Personal Reflections

Monday, January 17, 2022

Personal reflections on the tent embassy


Activist and actor Bob Maza addresses a protest at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in front of Parliament House on July 30, 1972. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

A piece by Bronwyn Carlson and Lynda-June Coe in the Conversation, A short history of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy – an indelible reminder of unceded sovereignty, took my mind back.

The Tent Embassy began on 26 January 1972. I was working in Treasury at the time, just across from the Embassy. I frequently walked past it on my walks or when visiting Parliament House. The thing that stands out in my memory now is that I had no idea of its significance. There was a total void between me and the Embassy, a void of ignorance. 

Growing up in Armidale, there were very few Aboriginal people. The big influx began about 1956 with in-migration, leading to the creation of an Aboriginal camp on the town dump. I remember that, I remember the creation of the reserve, the last created by the old Aboriginal Welfare Board. I remember the construction of new galvanised homes leading to the application of the name Silver City. I remember some of the activities carried out through Chirch and University groups to try to improve conditions. I knew some of the older families by name. I even knew some Aboriginal history up to the European invasion and had read anthropological and historical studies. I had heard a young Charles Perkins speak to UNE students at a crowded UNE Union meeting. And yet I knew nothing about certain key aspects of Aboriginal history post 1788.

At the time, discussion on Aboriginal issues tended to be dominated on one side by Northern Australia, on the other by the emerging interest in massacres and frontier violence. I already knew a little about the second, but there was nothing on post frontier warfare Aboriginal history in NSW and especially in Northern NSW where my particular interests lay. 

In 1966 when I read Malcolm Calley's thesis on the Bandjalung I was interested and surprised by the continued existence of Aboriginal culture including language, but I had no context to set that into. 

It would be a number of years before my own research started to paint a picture, more years before I actually met a large number of Aboriginal people through my work with the NSW Aboriginal Housing Office. And yet, even now, I don't think that we have a basic foundation text on Aboriginal history at least so far as NSW is concerned. I think that's a problem.  

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Covid woes - virtual lockdowns

 My 4 January post, Covid woes - further failures in public policy, provided a personal perspective on what I saw as the growing mess that Australian covid policy had become. Two pieces in the Conversation provide a further perspective:

Last year, the term stroll-out was added to the Australian lexicon to describe the early stages of the vaccine roll-out in the country. Now we have virtual lockdown, the idea that current Government measures have created the same effect as previous physical lockdowns. Our leaders wanted to open up, but in bungling the approach they have effectively closed or at least slowed both economic and social activities. 

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Covid woes - further failures in public policy

2021 saw the lowest number of posts on this blog since it began. That downturn is reflected across across all my writing. It's not just covid, although that has been a very major factor.

One of the most difficult things about this pandemic has been the uncertainty, uncertainty accentuated by constant shifts in rules and regulations and in advice further compounded by lack of transparency. Now I feel that the wheels have come off in no uncertain fashion. Covid cases have exploded, testing systems are collapsing, our health staff at all levels are exhausted, contact tracing is overwhelmed, the need for workers to quarantine has affected production at all levels, the pressures are forcing daily changes in the interacting rules between jurisdictions, while jurisdictions have stopped providing information that we used to rely on. .

I need to write a proper policy piece on all this. For the moment, I want to make a few short comments from a personal perspective. 

The decision by the new NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet to abolish restrictions in NSW in a single swoop rather than a more staged testing way has been an unmitigated disaster, one that has actually had the opposite effects that he intended. Life including economic activity has actually become more difficult, not easier. It's not all his fault. The now abolished Queensland requirement that people must undergo PCR tests before entering Queensland added something like a third to the load of an already overstretched NSW testing system, while decisions at Federal level that rendered the supply of booster shots unprofitable for GPs and pharmacies reduced supply availability just at the time that rule changes increased demand.

Both Premier Perrottet and Prime Minister Morrison talk about individual responsibility. In fact, the interacting changes have had the opposite effect. 

I visited one of the local shopping centres the day that both masks and QR code registration ceased to be mandatory. Less than 10% of customers, perhaps 20% of staff, had masks on. I think that people just suddenly relaxed. As covid cases spread across Northern NSW including Armidale, mask wearing came back before it and QR check-ins became mandatory once more. 

The spread in cases coincided with changes to the information provided by NSW Health and by Hunter New England Health. Information on cases is now restricted to local government areas, while the previous venue information is no longer provided. Instead, we are meant to rely on notifications from Service NSW to warn us, notifications that have struggled as the contact tracing system came under increasing strain. 

I have received one such notification informing me that on 13 December I had signed into Tamworth Base Hospital on or around the same time as a covid infected person and that I should monitor for symptoms and get tested if they emerged.. Oddly, I was visiting someone in Tamworth sitting by their bed when I received the notification. Because I hadn't seen it before, I asked the doctors who were present about the notice. We discussed it briefly. Later they actually came back to see me to find out more since they had not heard about the case, but by then I had driven back to Armidale. 

The next day when I drove to Tamworth I was not allowed to enter the hospital because a code red had been declared across all NSW hospitals barring visitors, so I drove back to Armidale. I was annoyed. Apparently, it had come into effect at 5pm the night before, but communications about the matter had been poor among staff and patients. Patients had not been told, so could not alert visitors. This was happening as the mask/QR rules were relaxed. Later, a code yellow was apparently declared as the hospital struggled to manage the combined effects of covid and other workload. This included at least one covid case among staff in the ward I had been visiting. All patients were covid tested, while staff were forced into full protective equipment. 

I have not needed to have a covid test myself, which is just as well since PCR testing facilities were limited over the Christmas break, while delays in getting results increased  We have all been told to use home based rapid antigen tests (RAT) in place of or in combination with PCR tests. This came as PCR tests including those mandated by Queensland for entry to the state (negative test no later than 72 hours before entry, adding about a third to the NSW testing load) buckled. The replacement of RAT tests for PCR had the inevitable effect of exploding demand for RAT tests that could not be met from available supply. Many of the FB groups that I am a member of and not just in Armidale have been full of requests for information about availability of both PCR and RAT tests not just for people who want to travel but also to meet occupational requirements and health concerns. 

As an aside, and this bears upon the question of individual responsibility, youngest and her partner live in Lake Macquarie where case numbers are relatively high, while Adrian runs a cellar door that has stayed open. They both visited Sydney for Christmas, while Clare visited me after Christmas. They were able to obtain supplies of RAT tests earlier in December and have used them, for example, to test before going to Sydney and after coming  home. That is a case of individual responsibility, but you can only do it if you have access to the tests and can afford to buy them. PCR tests are free, but RAT tests have to be purchased. 

Much stress is now being placed upon booster shots. My second shot was 19 July. When the time requirement for booster shots was cut from six to five months, I became eligible for a booster on 19 December. However, the time requirement for boosters was then cut further from five to four months with a further cut to three months to come in later, Meantime, vaccination for kids aged 5-11 comes into effect from January. So we have a very large boost in demand, Vaccines are available, but the logistics of actually getting them to people has become a real issue. I was not able to get my booster shot before Christmas and will now have to scrabble to find a place with some places not taking bookings until early February.

I am very happy to take individual responsibility, but it's hard to do so when information is restricted, when PCR tests are under strain, when RAT tests are expensive or not available and the availability of boosters uncertain. My mood was not helped by NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard's comment that we all had to accept that we were all going to get the omicron variant. Thank you. /

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Kitchen Garden

 I was flaneuring around Mosman, one of those leafy North Shore Sydney suburbs. looking at architecture and the pattern of life. The thing I most noticed was the absence of kitchen gardens. Houses had grown and gardens shrunk to mere decoration or, at best, extensions of indoor living. My mind was cast back…..

 In January 1885, Albert Wright purchased Kangaroo Hills, now Wongwibinda, in the Falls country east of Armidale. It had all been done in a rush.

They had been living at Nulalbin outside Rockhampton. The year before eldest son Bertie had died after a lingering illness. The death came as a shock, and Albert and wife May decided that they must find a home in a more temperate climate.

They left Nulalbin in December 1884 for Bickham, a Wright family home in the Hunter Valley. In early January Albert went north, buying Kangaroo Hills on the spot. At end January, the whole family shifted to the new property.

Establishing the kitchen garden

One of Albert’s first acts was to plant a large vegetable garden near the new house being built for his family. This was a common pattern on properties, for the kitchen garden and associated fruit trees were critical to the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a day’s ride to Armidale, so you could hardly buy there on a daily basis.

In town, people had more choices. Even so, most people had vegetable gardens, while much of the fruit and vegetables they might buy were grown locally. The Chinese market gardeners with their plots spread along the local creek were once a common feature in most Northern towns, part of the often unrecognised Chinese thread in the history of New England dating from the later 1840s.

There was much emphasis on the importance of the home garden for financial, health and indeed aesthetic reasons. The CWA (Country Women's Association) cookery book, long a kitchen bible, put it this way:

Home is not a Home without a garden. Plant one, and it will repay you.

Every wise housewife knows the value of the kitchen garden. It is a money saver, and a pleasure at all times. Nearly all vegetables are of easy culture. All soup vegetables should be grown at home. It is a great comfort to slip out and cut your own home requirements in your own back yard.

Digressing, Masterchef has been a popular Australian cooking show in which contestants compete by cooking particular dishes for judgement by an expert panel. Back in 2010, the challenge set for contestants in one show was to cook certain recipes from the CWA cookbook - scones, lamingtons, jam, a fruit cake - and then serve to 100 CWA ladies. An experienced CWA judge critiqued their efforts.

I was watching it with my family. Now we knew the CWA pretty well and had eaten a lot of country cooking. My then wife also learned to bake from her nan. I guess because of all this, we had a feel as to what might happen.

These contestants had cooked in challenge after challenge, managing often complicated dishes that I could never cook. There had been individual failures, but overall the results had been good. This time, with few exceptions, they bombed. It's just not as easy as it seems.

As the contest proceeded, I noticed that eldest had got out the cookbook I had given her. “I feel like scones”, she explained. Mixing bowls and ingredients appeared on the coffee table. With guidance from her mum, the process continued.

After the show finished, we discussed it over scones, blackberry jam and whipped cream. Our feeling was CWA 8, Masterchef 2. I digressed, but they were nice scones!

Developing a proper home garden was not always an easy task. At Kangaroo Hills, the spring of 1885 was a very good one. Albert planted onions, cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, beans and fruit trees. Then came a sudden frost: “It seems useless”, a dispirited Albert wrote, “to try to grow anything in such a climate.” Nevertheless, he persevered, learning from experience.

Albert’s problems were not unusual. New England is marked by great variation in soils, temperature and rainfall from coastal subtropical to high country to semi-arid. The new settlers had to learn what would grow best, how to grow it. In many places, water had to be carefully rationed. Nevertheless, they persevered and finally succeeded. They learned how to create micro-climates through location, wind-breaks and walls. They also learned when to plant things to best effect..

Managing the kitchen garden

A reasonable size home garden could be a complex operation involving all the family. Herbs - lavender, thyme, marjoram, mint, sage, parsley and rosemary - were usually grown near the back door so that they could be easily picked for domestic purposes.

Further out were the vegetables grown in cycles depending on the growing season. Standard vegetables included onions, carrots, potatoes, peas and beans, sweet corn, pumpkins, lettuce, sometimes garlic although its use was then less common, cabbages, cauliflower, tomatoes, lettuce, silver beet, beetroot, parsnips and turnips. The compost heaps could normally be found near the vegetable garden, carefully maintained to provide a steady stream of compost to the changing beds.

The garden nearly always included vines and fruit trees. And then there were the flowers grown for decoration and to supply cut flowers to the house. Mum loved her flowers. She would go out with a basket and secateurs, bringing flowers back to the kitchen table (the working centre of the house) for shaping to fit the vases.

The exact mix of garden plants varied across New England depending on the soil and climate. In the case of our home garden - a large cool climate garden - there were the ubiquitous grape vines, three apricot trees, a rather superb plum tree, an apple tree, a fig tree, gooseberries, red and black currants, strawberries and raspberries as well as flowers and lots of vegetables. Sometimes In the mornings I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves off the shelf made with the Fowlers Vacola outfit. This was stored in the garage for use during the flush times for various local fruits. I loved the black cherries.

 Many gardens also contained a chook (poultry) yard providing fresh eggs and the sometimes fowl for dinner. In our case, the chook yard had high wire fences enclosing a properly constructed hen house with laying boxes plus a large area for the hens to roam.

Even in town, many families maintained a milker to provide milk, cream and butter. Staying at Glenroy, my aunt and uncle’s property at Kentucky south of Armidale, we used to get up early to go with Uncle Ron to see the cow milked. The milk would be brought back in a bucket and then heated gently to raise the cream that would be collected and used to make butter. In Armidale, mum would sometimes send us out to get fresh milk that came from a cow a few blocks away.

There was a clear division of labour within the garden. Prof (we all called him Prof when talking about and sometimes to him; earlier he had been called Doc by locals) was in charge of the main garden, digging the beds, planting, clearing weeds and collecting produce for the kitchen, mowing the lawns and splitting wood to feed the fires, In these roles he was assisted by old Mr Wallace who came in one morning a week.

 As children we were fascinated by Mr Wallace. He told us stories about clearing the Dorrigo scrub for timber and to open the way for farms; he told us about bank crashes and showed us an old bank note from a now defunct bank; he also explained the evils of the papacy.

Mr Wallace believed that there was a papist plot to take over the world. While leaning on his shovel, he discoursed on the wickedness of Rome, the Pope and his cardinals. We had no idea what a papist was and only a vague idea of Rome’s location. Today, it is difficult for Australians to understand the depth of the sectarian divisions that marked much of Australia’s history, although conspiracy theories remain well entrenched.

Prof’s garden duties also included collecting the manure from the chook yard and distributing it across the garden beds or to feed multiple compost heaps. He was also responsible for trimming the hens’ wings to stop them flying, for collecting eggs and for preparation of the older birds for the table. This involved catching the bird and then chopping its head off on a chopping block kept for the purpose. This led the bird to run round in circles, something captured in the Australian phrase to run round like a headless chook (or chicken) meaning activity carried out in an uncontrolled or disorganised way without purpose. The bird was then plucked and its innards removed before it was ready for cooking.

This was not the only time that we saw animals killed for food. Apart from rabbits shot or trapped, some of my friends made their pocket money from trapping rabbits for supply to the local freezer, we also watched sheep being slaughtered for house meat on Glenroy, An older ewe near the end of its wool growing life was selected. This was then killed by a knife through the mouth into the brain. The animal was then gutted and skinned before being hung up for butchering.

As children, we took all this for granted. Today when I think of killing hens, sheep or the goats I I would quite like to keep, I feel a little squeamish. Our meat now comes neatly packaged. The actual act of killing seems remote, far removed, sanitised. I have to remind myself that it is part of life.

With the passage of time, maintenance of the chook yard became too time-consuming for our father. The chooks were removed, leaving the yard as part of our playground.

Harvest Time

The reliance on locally produced produce created a pattern of seasonal gluts and shortages. As children we knew every fruit tree in the immediate area, knew when they were coming into fruit. We also picked and ate from the garden, new peas, tomatoes, fresh beans and little cucumbers. No problem in getting children to eat fruit or vegetables.  Somehow things that we picked ourselves were just that much more satisfying.

For adults, hard work was involved. When produce was plentiful, people bottled, preserved or prepared for storage in cool, dry, dark places. It wasn’t just produce from the home garden. Fruit and vegetables now in abundant supply and therefore cheap were also purchased or given by relatives or friends. There was a considerable bottling ritual, a production process. The bottles were sterilised, the fruit cooked, the tomato relish made, the jams created, providing a steady stream of produce for the rest of the year. Some of the tastes were wonderful. Many of us would kill today for a jar of Aunt Kay’s tomato relish!

There have been many changes in Australian diet over the decades, changes that partially reflect changing fashions and the availability of food stuffs but also the tools available for cooking. Cooks have always had to match what they can do to the available equipment.

In our case, we had a substantial fuel stove that not only provided constant hot water but a substantial range of cooking options. It could be a bit cranky; you had to be able to judge the temperature, but that came with experience. The firebox was on the right. The temperature of the whole stove could be controlled by varying the intensity of the fire through a combination of fuel and dampers. The hot air from the fuel box ran along the top of the stove to the chimney on the left.

A hot plate ran the length of the stove with heat gradually diminishing towards the chimney. This allowed food to be cooked and then moved to a cooler place to set or stay warm. The ever present kettle could be moved from the left of the stove to the hotter right where it quickly boiled. The oven was on the left with a warming oven below, allowing food to be kept warm or plates to be warmed before serving.

Armidale can be warm in summer, cold in winter, In summer, the kitchen could be warm indeed with the stove adding to outside heat, leaving mum hot and sweaty. In winter, the stove came into its own drawing people into the kitchen warmth. This gave rise to the New England flick as the girls stood with their back to the stove, flicking up their skirts to allow the heat to circulate.  

Having harvested, we ate. The food we ate was influenced by what we had in the garden, what had already been harvested and stored, the more limited foods available locally in the grocery stores, butchers and greengrocers.

The standard main meal was two courses, three for bigger meals. The central dish was a meat dish presented in different ways usually with two to three vegetables drawn from the garden. Growing up in sheep country, sheep meat was a staple. Beef, the major meat across Australia, was less common because it was more expensive, chicken less common still. This was followed by a desert often of bottled fruit, sometimes with fresh cream. In some cases soup preceded the main meal.

The exact mix of meals depended on what was available. Soups, stews and casseroles were common because these made best use of available produce. I still love the taste of fresh field mushrooms, of rich casserole sauces.

There was great variety in homemade soups. Some soups like chicken, often made from the remains of a bird previously killed, were relatively light, as were the beef broths served to invalids. Some soups were major meals in their own right, served with crusty bread.

Today we waste much food. The earlier cook-books had many recipes to take advantage of left-overs. There were good, practical, reasons for this. Food took a much higher proportion of family income than it does today.

The roast chook became soup, the vegetables went into bubble and squeak, the roast lamb or beef was minced for a new dish. I still miss the cast iron hand-mincer I inherited from my parents. I don’t know what happened to its innards, they went missing in one of our many moves. It was actually much more efficient (and easier to clean) than modern devices.

The pattern with other meals was a little different. Breakfast was generally a bigger meal than it is today. As children, we normally had porridge or wheat bix with hot milk followed by a hot dish, often bacon or some form of eggs or, more rarely steak. For a period modelling my Scottish grandfather,  I ate my porridge with salt and cream. Later when things were busier, I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves of the shelf or from the fridge and have it with cream.

Lunch, by contrast, was far more pedestrian depending on just what we were doing. In fact, lunch did not have a clear pattern because it varied so much depending on the main mea.. On Sundays then, as indeed now, lunch was often a roast dinner. The Sunday roast remains an enduring tradition in many Australian households. Where, as in this case, lunch was actually dinner, tea was a relatively light meal.

There were then no school canteens, nor were there the bars and other convenience snacks that today dominate the supermarket shelves. School lunches were sandwiches, a piece of fruit, often a piece of cake, and a drink. Looking back at some of the reminiscences from the 1950s, the memory of soggy tomato sandwiches seems to be a constant theme!

There were other meals and snacks, of course. The pattern here varied from family to family depending on income and taste.Then, as now, busy parents sometimes resorted to the very quick and easy. This was where tinned food came in handy. Tinned spaghetti or baked beans on buttered toast or tinned soups with bread fingers were common choices.

A Child’s playground

From a kid's perspective, one of the greatest things about the home garden was the way it provided trees to climb, places to hide, spots to dig in or to build camp fires. We were expert in fires, how to start them in the best way, how to build fireplaces. Potatoes cooked in the ashes were eaten, charcoal and all, with butter with the melting butter running down fingers. Nostalgia!

Beyond home, we also had access to our grand parents’ garden just a block away at 89 Mann Street, a large Federation style house. This was a much bigger garden.

Mann Street is one of Armidale’s grander streets, As the small city expanded, local businessmen, professionals and graziers started to build bigger houses on South Hill, first in Barney, then Brown and finally Mann Street. These houses were on big blocks looking north down to the shopping centre and then Dumaresq Creek, the small creek wandering through the centre of the town.

The blocks were large, often including stables, servant’s quarters, chook pens and cow byres for the milking cows, These features have disappeared now with subdivision, but Barney, Brown and Mann Street remain the heart of the Victorian city that is still one of Armidale’s architectural treasures.

Unusually, 89 was built from weatherboard rather than the more normal Armidale blue brick. The front of the house with its sweeping steps faced Dumaresq Creek. The back of the house with its formal garden and pine trees faced Mann Street. With time, this original distinction between back and front became confused. To us and indeed all visitors, the old back was now the front, the old front the back. It would be years before I discovered the reason

There were two garages facing Mann Street, one on each side of the block. At the Northern back (front!) of the house’ a hedge divided the main garden from the back yard. Beyond the hedge lay the tennis court, the kitchen garden and the old cow byre now incorporated in the chook yard. Our kelpie Rover used to love herding the chooks. He would divide them into two groups based on breed and then sit panting in the middle between the groups, satisfied with his efforts. For a period, there were also a few sheep really kept for sentimental purposes.

With the exception of the tennis court, we rarely went beyond the dividing hedge because this part of the garden was less interesting. From a young age, our grandfather and aunts taught us to play tennis using wooden rackets dating back to the 1930s. I have dreadful hand-eye coordination, but with practice became a reasonably competent player.

Mann Street was especially good for hide and seek because of its sheer size. The pedestals at the base of the front stairs acted as home base. The objective was to get there before the person who was in and then count 1.2,3 home. My favourite hiding spot was the roof of one of the garages where I could see the whole yard and thus sneak down to get to home first.

Our particular friends were the Halpin twins who lived half a block away. Father Bruce was a director of Richardson’s, the local departmental store, while mother Vee was a long standing friend of mum’s. We spent much time with them in our respective gardens and roaming the streets.

Growing up, my daughters loved the story of the three morning teas. We would start at 202 Marsh Street for the first, then to the Halpins for our second, finishing up at Mann Street for the third. 

The kitchen garden’s decline

The kitchen garden has been in sad decline. The gardening folk memories that we used to absorb from our parents have also declined as a consequence. The decline began slowly and then accelerated during the busy 1980s.

Walking around Armidale or Queanbeyan during the 1970s,you would still see kitchen gardens everywhere. Queanbeyan, the NSW town just across the border from the Australian Capital Territory where I was then living, was a fascinating place with a large immigrant community that had come to work on the Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme or on the building of Canberra. They brought with them farming and gardening techniques from Eastern and Southern Europe where the home garden had been a way of life. This was industrial scale kitchen gardening where the garden and associated livestock provided much of the food over the year.

It also provided the base for a range of home-made alcohols that could be a real trap if you were involved in local politics as I was at the time. That one drink for hospitality purposes could extend and be repeated on calls elsewhere, creating a degree of unsteadiness by the end of that day’s visits.

By 2000, the decline in the kitchen garden was largely complete. Many things contributed to that collapse. Neighbours and councils began to object to the noise and smells associated with the garden, including the omnipresent hens. Blocks became smaller, flats or townhouses more common. More people rented. The supermarkets brought a wider range of cheaper foodstuffs, reducing the incentive to garden. Time became more precious as two income families tried to balance the demands of more complex lives.

Can the kitchen garden come back? I think not, although the increased interest in sustainability and the rise in community gardens do hold out some hope. The difficulty is that these things appeal to particular niche views and lifestyles whereas the old kitchen garden was an integral element in normal life. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Covid blues on "freedom day".

Monday 11 October 2021 was "Freedom Day" in Greater Sydney. In our case it's Restriction Day since the new rules actually restrict some freedoms we had Sunday.   A newspaper colleague commented: "It's a nightmare trying to keep up with these rules, which keep changing." 

That's true. I only realised the impact of the new changes on 6 October and then spent days trying to clarify the rules and their implications for the community activities I was engaged in. After multiple emails and phone conversations plus a rule clarification at the weekend, I think that we have come to a landing point although ambiguities remain. While I think that my involvement was  helpful to me and others, it also represented another set of lost days.

A friend commented how hard she had found it to concentrate on her PhD. I have found the same dragging effect on my writing. We both know that it shouldn't matter, we should be able to closet ourselves to focus on our work, but it has. Somehow, telling myself to start writing, to get on with it, doesn't work! Ah well, sad face.

I'm sure that we will do better. There has been some fascinating stuff happening. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Saturday Morning Musings - usage of the term liberal democracies


‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’  Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947

This hard to read image from Google Ngam shows the use of the term liberal democracies in books from 1860 to the present, You can see can see how little the term was used in the past. There was an acceleration during the Second World War and then usage just jogged along before an exponential acceleration during the 1980s. Usage then stabilised before exploding again in the 2000s.  

According to Wikipedia, the term has a long history, but it's also one that I have rarely used. For most of my life I have referred just to democracy with a special focus on parliamentary democracy. Occasionally I have referred to Western democracies, but a search on the blog shows that I have used the term liberal democracies just once in several thousand posts and then in passing. 

No doubt this reveals that I am out of touch. I went to Wikipedia to review the term and was surprised somewhat at the analysis. I felt that the term had become an ideological label whose meaning was in fact uncertain and indeed confusing. 

I then did the Ngam analysis just to check usage, This suggested that the increased usage of the term has been directly bound up with particular events. I'm not sure where I go with this. I just wanted to record the information.   


Monday, August 23, 2021

Covid - when everything is local

 I have written about the ways in which changing boundaries and administrative structures affect perceptions and rules in often perverse ways. These issues are much on my mind as I sit here in covid regulated Armidale. I could wish that we had our own New England state since this would have given us greater protection and control. We don't, so I want to focus on more localised issues. 

Let me start with a Sydney example before becoming totally parochial. As part of its local government restructuring, the Sydney Government merged two councils to form Bayside City Council. The southern council, Botany Bay, was separated by Sydney Airport and had nothing in common with the southern portions of Bayside.  Now all of Bayside is counted as a high risk area because of cases in the south that have little to do with the old Botany Bay Council area. 

To take a Northern example, when Armidale Regional Council was put into lockdown, Guyra was included in the lockdown while the much closer centre of Uralla was not because it was a different local government area. The changes based on LGA boundaries actually made no sense. 

 Becoming totally parochial. the everchanging rules applied to Armidale have become confusing and difficult. I am reasonably bright, but I struggle to understand them When I do understand them, I find that I object.

When the first lockdown rules were applied as the virus first spread so long ago, there was a gathering together. Many stores such as garden centres and craft stores remained open, People turned to home activities, to gardening, to house repairs, all things that could be done at home. Local businesses organised special deliveries. In a way, it now seems like a golde4n age. 

This time, things are different., 

Stores are shut. It is hard to acquire things whether it be craft, printers ink or furniture, My partner wanted to acquire some wool to knit a scarf. Last time we went into town to get the wool. This time we had to order two balls of wool. They came with a long delay plus a thirteen dollar delivery charge.I need to buy ink, but the normal places are shut. 

The rules state that only one person can go shopping.The shared shopping experiences are no longer possible even where people are living in the same household.  

The distance rules are confusing,  My partner has bought a new house.We need to do new things before we move in. I have checked. It's just within the five k limit from our current place. Can we go there together?  I think that we can. The house is vacant. We can treat it as exercise, but the police are stopping people and I don't know. 

There are no covid cases within hundreds of k of Armidale. Our risks lie in transmission from elsewhere. And yet we suffer,  

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Saigon, Afghanistan and the West's decline?

The sudden collapse of the Afghanistan Government in the face of the Taliban offensive took me by surprise. I am old enough to remember the fall of Saigon in the face of the North Vietnamese offensive and the chaotic scenes that followed. President Biden's suggestion that Afghanistan could not be compared to that fall was frankly risible. 

There was another similarity as well. As South Vietnam was falling, the then Whitlam Government resisted calls calls to bring to Australia those who had supported Australian troops. At the time I was involved with a small group in Canberra seeking to bring people to Australia. My involvement was peripheral, writing to Ian Sinclair whom I had known for many years to seek his support, but I remember the atmosphere very clearly if not all the details. This time the Morrison Government was prepared to take some action, but became so tied up in red tape of its own making that action was too little and too late. 

Of all the various events, the evacuation of the Bagram airbase stands out in my mind as a symbol of just went wrong. This base, the main US base in Afghanistan, seems to have been abandoned without any plan or attempt to transfer effective control to the Afghani Government. It added to a picture of a chaotic withdrawal that effectively undercut the authority of a Government already under pressure. That Government's authority had previously been undermined by decisions taken by the Trump administration that effectively treated the Government in Kabul as a cipher.  Maybe a total Taliban victory was inevitable, but the actions followed by the US and its allies including Australia accelerated the process, creating chaos. 

What will come now? I have no clear answer. The Taliban claims to have changed, although the same religious and ideological elements are still there. Afghanistan itself has changed, especially in the cities. The new Taliban Government still in the process of formation faces some difficult challenges. I suppose my feeling is that pragmatism will temper ideology to some degree.

I think that the biggest problem from a Western perspective is the damage done to the reputation of the West. Many will see it as another symbol of the West's decline. Only time will tell if those views are correct. 


kvd pointed me to this piece Farewell to Bourgeois Kings. It's an interesting read although it mixes different things together. I have listed it here because I thought that it may interest readers and also may wish to reference it later.  


Sunday, August 01, 2021

Covid issues and confusions 1 - the Vaccination communications mess

"I don't want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got COVID, probably wouldn't die. 

"We have had very few deaths due to COVID-19 in Australia in people under the age of 50 and wouldn't it be terrible that our first 18-year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic, died because of the vaccine. 

Queensland's Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young 

On 3 July 2021 in Confusions over AstraZeneca I commented on confusions in the Australian vaccination advice and processes. I included this quote from Queensland's Chief Health Officer attacking the PM's suggestion that younger Australians should access AstraZeneca subject to doctor's advice.  

Dr Young could not have foreseen the Delta variant, but her emotional reaction helped create an environment where people continue to resist the now widely available AstraZeneca vaccine. This holds even among older Australians where the vaccine is recommended. I know this from my own contact network. It also appears more strongly among culturally and linguistically distinct where clear messaging in language is very important.  

Governments, especially the NSW Government, are now trying to encourage people to use AstraZeneca subject to doctor's advice on their personal situation. This actually mirrors advice previously provided. I haven't checked the statistics, but the raw numbers suggest that the number of younger Australians who have been hospitalised or died  from covid already  exceeds the statistical risks from AstraZeneca side effects. They also show that vaccinated Australians who do become infected are far less likely to suffer severe effects. 

Young people are already opting with their feet to get AstraZeneca recognising that vaccination is the only path that will allow them to resume a normal life. Meantime, there is one plus in all this. The AstraZeneca surplus is allowing us to provide more vaccines to out neighbours!   

Friday, July 09, 2021

NAIDOC Week 2021 - reflections on the meaning of Country


My Country. Gordon Smith, Stormy Morning

The theme of this year's NAIDOC Week is Heal Country. The NAIDOC web site describes is in this way:

The NAIDOC 2021 theme – Heal Country! – calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.

Country that is more than a place and inherent to our identity.

Country that we speak about like a person, sustaining our lives in every aspect - spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, and culturally.

NAIDOC 2021 invites the nation to embrace First Nations’ cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage and equally respect the culture and values of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders as they do the cultures and values of all Australians.

For generations we have been calling for stronger measures to recognise, protect, and maintain all aspects of our culture and heritage.

We are still waiting for those robust protections.

This year’s theme also seeks substantive institutional, structural, and collaborative reform – something generations of our Elders and communities have been advocating, marching and fighting for.

Healing Country means finally resolving many of the outstanding injustices which impact on the lives of our people.

It is about hearing and actioning the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples which are the culmination of generations of consultation and discussions among our nations on a range of issues and grievances.    

In a way, this description is confusing because it mixes together a number of different things. In this post, I want to concentrate one thing, the sense of Country. 

                                My Country. Julia Griffin Rain on the Uralla Road

I once tried to explain the difference between the Aboriginal perspective and that of the new European settlers in this way: to the Aboriginal peoples, the present was an extension of a living past, to the Europeans, a point towards a still to be defined but hoped for future. The Aboriginal perspective was carried through in various kinship systems that effectively integrated the natural and human environment by placing plant, animal and physical features within kinship systems. 

The modern Aboriginal idea of Country and connection to Country draws from this traditional base although it carries connotations that reflect the  Aboriginal historical experience, including the desire to re-establish and re-assert links to past connections and experiences destroyed by European colonisation. In a way, the idea of Country and healing Country is part of a set of beliefs linked to but independent of the original history, a set of beliefs that has now gained a living presence, creating its own history.

The Celtic Revival provides an example of a similar process in a European environment. This drew in part from historical grievances, in part from a sense of loss, in part from a romanticized version of the past.  In doing so it aimed to recover elements of that past, including language revival. It also incorporated mystical elements drawing from Celtic folklore that have had a huge impact in, among other things, fiction including in fantasy world. The ABC TV series Cleverman (a series I greatly enjoyed) provides an Aboriginal example.

                                    My Country. Gordon Smith Winter Morn 

When I first came across the Aboriginal sense of Country, my instinctive reaction was Yes! because it so exactly mirrored my reactions to the area in which I grew up, which remains my Country today.  Later, when I worked with Aboriginal people, I came to understand why Country was so important to people whose pasts had been so disrupted. Without that contact they were adrift in a way I sometimes felt faced with the destruction of the immediate past and present, with distance from my home, with my inability to do things that might protect, preserve and create. 

Some may argue, and especially those deracinated Australians who have lost connection with place, that the comparisons are not comparable. How can I as an older white male from a middle class background who has gained from the benefits of settler society, from the benefits of dispossession, possibly understand, share? In response, I would argue several things. 

From my experience, there is a thirst among many Australians to establish their own place in their family histories, to link back to the places they and their families have come from, to establish connection with the places they now live. Many, and especially older Australians from regional backgrounds who have moved on but now hark back to their past, share and re-share stories and images from places that were, in their thinking, their own Country. I know all this from my experience as a regional historian, from my participation in groups such as Armidale Families Past and Present. 

In my own case, my mind is filled with experiences, stories and images that now incorporate the deep history of Aboriginal New England however imperfectly. I am a story teller who has ended in the role as preserver of memories. My mind is full of stories. Those stories are all linked in some way to land, to Country.  
To my mind, the Aboriginal concept of Country holds out important possibilities for healing the gap between between Indigenous and non-Indigenous society. In understanding the Aboriginal concept of Country we learn about Aboriginal society and history. We can better support action to heal the past. But we also learn more about our own concepts of Country, about the things that are important to us. 

Sunday, July 04, 2021

NAIDOC Week - reflections on the teaching of Aboriginal history

Aboriginal languages, NSW at the time of European Occupation. In 1788 there were at least 250 Aboriginal languages on the Australian continent incorporating multiple dialects. 

I see that Neil Whitfield has put up his annual post(s) on NAIDOC Week.  The Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC is celebrated not only in Indigenous communities, but by Australians from all walks of life. This year the Week begins today, 4 July.

I am less familiar with NAIDOC Week than I was when working as a contractor for the Aboriginal Housing Office, NAIDOC Week was a major celebration, Now many years later and miles away, my current activities have caused me to reflect on the teaching of Aboriginal history. 

As regular readers will know, I have been teaching a full semester (six month) course on the history of the broader New England. As shown by the map, the study area covers the  New England Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys to the north, south, east and west. This is a large area, larger than many European counties including England, incorporating many sub regions. 

The first part of the course traces the history of Aboriginal New England from out of Africa perhaps 72,000 years ago though to 1788. I deal with the impact pf European occupation including the Aboriginal response in two lectures and then try to incorporate subsequent Aboriginal history as elements in the course.

The course has been more demanding than expected. Last year's course was stopped in its tracks by covid requiring it to be spread over the full year. Then I structured first semester 2021 into two groups with with two discussion groups, a structure based in part on the risk that covid might limit the numbers that could be accommodated in the available space. One result was that I ended up with two full lectures a week plus a discussion session. Now I am planning the the third session restructured again to take covid into account. This will start in a bit under two weeks, 

The numbers involved are not large, This is an adult education course, not a fully credentialed course targeting larger student numbers delivered within the University system. I did trial external delivery via  Facebook group but found that the combination of technical difficulties with my limited time and  skills prevented proper action. Still, by the end of 2021 I expect to have some 80 people completing the introductory course with a core group of perhaps 20 who want to go onto further discussion.

The participant reaction to the Aboriginal segments has been interesting. Almost universally, people have liked the story from out of Africa to 1788 because I am telling a story that they have never heard, one informed by new scientific discoveries that throw sudden light on a deep past, Nearly everybody wants this section to be much longer as we try to explore some of the changing detail of Aboriginal history and life. 

The Serpentine stone arrangements east of Armidale are one of the major Aboriginal ceremonial sites 

Having completed the story of Aboriginal New England I turn to European settlement sketching the penal and pastoral periods ignoring the impacts on Aboriginal peoples. I chose this route because it seemed to me that you needed to understand the pattern of European occupation before you could understand how it affected the Aborigines. When I do address the impact of European occupation people have some knowledge of the long Aboriginal history as well as the patterns and drivers of the settler arrival, 

 I also try to focus on the Aboriginal response.  To my mind, this makes it easier to understand just what happened. In teaching. I try to avoid the current focus on massacres. I do so a number of reasons. 

To begin with, a massacre focus is both contested and also largely ignores the multiple factors involved including disease and destruction of habitat.  It also treats the Aborigines as passive victims rather than people with agency responding to events that they could not directly control but did respond to as best they could. Presented objectively, it leads people to a sense of shock. It also lies the base for the later treatment of Aboriginal history. Herein lies a problem if we think of Aboriginal history after colonisation as uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now, hopefully, recovery. 

The key problem from  my viewpoint lies in the absence of current writing that I can draw from.  As a general historian writing on a particular area, I necessarily have to rely on secondary sources, I can only do so much original research. There is enough material to allow me to sketch some of the history including key events, but not enough to present a proper synthesis.

This deserves a separate post at some point.

While useful, most national histories suffer because they are based on generalisations, focused on particular key events, The problem here is that Aboriginal history is local, family, regional and jurisdiction based. Only when you have looked at this level can you generate a proper national perspective. And here we have too few regional or jurisdiction studies. 

I try to teach history in an objective way, based on the evidence that I have. Of course, I have my own biases. 

When I look at Aboriginal history post British settlement including especially the attitudes of the best intentioned members of European society, I find myself myself shaking my head and saying "how could you believe that?!"  Too a substantial degree, the worst damage has been done not by the usual suspects but by those who really wanted to make a difference. I suspect that this may be true today. 

When I present post frontier events including the role of prejudice I find my class shaking their heads in shock. When I present evidence showing how far the Aboriginal peoples have come from disaster I have found the same reaction. This leads me to my final point. 

As a non-Aboriginal person teaching elements of Aboriginal history, I constantly strike trouble. Many, non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal, believe that Aboriginal history  can only be taught by Aboriginal people. 

I do not accept that view. As I reflect on NAIDOC week, I would like to think that my history teaching makes a difference, one that will contribute to our share future.    

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Confusions over AstraZeneca

Clyde reading local history.

I have a certain sympathy for Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce who was fined Monday for his failure to wear a mask. He had filled the car with petrol and then went inside the service station to pay mask-less. Someone reported the matter to the police.

We haven't had to wear masks in our area. The decision to mandate them from Sunday despite the absence of covid here was taken as a consequence of the current Sydney outbreak.

Sunday morning kitten Clyde was found paralyzed and unmoving on the bathroom floor requiring an emergency visit to the vet. The vet suggested a visit to the next door McDonalds for coffee while she ran tests. We entered and after a little while were told that they could not serve us if we did not have a mask. Wandering downtown I was able to get a coffee at one of the stalls at the monthly market. I noticed that there were more masks around although wearing was still patchy. 

I still wasn't sure what was going on. Coming home, I called in at the small corner store then at the little bottle-oh. In both cases I was served but told that masks were now mandatory. Now there was a problem. To get masks at the chemist I had to enter the shopping centre and then the chemist but could not do so without a mask! Finally, I found an old one and using that acquired some disposable masks. 

Monday I had to buy something, dashed out, reached my destination and realised that I did not have my mask.  I came home. Had I been going to a self-serve petrol outlet I might have found myself in the same position as Mr Joyce, filling and then unable to pay without breaching the regulations. 

As I said, I have a certain sympathy for Mr Joyce. However, there is a broader issue, the break-down in the social consensus that has made covid restrictions successful. All jurisdictions bear some responsibility for this. Some examples to illustrate. 

"I don't want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got COVID, probably wouldn't die.

"We have had very few deaths due to COVID-19 in Australia in people under the age of 50 and wouldn't it be terrible that our first 18-year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic, died because of the vaccine.

Queensland's Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young 

The issues associated with AstraZeneca have been widely covered. By the time I received my first injection I was worried about side-effects, but decided that the risk was worthwhile given my age. Since then, official advice has varied although the epidemiological evidence has not really changed. 

The emotional intervention by Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young following the Prime Minister's announcement that AstraZeneca could be accessed by younger Australians was a dramatic over-reaction that, to my mind, reflected the pressures upon her as well as the political stance adopted by the Queensland Premier. 

The take-home message that the risks of a younger person dying from covid were less than those rare reactions from AstraZeneca strikes at the heart of the vaccination program, feeding into the narrative that the AstraZeneca vaccine is unsafe. It also feeds into the broader anti-vaxxer story that all vaccines are unsafe. If the risks of a young person dying from covid are lower than those associated with vaccination why bother getting vaccinated? Why take the risk? 

The issue is not helped by disagreements among professionals. Each jurisdiction states that it relies on its health experts, that its policy decisions are based on health advice. Leaving aside differences among experts, this statement is misleading in that the decision on that health advice is affected by political circumstances and judgements. This is not a criticism, simply an observation. 

The requests from Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia to reduce the quotas on overseas arrivals in Australia are inherently political. Take Queensland as an example. 

Queensland is running up against capacity constraints in the existing hotel quarantine system. That's a genuine constraint from a public policy viewpoint. The question of the best way of expanding the quarantine system is a public policy question. However, the broader expressed concerns about the risks of covid leakage from the quarantine system and the responses involve a mix of public heath and political responses. 

The public health question involves an assessment of risk and how that risk might best be managed. The political response focuses on the likely community impact and associated costs. These issues involve political as well as public policy responses including how much risk the community is prepared to bear as well a public concerns about preferential treatment for particular groups. .

Simplifying, the Prime Minister's core announcement was an indemnity scheme that would make it easier for those under 40 to accept AstraZeneca should they choose to do so, The responsibility here rests upon individuals who have been advised of the risks by their doctors. This seems perfectly appropriate to me.  Since the announcement, there appears to have been a rush of younger Australians to get the AZ jab. This makes perfect sense to me. 

Each Australian jurisdiction from the Commonwealth down focuses on those presently living and especially voting  within its jurisdiction. This makes perfect sense, but ignores changes elsewhere in a world that is now opening up despite the virus. To many younger mobile Australians, it makes sense to get vaccinated now with AZ not just because it reduces their immediate risks but because it will enable them to travel when the borders open - as they must.

Oh, just to finish, Clyde's x-rays suggested a possible spinal fracture or head damage from a fall or alternatively some form of thrombosis, The prognosis was grim. By nightfall, he was showing some sign of movement although the vet warned he might not last the night. By morning, he was moving and ate something, although he seemed to suffer from sight loss. By the time we picked him up, he was able to walk and was complaining. The vets were amazed!