Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Australian Opera's The Mikado


Unusually for me, I seem to have been having quite a social time of it.

Thursday last week was the Global Illuminations cocktail party to raise funds for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. The Opera House was coloured pink for the occasion.

Tonight I was back at the same end of town for the Australian Opera's presentation of the Mikado at the Opera House. I thought of Marcellous who has often written on AO matters.

The evening was a birthday present for Judith, my mother in law. We had drinks and nibbles first on the lower concourse looking across the water. Downtown Sydney is remarkably beautiful at night with the water and lights.

I am a fairly critical G&S fan. The school I went to, The Armidale School, had an annual G&S production for many years. This was a big event. Under the talented direction of Jim Graham, rehearsals went on for a very long time, aided by the large number of boarders who were available at all hours. Music was generally provided by the Armidale Symphony Orchestra. A number of people got their performance starts here including Australian TV journalist and presenter Paul Griffiths and singer and actor Peter Cousens.

How did the AO performance measure up?

This is not as silly a question as it may sound. The AO Mikado including lead Anthony Warlow (Ko-Ko) had to compete against my memories of performances when they were very fresh to me.

Quite well, I thought, The stage settings were very good as you would expect, the voices were obviously very good. However, I am not sure that a full opera company can actually do light opera; the very power of the voices tends to detract.

Still, I did enjoy it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Regional Australia outperforms major cities in economic terms

Hat tip to North Coast Voices on this one.

The September 09 issue of the ANZ Bank's Regional and Rural Quarterly shows that regional Australia as a whole is presently out-performing the major cities in economic terms.

I think, I stand to be corrected, that this is often a feature of major downturns. Certainly I think that it was the case in 1991.

There are very particular reasons why this might be the case.

Most Australian booms are marked by major urban growth in areas such commercial building. Major business service activities are located in the metro centres. These feed on each other during booms, with a reverse effect during downturns. Outside hotspots with particular drivers such as mining, regional economic activity tends to be more stable.

I found the population numbers for North Western Australia interesting. This huge zone covers seventy per cent of the state including the Pilbara mining region. In 00-01the area had a population of just 188,000, so you can see how thinly spread the population is.

For the first half of the 2,000s population growth was very low in percentage terms, negative in one year, before accelerating rapidly over the last three years. The 07-08 population reached 201,700. Mean individual taxable incomes also accelerated sharply, rising from $A30,300 in 00-01 to $A36,900 in 06-07. 

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday essay - dust storms, environmental change and the romance of agriculture

Jenny Guy dust storm

Dust storm: Jenny Guy, exercisers, Coogee Beech, 6am.

I devoted my last two Sunday essays to an exploration of new farming techniques (part one here). I had no idea then that Sydney was about to be hit by a dust storm that would rather dramatically illustrate the importance of the things that I was talking about.

This dust storm began in the deserts around Lake Eyre in South Australia. As it travelled east at speed, it picked up more dirt. By the time it arrived in Sydney in the early morning it had become a spectacular sight indeed in the early morning light.

This was not Australia's first dust storm, nor will it be the last. The red deserts of the centre with their very sparse or non-existent ground cover will always breed them. However, there are things that we can and indeed have been doing to ameliorate their effects.

I thought that in this Sunday Essay I might talk a little about this, also putting it in a historical context.

When my father arrived in Armidale early in 1938 from green New Zealand he almost left at once. New England was in drought. It was hot. There were very few trees. Worst of all, the wind from the west carried a constant stream of dust from the dry and now eroding paddocks of the western slopes and plains that clogged the air and left a constant gritty residue.

These problems were not unique to Australia. While now largely forgotten in this country, the 1930s US dust bowl was, perhaps, the most famous environmental disaster of the first half of the twentieth century, plunging hundreds of thousands into abject poverty.

Three things combined to make the US dust bowl an environmErosion, US dust bowlental and personal disaster.

The first was bad farming techniques that left the land bare and created wind and water erosion.

This photo from Alabama shows the bare land with what we in Australia call gully erosion. In an Australian context, some of these gullies were so deep that their banks towered over even a very tall man.

The second thing was drought. It just stopped raining. Now the bare land was exposed to the winds that ripped the soil away into huge clouds of dust.

The third thing was the depression. The collapse in agricultural prices meant that even those farmers who could produce a crop received very little for it.

The combination created an abject poverty that I, as an Australian reading about it many years later, could barely understand. The caption Destitute family, US dust bowlto this photo reads:

Destitute farm family of Elzie Rathburn, 18 miles from Pierre, South Dakota. They are now on relief with all resources exhausted after fifteen years on their 160-acre farm fighting constantly the effects of drought, grasshoppers, and dust storms.

For a number of reasons, Australia did not experience disaster on this scale. However, the warning signs were clear.

Australia did respond. I have not attempted to trace the full history of this response, but instead want to give a purely personal perspective.

  One part of the response lay in academic and scientific research. Australia needed to maintain its rural exports, erosion and soil degradation was a problem that needed to be addressed. This flowed through into research efforts.

A second part of the response lay in farm extension. Farmers and graziers needed to be given the knowledge to tackle the problem, the incentive to do something about it,

A third part lay with the farmers themselves. It was the agricultural leaders who drove the redemption process.

I first became really aware of all this at primary school. Growing up, I was aware of erosion simply because we spent a lot of time in the country. I also listened to the discussion around me. But it was a novel written for kids (and perhaps also their parents) that first excited me.

I no longer remember either the author or title, just the story.

It was a simple enough story.

A farmer was wrestling with a severely degraded property. There was serious gully erosion, the top soil was blowing away, soil moisture had dropped, crops were failing, he was going broke.

An agricultural extension worker persuaded him to try a new approach. The erosion gullies were dammed. He contour ploughed and banked the property; contour ploughing simply means ploughing with the lie of the land so that water does not rush down the furrows; contour banking is building banks following the contours so that water coming down slopes is captured.

The book starts with disaster and then traces the re-growth. I was entranced, not just with the success but also with the way that the kids who were my age started playing and swimming in the ponds and dams created. This was something I could understand.

It was only later when I came to research grandfather Drummond's life that I realised what I must have been listening to in the background.This was a world of farmers who cared for their land. This was a world where farmers and graziers wrote letters to each other about new techniques. This was a world where academics such as Sydney University's Macdonald Holmes who believed devoutly in contour ploughing combined with New England graziers in large scale trials.

I knew none of this. I just listened.

The significance of the new farming techniques I talked about is that they mark, I think, the next stage in a process that began some time ago.

Forget the greens who want to lock the world up in national parks, creating some form of stasis linking back to a perceived past world that never in fact existed. Forget the dry world of modern public policy with its classification of things into grossly simplified key performance indicators. Forget the world of user pays in which every single activity must be costed and charged to those who directly benefit, ignoring unknown and unseen benefits.

Focus instead on the romance, the excitement, of people doing doing new things in the face of an increasingly rigid official system.

Keeping things very simple, Peter Andrew wants to add moisture back to Australian soils. Christine Jones wants to add back carbon to Australian soils. If successful, the result will be an Australia that can still feed many millions while reducing green house gasses.

I think that this is kind of important, far more important than renewable energy targets as such. These targets are important, but they are mechanistic. They belong to the modern, pull the lever, world.

I really would like to see modern Australia reengage with, not reject, its rural past. Oh, and by the way, we would have less dust storms.              

Saturday, September 26, 2009

About the colours of New England

Earlier this week on New England Australia in Harry Pidgeon's Naturally Touched Cooks Hill Gallery I reported on the opening of New England artist Harry Pidgeon's latest exhibition. Hat tip to Paul Barratt for the lead.

I showed some of the reproductions to colleagues. Now I like them because they deal with country I know, New England's tablelands and slopes. My colleagues responded very positively because of the colours. This got me thinking, and I started jotting down notes on the colours of New England. This has now come up as a post - The colours of New England.

This is very much a first cut post. When I began I was thinking mainly of new ways of explaining New England to outsiders; the use of colour as a device to bring things alive. However, it would, I suspect, make a rather good book.

Even in this first post I have tried to combine visual and verbal imagery; poets, painters and photographers. I do not pretend that I have it right, but it's an interesting challenge. How do you write to create an emotional resonance independent of any reader knowledge of the area in question?

Congratulations to Neil on being included as a blog worthy of permanent retention in the Australian National Library's Pandora series - see  Anyone else being archived?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pride in Australia's Aboriginal people

I did not intend to post today. I was not posting on this blog until Saturday. Then two things happened.

The first was an email this morning from Joe Lane. The second was watching a movie much loved by my eldest called Remember the Titans. The two link.

I began writing on Aboriginal issues again in part because what I saw as a success story, the remarkable success of Australia's Aboriginal people across a range of dimensions, had been turned into a story of failure. Joe shares this frustration. He also feels that the work that he has done and especially that of Maria, his first wife, in advancing Aboriginal education has been downgraded, devalued, by the constant negativity.

How does this link to Remember the Titans? Well, this is a somewhat soppy success story about black-white relations in the US. It is a story of the way in which initially forced cooperation across racial divides came to a positive end.

Australians are often critical of the US. Yet we have, I stand to be corrected, no equivalent of Remember the Titans. All our movies appear to about past evils, there are no stories of successes, especially soppy popular successes.

As a white fella there are things I cannot say about the current structure of Aboriginal society without risking accusations of racism. I do not need to say those things. Members of the Aboriginal community and especially the young are quite capable of saying them for me.

To be a young or youngish Aboriginal leader is to be constantly exposed to pressure from their community. I can understand this in a way perhaps that some modern metro Australians cannot. After all, I have been an activist in smaller communities. Still, I had no real understanding of the scale of the pressures.

Aboriginal society is changing in ways barely perceived by the broader community. That is a matter for them, although I can try to contribute in my own limited way.

In the meantime, I thought that I might contribute to the discussion by simply publishing the paper Joe sent me. I might disagree with some of Joe's individual points. But this is hardly the story of failure.

Phases in Indigenous Tertiary Education

Joe Lane

In 1980, there were fewer than 300 Indigenous graduates in tertiary education. By the end of this year, about 25,000 Indigenous people will have graduated from universities around Australia. This is a phenomenal rise in barely a generation. The key mechanism to bringing about this change has been effective support programs for Indigenous students.

1950 - 1980

Generally, Indigenous people could not enrol in secondary education until the 1940s, since state policies prohibited Indigenous people from living in towns and cities where the secondary schools were located. During the World War II, a handful of Indigenous people, usually the only ones in their communities, were encouraged to go to independent boarding schools for the secondary education necessary for training in professional helper-role courses. This was on the assumption they would all go back to their communities and spend their entire careers in remote communities, “serving their people”.

This didn’t quite work out the way it was planned, and the graduates - usually nurses and teachers, with some missionaries and social workers - tended to find work in urban areas. In South Australia, the first nursing and teaching graduates completed their studies from around 1952, and many found work overseas, as well as in country towns.

After the war, with many people leaving missions and settlements for country towns (and eventually metropolitan areas), secondary education became available for the first time for many Indigenous people. A handful of secondary students matriculated from the end of the 50s and enrolled at teachers’ colleges and nursing schools. But graduate numbers rarely rose above one each year between 1952 and 1975 and total number of SA graduates (including hospital-trained qualified nurses) was still fewer than 20 by 1975.

1975 - 1990

In 1973, and again in 1978, interventionist programs were inaugurated to boost Indigenous tertiary numbers. They took two quite different forms:

  • In 1973, a sub-degree program was written up for community workers at the Institute of Technology, called the Aboriginal Task Force. This course was specifically for Indigenous people; it was a two-year course while the existing course for non-Indigenous students covered three years. There was little, if any, interaction between the two groups of students, and Indigenous graduates were expected to go out to Indigenous communities or organisations once they had graduated. This segregated model (some would call it a racist model) later became known as the enclave model.
  • In 1978, a preparation and support program, the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP), was set up at Underdale campus of Torrens College of Advanced Education (CAE), later Adelaide CAE, and later again the SACAE, to orient and prepare Indigenous students for enrolment and success in the standard teaching courses available on-campus. Students were recruited, tested, and prepared in a term-length (later a semester-length) orientation program, and once enrolled, studied alongside non-Indigenous students in standard programs of study, accessing support services from specific ATEP staff. This model later became known as the support program model.

In 1980, the support program concept at the ACAE was broadened to off-campus study centres in (eventually) five SA country towns, with students at first all enrolled substantially in the mainstream course in Early Childhood Education (ECE). Graduates were recognised as gaining standard qualifications. In time, these study centres provided preparation and full study support for Indigenous students in Aboriginal Studies, Business and other courses, as well as ECE.

In 1985, another program on the lines of the Underdale model was inaugurated at Salisbury Campus, called PASS - Programs for Aboriginal Students at Salisbury. In 1990, this program commenced a year-long bridging course, specifically to prepare Indigenous students for enrolment in the standard Conservation Management course at Salisbury. This program has assisted possibly the majority of Conservation Management graduates in the State.

What is striking is the immediate increase in graduate numbers from these interventionist programs: between 1980 and 1990, more than 200 Indigenous people graduated from universities, overwhelmingly (160) were at degree-level and post-graduate courses - and most of these were in mainstream or standard courses. Even without any support effort from Adelaide or Flinders universities up to that time, the support programs in the SACAE and the enclave program in the old SAIT had increased South Australian Indigenous graduate numbers from an annual average of less than one per year to 20 per year - and they were still building up.

Also in the mid-80s, Roseworthy College set up a support program to enrol, support and graduate Indigenous students in standard courses there.


In the late 80s, both Flinders and Adelaide Universities set up small support programs, both based on the Underdale support program model rather than on the enclave model. However, Adelaide University had also taken over the program from the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) and has operated it ever since as an enclave program, alongside the mainstream support program which was helping to enrol students - as Flinders was doing - in a wide range of mainstream programs.

These support programs grew rapidly in the early 90s, totalling some 200 students and graduating 20 Indigenous people annually by 1994. At Flinders, the focus from early on was on health-related courses, but Adelaide also had relatively high numbers studying law. In 1994, Adelaide University set up a one-year bridging course to prepare Indigenous students for science-oriented courses, particularly medicine, with limited success.

Interstate, experiences were roughly similar, with many support programs being inaugurated in the late 80s. Some took the enclave path, writing up specific awards for Indigenous students, usually at sub-degree-level. These awards were offered to students externally, so that Indigenous students only came onto campuses for block-release programs, usually during normal student breaks. This way Indigenous students were not only doing different courses but were not even studying them on-campus alongside other students. These segregated programs continued well into the present decade.

Other universities, such as QUT, Newcastle and Charles Sturt, set up support programs to prepare and enrol Indigenous students in standard courses - Charles Sturt at a number of widely separated campuses. Again, some sandstone universities set up both small support programs for Indigenous students (usually standard-entry) in mainstream awards, and enclaves for Indigenous-specific (often external) students in sub-degree courses. Large numbers of students in enclave courses helped to boost student numbers and satisfy the queries of the federal education authorities about low enrolments.

Between 1990 and 2000, all remaining universities set up support services for Indigenous students along the lines of the two models, support programs and/or enclave programs, with some additions and variations. Some universities, such as Edith Cowan, New England, James Cook, Southern Queensland and Deakin, focused on recruiting and enrolling students externally in specially-written courses, sometimes at study centres, sometimes as isolated students. A couple of universities enrolled huge numbers of students in external bridging courses, until the federal department forced a reduction in this lucrative strategy in 2000.

Programs at some universities were totally enclave-oriented, with minimal support for Indigenous students in what the program staff regarded as “white” courses. And of course, some universities, particularly multi-campus institutions, at various times used complex mixtures of support programs, enclaves and a non-support (even an anti-support) focus on teaching Indigenous-focused awards to both Indigenous students (often in lower levels, such as Diplomas and Certificates) and non-Indigenous students (in full-degree courses).

By its nature, the support program model is open-ended - there is no limit to how many students can be recruited or in the range of disciplines in which they can enrol, if they can meet the entry requirements. By contrast, the enclave model can develop only a handful of courses, in Aboriginal Studies, Health, Education, Welfare Work, Cultural Studies and Administration, and usually at sub-degree level, one- and two-year certificates and diplomas. In this sense, the enclave model is very limited, and very dependent for its numbers on the likelihood of future employment in the Indigenous Industry and government enclaves.

Meanwhile, on many university campuses, Indigenous studies programs had been set up for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, from as far back as the late 70s. Indigenous Studies staff have tended to favour the enclave model in which they had major teaching roles. But there has always been a struggle between support programs and Indigenous Studies departments for control of direction, funding and staffing. One could say that many Indigenous Studies staff (Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous) did not see any value in the support program model and that, to many of them, the natural place for most Indigenous students was not at universities at all but rather at TAFE or in remote communities, hunting and gathering - while, in the long run, the natural market for Indigenous Studies was to be amply provided by non-Indigenous students: particularly if all non-Indigenous students at a university were required to enrol in at least one Indigenous Studies subject.

At many universities, this struggle led to the subordination of support program staff under Indigenous Studies departments, where their support role was diminished in favour of the teaching of non-Indigenous students. This was exacerbated from 2000, when a massive decline in sub-degree and non-award enrolments - and a spurious assumption of the “decline” in Indigenous student numbers - provided the rationale to wind down support for Indigenous students.

2002 - the present

One can infer from enrolment and graduation data that a major strategic change took place early this decade: at some universities, sub-degree Indigenous-focused courses were wound down and discontinued, while support staff were dragged more and more into the teaching (or more precisely, tutoring and marking) of non-Indigenous students. As it happened, this was occurring at the same time (perhaps since the mid-90s) as a rapid decline in Indigenous interest in Indigenous-focused study and segregated education.

This decline also coincided with a rise in the number of Indigenous students completing secondary education: in South Australia, the number of Indigenous students enrolling at Year 12 rose five-fold between 1999 and 2007 and the number of students completing Year 12 rose seven-fold. From around 2002, the number of Indigenous students completing their secondary schooling and coming more or less straight in to tertiary education rose rapidly, countering the decline in sub-degree and Indigenous-focused enrolments. The great majority of Indigenous students who gain their Year 12 and who come on to tertiary study enrol in mainstream courses - a bare handful of such students have ever enrolled in Indigenous studies in South Australia since 1990.

One may ask why there was a sudden rise in the number of Year 12 students. A possible answer relates to the earlier phase of the urbanisation - really the metropolitinisation - of the southern Indigenous population in the 50s and 60s: the growth in the numbers of Indigenous children in standard, city secondary schools and the development of an urban working population.

In time, this population intermarried with other working people, overwhelmingly non-Indigenous, leading to a massive upsurge in the Indigenous birth-rate from the late 80s onwards: birth-group numbers rose from about 7,000 to 11,000. Perhaps a work ethic has been driving these children through their schooling and on to mainstream tertiary education, as a relatively sure means of acquiring more secure and satisfying careers, across a very wide range of fields.

Correspondingly, the proportion of Indigenous students enrolling and graduating in some helper-role courses - teaching and social work - has declined by some 20 per cent, offset only partly by an increase in the proportion of students graduating from nursing courses.

The fact is that Indigenous university commencement, continuation, enrolment and graduation numbers are at record levels. The proportion of Indigenous students at degree-level and above and the number of study areas in which they enrol is also at record levels. Thanks to support programs, Indigenous graduate numbers in South Australia have risen from 20 or 30 to more than 1,600 in barely 30 years. This number will easily double by 2020. This success story is unfolding all across Australia.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A week's break from posting

All work and no play makes Jim a very dull boy. I am going to take a week off from posting here to give me time to re-charge.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part Two

This post continues my personal exploration into the world of carbon farming that I began in Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part One. There my initial exploration took me somewhat unexpectedly to Peter Andrews and the Natural Farm Sequence Movement.

I say unexpectedly because while I knew of Peter's work I had not connected it with carbon farming, a way of capturing carbon in the soil, improving the soil while reducing CO2. So in my first post I had some fun learning more of Peter's work and especially following the on-line experience of WA Farmer Ian James.

To understand carbon farming, we have to understand soil carbon. Here I quote from Carbon Farmers Australia:

Soil Carbon is that part of the soil that is or has been alive. It is present in litter, roots, insect life, microbes, carbohydrates, fungi, acids and humus. It is also found in soils as carbohydrates, fats, waxes, alkanes, peptides, amino acids, proteins, lipids and organic acids. Soil carbon is produced by biological activity of microbes and fungi, stimulated by the action of roots of plants as they push down through the soil, retreating when the foliage above ground is grazed or harvested, then pushing down through the soil again as the foliage regrows. (There is also mineralised Carbon in the soil which is not organic.) Soil carbon is created when CO2 is absorbed by vegetation, the Oxygen is released and the Carbon is used to make living tissue, such as vegetation, animals that eat vegetation, and humans that can eat both. Some of the retained Carbon returns to the atmosphere as CO2 from respiration (eg. plants ‘breathe out’ CO2 at night). Some of the retained Carbon returns to the atmosphere as CH4 or Methane from the rotting of dead vegetation. But much of the Carbon taken in by the plant enters the top layer of the soil and is held there as humus, and some of it is carried further down to deeper layers of the soil where it can be held for hundreds of years. Depending on what is grown in the soil and how the soil is managed, it can store large amounts of Carbon or it can release large amounts of Greenhouse gases. It is the landholder who decides what the soils contribute to Climate Change.

Now if I interpret this correctly, I am in my own very small way a carbon farmer. I had thought of my approach to gardening with its constant mulching as environmentally sound; fresh vegetables that did not have to be transported grown with minimum water. Now I find that it was more correct than I knew, because in building the humus content I am in fact capturing and storing carbon!

It appears that carbon farming is both a farming approach and an economic movement.

Now here we need to introduce Dr Christine Jones, a retired CSIRO soil scientist who has spent the last two years campaigning around Australia trying to interest farmers in adopting carbon farming techniques. The claims made by Dr Jones are quite startling. In her view, rebuilding carbon-rich agricultural soils is the only real productive, permanent solution to taking excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. She stated on the ABC program Future Tense:

This year Australia will emit just over 600 million tonnes of carbon. We can sequester 685 million tonnes of carbon by increasing soil carbon by half a per cent on only 2% of the farms. If we increased it on all of the farms, we could sequester the whole world's emissions of carbon.

You see what I mean by startling. If this claim is correct, it means that to a degree we can have our cake and eat it too by simply improving farming techniques!

Quoting further from the ABC program:

Pip Courtney: With modern farming practices to blame for depleting soil carbon, Dr Jones says nothing short of a radical change in farming methods will turn things around. And that radical change means no more bare soil in grazing or cropping paddocks.

Christine Jones's approach involves getting farmers to keep their ground covered with plants all year round. She says plants are the key to removing excess carbon dioxide from the air, so the more ground cover there is, the more carbon will be stored in the soil, because bare earth gives its carbon up to the atmosphere.

While soil carbon credits won't be part of Australia's emissions trading scheme, which starts next year, Christine Jones is confident that one day Australian farmers will be paid for the carbon they build.

Christine Jones: They can build something like between 25 and 30 tonnes of carbon for every tonne of product that they produce. They can be so far on the right side of the ledger that there's no need to fear being included in an emissions trading scheme.

Dr Jones knew that if her ideas were to carry any weight, that she'd have to show that farmers could profitably graze and crop their land, and maintain permanent ground cover. Two years ago, 18 farmers in three states agreed to trial her ideas. In return, she'd pay them $25 a tonne for the carbon they built.

So far the results appear to be good.

Returning to Peter Andrews, there is a linkage between his work and that of Christine Jones. The ABC program notes that conventional wisdom is that there shouldn't be enough soil moisture to sustain both pasture and a grain crop. But Dr Jones claims farmers can have both, because soil high in organic carbon has better structure, is more fertile, and holds more water.

For his part, Peter Andrews has described his mission in part as the re-hydration of the Australian landscape, the application of farming techniques that build and hold water in the soil.

Two enthusiasts, different approaches, but a common outcome. This links to the heading of this post, the importance of practical experiments. When an approach goes against conventional wisdom as both do, the only way to go is to prove that it works.

Now here we come to growing conflicts that have been bubbling away beneath the surface of public discussion, surfacing briefly from time to time in public in ways that most people ignore because they lack the context.

To understand these conflicts, it is important to recognise that these new farming movements are evolving at the centre of a series of overlapping and often conflicting circles.

To begin with, the idea of keeping water in the soil, on the farm so to speak, means lower river flows. More precisely, it means lower flows in the short term while soil moisture rebuilds. Once soil moisture is re-built, flows will return to normal. However, this can be a bit difficult for people in, say, Adelaide, to accept.

Then, too, the approaches can conflict with conventional approaches to land and water management now enshrined in a variety of legislation and regulation. Take, as one example, the willow. Money is now being spent to remove willows, yet the willow can apparently be very effective as one weapon in the application of the Andrews approach. In fact, the Andrews approach with its emphasis on ground cover re-defines what is a weed.

Or take, as a very small and personal example, previous Sydney water restrictions on the use of hand-held hoses. This put one defined public good, preserving water, in conflict with others. In stopping gardening in the way I did I started importing water through purchase of vegetables grown elsewhere, My point here is simply that in a world of universal rules, it can be very hard to deal with exceptions.

Then there are economic conflicts.

I said that carbon farming was both a farming and economic movement. This is expressed in Michael and Louisa Kielys' Carbon Farmers of Australia, a company that aggregates and sells sono kill direct drill rigil carbon credits.

The Kielys have been campaigning on carbon farming for some time. I first came across them several years ago through Michael's blog. I was very interested, but drifted away when Michael stopped posting in May 2008. However, revisiting the blog this time allowed me to capture some photos that will illustrate the Christine Jones approach.

The photo on the right shows a no kill direct drill rig. Unlike conventional ploughing or indeed no plough weedicides,it leaves the grass; the seed is direct sown and covered.

The photo on the left shows the results in heavy grass. Michael wondered if the sun could get through. I must say that I would too. We do not know whether or not this worked. Normally you would put animals in first to reduce the grass, but there were apparently particular reasons why this was not possible in this case.

One difficulty with the soil carbon approach is captured in the words of Mick Keogh from the Australian Farm Institute no kill in heavy grassquoted on the Future Tense program:

... people have got to remember they're selling the ownership of that carbon in the soil to someone else. They no longer own the carbon in the soil, and if it disappears for any reason, they have to restore it. So I guess the brief message is, for every credit, there's an equal and opposite debit if the reverse action occurs. So if a bushfire comes through, if a big drought occurs, if you decide you want to plough that paddock and that will reduce the soil carbon, then you've got to pay back any earnings that you've made and probably more before you can do that. So people need to understand the double-sided nature of storing carbon in soil.

However, there is also a far more complex problem, and that lies in the conflict between carbon farming and other commonly accepted views that have become enshrined in public policy.

The reason for this can be simply stated: carbon farming proponents argue that the the approach is far more effective in reducing CO2 in the atmosphere than other land use alternatives. This includes locking land up in national parks on one side, plantation farming on the other.

There is no necessary conflict between carbon farming and reforestation as such. Indeed, on-farm reforestation can be critical in building and retaining soil moisture. However, this is reforestation with another purpose in mind; reduced CO2 is a by-blow. The conflict lies in the challenge to existing now deeply enshrined conventions.

This is the area where the underlying debate bubbles into public and where the National Party is playing a role.

The arguments by Joyce and others that plantation farming is not necessarily a good thing have so far been treated in the general media as pandering to their special interest groups. No doubt there is some truth in this. Yet if Christine Jones is in any way right in arguing that we could sequester the world's entire carbon emissions by a change in farming practices, this becomes to my mind the single most important environmental question that we should be discussing.

I do not have the knowledge to make judgements here. However, I am left with a question. Has modern urban Australia moved so far from the country's rural base that we can no longer talk about rural issues in a sensible fashion?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - weird history and other meanders

I am continuing to enjoy Christopher Moore's Canadian History, a blog that has taken me down some strange by-ways. I don't know of any Australian equivalent, although one may well exist.

Lurking beneath the surface, and sometimes not very far below the surface if the popularity of Dan Brown is any guide, are some weird and wonderful alternative views. Christopher pointed me to a New Zealand post, Sindbad met a moa, met a moa on a mountain… from Jonathan Jarrett on the possible Islamic pre-Maori discovery of New Zealand. There are a lot of Australian equivalents.

My problem with some of the alternative views is that they can actually be lot more fun than the official views. Not all mind you - some are quite unpleasant. However, I do have a personal liking for the weird and wacky!

Staying with Christopher Moore for the moment, his live blogging of the Siege of Quebec attracted interest, sidetracking one reader of this blog! It's not a bad idea. I plan to try it with some of the Red Kangaroo material.

The following quote from American historian/journalist Jill Lepore (original source here) comes from one of Michael's posts:

To be a public historian, not a public intellectual, not a popular historian, not a pundit, but a public historian, is to be a keeper of our memory as a people. And that, if I had my druthers, and the capacity, is what I would want to be.

This struck a chord because it goes to the heart of some of the things that I have been trying to do. Most recently, Belshaw’s World: Information, access and the transmission of knowledge dealt with the transmission of knowledge between generations. When I began writing history again it was almost like a rescue dig, a hurried attempt to try to at least preserve something of a past about to be buried, in this case the world that I had known.

In similar vein, in writing about Aboriginal history I am trying to make their history accessible to Aborigines as well as the broader community. Not white fella history, although I am a white fella, with its obsessions with past wrongs and the moral conflict that arises when you write about past wrongs while sitting in a world whose freedoms and comforts are in fact the outcome of those wrongs. 

I just want to understand and write about what was.

To my mind, objectivity is central to history. Subjectivity comes in the selection of topic. I write about things that I believe to be important. That is subjective. But when I come to look at the evidence I must be objective, to go where it takes me. This can be hard and challenging because it forces me to address issues at a personal level.

I loved my maternal grandfather very much and remain very proud of him. He overcame a profound disability, deafness, as well as a very troubled childhood to become a major Far and Gran c1955political figure who did much good. These things remain.

The photo from cousin Jamie's collection shows Fah and Gran at Mann Street in Armidale around 1955. At 65, he was still member for New England with another eight years as member remaining.

Yet I also have to deal with his views as Minister for Education in NSW when he articulated the view of the Aborigines as a child race. This is very hard because of the personal connection.  It is not my position to make moral judgements. I have to explain how he formed those views, show how they worked out in practice. I have to do this independent of the relationship.

Well, I think it time to end here.  Time is up.

Still, just to record a blog that I want to review - Reading the Maps. This blog is relevant to this post in ways I will talk about later.          

Friday, September 18, 2009

Problems with English Grammar

Since starting hieroglyphics, youngest has been complaining bitterly about the failure of her school to teach her any English grammar. No doubt some of it was there, but she managed to get through the entire twelve years of schooling without absorbing any of it. The matter came to a head when she failed a hieroglyphics grammar test because she did not properly understand basic grammatical concepts.

I solved the problem by giving her a book to read that contained a short and very simple explanation of key grammatical terms. However, the solution caused some laughter amongst her friends.

Only in this rather strange household would a problem in understanding English grammar required to understand ancient Egyptian grammar be solved via a section of a book on an Aboriginal language! It may sound odd, but in trying to explain the language spoken by the Kamilaroi to a general readership Michael O'Rourke provided a very useful short grammatical crib.

I can understand Clare's difficulty. I did do grammar at school, the idea of grammatically correct English was then very important, but I really had forgotten the nuances. In looking at the Aboriginal languages of Northern NSW I am not trying to learn to speak them, simply to understand something about their structure. I cannot do this without some understanding of grammatical structures. Like Clare, this has forced me to revisit grammar.

Just at the moment I am taking notes on aspects of social life in Aboriginal New England - things like time, counting, even what you would find in a women's dilly bag. Influenced by Geoffrey Blainey's Black kettle and full moon : daily life in a vanished Australia, in telling the story of life in Aboriginal New England, I do want to talk about the purely domestic.

Sitting on the bus yesterday morning, I started experimenting with the possibility of writing some short posts that were in effect short stories set in Aboriginal New England. This is a way of getting me to ask new questions.

Many years ago I went on one of Isabel McBryde's digs in a rock shelter at Graman near Inverell. This is not a big shelter. It would at most have accommodated a small extended family. But I know what the country here looks and feels like. I know the light, the night and the morning cold. So I jotted down some words on the camp waking up.

Last night I watched part of an ABC Q&A program on the past and present in Australia. The transcript is not yet available. An Aboriginal women complained about lack of knowledge of Aboriginal history. She is right, of course.

Part of the problem lies in the fact, I think that it is a fact, that there is not a lot of written history available. More precisely perhaps given the thousands of work, there is not a lot that is easily accessible to a general audience.

I need to be careful here in terms of words because I do not want to revisit certain cultural debates.Let me limit myself to one central point: if you want people to understand a certain stream of history, then you have to make it available in a form that people will want to read.


As so often happens with my posts, after thinking about it I feel the need to add some qualifications. There are some good book, I have referred to some before, and searching around I found more today.

I still think that part of the problem is good and especially accessible material. Part of the problem, too, is that a very large number of Australians have simply tuned out. There comes a point where people simply don't listen to messages any more, especially where the subject matter is so entwined with current problems.

One of the things that I notice in going through the references is just how many people I know or know of. That's actually a bit of a worry. I shouldn't, given how long it is since I worked in the area.

Perhaps the most enduring history book on Aboriginal life remains Geoffrey Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads. This was published in 1975. Two of the best prehistory books and two still in print in upgraded form were published long ago: John Mulvaney in 1969, Josephine Flood in 1983.

Makes one think!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The end of Gordon Smith's Australian outback tour

Gordon Smith has finally finished his outback photographic tour. The following photo shows Sturt's Desert Pea, the floral emblem of South Australia.

20090605-13-23-34-outback2009-arkaroola--sturts-desert-pea   Gordon has some wonderful photos that show a little of of one slice of Australia. If you want to follow his trip, you can do so here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wrestling with mental blocks

Yesterday instead of finishing Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part One, I found myself wrestling with something that has been greatly worrying me to the point that I have been throwing time at it to the exclusion of all my other writing.

In April I said that I would finish a first draft of my history of Australia's New England by next April. This has lagged and lagged, with me stuck solidly in the world of Aboriginal New England. Yes, I needed to do the research, to process ideas, but I was becomingly bogged down. Then came the break-through.

The trigger was simple enough. I showed my next Armidale Express column, this deals with Kamilaroi social structures, to my Aboriginal mentee. She liked the way I had ended by linking modern Aboriginal usage of terms such as sister, brother, aunty, uncle back to traditional usage. In discussion I commented, as I had before, that I was trying to bring the Aborigines alive as people. Then the penny dropped.

The written sources that I am working with, primary and secondary, are all necessarily post settlement. For every one word written on Aboriginal life as Aboriginal life, there are probably ten written on post settlement impacts. I try to take notes because the material is important, but the earlier story is lost in later events. What is to come is distorting what is now, so to speak.

I have decided to draw an earlier line in the Aboriginal material, moving all the post settlement stuff to the colonial period. Now I have a controllable block, between 25% and 33% of the book, that deals with Aboriginal life and history up to the time of European settlement. Later material is only relevant to the degree that it affects the sources.

This is liberating. Better still, my past work all those years ago covers a fairly large slab of what I need to fill the remaining gaps. However, there is bit of a sad irony here. When we left Armidale I actually threw out my original notes including copies of source material because needed to save space and thought that I would no longer need it! Still, that's not fatal.

On the bus home last night I sketched out a revised structure.

Geography is central to the New England story. As now, the introductory chapter to the book will discuss this, as well as providing an overview of what is to come. I have a chopping block in place for the introduction, as well as a supporting chopping block that deals just with geography. The story of Aboriginal New England then follows.

One of the technical problems I face in writing is simply making the story intelligible. Even in the later periods, there is very little reader familiarity with the events I am describing. Many things that are central to the story of New England are, at best, relegated to brief passing comments in current historical writing.

The problem is more intense in the earlier Aboriginal period because here we are dealing with such a different world. It is very easy to become lost.

Consider, for example, the apparently simple question of language. Leaving aside complexities such as problems with the historical evidence and the multiplicity of names attached to languages, the very question of when a language is a language, I am still expecting people to remember or at least recognise a dozen or so main language groups and the geographic areas to which they belonged.

There is a difference here between the general reader reading out of interest and the more professional historian. The first needs to understand the broader story, the second is more likely to be interested in the detail. The challenge is to find a way of bridging the gap between the two.

I am using three main linked techniques to try to bridge this gap. The first is the use of introductory material to give the reader a framework; what will come, why it's important. The second is the use of examples, in part illustrating, but also introducing things that will come later in more detail. The third is progressive build up of detail.

In writing about the geography of New England in the introductory chapter I will need to provide an overview of the links between it and New England history and life, including the Aboriginal period. However, I don't need to burden the reader with detail because geography is going to return again and again. The aim is to give the reader base understanding that can later be refreshed and extended. The writing needs to be kept clear and simple, the themes and examples used interesting.

The next section on Aboriginal New England will begin with an introduction providing an overview of the chapter(s). From this we move to pre-historic New England, New England in the Pleistocene and Holocene eras.

In this type of discussion, there is always an issue of how much to use the ethnographic evidence to inform interpretation of the archaeological evidence. In my view, as little as possible. We are going to be discussing the ethnographic evidence later, while the changes that have taken place in Aboriginal society over time create great uncertainties in any inference back.

From this point we move to a discussion of Aboriginal society as it was at the time of European colonisation. This might begin with an overview of social structure, patterns of life and people/land relationships. This could then lead into a more detailed discussion of language and language groups and then into a detailed discussion of patterns of life including variations across New England.

We all build on the work of others. Just as Malcolm Treadgold's masterly handling of the complexities of Byzantium influenced my overall approach to structure and approach, so Geoffrey Blainey and Michael O'Rourke with their focus on domestic life as well as social structures have influenced me here. I want to try to bring Aboriginal life alive as a functioning society. I now believe that this is far more possible than certainly I had once realised.

Pretty obviously, what I am talking about could become a major book in its own right. However, I am writing a general history. The most that I can hope to do in the time and space I have available is to write a distilled story. If I can achieve this, then others can follow later.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part One

This short essay was triggered by a post from John Quiggin,The race for a low carbon economy: A form guide. I found John's list a useful check list. However, one thing that he said triggered the need to do some brief research. John wrote:

Offsets: There are a bunch of these, but reforestation is the big one, probably big enough to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 50-60 ppm over a century or so.

As it happened, I have been conscious of snippets of debate suggesting that reforestation is not necessarily the best way to go, that other forms of agriculture might better capture carbon by storing it in the soil, in so doing improving the soil. John's focus on reforestation led me to go and investigate. I found a very interesting story. However, some personal stuff first to set a context.

I am a townie. This was the term used to describe a person from the town in the area in which I grew up. However, I also spent a lot of time on properties, so I was close to country in a way that is less common today.Ron Vickers Glenroy 1950s

The photo on the right from the 1950s from cousin Jamie's collection shows Uncle Ron butchering a sheep for house meat. Ignore that for the moment, and look at the surrounding country.

Look, first, at the grass. This is tussocky native grass. Each year Ron would burn the grass to encourage new growth. This was great fun for us as kids.

Now look at the trees in the background. Notice the dead trees. Tree cover is being reduced to increase carrying capacity.

The next photo, again from cousin Jamie's collection, taken in 1948 shows men picking apples in the orchard on Glenroy. My first job for which I was paid in decimal currency terms $1 per hour was thinning fruit in this orchard. WOrchard, Glenroy, 1948e did this to allow the remaining fruit to grow to proper size.

At the time Ron married Aunt Kay, Glenroy carried one sheep per acre. Wool from the 1,200 sheep provided Mr Vickers Senior with his living, while Kay and Ron gained their income from the 10 acre apple orchard.

Time passes. Wool prices are down. Experimentation by New England graziers has shown that the combination of improved pastures with aerial top-dressing will allow many more sheep to be carried. The tussocks are replaced with new grasses.

The New England is prone to severe hail storms (here and here, for example). Given hail losses, Apple prices are too low to provide a reliable living even with the orchard doubled in size. Twenty acres of fruit trees are grubbed into the ground.

Instead of 1,200 sheep, Glenroy now carries 3,500 sheep plus some cattle. This is sufficient to provide a living.

More time passes. Suddenly gum trees across New England are hit by die-back. Gum trees start to die in tens of thousands. The causes are complex, but link to a variety of interactions created by changing farming practices.

At one level, this may sound like a story of land despoiled. This would, I think, be the modern interpretation and at one level it may be true. But it's far more than that.

Country people love their land. They also have to make a living. Productivity improvements mean that an ever reducing number of country people actually produce more, feeding and clothing millions. Australian people are used to plentiful cheap food, but it comes at a price.

Within the constant tensions created by the need to increase productivity on one side, build and preserve the land on the other, the experiments and actions necessary to really maintain the environment have come not from Government nor from the environmental movement (although this has played a part), but from the actions over time of thousands of individual farmers. Conversely, some of the worst outcomes have arguably come from the combination of Government with urban environmentalists.

Uncle Ron was an innovative farmer, constantly experimenting to find new ways of doing things. The remaining gum trees on Glenroy started to die after he had retired, but he took it very personally. On every visit home we talked die-back. He worked out the causes long before the scientists simply because he knew the country and asked questions.

In responding to John's post, I approached the issue of carbon farming from an environmental perspective, the best way of reducing green house gasses. A slice, if you like. What I found was an on-ground environmental revolution based on farmer experimentation that is addressing in an inter-linked way soil fertility, salinity, erosion and green-house gas reduction. It is also a revolution that has had to struggle against accepted science, best practice and the universal regulations and rules based on both.

The following map is not going to reproduce well in this format. It is no more than a contour map of a property in Western Australia that is part of the revolution.

NSFmtannecunderdin-contour2m The remarkable story of Peter Andrews has been well covered on Australian Story. You will find the transcripts of the most recent programs here and here.

In simple terms, Peter has attempted to address the problem of land degradation through what he has called natural sequence farming, the restoration of natural rhythms to the Australian landscape. This is not the lock it up in national parks approach. Rather, it addresses the question of how to manage broad acre land used in agriculture in a way that will improve and enhance it.

When I first learned about Peter's work, I found it intuitively plausible. It fitted with the little I knew of the country, as well as the New England focused reading I had done on the history of land improvement. It just felt right. Yet because Peter's thinking in some ways went against conventional scientific nostrums and also to some degree against regulations based on that science, he had to struggle. This was a battle. The only way to challenge the apparently proven is to demonstrate that the unproven will in fact work, and that's hard and takes time.

When I started to investigate carbon farming for this essay I had not connected it with Peter. Yet reading the on-line material quickly brought me to him because his approaches do increase carbon content in the soils.

I also found that he and others had founded a movement, Natural Sequence Farming,to propagate his ideas. In turn, this brought me to the story of Ian James, a grains farmer in Western Australia.

On 17 July 2007 on the NSF forum he wrote:

I am unqualified, I have only read Peters book and matched his writings with my own observations. At first I wanted to throw the book in the bin and go and do something useful, but by the time I was two thirds through the book I was a convert.

I had started to compare what Peter was saying with what I could see on my own farm. It all started to make sense.

Now I want to get started, I want to build my ponds. My farm and I are ready.

Now I need practical information. I need advice. I need knowledge. I need help. I don't want to do this wrong. Where do I start? I have machinery and I have time and I have a blank canvas upon which to work.

Over the next years Ian's entries trace his experience in applying Peter's approach. They make a quite fascinating on-line diary not just of the farm experiments, but also of Ian's progressive involvement in the NSF revolution. The contour map above is the latest stage in Ian's evolution, the progressive application of the approach to the whole property.

One thing that I found especially interesting is that Ian's experiments appear to turn conventional wisdom on its head. I stand to be corrected here because of my lack of knowledge.

Soil and water salinity are major national problems. The conventional wisdom appears to be that this is due in part to higher water tables caused by tree clearing and that the best way of getting rid of it is by the combination of reforestation with deep drainage.

Ian's results throw some doubt on this approach. The establishment of ponds on the deeply saline creek in his property, effectively the ponding of salt water, along with other vegetative steps appears to have reduced salt. The ponds themselves have moved progressively towards potable water. The answer appears to lie in the creation of what is effectively a fresh water bubble on top of the saline. The salt is still there as it always has been, but plants and animals can now access the fresh.

I am out of time for today with this post only sixty per cent written. I am going to post now and will continue the story tomorrow.

Second post in this series Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part Two.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the need for administrative simplification

When I was first at university I found quite all those descriptions of social structures so loved by anthropologists to be quite eye-glazing. Now, willy-nilly, I am being forced to revisit them.

In the case of the Kamilaroi, the structure of moiety, section and totemic clan created defining sets of relationships that encompassed not just people, but the world around them. Everything had a place and was in its place. The difficulty for the outsider lies in understanding not just the mechanics of relationships, the eye-glazing part, but what it actually might mean in practice.

To the anthropologist, the fact that one group of people that a boy might marry can be defined as mother's mother's brother's daughter's daughter is of great importance. To the boy knowing the social structures, it just was.

Even then, human beings being human beings, problems could arise. The reason why there were social sanctions including punishment by death against certain types of relationships is that such relationships existed.

We all face great difficulties in understanding other people, more so when the cultural or behavioural markers that we use to interpret and simplify behaviour and relationships do not apply or apply in sometimes subtly different ways.

You can see this in the difficulty that Australian and US people sometimes find in understanding each other. Another example is the way Australians use the word please as compared to Asian cultures.

Over the years I have worked in the government, corporate and not-for-profit sectors.

In my work as a policy adviser, I have tried to emphasise the need to recognise and accommodate variation. This is less important in the private sector. Of course firms have to recognise cross-cultural issues. They also have to recognise variations in market places. But, in general, the issues that they deal with are simpler, the likelihood of perverse (unexpected) results less.  

  Commentary on the results from Australia's national literacy and numeracy tests for years 3, 5 and 7 and 9 released yesterday have focused on the much poorer results in the Northern Territory, pulled down by the high number of Aboriginal students. Of course they are worse, the gap is substantial, but we already knew that. Other than providing a rough measure of the gap still to be met, they tell us very little that we did not already know.

The same thing holds at individual and national level.

As parents, we were obviously interested in where our daughters stood in these types of tests. However, beyond interest, we would only have responded if the test results told us something we did not know, indicating that there was a problem or, perhaps, that our daughters were doing better than we realised.

At state or territory level, and with the exception of the Northern Territory, I find it difficult to know just what the variations in results mean. To understand this, I would need to understand the differences between state education systems, as well as variations in demography. The Australian Capital Territory, for example, should do a little better than NSW simply because it starts with (on average) a better educated population to begin with.

Variations within states are not published, but would be of interest. Again, I am not sure that they would tell us anything new, but they might provide a measure of what we already knew. However, these figures are unlikely to be published because of their potential impact on the dynamics of state politics.

In my writing in the lead-up too and following the Federal election I suggested that the Rudd Government risked trying to do too much, too soon. Then and later I tried to point to the problems associated with the mechanistic application of simplified universal measurement based approaches.

In a sense, the chickens have started coming home to roost. The failures of the Rudd Government, and there have been failures, are all directly linked to the points I tried to make.

Continuing failures in the delivery of remote indigenous housing in the Northern Territory have forced drastic simplification. The Government is struggling to deliver the simplified national industrial relations system in the face of regional and industry variation. Problems with delivery on the schools side have forced changes to the national stimulus package, in so doing reducing the number of social houses. According to the Australian, the government's $2 billion flagship training program is facing a crisis of confidence with almost universal criticism from employers, unions and educators that it is doing nothing to solve the skills shortage.

These are not party political comments. Over the last four years I have written extensively on what I see as failures in public policy and administration, focusing on both the NSW Labor and Howard Governments. My charge is that our current systems of public administration are no longer effective.

Written in June last year, Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed? expresses my concern that the Rudd Government was in danger of replicating past errors. I returned to this theme in January in Mr Rudd's continued New South Walesing. These posts reflect my concern about the importation of non-working models.

Our problem today is that our systems have become so ritualised and inter-connected that they are as difficult to understand as Kamilaroi kinship systems. A full process mapping chart of a unit in a  modern agency with its multiple hard and dotted reporting lines and reporting and decision procedures is in fact far more complex than the equivalent map for a Kamilaroi local group.

We need to simplify if we are to improve performance. Here we face another problem. Those recruited to positions have generally grown up in the current system. This holds whether people come from the public service or corporate sector. There is a pervasive management culture that, in turn, is a sub-set of the broader culture. People know that things are wrong, but find it hard to think outside the box, harder to bring about change.

Sometimes when I talk about these things I am seen as out of touch, conservative, some-one who wants to restore the past. I am not and I do not. My post Staff performance measurement in Australia's universities can be read in conservative terms. However, it is not conservative to suggest that an entire system has failed.  My frustrations with what I see as non-performance have simply radicalised me.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Message to Tikno

In Indonesian Government downgrades certain Australian degrees to diploma status I suggested that I might write an Armidale Express column on this issue. I did so, and have now brought it on-line in Belshaw’s World: Indonesia downgrades Australian degrees.

Tikno, who started the discussion, was (I think) a little worried at what I might write. He need not have been. I have also included a comment from Ramana. So two of our little bogging group featured in the first print column I wrote based just on a blogging exchange, thus appearing in the local Armidale world. As it happens, Neil gets a reference in the column published Wednesday. This will come up next week on the New England Australia blog.

I am now wondering why I have not done this more often. My problem, I think, is that the columns are not on line, making it difficult for me to give links back. Still, I do like the idea of getting members of our group into the conventional media world.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Train Reading - Michael O'Rourke brings the Kamilaroi to life

In Train Reading - Michael O'Rourke's Kamilaroi Lands I reported on Michael O'Rourke's Lands: North-central New South Wales in the early 19th century (Michael O'Rourke, Griffith, 1977). I am now part way through Michael's third book on the Kamilaroi, "Sung for Generations": Tales of Red Kangaroo War-Leader of Gunnedah (Michael O'Rourke, Braddon 2005), the Aboriginal language group that 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.

Very early on in my renewed research on the Aborigines of Northern New South Wales I said that I wanted to write outside the dominant frame of the last forty years, Aboriginal dispossession, white guilt, the presentation of the Aborigines as victims. Instead, I was interested in Aboriginal history, in bringing that story alive at the broader New England level. It is obviously not possible to write about Aboriginal history without dealing with the impact of European colonisation, and a sad story it is, but the story of Black-White relations is not Aboriginal history.

The brilliance of Michael's work, and I use the word brilliance advisedly, is that it brings the Kamilaroi alive, a functioning people as they were at the time of colonisation and in the eighty years of decline that follows.

This is quite a remarkable achievement.

To do this, he had to gain an understanding of their language, a language very alien to English speaking eyes. This was absolutely critical to understanding not just the way they thought, but also interpreting the records and reports, the stories, of the settlers and officials who transcribed and reported in many different ways. Then, too, he needed a detailed knowledge of the geography at a very local level, along with the patience to go through the original source material.

The third book in the series deals with Gambu Ganuurru, the pre-European Aboriginal leader immortalised in Ion Idriess's 1953 best seller, the Red Chief. The Red Kangaroo died many years before the the First Fleet arrived in 1788. His memory survives because the stories were written down while people were still alive who could remember the stories from their childhood.

Michael carefully critiques the original source material from his knowledge of the area and the Kamilaroi. He brings out the horror of the unthinking desecration of the Red Chief's grave, although this is the only reason why the story has survived. He looks at the story from the viewpoint of the role of myths and legends in other cultures. To a degree, Gambu's story reveals the society of one Aboriginal group in the same way that Homer did with the ancient Greeks. The difference is that it is clear that Gambu is a real historical figure.

I will write a proper post on Gambu in my New England story series because very few people know it. In the meantime I am wrestling with a very real problem: in telling the story of New England, how do I match the depth of Michael's work with other less well covered Aboriginal groups? I cannot. In the absence of other Michaels, there is just too much work involved. I am trying to write one book, not twenty!

Yesterday I showed the book to my Aboriginal mentee. She knows about my writing because I talk about it a fair bit and indeed has given me a book on Black writing to read. This is next on my train reading list after "Sung for Generations." She asked me when I was going to research the Yuin, the NSW South Coast language from which her family comes.

As it happened, I have looked at the Yuin recently because she is a proud Yuin woman and I wanted to know something about her people. But even to do the overview work of the type I have been doing on the New England groups is a huge task.

We really need more Michaels.                   

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Tools for the home researcher 2 - Using your scanner

This post continues my new irregular series on the things that I have learned that may help the home researcher.

This post is going to sound a bit like the current habit of plagiarism that universities are trying to stamp out and indeed it does start with something of the same technique. However, the results are different.

Just at the moment my scanner is broken. I am actually having to key things in. This approach will work much better if you can scan into Word.

I am presently writing some stuff on Aboriginal social structures. I have decide to use John Mulvaney & Johan Kamminga, Prehistory of Australia, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1999 as a base. I am not trying to steal their ideas. I want to make sure that I acknowledge their contribution.

I have copied the relevant section almost verbatim. Then at the end of each paragraph I have added my own comments as footnotes pointing to areas where I agree, disagree or which require further work. In doing so, I have been careful to record the original page number for each paragraph.

I now have a document that marks the first point in a dialogue with the thoughts and words of the authors, one that I can print, read and think about.

As I do further reading I will amend the text. I have written on some of the ideas already. Here I will compare the ideas and amend. In other cases, I know of other sources. New material can be added as either footnotes or in the main body, again recording source.

In writing, one of the key things that I want to do is to compare the general Australia wide statements of the authors with the on-ground position in New England. Is there a variation between the two? If so, what does it mean? Here I am particularly concerned at the way central and north Australian examples are generalised, given variation in Aboriginal cultures across the country.

The document evolves as a working document, a continuing dialogue.

I do not want to steal the original ideas. So, depending on the nature of the changes, I will acknowledge the original contribution in either footnotes or the text itself. I also save the first copy as V1 and then save major changes later as V2, V3 etc. That way I can check wording and ideas as to sources.

Simple isn't it, and I think quite fair. But does it breach copyright?

I don't think so. Copying a very small section of a work for private review would seem to me to be fair dealing.

The approach actually works best with small sections. The problem with large scale scissors and paste, say bringing together a number of documents from the web and then trying to meld them in some way, is not just the almost certain risk of plagiarism in the end result, but the time and difficulty involved in the process.

Return to first post in this series.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Visiting Vancouver 5 - a very Shanghai feel 1

Well, I finally have my Vancouver photos back. It is now just over two months since I returned. Inevitably the sharp images that I had at the start of this series have blurred.

Looking at the photos I was reminded of an odd thing. Vancouver reminded me of Shanghai! This may sound an odd thVancouver skyscrapeing to say, but let me explain.

In recent years, downtown Vancouver has been rebuilt. This re-building includes concentrations of tall apartment blocks. Many of these date from the same period as Shanghai building and have a similar visual feel. Tall, but also relatively narrow.

This photo, taken from the balcony of cousin Cyril's flat, will give you a first feel.

Now Sydney has many tall apartment buildings, but their feel is different. It's hard to explain, but they are more crowded, chunkier.

One of the key distinctions between Sydney and Vancouver lies in the mix of high and lower rise.

In central Sydney, the CBD has become a fairly cold place in which the tall buildings crowd out the light. If you go to the developments ringing the city, you get lower buildings but still grouped in big blocks of common height. Zoning rules actually dictate this. Vancouver streetscape

Vancouver is different. The population density may well be higher, but the zoning rules here require a height mix. This means that the high rise is taller and thinner, but is also broken up with much lower buildings.

You can see this clearly in this photo taken in one of the more recent developments.

The three high rises in the photo are clearly separated and also face slightly different directions. This preserves views and allows light to penetrate.

Visual appeal is enhanced, as is livability.

Vancouver is not a big city compared to Sydney or Melbourne. As of July 2009, the city's estimated population was 615,473 and that of the metropolitan area, 2,318,200. You can see this in the downtown - it's actually quite small.

At the same time, I understand that the re-building of central Vancouver has transformed the city. This is modern metro living. People have been brought back to the inner city.

I think that Australian cities could learn from Vancouver. High rise is not necessarily bad. It's how you do it that counts.

A full list of posts in the visiting Vancouver series can be found here.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday essay - Australian films and cultural change

In a comment on the new film Charlie & Boots Pixie of Kingscliff wrote:

I cant wait to see this film....I sure do miss these kind of films....great aussie movies with the best humour and aussie spirit.....much better than all the other crap that is around.

charlie_and_boots I have to agree with Pixie. Australian films have become a box office disaster. Australians just don't want to see films made in this country. More precisely, they don't want to see films made in this country if they are identifiably Australian. Say that a film is Australian, and Australian movie goers will stay away in droves.

The same thing does not happen in TV. Despite problems with production costs - you can buy an overseas production at a much lower price - there is sufficient demand to keep at least some local productions on screen.

Part of the problem lies in the number of Australian films made. There are just too many when the cash pool is small.

The number of movies might not be a problem if at least a few made it through to success. Most films fail in commercial terms. A viable film industry depends upon major successes offsetting the many failures. In Australia today we simply do not get the successes.

The real problem today is that there is a disconnect between Australian film makers and Australia.

If you are going to attract Australian audiences, you have two choices. You can produce a film that appeals to their Australianess. Alternatively, you can produce a film that appeals simply because it links to the broader human condition, tells a story. The best Australian films often combine both.

Modern Australia is a very disconnected society. I don't mean this as a criticism, simply an observation.

At the 2006 census 22% of those living in Australia were born elsewhere. There are major cultural and attitudinal differences within our major cities and across the country. No place in Australia can really be thought of as truly representative. This means that the cultural markers - the things that are identifiably Australian - are quite limited in some ways.

Part of our problem, I think, is that the main themes that resonated in the past have in some ways been discredited, with others yet to take their place. To some degree, we have lost our cultural language.

To illustrate this, consider two common elements in Australian movies of the past.

The first is the country or pioneer theme. The decline here is often attributed to urbanisation; Australia has simply become an urbanised country. In fact, Australia always has been an urban country. The new disconnect between city urban life and the country cannot be explained just by urbanisation, but is linked too to the conscious Charles Chauveldiscrediting of the previous theme.

The ideal of the pioneer encapsulated in the films of Charles Chauvel has been replaced by the pioneer as a land-grabber dispossessing the Aborigines, the  farmer or grazier building a new life is now a rapacious land-destroyer stealing water or, worse, an economic basket case. No image can survive four decades of constant negativity.       

The irony is that there are in fact some very good stories that do bridge the old and new and which could be told from both directions. Cubbie Station could be presented in either way.

The second common element from the past lies in the interaction between Australia and the world. As a new country with a small population, Australia and Australians felt insecure. They were also part, however, of a bigger entity, the Empire and Commonwealth. Australians constantly measured themselves, and were measured, in the context of relations with the mother country. This created a number of common themes that appeared in film and were instantly recognisable in Australia and elsewhere.

Australia is far bigger today, more secure, but also more inward looking. The scope for films with an international flavour but with an Australian centre is substantial. Made in 1982, the Year of Living Dangerously (photo) is set in Djakarta. Part adventure story, part political thriller, the story follows a young Australian reporter who tries to navigate the political turmoil of Indonesia during the rule of President Sukarno with the help of a diminutive photographer. still, Year of Living Dangerously 

This is quite a gripping film, one that achieved considerable success. Most recently we have had Balibo.

Balibo's initial box office was quite good, I do not have the latest figures, although like so many Australian movies it suffered from limited screens. It is also in one sense a documentary.

If we now turn from film to TV and advertising, we find a different pattern in that some of the most successful productions are in fact Australia. However, this is a world which consciously and directly targets Australian audiences, that plays to Australian themes.

Crime is big, as measured by the huge success of Underbelly. Set in Melbourne and Sydney with their complex crime scenes, the series swept the ratings before it. I find it interesting that the only truly urban stories in Australia that have achieved real commercial success over sixty years are soaps on one side, crime or police on the other. These shows are unashamedly Australian, there is no cultural agonising, and they sell in Australia and overseas.

Country is still there, although it is now sea/tree change dominated. Some are good. At a personal level, though, I cringed at East of Eden. This is Greenie Inner West Sydney translated to Byron Bay. It is a sort of a pot pouri of old and modern hippy playing out in a world of stereotypes.

It is when we turn to advertising that we can see most clearly the continuing core elements in popular Australian culture. We now enter a very different world from Australian film.

Polar bears are hardly Australian. Yet the the Bundy Rum drop bears have been a huge popular success. Why? They appeal to the Australian sense of humour, to the yobbo or ocker instinct that many Australians still have. Who could resist advertisements that combine sport, irony and yarn telling? I cannot, nor can my daughters.

Ad after ad after ad plays to the core elements in Australian popular culture. This is a slimmed down version of culture that would have been instantly recognisable to an Australian of sixty years ago. They would have responded in the same way.

However, there is a problem here. This is a non-nuanced world and sometimes  a dangerous one. In a world of constant change where the cultural under-pinnings of the past have been stripped away , we are left with just those things that appeal at an instinctual emotional level. The advertising industry has become the single most important vehicle transmitting images, cultural markers, from one generation to the next.

I am not sure that this is a good thing.