Monday, August 31, 2009

Belshaw's Best - Australia's Aborigines - an introductory post

I have included this post in this series because it marks the start of what has become something of a journey in a personal and intellectual sense.

I began this 20 December 2006 post with these words:

I have so far hesitated to write anything on issues connected with Australia's aborigines because this area has become a bit of a mine field, especially for some one like me who does not have much direct contact with aboriginal people. However, events have conspired to create a need for me to make some comments.

Unlike then, I now do have contact with Aboriginal people. I work with them every day. However, looking at the post I find it interesting that the views I expressed then are still present in my writing and thinking. While my views have changed on certain points and have certainly become a lot deeper, I remain convinced of the need to recognise the diversity in Aboriginal experience, to establish facts and to avoid stereotyping.

Sunday, August 30, 2009 turns one - congratulations

I know through Neil's google reader series. Then I saw this rather wonderful first birthday celebratory post. Please do at least browse it for the photos.

I have said before that blogging is a liberal education for those so inclined. Of course there is an ephemeral element. Yesterday I cleaned out my favourites list, deleting now inactive blogs. I felt very sad with some deletions because they were on my daily must read list. But despite burn-out, the sheer size of the blogging community creates real depth.

Earlier today in From Samarinda to Armidale I gave a practical example of blogging's influence. In his birthday post, James wrote:

The site got started because I couldn’t get feature stories up in the print media any more. Two good ones got turned down almost back to back this time last year: Indeed, as is their discourteous way these days, most editors did not even bother to rsvp with even the simplest ‘no thanks’.

I felt for this. I, too, have sent of articles with no response, although I am trying to break-in while James was already there.

The problem for writers is, I think, that the old media is in decline while the new media is still uncertain.

Despite stories about the death of blogging, blogging is still evolving. Media such as Twitter or Facebook have cut part of the blogging world away. Yet in blogging you can do things that are simply not possible in the increasingly staccato on-line media.

My personal view, for what it's worth, is that blogging will remain the domain of people who have something to say that requires a little length. I think the challenge for all bloggers is to think though how to make use of the content they have created.

I am not suggesting that bloggers should rush out to join the commercial world. Those bloggers, and there are some, who make six figure incomes from blogging have to follow a very particular route. This is just one model, one that is quite incompatible with the creation of content depth by those who just want to write and to contribute to discussion.

For those of us who are in some ways professional bloggers, I do think that we need to talk about and share ideas on blogging. Of course this happens now, but I have come to the view that we need new approaches, to think outside the box.  

It may sound dumb, but I have only just realised how I can use our blogging community in my conventional writing. From Samarinda to Armidale is an example.

The problem for Mr Murdoch in working out how to respond to the on-line world lies in the fact that if we bloggers do not understand, how can he?   

From Samarinda to Armidale

I thought that I should record this one because it is actually a first.

On 25 August Tikno wrote a post Equalize bachelor's degree with diploma's degree ??. This dealt with the treatment of Australian degrees by Indonesia. I responded in comments and then on 27 August with Indonesian Government downgrades certain Australian degrees to diploma status.

This post reflected my first reactions.

Since then, I have continued thinking and doing a little digging, helped by the standard of comments on Tikno's post. Now I have made the issue the centre of my next column in the Armidale Express. I mentioned Tikno and Ramana.

Why is this significant?

Armidale is a university city in Northern NSW (New England). It has a population of around 22,000. Education is its biggest industry. The Express is one of the two local newspapers.

A story that began in Samarinda City in Indonesia has made its way through the blogging world to a local newspaper in Australia's New England.

I said that it was a first. By this I meant simply that this was the first time I have explicitly based writing for the conventional media solely on a blogging conversation.

My Express columns are not on-line. I will post the column once published.  

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - problems with academic code-sharing

An odd thing happened to eldest recently. Five and a half weeks into semester she found that she was going to the wrong lectures! Sounds odd, doesn't it? How could it happen? Certainly eldest was upset.

When I dug down, I found a somewhat bizarre combination of circumstances that could perhaps only happen in one of Australia's mega universities.

We start with two courses. The first, a third year course, is called international economics. The second, a second year course, bears the title globalisation. Both are economics courses. Eldest is enrolled in globalisation.

Confusion starts on day one with lecture one. Both courses have their introductory lectures at the same time. Eldest ends in the wrong lecture theatre. Normally that would be the end of the story. Discover your mistake and leave.

Things didn't quite work out that way. To understand this, you have to understand what I call academic code-sharing after the practices of modern airlines. The same course may be taken in several streams, but with a different title to reflect the stream.

Course outlines are handed out. The words international economics do appear, while the outline is not quite what eldest expected. Time to leave? You might think so, but the set text is just the same, while there are some commonalities in content with what eldest expected. So eldest assumed code-sharing and just took things at face value.

The first globalisation tutorial arrives. Eldest is present. There is no-one in the tutorial that she saw at the lecture. Another clue that something was wrong? Not really.

In the big mega universities with their large numbers there are often multiple lectures to accommodate both the number of students and their varying needs. So it is fairly normal for a student to find that she has seen only a small number of fellow students at the lecture.

The week's proceed. Eldest is coping with the lectures, but is worried that she is not as much across the tutorial  content as she should be. The penny finally drops with the first assessment task.

In international economics they announce that at the next tutorial there will be a test. Eldest devotes a day to revision, preparing material. The globalisation tutorial arrives, but there is not test. Daylight dawns.

Eldest was very upset about missed work and also felt, I think, rather stupid. I took a different view once I learned the facts, although I did not help much by breaking into laughter!

You have to remember that this is modern Australia. Apart from the circumstances I have already mentioned, you have to bear in mind that eldest works (most students do), plays sport, coaches a netball team. As a student I was always on campus. She is generally there only for things like lectures. So there is none of the social interaction that formed the centre of my university world. This reduces the information flows and knowledge that might have discovered the mistake in the past.

But why was my view different to hers? Well, she was clearly coping with third year international economics. I felt that it would do her no harm at all to have received this grounding in one of the core elements of globalisation. She could easily catch up on the specific elements of the course proper.  

Belshaw's Best - Clare's Muck-up Day - fourteen years comes to an end

Those who read this blog will know that I dearly love my daughters. This post from September 2007 reflects on the end of schooling.

I know that all parents feel like I did at this time. It really is a series of lasts!

Friday, August 28, 2009

The best of Belshaw - a new series

Now that I have written well over 2,000 posts, I am finding it hard to remember what I have written.

For some time now, Neil has been providing links to his past posts an a rolling selective basis. I thought that I should do something similar. 

But what makes a favourite Belshaw post?

Some are short, some are long, some are right, some are just plain wrong! Some are personal, some not, some are very serious, others not. I think that the key feature is that, after time, I still think that they are okay.

My views are not static, while I write on a lot of topics. In each case, I will provide an introduction setting my views in context.

I hope that you enjoy the series.   

Friday night catch-up - end of economic stimulus in Australia?

In Saturday Morning Musings - problems in Australian industrial relations I mentioned the problems facing the Government in introducing a new industrial award system. These continued during the week with Minister Gillard forced to order further changes to the new approach. The Australian had a very unsympathetic article on the some of the problems.

Overspending on the schools' component of the national stimulus package has forced the Australia Government to reduce the number of houses to be built for social housing by 800.

In a number of earlier posts, too many to list, I suggested that the role-out of the capital expenditure elements of the stimulus package would experience problems in part because previous financial constraints had reduced official capacity to do new things, in part because of way administrative systems now operated. They are just not very fast.

In a number of posts on the economy, again too many to list, I argued I suggested that Australia was going to do better in this downturn than forecasters suggested. This was not based on any divine vision, nor on any claim to leading economic expertise. All I did was to test some of the claims by looking at the numbers. I just could not see how the worst forecasts might happen.

I suggested that the downturn provided us an opportunity to do new things. I also warned that we had only a certain window to do this before the Australian economy turned up.

The Australian economy is clearly strengthening. The remarkably good capital expenditure figures released yesterday are just the latest sign of this. While parts of the Australian economy and indeed parts of Australia are still clearly in recession, this has been a very mild downturn.

I believe that the Government can take a degree of credit for result. While Australia's economic fundamentals would have cushioned Australia to some degree in any case - this was the reason for my positive attitude - I also thought that the Government's core focus was right, although I thought that the first home savers grant on existing house was a waste of money. That said, I also think that delivery problems mean that we have lost an opportunity.

Over two months ago in conversation with some NSW officials involved with social housing I warned that that we could not assume that the promised funding would be available. We had to do things as fast as possible. My reason then was based simply on my assessment of the economic outlook. I think it fair to say that I was seen as alarmist.

I do not want to be misunderstood here. Those NSW officials were trying to do things fast, but were also wrestling with a remarkably cumbersome and complex Commonwealth apparatus that essentially limiting quick action. They also had to deal with the NSW system with its own glacial aspects. 

Over the last six weeks there has been increasing commentary on the need for budgetary restraint, on the likely earlier than expected introduction of expenditure caps, of possible Reserve Bank Action to increase interest rates. Forecasters who were so negative are now moving to the opposite corner.

My own view on the economic outlook is a little more cautious. Still, the most likely outlook is for accelerating economic activity. As this happens, the official focus will move from stimulus to cost-cutting.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Indonesian Government downgrades certain Australian degrees to diploma status

I see from a post by Tikno,Equalize bachelor's degree with diploma's degree ??, that the Indonesian Government has issued rankings downgrading recognition of certain Australian bachelors degrees to diploma level in Indonesian terms.

For those that are interested, Tikno's post provides a general overview. It includes a link - click here - to an excel spreadsheet setting out course by university by Indonesian ranking. The new assessments were apparently released in July and do not appear to to have been picked up by the Australian media,

According to a story in the Djakarta Globe, the problem arises because Indonesia apparently requires more credit points for an ordinary Bachelors, 144 vs 120. For that reason, Indonesia is ranking Australian bachelor degrees as associate degrees. With perhaps 14,000 Indonesian students studying at Australian universities, this has become a major issue among Indonesian students who are. in effect, required to do extra units.

The issue appears to have been ignored by both the Australian media and local bloggers. I say this with a little caution since it is based on just my own reading/watching. I find this a little remarkable, given the importance of education as an export sector.

The issue of international recognition of degrees is a difficult one because all countries have different rules. In this case, the problem appears to relate simply to credit points (an input measure) rather than standards as such.

To a degree, the discussion on Tikno's blog has been phrased in terms of standards. In a comment, Ramana wrote:

I am not qualified enough to comment on this without having more information. Jim perhaps will. What I do know is that there are a number of fly by night institutions in Australia that rip off unsuspecting overseas students by promising a lot, but not delivering. This is a matter of great concern here in India too. Many of our students go to Australia and return with qualifications that do not compare in quality to their literal equivalents in India.

I think that this is a fair comment. However, most of the Indian students in question are going to vocational colleges, not universities. There are a lot of private vocational colleges, with some established just to allow overseas students to meet Australian immigration requirements. The current Baird inquiry is intended to weed them out.

Australia has quite a formalised system for qualification recognition based on a National Qualifications Framework. However, I have been concerned for a little while about the way in which competition and rigidities within higher education have, at least as I see it, shifted the focus away from students and education.

As it happened, I had just finished a post, Staff performance measurement in Australia's universities, dealing with another aspect of this.

I will watch the response to Tikno's post with interest. I may make the issue a central point in my next week's column in the Armidale Express.


A headline in today's Sydney Morning Herald said We're failing to nurture wisdom, uni chief asserts. My first reaction was positive, but then I realised that in turning back to the past he was advocating one of those very "modern" prescriptive approaches.

I will comment a little later pointing to what I see as key differences with the past. They have very little to do with Steven Schwartz' approaches. I doubt that we can go back, in some cases we really wouldn't want too, but it is (I think) still helpful recording a past world.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Train Reading - Michael O'Rourke's Kamilaroi Lands

My train reading has switched to Michael O'Rouke's Kamilaroi Lands: North-central New South Wales in the early 19th century (Michael O'Rourke, Griffith, 1977). Michael kindly sent it to me after reading one of my posts on the Aboriginal languages of New England.

This is a local/regional history, but of a very different type to most of those published. Self-published by the author in 1997, this book is a detailed and painstaking exploration of the life of one Aboriginal language group at and in the period immediately following European settlement.

For those who do not know the Kamilaroi, they occupied a huge sweep of Australia from the Upper Hunter north along the Western Slopes and Plains into southern Queensland. Depending on the exact boundaries, we are talking about an area of more than 80,000 square kilometres.

Michael's book starts with language. He explores the ethnographic and linguistic evidence as it relates to language boundaries. In doing so, he draws out the way in which names attached to area, to specific local groups, to language, all come together to confuse. He also shows, and I have never seen this done before, how the distribution of Aboriginal place names adopted by the European settlers can actually help indicate the distribution of groups if you know the underlying language structures.

Michael then explores Kamilaroi social structures and ways of life. This is ethno-historical detective work. Suddenly we see traditional structures and relationships at they stood at a point in time emerging from the mists of the past.

I say at a point in time in the sense that we cannot assume that the structures that existed in 1788 and the immediately following period were those holding at earlier points in the long Aboriginal occupation of this continent. However, there are intriguing hints, clues really, that may allow us to at least reach some tentative conclusions about varying structures across geographic areas. We can certainly say that there was variety.

Michael's exploration of Kamilaroi beliefs, too, point to variety. He may be wrong, but his analysis suggests that Kamilaroi beliefs were not in fact the same as some of the standardised presentations of Aboriginal beliefs.

Michael's book was published at a time when certain views about Aboriginal history and especially the Aboriginal resistance/settler violence paradigm had achieved dominance. This clearly makes him uncomfortable.

Michael's analysis of the population data is detailed. He also quotes one James Belshaw on several occasions! My own population estimates were rough, but I did try to come up with actual estimates of varying population distributions across New England. Here my gut feeling was that we had then underestimated the original Aboriginal population.

Michael may not have been be happy with some of the analysis done by others, but his sometimes prosaic prose does draw out the tragedy that hit New England's Aboriginal peoples.

In part of his work, Michael attempts to measure the annual average percentage population decline. I am sure that he is right, drawing from the work of W E Stanner, in simply suggesting that part of the answer lay in stock and especially the spread of wool growing and the way this disrupted traditional life.

But more work needs to be done to chart the causes of the decline. It was just so rapid.

As it happened, I read Michael's book while attempting to write something based on Peter Austin's ideas about language decline. Writing in the context of a global trend towards language extinction, Peter suggests a number of linked measures that might be used to judge the health of a language.

One key measure is simply the extent to which parents pass language onto their children. Here Michael writes of changing attitudes towards Gamilaraay, the Kamilaroi language, within the Aboriginal community, linking this to the decline in traditional life. One simple device he uses is a list of the last known dates of initiation ceremonies across Kamilaroi territory. He concludes:

As it appears then, the transition from what we might call a "traditional" to a "semi-anglicised" or "post-traditional" culture took place in the period 1870 to 1900.

This transition coincided with a change in European attitudes and policies, one that I referred to in another set of posts on Jim Fletcher's Clean, Clad and Courteous (here one, two), a history of Aboriginal education in NSW.

Fletcher records the frustrations created among Europeans by early attempts to educate the Aborigines in the face of a determined effort by Aborigines to maintain their traditional life. These generally well intentioned European actions were based on a vast incomprehension, a failure to really understand and accept an alternative way of life. As I wrote at one point:

Early official policies towards the Aborigines in general and Aboriginal education in particular failed, as they were bound to fail, because they were based upon views held in the newly dominant group formed independent of and imposed upon the other group.

The reasons for failure were much debated, even agonized over. They formed the subject of committees of inquiries and official reports. The evidence presented and the conclusions drawn from that evidence were to influence policies and approaches for generations to the further detriment of NSW's Aboriginal peoples.

The tragedy for the Kamilaroi is that at just the time they were, to use Michael's phrase, moving to a post-traditional way of life, they were side-swiped again. As I see it, central to the shift in Aboriginal attitudes was a recognition that they had no choice but to adjust to a now dominant European society. As one measure of this, Aboriginal parents who had resisted European schooling now wanted education for their children.

At just this time, reformers who had been pushing for new approaches to the treatment of Aborigines gained a measure of success, culminating in the establishment of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board in 1883. Sadly, and the clue lies in the word "Protection", the new approaches were based on previous experiences and lessons that were in fact wrong then and were now in direct conflict with the evolving views in Aboriginal society. The effect was to limit Aboriginal advancement at a critical point. The costs are still with us today.


Re-reading this post, I realised that there was one thing I should amplify.

I wrote:

He also shows, and I have never seen this done before, how the distribution of Aboriginal place names adopted by the European settlers can actually help indicate the distribution of groups if you know the underlying language structures.

This is correct, but Michael is careful to acknowledge that his approach came from the pioneering work of the Australian linguist Tamsin Donaldson. I thought that I should mention this.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Congratulations England on the cricket

Just a very brief note tonight.

Few outside the old British Empire and Commonwealth can understand cricket. It is a unique and arcane English sport. Congratulations to England and blow you.!

Mind you, I do not support the blind nationalism that seems to be a feature of modern Australia. Having deliberately dropped our past roots, we now have to rely on what I sometimes think of as jingoism to keep the place together! 

That said, to lose to England is a blow.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Sunday snippet


This rather wonderful photo from Gordon Smith of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia captures one element of the Australian outback. The simple fence stretching into the distance across a gibber strewed plain.

In considering this photo you have to remember that this is not my country. New England is not like this. I can respect this type of scene  and recognise it as Australian, but it is still alien.

New England is less stark, far more nuanced. That is my country. 

This morning in the normal round I again took youngest to Hockey. The game did not grab me in the same way that I recorded in Hockey and the Armidale poets. It was a good fast flowing game, but the energy simply wasn't there.

I took my books and a pad and wrote much of my column for this week's Armidale Express while watching. I have still to finish the column. I am not happy with it. I have put it aside to finish it in the morning before I go to work.

Instead, I have started adding notes to my piece on New England's Aboriginal languages. Again I feel dissatisfied.

There are two levels to my dissatisfaction. One is simply one of standards, ensuring that the piece meets both academic and literary standards. The second is the continuing fact that we can never know just what the real position was. We have lost our chance.

I am writing a general history. It is absolutely impossible to go into depth on every topic. The New England language piece has reached 20,000 words, the length of my BA honours thesis. I cannot spend 20% of a book on this one topic. I have to shrink the whole thing to several thousands words.

In our family we used to push my father to publish. He used to reply that there was too much rubbish written. I thought then and I think now that he was wrong. Dad's material was actually very good. It would have filled so many gaps. Yet now I understand his position in a way that I did not then. 

Still. I am conscious of an ego issue in all this. I cannot guarantee that what I write is correct. I can only do the best I can.          

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - problems in Australian industrial relations

I was thinking the other day that one big difference between the Hawke and Rudd Labor Governments can be summarised in one word, complexity. In the name of reform, the Hawke Government moved to simplify and de-regulate. Equally in the name of reform, the Rudd Government is moving towards complexity and re-regulation.

The trigger for my musings lay in a number of stories over the last week dealing with the new industrial relations system.

The Hawke Government inherited a complicated industrial relations system that was clearly impeding Australian economic development. Supported by the Union Movement, they moved to simplify it. Later, the Howard Government took the process further. However, in its desire to de-regulate the labor market the Government triggered a response - the work choices debate - that played a major role in its defeat.

Despite the de-regulatory tone of the Howard Government, Mr Howard became strongly centralist whenever he or the Government wanted to do something. He was prepared to intervene using whatever lever might be available. In industrial relations, the Government's attempt to bring about national change triggered a High Court challenge.

I reported on the Court's decision in Australian Constitution & the High Court Decision on Work Choices. The decision affirmed the powers of the national Government, marking another major shift in the balance of power within the Australian constitution between the Commonwealth and the states. There is a delicious if somewhat dreadful irony in the way that the Liberal Party and its ideologues, proclaimed defender of the Federal system, delivered such a strong increase in central control.

The Rudd Government came to power with a clear mandate to replace Work Choices with a new national system along with the now clearly defined power to do so. The key words that the new Government chose to use to describe its new approach were "national", "modern" and "simplified". Who could argue with the idea of a simplified, modern, national award system? The reality has been a little different.

The new system came into effect from 1 July 2009. The old and soon to be abolished Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) will continue in effect until the end of December to complete the creation of the new system. In the meantime, its place is being taken by Fair Work Australia, a new body named in the modern tradition of Government speak.

The problem faced by the Government and the AIRC is that Australia is not uniform, nor is the economy simple. The replacement of the Howard system by the new system has therefore generated a whole series of unexpected and complicated side effects. According to newspaper reports, Deputy PM Gillard has already been forced to intervene no less than nine times to direct the AIRC to take the special circumstances of particular industries into account.

There are no winners for the Government in this one. It's direct payback came at the election when Work Choices played a key role in delivering Government. Now it has just the pain. Nor, I suspect, will the Union Movement win. Yes, it has increased Union relevance for the present. However, this has come at the cost of a whole range of potential new disputes.

At a personal level, I am a supporter of the Union Movement even though I have often been on the other side of the fence on particular issues. Call me a traditionalist if you like, but I am always conscious of the role that the Movement has played.

From a purely practical perspective, I suspect that the Movement may come to wish that it had not won on Work Choices. Looking at the way the process is evolving I am not sure that the Unions have a real role. It's distracting them from other matters.

Still, in all this there is a winner. Industrial relations consulting is back and in a big way!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Another day, another set of things to do!

I have been running well behind on my history project, so have spent the last few days trying to catch up. At the moment I am still focused on trying to understand the Aboriginal languages of New England.

Yesterday on the train home I wrote some notes on a lecture by Professor Austin on extinction and revival in the world's languages. Did you know that a language dies every two weeks? I was struck by this. Peter Austin puts forward a simple structure for judging the health of a language. I read this after writing some notes on the way and the reasons why the New England languages declined, so immediately wrote some more to integrate this with Professor Austin's views.

In all this, what began as a simple building block - an analysis of language distribution at the time of European colonisation - has become something more. To understand distribution, I had to understand something about the languages themselves. In turn, this led me to look at who had recorded the languages, because this varied over time, leading then to the language revival movement. So my simple building block has become a multi-faceted piece trying to trace change and thought over time.

I think that I at least have the structure right now. I begin with an introduction to Aboriginal languages using some New England examples to illustrate. Then I look in a general sense at change and decline, followed by a discussion of those who recorded the languages. A review of languages and language distribution at the the time of colonisation is the next slab. The piece finishes with a discussion of the language revival movement.

There are still gaps. I am also conscious that I am not a linguist, so will make mistakes. But given my type of mind, I am finding it very interesting. It would have been a great error just to write on language distribution and the links between this and geography. It's not just that I have been drawn into a broader story In trying to understand the languages themselves as well as those who recorded them, I have also gained insights into my original objective.

I also find it interesting if also a little sad just how few people, including Aboriginal people, know about some of the things that I am writing about. I know that the world is a crowded place, but things get siloed into little specialist boxes and so become inaccessible to the broader community. There are some quite remarkable and fascinating stories.

This internet is a wonderful place. Yesterday I received an email from Canberra from another New Englander. He had read a post I had written, one of my earlier building blocks, on the Hunter valley languages where I quoted Norman Tindale. He said that Tindale was wrong and is sending me the book he wrote on Kamilaroi Lands. It also appears that he quotes one J Belshaw 1966 in that book! Gee the world's a small place.

Obviously I am an enthusiast by nature. Still, I take some pleasure in the fact that I have been able to interest at least a few people in Aboriginal languages in general and New England's languages in particular.

I need this. Yesterday Neil had a piece quoting some views of Professor Dodson. I read this while tired and also a little depressed. Fortunately I didn't respond at the time other than a comment. It is a perfectly reasonable post, while Professor Dodson's views deserve respect. At the time, though, my first reaction was to feel here we go again.

I have written a fair bit on Indigenous policy, although circumstances (the work I am doing just at present) mean that I have had to exercise care in recent writing. I have also suffered from fits of periodic depression at the way we keep repeating past mistakes. I write in bursts then say no more, it's just too hard, I don't want to talk about this.

I have argued for a long while that we need a new frame in considering issues associated with Australia's Indigenous people, although my approach is not necessarily the same as Professor Dodson's. Central to this is the need to see Aborigines as people, not a cause, to recognise and respond to diversity.

I don't think that the policy writing I have done has had any real impact, although it has been useful at specific points in ways that I may write about at some later stage. The research and writing that has had at least a little impact has been my very specific New England stuff and this because I have been able to interest people, to get them to see connections and to personalise.

People find it hard to understand the big stuff. They respond to the personal and local.

Crikey, It really is time to get to work!


It is always a good idea for any researcher to exercise a little humility when working in a new area. New England history is not new, Aboriginal languages are.

I spent a little time digging into the Austlang web site. This is a remarkably good site for anybody with an interest in particular Aboriginal languages because it presents the available information. It will save me a fair bit of time. However, it also means caution in presenting new ideas. So many people know far more than me.

I also spent a little bit of time searching on the Aboriginal language revival movement. This strikes me as a bit of a mine field.

As a historian I have no problems in presenting arguments, explaining why. As a commentator, I find it a little sad that some Aboriginal groups have succesfully excluded non-Aboriginal children from school based Aboriginal language courses in particular schools.

It is bad enough, I think, that Aboriginal language should (as appears to be the case) have been relegated to the Aboriginal studies stream. I say relegated because from my experience, at least in NSW, these courses are not well regarded by the general student body.

I was also concerned that some of the curriculum material I saw was, I thought, quite misleading in historical terms. I will reserve my position here, however, because I was doing a quick scan.

Speaking again as a commentator, if (as I think its should) Aboriginal studies is going to become a mainstream discipline then it has to be rigorous and open and welcoming to non-Aboriginal students.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A rather nice compliment from Christopher Moore on a post on Canadian history.

Back in June I wrote Visiting Vancouver - 3: Canadian history through Australian eyes, early days. This provided an introduction to early Canadian history based on Craig Brown (Editor), The Illustrated History of Canada, Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2007. Now I have received a rather nice compliment from Christopher Moore, one of the book's authors. He wrote:

You have digested a lot of Canadian history very effectively! -- and I say this as one of the authors of The Illustrated History of Canada, the book you were reading.

I was really chuffed. I thought that this was a well written post, more so when I read it again.

I was even more chuffed when, as all we bloggers do, I followed the comment back to find out more details on Christopher.

Christopher is a distinguished free lance Canadian historian who seems to be doing just the things that I would like to do in this last stage of my career. He just began a whole lot earlier! He also has a very interesting history blog.

Things like this encourage me to keep writing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Aboriginal spirituality and religious education in NSW public schools

I want to start this post by saying what I do not want to discuss. I do not want to discuss the general question of religious education in public schools. I am dealing just with the current system.

Now to help international readers make any sense of this post, when the NSW public education system was set up it was strictly secular. However, the system provided for one period a week, I think it was one period a week, in which the various churches (all then Christian) could provide religious instruction. Parents could decline to allow their children to participate. In that case, kids were expected to do ordinary school work.

There were good practical reasons for this approach. Sectarian divides between the Protestant/Anglican majority and the Roman Catholic minority really dictated a secular system. However, the previous public education system had involved a mixed secular/religious school system. If religion was not accommodated in some way, the rival church and state systems might continue. As it happened, the Roman Catholic hierarchy opted to set up a rival system of church schools, but the rationale remained.

Now track forward to NSW in 2009. There are new religions, new in an Australian sense in terms of significant numbers. These have been accommodated.

This is where we come to a problem. An Aboriginal colleague's children are going to a Sydney public school. That school provides opportunity for a variety of religious instruction including Hindu, Muslim and a number of Christian denominations. She did not want her children undertaking conventional religious instruction. Instead, she asked if the period could be used to introduce her children to Aboriginal culture and especially spirituality.

The answer was no. So now the children have to do ordinary school work when their colleagues are doing fun things like colouring in and listening to stories. They are very cranky with their mother as a result.

Now I suspect that there are many things I do not know from this story, including practical difficulties that the school might face. But I do know that she is very upset and resentful of the fact that the school accommodates new faiths but won't recognise the original Australian culture.

At an in-principle level I have to agree with her. I would have thought, given existing policy on religious instruction, that this was an issue that could be accommodated.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pea and ham soup and poetry

I love pea and ham soup. My family does not. They classify it as a smelly abomination.

My family has gone to bed. Unusually at this hour (I generally get up very early) I am awake, sipping a Benedictine, drinking coffee and well entrenched in the three small poetry books I referred to in Hockey and the Armidale poets.

I took them with me for my train reading this morning. I read them on the bus jotting notes. At Central Railway Station I bought a Financial Review. I read it briefly while waiting for the train, but then put it away because it was breaking the mood.

the train was late;

on the platform
children from the boarding school
are going home
Winifred Belmont

This poem is really about betrayal, but the stanza captures me because I can remember the boarding school trains when they still ran to the south at the end of term. The steam train at the station, the long line of carriages, the kids from the three local boarding schools milling around while the teachers watched just waiting until the train loaded and left.

As a local I normally did not join the train. This time coming up on Christmas I was heading south with the others because I was meeting a friend in Sydney to go hitchhiking in Tasmania.

Once the train pulled out we were on our own. A friend and I found a carriage full of girls. There we shared our cigarettes, multi-coloured Sobranies among others, and chatted. One girl's father was, as I remember it, a semi-feudal lord of Cocos Island.

Oddly, I had skipped that last day at school because it was only speech day and a friend and I had decided to go adventuring. I found at the train that I had won a prize for general knowledge, but since no one had told me I did not know. Later the book arrived by post.

Now, while the bacon bones cook, I am immersed back in the poetry, writing a post. The dried peas are soaking. I can add them later.        

Are Australia's universities tied in Government knots?

Last month in Education Targets and Australia's Universities - delivery problems for the Rudd Government I suggested that one of the Rudd Government's educations targets, increasing the number of 25 to 34 year olds with university degrees from today's 32 per cent to 40 per cent by 2025, could not be delivered.

There was nothing magical about the post, it was simply a rough test on the numbers.

Today's Australian Financial Review carried a story with the headline Tied in knots by strings attached to finance. I cannot give you the link. It is behind the paper's pay fire wall. The essence of the story was that Australia's universities were caught individually in complex negotiations with the Government on funding.

I really struggled with this story. The main theme was the way in which performance agreements created conflict between objectives, between competition and the co-operation required to achieve better access for disadvantaged students. A secondary theme was the sheer complexity involved in mass negotiation of agreements in short time horizons.

While I found the story intuitively plausible, my core problem lay in the fact that I could not do a proper analysis without knowing the detail of the performance requirements. Otherwise, anything I might write would be simply sound and fury.

It must be clear that I simply do not believe that the Rudd Government's "Education Revolution" will deliver better higher education. Note I say education, not education outcomes. I am deeply suspicious, and that suspicion is not aided by the complexity and lack of transparency in the process.

I would love to be corrected. Perhaps a reader might explain to me the advantages in the present approach.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hockey and the Armidale poets

Push, girls, push. Hockey call.

I finished Sunday Essay - obsessions with reading wondering just what book I would select next.

As it happened, I had to take Clare to hockey at Little Bay. To pass the time, I grabbed a few small books of poetry off the shelf.

No shots, girls, no shots. Don't let them in.

The three books I chose were all published in Armidale in 1980 or 1981. I read them in breaks in the hockey. It was quite an exciting match.

Slow it down, girls, slow it down.

Next hockey match I am going to take a note pad. I really need to get the cadences down. Hockey is visual, but this was poetry in action.

Talk to her girls, talk to her.

As I said, I read the poems in breaks. These are very short books. I read each a number of times.

Fuck! That was our ball.

As I did, patterns emerged. These are generally expatriate poets brought to Armidale by circumstance. Their poems reflect the circumstances of the time. There are memories of different homes, of local life, of their opposition to Sydney.

Feeling posthumous in in Bondi
After tablelands' dawn and the death of poetry,
Sydney existential and drear,
I decide to remember friendships
Rather than renew them here
Greg Shortis, First Ode

This was the time the Armidale poets were challenging what they saw as the intellectual dominance and pretensions of the Balmain push. They did so through writing, readings and their own small presses.

Keep with her girls, keep with her.

You will not find an entry in Wikipedia on the Amidale poets. They were and still are. Their poems appear in anthologies. The dream of creating an alternative view still, I think, continues. Yet their presence as a collective is lost.

The game ends. Clare has done really well as goalie in keeping it to a draw.

I come home and in the midst of lunch preparation write Introducing the Armidale poets, the first in a possible series.

You see, I know these poets. I was there at the time these books were published. One is signed by the author.

The problem the Armidale poets face is the one that influenced some of their writing in the first instance, the difficulty in this country of providing an authentic alternative regional voice when so much is controlled by and set within cultural patterns dominated by metro cultural elites.

My own writing may not have much impact. But at least I can review their work for my own pleasure.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Essay - obsessions with reading

There was a time in recent years when reading, other than that which had to be done, dropped away. Reading for pleasure diminished to a small field; fantasy, a few pot boilers, re-reading old favourites. The last was really dominant. I knew the books, they were old friends, and I could escape drifting within the covers without thinking too much.

Today reading has once again become a passion, although the focus this time is mainly non-fiction. Writing, more accurately the desire to write, has been the driver. I am always looking for new ideas as well as material to support or deepen my understanding of particular topics.

When I began what I now call my train reading, I did read a lot linked to the history of New England. However, I also deliberately chose older books from my shelves that I had not read before, books that had come to me from family collections.

My choices could only have been described as somewhat eclectic, deliberately chosen so as to be outside my immediate interests. A funny thing  happened. I started choosing other books that might compliment in some way those that I had already read; a book chosen almost at random became the start of a chain.

Outside New England history, my train reading is not meant to be highly structured. I find it interesting that, despite my best efforts, it has started to connect and re-connect. It has, in fact, become a little world of its own: books widely separated in time, space and subject matter link in unexpected ways.

This world is sometimes far more interesting than the world around me. I become absorbed, lost. On the train I sometimes look up to find people watching me. No, I am not talking to myself, although I have to watch this given my habit when alone of saying things out loud just to taste the sounds. Rather, the sight of someone obviously absorbed and sometimes scribbling always attracts attention.

Strange this obsession with thought.

To this point most of my writing and thought has been object focused, deadline driven: prepare this briefing by, complete this advice by, make so many calls by.

I still keep time sheets, although I break time into ten minute blocks rather than the decimal based six minutes so loved by lawyers and accountants. To my mind, six minutes is just too short to have real meaning. However, now my time sheets actually record my growing obsession with reading and writing, as do my to do lists. Other things struggle to get in!

The real joy of my train reading is the freedom to go in any direction I want, to follow through threads that I would otherwise ignore. I actually have to discipline myself to do this. There are rules.

I will not read work related matter on the train unless I have a pressing deadline. I ration my New England history reading and also things like reading the Financial Review. Mind you, sometimes I actually have to allocate time to my straight professional reading because I realise that it is getting lost.

My train reading is a liberal education, a chance to explore. The act of selecting a book that I have not read and might not otherwise do so forces me into new ways. This is reading with purpose but without objective. This is luxury reading.

I am, fortunately, a very fast reader. Over the last few years my reading skills had actually dropped. I am still fast, but was in clear decline. Now my reading speeds are back to something approaching their old levels. This adds to my enjoyment.

I charge through a book, then stop, go back, find a linked point. Then onwards. Sometimes I stop and just muse.

You cannot read the way I do on-line. With exceptions, the computer is just too slow. The key exception is graphic rich text where the computer's bigger screen makes it easier to see things.

Now that we have largely unpacked from the move, I have been sorting books, discovering new ones that I have not read. I wonder, what to select next?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - Rudd reshuffles, tax and road transport, Stern Hu and rust-bucket NSW

Another Saturday, another blank screen. Early Saturday morning is one of the best times of the week because the weekend stretches in front with so much apparent time. There is no pressure. The time vanishes, of course, but it is still nice.

There has been so much that I could have written about this week with a little more time. It's just been very interesting.

During the week Australian Prime Minister Rudd announced a number of changes at senior official level. The changes were well received and I thought deservedly so. When Mr Rudd became PM he left all the previous Howard appointees in place. Now with experience of people and well into his first term he is in a better position to make changes.

Under the Howard Government, there was a degree of politicisation in senior official appointments. Unlike the US system where senior official positions are political appointments, the Australian public service is meant to be a-political. Mr Rudd promised to observe this tradition. I think that he has done so.

During the week there were media reports, I do not have the link, quoting Bruce Baird as suggesting that there would be some shrinkage in Australia's huge international education sector. Mr Baird has been appointed by the Australian Government to review the sector. The terms of reference for his inquiry are here, regular reports on the inquiry will be posted here

I am sure that he is right.

Australian Treasury Secretary Ken Henry's review of the Australian taxation system continues with the release of a paper by  Harry Clarke and Dr. David Prentice on taxation and road transport. Harry is a blogger. His post Taxes & the Australian transport sector contains a link to the full paper.

The paper made headline news because it proposes a radical reshape of taxation related to road transport centred on a variant of the user pays principle. I have yet to read the paper, but given my own biases my instinctive reaction was that the proposed approach was likely to adversely affect lower income people as well as country people. I won't comment further until I have actually read it.

The Stern Hu case continued to attract publicity in Australia during the week. The charges laid against Mr Hu and his fellow co-workers from Rio Tinto's Shanghai office have been softened, but the story still runs and runs at Australian level.

Over time, the Australian Government has tried to press for more information. Trade Minister Crean's view that the case will not hurt Australia-China trade may be correct, but the case has caused shifts in views about China within Australia.

One interesting side-effect of this in combination with the problems faced by Indian students in Australia is an increase in interest in India as compared to China. As a number of visiting senior Indians have reminded Australia, India and Australia share a common base in law. India's profile in Australia has always suffered in comparison to the Australian sometimes love affair with China.

At local level, Australian Government Treasurer's have been meeting about the carve up of GST tax revenues. NSW Treasurer Eric Roozendaal's turn of phrase in borrowing from George Bush and describing WA and Queensland as the axis of evil attracted attention. A member of the axis of evil responded tartly by calling NSW the rust-bucket economy, suggesting that the growth states were now carrying NSW.

All good clean fun. However, it is hard to conceal the fact that the relative decline in NSW's position continues. At the moment, the only growth sector in the NSW economy is coal development in Northern NSW.  

Friday, August 14, 2009

Just a story from 1941 Europe

simone_wlodek_diane_1941 Just a photo from Europe of 1941. If you would like to hear an inspirational story click here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Insanities in Australian perceptions - a good deed goes wrong

Police shoot kangaroo

I had actually missed this story beyond vaguely noticing it. Then I found it front page in the Armidale Express.

Before going on, the heading in the Nine story reads Teens watch cop shoot kangaroo.

I need to set a location for you first. This is the main road out of Armidale to the east. The fence on the right is the front fence to my old school (TAS).

The facts appear to be this. A kangaroo was hit by a car. The accident was reported. Wires, the wild life service, asked police to put the animal down. It took three shots from the service pistol. TAS boys, one of whom had reported the incident, watched. One took some video that was then posted to Facebook. Someone else then took the video and posted it to My Tube.

All hell broke lose. Police incompetence. The need to save the kangaroo. Teen age boys exposed to this brutality. Their insensitivity in posting it. And so it goes. The police were in trouble. The boys were in trouble. The Express commented that it was another example of the growing divide between metro sensibilities and the reality of country (I would leave country out) life.

There was no time to get a humane killer if indeed it would have worked. You try applying a humane killer to a kangaroo with a broken leg. A few years ago before the gun law changes a .22 rifle would have been readily available. It was not, so the police had to rely on their inefficient (for these purposes) service revolvers. Boys are boys and watched while commenting. I doubt that this scarred them for life. Even today when TAS has many town students, a goodly number actually use firearms for sport, hunting and clearing vermin.

I really don't know. On my soapbox, I would talk about the growing unreality of many social attitudes. Leaving my soapbox aside, I just think that the apparent reported reactions are just dumb and to the extreme.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Just a few snippets

In this post I just want to follow up on some of the things that I and others have written about.

Neil's post, League tables can play to fears of parents, is dead right. I have no problem with measurement, its the way the measures are used and the unintended consequences.

The two key problems can be put this way. First, we get what we measure, so things not measured get crowded out. Secondly, and this is linked, where the causes of differential performance are complicated, then a simple outcome measure may reward bad behaviour.

Consider a bad selective school riven with bullying and driven by authoritarian management whose sole focus is on test performance. I have no particular school in mind, I am just painting an extreme case. That school may well attract success payments and students even though the actual education delivered is dreadful.

Couldn't happen? Surely other systems would control this? It happens all the time in narrow measurement based performance environments. Sometimes the adverse effects are individual, at other times it gives us a Global Financial Crisis.

Thomas is worried about elitism and is also struggling with the apparent rigidity of the Sydney University system.

On the first, I can't answer Thomas's questions. I don't think that elitism is necessarily a bad thing, it can lead to above average performance combined with a sense of public contribution, but it can also lead to rigid class systems and exclusion. I think that it comes from the combination of family with social structures. Maybe I have answered Thomas's questions after all!

On the second, all systems have rules. These become more rigid as systems are codified. The only way to manage mass systems where compliance is central is to reduce the scope for individual judgement. Past a certain point, gains from reduced costs are offset by other costs. So long as these are bourne by customers or other competitors, that's fine. Past a certain point, the system collapses.

Deputy Australian PM Julia Gillard has announced an inquiry into international students in Australia. About time, too. This is not a criticism, simply relief.

Up in Ulmarra, Lynne has been to the circus. Earlier I wrote about Memories of Jimmy Sharman's Boxing Stadium. Perhaps its time for circuses!

Enough, I have things to do.            

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On getting crabby!

Rereading last night's post, Frustrations over production functions, I hate getting and sounding crabby. I really was frustrated.

All disciplines have their own structures and languages. These shift with time. Part of my frustration lay in the fact that I had to try and read a remarkably dry article first, part in my inability to help a tired girl who needed simplification before all else.

I do think, though, that the way economics has gone has been to its detriment.

The work of Solow and independently that of Trevor Swan were important in delineating some of the features and relationships that affected economic growth. However, the presentation of this material can be incredibly dry, to say the least!

I do love some of the quotes from Solow in the short Wikipedia article on him. On Milton Friedman:

Everything reminds Milton Friedman of the money supply. Everything reminds me of sex, but I try to keep it out of my papers.

Then on the computer age, echoing something that I have argued:

You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.

Just one more: 

There is no evidence that God ever intended the United States of America to have a higher per capita income than the rest of the world for eternity

Monday, August 10, 2009

Frustrations over production functions

Tonight eldest asked me to help he on her economic development presentation. It is due tomorrow. I got very frustrated. She was very tired, and I realised that she did not have the background to understand my points. My fault in not explaining simply enough.

The issue dealt with neo-classical economics and the production function. The assignments was to critique an article attacking theories based on the production function in development economics. Before going on, I should explain the production function for non-economists.

To produce things, you need labour and capital. The production expresses the relationship between the two. This can be at firm or national level. A national production function is really the aggregation of individual production functions throughout the economy.

Now things are a little more complicated than this in practice. The relationship between labour and capital changes. Part of this is due to new technology and ideas. So economists add in something to accommodate this.

Okay, for the benefit of economists, I know that all this is a gross over-simplification, but I think that it captures the guts.

My problem is that while the production function can be useful at firm level, it has absolutely no validity at national level other than as a device for explaining some of the variables. So how to explain this to daughter in a way that is actually useful?

This is not an economics post. I must admit That I found production functions as boring as bat shit when I had to study them. I know that bat shit is not boring to some of those who love bats, but in a sense that's my point. It's very much a minority perspective.

You can use the production function to illustrate development problems based just on high savings rates. But its only a limited tool.

I turned off economics as a discipline when it became dominated by, from my perspective, fairly useless simplistic models. I fear eldest is going the same route, but without my exposure to alternative and interesting perspectives. So she won't come back.    

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Multi-ethnic communities - respecting the rights of minorities

In the third post in this series, Multi-ethnic communities - Adolf Hitler's contribution, I suggested that Adolph Hitler’s greatest contribution lay in the way he and the Nazi regime in their mad obsessions crystallised, took to their logical extreme, ideas that had been built into European thinking and thus discredited them. In doing so, Hitler laid the basis for the Nuremberg trails and for subsequent international action against war crimes.

This was a not insignificant achievement even if it can be likened to medical advances flowing from a deadly global pandemic. I finished the post by suggesting that international law was the first building block in encouraging different ethnic groups to live together in harmony because it imposed sanctions especially on official leaders who wanted to play the race or ethnicity card.

In this post I want to extend my discussion by looking briefly at one aspect of the Canadian experience.

The Seven Years War (really the nine years war:1754–1763) involved all the major European powers of the period and was, in some ways, the first fully global war because 340px-SevenYearsWarit was fought across three continents.

To give you an indication of scale, the map from Wikipedia shows the areas involved. Blue: Great Britain, Prussia, Portugal, Sweden with allies. Green: France, Spain, Austria, Russia with allies.

In the settlements that followed the end of the war, Britain gained, among other things, the French Settlements that had formed the heart of New France in what would become Canada. In doing so, they gained a deeply Roman Catholic population speaking another language. The continuing tensions between ethnic French and English in Canada has brought the country to the verge of break-up a number of times, yet so far Canada survives.

A key reason for this is that French Canada has been able to exercise direct political power in Quebec while also participating in power at national level. This need not stop a country breaking up, but it does provide a powerful weapon in keeping it together. Importantly in the Canadian case, it was French Canadian political leaders who played a key role in fighting the separatist tendencies present in Quebec.

In 1774 the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act. The Act was passed for purely pragmatic reasons. It was also passed at a time when the tensions and restrictions flowing from the Reformation were still very much alive, when those of the Roman Catholic persuasion were effectively prevented from sitting in the Parliament at Westminster.

The Act restored the former French civil tradition for private law, which had been ended in 1763. It allowed public office holders to practice the Roman Catholic faith, by replacing the oath sworn by officials from one to Elizabeth I and her heirs with one to George III that had no reference to the Protestant faith. This enabled, for the first time, French Canadians to legally participate in the affairs of the provincial government without formally renouncing their faith.

It also reestablished the collection of tithes, which had been stopped under the previous administrative rules, and it allowed Jesuit priests to return to the province.

The new Act was deeply unpopular further south and became another yet another of the planks that led to the American Revolution in the thirteen colonies. Deeply suspicious of papist influnce, angry that the new province of Quebec had been given title over part of the land that had belonged to New France, the rebels listed the Quebec Act as one of the grievances in their Declaration of Independence.

So in granting civil liberties to one group, the Act helped trigger a rebellion in another group. Yet it also helped lay the basis for what would become the Canadian nation.

Note to readers: You will find a full list of posts in this series here.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - on heresy and prejudice

Tikno's post, Fatwa against terrorist, continues to draw some interesting responses. I think that to some degree at least, Tikno has achieved his objective of publicising alternative views, the opposition to terrorism among Muslims.

Australia's dumb would be terrorists set out my first gut reaction to the alleged terrorism plot in Australia. I have been busy and I haven't watched/read as much as I should on subsequent developments, but I really felt sorry for their families.

Australia has had a relatively long experience with displaced people. The trauma of war and social disruption leaves deep scars. I suspect that there are very few Australians who have not had some personal contact with former refugees, a substantial number where the experience is directly personal or in their own families.

I should write about this from a purely personal perspective at some point because I have been alive for long enough to span multiple movements of people into Australia. I suppose one thing that I have found is that the contacts temper my own views.

I am naturally curious and like to find out about people. The best way to do this is simply through conversation, asking questions. The key is to listen, not argue. I have learned so much. Often, the most interesting things are the purely domestic, the way families work, attitudes to children, to faith. Sometimes the stories skirt absolutely horrifying things that I can barely comprehend.

These things don't go away, they just have to be lived with. People get on with their lives as best they can.

I don't think that it helps to revisit the past to much because it re-opens old wounds, reinforces divisions.

Another thing that I have learned is that people and societies do change. At one level this may sound like a truism. We all know that things change. However, at a second level (and this applies to me too) we also have deep beliefs that things and people don't change.

You can actually see this in what is called the law and order debate in Australia. The desire to punish, to lock people up and throw away the key, rests on an often implicit assumption that personal redemption and reform is not in fact possible.

I suppose that I write a fair bit about change and change processes. Sometimes I write because I think that certain changes are wrong, equally often I am arguing in favour of change. Sometimes I do both at the same time!

As part of the discussion around Tikno's post, Ramana sent me a link to an Economist story. Entitled Islam and heresy: where freedom is at stake, the opinion piece deals with change and dissent within the Muslim faith.

The central ideas in the piece are interesting: heresy, apostasy and the need for internal change within the Muslim faith are interesting ideas. That said, I thought that it was a remarkably shoddy piece of writing because of the overlays of prejudice created through use of words. The article begins:

To most Western ears, the very idea of punishing heresy conjures up a time four or five centuries ago, when Spanish inquisitors terrorised dissenters with the rack and Russian tsars would burn alive whole communities of ultra-traditionalist Old Believers.


Quite a bit of my train reading over the last few months has focused on European history exploring, among other things, the changing nature of perception and prejudice. It may be true that we don't, for example, burn people at the stake any more in Western European countries, but the history of Europe of the last two hundred years is absolutely littered with examples of barbaric human behaviour linked to race, religion, ethnicity. This includes the secular faiths such as communism or fascism where punishment for heresy or apostasy - denial of the true way - could send you to concentration camp or gulag.

I am not singling out Western Europe. I am simply saying that discussion of the need for change in any community or organisation, of concepts such as heresy or apostasy, is not greatly helped by irrelevant overlays.

The growth of the concept of civilisation and of associated concepts such freedom in Western thought is an important story notwithstanding the failures that I refer to. The failures and sometimes horrors themselves have been part of the evolutionary process.

Finishing up with a definitional note. One definition of heresy says:

  • a religious opinion or doctrine at variance with accepted doctrine
  • a willful and persistent rejection of any article of the faith by a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church
  • any belief or theory strongly at variance with established opinion.

I would have thought that the idea of punishing heresy was well established in Western democracies, it's just that the definitions have shifted somewhat.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Lessons from Australia's convict past

Yesterday in Finding jobs for young men I suggested that we should redesign, create, jobs for young men as a way of overcoming Australia's emerging social problems. We can learn something here from Australia's convict past.

This country was founded by criminals. You can cut it whichever way you like, but them's the facts.

Some of those criminals remained criminals, others went on to establish business empires, others became politicians, some just solid everyday citizens. They did so because there were opportunities.

For a person prepared to do physical work, there were jobs, jobs, jobs. Now there are benefits, benefits, benefits. The jobs were relatively well paid, the benefits just allow you to survive. Which is better?

I am not against benefits. I am against a system that turns benefits into an alternative to work.

Modern Australia's answer to benefits is to create systems that attempt in one way or another to force people off benefits. To my mind, this is quite silly.

Most people will not stay on benefits if they have a decent alternative. Many don't. So we try to create safety net systems that will at least stop them starving. Social housing is an example.

I look at a place like Bourke, one of Australia's poorest communities. Or another NSW town, I won't give the name, that officials won't even go there on a voluntary basis because it is just so dreadful.

In the case of Bourke we buy water rights and take away jobs without compensation. We create a town that costs Australian taxpayers, State and Federal, millions of dollars a year. I could give you a ball park figure with a few calculations, we know from the census data how many people are on benefits, but for the purposes of this argument I do not think that I need to do so.

Note that I have no time for people who will not help themselves.

We have to combine hard and soft. Consider this.

Let's say that we say the following to Bourke Shire Council.

Over the next ten years the State and Federal are going to spend x million dollars in Bourke on welfare. If we were to give you half this amount, what could you do in service development and local development? I suspect the Shire Council would come up with some very innovative answers. I also suspect that welfare costs in Bourke would drop to blazes.

Makes one think.


In writing the above I was not suggesting some form of of national work service for the young, an idea that has been floated in Australia from time to time, nor am I blind to the policy difficulties involved. I just think that we need to think in new ways.

Yesterday's Australian carried a number of stories about problems in actually delivering homes to Aboriginal people in remote areas of the Northern Territory, a theme continued in today's paper under the headline Red tape strangles homes program.

Over the last three years I have written a fair bit trying to explain why these types of failures are an almost inevitable result of current systems of public administration. I hear a fair bit of discussion about ways of making current systems work better, much less on the inherent failures in the systems themselves.

I have no doubt that homes will be built in the Northern Territory, its just that the whole process is going to take far longer than it should have.

Of itself, building homes is a relatively simple thing. Yes, there may be particular problems to be resolved such as availability of land or supply of tradespeople in an area, but these are known problems.

If we struggle just to build homes, then what hope have we of resolving more complex problems within our existing systems?

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Finding jobs for young men

Yesterday, just up the road from work, one boy apparently stabbed another boy at 2.30 in the afternoon. This was a second day of school kid disturbances.

I see these kids every day. I also read about boys from minority groups condemned to a life on welfare because they cannot find jobs.

We need to redesign work to people, especially men, not attempt to redesign people to work.

Physical strength, the need to prove one's self physically, are male features. Denied of work that require these things, they form gangs.

Gangs have proliferated across Western Sydney. We say that this is a law and order or, alternatively, a training problem.

Bring in more police, tighten the law, is the law and order response. The training response says give them skills so that they can do what have mainly become office jobs.

Both miss the point. They are trying to make male young fit in. Why not change the system to fit their needs?

I look round Australia's towns and cities and I see urban decay. The same happens in the country, just more so.

Why not create physical jobs that will build things? We can afford it. We don't because we have the wrong models.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Australia's dumb would be terrorists

To say that I was a bit flabbergasted by the latest terrorism scare in Australia would be an understatement. I didn't know whether to be more flabbergasted by the stupidity of the apparent plan or the need to deploy 400 police and other personnel to pick them all up.

I really don't want to comment on the stupidity of the alleged plot. I think that this will come out in court. Equally, so will evidence on the scale of the official response.

Don't get me wrong. Officials have to take these things seriously, just as they had to take swine flue seriously. It's the nature of the response I am talking about. Perhaps we will learn that the plot was a really serious threat as compared to adolescent stupidity. On the evidence so far, I am inclined to doubt it.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

For Tikno - selection, perception, bias and the MUI Fatwa

In a comment on my last post, Saturday Morning Musings - a miscellany, Tikno reminded me that I had not responded to the last point in his post. I had intended to do so, but got sidetracked in my thoughts.

Tikno's last two paragraphs read:

Therefore, it's clear that terrorist is the problem of terrorist itself, the responsibility of personal or their organization itself, and has NO relevance with religion. Among you may want to say "Why not using national legal system?" For this one I agree with you, but at least all the good Muslim people has sending the message for world peace through the Fatwa against terrorist. Always remember! outside there are still many good Muslim people, even more than that which you imagine. Will you generalize them also? Hopefully NO.
Although I'm not Muslim, I want to defend my Muslim friends (my best friends here) who understood their religion properly.

Finally, I'm confused why I rarely heard the publication or discussion for this Fatwa on media like TV, newspaper or internet? Oh... I can understand! But... if you have a blog, hopefully you want to help me to spread this news.

Tikno's post refers to two Fatwas against terrorism, one from Indonesia, the other India. The Indonesian Fatwa was issued in 2004 by Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), the highest Muslim authority in Indonesia with the rights of issuing Fatwa.

Tikno's point goes to the heart of two linked things, stereotyping and selection in reporting. 

I have written on both in the context that Tikno is talking about. I tried to find the posts, but could not find the ones I wanted in the time I had. There are just too many posts. I will try to find them later.

In previous writing I have attacked the use of the term "Muslim" or "Muslim Faith" as a universal descriptor. My point was that I did not know what it meant beyond a simple religious label. I thought that it had become dangerously misleading.   

Take the phrase Indonesian Muslim. Indonesia I can understand as a country. Muslim is a faith. So in simple English, an Indonesian Muslim is someone from Indonesia who happens to be a Muslim. It means no more than that.

Indonesia itself is a very varied country, so to say more here I would need to know which part of the country they are from. The Muslim Faith is also very varied. Because they are Muslim there are some things that I do know in terms of religious observance. However, to go beyond that I would actually need to talk to them, to understand how they thought and felt.     

The problem with stereotypes is that the mislead and confuse. Worse, they can in fact acquire a life of their own. At worst, they actually become the thing.

In some of my writings on the Australian Aborigines I have pointed to the way that specific stereotypical views held by non-Aboriginal people actually affected Aboriginal perceptions of themselves to the detriment of both. In other posts, I looked at the changing meaning of the word terrorist and the negative impact this had had on Western thought. In other posts I attacked stereotypical views about Australia and Australians, and in some depression also explored the way in which western responses associated with the war on terror were feeding into particular views among some Muslim groups. 

Nadia is Indonesian and is presently working in Angola. In Where's the Love? - On Bombing and Indonesia Unite, she talks about her own reactions to the Bali bombings. She also talks about the way in which attitudes affect something as simple as international travel.

I have written many times about the way stereotypes affect reporting. In the case of Tamworth and Sudanese refugees I reported at some length because the very simplistic initial reports in the metro media were damaging not just Tamworth but were reinforcing global stereotypes of Australia as a racist country.

I am pretty sure, I have not checked, that the Indonesian Fatwa would have been reported in Australia at the time. However, its existence is certainly not well known. This is partly a matter of news value, something of itself that aids bias.

In the constant search for new material, the media focuses on the now and on the visual. There is little time for more reflective reporting. Those feeding the media including political leaders couch their views to fit within this media world.

In saying this, I am not attacking journalists. I am attacking the world in which they have to work.

Returning to Tikno and Indonesia, I remember when I visited Indonesia as part of an official Australian ministerial mission just how complicated I found the country. I knew a fair bit about the country already, but as I listened to the briefings at the Embassy and chatted to our people there, I found layer after layer of fascinating nuances. At the end, I realised just how little I knew!

Tikno's point about the Fatwa is a simple illustration of this. I vaguely remembered this Fatwa, but did not understand its significance in regard to MUI's position in Indonesia. Those who would like to read the Fatwa, it's in Bahasa!, can find it here

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - a miscellany

Because of the move I have not been able to keep up with all the interesting material round in the immediate slice of the blogosphere that I follow. So this morning I have spent a little time just catching up.

Gordon Smith is still posting photographs from his Australian outback trip.20090525-10-34-44-outback2009-coober-pedy-church Coober Pedy is an opal mining town 846 kilometres north of Adelaide. It is famous in part because many of the homes have been built underground often in old mines to escape the heat. The earth provides natural insulation.

This photos shows the underground Catholic Church.

You can follow Gordon's full series of photos on the trip by clicking here.

The discussion at the ALP National Conference on gay marriage drew Neil back to this topic. The link in Neil's post back to an earlier post of his will take you into an October 2007 blogging conversation that a number of us had on this topic. It was an interesting discussion.

The cat wants to be fed!

In More on Indonesian terrorist bombing Neil also picked up posts by Rob Bainton in Sydney and Tikno in Indonesia. I found Tikno's post very interesting because he writes, I think, from an Indonesian Christian perspective.

Many years ago, an uncle of mine tried to explain to a bemused Liberal Party pre-selection meeting on the North Shore made up mainly of blue-rinsed ladies why he saw Muslim fundamentalism as the main coming challenge to world order. The cold war was still raging, anti-communism was still the theme of the day in many Liberal Party circles, so his audience found it hard to see the relevance. Needless to say, Jim did not win the pre-selection!

I don't think that Jim was anti-Muslim in any way. His argument was couched in terms of his perception of the dynamics within the Muslim faith.

He had very particular reasons for adopting the views that he did. He loved old Imperial India. During the Second World War he and his twin brother were sent to board at TAS, my old school. That is where Jim met my aunt, his wife to be. At the end of the war Jim returned to India, leaving during partition. He travelled through some of the worst affected areas, at one point walking across a bridge over a ravine filled with the bodies of those killed for religious reasons.

Jim's shelves were filled with books on India. In many ways he still saw the sub-continent as home.

Jim and I were quite close. While I wasn't blind to his faults, I also understood and was interested in his ideas and especially the stories of his side of the family. They certainly influenced my thinking.

The model that I use to interpret developments in the Muslim world comes partly from Jim, also from my own studies of European history. My problem with so many of the interpretations of current developments is that they are in fact one dimensional.

I do not share the moral relativism that seems central to that strange beast called post-modernism. Over the last week my train reading has been Helen Garner's Joe Cinque's Consolation, the story of a very horrid Canberra murder. I kept saying, as she did, why didn't anybody stop this! In a way, the book reveals the moral void at the heart of of a particular group, as well as the way in which the substitution of law for morality and individual responsibility creates a blight.

The story is made more dreadful because it is set in a world that I knew; I lived in Canberra and was also a full time student at ANU for one year. I kept asking comparing the Canberra I knew with the one in the book, how did this dreadful decline occur?

This may sound a long way from my starting point, but I think that it sets a context.        

Let me take Tikno's post as an example.

Tikno is writing from a moral, not political, perspective.

In pointing to the opposition to the fundamentalists who would kill to impose their view of the world - they hold the same view as those who burnt people at the stake in Europe - he makes the point as I see it that part of the battle for hearts and minds must by fought out by Muslims within the Muslim faith.

He also makes a very special point about Indonesia:

I'm strongly believe that there are still a lot of good Muslim, even far more than you imagine. I live in Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, and I have many Muslim friends here. They (my Muslim friends) are also condemns terrorism action.

Now I want to set a context here.

One of the challenges that Indonesia faces is the maintenance of unity within diversity. Indonesia may be the largest Muslim country in the world, but it also has a very substantial Christian minority. In recent years, the religious divides here have flowed over into the most dreadful violence. At one level, this is a state problem. However, the real solution has to lie at individual level, the fight of people of all faiths (here I include all faiths including secularism and modern atheism) to find a way to live together.

Living together cannot come from the imposition of state power, although this has a place. Rather, it comes from learning and joining, from the respect for differences.

Here I find Tikno rather inspirational because he cares and he tries.

Joe Cinque would still be alive, his family united not torn, if more people cared and tried.

Why did Cadbury's make white chocolate? So black kids could get dirty too!

This joke comes from an Aboriginal colleague. I laughed because it was so unexpected.

I have continued to enjoy Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye. I find it interesting that someone living in the US should have such a powerful Australian blog.

Understanding the Research Game by Prof Victor Minichiello on the UNE senior management blog explores some of the issues involved in getting research grants.

As it happens, having finished Joe Cinque's Consolation my train reading has switched to Keith Leopold's Came to Booloominbah: a country scholar's progress 1938-1942 (University of New England Press, Armidale 1988). This book with its memories of university education in times past in Armidale and Sydney actually provides an interesting counterpoint to Professor Minichello's post.

While I am a lot younger than Keith, he died in 1999, I grew up in the world he described. There were negative elements, but I do miss many aspects of it as compared to Professor Minichello's views. But that's a matter for another post!

Speaking of academic life, Thomas is coming to the end of his university career. Thomas has been at university for my entire blogging life. I suppose we have to let the young go, but it will seem odd! Still, so long as we can keep Thomas writing outside Twitter and Facebook (!), I am looking forward to the next stages.

I have barely kept scratched the surface, but I have other things to do. Like gardening!