Monday, March 31, 2008

Swadlings Fire

Photo: Nick Moir, Swadlings Fire.

I had to go to work early this morning, leaving the house just after seven.

As I drove down the street I noticed this huge plume of smoke just to the right. Suddenly this deep black smoke was added to it.

As I neared the T junction at Botany Road a fire engine roared up Botany Road. I found Botany Road blocked to my right.

The fact that there was a big fire was clear, but where? Was it the storage shed where my records are kept?

Turning back, I managed to establish through the pattern of blocked roads that it was not the storage shed. So I drove on.

Later I learned that the fire was in a major hardware store about three blocks from us. Starting around 6am, by 7am the Fire Brigades thought that they had it contained to one part of the store. The fire then jumped. The black smoke I saw was the paint stores going up.

The fire was huge, with the plume visible across many parts of Sydney.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - literature, locale and license

Photo: New England's North West - drought.

As so often happens, a discussion with Neil has crystallised thought on some related issues that I have been musing about over the last few years.

The trigger was a post I wrote on the New England Australia blog, New England poet Peter Skrzynecki's Summer in the Country.

In turn, this led Neil to feature the post in his Friday poetry series, Australian poem 2008 series #10: Peter Skrzynecki "Summer in the Country" (2005), commenting that he would call Peter a Strathfield rather than New England poet. Now at one level this is right, another equally as wrong.

Peter is an interesting bloke. Quoting:
Peter Skrzynecki is of Polish/Ukrainian background and was born in 1945, in Germany, shortly before the end of World War II. He emigrated to Australia in 1949 with his parents.
After a four-week sea journey on the "General Blatchford" the family arrived in Sydney on 11 November. They lived in a migrant camp in Bathurst for two weeks before being moved on to the Parkes Migrant Centre, a former Air Force Training Base. It is this camp, in central-western New South Wales, that the poet regards as his first home in Australia.
In 1951 the family moved to Sydney, to the working-class suburb of Regents Park, where a home had been purchased at 10 Mary Street. Feliks Skrzynecki worked as a labourer for the Water Board and Kornelia as a domestic for a number of families in Strathfield. The parents worked hard and had the house paid off in four years. They grew their own vegetables and had a magnificent flower garden. Peter attended the local Catholic school, Saint Peter Chanel's and then, in 1956, began school at St Patrick's College, Strathfield, where he completed his Leaving Certificate in 1963. Brian Couch, his English teacher in those last years at school, engendered in him a love for literature.
After an unsuccessful year at Sydney University in 1964, he completed a Primary Teacher Training Course at Sydney Teachers' College in 1965-66 and began teaching in small schools in 1967. During the next three years he taught at Jeogla on the New England Tablelands, Kunghur on the Tweed River and Colo Heights in the Colo River district.
In 1968 he had recommenced his university studies as an external student at the University of New England. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975. Postgraduate studies include a Master of Arts from the University of Sydney in 1984 and a Master of Letters from the University of New England in 1986.
From 1967 to 1987 Peter Skrzynecki taught in various primary public schools in the western suburbs of Sydney, in the inner-west and the south-west. In 1987 he started teaching at Milperra College of Advanced Education, now amalgamated into what has become the University of Western Sydney, where he is a Senior Lecturer.
Peter's very varied life experience is clearly reflected in his writing. All this means that he is first an Australian poet. He could also, because of the varying slices in his life, be claimed by various areas as one of their own.
I will discuss this in a moment But first, I need to add a post-script to the New England story.

As Neil noted in passing in our discussion thread in the comments section of his post, Summer in the Country is probably set in Parkes rather than in New England. I think that's almost certainly right and I need to make this clear. Peter is such a popular poet at school level that I do not want my post to be misread by some poor school student! I had to amend one of my posts on Judith Wright for the same reason.

To my mind, the relationship between literature and location is a complicated one.

We all read for very different reasons - to learn, for entertainment or simply because the writing speaks to us in some way. With poetry in particular, we read because the poem resonates with us.

In some cases the poem speaks to the broader human experience, in others to our individual life history, including our immediate world. As Neil said, if you look at my post, you will see that I have interpreted Peter's poem through the framework set by my own experiences.

In an earlier discussion with Neil on the decline/"decline" of Australian literature (here, here), I suggested that part of the reason for the decline (the inverted commas are Neil's response) lay in the way we had cut Australians from their past.

While this proved to be a fruitful discussion - Neil's oz lit tag was one outcome - I do not want to revisit the whole debate. Instead, I want to pose two questions: why do some things survive in history, others disappear; how does this link to culture in general, writing in particular?

Why, for example, is there such interest in fifteenth century Florence? Why has the American "west" survived? Why, by contrast, has interest in the Australian wool industry declined to the point that I felt obliged in 2006 to write a post, Why wool?, justifying some writing I had been doing?

The answer does not, I suggest, lie in historical importance.

Looking objectively, fifteenth century Florence occupies a niche in European history. The history of the American west is more important to US history, but is still only a small part of the US experience.

By contrast, wool is central to Australian history and to the Australian experience, an importance once seen in film, literature and art as well as economic life. Yet wool is vanishing, cutting us off not just from one element of our past, but also to some degree at least invalidating past cultural experience and expression. Elements like Waltzing Matilda survive as historical artifacts.

The answer, I suggest, lies in the nature of cultural constructs. Fifteenth century Florence is a cultural construct, as is the American west. Both are reinforced, constantly refreshed, by new expression. By contrast, the romance of wool - another cultural construct - has withered in the absence of re-expression.
How on earth does all this link to Peter Skrzynecki?

On the New England, Australia blog I describe its mission in these terms:

This blog is dedicated to the history, life and culture of Australia's New England, that part of Australia stretching from the Hunter Valley through to the Queensland border and incorporating the Hunter Valley, the Mid North Coast, the Northern Rivers, the New England Tablelands, Slopes and Western Plains.
While New England has still to achieve formal political identity, it has its own character and identity and is, in the words of the Australian poet A D Hope, an ideal in the heart and mind.
Now if wool is in trouble, New England is more so and at two levels.

To begin with, the Australian system is weighted against analysis or reporting at sub-state level outside the metros themselves. This is a complaint, but also (I think) an accurate comment.

When people write of Australian intellectual life or culture, for example, they generally focus first at a national level and then on the capital cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne. Links between individuals and non-metro areas are recognised, the writers Les Murray or Judith Wright come to mind, but there is not much beyond this.

This problem becomes more acute as we drill down.

There is a fair bit of local history, some like John Ferry's "Colonial Armidale" very good. There is also some good history at the smaller regional level such as High Lean County - the story of the New England Tablelands.

From my viewpoint, these histories suffer from two problems.

The first is that they have to be fitted into, even squashed into, national historical constructs. Take, as one example, the grand story of the 1880s wool and maritime strikes and the rise of the Labor Movement, a story at the centre of ALP mythology.

As John Ferry notes, this had minor impact in the Armidale area. In fact, the wool strikes were very much a regional phenomenon linked to particular industrial structures, areas and transport modes. They became a national symbol through political and historical writing. In doing so, they acquired a historical significance independent of the actual facts. We have the actual events and then the way they came to be presented.

The depression of the 1890s is another example. This depression occupies an important place in Australian history, but did it happen? The answer is yes and no.

There was a major depression in Sydney and Melbourne because those were the cities in which the preceding asset bubble was the greatest. Elsewhere, the effects were much more variable. In many places there appears to have been no depression, although the effects of the Sydney and Melbourne crash spread in ways very similar to today's US sub-prime crisis.

In the case of both the wool strikes and the 1890s depression, local writers often feel obliged to try to fit, to explain, local events in terms of these national historical constructs instead of dealing with the facts as they were on the ground.

The second problem is a more complex one.

Both Colonial Armidale and High Lean Country have, to my mind, a weakness in that they do not adequately deal with the question of broader regional linkages.

New England, Northern NSW, is a geographic entity made up of the New England Tablelands and the river valleys that spread to the east and west from the Tablelands. This is a natural geographic entity that existed in Aboriginal times and still exists today.

It is this entity that makes New England such a fascinating historical study.

If we take Aboriginal times, we can see how the Tablelands formed a marchland area. We can see how Aboriginal groups inter-related and were affected by the geographical differences within New England.

If we take modern times, we can see how the natural structure of New England dictates structures from television aggregation areas to housing divisions.

The Northern Separation, later New England New State, movements were one of the political expressions of this natural unity. The movements wrestled with differences within New England, trying to create a unity across divisions. Those divisions, and especially that between the industrial community and culture of Newcastle and the lower Hunter and the farming and grazing communities elsewhere, form one of the central themes of New England history.

Since the decline of new state agitation following the defeat in the 1967 referendum, this broader New England has declined in the public mind.

The geographical drivers are the same, but the mental constructs have changed. Herein lies the reason why local and regional histories no longer discuss broader regional linkages. The writers no longer see the significance of the broader region, even when the evidence is around them.

The New England people are the losers in all this because they have lost access to elements of their own past. In this context, Peter Skrzynecki is a useful case study.

The New England elements of Peter Skrzynecki are clearly only a small part of the man. Yet his writing does form part of the New England experience. To my mind, the fact that this part of his writing cannot be made accessible to New Englanders in a localised way is a problem.

As I was writing this post (it has taken me a long time), Neil bought up a post on the new Dictionary of Sydney. Obviously I welcome this. Yet it reminds me that what I am trying to do in my own limited way is just what the Dictionary of Sydney is doing. I am trying to record and express the broader New England history, culture and experience.

As I write, it is now 9.40 pm, the din of another party in the back yard rages in my ears.

As with previous parties, the sound system is just behind me, making it difficult to concentrate. The things that I am writing about have little relevance to these kids. Yet I would like youngest (it is her party) to have at least some access to her own history.

I fear I must give up for the night.

The following morning

This has become a very long post, but I do want to continue to tease ideas out.

All writers, bloggers included, mine their own experiences and the world around them for ideas. The ideas they select are determined by the combination of access and interest. Access determines broad parameters, interest what is selected within those parameters.

Access is critical to interest. If you cannot see something or access it in some way, then you are unlikely to be interested in it. For that reason, one of the first things that I tried to do with New England writers was simply to record some of those with New England connections.

This left open two questions: what made a writer a local or New England writer; and was there in fact a New England literary tradition?

I discussed the first question in a preliminary way in What makes a writer - or artist - a local?, stating issues without reaching a firm conclusion.

I looked at the second question in my first post on New England writers, New England Australia - Writers . I concluded that while one could show that writers had been affected by their New England experience, I doubted that there was such a thing as a New England literary tradition as such. Here I said in part:
The absence of formal structures not only impedes the development of literary traditions, but actually makes it hard for people to access the New England experience, keeping it limited and fragmented..
Each of these (New England) writers has had a different experience depending upon location and date of birth. Our inability to put them into a context, to see the commonalities and differences with other New Englanders, is a real problem. Indeed, many New England writers who have moved on would probably not see themselves as New Englanders or be able to see things outside a local context. Point local, counterpoint Sydney or national, with nothing really in the middle.
I wrote these words back in August 2006. This post is obviously a direct descendant of that earlier post. How have my views changed?

To begin with, I think that our inability to put writers into context is a national, not just a New England, problem. At Alex Buzo's funeral I was surprised that he and Bob Ellis were such close friends. I should not have been. Armidale and Lismore are different, but both had some common experiences, culminating in flight to Sydney.

The problems are also far more interesting and complex than I had realised.

I was obviously aware of the different traditions within New England, the evolution of Newcastle intellectual and cultural life is an example, but these have an interest and depth that I was not aware of.

The interactions between different groups within New England are also more complex and interesting.

John Ferry's analysis of class structures in colonial Armidale concluded that, with one possible exception, no local belonged to NSW or Australia's top power structures. I think that a somewhat similar pattern existed elsewhere.

Grafton MP John See, for example, was clearly in the top power group as a business man and politician. However, See was a Sydney person, a Sydney resident, whose New England business and political interests were run from Sydney.

Some thirty years later Northerners, the name New England was not applied to the whole area until 1931, clearly held top positions including Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Premier. The rise and then fall of New England influence is one of the themes within twentieth century New England history.

In all this, the New England that I write about is as much a cultural construct as fifteenth century Florence. In discussing New England writers, in trying to show linkages, I am in fact trying to create a new construct within a broader whole.

The challenge I face is to demonstrate validity in an environment where the very things I write about have largely disappeared from view.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Australia's Global Ethnic Rankings

We all know that Australia is a country of migrants. A short search of Wikipedia shows that, measured by ancestry, Australia is in global terms:

  • The second largest Irish, Maori and Maltese country.
  • The third largest English country.
  • The fourth largest Scottish country.
  • The fifth largest Greek, Vietnamese and Dutch country.
  • The seventh largest German country.
  • The ninth largest Italian country.
  • The eleventh largest Serbian country.
  • The fifteenth largest Han Chinese country.
  • The sixteenth Turkish country.
  • The seventeenth largest Indian country.

What do we make of all this? Well, it's just a measure of diversity.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Problems with Peking Duck

I adore Peking Duck. I first ate it when I was 19. I introduced my daughters to it when they were five and three respectively. Now they love it too. But there is a problem.

Last night I could not cook because of my back. So I offered to pay for Peking Duck. Because we were not completely happy with our normal place, my wife offered to drive in to a place near China Town. This is not as bad as it might seem, because we live close to the city.

The place she went to has a good reputation, but the meal had the same problems as our normal place. So I wish to complain.

Problem one. Peking Duck is all about the skin. When I first had it all those years ago, you used to get the skin with a thin slice of meat attached. Now you get a slab of flesh with, sometimes, some skin attached.

Problem two. There are too few pancakes or wrapping, so you run out of this before you run out of the skin/meat.

Problem three. They never provide enough spring onions etc, so you run out here before you run out of skin/meat.

Problem four. They never provide enough sauce, so again you run out.

Who says Australian food has improved?

On bad backs

In Sunday Morning Snippets - Thai food, Cedric Emmanuel, Tibet Train Pastiche and Statistics I mentioned that I had to tidy the back yard up because we had eighteen coming to lunch. I have not mentioned that in tidying up I did my back in.

It was one of those silly things. I knew the back was sore, but ignored it because I had to get things done. Then, bending down, I had a coughing fit and managed to damage a joint and surrounding muscles.

Lunch was not much fun. Unable to sit for more than a few minutes, I spent much of the day flat on my back. Monday was a little, not much, better. Tuesday and Wednesday I went to physio, and then today I managed to get back to work for part of the day.

On Monday and Tuesday I managed to get some blogging done, sitting bolt-upright in a hard chair with a bolster. Wednesday, even blogging was a bit hard. So I got behind here too.

The silly thing about all this is that I know that I am prone to lower back troubles. I also know what I have top do to avoid problems. I just have to learn to actually do it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tonight I turned the TV off

Tonight I turned the TV off. Normally I don't get to watch TV, or at least my choices. Tonight I had the chance and turned it off.

TV came late to the place where I was born. Then, when it did arrive, my parents refused to buy a TV because it might interfere with my studies. Of course, I then became totally addicted.

For year after year after year I watched. I watched on old black and white TVs where the reception was so bad that the screen was no more than vague swirls below which a shifting picture could just be seen.

When colour came I saw it first at the pub in Queanbeayan after helping run, I think, an APEX meat raffle. It was wonderful. A hired colour set appeared that day.

Now the addiction is over. I have always been able to watch bad TV so long at it was my bad TV! However, exposure to a million Simpson repeats, Nanny repeats, Sex in the City repeats has finally destroyed my ability to watch.

My family laughs at me because I can read and re-read certain books. I cannot do the same thing with film or TV.

A book leaves things to the imagination. You can pick it up or put it down as you want. With TV, you are simply stuck. And there are so many bad programs.

So goodbye TV. Unless, of course, West Wing is on. Or an old Australian movie. Alright, I am not completely cured. But the cure is almost complete.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Recent Belshaw blog posts 25 March 2008

This post records posts on my various blogs since March 21.

As with the last post, you will see if you look see that some of the dates are much earlier. All posts have in fact been brought on-line since. I am continuing to catch up.

While I hope that the posts will be of interest to my readers, I have also kept this series going because it is useful to me in focusing my efforts.

Personal Reflections

New England Australia

New England's History

History of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Reasons for the coalition loss in NSW, March 2007

Note to readers. The original version of this post mixed two very different things, the reasons for the coalition's loss in NSW with the future of the National Party. I have therefore broken them into two to avoid clouding matters.

In an interesting comment to a post on one of Neil's blogs, National MLC Trevor Khan provided a frank assessment on the coalition's failure to win the last NSW State election. I leave it to you to read the comment. However, the comment made me decide to summarise my own views.

In the run-up to the NSW election, I complained about what I saw as supermarket politics, a series of disconnected offerings, suggesting that the campaign was essentially a policy free zone on both sides.

Prior to this complaint, I had run an earlier series of posts looking at changing approaches to public administration and their impact on public policy. As part of this, I took the NSW Ten Year Plan as an example of the new approaches. In doing so, I took the broader New England as a case study, starting by analysing the area's problems and then comparing those to the approach in the Ten Year Plan. My conclusion was not positive.

This analysis bears upon my comment about supermarket politics at two levels.

Supermarket politics is part and parcel of current approaches to public administration with their emphasis on cascading outcomes and performance measures. In supermarket politics, you select some numbers, some individual activities and outcomes, and then put them forward in competition to your rivals. Coles versus Woolies or, in the case of the Nationals, perhaps IGA.

There is nothing wrong with an outcomes focus per se. But cascading outcomes set in isolation from an overarching policy framework, from vision, or indeed from full analysis of the needs to be addressed, means that effort is highly likely to be focused on the wrong things.

This is where the New England case study came in. Accepting that my analysis was partial, it did suggest that there was a substantial disconnect between the Ten Year Plan and New England's real needs.

So there was plenty of substance to criticise. We have seen this since the election in the apparent un-ending stream of policy failures within NSW. However, the supermarket approach to politics adopted by the NSW opposition made it hard for them to identify core problems, let along gain any traction in propounding solutions.

Here the opposition faced a further problem, credibility. By credibility, I mean no more than being accepted as a serious player. This has to be earned in advance of the election campaign. The opposition failed to do this.

The standard excuse put forward to justify this failure centres on the media. They would not give us coverage. I do not accept this.

Today people are so obsessed with the media, mass coverage and the sixty second sound bite that that they have lost sight of the most basic thing, you do not need media coverage to develop ideas and establish relations with key stakeholders. Indeed, if you are exploring ideas, you do not necessarily want media coverage at all.

Take any shadow minister as an example.

If you are interested in, say, education, you start by talking to those with an interest in the area. This builds networks and ideas. You test those ideas with selected speeches. In doing so, you are not trying to get votes, simply establish a position.

Do this well, and you will start to attract media attention. Now here you have to do something hard. Avoid party politics! Don't go for the headline. With fixed four year terms, there is really very little point in short term headlines. Unless, of course, you feel that there is something so important from a public policy perspective that it must be put on the public record.

If you and your colleagues do this, then by the election campaign you will be seen as a credible player. People may not agree with you, but they will treat you seriously. This includes the media.

To my mind, this was all the opposition needed to win the last election. Or, for that matter, the next.

All this is tactics that can be implemented by a reasonably competent parliamentarian with the right staff support.

Rightly, we do not (or should not) expect our parliamentarians to be intellectual giants in their own right. This is not their role.

At the end of the day, the role of the parliamentarian is to understand and represent the people, to want to serve. They can do this so long as they are reasonably competent and have the ability to select the right people to support them.

To me, perhaps the greatest attributes of a good parliamentarian are the willingness to treat all people equally, a capacity to listen patiently, a passion for service. I won't name names, but I have seen some very bright people who were disasters because their intellect got between them and their key roles.

I used the word tactics to describe the above approach. What about strategy?

To my mind, politics should be more than just winning elections. The business of Government is not just service delivery. There was no over-arching vision in the opposition's election campaign, nor is there in the NSW Ten Year Plan. Further, beyond the obligatory references to family values, to law and order, both Government and opposition were essentially value free zones.

In all this, I have had particular expectations of the National Party.

Country people are different from city people. I do not mean this in any critical way, nor am I talking about values as such. Rather, about the expectations that country people invest in their MPs.

We expect our MPs to represent us. We expect to know them and have contact with them in a way that would (does) seem strange to a city person. This holds across parties. Once we know them, once we believe that they will do their best, we will hold with them even when we disagree with them.

My particular expectation of the National Party, however frustrated in practice, is that the Party as a country or regional party will articulate and represent country or regional interests in a way that cannot be done by parties dominated by the metros.

Articulation, representation, does not mean simply trading off one thing to get something else for a particular electorate. It does not mean being simply a junior partner in a conservative coalition. Rather, it involves the development of an overall vision for regional NSW, including New England.

I am out of time. I will continue this argument, very briefly, in a follow up post looking specifically at the Nationals.

Reference Posts

I started putting up reference posts to support this post, then realised after several hours that there were just too many, and of varying quality. So I have stopped, leaving an incomplete list but one that does at least give something of a flavour.

Changes in Public Administration

Changes in Public Administration - Notes. This post sets a broader context and looks at the raise and fall of the welfare state under the impact of the 1970s oils shocks combined with the rise of alternative views.

Publish or Perish - where did the this phrase come from? This post look at the rise of citation indexes as an example of the interest in measurement that forms a key element of modern approaches.

Changes in Public Administration - the New Zealand Model. This post looked the rise of Thatcherism, the development and implementation of the New Zealand model and the transfer of its ideas to Australia.

NSW Ten Year Plan - New England's needs starts my analysis of the NSW Government's Ten Year Plan, an example of the application of New Zealand approaches, by trying to define some of New England's needs to provide a benchmark for assessment.

Does the NSW Ten Year Plan meet New England's needs? reviews the Plan against the benchmarks established in the previous post.

NSW Ten Year Plan and New England - Conclusions sets out the my bottom line, that the gap between the Plan and New England's needs was huge.

NSW Ten Year Plan - praiseworthy but flawed provides an overall assessment of the Plan.

Public Policy Examples


Child Welfare



NSW Government's coastal planning strategies - how they compare with reality

Regional Development

Constitutional Issues

Politics -with a particular focus on NSW

Supporting Data

Belshaw posts on demography - entry page. As the name says.

Monday, March 24, 2008

John Ferry's "Colonial Armidale"

I have just been reading the late John Ferry's Colonial Armidale (Queensland University Press, 1999). The book has been described at the best local history written in Australia. I would go further. I think that it is one of the best history books written in Australia.

I first read the book a few years ago. Aunt Kay gave me a copy for Christmas. With Dee driving, I read the whole book in one sitting while we were driving back from Wagga Wagga following Christmas. I could not put it down.

The book vanished, but was recently refound in a box. This morning I picked it up to read again. Again, I have found it hard to put down.

Most local histories are reasonably boring unless you have a specific interest in the area. Colonial Armidale is very different, I think, even to someone who has never heard of the place.

The chapter titles will give a feel - Stories in a Landscape; A Homeland or a Howling Plain; World's Turned Upside Down; Making a Profit and Earning a Quid; The Master, The Servant and The Masterless Man; Immigrant Dreams and Colonial Realities; The Gendered Domains; New Worlds and Old Images; The Second Struggle for the Land; The Struggle for the Town.

The book begins: Two creeks cross the landscape of this story: Separated by a rib of low hills, both flowing sluggishly, and in dry seasons fitfully, across land sloping gently to the south east.

Geography is central to this story, as are people. The interaction between the two is central to Armidale's history.

In writing about people, Ferry shows the changing structure of the town and its immediate area, both social and economic. We see the struggle and clashes of interest, always set in the context of broader Australian history.

The first two chapters deal in part with the Aborigines and with the evolving relations between the Aborigines and the new arrivals. The sad personal story of Commissioner Macdonald forms one element in this.

The community that followed was an immigrant community that from the early days drew its people from many countries - Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, China among others. Those migrants came for different reasons, but in all cases had faced the peril of travel and of re-location to a new land. Here he also shows the importance of chain migration, something that explains (among other things) Armidale's early German connection.

Ferry's writing is deeply influenced by his New England colleagues.

Ron Neale's writing on class is one influence, as it was in my own work. I did not accept Ron's overall view, I am hardly a marxist, but I took many of the same lessons from the work as John.

Alan Atkinson and Norma Townsend's work on rural communities in the nineteenth century was a second influence. Both relied extensively on the time-consuming method of family reconstitution to bring alive the population at large. Atkinson's Camden remains, in my view, one of the better Australian histories.

The book draws deeply from a wide range of archival material, including State and bank archives. This allows Ferry to test, in some cases forced him to test, commonly held assumptions about Australian history, including his own somewhat left of centre views on certain issues. I am not saying that he resiled from those views, simply that he was prepared to modify them in light of evidence.

Born in 1949, John Ferry started as a teacher before becoming a lecturer at the Armidale College of Advanced Education and the University of New England. His untimely death in 2004 robbed us of further work.

A little later

I am about two thirds of the way through re-reading John's book. It is still very good, I still rank it as highly as before, but I find myself questioning spots that I did not before.

In some cases it's because I think that that he could extend his argument. In other cases, I find his personal views intruding on my enjoyment.

In any event, I have lots of new things to muse over and to talk about!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sunday Morning Snippets - Thai food, Cedric Emmanuel, Tibet Train Pastiche and Statistics

We are having Denise's extended family for lunch today - I think that there will be eighteen of us in all - so most of the morning will be tied up in preparation. Dee is cooking, so my job is to get the kettle BBQ going early for the three stuffed Greek style legs of lamb, then tidy up the back yard.

Given all this, I have very little time for my usual morning blogging excursions, hence the Sunday snippets.

Earlier in March I gave a shameless plug, Sydney's best value Thai restaurant - Thai Chef, to a local restaurant. I repeat that plug: their food is great, so do try.

The post led to a comment from Joy asking about Thai food in Australia. Joy has a rather nice blog on Thai food called, simply, Joy's Thai Food blog. I have bookmarked it for return visits.

In searching around quickly for material on Thai food in Australia I came across an earlier story on the Australian chef David Thompson who was going to Thailand to open a new Thai food centre showcasing Thai food. The story says in part:

It is extraordinary that an Australian chef should be needed to explain Thai food in Thailand. It is because Thai cuisine is not a restaurant cuisine, and David has devoted the last decade to making Thai food work in his Sydney restaurants. He is totally committed and passionate about the need to put Thai food properly into a restaurant context. This has meant exhaustive research into and experimentation with dishes. He has never taken the easy way out. There is, he says, much bastardisation of Thai food. It has, after all, become one of the most popular ethnic cuisines in Australia, the UK and America.

David hopes that the Bangkok project will be a way of protecting, as much as showing off, Thai cuisine, without compromising its integrity in the modern world. He has been doing just that in Australia, but using Australian staff and aimed at an Australian custom. David certainly does not see his role in Bangkok as being one of teaching locals how to cook, rather of how to present their food in a restaurant context.

The opportunity came after David had attended and spoken very vocally at a food conference in Bangkok in mid-1999. He was "shocked and appalled" by the damage fusion cooking was doing to Thai cuisine. He was confronted by some awful mixtures, such as mango risotto with olive oil, garlic, coconut cream, curry paste and lemongrass stock. He said that the Thais must stop, and try to preserve traditional teaching methods. He blamed European executive chefs in Thai hotels who read food magazines and believe they have to copy to keep up.

At the time this story was written the idea of fusion cooking was all the rage in Australia. Restaurants had started presenting a mixture of dishes from different food cultures on the one menu, also mixing ingredients. This was seen as somehow leading to a grand new Australian cuisine.

I really disliked the trend. It gave us menus that were neither fish now fowl, but a somewhat crazy melange. If I want to eat Thai, for example, I much prefer to go to a Thai restaurant, not select a single Thai dish or some odd taste mixture.

The trend has largely died, although it survives to some degree at times in the descriptor "modern Australian". I have asked many times what "modern Australian" means, but have never really got a satisfactory answer.

There is no doubt that Australian cooking has changed and for the better. However, to make sense fusion has to be a natural process, not one forced by chefs.

I have been meaning to mention for a little while that Rafe Champion put up a rather nice post, Cedric Emanual (1906-1995) Visual Historian, on the History of Australian and New Zealand Thought blog.

I found the picture of artistic life in Sydney over time very interesting. Note the importance of commercial art in providing a living, and of the private art schools. I have seen Emanual's work, it was very popular, but knew very little about his life.

Over on Floating Life Sans Words, Neil kindly endulged me in For Jim Belshaw: Tibet train pastiche by re-running the photo I asked for. I first saw it at work where I have a big screen monitor. Quite spectacular. While the pastiche loses something on the small screen, it is still good.

In Surry Hills is like… Neil also took the bait - I did not think that he could resist - and presented Surry Hills, his locality in Sydney using the census maps. For those who are interested, you will find my how to do posts here (1) and here (2).

I think that the Australian Bureau of Statistics deserves to be congratulated on the way it is making data available to us all. I still find their search facility a bit clunky, but in all they are doing a good job.

Well, its now 8.54 and I have to start tidying up. Talk to you all later.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - a tour of my immediate blogging world

Photo: Marcellous, Coolah Bush Road. Since I was a child I have always loved the mystery of bush roads. We used to go for drives, just at random, and never knew where we might end up. As soon as I see a road like this I want to walk or drive along it to see what I can find.

As a bit of a break from other things, I have been going through my favourite lists checking up on what people have been saying. And doing some pruning and tidying at the same time!

Professional Services Management

I see that professional services management guru David Maister's "Give a Copy to Management" offer of one hundred free copies of his latest book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker, has been just too successful and he has had to close the campaign.

I have watched the campaign with some interest because it is an example of publishing and promotion in today's on-line world. I know that a number of my colleagues are wrestling with similar issues in terms of their own writing and intellectual property. What do I give away, what do I sell, what do I use in cross promotion?

I also noticed that David's post on Recession Responses - while there is still some debate as to whether the US is in a recession in technical terms (two consecutive quarters of negative GDP), I have no doubt that it is for all practical purposes.

Adam Smith Esq's Bruce MacEwen's report on his recent visit to London where he talked with half a dozen law firms also highlight's current economic uncertainty.

After a longish absence, Canadian Martin Hoffman has returned to blogging again in a new format. I used to enjoy Martin's writing, including his comments on marketing and PR issues, so welcome back Martin!

Science, Technology and Intellectual Property

Dennis McDonald's US Blog continues to be a valuable source of ideas on on-line developments. I must admit my visits to Dennis fluctuate with my interests. I have been involved in the on-line world for a very long time - I first used dial-up access to an international data base in 1980! - but recently my day-to-day pre-occupations have taken me in different directions.

Noric Dilanchian's site, this includes his Lightbulb blog, continues to have some fascinating stuff. I have given the link to the whole site rather than just the blog, because he also related material on his front page.

Noric has just run an interesting blog post, Why is social media such a hit?, looking in part at the interaction between young people and social networking sites. Memo to self; time for a comment!

Education, Training and E-learning

This months Biq Question on the US Learning Circuit's blog - What is the Scope of our Responsibility as Learning Professionals?

I used to be an active participant in discussions on this blog wearing my education and training hat and hope to be again. A number of rather good blogs group around Learning Circuits, but I will pick these up in another post.

Economics, Politics and the Law

I could not start a section with this title without a reference to Thomas. Given university, work and an apparently active if somewhat irregular social life centred on a mystic cup, I sometimes wonder where sleep fits in!

Thomas's posts on the US election have justly attracted interest. I am pleased that his kindness in explaining to me and another reader the mysteries of superdelegates has had such a great search engine pay-off. Here Thomas was miles in front of the conventional media in seeing their importance.

The question of Tibet attracted Neil Whitfield (here, here, here) and indeed many others in the blogosphere. As part of this, Neil put up a rather spectacular photo that he then took down when he found that it was a pastiche. Neil, do run it again sans words. I wanted to copy it!

Train sets have also been of interest to Neil as part of his commentary on NSW politics. Because I am writing on this stuff myself I won't comment, except to note that I did say earlier that I felt a railway coming on!

I fear that David Anderson's growing dismay with the condition of modern and especially US society is now making his posting irregular. I may not agree with all of David's answers on After the Vote, but his analysis of the likely outcomes of US trends has been extremely accurate.

Geoff Robinson's blog has had a number of remarkably interesting stories at least to someone like me.

In Social democracy and railways, Geoff pointed to problems with the rail infrastructure. Similar problems have arisen in NSW. The disciplines (and ill-disciplines) of private ownership can create problems, especially where externalities are present.

I find it interesting that the shifts in policy frames and community attitudes in modern Australia have created alliances - commonalities in views - between positions once seen as very different. Traditional political opponents find themselves joining in common views because social shifts threaten the common elements in once very divergent positions.

Down in the deep south, Melbourne to be precise, Legal Eagle has continued a series of law related posts that are earning her blog a well deserved reputation.

LE does not write just on legal issues: see Pregnancy is not an illness… as an example. But her writing on legal issues is clear and with a rather nice sense of whimsy. As in Through the looking glass darkly?, looking at the influence of Lewis Carroll on legal judgments.

When he can tear himself away from music, Marcellous also writes on legal issues as in his Howie J almost throws the book and misses.

I read the good judge's comments with interest. For better or worse, my current work has taken me back into commenting on certain legal judgements, such as that in the Word Investment case.

I do not have the papers with me so cannot give the links, but the effect of the decision if it stands (the Australian Tax Office may appeal to the High Court) is to greatly widen the range of commercial activities that Australian charities can carry out without affecting their tax free status.

Society, Culture and the Strictly Personal

As he well knows, Lexcen and I do not always agree. Yet I read his blog all the time, he comments on mine. A number of my posts have been written with him in mind. Here on a recent post, Thoughts on Easter, Lexcen wrote:

To me Easter is about how society treats those who don't conform, who don't toe the line or who have beliefs that go contrary to the establishment.

Societies don't tolerate non-conformity very much. Today we see conformity in the form of political correctness. Attitudes worn like the latest designer labels to be shown off at every opportunity. Attitudes pre-packaged and ready for consumption without having to think about issues for yourselves.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about those who want to destroy society because of some misguided belief system.

It is a question of how tolerant we are of those who hold different opinions...

On a more frivolous note, in Pointless post (I fear that the pun was intentional) Lexcen provided some strange photos that I will use of various types of urinals.

Staying down south, Blonde Canadian continues to wrestle with her dear nana's expectatations about men and children. She is also rather annoyed with the Victorian Institute of Teachers. I quote:

I hereby wish to submit my resignation. In fact, I've been wanting to submit my resignation since you made me join way back before I'd even finished uni under the threat that if I didn't, I could never, EVER teach in Victoria. Ever.

Ouch. But BC has a point that I should write about at some stage.

I am out of time. I still have more than a dozen blogs that I wanted to mention. I will have to pick these up at another time, focused especially on those that I read but mention less frequently.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Recent Belshaw blog posts - 21 March 2008

This records posts on my various blogs since March 18.

As with the last post, you will see if you look see that some of the dates are much earlier. All posts have in fact been brought on-line since. I am continuing to catch up.

Personal Reflections

New England Australia

Regional Living Australia

How to find and use Australian census data 2 - Creating maps and other nice things

My last post, How to find and use Australian census data 1 - Languages spoken at home case study, I provided an introduction to ways of accessing and using Australian census data. I now want to drill down a little, showing you how you can find and use data on specific locations, creating some rather nice maps in the process.

Still fitting within my current pre-occupations, I thought that I would look at indigenous NSW starting with Redfern.

For the benefit of readers outside Sydney, Redfern is a traditionally poor inner city working class suburb next door to Sydney University. It also has an in indigenous population centred on what is known as the block that attracts great media attention, so much so that the NSW Government actually has a minister whose portfolio includes Redfern.

We need to start by getting some basic statistical data on Redfern. Here we start by going to 2006 census data by location. Now click on search. Enter Redfern in the search box. Three locations come up. Click on Redfern state suburb. A nice map appears on the right showing the area covered.

Now click on select product. A new screen comes up. I just want basic data, so I then click on quick stats. This tells me that 11,482 people live in Redfern, of whom 277 (2.4%) were indigenous.

A little care needs to be exercised with this figure for two reasons. First, the statistics I am using are based on place of residence, so visitors are ignored. Secondly, there are also specific concentrations of indigenous people in areas immediately adjacent to Redfern.

Now where do Redfern's indigenous people live? Here we return to the previous page and now click on map stats. Click on select topic. Now click on place of usual residence. Select indigenous size and population distribution as a topic.

This brings up one choice, proportion of indigenous population. Highlight this, and then select sublocation. In this case, this gives you only one choice, census collection district. Now click on view map, and the following map appears.

Indigenous People as a Proportion of the Population - Redfern

When you look at this map, the relative concentration of Aboriginal people in areas and the block itself stand out.

For comparative purposes take Armidale. For the benefit of those who do not know Armidale, this is a university city in New England. In Armidale's case, I have used the urban area rather than state suburb because the state suburb includes a lot of open country and makes the map hard to read.

According to the census data, 19,486 people live in Armidale of whom 1,217 (5.13%) were indigenous. The map below shows their distribution.

Indigenous People as a Proportion of the Population - Armidale

The pattern of Aboriginal population distribution reflects the history and social structure of Armidale.

The large yellow, low proportion, Aboriginal population on the left of the map covers the University campus, open country plus the New England Girls' School campus, so can be ignored.

The square grid pattern in the centre is the older Victorian city.

The high Aboriginal concentration to the lower right of the old city- 22 t0 32% of the population - centres on the traditional Aboriginal Reserve area. This includes the Aboriginal housing built during the sixties.

From the fifties, the Aboriginal Welfare Board began encouraging the relocation of Aborigines into the main city. This is reflected in the higher concentrations in West and East Armidale, traditionally working class areas, within the old city grid.

In the sixties, the Housing Commission built a number of new homes on the north-western edge of the old city towards the University - this is the area where the Aboriginal population falls in the 14-22% range.

Then in the 1980s, a new housing commission area was opened on the east of the expanding urban area. This is where the 8-14% Aboriginal population area is located.

My aim in this post has been to provide hints to help you gather data, but also have fun.

You can generate map after map after map. But be warned. You may find yourself completely side-tracked!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

How to find and use Australian census data 1 - Languages spoken at home case study

Given just how much browsing I do among Australian Bureau of Statistics data, I thought that it might be of interest to a broader audience to show some of the things that you can do with the census data.

Go to census data on-line. There you can search census data by location (1996, 2001, 2006) or by topic (2001, 2006). For both the 2001 and 2006 census data, there are a range of tools that you can use.

Let's start with one of my current pre-occupations, the nature of change in Sydney and NSW. One measure of that change is in the languages spoken at home because this provides one measure of cultural change. Now here the 2006 census results includes a very useful data set - 20680-Language Spoken at Home by Sex - Time Series Statistics (1996, 2001, 2006 Census Years) - New South Wales.

When you go the page, click on details and you will find a table that you can download in the form of an excel spread sheet. If you want to save the table for analysis, copy it onto a new spread sheet. You can then manipulate the data to your heart's content.

So before going on, what does the data tell us? Well, first it's NSW as a whole, so the state average conceals change within NSW. Even at this level, the stats show the huge changes that have been taking place.

Between 1996 and 2006, the number of people speaking only English at home rose from 4,730,822 to 4,846,670, an increase of 115,848 or 2.45%. Australians are generally mono-lingual, so this is one measure of "traditional" Australians.

By contrast, the number of people speaking a second language at home rose from 1,092,226 to 1,314,557, an increase of 222,331 or 20.36%.

Putting this another way, over the ten year period the proportion of NSW people speaking only English at home declined from 79 to 74%. This is actually quite a shift in a ten year period, a shift that we know was largely concentrated in Sydney.

But what do the numbers tell us about changes in the composition of the NSW population during the period? The results here are quite fascinating to someone like me.

During that ten year period, the top growth languages in absolute terms were:

  • Mandarin 59,944
  • Arabic 39,288
  • Cantonese 22,345
  • Hindi 18,237
  • Vietnamese 18,210
  • Korean 13,554
  • Tagalog (includes Filipino) 9,076
  • Tamil 6,674
  • Assyrian 6,550
  • Indonesian 6,235
  • Serbian 5,179

Not all languages grew. Those languages losing the largest number of speakers were:

  • Italian -15,477
  • Chinese Other (Hokien etc) -7,347
  • German -7,264
  • Greek -6,832
  • Maltese -3,404
  • Polish -2,767
  • Croatian -2,613
  • Hungarian -2,190

The pattern of language change is, as you might expect, directly linked to changing migration patterns.

The European languages in decline reflect major national groups that came to Australia during the post war migration period. Languages on the increase reflect recent migration.

I found the Chinese figures especially interesting.

The other, now declining, category is a bit of a hodge-podge, but includes languages such as Hokien dating back to earlier periods of migration.

The once dominant Cantonese, though still larger than Mandarin in absolute terms ( 129,604 speakers as compared to 100,595) , is clearly now being overtaken.

I will finish here to keep the post reasonably short. In my next post I will show you how you can drill down to local level, looking especially at the way in which you can create your own maps.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sydney, statistics and the need for caution

There are nuts and then there are statistical nuts. I may belong to the first class. I certainly belong to the second!

It's not just that I like numbers and patterns. I rely on them for evidence to support arguments. So I get upset when I find that I have been wrong, that I have misinterpreted data.

A key problem in interpreting statistics, especially when looking at change over time, is the way that definitions change. Unemployment is a case in point. It is very hard to compare present and past unemployment statistics because the way employment is defined has changed.

A second problem is the way in which changes made by Governments for other reasons affects statistics. As an example, local government changes - boundary changes, mergers - make it hard to compare population changes over time in specific areas.

I was sharply reminded of all this when trawling through statistical data on Sydney and NSW checking facts for my part completed series on the SMH's campaign.

Accoding to the census stats, the resident population of the Sydney statistical division at the time of the 2006 census was 4,119,190 out of a total state population of 6,549,174. This is the number usually quoted when people talk about Sydney.

Then browsing through the recent Australian Bureau of Statistics publication, Sydney - A Social Atlas - 2006, I read that at the 2006 census there were 3,645,153 usual residents in Sydney, 55.7% of the NSW population. Now this is a very different number, so I was forced to investigate.

The social atlas defines Sydney as the area bounded by the suburbs of Palm Beach and Berowra in the north, Cronulla and Heathcote in the south, Camden in the south-west, Faulconbridge in the west, and Riverstone in the north-west. In broad terms, this is what most people today would think of as Sydney.

Now compare this to the Sydney statistical division. You will find all the Australian statistical divisions here. In addition to Sydney as defined in the social atlas, this adds a big additional swag of territory including all the Blue Mountains and Gosford-Wyong, areas that most people would not think of as being part of Sydney.

Does this matter? Well, it depends on what you want to use the statistics for.

At a macro level, I am interested in Sydney's population relative to the rest of NSW because shifts in Sydney's share of the state population over time have been a key political driver. If we are going to talk, as the SMH has done, about Sydney's relative decline, then we have to be able to measure it.

Much of my recent analysis has used the Sydney statistical division as the source of numbers on Sydney. This is clearly invalid for at least some of my arguments. Among other things, the use of the broader number conceals the extent of population shifts. Without checking the data, I think that it is a very long while since Sydney as normally defined has only had 55.7% of the NSW population.

At micro level, the inclusion of the Blue Mountains and Gosford-Wyong with their very different demographic structures affects the averages and percentages often used in discussions about Sydney. In particular, it conceals the extent of change within Sydney as normally defined.

I do not think that all this affects the arguments that I have begun developing. If anything, is strengthens them. However, it does mean that I have to re-check data.

In the meantime, I have been almost totally sidetracked by the detail in the Sydney Social Atlas. It is an absolute gold-mine for someone like me interested in patterns of social change.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Recent Belshaw blog posts

I do not always do what Neil does, but it is surprising how often he has some influence.

On the not doing side, I do not intend to create an entry page for all my various sites as he has done. On the other side, putting up regular posts on posts on other Belshaw blogs may not be a bad idea. So a list of most recent posts follows.

If you look, you will see that some of the dates are much earlier. All posts have in fact been brought on-line in the last week. It's just that I have been behind and am catching up.

New England Australia

Regional Living Australia

Managing the Professional Services Firm

Management Perspectives

History of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Reflections on recognising Individual contribution

I am not naturally a negative person. The world is too full of interest to allow that.

Take, as an example, a story in today's IT Wire that the Hubble Telescope has discovered traces of methane on a large and very hot planet 63 light years from earth. Apparently NASA will be making a full announcement on Wednesday. If I interpret the story correctly, we have have found the first trace of organic life outside earth. Now that's interesting!

I make this point because there has been an apparently negative tone in some of the things that I have written recently. Part of the reason for this is the series that I have begun on economic and demographic change, education, ethnicity and the maintenance of social cohesion in Australia.

Policy failures lie at the heart of this series. They triggered the SMH campaign that in turn triggered my attempt to respond. Many of the elements in the story are negative.

I find that as I try to synthesise my ideas into something approaching a readable and logical form, I am reading much current news material within a frame set by my thinking on the series. In doing so, I keep on coming across examples that seem in way way or another to bear upon my thinking about the reasons for failure, as well as what might be done in response.

In yesterday's post, SMH headline - Family ties: proud institutions decline hurts those who built it, I spoke of the distress felt by Professor James Isbister at the decline of the Royal North Shore Hospital, an institution that he, his father and grandfather fought to build. Now he sees it all torn down by Government neglect.

Musing about this, I think that we need to make a distinction between recognising individuals or families that make contributions as compared to recognising the contribution made by individuals or families.

We are still pretty good at the first, some would say at times obsessively so, especially in sport. We are very bad at the second.

Contribution in society comes in many different ways and at many different levels. Those making the contribution may value recognition they receive as a consequence of their actions, but they really place value on the contribution itself.

As a society, we have become careless about recognising, taking into account, past contributions. We change things without recognising that our actions affect the way that people think about themselves, about what has been achieved.

Take a small, common, example. A family gives a memento to an institution that has significance to them and the institution. Valued at the time, the memento is subsequently lost or even disposed of. The family finds out about it and is hurt.

Things change. Institutions are imperfect. The past cannot be locked in stone. Yet I think that it pays us as a society to be more sensitive to the way that our responses to current needs affects those that have been involved.

The family that gave the memento says no more. The individuals who have gone the extra mile in working for an organisation say no more. The individuals who have given thousands of hours of volunteer time say no more.

To my mind, the single biggest difference between the world of work today and that holding at the time I started working has been the rise of cynicism. Organisations, public and private, have worked very hard to achieve this result. This cynicism spreads across society.

People can be passionate and are still prepared to contribute. We can see this around us in a thousand ways. Yet many now do so on a partial, qualified, basis. They are less involved and draw the line much more quickly. We are all losers as a consequence.