Friday, August 31, 2007

Judith Wright's South of My Days

Neil (Ninglun's) Friday Australian poem was Judith Wright's South of My Days.

I love this poem. I did not want to repeat Neil's material, so instead I have put a post up on the New England Australia blog talking a little about the poem and its context.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Rugby, the world game - the bottom five countries

Photo: Portugal's rugby team who have made it through to the Rugby World Cup.

I love Rugby. This year I had hoped to be in France with eldest daughter who also loves the game. But then cash collapsed. So just not possible. But we will still be there in spirit.

Few people realise that Rugby is an increasingly international game. Just to illustrate this, the bottom five international teams are:

  • At number 95, Bosnia & Herzegovina
  • Number 94 is Finland
  • then number 93 is Israel
  • followed by Vanuatu on 92
  • and then Bulgaria on 91,

Eat your heart out, Rugby League. I could not even find your equivalent table.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Rise and Rise of Australian Laws

Back in 1926, the New England politician David Drummond complained about the increasing volume of legislation being passed by the NSW parliament.

Drummond was not opposed to state action. Far from it. His point was the problems created by the increasing volume of legislation.

My thanks to Club Troppo and Nicholas Gruen for the above chart. You can see how much worse the problem has become.

In 1980 I was a member of a Regulation Review Taskforce established by the Fraser Government. We looked at page after page of Government regulation.

The problem in each case was that laws and supporting regulations had been established to meet a particular need. Any attempt to handle excessive regulation on a case by case basis was bound to fail because you came into argument with those supporting the need.

The only solution was a systemic change that would make it harder for Governments to regulate. And that was not possible.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Strange Musings

I see that Lexcen is suffering from lack of inspiration. Mind you, Lexcen, I did laugh at your cantina sign. You still have the ability to capture the odd in life.

Neil is suffering from HSC marking. I sympathise.

This week youngest handed in the last of her HSC major projects in visual arts and design and technology. So that's done. I really will be glad when we get through this year.

Geoff Robinson continues to put up some rather good posts on his blog. Geoff's thoughts are informed by deeper reading than I have time to do at present, so I always learn something.

Population bomb versus demographic cliff. The posts on demography matters continue to make me think about this.

There is no doubt, at least in my mind, that the continuing growth in world population is a problem. Yet the very rapid decline in the past birthrate in some countries is now creating its own very real problems, creating what has been called a demographic cliff in which population and incomes both fall.

While I have written about this a little, there are issues here that I must explore in more detail. I actually think that demographic change is going to have a more important influence over the next forty years than climate change, yet few people are talking about it.

I used to read a lot of science fiction. A rather neat if depressing plot would be one combining the worst outcomes of demography and climate change. I was going to set out the plot. But, who knows, I might still write it!

This, however, leads me to a current topic, the Australian outbreak of horse flue.

Listening to people talk, I am not sure that enough Australians have yet got the point, the way that this outbreak illustrates the damage that might be done by a major outbreak of animal diseases on this still fortunately isolated continent.

It appears at this point that the disease may have escaped from a quarantine facility, although no one has been able to trace the exact cause. This comes on top of the escape of foot and mouth in the UK.

All this makes me a lot more cautious about some of the WTO attacks on Australia's refusal to admit some primary products, stating risk of animal diseases as a problem. It really is.

Enough of this for tonight. I must try to catch up on other things.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Australian Perspective - Why I am not a conservative

Now this post is triggered by a comment Neil Whitfield made: As my in many ways quite conservative friend Jim Belshaw says.

Neil, old friend, I am not conservative. Old fashioned sometimes, a tag I actually wear with some pride, but not conservative. I just belong to a different minority tradition, perhaps several traditions, in Australian thought.

To illustrate by an example.

If I had my way, I would tear NSW down, limiting that state to just Sydney and the Blue Mountains so that the Sydney Government could get on with what it does best, representing Sydney. This view may be wrong, but it's hardly conservative because it involves fundamental change.

Before going on, a definitional note. The Wikipedia story on conservatism is not bad. It says:

Conservatism is a term used to describe political philosophies that favor tradition and gradual change, where tradition refers to religious, cultural, or nationally defined beliefs and customs. The term is derived from the Latin, conservāre, to conserve; "to keep, guard, observe".

Now I do like the idea of conserving appropriately defined. I am also not opposed to tradition. But sometimes the established order has to be torn down. Sometimes, it is necessary to mount a counter view.

If you look at my attacks on the intellectual orthodoxy that came out of the seventies, and this includes some of my comments on multiculturalism, I am opposed to its rigidity, the way in which it has shut out alternative views.

But this does not mean that I am opposed to Australia as a pluralist society. Pretty obviously, I support this.

If you look at my attacks on some elements of Howard Government philosophy, I am opposed to what I see as the rigid orthodoxy and the little nationalism of what has become the alternative orthodoxy.

Now my position here is a little complex in that I do have some sympathy with some of the elements in that position as originally articulated.

For example, I actually think that there are many good features in the New Zealand model of public administration as articulated by the New Zealand Treasury. I supported and still support the way in which it tried to break down an imperfect system. It's just that the application in practice, and especially in NSW, is a gross distortion of the original principles.

When it comes to values, I am an old fashioned liberal. My support for individual liberties, for the values of what is now called civil society, is profound. But it also reflects my fairly limited but still influential study of ethics as part of Philosophy I at New England.

Take a question that I have not discussed on this blog, my views on gay marriage.

I support civil unions for gays. I support legal recognition of the joint rights of gay couples. I do not support gay marriage because the term "marriage" carries very specific connotations linked back to our Christian heritage, so that the application of the term "marriage" creates tensions and problems among much larger groups in society.

This may change. But for the present, my view is that we need to find a solution that gives gays the legal and indeed symbolic things that they need, while recognising the views of the larger group.

I have a profound love of and respect for our core institutions. Perhaps I can be classified as a conservative in this area, although the views I hold are very much minority views even among those classified as "conservative".

I have a profound respect for Parliamentary government. To me, Parliament along with the courts are key institutions in our system.

Too many of our current politicians see Parliament as a hoop to be gone through on the way to power and control. Here they are no different from the divine right monarchists. I see little difference between King Charles and his views of the divine right of executive Government and current Australian Governments, although we can at least still get rid of these.

The NSW Country Party leader Mick Bruxner articulated this well in his belief that when you became an MP you had an obligation to Parliament as an institution.

So far as the courts are concerned, lawyers and the legal system are the independent umpires standing between us and the unbridled exercise of executive power. If you look at Hicks and more recently Haneef, the legal profession has played a powerful role in forcing us to look at questions of liberty and principle.

Turning now to my continued focus on our history and the need to understand this.

My argument here is simple. If Australians are cut off from their broader past, then they lose sight of the very foundations of our civil society. In so doing, they risk becoming victims of those who wish to use the past to support their current nostrums. And I put the citizenship test in this class.

To finish with Ted Wheelwright, the part subject of my last post.

I did not start preparing a post on Ted because I agreed with him. I do not, although I accept that he was a gifted teacher. But I also accept that he occupied a valuable and legitimate place in Australian thinking. I accept that that place needs to be explained.

And I find it sad that I, who did not generally agree with him, should be more worried about preserving his place in the history of Australian thought than those who I would have expected to articulate the story.


I was pleased that this post was picked up by Club Troppo's Missing Link review and that, as a consequence, a number of people have visited. Welcome. Do feel free to comment.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

History of Australian (and New Zealand?) Thought - musings

Yesterday almost in a fit of absent mindedness I created a new blog, called History of Australian Thought. Or should it be History of Australian and New Zealand Thought?

I need a new blog like a hole in the head. I am not maintaining all my current blogs properly, and even in trying to do this I am not doing other things that I should be doing. So any new blog could only proceed if it was to be a multiple contributor blog. But why all this?

So much that I write about is really an exploration of the way Australians' think, have thought, might think. In writing, I constantly come across things that I do not know.

This week I was looking at an interesting post by Stephen Downes on the culture wars and Canada.

My first thought was that Stephen's writing and the links would be of great interest to Neil and would indeed provide him with ammunition in our continuing discussions on multiculturalism or, to use my current term, polyculturalism (and here). Stephen's post followed some thinking that I had done on Sydney vs Melbourne and Australian identity, triggered in part by the experiences of Splau, a Melbourne university student currently on exchange in Montreal.

As I looked further at Stephen's posts and the links, I noticed two further things.

The first was the way in which the relations between Canada and the US continue to affect Canadian thinking about themselves. Something similar happens in New Zealand in the context of New Zealand Australian relations. The second was the continuing commonalities in thought patterns between Australia, New Zealand and at least Anglophone Canada. I do not understand enough about Francophone Canada to comment here, although I found Splau's discussion of her experiences very interesting.

At the same time, I wanted to write a piece on this blog about the death of Ted Wheelwright. I did not know Ted personally, but wanted to set his life in an intellectual and historical context because I thought that this was important.

For those who do not know who Ted was, he was an economist and an Associate Professor at Sydney University. A left wing radical, gifted teacher and something of a stormy petrel, Ted sat at the cusp of a change in Australian thought, politics and history. The disputes within Sydney University about the teaching of political economy were not just about about changes in the economics profession, itself an important story, but also about ideology and values.

I struggled in preparing the post because the information I needed to present Ted properly was simply not there or, more precisely, at least not easily accessible. Further, in looking at Ted's life I was struck again by the New Zealand influence on Australian intellectual life.

The two new economics professors at Sydney University appointed at the end of the 1960s - Warren Hogan and Colin Simkin - who were involved as protagonists in the other side of the political economy dispute were both New Zealand trained. They joined a long group of gifted New Zealand academics.

Pound for pound, New Zealand's contribution to at least Western intellectual life arguably dwarfs that of Australia. I am left wondering, as I have wondered before, what it was about this small community on the other side of the world that created so many leading academics.

In all this, I did some web searches on "history of Australian thought" and then on "history of New Zealand thought". I got two hits on the first, none on the second.

Is this important? I think so. It's not just that I am interested. In a very real sense we are what we think. So it's interesting to be able to set thoughts in a context, to understand what and why we think in the way we do.

Hence my idea of a new blog. But this will only work if we have a number of contributors. I say this for two reasons.

First, it makes the burden of posting easier. Good blogs require regular posts.

Secondly and more importantly, a blog of this type requires different perspectives if it is to work. Take Ted Wheelwright as an example.

I felt then and still feel now that some of his thinking was wrong-headed. I agree with some of his key points - the importance of values in economics and of institutional economics - but disagree with others.

So because I know something about economics and the economics profession I can put his work in one context. But I am not necessarily going to be able to talk about his role in the evolution of Australian left thought in a sensible and informed way.

Anyway, I would be very interested to learn if there is anyone else prepared to contribute to a blog dedicated to the history Australian (and New Zealand) thought.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sydney's Beer Culture

Back on 16 August I ran a story on the Regional Australia blog about the differences between Sydney and Melbourne.

This week the Sydney media has run hot on a proposal by Sydney's Lord Mayor to change the licensing laws to allow a wider variety of small cafes and bars. Part of her argument lies in the fact that Sydney is losing out to Melbourne.

Now the rigid and archaic NSW licensing laws are an example of something that I have complained about, the fact that rigid uniformity - national or state - is not always a good thing. Licensing laws are a good example of this. However, that was not what I wanted to write about.

In reading the SMH story on the issue, I was struck by an apparent quote from the president of the NSW Hotel's Association. He was quoted as saying:

Sydneysiders may not be barbarians, he said, but they did not "want to sit in a hole and drink chardonnay and read a book".

"People can sit down, talk about history, chew the fat and gaze into each other's eyes and all this sort of baloney but it's pie in the sky stuff".

"That's not what Sydney wants."

If accurately reported, I find this quite remarkable.

I, for one, like sitting down with a glass of chardonnay (and many other things) to read a book. I certainly like talking about history. Chewing the fat sounds good. Gazing into eyes also sounds good, although my wife may have something to say here.

Now I am not a Sydneysider. Nor am I nineteen. I am not opposed to the pub scene, but I really do find Melbourne very civilised. And Paris, or Venice, or Florence, or Rome. But not Sydney.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Common Australian Political Myths - National standards (uniformities) are a good thing

This is the second most popular Australian political myth after having too many politicians. It just sounds so very very sensible. Surely, as one nation, we should have common standards throughout the country? Or the state, for that matter.

The reality is very different. A national approach my help. Or it may hinder. It all depends upon the circumstances. And upon the definitions used.

Australia has been experiencing a minerals boom. Unlike past booms where heavy demand in one sector has led to a wages explosion across sectors, this time wage rises have been quarantined. As a consequence, the boom has continued because inflationary pressures have stayed down.

Both parties have claimed credit for this and for the same reason. Each argues that their approach has destroyed the previous nationally uniform system under which a wage rise in any area was transmitted to the broader economy because of a standardised uniform national system that worked regardless of variations in industry or geographic circumstance.

So here we have a case where there is general agreement that a centralised, uniform, system did not work.

I could give many examples. At this point, I would only argue that every argument on national standards or uniform approaches needs to be tested on the facts, not simply assumed to be a good thing.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Common Australian Political Myths - We have too many politicians

I am in the process of cooking tea. A view brief first comment on some common Australian political myths that annoy me.

Myth One: We have too many politicians.

We keep seeing this myth played out, most recently by the Queensland Premier. It's easy and popular. The reality is a little different.

In 1902 each Australian was represented by two lower house members, one state and one Federal. The same holds today.

Each local member provides at least three key services.

We expect them to handle our individual queries on Government services and policies. We expect them to look after our individual collective interests in the broader policy debates. And we expect them to make a contribution as MPs to state or national discussion.

Since 1902 the power and prestige of all Parliaments has declined relative to executive government. How could it be otherwise?

The number of voters that each member is meant to represent has grown enormously. The volume of legislation that each members is meant to study ditto. Yes, Parliamentarians have more staff.

But even given this, they can no longer provide the type of service that once I would have expected. There are just too many of us, too few of them.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Australian elections 2008 - the Wizard of Oz and Mr Me Too

Back in the dim and distant past - 6 July to be precise - I put up a post suggesting that this had been a very good election campaign. And indeed it was at that point. I no longer feel this, because the Wizard of Oz has entered the world of what I call supermarket politics followed by his dedicated follower, Mr Me Too.

In the few short comments that follow I am not going to source everything I say. I do not have time. But, as always, I stand ready to be corrected on errors of fact or interpretation.

When Mr Costello first floated the idea of a Future Fund I was a strong supporter. Mr Costello more than any other politician has pointed to the problem we face with demographic change. He has also pointed to the problem of inter-generational conflict and transfers. So the idea of a sinking fund to compensate for the effects of aging had a lot of merit.

Then the broader concept got linked to public service superannuation. A reduction, but still worthwhile. Now we have a multiplicity of funds with no clear rationale. The original concept has been lost.

Mr Me Too and his team began with the idea of raiding the original fund to pay for broadband. I thought that this was silly. But then they switched to a me too support approach for all of the emerging funds. This was almost going from bad to worse.

In the debate over how to use to the ever growing Commonwealth Government surplus, the Government takes credit for its good economic management, while Mr Me Too and his team emphasize that we are all economic conservatives. Both miss a few key points.

Either Blind Freddy or the Drover's Dog could generate a surplus in current economic conditions with just average economic management. But the apparent surplus is in fact misleading.

The Howard Government is, I think, a big spending Government measured by the amount of money they have extracted from taxpayers and then spent. Mr Me Too's team has pointed to this. Indeed, I think that the ugly duckling has made a special point of this.

What is not sufficiently recognised in all this is, that is that there is one area of expenditure that has been squeezed, and that is real commonwealth funding for the states.

Mr Costello says, correctly, that the states have a growth tax in GST. He also says, again correctly, that the states were meant to give up certain taxes in return.

Yet when you net all this out, real financial support going to the states has declined to the point that (I suspect) it just about matches the current surplus. And that financial support is increasingly tied, reducing state financial freedom.

Lord knows, I am not a supporter of current state structures. At least NSW and Queensland need to be broken into smaller units to provide a better geographic basis of Government. Go New England! I suspect that this is also true of WA. But the current system increasingly gives us the worst of all possible worlds.

My Howard has now made his long held position clear. The Australian people are pragmatic, aspirational nationalists, interested in outcomes, not principles. But what happens when good outcomes in a particular case measured by that case have broader adverse effects because they breach core principles? Those pragmatic Australians interested in the case will be pleased, but many other equally pragmatic Australians may be far from happy.

Mr Me Too and his team emphasise cooperative Federalism. But cooperative federalism is a working matter, not an overarching statement. Of course we want cooperation. But cooperation on what, how and why?

Mr Me Too's problem is that none of us believe that cooperative Federalism will survive the election of the first non-Labor state Government. In the absence of core principles, expediency will rule.

Switch directions and look at education.

A Bishop's role is to provide pastoral leadership to her flock. At present, this appears to consist of performance pay, adherence to a few narrowly defined national standards, a few new approaches in areas like Australian history.

I am not sure that Mr Me Too and his team are much better. When you drop below the rhetoric about an education revolution, you come back to the same narrow focus on national standards and uniformity, on specific measures and outcomes. I find it hard to see that the actual results will be any different from that likely to come from our present Bishop.

I could run this type of commentary across portfolio areas.

I have no doubt that Mr Me Too and his team will be competent managers. Things are not going to get worse under their control. I am sure that there will be some improvements at the margin. I just don't believe that there will be much beyond this unless we Australians cease to be aspirational nationalists and instead confound Mr Howard by actually engaging in a debate on principles.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Launch of The Alex Buzo Company

Keeping Buzo flowing

The marvellous playwright and king of tautology, Alex Buzo, who died last year, was a firm R&M favourite. So it is pleasing to hear that his daughter, Emma, has formed The Alex Buzo Company, which will stage several of his plays. It will start with The Roy Murphy Show - his 1971 satire on TV sports shows which was inspired by Rex "Let me recapitulate back to what I said previously" Mossop and Ron "Won" Casey. The launch, involving a special appearance by HG and Roy, will be held at the Parade Theatre on September 4. As Rex would say: "I don't want to sound incredulous, but I can't believe it."

It's Nau laughing matter, Rugby Heaven

In a separate post on the New England Australia blog, I talk about the launch by Emma Buzo of a new theatre company to produce the work of her father. The new company will launch with a fund raising production of The Roy Murphy Show at NIDA in Sydney on 4 September.

Do please have a read and come if you can. I know that the tickets are reasonably expensive, certainly they are for us, but this is a chance to help set up something new.

The rise and fall of Alex, and now hopefully rise, as a playwright also links to the discussion that Neil and I are having on the decline (or otherwise) of Australian writing.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A few notes

Photo: water cannon in action.

I will not be able to post tomorrow, too much to do in trying to catch up, so a few comments now.

A few week's ago I was driving into the city when I saw out of the corner of my eye this convoy of vehicles coming up behind. They actually scared me.

They looked a bit like police vehicles, but of a dark threatening colour that I had not seen before. I kept on looking at them. Then, as they drew level, I saw they they belonged to something called the public order and riot squad. I knew that the NSW Government had recently established a riot squad, something that did not make me happy. But "public order"? That's a term that would make George Orwell happy.

Australians used to laugh at and feel superior about overseas countries with all their police stuff. Not any more, I fear. The NSW public order and riot squad is now the proud owner of a water cannon. Apparently for use in some unspecified emergency.

But how dumb can you get. Now that we have it, some bloody idiots will not be able to resist the temptation to provoke its use in order to send photos around the world. Again, we do seem at the moment to be spending a lot of time creating things that we fear.

Still on silly moves, my daughters' school has now apparently added to its security restrictions with a new rule stating that students cannot be in a class room after hours without a teacher present. Just as well it has only come in now, since both girls have spent hours in class rooms and the ILC after hours without teachers catching up on work.

For those that remember the hospital from the Yes Minister series, I am sure that all schools would be both safer and tidier without the inconvenience of students. Still, I had thought that schools existed to serve students and parents.

Neil (Ninglun) has responded to my last post on the decline of Australian literature. My own views are firming up here. Its perhaps not the decline in Australian literature I should be talking about, but the decline in the centrality of Australian writing more broadly defined.

I will do a post on this to test my ideas and expose them to discussion. Now I must finish.

The decline in Australia Literature revisited

Earlier this month I mused about the apparent decline in interest in Australian literature. Neil (Ninglun) took something of an opposing view, adding an Oz Lit tag to his current blog. That, I thought, was a very positive outcome from the discussion since Neil is much more familiar with current writing than I am.

In a piece in the Bulletin headed Write Australia Policy, Professor Peter Pierce also lamented the decline. Here he said in part:

The number of academic courses in Australian literature has sharply fallen. Less and less of it is taught in schools. The quantity of Australian titles in print (the vital resource for course planning) has shrunk. The number of novels published fell from 60 in 1995 to 32 in 2004. Sales of Australian fiction declined from $123m in 2001 to $73m in 2004. Last year, there were two chairs of Australian literature - only two, and one of them mine - now there is one.

I was quite astonished at the low number of new publications. I do wonder about the definitions used. Do they, for example, include young people's fiction? There has always been an academic snobbery as to what counts as "literature" or, for that matter, "novels". Do they include books written by Australians, but published internationally?

All that said, Professor Pierce appears to confirm in rather dramatic fashion the point I was musing about.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Australian Poetry - a few meanderings

For his second Friday poem, Neil (Ninglun) chose The Poor, Poor Country by John Shaw Neilson. Ouch! The poem does capture one element of Australian mythology, one that I have much sympathy for, but I have always found it personally to be cringe-makingly bad!

Neilsen's first line begins:

Oh ’twas a poor country, in Autumn it was bare,
The only green was the cutting grass and the sheep found little there.
Oh, the thin wheat and the brown oats were never two foot high,
But down in the poor country no pauper was I.

Now compare this with the first lines of Judith Wright's The Hawthorn Hedge.

How long ago she planted the hawthorn hedge -
she forgets how long ago-
that barrier thrown across the hungry ridge;
thorn and snow.

Both poems are designed to be read aloud and do, I think, capture the rhythm of the Australian language. But they are very different.

It is, I think, increasingly hard for Australians to get their mind back into this country's past.

At the time Nielsen was born in 1872 the population was much smaller and also very dispersed. Most Australians received very little formal education. This was the age of the autodidact, the self taught man.

By the time Judith Wright was born in 1915, not only was the population much larger, but education was now widespread. Further, Judith grew up in a world of wealth and relative privilege. There is an enormous contrast between the formal world of the New England Girl's School where Judith received her secondary education and the two and half year's schooling that John Nielson received.

Both wrote because they had to. But Nielsen was part of a different school, the Bulletin school. This provided an outlet for a constant stream of bush and nationalist poetry.

Australians today struggle with the Bulletin school because of the racial attitudes built into the magazine and its writings. Neil captured the problem here rather well with his comments on Edward Dyson's A Golden Shanty. How do you handle something when it contains sets of attitudes now classified as unacceptable?

I accept that this is a problem. I also know that many of the attitudes now held in Australia will be classified as odd, quaint, unacceptable in the future. I just don't know which ones!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Australia's love affair with Europe

Photo: Santorini, Greek Islands

An exchange of comments on an earlier post, Multicultural vs Polycultural, got me thinking about Australia's, more correctly I should say Australians', current love affair with Europe. Not the UK or Ireland, but Europe more broadly defined.

Take my wife's family, a fairly traditional Irish/English Roman Catholic Labor Party family.

At present, my wife's sister is a doctor on a cruise ship touring Europe and has fallen in love with Scandinavia. This followed her first trip to Europe a few years ago.

Two of my wife's sisters are planning a trip to the Greek Isles, including hiring a yacht. Last night one was across at home booking accommodation on Santorini. This is not their first collective trip to Europe or indeed Santorini in the last few years. In fact, one of many.

My eldest plus girl friend are planning their first independent European trip for next year. My wife mutters about us spending time on retirement, should this ever be possible, in Tuscany.

At a time when languages in Australian schools and universities have been in decline for several decades, the number of Australians studying European languages on a private basis has never been higher.

Don't get me wrong, I too love Europe. I am just interested in all this as a social trend. Is all this just a natural outcome of the maturation of our mass post war migration program? I suspect that this is part of the answer.

Take Italy as an example. The earlier Australian prejudices about Italy have long gone. Most Australians going to Italy will know someone of Italian ancestry. All of us know something about Italian food. The cultural ambiance is familiar as well. More correctly, familiar enough to be comfortable, different enough to be interesting. So we actually feel at home, even if we have no Italian ancestry at all.

Is this a bad thing? I do not think so. It's all part of the process of change by which we adjust to changes in Australian society and culture. Italy is now part of Australia and the Australian experience.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Case for the New England New State Movement

I know that many readers of this blog find my continued support for New England self government strange, parochial.

Yes, my support is partly emotional. A form of local patriotism. But it is also practical.

After the loss of the self-government referendum in 1967 I, like many others, moved away from the new state cause. It had ceased to be relevant. But then, unlike most others, I came back. A key reason was that my life experience, and especially my experience as a policy adviser, suddenly convinced me that the arguments I had put forward so emotionally were in fact right.

While the arguments that I now mount in favour of renewed separatist agitation have similarities to those of the past, they are put solidly in a frame set by the workings of the current Governmental system. This, I argue, suffers from fundamental systemic weaknesses that discriminate against an area such as New England.

I find it hard to get this message across. I end up fighting on points of detail on one side, against broad general arguments on the other. So I need to go a different route.

Given that my arguments in favour of New England self government, or at least of a renewal of separatist agitation, are based on practical experience, I thought that what I might do is use actual examples to make my case.

The examples that I plan to cite are not abstract cases. They are specific examples of systemic failure. Each example may be open to challenge. But if I provide dozens, even hundreds, of examples, then I think that I can make the aggregate position clear.

I have so far put up just two examples on the New England Australia blog. I will add more in coming months. You can find the introductory post here.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Multicultural vs Polycultural

I am home today with flue. This makes me tired, somewhat achey, but leaves me with a working brain, albeit somewhat fogged. So I am mixing some blogging with sleep.

Those who read this blog will know that I have problems with the word "multicultural". This has led to some thoughtful and useful exchanges with Neil (ninglun).

I have decided to stop using the word entirely unless its use actually fits the narrow definition of multiple cultures living together. However, this creates a need to find an alternative word that better fits my conception of the evolving Australian scene.

As always, my thinking here has been influenced by my writing across blogs.

On the Regional Living Australia blog I have been exploring different aspects of life outside Australia's metro centres. Then on the New England Australia blog, I look in more detail at one Australian area. This writing flows across into this blog with my on-going emphasis on the need to understand the variety in Australian life.

One of the challenges in all this is to find a way to encompass and link the variety in Australian life.

Let me try to illustrate by example.

On the Regional Living Australia blog I have so far written seven posts on the Kimberley Region of WA. Now compare this with the story I wrote on the Winifred West schools. One country, but two very different history, cultures and experience.

Now look at the story on Quong Tart and the Chinese in Australia on this blog, one of a number of stories I have written on the Chinese experience. Again, a very different slice of the Australian experience.

One of the interesting things in all this is not just the variety of Australian life, but also the continuity.

Take Quong Tart as an example. Here the story sweeps from the gold fields of 19th century Australia through to Ashfield in 2007. Quong Tart was one of Ashfield's leading citizens. There was a significant Chinese community in Ashfield. Today, that Chinese presence remains in Ashfield to the point that the main strip is an Asian (especially Chinese) Australian amalgam.

We can see the same continuity in the stories on the Kimberley's and Mittagong and the Winifred West schools. So how do we encompass all this continuity and change, making it accessible to people from Australia and overseas?

In a post on the Regional Living blog, I have suggested that we should use the word polycultural instead of multicultural as a descriptor. The word is not quite right, but it does better capture what I see as the dynamics of Australian life.

The area that would become Australia was already multicultural at the time the Europeans arrived in the sense that our indigenous peoples displayed considerable cultural variation.

The arrival of the Europeans introduced a new dominant force. The interactions between our indigenous peoples and the broader Australian community remains one of the continuing themes in Australian history. Today we can speak of multiple indigenous cultures changing and interacting with other cultural traditions.

Australia's new migrants quickly developed a culture that was seen by outsiders as distinct, different, from those holding in the original home countries. That culture has evolved into a strong and continuing core culture. We may debate the detail, but I do not think that anybody would argue that it does not exist.

Australia was and remains a migrant country. Each wave of migrants has added to the texture of Australian life not just through the visible differences, but also through their impact on Australia's core culture. So we have both continuity and change within that core culture.

There have always been variations in the core culture across the country, variations that I think have increased with time. There are also variations in the visible and changing migrant presence across the country, adding to and affecting variations in the core culture.

I like the word polyculturalism because, to me at least, it better captures the complexity and dynamics of the Australian experience than the word multicultural.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Australia's Best Ads - a trip down nostalgia lane

I was surfing for something different - Toyota's famous bugger ads - when I came across this story from last year about Australia's best ads of all time.

Now the nice thing about the story is that it includes working links to video of the ads themselves.

Older Australians (and New Zealanders) will be taken down nostalgia lane. I am sure that younger Australians will still find them interesting even if they do not remember the ad. And overseas readers should find them interesting as a window into Australia.

Do have a browse!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

In Praise of the SMH's Erik Jensen

I had two stories ready to write as a follow up to my story Sydney Art - end of the angry young men. Then I thought, let's give some praise where praise is due.

I do not know who Erik Jensen is. I do know that after returning to reading on art after a long break, I found Mr Jensen's reports in the Sydney Morning Herald to be very good indeed.

Now I admit that I have a bias here. I like a writer who can provide a historical context to his writing. This Mr Jensen does very well indeed.

I notice that the on-line edition of the SMH does not appear to give Mr Jensen his by-line credit. I think that this is a gross error of commercial judgement.

If the paper did, they could promote Mr Jensen's writing to an international marketplace as a way of making Australian art accessible. I know that there is a real market here.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Sydney art - end of the angry young men

Photo: Painting by Adam Cullen.

Interesting story in the Sydney Morning Herald (8 August 2007) by Erik Jensen suggesting that the Sydney gallery scene's love affair with testostrone fuelled art appears to be waning.

According to Jensen, angry young men have dominated the Sydney gallery scene for more than a decade, snapped up by collectors reconnecting with lost youth.

The painter Adam Cullen formed the face of this movement, and his pictures, made from squalls of genitalia and dismembered bodies, found their way into the living rooms of Elton John and Amanda Vanstone. Later, Ben Quilty's teen frustrations met the canvas in slabs of eloquent violence, pushed and slashed with a palette knife. Apart from his debut, every show sold out.

But now, Jensen suggests, the movement has aged, losing some of its intensity - tastes have changed and the pendulum is swinging towards a wave of young women, angry and otherwise.

The angry young man is dead. In his place: refinement, tradition and women who now account for the majority of enrolments across Australia.

I have been out of touch with the Australian art scene for many years. Somehow I lost interest after I married and especially after we moved to Sydney. There wasn't any time, and much of the art had also ceased to say anything to me.

More recently I have started to become interested again, but through a very narrow prism, the individual work of girls at my daughters' school. This year in particular with Clare doing HSC art I have been in and out of the school's art studio all the time, in so doing watching the girls' work evolve.

Erk Jensen's article struck a chord because it chimed with my own perceptions of the girl's work.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Broken Record - Risk Avoidance and the Burden of Compliance

Yesterday was the usual Saturday morning hockey. Not a good day, the team was not playing well. Clare as goalie saved nine, but let in six.

Usual chat among parents at the start of the match. One parent complained about the treatment of her son at a leading Sydney boys' school, about the school's obsession with rules. This led to a broader conversation about the current Australian obsession with rules, risk avoidance, compliance and security.

The forthcoming APEC meeting is affecting life in Sydney in a variety of ways greater even than the impact of the Olympics. As a simple example, the girl's hockey competition has been cancelled on the Saturday, reducing by one the number of games in what is for most of the team their last season playing for the school. No one objected to the meeting itself, all questioned the scale of the precautions being taken.

As the conversation proceeded, every parent had a different example of the way in which current obsessions from moral hazard through police checks to insurance problems had affected their life. There was a general feeling that something was seriously wrong, few ideas as to how the problem might be addressed.

I have recently written a number of posts dealing with these issues because they concern me. For those that are interested:

In Banner Headline: ICAC exposes corruption risks in HSC take-home assessments (6 June 2007) I expressed surprise at the involvement of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, the State's peak anti-corruption body, in assessing the risks of cheating in the NSW school system.

I extended the argument the following day in ICAC and the NSW HSC - the Legalisation of Australian Life. There I talked about our current obsession with risk and the way it was leading to the legalisation of Australian life.

Still beating the same drum, on 8 June Risk - lock out and lock down arrive in Australian schools talked about the new security provisions introduced into my daughter's school, provisions that added to fees but did nothing to make me feel more secure about my daughter's safety. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Then on 9 June in Treatment of Risk in Public Policy I suggested that we, the public, were compounding the risk obsession problem by our own responses to events.

After a gap, I returned to the theme on 25 July in Quid custodit ipsos custodes? - Who will protect us from our protectors - and ourselves? In a post script I included a quote from Tacitus that I thought rather neatly summarised the core message in the post: When the republic is at its most corrupt, the laws are most numerous.

Then on 1 August in Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West I talked, among other things, about the rise of the authoritarian state.

So in all this I have been both consistent and persistent.

I have no doubt that our obsession with risk and moral hazard is starting to choke the life out of our society. Ignoring issues associated with individual freedom and responsibility, the economic costs are becoming huge.

There are the direct costs we can all see, at the simplest level things like increased school fees to cover the additional security. However, I think that these are now dwarfed by indirect costs that are much harder to identify and quantify. These costs arise from the way that our obsessions affect the way we do things.

Compliance requirements affect and complicate every business process. This has direct costs in that compliance has to be paid for. As more resources are devoted to compliance, to maintaining the system, fewer resources are available to actually do new things. But then there are indirect costs as well in that business processes simply become less efficient, more time consuming. So we have fewer real resources because of direct compliance costs, while the yield on those resources that we do have left after compliance costs falls because of reduced efficiency.

I think that most people, like the parents I spoke of earlier, recognise that there is something wrong. There appears to be an almost pervasive sense of unease. What, if anything, might be done about it all is the problem.

The core difficulty lies in the the fact that while there is a measure of agreement that there is something wrong in a general sense, the processes that have created the current position continue. We still want individual things controlled, fixed.

In all this, there is a crunch coming that will force change.

Australians have an expectation that their standard of living will continue to increase. We also have an aging population. The maintenance of living standards in the face of an aging population depends upon productivity increases. This is where the crunch will come.

My suspicion is that impact on productivity of our current obsessions with risk and compliance is now at the point that the required productivity increases will not be possible. In this event, fundamental systemic change is likely to be forced upon us.

Return to list of posts in this series

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Belshaw's Favourite Blogs - Marcel Proust's Stumbling on melons

Continuing my very irregular series on my favourite blogs, Marcel Proust's Stumbling on Melons is a very different blog from some of those I read.

Marcel is, I think, a serious and precise person. He is also a barrister practising in Sydney. Both show in the precision and clarity of his English.

I sometimes imagine Marcel at his computer striving for the exact phrase that will most accurately capture the meaning he wants to express. Well, Marcel, this is one reader who appreciates your efforts. Even with topics in which I have no interest, I find myself dropping below the story to examine and admire the English expression.

Marcel loves music and especially opera with a passion, a passion reflected in his many posts about concerts.

I fear music has passed me by. I always thought of this as a weakness, and indeed have tried to overcome it. Now music does have a small place in my life: Vivaldi in Venice, the classical music I listen to when working at home, Gilbert and Sullivan, a few operas, some popular music. Yet my tolerance for staged performances is quite low. I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat, watching the first violin or almost anybody else as a distraction.

So I do not share Marcel's passion. Yet I am happy to read his posts in part as an education, in part because I am never quite sure where he will end up. Sometimes quite literally in fact! There, Marcel, included just as evidence that I do actually read your posts!

As might be expected, Marcel also writes frequently on legal topics. Again he does so with clarity, but also with compassion and an eye for social justice.

There is a strong gay theme in many of his posts. As a conventional heterosexual male my interests lie elsewhere. But I can read these posts with interest and a degree of understanding.

So, in all, MP and Stumbling on melons forms a valuable part of what I have sometimes the University of Blogging, or at least my part of that University. I commend him to you.

Return to list of favourite blogs

Friday, August 10, 2007

Broken Record - a new series

Looking back over my various posts, I see recurring themes, in some cases complaints.

I complain often about living in Sydney, that Sydney life is fundamentally uncivilised.

A few days ago I put up a post, Life has just become too bloody complicated, that I then largely deleted because it was too much of a whinge. This post was triggered by my time sheets - I keep personal time sheets recording what I do in ten minute blocks.

When I looked back over these sheets, I could see why I got so little done, why I was so behind. I found that in the preceding fortnight I had less than two hours per day on average including the weekends for personal time, including writing time.

The real killer was the extra travel time associated with current work patterns. Over that fortnight, my average daily travel time was a bit over three hours.

Another example of a recurring theme - an obsession some might say with a degree of fairness - is the damage done to Australia by the disconnection with and sometimes rejection of our own past.

Sometimes we reject it as narrow and racist. At other times, we wrap it in a haze of nostalgia as happened recently with the 1950s. Sometimes we use it as a nationalist symbol as in the preoccupation with our military past. Here I find it sad that that military past sometimes seems the only thing left as an icon on which most Australians can agree. There is a sometimes narrow and inward looking nationalism around in Australia today that past generations would have found very strange, that makes me very uncomfortable.

The reality, at least as I see it, is that the Australian past is not all narrow and racist. The fifties were not some golden age. And British generals were not all incompetent fools trying to kill Australians off.

I have decided to create a new series of posts, the Broken Record series, as a way of sounding-off, of drawing themes together. I know that I already have too many incomplete series, but at least this way I signal to readers that the post is an expression of personal opinion without the attempt at balance that I do try to maintain in my normal posts.

Posts in this series

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Decline in Australian Literature

Driving to work I listened a radio program about the decline in Australian literature.

Apparently one of Australia's major universities that had been experiencing a dramatic decline in both the absolute number and proportion of English students studying Australian literature tried to introduce an honours course in the area. This failed because it did not attract a single student.

An academic complained that the only thing keeping Australian literature alive as an area of study was the interest in certain overseas universities. The solution offered was to increase Australian content in the higher school courses.

Whys should we be surprised that all this had happened?

There are general systemic factors at work that have affected all classes of literature. But here we are talking about a decline within a decline. So other things have to be at work.

Crudely, in rejecting the validity of the Australian past in the way so many have done, we have cut the underpinnings out from our literary tradition. Why should anyone study the literature coming from a narrow, provincial, racist past? What relevance does it have for modern multicultural Australia today?

This is a tragedy. I love Australian studies. I love the texture of Australian life over the years.

I understand the injustices that we have done to, for example, our indigenous people. Obviously we need to understand this. But I want to capture the indigenous experience too, focused on them as people, not as victims forever buried in an European paradigm of past black white relations. What do they have to teach me as an Australian living in 2007?

In all the decline in Australian literature there appears to be one growth area, and that is young peoples' literature.

I have read a fair bit of this, in part because of my daughters, in part because I have enjoyed it. This does deal with contemporary issues. But it also writes to the Australian experience. Long may it continue.


Neil (Ninglun) provided a thoughtful comment on this post and also put up a post about the issues on his blog. This includes a link to his own OzLit writings as well as to Matilda and Wilson's Blogmanac, both worthwhile sites.

One of the difficulties in this time poor world is to find the time to trace through the material to test my own assessments. I will try to do so. In the meantime, a challenge to all.

To help educate me, what do you think the main trends and patterns have been in Australian writing over the last twenty years? How does this relate to other trends in Australian society and culture? What does it tell us about ourselves?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Australian Election 2007 - Poll Insights

This morning's Australian carried an interesting poll from my viewpoint.

Once broad trends are established, as they are at the moment, I am less interested in the aggregate number than in the details.

To begin with, I have been wondering just how the Greens were tracking. They have dropped off the media screen.

Based on experience I would have expected them to be in a degree of trouble. They now suffer from the same problem as the National Party, locked into the ALP in the same way as the Nats are to the Liberals. Their main platform, the environment, has been expropriated by the main Parties. They also face a polarised electorate, always dangerous territory for a minority group.

The poll appears to reflect this. At the last elections, the Greens got 7.2 per cent. Recently their support has been running between 3 and 5 per cent, most recently 4 per cent. So they have a problem.

Then I was wondering how the Nats were going as distinct from the Liberals. At the last election the Nats got 5.9 per cent. In recent weeks they have been running between 3 and 4 per cent, but have now recovered to 5 per cent.

Unlike the Greens who have a national but thin vote, the Nats' vote is geographically concentrated. So the Nats appear to be coming back. It is, I think, actually a little while since the total Nats vote passed the Greens. The big threat for the Nats remains, I think, their New England coastal seats.

Finally, I wondered about the reaction to Dr Haneef. Here a question on Immigration Minster Andrew's handling of the matter suggested that 49 per cent approved, 36 per cent disapproved.

Actually, this was better than I expected. But the real kicker is in the detail. There is a clear upward gradient based on age. Only 44 per cent of those aged 18-34 approve, as compared to 53 per cent for those over 50.

Mr Howard has been losing support among the younger age cohort for some time. This is nothing to do with his own age, at least I do not think that it is, but simply reflects the demographic that he is playing to. I find it odd that I am personally much more comfortable with those under twenty five than with those over thirty. Really very odd.

Pacific Perspective - Pasifika and New Zealand's Future

Photo: Ramona Tuai, the teacher at Richmond Road Primary's Samoan bilingual unit, says her pupils' parents had lost touch with their ethnic culture. Photo Kenny Rodger. New Zealand Herald.

Some time ago I began a series called Pacific Perspective, looking at relations between Australia and the Pacific. A key focus was the way in which we had forgotten our Pacific past. I have included previous posts in the series at the end of this post.

Like I number of my series I got side-tracked. However, browsing around I found some interesting stories in the on-line edition of the New Zealand Herald on the results of the 2006 New Zealand census that ignited my interest
I realised that it was now eight years since I was last in New Zealand, probably the longest gap ever, and clearly far too long. New Zealand has been changing and quickly in ways that I think have largely slipped below the Australian radar
Australians think of Sydney as a multicultural melting pot. Auckland makes Sydney look like a pussy cat.

According to the Herald, Auckland has a resident European population of only 54 per cent - the rest is a melting pot of 8 per cent Maori, 13 per cent Pacific people and 24 per cent Asian. More than than half of school-aged children in Auckland are now non-European. Thirty seven per cent of the Auckland population was born outside New Zealand.

This is quite a remarkable change in terms of the increase in both the Pacific Islander and Asian components.

Like Sydney, Auckland is the main entry point for migrants, some of whom trickle though to other parts of the country. However, the trickle through effect in New Zealand appears much smaller.

Nationally, New Zealand is still dominated by those of European descent, with 68 per cent European, 15 per cent Maori, 7 per cent Pacific, and 9 per cent Asian residents. So there is a clear divergence between Auckland's population structure and the national picture, with some parts of the South Island still overwhelmingly European.

In another story, demographer Jude Hoosen warns Aucklanders that they need to wake up to the city's brown future. Part of Hoosen's point is that business in particular needs to focus on changing demography since this determines its future staff.

Forecasts for 2016 show that Pakeha children will be just 38 per cent of 0- to 14-year-olds in Auckland. Pacific and Asian groups will each have 23 per cent - with Maori at 16 per cent. At national level, Pakeha children will still dominate at 55 per cent, but Maori children will make up 22 per cent of the age segment. Hoosen warns that
while more Maori and Pacific Islanders are getting university degrees they often feel excluded from top jobs and business is not doing enough to nurture local talent. There is also a danger that ethnic groups become segregated or ghettoised in various suburbs, increasing the difficulty disadvantaged children face in trying to move up or out.
Auckland has always been a Pacific city in a way Australian cities have not.

In another interesting report, Pasifika - Identity or illusion?, Alan Perrott explores the challenges faced by New Zealand's Pacific Island communities. In his words: You are New Zealand-born, perhaps your parents are, too, but your ancestral home is a dot in the Pacific. How do you describe yourself?

This is a fascinating article, worthy of a full post in its own right. It explores the tensions and confusions that can arise between being New Zealand, preserving links with and the cultures of home, and the emergence of officially pushed concepts such as Pasifika, a Pacific Islands' culture. In Perrott's words:

Pasifika is an odd term, and one gaining increasing currency outside the annual festival at Western Springs. Essentially, its the samoanisation of a Portuguese nod to the Latin phrase Mare Pacificum, or peaceful sea, so named by navigator Ferdinand Magellan. In this country it has become an umbrella term for everyone living here with traceable Pacific island heritage. You'll find it touted enthusiastically by governmental social ministries and schools. Once were islanders, Polynesians, PIs, Pacific peoples and so on, now are Pasifika.
I commend the story to you for its interesting insights.

Both Pasifika and the New Zealand census results should act as reminder to those on this side of the ditch (the Tasman Sea for the benefit of international readers) of the pace of change in New Zealand.

Previous Posts in the Pacific Series

Monday, August 06, 2007

Life has become just too bloody complicated!

This is a brief follow up to my last post to express a core complaint: life has become just too bloody complicated.

Note from author

I decided to delete this post. Just too complaining. Life has indeed become too bloody complicated, but the topic deserves a considered response rather than a winge.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West - a follow up note

Neil in his kind response to my post Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West suggested that the title did not quite match the post. That's true to a degree because of the direction the writing took me. So I thought that I might briefly tie my argument back to the title.

Fear and moral courage link in that I feel that the fear response to terrorism, the way we present terrorism, is in part a lack of moral courage.

Instead of accepting that there are some things that we cannot control or can only control to a point and attempting to preserve our life and values in spite of them, we are altering our life and breaching our values in an endeavour to defeat the threat. In so doing, we have lost our sense of perspective.

Technology is central because Governments could not even attempt to do some of the things that they are now trying to do, to control, in the absence of computing and communications technology. We have become the victim of our own technology.

The patterns that have appeared in Australia can, I think, be found in most western countries and especially the US. Hence the linkage to the decline of the west.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

In Celebration of Scouting

Congratulations to the Scouting Movement on its 1ooth anniversary.

I have been working on another post over the last few days. I will finish, but I need to move on.

Scouts were a godsend to me. At a time when I was very unhappy they provided a release, a place where I could find myself.

When my daughters were young I used to tell them some of the things we did. A little later I used my experience in scouts as a guide as to what I should let them do. And that was sometimes a lot more than conventional wisdom provided.

I thought at one stage that Australian scouting would be killed by political correctness. The movement had just too many apparent connections to a past in the process of active rejection. Yet it has survived.

Listening to the commentators talking about the anniversary I was struck by how many actually struggled to deal with the event. Many were surprised to find scouting still a vibrant movement.

A key difficulty in secular Australia is the continued reference to belief in God, a supreme being. In the 1923 creed this was expressed in terms of god and country.

The movement does not specify the form that this belief should take. This has made it a genuinely international movement because while the creed does vary from country to country, the core statement of beliefs can be accepted by people of all religions in all countries.

Long may scouting continue.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West

"I told Lana that were getting closer to George Orwell's 1984". Unsolicited comment from youngest daughter (17) in response to a story on Dr Haneef.

This will, I fear, be rather a mixed up post. The post was in fact written over two, now three, days as I wrestled with the issues. I hope that the post will be helpful even to those who disagree with me.

On 25 July I put up a post in which I expressed concern about, among other things, the increasing legalism now affecting Australian society. My concern was captured in a quote from Tacitus. When the republic is at its most corrupt, the laws are most numerous.

On 30 July I discussed the Haneef case. I was very careful not to discuss the evidence or the specific arguments about Dr Haneef's guilt or innocence. My message was summarised in the title of the post: Haneef Case: a failure in compassion and common sense.

My core point was that the failures in the case linked to the way the matter was handled, that there had been a fundamental failure in the way the case had been approached and presented, not just in the legal processes themselves.

This post continues the argument.

Origination of the Word Terrorism

To refresh my memory, I checked the derivation of the word. Here I find : 1795, in specific sense of "government intimidation during the Reign of Terror in France" (1793-July 1794), from Fr. terrorisme (1798).

So terrorism started of with a revolutionary Government. The item goes on:
General sense of "systematic use of terror as a policy" is first recorded in English. 1798. Terrorize "coerce or deter by terror" first recorded 1823. Terrorist in the modern sense dates to 1947, especially in reference to Jewish tactics against the British in Palestine -- earlier it was used of extremist revolutionaries in Russia (1866); and Jacobins during the French Revolution (1795) ... The tendency of one party's terrorist to be another's guerilla or freedom fighter was noted in ref. to the British action in Cyprus (1956) and the war in Rhodesia (1973).
The core reason for terrorism, the deliberate use of fear in a state context, was well captured by Robespierre in a speech in the French National Convention in 1794.
If the basis of a popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is virtue and terror -- virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.
This actually captures rather well many of the elements of modern terrorism at both state and now non-state level, the use of terror as a political weapon justified by and linked to a claimed virtuous cause.

Terrorism is Not New

I think that it is helpful to remember, as suggested by the previous section, that terrorism is not new.
The world was plunged into the First World War by the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

More recently, just to select a few examples, we have had the Stern Gang in Palestine, a group celebrated by many in modern Israel. A little later there was the Red Brigade. In the first ten years of the group's existence, the Red Brigades were credited with 14,000 acts of violence, most of which were against defenseless people on the street. Then, too, we have had the IRA.

This is just a short history. Many of those classified as terrorists - the Israelis, the PLO, Libya and IRA are examples - are now (to use an Australian phrase) more or less inside the tent. Others, the Red Brigade, have been relegated to the dust heap of history.

In each case, the established order has had to deal with the challenge.

The Use of Coercive State Power

The established order has always responded to any challenge to its authority through the application of state power. We can see this in the Stasi in East Germany, the Gestapo or ASIO in Australia.

In saying this, I am not saying that the application of coercive power by these bodies is the same. Clearly it is not. To put ASIO or the Federal Police as arms of the state in the same class as the Stasi or the Gestapo would be absurd. But the techniques, including the collection and use of information, are. It is the use to which those techniques are put, the limitations placed upon them, that are different.

Part of the problem with the application of coercive state power is that it creates victims.

Take as a simple and clear cut example, the internment in Australia of those from enemy countries during the first and second world wars. This was a time of clear national threat. There was a fear, not without reason, of spies and saboteurs. Yet it is also true that the internment victimised tens of thousands of innocent people loyal to Australia whose only crime was their country of origin.

Part of the problem with the application of coercive state power is that it is also open to misuse.
My study of history, as well as my experiences in and with Government, suggest that all Governments have a tendency to misuse state power. This is especially true at times of national fear or even hysteria.
The reasons for this are simple and lie in the dynamics of power itself.

All Governments come to believe that they are right, that they know best. Sometimes they are right. More often, history shows that they were not. The difficulty is that in pursuing their objectives and then in defending their position, Governments become victims of their own thinking and rhetoric. They then go a step too far. This is most likely to happen where, as has been the case in Australia, Government actions coincide with the public mood.

In all this, the thing that distinguishes an Australia from a Nazi Germany or Stalin's USSR is the existence of checks and balances inside and outside Government that constrain the use of state power.

In the middle of the second world war when the threat to Australia was real and immediate, newspaper proprietors fought Government moves on censorship. While the proprietors' business interests were involved, there was also the in-principle argument of the public's right to know.

In the midst of the anti-communist hysteria of the immediate post war period, public opposition prevented the Menzies Government banning the Communist Party. In retrospect, we now know that the Soviet Government was far more active in Australia than left wing apologists at the time would allow. Yet it is also clear that the banning of the Communist Party, something sought on national interest grounds for state protection, would have had no positive impact on subsequent developments.

The Principal of Proportionality

One key principle that should guide Government action is that the response should be proportional to the challenge or threat. To my mind, the response to terrorism is now so grossly out of proportion to the threat that it has itself become a threat.

Put the threat aside and focus on the pattern of responses since the bombing of the twin towers.
Internationally, the bombing triggered the invasion of Afghanistan. Then we had the invasion of Iraq. Iraq dissolved into a chaos that drew its neighbours in.

The fragile peace in Lebanon collapsed under the pressure of war. Palestine dissolved into total chaos. Now we have a middle east arms race designed to contain the rising threat posed by Iran.

Domestically, Governments and their state agencies moved to put new controls in place to counter the threat.
Detention without trial. New forms of surveillance. Control orders. Detention camps. Torture. Internment. The language itself has changed to reflect the new realities, including the use of techniques such as torture or forced interrogation previously the domain of feared secret police.

Governments cooperated in information exchange. New international controls come in. Prisoners are shifted between states to meet the exigencies of war. New international alliances form as support is given to regimes that will support the cause.

In all this, the threat seems to become stronger. There are new bombings, triggering new responses. The "war on terror" itself becomes part of the equation by creating a new focus for those opposed to what they see as the corruption of the west.

Martys breed martys. The concept of home grown terrorists appears. The enemy outside becomes the enemy within. The initially much diminished threat of Al Quaeda morphes into Al Quaeda in Iraq. More controls are required.

What began as a "war on terror", a response to a terrorist attack by a small but well organised group, has turned into real war fought on a number of fronts involving hundreds if not thousands of casualties each day, mainly innocent civilians.

It has also become a technology war.

War always drives the development of technology.

Those involved in terrorist activities have been able to use the new computing and telecommunications technology to contact each other, to spread information and as a PR weapon. Here they use internet technology not just to instill fear in Western countries - a necessary requirement since this drives the Government responses they need to spread their cause - but also to recruit. In some ways, Al Quaeda has become the web 2.0 version of terrorism.

Those involved in terrorism have also been able to develop new, simple, destructive weapons to kill or maim, using our own systems, technology and fears against us. Their capacity to do so is enhanced by media reporting that facilitates the spread of knowledge about both successes and failures.

On the Government side, the war on terror has encouraged the development of technologies used in monitoring, surveillance, control. All this gives the state far greater power to monitor and control its citizens. That's fine, but only so long as we can trust the state not to misuse the power. And the evidence world wide is that we cannot.And all for what?

I visited London during the height of the IRA bombings and admired the way in which people went about their daily business. People were, to use the Australian Government's slogan, alert but not alarmed.

Today, the chances of any single Australian being killed in Australia or elsewhere in a terrorist attack is statistically very small. By contrast, the chances of dying from flue, including the statistically significant chance of a pandemic, are many, many, times higher. Yet people do not run around obsessing about flue risks.

Governments do not feel obliged to use coercive state power on a daily basis to try to prevent the problem.
Terrorism seems to have created a blue funk, a failure in moral courage, in Western countries.

The Rise of the Authoritarian State

While all Governments have authoritarian tendencies, the last three decades have seen to my mind a remarkable rise in state authoritarianism in Australia. Governments do less for their people, but attempt to control more. This control permeates every activity and every level of society.

Take teaching.

In the bad old days, State Governments set curriculum and then used inspectors to go round and enforce standards. The system was seen as far too rigid, centralised and authoritarian. The inspector could be a figure of some fear. Yet individual teachers faced relatively clear requirements and within those requirements could exercise a degree of freedom.

Today teachers and schools operate within a web of laws, regulations, instructions, controls, policy statements, protocols, procedures, reporting arrangements and guidelines that make the old NSW Department of Public Instruction in its worst days look like a model of administrative simplicity. No wonder most schools now require staff just to ensure that the school complies with rules and reporting requirements!
This expansion of control has been associated with a progressive break down in the checks and balances that used to constrain Government.

To my mind, the starting point here has been the decline in community knowledge of our own history, a process that began in the seventies and has accelerated since. By our history I do not mean Australian history, the current Howard Government obsession, but the broad sweep of British history of which Australia forms a small part.
Our institutions, including the relations between Government and people, are based in that history. Forget it, and you are likely to lose sight of the fact that our freedoms were not given to us, but were fought for over generation after generation. British history is in fact the story of the rise of individual freedom in the face of establishment and state opposition.

This is not a small point. Our government system has always depended in part on knowledge of the past, on unwritten rules and conventions that set a context for Government operations. Take the decline in the power and authority of parliaments, another of the checks and balances, as an example.

I have a great reverence for parliament and for parliamentarians. Parliament, not the executive or government, is our peak governing body.

This is why I have voted so often for the Democrats, why I regard the decline in the Democrats as a national tragedy, even though my traditional affiliations are elsewhere. The Democrats with Don Chipp's famous slogan, keep the bastards honest, have focused on parliament's role as a check on executive government. This has been sadly lost sight off by others in the rise of executive government.

When I first joined the Commonwealth Public Service the role of parliament was still central. Governments in control still felt bound by the conventions of parliament and parliamentary democracy. This is no longer true. The instinctive reverence for parliament has been lost. So, too, has community understanding of and respect for parliament. Parliament has become at best something to be got around, at worst a rubber stamp.

The Howard Government

The Howard Government has taken the authoritarian state in Australia to a new level.

John Howard is a populist. So am I, although I come from a different tradition, the New England tradition. But populism unconstrained by principles can be a dangerous beast.

Mr Howard talks about the Australian people to justify his actions. The Australian people, he suggests, are not interested in esoteric principles. They want protection and effective service delivery. Fair enough, they do. However, the desire to control is so central to this Government's actions that it has become a threat.
We can, I think, see this across the whole range of Government actions.

In a post I wrote last November on the High Court decision on Work Choices, I noted that Mr Howard had said that concerns that about the impact of the decision were unfounded. The states should have no fears. The Commonwealth had no desire to take over state powers. It would only do so if it were in "the national interest" or to achieve a "public good". I went on:

From experience, I have absolutely no doubt that Commonwealth Governments of all political persuasions will attempt to use the now established power. It would be silly to think otherwise. The very words the Prime Minister uses - in the national interest, in the public good - indicate this since these matters are very much in the eye of the beholder.
Since then we have seen a steady stream of direct interventions by the Commonwealth in State affairs. We can argue the rights and wrongs of individual interventions. My point is that there is now a clear pattern of Howard Government action in which the constitution has become little more than a legal document to be got around as required.

The desire to control is central to these direct interventions. We can see this across portfolios from education through health to housing, to aboriginal affairs and social welfare. The pattern is quite clear cut.

Working in the name of national standards, national uniformity, national protection, the Howard Government has sought to intervene in every aspect of national life and at every level. As the election approaches, the interventions have become increasingly random, driven by electoral exigencies. The checks and balances inside Government - the role of cabinet, the role of Treasury and Finance in controlling expenditure, the consultation and coordination procedures - appear to have broken down.

In border protection and terrorism, our fear and concern has allowed creeping breaches of our fundamental rights. Note that I am not saying that terrorism is not a problem. I am saying that our response is not proportional to the size of the threat.

This creeping process has been marked by injustices against individuals. Australians have been wrongly deported or interned. The concept of innocence until proven guilty has been lost sight of in the need to protect. The harsh rhetoric required to justify actions and ever increasing powers has become more pervasive. The coercive and protective instruments of the state have themselves become players as police commissioners plead for more powers.

In all this, and I think that this is a tragedy, there has been growing mistrust not just of Government, but of the institutions and agencies on which we depend for our protection and security.

A measure of distrust is always healthy. Many believed during the 1950s and 1960s that they were being monitored by ASIO and indeed we now know that they were. Having a dossier from this period has even become a matter of some pride. Yet past a certain point, distrust becomes a problem.

Like many Australians, I accepted Government conclusions that Saddam Hussein did indeed have weapons of mass destruction. We now know that there was a catastrophic failure not just of intelligence, but of the treatment of intelligence information.

The advice the Government provided the Australian people on Tampa to support its actions was wrong. This was clearly a system failure. Now we have the problems with the Haneef material. I am afraid that I have reached the stage that I look for the errors whenever the Government or its agencies says trust us, we have secret material. Trust I do not
Nor can we trust either Government or its agencies to treat us fairly as individuals. There have been just too many cases where Government or agencies has broken the civil compact underlying out system.
To me, the Haneef case was the final straw here. Now when I look at Mr Keelty still pursuing the matter in public, this is a different issue from the proper continuance of investigations, I feel like saying take a cold shower, get some balance.

In recent weeks both Mr Keelty and the NSW Police Commissioner have been pleading the case for more police powers. Immediate past experience makes me very distrustful. Putting this aside, I apply two tests to these requests.

Test one is to ask what would happen if we did not grant the request. Generally my conclusion is nothing. That is, the extra powers would have little real impact in terms of the objectives as defined.

Test two is to ask whether I would want Government to have these powers in a less benign environment. It may sound odd to use the word benign when I have just been so critical. But whatever our current weaknesses, we still live in a democratic system in which Governments can be removed without violence.
We cannot assume that this will continue.

Once powers are ceeded to Government, they tend to remain. The decision by a protestor all those years ago to throw an egg at Prime Minister Billy Hughes gave us the Federal Police. Once powers are there, Governments will use them.

To suggest that Australian might become a dictatorship seems absurd. Yet if I had told an Australian even forty years ago just what current Governments would do I would have been laughed at. Extrapolate current trends and and a totally authroitarian state seems possible.

I am not saying that this will happen. I am saying that the price of liberty remains eternal vigilance.