Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reflections on the death of Peter Brownie

Tomorrow is Peter Brownie's funeral in Newcastle, Sadly, I will not be able to attend; it's just too difficult getting there.

From time to time on this blog I have written of the importance of good teachers, of teachers who have an undying influence and who remain etched in our memories. I am sure that if I asked you, you would remember a teacher or two who had a major impact on your development. Peter was one such teacher.

Peter came to TAS (The Armidale School) in 1952, staying there until 1969 when he left to become Head of Wolaroi College, Orange. Peter was active in all parts of school life from theatre performance to coaching the school First Fifteen in Rugby. The following photo shows Peter in pretty characteristic pose during a 1962 First Fifteen match. 1962-Rugby-1 

In Rugby, I watched Peter from afar. I was a long standing (several years) member of the Seconds as a front rower, second rower, lock and break-away; the last was my favourite position. Peter did try me at one training as hooker, but it wasn't a success. He wanted me for my comparative size and speed, but I really had no idea and kept pulling the props down.   

My increasing contact with Peter came via the academic sphere. I was a bookish child, an omnivorous reader, but also one whose school results were poor. There were reasons for that, but the end result was that I got five Bs in the Intermediate Certificate, then just four Bs including geography in the School Certificate the following year. Not deterred, Peter asked me to do geography honours and enrolled me the small geography honours class. Then he did something far more cunning, although I only came to realise this later.  

The honours course focused on Asian geography. He gave me books to read. Not school geography texts, but the leading scholarly publications on Asian geography. Have a look at this, you might find it interesting. I didn't have to write essays or anything like that. He would just ask me later what I thought. He asked me to help form a school geography society. He told me that I should use diagrams to explain relationships, to write to the diagram. Those are my words now, I am sure that he put them more simply.

The Trial Leaving Certificate came some eight months into this process. My B in the School Certificate was replaced by a high level A. I have been waiting for this moment, he wrote in my report. A few months later I scored first Class Honours. I can't remember where I came, whether it was ninth or eleventh in NSW.

My parents felt that at sixteen I was too young to go to University even though I had a Commonwealth Scholarship. I was to repeat the Leaving. Peter, knowing me rather well, said you are going to be bored. Why don't you pick up economics and economics honours? You should be able to complete the two year course in twelve months. I did, and again gained first Class honours. I didn't do quite as well, coming in somewhere around thirty second in the state.

I lost contact with with him after that. I had gone to Canberra, while he left TAS in 1969. We finally met again in 2006 at Alex Buzo's funeral. We talked. Peter said that when he first came to TAS the salary was low, but the head (Gordon Fisher) told him that his sons would be able to attend the school for free. Several daughters later, Peter appeared in a review wearing a tap, explaining that despite all his efforts he still had no-one to put him put it it on!I also learned for the first time that when Peter began teaching economics he knew nothing about the subject and in fact relied on Dad who was Professor of Economics at New England for subject knowledge to keep him just in front of his students.

We did exchange a few emails after the funeral, but I was tied up with family matters and things drifted. Now, of course, it's too late. I regret that. But I can at least record my admiration and affection for a man who did so much for me.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

How Australians see themselves

My train reading at the moment is a book of readings, excerpts, about Australia published since Federation. I will talk about the book later. For the moment, I just wanted to ask you all a few questions.

What do you think are the key themes in the way Australians see themselves? Are they shared by external observers? Have views changed?

Postscript February 27

I deliberately kept this post short and open ended. Now for a little more information.

The book I have been reading is Robert Manne and Chis Feik (eds), The Words that made Australia: how a nation came to know itself (Black Inc.Agenda, 2012).

It's an interesting collection of excerpts dating from 1901 to 2008. The selection reflects, as it always does, the views of the authors as to importance. I might have selected differently. But then, as Neil Whitfield noted in a comment: Seriously, I find such questions very difficult to answer as I may be an Aussie but I am also me and furthermore from a particular background in a particular part of Oz (The Shire) at a particular time. background.

That's pretty right, for I have a part written piece that illustrates this. My point there is in part just that. But beyond that, in read my reading I read at different levels: what did the piece say in the context of the time; what did it say about the process of change in Australia, about the evolution of Australians' perceptions of themselves; what still read true or at least relevant today?

To take an example in the last category, the excerpt from W E H Stanner's After the Dreaming stands out for its clarity and its relevance. By contrast, Robert Menzie's The Forgotten People, Robin Boyd's Australian Ugliness, Miriam Dixon's The Real Matilda all seem polemical, dated. They were influential then and still exercise influence now, but they are very much documents of their time. It is also interesting just how strong the Australian frame is. There is little recognition of similar changes happening elsewhere.

Later, I will explore the book in more detail. For the moment, I want to pose a simple question to illustrate how reading a collection like this can lead to new questions.

By way of background, White Australia and Australian attitudes to race form one thread in the book. The earlier pieces take this for granted. The later pieces attack is strongly.

When you look at the earlier pieces they are very powerful. They combine every element necessary for a fully fledged fascist or at least racially exclusive political movement of great power. Interpreted through today's glasses, this must sound a great criticism. It's not. It's just a combination of things capable of being wrapped together in a way that even today would resonate across many parts of Australian society, combining the desire to do good with idealism, Australia's history and a very particular view of the Australian people.

Later I will explain this. For the moment I want to ask these questions. What caused the Australian people to reject this approach? How come we threw away central tenets - White Australia, a continent for a single people, our own perception of our exclusiveness - even though it was supported by every political movement and institution? That's surely an interesting question.

I have tried to answer it myself, focusing on the process of change. Yet reading this set made me wonder about my own explanations. There were a very particular set of circumstances at play to bring about such fundamental change in a such a short historical period. 

Postscript two 4 March

If you look at the comment thread here, you will see that Neil Whitfield introduced us to "The Awful Australian" by Valerie Desmond. That started quite an entertaining thread, now continued in two of Neil's posts: Valerie who? and then The Shrunken Morning Herald, and an eBook find. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Conversation with Winton - banks, gearing, externalities and market failure

I fear that discussion with my old friend and blogging colleague Winton Bates on his post How can governments stop encouraging banks to be highly geared? has distracted me from posting here. Feel free to drop in and join the discussion; that includes a specific invitation from Winton to you, kvd.

I imagine that it would seem pretty dry stuff to the ordinary reader, but its quite important from my perspective. It's forcing me to revisit and redefine concepts such as market failure and externalities. I won't explain at this point, for I don't want to distract from the discussion at Winton's place by creating another discussion thread here. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saturday Morning Musings - Australian threads February 2013

Today, just straws in the Australian wind. In most cases, I'm not giving links. They are just things that I am watching for both professional and personal reasons.

The formal separation between the Australian Greens and Federal Labor had some immediate negative connotations for the Government. However, from a practical viewpoint, there File:AdmbandtJuly2010.jpgare two things to watch.

The first is the Green vote or, in advance of the election, the polls on the Green vote. The Greens are fighting to hold their one House of Representatives and are under threat in the Senate. To do this, they wanted separation from Labor to consolidate their base. To give you a benchmark to watch and someone to criticise, my forecast is that the Green vote has peaked. They will lose votes in this polarised election. 

Will Adam Bandt hold Melbourne, his House of of Representatives seat? I really have no idea!  The formal numbers are against him, but I know from my own experience that a hard working local member can build support. It's easier in the country where people have more access to their member, but it's true in the city as well. Let me chance my arm so that you can really attack me later! Bandt to hold his seat.

The second thing to watch is just what happens in the environment debate. As I see the dynamics, the Greens have been sidelined. Labor is going for the immediate political response issues, the Coalition is responding; I am not sure where the Greens fit in. My forecast? I don't expect the environment to be a particularly significant issue at this election when measured by voter responses.

The environment may not be significant, but the national broadband network may be. This is one issue where, on the polls, Labor is seen as positive. Communications  shadow minister Malcolm Turnbull has been hammering away at this. Broadband is good. We will accelerate roll-out, but we will also do a cost benefit analysis. Meantime, there have been some problems with the roll-out. This is an Armidale example. I suspect that this one will be resolved (Armidale is in Tony Windsor's  New England seat), but you can expect other problems to be highlighted.

Meantime, the Gillard Government is displaying the same type of reactive flip flop behaviour that was such a feature of the last days of the NSW Labor administration. This includes a desire to talk tough, to be seen as active. to chase an immediate political gain; we have seen it most recently in Environment Minister Tony Burke's responses on environmental matters and in the health arena. It's silly really, for it adds to the impression of chaos. Incumbency is the one thing the Government has going for it, and that asset is being wasted. Expect more of the same.

Will Kevin Rudd replace Julia Gillard? Many of the political commentators have been calling it that way, but the institutional structures within the Labor Party make it difficult. In any event, I'm bored with it all!

The economy is far more interesting. The world is awash with cash via central bank quantitative easing. This is keeping the Australian dollar higher than it would otherwise be. All that cash will ultimately feed into the combination of rising asset prices (we can see that now) and increased economic activity. As it does, central banks will change track; global official interest rates will rise and the value of the Australian dollar fall.

When? Sooner than most people expect and certainly some time in 2013. We have already seen the first signs of it. Watch this space.

Some time back, I spent a lot of time writing about the impact of demographic change and especially an aging population in many countries. Now the effects are clearly with us. It is one of the reasons why Japan and the Europeans are struggling to regain growth. The most recent statistics on the Chinese workforce showed the first fall in history. It was small, but a sign of things to come.

We really haven't addressed the question of the best way for countries to adjust. Discussion has focused on cost issues, on the way in which aging populations will affect health care and benefits costs. How do we fund these when the working population is a diminishing proportion of the total population? But it's a lot more than that.

Demographic change is incremental and often invisible in the short term. Then it begins to bite and bite hard. Will we see a major focus on this in 2013? Probably not, although coverage is increasing. Should we? Almost certainly yes.

Finally, something I want to write about at a later point, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons: 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Shop locally - save your town

There has been a conference here in Australia talking about how to save small towns. This shot from Mark of the general store at Bundarra, a small town between Armidale and Inverell, captures one message rather well, Shop (and act) locally and save your town. Bundarra

Monday, February 18, 2013

One million jobs and a sense of déjà vu

On Sunday, the  the Prime Minister, the Hon Julia Gillard MP, and the Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon Wayne Swan MP together released what was described as the Gillard Government's $1 billion Jobs Plan. The best short summary is here, the plan is here. I knew it was coming, but had forgotten about it until I received a cryptic sms message: "offsets mark how many?" I didn't understand and had to have it explained. Then I saw the significance.

While there are some reasonable things in the statement, it made me very sad. I will explain why in a moment. But first, Australian Archives has begun releasing some of the industry policy cabinet submissions that I was responsible for. The decision that follows is from the first. If you click on this link you will find the decision. Just keep clicking on the page numbers on the bottom right and you will find the submission itself. Long, isn't it? Further comments follow the decision. Aeropspace decision 1

aerospace decision 2 aerospace decision 3

Now why did  all this make me sad? Let me explain very briefly.

As the Department responsible for industry policy,  the Department of Industry and Commerce was concerned that too much of its resources were tied up in policies and programs tied up in declining industries. The old industry protection regime had to go, the only questions where when, how, and what might take its place. I was asked to set up a new branch, the Electronics, Aerospace and Information Industries Branch. Our job was to look at development possibilities for a very large rapidly growing global sector combining manufacturing and services centred on electronics and system based industries.

To manage this, we decided that we had to treat the broad sector as a whole because of the interlinks. However, the sector was so varied that the best way of proceeding was by a series of individual sectoral studies. We could then focus on the common elements across sectors, as well as the unique features of each sector; this was part of what we called the matrix approach, one centred on the integration of all the policy measures affecting industrial development. In doing so, we assumed globalisation and reductions in industry assistance.

The aerospace submission and subsequent ministerial statement was the first in a series of which three have now entered the public domain; two have still to be assessed by Archives for full release. In the end, we failed to achieve our objectives. Here I will deal first with the particular and then the general.

If you read the submission. you will see a reference to Minister Button's forthcoming trip. We had been negotiating possible Australian participation in the development of a new airliner, the A320. Our industry was just too small to put up the development cash. Fierce opposition from Treasury made it extremely difficult to get funding. It was just too risky. Instead, in conjunction with local industry, we had worked out a game plan that might get Australia a carried share by trading off elements of the offset program. This required overseas majors wishing to sell airliners to local carriers to place certain work in Australia.

It was all set up. Then the CEO of Airbus arrived late and well under the weather for his meeting with Minister Button. Opening a bottle of champagne, he invited the Minister to have a drink. Angry and feeling that there was no point, the Minister left. On small things, do such big things fail. And what happened to the A320? I quote from Wikipedia:

As of December 2012, a total of 5,402 Airbus A320 family aircraft have been delivered, of which 5,234 are in service. In addition, another 3,629 airliners are on firm order. It ranked as the world's fastest-selling jet airliner family according to records from 2005 to 2007, and as the best-selling single-generation aircraft programme.

Effective industry policy is a grind. So long as you have the measure broadly right, then you can refine and target. But you must have continuity. It takes industry from seventeen months to seven plus years to get a new product or service out.  If you shift the goal posts during this period, you are likely to invalidate you whole program. We held the line for four years, but that was as much as we could manage. Some elements of our approach lasted for much longer periods, but the integration that had been central was lost.

I know that I have written about this before, but the question of the best way of maintaining the continuity required for longer term success in both public and private sectors continues to exercise my my mind. The same issues arise in, say, higher education where the whole sector has been victim to constant change. Continuity does not preclude change. Just the opposite. You have to refine all the time. But that is a very different thing from from the sharp changes in direction that have been such feature of policy or management over recent years.

If you look at the latest policy statement, the ideas are not new. Some have been tried many times. In the case of the offsets/industry participation components, I have lost track of the various policy shifts over the last thirty years. Further, to my mind, the statement does not establish a proper nexus between what is proposed and the underlying dynamics of industry performance. Despite its wrapping in the language so beloved by modern governments, it is actually a very old fashioned approach. 

This doesn't mean that all the ideas are necessarily bad.  But who in business would base any actions on them?  Unless Mr Abbott endorses the specifics, the opinion polls suggest that the whole thing will be overthrown by the end of the year. Even if Labor wins the elections, who would rely on their continuity?

That's my problem. How do we get continuity back?


Both kvd and Winton Bates made useful comments on this post. In responding, I want to point to some of the complexities involved in the whole thing.

Winton referred to Australia's problems with the Collins class submarines. You will get a fair picture of the difficulties from the Wikipedia article.

One of the problems in this type of analysis is to decide what the real problem is.

The Defence Procurement Case

Take Defence procurement. Before going on, if you read the various attachments to that rather long cabinet submission, you will actually get a rather good snapshot of Defence plans and procurement at the time.

You start with boys with toys. Defence has needs, those needs are set within a strategic context as defined by the Government. They are also set within a budget context. While Defence is sympathetic to the idea of buying or building locally, they first look at what they really want in terms of capabilities. That has then to be modified in the context of a budget constraint. If Government wants something to be built locally for industry development purposes, Defence will say to Government during the concept definition phase, okay, but that will cost more. You, the Government, find a way of paying for that. If the Government does, or if it directs Defence to do it anyway by cutting out other projects, then the incremental cost is clearly industry assistance and should be judged as such.

In considering new procurements, Defence has a problem because of the combination of the increased cost and lumpiness of major Defence procurements. Mostly, the orders are not large enough to support local design and development. The difficulty then is to guarantee the life of type support that Defence to support the new acquisition over its long life. This covers all sorts of things: access to intellectual property, spares, maintenance with its specialist skills, capacity to do modifications etc.

The support requirements for each potential contender are different. Again, Defence can't get everything it wants in an ideal world without paying a lot of money. It has to make choices. Priorities have to be set. So Defence created as part of its tender process what it called Australian Industry Participation segments in tenders. Later, this term would be adopted more broadly, the context would change. This is an example.

The key point about the Australian Industry Participation Plans, and I would write several of them as a consultant, is that their purpose was not actually industry support, but the creation of a competitive environment in which the bidders would seek to meet Defence's support needs as defined in the most cost effective way relative to their particular kit offering.

Now factor in the work that we were trying to do in 1984. We had no money to sweeten the pot, although we were trying to create an aerospace industry development fund. We really didn't have the skills nor the power to say that this Defence choice was best from an industry development viewpoint, it will cost this much extra, and that cost needs to come from the budget. The only power we had was our capacity to make life difficult for Defence at the margin. All we could do is to say please take industry development considerations into account, these are the industry features we are looking for, can you help?

In fact, thinking about it, we did have another lever, but that would detract from my present analysis, so I will put it airside. I want to focus on the procurement issue since that is one  that is central to the Government's approach.

The issue of Australian industry involvement in major projects has been a political issue since at least 1980. There have been multiple and shifting attempts to address the issue. Few have had positive results, partly because very few public servants have the time, or indeed the skills, to address the fundamental economic impediments involved, more because the issue is so multifaceted.

Our ability to make life difficult gave us a certain influence. Further, there were many in Defence who were highly sympathetic to the idea of increased Australian industry involvement. After all, the decline in Australian industry capacity actually created problems for Defence in providing proper life of type support. This was very different from attitudes among those concerned with, say, IT purchase. So what could we do?

We began by trying to understand the Defence procurement process. This was incredibly complicated, making it difficult to understand. It was also very lumpy. From an industry viewpoint, ,this meant floods followed by long droughts. It was small by global standards, meaning that local demand was insufficient to easily support sustained activities. It was also an expensive market place in marketing terms because of the very high cost of tendering, adding to difficulties for the smaller local industry.

One obvious thing that we thought about were impediments in the procurement process itself. One might be lack of information, although that one was being addressed. A second obvious one was the way that the tender specifications were written in terms of requirements. Were there issues here that might impede local industry? To a degree, the answer was yes for some tender requirements were actually written prescriptively around certain types of supply. This is still a current issue; Australian engineers argue that with more and more construction work going to overseas firms, engineers in those firms write the detailed specs in terms of the supplies they know. Often, this excludes Australian suppliers.

So there are some things that can be done to improve the procurement process from a local perspective. This is where so much policy concentrates. But it's not enough and that's why this element of the latest industry package is unlikely to have significant economic impacts. What else might be done?

We obviously had no control over the very choppy and variable nature of the procurement process. You can't tell a Government that it really shouldn't vary planned activities for either budgetary or political considerations just because it might damage Australian industry. Things don't work like that. So we needed other choices.

One choice was to improve productivity. Were there ways of lowering industry costs? This had general and particular implications. The general level of productivity in the Australian economy and the policy actions that might affect that were way outside our control. We might provide input, but really this was an area that we had to take as a given. Were there things that we might encourage in areas like skills? Yes, but they were all support measures.

In the most basic sense, we had just one option. We had to find a way of supporting the growth of the aerospace industry. If we could do that, then the industry would be in a better place to bid for participation in local defence business, gaining some additional cream.  Here there were two not necessarily mutually exclusive choices. We could find a way of growing the aerospace industry's defence export exports. This had obvious political issues, but we could argue against those. Or we could grow the civil side of the industry, thus providing base to support the more variable defence business.

If you look at the submission you will see some of this.       

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Saturday Morning Musings - a sense of country

I guess that this post should be better called Saturday Evening Musings, since its really written in the evening, but I like to preserve my patterns.Brian Martin, Methexical Countryscape Wurundjeri #3

   This evening I was listening to an interview on Radio National's Awaye with artist Brian Martin.This collage, Methexical Countryscape Wurundjeri #3 is by Brian.

Brian claims membership of both the Bundjalung and Muruwari  Aboriginal language groups. That's actually a slightly unusual mix, for while both groups come from Northern New South Wales, they are a long way apart in distance terms, from the North Coast to the far west.

In talking about his work, Brian made a distinction between the traditional European approach to landscape painting and that he tried to adopt. In traditional European landscape painting, he suggested, the painter is an observer who tries to capture the landscape as spectacle. By contrast, in painting he tries to capture the landscape as life, for to the Aboriginal peoples with their sense of country the landscape was their life.

Like all these things, such distinctions are not clear cut. However, it got me thinking about varying concepts of country. All human beings have a sense of country in the sense of the familiar, the patterns of life. You can see this in a conference or meeting, where people quickly establish their positions, the place where they sit, where they return to. In all aspects of life, we establish routines across our landscape; there is our favourite coffee shop, the routes we always walk, the places where we buy groceries, the buildings we recognise.

If we live in one place for long enough, those familiar patterns become imbued with a sense of history, part of our own past. This was where my grandparents lived, this is where I went to school, we have been coming to this beach for many years, and so it goes on. Modern Australians are relatively immobile, unwilling to shift from familiar locales. They are also clannish in a geographic sense. You can see this in Sydney very clearly with its geographic divides. Those from the Eastern Suburbs see themselves as different from those coming from, say, the Northern beaches. The Westies and the inner suburb metros are separated by a vast divide that is is only partly based on geography, for different areas develop their own cultures.   

Most Australians now live in an urban environment. To them, their country is marked by its built landscape. This changes all the time. Normally this goes largely unnoticed, although sometimes the changes are big enough to attract notice and consequent comment or even protest. One side effect of this pattern of constant change is that country is personally populated, illumed through direct experience or memories of immediate past generations. Despite the popularity of local history societies, very few urban and especially city people have a feel for the history of their own areas. The concept of a steady landscape populated by the stories of multiple generations carried down through generations is alien.

I think that this is the real difference with the Aboriginal sense of country or indeed that I hold in terms of my own area.           

Friday, February 15, 2013

Just a dash of horse meat

The news that UK beef products were found to contain horse meat (in the case of supermarket chain Tesco apparently up to 30 per cent of the all beef hamburgers) has attracted some wry humour. Here are some examples that came around via email:

  • Why the fuss about horse meat in UK foods? I believe horse meat tastes just like Black Caviar.
  • I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse..... I guess Tesco just listened!
  • Anyone want a burger from Tesco? Yay or neigh?
  • Not entirely sure how Tesco are going to get over this hurdle.
  • Waitress in Tesco asked if I wanted anything on my Burger. So I had £5 each way!
  • Had some burgers from Tesco for my tea last night ...I still have a bit between my teeth.
  • A woman has been taken into hospital after eating horse meat burgers from Tesco. Her condition is said to be stable.
  • Tesco are now testing all their vegetarian burgers for traces of unicorn
  • I've just checked the Tesco burgers in my freezer ... AND THEY'RE OFF
  • Tesco now forced to deny presence of zebra in burgers, as shoppers confuse barcodes for serving suggestions
  • Said to the missus, These Tesco burgers give me the trots
  • To beef or not to beef, that is equestrian
  • A cow walks into a bar. Barman says, "Why the long face?" Cow says "Illegal ingredients, coming over here stealing our jobs!
  • I hear the smaller version of those Tesco burgers make great horse d'oeuvres
  • These Tesco burger jokes are going on a bit.... Talk about flogging a dead horse!

I must say I laughed.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Round the blogging traps - just a taste of our blogging diversity

I have been quite busy. One of the curses of that state is reduced time just to wander round and then write about the many offerings from our fellow bloggers. To make up, come with me this morning on a ramble round the blogging traps.   

On 27 January, blogging friends Winton Bates (left) and Neil Whitfield joined me for an Australia Day BBQ. They hadn't met before. Three bloggers, three different perspectives, but we do gain from each other.

Neil has put his previous blog aside in favour of a new one, Neil's Commonplace Book, so if you haven't already done so. In his last post on Neil's Final Decade, Neil or Ninglun as we once knew him as has provided an index by month to thirteen year's of blogging across all the Floating Life blogs. That's useful from my perspective, given that we have been interacting for close on seven years now. 

Winton blogs at Freedom and Flourishing. Like many of us, Winton's writing wanders around a key interest, in his case freedom and flourishing. That's part of the fun of it all. In his latest post, Will 'Lincoln' encourage people to give more thought to modern forms of slavery?, Winton puts a tentative toe into the murky waters of modern forms of slavery.

On my birthday, I awoke to find an email from Ramana. He had deliberately written it the night before so that I would see it first thing in the morning. I thought that was really thoughtful of him, but then Ramana is like that. You can see it in his blog, Ramana's Musings. Ramana's gently musings provide a quite wonderful entry point to aspects of Indian life and of life in general seen through the prism set by Ramana's life.

Another blog in the same class if from a different place is Denis Wright's My Unwelcome Stranger. Denis has an incurable brain tumour. Don't let that put you off. Like Ramana, he writes with gentle humour, bearing his present experiences as best he can. Denis is a good writer. He mixes stories from the present and past, adds dashes of Asian philosophy and literature (professionally, he is an historian with a focus on Asia and especially the subcontinent) and whatever takes his fancy. Many of the best independent bloggers do draw from their own experiences, but are not dominated by them. Their experiences become raw material for their writing, are transmuted through the writing process into pieces that we can all read.

I follow a number of photo blogs. One old favourite is Gordon Smith's lookANDsee. This photo from Gordon shows the University of New England colleges through the haze created by the recent bushfires. Gordon has not been posting as frequently recently, in part because of computer problems. Hopefully, these will soon be put behind him.

Gordon's wife, Bronwyn Parry, also blogs in her role as romance suspense writer extraordinaire, although her posts have been irregular recently. Her thrillers, I would call them that, are set in Northern New South Wales, the broader New England I write about, and have achieved considerable commercial success. If you read one, you will see why. They are ripping good yarns, and I'm not talking about the bodice ripping that was such a feature of romance writing.

One of the things that you don't see although I refer to it from time to time, is the stream of leads I get from my fellow bloggers and commenters. They know what I write about and send me links to stuff that I might find of interest. Gordon does this, as does Ramana and kvd. It really helps.

Another of my favourite photo blogs is Mark's Clarence Valley Today.  The best photo blogs tell a story, linking the photo to its context in a few words.

This spectacular photo from Mark shows the  recent floods on the Clarence. For those who don't know the river, the Clarence is the biggest coastal river in both New England and NSW. That bridge is normally well above the water. At 4am when Mark took this photo, the question in everybody's mind was whether the flood would break the levy protecting the city of Grafton. It did not, although it was a record flood. It was a close run thing though, with the waters peaking centimetres short. 

As you might expect, I follow a number of history blogs. One I have really liked is Signposts, a group blog about Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. In turn, this led me to NZ History, New Zealand history on line. For Australians, these sites will highlight the historical differences between the two countries. For those elsewhere, they will highlight the way in which New Zealand has evolved its own very unique history and culture.

I fear that I am out of time  this morning. Maybe more later.        

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Why Australia's Fair Work Ombudsmen needs a reality check

I get very crabby sometimes. I don't actually like it; it usually means that something has prodded an existing sore spot.

A case in point was the release during the week by the Australian Fair Work Ombudsman of a report into unpaid work. This ABC news report, Fair Work launches crackdown on unpaid work, will give you something of the flavour. It begins: 

Unpaid job trials and internships are on the rise in Australia, with young graduates at particular risk of being exploited, according to new research.

The internships, which are common in the United States, have become increasingly popular in Australia but a new report out today says the arrangements are illegal.

Early in 2011, eldest studied at the Copenhagen Business School for a semester as part of her university course. While there, she did an unpaid internship with the Australian Embassy. This was not connected with her course, but was very valuable in giving her experience. Apparently, this type of arrangement is now illegal. Listening to the Fair Work Ombudsman Nicholas Wilson being interviewed about the report and the proposed follow up action made me wonder just what planet he lived on. Yes, I said that I got crabby if you poked a sore spot!

Yes, there has been a rise in unpaid work and that can lead to exploitation. However, the response is unreasonable. Here I want to focus especially on the professions, the area that I know best. Here I quote from the official summary of the report:

    • While unpaid internships are more prevalent in certain industries, the report concludes that the majority of professional industries are affected, including (but not limited to) print and broadcast media, legal services, advertising, marketing, PR and event management. Such arrangements are often considered a prelude to paid work.
    • The report concludes that there is reason to suspect that a growing number of businesses are choosing to engage unpaid interns to perform work that might otherwise be done by paid employees.
    • The report recommends that FWO focus on those businesses that are systematically using unpaid work arrangements to exploit workers, and gain competitive advantage over businesses complying with workplace laws.

Let's start with a basic fact. There are costs involved with all new staff members beyond salary. These include especially supervision time. It also takes time for a new staff member without experience to become productive. This is especially true for a new graduate.

Consider now a second feature. There are costs involved in working. You have travel costs, depending on the industry you have to look smart and that means dry cleaning; these may sound small things, but they add up.

Taken together, these things impose a natural constraint on the use of unpaid staff. They can only do certain things, there are costs involved for the business, and they will walk when they can't afford cash costs associated with the job or if they feel that they are being ripped off. With possible exceptions, events management or certain not for profits come to mind, you can't build a sustainable business or even increase your profit margins through systematic use of unpaid labour. The real world doesn't work like that.

You can actually see this in the difficulties that can arise in finding placements for students at all levels who have to do work experience as part of their course. They can struggle to find the placements they need. Why? It's all to expensive and complicated for the firms they want to work for. I remember at one point I was getting a dozen applications a week, including many from students at overseas universities, especially from those in France.

Turning to the other side, the labour market is both imperfect and very competitive. I have written a little on this and should write more. I worry a about my daughters, for they live in a credentialed world in which just just having a degree no longer guarantees work. For many, internships or unpaid work has become an investment in training and work experience.

The Fair Work Ombudsmen's blunt edge approach does not recognise any of this. As I said, the report prodded a sore spot. It just adds to the regulation that is choking us all. Mr Wilson need a reality check.   

Friday, February 08, 2013

The first three Federal election issues - the economy, industrial relations and NSW Labor

I hope to follow up on Australia & the meaning of the migrant contribution with a new post tomorrow. For the moment, I want to return to local Australian politics.

With the Federal elections set for September, my mind has begun to focus on the issues likely to be important in that election. Here there is not much use following the current opinion polls, you have to decide what will be most most relevant in seven month's time. In other words, you have to second guess what will happen over the intervening period. Then you need to factor what is happening now. Well, I am now prepared to nominate my first three choices.

The first is the Australian economy. This continues to weaken. Whichever ways you cut the numbers, the probabilities are that it will continue to weaken for the immediate future. The electorate is already worried about the economy, in part because so many of us are in uncertain jobs. It won't  take much of a weakening to bring those worries to the fore.

The second is industrial relations. I really hadn't expected this one, but then I hadn't planned on the union movement. In November 2007, the Rudd election, industrial relations was a major plus for the  Labor Party. Worries about the Howard Government's Work Choices proved a major issue that the Union Movement was able to capitalise on in a very effective campaign in support of the then Labor opposition.  The campaign was so effective that the Coalition abandoned any support for Work Choices. Work Choices is dead, said Mr Abbott.

That was true. Burt no one expected that the new Government's replacement legislation would be so complicated, nor did they expect the union movement to redeploy past industrial tactics. I haven't followed the detail of industrial disputes, that's far too complicated unless you are an expert, but those especially in the mining sector have a familiar ring. It's the big end of town who will provide the money, but it's the thousands of individuals and smaller businesses that have been affected by all the complexities who will provide the votes. The union movement is imposing levies and calling in funds for a major campaign to support the Government. However, that is in itself something of a poisoned chalice when the union movement itself is re-seen as part of the problem.

The third issue is the ICAC (Independent Commission against Corruption) into ministerial dealings in NSW. The doings of the Obeid family have attracted riveted attention because of their strangeness and complexity. This is the latest example.  Forget the legal issues, that's a matter for others. I can't comment.  But I have never read anything like the strange stories revealed.

I first wrote about the New South Walesing  of the Federal Government (Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed?) back in June 2008. I think that I was probably the first to use that phase; it became popular later. My focus then was on policy. I had no idea NSW Labor and especially the right would cast such a stench as to bring my assessment to such a nasty conclusion, for this will be hard for Federal Labor to overcome.

I have tried to be objective in this first part of the post. I now want to express a purely personal opinion.

I do not believe that whatever corruption may prove to have existed in NSW in any way extends to Federal Labor. I do believe that the Federal party is tarnished by some of the same type of win whatever the cost mentality that coarsened NSW Labor. I have heard the f**ck word used too many times by ministerial staff who believe that winning the immediate game is the most important thing and that you must win whatever the cost, who believe that to be tough is to is to show balls. This applies to women as well as men.

To think that the staffers and machine officials on the non-Labor side do not have the same views would be absurd. On both sides, I am talking in generalities. I accept that for many individuals my assertion is not true. As I said, this is a personal opinion. 

If I'm in any way right, those of us who want improvement have to subject the Coalition to the same degree of policy scrutiny as we apply to the Government. After all, the Coalition may well be in Government in November with Mr Abbott as PM.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Australia & the meaning of the migrant contribution

I was reading the comments on a post at another place, a post that has already inspired one post here (Lorenzo and the economic complexity of traditional Aboriginal life). I was getting annoyed, then I stopped to think. Why was I getting annoyed? Yes, it was partly the tone, but it was a little more than this. I suddenly found myself challenging an underlying assumption built into some of the comment. This took my thinking in new directions, challenging my own sometimes casual way of thinking.

Let's start with a basic question. What do you think are the most important contributions migrants have made to Australian life? I suspect that most people would start with food and drink. They might refer to a more open society. Those on the other side might say not much beyond food. Debate might then extend, flowing over into support for or attacks on multiculturalism. However, there is a problem, a common mental trap, for I deliberately posed this question in such an open way as to make it a trick question.

Australia has received many migrant groups since 1788. To answer such a general question, and limiting the time line to post 1788, you have to consider the relative contribution of each group since the arrival of the First Fleet. Arguably, the greatest migrant contribution to Australian life has been the rule of law and representative government. This was introduced to Australia with the first predominantly British settlers and then modified and extended through local experience.

See what I mean? If I were to rephrase the question to fit with the way most people might answer it, it would read like this: what are the most important contributions migrants have made to Australian life since the Second World War? Even with this more careful phrasing there are problems. I will look at some of these in my next post. 


Evan wrote in a comment  

Here's a challenge - unusual for me I know (- not): The people here pre-1788 also had the rule of their law.

From what we can gather it was detailed, sophisticated and effectively regulated their lives. (Some of the provisions were barbaric to my way of thinking - but I think this about our current laws to. Manus Island and Guantanamo Bay spring to mind.)

I ruled Evan's comment out of scope on the grounds that they while they did, it was locally developed. So I didn't think that it could be classified as a migrant contribution!

However, this led me to think. I limited my time period to post 1788. If you rephrase the question to what was the greatest contribution by any Australian migrant group ever, then the answer surely has to be those who managed to get to the continent in the first place all those millennia ago. Not only did they have to overcome huge difficulties, but they actually started the human occupation of this continent!

Monday, February 04, 2013

Nuclear waste & the Japanese economic miracle

Early in January, Hiroko Tabuchi had an interesting piece in the New York Times on Japan's clean up of the mess left from the Fukushima nuclear crisis. I would have missed it had not the Australian Financial Review not reprinted the story today. I can't give you the link to the AFR story, it's behind the pay wall, but I found the original piece.

The thing that most interested me in the story was the apparent failure of the Japanese Government to either access new technology or to use spend on the disaster to encourage the development of that technology. After all, while we all hope that there will never be another nuclear accident, the reality is that there will be. For that reason, there are certain economic advantages in developing and testing the new, even if it only forms part of the overall effort.

This got me thinking. Do you remember the Japanese Miracle?  Probably only those born in the 1960s or earlier would do so. If you were born in in, say, 1970, you would only have been twenty one when the miracle finally collapsed. In essence, the Japanese economy, official structures and firms were seen as having some special interconnected features that guaranteed made Japan the economic and management model for the world. In Australia, this view of Japan reached a kind of apotheosis in the ill-fated Multifunction Polis concept.

There were special features in the Japanese management style that I have written about before, including the then Japanese approach to project management. In Japan, great effort was devoted to conceiving and defining the project, where the Australian approach was let's do and then fix. Outside engineering areas where the subject imposed it's own discipline, Australians spent an awful lot of time trying to fix.

What people forget is that great success is often time, culture and happenstance specific. The generalised universal models drawn from events often ignore this. Economics, public policy and management are all prone to this. However, all this raised an interesting question in my mind. What happened in Japan?

I could answer this question in many ways, but in the end I think it comes back to a form of ennui, a sort of listlessness, of boredom. Success came to be taken for granted. The once vibrant became routine, boring, done almost by rote. The political and economic imbalances that had always existed in the Japanese system became more important. Flexibility declined, the system became rigid.

Is this story relevant to Australia? I would argue so. Indeed, I have argued so with respect to both management and public policy. People talk of vision. I have done so too.

But the great economic, management and policy successes did not generally start with a vision. They tend to start with current issues, with ideas, with the desire to do new things, to test the bounds. The Japanese Miracle did not start with a vision of a miracle. It started in the rubble at the end of a World War with a beaten people with strong self-discipline and a powerful culture who wanted and needed to do new things. This combined with the right economic circumstances and an official system strongly focused on supporting commercial success.

I think that there are lessons here for us.                    

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Sunday Essay - reflections on the death of Barry Holloway

I hadn't intended to write this post. I had a far more pedestrian effort in mind focused on current Australian politics. But then there was a story by Mark Baker reporting on the death of Sir Barry Holloway that carried my mind back into into entwined threads of Australian and personal life. This post is my response.

To set the scene, this photo shows Barry Holloway (right) on a UN Trusteeship mission in what is now Papua New Guinea in 1956. Barry Holloway with UN trusteeship mission, 1956

Back in the now somewhat distant past, I went with my friend Sue to the wedding of her step brother Tony Voutas to Shelley Warner, daughter of Australian writer and journalist Dennis Warner, on the Mornington Peninsular in Victoria. It was a slightly difficult trip because Sue's Dad was confined to a wheel chair and somewhat grumpy about the whole thing.

I knew that Tony had been in New Guinea as a kiap or patrol officer, but had not expected that the PNG Parliament would adjourn early to allow a group including then PM Michael Somare and speaker Barry Holloway to attend the wedding. I was interested because I had long been fascinated by PNG, if at a distance.

Growing up, Papua New Guinea was still under Australian control. Papua was an Australian external territory or colony, the formerly German controlled New Guinea was a League of Nations/UN mandate. These formal differences carried through into differences in law and administration. However, following the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, Papua and New Guinea were combined in an administrative union. This unification was confirmed by the Papua and New Guinea Act 1949. The act provided for a Legislative Council (established in 1951), a judicial organization, a public service, and a system of local government.

Not that I was really aware of this legal detail. However, I was very aware of PNG because of the War and the Kokoda Track and as a place of romance and excitement. Cousin Cyril had worked as an anthropologist in PNG and we had original artifacts around the house, as well as toy outriggers.  I sat glued to the radio during primary school listening to a gripping series on the ABC Children's Hour telling the story of the adventures of a young patrol officer in PNG. The stories were so powerful that I remember them to this day.

I didn't know at the time that Barry Holloway was one such and at just that time. Born in Tasmania in 1934, he dreamed of adventure. Working as a labourer in Melbourne, he saw (in Mark Baker's words) a newspaper advertisement seeking young men with ''initiative, imagination and courage'' to work as patrol officers in PNG.

Holloway took the challenge, joining more than 2000 Australians aged between 18 and 24 recruited between 1949 and 1974 as patrol officers, or kiaps - pidgin for captain, from the German kapitan - sent to bring the rule of official law to the sometimes lawless remote regions. Here his experiences mirrored many of those that I heard on that distant radio series.  

Mark Baker records that the lanky 18-year-old with a shock of curly red hair arrived in Port Moresby in April 1953 after six weeks' basic training, After an initial posting with an experienced kiap on Bougainville island he was sent alone to a district in Madang province. Suddenly he was at once police chief, magistrate, medical chief, census officer and director of engineering for roads and airstrips.

You really did require a very particular personality to work as a patrol officer. On one of his first patrols into an uncontrolled area, Holloway had to defuse a clash between two warring tribes with the help of a handful of native policemen. ''After three weeks, the whole crowd of about 600 to 700 would be massing around,'' he told the ABC in 2009. To the tribal warriors, the .303 rifles carried by the police were only sticks. Holloway quickly disabused them. He made a dum dum (expanding bullet) out of a normal cartridge and had it fired through a line of five shields, showing the great gap at the end. The crowd dispersed.

Armidale is a big boarding centre. At secondary school, there were plantation kids at my school (The Armidale School) and at our sister school (the New England Girls School) sent from PNG by their Burns Philp South Seasparents for an Australian education. I was interested in the stock exchange and fascinated by the romance of the listed companied with PNG links such as Steamship Traders or Burns Philp South Seas.

Towards the end of my time, the first Papuan students began to arrive at the school. 

One such was Sir Kina Bona KBE. Kina was one of the candidates at the last PNG elections. Prior to that, he was  Chairman of the Integrity of Political Parties and Candidates Commission and Registrar of the Political Parties and Candidates Commission. He had also been PNG's High Commissioner to London in the late 90s, and Public Prosecutor before then. Today, there is an active TAS Old Boys' group in PNG.

At University in Armidale, my moral tutor was Gilbert Murray, something I wrote about in Patrick Desmond Fitzgerald Murray 1900-1967. The Murray's are entwined with Papua New Guinea. Over wine and port, we talked (among other things) about PNG. I was interested, although now I wish that I could have collected more of Dr Murray's experiences and his memories of an Imperial family. Then I had no idea of their historical significance. Now I can just record fragments of memory, backed by some historical research.

Papua New Guinea was now moving towards independence. There never was a question of Australia retaining control of a territory whose acquisition had begun with an independent act of Queensland imperialism somewhat against the wishes of Westminster.

In 1963 a House of Assembly was created, a mixture of official appointees and elected members. It was not possible to be a kiap without identifying locally. In the elections that followed, Barry Holloway was elected to the Assembly along with another younger patrol officer, Tony Voutas. Now began a series of events that was to help form the character of modern PNG.

The new institutions that were being created including the Administrative Staff College, the localisation of the public service, were creating their own dynamics. The Administrative Staff College was very important for there, among other things, Michael Somare went for training in 1965, The story that follows next is drawn from an article in Islands Business.

The kiaps and the local independence leaders came to be known informally as the Bully Beef Club. They gathered at the home of trade unionist Albert Maori Kiki, and sometimes at the community centre in Hohola. There they ate tinned corn beef and talked late into the night. Michael Somare became a natural leader. In Tony Voutas' words, “Sir Michael was fiery, spoke well and was an ideas person. He was still a public servant, so there was a limit to how visible he could be.”

On June 13 1967, the Papua New Guinea Union (Pangu) Party was officially formed from the Bully Beef Club. It's members included nine members of the House of Assembly: Holloway and Voutas were part of this group. The Administration offered Pangu ministerial posts in part of its transition program. Under Somare's influence this offer was rejected. Pangu would be an independent, independence, opposition. I think that that was a mistake, but I can see Sir Michael's point.

The next  photo shows Michael Holloway with the Queen on an official visit in 1974, the year before independence. Barry Holloway with the Queen 1974

In September 1975, PNG gained independence with Pangu in power.

The coming of independence brought it's own problems. Again, a small personal example.

The Chinese who played a major role in the retail and trading sectors were very uncertain. Born in PNG, one Chinese merchant with major retail interests started shifting his money to Australia. This was done in a rush. leading to some very uncertain investments including a major real estate development at Caloundra on Queensland's Sunshine Coast. He recruited a friend of mine to examine the investments. For his part, Richard recruited a team: one person examined the legals; a second tramped all over the land, discovering an illegal marijuana plantation on the way; I examined the real estate market.

At night, we would gather at our motel and report. There our host talked about his life. He had been a young child when the Japanese occupied his village. He talked at length about that, and I listened. There were some amazing stories.

Today in PNG, there is a degree of nostalgia about the 1970s when administration was non-corrupt and the future looked bright. Would PNG have been better off if Australia had lagged its withdrawal a little? I suspect so. We are not talking decades, just more time to allow the independence transition measures to take fuller effects.

And the Pangu kiaps? Tony felt that as an expatriate Australian he should leave, that locals must take his place. Barry took a different view. To his mind, he was a local. Two choices, two paths.

Who knows who was right?  Probably both. Both had to do their own things. Both occupy a special place in PNG history.

What we do know is that Barry went on to a remarkable career. His lust for life was astonishing. I really envy it.  I guess as I grow older, what Barry tells me is that I don't need to limit myself, that whatever our age, we can do things. I am not sure that I want his number of children,  but it might be fun trying!        

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Problems with Fairfax e-editions

I have written before about the challenges faced by the print media in adjusting to the new environment. Here in Australia, Fairfax Media is one of the two largest newspaper groups. The other is News Limited, the original foundation stone of the Murdoch global empire. Both groups are responding to the challenge of the internet age to the print press by trying to attract readers to their editions. Well, at least so far as Fairfax is concerned, it's not going to work. Let me explain.

I am a long standing columnist with one of the tiny cogs in the Fairfax commercial machine, the Armidale Express. Initially, I received my copy of the paper in print form. Then, this year, I started to receive the e-edition. This coincided with a restructuring and standardisation of all the Fairfax paper web sites. A little later, came the decision to reduce the frequency of publication of the Express from three to two times a week.  

We all read in different ways and for different purposes. In my case, I am a very fast reader. With a print paper, I can flick through, quickly focusing on what I am interested in. In some cases such as the Express, I would look in detail at what might seem the oddest things, such as things for sale. I was just interested in the detail and pattern of local life.

Regular readers will know that I have a fondness for New England, Northern New South Wales. While I presently live in Sydney, it remains my home country. I know it well and write of it often. This fondness forms the second part of the jigsaw I am presenting to you.

In 1950, the New England media was all locally owned. By 2000 with a few small exceptions, control belonged elsewhere. As part of these changes, the Northern print press came to be dominated by a duopoly. APN, the smaller part of the duopoly, controlled the papers in the Northern Rivers. Elsewhere, Rural Press was dominant. This included ownership of the Armidale Express.

My interest in New England meant that I accessed the paper web sites all the time. Further, in keeping in touch, I accessed paper web sites across New England from Newcastle to the Queensland border, from the eastern seaboard to the far western plain.

The APN web site was always fairly useless. That company had no conception of the idea of geographical areas, that a person interested in one of their papers might want to easily navigate to another paper, say from Grafton to Lismore. There was no list of papers that would you could use to aid navigation.

Rural Press was very different. Each paper included a link to a total title list organised by state. This aided my media round-ups. I could start in Newcastle, track to Moree, shoot down to Taree and so on. Rural Press itself had largely lost the idea of a broader Northern Commonwealth, something that continued to exist despite the decline in its political expression. Still the web site structure made it very easy for me to track things, to identify stories and trends linked to the Northern whole that were simply not reported in the conventional media with its localised focus.

  John Fairfax acquired Rural Press at the end of 2006, although this meant little immediate change. Then last year came the new standardised web sites and the expansion of the e-editions.

The new sites lacked the paper lists and regional links that had existed on the old sites. That was a real nuisance from my viewpoint because it increased my search time. On the other hand, the new sites weren't bad from a news perspective. However, to my mind, this created a new problem for Fairfax for the e-editions of the papers are far from user friendly, especially for a fast reader.

The e-editions reproduce the physical form of the paper using a version of Flash. They have added functionality such as search. But on screen, they have just two sizes, small and big. The small gives you a page view. You can see the main headlines and the big ads, but that's it. If you then click on a page, you get the big view of that part of the page. Now the print is readable, but you can't get the full story on the screen. There is no way of navigating up, down, or sideways. All you can do is click to zoom out, re-click to zoom in on a new spot.  It can take several goes to read a full story.

For a time short, fast reader like me, all this is a bit of a nightmare. This is where the new web sites create a problem for the e-editions. They are just so much easier to read even if the content is less. I find myself skimming through the e-edition headlines and then only reading those stories that really catch my eye. For the rest, I rely on the web site. And that's a problem for Fairfax in maintaining sales of its e-editions.