Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Confessions of a Policy Adviser - 3:Administrative Trainee 1

Photo: Brassey House, Canberra

In January 1967 I packed my gear and headed for Canberra. I was 21, just about to turn 22.

Looking back it's kind of funny. I was not worried in any way about leaving home. I had been hitch hiking in Tasmania on my own at 16, getting my 1961 Leaving Certificate results at the Hobart Post Office.

During this trip I had run out of money at the end. I had just enough for a hotel room. Being proud, I refused the offer of free meals from the hotel, surviving for three days on a small bowl of fruit before catching the plane to Melbourne. Finally getting to Sydney but without money (I had my plane and rail tickets already paid for), I carried my pack from Central to Edgecliffe where my aunt served me bacon and eggs, my first full meal in five days. Since then I had often travelled on my own.

So I wasn't worried about leaving home. But what is funny is that I treated the move almost like going on holiday, as though I would be back a month later. Among other things, this meant that I did not pack as much as I should.

It is also funny in retrospect that I was to find this new life so absorbing from the beginning that I simply put aside so many of the things that I had been interested in as though they had not been. Again this fits with the holiday mode. This was to prove to be a mistake, because they were still there and so deeply imprinted that they were to come back. I would have been far better off if I had kept them in mind.

At Canberra airport I was met by a commonwealth car, one of those cars used to drive ministers, and driven to Brassey House.

Named after Sir Thomas Brassey, Governor of Victoria from 1885 to 1900 and first Earl of Brassey from 1911 until his death in in 1918, Brassey House was completed in 1927 to coincide with the establishment of the Federal Parliament in Canberra and used as a guest house for the exclusive use of members of parliament and mid-level government officials relocating to Canberra. It had been extended in the early sixties to include conference facilities.

Arriving at Brassey House I had my first shock. I thought our starting salaries were very good. I had also assumed that because the first part of the year was full time residential training the Commonwealth would be paying living costs. This proved not to be the case, and Brassey House was not cheap. So one of the first things I had to do was to arrange an overdraft to give me some extra funds!

I met most 0f my fellow trainees the following day.

The Board and Department of External Affairs had agreed to combine both the diplomatic and admin training programs for the initial six weeks, so we were quite a big group. Ages ranged from 19 (many people then finished their pass degree at 19) to the early twenties. Both groups were pretty bright and came from all over Australia.

One of the older people in the admin group was George Brouwer, now Victorian Ombudsman.

A serious person, George had been born in the Dutch East Indies just prior to the Japanese invasion. He and his mother had been interned in one prison camp, his father in another. The only photo George's mum had of her husband was a head and shoulders shot. Each night she made George kiss the photo. At the end of the war the Dutch men broke out and went in search of their families. As George's dad arrived at the camp, George saw him and recognised him from the photo. He rushed back to his mum saying "Mummy, Mummy, daddy's here - and he's got legs!"

We used to tease George simply because he was so serious. We also bought him a copy of Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie to educate him on Australian childhood! Others in the group included Alan Rose and Roger Beale, both of whom were to become department heads.

Life revolved around Brassey House. We worked reasonably hard during the day then socialised at night, drinking rum and coke and playing cards. There were also some social functions where we met previous admin trainees and diplomatic cadets.

We also started finding our way round Canberra.

The city was then a period of rapid growth. The total population of the ACT in 1945 was just 13,ooo. By 1957 this had increased to 39,000, then to 50,000 in 1960 and to 96,000 in 1966. Australia was carefully but rapidly building a national capital that was intended to be a symbol for the nation. With rare exceptions, everyone in Canberra came from somewhere else, so it was very easy to make friends.

I think that there was another advantage in this emigrant mix as well. It made for a diverse public service that knew from first hand experience about attitudes and experiences across Australia.

I found the training program itself very interesting. I also find it interesting looking back because its structure and content tell us something about the changes that have taken place in Australia.

The public service was then seen as a career service in the Westminster tradition.

This meant that it was meant to be a neutral, independent, anonymous, career service: neutral in the sense that we served the elected Government regardless of its party composition; independent in that the Government of the day did not control personnel matters (this was the responsibility of the Public Service Board), while Departmental heads held permanent appointments; anonymous in that while individual public servants might be well known, our advice to and discussions with Government were private to that Government; a career service in that people served for the long term, rising through the ranks.

Something of the flavour can be seen from the comments quoted by Patrick Weller of two senior and very well known public servants to the 1970's Royal Commission into the Commonwealth Public Service. Asked about the objectives of his Department, Sir Lennox Hewitt replied:

I have not previously encountered the suggestion of objectives for a
department of state. The Royal Commission will presumably not need
anything more from the department than a copy of the administrative

Sir Frederick Wheeler's response to the same question was:

The function of the Treasury is to advise and assist the Treasurer in the
discharge of his responsibilities. The objectives of the Treasury are, in
essence, to carry out this function as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Our training reflected this traditional view of the Public Service. So we learned at a nuts and bolts level about the structure of Government, about the roles of Parliament, Cabinet, the Executive Council and Departments of State. We also learned about personnel management in the Public Service including its history.

We spent a fair bit of time talking about what would now be called ethics and values hearing a variety of speakers including Wilfred Jarvis. A key issue was the role and preservation of individual ethics.

If our role was to help a Government define and carry out its policies, to use Sir Frederick's words, as effectively and efficiently as possible, what were we do if we disagreed? Clearly we should provide advice pointing to issues and problems the Government should consider, but once a decision was made our obligation was to carry it out. But what then, if the decision was so badly flawed (at least in our view) that we could not (or should not) in all conscience implement it?

We discussed the case of Adolf Eichman as the supreme public servant. He had been given a task by Government, the extermination of the Jews, a task that he certainly carried out as effectively and efficiently as possible. We also talked about the techniques that the North Koreans had used in brainwashing prisoners during the Korean War, at the way in which individual values could be broken down. A key message was the way in which a series of small personal decisions/actions could progressively erode an ethical position or set of beliefs.

I am not sure that we reached a conclusion beyond the need to be aware of ethical issues and the necessity to resign should the conflict be too profound. However, I was to find the discussion very helpful later in handling specific ethical conflicts.

We also discussed Australian society. Professor Jerzy (George) Zubrzycki , for example, spoke to us on the migrant experience, outlining among other things the process of integration that the migrants had gone through over several generations. We also learned a range of technical skills.

Some knowledge of economics was regarded as critical. Professor Burgess Cameron told us that he intended to cover the entire undergraduate economics course in, from memory, fifteen sessions and indeed he tried very hard to do this. In response I had to ring my father, get him to dust off my economics text books and send them down to Canberra by train.

We also did some practical work including a major in-basket exercise running over a number of days in which we each took particular roles - I represented the Department of Shipping and Transport - undertaking research, writing minutes (correspondence within Departments) and memos and letters (correspondence between Departments) and participating in interdepartmental discussions. This was useful, although our trainers had underestimated the quantity of written material likely to be generated so things started to collapse because there were not enough typing resources.

I have described the course at some length because I joined the Public Service at the start of a period of massive change and in writing want to give a feel for the old Service.

There are differing views about this change process.

In 2003 Patrick Weller quoted a then minister as saying: "Basically, the last 20 years has been a battle between the elected representatives and the imperial bureaucracy. And the elected representatives won." That minister saw it as a continuing fight for influence and power between those who were elected and those who serve them.

I have a different view. While change was required, my feeling is that the Public Service today is neither as efficient nor effective as it was.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Demography, Universities and the Trades in Australia - a postscript

On October 12 I looked at Demography, Universities and the Trades in Australia. I said in part:

"If we look at the demographic data, the absolute numbers in the traditional University age entry while bouncing around are not much different. However, what does appear to be changing is the proportion interested in going to university. I have not analysed this, but I get the strong impression that the combination of the costs of a degree with the increasing attractiveness of non-degree options such as trades is having an impact."

These arguments have now appeared in national debate as a consequence of the release of a report - Clearing the Myths Away: Higher Education's Place in Meeting Workforce Demands - by Monash University social scientists Bob Birrell and Virginia Rapson. The comments that follow are based on newspaper reports. I have not seen the full report.

The authors note that almost all the growth in training in Australian universities since 1996 has been among full-fee overseas students. From my perspective this is hardly surprising given that absolute numbers in the entry level age cohorts have not increased.

The authors then suggest that Australia's higher education policies are at odds with the demands of the workforce and based on three myths:
  • that there is too much emphasis on university education
  • that young people must choose between trade and a university education
  • that there will be fewer young people entering the workforce in coming years.

Dealing with numbers first, the report suggests that the numbers in the 15-19 age cohort will increase from 1.4 to 1.6 million by 2051. This increase, while small, could well be right and may even be an under estimate given the recent increase in the Australian birthrate.

Assuming that the proportion going to university does not change, the demographic data I looked at suggests a small aggregate decline in student numbers followed by an increase. However, this raises an interesting work force planning issue that I have not seen discussed.

My impression is that the average age of the university workforce has been increasing, with a significant proportion now in their fifties and sixties. This means that there is likely to be a substantial staff replacement demand at just the time that student numbers start to rise again.

The report then apparently goes on to argue that the Federal Government must take action to get more young Australians into university to ensure there are enough workers to fill projected gaps among managers, professionals and associate professionals.

According to The Australian, the report suggests that "Nearly two-thirds of all the growth in the employed workforce over the decade 1996 to 2006 went to persons employed in these three sets of occupations." People filling these positions are increasingly required to possess degree-level qualifications, yet" since 1996 there has been little increase in the number of domestic Australian students commencing undergraduate training at Australian universities."
I find this argument difficult to assess in the absence of the report itself, but would be very cautious in the absence of the data. For example, the numbers employed in trades have been depressed by the shortage of skilled trades people, while we have been churning out lots of people with business qualifications who seek management positions. So there is a risk of circularity.

However, the report then goes on to make an interesting point.

In 2005, almost half of school-leavers were not enrolled in any post-school education. Further, one in five 20-year-old men and one in three 20-year-old women were not working or studying.

The report calls on the Government to improve access to higher education in order to meet the demands of the workforce. "There should be an increase in the availability of higher education places in locations and disciplines suited to prospective student preferences and employer needs, as well as a more supportive stance on the provision of student financial assistance."

Now here I have sympathy for the report's arguments. In essence, when you look at the proportion of the work force in any form of post school training there is substantial scope for increasing both trade and university participation, thus easing future skills shortages.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Confessions of a Policy Adviser - 2:Beginnings

In my first post in this series I spoke of the sudden request to provide advice on the reasons for the decline in Australian manufacturing together with ideas as to what might be done to turn this round. l explained why we failed and spoke of my reactions to that failure. Taking this example as an entry point, I suggested that it might be interesting to explore the way in which policy is developed and implemented, in so doing looking at some of policy debates with a special focus on industry policy.

I have been thinking about the best way to approach this task.

I want to set out a personal view, I want to show how things work in terms that are understandable to someone outside as well as within Australia, I want to draw out changes and show the clash of ideas set against the broader sweep of change in Australia and overseas. I also want to tell the whole thing as a story.

I think that the best way to manage all this is to tell the story chronologically. At the same time I do not want this story to completely dominate the blog, part of the fun in writing is to be able to go in different directions, so I am going to do perhaps one in two or one in three posts in the series. Because it is a story, I will put a list of previous posts at the end of each post to make it easier for people who are interested or become interested to read back.

Armidale 1966

In 1966 I was doing history honours at the University of New England with a special focus on the Aborigines and the prehistory of Australia.

While I had been interested in economics and had done an extra unit to maintain it as a major, I swore that I would never become an economist. There were just too many economists in the family including Dad (then Professor of Economics at UNE) and Uncle Horace Belshaw, one of New Zealand's best known economists.

Under the influence of Isabel McBryde, I had become very interested in prehistory, ethnohistory and anthropology, going on various digs and survey missions and working as a research assistant during vacations. Even then economics retained some interest, since I selected the economic basis of aboriginal life in New England at the time of European intrusion as my topic and endeavored to use concepts developed from economics to provide an analytical framework.

While I was interested in a career in Australian prehistory I was also interested in the possibility of going to Canada for a year to work with Frontier College, in doing some form of postgraduate work in the United States or possibly working as a stock broker. The one thing that I had not considered was the Public Service.

In the meantime, I was having just too much fun to worry.

New England was then a very special place. Full time undergraduate numbers were small, we knew each other and the staff very well, nearly everybody was on some form of scholarship so very few had to work in the way now common, there was an active social and intellectual life.

While the formalities that had been attached to university life were starting to break down (my year was the first year that insisted on being called by their first name instead of the more formal Mr or Miss), we still all wore green undergraduate gowns with gold bars marking the year (so four for fourth year). Coats and ties were still compulsory for men while attending lectures. Which almost inevitably led one of my friends to attend a lecture wearing a coat, tie, gown and almost nothing else!

All this was to go during the late sixties and especially the seventies, the tip decade that marks the break in the previous long continuity of Australian history and its replacement by the Australia of today.

We were obviously aware of the changes, although the scale was not clear.

The Beatles were popular early marking a new type of pop music, we debated new theology at the Methodist Youth Fellowship (this was a large and active town group with heavy student involvement), we spent a lot of time in the Union drinking coffee and arguing. There were also the first student demonstrations centered on the decision of the University Council to ban room visits between members of the opposite sex. Most students lived in college, so this became a major issue to the point that it galvanised the entire student body into concerted opposition that ultimately forced Council to revoke the decision.

The introduction of conscription by the Menzies Government in 1964 had a polarising effect on campus. To that point, Vietnam had not been a major issue. Now students were forced to address it. My age group was the first to go into the ballot and I faced a very real personal problem.

In 1957 my parents had decided to send me to TAS (The Armidale School). While I later came to love the place, my first years there were simply awful. I was shy and uncertain and did not know how to relate to the other boys. I was bullied, not physical but emotional, heckling that made going to school a horror. I spent a lot of time being sick, something I became quite expert at.

The bottom point was the 1959 cadet camp. Cadets were compulsory at TAS and this was my first camp. I hated it. Upon my return I told my parents that they were to withdraw their approval for my participation in cadets. They agreed to do so, although it turned out that they did not, possibly because they thought that I might in some way grow out of it.

From this point I simply stopped going to cadets. Some of the masters must have known, Brian Mattingley for one since he kept seeing me in the classroom on Friday afternoons while everybody else was out parading on Front Field, but nobody apparently told the master in charge of the corp or the school sergeant. It was almost twelve months before they found out.

I was called into the school sergeant's office to be interviewed by he and the master in charge. They told me that cadets were compulsory and that consequently I must attend cadets or leave the school.

By now I had worked my way through the worst of the problems, the heckling had stopped, I had friends, I was doing well enough in sport to fit in there and had carved out an acceptable if slightly eccentric position in the school. So I did not really want to leave. However, I still loathed cadets and was not prepared to shift my position. Despite the pressure (this was not an easy interview for a fifteen year old), I held my ground, said that if the choice was cadets or leaving the school, I would leave the school. They said that they would discuss the matter with Gordon Fisher, the headmaster. The head ruled in my favour.

Conscription brought all this back. But I also had another problem in that my religious views had evolved to the point that I saw taking of life as immoral. One possibility here was to register as a conscientious objector. However, the logic of my position was such that if it was immoral to kill then even registration was immoral because it recognised the state's right to conscript people to kill. So my instinctive reaction was to refuse to register, to follow the same course I had with cadets.

This created a degree of consternation and led to some vigourous argument among friends and family. I was fortunate here in having support from Richard Udy, the local Methodist minister. I do not think that he tried to convince me one way or the other. Rather, he helped me talk through the issues. We finally agreed that I would register as a CO, but would also offer to serve an equivalent two year period in overseas missionary work if called up.

My number did not come up, so in a sense the issue went away. However, it had had had an impact on the way I thought and was also to have important downstream affects on my life.


The Commonwealth Public Service recruiters arrived on campus in the middle of 1966. The Service had undergone considerable expansion and wanted to build up the number of graduates in the service. In doing so, they faced certain problems.

While universities had begun to expand, the number of graduates was still relatively small by today's standards, so there was a fair degree of competition for applicants. Further, Sydney and Melbourne graduates were very reluctant to accept jobs in Canberra. This meant that public service graduate recruitment had a special focus on universities outside those cities.

At that stage New England students considering the Commonwealth Public Service option had five major choices.

The Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs and Trade) had the highest pulling power because Australia's rapidly growing Diplomatic Service offered a variety of overseas positions and considerable prestige. Our diplomats were regarded as a special cadre that carefully selected and then grew its own. Stories about their selection techniques abounded, especially the cocktail parties put on for applicants during which behaviour was carefully tested. I had vaguely thought of applying, but then ruled it out because of my views on the Vietnam War and military service.

The Department of Primary Industry and its research arm, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, attracted UNE's agricultural economists and at that stage was almost a UNE club because of the number of UNE people. Alf Maiden, the Department's permanent head, had been one of Dad's first students at the New England University College. I was not interested having ruled economics out at that point.

The same argument applied to Treasury. One of the original departments set up at Federation, Treasury had developed from a core financial control and book keeping function into Canberra's most powerful policy Department, ranking in external prestige only second to the Department of External Affairs. Treasury tried to recruit only good honours economics graduates, so I might not in fact have got in even had I been prepared to consider this option.

Treasury's main Canberra rival, the Department of Trade and Industry, was the fourth possibility. Also a foundation Department on the trade side, DTI had become a very powerful Department under John McEwen as Minister, J G (Jack) Crawford as permanent head.

In retrospect, DTI would have been a logical choice for me if I was going to join the Commonwealth Public Service. I had linkages with the Country Party, the party McEwen headed, while Crawford was a friend of my father. I had aspirations to become a Country Party parliamentarian, so DTI experience might have provided an added base.

The DTI recruiter in fact tried very hard to get me to apply, but none of the potential advantages occured to me because the Commonwealth Public Service Board recruiter had already interested me on an alternative option, the Administrative Trainee Program.

At that point the Board faced a major graduate recruitment problem. The Departments I have talked about had sufficient power to attract graduates, but the Board wanted to build graduate numbers across the whole Service and was struggling because of negative attitudes not just about Canberra but about the Service itself. The Administrative Trainee Program had been developed to overcome this.

I saw the Board representative out of curiosity but with no clear intention of applying to join the Public Service. Although I did not know it at the time, I fitted the profile the Board was looking for. I was articulate and reasonably bright, had reasonable academic results, but had also been actively involved in student life including editing the student newspaper and holding office positions in a number of student societies. He therefore set out to sell me on the Program

He explained that the scheme had been developed to train future Public Service leaders. If accepted, I would go through a year's training combining a mix of formal courses with job rotations. At the end of the year I would be placed with a mutually agreed Department. I was attracted to the concept and ended up applying, if still with no firm intention of taking it up.

My exam results that year - second class honours division two - were not as good as I had hoped. Had I got a two one I would probably have gone straight on to a PhD since I was very happy as a student. The two two meant that I had to do my masters first, and the extra time involved did not attract me. So when the offer to become an Administrative Trainee arrived I decided to accept it.

Previous Posts in this series

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Why are we so hard on our politicians - and ourselves? A postscript

In an earlier post I asked why were so hard on our politicians, suggesting that this was damaging democracy itself.

There was a short session on ABC Radio National tonight in which Anthony Moran reported on a new book written by he and Judith Brett. (Ordinary People's Politics: Australian's talk about their life, politics and the future of their country, Judith Brett and Anthony Moran, Pluto Press ISBN 1 86403 257 X) . I quote in part:

When commentators argue over what ordinary people think and feel about politics, their focus is often too narrow. It has become a cliche of Australian political commentary that ordinary people aren't interested in politics anymore, that they are disengaged from public life and institutions and focused instead on their private concerns, and that they can't stand politicians. Well, if it's true that they don't like or trust politicians today, it's also true that they never liked or trusted them very much in the past either. Declining trust in politicians since the 1970s closely mirrors declining trust in other professions such as bank managers, lawyers and journalists - and the reasons for that include a citizenry more questioning of all kinds of authority and expertise. Political engagement waxes and wanes, depending on the times and the pressing issues. In fact, evidence from surveys points to a citizenry that is more informed than ever before, and levels of political apathy are not as high as they were, for example, in the 1960s.

I found Anthony's brief remarks interesting. They draw out the way in which changing attitudes towards politicians are a sub-set of a broader pattern of change. We all know this, but it is still a helpful reminder. I also find it interesting that so much of the discussion about social change including changing social attitudes keeps on coming back to the seventies as the key decade.

Anthony's comments also suggest a pattern of political engagement and interest that is far more complex than the simple question of direct involvement in formal politics. I think that this is right and it's an interesting issue.

Take blogging as an example. The proportion of the population that reads blogs is small, the proportion actively blogging smaller still. Many bloggers are still very defensive about the activity. Yet when we stand back and look at the overall pattern some very interesting features emerge.

The first is simply the law of large numbers.

The proportion blogging may be small, but the absolute number of blogs is substantial simply because the population is large. If only half of one per cent of Australians have blogs, then this equates to 100,000 blogs. I have seen numbers suggesting that up to 4 per cent of the population has/has had a blog. If true, this equates to 800,000 blogs.

Many of these blogs are inactive, a number strictly social, a way of sharing photos and chit chat. However, again the law of large numbers comes into play. If only half of one per cent of existing Australian blogs involve regular reflection, analysis or commentary, then we are still looking at somewhere between 500 and 2,000 blogs.

Of course, if bloggers simply write for themselves without readers (a common fear among bloggers), then the story ends here with 500-2,000 active but unread commentators. In fact, and I find this the really interesting part, there appear to be clear patterns in the way in which ideas and information spread among the blogging community, both writers and the larger readership group.

Here I am not talking about the so-called A list bloggers, those who have established major world wide audiences in particular areas, but about the way in which individual blogs carve out often small niches of influence. These niches overlap, so that in the case of the Australian reflective/commentator blogs we have, say, 500-2,000 overlapping circles of various sizes adopting very varying positions.

Often, conversation occurs among people with like ideas. Arguably, the main effect here is to reinforce common positions, but there is also an energising effect that does have direct political impact.

Beyond this, conversation also takes in areas of overlap between different positions. Individual effects may be small. Neil's expertise on education and the Higher School Certificate causes me to change some of my own views. A small change at individual level. But multiply this across the total blogging audience and the aggregate impact can be substantial, again because of the law of large numbers.

I accept that bloggers are almost by definition an unrepresentative group. But each blogger knows a circle of people outside blogging, so that the blog discussions get carried out into a wider circle.

Linking all this back to my opening point, Anthony's suggestion that the pattern of political involvement and interest is far more complex than the simple question of direct involvement in formal politics. I think that the blogging case shows this very clearly.

Which actually leads me to wonder just how blogging is starting to affect the political process. But I think that I will leave this hanging for the moment.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Australia's greatest drought - or is it our wettest period on record?

As noted in my story Water, Drought and the Environment - working from facts I had been under the impression that Australia was presently experiencing perhaps its worst drought, by implication its lowest rainfall, on record.

I was surprised and very interested to find from a story in the Sydney Morning Herald (21-22 October) that data from the National Climate Centre shows that the period October 1996 to October 2006 when averaged across Australia was in fact wetter than the long term average. Further, the period 1997 to 2001 was the second wettest five year period in Australian history.

How do we explain this apparent contradiction? It appears there were two Australia's during this period. The south eastern third of the country has been getting hotter and drier. This is where most of the people live, hence the overall perception. However, the north western half of the country has been getting wetter with some areas experiencing the highest average rainfalls on record.

What does all this mean? To begin with, we have to be careful with averages since they are affected by start and end points. I was not able to check all the data because it's not available on line without purchase. However, if you follow the link above and play round with maps and data (this is quite fun) you will see what I mean.

But beyond this, it again illustrates the need to check facts. The present debate on water is being driven especially by the problems in the south eastern corner of the country. Can that experience in fact be generalised to cover the whole country?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Why are we so hard on our politicians - and ourselves?

In a discussion on another blog about just what we were entitled to know about our public figures I commented:

I am also personally worried at just what we are doing to our political figures like John Brogden. Speaking as someone who once wanted to be in parliament, would I run for pre-selection today? I don't think I would. I have just too many personal skeletons that might be pulled out of the closet and used to beat me round the head

Natasha Stott Despoja's decision to withdraw from politics, while made for understandable personal reasons, is another straw in what seems to me to be now rather a strong gale. We really cannot afford to lose people like her, like John Brogden, like John Anderson, like Tim Fischer. I have not analysed the pattern across the country, but I have the strong impression that the loss of political figures for health reasons such as depression or for life style or family reasons has been on a marked upward trend.

Australian politics has always had its harsh elements flowing in part from its adversarial nature. In 1959 my grandmother died in a car accident. My grandfather remarried a little later, a women whom had worked for him many years before. This was then a common pattern among men of his age who had been married for many years, in his case 47 years.

At the next election, his last, I was handing out how to vote cards. A Labor Party worker who did not know who I was said "How can you hand out how to vote cards for a man who killed his wife to marry his secretary."

So the harsh element has always been there. But my impression is that it has got far worse and that, at the same time, the pressures associated with the job have risen, the rewards fallen.

A politician's life has never been easy.

I know the country best. Electorates are large, so electoral work involves continuous travel. There are constant meetings and functions, steady attention to matters raised by electors. Parliamentary sessions mean more time away from home, often working irregular hours. Parliamentarians spend much time alone in cars, on planes, in hotel rooms. Perhaps not surprisingly, alcoholism has always been an occupational hazard.

The country politician's ordinary working life has got easier and harder with time. On the plus side, members of parliament have more staff, better office facilities, access to better communications.

On the minus side, electorates have got larger and larger because of population shifts, increasing the amount of time spent travelling. The range of issues that parliamentarians must consider have become wider and more complex. And, perhaps most importantly, all our politicians now live on a gold fish bowl. We can look at this along several dimensions.

Dimension one is the sheer hunger of the media for content. There are more journalists, more outlets operating for longer time periods, great competition for ratings/readership. So there is a constant search for a new angle.

There is also a herd effect as journalists wheel and turn in a mob focusing on current hot issues, with reporting feeding on reporting feeding on talk back radio feeding more reporting. Over a two or three day period a hot story such as John Brogden (a man who I liked and respected) and his progressive exit from politics can generate dozens of press stories, hundreds of hours of radio and TV coverage across multiple outlets. The impact can be personally crushing.

Dimension two is the progressive break down in the divide between public and private life. There used to be a clear separation here. Lots of things were known about individuals, their lives, about relationships between individuals. They were talked about in private, never in public. While this still exists to some degree, the area reserved for private has got smaller and smaller and in some cases has simply vanished.

This links to dimension three, a change in the nature of reporting linked in some ways to changing community attitudes and interests. We just appear to be so much more critical, more censorious.

Like most Australians, I was captured by the fairy tale story of the Tasmanian princess. But I could not help wondering just how long it would be before the first negative story appeared in a women's magazine. It took just three months.

The nature of the changes in community attitudes, the way this feeds into reporting in terms of both story selection and story focus, the way this feeds back into community attitudes is far too long and complicated story for this post. For the moment, I would simply note that its effect on our politicians in combination with other changes is both individually damaging and (in my view) destructive to our entire system of Government.

We have always been cynical about politicians as a group. The Australian tall poppy syndrome is well known. Yet, at least in my view as an historian and as someone who has known many politicians from different parties over many years, we have in fact been reasonably well served by our politicians.

People go into politics for many reasons. Our politicians are human like the rest of us. Yet when you look at the work that politicians do in their electorates, at the contributions that so many individual parliamentarians have made to public life, at the causes (sometimes unpopular) they have championed, we come up with a pretty good report card.

We want people to be interested and involved in the democratic system. This is becoming an increasingly big ask when those people know that they now risk personal destruction at worst, at best must suffer increasing personal scrutiny that may extend to their own families.

So let's cut our politicians (and ourselves) a bit more personal slack.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Call to Arms - a Message for the Belshawviks

This message is addressed to the Belshawviks, the name Bob Quiggin gave to those of us who worked together in developing new policy approaches in the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce, and to all those who worked for or with me in Government - over 300 in all.

In my new series on this blog, Secrets of a Policy Adviser, I am going to put on the public record some of the things that we tried to achieve, how we tried to achieve them. I also want to recognise the achievements of both the private sector and union people who worked with us.

Without detailed staff lists and other records I cannot remember all names. So I am going to forget some individual contributions. Worse, I am sometimes going to get the spelling of names wrong. I also have my own perspective, not always right or at least only partial. So I would like to encourage contributions from different perspectives.

I would like to make the story personal as well as professional. Life has become far too serious today. There is a place for extended lunches!

We are now spread all over the world. I will try to contact people where I can. Please do the same.

I have not seen this done on a blog before, so at worst it is an interesting experiment.

Migration Matters - the view from 1949

Note to readers: To help those who are interested, I have now added a list of previous posts in this series at the end of this post.

I was listening to ABC radio this afternoon on the way to pick up one of my daughters. They (the panel) were talking about the policies re bias. The question posed was this. Looking back in history, what must the ABC do now to redress past bias?

One panelist made a series of suggestions re the fifties, presenting the usual modern stereotypes. It was quite funny and I would have laughed had I not just watched a short 1949 film (here on Google video Australia) selling the virtues of the new mass migration program to possible migrants on one side, Australians on the other.

Yes, the film was set in the frame of populate or perish. But what I really noticed were the comments on Australian attitudes, what are now called values. A few examples:

1. You may worship God in the way that seems fit for you

2. You may read or write what you like

3. You may preserve your culture

Makes one think.

Previous Posts in the Migration Matters series

In previous posts I:

1. Provided an overview of post war immigration pointing to its size and dramatic impact on Australia, suggesting that that the Australian experience was unique.

2. 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.

3. I 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.

4. I then extended the story, looking at the changes in Australia over the fifties and sixties.

5. Struggling to keep up with the current debate, I posed some questions that we needed to consider in thinking about future migration needs.

6, In my sixth post in the series, I discussed the end of the Australian concensus on migration that had held for so many years.

Confessions of a Policy Adviser -1- Setting the Scene

It's a Friday afternoon, about six o'clock.

I had just come across from Treasury to head up the Department of Industry and Commerce's Economic Analysis Branch. In Treasury I had made it a practice always to go to the Social Club Happy Hour - Friday afternoon drinks - because I enjoyed it and it kept me in touch across areas. I was determined to do the same thing in my new Department even though I had noticed that, unlike Treasury, few senior staff attended.

I was interrupted by John Martin, then Director of the Finance and Tax Section in my Branch, now a commissioner with the ACCC. Keith Purcell, the First Assistant Secretary in charge of the Policy Division, had received an urgent call from the Minister (Sir Philip Lynch) and wanted to see me at once.

Keith explained to me that Prime Minster Fraser was very worried about the decline in Australian manufacturing and had asked our Minister for urgent advice not just on the causes, but on what might be done. We had to have advice on the Minster's desk first thing Monday morning. So we started calling staff in setting up for a weekend's work.

Quite frankly, this was one of the least satisfying experiences of my professional life. A week end to try to provide sensible advice on this issue was bad enough. But we also lacked the policy framework and supporting analytical tools required to say anything new and useful. So in the end we provided statistics with some fairly superficial supporting analysis. I swore that I would never put myself in this position again.

Against this background, I thought that it might be interesting to explore the way in which policy is developed and implemented, in so doing looking at some of policy debates with a special focus on industry policy.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Pause for Reflection - October 2006

Looking at the dashboard controlling the four blogs that I am directly involved with, I see that I am now up to 233 posts. This is in fact a lot of writing.

I have always written, I like the process because of the thinking processes involved. But until recently much of my writing has been done in one way or another in a work context. I have had a number of books in outline, at one stage working in Canberra I even kept a writer's diary writing down descriptions and thoughts for later use, but somehow day to day events always intervened. Now I seem to be writing steadily.

In conversations, an earlier post on this blog, I reported on some of the things I liked about this blog in particular. More recently, I have been looking across all four blogs that I am involved with to see what I have learned.

One thing that I have learned is the need to distinguish between the writing and publishing function. Most bloggers - and this is true of me as well - think of their blogs in writing terms, sharing thoughts with a broader world. But blogs also involve publishing, a very different activity. Let me try to illustrate.

Traffic on the four blogs that I am involved with is tiny compared with some other blogs. I can only stand in awe of the traffic and involvment flowing to blogs like John Quiggin's or David Maister's. John sometimes gets 70+ comments on a single post, David 50+. Even so, my own numbers are instructive.

The total number of page impressions has grown from 1,792 (July), 2,983 (August), 4,384 (September) to 5,761 (October month to date pro-rata). These raw figures are affected by my own visits, they are quite frequent, but on the basis that my own activity is reasonably constant, I am now attracting perhaps 3,000 page impressions per month.

Putting this in publishing terms, my four blogs are now equivalent to a small stable of e-publications. So I need to think about publishing issues in much the same way as any other publisher. For that reason, I have just run an editorial statement on all four blogs primarily addressing myself so that I have my own policy statement.

The varying experience across the four blogs has been interesting in itself. In all cases the blogs went through a search process as I tried to define what I was on about, tried to build initial content. There seems to be a basic critical mass rule here, that accumulated content has to get to a critical minimum point both to attract readers and make subsequent content creation easier. Beyond this point, experience between the blogs has varied.

Established to provide information about work, life and play in Regional Australia, the Regional Living Australia blog is a partisan blog in that I am trying to sell as well as tell the story of Regional Australia.

This has so far proved the most difficult blog to establish. This is partially due to its newness (the first post was on 23 July), but also reflects the breadth of the potential target audience on one side, the huge diversity in the regional experience on the other. Only now after two and a half months and 42 posts am I starting to get a feel as to direction. One conclusion - one that applies on other blogs as well - is the need to develop a thematic approach that might interest readers while also building content for reference/search purposes.

The Managing the Professional Services Firm blog is very different in that it is a professional blog intended to encourage discussion about the professions and their management while allowing me to publish some of my material.

This, too, proved a difficult blog to get going. Again I needed to build content, while the breadth and silo nature of the professions also creates targeting difficulties. One of the messages that I have been trying to get across are the commonalities across the professions, the way in which different professions can learn from each other, but this runs up against the silos that I am trying to overcome.

I still do not have enough feedback on this blog to know whether or not I am getting it right. However, I take some initial comfort here from the way that the traffic figures have suddenly accelerated if from a very low base.

New England, Australia and Personal Reflections and have been the easiest blogs to get going and also a lot of fun.

Like Regional Living Australia, New England, Australia is a partisan blog in that I am trying to sell as well as tell the story of New England.

Originally established primarily as a vehicle to self-publish some of my own historical research that would otherwise have been lost, the blog has evolved to serve a broader purpose focused (as the mast head says) on the history, life and culture of Australia's New England. There is just so much to say here that selection is a key problem as is balance between topics.

One of the pleasing things about the New England blog is that I am getting enough feedback to suggest that I am achieving at least part of my objectives, although this can make it a little hard to stay on topic in that it takes me in all sorts of interesting directions.

Exactly the same thing happens on Personal Reflections. I try to avoid commenting on daily events unless I can add something, then I read a story like Neil's story today on the HSC (this began in NSW this morning) and feel like commenting. Then, too, I get a comment like Lexcen's on problems in Australian manufacturing I know that there is something else I should write about. And all this at a time when I have yet to finalise other series.

One interesting issue that has emerged is the nature of cross-overs between blogs. I suppose that this is inevitable given the way in which my interests link together. So I wrote the story on Bill Hughes on the Opera House on this blog, but it could have gone just as well on the New England blog. Then you get another cross-over in education and training between this blog and Managing the Professional Services firm.

Another interesting issue is to find the best way of managing an increasing volume of content. At the simplest level, I would rather not make unintentionally inconsistent or contradictory statements. Then, too, I want to be able to find past material so that I can draw from it again, present linkages. And I would also like to be able to consolidate and re-present material to make it more easily accessible.

When I can afford it, what I would really like to do is to have a personal web site backing the blogs up to give people easier access to more complex stuff in different formats. Ah well, one step at a time.

I had intended to conclude this post with a section summarising main discussion themes. This will have to wait given the length of this post.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Water, Drought and the Environment - working from facts

I had not intended to post again today. But I listened to a conversation that worried me.

Australia faces a serious drought, perhaps the worst on record. Whether this drought is simply a bad drought or a sign of global warming is an important issue. But in the conversation I am talking, about discussion went from drought to water to the need to phase out primary production dependent upon water, especially irrigation crops. Part of the argument was couched in terms of the need for the metro cities to have access to more water, part in terms of the need for the environment to have more water, part on the belief that farming and grazing was no longer viable in many parts of Australia.

Now that got me thinking, because it seemed to me to ignore the importance of agriculture to the Australian economy. So I thought that I would check a few facts. In doing so, I came up with a few nasty answers. The stats that follow are drawn from official statistics. I do not pretend that the analysis is complete or rigorous.

If we start by looking at the overall trade position over the period 1999-00 to 2004-05, we find that with the exception of one year, our exports of goods and services have been consistently less than our imports. So we have been borrowing from overseas.

When I look at the composition of our exports, I see that:

  • our exports of primary products including minerals over the period have grown from $A54.8 billion to $A77.7 billion.
  • our exports of manufactures were $A32.4 billion in 99-00, $A35.2 billion in 04-05, so have barely grown.
  • our exports of services have grown from $A28.6 billion to $35 billion over the period, a reasonable increase, but only a small proportion of the increase in primary products.

On the surface, we appear to have a problem if we are buying more than we sell and at the same time are increasingly dependent on primary products in what we sell. So I then looked in more detail at the composition of exports.

I had some problems here because of data availability. However, a few tentative conclusions:

  1. Coal exports reached $17.1 billion in 04-05, increasing by 11 per cent per annum over the period. Iron ore exports were $8.1 billion in 04-05, growing at 12 per cent per annum. Coal, a green house problem export, is now by far our largest export. Both coal and iron exports depend upon world demand.
  2. If we look at our other major primary exports ranked by value we have crude petroleum ($5.7 billion in 04-05 but declining), gold ($5.6 million with a low upward trend), bovine meat ($4.9 billion growing over the period at 6 per cent per annum), aluminium ores including alumina (4.4 billion and growing slowly), aluminium ($4.1 billion but declining), wheat ($3.4 billion and declining), natural gas ($3.2 billion and rising over the period at 6 per cent per annum) and alcoholic beverages ($2.8 billion growing at 13 per cent per annum). I am not sure that this mix gives me great comfort.
  3. I do not have the data to comment on manufacturing exports except to note that performance does not appear good.
  4. Finally, the services data is difficult to interpret. However, working from numbers from other sources, our services exports appear to be dominated by tourism, something over over $16 billion, and education services, possibly around $9 billion. This leaves something aroundr $10 billion for everything else. Our net tourism earnings (exports minus imports) appear quite low, our net education earnings high. Given that overall net earning on services were negative in 04-05, our overall performance on the services side would appear to be dangerously dependent on education.

Now I might be wrong in all this, but if the numbers and my analysis of them are in any way right, just at the moment I would be worried about the impact of drought and water shortages on our export performance. To the degree that water is short, and subject to environmental considerations, I would be focusing short to medium term discussions on where we can get the greatest export gains from the water we do have.

But perhaps I am wrong.

Belshaw Blogs - statement of editorial policy

I am carrying this statement on each of my blogs.

There has recently been a fair bit of discussion (here, here, here and here, for example) about problems and issues associated with blogging.

I publish and mainly write four blogs, each serving a different purpose. In doing so, I try to be accurate. However, recently I made some mistakes of fact and interpretation in a story. They were pointed out to me and I have corrected them.

This case provided an excellent illustration of the need for care. I thought therefore that I should provide a statement of principles governing my approach to all my blogs. Each blogger has their own approach. This is mine.

All my blogs are intended to stimulate interest in and discussion on particular topics. They provide an opportunity for me to place ideas, thoughts, information and research on the public record. I spend a fair bit of time thinking about individual stories and want my readers to value the visit experience. I also believe that blogs are a way of encouraging civilised conversation. To this end:

  1. All my blogs contain a mix of fact, analysis, recollection and opinion.
  2. I try to check my facts. However, I will make mistakes. Where I do so, I will make corrections to the story and, if necessary, acknowledge the mistake.
  3. There will also be mistakes in my analysis. Again, I am happy to recognise and discuss such errors.
  4. While I try to be objective, I recognise that my own values and opinions colour my writing. I will try to write in such a way that the reader can properly indentify my views and biases and hence make their own judgments. This holds especially when I am arguing a case.
  5. When writing as an analyst, I try to deconstruct the elements in a discussion so that I can properly present issues and approaches. I will try to do so independent of personalities.
  6. Since I want to encourage civilised conversation, I will try to treat my visitors with courtesy even where I disagree with them. I reserve the right to delete comments where those comments are nasty or may create legal problems, but I will never delete a comment just because I disagree with it.
  7. As part of civilised conversation, I will try to recognise other's ideas, to contribute to relevant discussion on other people's blogs and to answer promptly emails arising from my blogs.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Bill Hughes - a personal memoir

Photo: Bill Hughes opens the Nimmitabel water supply

Over the last year or so I have listened to the debate on the role of Davis (Bill) Hughes on the Sydney Opera House and sometimes bit my tongue. Today's Sydney Morning Herald carried the release of a very gracious letter (I could not find the story on line) from Joern Utzon written to the Hughes family on Bill's death and now released by the family. I have also noticed that Peter Hall is now receiving some public recognition for his work.

Given this, I thought that I should write a small personal memoir on Bill. I wasn't sure whether to post this to this blog or to New England, Australia, but thought that I would post it here because it is personal. I will cross reference it on the New England blog.

The details of Bill's life were fairly well covered in the NSW Legislative Assemby following his death.

The son of an engine driver, Bill was born in Launceston. He was educated at Launceston High School and the University of Tasmania, and chose teaching as a career from 1927 to 1935. He enlisted in the RAAF, in which he served for the duration of the war, and reached the level of squadron leader.

After the war Bill was appointed senior science master and deputy headmaster at the The Armidale School, the school I later went too. In 1945 Bill was elected to the Armidale City Council, building a local support base.

In 1949 my grandfather, David Drummond, who had been member for Armidale for a considerable period, moved to Federal politics. Bill was preselected and won the subsequent by-election in 1950. Like my grandfather (and me) he was a New England New Stater and a strong supporter of country education. His inaugural speech to the NSW Parliament was a heartfelt tribute to my grandfather and a closely argued plea in favour of more support for rural education.

In 1953 Bill lost the seat of Armidale and spent three years in the political wilderness. However, he filled those years as Mayor of Armidale, winning back the seat in 1956. As a shadow minister he developed a new style, ignoring short term questions to focus instead on longer term issues. Because of this, and this is a lesson that I could wish some current political leaders would learn, he built up a substantial position over time with the Sydney media because they knew that he had something substantive to say.

In 1958 Bill became the Country Party leader when Michael Bruxner finally retired from the leadership, although not from Parliament, after a record 30 years. In February 1959 Bill ran into a major storm creating extremely stressful circumstances, culminating in a breakdown and loss of leadership. Despite this, the people of Armidale stood by him as their representative and re-elected him only one month later.

On 1 May 1965, the long-standing Labor administration lost the election and a Liberal-Country Party Government was installed. In the lead up to that election I made my first party political broadcast expressing young people's support for Bill.

Bill became Minister for Public Works in the new Government and inherited the Opera House. I do not want to get involved in the specifics here, I do not know enough, but let me express a different perspective.

The commentary in the Sydney media has sometimes presented Bill's position in almost sneering terms as the narrow reaction of a Country Party politician from the bush who simply did not understand the value of the project. Reverse this, and look at the situation from the viewpoint of someone outside Sydney.

The country including New England was short of schools, roads and basic facilities. We faced a continuing drift to the city. And here we had a major public works project that had gone so far over budget that it was twisting the entire state budget.

Even today when the Opera House has become an Australian icon I have problems.

The Opera House cost something like $A102 million to complete. In 1965 the NSW population was 4,157,665 (Sydney 2,491,320, rest of state 1,666,345), so the cost of the Opera House works out at almost $25 per head for every man, woman and child in NSW. In 1965 the basic wage was $30.80 per week. From a country viewpoint, the 1.7 million people in non-metro NSW contributed the best part of a week's wages to a Sydney project.

Yes, I know that the Opera House lottery played a major funding role (the budget problem became really acute as costs outran lottery takings), although that raises another set of issues. But I keep thinking that if I had even 20 per cent of the money to spend on New England I could have worked an economic transformation.

As the new Minister for Public Works Bill had to sort the problem and did. But he also started an active public works program elsewhere in NSW to try to catch up on the back-log. The Party was meticulous in reporting progress to its members, presenting regular tables setting out progress against individual election promises.

The new Askin-Cutler Government had promised that if elected New England would be granted a plebiscite on self-government. This promise was quickly delivered. Following the narrow loss at the 1967 vote because of the heavy no vote in Newcastle and the Lower Hunter, the New England Movement redefined boundaries to excise the no vote areas and then stood candidates at the next state elections. Although they scored reasonable votes, none were elected.

The Movement had been non-party political, but there had always been strong-crossovers in membership and leadership between it and the Country Party, one of the reasons for Labor Party opposition to the new state cause. The Movement's decision to run candidates caused sometimes bitter splits and created real problems for the Country Party leadership including Bill.

In 1972 Bill decided to resign from Parliament after a long and sometimes stress-full political career. I had had irregular contact with him mainly at functions. Now I decided to run for preselection for Armidale, taking leave from my public service job to campaign full time.

It proved to be a difficult preselection campaign from my viewpoint, one in which my previous views on conscription (I had been strongly religious at University, opposed to the War and had registered as a conscientious objector) became a central issue. I have no idea what Bill thought of all this, we never discussed it, but he was always friendly. We spent some time together at the Party dinner following the the preselection meeting yarning about the past.

The almost mythic status accorded the Opera House especially in Sydney means that this issue has become almost the single thing defining Bill's position in history. I think important to remember that the man was far more than this, that he had a long and active political life and that for many of us his other activities and achievements remain far more important.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Demography, Universities and the Trades in Australia

Graphic: Australia's population structure. Australian Bureau of Statistics

Two things happened today. Actually three, Clare gave me access to her blog, but I can't talk about that!

Seriously, because I write about my daughters I have to watch what I say. As indeed I need to do with anybody else. This blog is about reflection, conversation, subjecting things to analysis and report. Sometimes, my key board fuming with the heat, I compose the most brilliant and cutting (or at least so I think) put-downs. Those I delete.

So I showed Clare the last story that featured her. She just laughed and said that I should have selected a better photo! Now in fact that photo I selected has a special place in my heart because it was our family trip to France and Italy, I will write about that trip sometime, but all I said was give me some better photos.

Back to the two things that happened today.

The first was an announcement by the Australian Prime Minister on new funding support for trade training in Australia. This has led to considerable discussion on talk-back radio. Australia presently faces major shortages of trades people, and the key issue is how best to address this.

Those who read this blog will know that David Anderson, Dave Lee, Neil Whitfield, Tony Karrer, I and others have been talking about differences in education and training between the US and Australia, discussions carried on via blog and email. Part of that difference lies in varying approaches to trade training. Because I know that there is interest in the Australian experience, I will outline Mr Howard's announcement in a moment.

The second is an on-going email discussion among my Ndarala colleagues about changes in Australia's university sector, about numbers entering University (down), about competition among Australian universities (growing), about the vulnerability of some of our universities because of the high number of overseas full fee paying students.

Education is now Australia's fifth largest export industry with the value of exports estimated at $A9.8 billion in 2005-2006. Since we only imported around $A720 million of education services, the net contribution to our balance of payments is very substantial. As a sign of the commercial importance of the market, Seek (Australia's largest on-line job portal) has just purchased a half share in IDP Education, a university owned company marketing education services internationally, for $A36 million. Yet not everything is rosy.

Impact of Demographic Change

Both the PM's announcement and the challenges faced by Australia's universities are linked to the demographic changes now taking place in Australia.

The fact that Australia's population is aging is well known.

Depending on the assumptions used, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), projects that the median age of Australia's population will rise from 36.4 years at June 2004 to between 39.9 years and 41.7 years in 2021 and then to between 44.6 years and 48.2 years in 2051.

Because the age structure of the existing population varies from region to region across Australia (inland areas generally have older populations as do the retiree areas especially along the eastern coastal strip), so the projected impact of aging varies. Theoretically, I say theoretically because dynamic factors will bring about a measure of re-adjustment, some areas face substantial and sharp population declines.

The age structure of the Australian population is usually expressed in terms of a graphic such as the one shown above showing the proportion of the population in each age group. This has moved from a pyramid shape to a beehive and is projected to become a rectangle. However, for practical purposes I am more interested in changes in absolute numbers.

If we look at the ABS figures (2005 provisional) for resident population age distribution nationally and by state, we find:

  • Nationally, there are 1,388,471 people in the 15-19 age cohort. This is the main traditional feeder group for both university and trades training. Compare this first with the number in the 20-24 age cohort (1,431,363) and 25-29 cohort (1,361,259). Now compare it with the numbers in the 10-14 cohort (1,392, 249) and 5-9 cohort (1,321,465). The numbers do bounce around a bit, but there is not all that much difference in absolute terms.
  • There is an interesting break in the pattern, though, when we look at the numbers in the 0-4 cohort (1,264,507), sufficiently lower to establish a downward trend. I would not read to much into this at national level, however, since current birth rates suggest something of a mini-baby boom in part because women who deferred having children previously seem now to be catching up.
  • If we look at individual state and territory patterns the picture changes somewhat. The Northern Territory is the only state or territory to show a consistent upward trend in numbers, rising each year from 14,771 in the 15-19 cohort to 17,499 in the 0-4 cohort. While the NT numbers are small in absolute terms, they are sufficient to affect the overall pattern. If we look at the other states and territories, we can see a variable but downward downward trend in numbers. This appears most pronounced in South Australia with numbers falling from 103,078 (15-19) to 87,820 (0-4), a fall of almost 15 per cent.
  • If we now shift our focus to the main working age cohorts. Here we can compare the numbers in the 15-19 cohort (1,388,471) with the largest working age cohorts. Ranked by size, they are 40-44 (1,536,470), 30-34 (1,508,761), 35-39 (1,471,707) and 45-49 (1,459,228). So there is a reasonably large gap in absolute numbers between these numbers and the numbers now entering the workforce.

With these few statistics as background, we can now look at the discussion threads I started with.

Prime Minister's Announcement on Trade Training

For the benefit of overseas readers, the Australian economy has been growing steadily for an extended period, with the unemployment rate falling to 4.8 per cent as measured by the ABS. This has created significant skills shortages. At the same time, there are a significant number of unskilled people in the workforce especially in older age brackets, many of whom have been experiencing far higher levels of unemployment.

The pattern of economic growth has varied widely across Australia. Resource rich WA, NT and Queensland have experienced rapid growth, in WA's case over 14 per cent in some years, while NSW and Victoria have been lagging. There are also considerable variations within states with both growth hot-spots and depressed areas.

The real mobility of the Australian population - the willingness of people to move areas - has declined over recent decades primarily because of the rise of the two income family and the associated need to take partner considerations into account. So there is both an overall skills shortage problem and a distributional problem. And all this at a time when absolute numbers in the workforce as well as the number available to do trades are both being affected by demographic change.

Earlier this year, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to launch a new National Reform Agenda which included a focus on Human Capital. An agreed priority was to "increase the proportion of adults who have the skills and qualifications needed to enjoy active and productive working lives".

Prime Minister Howard's announcement on skills followed the COAG meeting and contained the following elements:

  • Work skill vouchers: To assist the almost third of Australians between the age of 25 and 64 who are without a year 12 or equivalent qualification, the Commonwealth Government will provide up to 30,000 vouchers each year worth up to $3,000. Courses for which the vouchers can be used in TAFEs and private or community colleges will be all accredited literacy/numeracy and basic education courses and all vocational Certificate II courses.
  • More support for apprenticeships: To make it easier for mature age workers to acquire trade skills, the Commonwealth Government will invest an additional $307 million over five years in new financial incentives to support mid-career workers undertaking a traditional trade apprenticeship. From 1 July 2007, these incentives will be available each year for up to 10,000 people aged 30 and over who are starting an apprenticeship at the Certificate III or Certificate IV level in an occupation in high demand. Those 30 and over already undertaking an apprenticeship in these occupations in July 2007 will also be eligible.
  • Business skills for apprentices: To assist Australia's new breed of "worker-entrepreneur", the Government will introduce a new Business Skills Voucher for apprentices to be available from 1 January 2007. About 6,300 apprentices each year will receive vouchers of up to $500 to contribute towards the costs of accredited business skills training.
  • New Engineering places: An additional 500 commonwealthlth supported engineering places will be established at Australian universities.
  • Skills upgrades: Additional employer incentives worth $54.4 million over five years will be provided so that more Australians will be supported in their workplaces to undertake Diploma and Advanced Diploma level qualifications. Up to 28,400 people are expected to benefit over the period.

The Prime Minister's announcement reflects many of the things I have been talking about:

  • It reflects demographic changes that have already flowed over, for example, into changing Australian approaches to migration.
  • It targets skills upgrades in the existing workforce and is set within the formal qualifications structures that I have talked about and which, I suggested, made change easier in Australia than, say, the United States despite the sometimes rigidity built into the Australian system
  • The ideological tone of the statement also reflects current ideological debates within Australia. Leaving aside specific political shots in the statement - some of these are badly written and just plain silly - the approach is a large scale trial of the voucher system, long a favourite concept on the Liberal side. The approach is designed to fit within and support work place changes. But it also reflects an emphasis now common on both sides of politics and reflected in talk-back radio discussions of the importance of trades relative to university training.

Change in the University Sector

This brings me to the second on-going discussion thread, changes within the university sector. Because this has become such a long post I will keep it short, returning to the issues at a later point.

If we look at the demographic data, the absolute numbers in the traditional University age entry while bouncing around are not much different. However, what does appear to be changing is the proportion interested in going to university. I have not analysed this, but I get the strong impression that the combination of the costs of a degree with the increasing attractiveness of non-degree options such as trades is having an impact.

When we look further up the age chain, I think that the impact becomes clearer and can only increase. That is, mature age students are less willing and/or able to consider the traditional university option. The Prime Minister's announcement is likely to reinforce this affect.

The demographic data also illustrates the extent of variability across the nation. Combine this with the stay-at-home nature of Australians and you get a feel for the difference in impact on different institutions.

I will leave all this here, returning at a later point.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Culture Wars - the importance of evidence

Photo: Clare Belshaw, Paris, December 2004

I had not intended to post again today. Then I had to take Helen to work. When I came back, the cleaners were here and Clare and I had to go outside. She had her HSC (NSW Higher Certificate) school books with her and spent the next hour or so explaining her plans and reactions to individual books.

Growing up in an all male household, I now have three rather wonderful women (wife, two daughters) around me. It's not always easy for me as a mere male to survive, but I manage.

The point? When I sounded off to Clare about aspects of the NSW school curriculum she brought me back to earth by asking me questions about my own knowledge of ancient history. I got her on a few (she did not know who the Gracchi were), but I also realised how much I had forgotten.

This morning she actually brought out the NSW ancient history curriculum and read it out, asking me my opinion. This is unfair. Why should I not be able to simply comment?

Now let me tell you my response. With the exception of a small number of value laden words, I would handle this by getting rid of the words leaving the topics untouched, I found it rigorous and unexceptionable from a professional perspective.

This brings me to my first tentative entry into the detail of the culture wars. I am not interested in the broad sweep. What I really want to know is what the evidence tells me. If Julie tells me that there are problems with English, someone else that everything is fine, I take neither as gospel. I want to know the actual evidence so that I can make a personal judgement.

Aide memoire to Self - Academic Blogs, RSS feeds

Short but interesting post on Des Walsh's Thinking Home Business blog on academic blogging, including links to two PhD student blogs. Bronwyn Clarke also has a good post about academic blog links.

At this point I have only done a very quick trawl through the various links to get a feel. Disturbing story on one blog, Faultlines - a blog about doing a PhD on doing a PhD! - about the process of reviewing conference papers that reminded me all too clearly of my own personal experience. Because of my interest in the use of blogs as a tool, and in the PhD process itself, I plan to spend some time later working through the various links.

As part of the review found a story suggesting that doing edits after posting leading to re-posts created multi RSS feeds. I must check this. I would hate to think that my habit of editing to pick up missed mistakes created multiple feeds.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Brian D Barnes establishes contact

Photo: Brian D Barnes performs One Man Theatre

On 2 September 2006 I carried a story about Brian Barnes and the establishment of the New England Theatre Centre, wishing Brian a happy 75th birthday, rather a belated happy birthday as it turns out given that his birthday was on 1 January!

By one of those miracles of the modern internet Brian found the story and re-established contact. Congratulations, Brian, on your MBE. I have posted some corrections to my original story as a consequence of Brian's email.

I say one of those miracles of the modern internet. Forget, for a moment, the broad sweep of the argument about the role of the blog or of other internet devices. Focus, just for a moment, on the small and personal.

On 3 October Stozo emailed me from Chicago seeking information on a friend he had lost contact with, the Australian actress Kristina Nehm. He referred to an article I had written on a blog. The name was familiar but I could not remember.

I did a web search to check on Kristina, realised that I could not have written about her because we had never met and had no links (initially I thought that she might be one of the New England writers I had spoken about in a different context). So I emailed Stozo and asked for the story details. He came back with details.

Looking at the link I realised that this was a comment I had made on Neils' blog on 1 September. The comment was about Aboriginal education in the past. But in Neil's response he had mentioned Kristina. So I emailed Neil. Neil fowarded the email chain to Kristina. All this is on the same day. Three days later Kristina sent a thank you email to Neil to say that she had established contact and that Stozo was just so happy.

I felt chuffed and for exactly the same reason that I am so pleased to have established contact with Brian. These are the personal things that make the experience so worthwhile. In Brian's case there is both the personal pleasure of having established contact again and the knowledge that I can now fill a gap in New England history that has worried me for a number of years.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Snippets 9 October 06

Congratulations to Dave Lee on his 100th post on ee learning. Dave also has an interesting post reflecting on some of the lessons from the Learning Circuits Big Question experience. In another reflective post, this one on Learning Circuits itself, Peter Isackson raises the question:

Using the very example of this blog, doesn't the "everybody blogging" (or everybody wikiing) principle inevitably result in what I'm tempted to call "learning labyrinths" in which focus can only be provided by individual participants or learners? What I mean is that there's little hope for community focus, which in turn means that even tentative conclusions about what is discovered, learned, validated, etc. is either the result of a peremptory use of authority (wherever it may be situated) or the vaguely perceived subjective impression of which way the wind is blowing for the majority.

I think that there is an issue here in that any discussion requires some form of moderation to pull issues together and represent them to participants. This holds from the Delphi method through to the standard meeting. And someone has to find the time to do this.

I am always interested in the question of who uses the on-line environment, how and why. Here I noticed a post from Brent Schenkler reporting data that in the US two thirds of on-line gamers are female.

In a post on his Lightbulb blog, Noric Dilanchian reviews a new book by Thomas Barlow that attempts to debunk some of the myths about Australia's failure to innovate and commercialise. The book sounds interesting, although it also sounds from the review that it it lacks a certain degree of rigour. While new, Lightbulb already has some very good content for those interested in commercialisation and innovation.

In my last post I mentioned that David Maister had put up an interesting post on creating better educational institutions. I hesitated about commenting partly because of time but also and more importantly because of our (on this blog) previous discussion on the differences between the Australian and US systems. I have now posted a comment trying to outline a simple analytical structure that might provide a framework for at least analysing the problem.

This links to another question, the current Australian curriculum discussion. Here Neil had an interesting post reporting on Minister Bishop's views on English teaching that set me thinking.

I find myself in a funny position here. Tracking back in time, I certainly objected to the way in which sets of cultural nostrums that I personally objected to had been imposed on the school system. I also thought that the new curricula were too crowded and lacked rigour. So I began the culture wars of which approaches to english and history form part very much on what we might call the Howard side.

But the way in which the debate has evolved makes me very uncomfortable because it has set up an internal personal conflict across a range of my beliefs. Let me take a few examples:
  • I support a Federal system of government in part because it allows for difference and experimentation. So I become very uncomfortable indeed at the attempt to impose a uniformity just because uniformity, a so-called national standard, is perceived of itself to be a good thing. This has to be argued.
  • There is too little focus in the debate on the purpose of education. In the words of a title of a book given to me by my old head at school - he was always trying to get boys to think more widely - "Knowledge for What?". A debate on course content (should the English course include analysis of visual media, comparisons between different types of media?) is valid but needs to be related to purpose. For example, do we in fact need two courses?
  • There is too much focus in the debate on values and a degree of confusion about just what this means. Just as I objected to the imposition of political correctness by the thought police of the soft-headed left, I object equally strongly to to the same action by the equally soft headed right. Values are inextricably entwined with education (what we teach, how we teach it does raise value questions), but we need to disentangle the various elements to have a sensible discussion.

I haven't written on some of this directly because of a lack of clarity in my own thinking, although it does affect the the way I have been discussing other things.

I see little point on this blog in simply expressing an opinion in opposition to another opinion. Mind you, this can be fun. But to the degree that I want to make a broader contribution, I see part of my role as I have defined it as deconstructing arguments so that their elements can be discussed. I also like to set things into context. So I will let the debate run, nibbling at the edges until I feel that I do understand the issues.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Aide Memoire to Self - Things to Remember 2

Photo: Old Mulka Store, Bronwyn Clarke

This post continues my notes to myself (previous) of things not to forget, of ideas and conversations, things read and thoughts. I have also just completed my weekly review of the blogs I normally read, although I have to follow through on some of the links mentioned.

Blogs and Blogging

The discussion at Learning Circuits on the big question - should all learning professionals blog - continues apace with 22 posts so far, 27 comments on the main post, 50 comments on linked posts. Dave Lee is trialing a new method that aggegrates all comments across all posts so that you can see part of each comment, allowing you to click through on ones in which you have an interest.

I found this quite interesting, although I am not sure how it will work. One thing that pulled me up, though, was the way in which it picked up comments I made on Bronwyn Clarke's blog, Melete Online. I had no problem with the comments being included, they were on the public record and indeed I will mention them in a moment, but they related to Brownwyn's blog and had nothing to do with the Learning Circuits discussion. So if I know this type of aggregation is being used I need to limit my comments to the topic to avoid unnecessary reading for others.

Discovery of Bronwyn's blog was one of the nice unexpected outcomes from the Learning Circuits blog discussion. She has a rather nice photo blog linked to the main blog. I was looking at the photos and suddenly thought, this seems remarkably similar in immediate theme (an outback trip) to another photo blog, one that I have often mentioned, Gordon Smith's Look and See. As it turns out, Bronwyn and Gordon are partners. What a small world! Bronwyn, too, has given me approval to use her photos to illustrate appropriate stories. So I feel very lucky.

Tony Karrer has made a number of posts on blogs and blogging linked to the Learning Circuits discussion. One dealt with the reasons why people don't blog. One quote that he picked up: it "felt so ... old white guys club". Ouch (!) given recent discussions on this blog on the sense of alienation and why it makes some of us suddenly feel old. Still, mate, I have to tell you that the majority of blogs worldwide are not written by "white" guys, probably not by "old" guys nor even in English.

In a related but different chain, Neil has also been musing about blogging. In a recent post he referred to a speach by Au Waipang (Yawning Bread) to a meeting at Singapore Management University on blogs and the future. Neil quotes: "What happens then, when the traditional mass media with its selective wisdom loses its hegemony? When national media is swamped by trans-national or hyper-local talk? When the window to the public square is spurned in favour of the peephole into private obsessions? Do we leave behind selective wisdom only to enjoy selective folly?"

I don't in fact share Au's concerns, or at least not quite in the way he presents them. I just don't think that blogs and blogging are that important. However, and this does link to Au's concerns, I am very interested in the way in which blogging affects the transmission of ideas for both better and worse.

The discussion has also made me think about the way I write and for what purpose. Memo to self: do not let your own views create a barrier between the reader and the ideas under discussion.

Cross-Cultural Comparisons

I have continued musing about cross-cultural comparisons, not just the similarites and differences, but also the way in which different mental frames affect understanding between even similar cultures.

At a professional level I have been trying to tease out some of the cultural differences within the professions on the Managing the Professional Services Firm blog. This started with the mudmaps series and is now continuing through a discussion on multidisciplinary working. I am finding this quite hard in part because to explain the veil created you have to first to identify and understand it.

Take discussion on his Adam Smith blog on the recently released top 100 global law firms measured by gross fees, Bruce MacEwen headed his story "98 of the "Global 100" are Brits or Ex-Brits. Say What?" He said in part:

"Now let's get behind the numbers:
  • 75 of the 100 are US-headquartered
  • 17 are from the UK
  • 5 are Australian
  • 1 is Canadian (McCarthy Tetrault at #77)
  • 1 is French (Fidal at #82) and
  • 1 is Dutch (Loyens & Loeff at #99)

In other words, 98 of the Global 100 are from the former British Empire. Can this be accidental? If not, why such a concentration? Is something going on here that we can say anything meaningful about?"

Noting that English language is important, Bruce suggests that the key factor is in fact that they are all common law countries, giving them specific skills directly relevant to the increasingly complex global business environment. So there is, in my words, a cultural match.

I have also been pursuing the cross-cultural issue on this blog, looking especially at education and training issues and the differences between the US and Australia. As an aside, David Maister had an interesting post "Creating Better Educational Institutions" that links to elements that we have been talking about. In that post he argues cogently that both Stanford and Yale who have recently announced new curricula for their business schools have, based on the reports he has received, missed the point. I plan to write on this.

Returning to the main theme, the education and training discussion on this blog has resulted in an off-line discussion between David Lee, Tony Karrer, David Anderson and myself looking at the possibility of running some form of exercise looking at cross-country comparisons in the approaches adopted to education and training to try to tease out some of the differences. I am hopeful that something will come of this.

Global trends

I still want to write something on some of the global movements that have affected Australian education and training. For example, the way in which the international quality movement combined with global change in public administration affected Australian education and training.

I also want to pick up the emergence of what I call managerialism, the way in which the concept of the manager has been developed and twisted in sometimes pernicious ways. When former NSW Premier Nick Griener said a number of years ago that the business of government was good management, I shuddered and still shudder.

Now as a way of introducing all this while having some fun, I am thinking of putting on my economist hat - on this blog I tend to write as a historian, but I have a masters in economics and practised as an economist for many years - and applying some of the core principles from the New Zealand model (for a period New Zealand was the global test case of the new principles par excellence) to the NSW education system in a pure form without the distortions introduced by the Australian followers of the model. I think that the results would surprise and challenge.

I have a lot more that I was going to jot down.

One of the personal reasons I started the New England Australia blog was as a way of putting on the public record some of my historical research that I realised would never otherwise be published. Afer the disagreements among my examiners and the confusion on the PhD committee that destroyed my PhD, I sort of gave up.

My father was dying at the time and (I realised later) managed to get some feedback from inside the University even though it would still be twelve months from his death before I received any advice. Just weeks before he died, he told me that if the PhD thesis (he had read the total thesis before submission) was knocked back I should just let it go.

When the results came out, my external supervisor - I had two supervisors because much of the degree was done as an external student - was outraged. Colin Hughes, then the Professor of Politics at the Australian National Institute of Advanced Studies and a superb supervisor, told me that I should refuse to rewrite. He offered to get it published as it was with appropriate edits to meet the book format.

My internal supervisor essentially said it's all an academic game, the PhD Committee has stuffed up, do a bit more work and make a few cosmetic changes and everything will be fine. Either advice would have given an outcome, but it was all too hard.

Since I started these blogs I have done more historical research and writing than at any time since the PhD was submitted, and that's been nice because I do love history. Because it provides an alternative way of capturing value from that work I did in the past, it has at least partly lanced something that had been festering in ways I had not realised until I started research and writing again. And that's very good.

So I had been going to say something about my historical research, but that can wait until another day.