Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Managers, Myer and the rights of shareholders

A few days ago, there was a press report that really riled one of the regular commenters on this blog, KVD. I won't quote the private comments that he sent to me, but indeed he has reason to be riled. 

In a story in The Australian, Bernie Brookes regrets Myer public listing, the CEO of this recently re-listed Australian Department store is reported as complaining about the time spent in briefing investors. Two quotes from the story will give the flavour. 

The chief executive ... said life was better when Myer .... was a private company.

Mr Brookes told a business breakfast in Perth today that the management team was now forced to spend "an excessive amount of time" talking to investors and briefing market analysts.

"It's like herding cats, you've got a diversity of shareholders all with different needs." he said.

Then a little later:

"Unfortunately, the structure of the way in which the system works from an equity market’s point of view means that you move from being a retailer to a finance manager and to an equity market manager - and that’s I think quite a pity, particularly to myself who loves to spend most of his time in stores, just walking the stores."

The story raised a number of concerns in KVD's mind. He was annoyed at the apparent assumption that dealing with shareholders was a waste of time; after all, it is their company. He was also annoyed at what he saw as the way that certain occupational classes - those in business or politics or the media - acquired apparent rights associated with their occupation independent of their real responsibilities. They all, my words, become game players; corporate games, political games, reporting games.

KVD has been concerned with problems of management, responsibility and control in the corporate sector for some time: Sunday Essay - Opes Prime provides an earlier example of our evolving conversation.

Mr Brookes' comments obviously reflected a degree of frustration. However, the difficulty I had with them lay in the way he actually mixed so many things together in such a short comment. I thought that I night unpick this a little.

The shareholders own the company. At the end of the day, Mr Brookes is responsible to them. The decision by the previous owners to list as a way of unlocking cash may have complicated Mr Brookes' life, but that's tough.

Mr Brookes reports to and is directly accountable to the Board. In theory, the Board is accountable to the shareholders. In practice this does not properly happen and for three reasons:

  • shareholders are often diverse and may have conflicting interests
  • some many external obligations have been placed upon Directors that, sometimes, the poor shareholder is really the last thing considered. Consider, for example, the need to keep the market informed via a whole series of reporting obligations. Here, among other things, boards can face a conflict between protecting the position of existing shareholders and informing prospective future shareholders.
  • Boards and management join together in playing their own games. As an example, in the Qantas case, the then CEO and certain board members combined to try to sell the company. While justified in terms of "unlocking value for the shareholder", this really had nothing had nothing to do with shareholders.

I accept that the concept of responsibility to the shareholder is a difficult one, especially since so many shares came to be controlled by funds managers who are, in turn, responsible to those investing the funds. This creates practical difficulties of the type referred to by Mr Brookes, including the way shareholder value can be affected by things that actually have very little to do with the value of the company. Still, I would argue that a focus on shareholder needs and ownership remains important.

Certainly, as a sometimes small shareholder, I would argue that the way the system has evolved makes individual share investing far more risky and uncertain than in the past.

We live in a world whose focus on growth and the achievement of short term targets means that the totality of companies cannot achieve target because the total targets are unachievable. This creates instability. Further, targets are set in such a way that they generally reflect relatively narrow metrics. We also live in a world where the combination of regulation with modern corporate management approaches builds in conflict of interest.

When I first began to invest on the stock exchange, things were actually pretty simple. The first question was the likely yield compared with fixed interest. The second question was the extent to which dividends might increase over time, since this would increase return and also the value of the shares. Then, too, there were returns from rights issues and the issue of bonus shares. Bonus shares were important because they allowed cash to be realised, while maintaining an interest in the company. Then, too, there were irregular returns from takeovers.

As today, there was a trade-off between income and capital gain. As today, companies did crash. However, for the ordinary investor, the main thing was the stability and management of the company. So long as the management was okay and the business sound, returns were built in.

In this world, it wasn't hard to beat the index. Here I looked at the returns on my mother and father's portfolio, as well as my own. The reasons were mathematical. Investors placing the greatest emphasis on yield and for perfectly sensible reasons, would invest in companies offering greater cash now. However, these companies tended to offer lower capital gain.

The overall move in the index combined different types of companies. Any reasonable combination of cash now and growth later was likely to beat the index.

How things have changed! The idea of index based funds whose sole purpose was to match long term index trends through a very diverse portfolio would have seemed a bit incomprehensible then. Why bother? In fact, risk averse people then did do something similar by investing in fixed trusts that offered security in combination with a dividend stream and modest capital gains.

To my mind, the dividing line came with the collapse of Australian Fixed Trusts in, from memory, 1987. Unable itself to resist corporate games, AFT went down. As it fell, it wiped out those elements of the family portfolios that, to my father, had seemed most secure when he invested in them all those years before.

I may seem to have come a long way from KVD's original point. I have not. To my mind, Bernie Brookes' comments are symptomatic of the problems that we have built into our corporate systems.        

Monday, August 30, 2010

New states

My main post today is on the New England, Australia blog, A new state for New England.

It's hard for me to be objective on this one. My grandfather was one of the leaders of the Northern or New England New State Movement. My father, while not a new stater, launched a regional councils movement at the end of the Second World war. When it became clear that NSW would never give the councils any power, the regional councils movement turned into a reformed New England New State Movement. Convinced that existing approaches would not work, my father turned to the concept of selective decentralisation, something that later appeared as the Whitlam Government's growth centre approach.

I grew up thinking of myself as a New Englander. I still do. I was sixteen when I acted as an usher at the Armidale Convention that launched Operation Seventh State, the campaign that led to the 1967 plebiscite. At nineteen, I was a member of the executive of the New England New State Movement representing the University of New England New State Society.

After my move to Canberra and the defeat of the plebiscite, I put the new state issue aside as no longer relevant. It wasn't until I came to write a biography of my grandfather for a PhD thesis that the whole thing came surging back. Then, looking at the evidence through a prism created by my experience as a relatively senior public servant, I suddenly concluded that the arguments for New England self-government were right after all. More, I concluded that systemic problems in policy and politics actually precluded any effective regional development.  That began something of a campaign that has continued to this day.

Looking back, it is hard to re-capture the simple certainties that I held as a sixteen year old. Then, in the world that I lived in, the views that I held were in fact the majority view. Now they are a fringe view. It's actually quite hard to hold to a view when that view is alien to pretty much everybody one meets.

Some time ago, I formed the view that the only way to overcome the loss of history and all the supporting arguments was through writing. Since then, I have written more than 1,000 blog posts on New England, 86 newspaper columns, then this year so far two academic papers on New England history, with a full history on New England about a third of the way through.

All this has come at a cost. I won't bore you with the details, beyond noting that all this writing, this obsession, has been at the expense of things directly related to my professional career.

I guess that I am a stubborn cuss. For much of the time, my writing has taken place in isolation. It's only in the last two years that I have felt that my writing has started to gain some traction.

I don't want to overstate this. I am talking about a person here, a person there. Yet, or so it seems to me, there comes a point at which the critical mass required for organic growth is achieved.

For the moment, I simply take pleasure in the fact that whether it be New England's Aboriginal languages, the history of the New England New State Movement or New England public policy, I now have someone to talk too.

A minor thing perhaps, but once you have a couple of people interested in any topic, then growth in interest is possible.

Quite a bit of my time now is spent in linking and responding. This takes away from both writing and my professional interests. Yet it is very important in building things; just getting people interacting is an advance.

Where will all this go? Realistically, I don't know. I have my own objectives, of course, but experience to this point shows that action triggers responses in ways one cannot predict. So we shall see!         

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Musings on the changing world of blogging

I hadn't intended to post today, but this morning I did my usual blog round-up.

Looking back over the blogs plus Facebook and Twitter feeds left me with a feeling of fragmentation: it's partly that I have more blogs on my list; more that so many of the blogs that I used to read have become irregular or even vanished; more still that Facebook and Twitter have developed as alternative mechanisms; most, my feeling that the little village that I used to talk about a lot has somehow morphed into a more anonymous urban sprawl.

I think that this is partly my own fault. Writing on a daily basis is quite hard, harder still when blogging is one part of a spreading writing load. I spend less time interacting with other bloggers, more time just writing. The pleasure drops. However, it's also a symptom of genuine fragmentation.

The best independent blogs combined thought with a dash of the personal. Some of these blogs have become Facebooked or Twittered to the detriment of the blogs. Sure, I read the Facebook or Twitter streams, but they don't compensate. Further, I often see the same short form material repeated. The length of time it takes me to scan Facebook or Twitter is actually falling despite the increase in the number of items. To make matters worse, some favourite blogs have simply vanished.

I have told this story before.

I long time ago local retailer Joe Hanna complained that Armidale was getting smaller. I blinked, because the city had been going through a growth phase. When I asked what he meant, he said that whereas it used to take him all morning to get the mail, it now took half an hour. The difference lay in the conversation along the half block from the store to the post office and back. He used to spend lots of time seeing people and yarning, now there were very few people to talk too.

More people, fewer conversations. That's what's happened to blogging. As one symptom of this, links to this blog from other blogs have really collapsed. Whereas I used to get several links a month, I haven't been able to get to an average of one link per month over the last eight months. Further, this includes a small number of blogs with multiple links.

Of course, and I accept this, it may be just that I have just become a boring old fart! However, I think that it is really more than this.

I write quite a bit about the decline of country Australia because it is important to me. One feature of that decline is the movement of people to new centres. To my mind, this is what is happening to blogging. We have gone to the latest big city lights.

But what to do? I can only respond at a personal level.

I do want to continue to write about the things that are important to me, to continue to use my writing and reading to clarify my own thinking.   However, I also really want to rebuild the sense of the village. A village is not bound by the presence of dissenting views. Villages just have to deal with that. Rather, a village focuses on conversation and even gossip, as well as ideas.

As part of this process, I spent multiple hours checking, re-sorting and, in some cases, deleting blogs. This was a bit like an archaeological excavation into my own past. It was both strange and a bit sad.

So many things have changed! What do I do with my old favourites that no longer exist?  In some cases, they are writing in new guises. In others, they are people that I liked who have left the village. Then there are some blogs that mark old interests now swamped by the present.

One pleasure in all this was moving blogs from, say, weekly checks into current. I had almost 30 blogs in my current category, 100 in the weekly check list. Now I have 12 in current, 31 in weekly. Of course, this is a little misleading in that I have more subject categories that are in fact daily or weekly checks. Still, it is much easier to control.

So what, in all this, is my personal response to rebuilding the village? I suppose, simply, that I want to spend more time responding and interacting, refocused on those who take the time to write or to respond.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Short break in transmission

Because of other pressures, it will be Monday before I can post again.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Principles vs rules in Australian electoral reform

In a comment on Independent conundrums - a chance for change, Kangaroo Valley David wrote:

Election reforms I would like to see include: set terms; an absolute limit on the amount of radio and TV minutes advertising; no new policy launches within two weeks of the election date; unlink electoral campaign funding from ‘campaign launch’ - i.e a set cut off date to which taxpayer money is available; Treasury costing on all major party policies to be mandatory, and to be released no later than a week prior to election. These would require much goodwill on all sides to be effective, so no doubt will never come to pass.

On the Independents, while I respect Mr Windsor, I think that Messrs Katter and Oakeshott provide several good reasons why non-aligned candidates should be disregarded when calculating parliamentary majority. Their votes on declared matters of importance (which needs definition) should automatically flow to the government of the day, leaving them free to influence most policy areas, including of course the position and angle of the pork barrel.

Finally, (sorry for length) I think the idea of a cabinet composed partly of unelected members does not fit with our form of parliament, just as I thought Ms Gillard’s 150 citizen congress on climate change was unrealistic. Idealism (and I include the Greens in this) is a very fine thing, but has little to do with stable government of any flavour. Meanwhile the GFC rolls on, and our troops continue to mark time.

I found myself confused and to a degree conflicted when I came to look at his comments. I can see various ways of improving the Parliamentary process, but my thinking about electoral reform is quite muddy. Part of this lies in the distinction in my mind between rule based and principle based approaches.

By rule based, I simply mean specific rules intended to control actions. By contrast, principle based approaches allow for a variety of outcomes so long as the core principles are observed. Of course, both approaches have their weaknesses.

Once you set a rule, then people are meant to comply with that rule. In practice, human ingenuity soon leads to the practical outcome that while the letter of the law is complied with, people work around it to achieve their ends. Electoral funding laws are an example. New rules are then required.

For their part, principal based approaches can fall over when people either ignore or even reject the principles. Further, their nature allows plenty of room for alternative views. Yet they can be quite powerful because they provide a broader guide to action and to judgements about action. This may sound abstract, but a fair bit of our constitutional system is not written down but relies instead on the acceptance of general principles.

Rules based approaches may be introduced when principle based approaches fail. More often, rule based approaches come into effect because people want action to fix something that they perceive to be a problem without addressing the basic principles at all. See problem, fix problem. The difficulty is that as rules expand, principles tend to decline.

One of the reasons why my thinking is so muddy lies in the interface between practice and principles, between rules and principles.

We are all influenced by our own experiences. I grew up in a world in which Parliament was central. This was also a world where the role of the local member was seen first in terms of effective representation, if constrained by Party and, more importantly, by obligations to Parliament. Then, too, it was also a world where the views and causes that I might espouse were generally minority positions in a state or national sense even when majority positions in a local sense. Most times, the problem lay in getting action despite the views of the two major parties.

This was also a world where, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, the battle of ideas was sharply tinged by battles with the far right. Supporters of Eric Butler's League of Rights and its various out-riders were active.

Much of the commentary in this area at the time and later focused on particular aspects of League of Right views perceived to be anathema in broad terms. Less attention focused on their constitutional principles. Here they argued, and with force, that the local member must be bound by the views of the electorate. Of course, they also argued that they represented that view! There is, in fact, no difference between League of Rights' views in this area and some of the arguments put today in The Australian about the need for the country independents to do as their electorates say as measured by the public opinion polls. They are both majoritarian positions

The defence developed to this type of attack lay not in party, but in the combination of two broad principles.

The first principle was the need for effective electoral representation that took into account needs and views across the electorate, as well as your own values. This then linked to a second principle, the importance of Parliament. Once you became a Parliamentarian, you accepted a broader obligation not just to other parts of Australia, but to Parliament as an institution. Like all principles, these two could conflict. You just had to work your way through as best you could.

Let me give an example from my own experience. In 1961 the Menzies Government had a majority of one and was on a knife-edge. In pursuit of its two airline policy, the Government placed pressure on East-West Airlines to merge with Ansett. When Don Shand as chair of EWA said this, the Minister for Civil Aviation denied it.

The then Member for New England knew that pressure had been place on EWA. Despite the wafer thin majority and the pressure placed upon him to desist, he rose in the House to confirm what Don Shand had said. In doing so, he represented not just his electorate, but also the role of Parliament and the parliamentary member in holding the Government to account.

There is not room in this post to trace the decline of the local member. However, key to that decline has been a decline in both the conventions and principles that used to apply to local MPs. I guess I can see it just because I have been involved at a personal level since I was a kid.

None of this should be construed as an attack on KVD. I think that his suggestions are worth pursuing. Rather, consider the post as an opening shot in an effort to clarify my own thinking.                  

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Independent conundrums - a chance for change

Interesting times continue in Australian politics. I don't want to comment on the detail, just note a few points.

The seat position is still unclear. There are 150 seats in the House of Representatives. To govern, you really need 177 seats. This leaves you with 76 seats, a majority of one after appointment of the speaker. 

Subject to final counting, the coalition is likely to have 72-73 seats. In addition, the WA National Tony Crook while formally sitting on the cross-bench can probably be counted as a coalition member for immediate purposes, bringing seat numbers to 73-74.

Mr Crook's position is an interesting one. The WA Nationals went to the electorate opposing the mining tax and supporting instead their Royalties for the Regions program. Since Labor continues to support the mining tax, it is hard to see Mr Crook supporting a Labor Government.

I know that some people have found the National's Party position confusing. The Party is a Federal body. At Federal level there is a coalition arrangement with the Liberals. However, the state position varies.

In the Northern Territory and Queensland, the Liberal and National Parties merged to form the Country Liberal and Liberal National Parties respectively. However at Federal level members may chose to sit with either the Liberal or National Parties. In other states, there may or may not be coalition agreements with the Liberals. In WA, the Nationals clawed their way back from the brink of extinction by differentiating themselves from the Liberals. So in the case of Mr Crook, he will (as I understand it) be a member of the Nationals party room but not of the joint coalition party room.   

Again subject to final counting, Labor is likely to have 71-72 seats. The new Green MP has indicated a preference for a Labor Government, so that potentially gives Labor 72-73 seats. Mr Wilkie has indicated that he wants to hew his own course.

If the three Country Independents support Labor, will have 75 to 76 seats; Mr Wilkie position's will then be clearly important. If the country independents support the coalition, then the coalition will have 76 to 77 seats. You can see why the independents are placing such weight on waiting for the final count. My feeling is that if the coalition gets to 74, then they will go with the coalition.

There is quite a lot of orchestrated pressure being placed on the country independents. A Galaxy poll commissioned by Sydney's Daily Telegraph suggested that 55 per cent of voters in their electorates favoured a deal with the coalition. An on-line poll in the Northern Daily Leader, Locals shun Labor: Majority of Tamworth voters urge Windsor to back the Coalition, gave a stronger if less scientific result. A Leader editorial, Responsibility heavy burden, essentially pleaded for Mr Windsor to be given more time.     

The media has always been a political player in its own right. You only have to look at press reporting over time, although I would argue that there is more use of news reports and especially columnists as compared to editorials than in the past .  The very publicity attached to this issue is attracting its own media responses. Just to quote Dennis Shanahan in the Australian.  

IT'S getting to the stage where Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and the nation would actually be better off if we just went back to the polls.

The early promise of stability for a minority government is dissipating as the independents threaten to force a new election, refuse to guarantee a bloc vote for either side and declare diametrically opposed positions on key policies that have split the Coalition and paralysed Labor.

Using spurious logic, obscure language and blackmail, three MPs accidentally thrust into the balance of power are claiming a "new paradigm" in politics where none exists as justification for unprecedented treatment and control. More than 90 per cent of Australians voted for Labor, the Coalition or the Greens -- the old-paradigm parties.

This isn't just horse-trading over amendments on a piece of legislation; this is demanding an erratic ransom for government and an ongoing part in that government.

Mr Shanahan is arguing a very particular position, one consistent with the line followed by his paper during the election. However, his remarks illustrate the way the issue is now clouding up.

The Indendents' Requests

The requests of the three country independents are set out below.  


Requests for information

  1. We seek access to information under the ‘caretaker conventions’ to economic advice from the Secretary of the Treasury Ken Henry and Secretary of Finance David Tune, including the costings and impacts of Government and Opposition election promises and policies on the budget.
  2. We seek briefings from the following Secretaries of Departments:
    1. Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy
    2. Health and Ageing
    3. Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
    4. Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government
    5. Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
    6. Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Water
    7. Defence
    8. Resources, Energy and Tourism
  3. We seek briefings from caretaker Ministers and Shadow Ministers in the above portfolio areas to discuss their program for the next three years.
  4. We seek advice as soon as possible on their plans to work with the Clerks of the Parliament to improve the status and authority of all 150 local MP’s within parliamentary procedures and structures. In particular, we seek advice on timelines and actions for increasing the authority of the Committee system, private members business and private members bills, matters of public importance, 90 second statements, adjournment debates, and question time.
  5. We seek a commitment to explore all options from both sides in regard “consensus options” for the next three years, and a willingness to at least explore all options to reach a majority greater than 76 for the next three years. Included in these considerations is advice on how relationships between the House of Representatives and the Senate can be improved, and a proposed timetable for this to happen.
  6. We seek a commitment in writing as soon as possible that if negotiations are to take place on how to form Government, that each of these leaders, their Coalition partners, and all their affiliated MP’s, will negotiate in good faith and with the national interest as the only interest. In this same letter of comfort, we seek a written commitment that whoever forms majority Government will commit to a full three year term, and for an explanation in writing in this same letter as to how this commitment to a full term will be fulfilled, either by enabling legislation or other means.
  7. We seek advice as soon as possible on a timetable and reform plan for political donations, electoral funding, and truth in advertising reform, and a timetable for how this reform plan will be achieved in co-operation with the support of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The three non-aligned MP’s will now be heading home to families, electorate duties, and a long-standing appointment with the Governor-General (unrelated to this political deadlock). We have agreed to be back in Canberra on Monday for the full week of meetings in relation to the above. We expect all the above information to be made available through best endeavours as soon as possible, so that formal negotiations with all stakeholders can begin by Friday 3rd September – if, based on final counts, negotiations are indeed needed at all.

If you look at the requests, they break into three parts:

  1. The first is requests for information. What is unusual here is that it the independents are seeking a quite wide range of information. This is the type of information provided, at least in part, to an incoming government. However, it goes beyond this because the independents are asking for information that will, in effect, help them to choose between sides and also to form their own policy views as to what is possible.
  2. Processes and proposals for Parliamentary and political reform.These draw in part from earlier NSW experience. One of the things that is interesting here is the revelation that Labor Party Election strategist Bruce Hawker had been in previous discussion with Rob Oakeshott about reform possibilities, discussions carried out at a time when the present situation was not envisaged. In this context, Bruce Hawker has been involved in the establishment of three state Labor minority governments, including the other side of the earlier NSW discussions. You will find the full transcript of the 7.30 Report here. It appears, in fact, that the independents have asked for discussions with the key strategists on both sides.
  3. Advice and assurances intended to allow any Government to run its full term.

The Responses 

The response from the Government is set out below:



The reported response from Opposition Leader Abbott has be far more muted. He refused, as he had done during the election campaign, to make the details available to Treasury for a common independent costing. Instead, he said that the Opposition would provide the independents with its own costings analysis. In doing so, Mr Abbott effectively completely discredited the Charter of Budget Honesty introduced by the Howard Government; ''It's very difficult for the public service to understand opposition policy with the same degree of insight and depth as government policy,'' Mr Abott stated.

This has not pleased the independents. While noting that it would not end negotiations, Mr Windsor stated that Mr Abbott's position was not acceptable: "I think it's appropriate that both sides be costed by the same person," he said.


The suggestions put forward and especially by Mr Oakeshott about things such as a grand coalition simply won't work, nor are they necessarily good. The intent - the development of a less adversarial system - may be praiseworthy, but the difficulties are to my mind just too great. However, there is also a simple practical intent, the desire to make it more difficult for a Government to simply rush to a new election just because the polls have moved in their favour.

The requests for information fall in a different class. I made my own position here clear in New media, independents and change when I wrote:

There is so much frustration about the current system that the possibility of a hung parliament has unleashed a wave of new ideas and optimism. Yet we have to be realistic. Some groups must be disappointed with the result.

To my mind, if we get improved access to independent sources of information, that will (of itself) be a major advance. I think that we can get this. If we do, I will be happy. Beyond this, every advance such as an improved question time would be an added bonus.         

I accept that the requests by the independents do raise difficulties under the current conventions. I also accept that Mr Abbott has justified grievances about leaks during the election campaign. If Treasury/Finance is to be provided with information, then that information has to be sacrosanct outside subsequent agreed releases of analysis.

All this said, I think that the Australian people and our Parliamentarians in particular are entitled to receive the information that they require for effective decision making and monitoring, not to be drip fed just that minimum amount that the Government thinks will support its cause. To take a simple practical example, how can the people judge the effectiveness of the various National Partnership agreements if they do not have access to the implementation plans?

I am not a supporter of information for the sake of information. I actually have problems with some of the expectations about just what information should be made available under, for example, Freedom of Information because release can actually constrain effective decision making. However, when we get to the stage that citizens and Parliamentarians cannot make independent judgements because of information control, we have a problem.

The idea of reform of Parliamentary and political processes is a good one from my viewpoint, although I am not blind to the difficulties. The reforms introduced by the independents in NSW are a case in point. They did improve the working of Parliament but did not improve the working of Government. NSW in 2010 demonstrates this!

One of the difficulties faced by the independents is that reform of the Parliamentary and political process required cultural change, and that takes time, more time than they have. Still, if we can get some changes, that to my mind is a good thing.            

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New media, independents and change

I was off-line yesterday with the internet connection down. Really very frustrating at this time when Australian politics is providing such great theatre. So this morning has seen a hasty run-round just trying to catch up. Now I want to make just a few disconnected comments, really reflections to myself.

 Supermarket Politics

Prior to the last NSW State elections, I complained that both sides were engaged in supermarket politics, the presentation of a bundle of somewhat disconnected goodies that we, the voters, were meant to choose between. Now I see that Mr Katter is describing the Lib/Lab as the Woolworth and Coles of Australian politics.

One of the very interesting things about this election campaign has been the way in which cynicism about the two main sides' approach to policy formulation suddenly burst forth. I accept that my scanning is unrepresentative; I have a bias towards blogs and these are (by definition) unrepresentative. I have also been arguing for a long time that current approaches to policy development do not and cannot work, so I am biased. Still, its been interesting.

Exposure: Q&A, Twitter and the role of alternative views

To my mind, one of the reasons why the current approach to policy development hit the wall in such a spectacular way this time lay in the emergence of the new media. I don't want to overstate this, just point to three interconnected features.

The first and perhaps least important feature was the role played by bloggers. Quite a few blogs, Catallaxy and Larvatus Prodoe are example, essentially talk to the converted. This is not a criticism, but part of the pattern. You can rely on them in posts and comments to pick apart the other side of the intellectual debate. This is actually important, because they are part of the of the information flow. Then there are other more independent bloggers who try to take an alternative view.

I have suggested that blogs and bloggers are the least important mainly because I don't know how to judge our influence.

I have been campaigning on the need to improve our approach to policy development for a number of years. I have a limited reach measured by visits and by links. Yet my feeling is that the cumulative effect of all those like me is not insignificant. We just can't measure it.

The second and still embryonic feature was the role played by new media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

I have now been monitoring the use of Facebook for campaign purposes for several years. Here I want to focus not on the use of Facebook by the big end, but on the way that Facebook provides a vehicle for minority groups including small but important local causes. Like blogs, their direct impact is small. However, their cumulative influence is not insignificant, because they provide a focus for smaller issues that then feeds into the total impact. Further, the impact grows as people learn how to use them.

This links to Twitter.

To my mind, this was the election that Twitter came into its own in two quite distinct ways. The first, and this is the way I mainly used it, is simply as a quick source for information and developments that interest me. However, the second way is the way in which Twitter comments provided short, often sardonic, immediate reactions to speakers and events that were then picked up elsewhere.

This links to my third point, the emergence of new types of programs and events such as the ABC's Q&A. I do not know whether this type of program is unique to Australia. Presumably not. But the idea of exposing panelists to unscripted questions including Twitter feedback is quite powerful. This then links to other ideas such as the Village meetings, forcing the leaders to face groups of voters in an unscripted, uncontrolled, format.

Both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard did pretty well here at a personal level. Yet the shallowness in their policy positions also came through.

I could not finish this section without a reference to Get-up. I do not support many Get-up causes. I ended up this time on the Get-up email list because there was one issue, mental health, that I could support what they wanted to achieve. Since then, I have watched the emails they sent me.

No-one could deny that Get-up has affected this election, although none of us could be sure just how. Get-up's action in the High Court to force the admission of voters excluded under the Howard Government's anti-democratic legislation may well have affected the results of such a tight election, although we may never know just how. Certainly, Get-up has written a small place for itself in Australian history.

The Power of Hope

One of the most interesting things about the outcome of this election lies in the nature of the response to the possibility of a hung parliament. To voters disillusioned by the major parties, and at this point, the possibility that a hung parliament might force change is been greeted almost with joy. Suddenly, the possibility that things might change is on the table, leading to a burst of new ideas.

The country independents all deserve credit here, as do the Greens. Of this group, Tony Windsor is (I think) the most important, simply because he has come across as so sensible and re-assuring. It is hard to take the presented threats of a hung parliament seriously when Tony keeps talking about the need for stability.

I have been especially interested in the responses of Labor supporters where the responses to the country independents has been remarkably positive. Of course, this may change if the country independents end up supporting the Coalition, as they may be forced to do, but it holds for the moment.

It is also interesting that right around Australia commentators and reporters alike are being forced to address new issues - not new in the sense that they weren't there before, but new in the sense that they were not politically relevant before.

Reforming the System

Suddenly, reform of the current parliamentary system is on the agenda in a way it has not been for years. Some of the ideas are not very sensible, while many of us struggle with the idea of a more sensitive and cuddly Tony Abbott!  

I think that the single most important issue, one that has been picked up by others (here, for example) is the need to provide more and better information independent of Executive control.

I have complained about this a lot. I am reasonably bright and have had a lot of experience, but I struggle to make sensible comments on some policy approaches because of the way they are presented. I simply cannot make any form of judgement as to what might actually happen without weeks of work. I don't have time to do this.

Many of the reform initiatives focus on the information question. The key is to make objective data available. Without this, we are back to spin and presentation designed to sell, not explain.

Here, as a simple example, I was interested in Tony Windsor's comment that both Labor and Coalition should now provide their programs to Treasury for revised and independent costing. How, Mr Windsor argued, can we make judgements if we don't know what the budget position is?

Managing Expectations

There is so much frustration about the current system that the possibility of a hung parliament has unleashed a wave of new ideas and optimism. Yet we have to be realistic. Some groups must be disappointed with the result.

To my mind, if we get improved access to independent sources of information, that will (of itself) be a major advance. I think that we can get this. If we do, I will be happy. Beyond this, every advance such as an improved question time would be an added bonus.                  

Monday, August 23, 2010

Northern Daily Leader: Second-term support a must

This morning, the Tamworth based Northern Daily Leader (the largest newspaper in Tony Windsor's New England electorate) editorialised:

WITH only the faintest hope Labor might fall across the line with the support of one Greens MP, a “Greens independent” and a win in the West Australian seat of Hasluk, Tony Windsor and his fellow conservative independents will likely need to decide to fish or cut bait in the very near future.

Even if Labor, by an extremely fortuitous chain of events, secures the 76 seats it needs to govern, such a government would be intrinsically unstable.

Unless it could rely on the support of the three bush independents, it is hard to see how it could form an effective government with a working majority of one in the lower house.

This is especially so given the Labor-leaning Greens don’t own the Senate for another six months.

It is this paper’s belief – and one we have stated many times – that the conservative independents have an obligation to give the Rudd-Gillard government a second term.

A failure to do so would make this the first one-term federal government since before WWII.

To force a change of government when the opposition has not won a clear majority of seats would represent a serious short-circuiting of the democratic process.

This is particularly the case given an independent-backed ALP minority government would be inherently more stable than its Coalition equivalent.

With the independents citing broadband and stable government as major issues, they seem to have no option but to back Labor.

To do otherwise would be to appear as if they were self-indulgently pandering to their own electorates at the expense of the national interest.

It is becoming more and more apparent a marriage of convenience between the conservative independent faction and the Coalition is extremely unlikely.

On a special edition of the 7.30 Report last night, Tony Windsor reportedly referred to The Nationals as a “dying party” and called Senator Barnaby Joyce – once mooted as a challenger for the seat of New England in this election – as “a fool and an embarrassment”.

Bob Katter gave Warren Truss a serve before saying he had worked with people he loathed and detested in the past.

As an aside, it appears from the NDL that Andrew Wilkie, the possible new Tasmanian independent grew up in Tamworth and went to Tamworth High. To complete the trifecta, National's Senate Leader Barnaby Joyce was also born in Tamworth and considered running in New England against Tony Windsor. Both Tony Windsor and Barnaby Joyce went to the University of New England.

As I write, National's leader Warren Truss is being interviewed on radio tip-toeing around the question of relationships between Nationals and independents. I discussed this in my last post,Three Amigos and the future Australian Government.

This was a good election for the Nationals. Including the Queensland members of the Liberal National Party who will sit in the National Party party room, the Party has seen an increase in its lower house numbers. It has its first member from Western Australia for many years. To now be dependent on ex-National independents must be galling!

During the campaign I was critical of the failure of the main parties to properly address country issues with a special focus on the broader New England. I accept that I can be classified as parochial, but it was an election where both Liberal and Labor combined nation "uniformities" on one side with quite blatant marginal seat strategies on the other. The Nationals disappeared in this mix; it was unclear to me whether this was just a reporting blonde spot, or was a policy failure.   

The first problem for the Nationals during such a presidential style campaign lay in the difficulty to properly differentiate themselves within the tight disciplines of a Coalition campaign effectively controlled by the Liberal machine. The second problem was the bitsy nature of National specific policies. The two were connected. Really, the Nationals could only tinker at the margin.

Warren Truss made the telling comment that in WA, it was royalties for the regions that made the difference. There the Nationals were not bound by coalition. 

From my perspective, as I said I am being parochial, I think that both the Nationals and independents need to focus properly on regional development. A pottage approach will nor work.

The problems faced by Australia outside the metro areas did not emerge overnight. Both the Howard and Rudd Governments responded with band-aids. Very few of the "policies" actually addressed core problems, although some things such as expansion of medical training did offer longer term benefits.

One of the problems faced by the small number of analysts such as myself who did try to address key issues at a broader regional level is that our analysis was seen as unimportant, parochial, not main-stream. This held even where blind-freddy could see that "national" policies based on statistical uniformities were not going to work.

Australia is not a single uniform country, but a mosaic of regions with different issues and needs. All decisions and policies have differential impacts across the country. Of course there are areas where uniformity is required, but policies placed upon blind application of uniform approaches at state or federal level using simple statistical standardised needs or performance measures  are going to have totally differential on-ground impacts.

I suppose, and I am speaking personally, that one of my greatest frustrations has been my almost total inability to get across what I see as wrong in the current system.

Part of my problem here is simply that things are not black and white. I support national approaches, I recognise that trade-offs are involved, I know that effective policy development is a complex process. This makes it hard for me to put forward simple nostrums.

Part of my problem also lies in the way that my concerns are seen as narrow, as lying outside current ways of thinking. It is more important to play the current game, to work within the system, to accept the constraints of what is rather than to look to what might be.

I have classified my own political beliefs as New England populist, a label I coined and which I carry with pride. one central tenet of those beliefs is what was called by David Drummond the tyranny of the majority. In simple terms, this means the tendency by the majority to impose their views regardless.

In an earlier discussion on this blog, one of my old work colleagues (Bob Quiggin) who was involved in our attempts to re-shape industry policy, challenged me. Surely, he said, it is the role of the minority to argue their case? To Bob's mind, and this is my interpretation of his ideas, failure of politics and policies to represent particular minority positions is simply a failure of argument, a failure to get a majority to agree.

Bur what do you do when systems and structures actually prevent or limit argument? This is my charge when it comes to decentralisation and regional development.

The process is a complex one: it affects the issues selected for debate; it goes to the way data is collected; it affects the way things are presented in the media; it affects the topics selected for research that later feed into journals and books; it appears in the structure of policies and programs.

The process compounds: less research and reporting reduces the visibility of issues; reduced research means that alternative data is less available; those who want to argue alternative lines are increasingly marginalised; less funding is attracted; and so it goes on.           

In part, this is simply the normal process of change. But when a gap starts to open up between the majoritian position and the views and concerns of significant minorities, the system becomes unstable.

My historical research is focused on the broader new state New England. Here the combination of Country Party and New State Movement drove the core regional policy debate, with the New England University College/University of New England increasingly providing the intellectual fire-power.

Debate about decentralisation appeared in the mainstream media, in the journals, in the small intellectual magazines, in theses. New bodeis emerged such as the Hunter Valley Research Foundation. There was a surge in regional studies: from the Riverina ,to New England to the Darling Downs, to North Queensland. Then it all stopped, as the drive coming out of New England stopped.

Yes, there were some on-going developments such as the work done by the University of Newcastle on regional historical resources, but the total volume of work done at all went into sharp decline. As a a simple example, there has been no new prehistory of New England published since 1974.

This might not matter if the same topic had been picked up as part of broader work. It has not. There was more research work done, I think, between 1960 and 1974 than in the 36 years since.

This may sound trivial. It is not, for this was one of the biggest Aboriginal population areas in Australia. The same pattern is replicated elsewhere. Take away the drive and interest, and the work stops.

This had begun to change over the last few years. Maybe, just maybe, the current political position provides an opportunity to change things, to force a renewed focus on things country and regional. I would like to think so.     

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Three Amigos and the future Australian Government

Quire fascinating watching the election unfold last night. At this stage the ABC's Anthony Greene is projecting 72 Coalition, 70 Labor, 4 independents plus one Green in the House of Representatives, with three seats still in doubt. Of the 3 in doubt, the Coalition appears to be ahead in one, Labor in two. If they split this way, the numbers will be Coalition 73, Labour 72, Greens one, independents four.

Looking at the raw numbers, I think that more than three seats should be put in the uncertain category. We really won't know until all the votes and have been counted and checked. Seats can bounce around.

The swing to Labor indicated by the marginal seat polling in Patterson and Cowper plus the possibility floated by Tony Windsor that an independent might win Parkes, straws that led me to wonder if there might not be a  Coalition wipe-out in the North?, proved far off the mark. None of the eleven seats changed hands.

Further, the anecdotal suggestions plus polling that suggested the Nats were in trouble in three cornered contests, something that made me write  End of the Nats?, proved as accurate as the marginal seat polls for Patterson and Copwer. This has, in fact, not been a bad result for the Nats.

Well, what can we say?

The final result in terms of Government is obviously going to depend on on just where the uncertain seats fall. However, a few points of interest here.

Tony Crook, the National's candidate who defeated Wilson Iron Bar Tuckey in the WA seat of O'Connnor is, on my understanding, a non-coalition National committed to sitting on the cross-benches. If this understanding is correct, Coalition projected numbers drop to 72 seats plus Mr Crook who might be expected to support the Coalition.

It is hard to see Andrew Wilkie, the independent who may have won the Tasmanian seat of Denison, supporting the Coalition. The same applies to Adam Bandt, the new Green member for Melbourne. So most commentators are allocating them to Labour. So this would give us 72 Coalition plus Mr Crook on one side, 72 Labor plus Messrs Wilkie and Band on the other. If the three Amigos - Katter, Windsor, Oakshott - support the Coalition, the Coalition would have just 75 seats after electing the speaker. If the three Amigos support Labor, Labor would have a majority of two.

Now, and assuming that I haven't made an error in my calculations, it is going to be quite hard for Mr Abbott to form Government.

One of the things that has been interesting in the commentary to this point is that the generally metro based commentators do not have a very good grasp on what is happening outside the city, although they are now going up a steep learning curve. It's been quite some time since country seats actually mattered.

Recognising that final counting may change outcomes and dynamics, a few very brief comments based on my own experience.

Note, first, that all of the three Amigos come from areas with a strong sense of regional identity, areas that have felt neglected. All three come from what I would call the Country Party tradition.

In one of his sillier comments this morning, Mr Latham commented that the independents lacked the backing of any machine. Note here that the New England independents in particular are a political movement whose roots can in some ways be traced back to the very early days of the Country Party with its attacks on machine politics and its slogan of no-pre-selection or pledge. They have been consciously trying to grow the number of independents. We saw this at this election in Parkes, we have seen it before.

We saw it in NSW earlier when the independents held the balance of power. We have seen it in the attempts by independent supporters to try to persuade, without much success I hear, Lower Hunter independents to cooperate at the last state election.   

By movement, I am not talking formal structures. Rather, sets of articulated ideas that can be seen strongly in the views of their supporters. These are backed by very strong local "party" organisations. I have put "party" in inverted commas. Regardless of name and formal structures, these party machines are dominant at local level and can match it in terms of resources.

During the election, Bob Katter's TV ad attracted much attention because it was interesting and quirky. No one commented on the fact that it was produced by an independent, or discussed the cost.

The independents have grown at the expense of the established parties and especially the Nationals. To say that the relations between Nationals, national supporters and the independents and their supporters are strained would be an understatement. The independents have articulated a position that actually requires an invalidation of the National Party. How this might play out with a minority Abbott Government is anyone's guess.

There is an assumption that the electorates that the three amigos come from are conservative. This is put in the context of the conventional left/right, Labor/non-Labor divide. The independents deny the very validity of the divides between the parties. This means that, depending on their personal views, they can capture support across the spectrum.

I know Northern Tablelands (Richard Torbay) and New England (Peter Windsor) best. They have attracted a support base that includes not just many people on whom the National Party once relied, but also many traditional Labor supporters. Both Labor and Nationals have been reduced to political rumps.

  The independents stand or fall on the service they provide their electorates. Their raison d' être lies in their role as local members. This makes them pretty pragmatic, but not unprincipled. 

  One of the difficulties independents  face is that their very nature can make cooperation among them a bit like herding cats. Generally, this does not matter. However, in a case like the present one, this is clearly not the case. So what might happen?

Well, based on experience, my guess is that there will be an MOU between the independents and Government that will cover at least the three amigos and maybe Mr Wilkie with the following features:

  1. The independents will undertake to support the Government on matters of confidence.
  2. The Government will undertake to do certain things that all the independents agree upon. This is likely to include specific broadband action.
  3. On matters other than confidence issues or agreed actions, the independents will be free to vote as they individually see fit.

In all this, there is (I think) still a question mark over the capacity of the three Amigos to cooperate despite their existing links. I suppose that it is Mr Rob Oakeshott that I have especially in mind here. Scuttlebutt suggests that he is less pragmatic, less focused.

This brings me to my final point. Depending on the way the final seat count falls, either Coalition or Labor  may be able to rule by attracting just one or perhaps two of the three Amigos. In that case, the three of them may lose a collective opportunity.


The performance tonight of the three independents on the 7.30 Report was pretty impressive, also drawing out the differences between the three. Bob K was certainly Bob K! My wife's family especially liked Rob Oakeshott.

I have also been monitoring the blog commentary, much of which has a Labor bias. Again. you can see the growing positive reaction.

The independents have indicated they intend to stick together. Tony W held out a hand to the Greens and to the WA cross-bench Nat. It's going to be fascinating to watch.  

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Election Day

Yesterday I watched the election shenanigans on and off over the day, all brought to us real time via the internet. It was much more relaxing when we did not have all this information!

Today has dawned bright and clear in Sydney. The various polls released over-night all suggest a tight result, providing plenty of fodder for all the election tragics.

This will be a busy day indeed. At eight, I have to take eldest to netball via the polling station so that we can both vote. Then I have to take wife to Greek classes; from there, she will go via taxi to the booth where she is handing out how to vote material and then scrutineering.

Having dropped Dee off, I then have to pick eldest up and then take her to get BBQ stuff for a team BBQ. Then I have  a short break before taking eldest back to netball. I am then going to watch my old school play football in the NSW GPS (Greater Public Schools) football competition.

This is actually a bit unusual. While TAS has been a member of the GPS since the school's foundation, its country location has ruled out direct participation in what is a Sydney competition. This time it seems to be playing in place of Sydney High against Grammar. No doubt I will find more when I get there.

Following all this, I have to get back to the house and get it ready for an election party tonight. It all seems an awful lot to do!

Friday, August 20, 2010

End of the Nats?

The day before the election. It'd very hard not to get sucked into the discussion on just who might win. Reading the commentary including the blogs, confusion abounds. The newspaper's editorial support for either side seems to have split on state lines, reflecting voting patterns in the states in question. A majority favours the coalition.

At a personal level my predictive record has not been especially good. I must say that I am still bemused at the way Labor has apparently managed to turn what I had thought of as a winning position into a cliff-hanger. But will it be that?

The betting numbers, where the money is, still favour Labor, although there might be a last minute plunge on the coalition. The rolling average of predictions also favour Labor. So I still go for a Labor win, although I will be glued (like many Australians) to the election night coverage.

In commenting on elections, I have never made the mistake of confusing my views with that of the majority. I am not representative.

Take two examples. First, I don't actually understand why boat people should be of such importance. To me, it's a second order issue. Then, too, I have a focus of regional issues that is not common to the majority of Australians. So, given my own biases, a few things that I will be looking at on Saturday night as the votes are counted. Here I want to start by referring to two posts on my New England Australia blog.

In Bryan Pape runs for Senate (NSW), I recorded my discovery that Bryan was an independent Senate candidate for NSW. This came about in an odd way.

Nadia Bloom is one our friends. Her daughter was in Clare's class. Clare discovered that Nadia had nominated as an independent for the Senate in NSW. This came as a surprise and led Clare and I to look in detail at the Senate lists. This was quite fun. It also educated Clare on the Senate. This is a bit of a black hole for most young Australians.

That was how I discovered Bryan was running. Now Bryan has been campaigning for constitutional reform for some time, so that gave me a number one vote.

Neither Bryan nor Nadia have a snow-flakes chance of being elected. However, I am now curious to see how many votes they get.

Coalition wipe-out in the North? looks at the possibility that the coalition might end up with no Federal seats at all in Northern NSW. You won't find a focus on this in the general commentary simply because Northern NSW or New England has no formal existence. It's not seen as a region in the same way as, say, Western Sydney. Yet such an outcome would be of considerable significance.

   In purely mathematical terms, it would add two seats to the ALP total, one to the independent total, leaving the coalition with none.That's actually not insignificant.

In historical terms, it would mark the final stage in a demographic transformation of considerable historical significance.

New England politics was dominated by two parties, the ALP in the lower Hunter, the Country Party elsewhere. This was Country Party heartland, providing a disproportionate proportion of CP seats and leadership at both state and national level: Page, Anthony, Sinclair, Hunt, Bruxner, Drummond, Hughes and today Stonier to name just a few. If the Federal lights were to go out for the Nationals here, then it would be not insignificant in historical terms.

This leads into a broader issue, the overall impact on the Nationals of this election campaign. The Nationals went into this campaign with ten lower house seats, well down from their peak. They could well lose Cowper, Parkes (less likely) and Riverina in NSW.

The problem for the Nationals is a simple one.

They compete against Labor, Liberal and (increasingly) ex National independents. Maintenance of their vote depends on their ability to differentiate themselves from those other groups as the defender of country or regional Australia. The more they are seen as simply a rural rump of the Coalition, the greater the risk of extinction.

I am not in a position to judge what has been happening on the ground. It has always been the case that Country or National Party campaigns get limited attention from the metro media. But this time the Nationals and leader Warren Truss have been invisible. Barnaby Joyce has received some coverage, but he has not carved out a distinct position for the Nationals.

Coalition has always been a difficult thing for the Nats. The need to balance unity on one side, to campaign for country interests on the other. That's hard. Yet as someone who has played an active role in the past in Country Party campaigns, I know that you must focus on the distinctly Country or National things. This includes working the metro media as best you can. You also have to be prepared to risk some damage to the combined interest, including media coverage of disunity.

The reality is that the damage that comes from apparent disunity, properly managed, is more than offset by increased votes. And even if the damage from disunity is great, the role of the National or Country Party is not to deliver victory for the coalition, but to focus on and protect the core interests of those whom the Party represents. Lose sight of this, and you die.

The WA Nats showed what was possible at the last state election. They fought and gained. Barnaby Joyce had started to define an independent position before he was effectively emasculated. You may not like Barnaby or his positions, but it is not his job to be liked by metro voters. His and the Party's role is to deliver for regional Australia. This includes espousing causes that are, bluntly, un-popular in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane.

The rise of the country independents, a group quite close to the old Country Party, is the ultimate condemnation of the modern Nats. While I think it unlikely, there is a chance that this election could leave the Nats and country independents with not dissimilar numbers in the lower house.

How ironic! The Nats sacrificed their independent role in the interests of the "greater good", only to create their successors.    

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Little boxes - intellectual flowering and the climate of ideas

I enjoyed Edward Glaeser's review of Joel Mokyr's The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1850 (Yale University Press). There Glaeser wrote in part:

Mokyr is best known for The Lever of Riches, a magisterial history of technological progress, and his erudition, earned over more than three decades of studying the industrial revolution, is everywhere evident in his important new book. As befits a scholar of human knowledge, Mokyr's overarching thesis is about the power of ideas. His grand idea is that the practical, avaricious inventors of the industrial revolution owed much to the academic but worldly philosophers of the Enlightenment.

One of the things that I find interesting about the history of Britain and the Empire including Australia in the latter part of the period that Glaeser is talking about is what I think of as a spirit of optimism, a broader view in which things were seen as possible, combined with an intellectual curiosity about the unknown.

I accept that this is a generalisation. We are really talking about the views of certain groups, yet the idea of progress as exemplified in things such as industrial exhibitions was deeply embedded, while intellectual curiosity was widespread.

In history, we tend to focus on cause and effect. What were the specific things that led to certain results; studies of the causes of the industrial revolution or the First World war are examples. It is far harder to identify a broader climate of ideas that facilitated or was a necessary pre-condition for particular results. Here the linkages are diffuse, uncertain. We can make general statements, indeed it is impossible to avoid forming broader views, but the delineation of relationships is difficult.

In looking at history, most of us are struck at the way in which at certain places and at certain times there is a flowering of intellectual and artistic activity, a flowering far out of proportion to the size of the community at the time. Athens or the Italian city states are examples. A New Zealand example is the great success achieved by graduates of Canterbury College in its early days, a success totally disproportionate to the size of the institution or the surrounding population. The New England University College and then the University in the first two decades after autonomy displayed similar features.

I have deliberately chosen large and small cases to illustrate my point. In each case, different factors were involved. However, in all cases there was a climate of ideas that was absolutely necessary to the specific flowering. Regimented, focused, Sparta may have been a success measured in purely state terms, but it is Athens whose ideas came to be embedded in Western life.

I make this point because one of the things that I write about now is the way in which current management and political systems act to exclude, to limit, alternative ideas. There are more people now involved in what we might call "thinking" activities than at any other time in human history and by a very large margin. Indeed, we even have an economic term for them, the "creative classes", yet it seems to me that the aggregate results relative to the numbers of those involved are quite low and indeed diminishing.

Now as a sometimes economist, I might simply argue that this is an example of diminishing economies of scale. Like any factor of production, if we simply keep adding more of the "creative classes", the marginal return will decline.

We can see this in Australia's bigger universities. The intellectual contribution of, say, the University of Sydney is far lower in relative terms than it was seventy years ago. The total intellectual contribution has increased in absolute terms as size has increased, but relative to the impact on society it has declined; society has increased in scale more than the University's contribution.

If I am right in thinking that one common element in intellectual and intellectual flowerings is the presence  of a climate that facilitates certain types of intellectual freedom, then what I see as the growing tendency to intellectual conformity in Australia is a problem. New ideas are there, but they are increasingly constrained within specific boxes. It has become harder to think outside the square.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Donna Leon and the importance of texture

Donna Leon is one of my favourite writers. I was introduced to her by my wife, an inveterate reader of detective novels.

For that small number of people who do not know Donna Leon, her books star Guido Brunetti, a somewhat world-weary and cynical Venetian detective who yet manages to do his job amidst the seamy side of Venetian life.

While the plots are good, the thing that I most like about the books is their focus on the texture of life in Venice, the way they bring the city alive, as well as the life of Brunetti himself. Leon does this in part by referencing to actual scenes, more by the inclusion of small details.

This is a very urban life style, although not perhaps urban in the way Australians would think. There are no cars unless Brunetti has to travel outside the city. Transport is by foot, sometimes police boat or the ever present  Vaporetto, the ferry service that links Venice.

In some of my writing, I have tried to bring texture alive. It is remarkably difficult to do properly. Often, people try to do it through descriptive pieces. The problem here is that those pieces then stand out, sitting on the textual carpet almost as pop-ups. By contrast, in Leon's writing, life in Venice as well as Brunetti's own life are there as a constant back-story; the books can be read at several levels at once, drawing the reader beyond the main plot into the back-story. This story becomes more familiar with every book. 

I have never attempted to write fiction beyond a few desultory attempts in the 1980s when the idea of becoming a writer first attracted me in a serious way. Then, for a period, I kept a writer's diary jotting down descriptions, ideas, conversations. Sadly, these were lost in a move.

Canberra at that period, maybe it still does, actually lent itself to this type of approach in a rather special way. Like Venice, it was a self-contained world. However, it was also a world in which very different circles lapped and overlapped, joined at particular points by common geography, but otherwise distinct.

The majority of my writing now is historical in one way or another. Here I still wrestle with the same technical issues that Leon addresses so well: how best can I bring alive the story so that it's not just history, but also a well written story; how much detail should I include and what?

I don't find this easy, for history addresses two very different needs. There are the needs of the ordinary reader, and then the person directly interested in the history, for whom the evidence is critical. The balance between the two depends upon the intent: writing for a professional audience is not the same as writing for a general readership.

Regular readers of my blogs will know that I spend a fair bit of time thinking about these types of issues. Quite a bit of my writing directly deals with the problems involved. Other writing is experimental, testing approaches.

Like fiction, history involves imagination. Unlike fiction, history is always applied imagination based on and conditioned by the evidence.

Donna Leon's books cannot tell me how to do the historical research. However, they do provide clues as to how I might write once the research is done so as to best present my story.   

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gold, geography and the patterns of Aboriginal life

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the stories of gold, of people who had struck it rich, as well as those who had failed.

I grew up in a mining area. Gold, silver, antimony, sapphires, diamonds, tin; the remains of mines and mining equipment littered the landscape. The old caretaker still guarded the now decaying plant of one of the bigger mines even though he had not been paid for many years. It just seemed right to him to do so.

Fortunes were indeed made from mining, but so were large sums lost as people searched for the elusive mother lodes within the twisted geography and geology of the area. This is a world turned upside down; sea beds can be found on high plateaus; streams that once flowed west to join the inland rivers were forced to turn east as continents split and the land rose; giant volcanoes spewed basalt across the landscape.

When the Europeans first came to this area, they were puzzled by the landscape. European settlement took place at a time of great intellectual curiosity. The puzzles and answers offered by this landscape played an important role in the advancement of geological and geographic knowledge.

Today, I am still fascinated by mining stories. However, now I am trying to understand the landscape for different reasons. Just how did it evolve? How does it link to the patterns of human life over the millennia?

The remains of an old Pleistocene shore line uncovered by a fierce storm millennia ago becomes an Aboriginal industrial site only to be covered again and then uncovered. Rising water levels submerges the coastal plains that then re-appear as deposition from coastal streams forces the coastline east again. But what were the actual changes? How do we map them?

The biggest puzzle to my mind in the human history of this landscape is just how recent Aboriginal settlement appears to be in human terms. More precisely, nearly all the dates we have from the various dating techniques are much younger than we might expect from dates in other areas.

We know from ethnohistorical evidence that the coastal strip and especially the Northern Rivers was a very wealthy area with very high Aboriginal populations. Just to put this in perspective, the Aboriginal population of the Northern Rivers was probably far higher, maybe as much as ten times, than the Aboriginal population of all the western deserts and arid zones combined. Yet the dates don't seem to reflect this.

Part of the answer may simply lie in accidents of preservation and discovery. Increasingly, however, I am coming to think that the answer lies in the combination of geography with climate change. The very high value coastal environments may in fact be quite recent. For the moment, that is just a guess, but it is one worth testing.        

Monday, August 16, 2010

McBryde, Hoddinott and the story of New England's Aboriginal peoples

Another day, yet more election commentary.

Just at present I am trying to revise the Armidale paper I delivered on New England's Aboriginal languages so that I can circulate it for comment and then complete final revision for publication in the Armidale and District Historical Society Journal. As part of this, I have been rereading Records of times past: Ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes (edited by Isabel McBryde, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1978). I am also reading Isabel's Aboriginal Prehistory in New England: an archeological survey of Northeastern NSW (Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1974). 

Apart from assisting me in revising the paper, I hope that the two books will help me flesh out the first section of the my history of New England, that on the area during Aboriginal times. A long time ago, or it seems a long time - October 2008, The First Australians - a message for SBS re their web site recorded my initial reaction to the first episode of the SBS documentary of that name. Essentially I was disappointed that it said nothing about the area that I was interested in.

It's not quite two years since then, but a lot has happened, so much that its actually quite hard to recapture the feeling of the time. It really seems quite remote.

My own knowledge of Aboriginal history has advanced very substantially. In addition, working with Aboriginal people has affected my approach. I always felt that much Aboriginal historiography with its emphasis on black-white relations actually cut Aboriginal people off from their past. I hold that view even more strongly, yet I am also far more aware of the sensitivities involved.

We talk a lot about relationships between the Aborigines and country, yet I'm not sure that we properly understand just what that means. You see, the complex set of relationships between people and land were people and geography specific. This means, to my mind, that if you are really going to write about Aboriginal history, you have to be people and geographically specific.

Isabel dealt in part with this issue in her introduction to Records of times past.The essays in the volume including my own, are all concerned with Aboriginal culture in New England in the contact period and the last decades of the nineteenth century, the period of what Isabel called New England's protohistory, following the terminology of European prehistorians. This period was tragically short; traditional Aboriginal life-style and values could not withstand dispossession and culture shock.

The source material on which the essays are largely based are fragmentary, scattered, biased As Isabel notes, the detailed ethnohistorical sources in Australia generally belong to the periods and places of immediate contact such as Port Jackson. New England was settled too late to share in the historical record of detail, yet too early to benefit from the beginnings of serious anthropological investigation at the end of the nineteenth century. As with so much of New England's history, the region suffers from its isolation. However, that isolation and sense of identity were also critical to the drive that did emerge to record, document and explain.

The historical material that did survive within New England was often only known at local level. As Isabel notes, its very preservation was a tribute to local historians. When Isabel came to look at this material from 1960 as part of her interest in the prehistory of the region, she concluded that the careful collection and analysis of this material would not only salvage evidence otherwise in danger of destruction, but also provide study on a regional level to test Australia-wide hypothesis. "So began", she wrote, "a program of local ethnohistories as topics for research theses at honours and masters level". A similar program was begun by Professor Bill Hoddinott in the University of New England's English Department aimed at recording linguistic and mythological evidence.

I wrote of Isabel's work in Unrecognised and now almost unknown: explorations through the history of the broader New England. There I said in part:       

Four years after Isabel’s arrival came the first thesis, Sharon Sullivan's 1964 honours study on the material culture of the Aborigines of the Richmond and Tweed Rivers.

By 1978, UNE students had written at least 22 theses on the Aborigines, 4 Litt.B's, 16 BA honours and 2 MAs. Isabel herself was awarded her PhD in 1967[24], laying the basis for a 1974 book, Aboriginal prehistory in New England[25]. This was followed in 1978 by book of essays, Records of Times Past: ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes[26] mainly written by her former students. This included an article of mine, Population distribution and the pattern of seasonal movement in Northern NSW, drawn from my original work. The story does not end there, for there were also journal articles and monographs, including her pioneering study with R A Binns, A petrological analysis of ground-edge artefacts from northern New South Wales[27].

The citation for her award in 2003 of the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology justly summarised her work this way:

Her work in New England was remarkable for its extent and depth, and Isabel's examination of the interface of archaeology and ethnography in the region shaped not only the approach taken by many later researchers but also prepared the basis for the arguments about upland regions created by archaeologists such as Sandra Bowdler and Luke Godwin[28].

Sadly, from the late seventies interest in New England studies began to decline. The reasons for this are complicated, but link to the decline in New England's sense of identity. However, that earlier work in ethnohistory, history and linguistics remains and provides a base for the current revival in interest. This leads to a new challenge.

New England is no longer a tabula rasa. The blank slate that existed when people like Isabel and Bill began their work is now covered with fine writing. This holds out the possibility of writing a new type of Aboriginal history, one focused on people and place, on the patterns of life.

Re-reading Records of times past after all these years, I am struck at just how unique this collection of essays was. I stand to be corrected, but I don't actually know of any other regional equivalent. Yet the book is, by its nature, a bit bitsy. It also deals with only part of the territory that I am interested in.

I am writing a general history, not a PhD thesis consolidating and updating earlier work. I cannot deal with everything. Yet I am constantly tantalised by the possibility that there is now enough material to write a new type of Aboriginal history, one that looks at the Aborigines as peoples across time and a specific geographical space.

The patterns are sometimes dim, the relationships uncertain, yet the people keep peeping through.

It is hard to believe, but it is now fifty years since Isabel came to UNE. Fifty years! It is twenty six years since Bill died so suddenly.

I sometimes despair a little at the limitations on time and ability that affect my writing. I know that I make errors.  Yet it would be nice to think that I could write at a standard that would recognise, extend, their work.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday snippets - a blog round up

I gave myself the pleasure this morning of simply reading round the blogs. It is around a month since my last full browse.

Geocurrents is a remarkably interesting blog, taking me into areas that I know very little about;  Border Delineation and Desiccation in Lake Chad is one example, The Guinness Phenomenon in Nigeria and Cameroon a second. The blogs uses maps very effectively; I found the current series on Pakistan an education.

Joshua Gans started it, David Stern continued it, so I had to join in.

Started what? Checking Internet connection speed. I checked mine twice, yesterday morning around 8, then again now at 6am. The upload speed was the same both days, 0.26 Mb/s. However, the download speed varied - 2.6 Mb/s yesterday, 7.21 Mb/s this morning. Both speeds are to the Optus server here in Sydney. Then I tested it with a US server. The upload speed increased to 0.47Mb/s, but the download speed dropped to 1.18Mb/s.

We are on fibre, but we also have a wireless modem linking the PCs to the cable. I suspect that that slows things down. With any system, speed is determined by the slowest point. Certainly I find current speeds frustratingly slow. I don't download or upload a lot of video, but I do handle substantial documents. It gets quite frustrating sitting there waiting for transmission to finish.

I see from demographymatters that the Population Reference Bureau has released its 2010 World Population Data Sheet. You will find it here.

Some of the numbers make for uncomfortable reading. While population growth rates are falling in the developing world, and have turned negative in parts of the developed world, we are still looking at a projected increase in global populations to c 9.1 billion by 2050. To quote:

"There are two major trends in world population today," says Bill Butz, PRB's president. "On the one hand, chronically low birth rates in developed countries are beginning to challenge the health and financial security of their elderly. On the other, the developing countries are adding over 80 million to the population every year and the poorest of those countries are adding 20 million, exacerbating poverty and threatening the environment."

We are dealing with fundamental shifts here, shifts that make the current debate about the appropriate size of the Australian population look fairly trivial, even a little ridiculous. I have no idea just how global demographic change will affect this country; my feeling is that the impact will be substantial.  

In And I broke a bloody fingernail!, skepticlawyer reports on a case of assault. I lack her martial arts' skills. Another blogger who was subject to a senseless assault was Bellingen's Pip Wilson who was left unconscious. The latest news I had was that he was still at John Hunter Hospital, but was our of the ICU.

Marcellous continues with his musical posts. Or should that be posts about music? Or both? Certainly M's writing can be musical! Anyway, in  Thinking of Lord McNaghten M managed to mix law and music in one post, jumping sideways so to speak. The post has a rather wonderful quote from Lord M; I leave it to you to find.

In The truth behind Howard's battlers, Geoff Robinson looks at shifts in Australian working class voting patterns. I never fully understood why the left found it so hard to accept that some of what it perceived to be its "client base" should have rejected the cause.

A little while ago, I don't think that I have mentioned it already, in The Art of Conversation, the Stubborn Mule looked at the insights offered by H P Grice.

Good conversation really is an art form. I wish that I was better at it. I tend to get too involved in the ideas, and so lose the plot!

All for now.    

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pakistan's flood, trade training, the Three Amigos and Captain Thunderbolt

In Pakistan's Floods I commented that the coverage in the Australian media had not been especially good, far less than the coverage of the previous earthquakes. That is no longer true. The sheer scale of the disaster is now attracting a lot of coverage.

I think that it is still true that that the Australian response has been more muted than in some other cases.

After initial technical troubles, a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster aircraft is due to leave Amberley this morning with emergency stores. The distances involved mean that the  C-17A will still be delivering its load of emergency relief stores this weekend, with a second sortie due to arrive in Pakistan early next week. However, at this stage it appears that we have yet to establish a special operation as we did earlier, for example, with Operation Padang Assist.

I have discussed in several posts just what role Australia might play in regional disaster relief. The Rudd Government had been looking at ways to enhance Australia's response capacity. This seems to have been somewhat submerged by other matters!

In Australia's election confusions, I mentioned the proposed abolition by the coalition of Labor's trade training centres in schools. Cousin Jamie came in with an interesting comment based on his experience in Wagga Wagga. Reading the comment, I wasn't sure whether the problems that Jamie referred to lay in the schools or were, in fact, a symptom of a broader systemic problem.

The crux of the problem can be put this way. Is trade training at school level value for money? If not, is this a school specific problem, or a symptom of a broader problem in trade training itself? When I read of kids trained at school to a certain level who then have to be retrained at TAFE, this suggests a combination of training and assessment problems.

Since I wrote Ranga, budgie smuggler, Green Desperados & the Three Amigos, the possibility that the Three Amigos might end up with the balance of power has begun to attract considerable media attention. I think it unlikely because of the size of the House of Representatives, 150 members, but I am enjoying the discussion! It's one way of getting attention for some of the things that I am interested in.

Back in June in Search for Captain Thunderbolt I referred to the search by Australia's National Film and Sound Archives to find a full copy of this film. This drew a comment from David Donaldson. Now what I didn't know was that Director Cecil Holmes was known to David Donaldson during the 1950s when David was a film society organiser and inaugural director of the Sydney Film Festival. According to David, Homes was a film distributor (New Dawn Films) as well as film maker who helped the burgeoning non-commercial arts-oriented film movement to see a wider range of film  in those  days of cinema starvation. It is David who has been driving the search.

I felt quite chuffed to have got a comment from David, and then had a lot of fun digging around with stills. I have decided to do a New England Story on the making of the film through the eyes of the child I was then. I am too young to remember the actual making of the film, but I did go to the premiere and was brought up on stories about the film. You see, it was very much a local affair!