Sunday, June 29, 2008

Facebook from London

In Saturday Morning Musings - Bureaucracy and the modern management quick step I mentioned that eldest had flown out for London on her first independent international trip. While I was critical in that post of the impact of technology, never let it be said that we are not a modern e-family!

Yesterday evening I went onto facebook as one does just to check whether Helen had posted a message on her trip. I noticed that two friends were on-line, checked and one was Helen! Quick exchange between Helen and her Mum then sorted out a problem with a Visa card.

Now as it turned out Helen was on-line because she was posting an initial report to her friends - I have the luck to be counted as one in facebook terms, something that amazes some parents. I don't think Helen would mind if I shared it with you simply because it does capture first stages rather well.

" Today at 6:19pm

Hey guys!

Just thought i'd send you a quick message saying hey and letting you know how its going so far. I think the appropriate way to create the mood when we touch down in London is this:

Walking to Her Majesties Theatre in London: Free

Tickets to Phantom of the Opera: £58

Dinner before the show: £20

Realising you've arrived in London a day later than the performance: priceless

Yes thats right, we thought we arrived in London on the 26th (thank you very much (name deleted travel) but in fact we landed on the 27th. So the tickets we have bought online for the night of the 26th was money well spent:)

I think I will quickly summarise the negative and positive aspects of the trip so far. Negative: 24 hours on a plane, missing the theatre, bringing two left foot, brown havanas, checking into a hostel which leaves a lot to be desired, dealing with one not so welcoming employee and discovering that your VISA debit doesnt seem to work in London.

Ok moving on to the positives: spending time with leaf, walking around London is beautiful, the weather isnt very cold, hanging out with Henry, not working:), seeing the sound of music last night.

I love London, its so similar to Australia but the architecture is ten times better. The sheer size is a bit overwhelming though. But I am hoping that we dont face too many more challenges, its a bit demoralising...

But enough of that, I miss you all terribly!!! I hope your all enjoying ur hols:)

Luv Hel "

Nostalgia is an interesting thing as kids start repeating things that parents have done in the past.

I come from the generation that first discovered Asia. My initial overseas trips were there and to New Zealand, so it was a number of years before I went to London. And then I was astonished at the resonance it held for me.

Australia has changed since then with a sometimes contemptuous domestic rejection of aspects of our past, so I had wondered how Helen was going to respond to London. In much the same way, it appears.

I love Paris, Rome, Florence or Venice in part because they are different. Continental romance, I suppose. London is different, yet also similar. It's partly a matter of language, but also the presence of buildings and scenes made familiar not just by history, but also through film and TV.

Sydney aspires to be an international city. Helen's reaction to London sets this aspiration in context. London has been an imperial and indeed global city for a very long while.

My only negative feeling to London, and indeed to Europe as a whole, was a sometimes sense of oppression created by the overpowering presence of history, something that Australia as a new country lacks.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - Bureaucracy and the modern management quick step

In first Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed? and then Modern Australia's problems with delegation and control I discussed some of the current problems as I saw them in Australian public administration. In doing so, I also made the point that the problems were not limited to public administration, but were also to be found in the private sector.

These issues have been much on my mind this week. For that reason, I want to extend my argument a little in this post, using a comment by Lexcen as an entry point. Lexcen wrote:

When bureaucracy was first implemented it was a system that worked to reign in chaos and it was very successful. These days with lightning fast communication and the need for quick decisions, bureaucracy has outlived its usefulness. It's time for a new management model.

I agree that it's time for a new management model, one that restores a measure of decentralisation to management and control. However, I have real difficulties with the words "lightning fast communication and the need for quick decisions." To my mind, these words capture one of the core problems in current organisational systems.

Have you ever noticed that there is something of an inverse relationship between dominant themes in management discussion and on-ground realities?

In the 1980s, the talk was all of new and flexible organisational forms facilitated by the emergence of new computing and communications technology. Yet on the ground, the modern variant of the centralised command and control organisation was establishing itself.

In the 1990s, the importance of people and the need for new approaches to people management came to prominence. On the ground, this was a period of down sizing, retrenchment and restructuring.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the emergence of the brand and of brand management. This coincided with the greatest period of brand destruction in world history.

I am sure that you can think of other examples. However, for the moment, my point is that the emphasis we have seen on "lightning fast communication and the need for quick decisions", a recurrent theme in management discussions for the last twenty years, actually falls in the same class.

Modern communications and computing technology allows us to store, process, access and transmit more data and to do so faster. This has had profound behavioural effects.

On Thursday eldest daughter left for London with a friend on her first independent overseas trip. I could not help contrasting this with my first trip.

When I went, my friend and I had passes for Britrail, the London tube and historical houses plus a place to stay when we arrived in London. Yes, we had some ideas as to what we wanted to do, but everything was flexible. Once we got onto the plane, we were free to enter a new world untrammelled by Australia. There was no expectation that we would stay in touch beyond letters or postcards.

Helen's trip is much more tightly planned. Hours were spent on the internet by Helen and especially her mother checking locations, comparing hotels and backpacker accommodation and making bookings. Helen SMSd on arrival in London to say that she had arrived.

Even at this early stage, there was need for quick action and decision.

At Sydney airport, they discovered that the travel agent had made a date mistake affecting a theatre booking. While the girls were in the air, Helen's mum tried via internet and phone to move the booking, or alternatively, find a new one. SMS messages passed through the ether, between Sydney, Hong Kong and London. Unfortunately the mistake could not be fixed, so the girls will have to find their own alternative.

In many ways, Helen's trip is not a bad analogy for the modern organisation.

Computing and communications technology allows things to be more tightly planned, scheduled and controlled. However, this creates a need in itself for more and faster reactive decisions to fix things.

Helen's trip also illustrates another important lesson, we respond to things that we become aware of. Now here modern technology is very much a mixed blessing because it makes us aware of more things, more quickly.

The pre-IT organisation necessarily had to allow a measure of autonomy to its constituent parts. This held even in rigid heirarchical structures. The centre had access to neither the information nor the control systems required to do otherwise. A bank manager was a Bank Manager.

This type of autonomy is now a thing of the past. Modern organisations have become rigid structures. The technology that many of us expected would lead to greater efficiency combined with greater flexibility and freedom has had the opposite effect.

There is a particular difficulty at a public policy level.

"See problem, fix problem" is a natural human trait, one especially pronounced today because of the modern tendency to believe that all problems are solveable.

Modern communications and information systems including the media constantly deluge us with information about problems. We expect Governments to respond and indeed they try too. We live in a world of action plans, strategies, protocols, outcomes, controls and shuttle diplomacy. Yet when I look at Australian public policy over the last thirty years, I see a pattern of fundamental failure.

The claimed successes during the period all seem to be associated with micro-economic reform, action to reduce Government intervention, or with greater expenditure allowed for by greater wealth. Economic growth is an example of the first, expansion in schooling an example of the second. Beyond this, there has been a systemic pattern of policy failure.

If this seems harsh, consider this.

The position of our indigenous peoples is no better, in fact arguably worse, than it was thirty years ago. The proportion of the Australian people living in real poverty has increased, so that we now have growing ghettos of deprivation.

The availability of health services to all Australians has declined. Our education system has become increasingly strained, especially in the public sector. Child welfare appears to be a mess. Our public infrastructure is ageing and inadequate. Our prison population has grown much faster than the general population.

I could go on, but this is enough to paint the picture.

As I see it, a key problem in the public sector is that we are making too many apparent decisions and making them too quickly. We then change them before they can take full effect.

Whatever the advantages of modern computing and communications technology, they do not affect the real timing of decision processes.

Time is required to properly identify a problem, to analyse it, to work out solutions and then put them in place. Time must then be allowed for the solution to work or not work. During this period progress needs to be assessed, modifications made. Just as it may take decades for a problem to emerge, so it may take decades to fix, assuming that it can be. Flexibility is required throughout.

Our modern system and expectations do not allow for this.

In most cases, the best decisions are taken slowly and then implemented quickly. Australia seems condemned to a pattern of quick decisions, followed by an extended period of re-working.

This leads me to the heading of this post.

The modern management quick step can be defined as quick, quick, quick, quicker, quicker, quicker, quickest, quickest, quickest. The problem is that there is no where to go after quickest.

Putting this another way, the NSW project manager's stomp goes this way:

Three steps forward, stomp, stomp, stomp

Three steps backwards, stomp, stomp, stomp

Two steps sideways, stomp, stomp

Return to the starting position, stomp, stomp.

In all, much activity for little result.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Modern Australia's problems with delegation and control

In My post Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed? I said in part:

This is a world in which the combination of theories drawn from private sector management (KPIs, performance agreements, contracts, strategic planning, governance) and economics (contestability among others) has combined with theories drawn from public administration (program budgeting, input/output
models) to create a slow unworking system.

In saying this, I was making a management, not political, judgement. In this post I want to outline a few of my reasons for my judgement. The comments apply not just to NSW, nor just to public sector organisations. I have found similar problems in the private sector.

Anybody who has been involved in management knows that both decision making and communication becomes more difficult as the links in the chain increase. They will also know that the more people you have to consult, the slower the process.

To illustrate first with a private sector example.

A number of years ago I faciliated the development of the first AT&T country plan for Australia. AT&T had moved from the country based structure that had been traditional among global companies to a global business unit structure. It had also introduced a measure of internal competition for support activities under which things happened only if business units agreed to put up money.

The country plan aimed to create a framework for cooperative action among the various business units, including information sharing and combined marketing. While the resulting plan was useful, it did not (and could not) fully achieve its objectives.

From memory, five business units were represented in Australia. With one exception, all were very small in local terms. In theory, people sitting at adjoining desks from different business units communicated through Singapore to a VP based in Hong Kong and then back down a similar chain.

Proposals for collaborative action followed this complex route. Internal business unit approvals had to be obtained and then submitted up and down the chain.

AT&T Australia itself was no more than a corporate shell. Resources to fund the activity, including my fees and the salary and costs of the full time AT&T staffer involved, had to be obtained from the business units. So there was a constant battle to gain both agreement and funding.

In all this, both business units and staff had to meet key business performance indicators based on immediate market targets. This made it difficult to manage longer term issues.

Both business units and staff also had to cope with head-office games and strategies dictated by central corporate objectives and needs, including the need to maintain share prices. This led, among other things, to periodic action to reduce costs by global head-count reductions that then cascaded down. Within three years, the old AT&T was to break up in an attempt to create greater stock market value.

The point of the AT&T example is that, as I see it, it bears a striking resemblance to modern public administration in Australia. The effects pervade our systems at every level.

At executive level, the power of ministers has been reduced. More has to go to Cabinet, more requires approval by PM or Premier before it can be actioned even if Cabinet approval itself is not required.

As part of this, the power of the central coordinating agencies has increased. In New South Wales, as an example, Treasury and Premiers exert control across most aspects of policy and administration.

Across Australia, the levels of real delegation in most agencies appear to have declined. As a branch head in the Federal system, I could sign pieces of paper to the minister. Yes, copies of all minutes to the minister were circulated among the SES, but it was my responsibility to decide what consultation should be done. Then, if I got it wrong, it was clearly my responsibility.

Recently I had lunch with a former senior colleague who left the Federal system later than me. He left the Department to head a major inquiry into a government agency. When he came back, he found that while he could still sign minutes to the minister, now the division head had to counter sign. This may sound a small thing, but it represented a a major reduction in the real authority of the branch head.

The current position in NSW appears to be far worse.

Memos to the minister (they call them memos rather than minutes in NSW) from the branch head in one large NSW agency have to be signed off not just be the division head, but by the agency head. Nobody sees this as strange, yet the reality is that it has a number of adverse effects.

To begin with, its slows things down in that every person in the signing chain has to check the memo before signature. This takes time. Then it limits the range of advice that the minister actually gets because everything has to fit and be tested.

As a senior public servant, I was a change agent, trying to put alternative views, to stimulate ideas. My superiors may sometimes have shuddered a bit, but so long as I did not stuff-up I could proceed.

I could not have done this in NSW. Here the need to get multi-level clearance means that new ideas must actually be developed and approved before they can proceed.

But what happens if you are just testing the water, trying new ideas out? You don't want a developed concept, supported by a project plan. Your aim is discussion. This is no longer easy.

Things get worse from here.

Today we live in a world of cascading performance agreements.

This all sounds so reasonable. The agency head agrees his objectives with the minister and Government. This is then broken down into performance agreements at the next level, and then so on down to the lowest operative. The problem is that not only does it not work, but has adverse consequences.

Things change all the time. In theory, you adjust the agreements. In practice, this is very hard. If you are being measured on x, you do x.

The processes involved in setting new targets are very hard because you are locked into linked agreements that may extend up the chain. You cannot alter your agreement without getting others to alter theirs, and this may involve multiple changes. So in the end you give up.

Things continue to worsen.

In some of my earlier discussions on this issue, I spoke about the emergence of departmental executives. Now we may have executives at departmental and divisional or business unit level.

Designed to improve coordination, they operate in a formal way. So many matters have to be considered by the divisional and then the departmental executive. Again this sounds fine, but these executives add another chain in the decision processes, while also further constraining independent advice.

Then, finally, we have the communications units now found in many agencies. Their role is in part to ensure the presentation of a consistent message. They also act to protect the agency and Government. Inevitably, official external communications need their approval.

Let's pull all this together.

Assume, for the moment, that you are a bright junior officer with a new idea.

If it was one of my officers when I was a branch head, I could go straight to the minister. I might float it as an idea for discussion, or make a recommendation. If I thought that it was necessary, I might organise internal consulations first or following advice to the minister.

Today, for that idea to survive in NSW, it has to go up each step in the chain to the head of the agency for approval. As part of this, it may need to be considered by various executive bodies. It may also need to considered by the communications unit.

Each step involves preparation of formal briefing material. Each piece of briefing material involves formal checks to get it right. Each person signing off must be satisfied. Multiple drafts are common, as are workshops and meetings to fine tune.

Something that might have taken a week when I was branch head, can now in our modern Governmental system take months if it proceeds at all.

To finish, all this makes the AT&T example I gave earlier look like a model of efficiency and transparency!


Thinking about this overnight, one of the key difficulties with modern structures lies not so much with individual elements in the system, but in the way those elements have become so formalised and then interact with each other.

There is no easy answer to all this. Reform requires change across a number of dimensions including, and this is a really hard part, changes to underlying ideas and concepts that have underpinned the development of the systems themselves.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed?

As I write, the Belinda Neal/Della Bosca Iguana controversy drags on in the media (here, here, to give just two links). Mr Rudd's call for a blowtorch to be applied to OPEC appears to be creating ripples well beyond Australia, creating future difficulties for the Government in managing international relations in an apparently classic case of talking loudly while carrying a small stick.

During the week we had a discussion on a national problem, obesity, leading to proposals for yet another national strategy. Yes, obesity is a problem, but so far proposals all appear to focus on yet more controls and restrictions. There is little discussion on the underlying causes.

Looking at all this, I am left with the feeling that the Rudd Government is in danger of being New South Walesed.

I have made two main criticisms of the NSW Government, both linked to approach rather than party.

The first is one of style. Here I have suggested that there has been a tendency to moralise, to focus on controls, to be reactive, to respond to problems by introducing yet another strategy.

The second, linked problem, is one of system. To my mind, NSW is the final distorted flowering of new approaches to public administration that began with the Griener Liberal/National Party Government. I have put the point in this way to make it clear that my argument here is about system, not the NSW Iemma Government as such.

This is a world in which the combination of theories drawn from private sector management (KPIs, performance agreements, contracts, strategic planning, governance) and economics (contestability among others) has combined with theories drawn from public administration (program budgeting, input/output models) to create a slow unworking system.

In writing about this, I have tried to make it clear that I do not oppose things such as the New Zealand model. Rather, I am concerned about the way in which the combination has worked in practice and especially in NSW.

Now, or so it seems to me, Mr Rudd is in danger of becoming a somewhat up-market version of NSW. There are the same tendencies to try to do too much, to moralise, to be reactive, to respond to problems with yet another strategy. If this continues, the Rudd Government will fail.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - Hugh Frewen: a New England story

Moreton Frewen, Wyoming, c 1880.

I am not sure when I first met Captain Hugh Frewen (or Cappie as he was known), but it must have been in the early sixties. I clearly remember him from New England New State Meetings and from our car drive on Sydney. There he stood out in his tropical drill suit, frail but still erect.

At the time, I had no idea of his history. He was just a friend of my grand-father's. It was only later that I found out the full story, and then after a BBC TV series telling the story of his mother's family.

I was reminded of all this because I have just be re-reading his Imogene an odyssey (Australasian Publishing Company, 1944). In her forward to the book, Dame Mary Gilmore wrote that it was a record of impressions and reflections in verse during journeys across four continents and over many countries.

It is also the story of a man from his birth to his arrival in Dorrigo and New England where he was to spend the rest of his life.

The forest melts as we o'ertop the crest,

Yielding to homely scenes and paths we know,

While grassy uplands open to the west,

The rolling hills and downs of Dorrigo;

There is an enormous difference between the quiet world of Dorrigo and the world of sometimes wealth and imperial power that Hugh Frewen came from, from New York and the imperial courts of Europe to the hall meetings where New England's future was debated.

We can begin our story in 1849 with the marriage the New York financier Leonard Jerome and Clarrisa (Clara) Hall. The couple had four daughters, one of whom died young.

Leonard Jerome was variably successful in financial terms. He speculated in stocks and had interests in a number of railroads, making and losing several fortunes. However, he seems to have been very much a New York person, content to fund his wife's interests.

Clarrisa was very different. One tart biographer records that her sole goal was that they each marry nobly and lucratively. So in 1867 she and the girls and sailed for Paris where, she believed, the Court of Napoleon III would inevitably fulfil her most ambitious social fantasies.

Foll0wing Napoleon's fall, their mother took the girls to London where they attracted considerable attention, cutting something of a swath through society.

The beautiful Jennie was the first to marry. On 15 April 1874, she married Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill at the British Embassy, Paris. Their first son, Winston Churchill, was born in November 1874, making him a somewhat premature child if my maths is correct!

Leonie Jerome ('the witty') married Irish Baronet Sir John Leslie, 2nd Bt. (1857-1944). They had 4 sons.

In the middle, of these two weddings, Clarita (Clara) married Moreton Frewen at Grace Church New York on 2 June 1881.

Moreton , also known as Mortal Ruin because of his habit of borrowing and losing money on grandiose schemes, is best know in the US for his Wyoming cattle venture where he is reported to have arrived with 16,000 pounds, leaving owing 30,000 pounds! Kipling observed that Frewen lived "in every sense, except what is called common sense, very richly and wisely to his own extreme content, and if he had ever reached the golden crock of his dreams, he would have perished".

Who fashioned first these stones of hoary grey,

All streaked and weathered now with gold and chrome,

Set in the foreground of a fairy bay

With land-locked waters rippling into foam?

Hugh Frewen was born in 1883. He grew up in the old manor house of Brede Place, a house that his mother managed to keep somehow, despite the family's financial tribulations. This was a world that mixed access to the old European aristocracy with the embarrassment of a father who sometimes could not pay the school fees! However, it is clear from his notes in Imogene that Hugh Frewen did not share the negative perceptions of his father.

I am not sure what Hugh Frewen did first after leaving school, but from 1906 to 1909 he was private secretary to Sir Percy Girouard who was Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Northern Nigeria and then a little late political officer in charge of a Nigerian hill station. However, he had to resign from the Colonial Office when his concerns about what he saw as British profiteering on Nigerian currency issues, concerns that he raised with his father who was then a British MP, led to the appointment of a Royal Commission.

On February 21 1914, Hugh married donna Maria Nunziante, daughter and co-heiress of the Italian Duke of Mignano. While they had two sons, the marriage ended in divorce in 1922. Hugh then married Rosalind Jones, a marriage that brought three further sons and two daughters.

Hugh served throughout the First World War, including the Gallipoli Campaign.Following the war, Hugh ended up as a special services officer in Iraq. This was not always easy.

Here for a little while did I contrive

To measure wits with Oriental wiles

(my predecessor had been burnt alive).

Like many English men of the time, he had a great love and respect for the Arab.

So slow to reason, and so swift to slay,
I love thy spirit - thy contempt for gold
But as a toy to give or take away!
Thine are the manners of an earlier day.
Thy nature decorous as ours uncouth,
In love - a lion,
purring for his prey,
In hate - inexorable as the sleuth,

Like Lawrence, this led to another falling out with elements of the imperial system when he took the side of King Feisal against the British High Commissioner, Sir Percy Cox.

Frewen's description of Cox is scathing - tall, cadaverous, tight-lipped as a Spanish Hidalgo, he seemed to have stepped straight out of the pages of Don Quixote. By contrast, King Feisal was a truly regal personage, and a man of outstanding character, .. not to be treated as a cipher, neither were his people of a mettle to brook subservience.

I cannot comment on Frewen's role in subsequent events without checking my historical facts. But Frewen summarised one key issue this way:

Yet the principle for which he (Frewen) stood, and which has since been vindicated
by the course of history in the granting of complete independence to the Iraqian state, was simply the honouring of Britain's pledged word to her faithful ally, the Arab people.

In any event, Hugh Frewen now began the wanderings that were to bring him finally to Dorrigo and to our meetings.

A postscript.

Hugh Frewen died in 1967. In 1972 I was campaigning in Dorrigo for Country party pre-selection. The story of the three sisters had just been retold as a major BBC TV series.

My pilot, the local who was guiding me, said that we were going to meet one of Hugh's sons, Winston Churchill's nephew.

As I trod the steps cut into the hill towards the house, a typical Dorrigo farm house with the washing drying on the veranda, I could not help but compare the scene with the the world of European aristocracy that I had so recently been immersed in.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The continuing insanity of Sydney's water restrictions

In Saturday Morning Musings - Gardening and the stupidity of Sydney water restrictions I complained about the way in which local water restrictions limited my ability to grow vegetables when other people could fill their pools. I was angry then. Now I am fuming.

It appears that water restrictions have now been eased to allow unrestricted use of a hose with a trigger nozzle to clean cars, boats, boat engines, caravans and houses. At the same time, use of a hand-held hose to water a garden is still restricted to two days before 10 and after 4.

To begin with, Sydney is not presently short of water - the dams are 65.5% full. Still, if we must have water restrictions for ideological reasons, at least make them fair.

I know that gardening has been in decline, but I really struggle to see any justification for freedom to fill a pool or wash a car when I cannot water a few vegies.

I keep expecting fellow gardeners to protest. Surely there must be at least a few others who feel as I do.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Blogging Pause

Monday Queanbeyan, Tuesday Sydney, today Newcastle. I am just too tired to write anything.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Diary of a travelling trainer - day two: Grafton, Sydney

Photo: Clarence River, Grafton

This post continues the diary entry begun in Diary of a travelling trainer - day one: Sydney, Tamworth, Grafton.

Friday 13 June

Grafton 7 am. Well, I am awake. What's more, it's the first morning in a week that I have not had to get up early. Better still, I do not have to be at the training venue until 9.30.

Make myself coffee and get the motel tourism material on Grafton. Some interesting stuff there that I had not known, although I know Grafton quite well.

Grafton itself is 614k north of Sydney, 322k south of Brisbane. The city has a population of around 18,000 and is the capital of the Clarence River Valley.

Called the Big River, the Clarence is the largest coastal river in NSW, bigger than the Hawkesbury.

This is a seriously big river. Grafton itself is 60k up stream, yet the river was still deep enough for coastal steamers to berth here. Ulmarra just down stream remains one of the finest examples of a 19th century riverport in Australia. The entire village is classified by the National Trust.

Grafton 8.30am. Packed, I take the opportunity to drive round Grafton, looking for places that I used to know.

Today Grafton is probably known for its trees, including the famous Jacarandas that form a backdrop for the Jacaranda Festival. As early as 1866 Grafton Council resolved to consider by-laws for the planting and preserving of trees and shrubs in the streets and recreation grounds. Some of those trees are now over 100 years old.

While best known now for its trees, the city and valley itself is rich in history. The tourism material I saw does not do a particularly good job in explaining this, even though Grafton has one of Australia's oldest local history societies. Everything is fragmented.

This problem is not unique to Grafton. Part of the reason lies in the standard approach to tourism where everything is classified in terms of attractions and events instead of experiences. Part, too, lies in the localisation of history making it hard to see broader patterns.

Time is limited, so I can do little more than look round briefly before driving back over the famous wacky bendy bridge to South Grafton where the workshop is to be held. The bridge, a double decker, acquired this name because of the bends leading onto the bridge proper. Opened in 1932, this was the first bridge across the Clarence.

I had not driven round South Grafton before, so I took the time to have a look.

The Clarence River is central to Grafton's history. In the early period, it provided transport throughout the Valley and beyond. It also divided Grafton and South Grafton into separate towns.

Initially, the river was crossed by row-boat, then by a hand powered punt and then a steam punt.

In early 1915, the NSW Government decided to remove the free steam ferry, the Helen. This sparked indignant protests. At a protest meeting called to discuss the incident, South Grafton doctor Earl Page moved a motion suggesting that the time had come for the North to consider separation either alone or in connection with the southern portion of Queensland. A committee was formed to investigate the matter.

The Helen matter marks the start of the new state agitation that was to continue in one form or other for more than fifty years and of Earle Page's political rise to prominent national political figure.

South Grafton itself is fascinating because it remains in many ways a faded snap-shot of the past. I did not have a camera with me, but will try to get some shots at a later point. One thing that I did notice was the architectural style. While I have never seen it analysed, there is a very distinct feel to North Coast architecture.

Grafton 9.30 am. I arrive at the venue, a local club, and check out the room. A few people have already arrived, and we stand outside looking across the river to Grafton. I take the opportunity to ask questions, working out where the steamers used to dock. I also gather stories about life in Grafton.

We are again late in getting underway because of travel times. This time those from Tweed Heads (222k, 2hours 50) are delayed because of road works.

Grafton 12.30 pm. We break for lunch. At this stage I am running about twenty minutes behind schedule.

Each workshop is different, affected by both the mix of attendees and the venue. The content involves a mix of knowledge and skills acquisition. I have to be very controlled to get all this across in the available time.

The club venue is good, but lunch is provided in the bistro. This creates a problem. People have to line up to order, wait for the food, then eat. It is 1.20 before I get everybody back, and I have to finish at 3 to get to the airport.

I try to restructure my approach, but I already know that I am not going to achieve all my learning objectives. I am also quite tired.

Anybody who has done much training, or teaching for that matter, will know that it is part performance, using the adrenalin rush to keep going. This can drive through tiredness. However, at a certain point it all becomes very hard.

Grafton 3pm. I leave for Grafton airport -16k away - in a rush. I have got core material across, but I have also left a degree of confusion among some. So, at best, a qualified pass.

As always, I had checked route details, but was still a little nervous since I had not been to the airport before. I need not have worried. I get there in plenty of time to drop the car off and even have a quiet read.

Grafton 3.50 pm. I board the plane. The carrier this time is Rex, Regional Express, an airline formed out of the collapse of Ansett through acquisition of two of its regional carriers, Hazelton and Kendell. Both Hazelton and Kendell were aviation pioneers with histories similar to the New England carriers.

The first leg of the flight is a short hop down the coast to Taree.

I really enjoyed this leg. Flying at 15,000 feet, I had a view across the coastal plains to the sea. While I know the New England coastline very well, I had not flown over it. I wondered if I would be able to work out where we were from the air.

I need not have worried. Once I had oriented myself, I was able to spot most towns and rivers. In fact, this was quite fascinating, because it gave me new insights into the geography.

Landing at Taree, we are told that there will be a forty minute wait. This means getting into Sydney close to seven. I think about a short walk, but decide to wait. Just as well, we actually board on time.

Having boarded, the pilot explains that wind has closed one runway at Sydney, that we are still likely to land late. It is now dark, so I read. We finally land about 7pm, travelling by bus to the terminal. I ring my wife, who comes to pick me up.

Sydney 7.35 pm. I am now home. It is just over thirty six hours since I left. During that time I have flown around 1,000k, driven 307k and spent a bit over 11 hours in face to face training. Next week Queanbeyan, Newcastle and Orange.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Diary of a travelling trainer - day one: Sydney, Tamworth, Grafton

Four days, four workshops, the last two in New England. It's been a while since I have done this type of frenetic delivery. So for something different, I thought that I might record in diary form the last two days since this was back on my home turf.

Thursday 12 June 2008

Sydney 4am. Up early to pack and do a final check on the material that I would need while I was away. Work books, work sheets, attendance forms, evaluation forms etc. Printed off travel maps of all the locations I would need. Worked out the best way of packing all the stuff so that it would fit within luggage restrictions.

I get a bit obsessive about all this. There is not much you can do if you find that you have failed to pack a key piece of material, while travel time lines can be very tight. And it is remarkably easy to forget something in final packing.

Sydney 7.10 am. Dee drove me to the airport. Because the airport is only 6k away, it can be very difficult to get taxis to take you there, worse coming back since drivers may queue for extended periods and then hate getting a small fare.

I hate to think how many times I have been to this airport. At one stage operating out of Armidale I was averaging five domestic flights a week. Because Sydney was the hub for the southern routes as well as a destination in its own right, I spent hours there each week passing through or waiting for a connection.

This time I was flying out of terminal two. This is the old Ansett terminal. Over the years the ever-changing competitive relations between the regional and trunk carriers led to constant switches between this and the Qantas terminal as the destination point for regional flights.

Sydney 8.05am. The Qantas Link Dash-8 flight to Tamworth boarded on time. Just as well. I was to find out a little later that the plane had been up to an hour late on earlier flights that week.

I have very fond memories of the Dash-8, less so of Qantas Link because that company's story is a microcosm of the history of both New England and the broader Australian aviation industry.

Qantas Link began life in 1949 as a one-plane air taxi company in Tamworth. Over time, this developed into a small Tamworth based regional carrier called East Coast Airlines servicing various New England ports from Newcastle north, linking them to Brisbane.

East Coast was one of three main New England based carriers. Another small carrier, the Port Macquarie based Oxley Airlines, linked coastal ports to Sydney and Brisbane. Founded in 1947, the Tamworth based East-West Airlines was the third and major carrier, linking New England ports to Sydney.

By national standards all these carriers were small, but they did provide air travel within New England and between New England ports and Brisbane and Sydney. All this was to vanish in the turmoil of change that gripped Australian aviation from the 1980s as de-regulation took effect.

East-West was the first to go.

The previously un-listed public company was acquired by private investors who in turn who sold the company at the end of 1983 to Skywest Airlines. Under the new owners, East-West continued an aggressive attack on the Commonwealth Government's two airline policy that restricted carriage between main ports to the two major carriers. Then in July 1987, in a pattern that was to become very familiar, Skywest sold East-West to Ansett.

One condition of approval for the takeover was a requirement that East-West Airlines divest itself of certain routes. East Coast gained the Armidale route and changed its name first to Eastern and then Eastern Australia.

Eastern purchased the De Haviland Canada Dash-8 as their main stream aircraft, with drinks at Armidale airport to show the first plane off. Over the years I must have flown on the Dash-8 hundreds of times.

In 1988, Australian Airlines purchased 26 per cent of Eastern, acquiring full ownership in 1991. Then in 1994, Australian and Qantas were merged. In time, Qantas merged all its regional carriers into Qantas Link. Today, the former New England based airline exists in name only.

To complete the story, in 1994 the Newcastle based Impulse Airlines acquired Oxley Airlines and set up regional services across New England in competition with Eastern Australia. Again, as had happened when Eastern expanded, they put on functions in key ports including Armidale. Again, as had happened with East West, Impulse went into competition with Qantas and Ansett on key routes. Then in 2001, after heavy losses, Impulse was sold to Qantas.

Three airlines, three very similar stories. Measured by ports served, variety in routes and frequency, air travel in New England has gone backwards over the last twenty years.

This is unlikely to change. Among other things, regulatory and compliance requirements, including most recently those associated with anti-terrorism, have made it more expensive to operate airports and airlines. The effect is that previously marginal routes are now unprofitable, profitable routes marginal. All this makes it harder to get around.

Tamworth 9.30 am. The plane lands in Tamworth (photo Tamworth city centre) and taxis to the terminal past the hangars that once bore the East-West logo, then the Eastern logo and now sport Qantas colours. Despite its airline losses, Tamworth itself remains a major aviation centre because it is the place where air force pilots receive their basic training.

The flight itself had been a pleasant one.

The woman sitting beside me was an environmental officer with one of the mining companies on a day visit to a mine near Tamworth. Born in Newcastle, she had done her degree at at the Australian National University and had worked at various regional sites before taking up her head office position. So we had lots to talk about.

She talked about changing attitudes to environmental issues, including pollution and site remediation. She loves her work and said that so long as she put up a good case, the company would fund studies and action. We swapped notes about our respective experiences as project managers.

I was lucky at Tamworth airport. I found out a little later that Tamworth has major problems with its taxi system. I had booked a taxi from the plane, as had many others. My taxi was there, so I went past a whole group of waiting people. Some, I suspect, may have had to wait for half an hour.

Tamworth, for those who do not know the city, is 387k north of Sydney along the New England Highway. Estimates of Tamworth's population varies depending on the definition used, but is around 34,500. Now known as the country music capitol, Tamworth is the main service centre for a rich agricultural region.

Driving in, I asked the driver about the drought. I noticed from the air that there seemed to be plenty of water in the streams. Apparently there has been no real rainfall since the beginning of the year, so things are bad again.

Tamworth 9.50 am. Arriving at the site of the workshop, I did as I always do, check out all the logistics - toilets, tea and coffee, white boards, places to have a smoke etc. I also unloaded all the workshop material.

As always, people were a little late. It wasn't a big group, but people were meant to come from Coffs Harbour (300k, four hours), Moree (273k, 3 hours 20 minutes), Inverell (207k, 2 hours 50 minutes), Armidale (112k, 1 hour 20 minutes) and Gunnedah (76k, less than an hour).

I know that I sound like a broken record on some of the things that I write about, including New England self-government and what I see as the neglect of country Australia. But you have to drive it to understand.

Just organising a regional meeting takes planning to work out the best location. Travel time must always be factored in in a way that can be ignored in Sydney or Melbourne. Think, then, of the family in Moree that does not have a car and has to get to the base hospital in Tamworth by bus. This is one reason why Aboriginal health care, to take a current example, is so poor.

Tamworth 12.20 pm. The workshop is going well. The group is half an hour in front of the timetable I set. Time to break for lunch. Then two late attendees arrive. I send the rest of to lunch and while they are eating spend the next twenty minutes trying to catch the late arrivals up. This is something of a training challenge.

Tamworth 4 pm. The workshop finishes. I have achieved my training objectives. Even one of the two late arrivals got it. I pack up, thank my hosts and find out the location of the nearest taxi rank to get a taxi to pick up my hire car. At one level it would have made sense to get it in the morning, but that would have added a day's hire charges.

I wander down the main street looking at the shops and the people. I know Tamworth well, but it is a number of years since I have been there. The city looks prosperous. I also notice all the private school girls with their striking red coats. My only problem is that I walk past the street with the taxi rank and have to back track.

The taxi rank is deserted. I look round, wondering what to do. A lady waiting for a taxi points to the phone stand and tells me to ring. I do. I also ring Hertz to say that I will be late and arrange to pick up the car from the city office rather than the airport.

Time passes. I chat with the two others also waiting.

Tamworth is dry, they explain. The earlier rain allowed relaxation of water restrictions, so there were no restrictions during Country Music week. Now they are back on. The river badly needs a flush; it stinks. We talk about hire cars. The woman tells me that she had to get one to go to Sydney to bury her son. I do not ask why. Somehow it seems wrong.

Tamworth 4.40 pm. Still waiting for a taxi. I ask about walking. Too far, not on. I ring Hertz to say that I am still waiting.

My fellow sufferers explain that Tamworth Taxis has a new computer system. It does not work. Instead of drivers going to the nearest job, they have to go to the first available no matter where it is. So drivers might go 10k to get a job, while the taxi round the corner becoming available two minutes later also has to go 10k to another job.

The woman gives up on the taxis and leaves to get the bus. My taxi arrives at 4.50. I ask about their new computer system. For the next ten minutes I receive an earful.

The system has been in place for six months. It cost the new owners a lot of money for the relatively small number of taxis in Tamworth. Drivers must take jobs no matter where they are. Once booked, they cannot accept a new job until the first one is finished. There is no guarantee that the fare will be there when they arrive, given the delays. Once in the system, it appears that bookings remain until cancelled. Drivers give up. They turn the system off and work the ranks.

By now I am a little confused, a bit like my trainees! I escape at Hertz and get my car.

Tamworth 5.30 pm. At last I am on the road on my way to Grafton. Grafton lies on the Clarence River 307k away over the ranges. First stop Armidale.

It is dark, misting and has begun to rain. The car begins to mist up. I cannot work out how to use the demister and put the windows down. Cold and tired, I try to put the windows up, but cannot work out out how in the darkness.

Time for a break. Not far out of Tamworth I pull into a service station, turn the light on and check all the car's workings. Then with some chips and a drink I drive on to Armidale. I still have not worked out the demister, but can at least raise and lower the windows.

Armidale 6.50 pm. Arriving in Armidale I decide to head down town to look at the changes in the thirteen months since I was last here.

Armidale, an educational city, and Tamworth are traditional rivals in something of the same way as Melbourne and Sydney. To Armidale people, Tamworth is crassly commercial. To Tamworth people, Armidale is effete academic. This is a bit of a parody, the differences go deeper than this, but it still captures the distinction.

While Tamworth has continued to grow slowly, cut-backs and restructuring in education have badly damaged Armidale. Despite the city's huge life style advantages, its population (a bit over 21,00 depending on definitions) has been largely stagnant for two decades. You cannot lose more than a thousand jobs in education cut backs in a city of this side without adverse effect.

Despite the cutbacks the main street looks prosperous. The new Centro shopping centre on the west side of town has opened. The city's central business district, once limited to the front of three blocks along Beardy Street, now stretches over a dozen city blocks.

I always wondered where the business was going to come from to support the new shopping centres. I still wonder. However, what Armidale has going for it is life style. For the rent we pay in Sydney for a small house, you can still rent a mansion in Armidale. And the city does have mansions.

Driving through the city I stopped and bought a bottle of Petersens' New England semillon.

On the way out of town I stopped for a smoke in front of my old school, The Armidale School or TAS (photo, TAS main building 1895).

Despite the decline in boarding, TAS remains a major boarding school. Reflecting this, the school was lit up with lights on every floor. I wished that I had a camera. It was actually a very good shot.

Somewhat reluctantly, I drove on towards Grafton.

The initial journey is along Waterfall Way, a beautiful road in its own right. This then splits to the right and east towards Dorrigo, while the Grafton Road continues straight ahead.

It was over twenty years since I had been on this road. Then parts of it were still dirt. Now it is all tar, but it remains very narrow and windy in spots.

Tired, I stopped a number of times, standing in the dark looking at the trees. My main wish was that I could have done the drive in daylight. This is truly a beautiful drive. Standing there in the dark, I mused about the bullock drays that used to take timber and wool down this road for shipment from the river port at Grafton.

I had been warned about kangaroos in Tamworth and so kept an eye out. I did see some, but the only casualties were a poor family of ducks that I ran down.

Grafton 9.30 pm. I finally arrived in Grafton. I could see how tired I had become because I found the traffic difficult to handle.

I had checked the motel's location, but I could not find it. Finally, I realised that the street I was looking for from the maps had been blocked off at one end and that I had driven past it four times. With this knowledge, I found the motel about 9.45.

Exhausted, I unloaded the car and opened the bottle of wine. I felt that I deserved a drink.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I have edited this post slightly because I felt it could be misread.

Another workshop finished, then I fly to Tamworth. deliver a workshop and drive to Grafton to deliver one on Friday.

In a postscript on Mark Steyn, demography and the pattern of global change I made a critical comment on a post by John Quiggan. John responded in a comment. I have brought John's comment up into the main post. John's point, a fair one, was that I expressed an opinion but did not provide any reasons.

I will respond Saturday or Sunday. In doing so, I will try also to provide a summary on the Steyn matter pointing to the issues that I think are important independent of one's views of Mr Steyn.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A tired boy

I delivered a full workshop today. I got up at 4am to prepare final material, left for work about 7.30, delivered the workshop from 10 to a bit after 4, debriefed and left for home a bit after 5pm. Then I got stuff for tea and cooked. Now I am stuffed.

The pity is that there is some really great material around to comment on. It will have to wait. I have another workshop tomorrow, I need to get up early to prepare some additional material based on today.

Thursday I fly to Tamworth. A full day, then I drive to Grafton. Another full day, then I fly to Sydney.

I will be driving through Armidale to get to Grafton after the Tamworth workshop (a four hour drive), but will have no time to stop. I hope in Grafton - I will have a few hours am and will have a hire car - to wander around the old part.

I do so wish that I could properly follow up. Grafton is underpromoted. Even Grafton people do not know the city's place in the history of New England. But why should they? None of it is taught.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Mark Steyn, demography and the pattern of global change

When I wrote Sunday Essay - Mark Steyn, the law and the future of blogging I did not intend to become involved in the discussion on the Steyn matter. Rather, I focused on a few things that caught my attention because of their implications for the world of blogging.

Then I noticed this traffic spike, with traffic coming from both the scepticslawyer blog and Mark Steyn's own site. Traffic has increased further since I started the post. So I started digging in a little, looking at other aspects of the discussion.

I had to grin.

Scepticslawyer combines the very different views of Legal Eagle and scepticlawyer.

I think that I would classify Legal Eagle in Australian terms as centre left. In mainline blog terms, she comes from the world of Club Troppo. By contrast, scepticlawyer is a libertarian. In blogging terms, she comes from the world of Catallaxy.

These are gross generalisations, I know. My point is that they are very different people, joined by a love of good writing, discussion and the law. By the way both, I tip me lid to you for the success of the new joint venture. Mark Steyn's drawing power is huge, yet in terms of click-throughs to this blog, there was one for you for every two of Mark's.

Poor Legal Eagle and Scepticlawyer. Some of the international blog discussion confused the two. Scepticlawyer became centre left. Annoyed, they had to try to distinguish themselves. This is very like, in family terms, what happens when my youngest gets called by her sister's name. Usually polite outrage is the best description.

Digging into the discussion, I decided that the most useful thing that I could do was to look not at the legal issues flowing from the case, but at Mr Steyn's original arguments that caused all the fuss. You will find the original article, an excerpt from a book, here.

In looking at the article, I found some difficult in breaking through to the core.

Mr Steyn is a professional writer and publicist. He writes to attract attention, to promote causes and, dare I say it, to sell books. He does so to considerable effect. He belongs to what Club Troppo classifies as RWDB, Right Wing Death Blogs. Further, he writes from a North American centric position.

This makes it difficult for someone like me who comes from a very different world to break through the barriers created by Mr Steyn's language to the underlying messages. Now here there is a strong similarity to some of the things that I have been saying, if from a very different perspective.

The Importance of Demographic Change

The nature of demographic change, the decline in the birth rate in developed countries and the consequent aging of the population, is the first building block in Mr Steyn's argument.

Over the last two years I have been arguing consistently and persistently that demographic change is the single most important challenge that Australia and the world faces. The posts are spread across several blogs. On this blog alone, I have written 39 posts on demographic matters.

In writing, I have drawn in part from the demography.matters blog. I may not agree with all their arguments, but this blog is one of the best I know that deals with the implications of demographic change on a sustained basis.

Put simply, while climate change and our responses to it may determine human survival in the long term, at national level the impact of demographic change will be (in some ways already is) the single most important policy driver over the next forty or fifty years. Never before have we lived in a world where many presently major countries will experience the combination of population decline with population aging. This will affect every aspect of life.

Demographic Change and the World's Muslim Population

While Mr Steyn is right to talk about the importance of demographic change, his arguments about the growth of the Muslim population do not appear to make a great deal of sense at global level.

I stand to be corrected on the facts, but when I look at the overall pattern it is far from clear to me that the Muslim proportion of the world population is going to increase significantly.

Over the next few decades, the biggest single population shift is going to be the rise of India. Yes, India does have a major Muslim majority, but the growth in the non-Muslim population will far outweigh this.

Pakistan and Bangladesh will experience significant population growth, as will Indonesia. These are all Muslim countries. I am not sure about North Africa without checking. My impression is that birth rates are or will drop there.

Sub-Saharan Africa will experience significant population growth, as will parts of Latin America. The first will increase Muslim numbers, but not necessarily the proportion of the Muslim population. The second will increase nominal Christian numbers.

So, overall, I would need to see the actual numbers analysed before I could accept Mr Steyn's point.

If Mr Steyn were to mount a more general argument about the overall challenge to western democracies as a consequence of population change, then he might have my support. The current split in the Anglican Church is an example of the trend here.

Demographic Change at Country Level

The position does change somewhat when we drop from global to country level. However, the striking thing here is the variation, a variation due to history and geographical proximity.

If I read the US correctly, the dominant immigration concern is the influx of Hispanics from south of the border, an influx that is changing the US in fundamental ways.

In Australia, the emerging immigration challenges to my mind will be posed by our responses to Papua-New Guinea, the Pacific Islands and Indonesia, as well as China and India.

As a simple example, PNG's large birthrate is shifting the population balance between PNG and Australia. It is not hard to see circumstances in which Australia might end up admitting a million or so PNG and Pacific Islanders over a decade or two.

Europe is different again because of its close proximity to predominantly Muslim countries. Then, too, there are the historical links and conflicts between Europe and the Muslim world.

The Muslim Fundamentalist Challenge

There is no doubt in my mind that Muslim fundamentalism does pose a real challenge. However, I see this in very different ways from Mr Steyn or indeed some of my blogging colleagues.

Fundamentalists of all types - Christian, Hindu, Muslim or the modern command and control environmental or social puritan - make for uncomfortable bed-fellows. Their central feature is not just that they believe that they are right, but that their rightness gives them the automatic right to impose their views on others. Today, the world is full of fundamentalists of all types.

To my mind, the real central feature of the rise of Western Civilisation has been the development of a view and supporting system that allows people to have different and deeply held views, but prevents them imposing those views willy-nilly on others. This view has developed slowly and been forged through blood and fire.

Many Muslim bloggers, and indeed Western bloggers too, point to the barbarisms of the European past. They are right, but both miss the point. Despite those barbarisms, in some ways because of them, Western Civilisation has displayed a capacity (however imperfect) to learn.

In this area I both agree and disagree with Mr Steyn.

He suggests, correctly in my view, that we have lost sight of the values of our own system.

In Australia, as an example, we have been so busy cutting ourselves off from the perceived evils of our own past that we have actually cut ourselves off from that past. We are like a tree whose root system has been severed.

He suggests, again correctly in my view, that we have lost the moral confidence to defend the things we believe in. However, things get confused here because we actually combine moral uncertainty with a sometimes astonishing and unthinking degree of arrogance in our willingness to impose our views on others.

This brings me to my disagreement with Mr Steyn, the way he has created an artificial construct of a Muslim fundamentalist challenge on one side, a threatened West that must defend its position on the other.

The Tragedy of 9/11

9/11 was a tragedy for the American people, as was Bali for the Australian people. The response to 9/11 has been a tragedy for the whole world.

Let me make my own position quite clear.

I supported the coalition invasion of Iraq. While I believe now that this was a mistake, having made the mistake I support the retention of troops in Iraq for the present. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan, and support continued Western involvement there. I believe that Muslim terrorism is a threat.

All this said, the US and broader Western response to 9/11 is, to my mind, a classic case of moral and political panic, of the loss of moral confidence that I referred to earlier.

At no stage has Al Qaeda or any of the other terrorist groups had the power to pose a fundamental challenge to the Western system or even individual countries. Yet in our moral funk we have turned what should have been a controlled, measured response into a global campaign that has twisted life and perceptions in every Western country and, in so doing, has weakened the very moral authority on which we depend.

The effects are profound. In Australia, for example, the anti-terrorism responses has weakened respect for the very institutions of the state.

Globally, it has damaged the moral authority of the US, while increasing US internal divides. To me, this is a profound tragedy.

The US is the world's only super power, the leader of the bloc of countries to which Australia belongs. Yes, Australia and Australians may disagree with the US on specific issues, but we also depend upon US leadership. An enfeebled US is, I think, not in any of our interests. Yet that is what we now have.


I thought that John Quiggin's post on this issue was one of his sillier posts. I have considerable respect for John, but really. Look at the level of analysis.

In response to my comment, John Quiggin wrote in a comment:

Umm, pot calling the kettle black? The level of analysis in your comment on me is zero, as far as I can see. If you don't like my analysis of the free speech issue, perhaps you could point out where you disagree, rather than relying on boo words.

As regards Steyn himself, his bigoted nonsense deserves no serious attention and will get none from me, as I made clear in the post.

Now it may be, as John said, a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Certainly there was no argument in my postscript, just the expression of an opinion together with a link to John's post.

The crux of my response to John's post lay in my view that his dislike of Mr Steyn's views was blinding him to the issues raised.

As I indicated in my postscript, I have a considerable respect for John. I will therefore accept his challenge and lay out the reasons for my view. However, I will not be able to do so before the weekend because I am running full day workshops round the state at the moment.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sunday Essay - Mark Steyn, the law and the future of blogging

I had not intended to do any blogging this morning because I had some deadline work to do. Getting up, I found that I was out of paper. So much for that plan, then.

Legal Eagle drew my attention to the Steyn case. In summary, in October 2006 McLeans, a Toronto based magazine, published an article by Mark Steyn, “The Future Belongs to Islam”. Legal Eagle summarised the core of the article this way:

Put briefly, its central hypothesis is that Western nations are declining in fertility and population, and do not value their own cultures, religions or achievements any more. By contrast, Islamic nations are increasing in population, and have a strong belief in their own culture and religion. The inference to be drawn from this is that Islam will “take over” the West if the West does not shake itself out of its ennui and fight for its culture.

The Ontario-based Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) bought a case against Mark Steyn in the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal for breaching s 7(1) of the British Columbia Human Rights Code.

Legal Eagle's post provides details of the case, with links, drawing out the problems that anti-vilification legislation can create. In short, it becomes a weapon for denying free speach.

I do not want to discuss those arguments here. Instead, I want to focus on two points, one minor, one major.

Andrew Coyne from Mcleans live blogged the trial. His blogging finishes:

There will be no more liveblogging. As I left the courtroom for the lunch break, i was taken aside by a sheepish-looking court official, who said that he’d just learned that I had been “broadcasting” from inside the courtroom. So had I. Broadcasting, I said? I didn’t have a microphone, or a camera.

No, he explained: but liveblogging counts as broadcasting. It’s not the computer that’s the problem. You can type away on it all you want. If you step outside to send it, that’s okay, too. But if you send text from within the courtroom, that’s broadcasting.

I had never thought of this, but I suspect that the official is right. Live blogging is broadcasting. If so, it may have some interesting legal implications.

This leads me to my broader point, the way in which blogging has further blurred traditional media distinctions. In so doing, it has introduced a number of new legal complexities.

As we all know, there are two parts to the conventional blog post, the post itself and then the comment section.

Within our own small blogging community we have discussed the legal problems that can arise from individual posts or comments where those comments upset someone. However, Mr Coyne's report of the proceedings in the Steyn case raises a further issue.

If I interpret him correctly, to prove their point, the CIC attempted to show that Mr Steyn's article had in fact led to vilification by quoting blog responses to the article with a special focus on comments.

In doing so they appear to have struck one problem, the way in which Google searches do not repeat themselves, so you cannot exactly replicate a search result unless you actually save a copy of the search itself. I have always been frustrated by this feature of Google. I can now see some virtues!

Putting this aside, the CIC argument makes a clear distinction between the content of a post including any comments on that post and subsequent dissemination.

Blogging began as an individual thing. With time, informal networks formed facilitating dissemination of views and cross-commenting. In the latest manifestation, the main media organisations have all added their own blogs. In doing so, they have complicated life for the rest of us.

With rare exceptions, the volume of comments on the media blogs dwarf the rest of the blogosphere. Further, the media blogs are cross-linked with other parts of the particular media group, feeding and being fed by other platforms. They also draw from and influence other parts of the blogosphere. Many of us have seen the way in which a reference on a media blog can lead to a traffic spike on our own blogs.

Obviously, the mainstream media outlets watch legal issues on their own blogs, as they do with any other platform. However, their focus is domestic, will this damage us? The broader effects are ignored.

Blogging has become main stream media in its own right, a medium like TV or newspapers.

Within the blogosphere, there is now a spectrum. On one side are still the independent, purely personal blogs chattering away. At the other extreme, the media blogs. Within are a wide range of blogs with differing structures (individual, joint, syndicated) and varying degrees of influence.

The Steyn case shows how responses within the blogosphere to a particular piece of writing, in this case a magazine article, may create legal issues for the piece of work extending beyond the exact content. The case also points to cross-border issues, in that responses on blogs in other jurisdictions may come into play.

No one can control these external responses. However, I think that we need to be aware of the fact that our game has changed, that we are now part of the mainstream media whether we like it or not. I think that we also need to be aware that one consequence of this is greater monitoring.

At one level we have already seen this in the way that particular bloggers in particular countries have become victims of state action. We tend to think of this in individual human rights terms. I would argue that we should also be thinking of such cases in terms of freedom of the press, of the rights of journalists.

More broadly, I suspect that we are looking at a new but still to be recognised legal sub-field driven by the interaction between the largely uncontrolled blogosphere and varying national legislation.

In all this, I also think of my own position as a person who writes to explain and influence.

I belong at the smaller end of the blogging spectrum. Not for me the glories of A list blogging. Yet I do try to write professionally and, from time to time, I do get quoted. So issues associated with the evolving nature of the blogosphere are of great interest.

If I had to summarise this post in a single line, I would say that all serious bloggers should be watching the outcome of the Steyn case as one small pointer to the future of the world in which we all live.


Marecllous made a sensible comment on this post that is worth reading. Neil, too, in Always remember your readers are human, so are other bloggers, and so are you… dealt today with some related issues. I say related because the concept of tone - the way we say what we say - is sometimes as important as what we say.

I know from experience just how imperfect a mechanism writing is. I try to write with as much clarity as I can manage, but am never sure just how much of my message is really clear.

Postscript 2

Never let it be said that the blogosphere does not work in real time!

Legal Eagle picked up this post with a footnote on hers. My thanks for the "excellent" LE. As I was writing, the other side of the scepticslawyer duo was writing Economics v Islam: a cage match, in so doing taking of her lawerly (is that a word?) to put on her libertarian one. This drew a response from LE in comments!

In the meantime, I noticed that I was picking up traffic from Mark Steyn's web site. This already carried a link to the dialogue between LR and I. Does the man never sleep?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - Gardening and the stupidity of Sydney water restrictions

I often complain about the command and control nature of modern Australia, about what I see as the growing weaknesses in our public systems. In all this, it's the small things that really niggle me.

Friday's Sydney Morning Herald carried a story on the report by the NSW Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal on the results of a year long investigation into Sydney's train system. Those who are interested can find the various documents on the IPRT web site. The detailed material is likely to be of interest to all those concerned with public transport.

According to the SMH, the Tribunal recommended that fares should rise by up to 30 per cent in just four years and that almost 1700 rail jobs should be axed. I was especially struck by the apparent fact that the proportion of revenue from fares has fallen so much that the regulator has recommended CityRail write down its assets from $11.3 billion to $1.4 billion for the purpose of setting fares.

Now I could fulminate about this as yet another example of systemic failure.

I could point to the current inquiry into corruption in the NSW rail system. I could discuss the stupid decision of Mr Carr, the previous premier, to freeze rail fares for two years to compensate Sydney people for late running of Sydney trains. I could point to the disastrous ticketing failure that has left CityRail in the position that it sometimes cannot collect fares because the ticketing machines don't work.

I am just too tired to do all this justice. Instead, I want to talk about one small thing that affects me personally.

I love gardening, especially vegetable gardening. This has been one of my few personal releases in a crowded personal world where much of what I do is in fact determined by others. However, I have largely given gardening up.

Time poor, I developed a gardening system that suits my time needs, that is both time and water efficient. I discussed this system in Regional living - the lazy person's approach to gardening 1 introduction.

A watering, mulching cycle is central to the approach. Once fully operational, this allows for a regular supply of vegetables with minimal time input. Twenty minutes here, thirty minutes there, a couple of hours at the week end. A break for me, food for the family, all fitted into the constraints of the insanity we call a modern life style.

Sydney dams dropped to 32% and the NSW Government introduced level 3 water restrictions. This banned fixed hoses or sprinklers. Hand held hoses could be used on Wednesdays and Sundays before 10am and after 4pm.

At first I actually broke the law to keep things going, justifying this on the grounds of the tiny quantity of water used on one side, the benefits on the other. Complaining about this part of the restrictions to people, I found almost universal disaproval of my actions. So I stopped breaking the restrictions. I also stopped gardening.

As I write it is damp and overcast. Sydney has been through one of its wettest periods on record. The dams are 65% full. Yet the level 3 water restrictions are still in place, with the Government foreshadowing further measures to force water saving.

To my mind, all this verges on insanity, a weird view of what is environmentally correct. However, the things that really gets to me is that it is so unfair.

Gardening has been in decline in modern Sydney for many decades. It no longer suits a life style increasingly dominated by apartments and huge houses spreading across small blocks so that every part of the block is covered by house or patio.

I am, I think, the only vegetable gardener left among the people I know. You can see this trend in the nurseries. The vegetable sections have shrunk to small parts of nurseries increasingly dominated by pots, decorations and various forms of shrubs or flowers suited to the adornment of the modern city lifestyle. Even among vegetables, the seedlings are increasingly dominated by things that can be grown in pots or which provide a quick yield.

So what is unfair in all this?

The level 3 water restrictions allow you to top up a swimming pool at any time. You can fill a pool of less than 10,000 litres without restriction. You can get a permit to fill a bigger pool. Yet I am not allowed to use a hand-held hose to water a small patch of vegetable garden when I need too.

Noticeably, a number of those who criticised me for my limited breaking of the water restrictions to try to keep my vegetables going own swimming pools. Pool ownership in Sydney, while far from universal, is just too widespread to apply the type of restriction that can be applied to me as a gardener.

This is unfair. It is also stupid. There is now no conceivable reason that I can see why at least hand held hoses (if not more) should not be allowed at any time. The restrictions serve no real purpose.

Worse, at a time of high food prices and of worries about obesity and lack of exercise, they actually restrict a useful and productive form of exercise. You would think that Governments would actually want to promote gardening, not do the reverse.


Legal Eagle pointed me to a post she had written along a similar theme, The New Puritans, this time from a Melbourne perspective.