Friday, September 29, 2006

Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y - Setting the Scene

Note to readers: Because there is an interesting (at least I find it so) discussion going on at present between David and myself on this and and the preceeding post (see comments in both cases) dealing in part with the differences between aspects of the US and Australian experience, I have decided to hold off making a new post until Wednesday. Please feel free to join the discussion.

In my first post on this topic, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y - What does it all mean?, I noted that the debate associated with these classifications had largely passed me by because it just wasn't relevant to the issues I was interested in.

I also noted that I had been forced to re-assess this position, not because my overall thinking had changed, but because people including my eldest were using these terms in ways that had behavioural impacts. I went on:

"So bravely venturing where thousands have gone before me, I have finally entered the world of Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y, seeking to understand just what it all means or, perhaps more importantly, what people think it means.

Boy am I confused. It's almost as bad as reading some of the European derived marxist dialectic that for a period dominated so many articles in the historical journals. I used to sit in the library thinking that all this must make some sense until finally driven out into the fresh air to try to clear my head. "

My own Background

As I have said many times before, we all interpret things through a prism set by our own experience. Just to set the scene here.

I began working full time in the Commonwealth (Australian) Public Service in 1967. I first really started managing staff in 1973. Between 1973 and the early part of 1981 I managed up to 19 people and also played an active role in graduate recruitment.

In 1981 and 1982 I was back at University as a full time postgraduate student, mixing with other students and staff at all levels. Back in the Public Service from the start of 1983 to mid 1987 I was again managing up to 33 people. I then set up and managed a new consulting business. with a special focus on recruiting and training new staff to be as effective as quickly as possible. We had to do this - we were running with an average 15-17 head count - because we were new, doing new things, and did not have an existing staff pool to draw (pinch) from.

I then moved into independent consulting for a period before becoming CEO of a specialist medical college in 1998 and 1999. Again I was directly involved in managing staff of various ages. Moving to Ndarala at the start of 1990, I did not have direct staff responsibility because we have been very lean. But I was helping, among other things, professional services firms recruit and manage staff. Today I know my daughters' attitudes to work.

The point in all this? Over this period I have seen significant changes in the structure of work and in people's responses to those changes. To the degree that those changes have affected different age groups in different ways, there is a correlation (not a causation) between age and attitude.

To my mind, the things that really motivate staff are just the same today as they were in 1967 when I started working. To the degree that there is a change, it lies in the changing attitude of people towards employers.

Changing Attitudes to Work

Having told employees that they must be responsible for themselves, that they cannot expect the organisation to look after them, employers (public and private) are now reaping the wind they have sown. This is not age specific, although the way it manifests itself may be.

When I first came down to Sydney I did some part time outplacement work. The case that really stands out in my mind was someone who had been an assistant company secretary for a major Australian bank. An older man, I think that he was about my current age, he had never worked for anyone else. Retrenched, he was destroyed.

There was a somewhat happy ending to this case. He had particular skills in fraud prevention that got him a job elsewhere. But the scars remained.

A small incident? Consider this.

His wife, his children, his friends all knew what the bank had done, say 30-40 people. This may not affect the bank directly, although I note that it shortly afterwards went into decline because of internal problems that still linger. But multiply him by a million or so Australians all in contact in some way with similar experiences and the effects on people's general attitudes towards work and employers are profound.

We can see this manifesting itself in a variety of ways.

In a post on his blog, David Maister reported on a US and Canadian survey of MBA students. Fifty six per cent of students admitted to cheating. Why should this surprise us? If we can no longer trust our employer or, for that matter, our Government, if everything is focused on short term performance measures, then why should we not seize the moment?

Why am I still Positive?

All this sounds very negative. Well, in a funny way I remain very positive.

A key point in the context of the debate on Australia work choices legislation is the powerlessness of individuals. I think that that is true. But a million, five million, individuals have power. I am not talking about a political movement here, but about the way in which social attitudes force change.

We can already see this at micro level. Professional services firms across Australia are being forced to change because they cannot get younger staff to accept the old ways of working. Up and out still works for some, but is increasingly hard when the out in fact includes those you most want to retain. Attracting people into partnerships is becoming harder and harder.

I know of people, still a small number, who maximise their income by targeting redundancy. To make this work, you need a saleable skill. Then you deliberately target firms that you think are likely to be restructured or taken over. Work there, accept the package, and move on. Again, employers have to adjust.

Perhaps the most dramatic change of all is the changing role of women in the workforce, especially the professional workforce. Much of the debate here is still expressed in terms of paradigms coming from the high days of feminism. The reality is that women have won the battle of work. All that remains is the mopping up.

Sounds dramatic? Well, consider this.

Start with last year's Higher School Certificate (HSC) and University Admission results (here). As has been the case for a number of years now, more girls than boys did the HSC. Females outperformed males in the majority of courses and had a higher average UAI than males- a difference of 5.8 points.

For the benefit of international readers, the UAI is a ranking system derived from HSC results and used by universities in NSW and the ACT to grade students for admission. Given a limited number of places, the greater the student demand for a course or a university the higher the UAI required to get into that course or that university. Thus if you want to get into, say, medicine you may need to achieve a UAI of 99 out of a 100, putting you in the top one per cent of all students.

So what we have and have had for a number of years is more females than males (53.2 per cent female 2005) getting a UAI in the first place, more getting a higher UAI (58.1 per cent, for example, of all students getting a UAI higher than 90). The impact on the gender composition of university students varies from course to course (there are still more boys than girls in engineering) but overall has been quite dramatic. In optometry, dentistry and vet science, for example, the female proportion of all students is now over 80 per cent.

This feminisation of key parts of the professional work force comes at a time when overall numbers in the traditional entry level age cohorts have been dropping because of the previous decline in the birth rate. The social effects are quite profound and are slowly working their way through every aspect of Australia society.

Women's needs are different from men simply because of the question of children and the biological clock. The birthrate dropped in part because whole groups of women deferred children. Last year there was a mini baby boom, the highest number of births since 1971, as the same groups decided that now was the time to have children. This obviously affects the availability of the female workforce.

A second example. Like many countries, Australia has a shortage of doctors that varies across the country and is most pronounced in particular areas. This shortage is due in part to a very silly Commonwealth Government decision back in the late 1990s to cut the number of medical places because of a then view that there were in fact too many GPs and that this was leading to competition for patients and overservicing. But the size and distribution of the shortage over Australia has also been affected by the feminisation of the medical profession.

The length of time taken to train a doctor has been increasing. By the time you complete you first degree, then do your professional years, then gain entry to a specialist training program (these are generally five years) you are going to be 33 plus before you can set up your shingle.

From a woman's viewpoint, and assuming that you have not already decided to take some time out to have a child, you are likely to have a partner (the difficulty some professional women are experiencing in finding partners is another social issue) and be at least thinking about children.

Now linking all this back to my argument. Governments and employers of all types are just starting to come to grips with the challenge posed by this changing gender balance. I think that it will probably bring about fundamental changes in the way work is organised, changes that will benefit individuals of both sexes.

Back to Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y

I seem to have come a long way from a discussion that was meant to be about baby boomers etc. But I wanted to set a broader context. In my next post I will try to be disciplined and focus on the Australian discussion in this area.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


One of the things I love about this blog, my most personal blog, is the sense of conversation.

There are now over 55 million blogs worldwide, still growing at 75,000 per week. This does not matter, nor am I especially worried about clawing my way up the Technorati rankings. I am only concerned about a tiny slice, that group that wants to talk to me or that I have so far found and want to talk to. So I thought that I should pause and talk about some of those conversations.

In my post of 25 September 25, 2006 Keeping a Sense of Perspective - Larrikins and Volunteers I repeated an earlier point about Australia having a unique culture. Then in response to the immediately following post (26 September) Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y - What does it all mean?, David Anderson commented:

If I did not know you were talking about Australia I would think you are here in the US. I find it intriguing that established countries seem to be moving step by step together in business and culture changes.

David is right, of course. When I was looking at the Gen X stuff on Wikipedia I too was struck by similarities. In similar vein, our conversation about sense of alienation, the disconnect felt by many people, also brought out the similarities between countries.

How, then, do we reconcile all this with my claim re Australia's cultural uniqueness? What are the forces bringing such convergence about? How are ideas transmitted and adopted? Has Australia in fact lost its uniqueness?

All this is interesting stuff that requires thought. At this stage I would only make a distinction between an idea or concept and the way that it is transmuted in practice in the circumstances of particular cultures.

One example that I hope to discuss a little later in the context of the change process in Australia is the way the global revolution in public administration including the winding back of the welfare state found a very particular and clear form in the New Zealand model that was then imported into Australia in a bastardised way as it met the barriers created by Australia's institutional rigidities.

In another conversation, Neil put up a very interesting article on his blog on Menzies and the Suez crisis. I had not focused on the Suez crisis in my thinking about change in Australia. I found the article intensely interesting because it made me think of the broader context in which the crisis, I think a key historical turning point, occurred as well as the associated implications for Australia.

The thinking I have been doing about cross-cultural comparisons on this blog feeds into other thinking. Using the concept of professional mental mudmaps as a peg, one of the issues that I have been pursuing on the Managing the Professional Services Firm blog is the cultural differences between and within professions. Often unrecognised, these have quite profound effects on behaviour.

As an aside, it may not surprise you to know that several Belshaws have been anthropologists, that I have been interested in social and cultural analysis from an early age, while my honours thesis in history - an analysis of the economic structure of Aboriginal life in New England at the time of the European intrusion - was a study in ethnohistory.

In the midst of these conversations I should mention that there is one conversation that I should have been having and have not. Tony Karrer has been putting up some quite remarkable material on his blog dealing with learning and especially e-learning.

I say remarkable both because of its standard and its simplicity. Someone who is interested in and wants to find out about e-learning can find much of what they want there. It is a world class blog.

I said that I should have been having a conversation. Because I have been focused on other things I have not participated in discussion with Tony in the way I should have, including not responding to his response to one of my suggestions.

Tony, please accept this as a public apology.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y - What does it all mean?

Photo: Belshaw family, Rome January 2005

I must admit I have let all the debate about Gen X, GenY and the baby boomers sweep over me. I found the debate difficult to understand at more than a superficial level and also found it to be of little relevance to much of my work or my thinking.

If you look at my own family, Grandfather Belshaw was I think born around 1866, Dad was born in 1908, I was born in 1945, my wife was born in 1959, my daughters were born in 1987 and 1989. It is now 2006, so when I am thinking about my own family the four generations of most direct concern to me span 150 years.

My own thinking was in part formed by the experiences of my Belshaw grandparents in the pits and mills of Lancashire from the late 1870's (both started work at 12) and 1880s. Wigan, the town they came from, was later featured by George Orwell in the Road to Wigan Pier (1937), although by then the Belshaws had long left for New Zealand.

At the other end of the spectrum, my thinking is also being formed, perhaps reformed, by the experiences and attitudes of my daughters attending school and university 150 years after my grandfather's birth. There is a vast difference between the 19th century industrial world of England, the world of the Platt Bridge Methodist church (photo) where my grandparents worshipped, and the modern teenager in Sydney.

At personal level I have not found the debate about baby boomers, Gen X or Gen Y especially helpful in aiding my understanding this 150 year sweep, nor have I found it of much use in professional terms.

When I look at changing attitudes to work seeking to understand those changes and their implications for people management, I come up with explanations that have little to do with intergenerational differences, much to do with the changing structure of work itself and responses to that. At best, terms like Gen X and Gen Y are short hand labels attached to bundles of attributes.

I have been forced to re-assess this position, not because my overall thinking has changed, but because people are now using these terms in ways that have behavioural impacts. Two examples to illustrate:
  • My eldest is now using the term Generation Y to describe herself and has just eagerly purchased the first edition of a magazine targeting her age group that bills itself as the magazine for generation y (all lower case). If Helen believes that Generation Y has meaning, then that belief gives it meaning.
  • HR people in bigger organisations are now frequently using the terms Gen X and Gen Y to explain the type of staffing challenges they face. I may feel that they are talking about symptoms, that in fact the use of the terms disguises the real causes of the problems they are dealing with, but again their belief gives the terms meaning because it has practical effects on behaviour. Further, I have to be able to use or at least understand their jargon if I am to help them.

So bravely venturing where thousands have gone before me, I have finally entered the world of Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y, seeking to understand just what it all means or, perhaps more importantly, what people think it means.

Boy am I confused. It's almost as bad as reading some of the European derived marxist dialectic that for a period dominated so many articles in the historical journals. I used to sit in the library thinking that all this must make some sense until finally driven out into the fresh air to try to clear my head.

To help clarify my own thinking, I will attempt a few short posts on the debate, linking them back to the themes that I have been addressing in recent posts.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Keeping a Sense of Perspective - Larrikins and Volunteers

It's important to keep a sense of perspective in reading and writing about change in Australia.

I started my series on postwar migration in Australia following a tour of the blogosphere focused on blog streams linked to the war on terror, to Islam and to Islam vs Christianity. With one exception, I ended the whole process wishing that I had never started, depressed and blogged out. I concluded:

"The exception? Australia really is culturally different from most other countries, quite remarkably different. We don't see it unless forced to by the type of journey I have just taken. I will try to capture this in a post once I have recovered."

Since then I have been exploring the history of postwar migration, in doing so looking at changes in Australian life, perceptions and experience in part through a prism set by my own experience. Another thread has become entwined in this as defined in my post on Age, Alienation and the Sense of Not Belonging - 1, the sense of disconnect that many feel in Australia and elsewhere and the way this feeds into our own perception of ourselves.

Writing this sort of stuff it's very easy to become lost in the change process, to lose sight of positives, of the continuity of the Australian experience - "We'll all be ruined, said Hanrahan, before the year is out."

I was reminded of the need to keep perspective by yesterday's stories on the fires. A stinking hot day with strong gusting winds saw 50 fires start in different parts of NSW. Seven homes were destroyed and apparently some people died. Over a thousand volunteer bush fire fighters were mobilised to fight the fire.

A common place story in a sense, one that will be repeated during the fire season. But I'm wondering now just how unusual the continuing Australian volunteer experience is in international terms.

A storm strikes, we - sometimes thousands of we's - lose a roof, and we expect that the people of the State Emergency Services, again largely volunteers, will be around pronto to check it and if necessary put a tarp up as an emergency roof repair.

The long-standing Australian volunteer experience may or may not be unusual in international terms, but it does remind us that even at times of change positive elements within the Australian experience maintain their strength.

The larrikin perspective also survives.

As a people we still tend not to take ourselves too seriously, sometimes to the distress of those who believe that we should. One of Australia's most famous cartoons features two men who have fallen off a building. One is just hanging on, while the second is hanging onto the first's pants, dragging them half way down. The second is looking up and laughing. The caption reads something like this: " For Gawd's sake stop laughing. This is serious!" Waltzing Matilda, our most famous national song, features a sheep stealer by from a bygone era.

Within twenty four hours of the announcement of the PM's proposed citizenship test, emails were circulating proposed tests, some very good coming on Immigration Department letterhead with instructions. At least some Australians could not take the whole thing too seriously, using the traditional weapons of humour and ridicule to remove the proposal from its serious pedestal.

At some point I will post some of the suggested questions.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Migration Matters - End of Consensus

This post continues my discussion on post war migration. It also links to my post Age, Alienation and the Sense of Not Belonging - 1 in that some of the trends I will be talking about are international, imported into Australia in various ways, so that the Australian experience may well help explain a broader sense of disconnect.

My experience as a management consultant has been that things are most talked about when the opposite is in fact happening. Thus the management literature was dominated by the importance of people and the need to improve people management at just the time when process re-engineering and downsizing were at their peak. The focus shifted to the importance of the customer at just the time that firms were introducing new centralised sales systems, cutting face to face customer support, turning customers to numbers. The current focus on the importance of brands and branding coincides with the greatest period of brand destruction in history (post).

The point here is that the current Australian obsession with values, the emphasis here and elsewhere on a 'civil society', is to my mind a sign that we are in fact in trouble in both areas. I want to trace some of the reasons for this, again drawing from my own experience to illustrate points.

Future Shock

In 1970 Alvin Toffler published Future Shock. Written at a time of rapid change, a core message in the book was that each real decision not matter how small imposed stress. The human being could only absorb so much stress, so after a critical point was reached our capacity to respond shut down.

I think that this insight is critical. We are simply shocked out. Again, lessons from management experience can provide useful perspectives.

The last two decades have been been a period of massive restructuring in both public and private sectors.

At organisational level, anybody who has been involved in restructuring knows that restructuring begins with pain, upfront costs. These include not just cash out costs, but also losses in efficiency and in in-house memory.

The gains from even a successful restructure take time, sometimes quite a bit of time. So if, as has too often been the case, another restructure follows quickly, then pain gets extended, gain deferred.

The number of unsuccessful or partially successful restructures is quite high. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that second and sometimes many more restructures follow the first and in reasonably quick time. This maximises pain, minimises gain. Firms and their people lose their capacity to adjust and the organisation may simply vanish.

The effects of future shock are cumulative and long term. My own brother, a senior engineer with considerable management experience and great technical expertise, chose to retire from Telstra at 55 because he could no longer bear that organisation's approach. Telstra lost his expertise including his knowledge of internet protocols, the nation lost perhaps ten years of highly productive future work.

This is not an argument against change as such or against necessary restructuring although, as I argued in a much earlier post on the electricity industry, apparent productivity gains may be short terms and illusory. Rather, my concern is with the aggregate effect over time on community attitudes and the nation's ability to respond to change.

End of the Australian Social Contract

I have referred several times to Don Aitkin's book What was it all for?, an examination of the changes that had taken place in Australia through the eyes of the Armidale High School Class Leaving Certificate class of 1953.

This was a very lucky class in some ways. Too young for the second world war, too old to have to worry about Vietnam, they started and in most cases continued working in a world of guaranteed long term employment. Some were hit right at the end by the economic change I have been describing, most were not. Yet all felt a sadness at what they saw as the end of the world as they had known it.

Don traces this to the end of the Australian social contract dating back to federation (1901) and the time of Prime Minister Alfred Deakin (1903-1904, 1905-1908, 1909-1910 - see here and here). While many of the main changes especially during Deakin's productive second term were the responsibility of individual ministers, Deakin led in creating many of the institutional arrangements such as the Arbitration Commission that would provide the core Australian framework for the next seventy years.

The Deakin social contract was essentially collectivist. Australian workers were entitled to receive a living wage and share in the benefits of prosperity. The Government took responsibility through mechanisms such as the use of tariffs for the creation of an environment that would allow this to happen.

Like the White Australia Policy of which it was a part, the elements in the Deakinite social contract have been progressively swept away.

In 1962 I did the Leaving Certificate for the second time because my parents were concerned that at 16 just turning 17 I was too young to go to university. Concerned that I would be bored, one of my teachers (Peter Brownie) persuaded me to pick up economics honours.

In history I had already learned about the development of the Union Movement including things such as the 1888 London Match Girls strike as well as the Australian industrial troubles in the 1880s and 1890s. Now when I looked at the basic textbook for the ordinary course written by Cyril Renwick it included sections on the ACTU, Arbitration Commission, tariffs, political parties etc.

In those days manners had not been coarsened, an issue I will return to. Electors were still that or voters, not the contemptuously dismissive term punters, while national figures were still called Mr (there were some Mrs and Misses as well) rather than just their last, sometimes first, name. I may have been a strong Country party supporter and opposed to Labor, but I accepted that the broad Labor Movement was an integral part of the process, that I should learn about it, that its leaders should be accorded the respect due to their positions.

The overall Deakinite social contract that still existed in 1962 was already in decline, although that was not apparent at the time.

As discussed earlier, the White Australia Policy was already being wound back. Tariff protection was now coming under challenge. Import licensing had been abolished in 1960, now under Alf Rattigan the Tariff Board was coming to question the sometimes crazy quilt of high and inconsistent industry protection measures. The tariff clarification and reduction process would proceed in fits and starts, moving forward under the Whitlam Labor Government, slowing under the Fraser Liberal-National Country Party Government, speeding up under the Hawke Labor Government, but the trend was consistent.

To my mind, the first and to lesser degree second Hawke Labor Governments (1983-1984, 1984-1987) were the last Australian Governments set within the old Deakinite social contract frame.

I joined the Commonwealth Public Service as an Administrative Trainee in 1967 before moving to the Commonwealth Treasury at the start of 68 and then to the Department of Industry and Commerce as a second division officer in 1980, so by the time of the first Hawke Government I had worked at increasing levels of seniority under five Prime Ministers: Holt (briefly), Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam and Fraser.

I and many others found the first Hawke Government a refreshing change, breaking from the bounds set by the past. It was also well organised for a new Government, especially in comparison with the previous Whitlam Labor administration.

I also strongly supported Bob Hawke's strong emphasis on the creation of national consensus as a device for bringing about reform. To me, the consensus approach fitted with modern management theory in establishing a process allowing stakeholders to agree on reform and development targets, not (as critics argued) a process for getting to the lowest common denominator.

For a period it was, quite simply fun, especially for someone like me who wanted to develop new approaches. This led to some funny scenes. My traditional political affiliations to the Country Party, now National Party, were well known, including the fact that I had run for pre-selection. So you had the somewhat unusual position of a known National Party supporter insisting to the Minister and his office that the union movement be consulted on certain issues, going to the ACTU Head Office in Melbourne to brief ACTU working parties, or of delivering sessions to rank and file union groups on policy through the Trade Union Training Authority.

And, I must say, I found the union movement very much on the side of the angels when it came to reform within the constraints set by their own structures. Mind you, it had its nerve wracking moments. I still remember Colin Cooper threatening to call a national strike of the telecom unions after a briefing from me to a union group on the need for change in the telecoms sector!

Looking back, the wheels started to come off in 1986.

The reasons for this were complex and deserve a different discussion. But in summary, and as I see it, the introduction of new managerialist approaches across the service borrowed from the private sector centralised power, reducing the freedom of other senior staff to put forward new ideas without more complex clearance procedures. The central coordinating agencies, and especially Treasury and Finance, who had lost power when the Hawke Government first came in and who had different reform agendas, started re-asserting control, reducing access to new ideas. The Government itself lost its sense of freshness. Consensus disappeared as a working concept.

By the time I resigned in mid 1987 the writing was on the wall. Important new initiatives such as the Dawkins Training Reform Agenda were still to come built on the previous cooperative model, but the last major national manifestation of the Deakinite social contract was dead. Individualism was replacing collectivism as the national model.

The institutional and policy manifestations of the previous Deakinite social contract had to change because they were holding Australia back. However, its destruction leaves a hole that has yet to be filled.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Joy of Being Young

Tonight we are having a birthday party for Clare, my sixteen (sorry, just turned seventeen) year old, in the back yard just outside my home office. The party rages as I talk. But how different from the last party for my eldest, reflecting the differences between the two.

Eldest, by the way, is not here. She has gone down to Wagga Wagga by train with a group for a school friend's birthday.

Helen is a funny girl. Since we came down to Sydney she has really fallen in love with the beach and the eastern suburbs. But get her back to to the country and she has a great time. Given that recent survey results show that 70 per cent of city kids have never been on a farm, I feel that I have at least given my kids some access to different life styles. What they do with that is up to them, but at least they have seen it.

Back to Clare and her party. Clare is much more into writing, into design and art and is a very good cartoonist. She is also into causes, marching with a school friend in the Sydney marches to protest the proposed invasion of Iraq. By contrast, her dad was inclined to support the invasion and now feels very stupid at having accepted the arguments put forward about weapons of mass destruction.

I must say I bit my tongue about her going in the march. I did not oppose her, I support her right to her own view, but thought that it might be dangerous.

Back to the party. Yes, there is loud music. But there has also been singing to musicals lead by a one guest who, complete with bow tie, turns out to be a leading young Sysney singer.

A little later. The party has just finished. It's after twelve, we can tidy up tomorrow, but I want to post a brief response to Neil and David first re their comments on my last post.

Age, Alienation and the Sense of Not Belonging - 1

This series of posts is dedicated to David Anderson for his help in clarifying something important in my own thinking. Those who read my blogs will know that David's Italian's Insight to Travel Italy is one of my favourite blogs.

David Anderson wrote:

I was preparing my articles on Italian shoes and accessories for the Fall/Winter Fashion Season and I received a Video Clip from Italy. It was an MTV clip of an Italian rapper. As I watched, thoroughly enjoying this twenty-something artist go through his routine, I was saddened. I suddenly realized that while in Italy I relate and interact with all age groups, here at home (the USA) I feel old.

David is a fair bit younger than me, and this comment and the discussion suddenly crystallised something, for this year I, too, have felt old for the first time. At first I just accepted this. But when I looked at it it had to be more than that, for me to transit suddenly from not old to feeling old. It also had to be more than stress associated tiredness, even recognising that this has been one of the most stressful years of my life.

Quite a bit of my writing this year including especially the continuing migration series has been an indirect response to this feeling, a way of exploring issues. In writing, I have slowly formed a view on certain things, a view now crystallised by David's comment. It is this view that I want to share with you.

I had been going to do it one post, but once this reached seven A4 pages and counting I decided that this was plain silly. So this post just sets the scene.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Migration Matters - A Future Perspective

So much is being written and said at present about migration that I find myself struggling to keep up. I have still to finish my history of post-war Australian migration, but have put this aside for the moment simply because the overall discussion keeps on raising issues that I need to think about.

At this point, I will simply pose two questions:

  1. Why is it that immigration has become such an issue at a time when its importance relative to the size of the population is actually quite low, far lower than in the fifties and sixties?
  2. Why has no one, at least no one on the official side that I have seen, linked the debate to Australia's future needs?

Relative Importance

As I understand it, and I stand to be corrected, we presently take three groups of migrants ranked by size:

  1. Family reunions, the family of previous migrants who have become citizens.
  2. Skilled and business migration, those people we want because they have skills or money.
  3. Last, and a long way behind, refugees.

I am hard pressed to see what how these three classes link to our current obsession with values and citizenship.

Our Future Needs

As a strategic consultant, I am often required to provide advice on future trends. When I look forward I see the following key issues so far as immigration is concerned:

  1. An aging population. Productivity Commission analysis has made it clear that migration cannot reverse the effects of aging on population structures. However, it can improve our ability to cope by increasing overall numbers in working groups, numbers with specific skills. Here we will be competing with countries, especially Europe, who will face a far bigger population time bomb and sooner.
  2. Pacific islands. The Government is resisting attempts to allow Pacific Island guest workers. This is a short term response. In the longer term, we are going to have to come to grips with this (Pacific Islands migration) issue.
  3. Indonesia, more broadly ASEAN. Indonesia is a next door neighbour. As a country Indonesia has done most remarkably well. I mean most remarkably, even astonshingly well. Very few Australians realise this, and I will talk about this in a later post. For the moment, the key point is that we are going to have closer relations with Indonesia (and more broadly) the other ASEAN states whether we like it or not. And this will include immigration.

Again, I am hard pressed to see how current debates relate to these issues.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

How do you make Wikis work?

In one of his usual thoughtful posts on eLearning Technology, Tony Karrer discussed why there was no elearning wiki. Coincidentally, at exactly the same time Dave Lee launched an eLearning wiki as part of his eelearning blog focused initially on web 2.0 applications in eLearning.

I think I am now getting a feel for the best ways of using blogging and finding it a useful if overly addictive tool. However, my previous involvement with wikis has been fairly negative in that they simply have not worked. Yet people keep referring to them as a key potential tool, so I am obviously missing something.

I wondered, therefore, if any one could point me to material -case studies, tips, guidelines - that might help me understand the rules that need to be followed if a wiki is to be successful.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Migration Matters - A Personal Perspective: Times of Change

Note to reader: I am still having recurrent problems uploading photos. I will add supporting photos if and when I can.

This post continues my review of Australia's post war immigration policy through the prism set by my own experience. In previous posts I:

  • provided an overview of post war immigration pointing to its size and dramatic impact on Australia, suggesting that that the Australian experience was unique. I qualified this slightly in my second post with a brief comment comparing the US and Canada, wondering whether the Canadian experience had in fact been similar.
  • then looked in my third post at the emergence of the mass migration policy set in the context of the Australia of 1945, a far country so different from today that it really has to be thought of as another country.

This post extends the story, looking at the changes in Australia over the fifties and sixties.

White Australia Policy

The White Australia policy was firmly in place at the time mass migration began. Adopted at the time of Federation, the deeply entrenched policy was designed to protect living standards and preserve racial homogeneity and reflected the fears of a small European population on the edge of Asia.

Twenty years later White Australia was dead, replaced by a non-discriminatory migration policy, continuing the remarkable changes associated with the Australian migration program. The policy was not killed by a single major decision, but by a series of incremental changes:

  • During the war years Australia had admitted a number of non-European refugees, some of whom had married Australians. Moves to deport them created protests, and Harold Holt, the Immigration Minister in the newly elected Menzies Government, allowed 800 to stay while also allowing Australian soldiers to bring back Japanese war brides.
  • In 1957 non-Europeans with 15 years residence in Australia were allowed to become Australian citizens. This was followed in 1958 by a revised Migration Act introducing a simpler system of entry permits and abolishing the controversial dictation test. Some restrictions on non-European migration remained, but entry was eased while the revised Act avoided references to questions of race.
  • In March 1966 after a review of the non-European policy, Immigration Minister Hubert Opperman announced that applications for migration would be accepted from well-qualified people on the basis of their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate readily and their possession of qualifications positively useful to Australia. This was a watershed decision, effectively ending the White Australia policy.
  • The last remnants of the old policy were removed in 1973 by the newly elected Whitlam Labor Government, putting a completely non-discriminatory policy in place.

Importance of the Colombo Plan

The Colombo Plan played a major role in facilitating this change in migration policy.

Australia faced a dark and clouded international environment at the end of the war. The old security provided by membership of the Commonwealth and Empire had been swept away, lost with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. War with Germany and Japan had been replaced by the cold war between East and West, fear of the spread of communism and the threat of nuclear war. Decolonisation was underway, requiring Australia to develop new international relations.

In late 1949 Australia was invited to attend a meeting of British Commonwealth Foreign Ministers to be held in Colombo. Australian officials had been discussing policy options towards Asia including a possible aid program. The Australian Government believed that economic development would improve political stability and help stop the spread of communism.

In January 1950, an Australian delegation led by External Affairs Minister Percy Spender took the Australian aid plans to the Colombo meeting. Commonwealth foreign ministers agreed to establish a Commonwealth Plan for Co-operative Economic Development in South and South-East Asia, modelled in part on the Marshall Plan. The plan, although then sometimes referred to as the 'Spender Plan', came to be called the 'Colombo Plan'.

The Plan began with seven members of the British Commonwealth - Australia, Canada, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), India, New Zealand, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. By 1954 these countries had been joined by Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, the Philippines, the United States, Thailand and Malaya.

Prior to the Plan few Australians had had any day to day contact with people from Asia. The plan changed that in a quite dramatic way. Over the next 35 years some 40,000 Asian students studied in Australia under the Plan, bringing large numbers of Australians into contact with Asia and Asians for the first time.

A Personal Perspective

The changes I have been discussing are mirrored in my own life.

As outlined in my last post, I was born in 1945 in Armidale. There was no racial prejudice in our household, I did not hear any negative race based comments from either my mother or father and indeed I know that my father strongly disapproved of anyone expressing such comments. However, I had no direct personal exposure to people from other cultures. With the exception of a small number of local families of Greek or Lebanese extraction, I knew no-one who was not of ango-celtic extraction.

As the migration program got underway, it was featured in the newsreels, press and magazines, so I was certainly conscious of it. However, most migrants went elsewhere and it would be the early fifties before I came in contact with my first migrant child at the Armidale Demonstration School. Poor Karl. Children can be cruel. He spoke only German, the war was not long over, and he had to cope with chants in the playground of Karl Herman is a German.

It was the Colombo Plan that changed Armidale. From the early fifties an increasing number of overseas, especially Asian, students came to study at the University of New England. Full time undergraduate numbers were small, Armidale itself was relatively small, so the overseas students really stood out. The new overseas students found the locals friendly and curious, but it was something of a culture shock on both sides.

The initial changes were almost imperceptible. By the time I moved from the Demonstration School to The Armidale School in 1957, another overwhelmingly anglo establishment, the Asian students at the University were visible but still remote. Things then changed rapidly.

The real dividing line in my mind came in class one day.

R W L (George) Crossle set the class an essay on the White Australia Policy. While conservative in his personal views, George was a man who liked his students to think. I wrote a conventional essay in favour of the White Australia policy. Another student, I do not remember who, wrote an essay against. George praised the second essay in class because the student had been prepared to argue a counter view. This gave me a real jolt, forcing me to reasses my own thinking including my own un-critical acceptance of the status quo.

Personal contact with Asia and Asians widened. My geography honours class focused on Asia. I met more, especially among Dad's students. The first Asian students came to school as boarders, although they had a pretty hard time of it initially. The local deli was now carrying Asian ingredients, I ate my first Asian food including Indonesian cooked by some of those students, mum started incorporating some Asian elements into her cooking. And all this in a family that five years before had rarely used even garlic in cooking!

By the time I started University in 1963 I had become something of an Asiaphile. I do not think that I was unique. Rather, I simply belong to the first Australian generation that really discovered Asia.

University extended this process. There were only 1,200 or so full time undegraduates on campus, some 10 per cent of these from overseas. Including its affiliate members (only overseas students were eligible for full membership), the Overseas Students Association was the largest student society. Many overseas students occupied senior places on campus. Soo Khoo edited the student newspaper, Ahdi - an Indonesian student - was the paper's chief cartoonist.

Culture shocks continued. Which foods did people eat or not eat? What was acceptable behaviour in different cultures?

A small but not insignificant example. In Australia boys and girls hold hands. In many Asian societies boys or girls held hands, not boys and girls. Australia was then a homophobic society. I still remember my sense of shock when, standing on the Union steps, a Pakistani friend took my hand and held it while talking to me! I gulped inaudibly, and allowed him to do so.

At the end of 1965 I learned some more important lessons.

My father had gone to work for the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in Bangkok. Brother David and I went to join the family. On the way we spent the first week in Singapore staying with an Indian university lecturer and his wife. Then we had a week in Taiping staying with Peng Ng and his family, Peng had been one Dad's tutors, before joining our parents in Bangkok. While there we also spent a week in Cambodia.

This total experience deserves posts in its own right. At this point I would only note that for three months we were effectively immersed in mutiple cultures. I learned at first hand the differences between the cultures, including the presence of very real ethnic tensions. I also discovered, and this was a shock, that many Asians looked down on Australia, seeing us as gauche and insensitive.

I had come a long way from the boy who thirteen years before had helped tease Karl in the playground because he was different. This experience was mirrored to greater or lesser degree across the whole country. Australia had changed and dramatically.

In my next migration post I will look at the end of the mass migration program and subsequent changes in Australia, trying to tease out why (at least as I see it) Australia has become a narrower, more inward looking country, why we are in danger of losing some of our unique features.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Attitudes Towards Muslims - a US Perspective

I was not going to write another immediate post because I wanted to let my last long post settle. However, I saw a very interesting post on Geoff Robinson's southcoast blog that I thought deserved a wider audience.

For those who do not know Geoff, he writes extensively (among other things) on US domestic politics from an Australian perspective. One of his posts American primaries & Mulims in US politics includes some interesting polling - "the 2005 Pew public opinion survey (available from here) showed that 54% of Americans had a very or somewhat favourable view of Muslims compared to a total unfavourable of 24%."

I record this only because so many of the commentators including bloggers from both sides of the debate seem to present US popular opinion in negative terms.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Migration Matters - A Personal Perspective: beginnings

Illustration: Afghan camaleers at prayer while on their way to Australia, 1880s. See Wikpedia story on camels and camaleers.


In this, my third post, on migration matters, I want to extend my analysis by looking at migration and its impact through the prism set by my own experience. I doing so, I want to try to tease out further my two key themes:
  • Just how remarkable the Australian experience has been.
  • The need for Australians to focus on our own experience and to avoid importing foreign models and mind sets that should not be applied to or within Australia and indeed which can carry connotations that Australians may not even be aware of because they have arisen in such different circumstances.

As I write I am listening to radio reports of the absurd comments from the NSW Opposition Leader Peter Debnam on the information session held to assist Lebanese Australians evacuated to Australia during the recent war. This follows Federal Opposition Leader Kim Beasley's comment yesterday that he wanted migrants to sign a document expressing support for Australian values as a condition of visa grant. Both reflect a local political response to what are essentially overseas influences, both will be misinterpreted internationally.

I would therefore add a third theme, the need for us to be more aware of the ways in which things we say are fitted, squashed, into external models. I am reasonably sure, for example, that the 3 September Gulf Times (Qatar) article Muslim integration calls are not discrimination: Howard will be read in a context set by, among other things, the Muslim migration experience in Europe and the divides created by the War on Terror as evidence that Australia is a racist and anti Muslim country.

Armidale Beginnings

In my first article I referred to Don Aitkin's book What was it all for?, an examination of the changes that had taken place in Australia through the eyes of the Armidale High School Class Leaving Certificate class of 1953. I share many of the same experiences as Don, although I did the Leaving Certificate for the first time in 1961 (my parents made me repeat because they thought that at 16 I was too young to go to University). Even in that short period of eight years the change process was well underway.

I was born in Armidale in 1945 into a middle class academic family with town and country connections. My family came from the dominant anglo-celtic group within Australia's seven million people. My mother was a second generation Australian of Scottish ancestry, my father was a New Zealander (one of the eight per cent of the Australian population born in the UK or New Zealand) from North English stock who had come to Armidale in 1938 as one of the foundation academics at the newly established New England University College.

We were a political family. The Belshaws came from Wigan and were English working class. Grandfather Belshaw went into pit at twelve, Grandmother into mill at twelve, later migrating to New Zealand. Dad's personal politics can best be described as Fabian Labor in the tradition of Sydney and Beatrice Webb. However, he had married the daughter of David Drummond, a local Country Party member of first the NSW and then the Federal Parliament, got on well with his father in law and shared many of his regional development interests as well as his desire to improve education. This tempered his public involvements. For my part, I was very close to my grandfather and was involved with Country Party politics from a very early age.

Australia in 1945: A Far Country

The Australia I was born into is best thought of as another country.

The Second World War in which almost a million Australian men and women served was still underway (Germany surrendered on 7 May 1945, Japan on 15 August). Photo: At sea off Crete in the Mediterranean 19 July 1940 Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni under attack by HMAS Sydney near Cape Spada AWM P01103.005.This was followed by the Korean and Malayan campaigns.

While Australia had turned to the US during the war in face of the Japanese threat, the symbols of Empire and Commonwealth were still omni-present. The map on the wall in my bedroom, the globe on the desk, still had large parts of the world coloured pink. The Royal family was a symbol of respect, not of celebrity.

This does not mean, however, that there was not a strong sense of Australian nationalism. There was. Australians saw themselves as very distinct, in part defining themselves in terms of their perceived differences from the United Kingdom and its population. Attitudes were also influenced by ethnicity and Christian denomination, with the attitudes of those of Roman Catholic and Irish ancestry (the Irish connection within the Australian Catholic Church was very strong) influenced by their attitudes to the troubles in Ireland.

Australia was also then a strongly Christian if sometimes irreverent country. This was reflected in the very fabric of life in terms of unconscious thought patterns, activities and political and social divides. The biggest divide in Australia was a sectarian one, between the Roman Catholics on one side, the Protestants and Anglicans on the other.

Intellectual life was necessarily more limited than today. In 1945 it was still possible to read every book published in Australia. This was partially a function of population size and wealth, partially a feature of a country that had experienced depression followed by war.

There was another difference as well between the Australia of 1945 and that of today, one that will come as a surprise to many. I have given a lot of thought to this because it did come as a surprise to me as well. Put simply, Australia in 1945 and the immediate post war period was a much more outward looking community than it is today.

How can this be?

Today we are submerged in information about the rest of the world on a 24 hours, 7 days a week basis. A quarter of our population was born elsewhere. Australian troops are serving in multiple countries round the globe. Australians travel the world constantly on business. Almost a million Australians live outside the country. Yet access to information should not be confused with involvement. Consider this.

In 1945, almost 15 per cent of the population had had direct service involvement with the war, many on overseas service. Australian cities had been bombed by the Japanese. Almost a million US troops passed through Australia during the war, a huge number relative to the size of the Australian population.

Turn from this to other aspects of life. Here I am working on impressions so I stand to be corrected. But consider this for the immediate post war period.

The school curriculum was both less crowded and different. Subjects like history and geography occupied a much higher proportion of the curriculum. Within both, there was a strong British, European and Commonwealth/Empire focus. We learned more at school about the rest of the world and at greater depth than is the case today. There were far fewer academics, but a much higher proportion were from overseas or had trained overseas.

Excluding military service, a smaller proportion of the population travelled overseas. But those that did went for a much longer period given the long steamer journeys at each end. Migration rules, especially in the Commonwealth and Empire, were easier, so that many families such as my own were spread across Commonwealth countries. Australians could and did stand for election to the UK parliament, UK citizens could and did stand for election to Australian parliaments.

This was a very different world. As Australia got bigger and wealthier I think that it turned inwards, the local increased in importance relative to the rest of the world.

Launch of Mass Migration

At the end of the Second World War the Australian people were, quite simply, scared.

There had long been deeply held fears that the small Australian European population on the edge of Asia would be swamped by Asian migration. The Second World war had given added force to these fears. Now the Australian Labor Government and its Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell (photo), Australia's first Immigration Minister, launched a mass migration program that became probably the largest voluntary migration program of the twentieth century.

The new program had bi-partisan political and public support from the beginning. This was a necessary pre-condition for success for what was, although this was not fully perceived at the time, a major exercise in social engineering.

The program was, in today's terms, unashamedly racist in that it was limited to people of European stock. However, while there was a strong focus on people from the traditional home countries in the British Isles, the new program covered every European country. This meant that anglo-celtic Australia was deliberately targeting people of different ethnic, cultural and language backgrounds, people whose very presence must alter the country they were coming too.

I wonder whether in today's world of focus groups and constant opinion polls such a program would even be possible. Australians are as prejudiced about outside groups as any other society. All the evidence is that many Australians of the late forties had prejudices against southern Europeans in particular. Today those prejudices would be picked up in the polls and spread across the newspapers, feeding back into popular opinion. In so doing, they would have negated one key feature of the Australian character, the capacity to distinguish between group and individual.

I am not sure that this feature is unique to Australians, but it is certainly strong among Australians. All politicians are crooks (a commonly expressed Australian view), but I know my local member and he's okay. In similar vein, I dislike Group x because they are - insert whatever phrases you like - but Fred from Group x is an okay bloke.

In saying this I am not saying that the new migrants did not experience individual discrimination, every new group coming into Australia has experienced this. What I am saying is that our overall capacity to treat individuals as individuals independent of attitudes towards the group those people come from was critical to the success of the migration program.

The Assimilation Policy

Assimilation was central to the immigration program.

Like the word gay, assimilation is a word that has changed its meaning, making it difficult to use today.

To test this, I asked my sixteen year old what she thought the word meant. She explained to me that the only use of the word she had heard from her teachers was in the context of approaches towards the aborigines where she was taught that the assimilation policy meant absorption into the dominant European culture. In this case, assimilation is equated to cultural destruction. I note from reading the overseas blogs that current use of the word outside Australia generally equates to this meaning.

Given this, I think it important to define how the word was used in the context of the immigration program. Our new migrants were expected to observe Australian laws, to fit into Australian society in a general sense, to help build a new country and to leave their home conflicts behind . This last was important given the recent War as well as European ethnic clashes in areas like the Balkans. They were also encouraged to learn English and were given a measure of support to do so. There was none of this high fallutin stuff like learning Australian values! We just did not take ourselves that seriously.

In assimilating, they were not expected to give up their pride in their original culture and country, they were not expected to change religion or religious practices, they were not expected to give up their food and food preparation techniques so long as their was no clash with Australian law and regulations.

I will continue this story in the next post looking both at the overall picture and the on-ground experience as seen through my own eyes.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Migration Matters - Canada and the US

In my post Migration Matters I said in part: These (the changes in the Australian population as a consequence of immigration) are dramatic changes by any measure. I think that Don (Aitkin) is probably right when he suggests that no other country has experienced such dramatic changes in the composition of its population with so little ethnic or racial disturbance. The recent troubles at Cronulla achieved such prominence in part because they were so rare.

Having said this, I was referred to a story on the Learned on Women blog. This said in part:

I'm preparing for a presentation to a Canadian retailers conference and, while talking with a friend at Publicis in Toronto, was reminded of a difference between their version of multi-cultural and that of the United States. We think "many cultures" and refer to the fact that we have lots of Hispanic and Asian immigrants, with a smattering (comparatively) of immigrants from other countries. Canada's version of cultural diversity, on the other hand, refers to immigrants from a much broader range of countries with no one culture being so obvious. (Interesting statistic from The Toronto Star, March 23, 2005: By 2017 more than half of greater Toronto will be non-European.)

I found this short story very interesting. I simply do not know enough of the post war Canadian migration experience. It may be that Canada and Australia display similar patterns.

Postscript: I was just finishing this update when I heard a news report saying that Opposition Leader Kim Beasley wanted migrants to sign a document expressing support for Australian values as a condition of visa grant. I shuddered. This is one of those things that sound superficially sensible but is in fact an example of the type of response that is starting to frighten me.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Migration Matters

A friend and colleague, Noric Dilanchian, sent me photos of two stamps and challenged me to write a story about each. I covered the first stamp in a story I wrote on the New England, Australia blog about the history of the CWA. This is the story of the second stamp.

The stamp on the left celebrates the Colombo Plan. For most Australians, the Colombo Plan has now vanished into the mists of the past. That's a pity, for the Plan marked a crucial turning point in Australia's engagement with Asia and in the transformation that has taken place in this country over the last sixty years.

Thinking about this and how best to handle Noric's challenge, I decided to take my last post on this blog as a starting point. In that post I reported on a tour of the blogosphere that I had done looking at blogs in some ways generated by the war on terror, how depressed it made me feel, but how it had also made me realise that Australia really was different from most other countries.

I also felt, although I did not say this, that we needed to recognise this if we were to avoid adopting externally created stereotypical black and white positions that were in fact alien and antipathetical to our own culture and experience.

Last year Don Aitkin published a rather good book called What was it all for?. Its starting point was the 50th year reunion of the Armidale High School Class Leaving Certificate class of 1953. Having attended the reunion, Don decided to write a book about the changes in Australia since the end of the Second World War War as seen through the eyes of the class of 53. He concluded that Australia had gone through a most remarkable and perhaps unique transformation and, what's more, had done so without tearing the social fabric apart.

I think that Don is right. I also suspect that the unique nature of the transformation is simply not recognised by either Australians or those elsewhere in the world and that it has real present lessons for us and the rest of the world.

These are big claims. So let me start by sketching out a few parameters :

  • In 1945, the Australian population was just over 7 million. Ninety per cent of this was Australian born, another 8 per cent born in New Zealand or the UK. The Anglo-Celtic proportion of the population was probably over 95 per cent.
  • Since 1945 we have admitted 5.9 million migrants. While many of those migrants came from the UK, the need for people meant that we brought in millions of people including those displaced by the war from many European countries as well as huge numbers from countries like Italy and Greece. Even today, Melbourne is the third largest Greek city in the world. Dozens of ships such as the SS New Australia (pictured) were devoted to shipping the huge number of migrants, many of whom were housed in temporary camps such as the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre (pictured).
  • The White Australia policy was central to the early post-war immigration policy. This policy had its roots deep in 19th century history, reflecting the fear that Asian migration would threaten the living standards of Australia's workers and swamp the European population. Thirty years later White Australia had gone, replaced by a consciously non-discriminatory migration policy.
  • Migration has transformed the country. Today almost 25 per cent of Australian residents were born outside the country, around 50 per cent have at least one parent born outside the country. Our migrants have come from 185 countries. The anglo celtic proportion of the population has dropped from over 95 per cent to 74 per cent, with 19 per cent other European and 4.5 per cent Asian.
  • We continue migration on a relatively large scale. Over the next ten years we are likely to admit another 1.5 million migrants, the majority coming from non-European countries. I am only guessing, but given the number of Muslim majority population countries that we are drawing migrants from, it seems likely that Muslim proportion of the Australian population will at least double.

These are dramatic changes by any measure. I think that Don is probably right when he suggests that no other country has experienced such dramatic changes in the composition of its population with so little ethnic or racial disturbance. The recent troubles at Cronulla achieved such prominence in part because they were so rare.

The Colombo Plan was part of the transformation process. In the next few posts I will look at the Plan as well as other elements in the transformation process through the prism set by my own experiences.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Blogosphere Woes

I have just been on a journey across the blogosphere tonight, one that in some ways I wish I had never started, that left me feeling blogged out.

Normally I focus on a small number of blogs that I like, using the blog search engines from time to time to check particular topics for both personal and professional interest. I also follow particular links through finding many new things of interest.

For some reason tonight I ended up in a series of blog streams linked to the war on terror, to Islam and to Islam vs Christianity. Some were interesting, but boy oh boy some were awful.

I found blogs that satirised anti-semitism but in such a heavy handed way that at least some of their readers would have taken them seriously, blogs that were in fact anti-semitic but were really more satirical than the satirical. I found blogs that presented a Muslim view, blogs that presented a Christian view, in both cases in terms of opposing absolutes. I found right wing blogs and left wing blogs, individual and group, that made me blink at the distortions presented.

I read news reports about Australia that represented significant distortions. Not conscious distortions, or at least I don't think so, but distortions because the facts were forced into a different world view frame.

With one exception, I ended the whole process wishing that I had never started, blogged out.

The exception? Australia really is culturally different from most other countries, quite remarkably different. We don't see it unless forced to by the type of journey I have just taken. I will try to capture this in a post once I have recovered.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

UNE Strategic Planning - Impact of New Technology 2

My post on Brian Barnes (New England Theatre Centre & Brian D Barnes - Happy 75th birthday, Brian) exhausted my writing enthusiasm. I wanted to write it, and am glad that I did, because I wanted to reinstate the Australian place occupied by Brian and the Centre. But it took an awful lot of time.

I have been inspired to start again by a perceptive comment from Bronwyn Clarke on my post UNE Strategic Planning - impact of new technology. In this post I suggested that the University and especially its staff had been slow to adopt and fully utilise the possibilities associated with the new on-line technology. I also suggested that staff training might help.

In her response, Bronwyn started by saying:

"Jim, I'm not sure it's so much a 'training' problem as a cultural and strategic one. UNE has such a strong and proud tradition in distance education that, IMO, we've been a little slow in adopting new strategies. Because we did things so well in a pre-internet era, much of our thinking about teaching and elearning is still in the mode of providing quality text-based resources in hard copy for individual study."

I think that Bronwyn is right here. UNE pioneered distance education in Australia and was the dominant provider for several decades. It was then slow to respond to the challenges posed by new providers, a slow response not limited just to distance education. In my previous posts I have discussed some of the reasons for this, looking back at the University as I have known it since a child, counterpointing between past and present to try to draw out lessons.

The term "culture" has become very popular in the management literature. However, my feeling is that in practice the term has often been used as a mantra for something quite different, the perceived need for change. We need to change the culture, we need a new culture, become the catch cry for new CEO's. The focus is on the need for change, not culture as such.

When I first met John Cassidy, then the University's new Chancellor, at an alumni function In Sydney, he seemed to fit into this mold, talking about the need for a new culture, for the University to adopt a business like approach and learn from business. I am not being critical here, simply making the observation that the Chancellor fitted into the new business leader model.

From experience with multiple clients over a long period, most attempts at cultural change fail to greater or lesser extent, sometimes disastrously. The reason for this is that culture - often described in business simply as the way we do things round here - provides often unseen iron bonds that essentially determine actions and outcomes. Cultural change is hard to begin with, impossible if you do not understand the existing culture, know what you want the new culture to be, have a process for bridging the two.

The current strategic planning exercise is in part an exercise in cultural change. However, most strategic planning exercises also fail. Indeed, in his book Good to Great, one of the best management books I have read, Jim Collins suggests that there is no significant correlation between the existence or otherwise of formal planning processes and business performance. Depressing news for those like me involved in strategic consulting.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that the current UNE planning exercise is a waste of time or must fail. Far from it. However, I do believe that it must meet certain criteria if it is to have a positive impact.

Many years ago, Peter Drucker suggested that the value of strategic planning lay in the futurity of current decisions, the way in which a view of the future informed and guided what was done in the present. Jim Collins makes the point that one feature of great organisations is that people have sufficient understanding of the organisation and its role so that they can focus on doing.

This understanding is not created by policies, procedures, manuals or decision processes, but by a cascading understanding throughout the organisation such that people can see how they and their areas fit into the whole. He also points to the role of enthusiasm and individual actions in driving success.

Bronwyn wrote: "I am hoping that the new Strategic Plan will provide clearer direction for Teaching and Learning at UNE than has been the case in the past." In similar vein, Paul Reader pleaded for a clear and positive direction for adult education at UNE. I can only sympathise with Paul, for over the years I have seen the University do marvelous things with adult education only to then lose direction.

So one core test for me of the outcomes of the planning process will be the extent to which it cascades in a meaningful fashion helping areas and individual staff members as well as other stakeholders move forward. A second key test will be the degree to which it generates enthusiasm. If the outcomes have to be imposed, it will have failed.

In saying all this I am not blind to either the internal or external difficulties. Indeed, I feel for all those trying to steer the planning process. Universities are very complex animals, far more complex than the normal business organisation. Further many UNE staff are already suffering from future shock, under enormous pressure. This pressure is not just hours worked, although that's an issue in some cases, but the exhaustion that comes from continuing change and adjustment.

This is not unique to UNE but can be found to greater or lesser extent in all universities. But my immediate concern is UNE. To illustrate by example.

In my post on UNE and new technology I talked about the possible role of blogs. Here I have been using the New England, Australia blog as a an example. In this context, Michael Sharkey and I have been exchanging emails on New England writers. In response to one of my comments Michael wrote on one recent Saturday:

"I agree with you about the usefulness of blogs. I wish I had time to get one up and maintain it - mostly, maintain it. I'm at UNE today, marking assignments since early hours -I started around dawn at home & then transferred 'up top' where a colleague and I are coordinating a seminar for postgraduate scholars - a task involving running around to make sure everyone's happy - publishers, editors, academics from interstate, etcetera... and then, quiet time in my cell block with undergraduates' assignments. Sigh. The old story"

Michael has made a major contribution, not just to the University but to writing and the broader community. I feel for him. I can lecture him on the need for him to do new things, but he has to fit them into existing priorities and pressures.

Linking all this back to arguments in earlier posts, one of the reasons that I have so hammered elements of UNE's past is that pride in the past as well as its lessons can enthuse and liberate people at a time when new directions are required. Cultural change is much easier when you draw from and represent positive elements in history and culture.

Finally, Bronwyn wrote:

"In the meantime, you may be pleased to hear that at the Teaching and Learning Centre we are addressing these issues and encouraging staff to explore other options for engaging, interactive and collaborative teaching and learning. In fact next week I'm running sessions on new tools for online learning, so hopefully that will encourage some more use of blogs, wikis and other social software tools."

I am indeed pleased to hear this.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

New England Theatre Centre & Brian D Barnes - Happy 75th birthday, Brian

Postscript: Some time after writing the following story I had the pleasure of receiving an email from Brian to thank me for my birthday greetings, thus re-establishing contact after forty years. I wrote the orginal story based on a mix of web searches and personal recollections. However, in doing so I made a number of errors. I have now edited the story to remove those errors, retaining my personal reactions.

Before writing this story, I wanted to share a frustration with you. I have been trying to upload photographs to illustrate this story. I uploaded two, but they were in the wrong position so I deleted them and tried to reload. Now, as happens from time to time with Google e-blogger, the system has thrown a tantrum and will not let me upload any photos. After several hours trying, I have given up.

I have just learned on one of my web searches trying to compose another article that Brian D Barnes has turned 75.

Brian appears largely forgotten in Australia, as is Harold Bennett and the theatre company they founded. If you search on New England Theatre Centre you will get few hits. Brian himself does not mention it anywhere that I have found, referring only to taking his one man shows around Australia.

I suspect I understand the reasons for this. Yet this was to my knowledge the first attempt to establish a fully professional theatre in Regional Australia and deserves to be remembered for that reason alone. But Brian and the Centre also occupy a short but special position in my life. Having found Brian's birthday by accident, I thought that I should celebrate it and the Centre.

I have not been able to find a proper bio of Brian's life. I originally recorded based on web searches that Brian's formative years were spent in English and Australian repetory and in France and Switzerland. I know now that at the time he sailed for England in 1953 there was no Australian repetory theatre as such - there was what was known as the "The Little Theatre Movement", the two principal ones in Sydney being the Independent and the Metropolitan. In 1958 he turned his attention to solo performing, touring Europe, Greece and India with the works of Elliot and Fry. He returned to Australia in 1961.

In 1962 Brian established the New England Theatre Centre in Armidale with Harold Bennet. His dream was the creation of a fully professional country based touring theatre company. This was a big ask at the time, because even Australia's main regional centres were then very much smaller in population.

He was joined in this dream by Harold. The two were a complete contrast. Brian was relatively small and nuggety, sometimes explosive. Harold, who had I think honed his acting skills through London pantomime, was a bigger man with a sonorous voice and a calmer, more relaxed, public presence.

In 1964 I went to a Centre performance at the Methodist Hall in Armidale. I enjoyed it, and met Brian at the end of the performance. He invited me to visit them the following Sunday at the house the company was renting in East Armidale.

I was just 19, knew nothing about actors, and so arrived around 10 o'clock, which seemed a reasonable time to me. Everybody was still in bed! We worked that out, and I spent the rest of the day there.

They were rehearsing the next play at the time, and we spent the afternoon in the lounge room on a single scene. There was a door with a top and bottom section. The top section had to be pulled open one way, the bottom pushed open with the actresses hip. So a shove, pull movement.

My job was to hold the script folder. As individual actions were decided, Brian would write them down on the opposite page. I was hooked. For the next twelve months I spent every moment I could with the company.

How do I describe this? Well, I did everything, dragging in friends such as Philip Brown to help. I painted sets in the garage, I helped load the VW Kombi when the company was going on school excursions, I helped with rehearsals, I collected tickets. In return I had just so much fun. I do not know what the changing members of the NETC (a substantial number of actors worked with the Centre during its brief existence, although never more than six in one show because that was all the Kombi would hold) thought of this student who kept on dropping in, but certainly they were tolerant and friendly.

Australia has changed enormously since the sixties. The country is so much bigger and wealthier, there are so many competing opportunities. It is hard now for people to understand just how much impact something like the NETC had, what it was like trying to pioneer in the face of adversity with very limited cash, why the NETC deserves to be celebrated. Let me try to paint a picture for you.

The Centre rented a weatherboard house in East Armidale owned by Professor Letters' house, at minimal rental. All the male cast lived there (the girls lived in a flat a few blocks away), so things were a bit crowded and chaotic. Rehearsals took place in the lounge room. Set construction was done in the adjoining garage. Limited cash combined with limited space when on tour made for a minimalist approach to sets. Simplicity was a necessary virtue.

While a university city, Armidale then had a population of only 13,000. This was too small to support a professional company, so the intention from the beginning was to use the city as a base for touring other centres including schools. Most tours included included an evening show for adults with a seprate show for children. Payments from the Education Department provided a thin and in the end inadequate drip feed.

Production was active. Unfortunately my posters (I had a poster for most plays) and notes were lost in the later family move from Armidale to Sydney, so I do not remember now how many different plays I went to nor do I remember all the names of the various casts. I have been wracking my brains here and must see if I can find other sources to remind me. Another problem is that there were productions by others during the period as well, making it difficult to disentangle from my mind which play was produced by whom.

I do remember Brian's one man show Under Milkwood. I was amazed that one man could present so many different charcters and I loved the sound and the taste of the words.

I knew that the Centre was in financial trouble. As I remember it, Brian tried to respond by introducing cooperative arrangements under which all actors shared in what was left after expenses.

Brian and I talked about fund raising. I did have local contacts, but at 20 I did not know how to use them, nor did I properly realise just how serious the problem was.

The Centre closed. I remember the small closing party. I do not remember all there. I do remember, and very fondly, Carole Skinner who had been with the Centre while it was in full flourish and stuck with it to the end and who went on to a long and distinguished career in Australian theatre.

Brian left town, putting the Centre behind him to go onto a long and distinguished career as a solo performer working across many countries with a special English focus. In 2004 he was awarded an MBE for services to English drama

One small postscipt before I go on.

A little later that year (1965) the Elizabethan Theatre Trust came to Armidale in its distinctive bus to present a Noel Coward play. One of the previous NETC actors who was now stage manager for the production contacted me in advance. I went down to meet him and the company at the Royal Hotel where they were staying. We had a beer and he gave me a free ticket to the play.

After the play I went back stage and we went out for a beer and he then suggested that we should go to the after party being put on by some of the locals connected with the Trust. I hadn't been invited, but agreed. My social stocks then went up and down at the same time. Down, because here was a twenty year old local crashing the party. Up, because I was clearly with the cast and nobody could work out why!

To finish this post.

The NETC is only a small element in Brian's long career. However, I think that it deserves to be recognised. The NETC brought professional theatre to tens of thousands of Australians who would not otherwise have experienced it. Whatever the arguments and problems at the time, I do not think that it should be forgotten.

Happy birthday, Brian.

Note on Sources

As indicated, I could find no web information on either the NETC or Harold.

Brian is spread all over the place in small snippets. Because search engine recording is variable and changeable making it sometimes hard to find specific items again, I thought that I should record sources:

  • , the "not for profit" free online guide to modern playwrights and theatre plays, records one Brian D Barnes play, Pickwick's Christmas Party, produced 1972 Bush London. Following through from the doollee site I found that Abebooks had a Brian D Barnes CD, "A Christmas Carol following the version as condensed by Charles Dickens for his own reading; Amazon showed a published version of the same story in both German and English.
  • In May 2003, UNESCAP and Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Hotel in Bangkok UNESCAP co-hosted in Bangkok a one-man theatrical performance to benefit HIV/AIDS orphans. Their e-newsletter records: "Noted actor Brian D. Barnes will present a matinee performance of Kenneth Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows on 25 May ...All proceeds from the event will go to the Kevorkian Foundation (Baan Nor Giank) which cares for HIV-positive children. Known as the jet setting minstrel, Brian D. Barnes has performed in more than 80 countries and is heard regularly on the BBC World Service."
  • The Pattaya Mail review of the Bangkok performance said in part: "Brian held a totally spell-bound audience at the Arts Theatre, using no props, only voice impersonations, facial expressions, body movements, a chair or two and a sheet. How different to the fare spooned out on movies, television and other weapons of mass distraction where the actors are buoyed by so many accoutrements, gadgetry and gimmicks. "
  • On 29 September 2006, the Mira Cultural Society will host a one man show by Brian. This followed a previous and very successful visit by Brian in September 2004. This second story is in Finish, but includes a range of photographs.
  • A story in the Baden Germany newspaper records that Brian will be doing a special performance on 4 March 2006: "To celebrate his 75th birthday year, Brian wants to take you on a trip down memory lane recalling his visits to the Wallgraben over the years since his first performance (THE PICKWICKIANS AT MANOR FARM) in the old theatre in December 1969. In this special programme, the Birthday Boy will link together anecdotes about his world travels with vignettes from the various shows in his repertoire. These include a crazy episode from THREE MEN, the Coronation of Charles II from PEPYS, the Spinster Aunt from PICKWICK, Wilde's SELFISH GIANT, the Mad Tea Party from ALICE and something choice from WILLOWS." The story also notes that Brian was awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to the Theatre.
  • The Finnish Rakastajat Theatre Company records a recent (date uncertain) performance by Brian for the English Club Pori of Douglas Stewart's "The Fire in the Snow." The program notes that this is a revival of the presentation which Brian gave in Pori 40 years ago when he was on tour for the Finnish-Brittish Federation.
  • ACTS (Anglo-German Cooperative Theatre & Media Stuttgart/Anglophone Collaborative Theatre of Stuttgart) records a performance by Brian of "Readings from Oscar Wilde" on 16 October 2004. The show report by Stuart Marlow says in part:

"Led in song by British actor Brian Barnes and artistic director Susanne Heidenreich, October 16 2004 saw the audience at the Theater der Altstadt singing Happy Birthday to Oscar Wilde, who has reached the age of 150. At least for cast and audience, Wilde's spirit is still very much alive and with us.

Brian D. Barnes is himself celebrating 250 stage performances in Stuttgart. His popular one man shows The Provocative Oscar Wilde have featured selections from Oscar's work here for over 31 years. Furthermore, this autumn Stuttgart is a key location for celebrating Wilde's historical legacy. The recent publication of new biographical material by Oscar's grandson Merlin Holland has placed Stuttgart centre-stage. Not only is Brian Barnes adding this material to his shows, but Merlin Holland decided to attend the Stuttgart Book-Week to present his material.

Brian Barnes link with Stuttgart, his artistic home as he calls it, goes back to 1973, when Theater-der-Altstadt was in Charlottenplatz. The erstwhile dramaturg Christoph Stahr, who did a lot to promote English language drama in Stuttgart, encouraged him to perform Stuttgart on a regular basis. This he has been doing successfully for thirty one years. Touring various locations in Germany now accounts for between, 70% and 80% of his earnings.

Works featured by Brian Barnes are; the story, Lord Arthur Saville's Crime, the children's story The Selfish Giant, scenes from the play Lady Windemere's Fan and excerpts from the poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Brian Barnes presents the story of Oscar Wilde's rise and fall through the eyes of Oscar's literary executor Robert Ross, who remained in love with Wilde throughout his short but turbulent life.

Barnes shows trigger off an interesting debate on the Irishness of Wilde's work. For example, the cold hearted and comic manner in which Lord Arthur Saville attempts to kill people (so that he may control his own fate after a fortune teller predicted he would commit a murder) led directly to the Arsenic and Old Lace genre which has proved so popular.

What few critics seem to underline however, is that the origins of both stories, Lord Arthur Saville's Crime and The Selfish Giant are to be found in the rich traditions Irish oral culture, with their subtly ironic uses of the understated-grotesque and rich surrealist folk-tale imagery. Many Irish critics including Holland stress that the Irishness of Wilde has been totally underestimated. But it is there. ... Wilde's mixture of British and Irish humour gave him a firm standing in the history of Anglophone literature. Oddly Brian Barnes has noticed that German audiences who are able to appreciate Wilde's form of humour are quite often advantageous to the performer: The English tend to laugh inside more whereas the Germans laugh outwardly. Which really makes it much easier for an actor if you are playing comedy. "

  • Brian's links with Finland are clear from the earlier references. Here I found one report from the Finnish-British Societies of a visit to Brian's home in England at Burwash, Eeast Sussex. Another Finnish story records a performance by Brian of "The Pickwickians at Manor Farm" and gives Brian's address as BRIAN D. BARNES, One Man Theatre, Vines Cottage, BURWASH, East Sussex TN19 7DZ.
  • In March 2006, Brian performed in Stuttgart to celebrate his 75th birthday(here)
  • December 2006 will perform Christmas Carol at the Wallgrabben Theatre, Germany
  • Bermuda Musical & Dramatic Society Under Milkwood June 1968, The Pickwickians at Manor Farm February 1970, The Incredible Samuel Pepys August 1973
  • On an English Theatre Weekend in Freiburg (5-6 April 2003) Brian gave two lectures on T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.