Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Books & all that

Sometimes I feel a new campaign coming on.

Here in Australia the Universities of NSW and Macquarie have been developing new libraries. Except they are really libraries, just learning centres.

To my mind, libraries have books. I accept that's very old-fashioned. I just like books.

We were chatting at work today about the way in which the combination of retail chains with publisher strategies actually destroyed the book industry through the creation of an inherently unstable business model. This was happening before Google and Amazon. They just added to the problem.

Hard to believe that there was once something called the back list. Publishers made a good income out of past books. Individual sales weren't necessarily high, but it provided a stability in cash flow.

Business fashions are interesting. I remember when News et al were snatching up publishers to add to their content streams. Hard to believe, isn't it?

Yes, I do think a campaign is warranted.

Maybe I should start with an explanation of network economics.   

Monday, March 28, 2011


As you might expect, Australian newspaper coverage today is dominated by the coalition's huge win in the NSW elections. I will report on the final seat outcome, but for the moment have nothing to add to my previous remarks. Like everybody, I will be watching the new Government's first days to see what it might tell us about the Government's future approach.

In the meantime, Canada is going to to the polls. I mean to have a look at the Canadian election for my own interest.

While everybody has been focused on politics, the Australian dollar has resumed its upward climb. Other pressures have taken me away from economics and the economy. Probably time I refreshed my view.

This will be a remarkably busy week. As a consequence, posting is likely to be very scrappy. I just have too much to do in the time available. Or, perhaps, unavailable.  

Sunday, March 27, 2011

NSW election wrap-up

Yesterday was election day in NSW. Voters elected a new lower house (the Legislative Assembly) plus half the members of the upper house (Legislative Council). As all the world knows, or at least that portion of it with any interest in NSW, the Labor Government received the expected thrashing. Some seats are still in doubt, but the latest ABC projections fore the Legislative Assembly suggest:

  • Labor 22 seats, down 24
  • Liberals 51 seats, up 23
  • Nationals 17 seats, up 4
  • Independents  3 seats, down 3
  • Greens no seats, no change 

These numbers will bounce around a bit, but the results are clear.

Youngest daughter worked as an official for the Electoral Commission at one of the booths and left home at 6.40am to get to work. A little later, I drove my wife to another of the booths where she was handing out how to vote cards.

This is a politically mixed household. At the last election, the four of us voted four different ways! 

I am something of an election tragic. I can't help myself. Here I was struck by  comment on Pollbludger, a blog for election tragics. eddieward wrote:

By way of credulity, this is the first election I haven’t worked on since 1977. I’d like to think I understand these things, so the next ten days will learn me some more I guess. One thing I do know is that this will require stamina. I’ve got a slab of barons, two bottles of vodka, a carton of cigarettes, three days firewood, a roast chicken and professional experience with sleep deprivation. I’ll be back quicker than a channel nine ad-break with an update.

What could be more tragic than that?

I know I have a small number of international readers such as Ramana (India) and Tikno (Indonesia). Tikno, by the way, has resumed regular posting and has had some stories recently that I suspect might interest Australian readers. Have a look.

I thought that I might treat this post as a chat to my international friends, explaining what I have been following and why.


I need to start with a little background.

In our system, government goes to the party that gains a majority of seats in the lower house. There are, I think, 93 seats in the NSW Legislative Assembly with geographic boundaries structured in such a way that the number of voters in each seat are broadly equal. Voting is what is called optional preferential.

Under the old preferential voting system that I grew up with, something that was deeply entrenched in Australia, the winning candidate had to get 50% of the vote. That was done in this way.

Say there were ten candidates in your seat. You voted number one for your first choice, then ranked each of the remaining candidates two through to ten. If one candidate got a majority, then that candidate was immediately elected. If no candidate got a majority, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes was eliminated from the count, and his second preferences were distributed among the other candidates. This process continued until one candidate finally achieved a minority.

Technically, if no candidate achieved a majority after second preferences, you could continue the process with third preferences, then forth preferences and so on. In practice, distribution of second preferences achieved the desired result. The practical effect of all this was that winning candidates' majority combined those who wanted that person first plus those who wanted him/her second.

In its vast wisdom, the Labor Party Government decided that electors should have a choice as to whether they allocated preferences. This was called optional preferential, meaning that people could now just vote one or one two or whatever up to the number of candidates. The problem that arose is that candidates were now elected not on the combination of first and second choices for the entire electorate, but on the combination of first choices plus second choices from those who bothered to record preferences. This introduced a new and very random element into the process.

Upper house or Legislative Council voting is different. The Council consists of 42 members elected for eight year terms. Terms are staggered, with 21 members elected every four years at elections held in conjunction with the Legislative Assembly. Members are elected by proportional representation using the state as a single electorate. The quota for election is 4.55%.

Council voting is complicated because you can vote above or below the line with a somewhat complicated optional preference distribution system. This can make for some strange results.  

Things of interest in NSW

This NSW Labor Government had been in power for sixteen years. Labor itself has been in power for the great majority of time since 1942.

Labor's power base is geographic, reflecting concentration of certain voters in certain areas. As the original working class and union party, its strength has been in the working class suburbs of Sydney, the Illawarra and the Lower Hunter. This gave it a rusted on base along the coast from Newcastle in the north to Wollongong in the south sufficient to position it for power. Well, somebody provided a solid dose of WD40 to the rust; the Labor base collapsed!

Labor now holds no seats outside the Illawarra, Sydney or the Lower Hunter.

In the Illawarra, Labor has held Shellharbour and Kiera. Wollongong is still uncertain and may be claimed by an independent.

In the Lower Hunter, Labor somewhat unexpectedly held Cessnock plus Wallsend. Newcastle is still too close to call, with the Liberal Party ahead. This is actually a slightly better result than originally projected. At one stage it appeared Labor could lose all seats.

The remaining Labor seats are all in Sydney.

In Sydney, attention focused first on the inner west seats seats of Marrickville and Balmain where the Greens had hoped to gain their first lower house seats. They look likely to be disappointed. This is where optional preferential voting comes in.

In Marrickville, the Labor vote held up better than expected. To win, the Greens need Liberal preferences. Those preferences will not be there.

In Balmain too, the swing against Labor was a little less than expected, while the Liberals did much better than expected. On the first night count, the Libs are just ahead on the primary vote, followed by Labor and then the Greens. The most likely outcome appears to be a Labor win on the preferences of those Greens who did record preferences. This would be a remarkably good result for Labor's Verity Firth.

With the exception of Blacktown in Sydney's Northwest, Sydney's Labor seats run in a relatively thin strip west from Marrickville.

One of the interesting issues in Sydney this time was the Asian vote, with around one elector in ten born in Asia. Labor has had something of a lock-in on the ethnic vote and especially the Asian vote. This time it seemed to be shifting. One seat being watched was the very blue ribbon seat of Cabramatta, Sydney's most ethnically diverse seat. There  Vietnamese born Liberal Dai Le was running against the sitting Labor member, Egyptian born Serb Nick Lalich whose parents had escaped from Yugoslavia in 1944. Ms Lee scored a huge swing, 26.2%, but it was still not enough to take the seat.

In the bush, the main focus was on the country independents. Richard Torbay in Northern Tablelands always seemed safe. However, could the resurgent Nats take back Dubbo, Tamworth and Port Macquarie?

They did. Part of the reason for my interest here lay in the fact that Tamworth is part of the Tony Windsor held Federal seat of New England, Port Macquarie part of the Rob Oakshott held Federal seat of Lynne. As country independents, both were critical in allowing Federal Labor to cling to power.

Turning now to the Legislative Council where counting is still in its early stages, Pauline Hanson scored 52,305 votes, 1.83%. I had expected her to do better than this because of all the publicity, but looking at the huge ballot paper with the absence of any booth workers, I did wonder.

To vote for her, you actually had to find her group on the ballot paper because there was no specific identification. A small number of people at booths actually workers from other parties where her how to vote card was. She also lost votes to the Shooters and Fishers. 

Recognising how early it is in the count, at this stage the computer projections for the Legislative Council are:

  • Coalition  19
  • Labor 14
  • Greens 5
  • Shooters and Fishers 2
  • Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group) 2.

As with the previous council, it looks as though the incoming government will need to rely on minor parties to get legislation through.    

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fault lines in Australian politics

I have had several goes at writing this post.

Australian politics is not pretty just at present. For whatever reason, both the Government and opposition are playing to the fault lines in the Australian community.

For the benefit of international readers, the proximate cause of current troubles was disputes over climate change and, more specifically, a rally held outside Parliament House. However, climate change itself has become a symbolic issue for deeper divides, code for a variety of other things.

I do not pretend to fully understand just what is happening. Still, if you go back through my posts  you will see that I have been writing on the changes taking place in Australian society for several years. This includes warnings about the nature of the divisions being created in Australian society.  

The post begins with quotes from the last few days. I then discuss the changes that have taken place in Australia. The post finishes with a few reflections on left vs right from my perspective as an outsider, someone who does not belong to either school.

The discussion is not meant to be negative. I remain of the view that the Australian people have a way of working their way through issues.  


As I started writing this post a day or so back, the Australian media was carrying coverage of the anti-climate change rally outside Parliament House in Canberra. I quote from the coverage:      

Former One Nation leader and NSW election candidate Pauline Hanson was in the crowd, while the One Nation party and the anti-Semitic Australian League of Rights were represented.

Members of the Coalition of Law Abiding Sporting Shooters, an anti-gun law group, were also among the protesters, along with representatives of the Lavoisier Group, which disputes mainstream climate science.

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet later told parliament that Mr Abbott should be ashamed to associate himself with the sentiments on display.

As I wrote, I received the following campaign email from GetUp! GetUp began as an organisation intended to galvanise support grassroots support as expressed by the grass roots. That is, as a democratic mechanism. It has become a cause vehicle for certain types of causes. 

 I'm sitting outside the front of Parliament House typing this on my laptop.

Just across the street, I can see the tents of conservative talkback stations from across the country (2GB, MTR and 2CC), who are all broadcasting their afternoon shows live from the anti-climate-action rally they've helped organise here on the lawns of Parliament House.

There's a crowd of about 1,500 here. Some of the banners here say things about Julia Gillard and Bob Brown that are too rude to email you -- other signs say "Get Up: p**s off!" And if you tune into these talkback stations you can hear why: shock-jocks have singled us out as the most effective voice around for putting a price on pollution.

That's why in the last few days, thousands of GetUp members have come together to chip in donations for our climate fighting fund - a huge campaign to last until we have a price on pollution this year. Please click here to join thousands of GetUp members who are chipping in:

tax-protest-729-420x0 On his blog yesterday morning Neil wrote in Uglier far than Julia Gillard’s “lie” on the carbon tax… , a response this placard and the anti-climate change in Canberra: 





Yesterday, too, John Quiggin posed this question:

Until a month or so ago, I was under the impression that the One Nation party had shuffled off into history. So, I was surprised, attending a lunch at which Joe Hockey spoke, to hear repeated questions from reporters about the role of One Nation in attacks on Hockey’s standard against the appeals to racism allegedly advocated by (Lib Immigration shadow) Scott Morrison. Then, on a recent visit to Sydney I heard David Oldfield spruiking the One Nation line on 2UE. And now Pauline herself appears at an anti-carbon tax rally, along with a bizarre cast of characters including Angry Anderson and the League of Rights. Does anyone have any insight into what’s going on here? Is this just some bandwagon-jumping or is there a real resurgence of One Nation and similar groups?

In response, HC wrote:

Totally disgusting rally in Canberra. The next Federal election will develop as a referendum on right-wing, shock jock boganism. I would like to be optimistic about the outcome.

I wonder how middle Australia reacted to the placard describing Julia Gillard as “Brown’s bitch”. Hopefully they will react with a bit more discrimination than Tony Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop did.

On Catallaxy Files, Sinclair Davidson pokes fun at some of the reactions to the dispute. Catallaxy Files supported the rallies. Steve Kates attended the Melbourne Rally. In What Fools We Are!, he bewails the failure of Australians to get really upset:

We are so used to incompetence in government, I think, and are so used to governments wasting our potential that there is a kind of so what about it all. Even though this is the big one, with a potential to hammerlock the Australian economy into a low growth trajectory for decades on end, there really wasn’t the outrage that it deserves.

In Larvatus Prodeo on Wednesday, Kim wrote in Newspoll and rallies of crazies: trouble for Tony Abbott?:

In Parliament yesterday, Christopher Pyne borrowed some tactics from blogosphere trolls, and started rabbiting on about the alleged implications of the phrase “climate change denier”, moving the debate back to precisely where the Liberal party doesn’t want it, something not helped by Abbott’s continued willingness to say “the science isn’t settled” when it suits him. This, by the way, is surely not the “gaffe” or “indiscipline” the press gallery believes it to be, but a continued attempt to keep the so-called skeptics in his tent.

We’ve seen, then, the bizarro world consequences of negativism about everything: the Liberal party, which used to trumpet the virtues of tax cuts under Howard and Costello, muttering darkly about “socialist redistribution” when Ross Garnaut suggested compensation for the carbon price be delivered through the tax and welfare systems. Tony Abbott’s “Great New Tax” line now translates into a Great New Opposition to Tax Cuts. Go figure.

And, today, we have the equally bizarre spectacle of the talk back audience and the permanently indignant blog commenters, masquerading as usual as “public opinion”, actually out in the streets. And having difficulty staying on message. Click the links – the pictures really do tell the tale.

What we have here is inside the media/political bubble and talk back/angry columnist feedback loop meeting reality. And that electoral reality won’t necessarily be to Tony Abbott’s liking. Abbott is playing to the right wing ‘base’ not to the electorate as a whole. And today’s shenanigans may well come back to bite him.

In this morning's Sydney Morning Herald, Phillip Coorey reports:

TONY ABBOTT says Julia Gillard is a multi-faceted liar who lacks integrity and is being precious about ''a few nasty placards''.

The Prime Minister believes Mr Abbott to be a disgusting and revolting individual who has displayed flawed judgment by associating himself with extremism and gross sexism.

''For going out to a rally and associating himself with One Nation, with the League of Rights, with anti-Semitic groups and with grossly sexist signs,'' she said.

With a hung parliament, a government holding power by the barest of margins, and both leaders locked in a fight for their political lives over the carbon tax, tensions are as high as they have been for years and the attacks are becoming increasingly personal.

And so it goes on.

All this must be very confusing to anybody outside Australia. It is bad enough for some of us who live here!

I do not want to comment on either the selection of examples, nor on the general arguments expressed. Instead, I now want to make some broader points.

A World of Change 

The scale of economic and social change in Australia over the last thirty to forty years has been enormous. We know this, yet we forget that there are now large numbers of Australians who have been in some way disadvantaged by change, a larger number who feel insecure. The current fault lines in Australia directly link to the change process.

Just at present I am writing a paper on social change in Australia's New England in the period 1950-2000. There I said in part: 

In 2003, noted Australian academic Professor Don Aitkin returned to Armidale for the 50th anniversary of his Leaving Certificate class, the Armidale High School class of 1953. The outcome of the visit was a very successful book, What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia, looking at social change in Australia through the eyes of the class of 1953.

To Don’s mind, the lives of the class of 1953 broke into two halves. The first half began with a conservative, regulated, socially constricted society. Yet this was also a world of low unemployment (2 per cent was considered a Government breaker), of economic security and opportunity. The second half was a world of change, of deregulation, of downsizing, the end of permanent jobs. It was also a world of greater social freedoms, of advancements in a whole range of fields, of substantial increases in wealth. The class of 53 would generally not go back to the old world, but it is clear that by the end of the period under study a sense of unease had developed, along with a deep weariness at the pace of change.

Don is right when he says that there was a deep weariness at the pace of change. A remarkable number of his 1953 class mates took early retirement, especially in fields like teaching. They had good super, remember that?, and took advantage of it. These early retirements were one of the hidden costs of Australia's economic restructuring.

The changes that happened were in part economic. Here I have spoken (among other things) on my work as an out-placement consultant, of my personal reaction to the number of people thrown on the industrial scrap-heap. As Don said in part of his book, those who lost their jobs through change were not the same as those who got the new jobs created. I have also written of the emergence of an Australian underclass, of socially disadvantaged groups whose disadvantage carried down through generations. We have not seen that before in this country.

One telling indicator of the scale of change is the way in which contract, casual workers and part time workers now outnumber the full time permanents that once dominated the workforce. A significant proportion of the Australian workforce carries a constant nagging worry at the back of their minds: will my job be there tomorrow? 

The changes that happened were also social, changes in things like gender relations, shifting of the balance of power, changes in values, changes in attitudes towards religion, sexuality and marriage.  It doesn't matter whether those changes were right or wrong, they happened and affected all Australians for better and worse.  

Then there were fundamental changes in the composition of Australian society, the ending of White Australia, new migration and the emergence of a multi-cultural Australia.  

Finally, there were symbolic changes, changes in formally expressed values, attacks on previously accepted symbols by those who asserted that those symbols were wrong and had the influence to make their positions policy.

In the first part of the 1990s, the Australian community polarised in a way that I had not seen since the Whitlam years. I found myself so angry that I actually felt like leaving the country. Please do not argue for or against me. I am simply expressing an opinion, how I felt. And that's factual, regardless of whether or not my view was sensible.

To my mind then, I felt that the views of the left expressed through all the gatekeepers had gained power to the point that alternative views were suppressed, ridiculed. Fissures had appeared along a whole series of social tectonic faults linked to the change process. 

The fault lines revealed then appeared to diminish with time. The relative prosperity of much of the 2000s allowed  They have reappeared, but now are (or so I feel) a little different. The world has changed, and the fault lines have changed with them.

Scoping the fault lines

The usual approach to discussing the fault lines in Australia is to look at in left vs right terms, or sometimes "progressive" vs others in social or value terms. To my mind, a better way of doing it is by a simple list of areas of some of the areas of difference and/or worry in the Australian community, focusing especially on those who feel affected by change in one way or another.

The point about such a list is that it shows, I think, both the breadth of concerns, but also the way that concerns overlap in different ways not directly related to conventional dichotomies. The fault lines follow areas where concerns overlap that carry high value for particular individuals or groups.    

The following list is not exhaustive, just indicative, and includes some things already mentioned. There is no particular order to the list.

  • Financial and job insecurity. The majority and especially those outside permanent employment. The global financial crisis re-emphasised this worry. Retirees were affected by financial collapses, those with super approaching retirement saw its value decline, many baby boomers approaching retirement don't have adequate savings. Personal debt levels add to problems.
  • Housing insecurity. This one is little seen, but very real. With home ownership declining and with a tight rental marketplace, will I have a place to live tomorrow?
  • Health insecurity, especially among lower income people and those distant from increasingly centralised health facilities.
  • Gender roles. Women activists are trying to storm boardrooms, men feel increasingly marginalised. Male depression and suicide, especially among young men, have been real issues for some time.
  • Relationship changes and divorce. The new Family Law Act unleashed a wave of divorces whose effects are still working their way through the system.  Many young who have experienced the impact of marriage break-up say not me, I won't do that to my kids.  The form of relationships has changed. The once conventional marriage now forms a minority of family types. Bitterness associated with break-ups, of the roles and responsibilities of both parents, spawns an aggressive and sometimes violent response from men. A Family Court judge is assassinated. 
  • Religious vs secular. The Christian Churches have seen their position change from central to marginal. Atheists and secularists deny the very validity of their roles. Churches split over moral issues such as gay rights. The number of nominal believers shrinks, but those who remain become more devout, more conservative. New faiths emerge. Church school systems expand. The religious right arrives in Australia. The role of churches in achieving real social change declines.
  • Monarchy vs republic. Monarchists feel threatened, republicans feel frustrated at the unwillingness of the Australian public to accept their position.
  • Gay rights. The move towards gay rights stalls over the issue of gay marriage. In the 2011 NSW election, the Christian Democratic Party drives a large truck around Sydney. The key issues are:   
  • Teenage Binge Drinking
    Bike Lanes killing Business
    Out of Control Prostitution
    Mardi-Gras Anarchy. (This one refers to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi-Gras.)

  • Hunting, shooting and fishing. As a response to the Port Arthur Massacre, John Howard introduces new gun control laws. Predominantly city based environmentalists successfully push for limits on hunting, shooting and fishing. A new political movement is spawned in response, pushing back some of the limits.
  • Farm discontent. Environmentalists push successfully for new controls on water and the use of land. A farm protest movement is born. Barnaby Joyce is elected to Parliament, Peter Spencer conducts a hunger strike, mass rallies are held. Plans for the Murray-Darling Basin stall as a result of farm protest.
  • States rights. The push for central control, for uniform national approaches, meets WA resistance. The WA National Party stages an unexpected resurgence on the slogan of Resources for the Regions. The new WA Liberal-National Party Government derails Canberra's plans for (among other things) a new national health system. New State movements re-emerge in the NT, North Queensland and New England.
  • Big vs little Australia, immigration, multiculturalism and all that. This is a complicated area because it crosses so many divides. In general, supporters of a big Australia - a larger population - are on the right. Those opposing it tend to be on the left, and focus on environmental issues. However, those who support a multicultural Australia (a necessary outcome from migration) tend to be on the left, while those worried about issues such as cultural homogeneity tend to be on the right. This creates a bit of a conflict in views. 

This is not a complete list of issues, just an indication of the complexity of modern Australian society. Further. I hope that it illustrates why there is discontent, but also why so many issues cross conventional divides.


In concluding this post, I simply want to reflect on some of the issues I have raised.

I think that we need to recognise that Australia's current fault lines, the tensions in our society, are directly related to the changes that have taken place. Its not one change or possible change, but the cumulative changes that have taken place over time.  

The deep weariness at the pace of change that Don refers too, the feelings of insecurity that I have tried to describe, are deeply held and manifest themselves in a variety of ways.

The first is something of a yearning for stability, for security, for consistency. None of us can survive in a world of total uncertainty. 

  We can see this in two major issues in public debate over the last ten years that both concern perceived threats. 

The first is law and order, the protection of society. This is an old issue, but it keeps recurring. Regardless of the factual evidence, we feel less safe. We therefore demand more police and tougher sentences.

The second is boat people. Rationally, the numbers are small. Yet this has become a central political issue simply because we feel insecure.

We can also see the yearning for stability, for protection, in the overwhelming focus on protection and risk avoidance in all areas of politics and public policy. This holds even when we know that the result is likely to be both ineffective and expensive.

I also think that we need to recognise that the views that people hold, while they do tend to cluster, are variable. For example, evangelical Christians are likely to hold conservative views on certain moral issues. However, that may, but need not, mean that they are anti-climate change, that they are opposed to fair treatment for refugees, that they have any particular view on the role of the state.

Views cluster because of values. However, they can also cluster because issues are in some way linked independent of values. For example, a farmer angry about controls over what he can do on his property may be a very strong environmentalist, yet inclined to oppose anything the Greens suggest if he blames them for the property controls. This is where the nature of the current debate in Australia creates very real problems, for it tends to isolate some, lock others into positions.

Now turning to John Quiggin's question:

 Does anyone have any insight into what’s going on here? Is this just some bandwagon-jumping or is there a real resurgence of One Nation and similar groups?

There were very particular circumstances at the time One Nation burst upon the stage. There was a high measure of concern among some in the electorate that was not captured by the major parties. One National was also one of a number of movements that emerged around the same time. There was a pattern of activity that effectively built links and laid the basis for One Nation's initial success.

The polarisation in the Australian community does remind me of the period leading up to the formation of One Nation. Further, we are dealing with threads in agitation that have been largely ignored and have been running for some time just like the pre-One Nation period.

We are also dealing with what I called linked issues: the constant and often very silly linkage made by Governments, the Greens and many environmentalists between specific actions or policies that affected people and climate change made it very very easy for people to transfer their dislike of those actions or policies to the concept of climate change.

Long before it reached the mainstream media as an issue, I noted the anti-climate change campaigns running in the bush. It was pretty easy for me to see because I try to read the on-line versions of most of New England newspapers.

Yet despite all this, I think it unlikely that anything like the One Nation phenomenon will emerge again. Not only is the anti-climate change group remarkably disparate, but both political sides are responding in ways that cut the ground from under a new One Nation. Note I say both sides. When it comes to many issues like refugees, they are in fact like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

A much bigger problem to my mind lies in the way that both Labor and Coalition though their actions and rhetoric are actually reinforcing Australia's political fault lines.

None of this means that Pauline Hanson won't be elected to the NSW Legislative Council. I would be now be amazed if she were not. She has been given an absolute free kick by the media and I just don't mean David Oldfield and the other Sydney radio shock jocks.

Ms Hanson doesn't need media support, she just needs coverage. I would be astonished if there is anyone in NSW who doesn't know that she is running.              

Thursday, March 24, 2011

2011 Best Australian Blogs Competition

The Sydney Writers' Centre has launched a 2011 Best Australian Blogs competition. I quote:

You might be blogging to keep you focused on your writing dreams, or perhaps you're blogging to promote your business. You might hope your blog will lead to a book deal or maybe it's just a way to share your life and connect with others. Whatever your reason to blog, we want to celebrate all the wonderful writing that is happening in the blogosphere. You can enter your own blog or nominate someone else's blog.

There are four categories:

  • Business: Blogs associated with a business or organisation. These may be written by the business owner, staff member or other representative of the business.
  • Commentary: Blogs that analyse or comment on a particular industry or topic. These can be anything from political blogs, fashion blogs, media analysis and so on.
  • Lifestyle: Blogs about food, parenthood, personal, travel/expat blogs.
  • Words: Blogs that focus on writing, reading, literature or books.

There is also a peoples' choice award.

Blogs will be judged on:

  • 70% Quality of writing: "We'll be looking at the ease of reading, clarity of expression, relevance, and the quality of topics and observations. Yes, we will be mainly focusing on your writing (we are the Sydney Writers' Centre after all)."
  • 20% Presentation and usability: "This includes the attractiveness of your blog, ease of navigation and usability, effective linking to other blogs and resources."
  • 10% Engagement and social media integration: "We'll look at the conversations in the comment section, guest bloggers and the use of social media to promote your blog. For example the use of Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin."

The key dates are:

  • Nominations by 5pm on Friday 15 April 2011
  • Finalists announced Thursday 21 April 2011
  • Winners announced Friday 6 May 2011

I checked, and those with more than one blog can nominate more than one. You just have to fill out a separate application form for each blog.

Will I nominate? Probably, but I'm not sure. There are some very good blogs around, and I find it remarkably difficult to maintain a consistent and interesting standard.

Those who are interested can find more details here

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Digital citizenship

My thanks to Darcy1968 on Twitter for this one.

I hadn't heard the phrase digital citizenship. When I did via Darcy I was very suspicious. You see, the school curriculum is now absolutely clogged with material that falls in the "it seemed like a good idea at the time" class. I wondered whether or not this was simply another example of the same.

   I have now done some digging. You will find the NSW school material here. You will also find an interesting commentary on kid's take-up of new apps here.

I don't think that some of the material will work for the same reason that anti-bullying material doesn't work. The two are connected. You can give kids information, but you won't necessarily affect behaviour. you have to rely on other things for that.

As parents whose children grew up in the digital age, we did not attempt to control their use of the internet in detail in the same way that we did not try to censor books in detail. We simply relied on our closeness to the kids, on the general values that we were trying to inculcate. However, we did try to warn them of dangers.

We weren't so much worried about things like sexual predators, although that can be an issue in some cases. Our concern lay in the need to ensure that they did not put material on-line that might later come back to haunt them.

To illustrate this, try a web search on "Jim Belshaw". The last time I did this there were over 46,000 web references. Not all on me, of course, but a lot are. It's hard to believe that just ten years ago there were less than a thousand. I can run, but it's a bit difficult to hide!

There is a bit of a myth today that young people have a different attitude to privacy than their parents. It is true, I think, that their views on just what is private have shifted. However, they are actually just as sensitive about the issues that they consider to be important, so they need to learn judgement. They don't want to end up like their father trying to work out how to manage a digital footprint grown far beyond original expectations!

Speaking again from my own experience, there are two issues that I would like to get across to kids. The first is the danger of misinterpretation in a world where words or messages lack context. The second is simply the importance of good manners.

Overall, I think that the idea of digital citizenship is a good one because the phrase bears upon a key on-line concept, that of community. Citizenship and community are linked.    

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Australian painters - William Dobell

I have always liked the paintings of Sir William Dobell (24 September 1899 – 13 May 1970)(and here).

William Dobell was born in Cooks Hill, a working class neighbourhood of Newcastle.  His father was a builder with six children. Dobell's artistic talents were evident early. In 1916, he was apprenticed to Newcastle architect, Wallace L. Porter and in 1924 he moved to Sydney as a draftsman. In 1925, he enrolled in evening art classes at Julian Ashton's school.Dobell The billy boy 1943

Dobell developed a very particular style as a painter, one that has become almost iconic, instantly recognisable as part of Australia's visual landscape. This painting is the 1943 billy boy held by the Australian War Memorial.

  Dobell's fame made him uncomfortable.

In 1944, two rival artists took legal action against him and the NSW Art gallery over his 1943 Archibald Prize winning portrait of fellow painter Joshua Smith, arguing that it was a caricature. While they were unsuccessful, Dobell retreated to his sister's house at Wangi Wangi on Lake Macquarie near Newcastle.

Dobell's house and studio at Wangi Wangi has been preserved as a museum.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Working with two screens

Because of the work that I'm doing just at present, I am using two large computer screens. I had worked  with large screens before, they are great for spread sheets, but not two screens.

Such a simple thing, two screens, but a wonderful aid to productivity. Like most of us, I have of a number of programs, browser pages or documents open at any one time, clicking back and forward between them. With two screens, I can keep the main document I'm working on open all the time on one screen, using the other screen for the reference material I need to check or incorporate. 

The gains in time and indeed accuracy are quite remarkable.

I mention this here because people's first reaction to the idea of two screens seems to be that it's a luxury. Certainly very few businesses that I have seen provide people with more than one screen.

Now when I come home from the office to my single screen, I miss and want my second screen! Now that's more money that I have to try to budget for!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Sunday stroll through the blogosphere

It's raining this morning. I didn't post yesterday because I had to go to Newcastle. By the time I had finished meeting preparation, there was little time left.

I feel uninspired, bogged down in some writing. I know when I don't like doing something; the words won't flow. The malaise then spreads.

As so often happens in these cases, I went for a stroll around the blogosphere looking for inspiration or, at least, distraction.

Darcy Moore is a NSW teacher. In Passion for learning… he begins:

For the first time in 20 years I do not have English classes to teach.

The principal has requested that I am ‘off the timetable’ and work with all students on digital citizenship and creating a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) or, if you prefer, Personal Learning Network (PLN). This is another small step towards creating an environment at our school where student learning is personalised with the internet in mind.

As it happens, I am presently working on something very similar, but in a world far removed from the NSW school system or indeed education. My focus is on work flows in a particular area. How do you create an internet experience that reflects and supports the way people actually work in that area?

It's quite difficult. To do it properly, you have to shift focus from the processes associated with the technology to those associated with work (or education in Darcy's case). This is quite difficult to do. The technology is like a spoilt child; it keeps demanding attention!

Staying with posts or articles featured on Neil's Google Reader, David Robert is right to argue in Renewables or nuclear: maybe we do have to choose that a heavy investment in one solution can actually prevent another. I think that he is also right in his description of the innovation process, experimentation and multiple solutions. As I have argued before, one problem in Australian policy has been the tendency to go for single (and generally unstable) solutions.  

In The other African war we were supposed to stop, Elizabeth Dickinson looks at the conflict in the Ivory Coast. It is very easy to get depressed at the apparently intractable nature of human (really inhuman) conflict. Steven Pinker on how the world has gotten much more peaceful presents an alternative view.

I do love the meanders that blogging takes me to. In Unnoticed Unrest in Turks and Caicos and the Canadian Connection, Martin Lewis refers (among other things) to the suggestion that the Turks and Caicos Islands might become part of Canada. Well, that's something else I dBarMarsellaPicassoidn't know!

Staying loosely with Canada, Christopher Moore's Valley of the Historians drew me to A Casualty Of The Archives: Put Me On Research Injured Reserve, Please. I knew that historical research was a health hazard.

I often refer to Helen Webberley's ART and ARCHITECTURE, mainly.  In Barcelona, Hemingway and absinthe, she looks at absinthe and Barcelona's Bar Marsella. 

The reproductions shows Picasso's The Absinth Drinker, 1901, Melville Hall Collection, New York.

For those who are interested, Wikipedia has quite a good article on absinthe.

One of the things that I find interesting is the way in which certain visual images capture a time or period.

They actually become part of our visual architecture, an architecture widely shared among those with common histories or at least cultural links. These images also spread across cultures through exposure.

Painting is especially good at this, more so than photography or other forms of visual expression, although I stand to be challenged on this. I think, for example, that Helen would argue the same for architecture.

It's actually a while since I looked at some of this on this blog. Maybe time to revisit

It's now coming up on 7.50. Its still raining, but I've had a nice wander and got my brain working again. Time to finish.  

Friday, March 18, 2011

Student activism, Aboriginal activism & White Australia

A discussion on Catallaxy Files led me to this paper examining the historical and geological record for Australian tsunamis.

I haven't commented on the unfolding nuclear events in Japan because I really haven't had anything to add to the discussion that was in any way useful. However, the thing that did puzzle me as it emerged was the failure of back-up power. That seems to be the single most important factor in the unfolding events. The answer here appears to lie in the failure to recognise the potential scale of possible tsunamis. The other major design flaw appears to be the unprotected containment ponds.

These things and possible answers will become clearer later. In the meantime, none of us can do more than watch and hope.

In a number of earlier posts, I discussed the history of the White Australia Policy, including its ending. One of the important issues there was the way Australian foreign policy interests affected the process. A second and linked issue was the Colombo Plan and the way that affected attitudes by bringing Australians into contact with overseas students. Here I used my own experience as an illustration.

Unexpectedly, I found myself looking at a different dimension of the same process. I say unexpectedly because White Australia was the last thing on my mind.    

The social, economic and political changes that affected New England in the second half of the twentieth century reflected global as well as national changes. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the end of colonialism and the rise of the US Civil Rights Movement, the emergence of hippies and the counter culture movement, the rise of women’s liberation were all global and were signs of an interacting process of social and cultural change.

These changes may have been global, but they played out across the New England landscape in ways that reflected local conditions. For that reason, I was looking at some of them of as part of the preparation of my social change paper.

In February 1965, students from Sydney University influenced by the civil rights struggle in the United States, organised a bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns. Their purpose was threefold. The students planned to draw public attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing. They hoped to point out and help to lessen the socially discriminatory barriers which existed between Aboriginal and white residents. And they also wished to encourage and support Aboriginal people themselves to resist discrimination

I decided to use this bus tour as an entry point to discussion because it has achieved iconic status.  To do this, I needed more information about the tour, so started with Anne Curthoys’ Freedom Ride: a freedom rider remembers (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2002). I got more than I bargained for.

To begin with, it drew me into the world of the Aboriginal activists and of the overall changes that had taken place in Australia following the end of the Second World War. I already knew that I had to write something on this.  

At the first census in 1971 recording the Aboriginal population, the number of NSW residents self-reporting as Aboriginal were heavily concentrated in New England. The total number of self-identified Aborigines was quite low, 23,101 in all. Of this group, 12,760 (55%) lived in New England. The proportion is quite startling, more so if the unknown but quite high proportion of New England ancestry Aboriginal people living in the Sydney metropolitan area is included. This means that the story of New England's Aboriginal peoples is actually quite important and not just in local terms.

I said that I already knew that I had to write something on this. I had been putting it off. I have written a lot on Aboriginal issues, and I keep burning out. This time I had no choice but to continue.

In turn, this drew me into the history of Abschol - the national university student Aboriginal scholarship scheme - and of the role that university students and staff had played in changing attitudes and approaches towards Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This was quite important. It also reminded me why I was so strongly opposed to the abolition of compulsory student fees. Without those, far less would have happened.

I will try to document some of this in a blog post, because it's actually quite hard to get a consolidated picture.

The students at Sydney University who ended up on the bus rise did not start by campaigning for Aboriginal rights. They were, as so many students were at the time, focused on the US Civil Rights campaign. It's hard to imagine now just how important this was, the way in which it attracted campus attention.

The students' problem in organising demonstrations in support of US civil rights lay in the international response; fix up your own house first came back. This stung. At Sydney University, this plus the evolving role of Charles Perkins and Gary Foley (both recipients of the first NSW university Abschol scholarships) switched focus from the US to Australia's Aboriginal peoples. The bus ride was a result.

   I may seem to have come some distance from the ending of the White Australia Policy. I have not.

White Australia ended because the then Government knew that changes had to be made, even though individual ministers still supported the policy in principle. White Australia ended because the Columbo Plan helped break down prejudice in the Australian community. White Australia ended, too, because of student activism that was driven by causes elsewhere, but then transmuted into local issues. Australian student leaders going to international student meetings experienced considerable discomfort as a consequence of White Australia.

How one breaks all this up is unclear. To Aboriginal activists, their role was central. Then student activists focus on their roles. My own work has a broader focus.

In the end, it doesn't matter. Major changes in social attitudes and policy are always messy when it comes to looking at causes and relative influence. Most of the time, we simply can't know. What is important is the simple presentation of the varying influences involved.        

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Universities, "standards" and diversity

Issues and problems with Australian universities and university education have been much on my mind, so much so that I found my last Armidale Express column ending up on the topic even though I had started to write on something else.

At the moment, my eldest goes to one Sydney university, having left a second because of dissatisfaction with the teaching and course structures. Youngest goes to a third Sydney university, while my wife is chair of council of International House at a fourth Sydney university. I am also an adjunct of a university outside Sydney. So we have present or recent connections with five Australian universities.

I make this point not because it gives me any authority, but to help explain why I hold quite strong opinions on aspects of Australian university education, if indeed the word education can still be applied. You see my bias?

My main present personal research focus is on the history of Northern New South Wales, the broader New England. Obviously I consider that to be quite important. Herein lies a problem.

History at the University of New England scored a ranking of 3 out of 5 on the scales used to rank research at Australia's universities. That's not bad, but no banana.

The scales purport to show global rankings, but suffer from multiple problems. They seem to be essentially based on publications in certain international journals. They are biased towards the big, because the more staff you have, the more publications. They do not take into account specific national or regional needs, nor student interests. Finally, the focus on them twists university priorities towards improving position on the rankings as defined.

My position as an adjunct at UNE is an honorary one. However, it does (I think) bring my research into the scope of measurement should the university so choose. This won't help the university one little bit.

  I necessarily research and write on a part time basis. Last year I delivered two academic papers, one at the university, one to the Armidale and District Historical Society. I deliver another paper at the start of April. Beyond that, blogging has been my main written outlet, although there has been a strong history focus in my newspaper column.  This exposes material and helps generate interest.

Just keeping up with emails and requests is now a problem. For example, I am behind at the moment in the preparation of supporting material for the Museum of Australian Democracy on part of an exhibit the museum is mounting on petitions. 

None of this work can be properly measured or included in research rankings. To have an impact here, I would have to change my focus to generate material that can be measured. I don't intend to do that because it conflicts with other things I want to do.

Does any of this matter?

I won't bore you with the history of the historiography in my field, but interest peaked at the end of the 1970s. In many cases, I am now one of very few, sometimes the only, person researching and writing on topics connected with my history. The academic pipeline that once existed from honours to PhDs that fed into journal articles and books is largely empty. Those still writing, and there are some very prolific writers if not always in the required form, are all getting older.

Recently, there has been some resurgence of interest, but this is still in its early days.

   Again, does it matter?  Well, yes, I think that it does. Obviously I am biased. However, as an example, I find it a bit surprising and a little sad that my original honours work on the economic structure of traditional Aboriginal life in Northern NSW is still quoted all those years later. Very few honours students can claim this.

I would like to think that its because of its standard. Really, its just because replacement work hasn't been done.

Looking at it from the perspective of the University of New England, how can any university justify providing support to someone like me when that support does not provide measurable results of the type required to meet the performance indicators on which standing is based?

In my case, it probably doesn't matter for the actual level of resource support provided is negligible. The relationship provides a degree of structure, which was my original objective. A more important problem lies in the survivability of the very structures on which I depend. Here there can be no guarantees.

All our major universities have become very unstable from the viewpoint of those dealing with them, whether as staff, students, partners or outriders like me. The need for constant adjustment to meet externally imposed requirements, the corporate games now played by our major institutions, the way pecking orders are defined, make for constant change. 

To my mind, there is  a growing disconnect between top level policy and management in government and the universities and the bottom, the real multifaceted roles that universities play with staff, students and in their local areas.

I was going to give some further examples here, but this has become a time consuming post at a time when I am meant to be doing other things. So to finish with a final comment.

In some of my management writing I have looked at the inverse relationship between management fashions and on-ground realities; HR and the importance of people coincided with restructuring, outplacement and process re-engineering; the importance of IP and brands coincided with the greatest period of brand destruction in Australian history; the need for delegation and empowerment coincided with the thinning out of middle management and the introduction of command and control management techniques.

Would I be unduly cynical if I said that the current emphasis on university standards and on improved teaching reflected the same pattern and for the same reasons?  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Threads - food prices, higher education

Just a few notes this morning on stories of interest in the Australian media relevant to some of the things I write about.

In an opinion piece in the Australian, Paul Kelly talks about the social and impact of high global food prices in the context of IMF warnings that food prices are likely to stay high for years. I haven't checked the IMF assessment.

The Sydney Morning Herald carried Malcolm Brown's obituary of Bob Dengate, one of the Australian pioneers of on-line education. My current work has drawn me back into the periphery of this area. There are some interesting issues here that are worth consolidating.

Staying with education, the Australian's Jill Rowbotham reports on the strategic manoeuvring and game-playing as universities head towards a series of deadlines for the second round of the Excellence in Research for Australia evaluation exercise. This is another of those measurement and pecking order things that I write about so much.

I have been trying to think of new ways of explaining my concerns.

Turning now to international students, Michael Sainsbury writes about the way the Federal Government is ramping up its efforts to reverse the damaging trend of falling student enrolments from its largest market by launching a fresh education marketing campaign in China, while Bernard Lane reports on the continued efforts of student recruiter IDP to diversify away from the Australian marketplace. IDP is 50% owned by Australian universities.

Finishing with international students, Andrew Trounson reports on research by the Gigi Foster from the University of NSW on language skills and performance. Her research seems to confirm anecdotal evidence, including that from her own institution.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Belshaw's posts period ending 11 March 2011

Once a week I was trying to run a full post list to allow readers to browse across blogs. Then moving intervened! So may last round-up was Belshaw's weekly posts w/e 23 Feb 2011.

This round-up covers the period from then until cob 11 March.

On this blog, the posts have been:

On New England Australia the posts were:

On my other blogs, posts were:

Establishing the NSW Public Library system

in D E Stevenson, Andrew Carnegie & public libraries I talked about the public library cut-backs that had occurred in the US and UK. Since then there have been two stories I wanted to comment on: one was a press release from the Local Government and Shires Association of NSW - NSW Government library funding is well overdue, say councils ; the second a story on the UNSW Library - Books get the shove as university students prefer to do research online.

I will do that later. In the meantime, in my original post I promised to provide some material on the history of the establishment of the public library system in NSW. This follows. It is an excerpt from my original PhD thesis, a biography of David Drummond who was then NSW Minister for Education.   

"In 1937 public library systems throughout Australia were woefully inadequate.[1] The New South Wales system can be taken as typical, for it was certainly no worse and in some cases was better than those existing in the other states. There was one state library in Sydney, the Public Library of New South Wales, which was not in fact a public library in the normal sense of the word, but a reference library. This attempted to serve the whole state, despatching books direct to country readers, including the small country schools. Considering the size of its collections and the range of services provided, the Public Library was probably the worst housed of all the state libraries.

Outside the Public Library there were only two libraries which even began to approach the municipal libraries common in other countries, the Sydney Municipal Library which was funded by the City Council alone but which attempted to serve the whole metropolitan area, and the Broken Hill Municipal Library. Elsewhere the population was serviced only by commercial subscribing libraries or by libraries maintained by Mechanics' Institutes or Schools of Arts; these last provided limited collections to subscribers often more interested in the billiard-room than the library. The situation was worse for children: judged by overseas standards, there was not an acceptable children's lending library in the whole country. Beyond the problems of books and facilities was that of trained staff. Trained librarians were rare, and indeed in the medium size towns and suburbs, the School of Arts' librarians often acted as combination librarian, billiard marker and janitor.

Drummond became interested in the problems of the State library system during his first term.[2] Early in that term he discovered that the Government made a grant of 6,500 pounds to support libraries other than the Public Library.[3] However, he was astonished to discover that of this, 50 per cent was allocated immediately to the Sydney Mechanics' Institute, and a further 25 per cent to the Manly School of Arts, leaving only 25 per cent (of which Newcastle got half) to be distributed amongst Schools of Arts throughout the rest of the State. As a strong new stater this distribution struck Drummond as being 'unutterably unfair', and he determined to do something about it as soon as it was politically feasible. His opportunity came in 1929-30 when, under the growing influence of the Depression, the Treasury requested expenditure cuts. Drummond promptly cancelled the grant.

By this action, Drummond left the majority of the State's library system, imperfect as it may have been, without any form of Government support. His problem, then, was to find a new way to support and reshape the system, particularly in country districts. In this regard, Drummond was now convinced 'that unless you could tie the libraries in the country to the local government authorities... you'd get no vitality, no life, no real interest and the whole thing would be on an attenuated hand out.'

In 1934 the Carnegie Corporation appointed Ralph Munn, the Director of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburg, to carry out a survey of Australian and New Zealand libraries.[4] For his Australian study, Munn was joined by Ernest R. Pitt, the Chief Librarian of the Public Library of Victoria. Their report, published in January 1935, was a devastating indictment of the library system throughout Australia. The problem had arisen, they suggested, because most Australians knew nothing about a modern library system. Their solution was a system of rate or tax supported public libraries.

The publication of the Munn-Pitt report provided Drummond with an opportunity to develop his plans. These involved a three-tiered library structure. At the apex would be the Public Library which would act as a central repository for reference material that was either rare or required on an irregular basis. Then there were to be regional libraries, which would hold relatively large book stocks, could borrow from the Public Library, and would on-lend as required to the smaller libraries. Finally, there would be local libraries. The Government would pay all the costs, as before, of the Public Library, would finance the regional library buildings and would subsidise the running costs of the regional and local libraries with local government providing the balance.

With a state election to be held on May 1935, Drummond was able to persuade the Government to accept his proposals in principle. In his policy speech the Premier announced that extensions would be carried out to the Public Library. He went on:

This is the first step in a scheme to bring proper library facilities to every important centre in the state. We propose to establish a system of regional libraries, based upon this extended public library system.[5]

Following the elections, Drummond set out his proposals in a fourteen page minute, starting with the principle that the 'development of an adequate free library serving the people of N.S.W. is the natural corollary to the system of free and compulsory education'.[6] However, no formal government action had been taken on his recommendations by the time he went overseas.

While Drummond was developing his plans, a new movement, The Free Library Movement, emerged dedicated to the free library cause.[7] Over the next three years, the Movement mounted a sustained campaign (funded in part by a grant of 25,000 dollars from the Carnegie Corporation to the Australian Council For Educational Research) that grew in intensity and sophistication. An office was opened in Sydney, branches were formed in various parts of New South Wales, a press propaganda campaign was organised, a series of booklets was printed supporting the cause,[8] and sister organisations were formed in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland.

Drummond gave active support to the growing Movement. His trip report provided ready ammunition to free library campaigners. He was guest speaker at the Movement's second general meeting in March 1937.[9] In April he spoke at a public meeting in Wagga called to form a branch of the Movement; the first president was the Major, Drummond's old friend H.E. Gissing.[10] Then in August he spoke to the Annual Conference of the Federation of Parents and Citizens' Association of N.S.W. at Goulburn.[11] Other Government ministers joined Drummond in his campaign: E.S. Spooner, the Minister for Works and Local Government, told the 28th Annual Conference of the Association of Local Government Clerks that the establishment of good libraries would be a municipal service of the very highest order.[12]

With the Free Library campaign well underway, Drummond's problem was to find a way to capitalize upon it. In June 1937 he announced the appointment of a Library Advisory Committee to inquire into the library system, the means by which it might be extended, and to draft any necessary legislation. The new Committee's report was effectively determined in advance. Its chairman was W.H. Ifould, the Principal Librarian at the Public Library. As with many of his senior officers, the working relationship between Drummond and William Ifould was extremely close.[13] Ifould, who had been given copies of Drummond's papers prior to his appointment, accepted Drummond's general approach, and the two men collaborated in the Committee's appointment. Again, those selected could be expected to favour Drummond's position. Alek Hicks (who was vice president of the Free Library Movement) once more represented the Departmental interest, while of the remaining five members four were connected with the Movement.

While the Committee studied the general problem, Drummond took preliminary steps towards the solution of a related problem, the lack of school libraries and of trained school librarians. Early in 1938 the State Library ran a vacation course in librarianship for forty country school teachers. This was followed in February by a special course for eleven newly graduated teachers who were then appointed to schools as teacher librarians with special authority to introduce modern library methods.

In December 1938 Drummond released the report of the Library Advisory Committee. Its recommendations followed the approach set out in the Pitt-Munn report and developed in Drummond's memorandum.[14] It recommended that a system of shire and municipal libraries should be established, that these libraries should be subsidised by the state, that regional libraries should be introduced, and that the State Library building should be completed as soon as possible. To supervise the new system, the Committee recommended that a Library Board should be created. The Report was an immediate best seller, with a print-run of over 5000 just to meet pre-publication demand. On 18 January 1939 Cabinet approved the Report's recommendations and decided to introduce legislation to give effect to them;[15] this legislation, duly passed later in the year, was the first such legislation in Australia: it was quickly followed by similar Acts in other states. Cabinet also decided to establish immediately a training school for librarians.

With the passage of the legislation, responsibility for libraries passed to the Library Board and its new chairman, Geoff Remington. Their task was a substantial one, for they had to persuade local government to adopt the program. 'They worked extremely hard', Drummond later recalled, 'to get this sold to the local government people'.[16] These efforts were largely successful. However, the Board - and Drummond - did suffer a major setback. The growing financial problems associated with the war led the Government to delay proclamation of part of the legislation.[17] It was left to the new Labor Government to proclaim the remaining sections. Even then, part of Drummond's plan remained in limbo, for his proposed regional library network was not established.[18]"

[1]The description of the New South Wales library system is drawn from: R. Munn and E.R. Pitt (with an introduction by F. Tate), Australian Libraries. A Survey of Conditions and Suggestions for their Improvement, Australian Council of Educational Research, Melbourne, 1935.

[2]Unless otherwise cited, the description of Drummond's views and activities in this area is taken from the Interview Transcript.

[3]This amount is drawn from Report, p.21. The Interview Transcript gives the sum as 6,850 pounds.

[4]The material in this and the next paragraph is drawn from: Free Public Libraries, The Free Library Movement, Sydney, 1936.

[5]Cited in Free Public Libraries, p.18.

[6]Minute of 12 September 1935. Cited Cooke, 'Ministerial Influence in Education', p.384.

[7]Details on the history of the Free Library Movement are taken from: the Report of the Council of the Movement for the years ending 31 March 1936, 1937, 1938 and 1939. (In Mitchell Library Sydney); the introductions to the Free Library Movement, Constitution of the Free Library Movement with an Introductory Note and A Model Branch Constitution, second edition (1936), third edition (1938), The Free Library Movement, Sydney; Free Public Libraries, The Free Library Movement, Sydney, 1936; G.C. Remington, The Free Library Movement, New Century Press, Sydney 1937; and G.C. Remington and J. Metcalfe, The Free Library Movement 1935-1945, New Century Press, Sydney, 1945.

[8]See, for example: E. Salter Davies, Libraries and Citizenship. Extracts from a Public Lecture delivered at Canberra under the auspices of the New Education Fellowship, Free Library Movement, Sydney, 1937; I.L. Kandel, The Free Library Movement and its Implications, The Free Library Movement, Sydney, 1937; C. Hartley Grattan, Libraries: A Necessity for Democracy, The Free Library Movement, Sydney, 1938.

[9]Second Annual Report of the Council.

[10]Third Report of the Free Library Movement.

[11]Quoted ibid.


[13]For descriptions of the relationship between the two men see Interview Transcript and Cooke, 'Ministerial Influence in Education', p.384, footnote 7.

[14]The recommendations are set out in Remington and Metcalfe, The Free Library Movement, p.3.

[15]Cabinet Documents, 10 January to 31 May 1939, New South Wales State Archives, Premier's Department, 9/3031.

[16]Interview Transcript.

[17]See Cabinet Meeting 3 April 1941. Cabinet Documents, 18 October 1940 to 10 April 1941, New South Wales State Archives, Premier's Department, 9/3035.

[18]Interview Transcript.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Australia's emerging degree mess?

In Professor Larkins & postgraduate students, I discussed postgraduate education in Australia. Then, yesterday, in AUSTRALIA'S official system for classifying qualifications is set, for the first time, to contain three kinds of masters degrees, the Australian's Julie Hare outlined proposed official changes to the structure of Australia's higher degrees.

I cannot comment at the moment. However, I have major reservations about the changes and wanted to record links for later discussion.  

Japan, the media & limits on time

In one of those posts that makes blogging so worthwhile, Don Arthur's Background on Japan’s stricken nuclear reactor — Fukushima Daiichi No 1 provides factual information that sets a context to the problems being faced at Japan's nuclear plants. The comments are worth reading too.

Like many, I have struggled a little to understand what has been going on, in part because of an apparent disconnect between the headlines - Nuclear Timebomb is one Australian example - and actual events on the ground. I think that we are just going to have to wait to see what the lessons are.

Both the Japanese and Libyan emergencies saw another step in the partial capture of the old media by the new - live blogging, twitter etc. The ABC's Japan Earthquake Live is a good example because it incorporates live blogging with feeds from other new media.

Personally, I don't generally have time to follow twitter. I tried it in the early days of the Libyan crisis, but found it unsatisfying.

This is going to be a busy week for me. The disruption caused by the combination of the move with my own disorganisation has actually become a serious problem.

   One of my problems is that there is a fair bit around at the moment that I want to comment on.

Posts like Saturday Morning Musings - Diamond, primary production & the environment or Professor Larkins & postgraduate students take a lot of time to write. I am never sure with these reflective posts. I feel that there is sometimes too much "me" or "I" in them. Then, I get a response that makes it all seem worthwhile.

In this case, an email from WittyKnitter, the inspiration for the Larkin post, asking if she could quote the post in her PhD thesis! That was nice, because I had consciously written the post with WK in mind! 

Still, and as I foreshadowed in Changes to Personal Reflections, this will be a week of short posts, just picking up stuff that I consider to be important.


Neil kindly cross-referenced this post in Japan’s catastrophe and the future of nuclear power. 

I have listened to the coverage today, including the second hydrogen explosion. Again, we have to wait and see what it all means. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Professor Larkins & postgraduate students

On Skepticslawyer, Witty Knitter's post The new face of the research student plus comments got me thinking.

WK was concerned about the views expressed by Frank Larkins, the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne. Professor Larkins believes that there should be fewer PhD students, and that they should be full-time, on an increased full scholarship:

I would opt for fewer research students, pay them better and insist that they be full time and get them through the system,” Professor Larkins said after the launch of his book, Australian Higher Education: Research Policies and Performance 1987-2010 (MUP). (itals WK)

WK was concerned, among other things, about the apparent gap between Professor Larkin's views and the actual reality of research student enrolments. She challenged the assumptions that appeared to be built into his view: research students were not all young, were not undertaking research as a first step in building a career, but instead were undertaking study for their own purposes. She was also critical of funding approaches because of the industry and innovation focus. Those commenting on WK's post focused on specific aspects of the postgraduate experience, especially supervision.

In my own brief comment, I said:

I have mixed views on this one, WK. I think that part of my problem lies in the way that issues are entangled in my mind.

Some years ago, I worked in the Department you are referring to, and was one of those pushing for better commercialisation of the results from research. Later I became concerned at the way the outcomes were reducing free blue sky research. Later still, I became concerned at the way that the focus on vocation was destroying education for the sake of education.

Because the issues are so muddled in my mind, I will try to write a companion post just disentangling it all.

This post is my promised response. In writing, I am not trying to be too structured or rigorous, just getting down a few points that I hope might contribute to discussion. As with so many of my posts. I am drawing on my personal experience to illustrate issues and to provide context. While this will be obvious, I make the point explicitly now to alert you to the fact that I have very strong views on some issues plus a degree of nostalgia for a past now gone.  

The rise of credentialism

I grew up in an academic household in a small university city in the days before mass university education. My father and his brother completed their PhDs (Manchester, Cambridge) at a time when there were very few PhD students. This was true even when my older cousins did their PhDs in the period immediately following the Second World War.

With so few PhDs around, university staff members did not always have doctorates. A doctorate was not seen as a necessary entry point to a university position, although it helped. The focus in the PhD was more on the contribution to knowledge, a piece of original research.

By the 1970s, the PhD had become a necessary qualification for a university position. In 1982 I considered applying for a lectureship in Australian history. I was already an SES officer in the Commonwealth Public Service with broad based experience on a professorial equivalent salary, I had an honours in history and a masters in economics, some publications, while my work as a PhD student was known. I was advised by Professor Yarwood not to bother, that I would not be interviewed, that I would not be eligible for such a position until I completed my PhD.

The rise of credentialism changed the nature of the PhD. While it was still seen as a contribution to original knowledge, its dominant role was now as a ticket for those wishing to pursue an academic career in both teaching and research.

In parallel came the rise of the citation index, something that I discussed in Publish or Perish - where did the this phrase come from?. The first proposal for a citation index dates to the 1960s. The first on-line index appeared in the 1970s. While the citation index was viewed as a way of better accessing knowledge, it quickly became an academic measuring tool. Publish or perish had arrived.

This changed the relationship between PhD student and supervisor, especially in science. Cases of supervisors effectively pinching student research have a long history. However, now it became more regularised in the sense that student research was critical to supervisor's publication lists through the mechanism of joint publications. Honest supervisors contributed to those publications. Others got a free ride.

Today, the measurement of research performance at individual and institutional level has become absolutely critical to funding and to the various league tables that play a key role in the competitive marketplace. Again, this affects thinking about the role of PhDs.

The rise of credentialism was not, of course, limited to the university world. The spread of vocational qualifications in other parts of the economy affected universities at all levels as they chased new markets. This led in turn to a proliferation of postgraduate vocational offerings. The battles continue today with the attempt to get the name doctor attached to certain vocational offerings.

Commercialisation, postgraduate research & the rise of patents

From the middle of 1987 I was responsible for Commonwealth Government policies and programs for the electronics, aerospace and information industries. In this role I, and others, pushed for the more effective commercialisation of university research. We were especially influenced here by Australia's failure to effectively commercialise technology and to develop the new university based new technology clusters that had emerged in other places. As part of this, we looked at new mechanisms for industry-university cooperation.

This theme has continued to the present day, although the wording has varied as have some of the institutional structures. Today, for example, innovation is all the go. Yet the basic approach is still the same.

By the early 1990s, I was worried that the approaches that I had advocated were destroying blue sky research, that the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge was vanishing. My view here was partly one of values, but I also thought that that the applied bias was reducing the creation of new knowledge. Then, too, I was influenced by the way that the academic areas I was interested in in arts and the humanities were struggling to get funding because there was no direct payback.

This remains my view. Some of the greatest advances in human knowledge have been the by-blow of people pursuing research driven by intellectual curiosity. As scope for this diminishes, so does the generation of new knowledge. Here I have argued that that the generation of new knowledge has actually diminished over recent decades.

In the early 2000s I was project manager of an attempt to commercialise a new piece of science. This introduced a new dimension.

The university department in question was one of the largest in its field in Australia. Its large postgraduate group was nearly all funded by industry grants. The need to maintain such grants drove approaches. As the professor explained, we can't really do pure research because there is no way of funding it.

In the field in question, funders own the intellectual property - the issues this raises are interesting, but beyond the scope of this post. Patents are very important to the protection of that intellectual property. You cannot patent something that is already in the public domain. Patents also take considerable time to work their way through patents systems around the world.

During the patent period, students and staff cannot produce academic papers, the usual pecking order mechanism. Further, even when the patent is on the public record, what can be published is still limited because of the need to protect ancillary intellectual property.

All this has certain effects.

The number of patents issued actually takes the place of the normal academic publication. This creates its own distortion because it creates an incentive to patent independent of the real value of the patent. At a macro level, it also slows the creation and distribution of knowledge. Finally, it can create real problems for the postgraduate student because they are dealing with commercial issues that they don't really understand.

None of this might matter if there were adequate funding for a slice of pure, intellectual curiosity driven, research. There is not.                 

Diversity in the postgraduate experience

Sadly, students have a bad tendency to do what they want to do, not what universities or governments expect!

At the time Professor Yarwood was telling me that I must get my PhD if I wanted to drop salary and status to become a university lecturer, the University of New England had a large Australian postgraduate history group from Bachelor of Letters to PhD. Most were externals. None had any interest in postgraduate study as a ticket. They were studying because they wanted to study, because they had very specific things that they wanted to research and needed structure and help.      

Since 1982, there has been an explosion in the number and diversity of postgraduate students. Herein lies the real problem with Professor Larkins' comment.

In the most basic terms, what does he mean when he says that there should be fewer PhD students, that they should be full-time, on an increased full scholarship? Just which slice is he talking about?

My feeling, and this is part of WK's point, is that he is thinking just of those students for whom a PhD is a research ticket. I also suspect, and this point was made by some of WK's commenters, that his comments have to be set in the context of Melbourne University's current strategy.

However, I also feel that his views reflect a view of the university that were set when he was a student and young academic. Just looking at his photo, I would guess 1960s or early 1970s.

Here I do have sympathy. It will be clear that I don't like many of the changes that have occurred. I don't like the modern Australian university. Still, that should be a story for another post.