Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Visitor 15,000

Welcome to visitor 15,000 who arrived this afternoon from Hong Kong, searching on Australian rankings.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Haneef Case: a failure in compassion - and common sense

I have said little on the case of Dr Haneef, largely because the issue was being well discussed elsewhere and there was little that I could add. Now I feel the need to add a couple of points.

The first was the apparent failure of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and indeed the medical profession more broadly defined to become involved in any way. Dr Haneef was a registrar and, I think, a member of the RACP's specialist training program. If this is true, I would have thought that the College would have a particular interest in the matter.

More broadly, the AMA did release a statement. This was limited and focused on the damage that was being done to our capacity to attract overseas trained doctors. So, and I may be unfair here, it seems to me that the two professional bodies with a direct interest in the matter failed to play any active role.

In saying this, I am not saying that they should have taken Dr Haneef's side in terms of innocence or guilt. I am saying that I think that they should have taken a more active interest in the process being applied.

As I see it, the Haneef case was first and foremost a failure in process. I am not referring just to the evolving fiasco of the charge itself, but to what I see as a more fundamental failure of compassion, common sense and plain good manners.

The matter began well enough in that both officials and ministers emphasised that those being questioned and especially Dr Haneef were entitled to the presumption of innocence. But then things started going off the rails as the media feeding frenzy increased. The presumption of innocence became lost in the noise and the apparent adoption of increasingly partisan positions.

I accept that this was a complex investigation. I accept that the apparent links to the UK bombings created reasonable suspicions that needed to be investigated. But think how much better off we would all have been if the heat had been kept out of the matter.

Consider this. What would have happened if from the beginning Mr Kelty had taken the public more into his confidence, explaining some of the complexities involved? What would have happened if he and relevant minsters had kept emphasising the presumption of innocence, had displayed a degree of humanity? I suspect that a lot of the heat would have gone from the process.

All this could have been done without affecting the investigation. Yet it was not. Take the case of Dr Haneef's flat. Obviously this had to be searched. Yet did it have to be left trashed? Surely with the presumption of innocence, the police also had a responsibility to see it tidied up?

The decision by Minister Andrews to revoke Dr Haneef's visa astonished me at the time. I had to assume that there was a lot more to come. It seems clear that we may never know this. In the meantime, I am left with the impression of a continuing mess.

Note that in all this I have made no comment on Dr Haneef's own position.

My focus is on an Australian process that has further damaged trust in the Government and the system, failed to achieve any tangible outcomes, created tensions between Australian and British authorities and damaged Australia's international reputation. All this could have been avoided with a better focus on process, a little compassion and a dash of old-fashioned manners.

I do not exempt Mr Rudd from this criticism. In his desire to play bib to Mr Howard's bub, he took Labor out of the equation. It would have been perfectly appropriate for him to make a few simple process comments, like the need to preserve the presumption of innocence, without in any way detracting from the need to protect Australia's national interest.

It seems clear that many Australians still support the argument that Mr Howard puts forward. But even the Government's strongest supporters will admit to a degree of discomfort at the though that it might all happen to them.


As I write this, Minister Andrews is releasing some material on the Haneef issue. Note that I was very careful not to comment on the content of the case. I will review the material, but on the media details so far I see no reason to alter my process conclusions.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Colours, Sounds and Smells of Australia

Yesterday I had to drive youngest down to Mittagong south west of Sydney to play hockey against Frensham. For those who are interested, you can find the remarkable story of Winifred West and the schools she founded here.

As I drove west along the expressway I noticed and welcomed the changing colours as the inland replaced the coastal strip. The grass became yellower and browner, the trees more olive.

We are all imprinted in ways we sometimes barely recognise by the sights, sounds, colours and smells of the immediate world in which we live and especially that in which we grew up.

Many years ago my grandfather addressing a meeting of NSW architects told them that God invented the country, man the city, while the devil invented the suburbs and built flats! This was a very particular view, but there is something to it.

I have a colleague who loves cities, their sights, sounds and especially smells. Just back from Hong Kong, he waxed lyrical about the city and its assorted smells. He loves crowded streets, the secret by-ways that you find, all the human variety of the big city. Crowds thrill him.

I, too, like cities. Like my colleague, I am fascinated by their infinite variety. I have also always been fascinated by the process of change within them. I accept that cities are a monument to man.

To me, the suburbs are not the city. As I drove west through miles of housing estates - the Sydney information sign now appears 60k down the highway - I thought of Los Angeles. To me, Los Angeles is the city you have when you are not having a city.

Now I am sure that there are many from LA who will rush to its defence. Yet when I first visited it with many dispersed points of call, a trip that required hours of driving across LA, I was struck by its non-descript urban sprawl, by the complete absence of any city centre, of the features that I thought of as city.

One weekend I hired a taxi and just told the driver to take me anywhere he thought was of interest. He thought he was in heaven, because it ended up a five hour trip. The next day some US colleagues took my colleague and I out for a very enjoyable day across LA. I found many things, the tar pits, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, Venice, to be of interest. Yet it all just firmed up the view I had already formed about the place.

In saying all this, I am not knocking the suburbs.

Where I part company with my colleague who loves cities is that while I think that cities are great places to visit, I also think that that they are pretty awful places in which to live long term and especially bring up children. Those who love living in the suburbs and are very dismissive of city life all point to this.

To me, the best of all possible worlds would be something that combines city and country living.

I am an inland person. To me, the beach is something to visit on holidays, boring if one is forced to spend too much time there.

I love the sometimes subtle changes in the Australian country side associated with changing landforms, soils and climate. I love not just the natural landscape, but also the changes human occupation has imposed on the landscape. Here I part company with those who want to lock up the country as an unchanging preserve for mainly city visitors, who want to turn the country back to an idealised pristine version locked in time.

I also love the smells of the country. The crisp, cold smell of the Tablelands' air. The sometimes acrid smell of wood smoke. The smell of the gums. Rain on dirt.

There is a clarity to country light and also sounds lacking in the city. City visitors used to the constant background noise of the city, a noise that they tune out, are sometimes astonished at just how noisy the country can be. With the background noise removed, things like early morning bird song suddenly stand out. The sounds of trucks on a distant highway become very clear.

By contrast, I find that I cannot tune the city background noise out in the way that those born in the city can. At best, I can get used to it. Police sirens, garbage trucks, racing cars, alarms, the early morning start of buses, all intrude. My ears actually hurt, something I only really notice when the background noise is removed.

When I used to visit the city I enjoyed the noise, the bustle, the lights. I actually knew Sydney in particular very well, far better than most who lived there, because I used to explore the place.

On weekends I would sometimes drive for hundreds of miles, just exploring from the outer suburbs and rural outskirts through to all the lanes and byways of the inner city. I knew pubs, all the galleries, book stores, the places where different groups hung out, dozens of good eating places. To me, Sydney has become a much diminished place since I started living here.

Now I am the first to admit that circumstances change. When I first started coming to Sydney on a regular basis I was the age my daughters are now. They do some, not all, of the things that I used to do. This is very different from trying to combine work and family responsibilities while living in a place.

For the present, my dream of finding a way to combine city and country living must remain just that, a dream. But still, who says we can't dream?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Past is Not Always Better - and the University of Blogging

Rereading my last post, I suppose that I should make it clear that I am not one who believes that the past is always better. It's obviously not.

As a simple case in point, over the last week I have been to two displays of HSC major works at my daughters' school, one on visual arts, the second on design and technology. The overall standard would, I think, have amazed someone from 1961.

Yet while the past is not always better, we can use comparisons from the past to challenge current positions, to pose questions about the way our society and system operates.

Take, as an example, the continuing dialogue between Neil and myself on issues like multiculturalism (most recently here 1, here 2, here 3).

If you look at our respective writings, you will see that we are in agreement on the core issue, the need for an Australia that recognises and accepts difference. Where we often part company is in the interpretation of matters, of ideas, surrounding that core point.

Multiculturalism itself is an example.

Neil considers, he will correct me if I am wrong, that the official interpretation of multiculturalism that was dominant for a period was right and proper and blames the Howard Government in part for its decline. By contrast, I have argued that that imposed official interpretation was pernicious and divisive, working against the very thing that it was trying to achieve.

So far we are clearly on opposite sides of the culture wars. This apparently continues in our interpretation of past and current events.

Neil has a strong focus on the need to redress the wrongs of the past and mourns the way in which, as he sees it, certain things are being torn down that were in fact the recently dominant Australian orthodoxy. By contrast, while accepting that there were past wrongs, I have a strong focus on the rights of the past, mourning in turn the way that the imposition of the idea sets of which multiculturalism is part destroyed things that I considered to be valuable.

All this would would appear to place us on opposite sides of the history wars, a sub-set of the culture wars. And that might be the end of the story if our respective blogs were no more than streams of opposing opinions, each reaching out to those who agreed with us. In practice, the fact that the conversation between us is a genuine dialogue changes the equation.

In his multicultural series that I referred to earlier, Neil put forward certain views quoting an official source in part support. I challenged the historical accuracy of the views put forward in that source. Neil investigated and found that I was, at least in part right.

Now this is intellectual honesty of a high order. I found the points that Neil made intensely interesting, generating a stream of ideas that I will write about in due course. Neither of us have shifted our core positions, but we have opened up new areas for discussion and potential agreement.

I must say I do wonder sometimes how readers take the dialogue, including the sometimes very long stuff that I write as I try to explore issues and my own views. All writers, bloggers included, like to be read and my stuff is very often far from reader friendly. In fact, it breaches pretty much every rule for on-line writing.

That said, I find the whole process - both the writing and the reading including all the other blogs that I read - very satisfying.

I grew up in a world of constant intellectual debate, of interest in ideas. To some degree at least, and this is a point I have made before, blogging has recreated that world.

In the relatively short period since I started blogging, I have written far more across the range of my interests than in the previous twenty years combined. Challenged as I have been, I have been forced to constantly extend and to refine my ideas. In doing so, I have built up a body of new writing that itself provides a source of continuing stimulation.

The effects have been quite pervasive. My newspaper reading has expanded as I look for stories, ideas for my own writing. I find myself thinking about issues, responses while having my morning shower. It has begun to re-energise my professional life, an area where I had gone very stale. The burble of ideas is back.

The nearest past equivalent that I can see is my first period as an undergraduate at the University of New England, if without the sound!

There is the same sitting in the Union chatting (visiting blogs to see what is happening, responding). There is the same need to prepare seminar papers and essays (the posts). There is the same external critique and contribution (counter posts, comments). There is the same requirement to listen to (in this case read) papers prepared by others. Then there are the obligatory visits to the library (the internet) to collect material and the same temptations to pursue by-ways, to just browse! Finally, there are the international students bringing new perspectives to issues.

I have said before that blogging can be a liberal education. But it's more than that. At its best, it is in fact an external University in its own right capable of delivering an education on almost any subject area you care to name.


I have been asked whether I would be happy for a piece that I wrote on one of my blogs to be included in a new book on work life balance. I was happy to agree. So in terms of the University of Blogging, it appears that one of the students has achieved that traditional academic dream of having a piece of work accepted for publication!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Quid custodit ipsos custodes? - Who will protect us from our protectors - and ourselves?

Before anybody comments, I know that the literal meaning of the Latin is a little different, but the message is similar.

A number of things happened over the last week or so.

One was the evolving mess of the Haneef case. At best, the Government has displayed a lack of sensitivity and compassion in the matter. This comment holds even if Dr Haneef were to be found guilty of some offence. At worst, we appear to be dealing with a miscarriage of justice.

The second was a sudden demand by a contracting company that a person they had been using for some time provide an Australian passport or birth certificate to prove that they were Australian. This move links to attempts by the Federal Government to tighten up on illegal immigration by placing severe legal penalties on companies found to be employing illegals. The person in question, a professional known by a number of people in the contracting company, refused point blank.

The third was a demand by a major Australian company in the finance sector that someone coming in to do a short term strategic assignment undergo a police check. Turns out that this is now a company standard for all staff (a very large number Australia wide) from insurance sales people to receptionists to drivers to short term contract staff. The reasons are a little obscure, at least to me, but appear to relate to the company's desire to avoid legal problems.

The fourth was the demand by the Commissioner of Police in NSW for compulsory DNA testing of suspects to create a DNA data base. In response to a query about civil liberties, the Commissioner responded "what about the civil liberties of victims?"

How do all these things link? They are part of a continuing trend that, should it continue, will choke the life out of Australian society.

A little while ago I was at a meeting to discuss what is called common access policy in social housing. This is a simple, apparently clear cut idea, that there should be a common data base and allocation approach across various categories of social housing.

A major social policy lobby group, previously a strong supporter of the concept, said that they now had strong reservations because of the way that the Federal Government had used data mining and matching across data bases to capture data about benefit recipients. In essence, Government could not be trusted not to misuse data.

I raised the question of the criminal checks with some younger Government colleagues. They could see nothing wrong with a public company demanding criminal checks on all prospective employees. Yet once a company has that information, it has then to decide what to do about it. The simplest response is to exclude anyone who has any form of criminal record for whatever reason.

At the last NSW State elections, the only piece of official information published about candidates was a statutory declaration that they were not paedophiles. I am sure that any candidate who was would have happily signed the declaration anyway. Then we have the obsession with the internet and child abuse, an area where available research suggests that current political and popular obsessions are not well supported by the evidence. By the way, the official data on child sex crimes shows a long term continuing decline.

Want to apply for a job in the NSW Public Service? Then be prepared to provide answers to compulsory selection criteria on Equal Employment Opportunity (EOO), Ethical Practice, Ethnic Affairs Priorities Statements and Occupational Health and Safety. These are all important issues, but applied in a blanket fashion to apparently all positions they become meaningless, just another hurdle to go through.

At present, if we have a problem, we create a law. We then need policies, procedures and protocols to guide practical application, to avoid the legal risks created by the law.

All this has to be paid for in cash and in restrictions on individual freedoms. The new security procedures at my daughters' school protect the school. But they make the school a less welcoming place, do not affect in any meaningful way the statistical chance of my daughters being hurt or damaged and add to my costs.

In 1961 the Companies Act was quite a short document. Current corporations law is more than twenty times as long. The costs of compliance have gone up, I am only guessing, perhaps 100 times. Yet there is no evidence that I am aware of to show any improvement in the incidence of either company collapse or corporate crime. If anything, the opposite would appear to be the case. So we are paying a lot more money for no result.

Tuesday I drove past Long Bay Jail here in Sydney. I was astonished at the scale of new building. It's huge. But then, according to ABS, Australian prisoner numbers are up 42 per cent in the last ten years. Of total prisoner numbers, our indigenous population contributes 24 per cent.

All this has been done with public support. But it has to be paid for. Here I know of no evidence that it has in any way affected the incidence of crime.

The established incidence of illegal detention in Australia's immigration system is, to my mind. quite astonishing. Go back even twenty years and it would have been a national scandal that would have brought the Government down. Even one citizen illegally detained would have been a scandal. Today it is a scandal, but in a much more muted way.

I may sound like a bleeding heart liberal when I say all this. In some ways I am. But the test I apply is a simple one. Can I see any gain to justify the cost, the complexity and the loss of individual freedom? In too many cases I cannot.

In musing about all this, I found myself asking a simple question.

What would happen if tomorrow we declared null and void every law passed in Australia since 1961? There are clear problems. For example, what would we do with the million or so people whose jobs depend on those laws? Then, too, there are changes that we might want to retain. Even so, I suspect that we would be better off.


Still on Latin, this quotation from Tacitus nicely summarises a core message in this post: Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges.

Or to put it in English: When the republic is at its most corrupt, the laws are most numerous.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Food Prices in Australia

Note to readers: This post was written some time ago and in a particular context. However, I have noticed that it is still drawing hits. For those interested, try the Grocerychoice site. This does not provide detailed item information, but does provide broad indicative data for food prices across Australia.

Earlier this month I put up a post suggesting that this had so far been a very good election campaign measured by content. Then both sides seemed to go the dogs so far as I was concerned.

In the case of Labor it was the announcement of an inquiry into food prices, something that everybody knows will have no meaningful impact. Now I have no objection to the collection of data. But in policy terms it's really a stunt.

Then listening to some of the responses I decided that while it was a stunt, it might not be a bad idea after all if only to educate people. Too many middle class Australians fail to realise that for many Australian families today, the rise in food prices is a very real issue.

Let me start with a basic statistical fact that I heard quoted tonight. It is, I think, statistically correct that as measured by ABS numbers, average incomes have risen faster than food prices. But this is misleading at a number of levels.

To begin with, the comparison should be expressed in terms of after tax incomes, money in the pocket as compared to changes in food prices. Then you have to take into account the way in which incomes have risen faster for some than for others. Then, too, you need to consider shifts in other household costs, especially rents and petrol where costs have recently risen very sharply.

All this means that the amount of money hundreds of thousands of Australian families have to spend on food is no more, in many cases is less, than it was two years ago. So shifts in food prices hurt.

Now look at price patterns.

Start with a litre of milk. At present, this appears to range in price in Sydney from around $1.21 for a cardboard carton of supermarket brand to $2.40+ for a plastic branded bottle, say Pura, at a servo.

This example says no more than something we all know, that prices for the same good vary from location to location. Anybody in Sydney knows that supermarket prices at Bondi Junction are higher than they are at, say, Eastlakes where I shop. The gap is even bigger if you move outside the chains.

Now if you have a car and can afford petrol, then you can afford to shop around. Not everybody is so lucky. Many actually have to buy at nearby locations even though prices are higher than average.

Now add to this some actual price movements.

The drought led to higher grain prices. In turn, this means that chicken prices (generally the lowest price meat) have risen by about a third over the last fifteen months. Lamb, on average the most expensive meat, has also risen sharply. Whereas the price of a leg on special used to be as low as $4.99 a kilo, it's now around $9. A beef roast that was once $9-$10 for a piece of meat is now $14.

Vegetable prices have shifted too, and sharply recently because of the cold weather. Beans that used to be regularly on special for less than $3 per kilo are now unobtainable. Zucchini is still there, but its per kilo price has shifted from just under $3 per kilo to over $9.

Few poorer Australians can afford lamb cutlets, once a standard dish for all, at $2 per cutlet. In our case, two cutlets each (not a lot) works out at $16 for the family. For many people, this is a lot more than the average amount they have for the total meal.

It is still possible to provide a major meal for four people for $12-$14, but it is becoming harder.

To many Australians this is less than they would spend on an entree, and they find it hard to imagine actually spending only this much on a major meal. Yet the reality is that there are an increasing number of Australians who have no choice but to live at at or close to something approaching a subsistence level.

This is the group that notices even a small price shift, say $2 per chook, because it makes it harder for them to afford it. When you are budgeting this tightly, small shifts become important because they mean that you will have to give up, say, a loaf of bread to compensate.

Poorer Australians have always known this problem. Today they have been joined by an increasing group of middle Australians, especially the growing number on contract work, who suddenly face a major income drop when they still have to try to service rents, school fees and credit card debts created in better times. This is the group that our welfare agencies are seeing for the first time.

Let me try to illustrate with a few numbers.

Assume, say, that you are paying rent or home loan repayments of $480 per week. This is not an unusual position in Sydney. Add to this school fees (say $470 per week rising at twice the rate of inflation), $300-$400 for ordinary living costs. Already you need an after tax income of $1,350 per week before clothes, credit car payments, insurances etc.

Now assume that family income stops. Suddenly your financial position is deteriorating by around $1,500 per week, $15,000 after just ten weeks.

I have taken a middle class example. You can run very similar numbers for areas such as Western Sydney where high mortgage payments and declining house prices have put many families into a financial vice.

The examples I have given raise all sorts of issues.

There is, for example, the dynamics raised by contact work itself, dynamics that are forcing all sorts of changes onto firms and individuals. As a simple example, firms are now paying much more for staff than they used to because they are now paying agency fees of up to 40 per cent on top of payments to individuals.

At this point, I would simply make the point that the growing concern about food prices reflects real problems facing an increasing number of Australians.

Postscript 25 July: the hollowing out of the middle class

Who would have expected that the issues that I raised in this post would have dominated the airwaves the following day (today)?

Part of the trigger here was release of the latest Consumer Price Index figures that show a major CPI increase caused by just the things that I was talking about, higher food, transport and accommodation prices. Part was the release of new data showing the continuing crisis in housing affordability. In turn, this led to commentary about the big increase in previously middle class families seeking food relief.

All this deserves a lot more than I can say here. I will come back to the topic when I have absorbed the latest data.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Buxom Wenches

I was going to run one of Norman Lindsay's nudes to illustrate this story. But then I was side-tracked by this painting. You see, I have always liked Lindsay's use of colour. I saw a lot of his work, too, because the Armidale Teacher's College was just one block up the road.

Sometimes when I look at Lexcen's blog I swear. Sometimes I just shut my eyes and proceed. Then, sometimes, I agree with him strongly.

Women were not born to be thin, emaciated, stick figures.

While I like women of all types, shapes and sizes, a lot of the women I have found to be sexiest are, not to put to fine a point on it, plumb. Now I am not suggesting that girls like my eldest who is slim are not sexy, in her case the evidence clearly points to the opposite conclusion. Just that a women who combines a bit of body with a personality is really great.

So, girls, stop worrying. Let us mere males take you as you are!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Message for Marcel

Tom Robert's Mosman's Bay, the painting at the centre of the Hinton Bequest case.

Marcel, I have begun putting up the story of the Hinton case. You will find it here. It will take me some time to write properly.

I got depressed as I went through the material.

My father used to joke that anything that had his name attached to it was bound to vanish. And indeed there was some truth in this. The block named after him at the University of New England burnt down, the part of the University Union bearing his name was demolished.

No one can halt the course of history. Yet it can be hard when you see past dreams tarnished by the brush of time.

When the Armidale Teacher's College was established in 1928 as the first non-metro tertiary institution, it was not just a 'a country college for country kids', it was the first building block in what was seen as the infrastructure required to support self-government for New England. This comes through clearly in David Drummond's emphasis that the College must be seen not as an Armidale institution, but as one for all the people of the North.

The progressive donation by Howard Hinton to the College from 1929 of 1100 paintings and 700 art books created a collection that matched those in many capital city galleries and is today worth over a $100 million. Probably a fair bit more than that.

Unlike galleries where you visit, these paintings were hung on the College walls and were part of the daily life of students, many of whom had never seen a work of art.

Hinton was determined that his collection would not be broken up. He tied it up in such a way that when the vagaries of changing Commonwealth Government policy made the College a College of Advanced Education and then forced its merger with the University of New England, a merger that I opposed to the point of orchestrating opposition that blocked it for a period, control of the collection passed to the Armidale City Council.

By the time the New England Regional Art Museum was created in 1983 to hold the Hinton collection as well as the smaller Armidale City collection, the original dream was already badly faded.

Those creating NERAM did not promote the new venture as a gallery for all of the North, but as a Tablelands, venture. I thought then as I do now that this was a fundamental error, because it meant that NERAM was seen as essentially an Armidale thing.

This remains true, leaving the Armidale Council to try to support what is in fact a major national collection, including as it does now not only the Hinton and Armidale City collections, but also the Chaney Coventry collection.

Chaney was a New England grazier who fell in love with art and was to establish a major Sydney private gallery. I remember going to a showing in his Sydney motel room in 1967 where he had on display some of his latest purchases.

In the late 1970s after having given some works of art to Armidale, Coventry offered his collection on the understanding that an art museum would be built to house both his and Hinton's collections. Through a huge community effort and with assistance from government funding NERAM was opened in 1983.

The Chandler Coventry Collection was described by James Mollison, the former Director of the Australian National Gallery, as one of the most important private collections of contemporary Australian Art.

The collection currently has over 400 works of art and strongly reflects recent art movements.

The focus is on expressionist and abstractionist painters with some figurative artists and includes paintings by Ralph Balson, Peter Booth, Gunter Christmann, Janet Dawson, Elaine Haxton, Leah MacKinnon, Michael Taylor, Dick Watkins and Brett Whiteley.

So NERAM is home to two very different art collections, both of national significance. In addition, the museum also has the museum of printing dedicated to the printing industry and based on the Wimble collection.

Now the very existence of NERAM and these collections are under threat, a threat made worse by a botched attempt to sell a half share in Tom Robert's Mosman's Bay to the NSW Art Gallery, an attempt that has thrown a legal cloud over the Hinton collection itself.


I have still (28 July) not made any progress on the Hinton story. In the meantime, Marcel's comments have been helpful in clarifying my views.

As I said in a response, I do admire the clarity of English that some lawyers/barristers like Marcel can bring to bear upon a problem. I stand in awe.

International Association of Saber Rattlers

I am indebted to David Anderson for this one.

Never let it be said that eccentricity is limited to the English, although they have at times made it an art form. What would you think of an international association whose members specialise in removing the top of full champagne or prosseco bottles with swords?

If I have caught your curiosity, you can find out more from David's post on his view Italy blog. I think its worth a read!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Census Tragics

I very much fear that I am what a colleague called census tragics. You know, people who get sucked into trawling through census data looking for interesting information.

In my case the disease began early. I found the Australian year books and spent many a happy hour chasing obscure facts. Then it got worse because I found the international year books. Perhaps there was something that I could have taken at the time.`

Now, with blogging, I have entered the terminal stage of the illness, the desire to inflict my discoveries on others, to share with you all those absolutely fascinating pieces of information I have found. You can identify those in this stage from the glazed eyes of those around them.

The real tragic, and I have entered this stage, is the fascination that arises when you start finding apparent errors in the data. Why is it, I wonder, that there appear to be more speakers of one Aboriginal language in a statistical unit near Blacktown (a Sydney suburb) than in the whole country combined including that unit?

My family has worked out how to cope. Say yes dear or yes dad and proceed with what you are doing regardless. Its much harder for those who feel bound to be polite!

Ah well. There are just a few more things I need to check this morning. So back to it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bigotry and Australia's Cultural Gatekeepers

Photo: Your turn to shout. Nino Culotta (Walter Chiari) gets a lesson in the language of drinking from a friendly Australian (Jack Allen). Scene from the Australian Film They're a Weird Mob (1966).

In an earlier post I spoke in part about the continuity of Australian humour. The first example I chose to illustrate the point was John O'Grady's They're a Weird Mob, the story of Nino Culotta, an Italian journalist sent to Australia to write a story who ends up staying.

Earlier this week a new archive on Australian film went on line. So popular was it that it crashed almost at once, as people including me tried to access it. Finally I got through, going straight to They're a Weird Mob since I thought that I might be able to use the material to write a follow up story. And so I can, but not in the way that I had intended.

I have complained on this blog about the way in which our past has been distorted to fit into popular stereotypes. Please review the following, and tell me if I am wrong.

The curator for this film was Paul Byrnes. At the end of his description of the film appears the following:

The film was an enormous hit at the Australian box office, grossing $2 million, on a budget of $600,000. It was one of the first feature films to deal openly with questions of prejudice against ‘New Australians’, albeit in a way that also flattered an Anglo audience. Nino encounters more kindness than prejudice, and quickly adopts ‘Australian ways’, becoming a model migrant. The film was in tune with the ‘assimilationist’ view then dominating Australian immigration policy

Now all this may appear perfectly okay, but consider the following.

The opening point is that it is the first feature film to deal openly with questions of prejudice against "New Australians". Note that "New Australians" is in brackets. Note that the film flatters an "Anglo" audience. Nino quickly adopts "Australian Ways", again the italics, becoming a model migrant. Note, too, that the film was in tune with the "assimilationist" view, more italics, then dominating Australian immigration policy.

Now look at the clips illustrating the film. Two out of three deal with prejudice. The title's chosen for these clips are "Why don't you go back to your own country" and "a dago just the same". So what does all this tell you about the film, about Australia?

Now look at the real context.

The book itself was published in 1957 as a story by Nino Culotta. At that stage the mass migration program was less than ten years old. As I outlined in my Migration Matters series, this was a unique program in the post war period since it is the only case where a country chose to admit migrants at a scale huge enough to ultimately change the very nature of society. This was done with remarkably little prejudice or social distress.

The book was a huge success when it came out. In relative terms, it probably sold as many copies as a new Harry Potter release today. This is can be seen also in the success of the much later film. At one level the book was a good yarn, but it was also something of a parody, presenting Australians to themselves in exaggerated form. That was part of the reason for its success. My mother, for example, roared with laughter.

The book did record prejudice, but with humour. When Nino meets the man who would become his father in law for the first time, an Irish Catholic, he responds to the prejudice by pointing to a picture of the Pope on the wall, asking why he has a picture of an Italian there.

In its picture of prejudice, the book brings out a key distinguishing feature of Australians, our capacity to distinguish between individuals and any prejudice we may have about the group that that individual comes from. This feature is a key part of the reason why migration worked.

The book's sequel followed Nino and his Australian friends back to Italy, tracing out further the nature of cultural differences.

As for the assimilationist tag, I can only say this.

Assimilation simply meant fitting in. We did not expect migrants to give up their language, to change their religion, to change what they ate, to pass citizenship tests. We expected them to be proud of their past. I could wish that we still had this policy in place.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Personal Meanderings

This photo of the Paddle Steamer Jandra on the Darling River near Bourke is from Gordon Smith's magnificent continuing series on his outback trip. Note that there is actually water!

I had intended to call this post personal reflections, but meanderings is more like it.

School started today. So back to the usual round. I was going to say that I have only to survive a little while longer, but in fact I will miss it!

The high standard of posts continues on some of the other blogs I read. I will try to do a proper report here at the weekend pointing to some of the posts. At this point I will only note that they keep me in touch while providing a liberal education, using liberal in the old fashioned sense of the word.

A colleague at work is doing a university course on the Aborigines and the nation state. She asked for my help because she knew that I had been blogging on the Aborigines. I was happy to help. However, I had to warn her that without a close look at the course outline this could be very dangerous since she might well fail!

I have continued digging through the census data. There is some interesting stuff here that I want to write up in due course.

Another conversation at work where a different colleague was worried about antibiotics in milk since she thought that they had to use drugs to make cows produce milk all the time! Mmmm.

Ah well, I have to cook tea.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Australia's Indigenous People and the Sorry Issue

I was trying to post a comment on Neil's (Ninglun's blog) blog when I ran into a system issue. I have no idea as to whether the comment go through given comment moderation , so I am posting again here. My comments follows:

Thank you for the positive comment, Neil.

I am not necessarily opposed to symbolic acts of reconciliation, nor indeed to more substantive action. My problem lies in the words and actions of some of the proponents.

There has, at least as I see it, been remarkably little substantive discussion on what some of these things mean. I have not tried to disentangle issues for fear of entering a minefield. Maybe I will one day when I feel stronger. The key thing is to identify and understand core principles.

What does saying sorry mean? Sorry to whom, and about what? And who should say sorry?

This is not meant to be argumentative. There has to be a dialogue, but it needs to be just that, a dialogue. I do not think that there has been a dialogue for many years.

So here is a challenge to you. Answer the questions about sorry I have set out above and I will respond, not in attack dog mode, but as a genuine response seeking to clarify issues.

Over to you, Neil.


As Neil said in a comment on this post, the issues has triggered an interesting discussion in the comments section of his original post. You can find the discussion here.

Among other things, the discussion draws out the different meanings attached to the word "sorry". This lies out the heart of my problem with the use of the word in this context. Any married male will know just how many meanings that word can have!

In one of his comments Neil pointed to a post he wrote some time ago on the nature of evil, referring to Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (Pimlico edition 2001). I had not read this post, but did so with interest because it refers to an issue that I know worries many of us, the continued existence of inhumanity in the human species.

School starts today, and I have to get Clare up at six, so I will not be responding further to Neil until tonight.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Mr Howard, Mr Brough and Australia's Aborigines - 5: Policy and Administrative Issues

Preamble: I wrote this post over a number of days. As I did I became more depressed to the point that I thought that I had best give it away. Then yesterday (17 July) I was further depressed by a piece written by Joel Gibson in the Sydney Morning Herald in advance of the Four Corner's story on Noel Pearson and Cape York. 
I missed the Four Corner's Program, but was later able to read a transcript. I also watched on-line, transfixed, the longer segment of Mr Pearson addressing the community at Hope Vale. You can find both here. I do recommend that you watch Mr Pearson speak. He is a quite inspirational stump orator of a type no longer common in these TV dominated, short soundbite, days. Certainly he inspired me. 
I do not want to write anymore on the NT issue. It's not just depression. Watching Mr Pearson reminded me again of how little I know about the complexity of indigenous life. In the past I did read all the earlier anthropological material. as well as some of the history of Australia's northern indigenous peoples. But I simply do not understand all the complexities involved, nor do I think that I can contribute much to a public discussion where my views (at least as I see it) are too far outside the dominant mind sets. 
I do still feel that I can write on New England indigenous issues. Here I know and love the country. Here, too, I have much greater understanding of the pattern of indigenous life over geography and time. I can also put it into a historical context that I do understand. So I can do something useful by making information available (a real gap), by discussing issues, by presenting the New England story. 
So while I have let the post stand, I will come back to the NT issue if and only if I have something really useful that I can say.
While I have great respect for the views of Marcel Proust, marcellous, I greeted his post on the Commonwealth Government's intervention in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities with some concern.
As with all his pieces, it is thoughtful and well written. The quote from and link through to Jack Waterford's piece on Fred Hollows and the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program are very worthwhile. Why, then, did I read the piece with some concern? I quote:

So I have watched with dismay as Mr Howard has garnered approval for the government’s latest initiatives in relation to Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. My own view is that the approval which Howard has won is very much akin to the public approval for “law and order”campaigns. Part of the reason for such approval is that everybody thinks that the target of such campaign is a “them” or “other” without really contemplating the systemic harm that such campaigns do to the legal system as it operates for everybody. In the case of law and order, the them is those “crims;” in this case it is aborigines. That is why in the end I am also sorry to say that the approval is ultimately grounded in a kind of racism, because aborigines are so readily the “them” in this equation.
I agree with Marcel's general point on the law and order issue. I do not agree with the subsequent link to racism. I think that this is wrong.

To my mind, it does an injustice to the public response, including the hundreds of professionals who have volunteered support driven by motives very similar to those who supported the National Trachoma Program. It also does an injustice to Mr Brough whose personal passion for change is now, I think, well established.

The Federal Government's response is flawed, perhaps fatally so But so, too, is the reaction to it, locked into a mindset that is damaging and denigrating to all of Australia's indigenous peoples - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders - and which also plays to political forces in the indigenous communities that we (the broader Australian community) have helped create.

These are strong claims, likely to raise blood pressures. In this post I want to explain the reasons for my conclusions as simply and as clearly as I can, drawing on the many posts I have written on indigenous issues to try to clarify my own thinking.

To any indigenous readers, in all my writings I have tried to be careful to make it clear that I am writing as an outsider, a non-indigenous observer.

I cannot comment on the detail of particular indigenous communities because I do not know them, just as I am careful in my comments about other communities that I do not know.

I can comment on policy issues because of my policy expertise. I can also comment on issues associated with indigenous history and culture where I have researched the matter and can give my sources.

Perhaps most importantly of all, I write from the perspective of someone who thinks that our indigenous peoples have actually done bloody well in working their way up from a position of huge social deprivation and find it sad to see this achievement tarnished, as it has been in recent years' by an overwhelming focus on failures. To my mind, we need to focus on building on successes.

Take just one measure to illustrate my point.

When I first heard Charles Perkins speak at the University of New England in 1964or 65, he was I think the first indigenous university graduate.That was only 42 years ago.

In 2004-2005, there were 9,100 indigenous people studying at university or some other form of higher educational institution. A further 20,100 were engaged in some form of post secondary study (TAFE, business college, skill center etc). In that year, 53,400 indigenous people (20.8 per cent) held a qualification at Certificate III level or higher.

For those who are interested, you can follow up these numbers and more in the June 2007 Productivity Commission Report Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Key Indicators 2007.

Now you can cut these numbers in two ways. You can do as I have just done and look back to see substantial progress. Or you can compare the numbers with broader Australian community averages. This shows that there is some distance still to go.

But whichever way you go, this level of educational participation is a far remove from the world that Charles Perkins described in a hot room in the UNE Union all those years ago.

Moving forward, I now want to do three things.

First, I want to outline what I see as the three core reasons for policy failure when it comes to the various initiatives that have attempted to address the needs of our indigenous people.

Secondly, I will use the eye care case as a case study to illustrate some of the points because this is an area where I have a degree of personal knowledge.

Finally, I will point to some of the problems and confusions in the Government's Northern Territory intervention, including some thinking that I have done since my last post on this topic.

Reasons for Policy Failure

Gillian Cowlishaw, to my mind the pre-eminent academic analyst of race relations in Australia, contributes "Collateral Damage in the History Wars." In this essay she examines the differing but consistently negative impacts of the debate over "Aboriginal history" on the generations, old and young, of indigenous people in rural Australia who listen to representations of these history wars in the popular media. There are two sides to the debate about Aboriginal history, but neither of them takes into account the implications of their public disputations on contemporary Aboriginal lives. The older generation sees their memories of good times working on stations (for example) discredited, and their often friendly relationships with whites in those days discredited. The younger generation absorbs a message of strife, inequality, and persecution. Neither message fosters self-respect; both contribute to an understanding of Aboriginal people as passive agents, acted upon rather than acting.
This quote, taken from an extremely good post on Aboriginal Arts & Culture: an American Eye, provides a useful entry point for my remarks.In an earlier post I mentioned an article that I read in Oceania as part of my undergraduate studies on Aboriginal life. This was around the time I first heard Charles Perkins speak, and the article had a great impact on my subsequent thinking.

The article explored the relationships between views in the broader community about the Aborigines and Aboriginal views about themselves. Its core conclusion was that negative stereotypes about Aborigines held in the broader community were in fact mirrored, reflected, in Aboriginal attitudes about themselves.

This type of mirroring, reflecting behaviour is now well known.

If you tell someone that they are a failure, if you downplay their achievements, if you tell them that they are a victim, if you invalidate aspects of their past, they will finally come to believe and act in that way. That is what we have done.

Now this is just not my view. It is also a view expressed by a number of indigenous leaders.

Note that this does not mean that problems should be ignored. Rather, it is a matter of perspective.

This brings me to my second point.

Australia's indigenous people are not and never have been a single homogeneous group. They were not at the time of the arrival of the Europeans, nor are they today. There is huge variety.

I think that we all know this. Why, then, do we persist in so much language and in policy in trying to treat our indigenous peoples as though they were a single entity instead of focusing on their varying interests and needs? Not only is this disrespectful, but it is a major cause of policy failure.

Many of those involved in indigenous development have made this point.

Our Torres Strait Islanders want individual recognition for their unique features, pointing out that they are a minority in a minority in a broader community. In Cape York, Noel Pearson's concern has been to find the best way to deal with the particular problems of his own communities. Nationally, Fred Chaney has argued the need to recognise difference, as well the reasons why particular projects or negotiations have succeeded, others failed.

Note that I am not saying that we should not address specific issues on an indigenous wide basis where that is appropriate, simply that the current approach is badly flawed.

This leads me to my last and related point, one that I have made many times before, the need to carefully distinguish between indigenous issues that should properly be dealt with through indigenous policy and those issues that affect our indigenous peoples, but which properly belong to other areas.

We have a major problem at present in that policy towards our indigenous people has not only been locked into that policy ghetto called Aboriginal policy, but is also trying to deal with issues that, while they affect indigenous people, are in fact broader.

Again, I am not alone in saying this. Recently, Fred Chaney made the point that the problems faced by our rural and remote Aborigines are in part a sub-set of problems faced by all those living in these areas and cannot be addressed without action to address the broader problem.

This led him to advocate, as I have done in the case of New England's indigenous peoples, the need for effective decentralisation and action on regional development as a necessary requirement for improvement in Aboriginal conditions.

The Eye Care Case
"It's too bureaucratic, too top down, there's no plans to advance the community, 9 out of 10 houses that get built are unsuitable because of a one size fits all approach - but the current approach means that it's just easier to spend the money than to set objectives and monitor outcomes." Stakeholder feed back May 2006, Inquiry into the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP).
"In one Western Desert Community we had 132 consultation meetings in three months ... it's a red tape nightmare". Stakeholder interview June 2006, Inquiry into the CHIP Program.
These quotes are drawn from my post on the PriceWaterhouseCoopers Inquiry into the CHIP Program. I will refer to this a little later in this section.
Australia is the only developed country in the world where blinding trachoma still exists.
We can stop this if we as a community care. Trachoma is entirely preventable. Although it disappeared from white Australia 100 years ago, it could take another century to disappear from Indigenous Australia if we do not do something about it. We can not wait that long. All Australians have the right to sight. The time to act is now. Do we have the will?

Professor Hugh Taylor, The Medical Journal of Australia, (MJA 2001; 175: 371-372).
Trachoma, sandy blight as it has been known in Australia, is a disease of slum conditions, of poor housing and hygiene. Chronic infection with the trachoma organism, Chlamydia trachomatis, can lead to blindness.

The disease was probably brought to Australia by the European settlers. The poor housing conditions of the early settlers, and the heat, dirt and flies of Australia, meant that sandy blight became widespread and well known.

By the late 1930s sandy blight had essentially disappeared even in rural areas as most Australians moved into proper housing with separate beds, running water and adequate sewerage and rubbish removal. Despite the disappearance of trachoma from most of the Australian population, it has remained prevalent among certain groups of indigenous Australians.

The late Father Frank Flynn, an Australian-born and London-trained ophthalmologist turned Catholic priest, worked as an Army chaplain in Darwin in 1941. He was the first to recognise the frequent occurrence of trachoma among indigenous people in the Northern Territory, and their welfare became his life's work.

After World War II, Ida Mann, an English ophthalmologist who had worked with Frank Flynn in London before the war, moved to Perth. She subsequently conducted extraordinary trips throughout the outback, examining and treating indigenous people with trachoma.

In the 1960s, the late Fred Hollows took up his position as Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of New South Wales and became aware of the importance of trachoma in Australia. First working with the Gurindji people at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory and then with the people around Bourke in far western New South Wales, he cajoled the Federal Government and the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists into establishing the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program (the "Trachoma Program").

From 1976 to 1978, the Trachoma Program teams visited every indigenous community in Australia (including some groups in large urban centres), examining over 62 000 Indigenous people and nearly 40 000 others (consisting of whites, Asians, etc, in rural and remote areas). It gave a clear picture of the number of people affected with trachoma and its distribution. They also treated nearly 40 000 people for trachoma and set up clear guidelines and recommendations as to what needed to be done to eliminate trachoma.

Jack Waterford's article referred to earlier provides a personal and graphic picture of the Trachoma Program.

Almost twenty years later, in 1996, Professor Hugh Taylor was commissioned by the Federal Minister for Health to prepare a national report into Aboriginal eye care. As part of his work, Professor Taylor visited may of the communities covered by the earlier Trachoma Program. He said later:
It was very satisfying to go back to places like Bourke and Broome and find that trachoma had essentially disappeared over the previous 20 years. Clearly, progress was being made — at least in the towns and larger communities.
In other areas, although the amount of trachoma had decreased and fewer children were affected, their elders still had scarred eyelids and blindness from the inturned eyelashes caused by trachoma.
However, I was devastated to find that in some other communities, such as Jigalong in the Western Desert, and Amata and Fregon in the Musgrave Ranges, the rates of trachoma in children had not changed one jot over the 20-year period.
Professor Taylor handed in his report to the towards the end of 1997.

The report painted a detailed picture of Aboriginal eye care problems, including the continued incidence of trachoma as well as the increased problems posed by diabetes related eye disease. The need for improved Aboriginal housing hygiene were central to his discussion of problems. Both the then Minister for Health and the Prime Minister agreed to address the need for improved eye care.

I became CEO of the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists at the end of 1997. Before that, I had had no knowledge of Aboriginal eye care issues. Now the first meeting that I attended was in Canberra with health officials to discuss the Taylor Report.

The College and its Fellows were very proud of the work that ophthalmologists had done and continued to do with Aboriginal communities. The College branches set up committees to develop responses, coordinated by a central committee. Bill Glasson, now an member of the Commonwealth Government's Task Force, was a key member of this central committee.

Differences between the states and territories were quickly apparent. These differences made it hard to develop a single coordinated approach.

In Victoria, for example, we had lots of ophthalmologists but very little specifically Aboriginal needs. By contrast, in the Northern Territory we had lots of need but very few ophthalmologists, so were were dependent upon the pioneering work of a few such as Dr Nitin Verma.

As an aside, Dr Verma is, I think, now in Tasmania, but has continued his work with the East Timorese, something that began while he was in Darwin and which has involved other Australian ophthalmologists including Bill Glasson.

In NSW Rosalind Hecker was commissioned by the NSW Government to prepare a follow report about NSW conditions. Her report identified pockets of need. She advised me of proposals to establish a remote area registrar position in Sydney that might then service at least the far west on a fly-in basis.

When I looked at the detail of Rosalind's report, I took a very different view, concluding that what we had was not an Aboriginal eye care problem, but a regional eye care problem with Aboriginal aspects. Solve the regional problem, and you would benefit all, while finding it easier to meet Aboriginal needs. Leave that problem un-resolved, and you were necessarily limited to partial solutions of the Sydney based fly-in specialist type.

I put forward a number of suggestions that I thought would improve regional eye care while meeting Aboriginal needs. I also thought that the time was opportune to do this, since we might be able to get money for hospital posts, always a difficulty in expanding ophthalmic training. In this context, my view was that we faced a looming shortage of ophthalmologists, one that was going to hit regional areas especially hard because so many ophthalmologists trained in Sydney and wanted to stay in that city.

My base proposal was a simple one.

To begin with, I suggested that we put a registrar training post in Tamworth. Tamworth already had a major base hospital, while there were local Fellows who could provide training, oversight and professional support. That registrar could then service Moree, an area with a population of 15,000 including a major Aboriginal population presently serviced on a fly-basis by ophthalmologists from Maitland and the Gold Coast.

I then suggested that we put a staff specialist plus a registrar at Dubbo base hospital. Dubbo, a very major regional centre, had been unable to attract an ophthalmologist despite the size of the local market and was serviced by the big ophthalmic practices in Orange. This approach would meet an already identified area of need, while the specialists in question could also more easily meet needs in the far west tha a Sydney based service.

Finally, I suggested a registrar position at Wagga Wagga base hospital. I also suggested that we look at a training network perhaps centred on Newcastle to provide an alternative to Sydney focused training, since it was clear that Sydney trained specialists were reluctant to leave the city on a long-term basis.

I thought that this proposal would meet Aboriginal eye care needs on a far more effective basis than alternative band-aid solutions, while also building regional medical services more broadly defined.

At this distance and working from memory, I do not think it fair to discuss in detail why the proposal was rejected.

Part of the reason lay in the perceived difficulty of attracting trainees and specialists to fill the posts in the first instance. Part of the reason lay in problems in providing the required on-going training support. Part, too, lay in the presence of existing interests that would be disadvantaged.

Whatever the reasons, the rejection meant that so far as NSW was concerned, Aboriginal eye car would remain in the band-aid class for the immediate future since the underlying, broader, causes of the problem were not being addressed.

I left the College at the end of 1999. In 2001 Professor Taylor complained about the treatment of his report:
.... disappointingly little has happened. In most places, little has changed, even though the problem has been clearly identified, strategies have been carefully laid out, verbal support has been given by leaders and there has been a lot of discussion with bureaucrats.
In areas with severe trachoma, one in five of the older people have inturned lashes, and about half of these are either blind already or will eventually go blind. It is a tragedy to see their children or their grandchildren suffering from trachoma infection, because you know that they are on the same escalator and will certainly suffer the same fate if things do not improve.
Now track forward six years to 2007.

In 1997 Professor Taylor had identified poor housing and hygiene as a core problem in remote communities in improving eye care in remote communities. Almost ten years later, the PriceWaterhouseCoopers report into the Commonwealth's Community Housing and Infrastructure Program cited at the start of this section provided a devastating critique of the failure to improve indigenous housing in remote communities. Now poor Aboriginal health in general has become a national scandal.

We are all to blame. I include myself in this because, pre-occupied with other College problems, I did not push the eye care issue in the way I should have when I could do something.

The Howard/Brough Intervention

The case study I have just given bears upon both my opening remarks and the Commonwealth Government's intervention.

It is now thirty years since the Trachoma Program started.This intervention had initial good results because it targeted a specific need. However, those results were only maintained where the supporting infrastructure was in place. Outside those areas, the problem persisted until today.

In considering this, we can see the way variations across country affected on-ground delivery. We are not dealing with a single uniform problem, but one displaying considerable regional variation. We can see, too, how longer term improvements in Aboriginal eye care and health more generally can be a subset of a broader problem extending beyond the Aboriginal community.

Taking all this into account, I now want to provide a consolidated assessment of the Howard/Brough intervention.

Access to Information

I have put this one first because it is central to public credibility on what is a fairly controversial initiative. If the Government is to gain and maintain support it must provide full information to the broader community.
I give the Government a fail here. Initially a wide range of information was provided so that an interested observer such as myself could access information direct. This is no longer true in that the official sites are not being updated. Now to get information I have to dig round in the media or rely on my own contacts.

Public Trust

I have put this one next because it links to to the information issue.

Based on the public opinion polls, the majority of the Australian community supports the intervention. Those strongly opposed to the Government have, as might be expected, painted this in election terms, in many cases linking it to Tampa. Many of those who have participated in past debates on policy towards our indigenous peoples have, again as might be expected, reacted strongly because the Government has tried to change the rules of the game.

A more fundamental problem for the Government is a basic lack of trust among many observers based on past Government actions. Here I am not speaking of broad policy thrusts, mainstreaming is an example, but of the cumulative effects of a series of past decisions.

As an example, I discussed the intervention with an indigenous colleague. She was negative for very different reasons from those appearing in the media.

Commenting that the Government talked about the importance of education, she went on to detail a couple of programs that had been cancelled even though (in her view) they were very effective in keeping kids at school. I had never heard of the programs so could not comment. The point is that she judged the intervention in the context of the cancellation.

Notwithstanding general public support, I give the Government a fail in the trust area for the same reason I gave it a fail on information. It has, I think, failed to realise the scale of distrust and hence the need to manage it.

Good Intent

I give the Government a strong pass in this area. I do believe that Mr Brough in particular has a passionate desire to see conditions improved.


When this whole thing started, I thought that the exclusive focus on child abuse was a mistake because it played into what has become a national pre-occupation, the obsession with child abuse. Now here I agree with Marcel. By typing things in this way, the Government turned a complex set of social and economic problems into a law and order issue.

I held off commenting because I hoped that I was wrong. My feeling was that the actual dynamics of on-ground delivery would force changes, and indeed this has happened.

Take the question of medical examinations. Within days of the announcement, Mr Abbott was qualifying the PM's original remarks, making it clear that parental consent would be required, that examination for sexual abuse was a specialist skill, that children would be given broad health screening.

I also felt from what I knew of Mr Brough, and I have actually read every press release he has put out since becoming Minister, that he had a much broader agenda focused on Aboriginal improvement.

I will now come down from the fence and give the Government a fail in this area, too, along three critical dimensions.

First, it has given our Aboriginal peoples a huge black eye. The Government's intervention was followed by action in the states as they responded to a perceived political imperative culminating the WA Halls Creek arrests.

Note that I am not making a comment on the WA Government's actions, although I do wonder why they took so long to act. All I am saying is that the combined effect is to damage the reputation of a whole people.

I keep on saying, I have done so time and time again, that our indigenous peoples are not a single uniform lot, but a group that displays at least as much variety as the Australian community as a whole. In our desire to help, in our collective obsession with child abuse, we have done them serious damage.

This brings me to my second point.

In my first post in this series I said that things would never be the same again. I was not referring just to certain of the Northern Territories indigenous communities, nor to the indigenous population, but to the whole Australian community.

The sad fact about the Commonwealth Government, one that I have mentioned before, is that it cannot tailor responses to meet particular geographic needs, but instead is forced to respond on a national basis independent of variation.

Take this case. To avoid the tag of being racist, the Government was forced to extend measures, rhetoric, to the broader Aboriginal community and then beyond. Now we have fundamental changes to our social welfare system that affect all.

I am not saying the changes are necessarily wrong, that's another issue. I am saying that universal application of changes based on perceived needs in a particular area or areas risks being badly wrong simply because needs elsewhere are likely to be different.

This bring me to my last point in this section.

By locking itself in the way it did, the Government not only gave the indigenous community a black eye, but also severely reduced the chances of achieving long term success. Crudely, it gave its opponents the chance to link everything back the single question of the reduction of child sexual abuse.

Take the issue of the permit system.

I had not focused on this issue at all. Now, having read all the arguments for and against as presented, it would take a lot to convince me that it's a good thing. Yet when I listen ito Mr Brough present his case, I know that he is in trouble simply because arguments about the permit system extend well beyond the question of child abuse as such.

Administrative Issue

As a former Commonwealth public servant I know and am interested in the fact that that an initiative of this type has to be supported by a major administrative uinderpinning if it is to work. I was especially interested in this question because of the sudden drop in the supply of information.

My feel is that the Government is in a degree of trouble here.

One difficulty is that the intervention happened so late in the Government's term of office. In addition to fueling mistrust, this has created major time pressures at a time when the detail of decision making has become more difficult because ministers are less accessible because of election pressures including travel.

A second difficulty is that the Commonwealth Public Service itself is less able to respond quickly than in the past.

My impression is that the first meeting of the high level Inter Departmental Committee set up to progress the matter ran into a degree of problems because the required information and coordination mechanisms were simply not there any more between agencies.

Staffing the Task Force also appears to have been an issue because the thinning down of the Public Service means that the required people resources are simply not readily available.

Then, too, there are major complexity issues. As an example, in trying to draft complex legislation in a short time period, the Government is reported to have put together a team of some twenty lawyers. They have to come to grips with complex issues, create a common understanding, avoid mistakes and all in a far shorter period than would normally be the case.

These are an outsider's views. But the problems are clearly substantial
The Government now has a maximum of around three months left before it goes into caretaker mode. Only so much can be done in this time.

My hope, and I suspect Mr Brough's too, is that what is done during this period will have sufficient depth and substance to provide a base for the Government's successor to carry work forward. My concern is that pressure and polarised views may make this impossible.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Manners and Society in Modern Australia

Musing about varying social structures in New England got me thinking about the role of manners in society.

I was brought up at the tail end of a period in which we were taught to stand up if an adult entered the the room, to call male adults sir (I went to a boys school with an all male teaching staff), to give up my seat on a bus for women and older people, to walk on the outside (road side) of a girl, to hold the door open for other people.

My immediate world was quite a complicated world in social terms, far more complex I think than modern Australia. Some of Judith Wright's writing presents part of that world, the grazing families, if sometimes in very jaundiced terms.

I was fortunate in that my particular family circumstances - son of an academic, a townie, but with country and city connections - gave me real freedom to mix across groups without worrying too much about the formalities of social divide.

Most of the writing that I have seen on class in Australia is, like Rick Kuhn's March 2006 paper, written from a Marxist perspective. This can be useful, but does not help much if you are interested (as I am) in the changing structure and nuances of Australian life and society. Here you have to try to identify, disentangle, the elements.

In mixing across groups the way I did I had to adjust to the particular manners of the group in question, to fit in, to learn the lingo so to speak. This did not mean giving away my own views. It did mean not arguing about things about which there was no point.

Sometimes this was difficult, requiring me to bite my tongue, when views were expressed that I disagreed with quite fundamentally.

Despite the differences between the various groups, there was still a unity brought about in part by what John Hirst as described as a democracy of language. This constrained the pretensions of some groups, influenced the behaviour of all.

Linked to this was a commonality in underlying core views. By this I do not mean quite what are called today "values". Expressed values could vary quite dramatically. Rather, I am talking about a common frame of reference created by common language and shared experiences.

We see ourselves most clearly through the eyes of others. The overseas students I mixed with could see both the weaknesses and strengths as well as our idiosyncrasies.

Because manners are a reflection of society, they change with changes in society.

The high point of Women's Liberation put a bullet straight through many of the things that I had been trained to do. I was firmly instructed not to walk on the outside, not to hold the door open, not to get up in buses. Women were equal and I had better get used to it.

I am not being critical in saying this, just observing the way in which social trends - in this case gender equity - manifest themselves in changes in manners.

Today I find that I have less understanding of the complexities of Australian society than in the past. Certainly many of the varying social structures that I knew have been swept away. But it is unclear to me at present just what has taken their place.

Part of the problem here may be that I simply have access to a smaller number of groups than in the past, so that I am less able to compare and contrast. Part of the problem may be that Australian society has simply become more fragmented.

In all this, I find two things of particular interest.

The first is the apparent resurgence of interest in manners and questions of etiquette. I have no scientific basis for saying this. Rather, I am responding to the apparent frequency with which these topics come up on radio or in the press. There seems to be a yearning for what used to be called common politeness.

The second is the apparent consistency over time in the core Australian character.

As I write, John Hirst is being interviewed on radio about his latest book on this topic. I have yet to read it, but based on the interview I both agree and disagree with him. I would agree with his core point, that there is something uniquely Australian that has been passed down over the generations.

I think that I can demonstrate this rather easily.

In 1957 John O'Grady writing as Nino Culotta published They're a weird mob, the often hilarious account of the experiences of a new Italian migrant fitting into Australian society. The book was a huge success.

Currently the Living Abroad web site carries an article providing advice to US people on the Australian character. The core elements are clearly the same, despite the passage of fifty years and the enormous changes that have taken place in Australia over the period.

I can see the same thing in my daughters and their friends. They have a clear picture in their minds as to what it means to be an Australian. This is not expressed in terms of broad visions or values, simply in the continuing capacity to recognise what's Australian and what's not. "That's an ozzie". was eldest's response to one TV story.

Just as is the case today, when I was at school and university this "Australianess" made many of our intellectual elites - Donald Horne and Germaine Greer come to mind as examples - very uncomfortable.

This is not a criticism.

While I have been critical of the role of our intellectual elites, I think it important to remember that one of their key roles is to question, to criticise, to present views that challenge.

When, as has happened a number of times in Australia's short history, one view becomes dominant, an alternative view will rise to challenge it. In all this, I think that the character of the Australian people provides a solid core.