Monday, January 31, 2011

I had to laugh

During the week, ABC local radio had a talk back session inspired by the experience of musician Jimmy Buffett who fell face down from the stage. It was a bad fall. Fortunately, he fell in front  of a doctor sitting in the front row seats who rushed to help. Richard Glover as ABC presenter asked his audience for experiences that they had had when the right person just happened to be present to help them.

There were some weird and wonderful tales. However, my favourite was a simple story of disaster averted.

A women with two young children entered the shopping centre car park. It was a stinking hot day, and the only place she could find was on the open roof in full sun. Getting out of the car, she accidentally locked it with keys plus one child inside. This is no laughing matter.

Distraught, she looked around for help. While she was standing there, a car arrived with a mother and son. Tears streaming down her face, she rushed across seeking help.

The pair in the car looked at each other a bit strangely, even sheepishly. Then the son shrugged, got from the car and opened the boot. There was a complete collection of differently shaped coat hangers all designed to open cars. Twenty seconds later her car was open. The women was so relieved that she flung her arms around the mother and hugged her.

As the women said on the program, what are the percentage chances of finding a car thief when you actually want one!      

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Snippets - drop bears and other phenomena

The current troubles in Egypt  are one of those things that I watch with interest, but don't write about because I have little of value to add. I simply don't know enough!

The Government's attempts to control the flow of communication via mobiles and the internet were interesting because they were another example of the use of the new media on one-side, Government responses on the other.

I have had a reasonably good record as a technology forecaster. However, I completely underestimated the way in which combinations of communications technology might be used for things such as political purposes.

I was also interested in just what the troubles might mean for the complex world of Middle Eastern politics. The view one gets from Australia tends to be one dimensional, dominated by the Israel/Palestine issue, Iraq or Iran. However, it strikes me that the changes are far more interesting and complex than that because of the way national and regional trends interact. 

  In a piece on the Lowy Institute blog, Good news about Papua New Guinea, Graeme Dobell argues that PNG is doing far better than most people allow. That's good news, although Graeme's analysis has its detractors.

I have argued for some time that PNG is a far more significant issue for Australia than most people would allow. This view is based on nothing more significant than populations maths. If you combine rapid population growth with poor economic, social and political performance, add PNG's closeness, then you can see that Australia is likely to face problems.

One feature of discussion on the flood levy lay in the interaction between it and the resources boom. An example is the discussion on skills shortages. To my mind, something of a cargo cult mentality has developed in Australia on the resources boom, one that reminds me a little of 1980.

I have quite large question marks in my mind.

The first links to China's continued growth. Michael Pettis, among others, has been arguing for some time that the imbalances in the Chinese economy pose a substantial threat to longer term Chinese growth. There is a real risk that Chinese growth might stall, even hit a wall.

The second question lies in the way that that shortages bring forth new supply. Here there was some interesting analysis in Saturday's Australian - I can't give you a link - suggesting that Australia was unlikely to benefit as much as expected from the current boom in natural gas. Higher local development costs and lags meant that new supply would come on stream more slowly and at lower levels than expected. Meantime, projects elsewhere meant that there would be a natural gas surplus by 2017.

The reason I mention 1980 is that that was the year I entered the Commonwealth Public Service Senior Executive Service. As a young SES officer, I found myself thrust into debate over the resources boom.

My branch was responsible for the major projects projections whose numbers appeared in political debate. I also found myself a member of the Economic Strategy Interdepartmental Committee, the peak official economic advisory body, as well as an IDC (interdepartmental committee) formed to address immediate skill needs.

I will deal with the detail of some of the discussions in a later post because the issues and responses are very relevant today. For the moment, I just note that the boom collapsed far sooner than expected. Worse, the Government accepted budget parameters based on boom conditions that then helped push the economy into recession.

A central problem in all this lay in the failure to properly differentiate between short term and long term issues.

Neil Whitfield has continued his discussion on multicultural Australia. I find that my hackles rise quickly on this one. Just mention Paul Keating and multiculturalism in one breath and past resentments arise. I cannot help it.

The extent to which Mr Keating and his policies, especially the way he expressed those policies, contributed to the rise of One Nation and a popular resentment that actually seemed to threaten a multi-ethnic Australia should now be left to the historians. Neil's broader point, current Australia is at it is, is more important.

James O'Brien's pleasant and gentle post on Australia Day, More Than Thongs, was a helpful reminder to a natural pontificator like me. He wrote:

Unfortunately, one of the great dilemmas of Australia Day is the way in which people on the fringe have appropriated the day in the media and in a very public way.

Most of us aren’t on the extremes. We are comfortable in our notion of national identity. I’m pleased that, as a nation, we’ve gone down the path of quiet national pride compared with the more outspoken elements of American nationalism, for example. Most of us simply enjoy the holiday, enjoy catching up with friends and family and do something vaguely nationalistic which generally amounts to little more than wishing someone else “Happy Australia Day”. And that’s how I spent Australia Day: a walk around the portrait gallery, a trip back from Canberra to Sydney on the bus, and a catch-up with friends at a pub on New Canterbury Road.

I think that's pretty right.

Among younger Australians, my daughters and her friends are the group I know best. Before Helen left for Copenhagen, one big issue was just what strange and fictitious elements of Australia might be put on show to the hopeful confusion of fellow residents at the Copenhagen Business School. Drop bears were one candidate, although Helen kind of destroyed this one in Copenhagen by breaking into laughter at the wrong moment!

Now this is no different from Brother David and I when we went to Asia for the first time all those years ago. Drop bears, of course, didn't exist then. After all, they are in fact mainly an advertising created concept. Yet the principle was the same.

Just so long as Australians don't take themselves too seriously, the country will get by.        

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Further musings on the flood levy

I don't really have anything substantive to add on the levy to the views expressed on Flood levy's, public policy & the Australian spirit. However, I did do a bit of a browse round this morning looking at some of the comments.

On Nine-MSN, an on-line poll on will the Government flood levy stop you from donating, the numbers are running at 110,516 yes to 32,489 no. In the Australian, Stefanie Balogh and Jamie Walker report that, according to early polls, most Australians are against the levy, with The Australian's online poll recording more than 81 per cent of the 12,700 respondents opposed to it. Fairfax's online poll of 50,000 people had 74 per cent giving it the thumbs-down.

Looking at the blogs, writing just before the announcement, John Quiggin thought that the foreshadowed package was about right. He was especially pleased to see that cash for clunkers was dead. John's commenters generally took a different and far less sympathetic view on the package.

One thread related to the environment and climate change. This was an example of a the type of thing that was going to happen with climate change. We should be addressing that, not adopting a short term response. A second thread focused on building on flood plains.

 On the other side of the spectrum, Sinclair Davidson wrote two posts on Catallaxy Files, one just before (Rebuilding Infrastructure), one just after (The Panic-Attack Tax) the announcement. In the first, he said:

It’s widely expected that the Federal government today will announce a temporary increase in the Medicare levy to pay for the flood damage that has occurred in Queensland and other parts of the country. Early reports suggest that people affected by flooding will be exempt while those not affected will have to pay. I’m not sure how that’s actually going to work – in some places people living over the road from each other may or may not be liable for a Commonwealth tax based simply on an accident of geography. (I suspect constitutional lawyers will want to keep an eye of that issue.) Then there is the issue of defining ‘flood damage’ if it is associated with a lower tax rate. There is more than a little moral hazard associated with this proposal.

What concerns me, however, is that policy makers have been somewhat limited in their thinking about financing the rebuild effort. Levy or spending cuts? Given that choice I reckon spending cuts should, at least, be the dominant source of financing. (Cuts could and should finance the entire rebuild, but that is a choice they obviously have already considered and rejected).

So what to rebuild? Should all the pre-existing infrastructure simply be replaced? or upgraded? A lot of careful thinking should go into that decision. Who gets to make the decision? The Commonwealth who is levying the tax, the taxpayers of other states who pay for it, or the people who are the direct beneficiaries of the spending?

In the second, he linked the need for a levy to previous Government overspend, concluding that there was some good news; "a lot of pie-in-the-sky green programs have been cut or deferred". He also observed: 

I don’t know if the Federal government has thought hard enough about this, the letter page of the Herald Sun today indicated a lot of anger.

Catallaxy commenters were all over the place, but with a consistent negative theme. One commenter had already organised a web site along with Twitter and a Facebook page to oppose it. Ah, the joys of social networking!

On Club Troppo, in Any alternatives to a levy?, Fred Argy more or less comes down in favour. The comments here are generally more positive, with a focus on the limited political choices facing the Government. There is also discussion of one specific expenditure cut. Here Ken parish wrote:

I agree that the cuts to the National Rental Affordability Scheme are the major unequivocally bad decision in Gillard’s package. It’s not only a betrayal of fundamental Labor values (presumably to appeal to the middle class and aspirational marginal seat voters) but bad policy in itself. With rents at prohibitive levels through much of Australia, lots of workers and families are simply being priced out of any reasonable housing.

On Transition Town Kenmore in Paying for the floods: Rail devolution? and a billion dollar cut to solar power, Mike focuses especially on the cuts/deferrals at both Queensland and Commonwealth levels. His assessment of the Federal cuts is negative, again on climate change and environmental grounds.

In one of the few positive blog reactions, (Relatively) calm in the face of a storm, Michelle focuses on Julia Gillard's performance under hostile media fire. Liz, too, is sympathetic, breaking into verse:

dear stingy bastards,
the amount you will pay for
the flood levy is

nothing compared to
the loss that has occurred. Stop
being such a jerk.

That includes you, Premier-lady.

While personally skeptical about the levy, Marshall King takes a critical look at media coverage; Darren Freak provides a comedic view; while Little Miss P.I. is clearly an opposition supporter. On Life in Question, Joshua Hewitt aims to unpack the issues in Gillard’s Test; Questioning the flood levy with negative results.

Finally, Larvatus Prodeo provides links to a number of posts, including several looking at the positive aspects.

This little run-round has taken a lot longer than I intended. Overall, I am struck by the negative nature of so many of the responses, at the way that different issues run together.

In my previous post I said that I was not personally opposed to the idea of a levy. My concern lay in the way that the whole thing had been put together and presented.

Reading the posts and comments, looking at Mr Abbott's responses including the way he is attempting to set up the circumstances for a Government defeat on the floor of the House, I think that the whole debate deserves more objective analysis.

The debate has not been helped by the NSW's Premier's remarkably silly intervention, something that I dealt with very briefly in Keneally wins crap of the week award. The idea that Sydney people deserved special treatment provided ample fodder for talk back radio in that city.

I will continue to monitor the debate, but that's all for present.    

Friday, January 28, 2011

Flood levy's, public policy & the Australian spirit

Yesterday the Australian Government announced new flood reconstruction measures to be part funded by a new one year income tax levy, part funded by expenditure cuts or deferrals. You can find full details here. The PM's address on the issue is here.

In a comment KVD wrote:

This is very much off topic, but I just wanted to record my amazement and despair at the misunderstanding demonstrated by the public after today's "Flood Levy" announcement.
I am not asking for a comment on the economic outcomes, or possible alternative measures.

If you have time, have a look at the comment stream attached to

Just really - how does a government actually govern in the face of such basic public ignorance as to what is proposed?

KVD did not ask for a comment from me, but having read the comments, I could not resist. The vitriol in some of the comments is quite remarkable.

The problem with this one is that it involves complicated issues and has also been wrongly timed and badly packaged. I don't think that I would have spotted the bad packaging just from the PM's speech. It is only by comparing the speech with the comments that it becomes clear.

Donations vs Levy

In her speech, the PM tried to make a distinction between the donations intended to help individuals and the new package's objective of rebuilding infrastructure. Australians would, she hoped, continue to be generous.

Looking at the comments and listening to discussion, this may be a forlorn hope. Those who donated are querying why they donated when they are now going to have to pay. It is not good timing to announce a new tax when you are trying to get people to donate for what is apparently the same purpose.

The PM would have been better off delaying an announcement to allow more time for discussion. There should also have been a greater focus on explaining the relationship between levy and donations.

Queensland vs the Rest

Four Australian states were affected by the floods. The PM's speech notes this. However, the great focus on Queensland, the greater focus on Queensland in reporting, created a degree of public confusion and also triggered rivalry issues. Why should I pay to help Queensland? I am from flood affected Northern NSW. Why should I pay to help Queensland when we too have been affected?

These issues could have been better explored.

Fiscal Rectitude

The Government faced a particular problem, one partly of its own making, over the question of funding and the budget. The opposition has been hammering away at the need to bring the budget to surplus, to stop the great big debt truck. There is, Mr Abbott states, no justification for a levy. Reconstruction costs should be funded by spending cuts.

Itself locked into fiscal rectitude, the Government ended by beating its fists on its chest in a display of fiscal bravado. We will still bring the budget to surplus on the original timetable; we have cut or deferred two dollars in spend for every one dollar raised by the levy. This played right into the opposition's hands. If you can do that, the surely you can go that step further and thus do away with the levy altogether.

The real problem for the Government is that its approach confused two very different questions. The first is the nature of reconstruction assistance. What we are going to spend and why? How to fund it all is the second and very different question. The first is really the most important. However, in joining the two, the Government ensured that the second would dominate.  

You can see this confusion at in some of comments. Why must the Government keep the budget in surplus? Why can't it do what it did during the Global Financial Crisis? Alternatively, this levy is unnecessary, they should just cut more spending. This brings into play all the arguments around budget approaches, as well as specific measures such as the National Broadband Network.

It also brings into play discussion on specific spending cuts themselves. At the moment, the focus is on the green cuts, but there are quite a few others including industry and regional programs, as well as cuts to the National Affordable Housing program. Further, in the case of some regional programs, it appears that remaining funds will also be redirected to flood affected areas. So expect more trouble.

Short vs Long Term

Comments have also picked up a range of other issues including:

  • why should I pay for people who chose to live in flood prone areas or who fail to get insurance?
  • floods happen all the time. Shouldn't we adopt a long term approach?

Many of these types of questions, while often reflecting hip pocket concerns, are legitimate. The same type of issues arises with drought relief, for example. Here a key need is to distinguish between short and long term issues. We do need a long term approach, but we also have an immediate problem.


Personally, I am not opposed to a levy. However, I don't think that the way this whole thing has been done is especially good public policy.

As I drove back home this morning listening to the radio, the whole focus was on the need for Julia Gillard to sell the levy. I guess that, in a sense, captures the problem. Instead of discussing the best way of meeting a need, discussion will be dominated by funding.

In all this, KVD is right to point to the difficulties involved in getting new policies up in an age of instant reaction where reactions are driven by media presentation of issues. The problem is, at least as I see it, that Governments have not really learned how to manage the new environment, one that they have played a part in creating.

I may be naive, although I have had a fair bit of experience in the areas we are talking about, but I feel that sometimes you just have to allow time and provide information so that people have a chance to get their minds around issues. The most important thing is that people at least feel confident that Governments have at least thought things through.

I want to finish this post on a positive note.

I have been very critical of current approaches to public administration.

The most important conclusion that I drew from the floods was an enormous sense of reassurance and pleasure that our systems can still work. At all levels of Government, at the community and volunteer level, I actually thought that the floods were one of the most remarkable success stories that I have ever seen.

Of course there were mistakes. Yet the work done was, simply, bloody brilliant. I see the floods as a case study of what can go right, not wrong. I offer my personal congratulations to all those who strived.

There is a very good and dramatic book here. I can't write it, I am struggling to complete my current projects, but I wish someone would.      

Thursday, January 27, 2011

immigration, words and concepts

I have been working away on a follow up to Sunday Essay - Immigration Nation fails the test taking comments here and elsewhere into account, as well as thoughts generated by Australia Day. I ended up with a far larger, more complicated and less controlled task than I had expected. I have therefore put the matter aside for the moment. While I have done this, I thought that I would briefly explain the problems I discovered.

The first thing I wanted to do was to properly document the changes that had taken place up to 1972. The policy was effectively dead when I ran for Country Party pre-selection in 1972. The ALP took White Australia from its platform in 1965, the Country Party did so the following year. I wanted to trace the changes at both political and policy levels. This one was not too hard, just collecting dates and actions in order to put them into a table.

The second thing I wanted to do was to put the progressive changes into a context, something that I thought that Immigration Nation had failed properly to do. Here I focused on two things: I wanted to show that Australia faced very particular geo-political pressures in its immediate region that extended well beyond the issue of the communist threat; I also wanted to show that at least some of the changes in Australian attitudes were part of broader global trends linked, among other things, to the US Civil Rights Movement. In both cases, my focus remained on the 1950s and 1960s.

Creating a context was a bigger task, but not impossible.

I then decided to look at immigration policies in other countries. If I was right about broader international trends, then they should be reflected elsewhere. I also had a feel that the title of the Australian SBS program Immigration Nation might be generalised to Immigration Nations. That is, Australia and a small number of other countries shared attributes that made something like the concept of multiculturalism or the Canadian equivalent possible.

In thinking about this, I was influenced by my previous thought and writing about certain trends including the rise of countries based on ethnicity in circumstances of formal and informal ethnic cleansing. There are very few countries that can truly be classified as multicultural, far more that are in one way or another mono-cultural. Measured by numbers of countries, mono-culture not multiculture  is appears dominant.

Now I found myself in very real trouble. My problem lay in words and the relationships between words and changing labels.

Every word we use has a particular meaning at a particular time. Further, in addition to the formal meaning, many words have bundles of attributes attached to them that extend beyond the formal meaning.

One modern example is our use of the term code words to describe words that actually have a very different meaning, a loaded meaning. A second modern example is spin, the conscious selection of words to describe something in a way that will appeal to a target audience. 

To do what I wanted to do, I needed to take the meaning of words at a point in time and then look beyond to any code word elements.

In case this sounds too abstract, take the word nondiscriminatory.

Australia operates a nondiscriminatory migration policy. This is what we say and what we believe.

The reality is quite different. We actually have a highly discriminatory migration policy, at least as discriminatory as at any time in the past.

Sound extreme? Well, sixty years ago we would basically take any migrant so long as they were European. Today, we will take most migrants so long as they have a family connection or bring skills. All that has changed is the grounds of selection. We still discriminate. In fact. we discriminate on many more grounds!

Or take the concept of homogeneity.

In 1966, a senior official warned the Government that admission of Asian migrants risked breaking down the homogeneity of Australian society. Cabinet went ahead anyway because Australia really had little choice.

Homogeneity sounds dreadful in a multicultural world, yet the principle is still there.

We try to knock out from the migrant intake anybody who might create a problem. Our two biggest migrant groups - family reunion and skilled migrants - are just those groups likely to fit in. A truly non-discriminatory immigration policy would say that we admit anyone.

I am not saying that we shouldn't have rules. I am saying that in something like immigration we need to recognise that we do discriminate and that the way we discriminate will change with time.  We just have to recognise what we are doing.

Thus type of word issue bedevils all immigration discussions. It derailed my proposed post because I had neither the time nor energy to go through the semantic tracking that was required to properly present the issues.        

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Welcome commenter 3000

By some standards, I don't get a lot of comments on this blog. I value them all!

Comment 3,000 has arrived. As it happened, I was that commenter! That doesn't seem fair to record.

More importantly, commenter 2999 and 3001 were both Neil Whitfield (Ninglun). That does seem fair to record given our blogging friendship.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Kangaroos and flooding rains

Browsing around, I found a reference to the current shortage of kangaroo meat. I can't give a link. It's not on line.

Apparently, with the ending of the drought, the kangaroo population has spread across the countryside, making it harder for shooters to find them. There are also problems in some cases with access because of boggy ground.

I had this filed away as a possible quirky story, then realised that it actually illustrated something that I have talked about from time to time in my discussions on Aboriginal Australia. Most recently in Environment and the distribution of Aboriginal languages in NSW I said in part:

Australia is a very dry continent, marked by periodic droughts and floods. The inland rivers of the Murray- Darling Basin including the Murray have all stopped flowing for periods in recorded times. This affects not just water for human consumption, but also the vegetable and animal food supplies on which the Aborigines depended.

It seems that the size and distribution of Aboriginal populations were broadly related to what we might think of as the carrying capacity of the country in bad times. However, this relationship was a variable one. Among other things, the human birth rate cannot be exactly matched to changing conditions. It seems likely that populations expanded during prolonged good times, then contracted.

We have some evidence for this from the Murray River with its high population but smaller river dependent language territories. There skeletal evidence from burials shows signs of periodic malnutrition.

Elsewhere in inland NSW, Aboriginal populations concentrated near water during dry periods, expanding across land at other times to take advantage of newly available water and food resources.

This traditional pattern of population concentration during dry times followed by dispersal is well documented. Now if you look at the story about kangaroo meat you can see why.

If you are an Aboriginal hunter who wants to add some kangaroo to the diet, you have to roam more widely. Your ability to roam is supported by greater access to water, as well as the new supply of things like various grass seeds that add to the diet. Kangaroo and man thus move in interlinked ways and for the same reasons.

Part of my continuing fascination with history is just how the little bits fit together.

We have records from Aboriginal protohistory, that often very short time when traditional life and European observation over lapped, of sometimes large gatherings of Aboriginal people. While I haven't checked dates and then related them to the local climate, I am sure that you will find a close correlation between such gatherings and wetter periods when people could spread. Another small building block in my continuing attempts to tell the story of at least Aboriginal New England as a living story.

During the week, I discovered that my post on the distribution of Aboriginal languages was picked up by the Workers Bush Telegraph. I quote:

an interesting article by jim belshaw who studies our histories and languages from an academic view.

but don’t let that put you off, he is easily readable.

here he looks at the nsw language groups (map included) and how and why they are situated where they are.

I really was very flattered. Apart from the praise, it gets one of my stories (as a sometimes historian, I do think of myself as a story teller) to an audience that I would not otherwise reach.

I have been deferring telling the story of the Red Kangaroo, a rare tale of warfare and intrigue from pre-European New England, until I had done more background work. This story, popularised in Ion Idriess's The Red Chief: As Told by the Last of His Tribe, would actually make a rather good film script.

Mmm. More to do! 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunday Essay - Immigration Nation fails the test

I really struggled with the last episode of SBS's Immigration Nation. I thought it was unbalanced; it really made me wonder what conclusions people would draw from it. I was sufficiently depressed by it that I actually didn't want to write about it. To my mind, there were sufficient code words built in to obscure it's final message.

Let me start with a parody.

The Liberal Country Party Government of Sir Robert Menzies started the Colombo Plan because of fear of communism, little realising that it would destroy the White Australia policy. Having met Asians, Australians decided they were quite nice.

In the face of agitation led by Charles Perkins and student radicals especially from Sydney University and in part energised by the Prasad case, Minister for immigration Hubert Opperman  was forced to change. This was aided by the departure of Menzies. There is then a long segment on the fight in the ALP to change it's approach, to abolish its support for the White Australia Policy. Sadly, PM Whitlam when faced by the challenge of Vietnamese boat people went to water, really maintaining a racist stance. Surprisingly, it was left to Malcolm Fraser as the leader of the incoming Liberal-CP Government to make the dramatic gesture to really end the policy by the wholesale admission of Vietnamese refugees. In all this, there are shots that continue to equate support for ten pound poms with racial discrimination.

This really is a parody. Let me start with a brief historical summary. Here in Migration Matters - A Personal Perspective: Times of Change I noted that the White Australia Policy

was not killed by a single major decision, but by a series of incremental changes:

  • During the war years Australia had admitted a number of non-European refugees, some of whom had married Australians. Moves to deport them created protests, and Harold Holt, the Immigration Minister in the newly elected Menzies Government, allowed 800 to stay while also allowing Australian soldiers to bring back Japanese war brides.
  • In 1957 non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia were allowed to become Australian citizens. This was followed in 1958 by a revised Migration Act introducing a simpler system of entry permits and abolishing the controversial dictation test. Some restrictions on non-European migration remained, but entry was eased while the revised Act avoided references to questions of race.
  • In March 1966 after a review of the non-European policy, Immigration Minister Hubert Opperman announced that applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified people on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia. This was a watershed decision, effectively ending the White Australia policy.
  • The last remnants of the old policy were removed in 1973 by the newly elected Whitlam Labor Government, putting a completely non-discriminatory policy in place.

If you look at this chronology, what a remarkable thing it was that a migration policy deeply entrenched in 1949 should have effectively collapsed by 1966, equally remarkable that thirteen years later Australia would be welcoming large numbers of Vietnamese boat people.

There is no doubt, as the SBS program suggested, that the Colombo Plan played a major role in changing Australian attitudes. Here I wrote in 2006:

The Colombo Plan played a major role in facilitating this change in migration policy.

Australia faced a dark and clouded international environment at the end of the war

. The old security provided by membership of the Commonwealth and Empire had been swept away, lost with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. War with Germany and Japan had been replaced by the cold war between East and West, fear of the spread of communism and the threat of nuclear war. Decolonisation was underway, requiring Australia to develop new international relations.

In late 1949 Australia was invited to attend a meeting of British Commonwealth Foreign Ministers to be held in Colombo. Australian officials had been discussing policy options towards Asia including a possible aid program. The Australian Government believed that economic development would improve political stability and help stop the spread of communism.

In January 1950, an Australian delegation led by External Affairs Minister Percy Spender took the Australian aid plans to the Colombo meeting. Commonwealth foreign ministers agreed to establish a Commonwealth Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and South-East Asia, modelled in part on the Marshall Plan. The plan, although then sometimes referred to as the 'Spender Plan', came to be called the 'Colombo Plan'.

The Plan began with seven members of the British Commonwealth - Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), India, New Zealand, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. By 1954 these countries had been joined by Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, the Philippines, the United States, Thailand and Malaya.

Prior to the Plan few Australians had had any day to day contact with people from Asia. The plan changed that in a quite dramatic way. Over the next 35 years some 40,000 Asian students studied in Australia under the Plan, bringing large numbers of Australians into contact with Asia and Asians for the first time.

At a purely personal level I added:

Personal contact with Asia and Asians widened. My geography honours class focused on Asia. I met more, especially among Dad's students. The first Asian students came to school as boarders, although they had a pretty hard time of it initially. The local deli was now carrying Asian ingredients, I ate my first Asian food including Indonesian cooked by some of those students, mum started incorporating some Asian elements into her cooking. And all this in a family that five years before had rarely used even garlic in cooking!

By the time I started University in 1963 I had become something of an Asiaphile. I do not think that I was unique. Rather, I simply belong to the first Australian generation that really discovered Asia.

University extended this process. There were only 1,200 or so full time undergraduates on campus, some 10 per cent of these from overseas. Including its affiliate members (only overseas students were eligible for full membership), the Overseas Students Association was the largest student society. Many overseas students occupied senior places on campus. Soo Khoo edited the student newspaper, Ahdi - an Indonesian student - was the paper's chief cartoonist.

Culture shocks continued. Which foods did people eat or not eat? What was acceptable behaviour in different cultures?

A small but not insignificant example. In Australia boys and girls hold hands. In many Asian societies boys or girls held hands, not boys and girls. Australia was then a homophobic society. I still remember my sense of shock when, standing on the Union steps, a Pakistani friend took my hand and held it while talking to me! I gulped inaudibly, and allowed him to do so.

The next photo shows overseas students at the University oOverseas Week 1960f New England attaching a banner for overseas week 1960. The impact of the Columbo Plan was not limited just to students. There was, in fact, a broader international movement that both affected and was influenced by the Colombo Plan.

Two examples to illustrate. One personal, none general.

At a purely personal level, the biography of Uncle Horace records:

During the Second World War Belshaw collaborated with colleagues in Auckland and with fellow members of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in promoting discussion of key issues of post-war organisation, development and security in New Zealand and internationally. In 1944 he was appointed research secretary to the Institute of Pacific Relations in New York. Two years later he became professor of agricultural economics at the Davis campus of the University of California and also economist at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. His writing in this period reflects his growing interest in rural welfare and agrarian reform in developing countries. With others, he produced a survey of reconstruction problems and needs for the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in 1947. His background made him an ideal appointee to the post of director of the Agricultural Division of the Rural Welfare branch of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 1948. With typical energy and enthusiasm, he organised surveys, conferences and action-oriented programmes, and motivated constructive work by others.

Horace Belshaw was just one of a number of Australian and New Zealand academics actively involved in international agencies in the forties, fifties and sixties. These included my father and two cousins. So regardless of the White Australia Policy, there was a strong ANZ outreach.

The second example is the foundation of International House at Sydney University in 1967. This was driven in part by Rotary and its members who saw international houses as a way of facilitating international understanding.

It may be, as the SBS program suggested, that Australia's role in the Colombo Plan was intended in part to "sell' the White Australia Policy, although I would need a fair bit of convincing on evidence that this was significant as compared to political window-dressing. However, it was also a pragmatic response to change.

Let me give another example. In 1957, Country Party Leader and Deputy PM  John McEwen steered through a trade agreement with Japan. Coming just twelve years after the war, this was a pragmatic but highly risky political gesture, one that laid the basis for subsequent economic expansion.

My point here is that there were a whole series of engagements with Asia during the period over which the policy was abolished. The policy had to go because it now stood in the way of Australia's national interest.

Student activities at Sydney University and the Prasad case make good TV. They are indicative of changing attitudes. However, and this links to my earlier points, that agitation was part of a broader process.

It's actually very interesting from my perspective because of some other writing I am doing on social change in New England during the same period involving the same players. At the time, I saw the Prasad case as an example of the injustice of the White Australia policy. Today, and here I am influenced by the Howard period, I see is more as an example of the injustice associated with the application of rigid rules by officials bound in with current policy.

In 1972 I ran for Country Party pre-selection for the Federal seat of Eden-Monaro.

As a candidate, I had to take into account the attitudes of the Party, my own views and and those of the pre-selectors. At a personal level, I was strongly opposed to the policy. At a Government level, the policy had gone. Yet, at an electorate level, many still supported it.

Asked a question on White Australia, I carefully explained why the policy could not be maintained. After the meeting Ian Sinclair, who was representing the Federal Party, came up and congratulated me on my answer.

My point here is that the process of change was far more nuanced, more graduated, than Immigration Nation allowed. I wonder how many viewers would understand that the policy had gone by 1972, that the issue at an electoral level was how to sell the changes.

I want to finish this post with a few brief comments on Vietnamese boat people.

Living in Canberra in the late sixties and seventies, I was part of a strongly Asiaphile group, several of whom had Vietnamese girlfriends. We ate Vietnamese food, talked about Vietnam, looked at photo albums of life in Saigon over many generations.

As South Vietnam collapsed over 1975, as it became clear that the Whitlam Government would not help rescue people who had been involved with Australia, the group started to try to lobby for change. I had been strongly opposed to Australian participation in the Vietnam War and had registered as a conscientious objector, but I regarded Mr Whitlam's actions as betrayal and so tried to help. All I did was to write to Ian Sinclair seeking his support.

This episode, the Whitlam Government refusal to help refugees, was dealt with at some length in Immigration Nation and put in the context of White Australia. Maybe this is right, maybe Mr Whitlam was concerned about Party attitudes. I can only say that this thought never occurred to me at the time. Rather, I saw it as the application of rigid ideology that, coming out of the war conflicts, regarded helping those supporting the South Vietnamese Government as wrong. There were also some broader foreign policy issues, including relations with China.

I had something of the same reaction to the presentation of Mr Fraser's later role with Vietnamese boat people. By then, the White Australia policy had been well and truly buried and for some time, yet this was presented as its real end. Certainly I did not see it this way at the time. White Australia was an irrelevancy, something past. Yet maybe the program was partially right, in that this was a mass Asian entry into Australia.

I am not a strong supporter of Mr Fraser. However, as I learn more, I have to regard Mr Fraser's role here as a major contribution to Australia.

Well, finishing here, I think that my final judgement on immigration Nation is that it has failed in a most fundamental sense: it will not convince anybody not already convinced. I think that's a pity.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Greek trip days 11-12 - Mykonos

Greek Trip, Days 11-12, Tuesday 28 September, Wednesday 29 September 2010, Mykonos

I spent a fair bit of time writing about Delos because the island sits at the centre of so much Greek history. The Delos posts were:

Delos will appear again later, but I am going to leave the story of the Peloponnesian Wars until the Athens stage of this ever extending saga.

On our return from Delos we had a picnic lunch in our room and then a rest. We then wandered downtown to have dinner at Antonini's, apparently a Mykonos institution, near the water front. P1010629 

I enjoyed this meal, although by now I was getting very sick of Greek food. I just didn't think that it was very good.

I am probably not being fair when I say this. I know that I get very sick of Australian food if just eating Australian restaurants. I will go further than this. I think that the aP1010624verage standard of Sydney restaurant is actually quite poor, worse than it was a few years ago in terms of both quality and value for money. However, that's a matter for another post.

On the way to and from the restaurant the women did what they like best, window shopping! 

This was quite fun, because it gave me a chance to observe. As in other places, I found a perch and then just sat, watched and listened.

Mykonos was, I think, the first Greek island to be really discovered by the rich and famous of Europe and North America.

In some ways it's a bit like a faded tart, surrounded by memorabilia and still living off its memories of past glories. Not, as with other Greek islands, its long history, but rather that period when the famous or sometimes infamous came. 

This may sound jaundiced. We all enjoyed Mykonos, but also felt that it didn't measure up to the other places we had seen. We would have preferred less time there, more time elsewhere. Still, I did enjoy watching both locals and especially our fellow tourists. I kept on forgetting to take my note pad with me!

One of the most fun things about Mykonos was the way it gave texture to Wog Boys 2, the Kings of Mykenos.Wog Boys 2

This is a very Australian movie that capture elements of Australian perceptions of themselves in a way that directly links to past movies including The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972).

Australian popular culture is quite complicated. The term wog could mean an illness, but was also applied in a pejorative way to migrants, especially from Southern Europe. Because it is pejorative, it shouldn't be used. To do so appears racist.

But what do you do when the groups to whom the term is applied adopt the term and turn it into a descriptor they use about themselves, one with positive and affectionate connotations?

I have a friend from an Armenian background who calls himself an Armenian wog. But I can't call him a wog outside narrowly defined circumstances because I am not a wog!

One of the most fascinating thing about the Kings of Mykonos is the way it takes so many Australian stereotypes and wraps them up in a Greek context with Greek subtitles. I don't think that the movie is great cinema, far from it. However, we just had fun watching it and fitting in the Mykonos scenes.

Wednesday Morning 29 September again dawned bright and hot. The group gathered for breakfast to plan the day. Note the inevitable computer!  


The changes that have taken place in travel as a consequence of the computer and the internet are quite profound and not always good. They make certain aspects of life easier, others more difficult.

From a purely personal perspective, one of the advantages of past travel lay in the way that you could put your normal life behind you. In a funny way, the privacy and sense of freedom that used to be associated with travel has been destroyed. The place that you are in becomes more an extension of your normal life, less a unique place on its own.

Day 12 was Judith's birthday. She wanted to have lunch at the hotel as a celebration. We did this and then walked downtown in the heat to look at the town.

P1110053 When we first arrived we found the old town with its twisting narrow streets very confusing. By now we knew our way around; just down the hill, turn left, turn right, then straight ahead.

This was, I think, the day that Clare decided to go clubbing after dinner. Like many of the Greek islands, the number of younger Australians mean that particular nightspots adopt an Australian flavour. There were two such spots in Mykonos. Clare visited both!

She clearly had a very good time! However, I did wonder next morning whether she had experienced another feature of Mykonos featured in the guide books, cheap shots. These, the guide books warn, are often adulterated to get the alcohol content up, the price down. Be wary, the books say, or you will end up with the mother and father of all hang-overs!

Mmm. Let's say that Clare wasn't very well that morning.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

Another break in posting

I am not going to post here until next Saturday. I am way behind in some of the things that I have to do. I am also feeling stale, a bit jaded, so a short break seems like a good idea!

Musing on Immigration Nation part two

In Issues with Immigration Nation I dealt with my reactions to the first part in this SBS series. This post records my reaction to the second part. You will find the the web site for the series here.

Ad it happened, the previous program on SBS was Faces Of America Episode 2 - Becoming American. This program is a useful balance to Immigration Nation because it provides a comparison to the US immigrant experience over the similar periods. Australia didn't seem to bad after all!

Before proceeding, looking at the US documentary convinced me of the value of a comparative study looking at changing attitudes to race and immigration in major English speaking countries. Here I have only looked so far at the emergence of the concepts of multicultural and multiculturalism.

The following graph from Google Ngram shows the number of mentions of the world multicultural in global publications captured by Google. You can see the rise in popularity of the term and then its sharp decline.  Frequency of mulitcultural

The second episode of Immigration Nation covers the emergence of the Australian mass migration program at the end of the Second World War. I found the first part very interesting indeed because it showed the way that PM Chifley and Immigration Minister Caldwell steered the program through in the face of uncertain public support. No matter the value of the program, I doubt that they would have got it through in today's environment with its emphasis on transparency. Indeed, it probably wouldn't have got started at all given that focus group outcomes would have been quite negative.

From this point the program started to lose me. Surprise was expressed at the fact that PM Menzies elected in 1949 kept the broader European migration tap open despite his support of Empire and his pro-Britishness. Then there was the obligatory reference to the first visit of the Queen to demonstrate the Britishness of Australia. I accept that this is a caricature, but so was the program at this point. Then there were the obligatory references to the multicultural future that lay in front of us all.

I accept that this is message TV. I also happen to agree with some of the messages. Yet after the very interesting historical material in the first part, the program fell away. In looking towards the next episode, I have set two tests:

  • the extent to which the program explains how Australians came to accept the changes given the program's premises about Australian attitudes at the start
  • how the program explains the progressive unwinding of the White Australia Policy over the 1950s and 1960s. 

I really don't want to pour on the series too much because it is getting at least some Australians interested in their own history. We will see!  

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Saturday meander

A very short post today.

At KVD's suggestion, I added a star rating system to this blog. Not sure what it will tell me, but worth a try.

A comment from David Nash on my previous post, Why micro-environments are important, led me to write Environment and the distribution of Aboriginal languages in NSW on my history blog. This post took more than five hours to write, hence the absence of a substantive post here. More and more I am finding that if I don't write stuff down with sources, I tend to lose the ideas. It's a case of too much browsing and not enough writing.

A tweet from Rachel Sowden led me to The English bac causes fury in schools. Another interesting case of getting what you measure!

In If only …, Thomas writes the speech that he would like to see Mr Obama deliver, A proposal expresses Marcellous's disquiet on an anti-drugs proposal from Armidale's Mary  McLure, while Ramana provides some unusual stats in Airport Screening Stats YTD.

In #Indonesia’s Unexpected #Population Spike: #Keluarga #Berencana di mana (I think that title is taking tweeterdom just too far!) Maximos62 provides details of Indonesia's latest census. The idea of Indonesia reaching about 475 million people by 2057 is somewhat thought provoking, to say the least!

On Lightbulb, Noric Dilanchian looks at one lesson form Wikileaks, Plan for disruption, WikiLeaks did, while Randy McDonald's "The Anomalous Success of Luxembourg" points to an interesting story on Luxembourg. I never ceased to be amazed at the stuff he finds!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why micro-environments are important

During the floods across Queensland and Northern New England, my train reading switched to Volume 2, The Commentaries, of An Atlas of New England (Department of Geography, University of New England, 1977). Edited by David A.M. Lea, John J.J. Pigram and Leslie M. Greenwood, the commentaries include a variety of essays on different aspects of the human and physical geography of the New England Tablelands and North-Western slopes and plains.

I wanted to read the book again because of the importance of geography to the history I am writing. However, I read it at this point because I remembered that it had material relevant to the unfolding flood drama. In doing so, I was reminded of the importance of what I think of as micro-environments.

The floods themselves were triggered by broad weather conditions that covered a significant portion of the continent. However, their on-ground impacts varied greatly. The floods at Toowoomba and in the Lockyer Valley were part of the broader flood, but they were also greatly affected by local geography.

I think that most people are aware of climatic variation across their immediate areas, although this has been muted by to some degree by our urban life style. Taking Greater Sydney as an example, most people are aware that there is a temperature gradient as you move away from the sea; that thunder storms or fires are more concentrated in particular areas; that the gap between highest and lowest daily temperatures is greater in inland Sydney than on the coast.

This is of considerable practical importance. I am sure, for example, that spatial plotting of different types of emergency calls to the SES (State Emergency Services) would show considerable differences in patterns across Greater Sydney.   

While people recognise that these variations exist, I am not sure that we realise just how important they are. Statistics, reporting and policy are all based on averages, making it difficult to recognise and accommodate variation.

The Liverpool Plains lie north of the Hunter Valley, south west of the New England Tablelands, separated from the Tablelands by a sharp range of mountains. The Plains are part of what is sometimes called the Sydney-Bowen Basin, a huge stretch of territory that in very ancient times was a shallow sea. The great coal deposits on which Australia now depends for a significant proportion of its wealth date from this period.

Coal is a hot topic on the Liverpool Plains at present. Miners want to mine, while local landowners complain that this will damage the environment and especially the ground water.

Expressed in this way, it sounds like any other environmental dispute. However, if you drill down, you find that the Namoi Valley has, I think, the greatest ground water resources in New South Wales outside the Great Artesian Basin. Further, unlike the Basin, those waters are regularly replenished during major rain periods. Issues associated with protection, use and control of ground water are therefore very important.

In my continuing Greece travel series, I have frequently referred to the importance of water. The same holds in Australia.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent. Further, the rain that does fall often falls in spurts, our droughts and flooding rains. Looking just at New England, the Atlas's authors draw out the variability. They show the way in which particular centres might receive the equivalent of a month's average rainfall in just an hour. They plead for better data that might allow what I call the micro-environment to be better measured.

Traditional Aboriginal life in New England was dependent on water. Populations in particular areas were directly related to the maximum population that could be supported in dry times.

The largest Aboriginal populations were found on the coast with its constantly running rivers. Inland, the Aborigines spread across the country in wet times, contracted during dry times to more permanent water supplies. The large Kamilaroi language group is large because it had access to water including the Liverpool Plains' ground water with its springs.

Water is just as important today. However, it is not the only variable. Soils, land form slopes, mineral resources, every geographic feature you care to name, can vary greatly across relatively small areas.

At a macro level we may be able to ignore these variations, although they are critical for understanding local or regional history. However, I would argue that if we don't understand geography at both a macro and a micro-environmental level, our responses are likely to be inadequate.    

In Australia at least, we still haven't worked out how best to integrate the broad with the regional or local. Until we do, we are going to get inadequate results.


In comments, David Nash helpfully queried my statement that "the large Kamilaroi language group is large because it had access to water including the Liverpool Plains' ground water with its springs." This led me to write a full post amplifying my ideas.   

Environment and the distribution of Aboriginal languages in NSW

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Best history blogs 2010

The Cliopatria Awards for the best history blogs for 2010 have been announced at the American Historical Association Annual Conference held in Boston.

I was pleased to see that the award for best post went to Mike Dash for his "The Emperor's Electric Chair,".  This post provided the base for a teaser post on this blog. I said at the time that it was a remarkably good post.

Do have a browse of all the winners.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Initial lessons from the Queensland floods

I didn't give an end-day update on Toowoomba flash flood because by then the normal media coverage was so intense. I maybe should have, because that post attracted a lot of hits.

End of the summer break today, so I don't have time for a major post, just a few comments on things I noticed in the context of the Queensland floods.

As you might expect, the heavy rain and floods affected the telephone system. On some reports, mobile coverage in parts of Brisbane seems to collapsed quite early under the combination of rain and traffic pressures. Loss of power affected ability to communicate.

These things aren't new. However, it does raise the issue of increased vulnerability associated with technology based systems.

  Border myopia was alive and well. We are dealing with a weather system that extended from north of Rockhampton as far south as the Macleay Valley. The coverage and maps essentially stopped at the border, with Northern NSW, the broader New England, dealt with as an add-on. I found this quite annoying.

Coverage was remarkably patchy, even scatter-gun. I found is hard to get a proper picture of just what was happening as it applied to individual centres or even areas. You had to listen all the time just to pick up passing references that then left things hanging up in the air.

I know the geography quite well, but even so I struggled to fit things together.

Flood mitigation is already back on the agenda.  Problems with the Wivenhoe Dam show upsides and downsides that are sure to generate a lot of discussion.

Finally, and especially interesting from my viewpoint, were the pattern of overall responses, including discussions generated on Australian resilience. I just not this one at the moment.

This post may seem a bit odd when the present big story is the floods rolling down towards Ipswich and Brisbane, but I just wanted to get it all down.

I have written a number of posts on Australian responses to natural disasters. I will link those in in a later posts. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Queensland floods and the Australian character

My thanks to KVD for this one in a comment on Toowoomba flash flood, KVD kindly referred me to an article in the New York Times by Brisbane writer Nick Earls dealing with Australian responses to the Queensland   floods. It was, I thought, a rather nice piece.

Given the headline Staying Afloat Down Under, Nick's piece captures something of the way Australians do, and would like to be seen as, responding to things like natural disasters. The piece was written before the latest tragedy. However, this does not affect the message.  

Toowoomba flash flood

Just last Friday in Australia's wet spell I reported that some people were asking if we were about to see a repeat of the 1955 floods. This was actually a New Englan237232-toowoomba-flooding 10d or Northern NSW reference. So far as South Eastern Queensland is concerned, the overall floods are now the worst on record.

  The rain and flood affected area is huge, stretching from Rockhampton in Central Queensland more than a 1,000 kilometres south to the Bellinger River Valley in Northern New South Wales, with flooding so far mainly concentrated in Queensland. 

Part of the problem for the authorities is that there has been flood event after flood event. 

Yesterday, a two metre high wall of water swept though the CBD of the Darling Downs city of Toowoomba.Toowoomba sits atop the Great Dividing Range.  The flash flood lasted ten minutes. The first shot from the Courier Mail flood photo gallery shows the force of the water.

People scrabbled to sa237188-toowoomba-flooding 11ve others, in some cases forming human chains. By the end, there were four confirmed deaths with three missing. 

You will find fuller coverage here.

The sheer geographic scale of these floods is difficult to comprehend. Last night Brisbane itself was on full flood alert with fears that the city could experience a full scale flood.

As I write, the weather forecasts suggest some easing of the rain, although further heavy falls are possible.

The economic costs of the floods are already very high, reaching $A5-6 billion. The problem remains that with saturated catchments, further rain quickly translates to rising river levels.

In my earlier post, I included the medium term forecasts from the Bureau of Metrology covering the period to end March. These suggest a 60-75% probability over that period for above average rains across North Eastern NSW and Southern Queensland. This means that further floods are possible.  


Neil has put up a companion post, Queensland floods. Listening to the radio as I drove back from the city this morning, the news just seemed to get worse by the minute. It's not just Toowoomba, but the small communities at the base of the range as well that have been affected. The death toll from this one event has risen to eight, the number missing to some seventy, although hopefully many of these will be found.

I won't attempt to live blog developments, but will give a summary update tonight.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Issues with Immigration Nation

Last night I watched the new SBS program, the Immigration Nation: the secret history of us. I almost didn't. The promo put me off completely. This, it seemed to me, was going to be preaching, not history, another unbalanced perpetration of what have become modern myths. I also thought that it was potentially dangerous.

I did watch the first episode and then browsed the supporting material. You will find the web site here.

I am glad that I did. This is ambitious well made TV. Based only on the first episode and current web material, it is somewhat unbalanced, partisan, Looking at comment responses, it has divided viewer opinion in the expected way; it may well re-ignite the history wars.  However, it also draws out some of complexities involved, presenting Australian history in a way that will be new to many Australians. looking at it just as TV, I found it quite fascinating.

I see little point in critiquing the program a this point. Rather, I thought that I should provide a few background comments, pointing to my own writings. In doing so, my aim is simply to provide a deeper context for those who are interested.

The Chinese in Australia

The Chinese were Australia's first large non-Aboriginal, non-European migrant group. They did not just arrive with the gold rushes as many Australian's believe. The NSW colony was on the main shipping route for the China tea trade. With the ending of transportation, there were labour shortages in the bush. Employers looked at India and China as possible sources of migrants, generating the first ethnically linked migration discussions.

The Chinese in New England 1848-1853 provides a short introduction to this early period.

The gold rushes brought large numbers of Chinese to Australia. By 1861, 38,258 people, or 3.3 per cent of the Australian population, had been born in China. This rapid increase caused tensions and resentments among the European population. There was intermittent violence, including the famous Lambing Flat (now Young) riots of 1861.

The pressure of public opinion against the Chinese caused the New South Wales Government to pass the Chinese Immigration Restriction and Regulation Act in 1861 to restrict the numbers of Chinese in the colony. Queensland introduced restrictions in 1877 and Western Australia followed suit in 1886. Anti-Chinese leagues appeared and there was a range of explicit discrimination.

For those who are interested, End Week Reflections - Quong Tart and the Chinese in Australia provides a snap shot of the second half of the nineteenth century focused on one leading Australian Chinese figure. 

Chinese emigration was not limited to Australia, nor were the responses among the Australian colonies necessarily different from responses in other places. To many, the Chinese were seen as a direct economic threat.

The point is that White Australia did not just emerge in 1901. Its roots were earlier.

Attitudes to Race and Ethnicity

Reading the official yearbooks after 1901 can be uncomfortable because of their explicit discussion of racial issues. However, we have to be very careful in understanding that discussion.

Ethnic, cultural or racial prejudices exist in all societies. We can see this in nineteenth century Japanese and Chinese views of the Europeans; we can see this in some Asian attitudes to Australia; we can see this in changing US attitudes to its Negro population; we can see it in attitudes to the Jews in multiple countries; we can see it in the ethnic cleansing that took place in the Balkans; the list goes on.

So where does Australia fit in this mix? Were there distinctive features in Australia? And why, if racism was so deeply entrenched in Australia, did White Australia fall so quickly? How come we ended up with a multi-ethnic society?

In some ways, Charles Darwin has a lot to answer for. His idea of competition among the species combined with evolving ideas about people and races to create social darwinism and eugenics. I explored a little of this in Sunday Essay - Race, Eugenics and the views of J H Curle.

The idea of competition and natural selection among races and and peoples (the terms were often used interchangeably) for survival and dominance were deeply held. Curle's own pessimism expressed in his 1937 book lay in his doubts about the ability of the British people to survive; to his mind, the future lay with the Chinese.   

Australia and Australians shared this type of view. They believed in the superiority of the British race or people, in the emergence of a new people in a Southern land. But could that new people survive?

This fear was deeply embedded. Australia was on the periphery of Empire. To the north lay the hordes of Asia and especially the Chinese and then, later, the Japanese. Notions of the superiority of the British people demonstrated by the power of Empire wrestled with doubts about very survival. In the cruel world of social darwinism, would we survive?

This fear provided the special and unique Australian features. It drove the initial exclusion focus. Then, when circumstances changed, it drove the need to adjust, to move in new directions.

William Morris Hughes and the Japanese

The first SBS program focuses on the role of Australian PM William Morris Hughes in the Versailles' peace settlements at the end of World War One in preventing the inclusion of a racial non-discrimination clause in the League of Nations convention. Hughes was, the program suggests, a dupe of the British and Americans. To my mind, this is a misreading of history along a number of levels.

Part of the problem lies in the current tendency in Australian historiography to want to write in terms of them (the British) and us (the Australians). The world wasn't like that.

Hughes was both an Australian and Imperial political player, quite prepared to intervene in British politics at an electoral level if that suited his interests. Further, he had a number of objectives at Versailles; a key one was to punish Germany, to make the Germans pay the full cost of the war.

Hughes's personal views as well as Australian interests played out at Versailles across a range of spectrums. Of course, those such as Britain's Lloyd George used him to promote their own positions, but this was part of the political process.

There is a rather wonderful cartoon by David Low, I couldn't find a link, that shows Hughes banging the table at Versailles while those around him look bemused. Yet the point is that Hughes was no mere cipher, nor was the damage done limited to the racial-non inclusion clause. Hughes was a power in his own right. Arguably, his role in helping place punitive sanctions on Germany was far more important in creating World War Two than his objections to the racial non-discrimination clause.

All this said, the SBS program does show Hughes, dupe or not, pursuing an independent line defending what he saw as the Australian interest. This wasn't the first time that Australia or the Australian colonies had tried to force the Imperial or Commonwealth hand. Pacific Perspective - Australia in the Pacific describes earlier action by Queensland to force the annexation of Papua. Again, defence concerns were an issue.

The SBS program also shows how Australian actions could have side-effects. The impact of the non-exclusion clause on the Japanese is little known in Australia. However, here the program  has so far at least missed an important local sub-text.

New England Story - The life and death of the mysterious Harry Freame provides a glimpse into the life of one of Australia's more colourful characters. The story ends with Freame's role as an Australian spy in Japan just before the Second World War and his subsequent death. There I said in part:

In my post Ethnicity, ideology and the sometimes slippery concept of Australian "independence" - Part One: "Independence", I spoke of the evolution of Australian independence. I also mentioned the role that Billie Hughes had played at the end of the First World War for both better and especially worse. One of my points in the post was that the simple us (Australia)/them (London) model that seemed to be so popular today acted to conceal the reality and complexity of the Australian position.

The complexity of the Australia-Japan relationship in the period leading up to the Second World War is an example.

The adoption of the White Australia policy, in some ways the new Federation's first foreign policy act, created real problems with Japan and also for the Imperial Government wishing to maintain good relations with the Japanese Empire for broader strategic reasons. This included the signing of the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1902. These Imperial imperatives actually led to some modifications of the policy, exemptions allowing for some types of Japanese entry.

Then during the First World War, Japan played a critical role in keeping shipping lanes open to Australia. There was disappointment on the Japanese side when Hughes at the subsequent peace conference fought to limit Japanese mandates over former German colonies in the Pacific. One can argue that he was right in the case of New Guinea, a Japanese New Guinea would certainly have complicated things later, but scarring was there.

By the early 1930s, Japan was central to Australian life in a way that I, for one, had not realised. Japanese trading companies played a major role in Australian trade, while there were tens of thousands of Japanese living in Australia under various forms of entry arrangements.

The idea that there were tens of thousands of Japanese living in Australia in the 1930s is somewhat alien to the SBS presentation. To understand this, we need to go back a little in time.

In the world of competition and social darwinism, European expansion met empires in China and Japan equally convinced of their own cultural and ethnic rightness. The result was massive cultural shock, for the Europeans had the power to support their own version of rightness. One outcome was modernisation movements in both China and especially Japan.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 in which, for the first time, a European power was defeated by an Asian one, marked a turning point in attitudes. Japan was now a force to be reckoned with.

Relations between the British and Japanese Empires had been generally good, with the British providing intelligence to the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War. These links were strengthened during the First World War. So in arguing as he did at Versailles, Hughes was not being a British patsy, he was actually working against the Imperial interest.

The SBS program draws out the reservations in Australia about Hughes' position, but does not address the practical outcomes. A key one is that Japanese power meant that from the beginning of the White Australia Policy, the Japanese had to be placed in a somewhat special position. That is why there were tens of thousands of Japanese in Australia. By the early 1930s, relationships with Japan had become the second most important element in Australia's evolving foreign policy after the Empire itself.

The establishment of the Australian Legation in Japan, one if not the first independent Australian diplomatic posts outside the Empire itself, was intended to extend Australian reach and to protect our economic and political interests in Japan.

White Australia and Individual Rights

The SBS program uses case studies, individual personal examples, to draw out some of the personal costs of the White Australia Policy. This is a useful technique, one that I use myself.

There is no doubt that Federation and the national application of the White Australia policy imposed personal costs. Our treatment of Australia's quite large Japanese community is an example, one that probably dwarfs any other example in terms of actual numbers. The Australian Government simply classified them all as "seamen", a legal fiction allowing mass deportation.

In all this, we need to keep a sense of perspective.

It is sad but true that most, if not all, Government policies have adverse outcomes for some individuals. it is, I think, equally true that "good" policies can be badly administered.  These are the reasons why many of us watch Government like a hawk.

The question of what is good and bad can really only be judged in retrospect. Over the last fifteen years, Australia has probably (I haven't checked the numbers) deported more people than in the rest of the nation's history. Over the last ten years, we have had hundreds of documented cases of wrongful treatment of individuals under our migrations laws. Some of us believe that these things are wrong, others disagree. In the end, history will decide.

Whether the White Australia policy was wrong in principle is a matter of perspective. I would argue, I think, that it was probably a necessary precondition for the later emergence of a multi-ethnic community given the fears and even xenophobia that existed among the Australian population at the time. Had Chinese migration continued, for example, had we ended up with a large Chinese minority group, then I doubt that the country today would be as united or tolerant.

I can adopt this position without condoning the way the policy was administered. My view is that this - the administration - was done in an unnecessarily  harsh and unfair fashion.

Changes to the White Australia Policy

I don't yet know how the SBS program will handle the changes that have taken place in Australia's migration policy. This one has been a matter of personal interest to me, so I wrote a series of posts back in 2006 looking at the history of the changes. In date order:

Looking back of those posts as well as later posts, I would argue that the some what dramatic change in Australia's position was due to a combination of things:

  • Australians' capacity to distinguish between views on groups and individuals. Wogs or chinks or whatever are bad. Fred's a wog or a chink but he's all right. He's our wog or chink. The program has already shown cases of neighbours and friends coming to the defence.
  • Australia's sense of fair play. However imperfect, it's there.
  • Government leadership. Successive Governments and Ministers knew that change was required and lead. Their views shifted over time. Immigration Minister Caldwell infamously said that two Wongs don't make a White, but he still drove European mass migration. The changes that resulted in the Australian population were enormous. Then, a little later, you had the Colombo Plan bringing tens of thousands of especially Asian students to Australia at a time when the policy was still in force. You had John McEwen's campaign on economic grounds for closer relations with Japan despite the war. And so it went on.
  • A general national consensus on the importance of migration.
  • Adjustment time. Looking back, change happened remarkably quickly. There were constant incremental changes. Yet the pace of change did not outrun the capacity of the Australian people to adjust, in part because the changes were incremental.     

Each migrant group experienced prejudice. We will probably see a bit of that in the SBS series. Yet it is still a remarkable transformation.     


Today's Australian had some lyrical reviews on the series. This, for example. If Graham Blundell wishes to add to the ethnic slurs from Australia's history he might consider banana (yellow on the outside, white inside) or coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside). Ethnic slurs are not limited to Australia's Anglo population.

There is no doubt that it's very good TV. Whether it's good history is yet to be seen. It's impact on popular opinion is also an open question. I really hope that it adds to a balanced understanding, that it reinforces views on a diverse Australian community that began to erode during the Keating years.

In saying these things I have taken off my historian's hat and am speaking at a purely personal level. Australia has come a long way, and not in the right direction, since the decision of the Fraser Government to accept mass Vietnamese refugees, something that I discussed in New Year celebrations 09 and the 97 Cabinet records.

It is hard to believe today that an Australian Government from only thirty three years ago would be prepared to accept a refugee intake that finally totaled more than 200,000 from one country. It is harder still to believe that that intake was accepted by the Australian people without protest even though public opinion polls actually showed majority opposition.


While I was preparing this post, Neil (Ninglun) brought up a useful post. As it happened, I wrote some of the original migration series as part of a set of discussions I was having with him.

Even as I was posting, Neil brought up a second post, Being Australian 7: inclusive multiculturalism Aussie style 2, this one specifically referring to our past discussions. We start from different perspectives, but much of the time reach common ground. That's what dialogue is for, specification of difference, identification of areas of agreement, mutual challenge as to views.