agitator, Drummond as the theoretician who articulated the constitutional basis for the new party, Bruxner as the practical administrator. 

    If we now look at Victoria, Dan Andrews has been acting as leader who has, I think, been successful in that role. But his success, his achievement, has been sullied by management failures in delivery. Leaders without management struggle.