Thursday, January 31, 2013

The PM's new glasses


The announcement that Australia would go to the polls on 14 September  was somewhat overshadowed by the PM's new glasses. Apparently, she has used contact lenses or glasses for reading for some time, but the new look still came as a surprise.

Yes, I know that this is a minor thing, but I did find it distracting. So, apparently, did everyone else! We just know her face so well.

I suspect that the decision to announce a date so early was a wise move. In a way, it clears the air. Can the Government win? Not on the current opinion polls, but that's not really an issue for the moment. Life goes on.     

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lorenzo and the economic complexity of traditional Aboriginal life

Over on Skepticslawyer, Lorenzo's post Norm failure annoyed me sufficiently that I tried to leave a somewhat tart comment this morning. Whether the spam trap ate it or I just hit the wrong button I don't know. I do know that it wasn't censorship, for that blog doesn't generally censor comments unless obscene or very nasty in some way. Rereading, I may have misread some things, but I still want to call Lorenzo on a few things.

This post focuses on traditional Aboriginal life at the time of the arrival of the Europeans. It probably should appear on my history blog.  I am putting it here because Lorenzo's interpretation of the past feeds into his analysis of the present. This is not a detailed critique of Lorenzo's views as they appear in this and other posts. Some elements I agree with, others I challenge. Rather, I want to pose and answer a few simple questions that bear upon Lorenzo's arguments.

Was Aboriginal culture and society static or did it change?

The archaeological record shows considerable pattern of change and especially in the last few thousand years. The Aborigines were not an unchanging people living in an unchanging land.

Were food and other resources shared equally on the lines so beloved once by the exponents of "primitive Communism"?  And, no, Lorenzo is not a believer in primitive communism!

No. Different people were entitled to different shares of resources depending on their position in society and skills.

Did private property exist?

Yes, although the form is of property ownership is always culturally specific, as is inheritance. We have recorded examples of a variety of ownership forms.

 Did the Aborigines invest in what economists call fixed capital. In other words, could they invest for the future?

Yes. Some of this was ceremonial, some purely economic. They built and maintained structures and systems that must have involved thousands of hours of effort each year.

Was there economic specialisation in labour?

Yes, although it was obviously simpler in a less economically complex society. Beyond gender specialisation, we have examples of craft or even industrial specialisation.

Did the Aborigines have what today we might call industrial technology?

Yes. Apart from the quarries, mines and industrial food sites such as eel traps and farms, they developed techniques that involved the modification of raw material to make it easier to work with such as the heating of stone to change its chemical composition.

Did the Aborigines trade? 

Yes. There were strong ceremonial or fashion aspects to that trade but, hey, what's new? Talk to my daughters! Trade routes spanned the country and could carry items for thousands of kilometres.

Was trade influence by varying factor endowments?

Yes. Pituri came from certain locations, was carefully packed and carried long distances for trade purposes. Ochre or particular types of stone tools could spread widely from particular depending on what else was available.

Were the Aborigines interested in labour saving activities?

Too right, as we would say in Australia. They spread particular possessions across multiple camp sites so that they did not have to carry them. They developed new tools suitable to particular areas that would make daily life easier.

 Could the Aborigines cooperate in larger scale activities to achieve particular ends?

Yes. Many activities required larger groups to deliver. Leaving aside war, always a human preoccupation, or ceremonial gatherings, many Aboriginal economic activities required cooperation among larger groups than the local band.

Did the Aborigines store food?

Yes. Absence of refrigeration and limitations in what could be carried created difficulties, but the Aborigines did store things like grain. This was quite useful for some early European explorers who pinched it for stock feed!

Did the Aborigines modify the Australian landscape?

Yes. Over many millennia, they greatly modified it to meet their needs.

Did the Aborigines farm? If not, why not?

The answer to this question depends on the meaning attached to the word farming. They certainly used what we would call farming techniques. But they never became farmers in the way Lorenzo would use the word. Why should they? The evidence that I have seen suggest that in 1788, the Aboriginal calorie intake was higher than for the ordinary person in the UK. Why bother when you can feed yourself in many hours less than the working hours of industrialising England? Who wants to work a ten or twelve hour day?

Importantly, the extra time made available could be used for other personal, ceremonial and industrial activities.

Was traditional Aboriginal life idyllic?

No. All societies are organised in particular ways. Modern Australians would regard aspects of Aboriginal life and social organisation as quite repellant.

How did the Aborigines initially adjust to the arrival of the Europeans? What does this tell us about the potential flexibility of a hunter fisher community?

This is a sad and complex story. The spread of diseases such as small pox beyond the frontier caused a catastrophic collapse in Aboriginal populations. If we put that aside, how did Aboriginal society adapt? 

The short answer is that incorporated those things that they thought were good into life. European axes spread beyond the frontier; they were useful. Creoles, mixed languages, emerged to facilitate communication. European clothes remained irrelevant, at least immediately.

But there was not time for adjustment. Maybe there never could have been. But wool sealed the Aborigines immediate fate. The things that then happened are another story. But not the story that you will read in the history books.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Katy Waldman and the sometimes influence of our twenties

Today I had intended to write about politics or economics or, perhaps, a combination of the two! Instead, I got sidetracked.

The long weekend edition of the Australian Financial Review combined the normal Friday and weekend editions. I often buy the Friday edition just to read the Review section  for its collection of longer pieces from around the world. This time, the Review reprinted a Slate article by Katy Waldman, The Mysteriously Memorable 20s. The subtitle gives the theme: "Why do we remember more from young adulthood than from any other time of our lives?" It's a well written piece, but it got me thinking. I don't think that she is quite right. At least, that's not been my experience. But then, the evidence may be drawn from what we think of as "normal people" as classified at points in time.

In saying this, I am drawing from my own experience, but also from the people that I have spoken to or even interviewed. My experience has been that people remember most vividly those periods of their life that have an emotional intensity both high or low that in some ways marks an important period of passage. Often, we do block out the bad. We don't forget about it, we just don't want to talk about it. But in many people's lives, the subsequent good is valued more highly because it contrasts with the dark night. We carry the scars always, we try to put those aside, talking about things highlighted by the black unseen light of the dark past.

As both a reader and writer, I am fascinated by biography. The thing that stands out to me, the fascination, is simply the complexity of it all. In many western societies, we have forgotten how unstable life is. What we think of as normality is not normal at all.

Just take Australia in the twentieth century. At Federation, many parts of the country had just emerged from a great depression. Drought was raging, affecting people in ways outside modern ken because so many were directly or independently dependent on the land. The Great War began thirteen years later, with Australia suffering some of the highest casualties relative to population of any of the belligerents. The Great Depression followed twenty eight years after Federation, then ten years later came the Second World War.

The new Australian migrants and especially the million plus displaced people, what we would now call refugees, who came to this country were focused on survival, on recreating life in a new land. In conversation or interview, they did talk about the past prior to the war, ut did so because that more peaceful time was a relief from what was to come. And, even then, it was not clear-cut. They didn't say that their values or scripts were formed in childhood or in their twenties, but in the meld of their earlier memories with the horrors that followed.

By contrast, those born locally during the war or afterwards were the lucky generation, the first to experience a really long period of relative piece and prosperity. The nearest previous equivalent was the long period between the depression of the late 1840s and that of the crash of the late eighties, also a period of relative peace.

So I'm not sure about the validity of Katy's writing or the research on which it is based. I think that it's validity is time dependent and depends upon circumstance.

As a final aside, the nearest equivalent period to me in terms of her model is not the age twenties at all, It is the time from which I entered what is now called grade ten until I graduated from university and started work in Canberra. I was then twenty one. That early working experience and the life of a young relatively well paid single in Canberra in a share house far from home was another right of passage. But it was different.

My own life has been a series of chapters marked by sudden book-ends, abrupt shifts. If I was to apply some of Katy's questions, I would say that the period with the greatest long term impact on my values and attitudes was my school period. My views have changed considerably over my life, but I think that the statement is still true. And I left school at seventeen after repeating final year because my parents thought that I was too young to go to university.

When I look at my daughters, I think that the same thing is probably true. I have no idea how they will remember their twenties, I will ask if I survive long enough, but at twenty three and twenty five, they are closer to Katy's generation. They also come from a very different generation to mine. And that, I think, should be my end point, for our views are formed by our times.  

Monday, January 28, 2013

my mama was black, dadda a scotsman

Yesterday Neil Whitfield and Winton Bates came to lunch, the first time Winton and I had met for a long time. Winton on the left, Neil right.P1010129 This was the first time that Winton and Neil had met.

As I can and when I can, I am slowly bringing together the people in our little blogging village. Winton and I were co-editors of Neucleus, The University of New England student newspaper. Neil and I met as bloggers via the death of Australian playwright Alex Buzo.  

As you might expect,  it was a wide ranging conversation that gave us all great pleasure.

Over lunch, Neil gave me approval to reproduce one of his 1983 poems. You will find the background story here. I hope that you enjoy the poem as much as I did. To my knowledge, it's very true, although the ending was happier than you might think from the poem itself. 

Marie: Glebe 1983
(for the “stolen generation”)

my mama was black
dadda a scotsman

in the home there was a flower
it woke us up

see here it is

and here’s one i’m saving for matron
(i loved you matron)
i’ll write a book for matron

she’s gone now
they say she died

i think i will come back to her

she said “you’re in trouble, marie”
she said “have the baby”
(i was nineteen or twenty)

i know all about cocks
men can be cheeky
but the girls are worse
two backyard jobs

matron’s gone now
see her flower?
i’ve pressed it for her

i’m forty-two years old i am nothing
a woman not married in this society
is nothing

my dream is to get married
i said to matron
“i will have babies for you”


i’ll give up smoking
i must control the grog
but when my head’s upset i need a beer

the pub is good
nobody looks down on you there

i hope my joseph is happy
he chose his family
and thomas
where is thomas?

there have been too many men

i’ll go picking again
on the riverina

this is not my place

this is a dead end street this is a dead man’s house
but there is a lane

they call me

words are very powerful
you must be careful how you use them

do the children still read?

the television
i got mine at the hock shop forty bucks
it freaks me out


i see myself and matron and joseph and thomas
i learn a lot
it freaks me out


this is not my place
my head hurts here

all that fucking going on
over my head

i’ve never hurt no-one
let them kill me it’s good
it doesn’t matter
i’ve never hurt no-one
but i’ve been hurt

do you know my dream?

this is my dream
i’ll have a coffee shop
and there will be little huts
and no-one will be turned away

we did that once
had pillows all over the house

i learned
and elocution

i’ll get up early and get a job
it’s good i reckon
will be good
after christmas
next year
i’ll leave this place

but it’s good
i reckon

see this flower?
i’m saving it for matron
and here is the one
that woke us in the home

my dadda was a scotsman
my mama was black

Copyright Neil Whitfield 1983

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday essay - the Australian identity

Yesterday was Australia Day, or for some Aboriginal people, Invasion Day. Looking back over the many words I have written on Australian life and history, one of the themes that comes through is diversity.

By present global standards, Australia's population is not large. By historical standards, Australia's population is large relative to many past global entities simply because the global population has grown so much.

Let me try to put this in perspective. In 1821 the British Empire had entered its final growth phase. The French had been defeated, the world was open. In 1821, the population of the islands that made up Great Briton and Ireland was a bit over twenty million, Today Australia's population is approaching twenty three million. See what I mean?

Size brings complexity, but not necessarily diversity. The Greek Islands in classical times were varied; the relations between them were complex and played out on a geopolitical great power stage; yet their populations were small.

Australia's diversity began early.

Australia's Aboriginal peoples were not then "the Aborigines", a label that suggests uniformity and commonality. They were a varied group in terms of language, culture and physical appearance. They varied in their genetic make-up. "The Aborigines" is in fact a modern construct, a label created by the arriving Europeans and the Aboriginal response. The story of the relations between the new arrivals and the settlers they found is all about labels and responses.

The Europeans who came were not the same either. Today we speak of England or Ireland or Scotland as though these are entities, as if a person from England or Ireland could somehow be classified as a member of a common entity and therefore distinct from the other. It just wasn't like that.

A displaced Gael from the Scottish highlands, a Somerset villager, an Irish peasant fleeing the potato famine, all spoke differently, all thought differently, all acted differently. They were not the same. This is true of other groups too, such as the early Chinese and German settlers.

We speak of early German settlers, but there is a terrible ambiguity about that word German.  Today we think of it as a political term, someone coming from what we now call Germany. In fact, Germany as a political state really did not exist until the formation of the German Empire in 1871. Indeed, for much of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century, the term German was as much a language, ethnic or cultural marker as a description of nationality. Those living in Germany did not necessarily speak German, while very large numbers of those speaking German or one of its dialects lived outside Germany.

When Wilhelm Kirchner, the Hamburg Consul in Sydney, began organising the first large scale German migration in 1848, those coming were likely to classify themselves by the specific entity they came from; they were Silesian or Bavarian first, not German.

Kirchner's 1848 book, Australien und seine Vortheile für Auswanderer (Australia and its Advantages for Emigrants) was full of praise for life Down Under. The 1850 edition included letters written by German settlers in various parts of NSW who had arrived as a result of his previous work in Germany. Another wave of German immigrants arrived in the 1860s as a result, settling in the Illawarra district and around Albury on the Murray River. They came to seek a better life and to escape religious persecution.

The Ursuline nuns who arrived in Armidale in 1882 to establish a new girl's school came because the new German Empire was intolerant of the Roman Catholic orders and was seeking to seize their property. There were deep historic reasons for this prejudice, but there was also a desire by the new state to establish an ordered German society. As so often happens, as has happened in Australia many times, the need for uniformity in the new order overrode acceptance of difference.  

The Ursulines date their foundation to 25 November 1583 when a  small group of twenty eight women and girls met in the Northern Italian city of Brescia. Under the influence of Angela Merici, they attended mass and then signed their names in the Book of the Company of St. Ursula. In doing so, they signified their willingness to commit themselves to God, living according to the rules drawn up for them by Angela.

The initial Ursulines lived in and served the community. The new order spread rapidly in a decentralised way. Church pressure then transformed them from an open to a cloistered group, but they retained the tradition of openness and community contribution.    

The Ursuline nuns that arrived in Armidale in 1882 were highly educated but spoke very little English. They found a very different world, far removed from the European culture that they had known. The first school they established, St Ursula's in Armidale, quickly became a success.

Initially the Ursulines concentrated their educational focus on educating their girls not just in religion, but in the culture the nuns had brought from Europe. They saw education in broad, holistic, terms. Then, recognising the growing importance of exams and of further education,they began preparing girls for public examinations.

At a time when the Church focused especially on the need to provide mass primary education and was in fact suspicious of education for women, girls from St Ursula's in Armidale were entering University or Teacher's College. In this sense, the Ursulines were well in front of broader social trends.

The Chinese were another distinct group. The ending of transportation to NSW created severe labour shortages in the pastoral districts. Between 1847 and 1853, nearly 3,000 indentured Chinese labourers were imported into the colony during the period. Most of these were from the densely populated southern provinces of Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Fujian (Fukien) where conditions were difficult and a significant rise in population had put pressure on available resources. Entry to the new colonies was relatively easy, for the ships of the East India Company had early established trading routes between Sydney and China. 

These early Chinese faced considerable difficulties. They had little English, but often couldn't talk to each other either because they didn't speak the same language.  

Life could be dangerous. In May 1852, the Phoenix sank on its way to the Clarence River with 12 Chinese on board. A thirteenth was found wandering the beach with the Aborigines. He was reportedly quite mad, although no-one knew how he had got there. Madness in isolation was a general issue, as was suicide. There was also sometimes violence between Chinese and between Chinese and other groups.

All human groups require narrative, stories that link present and past. We identify with our group or groups first, and then with the broader society. Beneath the broader narrative of Australia lies a series of family and and group narratives, stories of how we came to be. The pattern is interesting and complex, if often unseen. Stories of past injustices, of past successes, of the normal human story, are preserved and re-presented.

Old enmities remain. You can see this in soccer brawls; in Irish attacks on perfidious Albion;  in the brawls among different Aboriginal groups or between Aboriginal and Pacific Islanders in the housing estates; in the growing number of Australians who have fought and died in conflicts that seem remote, stories on TV or in newspapers, but were so real to the individuals involved through their personal narratives that they felt required to do their bit. Spain, Syria, the Balkans, Rhodesia, the list goes on.

The central challenge in any migrant society is the creation of a sufficiently strong narrative that will hold the society together in the face of diversity. Australia faces a special challenge because of the high proportion of overseas born, far higher even than Canada. Further, the mix of new arrivals is changing all the time.

The older Greek men who gather at the Eastlakes shopping centre to sip water and coffee (Photo essay - a taste of Eastlakes) now feel part of the past. Their story, once a central part of the Australian narrative, has been overtaken by new stories. Their experiences, the struggle to establish themselves in a new country, the very texture of the suburbs that they knew, have been swept away. Their cathedral, their diminishing societies, now stand as visible remains in a changing world of gentrification and new groups. They want to tell their stories, to have their experiences re-affirmed, validated.

All human beings need affirmation of the value of their personal experiences. All human beings struggle when their past is swept aside. I do, you do, we all do.

Other countries have higher proportions of overseas born than Australia. The United Arab Emirates come to mind. The distinctive thing about migrant societies such as Canada or Australia as compared to say Singapore or Dubai is that migrant societies have chosen to be open.

In Singapore or Japan or some of the European countries, Governments and citizens worry about preserving the existing society. They seek to increase the birthrate to avoid the exiting dominant group being swamped. Ethnicity, historical connection, is central. I do not have a problem with this, but Australia has chosen a different path. We have chosen to be an open society even though that means that past dominant groups must be swamped in time.

To hold the society together, we look for central narratives. Australians debate over multiculturalism versus integration or assimilation. In practical terms, the reality is that they are all much of a muchness, seeking the same objective. The difference between them is one of emphasis. In all societies, a degree of assimilation or integration is required for the society to work. In all immigration societies, acceptance of difference is a further condition for success.

The real debate in Australia comes over our choice of unifying symbols. This is actually quite difficult, for those symbols have to reflect a diverse, ever changing, society. They have to be symbols that people agree on, that link present and past.

Forget old debates such as a republic versus monarchy. They are old debates that reflect past divisions and differences. Most people don't care. What is it that we actually promote, that has traction in our current Australian society?  It seems to me that that this comes down to a few very common things.

The first is nationalism. We promote Australia as an entity that people have lived and died for. By implication, our new arrivals must accept this. We actually do this quite well, although our very success makes me a little uncomfortable.

The second is a civil society whose values exist independent of questions of religion or ethnicity. This I strongly support.

The third is the promotion of what we might call the Australian way, of images and values linked to our past. Mateship is an example. The Australian popular culture is very powerful, although it makes many uncomfortable. It carries through in a variety of ways including music and advertising.

This is the real unifier, for it is independent of the divisions within our society. All can share, all can identify. Drop bears, a VB ad, Not Happy Jan, all appeal. Even if you come from a tradition that does not recognise drinking or has different views on the ostensible message, you can still understand the basic message. That, to my mind, is our strength.  


Interesting if somewhat depressing take on Australia Day from skepticlawyer: Flag capers. This year I wasn't really conscious of the threads she talks about, although I knew that they were there. I guess I let them slide over me now. Still, as a matter of curiosity, after reading skepticlawyer's post I did a blog search on Australia Day. The usual suspects were there, but it was all much more muted than I have seen it before.

Looking back at last year, I ran some some Australian "facts" from a twitter feed at the time. I laughed then and still find them funny. So to repeat:

  • The drop bear was introduced into Australia as a measure to stop the rampant pest The Cane Toad
  • Australian schools begin at 9am and close at 3pm to prevent children from walking to school during koala feeding times
  • Australian Rules Football was invented as a way for ladies of the CWA to exchange scone recipes by semaphor
  • When Australians feel they are about to vomit, they reach for a Murray-Darling basin
  • Phar Lap was actually a shetland pony from New Zealand
  • slip slop slap is the national child raising policy
  • the first draft of Advance Australia Fair read "Our land abounds in nature strips"

In a comment on skepticlawyer's post, Don Aitkin pointed to his own post, Whatever happened to the ‘Australia’ project?. There Don wrote in part:

But yesterday also made me wonder, again, what had happened to the ‘Australia project’. This is my term for the urge that immigrants had in the 19th century to build a new society under the Southern Cross that would be free of the the injustices of the old world. As I argued in What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia, the project was put on hold again and again, by the Depression of the 1890s, the Great War, the Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War. You can’t do much about the building of a fair and decent civil society when you are scratching for work or fighting for your country.

The project was resumed in the 1950s, with the real growth of the national capital, the opening of education to girls as well as boys, the building of infrastructure like the Snowy scheme, the common rail gauge and the improvement of highways, and the expansion of higher education. By and large, the new wealth of the society was shared around. In the 1990s and into the new century that impetus slowed and seemed to stop. Wealth became important for its own sake: it was as though the whole point of the Australia project was to make us all rich, and when we were rich we could do what we liked.

Don is concerned about what he perceives to be a loss of the original grand vision. I am actually a little cautious about grand visions, but I do agree that there has been a loss of imagination, of willingness to take on larger challenges. There is something very sterile about public discussion in this country at the present time.

I don't think that it's just a fact of increasing age affecting my judgement. I don't hark back to any particular golden age. But reading past debates, the thing that stands out today is a loss of belief in what's possible. Our present ways of thinking have become a straight jacket that rule out alternatives.

I used the word narrative in this post to describe both personal or group histories, as well as the broader national story. Our present national narrative has become very narrow, narrow at all levels.  

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Photo essay - a taste of Eastlakes

As you may have gathered from the pattern of posting across my blogs, I am having a bit of a struggle at the moment with writing priorities and directions given other things. Tonight, another very short photo post.

In Photo essay - a taste of Glebe markets, I tried to provide you with a taste of the variety in Sydney. Incidentally, drawing my basic description form Wikipedia, I said without thinking that Glebe was 3k south west of the CBD. It can't be! Glebe is north or north west from the CBD depending on where you draw the line!

Eastlakes, population a bit under 7,000, is 8k south east of the CBS. This is a different world from the cafe metro lifestyle of Glebe, but just as varied. 

This shot is of the small cafe strip. This one place where the older Greek men gather to drink coffee. They also gather on the chairs outside Woolworth's inside the centre. There they sit, yarn and pass the time.

P1010047  This is the Di Blasi barber's shop. I used to have my hair done here until I decided the shave my head. Note the sign one owner since 1956. The Greeks and Italians came to the area as part of the first big migration wave after the Second World War. Just down the road is the Geek Orthodox Cathedral

P1010041 Later came the next wave, those from Asia. This is the Chinese butcher's shop. The other one is Greek owned. A Thai temple is to be found just outside the shopping centre. Falung Gong devotees practice in the nearby park hoping to attract adherents. They are getting noticeably older, if not as old as the Greeks!

P1010042   Now comes a new wave of migrants. On Chinese New Year last year, I watched the Chinese dragon with full drum accompaniment prance past women in full hijab. Outside, the older Greek men drank their coffee and smoked their cigarettes. In Woolworth's, a dozen nationalities manned the check-outs. 


This is not posh or metro Sydney. The shopping centre is surrounded by housing estates now being broken up. The prices in Woolworth's are up to 20 per cent cheaper than those in posher places. But it is a microcosm of a city undergoing fundamental change. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Photo essay - a taste of Glebe markets

For those who don't know Glebe, it is an inner city Sydney surburb 3km north-west of the CBD. The suburb derives its name from the mediaeval practice of giving land (a glebP1010083e) to support a priest.  In this case, "The Glebe' was a 1790 land grant of 400 acres (1.6 km2) given by Governor Arthur Phillip to Reverend Richard Johnson, Chaplain of the First Fleet.

I spent a lot of time in Glebe at one point because I had a girl friend there. By then, the suburb's glory days had long past. Many of the once grand houses were run down, while the suburb was home to working people  and students from the nearby University of Sydney. Social life along Glebe Point Road, the suburb's main thoroughfare, centred on the pubs where the men gathered on a Saturday afternoon to drink beer and listen to the races; the students has their own watering hole elsewhere, while the little shops were run down.

The process of gentrification began in the 1960s with the building of the first flats at the end of Glebe Point Road. The huge growth in the number of university students from the 1970s attracted more students to Glebe's then lower cost accommodation. New shops and eateries emerged.

Today, Glebe forms part of that sweep of inneP1010089r city suburbs that have been metrofied, the domain of young singles and couples attracted by the metro life style with it bars, eateries and vibrant street life. Glebe is arguably the most cosmopolitan of all the inner city suburbs measured by the mix of people.

I actually miss the old working class Glebe, most of the working class families are long gone, but no one can deny Glebe's attractiveness even to some of the Eastern Suburb's young, to my mind Sydney's most locationally parochial young.

Within Glebe, the Saturday markets  have become an institution, attracting locals and tourists alike.

Held in the grounds of the local primary school, they are not the biggest of the markets but put others such as the rival Paddington markets a little in the shade because of the sheer variety compressed in such a small area.

Crowds throng the narrow lanes between the stores.


There is much serious consideration of the offerings available.


For the stall holders, some feel ignored, hoping for the next customer.


Others are more engaged. I really like this shot, by the way.


Sometimes there is hard bargaining.


Advice needs to be obtained.


Sometimes there is time to chat.


As always, men follow their women around!


Sadly, the one thing that was missing that day was the incense stall we were looking for. There wasn't one in sight, an odd result given the clientele!  So we left the hubbub of the markets for the relative quiet of Glebe Point Road.

I had enjoyed my visit to the markets. I hope that you did too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Other recent Belshaw posts

My main post today, Policy, programs, control and complexity - ICAC on problems in NSW public policy and administration, was on the Managing the Professional Services Firm blog. It continues my series on problems in management and public administration in particular. This time, however, I am using ICAC analysis to support my point.

On other blogs, I updated my post, Warrumbungle Pilliga Fires, with some new material. Click though the links to the two posts on the fires and the Siding Springs Observatory. They make for fascinating reading.

I have continued bringing up my History Revisited columns from the Armidale Express, first with  History Revisited - just a bit of bull and then History Revisited - marching into town's heart. In doing so, I switched the blog for these column posts to my history blog. In a comment, Ramana was kind enough to welcome my return to posting on the history blog. Thank you, Ramana. I will try to do better.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

DNA and the history of Australia's Aborigines

Just a short note this morning.

Back in July 2009, I reported Indian research suggesting that DNA testing had established possible links between early populations in what is now India and the Australian Aborigines. This seemed to add support to the idea that at least some of Australia's early settlers came to Australia via India though the then extended South East Asian landmass and into what is now Australia via the Southern sea route.

DNA research from the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology now suggests that an infusion of Indian genes occurred about 4,000 years ago. The researchers also found a common origin for populations from Australia, New Guinea and the Mamanwa – a Negrito group from the Philippines; – they estimated that these groups split from each other about 36,000 years ago. Max Plank's Mark Stoneking states:

“This finding supports the view that these populations represent the descendants of an early ‘southern route’ migration out of Africa, while other populations in the region arrived later by a separate dispersal.“

This also indicates that Australians and New Guineans diverged early in the history of Sahul, and not when the lands were separated by rising sea waters around 8,000 years ago.

The research results are interesting and potentially very important to Aboriginal history. I will write up a fuller analysis on my history blog and then post a link here.

Postscript: New evidence on the Settling of Australia – the Indian connection provides a fuller update on this matter.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Cityrail welcomes children of all ages

Sunday I went for an extended lunch in North Sydney with an old friend. Coming home a bit after six one of those things happened that make things worthwhile.

Shortly after joining the train for the city, the PA came on; a girl. This is the service to Richmond. Welcome ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and children of all ages! The last was so unexpected that the woman sitting across the aisle and I simply looked at each other and burst out laughing.

It takes one child of all ages to know another! 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sunday Snippets - fires, global warming, problems with benefits & with multipliers

It's been a slow blogging start for me this year. There has been plenty to write about, so much in fact  that I have found it difficult to select. So this morning just some snippets.

This has been a bit of a funny week, dominated by heat and fires. The three posts I wrote on the fires (Saturday Morning Musings - fires, land management & risk, Hysteria over fire risk, A view from the ground in a "catastrophic" fire risk area) drew some interesting comments. The comments provide a base for a new post, for they highlight some of the practical issues involved in responding to bush fires. I also finished the first post in the series noting that I had been going to finish the post by looking at new land management techniques, but that would have to wait until later. So I have two potential posts linked in some way to the fires.

One feature of the discussion flowing from the heat and the fires was a resurgence of the habit of linking current events to climate change. We saw this during the last drought, too. Then came flooding rains, and all the previous prognostications and the more extreme policy responses based on them suddenly looked rather silly. Something of the same thing has been happening this time.

I have made my own position on climate change clear before. On the balance of probabilities, I think it likely that the globe is warming and that that warming is linked at least in part to human activity. However, not all climate change skeptics or at least agnostics are either irrational or ideological.

Professor Don Aitkin is a case in point. He argues that the the current IPCC analysis is inherently biased because its mandate is to measure the impact of human induced climate change. As a consequence, less attention is paid to alternative views and, more importantly, to the broader pattern of, and general causes of, climate change. I have put forward somewhat similar arguments, although my focus has been more on the sometimes silly policy responses to climate change arguments.

In all this, I am left with an uncomfortable feeling that if the climate is changing and for whatever reason, then we had better get ready for bigger and faster changes than presently projected. When the old continent of Sahul was split by rising sea levels, the sea advance across the low lying areas of what is now the Gulf of Carpentaria was a metre a year. That is why I would like more research focused not on human induced causes, but on climate change in general.

In The error fallacy, I referred in passing to the in passing claim made by Commonwealth Families Minister Minister Macklin that she could live on the Newstart Allowance or dole.  She made the comments on the day that more than 80,000 single parents were shifted from the parenting payment to the lower Newstart allowance, leaving some up to $110 a week worse off. Since then, Labor ministers have been backtracking all over the place,

One of the difficulties in a complex integrated welfare system is that one change can have consequential effects. Now it appears that Centrelink, the Commonwealth agency that administers the welfare system, has issued letters to 60,000 single parents telling them to cut up their pension card since they are no longer eligible to use it. If you read the story, you can see that confusion apparently abounds. The issue is significant since the pension card gives you discounts on things like travel and electricity bills, making for a double whammy in reduced benefit payments and reduced discounts. If the newspaper report is in any way correct, we appear to have another example of bungled public policy.

The release of an IMF discussion paper suggesting that they had got the multipliers wrong in their earlier analysis of the impact of austerity measures in Europe has been widely reported. This is an Australian example. In simple terms, every dollar reduction in Government spending reduced national income by $1.50 instead of an expected 50 cents. This wasn't totally new news, for International Monetary Fund chief economist Olivier Blanchard had indicated just this back in October.

I must say that I was a little staggered, though. Economic models are just that, models. Their results always have to be checked by alternative analysis. In a growing world economy, actions by one country to restructure don't affect the whole. In a stagnant global economy, the application of simultaneous austerity measures by interconnected economies must have obvious flow on effects.

You can see this in Australia in the latest job vacancy figures. All Governments have been cutting spend and jobs. Public sector job vacancies in November 2012 were down a whopping 29.5% from the year before. Graph: Job Vacancies, Total and Private sector—TrendNow in a rapidly expanding economy, reductions in Government spend free up resources for use by the private sector. But in the Australian case, the economy is slowing. Private sector job vacancies were down too, if by a smaller amount. 

The graph shows the trend. The downward trend in vacancies has been running for two years. That's a problem.

One of the issues drawn out in the discussion surrounding the IMF discussion paper is the way in which macroeconomic policy has become dependent on monetary policy and that's not working. In a world awash with money, the old Keynesian idea of the liquidity trap has come back into vogue. Quantitative easing doesn't work if people don't want to use the extra cash. It's as simple as that.      

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

A view from the ground in a "catastrophic" fire risk area

Yesterday was too hot to post, if not as hot as expected. Tonight just a brief follow up to my post, Hysteria over fire risk. The first is a comment posted here from regular commenter kvd who lives in one fire prone areas. I am including it because of the vivid picture it paints:

Hi Jim

Just a few scattered thoughts on the morning after. As you are aware I live in a fairly isolated valley within the Shoalhaven district, thus my attention was quite 'sharp' throughout yesterday.

1. I found the continuous-15 minute loop of news reports on Sky News and the Weather Channel to be almost unwatchable. And I'm almost sure some of the pictures (must have pictures!) were recycled from other, earlier emergencies. So much 'data', such paucity of relevant information.

2. The RFS website was good from a management-of-State point of view, but was of little relevance as to local conditions. I am very sorry for the residents of Tarcutta et al, but I would have appreciated regular clear updating of my own area - particularly as the Shoalhaven was one of the 'catastrophic' areas.

3. As always, the informal network of scattered neighbours, and neighbours' wives whose husbands were 'firies' was the best most timely and accurate source of information for the 20-30 kms around me. A fact of life, I guess, not a criticism.

4. Talking with my water carrier (my only water is delivered by him or God - during his scheduled delivery scheduled days in advance) he said he had been inundated with water requests on Monday evening, had started at 3 a.m. and wouldn't finish his loads until close to midnight on Tuesday. As well as that, he was on override standby for RFS replenishments if necessary.

5. The ABC news at 7 0'clock referred to the 'Nowra fire' - I assume because Nowra is a lot easier to fit on the tv ticker tape than Wandandian. The fact that the actual fire is 15-20 minutes south by dual lane highway didn't deter from this editorial decision.

6. I, as with most residents in the area, had an evacuation plan in place, complete with tentative accommodation bookings for the animals under my care. This was put in place a week ago, as the reports from WA progressed to South Australia, Tas and Victoria. I am not aware of any government urging or TV exhortations at that point - only common sense at the community level.

All of this without a telephone landline since 23 December, but with very good assistance from Telstra to put in place a redirected satellite phone so that clients on cruise ships and sitting in Austria, and Canada, and the UK could be reassured that what was being breathlessly reported was not the on-ground reality. This is not to suggest no emergency, more just that the hysteria you refer to was 'very real'.


As I said in response, this picture fits with my own experiences. The best responses are always local not central. As on a battlefield, the centre is important in training, in strategy, in building infrastructure. But once the battle starts, everything is local. The role of the centre then shifts from control and command to response to meet greatest needs.

By far the best media coverage yesterday came from the live blogs. This is the ABC example. If you scroll to the bottom and then read up you will get a feeling for the complexity of it all. The main media coverage and the associated press conferences were pretty useful, for they were attempting to meet a mass market, a need for news. Yet a thing like a fire is mainly local.

kvd refers to the satellite phones. Last night a work colleague born in the UK was deluged with emails and Facebook messages wanting to know if she was okay. This deluge was driven by UK media coverage based on Australian reports.

Oh, and on catastrophic?  This again proved a pretty useless descriptor.

I accept that the media has a right to know and an audience to sell too. But every minute spent in meeting this need, in giving generalised warnings to people who were too busy to actually listen, was wasted airtime. To give you an indication of the scale of this, the withdrawal of every political head, the limitation of every official media briefing or press conference to purely factual reports, would not have had a single negative effect yesterday. Probably the opposite. Almost certainly the opposite!

Monday, January 07, 2013

Hysteria over fire risk

Fire warning

In Saturday's post, Saturday Morning Musings - fires, land management & risk, I discussed Australia's record with bushfires and bushfire management.

I was very critical of the way Australia handles its fire warning system, adding a catastrophic code red category after the bad Victorian fires in which so many lost their lives. I thought then and still do that the additional category represented over-kill.

You will get a feel for this from this story in The Illawarra Mercury: Get out now, commissioner urges most at risk. Hat tip to Neil Whitfield for the link. I quote from the story where the bushfire chief is cited:

“If you live in bushland or an isolated area where there is a catastrophic fire danger rating your only option is to leave early. You could move to a built up area, away from bushland, such as the centre of a town.’’

The Illawarra, Shoalhaven and Southern Ranges have a fire danger rating of catastrophic.

Now there is a problem here. This is from the Sydney Morning Herald tonight.

It was just one of a number of fires across the state, as emergency services prepare for 'catastrophic' fire conditions on Tuesday.

Premier Barry O'Farrell on Monday made an emphatic appeal to all NSW residents to be fully prepared for the worst.

"Tomorrow is not just going to be in the 40s, it will perhaps be the worst fire danger the state has ever faced," he said. "Do what emergency services tell you, particular the rural fire service. Act early.

But is this potentially the most catastrophic, the worst fire danger, NSW has ever faced? Well it depends, for NSW is a big state. Almost certainly notFamily playing Yarramundi, though. The risks are very real, people need to be warned to respond, they need to have their fire plans in place. But beyond that?

There is no doubt that tomorrow will be hot, if not as hot as expected even six hours ago. There is no doubt that fire conditions are bad because of the build-up of fuel. There is a chance that big fires may break out in the hot, gusty conditions. This post may seem silly, even insensitive, if a huge fire does break out. Even so.

This peaceful shot is taken at the foot of the Blue Mountains on New Year's Day at the Yarramundi Recreation Reserve. The time is about nine in the morning. The temperature is already around 33. By lunchtime, it was 37. We therefore set off for the Blue Mountains down the Bell's Line of Road in search of lower temperatures. In the lower Blue Mountains, the temperature was much the same.

Now this next shot shows the mountain country just off Bell's Line of Road.I have selected it because you can see the fuel, the grass and scrub, that has accumulated during the wet weather. Driven by wind, a hot fire would sweep through here very quickly, So the dangers we are talking about are very real. Indeed, I was very conscious of them, and actually kept an eye out for smoke. Blue Mountain scenery, Bell's Line of Road

To understand why, this next shot shows part of Bell's Line of Road. It's actually not a good shot for my purposes, but it is the only one I had. The point is that it's not a very wide road. Further comments follow the photo. Fruit stall, Bell's Line of Road

Bell's Line of Road is one of two roads across the Blue Mountains. It would clog very quickly. The main highway, the Great Western Highway is worse, for it runs through the populated areas on the mountains and gets clogged very quickly. In the event of a panic, people could easily be caught in fire.

Now in fairness to the authorities, only two areas of the state have the catastrophic tag attached to them as I write, (the Blue Mountains are extreme danger and that's fair enough), but you could be forgiven for not knowing this from the media coverage.

Today at work, a number of staff come from the Blue Mountains, everyone was talking about record temperatures and fire danger. One staff member had packed the key family documents in a box and brought them into the office. I thought, that's sensible. However, she also said that in terms of Australia's fight or flight policy, this time they were abandoning fight for flight. Then I thought of the road and thought bloody hell. If you are going to do that, then perhaps you should stay in a motel in Sydney tonight. Otherwise you may be at risk in the road and may, in any case, impede emergency vehicles.

As we came off the mountain, the temperature rose. It was after four when we reached the plains, with a temperature still at 41. That's just two degrees below the maximum projected for tomorrow.  Yet there was no sense of fire emergency, of extreme risk.

What's been happening today in NSW is just not sensible. Advice to people to activate their bush fire plans is sensible. Information to people on a local basis as to how to respond is sensible. But we have had something close today to media and officially driven hysteria whose results could actually be worse in terms of lives lost. It confuses me, and I don't think that I am alone.    

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Sunday Essay - constipated modern management & what to do about it

This morning's short essay is inspired by two comments on my first post of the new year, The error fallacy.

I concluded that post by arguing that improvement would not come from aspirational reports such as that by Mr McTernan on public sector improvement. It came through the sheer hard grind of thousands of workers trying to fix things now. Within their human limits, people cared They tried do a better job.

The real challenge for any organisation, I suggested, was to find the best way of giving people the freedom they need to do their jobs. That was actually bloody hard, for it conflicted with the command and control mode of modern management.

Given freedom, people would make mistakes. But they would also achieve great things. I finished with this challenge:

What do you want? Do you want to avoid error, or do you want to achieve success? You can't have the second if you want the first.     

In response, Ramana summarised elements of my argument in another way:

It is my experience that for any business to survive successfully, I use the word deliberately, it has to innovate constantly. Innovation not necessarily huge big shifts, but in the delivery of whatever it is offering its customers, be it quality, quantity, place or service. This process can only happen when mistakes are made and the opportunity is taken to take such steps as necessary to not make those mistakes again. It is a never ending process and if one condemns making mistakes, the uniqueness of the enterprise will suffer. Sadly, condemning is easier than treating those as opportunities to innovate.

For his part, Rod expressed another set of frustrations:

As for management generally, I'd like to say that our illustrious leaders seem to think managing is doing. Managing needs to be kept to a minimum because managing can actually stop other people from working.

The extreme nature of OHS and environmental regulation is an example of this. In my view adhering to the legislation is the minimum standard. But what happens when the legislation goes beyond OHS an environmental regulation and instead is all about paper work? We need to complete masses of paper work to demonstrate we are meeting the legislation... it is no longer good enough to meet (or even exceed) it.

I observe this situation in a couple of big consultancies that I've worked for as well as local and state governments. I'll provide a good local government example:

When testing potable water the testing tap needs to be 'flamed' to kill any bacteria on the end of a tap that might be a source of a false positive. Now, this hot work. So potentially a hot work permit needs to be filled out each time you do this, then you need a second person to watch the site for an hour after you've finished to make sure no fires start. Don't get me started on days where there is a total fire ban.

Of course practically, we need to create written standard work procedures and risk assessments to demonstrate that if you flooded the area with water from the tap before 'flaming' it. The risk is so low it is not worth noting... again this seems not to be enough on days of total fire ban. These risk assessments and procedures need to be signed off before work is done at every site.

Legislation has become too much aligned with recording what you are doing rather than just telling you what you need to be doing.

Shall I tell you about the time I needed to relocate a threatened species plant that was planted by one of my staff before the threatened species legislation came in force? This small thorny bush was next to a disabled foot path and because of the species being listed we needed a permit from National Parks each time we wanted to prune it. It took two years of planning to be able to relocate it!

The examples could go on for as many years as I've been working in NSW.

In considering these comments, I start with a very simple basic proposition: it is easier to get a small improvement in productivity than a large one. I think that most people would simply nod their heads at this. Surely it's self evident? So what? Now let me extend it.

It's easier to get a significant improvement in performance through a combination of small changes than it is to achieve the same gain through a single or small number of major changes.  This may still seem self-evident, yet it runs counter to modern management approaches. To extend my argument, let me go to Ramana's stress on the importance of innovation.

All organisations whether big or small, private or public, have to deal with an ever-changing external world. In the short term, most of these changes are small, but they can have a significant impact. A simple change in personnel may destroy a carefully built relationship or derail or at least slow a long planned initiative. An almost casual change in a rule or a law may require significant action in response. Rain or a cool spell at the wrong time may leave stock on the shelves. To survive, organisations rely on their people to adjust, to respond, to innovate. Note I say people.

Internally, all organisations develop what we might think of as grit in the wheels. Old ways of doing things no longer work quite as well. Existing structures no longer quite match the pattern of activities. Old rules and ways of operating survive despite declining relevance. Organisations also have to manage internal change: people leave, old systems have to be replaced, new ways of doing things have to be introduced. All this requires change, innovation. To a degree, we are rats on the treadmill. We have to run hard, too innovate, just to stay on the same spot. Again, people and their responses are critical.

For much of the last twenty five years I have worked as a management or strategic consultant with a special focus on business improvement and change management. I am not practicing actively at present because I want to meet my writing objectives, but the experience is still relevant.

In carrying out my role, the first thing I did was to ask questions, to listen. As part of this, I tried to speak to junior staff. I knew the views and perceptions of the executives who had commissioned me, but I needed to check those views against on-ground realities. Time after time, I found that staff had their own views, they knew of changes that should be made, but they were frustrated at their inability to get things done. Often, they had tried to work their way around problems, creating informal working solutions that in some cases were critical to the delivery of services. Too often, their work was not recognised or even countermanded. A few had given up. A remarkable number had continued to strive. They were, in fact, trying to oil the treadmill even while running on it!

If innovation is critical, if a series of small changes can create major improvements, if the ideas are there, why don't things happen, why do staff get so frustrated? Here we need to look at the nature of management, bringing in ideas from Ramana and Rod.

Rod wrote: "As for management generally, I'd like to say that our illustrious leaders seem to think managing is doing. Managing needs to be kept to a minimum because managing can actually stop other people from working."

I don't quite agree with Rod's formulation. Managing is doing. However, the key point is that the role of the manager is to facilitate.

In teaching management, I tried to make the point that all staff were in fact managers and had management responsibilities: staff have to manage their own work; they have to manage up; they have to manage their relationships with their peers; increasingly with project based approaches, staff at all levels have specific project based responsibilities that vary over time and have to be managed.

Constantly, in the training room as well as on the shop floor, the standard refrain was the difficulty they experienced in actually doing their jobs.

The concept of the inverted pyramid was popularised SAS's Young Karlsson. In it, the senior manager was at the bottom of the pyramid, front line staff at the top. The aim of all the lower levels was to support those who actually delivered, the front line staff. Karlsson's aim was to give greater power and support to those who do, what is in the end, the critical work. Everything else exists to facilitate that.

Modern approaches to management are very different from Karlsson's concept. Here Rod's comment on the importance of rules and compliance and the problems this creates provides an entry point.

Modern approaches to management suffer from a number of fundamental problems. One is the point made by Rod, the application of rules and compliance based approaches. This links to two further problems. The first is reliance on systems rather than people, the second the misapplication of standards based approaches.

Systems are important, as are standards. You can't run any organisation without systems. None of us would want to fly in an aeroplane that was not built and operated to a certain standard. Further, and at a very simple level, the existence of standards is absolutely critical in our day to day life in activities such as putting together furniture or inserting the right light fitting. Here the international standard movement has been one of the great success stories, not just in economic but in human terms as well. Our life depends on standards.

But when we go beyond this, we find a poisonous mix.

In the modern command and control organisation, management starts at the top with things such as vision. mission, objectives and targets. Those visions etc are increasingly determined externally: we play the markets; we have to meet the demands of the central coordinating agencies; we have to fit in with the public performance indicators as set out in the state plan; and so it goes on. Then, too, we have to meet all the increasingly complexities  of a rules based society. This requires the imposition of central controls, central procedures, central reporting requirements.

All these things are meant to cascade down through the organisation. Here computing systems are critical. IT is used to enforce compliance. Without it, our current management systems would not be possible. One side effect of all this is that there are probably as many if not more people in Australia employed to report to the Commonwealth on its programs, to enforce compliance with rules, than were required to run the entire British Empire at its peak!

As you drill down through the organisation things get worse. The further down you go, the harder it is to do new things, the less freedom you have. Of course, this has always been true to a degree. But it's just got worse.

Governance is a very popular topic today. Why? There are just so many more things requiring some form of formal government!

If we now return to the concept of innovation, you can see why there is a problem.

When I worked in Canberra, there were two or perhaps three decision lines and the Minister. In my current contract work in NSW there are seven! When I worked in Canberra, I did not have a single staff member fully involved in reporting, compliance or risk management; these things were done as a by-blow of our normal work. Today, with 37 staff and a multi million dollar program budget I would need at least three!

Real innovation depends upon the freedom of people to do new things. It also depends upon the capacity to actually find resources. In a tightly stretched command and control organisation with its multiple systems, neither freedom nor resources are available; responsibility for innovation actually gets pushed up the line to people who have neither the time nor the knowledge to look at the small incremental changes required to maintain continuous improvement.

I have used public sector examples, but the same issues arise elsewhere.

The problem is most acute in the important but not yet urgent category. This is the category that drives longer term change. We can see a problem coming, let's do something about it now. I think that we can do some new things important to our objectives. Let's test this. In a world where everything is controlled or specified however badly, it's hard to do this stuff.

The remarkable thing to my mind in all this is that people still try. They really do. They keep thing going, But we won't get real change, we won't get innovation or broad productivity improvement, until we simplify and return to management basics. Then we will see improvement.   

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Saturday Morning Musings - fires, land management & risk

Bicheno Tasmania January 2013

This is likely to be a very serious fire period in Australia because of the combination of very high heat with fuel (scrub, grass, fallen branches etc) accumulated during the earlier wet period.

As I write, bushfires are ravaging parts of Tasmania. This photo from the Sydney Morning Herald's story was taken at Bicheno. Over October and early November last year, a big fire in the ranges east of Armidale burnt out some 50,000 hectares, an area larger than Malta or Andorra.

That fire was big, but not the biggest by any means. The longest continuous fire emergency in NSW was between 21 December 2001 and 13 January 2002 when widespread severe bushfires burned throughout much of NSW - NE, Central Coast, Greater Sydney Region, Blue Mountains, Central West and South Coast and hinterland - and the ACT.  Ultimately over 650,000 ha (1.6 million acres) were burnt, an area over twice the size of Luxemburg. Still big, but not the biggest.

In area terms, the largest fire was that of Black Thursday, 6 February 185'1 in Victoria. This burnt out approximately 5 million hectares, an area larger than some twenty three European countries.

As you might have expected, I have written a fair bit on bushfires, beginning with Australia and its People - a funny upside down land on 22 January 2007 when fires were raging. This morning's musings ramble across some of the interconnected themes that emerged in my writing. I am not going to bore you with all the links, although I will give some.

The Wikipedia article, Bushfires in Australia, makes the point that certain native flora in Australia have evolved to rely on bushfires as a means of reproduction and fire events are an interwoven and an essential part of the ecology of the continent. In some eucalypt and banksia species, for example, fire causes seed pods to open, which allows them to germinate. Fire also encourages the growth of new grassland plants. Other species have adapted to recover quickly from fire.

The article also points out  that the Australian Aborigines used fire for a variety of purposes, including the encouragement of grasslands for hunting purposes and the clearing of tracks through dense vegetation. In doing so, they modified the environment. All this is true enough, but there is a little more to it than that.

Types of Fire & their impact

The Wikipedia article classifies fires in just two ways,  hilly/mountainous fires and flat/grassland fires. This is misleading. A far better classification is in terms of heat and size.

A cool fire burns along the ground, clearing grass and underbrush. The heat created by a grass fire can be intense, but generally such fires burn out quickly. They may have a big impact, but it's in a small area.

By contrast, hot fires get into the canopy, and then spread from tree to tree. The Australian eucalypt exudes flammable vapour. Fire storms are created with winds that throw embers well in advance of the fire; the bush can literally explode. The damage is intense.

While it's true that certain Australian species actually depend upon fire, this is again not universally true. The capacity to recover from fire varies greatly. A really hot fire can wipe out both plants and animals across a wide area; only the very fire resistant remain. Recovery can be very slow in such circumstances.

Aboriginal Land Management

If you look at the huge Victorian fire of 1851 or some of the later big blazes, you have to ask the question how did the Aborigines survive such fires? Surely they must have wiped out entire local Aboriginal populations?

The answer is that they didn't have to. Australia's very big blazes are a European creation. In Train Reading - Gammage, the Aborigines & the environment, I looked at the Aboriginal use of fire.

The modern approach to bushfires centres on prevention and control. We burn, for example, to try reduce the risk and impact of fire. Our approach to bushfires is centralised.

The Aboriginal approach was very different. To the Aborigines, fire was a practical tool to be used for a variety of purposes. Further, their approach was localised, undertaken by people with intimate knowledge of their local environment. They knew which class of fire would give the best results. They also needed to avoid creating fires that might affect neighbouring groups in adverse ways. Certain types of burning-off were done cooperatively. 

The end result was a patterned landscape that, among other things, reduced the incidence of big fires and also provided natural refuges for humans and animals alike.

The Impact of the Europeans

The arrival of the new European colonists affected the landscape in a variety of ways. The first and most devastating impact lay in the withdrawal of Aboriginal fire management techniques. Within decades, the combination of disease with land occupation wiped out previous land management methods. Fuel grew, refuges vanished. The conflagration of 1851 was one result.

The European settlers affected the landscape in other ways. Stock damaged water systems, the land compacted;  it became drier. In some areas trees were cut down, but in others trees grew, creating new fire sites. Eric Rolls' brilliant book A Million Wild Acres explores this impact in one area, the story of the Pilliga Scrub.      

European Fire Management

The European settlers quickly found that they, too, needed to use fire. Open park like areas became over-run by scrub. Grasses deteriorated. Fire was used to create new grasses, to burn cleared timber. The growth of national parks in the twentieth century created a new variable, for it made the state increasingly responsible for fire control in an environment where what is must be protected as compared to what might be or indeed what was.

The spread of urban Australia created a further fire stress, for it exposed more and more Australians to risk of bushfire. Insurance claims skyrocketed. More controls were introduced.

Modern Australian Governments have neither the knowledge nor the resources required to mimic the Aboriginal approach. We can only seek to control, to minimise risk.

The Volunteer System

The 2007 fires got me thinking about the importance of our volunteer system, about the way in which our total system depended on volunteers. In California wild fires - a systemic failure? I compared our system to the Californian experience. One distinction was the presence of volunteers, a second the Californian focus on mandatory evacuations. I thought that the Australian approach was better.

In February 2009, there were disastrous bushfires in Victoria. I first reported on them in Victoria's fires - at least 14 dead. Then in Saturday morning musings - issues raised by the Victorian fires I tried to stand back and look at some of the issues raised. I followed this in May with Victoria's fires - leadership, authority and responsibility.

One side-effect of the Victorian inquiry was a shift towards the Californian mandatory evacuation approach. I do not agree with this. Some people who stay will die. That's a fact. But the willingness of people to defend their own homes is central to our system, Take that away and you create a new set of complications, for you substitute further central control for individual responsibility. And that has all sorts of costs.


I was going to finish this post by looking at new land management techniques. I fear that I have run out of time. Maybe later.  

Friday, January 04, 2013

The error fallacy

My first post for the new year. I am not making any new year's resolutions, at least no public ones. I feel too silly when I fail to achieve them!

In some ways, 2013 began as 2012 ended.

Here in Australia, the in-passing claim by Families Minister Jenny Macklin that she could live on the Newstart allowance (the dole) of $35 per day has been met with derision. It was one of those stupid slips made double unfortunate by the timing; she made the comments on the day that more than 80,000 single parents were shifted from the parenting payment to the lower Newstart allowance, leaving some up to $110 a week worse off.

You will get a feel for the response from these links: here, here, here, here, and here.

Meantime, John McTernan's report Are You Being Served? Towards More Responsive Public Services has been release. Mr McTernan claims to be a global leader on public service leadership, wrote his report while he was Adelaide Thinker in Residence and is now apparently Julia Gillard's Director of communications.

Over on the ABC's The Drum, Institute of of Public Affairs' Research Fellow Chris Berg is scathing. Rightly so, although Mr Berg really misses the point. He and Mr McTernan are in fact in furious agreement on a key point. Mr McTernan states, and I quote:

The delivery of effective and efficient public services is the hallmark of good government, yet as private sector standards rise there needs to be an equivalent increase in the quality of public service and increasing confidence and respect between the public service and the public.

Chris Berg, too, appears to believe that that the private sector is better managed. They go in different directions from that starting point, but the underlying assumption is there.

I think it absurd to say that private sector management standards have risen. I know of no hard evidence to support this. If anything, the anecdotal evidence suggests that management effectiveness in both public and private sectors has been in decline, and for similar reasons. There is certainly evidence to suggest that certain activities are better managed in the private sector, but this is a question of context and constraints.

If you think about it, the very idea of continuous improvement in management is absurd. Management is a human activity, subject to all the normal human frailties and to the forces of entropy. In many ways, management is like the rat on the treadmill. You have to keep running to stay in the same place! Yes, managers should aim for continuous improvement, we can always do better, but we have to recognise that in an aggregate sense we are all on that treadmill.

I was reminded of this by the latest release of the Australian cabinet documents. For the first time, some of the submissions I wrote are now in the public domain, some have even been digitised! This is the first Belshaw submission and subsequent cabinet decision. You will need to keep clicking to read the whole thing.

Heavy going, isn't it? But this was the start of a process. We were trying to do something new. In many ways we failed, although we had successes such as the abolition of duties on computer imports. But how do you measure our successes and failures?

I suppose that the reasons for failure are instructive, for they illustrate some of the hurdles that must be overcome if you are to bring about real change.

Improvement will not come from aspirational reports such as that by Mr McTernan. They come through the sheer hard grind of thousands of workers trying to fix things now. Within their human limits, people care. They try to do a better job.

The real challenge for any organisation is to find the best way of giving people the freedom they need to do their jobs. That's actually bloody hard, for it conflicts with the command and control mode of modern management.

Given freedom, people will make mistakes. But they will also achieve greet things.

What do you want? Do you want to avoid error, or do you want to achieve success? You can't have the second if you want the first.