Friday, January 30, 2015

Friday notes - mainly economics

A very short round-up this evening without links of things that I have noticed. I will follow up with links later.

New  Zealand giant Fonterra plans to cut the amount of product offered to customers as a continuing dry spell bites. In Australia, Dairy Australia said that Australia's diary exports in the year to November 2014 were up 1.1% in volume terms, down 10.9% in price terms.

Interesting continuing discussion on quantitative easing in comments on An economic meander - Greece, debt and economic adjustment in a QE world. Meantime, the currency wars continue, while the Chinese currency has jumped in front the Australian and Canadian dollars to number five in the world's most used global payments currencies. That's a trend I spoke of quite some time ago. 

Is the global glut in oil production coming to an end? Probably not, but the early signs of easing production may be there. Meantime, global forecasts for oil prices continue to be slashed. Actually, that's not a bad sign given forecasting track records. 

Queensland elections tomorrow. In a footnote on yesterday's posts I said: Based solely on the pattern of polls, my best guess remains that the LNP will be returned with a small majority, with the Premier losing his seat. Its all very volatile, but interesting for election tragics.

Finally, food, food, glorious food. That's where my historical mind continues to be for the present.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mr Abbott's terminal political illness

Given my views, I had no particular problem with Mr Abbott's award of a knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh. Measured objectively, and you don't have to agree with all the Duke's opinions to accept this, he has made a major contribution to aspects of Australian life over a very long period.

I had a much bigger problem with the vitriol heaped on the Duke in some writing I saw. That was simply ungracious. I had the same problem with the populist little Australian response from some. Barnaby, do you really feel that Australian honours must only and always be awarded to Australians, no exceptions?

My biggest problem lay with Mr Abbott's gross blind political misjudgment. Thinking of yesterday's post, Bridget Griffen-Foley and A Companion to the Australian Media, one of the changes in the Australian media landscape lies in the way that speed of communications facilitates instant responses. One side effect is less tolerance for mistakes because of the way a swooping and swirling media and broader commentariat all linked in real time means the creation and expression of instant views.

As I write discussion centers on succession. I really hope that Malcolm Turnbull does not become PM. I think that he will fail in that role.But that's a subject for another post.


It appears from reports in today's press that Mr Abbott has been given six months to get his act into gear. Meantime, Waleed Aly argues that Mr Abbott's problem's date back to his time in opposition. I have argued something of the same myself.

The Queensland elections are tomorrow. While the latest poll from Essential Research had the LNP and Labor effectively 50:50 making it all too close to call, the small sample size raises some doubts. Based solely on the pattern of polls, my best guess remains that the LNP will be returned with a small majority, with the Premier losing his seat. However, it will be a fascinating election.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bridget Griffen-Foley and A Companion to the Australian Media

Browsing in Dymocks, I purchased A Companion to the Australian Media. I knew the book was out, indeed had the opportunity to buy an early copy, but simply hadn't got my act together before this.

Edited by Professor Bridget Griffen-Foley, Professor in Media at Macquarie University, the book contains 497 short articles written by 298 authors (415,000 words in all) on various aspects of the Australian media, past and present.

I am one of the authors with a short piece (500 words) on the Vincent newspaper family. With two chapters in Came to New England published earlier in 2014, that gives me three pieces in two books as my 2014 output in this form.

Reading the Companion made me realise what a mammoth task Professor Griffen-Foley faced in coordinating so many authors across so many topics. I suspect that it has consumed a considerable portion of her life over the last four or so years.  I was trying to remember when she first approached me to write a piece. It must be close to four year's ago.

It is a good book, but also a slightly frustrating one from my perspective. The two are the opposite sides of the same coin. It is a good book because of the breadth of coverage. However, that breadth also means that the book is weak in some areas that I am especially interested in. Out of a vast canvas, Bridget had to select what might be covered. Inevitably, some of the things that I am interested in could not be included.

I guess that's part of the value of my own work Beneath the broad national coverage of Companion lies detail that varies across space and time. As you look at this, patterns shift, new patterns form. Then, suddenly, the top down view shifts as new information is provided that alters perspectives.

My congratulations to Bridget and those that supported her on a job well done.       

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

An economic meander - Greece, debt and economic adjustment in a QE world

The election victory of Greece's far-left Syriza party under the leadership of the new prime minister Alexis Tsipras poses new challenges to the EU. The BBC News coverage is quite good - herehere, here, here and on the far right here.

I am not close enough to be able to make really sensible judgments on the implications of the win. Greece has paid a very heavy price for previous maladministration and the subsequent bail-out and associated austerity measures. Since 2008, Greek per capita GDP has fallen by 22%, while Government debt as a proportion of GDP is now higher than it was at the time of the bail-out as a consequence of the decline in GDP. The economy is now expanding, but still at a very low rate. 

It is not clear to me from this distance just how much freedom the new Syriza led coalition government has to move. My feeling is that some compromise will be worked out that will allow Greece to stay in the Euro while undertaking some adjustments at the margin, aided by the shifts that have taken place in EU thinking. 

Meantime, the ABC's business editor Ian Verrender takes a very dim view of the European Central Bank's new quantitative easing package. My previously expressed concern on QE lay in my inability to see a clear exit strategy. That remains my concern. 

In an interesting piece on his blog and one that has relevance to Greece, Michael Pettis argues that:
But when debt levels are high enough to affect credibility, or when liabilities are structured in ways that distort incentives or magnify exogenous shocks, growth can be as much a consequence of changes in the liability side of an economy as it is on changes in the asset side. At the extreme, for example when a company or a country has a debt burden that might be considered “crisis-level”, almost all growth, or lack of growth, is a consequence of changes in the liability structure. For a country facing a debt crisis, for example, policymakers may work ferociously on implementing productivity-enhancing reforms aimed at helping the country “grow” its way out of the debt crisis, but none of these reforms will succeed.
In simple terms, and this is Greece's problem, the attempts to bring about structural reform of themselves cannot deliver the desired results or cannot do so in an acceptable time frame because of the debt burden. This is particularly true where other countries are going through a similar process at the same time. The growth potential required to stabilise the position just isn't there.

In writing, Professor Pettis' primary focus is on China. Here he has been arguing for a number of years that the Chinese growth model is unsustainable and that growth must fall as the economy re-balances. Chinese growth is obviously important from an Australian perspective. Slower Chinese growth, a different composition of growth, affects Australian exports.

Here James Laurenceson .in China Spectator made a useful point.  Even though growth is slower, that growth is coming from a bigger base. Measured in absolute terms, Chinese growth is still substantial even with a decline in that rate of growth. He also points to the exchange rate effect. Because the yuan has appreciated to some degree against the US dollar, the size of the Chinese economy expressed in dollar terms has further increased. As happened in Australia when the Australian dollar appreciated, you can buy more for each yuan.

One of the interesting things at the moment is the way all these divergent trends play out against each other, For example, the application of QE by multiple countries has affected exchange rates in ways that we don't always see because so much is expressed in terms of the US dollar. In this context, I wondered about trends in the Australian Trade Weighted Index (TWI).

The TWI is a is a weighted average of a basket of currencies that reflects the importance of the sum of Australia's exports and imports of goods by country. It provides a useful gauge of the value of the Australian dollar when (as now) bilateral exchange rates exhibit diverging trends.

If you look at the graph, you can see the sharp fall at the end of the 1980s, then the rise associated with the mining boom. The Australian dollar has fallen since, but by less than you might expect based on the shift in the US/Australian dollar exchange rate. It remains quite high.         

Monday, January 26, 2015

A simple Aussie boy

Today is Australia Day. As  have indicated before, I have mixed feelings about the rise of this particular celebration. Still, today I thought that I might talk about the things that I like and enjoy about Australia. After all, I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about what I think is wrong in this country and how it might be fixed! So lets redress the balance.

To begin with,  I love the countryside.

I grew up in the high country, that narrow strip between the coast and plains that runs along Australia's east coast. Most of the visual images of Australia that you will see are coastal or, alternatively, inland or outback. That wasn't my country, although I have absorbed the iconic images of parts elsewhere. I have also absorbed the sounds and especially the smells of the Australian bush. This is the start of my current book project:
Dalwood House stands on a rise. From the side verandah, mown grass runs down to the old vineyard. The Hunter River lies beyond, hidden within its high banks. It was hot and still, the silence broken only by the distant sound of a crow. Even the working properties on the hills on the other side of the river were still, remote in the faint heat haze.
I love just wandering, sitting and absorbing. It gives me enormous pleasure. I also love the country life. the patterns, although I fear that my earlier desire to become a farmer was, with certainty, very unwise. It wouldn't have worked.  I'm just not that way.

I love the diversity of Australian life. Australian life has always been diverse, more so than most Australians realise. Australians now are stay at home folk who travel along limited tracks for business or pleasure. They don't see or, more often, comprehend the differences. As we all do, they see their current life as the norm. However, the reality is very different. There are many norms.

This is a "burqini", a swim suit designed to allow Muslim women to swim in public. Perhaps only in Australia?

I don't quite share the frequently presented stereotype about the expansion in Australian cuisine since the beginning of the mass migration program at the end of the Second World War. I certainly don't share the view that the modern Australian cuisine is now the best in the world and continues to advance. It's not really like that.  There is some very bad food around. However, it is true that I have daily access to a remarkable variety of cuisines. I can't say that Australia is best here, but compared to New York or San Francisco or London or Paris or Florence or Athens, the variety is greater.

What Australia doesn't have is a central unifying cuisine in the way you would find in, say, Europe. Modern Australian food is too much a melange, too much related to trends elsewhere, too remote from regional variations in the supply of produce. Regional variation does exist, but is still poorly developed. We can give the visitor access to whatever cuisine they like, just not our own. I will cook my own variant at home, itself a melange, but you have to visit me to find it. You won't find it in a restaurant.  

Australians are wonderfully polite, more so than we realize. I love that. Get onto a Sydney bus. I am sure that the same holds for other cities, and just watch. Most of those who leave feel the need to thank the driver. Thank you rings down the bus. It's partly our egalitarian nature, more a matter of manners. I have met many rude Australians, but each time I do a feel a sense of shock. That's not the way we do things.

Australians also have a sense of irreverence. Sadly, this has (or so I think) begun to diminish. Traditionally, we haven't taken ourselves too seriously. The reverence that we now attach to Australia Day would have been inconceivable in the past. 

Of course we attach pride to national celebrations such as winning, beating England in the cricket for example. Australians like to win, especially against traditional rivals. But the blind desire to win, the thought that we must always be best, is quite new. The sense of national self-deprecation has its bad points, the sometimes acceptance of the second-rate is one, but it really was a distinguishing feature. What other country makes a military defeat a national memorial, one that recognizes the strengths of the other side?

Sometimes with a friend I describe myself as a simple Aussie boy. Aussie boys may have been guilty of many things. Domestic violence or child abuse may be examples. They may be insensitive to other's needs. They are not necessarily simple in an intellectual sense, nor free of the angst that marks other cultures. Certainly, they are as riven by confusion over male roles as men in other Western societies. 

But yet, I think that we are different, are perhaps a little simpler.When I say that I am a simple Aussie boy, I am making a statement, I am asserting a difference. I think, and this is difficult to explain, that I am rejecting the complexity that is often imposed on us. Lives are always complex.  Our reactions need not be so.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mr Shorten is just so 1990s

There was something just so 1990s about Opposition Leader Bill Shorten's remarks (and here) on the question of an Australian republic et al.
"Let us have the courage to ask ourselves if we measure up to more than just a grab-bag of cliches," he said.
"Let us declare that our head of state should be one of us. 
"Let us rally behind an Australian republic - a model that truly speaks for who we are, our modern identity, our place in our region and our world."

Cliches anyone? Really. It gets worse if you look at Mr Shorten's apparent views on Australian history.

The one really important issue that Mr Shorten raised was the need for constitutional recognition of Australia's Aboriginal heritage. This is something that I support as a way of putting one aspect of Australia's past behind us. Sadly, it has all become highly problematic. There is no agreement that I can see within the Aboriginal community, while the non-Aboriginal community doesn't care a great deal and is equally divided. Then to mix the question, as Mr Shorten did, with other issues is to add too division.

 Fortunately, as an historian I do not have to buy into Mr Shorten's apparent interpretation of the Australian past. I don't want to play in the history wars. In writing, my task is to present the evidence and (hopefully) make it interesting.


The transcript of Mr Shorten's speech is not yet available, so I have not been able to cross-check my reactions against the actual words.

Mr Shorten was speaking at the launch of a new book, Mateship, by author Nick Dyrenfurth. I am not sure that it is correct to claim, as the publisher's blurb does, that this is the first book-length exploration of Australia's secular creed. I would have thought that that claim actually belonged to Russell Ward's The Australian Legend. However, the place and topic set the context for Mr Shorten's remarks.

One of the difficulties with mateship lies in the in-built tension between mates and the rest, between them and us. The concept does become generalised, made universal as an element of the Australian character, that was the continuing power of Ward's book, but the tension remains and has expressed itself in various ways over time. Mr Shorten refers to this. I quote from the Canberra Times report.
Mr Shorten also said that while Australia Day should be celebrated, it was important that Australians also confronted the lows and tragedies of Australian history, such as the Myall Creek massacre. 
"I don't think shirking it with the great Australian silence solves anything. We need to recognise our history." 
Mateship, he said, "reminds us of a timeless truth: real patriots don't try and justify or excuse their nation's flaws and failings and anachronisms – they get on and fix them. True patriots don't shrink from historical truth – they welcome it, they learn from it. True patriots know that until a nation includes everyone – in its history, in its society, in its economy – then there is always more to do."

The opposition leader said Australians were tired of people "claiming victory in the 'history wars' - as if the Australian story has to be fought 'to the last man and the last footnote'."

"We gain nothing from boiling down our history to a bland mish-mash myth of the Rum Rebellion and Burke and Wills, Bodyline and the stump-jump plough, the Victa Mower and Olympic gold. There is nothing wrong with celebrating those moments and achievements – but it is wrong to pretend that they represent the limit of our national capabilities – or our national ambitions." 
And he criticised Prime Minister Tony Abbott's assertion late last year, when welcoming UK Prime Minister David Cameron to the parliament, that former prime minister John Howard had settled the debate about Australia's place in the world. 
"No leader can 'end' a conversation about our nation's sense of self. No leader can 'settle' the question of Australia's global role and responsibilities. And no leader should take pride in trying.
The book traces the history of 'mateship" in Australia, with Mr Shorten describing it as a "celebration of our national character". 
But Mr Shorten also noted the book acknowledged that Australian 'mateship' had rarely included everyone", noting for example that at the turn of the 20th century, the Australian Workers Union was open to all workers but at the same time say: "No Chinese, Japanese, Kanakas, Afghans or coloured aliens." 
"The fact is, mateship has not always been there when our nation, our people needed it. After all, where was mateship at Myall Creek? Or at Lambing Flat? Where was mateship when governments and institutions worked together to take children from their mothers – because the mother was unmarried, or black?" 
My problem with Mr Shorten's remarks lies in the way he mixes so many things together. The phrase "the great Australian silence" was popularised by the anthropologist William Edward Stanner in 1968, referring to the way in which Aboriginal history including the destruction of Aboriginal society had been effectively excluded from Australian history. 

Professor Stanner was a remarkable man who occupies a special niche in Australia's intellectual history. However, as is so often the case, he coined the phrase at a time of an explosion of interest in Aboriginal culture and history, an explosion that he helped create. I have written a fair bit on that explosion because of the way that it is wrapped in elements of the nostalgia of my own past. It was just fun.

Mr Shorten re-uses the phrase "the great Australian silence" as though it were still current. That's just not true. The whole point about the so-called Australian history wars of the 1990s lay in disputes about the balance in historical analysis between calling a spade a spade or a bloody shovel. In coining the phrase "the black armband of history" in 1993, historian Geoffrey Blainey suggested that we had reached the point that the spade was being called a bloody shovel. Those on the other side argued that the spade was indeed a bloody shovel. The great Australian silence had been replaced by a very rancorous great Australian clamour.

The last paragraph in the report on Mr Shorten's views is a pastiche of popular historical misconceptions. He asks where was the mateship at Myall Creek, at Lambing Flat, in the taking away of children? These are rhetorical flourishes masquerading as history.  

Myall Creek was a rather nasty massacre, not the only one in Northern NSW nor elsewhere in Australia. My fellow student Brian Harrison first documented the massacre in his 1966 History honours thesis at the University of New England. Since then, it has been covered in multiple publications. No great silence there. The historical significance of Myall Creek lies not in the massacre, but in the hanging of those involved, the way that it affected policy towards Aboriginal people and race relations on the moving frontier. 

The Lambing Flat riots were one of a number of race inspired incidents that took place on the gold fields between European and Chinese diggers. Just as the convicts and ex-convicts at Myall Creek displayed mateship, so did the Lambing Flat diggers. Or, and more impressive, so did the squatter who gave protection to a large number of Chinese on his station. But the historical significance of the riots lay in the way they affected policy towards the Chinese, helping lay the basis for later action to exclude Chinese and to finally establish the White Australia Policy at Federation.

Finally, this business of taking children from their mothers has to be seen in the context of the history of child welfare and evolving attitudes towards the protection of children. Sadly. and this is true of Aboriginal policy as well, the greatest tragedies occurred not because of the presence or absence of mateship, but because of do-good attitudes developed by sincere and honest people that took expression in official policy. Many of the wrongs came from the desire to do what was right. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Blogging, platforms and PR: how to maximise the fun?

Tonight's brief post goes to an old theme, blogging and the business of blogging.

First, my thanks to Evan for his kind donation. Evan, it wasn't just that your donation came at a good time, Christmas is an income sparse time for me, but it was an affirmation of the value of what I try to write. That motivates me to keep going!

One of the things that I find interesting, one that I have mentioned before, is the progressive inclusion of the blog world in the reach of those seeking to spread a message. One measure of this is the increasing volume of press releases in my in box, a second an increasing invitation to launches or events, including offers of interview. There is a wonderfully random element in all this, but sometimes it can be quite fun.

As part of this, I received an invitation from Rachel at PitchIt2Me to participate in their journo and blogger survey. This is an example of the survey from 2012. It seems to be very similar.

I get a fair number of requests to participate in surveys. Most I ignore, others I start and then stop because I get bored. In this case, I found the survey quite interesting and continued to the end because it made me think about what I did - and why.

A journalist, trainer and blogger,  Rachel lives in the PR world. This comes through in the language, the use of words such as famil. Her clients are people and firms wishing to get their message across in an increasingly fragmented media environment.

I blog because it's fun, because of the interaction. I blog because I seek to get messages across, to influence, on things that I consider to be important. At this stage in my life, my ability to have direct influence is more constrained than it once was, so blogging is a way of keeping me relevant. I blog, too, because  blogging is a central part of a suite of activities, the things that I do.

In  blogging, I think that part of my value lies in my independence. If you write something, you know that it is my view. In December I ran a press release (CEDA announces results of its 2014 business big issues survey), but I made it clear that that was what I was doing. I am not saying that I am perfect, simply that I like to make my position clear. In turn, this allows my commenters to express their own opinions, including opinions about the source of the press release!

In all this, I do have to think about cash. I also have to think about fun.Cash is important because it gives me the freedom to do what I want to do. Fun is important because it motivates and stimulates me. So here I have an incentive to take up some of the offers, including taking advantage of the interview opportunities that I am given.

I have been thinking about the second a fair bit. There is a reluctance on my part to waste people's time. There is also a problem if it is in work time. I have done some radio interviews myself from the office, but in an open plan office everybody can listen in! Still, if the offer is made, then its not my fault if I waste the interviewee's time. I might get something of value to my readers or learn something that will shift my views.

To my regular readers, I know that .I am re-canvassing issues. Still, it's interesting so far as I am concerned. In 2015 I am going to follow up some of these opportunities and report back!



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Australian public policy approaches, - refugees, confusion over objectives and private school funding

In Australia, the Abbott Government remains deep in troubles of its own making.

The latest troubles on Manus Island continue the running sore that is refugee policy. The first problem for the Government is that its own policy of controlling, or attempting to control, the flow of information has created a vacuum that has to be filled from other sources. The second problem is that the Government's responses seem inadequate.

Based on the polls, a majority of Australians still support Mr Abbott's border protection policy, but the constant drip of what seems to be inhumane news about the policy's application is erosive. Put simply, by criminalising and militarising its approach, the Government created a political and policy framework that ruled out specific actions that might have helped ameliorate problems while still preserving the intent of Government policies. Even those who support the Government's policy objective have some difficulties with its application in practice.

Fresh from the debacle over medicare, the Government is trying to save elements of its proposed university reforms. Back at the start of June last year (Over-reach: deregulation, fees and university education) I explained my own difficulties in understanding what all the changes meant. Now, stripped down, the most important element, the one that the Government appears to be trying to save, is deregulation of university fees. I actually support that, if with some reservations.

The Government's core problem, and the core weakness in Mr Hockey's budget, lies in the way it established a nexus between two very different things. The first was the need to fix the budget deficit, the second the desire to achieve reforms in specific policy area.

I dealt with one aspect of this back in September in If a equals b – testing the proposed Australian terrorism legislation and indeed any public policy. We need to fix the budget deficit (a), therefore you should support our university (or health) reforms (b). The two are in fact disconnected.

On an apparently different but connected matter, the Australian Scholarships Group released analysis suggesting that the cost of educating a child born in 2015 at a private school through to year twelve was now close to or in excess of $500,000.

I could believe that. When we came down to Sydney, we enrolled the girls at a private school in part because they had been going to one in Armidale, in part because time pressures made it difficult to evaluate the public option. Each years the costs went up more than the rate of inflation, so that school fees progressively absorbed a higher proportion of our family income. It's a bit like the old myth about frogs and boiling water: the frog is cooked before he realises it.

I haven't checked the numbers, but Commonwealth Government subsidisation of private schools must be one of the largest elements in middle class welfare payments. Perhaps its time to at least cap this until the budget improves.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

That Australian life - the sporting Australia

January is always a sports mad period in Australia. However, this year is unusually busy, with the Australian Open tennis and its growing satellite tournaments, the Tour Down Under in cycling, international cricket including the current tri-nation (England, Australia, India) one day series and, of course, the Asian Cup in soccer. That's a lot of sport even for a sports mad nation.

In honour of the tennis, this is shot from our family album is a country tennis party from the 1930s. Tennis had the supreme advantage that social tennis involved both sexes.It was a way for girls and boys to meet.

 Growing up, I played cricket (not very well), tennis, rugby union and league. I ran, walked and swam.

This photo was taken at the Armidale swimming pool. From left to right me, Michael Halpin, Aunt Kay, Richard Halpin, brother David. The Halpin twins were an important part of our life at the time. They lived just down the road and we did many things together.

Richard died young. On the day before the funeral, Michael and I went to the pub to talk about him. Neither of us could understand the why. It just was.

The Australian love of sport began in the very early period of European settlement. There was space and opportunity. Unlike the home countries, Australians just had more time. They also had a climate that encouraged out door activity.

I spend a lot of time studying Australian history. Thinking about it, one of the big shifts over time in my thinking was the realisation of just how fortunate those early Australians were. Not the Australian Aborigines, of course,  but the new European Australians. I should write something at some point about the success of Australia as a penal experiment. There are some lessons there for current Australian governments.

In modern Australia we have gyms that provide facilities that as a child I could not have imagined. Still, there is something to be said for a life in which activity and sport is embedded from morning to night, not something that you have to do to stay fit. Ah well, time to move on.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Are you going to Canberra Rep's The Importance of Being Earnest?

This one is an unadulterated plug. Are you you going to Canberra Rep's production of The Importance of Being Earnest? If not, and if going is at all possible, Judi Crane will rip your arms off! You know you really want to go.  Otherwise, be afraid, very afraid!

As an aside, I did like the caption on the flyer: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." How very Earnest!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Monday Forum - Huntington, civilisation, language with a dash of verandahs

Today's Monday Forum is a another mixed forum, picking things up that may draw comment.

Over at his place, Winton muses on  How long will the "Clash of Civilizations" last?, a post triggered by the work of Samuel Phillips HuntingtonThe map is drawn from the Wikipedia entry on Huntington. I haven't read Huntington, but his views as reported strike me as dangerously simplistic in theory and what appears to be practice.

The Macquarie Dictionary word of the year competition is underway again.All dictionaries seem to do this now as a way of attracting publicity. So what are the new words that you most like or hate? Interested that phrases get quoted. I would have thought they were a completely different thing.

Down in Canberra, the creation of Border Force drags on, with the SES (Senior Executive Service) officers soon to learn who will be fired. The sword is expected to fall most heavily on the Immigration Department side. I know that we have talked about this one before, but who would want to work there in such unpleasant conditions?

I have continued beavering away on matters architectural.In a response to Sunday Essay – have Australian architects (and clients) become disconnected from the world in which they live?, kvd wrote:
Been to Lanyon; it wouldn't fit on your average quarter acre plot. A cut down version might, but then you'd be sitting on your verandah, staring into your next door neighbour's back/front yard, and bathroom, and listening to the dulcet tones of the toilet flush, intermingled with their stupid dog barking at you. 
You say homes "don't look out", but they developed from caves - the complete antithesis of looking out. 
Personally I like my verandah, but then, my next door neighbour is half a km away and, after 10 years, I still can't remember his name - which I regard as a good thing. We nod at each other maybe once a month; that's about the right amount of human interaction, I think.
He followed this up with:
Actually, thinking about it more, when I moved to this valley I "did the right thing" by introducing myself to the neighbours, and then in the village shortly after, my wife and I bumped into Bob, so I made introductions, as you do. 
"This is our neighbour Bob M". He replied "Robert, actually".

This is a guy who has won the Bathurst 500 (as it then was) and several other noisy things, but never reported as "Robert"; always "Bob". What to do? 
Anyway, now he breeds pigeons, and they regularly travel to my home, and shit on the roof, and stomp up and down cooing. Not that I mind too much, except I am actually on tank water, so it's sort of unsettling to think of all that pigeon shit that I shower in. 
Anyway, he's got a verandah as well, so I suppose that's sort of ok.
I have included the quotes because they amused me. However, they also raise another point, the changing nature of social interaction. Wandering around suburban streets, I have been struck by the lack of use of front verandahs. In many cases, they are the coolest place in the house at certain times during hot days, and are often set in nice surrounds. 

Verandahs came in in part because they shaded walls, stopping them heating. However, they were also social centres in the way that, say, the porch is in the US. So I was wondering when, in an Australian context, this usage stopped? 

Enough for now!


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Essay – have Australian architects (and clients) become disconnected from the world in which they live?

It’s been very hot. In some areas, it’s not just the heat, but alsoOxley Homestead Hay the high humidity. I don’t cope well with high humidity.

This is the Oxley Homestead near Hay. This is hot country. The homestead sprawls with deep verandas, providing living areas where people can gather on hot days,

I grew up on the New England Tablelands, a cool area by Australian standards because of its height above sea level. Even then, both my parents’ and grandparents’ houses had extensive verandas.

Mind you, Armidale had a different problem, cold in winter. A weatherboard house with no insulation can be very cold indeed. Still, and it’s hard to believe now, I could sit on top of the bed and read with no heating. Mind you, that’s partly a matter of self-defense. The kerosene heater that I could have used smelt just so badly!

Lanyon homestead, Canberra This  is Lanyon Homestead near Canberra. Again, you will see the same verandas.

What you won’t see are the trees in the drive. They spread and provide a deeply shaded area that is quite wonderful on hot days.  

Growing up, I valued those English trees. A little later, I couldn’t quite understand the native garden movement that said we must have Australian natives even if they were fire prone and provided less shade. Actually, I still don’t!

I am not sure who first invented the veranda. I have seen a passing suggestion from architect Peter Freeman that the first verandas may have come from British Indian designs in pattern books. Whoever they were, they deserve great praise!

Another of the nice features of some of the earlier Australian country designs was the courtyard. Here you had an area flanked by buildings, often a u shape, where verandas with chairs and grape vines or other climbers faced onto a central space with its own shade trees.

Let me finish this brief essay with an expression of prejudice. I accept that it is prejudice and stand to be corrected. To my mind, both customers and Australian architects since the Second World War and perhaps earlier have actually lost sight of the Australian climate. They build homes that you can’t live in without air conditioning. They also build homes – and here I blame customers not architects – that look inward where the role of the outdoor is limited to the required single entertainment space. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday incidentals

A brief round-up post today. There won't be a post tomorrow because I will be away.

Out of sight, out of mind. We worry about Martin Place of the French attacks, but do nothing about Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Mr Abbott's back down over one part of the medicare changes was, I suspect, inevitable.  It continues a pattern of Government proposals that simply can't be got through. I don't quite understand why Mr Abbott took the course he did when he must have known that it would fail.

In ‘The political system is failing to deliver’, Don Aitkin picked up Paul Kelly's point that the current Australian political system makes real change possible. I don't accept that, nor do I accept the view that the failure of an electorate to accept particular changes jammed down its throat is an example of the electorate's unwillingness to accept change. It's a-historical and also conflicts with my own experience.

Finally, the case of the Swiss National Bank is interesting. However, further comment here will have to wait until Sunday.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


I hadn't really been following the rise of Uber and its competitors, nor the response of authorities until I saw this fascinating ABC story on the attempts by the Queensland authorities to crack down on the service. I was also interested in the pro and anti comments on the ABC story.

Uber is one of those fascinating examples of the disruptive effects of internet technology on existing businesses. The company obviously has deep pockets to be able to fight on so many fronts at the one time, including paying the fines of drivers in Queensland. I was also interested in this piece on Wired about the Rideshare Guy.

The economics of Uber seem to depend on the capacity to offer a lower cost guaranteed service in markets with restricted entry where regulation imposes costs on existing operators. Uber is also using a pricing algorithm, not always successfully as we saw in Sydney during the Martin Place hostage crisis, that allows it to surge prices at high demand periods.

To offer a guaranteed service,  Uber has to have sufficient cars and drivers available. As a niche service, Uber could depend on amateurs. As the service grows, it has to effectively create its own cottage industry, its own taxi service. The Wired article highlights some of the issues here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Can you help me scope the dynamic patient costs of the proposed Medicare changes?

On 9 December, Prime Minister Abbott announced changes to medicare arrangements. You will find details of that announcement here. Elements of those arrangements are in trouble with the Senate.Leave that and the broader politics of the changes aside. I am trying to understand what all this means by way of costs to individual patients. So a few questions.

 At  present some 30% of non-concessional patients are not bulk billed. Non bulk billing appears to be concentrated in particular areas, Tamworth is an example, whereas bulk billing seems to be concentrated in high volume areas with commercial practices. Does anybody know the present geographic distribution of bulk billing vs non bulk billing?

 Where doctors set their own fees and do not bulk bill, patients seem to pay a premium (call it a co-payment) that seems to vary from $25 to $75 per visit. That's not a rigorous figure, just a rough estimate based on anecdotal evidence. Is there any information on the present level of that additional payment?

While most non bulk billing doctors seem to have systems that allow the medicare rebate to be claimed at visit, some seem to require the patient to claim the rebate themselves. In this case, the patient has to find the full fee up front. Am I right here? Does anybody know what proportion of doctors require the patient to claim back themselves?

Turning to the future, whichever way you cut the numbers and whatever the configuration of fee rebates, it seems clear that the real value of the medicare rebate will decline. I have seen various reports of the impact of this, but is anybody aware of modelling that shows the likely impact on the proportion of doctors who bulk bill, on general patients costs?

Finally, are all these the wrong questions? What questions should I be asking? Here I am not interested in the question of whether or not the country can afford the maintenance of the current system. That's a different issue. I am interested in the dynamic effects of the changes as they stand now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Exploring the changing world of comics: The Immortal Iron Fist

The immortal iron fist

For Christmas, Clare gave me The Immortal Iron Fist: The Complete Collection (Marvel 2013.

Now you can’t be around Clare for long before discovering the world of comics and the cross-overs into games, graphics, films, popular culture and indeed the commercial world that surrounds/promotes the whole genre. Or should that be genres? However, this was the first time that I had actually read a comic in many years.

For those unfamiliar with The immortal Iron Fist, one of the blurbs describes the book in this way:

Experience a new kind of Iron Fist story, steeped in legends and fables stretching back through the centuries! Orphaned as a child and raised in the lost city of K'un Lun, Danny Rand returned to America as the mystical martial artist Iron Fist - but all his kung-fu skills can't help him find his place in the modern world. After learning the legacy of the Iron Fist holds more secrets than he ever dreamed, Danny is invited to fight in a tournament against the Immortal Weapons.

I came to the book quite cold and had an initial strange, mixed, reaction. To begin with, I couldn’t quite date it. It looked like an updated version of an older series, but that didn’t quite fit with the visual clues. Some of the underlying assumptions/messages built into the sub-plots as well as the very particular art styles struck me as quite The immortal iron fist 2recent. Was that due to updating, or was the series itself recent? It seems a bit off both.

The series itself began in November 2006, so it is recent. However, the artists also took the opportunity to update some of the styles.

The book is visually very rich, something that made it initially hard to read. I actually had to work out how to read it. In the end, I looked at the art work first and then read the dialogue. I am a very fast natural reader, so this process forced me to slow to a crawl, creating a degree of impatience. Still, the story slowly dragged me in. 

As Mick Martin noted in a review of an earlier Iron Fist book (The Whole Story - Immortal Iron Fist), the plot is fragmented, disconnected. I was drawn in to the point that in I could ignore the disconnects, but I was always conscious of them. I was also conscious of the total melange of messages/styles. Think old style comic meets kung fu meets Raiders of the Lost Ark meets a variant of Chinese mysticism meets the evils of the British Empire meets Mathew Reilly meets video game. Lost?

As a franchise, Marvel comics date back to 1939. Its history reflects the ups and downs of comics as a genre, as does that of its older (1934) rival DC Comics.  Marvel is now owned by Disney, DC by Time Warner. Both seek to maximise the value of their respective franchises – their original comic book heroes with modern add-ons - across multiple platforms supported by merchandising. This is big business, very much part of the modern age. The comic is dead. Long live the comic!  

Monday, January 12, 2015

A note on Australian architecture

Regular readers will know that I write the weekly history column for the Armidale Express. This gives me an excuse to delve into all sorts of things that I might not otherwise find. However, it also creates a problem, Sometimes, I find myself all myself all adrift with just too many topics to make any sense of it all. I am in this position at the moment.

This is Camden Park House near Sydney. Completed in 1835, the house was designed by architect John Verge. Born in Hampshire in 1782, Verge emigrated to NSW in 1828, taking up land first near Dungog (Lyndhurst Vale) and then in the Macleay Valley (Austral Eden).

Verge's primary interests were in agriculture. His active practice as an architect (1831-37) lasted just so long as it took for his agricultural interests to prosper. Thereafter he lived on Austral Eden until his death in 1861.In that brief period, his output was quite prolific, leaving some beautiful regency style buildings.

This is Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney designed and built by Verge (1835-39) for Alexander McLeay. Whereas Camden Park House is still in family hands, Elizabeth Bay House is now a museum.

While the first major colonial architect, the convict Francis Greenway, necessarily focused on official projects, Verge had a private client focus drawing from the wealth that had been created in the new colony since its formation in 1788.

I hadn't realised that Verge had Northern NSW connections. I knew that a John Verge had taken up Austral Eden, but didn't actually connect settler Verge with architect Verge.Mind you, I didn't discover Verge had New England connections through my research in this area. All this came about because of flaneurring, strolling streets to see what I could find. Call it sticky-beaking if you like.

All this led into an investigation of Federation architecture because the houses I was looking at were largely from that period. This is an example of the Gothic stream in Federation architecture, Booloominbah designed by architect John Horbury Hunt. Life's a fragile business, as you can see if you look at Hunt's story.

Arguably one of Australia's greatest architects, the last year's of Hunt's life were difficult. Somehow it seems unfair that he should die not knowing that his contribution to Australia's built environment would be a lasting and recognised legacy.

Unlike Booloominbah, most of the examples I was looking at were not Gothic but Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts or Federation Bungalow style. I'm still not sure that I can always tell the differences between them!    


Thursday, January 08, 2015

Office design, blind rules and the terrorism menace

This is, I fear, one of those posts that will show me to be a grumpy man out of touch with modern life!
In my present office, a new office design is going in in the name of standards (we must standardise on the standards created in the mega Department that we are now part of) and cost savings. As part of this change, all single offices apart from one belonging to the CE will be abolished; the average floor space per staff member will be reduced; cubicles will be redesigned to fit more people and to lower the height of the present partitions; while some (that’s not clear) meeting spaces will be created. Considering all this, I read this Economist article with interest.

Down in Canberra, it seems that the creation of the new mega border force will require all immigration officials to undergo compulsory booze, drug tests. Two issues arise. First, is this a good idea in a general sense? Secondly, why should officials be subjected to new tests just because a Government has decided to create a mega agency and wants to ensure that that those coming in must be subject to the same tests already imposed (rightly or wrongly) on part of the new agency?

Oh, and by the way, I know of no evidence that any of these types of changes have reduced corruption or, indeed, improved performance. They just make some people fethe pensilel better, that they are doing something.

Something of the same issues arise in the context of responses to Martin Place or the tragic events in Paris. Now I strongly support some of the responses to Paris or indeed Martin Place. This cartoon is an example. Up yours mate!

But when I read some of the stuff coming out, I want to ask well, mate, what do you want us to do? Should we in Australia ban anyone of Muslim faith coming to the country? Should we expel anybody of Muslim faith already here? No, then guide me. Yes? Well, how do we go about that?

Well, time to take my grumpy self away. I had intended to write something on Australian architecture, but all this side-tracked me.


It appears that Immigration Department staff who want to work in the merged Border Force have to undergo "organisational suitability assessment".

It appears that Fox News is unaware of the religious composition of the UK's Birmingham. In fairness, Mr Emerson did apologize. But if you are going to be a talking head, do try to get your facts right. 

 I haven't commented on the policy dynamics involved in the Australian Government's changes to bulk billing, although I have been meaning to do so. This is the latest story.I have a friend who has been sick in a non-bulk billing environment.  I was astonished at the costs involved. memo to self. Don't get sick! 

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Queensland elections, communications and the importance of the heuristic

Talk about the sudden, although perhaps not totally unexpected. Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has called a sudden snap election for January 31, cutting the notice period required to the absolute minimum. Antony Green has his election site up, if with difficulty after recent shoulder surgery.

Intuitively, while the polls presently show the Government and Opposition on 50:50, the sheer size of the Government's majority gives them a considerable buffer. Whether the Premier can hold his seat is another question. Here the polls have him behind.

On an apparently different matter, I found this quote:
"My afternoon with Andrew (tour guide)  had shown the error of telling too much. With each tour, I omitted a little more information  and covered a little less ground. Nobody remembers a statistic, but an anecdote could stick like a burr, and an image imprint itself in the imagination."
I copied it down for my own reasons, but it actually has some relevance to the Queensland position.

Again on an apparently different matter and again one that I was looking at for other reasons, Wikipedia defines heuristic in this way:
Heuristic ... refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that find a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal, but good enough for a given set of goals. Where the exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution via mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision
In current Australian election campaigning with its emphasis on myriad promises that nobody can remember loosely linked together by policy statements that nobody reads, electors apply heuristic methods. to determine their votes. It's the only rational way to go.

 The problem is that when the subsequent results diverge sufficiently from elector's expectations there is a sense of betrayal that is not always clearly understood by either those affected or the politicians themselves.

Queensland Premier Newman might argue that he was actually fairly clear on what he intended to do. Here he has another problem, those who made the heuristic judgment that the previous government had to go, it was time, did not focus on what might replace it. Their focus on what Mr Newman said was limited to the extent that it might persuade them not to vote for Mr Newman. They had no interest beyond that. Okay, they were wrong if the polls now are any guide, but it was still a sensible approach.

What final conclusion do I draw from this? Still, not sure. My feeling is that politicians actually need to understand what heuristic thinking tells us.  What do you think?

Monday, January 05, 2015

Monday Forum - another as you will

Looking across the press, 2015 seems be continuing the pattern of 2014 or earlier. But a question to you before dealing with that. Given our tendency to dramatise the negative, what were the positives over 2014? Name any you like.

2015 begins with another political crisis in Greece, triggering further fears about that country's position in the Eurozone, with suggestions this time that an exit may in fact be okay after all. Meantime, Lithuania joined the zone from 1 January. One up, one down?

Gina Rinehart continues her attacks on excessive bureaucracy and corporate welfare or, indeed any welfare, while Mark Latham lambastes feral parents who use the state as their baby sitters. This seems to be due to hung-over parents inventing illnesses in their kids so that they can park them in hospital while they (the parents) recover from their over-indulgence. I would have thought that hanging out in casualty while hung-over would be a sever punishment in itself.

The Lindt siege has illustrated an odd-side effect of the anti-terrorism legislation. Will the Government deem the siege to be a terrorism event for the purpose of insurance? If it does, any insurance payments will be reduced below what might otherwise be the case. For some reason, this seems to be important to the insurance companies.

Liberal MP Dan Tehan wishes to see the GST extended to include food and other exempt items, while the states continue to dicker over the distribution of existing GST payments. Watch this space, though. GST will be widened, increased, Actually, I support that.

Ecuador tops the list of the best 25 countries to retire to in 2015. I fear that these lists are for those who have money - and who can meet immigration requirements. There seems to be some connection between the two!

Senator David Leyonhjelm considers that 2014 was a bad year for personal liberties in Australia, that 2015 will be worse. He is right, of course. Pity he couldn't pick his targets better, though.We actually need someone who will point out the recurring insanities of increasingly ill-liberal Australian Governments. But his views on guns, even though I agree with part, took him to far outside the main stream.

Finally and for the life of me, I cannot remember which program it was except that it was on Radio National. It was about Robert Menzies. I have never been a Menzies supporter, but he does scrub up far better than one might have expected in a world that seems to combine rushing ideologues with a dominance of spin and outright pedestrianism.


Evan kindly pointed me to the radio program. It was The Menzies Legacy on Saturday Extra.

Winton commented:
A few years ago I also revised my view of Sir Robert, although perhaps for somewhat different reasons than one would expect to be evident in anything produced by the ABC. My praise of Menzies has to do with his defiance of the wretched ratchet effect: discussed here .  
I must come back to Winton's post.      

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Saturday Morning Musings - new year targets and writing

This year's first post, Mr Abbott’s Great Wall of Australia, was political. I couldn't help myself! Last year's first post, Joy, sharing and the goals for 2014, was more your conventional new year's post. The post began with a reference to Peter Black's blog, freedom to dither. Here I see that Peter has again set detailed targets. I have not.

Last year I set just two targets.

The first was to beat my daughters at tennis. Fail! As events turned out, their busy lives including Helen's travel prevented us playing tennis for much of the year. We have only just begun to play again, and my tennis shows it.

The second target was to complete a first draft of my main history book. Again, fail. While I did make progress over the year in my writing, the combination of too many projects with other pressures (it was a very messy year) blew the main target out of the water. Ah well.

I still want to beat my daughters at tennis. However, the window here is very brief because Helen takes up a job in Copenhagen at the start of February. I am excited for her, but will miss her greatly.

On the writing side, I did do my end year review trying to focus on what I might realistically achieve. I can see the progress, although I can also see that I am still trying to advance on all fronts at the same time.

I did achieve one publication, two chapters in Came to New England. The photo is from the launch and shows John Ryan (editor) with UNE VC Annabelle Duncan and Dr Suzanne Robertson, one of the other contributors. John Ryan is a remarkable man. I really must try to write something on him.

While the much delayed launch was in September 2014, the book is really a 2013 piece. I wonder what I can get out in 2015? 

My first History Revisited column for the Armidale Express for 2015 is already done, and will come out next week. My first Express column appeared in December 2008. Since then I have written over 280 columns, first as Belshaw's World and then History Revisited. I guess that's a fair output considering the many other things that I have written over the period, but it doesn't give me the thing that I most crave, the physical feel of a book in my hand! Nor, in fact, does it ensure that my writing is preserved in some way for later use. 

I know that it's egotistical, but none of my main blogs have been classified as worthy of permanent retention by the Australian National Library Trove project. They survive only as long as blogger survives. So I have to think about how to best make my writing accessible now while preserving the best of it for the longer term. 

Looking at my book projects, I find that I have actually been making progress. At some point this year, I am going to have to select one, but not now. The target, I guess, is just to have one 2015 publication. So my targets for 2015 turn out to be almost the same as 2014, beat my daughters at tennis, complete one book!

 Interesting to watch youngest, Clare's, writing progress. She is miles in front of where I was at the same age. Her blog, A good whine, has only just been updated, but her main writing is for The Australia Times - Games Magazine, and Media Hype101.Interesting having a daughter who writes on such different topics. It introduces me to new areas, but also creates a mild competitive rivalry! I suspect that's good for both of us.


Friday, January 02, 2015

Mr Abbott’s Great Wall of Australia

Daily Telegraph

Neil Whitfield rightly pointed to the insanity of the Sydney Daily Telegraph front page.  There is evil among us and it’s called  The Daily Telegraph!

I doubt that the paper will be greatly concerned at my views, but it may be worthwhile spelling out the reasons for my own position.

History, what we discover as the present recedes into the past, is a great corrective. Throughout the 1950s into the 1980s, the left denied that the USSR spied in Australia. It is now clear that the USSR did.

In both the First and Second World Wars, the Australian Government interned what were defined as enemy aliens. The broad sweep of the laws, regulations and policies swept up many innocents. Now we apologise. We do so knowing that Government responses at the time had little practical impact on the war Australia was fighting. They were an emotional response to a what-if, a perceived danger.

By contrast, Malcolm Fraser’s decision to admit mass migration of Vietnamese boat people is now generally seen as a courageous decision based on principle. It was also a decision that has had, apparently at least, no negative impacts for Australia beyond settlement costs. Indeed, it is seen as having over-whelming positive results.

This is the new Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

I have no idea whether or not the photo was taken to show him in firm, even dour, pose. That’s possible. Still, he was just announcing the militarisation of  Australia’s custom service. I quote:

In his first announcement as Immigration Minister this week, Mr Dutton said customs officers would be able to carry guns and personal protection equipment at all Australian airports. The decision, which came into effect on Wednesday, was made to ensure officers could be resPeter Dutton as Immigration Ministerpond to a number of potential "border-related threats" across an "evolving transnational crime and national security environment".

"The government is committed to ensuring that the future Australian Border Force is as well trained and well equipped as possible, to ensure that the public is protected from the range of new and emerging threats our nation faces at the border," a spokesman for Mr Dutton said.

This emphasis on new and emerging threats is part of an evolving pattern, not one I like. The Australian Federal Police are armed. Previously, they were there to act in situations requiring the use of force. Now Australia has a new para-military organisation to provide additional protections.

immigration Department Secretary Pezzulo described the new role in this way. "I prefer”, he said, “to see borders in a very different way. I see them as mediating between the imperatives of the global order, with its bias towards the flow of people, goods, capital, data and knowledge, and the inherent territoriality and capacity for exclusion which comes with state sovereignty."

Mmm. If I read this correctly, the Australian Border Force has become the Great Wall of Australia, a device to protect the country from invading hordes. By all accounts, former Immigration Minister in the Howard Government Philip Ruddock was a humane man. Yet he is likely to be forever tarnished by some of the inhumane things that happened on his watch as he tried to enforce the policy of the Howard Government.

This is not an argument for open borders. It’s just a comment on policy and historical dynamics.

I do not feel safer for all the current rhetoric on border protection or the threats of terrorism. Just the opposite. I don’t think that terrorism is a significant threat to Australia as compared too, for example, death by shark attack or poisoned food in a local  cafe. I am far more likely to be killed by the second. However, I cannot help being affected by the rhetoric. Worse, I am worried about the solutions to the perceived threat. Both make me feel less secure when I walk the streets. Statistically, the chances of being shot and killed by a police officer because of an error on my part are far greater than my chances of dying in a terrorist attack.

Ah well. Time to move on.