Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Australia's sad moral decline


I wrote the following post in a fit of sarcastic whimsey.

I did wonder at the time if anyone would misinterpret me. My old mate Neil did, I think, in his comment on this post. Typically, he did not hoe in, but instead responded in his usual gentle fashion. Neil is not always gentle, some of his comments on Mr Howard could hardly be described as gentle, but he is always civilised in conversation.

I will comment further at the end of the post, but a little later because I have to cook tea for my wife and daughters. I would hardly describe my girls as examples of moral decline!

The Post

When I fired up the computer the first things that came up was one of those on-line polls on ninemsn. The question? Should all police be drug tested.

Of course, I voted no at once. I was fascinated to discover that following my vote, I was one of 1,581 people who had voted no as compared to 22,019 who had voted yes. Quite clearly, the problem of drug abuse including alcohol in the police force is far worse than I had realised.

Mind you, it's bad in sport too. There the problem has got so bad that the Australian Prime Minister feels that there is a moral, already in some cases a legal, obligation on sporting bodies to test not just for for performance enhancing but also recreational drugs. Mr Howard clearly feels that the problem of drugs in the community and the consequent moral decline has become so bad that something needs to be done.

The problem starts with the young. All Australian Governments have been forced to tighten up the laws about young people and crime, removing previous legal limitations about process and sentencing. This Australia wide problem of youth crime has to be dealt with.

Further, moral risk extends beyond crime. We have been forced to tighten laws dealing with underage drinking, with driving,

The problem is not limited to the young, nor can we blame them.

The problem of child abuse has become so bad that not only do we have rafts of new laws, restrictions, regulations and checks, but every person running for public office in NSW has to provide a statement that they are not a child abuser. In the last election, these were the only official pieces of information about candidates published on the Government web site. I was quite reassured.

This problem of moral decline is clearly not limited to the young. Apart from problems of child abuse, anecdotal and statistical evidence suggests that Australians at every level and over every age break more laws than ever before. A cynic might argue that this is simply a function of an increase in the quantity of laws and regulations. Yet the objective evidence shows a clear rise in the incidence of law breaking.

I won't go on. We live in an age when performance indicators are all. I deal with them often, putting them in tables so that performance can be measured. Some of these performance reports run for a hundred pages.

On just about every objective measurement that I can find linked in some ways to morals, our national performance has been declining. We face a moral crisis.


The trigger for this post was indeed the question of compulsory drug testing for the police. I knew in voting no that I would be in a minority. I was, however, surprised at the size of the majority in favour of drug testing. The attempted irony in the post lay in in the linking of things together to present a picture.

An external observer, say an anthropologist from Mars, trying to interpret our society and working just from the media and from official statements could be forgiven for concluding that we were a society in moral decline. It would be hard for it - do they have gender on Mars? - to conclude otherwise. A simple textual analysis of the material covered in almost any of our major papers would force that conclusion.

The conclusion would be reinforced if the observer then took the last NSW election campaign as test case study and examined what was said. The case would become apparently overwhelming if the observer then looked at official statistics such as the rise in the prison population.

The problem for our Martian observer lies in the fact that the way events, activities and issues are presented, interpreted, discussed and responded to is a function of the social frame set by prevailing community attitudes, attitudes that can conflict.

Take any newspaper as an example. The paper selects and presents stories that it thinks will appeal to its particular readership. If it gets it right, then circulation goes up. But in so doing, it reinforces the views of its readers. Political leaders respond to the views of the paper and of its readers, creating another reinforcing interaction.

Community attitudes shift. As they do, so does the selection and interpretation of issues.
Take the role of women as an example.

I grew up at a time when the women's movement was just getting underway. I see the gains, but also the conflicts. My wife's generation comes from the movement's high water mark. Some of this generation wonder why and how their movement lost its impact. Our daughters have internalised the gains and in a sense just moved on.

Just at present, Australian society appears to be going through a deeply conservative and in some ways fearful phase marked by aversion to risk and a desire to enforce protective controls. This has its own in-built tensions and contradictions.

Take, as an example, our attitudes to law and regulation.

The desire to protect, to control, to punish, has led to an explosion in the volume of law. That is the reason why such a high proportion of the Australian population are, in fact, law breakers. It is very hard in daily life not to break some law or regulation, even if it is only the traffic regulations. So we have actually become selective in what we comply with.

The desire to protect, to control, has also led to concepts such as truth in sentencing and three strikes and you are out. In turn, all this has led to something approaching an explosion in the prison population.

This is where our martian observer would be mislead. I know of no evidence that the incidence of crime has actually increased. We are dealing with an outcome created by social attitudes.

In my view, we have now reached the point where our collective obsession with control and risk aversion is now imposing long term social and economic costs.

We have just had the first death because of Sydney's water restrictions. A sixty-six year old man was watering his front lawn with a hand-held hose. A passer by reprimanded him for breaking the water restrictions. In fact he was not and, losing his temper, he turned the hose on the passer by. The passer by then attacked the waterer, knocking him to the ground and apparently kicking him. The sixty-six year old died, and the other man has been charged with murder.

This is just a small symptom of a bigger problem.

Our jails are essentially post-graduate schools for crime. Further, the prison population is heavily weighted towards certain socio-economic groups.

In NSW if you do not or cannot pay a fine, your license is suspended, an action allowed by modern computer systems. If you drive while your license is suspended, you may end up in jail. You may also end up in jail for not paying the fine or fines.

Many Australians would say fair enough. The problem is that those in both groups tend to be people from already disadvantaged backgrounds, the social cohort that already contributes the majority of the prison population. In combination, these things are creating long term social problems that will impose costs over and beyond the immediate costs to the justice system.

These costs are already manifesting themselves in some Sydney suburbs.

We have always had disadvantaged areas. but, we have not (I think) ever before had such concentrations of disadvantage.

I could go on to trace the costs through other areas of life. At this stage I will simply conclude that my post was an ironic response to what I see as a major issue.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Let's Take the Law out of Marriage

Marcellous and I have been having a discussion about gay marriage. Then as sometimes happens in my immediate blogging world, somebody provides a new insight.

In a comment on Marcellous's blog, the Rabbit wrote:

I find the clarity and insight of your writing startling, Marcel. My own idea is not that gay marriage should be allowed, but rather there should be no legal (as opposed to religious) recognition of marriage whatsoever. — A buyer beware approach.
In response on Neil's blog, David Smith wrote:
I agree with the Rabbit. Take the state out of marriage altogether. 
I know a gay activist from Utah who said that he was beginning to see the possibilities of a political alliance on this issue. Legal polygamy, like legal gay marriage, would “hurt” other people because it dilutes what they see as the definition of the holy sacrament of marriage: the union of one man and one woman. I don’t see any point in trying to downplay the subjective pain that this causes to conservative religious people, nor do I think that it’s the role of the legislature to try and educate them out of their prejudices. 
But that pain would only be felt because the universalising laws of the state would lump the traditional man/woman sacrament, polygamy and gay marriage into the single legal category of “marriage.” If, as The Rabbit suggests, the state doesn’t recognise any marriages, this gets rid of most of the problem. It is much easier to accept the existence of something you see as abhorrent if the state isn’t actively endorsing it. Marriage would then become the domain of churches and private agents who would be free to impose whatever strict standards they wished in order to certify it.
Now all this needs to be teased out a bit. But I can see real advantages. What do you think?


Rereading, this post is far too cryptic without the background. Not so bad at the moment because the earlier posts are still visible, but these will depart from view quite quickly.

The earlier posts are here 1, here 2.

The conversation has been about gay marriage, but not just about gay marriage. A core issue in my argument has been the way the introduction of symbols, in this case "marriage" can distort debate because of the complex of meanings, values, beliefs and attitudes attached to the symbol.

The reason that I found the Rabbit and David's comments interesting is that they provided a new way of looking at the issue. As a simple general statement, if (as in the case of marriage) law and symbol become entwined to the point that the linking creates social and legislative problems, then separate the two.

On the surface, this might be done quite simply by ceasing to use the word marriage in legislation, leaving marriage as a ceremony to the private domain.

I am not sure of the history of state involvement in marriage. I have not checked, but so far as English history is concerned I suspect that we will find that the state first became involved because of property issues. I also suspect that the heavy state involvement in the area really came with the Victorian age.

Wearing my historian hat, I find the history of social constructs interesting.

My eldest is nineteen and still calls herself a teenage. At 19 I would have been mortified to have been called that. So a term created, I think, during the fifties has widened in part because of changes to the law such as the increased school age.

Enough. I am in danger of going off on another tangent.


Marcellous has written an interesting post written in part from a lawyer's perspective responding to the Rabbit's comments.

Postscript 2

I see that the coalition has agreed that gay couples should receive the same rights under the Commonwealth Superannuation Scheme as other couples.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mr Rudd and Gay Marriage Revisited

My post on Murder, Mr Rudd & Gay Marriages - confusions about values in an over-regulated society received an honourable mention in Club Troppo's Weekend Missing Link, a full post in reply from Marcellous and a mention from Neil.

In my original post I used the gay marriage issue as one of several examples to tease out some issues that I considered as important. This post responds to Marcellous, in doing so taking the opportunity to try to further clarify the issues that I was discussing. In doing so, I am not going to repeat all the material in either my original post or M's response.

M is a very clever man. I tried to choose my words carefully in my post.

I wrote: I do not support gay marriage. M responded: Now Jim is a careful writer. I do not read this as meaning that he opposes gay marriage, merely that he does not support it.

Now M in his forensic way pinged me very exactly here. I am not opposed to gay marriage. Far from it. I have some good friends who are gay, in loving relationships, and who deserve the types of rights and protections afforded by marriage. As M also recognised, I was making a different point, in fact several points. I now want to tease these out a little more, in so doing responding to some specific points made by M.

Modern Australia is a complex society, far more complex than the Australia in which I grew up. Further, it has undergone a process of rapid change during which whole sets of previously accepted values have been torn down. Now we have a very mixed society in terms of attitudes and values. Further, there are people in that society who feel like Rome after sack by the barbarians.

Many years ago I did ethics as part of philosophy 1. I learned, then, about the basis of different ethical systems. To some degree this helped me manage the changes in values within society. I defined my own approach.

To me, each person is entitled to their own values. I defend their right to have them. However, when those values affect others, a different set of forces come into play. Now we have to trade off the rights of one against another.

Here I have come up with a very utilitarian approach, the degree of gain compared with the degree of hurt involved. You will see from this that I have problems with the concept of absolute values, more problems with those who wish to impose their values on others as absolutes.

In saying this, I am not saying that I do not have my own absolute values. I do. My opposition to the death penalty is an example. This forms part of my core values defined from my Christian past and from the long cultural and intellectual tradition to which I belong.

But I have had to learn that society is not static, that things change, that things that I value can be tramped on, rejected. destroyed. This has made made me very sensitive to the values of others, sometimes defensive of my own values.

Problems increase when things become symbols because those symbols attract whole sets of countervailing views. Once a thing becomes a symbol, its presence can distort thought and discussion. That was my point on the "lorenorder" debate.

From experience, I have learned that you cannot win a debate based on values - one person's values is another person's prejudice. But you can make progress if you can disentangle the issues, if you can bypass the symbol.

This does not mean that we should not stand up for the values that we hold dear. Despite the impact of the post-modernist world, there are times when one must stand and be counted.

Now how does all this relate to the question of gay marriage?

Part of the issue in the discussion between M and I here relates to questions of strategy and tactics. These are issues that have nothing to do with values, simply practical political questions. These are questions of judgement, open to debate.

As a simple example, take the actions of the ACT Chief Minister. To M, the outcome here was an example of the continued existence of bigotry. To me, it was an example of a political leader who stuffed up big time, who mishandled a political process. Again, we can discuss this because it is open to definition and test.

Things become a little more difficult when we look at M's response to my comment about views in parts of the broader society. Here M made three points.

The first was that the moves to achieve full equality had failed, that the step by step process had not worked. I do not accept this, although I can understand some of the emotional hurt lurking in the argument. In any case, again this argument is open to test, as Rafe would say following Popper, open to refutation.

The second was that my sacrament argument - the fact that "marriage" was seen as a religious sacrament among many and that the use of the word created unnecessary problems - fell down on historical grounds. M linked this to his third point, the influence of the religious right and the way that they used the issue as a stalking horse.

Now in referring to marriage as a sacrament I was making a current, not historical, judgment, referring to the way people think today. Historical arguments about marriage as a sacrament in a Christian context are neither here not there.

Further, while I do not necessarily accept the validity of M's views about the religious right, to the degree that he is correct, it really proves my point. Those wishing to use it as a stalking point do so because they see it as providing traction.

Now in all this I greatly respect M's views. If he believes that the use of the marriage word is critical in a formal sense on value grounds, I can hardly argue against that. I also recognise that most great social change comes because people stand up for and argue the things that they believe in.

That said, I also believe (and this is a political argument) that an argument based on symbolic grounds will fail for the immediate future. I can see Mr Rudd supporting civil unions. But based on his words, I cannot see him supporting gay "marriage". Frankly, he strikes me as at least as conservative on this issue as Mr Ruddock, probably more so be the truth be known.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Welcome Visitor 19,000

Well, visitor 19,000 arrived while I was out. I am now up to Visitor 19,012.

Visitor 12,000 came direct. From, I think, Sydney.

And congratulations to Neil for getting to visitor 150,000 across his blogs. Truly an impressive milestone.


I was just looking at the weekly stats. I feel truly honoured. I don't write this blog to attract traffic. It's just personal. But I see that I have been getting traffic surges, over the last week 544 visitors. Then it drops back.

There has always been something of a surge pattern. But both the surges and the fall backs have been slowly getting higher. I also seem to be maintaining a pattern of multiple page views. That's even more gratifying.

I do spend more time on this blog than I should. I guess that is reflected in the numbers. But I also get a great intellectual challenge, especially when someone like Marcellous can spot the distinctions in my sometimes careful English.

Bushfires and the Australian Volunteer System

The thoughts and conversations generated by my two posts on the California wildfires (here 1, here 2) got me thinking. I was especially struck by a comment from David Anderson that the California fires had exhausted every fire fighting resource in California and the surrounding states.

All of this caused me to dig down into the Australian system in a little more detail. As Lexcen noted, it has its failures. He also pointed out, correctly, that Australia had drawn on US resources in the last major fires. And very grateful we were too. As I remember it, the US professionals were combined with the volunteer brigades to give them an added professional edge.

Now I know the the Australian system pretty well. Even so, I was surprised at its scale. I thought, therefore, that it might be of interest to both US and Australian readers if I provided more information. I do so, too, because I think that too many Australians take their volunteers for granted. There is no way that this country could afford to pay for professionals to replace the volunteers.

My core focus in this post is on fire fighting as such. There is a much wider network of research, preventative activities, regulation, training and education that underpins the system.

The key feature of the Australian system is the way it combines professional and volunteer resources. This gives NSW on its own access to over 90,000 personnel before tapping resources in other jurisdictions. Yes, that's right, 90,000. I found the number staggering, hence the bold.

The Rural Fire Service is central to the NSW fire response because it covers 95 per cent of the state. The RFS claims to be, and may well be, the largest fire service in the world. The RFS has 2,100 volunteer rural fire brigades with a total membership of around 70,000. Some 600 salaried staff are employed to manage the day to day operations of the Service at headquarters, regional offices and district fire control centres.

The NSW Fire Brigade is responsible for managing fire emergencies in the major cities, metropolitan areas and towns across rural and regional NSW. The NSWFB has a central office in Sydney; a logistics support centre at Greenacre; operational communication centres at Alexandria, Newcastle, Wollongong and Katoomba; a training college at Alexandria; a network of 338 fire stations across the State and a fleet of 882 vehicles.

The Brigade currently has around 6,500 firefighters; 6,000 community fire unit members and 360 administrative and trades staff. Like the RFS, the community fire unit members are volunteers belonging to units formed in the urban/rural interface across the state.

The NSW State Emergency Services (SES) is an emergency and rescue service. It is made up almost entirely of volunteers, with 232 units and over 10,000 volunteer members located throughout New South Wales.

While the SES's major responsibilities are for flood and storm operations, it also provides the majority of general rescue effort in the rural parts of the state. This includes road accident rescue, vertical rescue, bush search and rescue, evidence searches (both metropolitan and rural) and other forms of specialist rescue that may be required due to local threats. The Service's trained personnel support other emergency services including the RFS when they are performing major operations.

Bushfire operations cascade up in a reasonably effective if not always perfect fashion.

At the base are individual households. They are responsible for preparing their own properties in the event of a bushfire, drawing information from local councils and state and territory authorities. A fair bit of effort over a long period has been put into education and training at household level. Again, this is not always perfect. However, most people in bush fire prone areas are fire aware.

In the event of a fire, people can choose to leave or fight. Many stay to defend their properties. In doing so, they assist the efforts of the fire fighting services.

After the household, the first line of defence is the local Fire Brigade or RFS unit. This is fine for small fires, but can be quickly overwhelmed by larger outbreaks. In this event, procedures exist for calling on external resources.

Overall planning is done centrally, as is coordination of operations in the event of bigger outbreaks. One hundred fires at one time is not unknown in NSW.

Central operations are run military style. As a fire or fires escalate, resources are progressively called in from RFS or Fire Brigade units, backed up by police and SES resources. In big fires, resources come also from the armed forces and from other states or territories.

The logistics especially in multiple fire events can be complex. Firefighters have to be gathered, fed and rested. Equipment has to be brought in and maintained. Traffic has to be controlled, evacuations organised if necessary, the media fed. And all this while shifting resources across large geographic areas to meet changing threats.

To me, the remarkable thing in all this is not the errors, but the success.

We all know that we live in a fire prone country. We take this as a fact of life. Yet few of us ask just how these things are actually organised. Too few of us recognise that our safety and security rests on a quite remarkable volunteer system.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

California wild fires - a systemic failure?

Today's Saturday morning musings led me to think about the difference between the Californian and Australian responses to what we call bush fires. Then a question from a colleague caused me to dig further.
Now I want to pose a question to my US readers: is the Californian approach to the control of wild fires fundamentally flawed? I feel yes.

In posing and answering the question, I am not attacking the current response nor am I pretending to expertise about either bush fires or the US experience. My question is genuine, intended to draw out issues.

An Australian Comparison

To set a context, I have taken one large Australian bushfire, more correctly bush fires. It is a very large event, but not the biggest nor the most damaging in Australian history.

According to Emergency Management Australia, the longest official continuous bushfire emergency in NSW occurred between 21 December 2001 and 13 January 2002 when widespread severe bushfires burned throughout much of NSW - NE, Central Coast, Greater Sydney Region, Blue Mountains, Central West and South Coast and hinterland - and the ACT.

This took place during mainly extreme weather conditions across eastern NSW. Unusual fire behaviour was observed in many areas due to variable winds and extreme dryness of fuel.

The first serious damage occurred on 21 December 2001 at Eugowra (west of Orange) where fire swept through 19 rural properties destroying four farm houses and much equipment. Up to 100 large (out of control) bushfires burnt simultaneously in different areas at the height of the crisis.

It was the first time that large bushfires had travelled from the mountains to the coast (as they did in the Shoalhaven region for example). Ultimately over 650,000 ha (1.6 million acres) were burnt.

Initially, serious, destructive fires in the Blue Mountains and outer Western Sydney regions (including Hawkesbury and Warragamba) prompted a disaster declaration by the NSW State Government. A total of 121 homes were destroyed and 36 were seriously damaged and 304 with less serious damage. Additionally,15 businesses and 255 other structures were destroyed (incl sheds, carports, urban fences etc). The worst affected regions, in terms of homes destroyed, were Hawkesbury, Silverdale - Warragamba, Helensburgh and the Shoalhaven.

Approximately 10,000 people were evacuated (5000 alone in the Jervis Bay area), with 15,000 firefighters deployed from across Australia and New Zealand to fight up to 100 large fires for over three weeks as hot, mainly north-westerly winds and very dry conditions persisted. Over 200 km of fencing was destroyed, while well over 5000 livestock died along with large numbers of native animals (including many in national parks).

Costs were high. The provisional insurance loss figure ($80m) comprised mainly houses and commercial claims Other costs included around $70m for the NSW Government to combat the fires (incl $32m for private helicopters and planes for water-bombing etc); $7m for aircraft fuel and fire retardant; $1m for meals, accommodation, equipment and transport; vastly increased operating and salary costs of all authorities involved including urban and rural fire units, SES, ambulance, police, National Parks, State Forests and Department of Community Services; and damaged government/public property and infrastructure.

Further costs included multi-millions in lost income for the tourist industry (incl Hunter Valley, South Coast and Blue Mountains) and agricultural losses involving livestock, crops, pastures, fences etc; and forestry timber. Additionally, the NSW Chamber of Commerce said that employers faced a bill of at least $10m in wages for employees who were volunteer firefighters, SES, etc who were absent from work fighting the fires.

Apart from the cost of all uninsured private (up to 20% of total) and public property loss or damage, there was also the value of all interstate firefighting assistance plus the Federal Government's costs for the four military helicopters and a large fuel tanker used, and the cost of transporting two additional large Aircrane helitankers from the USA which were leased for waterbombing the fires.

In all, it was a pretty big set of fires.

The Californian Comparison
As at 27 October, the California Government web site lists 23 fires across San Diego, San Bernadino, Orange, Los Angles, Santa Barbara, Riverside and Ventura Counties. I have given the link, but this is a changing page.

By Australian standards, most of these fires are small in terms of area. Only eight burnt more than 10,000 acres, the largest fire burnt out 198,000 acres. So how did such small fires have such impact? Here I quote from Californian Government examples.
Case Studies

The largest fire in terms of area appears to have been the Witch fire. In official terms:

This fire has burned 197,990 acres and is 45 percent contained. The Witch Fire has joined the Poomacha fire in the north. Mandatory evacuations are in place for the community of Julian and there is still a threat to Pine Hills, Cuyamaca, Wynola, Santa Ysabel, Alpine, Mesa Grande and Harbison Canyon. Fire progression has slowed to the west, southwest, and northwest.
Residents are being allowed to return to portions of Poway, Valley Center, Escondido, Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego, Ramona and Rancho Bernardo, Del Dios, and Lake Hodges areas. Re-entry of residents is also occurring in the towns of Julian, Wynola, and Cuyamaca. Wildcat Canyon is closed. Highway 67 is closed from Poway to Ramona.
911 homes, 30 commercial properties, and 175 outbuildings have been destroyed. 62 homes, 10 commercial properties and 50 outbuildings have been damaged. 1,000 residences, 100 commercial properties, and 300 outbuildings are still threatened. 239 vehicles have been destroyed.
2,474 firefighters are assigned to this incident under unified command. 26 firefighters have been injured on this fire. The estimated cost of this fire to date is $9 million.
Now let's take a mid range fire, the Poomacha Fire, Pauma Valley, San Diego County. According to the official report:
This fire started October 23 as a structure fire on the Lajolla Indian Reservation. It has burned 42,000 acres and is 35 percent contained. The Poomacha Fire has joined with the Witch Fire to the south. 78 homes and 19 outbuildings have been destroyed. 2,000 homes remain threatened.
Evacuations are in progress in Valley Center. The communities of Valley Center, Rincon, Pauma Valley, Pala Reservation, and Palomar are threatened. This fire has resulted in 14 firefighter injuries. 1,794 firefighters are currently assigned to this fire under unified command with CAL FIRE and the Cleveland National Forest. The estimated cost of this fire to date is $1.6 million
Finally, let's take a small fire, the Grass Valley fire:
This fire has burned 1,140 acres and is 75 percent contained. The fire is northwest of Lake Arrowhead. 162 structures have been lost, and more than 6,000 homes remain threatened. The mandatory evacuation order for the community of Crestline has been reduced to a voluntary evacuation effective at 9:00 am this morning. All other evacuations and road closures remain in effect. Evacuation Center have been established at the National Orange Show in San Bernardino and Victorville Fairgrounds in Victorville.
State Highway 18 is closed from 40th/Waterman to the Big Bear Dam, State Highway 330 is closed at Highland to Hwy 18, State Highway 138 is closed at State Highway 173. Residents may leave via these highways (except 330) but cannot go back up into the Mountains. Access to Big Bear is via Hwy 38 from I-10 in Redlands or from Hwy 18 through the Hi-Desert in Lucerne Valley.
781 firefighters are assigned to this incident. The estimated cost of this fire to date is $3.1 million.
All very interesting. But what does it mean?

An Australian's Conclusions

I suppose the first thing that stands out is the mandatory evacuations. The Australian experience of standing to fight is simply not allowed. Mandatory evacuations explain the headline numbers.

The second thing is the relatively small number of firefighters. As best I can work out, the number is around 60 per cent of those mobilised to fight the NSW fires I referred to earlier.

The third thing is the scale of the property damage. Yes, California is far more densely populated. Even so, I cannot help thinking that the damage does, to some degree at least, reflect the combined effect of mandatory evacuation with lower number of firefighters.

The last thing is the scale of injury to firefighters. I do not know what this means because I do not know what is defined as an injury. Accepting this, California fire fighters appear to be at higher risk of injury than their Australian equivalents.


I do not know the US scene well enough to be prescriptive. On the surface, it would appear that California's wild fire system is less effective than ours.

Saturday Morning Musings - blogs and fires

Photo: Australian fire storm.

Another Saturday morning, another blog catch-up, more musings.

To begin with, it looks as though this blog will cruise through the 19,000 visitor mark some time today or tomorrow.

Looking back, visitor 15,000 arrived on 31 July, visitor 16,000 on 2 September, visitor 17,000 on 16 September (this was helped by a burst of APEC related traffic), visitor 18,000 on 11 October. I really am quite happy with this.

I am especially happy with my small group of regular readers. There were 38 repeat visitors over the last six days. Further, 14 of the last 20 posts attracted a comment. How can I complain about that? I don't! I am just happy that it happens.

There were a couple of things in the blogging world that pleased me during the week. My thanks to Legal Eagle for her compliment to the " inestimable Jim Belshaw". My thanks, too, to Neil for pointing out that I had scooped the Sydney Morning Herald front page with my post on the Great Rudd.

Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly given just how small Sydney really is, I was chatting to Jacob Taylor last night at the International House candle dinner, another of those handbag events that I go to because Denise is chair of council. Not complaining, mind you. I always enjoy them.

Jacob is from Harden and is doing anthropology. Turns out that he is the video producer's cousin!

Email exchange during the week with Bruce Hoy. Bruce and I were at the Armidale Demonstration School together, and he sent me a whole list of new names to go with our fifth class photo. Now I have some updates to do.

Email exchange also with Rafe, including some very interesting autobiographical material on his part as well as links to some of his writing on Karl Popper. Rafe has also sent me an interesting article on the cultural cringe in Australia. Or was there?

From a personal perspective I found the idea of a cultural cringe very strange indeed at the time. I just did not understand why. I suppose the reality at the time came back to the question as to who you measured yourself against and in what field. I think that this is worth some posts at some point.

A comment on the New England Australia blog from Petering Time led me to a new New England political blog, North Coast Voices. It's still a bit raw, but do have a read.

If you do, you will see that the political stance is a tad different from mine. But I really was very pleased to see it. There are just too few New England blogs in general, political blogs in particular. As I have said before, how can you have a debate on issues if there is no one to debate with?

Neil's Friday poem. I have been letting the side down here in not responding.

California bushfires. Again a post from Neil led me to a post by Kanani. It provides an interesting on the ground account and is well worth a read. However, all the discussion raised a different issue in my mind, a comparison between the US and Australia.

The thing that triggered my interest was the stories of the mass evacuations, apparently a million people. So I assumed that we were dealing with something on a scale that we have never seen, although this did not seem to fit with the small number of firefighters, only 9,000. Large I know, but no more than have been mobilised here at times.

Then I found out that evacuations were mandatory. Now this is completely different to Australia and got me wondering.

The first issue is to try to identify the differences between their fires and our very big fires.

One issue is obviously the much greater population that means more people are affected in an absolute way. This must make it harder to defend property.

A second issue is the fuel. Now here from the little I know I would have thought that there was more fuel in Australia as compared to California. Our gum trees really burn, and there are a lot of them.

Terrain is a third issue. There appear to be a lot of narrow ravines, with many more houses perched at the top. Fire can travel up hills like a rocket because it creates its own draught. But I am not sure that this is a complete answer.

When I look at all this, I come back to three organisational issues.

The first is to get out early or too stay and fight. Your choice. All this comes back to evidence accumulated over time that a house defended in the right way is more likely to survive, and that the peak danger lies in getting out late. Very few people have been killed defending their property simply because houses burn more slowly. Get inside until the fire path passes, and you are likely to be okay.

The second is the mass education that has taken place in bush fire prone areas over many years about what to do to reduce the dangers from fire. I think that the Australian experience has been that from the start of an education program it can take ten years sustained publicity and education before the message really gets across.

The third is collectivism vs individualism and, in the Australian context, the role of the volunteer bush fire brigades and all the other volunteer groups including the SES.

I have the strong impression that in the US people expect the National Guard to sort the problem. By contrast, the Australian volunteer system allows us to quickly mobilise thousands of people in a way that, while centrally coordinated, makes the first line of defence local.

That said, we had better not get too arrogant.

Our present volunteer system faces three problems.

The first is rural de-population, a trend that means that people are simply not there any more to maintain the system on which we depend.

The second is our increasing collective bussyness. Things like the SES or the bushfire brigades require time that is increasingly not there.

The third is the rudeness of some Australians who believe that they have a god-given right to protection and who have been known to attack the volunteers for not protecting their property before all else. If not careful, they will destroy the very thing they depend upon.

I may be wrong in all this. I would be interested in David's comments. By the way, David has a rather nice Italian recipe series running.


Neil Whitfield wrote:

Haven't we had a roaring trade exporting eucalypts? I believe California has heaps of them, and Israel. Apparently this strikes homesick Aussies quite forcibly.

Neil is, of course, correct. This caused me to dig more deeply into California and its wild fires. In turn, this led me to pose a very specific question: are there serious systemic weaknesses in the California approach to wild fires?

This was, of course, a question at the back of my mind raised by this morning's musings. Then Neil's question made me investigate more.

I think that the answer to my question is yes. Here I am not criticising the current response as such, simply saying that it appears to suffer- at least from an Australian perspective - from major weaknesses built into the system itself.

I am now writing another post to explore this issue. In doing so, I am not attacking what has been done, nor am I pretending to detailed knowledge of the US system. I am simply posing a public policy question for discussion.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Murder, Mr Rudd & Gay Marriage - confusions about values in an over-regulated society

Several things happened this week that in some ways capture the concerns and confusions built into current Australian society.

The first was a murder, the tragic death of a young child. I do not want to discuss the details, nor in this case am I giving a link. In the midst of huge publicity, I think that the family and friends deserve their privacy. But for the benefit of those outside this area I need to provide a few facts to set a context for my point.

The boy's body was found in a suitcase floating in a pond. No one knew who he was. This, of itself, was sufficient to attract interest. A little while later his mother was arrested for his murder.

Issues here are a matter for the police and the courts. However, it appeared that a number of calls had been made to a child protection help-line maintained by the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS). One issue became why was no official action taken.

Under NSW law, it is now mandatory for a whole range of people - the range is enormous - to report suspicions of child abuse. This is done by the help line.

The widened reporting requirements have led to an explosion in complaints. I was staggered to hear from an answer by the Minister to a question in the NSW Parliament that one child in fifteeen is reported, that one NSW child in five is now "known to DoCS." Later other commentary fleshed this out a little. For example, the volume of calls is now over 600 per day.

This is an absolutely impossible situation. How can any call centre possibly screen this volume of calls to decide what is important? How can any Government agency possibly follow up on the ground.?

In our desire to protect children, we have created a system that not only fails the kids themselves and parents, but also the dedicated professionals who do try to help. Is it any wonder DoCS struggles to get staff?

The second example involves Richard Glover, a popular Sydney drive time host on ABC 702. Richard is far more conservative than me, far more conservative than appears from his commentary because he espouses what have become the conventional Sydney "liberal" cultural attitudes.

Driving home from work I listened, as I nearly always do, to his program. There were two topical issues.

The first were proposed new laws in NSW allowing police to issue on-the spot fines for minor offences such as shop lifting. As anybody who knows about NSW might expect, the State opposition was up in arms - a standard "law 'n'order" response. But Richard was concerned, too.

Richard would say, with a degree of fairness, that he was playing devil's advocate. But his real views were clear, as they have been in a number of previous cases.

Now, I would suggest, we have got ourselves in NSW to the position that there are so many minor offences that the NSW justice system is clogged. We cannot do much to protect children from murder because of other over-loads, but we continue to arrest kids for an increasing volume of minor offences. I do not think that this is balanced. The Government's response is at least a practical recognition of the problem.

Yet when we look at the media response, you can see why it is so hard to have a sensible discussion on the problem. Richard's response was at least somewhat tempered. The same cannot be said for the Daily Telegraph. This frothed at the mouth, with two major front page stories.

The second issue was Mr Rudd's views opposing gay marriage. Richard was outraged. The program also carried a series of interviews of people along Oxford Street (the main Sydney gay drag) expressing outrage.

I have not read Mr Rudd's views so have to be careful what I say.

As a general comment, Mr Rudd strikes me as a deeply Christian and conservative man. This does not prevent him having radical views on certain issues, but it does indicate what his views might be on gay marriage.

Let me amplify before I get attacked.

I grew up in a period when homosexuality was both a moral sin and a crime. I am very glad that we have a more tolerant attitude now. I support civil unions that will give same sex couples the same legal rights. I do not support gay marriage.

Civil unions give gays rights without hurting anyone else. With the exception of a few bigots, I think that most people would accept a properly argued case for civil unions.

Marriage is a different issue. Marriage is a religious sacrament with strong traditional meanings in a number of faiths. Those who try to take the word marriage and apply it in a way that is anathema to many cause hurt and resistance. So using the word "marriage" detracts from the immediate real issue, the resolution of existing legal inequities.

These few cases are all linked, saying something about the confusions within Australia's biggest city.

They show how symbolism interferes with real discussion. The Telegraph's arguments are really about symbolism, in this case arguing that the Government's actions show that it is soft on crime. This really is a symbolic argument because it does not link directly to the problem being addressed. The gay marriage case is a second example.

They show people's desires for simple solutions. Child protection is a problem, address it via mandatory reporting. Shop lifting is a problem, bring the kids to court. There is an inherent confusion, a tension, between our concern for individuals and for the protection of individuals and our responses that inevitably go to control, coercion and regulation.

The Great Rudd

This YouTube video actually came to me from ALP sources. Enjoy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On fashion, baggy pants and a thirty year old shirt

Photo: Clare goes bush. I would hate to think that I had brought my daughters up to be wimps. And, yes, the photo does have a very loose connection to this story!

In response to comments from blogging friends on my last post, I do wear baggy pants and do not follow clothing fashions. Rather, I wait for clothing fashions to come back to me.

I wore an old shirt today. Still in good condition, it went with a suit that I bought in Canberra. A 28 year old colleague commented on the new shirt, and I had to explain that it was two years older than her.

Now how on earth does all this link to the picture?

In an over-protective age in which the words "risk minimisation" and "risk management" are all the go, a world in which informed consent procedures associated with a simple school camp now rival those associated with major surgery, I have tried to give my girls continued access to what I see as the real world.

Both girls have been dirty and tired, both have lit fires in the backyard, both have had at least some exposure to the country, both have been allowed to stretch their wings. Dee and I have gritted our teeth sometimes, but so far it seems to have worked.

No-one can give them access to the world I had. That world is gone. Apart from anything else, so many of the things that I did are now illegal or have been removed for fear of public liability. Others have been crowded out by increased population. Today we live in a world of, from my viewpoint, severely limited freedoms.

But children must be given freedom to grow as best they can within the increasingly constricted limits set by modern society. And part of this involves the freedom to refuse to accept current fashions.


Lexcen wrote:

I like the pic of your backyard. Very trendy indeed. Native gardens must be back in fashion because of the drought.

This comment struck my sense of whimsey. Think of the problems I must have faced in getting the necessary council approvals to transform my suburban back yard. And the engineering challenges. And all just to give my girls the required outdoor experience!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bebo, MySpace and Facebook - and a dedicated follower of fashion

I suppose that I am a dedicated follower of fashion. But with a lag!

My daughters started with Bebo. Then they migrated to MySpace. I watched this with curiosity but without any action. Then they moved to Facebook.

In this case, I actually joined Facebook to have a look but with no intention of doing anything. Within five minutes I received an invitation from eldest daughter to become friends. Now which father could resist this? Then youngest did likewise. So now I am experimenting.

During the week there was a newspaper story talking about the growth of Facebook and the progressive aging of MySpace, aging in the sense that older people are making increasing use of MySpace while the younger migrated to Facebook.

This got me wondering about social networking tools and, more specifically, what made them rise and fall.

In part for work reasons, in part personal interest, I suppose that I have experiemented with most of the networking tools from wikis to Google and Yahoo groups to LinkedIn to blogs to Plaxo and now Facebook. Among other things, this has left a sort of electronic profile litter splashed across the web, something that I have to do something about at some point.

Some things have not really worked at all, some have worked to a point, some have worked but then stopped working.

The obvious key is the time/value trade-off. All these things take time. Time is short, so people will participate only so long as they feel that they are getting value for their time.

I know that this seems self-evident, but it does explain why things rise and fall. Certainly among the young I think that it explains the rise in popularity of Facebook.

Facebook has clean lines, so its easy to read and use. It's highly interactive, something that is important to our tribal young - and to some of their elders! It also has lots of gimmicks, although here I think that there is a potential problem because of the rise of clutter.

On the other hand, it is not as good for longer communication. This may well explain why MySpace has become popular among some adults - it is good, for example, in keeping families in touch over distance.

Fashion will always be important in attracting people. But once we extract the fashion element, we come back to the use of these things as tools. Now this is where I stand at present.

As a dedicated if lagged follower of fashion, what do I want to keep across my now very substantial electronic footprint? What is of real value given my very constrained time? How do I manage it all?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Legal Risks of Blogging

There have been a couple of occasions in the last few months when I have felt that comments on this blog were in danger of crossing a legal line. In one case, I gave an explicit warning in response to a comment.

I have a strong free speech policy on this blog. I will never reject a comment just because I disagree with it. But I am also conscious that this blog is a publication and is bound by the laws in the same way as any other publication.

I mention this because The Local has just had a very good post dealing with this issue, including two current law cases against Australian bloggers.


Legal Eagle had a very good post in this area that also brought out another issue, comments on bulletin boards etc.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A View from Misrule on the uses of blogging

Interesting post on the Misrule blog about the use (and abuse) of blogging that is relevant to all of us who think of our blogs in part as professional writing.

Morning Musings

I do like the early mornings. There are no disruptions, and I love the changing light. My only problem is the cats, who do insist on sitting between me and the computer screen.

I have decided not to do the follow up post on the reconciliation issue this morning. I want more time to think about it, and in any case I have a number of other things to check and write about.

A little while ago, I started the habit at the start of each week of featuring a new set of my favourite blogs on the side bar. I like this because it gives me a reason for rechecking what people are saying. My only problem is that I cannot remember just which blogs I have so far featured! I suppose should keep a list, but, hey, nobody else is going to remember either except, perhaps, the person featured.

Congratulations, by the way, to Legal Eagle on her fifteen minutes of fame. The Age article she refers to explains something that I had been wondering about, the sudden stoppage in posts on the Junior Lawyers Union blog. I found this blog very useful in giving me a different perspective on things.

A Little Later

Just back from dropping Helen at the Belvoir Street Theatre. No, she is not going to the theatre. It's just the meet point for those taking the girls to a gym competition. On the way back, I actually noticed the Juice and Java Lounge for the first time, the place where Neil spends a fair bit of time.

I have loaded Livewriter to test as Neil suggested. However, all the software I now have on this old machine is making it all very cluncky.

Interesting discussion last night with Helen that shows just how pervasive vocational training has become. Helen has been asked to do her judge's certificate in rhythmic gymnastics to go with her initial coaching certificate. They want her to do this so that she can do a wider range of things.

Helen is a bit reluctant simply because the pay is so low as compared, for example, to bar work. Here too you need a certificate, in this case RSA or Responsible Service of Alcohol. Once you have this initial jobs are easy to find. Then, once you have some experience, you can pick and choose.

All of these entry level qualifications come with a price. This is not high, but is still a barrier for some kids. This is where old golden arches is so good. Their systems allow younger kids to get initial income and also gain some work experience.

I suppose one could ask why so many kids have to work, why modern Australia places so much emphasis on kids working to the point that we have one of the highest school age working proportions in the world. We have to accept, I think, that it's just a reality, one supported by most parents and the kids themselves.

Still Later

Another run, this time to get some panadol. I had set myself a target this morning of getting certain things done by 9am to allow me to do some gardening. It's now coming up on 9, and I am still no where near finished.

Much, Much Later

After another interruption I finally gave up and did my gardening. Now for a beer and to finish this post.

One of the problems with my present life style is that I cannot find the time for things I like. Like cooking and gardening. The garden is a mess, although I am trying to do something.

All I did this morning was to weed the immediate kitchen garden bed, this is just outside the back door and has the herbs. Even when to busy to garden, I do try to keep the herbs alive because they are so useful in cooking. And I love the smell.

Then I transplanted two tomato plants, I have had half a dozen growing in small pots. Then I mulched the kitchen bed. I am a lazy gardener. I always mulch because it reduces weeding and watering. It also helps the soil.

I do not have a lot in at the moment, but enough to give me an illusion of progress.

Herbs: mint, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, coriander, sage. Some silver beet, enough to give me a few leaves all the time. I love silver beet. Unfortunately I am the only person in the family who does!

A few lettuce varieties at an early stage. I will try to plant another lot next weekend, and then more a few weeks after that. There are so many varieties of leaf vegetables now that regular small plantings mean that we do not have to buy them at all. I also have a few red onions in, again for salads.

Then there are the two tomatoes, with the others still to transplant. My family also wants me to plant Roma and the cherry variety. I hope to do so in due course.

As I said, not a lot. For example, I have not yet planted beans. This is dumb. Again, regular small plantings can keep us in beans all the time. And beans fresh from the garden beat the store variety every time.

Well, enough for now.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Belshaw's Animal Meme

Photo: the Australian Kelpie.

I am still not sure about memes. But just to keep Legal Eagle happy.

An interesting animal I had

Just at the moment we have, I think, eight cats in resident. Two of our own, plus next door's and her kittens. This excludes Grey Tom who tries to live in out back yard (he is here as I write) despite our efforts to chase him away because he chases our lot.

Here we lost our favourite, Jack, who we dearly loved because he was more like a dog. Wanted to go for walks, for example. Jack now lives down the road. We know he is there, but have not tried to get him back this time because of Grey Tom.

Who says cats are bright? They are dumb apart from their ability to manipulate their custodians. Now dogs, dogs are bright. Which brings me to my point

Rover. How do I describe him? Well, to begin with, he was not a town dog.

Kelpies are farm animals, bred as sheep and cattle dogs. They like order, discipline.

Rover fitted this mould. There was nothing he liked more than rounding up our grandfather's chooks into two groups based on breed, then lying (panting) in the centre waiting for one to dare to move.

Fences? Tell me about them. Rover could go over a tall wire fence by jumping, getting his claws in, then scrambling up and over.

We lost Rover while on holidays. He had been sent back to my Aunt and Uncle's place, got bit by a snake, and died.

An interesting animal I ate

Roasted sparrow while travelling as a twenty year old to Northern Thailand on the train. Too bony.

An interesting thing I did with or to an animal

Mmm! Being chased as a young child by an angry goose around the same size as me. They are fearsome!

An interesting animal at the museum

This has to be the dinosaur at the Sydney museum.

An interesting animal in its natural habitat.

Snakes, or possibly bull ants. Not sure here.

On a hot Saturday afternoon many years ago I went for a walk.

We had gone out to a friend's property and I was bored. Snake after snake crossed the track. After a six foot brown I retreated.

Bull ants are smaller, but they have a very nasty bite. I have not been bitten by a snake. I have by a bull ant.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Australia's Confusion with Culture

One thing I have noticed in discussion in Australia across a broad spectrum of issues is the degree of confusion that appears to exist about the meaning of the word "culture". I thought that I would make a brief comment as much to clarify my own thinking as anything else.

When I first did prehistory we were taught simply that culture was nurture, not nature. In other words, all the things that we learned to do. Defined in this way, culture is a very broad concept. Because prehistory is concerned with physical remains - digging through the rubbish dumps of the human past as one archaeologist put it - culture, the differences between cultures, the patterns of cultural change are all linked to material evidence of what we do, how we do it.

This broad meaning of culture exists, too, in management theory. Organisational culture is often defined simply as the way we do things round here.

In teaching groups and teams as part of Frontline Management Training I tried to make the point that every group developed its own culture. In formal curriculum terms this lead to the point that a team was a directed group. However, I also wanted to get across a point that the process of cultural creation and maintenance was a natural part of any group or team all the way up to the huge modern organisation. To be really effective, you have to know how to work the culture.

This type of thinking came through in my role as a change agent, a role inextricably linked with cultural change. Most new brooms in fact fail. Those who are most effective link their approach to the existing history and culture of the organisation, treating this not just as an impediment but also as an aid.

Anybody who has studied culture or who has been involved with it in a practical sense soon learns a few things.

The first is that most human beings are quite capable of combining multiple cultures and cultural allegiancies within themselves. These may even conflict, a conflict that can be ignored until something brings it into prominence.

The second thing is that we all select groups and cultures that we are comfortable with unless events force otherwise.

One of the readings in today's NSW Higher School Certificate English paper was an excerpt from Geraldine Brooks. Reporting on her experiences of living in a small village in Virginia, she said in part:

You live differently in a small place. I had been a city person all my life: my homes had been in the dense urban tangles of Sydney, New York, Cairo and London. Though each of those cities is very different, I was much the same in all of them. People say cities breed acceptance of diversity, but I didn't learn that lesson there. It took a village to teach me tolerance and a measure of tact.

My wife, a Sydney Eastern Suburbs girl, found the same thing when she first moved to Armidale. It was not that Armidale was narrow, just that she had to mix with people with very different views. Certainly I have been forced to exercise tolerance since I returned the favour by moving to Sydney.

Because we select groups that we are comfortable with, it becomes very easy to forget or fail to recognise that the cultural attributes you support may not be shared by others. This was one of the messages I was trying to get across in my post comparing the Sydney and New England electorates.

The third thing is that cultures change all the time under the influence of events. Yes, there are continuities, I will discuss this in a moment, but there is also change. Changes that strengthen the group are absorbed relatively easily. Changes that affect attitudes, values, world views, happen much more slowly. When the pace of change becomes a threat, as happened in Australia during the first half of the nineties, you get a reaction.

This brings me to my last point, the longevity of certain cultural traits.

A US sociological study I read many years ago, I do not remember the reference, compared two suburbs in a US city. One was highly functional, the other highly disfunctional, yet both had begun in an apparently similar way. The study's conclusion was that the difference went back to differences in the establishment process, differences whose influences continued.

Now link all this to the discussion on our relations with Australia's indigenous peoples.

There is no doubt that traditional life was highly sophisticated and organised. Because there appears to be some doubt about this in some peoples' minds, I have started a post on the New England blog discussing Aboriginal economic life in New England at the time of European intrusion.

That life was not static in cultural terms, now was it uniform across the country. So when, as appears often to be the case, people start talking about traditional "Aboriginal" culture I want to know what they mean.

The arrival of the Europeans had a dramatic and adverse effect on traditional Aboriginal life, an effect that varied over time and across the country. Again, I do not think that there can be any argument about this. It is simply a statement of fact.

The first problem that I do have with some of the discussion is that it appears to suggest that the indigenous cultures vanished. They did not, they simply changed.

Now it may be, I think that it is, that the changes meant that traditional life was no longer possible. However, elements of that life certainly continued, now joined by new elements. This links to my point about the continuity of culture.

I feel that this process of change has, at least to my mind, been poorly charted. I need to know more. But I can surmise some things.

To begin with, the kinship, exchange and cooperative characteristics of traditional life carried over. This has many advantages, but it also has problems.

In 1970 I remember studying development economics for my masters in economics at the Australian National University. We looked at Fiji. A key point was the way in which the kinship and mutual obligation systems created fundamental problems for the development of indigenous Fijians. This is true for Australia's indigenous people.

Now here I would make two points.

First, cultures have to change or pay a price. That price is decline and ultimate extinction.

The second is the need for objective observation. Without this, none of us know what we are dealing with.

One of my personal heroes is Raymond Firth. One of that brilliant group of New Zealand intellectuals that made such a contribution to western thought, Firth was arguably the outstanding social anthropologist of the 20th century.

One of his key points as I understand them was the need for objective observation to understand and record. Being objective in observation does not mean being objective in a personal sense. It means simply that you try to prevent your own biases intervening in your professional analysis.

I won't go on at this point, except to note that I do try to follow what I see as Firth's approach on indigenous issues. And in this context I need a lot more information.

Postscript - Saturday Morning 20 October

My word, this post has already generated some useful comments. My especial thanks to Lexcen for pointing me in the direction of the Freeman/Mead controversy. I had forgotten this, and I found the reminder intensely interesting for a number of reasons.

By way of background to readers who may not be aware of this, Margaret Mead became perhaps the most famous anthropologist of the twentieth century because of her writings on sexuality among young women in Samoa. Dr Derek Freeman later challenged her conclusions, igniting a global controversy that spread well beyond the discipline of anthropology itself. Nothing like sex to spark interest!

Without debating the rights or wrongs of the case, the controversy centred on the the relations in anthropology between the observer and the observed in interpreting cultural matters, and hence bears directly upon the point I was making in this post.

Did Mead's informants lie to her? Did she allow her own perceptions and values to affect not just the questions she asked, but the way in which she interpreted the answers? And, in any case, how does the very presence of the anthropologist distort cultural patterns?

Conversely, to what degree were Dr Freeman's observations affected by his own close relations with Samoans now aware of Mead's writings? Did the adoption of Christianity itself lead to another distortion?

These questions are all relevant in an Australian context. As I outlined in a post on the Australian anthropologist Malcolm Calley, Australian anthropologists have been very important in raising interest in indigenous issues when the matter was still being largely ignored by other professions, including historians.

I have another interest, too, the New Zealand connection.

In a short series of posts on the History of Australian and New Zealand Thought blog (first post here) I discussed the remarkable story of some of the early New Zealand economists.

This extends to anthropology, for the two were linked. Here I have already talked about Raymond Firth. Just as in economics there was a people chain that created a remarkable body of work for such a small country, so there was in anthropology.

My thanks to all my current contributors for making my early Saturday morning so very interesting.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

World Youth Day, the Jockey Club and the Roman Catholic Church - a very Sydney story

Next year, the Roman Catholic Church will be holding World Youth Day in Sydney. The Pope will be coming, and up to 500,000 people will attend an open air mass to celebrate the event. But here there is a problem.

The plan is to hold it at Royal Randwick, Sydney's premier race track. But the Australian Jockey Club, the lessors, have problems with this. I have been conscious of the dispute between the Church and Club, but I now see from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that the problem is getting worse.

In Australia racing is a religion. It appears that the leaders of the racing religion and the Catholic prelates are on a serious collision course. In the meantime, the Sydney (aka NSW) Government appears to be sitting on the fence hoping that the problem will go away.

I have no idea of the rights and wrongs of all this. But it is a rather nice story that deserves wider coverage!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Walkley Award Finalists Announced

"Australia's journalists know that winning a Walkley is a reason to celebrate. It is the recognition by one's peers that special initiative deserves a special reward. To the winner it means all those years of training and being barked at by demanding editors were not entirely in vain".- John Hurst, author of The Walkley Awards

This year's finalists for the Walkley Awards have been announced. You can find the full list here.

The Walkley's are Australia's to journalism awards for print, radio and TV but not, yet, for the internet.

The Walkleys were established in 1956, with five categories, by Ampol Petroleum founder Sir William Gaston Walkley. William Walkley appreciated the media's support for his oil exploration efforts. He envisaged awards that recognised emerging talent in the Australian media. Since then, winning stories have chronicled Australia's history, people and events.

I think that very few Australians now remember Sir William Walkley. That's a pity. I must write something on him at some point. Certainly the Walkely's are an on-going memorial.


Over on the New England Australia blog I have put up a story about the connection between Sir William and the New England New State Movement. I wanted to write a second story on a different linkage on this blog but could find no information.

Jim North, my father-in-law, was both president and secretary of the Australian Journalist's Association. Because of the linkage between Sir William and the AJA I thought that this might be another story. So I searched. Nothing, apart from one story on the sale of the Journalists' Club. This includes the successor union web site.

I think that this is wrong. There were some fascinating people at Jim's retirement dinner including Bob Carr, yet this man who occupied a niche but special place in Australian political and intellectual history has vanished.

As I said in a passing note on Professor Wheelwright, I find it strange that I should find myself trying to rescue and present those on the left and Labor side of politics when their own people have forgotten them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Teasing Neil - but with a serious point

I have edited this post a little because I felt that it was not enough of a tease, too much of a serious point.

If anyone knows a simple way of inserting tables into blog posts, please let me know. Statistical data in text form becomes very hard to read.

I often tease Neil Whitfield. It's fun, but there is also a serious point.

One of my themes on this blog is the need to recognise variation across Australia, variation that affects life and attitude. Here the Parliamentary Library has recently released census date grouped by electorate that shows some of the variation.

Now Neil lives and votes in the Sydney electorate. My traditional electorate is New England, although I too in fact lived in Sydney until the recent boundary change. So what are the differences between the two? Does it explain why we might differ?

Electorate Overview

For the benefit of my international readers, Sydney is an inner city electorate covering 43 of inner Sydney around the central business district, in clockwise order from the Harbour it includes Surry Hills, Redfern, Erskineville, Newtown, Camperdown, Annandale, Rozelle, Balmain and Glebe. The electorate also includes Lord Howe Island.

This is blue ribbon Labor country with a strong Green tinge. At the last election, Labor's Tanya Plibersek (a likely future minister) got 44.7 per cent of the vote, the Liberals 28.5 per cent and the Greens 21.6 per cent. After preferences, this translated in two part terms to a Labor vote of 66.4 per cent.

At 58,463, New England is a large regional electorate covering the New England Tablelands and part of the Western Slopes. Main towns from south to north include Quirindi, Tamworth, Armidale, Glen Innes, Inverell and Tenterfield.

This was Country Party/National Party heartland until 2001 when the independent New England populist Tony Windsor won the seat. At tle last election, Tony got 57.3 per cent of the vote, followed by the Nats (Trevor Khan, now a NSW MLC) on 18.7 per cent and the Libs on 10 per cent. The Green vote was just 3.3 per cent.

ABC election analyst Antony Green describes Sydney as a very peculiar seat in demographic terms. I would argue that all our electorates have their own peculiarities. But certainly it is very different from New England.

The Stats

In population terms, New England has a population of 130,789, Sydney 151, 941, so Sydney is a fair bit bigger in absolute terms. I found this interesting because the number of actual votes is roughly comparable.

Part of the answer here lies in the migrant proportion of the population - 34.1 per cent of the Sydney population were born overseas, just 6 per cent in New England.

Interestingly, 17.3 per cent of Sydney's population were born in non-English speaking countries as compared to New England's 1.8 per cent. No less than 22.9 per cent of Sydney's population spoke a non English language at home as compared to 2 per cent in New England.

Sydney's population has also been growing far faster than New England's, up14.2 per cent since the last census as compared to New England's 1.9 per cent.

Sydney's faster growth does not come from natural increase.

Sydney at just 4 per cent has the lowest proportion of people under five of any electorate in the country. It also has the lowest proportion - also 4.4 per cent - of those aged 5 to 14 years. It appears that there are not many young families in Sydney. New England, by contrast, comes in at 6.5 per cent for those under five, 14.6 per cent for those between 5 and 14. So New England people are clearly more active breeders.

These stats are reflected in some other numbers.

At just 21.7 per cent, Sydney has the lowest proportion of couple families with dependent children in the country. At 56.6 per cent. it has the highest proportion of couple families with no children in the country. It also has the third highest percentage of lone person households (36.9 per cent) in the country. So Sydney has lots of couples, lots of people living alone, but very few couples with kids.

Now, as we shall see in a moment, New England has an aging population compared to Sydney. Even so, the New England proportion of couples with kids is 33.8 per cent, couples without kids 41.1 per cent. Very different.

Population aging.

Starting with those people aged 15 to 24 years. In this group, Sydney at 17.5 per cent has the third highest proportion in the country. By contrast, 13.3 per cent of the New England is aged 15 to 24 years. So Sydney is clearly attracting young people.

The position becomes even more clear cut when we look at the proportion of people aged 25 to 64 years. Sydney at 66.2 per cent has the highest proportion in the country. By contrast, New England is the seventh lowest nationally at just 49.7 per cent. So Sydney has fewer young, but attracts many more people of working age. New England, by contrast, loses its young.

There are a lot more old New Englanders. Sydney has just 7.9 per cent of its population over 65. The New England figure is 16 per cent. These demographic patterns are reflected in the median age. Sydney at 32 is the 17th youngest electorate in the country, New England at 39 ranks at 118.

These different demographies carry though into other social indicators.

Sydney with just 39.8 percent of the population claiming to be Christian is the least Christian electorate in the country, but not in fact the least religious. Kingston (South Australia) holds this honour. There 30.1 per cent classified themselves as persons of no religion as compared to Sydney's 25.2 per cent.

By contrast, New England at 78.9 per cent is the fourth most Christian electorate in the country, with only 11.2 per cent classifying themselves as having no religion.

Both electorates have very few Muslims, but the proportion in Sydney at 1.1 per cent is far higher than New England's 0.1 per cent.

The pattern changes when we looking at the indigenous population.

Here Sydney had an indigenous population of just 1.2 per cent. By contrast, New England at 6.4 per cent had the ninth highest indigenous proportion in the country.

Differences continue.

Looking at education levels, at 12.6 per cent of the population, Sydney has the second lowest proportion of people in the country whose education is limited to year 10 and below. The New England figure is an astonishing 33.1 per cent.

Measured by weekly incomes, Sydney is the fifth wealthiest electorate in the country, with 44 per cent of families on a weekly income of $2,000 or above. New England is the sixteenth poorest electorate in the country, with only 10.1 per cent of families earning $2,000 or more per week.

Putting this another way, the median weekly family income in New England is $976 as compared to $1,972 in Sydney. In fact, the New England electorates as a whole are generally poor, with New England itself one of the wealthier ones.

Mind you, Sydney pays a lot more for what it gets.

At 58 per cent, Sydney has the highest proportion of its population renting in the country. The New England figure is 27.5 per cent.

Those renting in Sydney pay a lot more. Sydney is the fourth most expensive rental market in the country, with a median weekly rent of $342. By contrast, New England on $136 is the seventeenth cheapest electorate in the country.

Sydney people are also flat dwellers. At 60.4 per cent, Sydney has the highest proportion of flat or unit dwellers in the country. Only 7 per cent of those living in the New England electorate live in flats.

Finally, Sydney has the lowest motor vehicle ratio in the country, with only 17.9 per cent of dwellings having two or more vehicles. The New England percentage is 50.5.


So what does all this tell us about Sydney. Is Neil a typical Sydney person? Based on his blog entries, the answer would appear to be yes.

Neil is a-typically older. But he lives in an apartment, presently lives alone but was in a couple with no children relationship, does not have a car, is presently very strongly ALP but with at least a strong tinge of Green in terms of his attitudes on environmental and social issues. In terms of the Sydney political spectrum, Neil is very much in the centre. He also drinks a lot of coffee at cafes - but not, it appears, latte!

And am I a typical New Englander? Based on my own blog entries, the answer would appear to be yes.

I am better educated than the New England average, but then New England in fact includes the education city of Armidale. I live in what is presently a two car house, I belong to the couple with children category, I still describe myself in political terms as Country Party or New England populist.

In terms of the political spectrum, I am left of centre on the New England spectrum, but right of centre on the Sydney equivalent. And I rarely drink coffee in cafes!

Two electorates, two people, some common ground, but also very different views.

The differences are reflected not just in voting patterns, but in fundamental differences in attitude.

I campaign for New England not just because of emotional attachment, but also because I deeply resent the fact that one of the wealthiest areas in Australia in raw resource terms has been subject to such structural disadvantage.

I make no apology for this. I am an unreconstructed New England populist, if one with some perhaps strange tinges because of my family history and personal experiences. But all this leads me to ask different questions, to focus on different things, than Neil.

Neil and I in fact rub along pretty well because we share a common concern in social justice, are interested in many of the same issues including Australia's culture and history. This allows us to play off each other.

However, there is a broader and more serious point.

Even at this superficial level comparing Sydney and New England we can see that there are significant differences between the two seats. Further, the differences are repeated across the country and are, I think, growing.

We all have a tendency to think that our views are in some ways representative of a broader Australian view. This is in fact far from true.

There are nine in the small group I presently work with. Two were born in the UK, one I think in Hong Kong, one in Bosnia, one in India, three in Sydney. I am the only staff member born in Australia outside Sydney.

They are a nice group and I rub along with them pretty well. But I have to remember that as much as ninety per cent of my interests and a large slab of my attitudes fall outside their frame.

Part of this is due to age. I am older. But a large part is due to different experiences.

If we generalise this to Australia, the things that hold us together are our shared institutions including our political system, our shared experiences and our common culture. This is where I see a risk of things breaking down. Increasingly, Australia is marked by divides, by divisions.

I do not want to overstate this. Anybody who has studied Australian history or has mixed around the country knows that there have always been differences. Further, our common culture has proved very resilient.

On the other side, the limited mixing I do across groups and areas, more the research I do into social and cultural trends across the country, suggests to me that we are insufficiently aware of the increasing divergence within Australia.

Divergence is not necessarily bad. I enjoy the growing variety Australia offers. But it can become a problem should the things that unite us break down.