Thursday, February 27, 2014

Train Reading - class warfare and Ross' history of the miners' union

At the moment, my train reading is Edgar Ross's A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (The Australasian Coal and Shale Employees" Federation, 1970, second edition 1984). I hadn't heard of Edgar Argent Ross (1904-2001), but he clearly played an important role as a journalist and writer in the struggles within the union movement and Labor/left politics.

It's an interesting book, although the detail is sometimes a bit eye-glazing. I find I lose track of the significance of overall patterns in the shifting detail of our how much was paid for particular types of work. I shouldn't, for the payment patterns are very important in understanding what happened and why.

I am reading the book as part of the research I am doing for my history of Northern NSW, the broader New England. I need to understand more of the history of Newcastle and the coal fields for their own sake and because the tensions and differences between these areas and those further north form one of the themes within New England history, culminating in the narrow defeat of the 1967 self government plebiscite. 

I never know when I start reading just where that reading will take me. That's one of the joys of the process. In this case, I simply hadn't realised the national significance of some of the early labour struggles on the Northern coal fields, nor the role played by (among others) the Australian Agricultural Company. As I read, I was also struck by similarities between coal field history and that of the country movements further north that gave rise to the Country Party and the twentieth century Northern self government movements.  Apparently different ideologies, different outcomes, but very similar structural causes and indeed operational responses.

Ross's analysis is set firmly within a framework of class warfare, of fundamentally opposing interests. He pours scorn on those who supported co-operation as an alternative, who tried to cooperate with the masters (the early phrase) or bosses. Yet he is objective enough to recognise the successes of those who held alternative views. He argues that they failed in the longer term and provides evidence to show why, but you can at least understand his arguments.

As I read, I found an unexpectedly current resonance with Hunter Valleycurrent conditions and debate. As I write, there has been a pay dispute on the Northern coal fields between unions and rail company Aurizon, culminating in a  three day strike. Aurizon, in turn, has locked the drivers out for three days, arranging for another rail company to carry the load. The photo shows an Aurizon coal train.

I don't want to get into details of the current dispute. I am not close enough to it. Instead, I want to make a broader point about the asymmetry of power and the sharing of benefits and costs.

On the Northern coal fields in the nineteenth century, the owners wanted freedom and flexibility to set wages and conditions. When times were good, they would negotiate with miners' lodges and agree to new conditions, When times were bad, they sought to maintain profits by maintaining or expanding production, while also cutting costs. Coal miners worked in harsh conditions, facing insecure incomes. They opposed this flexibility. Sometimes they lost, sometimes they won. Sometimes when they won, it had adverse results.

The first problem lay in an asymmetry in power between management, the bosses, and a disorganised and individualised workforce.The union argued, rightly, that without some countervailing force individual workers would be penalised, that workplace conditions would not improve. They had evidence to support that view. The coal companies argued, rightly, that they needed flexibility in working conditions to survive in an unstable and changing market place.

Sometimes the two sides coincided. When conditions were good, the companies would give concessions. The workers would raise their glasses to the masters, they did use that word. Sometimes, the two sides would join in individual action designed to protect the companies so that the companies would protect them. One result was the Vend

The Northern coal fields dominated the Australian coal trade. If the companies formed a combine and linked this to influence over shipping, then they could set prices. When business was bad, they could contract production. When business was good, they could expand. The emerging union movement, the lodges, supported this. for it meant that the companies could afford to maintain stable wages and employment. From a union viewpoint, anything would be better than the unstable working conditions created by what they saw as the ruinous competition between the four coal majors.

The Vend failed, swept away by competitive forces. Attempts to create cooperatives including coal mines failed. They must fail, Ross argued, because they failed to recognise the basis class warfare built into the capitalist system. These concepts became deeply imbedded in the union movement. They created a culture that, in the end, would fail the union movement itself. but you can see how it might have arisen 

In systems with asymmetrical power, the powerful need to recognise and accommodate the needs of the less powerful. If they fail to do so, they are likely (not always) to pay a price. That price will have to wait to a later post.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Growth, CANZ and red tape

If I interpret Treasurer Hockey's G20 growth target correctly, it simply means that at the end of five years, global GDP will be 2% higher than would otherwise be the case. The base measure appears to be the current global growth trajectory.

While the word target is misleading, the number of variables involved would make success very hard to measure, such an aspiration is not necessarily a bad thing. Until recently, the global economic focus has been so all-pervadingly negative that any form of economic cooperation has been difficult to achieve. You can see this in the growth of of trade barriers and beggar my neighbour policies. The target does not require countries to do anything grand, simply look at ways of improving their own performance while encouraging greater global cooperation on trade and investment matters.

Of more importance domestically, however, is the interface between the target and Treasurer Hockey's own rhetoric. It is part of the platform he is trying to build to justify proposed changes in fiscal policy and in the role of Australian Governments. Something similar applies to another part of the rhetoric, the comparison between Australia, New Zealand, Canada and, to a lesser extent, the UK.

From the very early days of his Government, Mr Abbott referUK economic recoveryred to those countries as the models Australia should follow.  The UK references have become a little muted.

You can see why if you look at the accompanying graph. The UK may now be growing at around 1.9% per annum, but as the bottom line shows, this downturn has been far worse than its predecessors, recovery far slower. That's hardly a model for Australia to emulate.

Now the rhetoric seems refers mainly to New Zealand and Canada, both countries with Governments ideologically aligned to the current Australian Government. Now we have CANZ (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) as a new grouping. I am not close enough to Canada to make an informed comment on that country's economic performance, beyond noting that it survived the global economic crisis for much the same reasons as Australia, a resource base combined with a relatively transparent and well managed institutional structures. New Zealand is a somewhat different case, although it too had a product in demand, in its case dairy. I think that New Zealand does have lessons to offer,

To a degree, the economic debate in Australia has been clouded by problems of the Abbott Government's own making, as well as the opposition's sometimes inept and short term reactions. This has sucked the oxygen from the public debate. However, the debate has continued behind the scenes, with constant markers in the financial press.

I make this point now because I think that we are entering a period when the debate over economics and ideology is going to be very important. The ground has been laid. I think, too, that the debate has to be fought on facts and analysis. Will this work? What does it mean? 

One of the test points here will be the forthcoming Parliamentary session on reduction of red tape. Will this just address business red tape, or will it venture into the social red tape that is now costing the country so much?        

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Very short post tonight. I do so like my commenters. Because of them I have been able to extend The principle of Cabinet confidentiality. Also, have material on Indian history to extend Sunday Essay - determining who will live or die.

Behind the scenes, I have a very history focus at present. Added a little on the Chinese in Australia (First Chinese connection with the newly established settlement at Port Jackson) and started an entry page on the Australian Agricultural Company - Introducing the Australian Agricultural Company.

Time for bed. Talk to you tomorrow.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Election cycles, Jenny Gardner's retirement, the Country/National Party

Here in Australia, we have entered another election cycle with enough elections or by-elections to keep the most tragic of the election tragics happy.

At the Redcliffe by-election on 22 February, Labor's Yvette D’Ath won convincingly with a swing of 16.3%. This by-election was seen as a test of the popularity of Queensland Premier Newman. Not that Mr Newman has to worry greatly at this point because of the sheer size of the LNP majority.

Down south, both South Australia and Tasmania go to the polls in elections widely expected to see the Liberal Party defeat the incumbent Labor Governments. This would leave the ACT Territory Government as the last Labor Government in the country. Meanwhile, we await the date of the WA Senate re-run.

In NSW, the latest electoral redistribution has seen a brewing fight between the Liberal and National Parties for the state seat of Goulburn (National ginger group attacks Goward, O'Farrell in battle for Goulburn). Here the fight is between two ministers - Primary Industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson (National) vs Community Services Minister Pru Goward (Liberal). The next NSW State election is still some twelve months away,

That NSW election will see the retirement of the National's Jenny Gardner. She announced her intention not to recontest her Legislative Council position on 16 February. Our connections go back to the time when we were both active members of the NSW Young Country Party.  I have always had a high opinion of Jenny. She has worked tirelessly for the party and for country people in general. She is not your stereotypical Country/National Party MP, but then, many are not.

The Country/National Party has always been a broader church than most realise. It has to be, for it really represents areas rather than ideologies. If you look at electoral patterns over time, there is no such thing as a safe Country/National Party seat, for the Party is contending not just with Labor, but with the Liberals and country independents and now, in some areas, the Greens. This makes for a very particular mind-set, one in which you have to represent the whole people, not just those who agree with you. 

That is why, after all these years, I still call myself Country Party even though it must be evident from the pattern of my posts that I disagree with many aspects of the modern National Party.  And yet, when I come to talk to a National Party MP, I still find myself in agreement on core issues and especially the need for special representation for regional or country Australia and for my own North.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Essay - determining who will live or die

These poems come to me from Helen Dale aka skepticlawyer. The first is from Marya Mannes, a US author that I had not heard of.

Borders are scratched across the
hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial
And when the borders bleed we
watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map
turn red.

It's just so true.

The second poem comes from W.H Auden. It, too, is just so true.

Unbiased at least he was
when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this
land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically
at odds,
With their different diets and
incompatible gods.
"Time," they had briefed him in
London, "is short. It's too late
For mutual reconciliation or
rational debate:
The only solution now lies in
separation ..."

"The Viceroy thinks, as you will
see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his
company the better,
So we've arranged to provide you
with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two
Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final
decision must rest with you."

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with
police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep
the assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task
of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his
disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost
certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check
them, no time to inspect.

I don't share the views expressed in the current attacks on the British Empire and Commonwealth. They are, to my mind, simplistic and stereotyped. On balance, the Empire was a good thing that shaped the modern world.

I could wish that the British Government had fought harder to preserve the Indian Empire, to buy time, to give time, to the Indian factions to work out their differences in a new world that had been progressively evolving over so many decades. It was a tired Government, a broke Government, that just wanted out. Give them want they want now, clean up, we must move on.

An uncle of mine was in India at the time and saw the bodies piled in the river beds. A true Indiaphile with a deep knowledge of Indian history and culture, he loved the place, he understood the religious divisions. Running for Liberal party pre-selections in Sydney in the late 1960s, he told the bemused branch members that the Muslim challenge would become a dominant theme in global politics. He wasn't anti-Muslim, although he was (I think) pro-Hindu. Rather, he saw a clash of irreconcilables. I just filed it away, something for later use.

There is something cold and sad in that Auden poem. Here you have a person who must do his job regardless of poor evidence, who must deliver. Don't think it doesn't happen today. It does. Policy is about people, policy analysis is about statistics. 

This is something I wrote in a seminar paper a few years back:  

By the 1970s, country was losing favour, in part because of the growth of urban centres whose residents did not identify with the term. In its place came the word regional. This fragmented in turn. By 2000, there was something of a crazy patchwork quilt of words – country, regional, rural, remote, coastal – that overlapped and were used in different combinations. This growing confusion in terms reflected in part the increasing use of ARIA.

ARIA, the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia, was developed by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care and the National Key Centre for Social Applications of GIS. ARIA measures remoteness based on the physical road distance between a settlement and four classes of service centre[1]. In 1999 a further revision of ARIA called ARIA+ was developed that incorporated more information on the location of service centres.

While ARIA was a simple geographic descriptor intended to measure remoteness from services, its widespread use by the Commonwealth Government for statistical purposes and to guide service delivery affected the use of words. In 1950, the Australian states still retained a substantial degree of independence. By 2000, the Australian Government was involved in every aspect of policy once the preserve of the states. To the officials in Canberra seeking mechanisms to allow for national uniformity in service delivery while also taking geography into account, the ARIA classifications seemed a useful device; very remote, remote, outer regional, inner regional and major city were now firmly added to the semantic mix.

The difficulty from a New England perspective lay in the way that these various terms cut across the area’s natural geography, further fragmenting the sense of New England or Northern identity, while creating problems for integrated service delivery based on geography. We can see this if we look at New England’s Kamilaroi or Gamilaraay Aboriginal language group who occupied the Western Slopes and Plains. Their traditional territory was variously classified from very remote to inner regional, a classification that affected the services provided. People with a common culture sharing common problems received different benefits depending on just where they lived.

In the global scheme of things, this is a minor example. Yet the decisions made based on statistical constructs, on evidence that is old or uncertain, determines what happens. The question of whether or not an Aboriginal family has a house or not depending on their ARIA classification is a minor thing compared with those who lost their lived during the partition of the Indian Empire, yet the principles are the same.

I really shuddered when I read the Aulden poem. It captures stark reality. Everyday, international civil servants and others make decisions that affect who will live or die.  That's a dreadful burden often confused in the statistics.     

[1] History and definitions of ARIA drawn from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Glossary of Statistical Geography Terminology 2011,, accessed on-line 15 March 2011.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The principle of Cabinet confidentiality

The principle of cabinet confidentiality is deeply engrained in the Westminster system. The traditional British form was once explained to me in this way by a then boss at Treasury. The papers of a Government belong to that Government and cannot be made available to a new Government, This principle provided the base for a very funny episode of Yes Minister in which Jim Hacker conspired with his predecessor in the previous government to force Sir Humphrey as head of Department to reveal not the papers, but the principles embedded in a paper prepared for the previous minister.

Leaving aside the constitutional principles underlying the approach, there are good, practical, reasons for the confidentiality requirement. If an incoming government can trawl through the papers of its predecessors, it will always find things that it can use in the political fight. Then, once it has established that this is okay, it will be exposed in its turn.

The apparent decision by the Commonwealth Attorney General George Brandis to release cabinet papers from the previous administration to the Royal Commission into the abandoned home insulation scheme is without precedent. It is also unnecessary.  The Commission does not need those papers to do its job. It can find out all it needs just by asking people under oath, by seeking other documents.  

Former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser have expressed alarm at the Brandis move, saying it will invite payback from future governments and threaten cabinet confidentiality. They are right to be alarmed.

In releasing the documents:

Senator Brandis said the government respected the importance of cabinet confidentiality, but it had decided the documents the Commonwealth would produce for the commission ''will include documents over which a claim for public interest immunity might be made, such as cabinet documents''.

In providing such documents to the commission, Senator Brandis said the government would indicate that it did not waive its right to claim public interest immunity from their contents becoming public.

''Accordingly, should the commission wish to publish any of the cabinet documents … the Commonwealth requests that it be notified so that it can consider whether it is necessary to make submissions in relation to such documents or uses, or whether it should seek protective orders,''

This is actually  a rather important statement. Senator Brandis is establishing a new principle. Cabinet documents can be made available, but the Government reserves the right to oppose publication. However, it is then a matter for the Commission or courts to decide.

Meantime, lawyers representing former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and several former cabinet ministers who have been summoned to appear before the commission are believed to be considering legal action that would see the courts decide if cabinet confidentiality should be waived in the public interest.

The principle of cabinet confidentiality is just that, a principle. It exists because, in combination with other things, it makes our system work. I think it unlikely that this Royal Commission will choose to publish cabinet documents, although they may wish to publish excerpts to set a context. That doesn't matter. The new principle has apparently been established.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. In simple terms, it means that the next Government, and there will be one, can choose to hold Royal Commissions into its predecessor's actions on particular matters (refugees come to mind) and provide the most sensitive cabinet documents to support its case. Alternatively, the Commission may demand those documents. As our former PMs said, payback followed by payback. 


There is a little more analysis in this ABC News report. In a comment, kvd wrote:  

Abbott tonight: "Can any of you think of a government program which actually killed people?"
Snowy Mountains Scheme, War (anywhere, but specifically) in A'stan, and I'm willing to bet that Sydney's second airport will have a death or three. In other words, just about any government program you might name.

This man is not stupid, so there must be something deeper in his present rhetoric.

I don't know whether or not there is anything deeper in the present rhetoric, but if quoted correctly, that is a monumentally silly rhetorical question from Mr Abbott. Try this story, for example: Scott Morrison admits information he gave on Manus riot was wrong. Can't you see the questions coming up as people trawl back through the records?

There is something badly out of kilter with this Government's judgment and priorities. The really annoying thing from my perspective is that it's distracting from other things that are very important from a policy perspective.

The Commonwealth is now in diabolical trouble largely of its own making. Much of the media reporting is unfailingly negative, with doubts surfacing even in the supportive papers.

I do not pretend to know how all this is playing out in the electorate. The latest opinion polls showed a bounce-back in Government support. I do think that the Government cannot afford many more mistakes at a time when it is trying to soften the electorate to an apparently tough May budget.

Australian elections are won or lost in the middle ground. Compulsory voting reinforces this. While I don't know about public opinion in general, I would be pretty sure that Government support in the middle is starting to erode. This doesn't happen overnight. It takes time.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten must really be counting his blessings. Immediately after the last election, the Labor party was a dispirited mess. Now membership is up, the faithful have been reinvigorated and Mr Shorten really hasn't had to do a thing. It's been done for him!

Strange times.

Postscript 2

A commenter asked "Where does the Archives Act 1983 fit into this"?" It has been a very long time since I had cause to look at this act. I have had a quick browse only, you will find the Act here,

Having browsed the Act, the short answer is that I am not sure. One question might be whether or not the cabinet records in question are classified as a current record or have been transferred to Archives. The legal position appears to be different. A second question lies in the distinction between giving the Commission access to cabinet records (intuitively, that would appear to be legal since the Commission is a Commonwealth creation) and any subsequent publication by the Commission. Would the time limitations on public access set out in the Act impede the Commission?

Senator Brandis' statement would appear to suggest that the Commonwealth can give the Commission access to the records, but that the Commonwealth reserves its position on any publication. Perhaps some more expert reader can better explain the specifically legal issues.

Postscript 3

This is the record of what PM Abbott actually said. Thanks to kvd for the link.  


Has the Government handed over Cabinet documents to the pink batts Royal Commission?


We've established a Royal Commission because we want to get to the bottom of the most incompetently managed programme in Australia's history. Can any of you think of a government programme that actually killed people? Let's not forget that this programme was so incompetently devised and carried out that it resulted in four deaths, hundreds of house fires, a billion or so was spent putting insulation in and then a billion or so was spent taking insulation out.

An absolute monumental act of ineptitude. Now, it's very important that we get to the bottom of how this happened and why this happened so that we can learn the lessons and make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. What is actually required and who is actually going to be interviewed, will be a matter for the Royal Commissioner. If the Royal Commissioner asks for documents, that's a matter for the Royal Commissioner.


Do you think that would set a dangerous precedent for the future though, if you did hand over those Cabinet documents?


Well, it's not a question of us handing over the Cabinet documents, Royal Commissioners are entitled to ask and to indeed be supplied with documents. Royal Commissioners have very extensive powers to demand documents, to summon and question witnesses. This is a very powerful inquiry and it should do its job.


There have been calls for a royal commission into the asylum policy. One could argue that that’s a government policy that’s resulted in loss of life.


There is an inquiry going on into what’s happened in Manus. We’ve got General Campbell up there at the moment, so that we know exactly what’s happened. The Papua New Guinea authorities will have their own inquiries into what happened. The important thing is that we protect our borders, we implement our policies and we maintain order in these camps and I'm pleased to say that despite a very serious riot, the camp was fully functional the next morning, people were being fed, people were being housed, people were being looked after and our obligations were being discharged."

Postscript 4

Am I the only blogger writing on this? I did a web search across the blogosphere and could not find a single reference beyond this post. Anybody else out there?

Postscript 5

One of the things that I really like about my commentators is the way that they help me carry a story forward. In this case, the key question becomes was the Government asked or did it volunteer? If it volunteered, that's the end of the story. If it was asked, how did it respond?

From this story, the facts appear to be these:

  1. The government was asked. The PM approved the release.
  2. Neither the Prime Minister nor anyone from his office had seen the documents, which were passed to the Attorney-General's Department to send to the commission. They were part of 4,500 documents supplied over time, including a range of cabinet documents.
  3. The cabinet documents were given to the royal commission on the condition they be viewed privately. If the commission wants to make any of the documents public, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has requested it be told in advance so it can apply for a ''public interest immunity'' waiver to block publication.
  4. Cabinet documents had previously been provided to two royal commissions, (the Centenary House investigation and the inquiry into the Mohammed Haneef affair), so it wasn't the first time.

If these facts are right, then there are still points to argue, but they are somewhat different points. It leaves me wondering about ministerial advisers. Have they become so wet behind the ears that they can no longer deconstruct an argument and present facts and principles? 

Postscript 6

Thanks to the digging of my commentators, this matter has shifted again. First, however, all this has Ross Gittins quite upset: Under Tony Abbott, political principles reach an all-time low.

Turning now to my commenters, the Hansards to the estimates' discussions on this matter are:

These cast a different light again on the discussions. meantime, kvd has been exploring the history of the apparent transmission of cabinet papers on two previous occasion. This raises at least some uncertainties. He also asked for the definition of cabinet papers. I thought I knew, but now it seems that I don't.

All this requires a proper forensic analysis. Maybe next week!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Notes

Like many, I watched events unfold on Manus Island with a degree of horror. Like many, I found the idea of China lecturing Australia on its human rights record a little ludicrous. Like many, I felt a little sad at the loss of Australian moral authority that made such a lecture possible.

Over on My Observations, AC's Judy Cassab explores aspects of life and art. I always enjoy her Thursday posts with their special idiosyncratic style. On a less pleasant matter, Caracas Chronicles'  The Game Changed in Venezuela Last Night – and the International Media Is Asleep At the Switch records another chapter in the increasingly troubled Venezuela.The shortage of Venezuelan toilet paper made global news, but not other developments it seems. Hat tip to Neil Whitfield via Facebook for this one.

At his place. Neil's Icon gone, and some sadder and more frustrating things records the end of Wollongong's iconic stack, with some references to the refugee question.

With the High Court ordering Western Australia back to the polls for a new Senate election, Ed Killesteyn has resigned as Commonwealth Electoral Commissioner, as has AEC WA state manager Peter Kramer. That was kind of inevitable, I guess. Nobody knows just which way voters will go. I suspect that Mr Abbott wishes that he lived in less interesting times. The difficulty with his no surprises mantra lies in the surprises suffered by the Government.

Expect an expensive election campaign. Both Labor and Liberal will spend big, as will Mr Palmer. The Palmer United Party wants that final seat.

The G20 Finance Ministers are in town, allowing Commonwealth Treasurer Hockey a place on the international stage. Apart from the need to close tax loopholes, something that most governments appear to be able to agree on, the emerging core focus is the need (or not) to kick start global growth. Interesting that the International Monetary Fund, once the driest of the drys, should become so wet.

It seems that the Australian Federal Police suffered from a word processing error as part of their Schapelle Corby raids on Channel Seven. Oh dear, I had to laugh, but I was actually sympathetic. How could I not be as someone who transposes digits and just doesn't see the error?! I also remember the sad case in an aerospace tender when a secretary faxing key financial bid data to Defence hit the wrong button and sent it to the competitor firm. Ouch.

Staying with legal matters, down in Canberra the inquiry into the conviction of David Eastman for the murder of Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Colin Winchester continues. The murder and subsequent conviction were a major national story, but the inquiry is just being covered in the Canberra Times. So things go.

I am watching this one with interest and I really shouldn't comment. David and I worked together in the same small section in the Commonwealth Treasury and I knew him quite well. Yes, he could be difficult, but the unfolding evidence is making me a little uncomfortable.

Well, that's all tonight folks. More tomorrow. 


The Venezuelan troubles have finally made the news in Australia.    

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mr Pyne's review of teacher training

I read Commonwealth Education Minister Mr Pyne's announcement on a national review of teacher training with a degree of befuddlement. The core of the review seems clear enough:

Reporting later this year, the group will undertake extensive public and stakeholder consultation while focusing on three key areas:

· Pedagogical approaches: the ways teachers teach their students, and the different ways teaching and learning can occur.
· Subject content: how well teachers understand the content of subjects they are teaching, and
· Professional experience: opportunities for pre-service teachers to put theory into practice through quality in-school learning experiences.

My primary confusion in this case lies in my own lack of knowledge as to just what is included now in teacher education. I had a look at the course outline at one university with major involvement in this area, and in the end wasn't all that much clearer beyond noting some of the current bureaucratic flavour to the English used. I think that reflects the primary destination marketplace, in this case the NSW school system.

I know that some of my readers have far more expertise in this area than I do. I can analyse the English involved and link it to its different contexts, but I don't really know what its like to be taught this material. Now putting Mr Pyne aside for the moment. I wondered if someone could give me a simple explanation of what is actually taught or not taught; how it helps or hinders if and when you get to the classroom; and, given that many who do these courses don't teach in the end, how useful the course as a broader education?

This last is quite important. In law, for example, there are so many Australian graduates now that a significant proportion will never practice. Law is having to sell itself on the broader attributes attached to such studies as an entry to other careers.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is the Abbott Government Ruddifying itself?


At a cooking course tonight with eldest at the Sydney Cooking School, Duck & Pinot. Very good actually. It was my Christmas present and i enjoyed it. This us eating the results.

Lots has been happening, but I am tired and don't feel like writing about it.

The riot on Manus seems to get worse and worse.  A Customs and Defence review has found that Australian boats entered Indonesian waters six times between December and January. Apologies made in all directions. According to today's Financial Review, I can't give a link, the Australia-Chinese Free trade Agreement has been pushed down the priority list by China because of previous Australian Government public statements. This agreement is a key Abbott Government priority.

In my early analysis of the Rudd Government, I focused on Mr Rudd's process approach, the way he did things. This led me to express severe doubts, doubts ignored by the mainstream media still enamoured with Mr Rudd. Something similar is happening now, although Mr Abbott has not had the same media honeymoon.

Political capital needs to be extended carefully; the way you do things is very important. The Government has important agenda items that it needs to sell, but these are being lost in the static created by the way the Abbott Government is doing things. Are we seeing the Ruddification of the Abbott Government?  I am beginning to wonder.  

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Introducing Robert Dawson


Yesterday's main post, New England Lives – Robert Dawson (1782-1866), company manager, pastoralist and writer, was again on the New England History blog. This is likely to happen a bit over coming weeks. This year is meant to be the year of the book, but I found that I was again getting behind. Now I'm writing to fill gaps and to extend my thinking.

Robert Dawson really was an interesting man, the Australian Agricultural Company an interesting company. Along with the establishment of the Bank of NSW, the AA Co is Australia's first really big corporate venture; the coup that overthrew Dawson, the first fight for control in a major Australian public company.

Do read the post, but also click through to the links to Dawson's own writing. The first is Dawson's defence against the charges laid against him, the second starts with Dawson's story of his early work with the AA Co. It's actually a very good yarn.      

And the plaque? This is an Australian Agricultural Company plaque on a stone column erected at Learmonth Park, Hamilton, dated 1914. Hamilton, now a Newcastle suburb, was one of the towns founded by the AA Co. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

The hidden textures of Australian history - the New England Chinese

"Ernest Sue Fong who joined the staff of the Hong Yuen store in Inverell in the early 1930s recalled his early years at the store:

I worked at Hong Yuen for 25 bob [shillings] and keep. I lived in the shack with about seven other Chinese boys from all over. Another five lived upstairs [above the shop].

Now the way it worked: at 7.30 in the morning the cook would ring the bell, and everyone would go down to the kitchen...and we’d have a Chinese breakfast with rice and Chinese food. Then into the shop until the shop opened and we’d cut up bacon, fill the shelves, jobs like that. At lunchtime, the bell would ring again and all the staff [Chinese and non-Chinese] would go for lunch. It would always be English meals... Then back to work.

At 6 pm supper was served. Chinese food this time... Some nights, say two or three a week, we’d go back to the store to, for example, bag up sugar, depending on what was needed. We’d work until 9 pm."

Sunday's main post was on my New England history blog, Family counts: glimpses of Chinese life in New England in the first half of the twentieth century. Growing up in Australia during the 1950s, I was reasonably familiar with modern Chinese history. That was partly due to my love of stamps, partly to closeness to the Second World War and the success of the communist revolution. At the same time, I knew little of the Chinese experience in Australia.

I am not sure how old I was, at primary school certainly, when I first found Sydney's old China Town. The thing that struck me in wandering the streets at the time were the faded notices and signs for Chinese organisations, including the Kuomintang. It was a strange new world. However, I didn't think of the living Australian experience of these people.  

I didn't properly realise it at the time, but the area I grew up in had had a very large Chinese population. This was concentrated in the gold and especially tin mining areas on the western slopes of the Northern Tablelands. At the 1891 census, for example, Chinese born still made up 11 per cent of the population in these areas. Their story did not end with Federation and the White Australia policy. It continued.

Many of the stores in Inverell, Tingha, Glen Innes, Emmaville and Tentefield carried Chinese names. Chinese immigration continued, if on a lower scale, utilising existing networks and the exemption clauses in the White Australia legislation.

My post was based on the work of Janis Wilton, a fellow member of the University of New England's Heritage Futures Research Centre. Her work provides an insight into the life of one group in one area in the first half of the twentieth century. It adds to the texture of the Australian story.      

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday morning musings - the workhouse and the age of entitlements

My main post today is on another blog, Friday Economics - implications of the changing Australian labour market. While it has Friday in the title, it actually came up this morning.

My focus in that post was as the name says, but there was also a bit of a back story.

Just at the moment in Australia, there is a running debate about entitlements, Commonwealth Treasurer Joe Hockey in the forefront. This is a recent example of reporting, Joe Hockey warns Australians the age of entitlement is over. Mr Hockey is consistent. This is a speech he delivered in 2012: “The end of the Age of Entitlement”. This matter of entitlements has also worried our fellow blogger, Winton Bates

Just at the moment, my reading has drawn me into looking at the derivation of certain words and attitudes such as the deserving poor or entitlements. This provides the back story to the Friday economics post.

I don't have time for a proper history post; my focus was a narrow one limited to an immediate purpose. However, as I browsed I couldn't help be struck by just how much current Australian politics is still influenced by discussions dating back to the the English poor laws

Keeping the history very simple, the problem of the poor had exercised minds over a very considerable period. The system of relief that developed out of late-medieval and Tudor-era laws before being codified in 1587–98 was parish based and provided for indoor and outdoor relief.The term the deserving poor dates back to Eliazabethan times.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, there was an explosion in demand because of the side-effects of the economic changes taking place. On top of that, the British Government ended up with a debt to GDP exceeding Greece's recent level because of the costs of the war against Napoleon.

In 1832, a commission of inquiry was appointed. The commission concluded that there must be uniform national (in this case read English) standards. Conditions must be set such as to discourage anybody entering the system. The word entitlement was used for the first time that I can find to indicate something that must be discouraged.

These recommendations were taken into account in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. One result was the emergence of the nineteenth century English workhouse whose evils were described by Charles Dickens and others.

There are no easy answers to these social problems, but watch the language used for it can disguise.          

Friday, February 14, 2014

Friday short round-up

This morning's post is another brief round-up focused especially on recent posts on this blog.

A week back, in Complications with managerialism I said that I was writing a short history piece for the Armidale Express on the University of New England's various VCs following Jim Barber's resignation. It turned into two pieces, with the one I wrote last night focused on the turmoil of the second half of the eighties and the nineties, a turmoil that almost destroyed the place and greatly damaged its market position. It's a case study in what can go wrong and on the impact of managerialist/corporatist approaches.

I have been written a little before on this case study and will write some more soon, telling it as a story. In the meantime, here is a 2003 piece by John Quiggin that came up in the discussion. Look at the comments as well.

Since I wrote SPC Sunday and other matters, the Victorian Government has come up with a package that seems to ensure the future of the operation and the fruit growers that depend upon it. I suspect the decision was made easier by the swelling public support for SPC. Treasurer Hockey had no comment to offer.

When I first started reading Australian history, I found the Australian Agricultural Company very boring. I guess that I thought it a bit of a sideshow. I now find the AA Company popping up everywhere. In two books that I am reading at present - Eric Rolls on the Australia-China connection (Sunday Essay - musings on Eric Rolls and the Chinese experience in Australia plus a history of the Australian Miners' Union - there is lots of AA stuff. There are some stories there.

Since I wrote Chinese warships off Christmas Island, the dreaming and middle class decline, the Australian Strategic Policy institute has released a report, China's new dream: How will Australia and the world cope with the re-emergence of China as a great power, while media coverage is focusing on arms races and relative power balances. This is an example.

There are normally lags in public responses. I must admit to being a bit worried that responses will focus on the perceived threat, rather than looking objectively at the longer term dynamics.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Newman, Abbott and English - why NZ is doing relatively better

There is an increasing harshness in Australian political discourse that I find very unpleasant. I regard it as un-Australian, although it has happened before. Campbell Newman

This is Campbell Newman. He is Premier of Queensland. Fresh from his bikie triumph in which the first persona arrested was a forty year old librarian mother of three, he now wishes to intervene in the Schapelle Corby case.

Whether or not Ms Corby (and the Australian media) have behaved properly is one question; this News report summarises some of the discussion. But what, on earth, has all this to do with Mr Newman? Is this a matter of public importance in Queensland? And, in any event, just because, I think that this is correct, Ms Corby lived in Queensland prior to her arrest, she is certainly not in that jurisdiction now. It seems to me to be a case of see instant political gratification, grab that gratification.

Then we look at Mr Abbott's language on the boat people, on the harshness of Mr Morrison's expression, We look at some of the language of Premier O'Farrell in NSW discussing changes to the liquor laws. 

Many years ago now, I was part of a special program, the Administrative Trainee Program, designed to train future leaders in the Commonwealth Public Service. We started with a residential school at Brassey House where we combined with the Foreign Affairs trainees. One element of the course was a significant component on ethics. Not rule based anti-corruption training of the type we have today, but a philosophical discussion that drew out shades of gray.

Wilfred Jarvis explained the techniques that the North Koreans had used to brainwash US prisoners. He looked at the reasons why Turkish prisoners were less susceptible to the brain washing techniques. We took Adolf Eichman as a case study of the quintessential civil servant whose job was to find the most efficient and effective way of killing Jews.

We discussed our role in serving a Government, in providing advice within the Westminster system. What did you do when you fundamentally disagreed? How did you avoid a series of creeping decisions that finally left you morally compromised? There was no focus on whistle blowing. Confidentiality of advice remained central. It had to be if you were to provide frank advice. Rather, the issue was when you should resign, to oppose outside the tent.

I suppose, in a way, that the core message was that the public or civil service was a vocation, a profession with its own rules and codes. Now I wonder a little just how Immigration or Defence Department staff cope in today's environment.

I said that these things had happened before, I could cite case after case. The interesting thing, however, is that history has judged most (not all) of these past cases harshly. The rhetoric is condemned, the injustices exposed. How could you do that, the historian or reader asks?

We remember our leaders because of the positive things that they have achieved, These become clearer with time.

Just at the moment, there is a high degree of admiration in Australia for the achievement of the New Zealand Key Government in very difficult circumstances. I share that admiration. However, in cherry picking those things that suit them, many in Australia ignore some key features of the New Zealand Government.

The first is that on social and moral issues New Zealand is, as it has been for many years, on the Australian left. The second is that New Zealand actually has a very pragmatic approach, In an interview in today's Financial Review with NZ Finance Minister Bill English, he said and I quote:" We're a suburb of Australia and Australia is a province of China." Those are the realities for New Zealand. The country is dependent on economic management in Australia and China, and can only respond as best it can. Australia has yet to learn this lesson.

Mr English's rhetoric and arguments about structural reform would be familiar to many on the "right" side of politics in Australia. However, he makes two points that would be less familiar in this country.

The first is the need for stability, the need to provide a framework that will allow individuals and businesses to plan. Take time, be careful, don't rush.  The second is the need to look after the less advantaged and those adversely affected by change. Focus on them, but keep to your core approach. I have called this sharing the benefits.

If you do these things. Mr English argues, people will come along because they see the emerging benefits.  Just give them time. That position is supported by the New Zealand public opinion polls.

This is not the Australian position. Here the atmospherics and the poison dominate.

This morning, Prime Minister Abbott  delivered a speech on closing the gap, on bringing Australia's Aboriginal people up to the level of the rest of the country. I have absolutely no doubt of Mr Abbott's sincerity. He has earned that right. His longer term commitment has been well demonstrated,  And yet, how can he expect people to identify with this issue when he is polarising so many? 

Well, it's time that I ended.    

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Chinese warships off Christmas Island, the dreaming and middle class decline

Another snippets post.China warship

I see from the Lowy Institute blog, China makes statement as it sends naval ships off Australia's maritime approaches, that China recently sent three naval vessels to conduct combat simulations and other exercises in the Indian Ocean, somewhere between Indonesia and Christmas Island. Ouch!

The world changes and it pays, I think, to keep a longer term perspective. I have no immediate fear of a blow up with China, but surely the location of that first exercise cannot be totally coincidental. Boats anyone?

This one may sound a bit arcane, but this post on Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, The Dilemma of “Dreaming”, looks at the problematic nature of the terms dreaming and dream time.Something of the same issues come up with the use and abuse of the term "elder."

It seems that Richard Branson is not at all impressed with QANTAS CEO Joyce. Meantime, the Chair and two external directors at department store David Jones have fallen on their swords. A fair bit of the commentary has linked the problems faced by Myers and David Jones to the decline of the Australian middle class on which they have both depended for sales. There is some truth in that.

On the declining middle class, I had dinner a week or so back with an old US friend and former client. She is an active Democrat, so I guess that she has a certain political bias. However, this element of the conversation was purely personal. Talking about the rise in university fees, she gave numbers that I cannot remember, she wondered how people were going to be able to afford university education for their kids. There are scholarships, but their relative significance is diminishing.

Unlike Australia where kids just won't leave home, most US kids focus on the schools they want regardless of location. Going away from home is part of the pattern. There are practical reasons for this, for income variations between graduates from different places are more pronounced than they are in this country. Here, traditionally, it hasn't really mattered, although this is changing.

My feeling is that the US costs of university education is becoming a real sleeper issue in political terms.

Well, that's all for this morning.   


Interesting follow up to the China story in today's Sydney Morning Herald, RAAF scrambles plane to observe Chinese naval exercise.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Toyota pulls the plug

There was a certain inevitability about Toyota's decision to pull out of local manufacturing. This is the initial reaction on The Conversation.

Discussions on what would be known as the Button car plan began in 1983. They were coordinated by Industry Division Four in what was then known as the Department of Industry and Commerce. I wasn't directly involved, my branch was concerned with the development of new policy approaches towards the electronics, aerospace and information industries, but I clearly remember the atmosphere. The plan was released the following year under the title the Motor Industry Development Plan.

I am not absolutely sure whether the Plan was a good thing or bad thing. At the time, some of my staff such as Bob Q felt that it was distracting from our efforts (Snippets - nostalgia, industry policy and the importance of shared returns) to position Australia in new growth industries. My view was a little different. I felt that the focus on the car industry actually gave us greater freedom to do new things than would otherwise have been the case. It is true, however, that the costs of things like the car and steel plans made it much more difficult, in the end impossible, to get the funding that we needed to kick-start new initiatives.

In policy terms, I am a pragmatist, concerned with what will work. In this context, the Button car plan did help preserve an industry that became, for a period, a major export earner, Australia's largest manufacturing exporter.

In the historical research that I have been doing, I long put aside the history of New England in the last part of the twentieth century. Why? It was just to damn depressing! When I did write, I began my paper this way:

On 30 September 1999, BHP’s Newcastle steelworks closed its doors for the last time, a victim of industrial restructuring. The closure was not unexpected. Following discussions with the unions, BHP had announced its intention to close the plant over two years earlier, on 27 April 1997[1]. However, the closure of what had been once the largest integrated steelworks in the British Commonwealth and Empire marked the end of an era.

The BHP, as it was known locally, had been a dominant element in Newcastle’s life since the plant’s official opening on 2 June 1915. Just as the plant itself had dominated the centre of Newcastle, just as its fumes had darkened the sky over Newcastle, so the people who worked for BHP or the industries that surrounded it had been central to Newcastle’s life.

“I’ve been in this shop for about 37 years” one steel worker said[2].

“I came here virtually straight from school. My grandfather started here in about 1915. And Dad was here for 42 years. When I was a young fella, I was offered a job as an apprentice butcher, and Dad said that: "BHP was good enough to look after my father and me, it’ll look after you. You’ll have your job at the BHP and follow the family lines." And Dad had a nice piece of four-by-two and it was always a good persuader. So when Dad said something you either said something back and ducked and weaved, or did what he said. Simple as that. Dad’s gone now.”

From 1950 came wave after wave of economic and social change that swept across New England. Whatever the general arguments in favour of restructuring, the reality as I saw it is that by 2000 it had left New England a poorer and much reduced place. 

I suppose that's why I have never accepted that economic and structural change will necessarily benefit Australia. This doesn't mean that we should support assistance to an SPC or a motor vehicle industry. It does mean that we need to understand that global change will not necessarily work in Australia's favour, that none of the nostrums of current theories dictate a positive outcome for the country.  

[1] History of the Newcastle Steel Works, HRRP Fact Sheet 1, BHPBilliton,, accessed on-line 10 February 2011

[2] Interview carried out as part of the Newcastle Workers Cultural Action Committee’s molten arts project. Quoted by Bryce Gaudry, Member for Newcastle in the NSW Legislative Assembly, in the debate held to mark the end of the steelworks, 22 September 1999. Hansard p1078. Accessed on-line - - 10 February 2011

Monday, February 10, 2014

SPC Sunday and other matters

I have not been to Kenya or, indeed, anywhere in Africa. Nairobi For that reason, The Resident Judge of Port Phillip's trip to Kenya interested me. She has started a special trip blog, The Land of Increasing Sunshine, to record her experiences. I, for one, will read with interest.

Ramana has been to see Philomena and very much enjoyed it. I went to see it with some reluctance; I am a little over-burdened now with this type of tale. As always, Judi Dench was marvelous. Is it possible for her to be otherwise?, and she really drew me into the movie. Segueing, I also find that Ramana and I have a shared love for The Jaguar. The post includes an embedded ad that I enjoyed. Very British. The segue link is, of course, Judi Dench in her roll as M.

Over on Facebook, Caroline Chapman decided top take part in SPC Sunday. This campaign to support Australian canning company SPC apparently began in Newcastle (SPC Sunday campaign began in Merewether) and then went viral. The idea was to use some of SPC's canned fruits in a dish.

Save SPC Caroline's experience is instructive. On the left, you will see the only SPC products stocked by Woolworths in Armidale. Not a fruit can in sight. Clearly, Caroline bought the products anyway.

In the discussion on the future of SPC, discussion focused on things like union negotiated pay and conditions (that's bad) and the dangers of industry assistance (that's bad too).

In considering these issues, it helps to dig down.

A long time ago now, I complained in a blog post about the way in which the supermarket chain brand products were reducing my choices as a consumer. I said at the time that I was refusing to buy store brands.

I have tried to stick to that, but its very hard. A week or so back, I went into my local Woolworth's store. Among other things, I wanted to buy some bottled or canned fruit for breakfast. Golden Circle was still there, but this time I didn't want pineapple. There was nothing else on the shelves except store brands. I came out without buying anything.

The idea of an SPC Sunday may sound a bit silly. But in the end, when you are dealing with a partial monopsony, the only way to force change lies in consumer choice. Once you get to full monopsony, change is impossible because you don't have choice. So this week, I will try to buy SPC even if I have to travel.    


I went down to Coles at Eastgardens and they had SPC! A lot in fact. I bought some. 

Postscript 2

I quote from the Sydney Morning Herald:

The federal government may have denied SPC Ardmona a $25 million assistance package but shoppers have pulled out their wallets to support the fruit-packing company.

Managing director Peter Kelly said sales over the past week had increased by "more than 50 per cent", helped in part by a social media campaign that encouraged Australians to buy the company's products and share pictures of them online.

“The Shepparton community and our workers have been overwhelmed by this amazing support and have expressed their heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been involved,” Mr Kelly said.

“This has been an incredible example of the power of social media in giving people the opportunity to rally behind something in which they believe.”

The rise began before Sunday's campaign. SPC Sunday seems part of a broader consumer reaction. Quite remarkable, really, and very heartening. SPC needs to build on this. If I were Coca Cola Amatil I would roll out an advertising campaign next week thanking people with lots of shots of fruit and grateful farmers. 


Sunday, February 09, 2014

Sunday Essay - musings on Eric Rolls and the Chinese experience in Australia

I have mentioned the New England writer Eric Rolls before.Chinese testing wash for tin, Emmaville On Saturday, I bought another of his books, Sojourners: the epic story of China's century old relationship with Australia (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia 1993) at a second hand bookshop. I found its a strangely dissatisfying book.

The rather poor photo shows a Chinese tin panning at Vegetable Creek, now Emmaville. 

A little while ago, a friend commented that she found Australia a very inward looking country when she first arrived. 

I thought that that was true. I also thought that Australia had actually become more inward looking over the last forty years, partly because of the increased size and wealth of the place. You can see this, I think, in Australian history books. They focus just on the Australian experience. There is limited recognition of the broader back story of which the Australian experience forms part. That which is there is very Australian, focused on the way external events affected this place.

Rolls does not fall into this trap.

He has consciously chosen to set his story in a context of change in China, of the way Chinese migration was affected by those changes. In Australia, he focuses on the Chinese perspective. the way that the Chinese organised themselves, just what they experienced. In writing of the often dreadful conditions the Chinese experienced in coming here, he compares that with similar experiences from non-Chinese migrants. These are all good things. And yet, I am dissatisfied.

I think that the core of my dissatisfaction lies in the way that Rolls allows his own opinions, his biases, to affect the story. This leads to inclusion of unnecessary content, but those opinions also affect my reaction to the book.

If I happened to hold the same opinions, they would wash over me. But in some cases I don't, I find myself debating the opinions to the neglect of the main story line. For example, Rolls makes comments about the source of that first small pox epidemic that so damaged the Aborigines at Port Jackson and beyond.This has nothing to do with the Chinese story.

This book has lessons for me at two levels. First, in writing my history of New England I do need to provide the back story. It doesn't have to be detailed, but it makes for a much richer history if you can understand where people are coming from. Secondly, I need to avoid the explicit insertion of my own opinions and biases. 


Rereading the book today, Tuesday 11 February, it' Roll's persistent anti-English/British flavour that annoys me. It unbalances the early discussion.       

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings - the rise of the spreadsheet

I use spreadsheets all the time. I have too, A significant part of my professional work involves the manipulation of numbers, making spreadsheets an essential tool.

For someone who thought that he was bad at maths at school, the thought that I would spend a fair bit of my working life working with numbers did not cross my mind. "Bwaa", my old maths teacher once said after looking at some of my homework, "thick head only good for football."

I am still not very good at maths as such, but I do love numbers. It turned out that I had a naturally good eye for patterns and relationships. I also enjoyed analysing them, whether in balance sheets, budget estimates or economic data. I did not enjoy econometrics, although I had to do enough there to pass my Master of Economics degree at ANU. This was a but too much  like the old maths classes for my taste. I was more interested in analysing the results compared to the mechanics involved in getting to the results. Masses of equations dulled my brain.

I can't remember when I did my first spreadsheet training course, 1983 or 1984 I guess. The Commonwealth Public Service had just begun the gargantuan task of introducing personal computing. One PC was placed in the Division and we were told to play with it. I did I was told, but only once or twice. It was just too mechanical and boring.

That first spreadsheet training course was on Lotus 1-2-3. I found it quite interesting because of the way that changes in assumptions such as inflation or interest rates altered patterns across periods. Again, patterns. I didn't rush off and start using spreadsheets; I was very  busy and in any case had people to do that for me. Still, I understood the principles.

It must have been six or seven years later when, willy nilly, I had to begin personally manipulating spread sheets.

We had developed a model of the global communications environment based on an analysis of the annual reports and various financial returns of the top fifty or so global telcos. The model was primarily qualitative. It allowed us to identify and track key trends and interactions, to make our forecasts as to what might happen over coming decades. Our focus was strategic, what it might mean for our clients' businesses. However, there were spread sheet models in some areas where data was available. To get results quickly, I had to learn to do things myself.

Spreadsheeets are a powerful tool, but they are also a dangerous one. Many years ago now, we coined the term the fallacy of number to describe a key danger. Just because something has a number attached to it doesn't make it right. And yet, we found time and time again that the apparent precision associated with a number gave it a weight, a gravitas, that was hard to argue against.

Much of my spreadsheet work can be described as rough and ready, often done under considerable time pressure. Frequently, this involves copying multiple source data and then quickly combining it and manipulating it to get new data sets, to express new relationships. I also use spreadsheets to check spreadsheets!

Outside the work space, I use spreadsheets as a tool to support some of my writing and analysis. Actually, I am a bit of a sad case,  for I become interested in what the data says far beyond the immediate purpose for collecting  the material in the first place. This is not sophisticated stuff. I am not interested in modelling for the sake of modelling and would be no good in an area where the primary focus was on spread sheet and data creation for use by others. I am far too interested in the results, nor do I have the skills required to express complex formulas. I leave that to the data experts

Not all the stuff I do requires the use of spreadsheets. Growing up in the pre-computer world, I am quite used to pen, paper and, later, a calculator.You can do a lot with  rough and ready calculations. I did not need a spreadsheet to make a rough cost estimate of that silly extension in NSW of the hours required to get a driving license. To make a rough calculation of the economic cost, all I needed were a few pieces of input data and a calculator.

Mind you, had I used a spreadsheet I could have extended the analysis.Still, I was writing a blog post, not a research paper. In any case, the incoming Liberal-National Party coalition modified the law. The silliness is still there, but the economic costs have been ameliorated.

As I said, I am a spreadsheet tragic. Looking at the masses of information I have collected as part of my current main history project, I am beginning to wonder about the possible use of spreadsheets to manipulate some of the material, Then I give myself a hasty slap on the back of the hand. Be sensible, Jim. Remember the time taken to create the bloody things, But still, the temptation is there.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Complications with managerialism

My first reaction on reading Lorenzo's The curse of managerialism was to muse on the reasons why the rise of managerialism as an ism should have been so associated with the decline of management as a craft or even an art. My second reaction was to try to identify why I instinctively disagreed with him. After all, I too, think that managerialism is a curse. I, too, hate narrow input-output approaches with their key KPIs and have long railed about them. And I totally agree that corporatist approaches in Australia's University sector have had some very nasty results.

Last week UNE VC Jim Barber resigned, and I am writing a short historical piece on UNE's various VCs for next week's Armidale Express. This is not an indirect shot at Jim. Rather, re-reading some of the history has just envenomed some of my pet hates. After all, they almost destroyed my University!

The waking point came when I followed a Lorenzo's link through to the wikipedia page on managerialism. This page is actually about ideology, whereas the material I wrote concentrated on the history of trends in management and especially public administration. Those trends created what was to be called managerialism, but they were not, of themselves, ideological in the way that word is normally used. However, the way some of them played out in practice was affected by what we can think of as ideology.

My attacks on those trends are not ideological, purely practical. They don't work. I say this with something of a sense of irony, for I espoused many of them in the early days.

To illustrate, take the obsession with measurement. This came out of the standards movement in part, in part out of the management practitioners such as Galbraith or later Deming, in part from McNamara and the early growth of program budgeting.  This is where inputs, outputs and outcomes gained their public sector power. It was aided by, depended on, the growth of computational technology.  That's a simplistic explanation, but the process has very little to do with ideology.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Remembering Legal Eagle

Legal Eagle (Katy Barnett) is giving up blogging.

I made my first blog post on 19 March 2006. The following month, on 21 April, Legal Eagle made her first post on the Legal Soapbox. I cannot remember when we first came into internet contact, later in 2006 or early 2007. The blogging world was smaller and fresher then. We were both regular bloggers who wrote on related topics, so some form of mutual awareness was inevitable. The degree of interaction was not. We found that we shared interests, along with a belief in the importance of civility.

In a way, LE's blogging has reflected her own changing life experiences. In those early days, she was much concerned with the practice of law -legal and professional - and the difficulties of managing conflicting priorities and uncertainties, personal and professional. I was interested in the challenges of professional practice and had my own difficulties in managing conflicting priorities and uncertainties.

LE attracted people in part through the standard of her writing, as much through her essential kindness and decency. Looking back at her past posts and commenters' I remember those early days; the Canadien Australian or Junior Lawyers Union are examples. When I came to write my depression series, the JLU blog provided key case studies.

At the time, I was battling one of my own periodic bouts of depression. It was also a time when depression came to public prominence through, among other things, John Brogden's experiences. I had met John, and was appalled at the public attacks that led to his collapse. Then and now, depression was a special problem in professional services where pressure and isolated working are common features. Researching, I was horrified at the way that big law practices handled the problem. It was a breach of the most basic management principles.

On 8 May 2008, Legal Eagle announced ( that she was ceasing independent blogging and joining the skepticlawyer group blog. Frankly, I was horrified. I mean really horrified. There was a sense of personal loss.

I followed LE across, and there met Helen Dale, skepticlawyer herself. I came to greatly admire the clarity of her thinking. I might not agree, but I could always identify why I disagreed, Then, too, I learned an enormous amount about Roman history and law.

Legal Eagle is a Facebook friend: I have followed her evolving life, her successes and challenges, the love and support of her husband, the joy of her kids, her professional success, the health battles. Now we come to a parting of the ways.

I am going to miss you, LE. I understand, but I will miss you. You have become a significant figure in my life.      

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Moving images of a past New England

I got up very early this morning, but then got completely sidetracked by the YouTube video that I embedded in this post: Moving images from New England's past.

Of course it means more to me than it would to many others because I know the area and its history. However, it actually provides a remarkably good snapshot of the changing pattern of daily life over a number of decades.

Produced by the National Film and Sound Archive, it's long, over an hour. I sat and watched, studying the detail revealed. The changing clothes, the hats, what people wore at the beach, the industrial technology. Oysters, fish, making butter, the parades.

Do have a browse. look at the detail. You don't have to know Northern NSW. Tell me what you notice, and I will provide the context and commentary.


kvd wrote in a comment:

Jim, you've no doubt heard of 'unconscious male privilege' before? Well now I give you 'unconscious city privilege' being that casual thought that all folk have access to the latest baling twine and tin cans technology between their home and the nearest ADSL point.

I shall have to download this vid in its entirety, then sit down later this arvo to view it as my tin cans do not have sufficient buffer to provide for anything more than jerky snatches. I have the same problem with the ABC's fine site - which is a pity because iView(?) looks like it could be something I might enjoy.

In the meantime I shall get back to learning why 3-toed sloths descend to the ground to do their business, whereas 2-toed sloths just let it fall where may: ttp://


In return, I wrote on Facebook:

This one came from kvd, a regular blog commenter. Why is a sloth, well, slothful? Why do two toe sloths shit in their tree when three toe sloths risk the dangerous passage to the ground to shit? And what is the importance of green algae in all this?

Obviously, all this has nothing to do with the post. However, if you want to find out more look here.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Monday Forum - what's it all about, Alfie?

Here in Australia, Treasurer Hockey has proudly proclaimed that the age of entitlement is over, the age of personal responsibility has begun. Presumably that means that Mr Abbott's paid parental leave scheme won't proceed, at least in its current form. And perhaps its time to put a cap on at least any increases in funding for private schools.

I really shuddered when I saw the latest increases in private school fees. Year after year they have been going up in real terms.

In a very short post in May last year, The world is awash with money, I wondered about the end of quantitative easing. My problem at the time was that I simply couldn't see anything approaching a safe exit strategy. That remains my difficulty. You can see the problem now in quite simple terms in way the slimmest taper in the US QE, the Fed it actually still pumping a lot of money out, led to major capital flows from emerging market economies. I haven't followed this in detail, but this piece will give you a feel  -Emerging markets crisis deepens. A bit much hype for my taste, but still.

In The impact of reform on growth, Michael Pettis spells out in a little more detail his argument about the nature of structural imbalance and what it means for future Chinese growth rates. Interesting how Professor Pettis' views have become so mainstream.

The Australian economic continues mixed. I last update my assessment in December - Friday Economics- economic outlook 2014. I need to do another proper review. I suspect that my views are still the same, if with somewhat different weightings.

Well, time to finish for my main focus tonight is history. Still, treat this as the Monday Forum post. Feel free to go anywhere you like!

Sunday, February 02, 2014

A fleeting visit to Armidale

In Queensland, the first person charged under the Newman Government's ant-bikie laws is a 40 year old librarian and mother of three. She faces a mandatory six months in prison if convicted.

Just back from Armidale after a short trip for a New England Writers' Centre Board meeting. Apart from the purpose of the trip itself, this was a very bookish two days.

Leaving for the airport, I grabbed Annabella Boswell's Journal to read on the plane. My recent reading has been dominated in part by a 246k strip of road.

It begins on the coast at the old penal colony of Port Macquarie. From Port, the Oxley highway runs up the mountain to Walcha. At Walcha, you leave the Oxley Highway to join Thunderbolt's Way for the run into Armidale.

  At one end, I have been reading two local histories on the early days at Port covering the penal and immediate post penal period. Towards the other end, I have been reading two family histories.

The first is the story of the Nivison family and Ohio Station,  Australian painter AStephen-King-Fallout-RGBngus Nivison is part of this family. 

In its own small way, Walcha is quite an artistic hub. In addition to Angus, Walcha sculptor Stephen King won this year's $60,000 Sydney Sculpture by the Sea prize, something of a Sydney institution. His partner, Julia Griffin, is a substantial painter, as is Ross Laurie. 

Next door to Ohio is Terrible Vale Station. The story of Terrible Vale and the Taylor family is the second of the family histories on my current reading list. The old wool road between Port and Walcha provides the unifying link.

When you read as intensively as I do in often narrow slices, the people become familiar friends, the links between them clear. This was why I wanted to read Annabella's journal again. It provides a picture of genteel life at a time when, on many accounts, there was no such thing in the NSW penal colony. The people and events she describes also overlap with the early days of both Ohio and Terrible Vale.

Disaster happened at Sydney airport. I left Annabella in the coffee shop. By the time I realised, it was just too late to go back and then back in through security. Sadly, I hastily purchased Bill Bryson's At Home: a short history of private life to read on the plane.

A piece of trivia for you from that book. With the start of the Second World War, stringent black-out conditions were imposed in Britain, plunging the country into a darkness never seen before. You could be fined even for lighting a match. There was no light. Full stop! Fatal accidents were common, leading the British Medical Journal to rP1010092emark dryly that the Luftwaffe was killing 600 people a week without dropping a bomb!  Ultimately, sanity dawned and the restrictions were tempered by common sense.

Even Armidale Is not immune from the bookshop rout, with the local Dymocks closing. Still, by comparison with most parts of Sydney, there are enough book buyers in Armidale to keep books on sale.

This is Boo Books, a second hand book shop. They have just taken over the old Commonwealth Bank building. With something like 50,000 titles, they kind of needed the space!

For someone like me, Boo Books is a treasure trove. Not unexpectedly, therefore, I went to visit as soon as I had dropped my bags. This first visit, I bought volumes two and three of New England Lives. A co-production of the University of New England and the Armidale and District Historical Society, the volumes contained short biographies of some seventeen New England figures.

I carried my new treasures the twenty or so paces required to get to the nearest coffee shop and sat down to read, Reading I thought, and not for the first time, thank heaven for the new state movement, They (we) wanted a university to preserve the culture and identity of the North. They got it, and it did.

After a rather ordinary lunch, I tried a new place, I wandered up to the Armidale Express to see my editor. University of New England VC Jim Barber had resigned during the morning. That was the big story of the day, for it was unexpected. From there to the NEWC Board meeting and then to the White Bull for dinner to write up my notes. 

Saturday dawned bright. Flying out and carrying things, I was somewhat restricted in what I could do. First I had breakfast at the Court House Cafe in the Mall. Lambs fry, bacon and gravy. I really love that meal. I have got to know the young waiter quite well; he also works at the White Bull. "We must stop meeting like this"< i said, before I tucked in.

inevitably, I wandered down town to visit Boo Books. There I could sit and read. However, this time I was going with a purpose. I wanted something, anything, on Newcastle and the coal fields. I love Newcastle, but the place is poorly served in comparison with places further north when it comes to the record of life. It's only recently that the University of Newcastle has started to fill the gap.

It's also a problem for me in writing my history of Northern NSW, for Newcastle and the Lower Hunter occupies a special place in that history, in part as a counterpoint for events elsewhere in the North, in part in its own right.

The problem is that for much of the time, Newcastle as its own unique industrial world fell outside the sphere of influence of events further North3024162636_d2920da8ef and was therefore neglected. It was part of the North, but also part of a different world. In that world, the story of industrialisation and the Labour Movement, the specifically local and regional elements were neglected.

Newcastle and the Northern coal fields as they were called, had a far more profound impact on Australian history than people realise. I knew a little, but on this visit I was able to find and buy A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia. I knew the background, the context, but suddenly I had real content.

I can do something about this now. Ever heard of the Vend? Almost certainly not since I hadn't! It was actually, and this will not be clear from the link I gave you, an industrial combine linking mining and shipping interests of no mean power.

All of these things overlap. The names in the Australian Agricultural Company on the pastoral side are the names I know from my property histories. I know them, I know their graves. But the AA company also had an early monopoly on coaJanene Careyl mining and is part of the industrial history of Newcastle and the coal fields.

Back to that cafe a few paces away. I was meeting fellow writer and NEWC board member Janene Carey for a coffee before catching my plane.  I have known Janene since she started working at the Express as a freelance. She is a very good writer.

We talked about the purely domestic as well as writers and writing, including the need to actually get paid! She gave me some leads to people who still pay.

I fear that I was a little obsessed about the need to recognise and get recognition for the New England writing tradition. I say obsessed, for in Socratic tradition I was firing questions at her. Which New England connected writers have won the Nobel prize for literature? That sort of thing.

Janene had to pick up her daughter from netball, so I wandered down to get a cab to the airport. Here I just report a Facebook post:

Friday to Armidale for a New England Writers' Centre - NEWC board meeting. I need to process that.

Saturday after coffee down town with a fellow board member, caught a taxi to the airport. The driver looked at me. "James", she said? I said yes.

"I have such fond memories of your family. I was nine when my father committed suicide. Your grandparents gave us their place at Urunga to stay rent free. They and your parents gave Mum work."

Of course I remembered her and her mum, although I had no memory of the tragedy itself. Just the family in their little house. I reminded her that she had baby sat us, my brother and I. She must have been fifteen.

"I always keep the fridge full, now", she said. It was important. "Perhaps we were hungry. We ate wheat bix with butter and Vegemite for lunch." "I loved that", I said.

At the airport she looked at me. "You look like a combination of your mum and dad", she said. I smiled, although I was close to tears. I thought bloody hell. If I could be remembered in that way, life would be worthwhile.

Probably time to finish, but I must add one other thing. On the way back from Armidale, I called in at the coffee place where I had lost my book. They had found it, So Annabella and I are back together again!