Today's meander is the story of a dinner. Very parochial at one level, but perhaps not without broader interest
On Thursday night (16 August) I went to a University of New England alumni and supporters dinner at Parliament House in Sydney hosted by Chancellor Richard Torbay. Richard is the independent member for the Northern Tablelands in the NSW State Parliament and the prospective National Party candidate for the Federal seat of New England presently held by independent Tony Windsor, himself a UNE alumnus . More on this a little later.
On arrival, I soon saw people that I knew. Our blogging colleague Paul Barratt is on the left in this first photo. Sitting next to him is Diane Fernley-Jones, Chief Information Officer at Leighton Contractors who did her MBA at UNE.
Paul is, among other things, a former head of the Australian Defence Department. He had had a busy week campaigning on immigration issues, along with the need for an inquiry into the reasons why Australia entered the Iraq War. This SBS story on the call for an inquiry by Ron Sutton includes comments from Paul. He and others including former Defence Chief General Peter Gration have been calling for some time for decisions about Australian involvement in conflicts to be subject to the consent of Parliament. The call for an inquiry into the Iraq War is linked to this campaign.
I mentioned that Richard was challenging Tony Windsor for the New England seat. I have written before about the New England independents who for a time threatened to destroy the once dominant hold that the National Party held across Northern New South Wales outside the Labor dominated Lower Hunter. The decision by Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott to back the Gillard Government and that Government's subsequent problems polarised local opinion; one result was a resurgent National Party; a second was the decision by Richard Torbay to join the National Party and seek preselection for New England. Richard was quite up front about his motives: the independents were on the nose because of their decision to support the Gillard Government; if he wanted to do things nationally, the Nationals were the logical choice.
For his part, Tony Windsor is not backing down from his choices. In all the talk about the problems of minority Government, it is easy to forget that Tony has been absolutely straight in his position, providing the Government with consistent but not uncritical support. Labor's problems have been of its own making to the point that Tony has in fact been the most stable figure of all!
Tony is not going out without a fight. The day of the dinner in a debate on the Coalition's 64th attempt to suspend standing orders he rained on Opposition Leader Abbott's party in no uncertain fashion. Watch this ABC 24 video and you will see what I mean.
At one level, I can't help taking a very malicious pleasure in all this. As someone committed to the New England dream who writes a lot about New England issues, as someone who focuses on the complexity of Australian life with a particular regional focus, I found that my writing created a degree of amusement. I was dismissed as a quaint irrelevancy in the public conversation. Then when New England issues moved back towards that centre stage position they had once occupied, suddenly the chattering classes of which I am a member struggled to understand and interpret. Yet while I do take a malicious pleasure. I am also saddened.
In the words that follow you have to remember that, despite its size and population, Australia is made up of a series of very small gold fish bowls. The fish in those bowls know each other. Sometimes when one bowl or a combination of related bowls achieve dominance, an apparent national or state pattern is created. Yet the individual bowls are still there. When you drop down to that level, everything is personal.
Chatting to those at the dinner who had come down from Armidale I was saddened by the nature of the personal divides. When speaking about people, I don't want to use names, just initials. Obviously anybody who knows the area or is prepared to dig will find out who I am talking about. It's not that I'm saying anything bad, just that I am providing some small veil of privacy.
RL, a National Party stalwart whose husband beat me in preselection and became member for Armidale, was distressed by the divides. "JB has resigned from the Party", she said. "The strong independents also won't support the switch. But it's the best thing to do."
RL was clearly very uncomfortable, for she has been campaigning against Richard for a long time. So far as JB is concerned, she was a Young Country Party (the previous name for the Nationals) organiser. I recruited her husband to the Country Party when she I was campaigning for preselection for Eden Monaro, and then introduced them. After marriage, they went to Tamworth and then to Armidale. Later, husband PB put up his hand to run against Richard even though he knew that his chances of winning were small. I became involved in the campaign in a small way. By then, PB was involved in campaigning for a particular regional development initiative and had recruited me!
On the other side of the fence, I know of one strong independent Torbay supporter whose dislike of the National Party is such that he is planning to vote Labor or almost anything to avoid voting for Richard. The public opinion polls suggest at this point that Richard will win by a huge margin. For my part, I set out my position in April in Why I support Tony Windsor. This holds even though I know that Richard has been an outstanding local member.
Returning to the dinner, Deputy Chancellor Scott Williams introduced the VC. If you go back to Aymever Days - a Xmas shot, you will get an earlier picture of Scott. He hasn't changed all that much! Richard Torbay is front left checking his notes.
The VC's session was organised as a conversation between he and alumnus Peter Wilkinson. Peter spent thirty years in TV before setting up his own PR firm in 2002. This was a good idea, but got a little side-tracked by yours truly. Listening to Jim Barber speak, I started to get very cranky. Then when Peter said that this was a conversation, people were free to ask questions at any point, I leapt to my feet. From this point, the conversation became a series of questions.
UNE alumni have been a patient lot. Looking around the room, I had already noticed that the majority of those present came from what Mathew Jordan in his history of the University (A sprit of true learning) called the golden age. This was the period before the troubles that almost forced the University's closure through a combination of erratic government policy and bad management. We, the alumni, have stuck with UNE regardless.
The relationship between alumni and their school or university is a complicated one. Affections are formed through attendance. But the qualification awarded is also part of the alumni's CV. If, as in the UNE case, the University stuffs up, then it hurts at both a personal and professional level. And UNE alumni have seen their beloved institution almost destroyed by what we might call university and policy games. Yes, UNE has come back, but the damage is still there. It hurts me especially because of my family connections with the place.
Now I heard Jim Barber start by talking about the university as a business, about the on-line revolution, about the need to deliver a low cost product. UNE, he seemed to be saying, had to survive by delivering a mass, cheap, on-line product. There was not a single word in the first five minutes of business/CEO speak that explained to me why I should continue to support UNE.
From my question, the flood gates opened. It wasn't harsh questioning. It was persistent questioning. Under that questioning, VC Barber gradually gave us reasons for encouragement.
UNE was not going to become, as it first seemed, a low cost provider of mass on-line education. In fact, UNE had chosen to stay smallish. UNE was not going to become just an on-line institution, something that worried many alumni. In fact, UNE was going to use revenue from on-line delivery to cross-subsidise the redevelopment of the University's unique residential model.
And yet, all this had to be dragged out through questioning. Even then, there was no real recognition of the University's history, of what in management speak might be called its unique selling points.
I know that Professor Barber is a genuine advocate of the values of on-line learning, of the values of mixed modes, but in all this he has lost sight of the need to inspire. Jim, your alumni need to know why they should stay committed, what they have to promote. We can sell. but we have to know what we are selling.
I have written a fair bit about the UNE story. I suppose that I still feel frustrated at my inability to bring it alive. It really is a unique story that has so far been poorly captured.
it's not really a question of history. although that's important. It's more the question of a texture of life, Of course, part of that is purely personal. It's my story. But it's also the story of all those who went through the place over so may years.
Maybe a novel is the answer to capture just one slice, my own, of UNE life. We shall see.