Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Essay - chick flick books, social change and the desire to escape

Helen's 21st last night, and then I watched South Africa thrash Australia in the Rugby. The first was great, the second depressing. It was like watching a steam-roller in action!

So this morning I am a little fagged out, unable to really concentrate.

I have always found popular fiction an interesting reflection of social trends. I say this because I have been on a bit of a reading binge, reading what I suppose we could describe as the book equivalent of chick flicks. Judi Hendrick's Bread Alone is a US example of the genre.

Back in the fifties and sixties, science fiction was very popular, especially among men. This reflected the then intense fascination with space. Sword and sorcery was a small-sub genre within this.

Science fiction then declined as the interest in space declined, while sword and sorcery morphed into fantasy and became the dominant and far more popular mode. This was paralleled by a growing interest in the broader community in magic, the occult and then new age mysticism.

Today the chick flick books are all about escape, new lives in new places. The fascination with relationships continues, but the really popular sellers carry the new life theme. Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) is a classic film example, based on Frances Mayes's 1996 memoir.

The Australian writer and social commentator Hugh Mackay coined the phrase the dreamy period to describe what he saw as the inward looking, domestic focus of Australia from the second half of the nineties. He also suggests that we are now coming out of this period, taking a more active interest in the broader world, including politics.

I am not sure that I see this, the current interest in Barack Obama not withstanding.

Talking to my daughters' friends or reading Facebook I do find an interest in causes, but very little interest in politics as such or, for that matter, broader world developments. What I do see is a continuing interest in relationships, in the maintenance of the tribe (the young are remarkably tribal) and in social activities.

This is the stay-at-home generation, not just in terms of the family nest but also locality. Talking last night to one of Clare's friends who is doing HSC this year, she said that she was deciding against going to the University of New England, something that she had really wanted to do. When I asked why, it is after all my old university, she said she wanted to stay near home and friends.

This is also the busy generation. Busy socially, busy balancing work and study. Constantly in motion, always connected, this generation has little time for reflection or for quiet spaces.

The interest in chick flick books of the type I am talking about lies, I think, further up the age chain, in the busy generations' parents and their friends. This is sea change, tree change, downsizing country. The young may lose themselves in fantasy, their parents' generations dream of escape.


Driving home today (1 September) I listened to a radio interview with Hugh Mackay continuing his argument for the existence of the dreamy generation. I still have problems with this.

Hugh has more evidence than I do because of , among other things, his access to focus group results. But both of us are biased by our own perspectives, while I struggle with the fact that his conclusions do not seem to fit with the evidence as I see it.

I will have to think about this and come back with a later response.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - reflections on eighteen months with Housing NSW

Yesterday I finished an eighteen month period working within Housing NSW's Office of Community Housing (OCH). The period began with an initial three month's assignment to provide some policy support, then rolled over into project work.

While I had had a fair bit of contact with the NSW system and indeed had been writing on it, this was my first experience working within it. My role meant that I had to be very careful in the material I wrote that drew in any way from that experience. Inevitably, my experiences did influence my writing, but I have tried to avoid any form of direct reference that might in any way compromise either the Department or my official position. Now that I have finished, I have a little more freedom.

In my farewell speech at the afternoon tea yesterday I spoke of the two things I most valued from my time at Housing NSW and OCH.

The first was the people. Quite simply, these are good people who have put up with my sometime foibles and provided friendship and support.

We had a branch lunch on Wednesday, then yesterday Lauvena (my immediate boss) and Christine, my diminutive Chinese friend and colleague who sat just across the aisle from me, took me to a Korean restaurant for lunch. Christine had a present from me, two small Chinese lions that can sit upon my desk.

This is a very multicultural group in the true sense of the word.

Just taking a few examples, Dzenita who has been working very closely with me on my latest project, is a Bosnian Muslim; Lauvena and Christine are Chinese, Esther Filipino, Manju Indian, while Rennie and I are more your traditional Anglo-Celtic stock.

I saw part of my role as providing the traditional Australian element, while everyone else has educated me in turn. At lunch on Wednesday we talked about the way we were able to share our different experiences freely across many different aspects of life and history.

From my perspective, this has been fascinating in the extreme. Dzenita's experiences in a Muslim religious school under communism where the school was not allowed to teach maths and her later experiences during the Bosnian war are two examples. Some of our most interesting discussions have revolved around common things like family structures, food and children.

All this has had a considerable influence on some of the things that I have written about from burqinis to the Olympics.

The second thing that I most valued from my time at Housing NSW and OCH was my increased understanding of the social housing system itself. This was an area that I knew little about, one that is rarely discussed outside the fairly narrow silo of those directly involved. There is more discussion about housing policy, but this is largely driven at the moment by the affordable housing issue. Further, the discussion that does take place, homelessness is an example, is often issues fragmented.

In talking about this I made the point, and I think that it's true, that people in Housing NSW display a continued commitment to their work despite the sometimes difficulties involved.

This is one of the things that has struck me most about the Department. Here I am not talking about ministerial statements, nor about official lines that appear on the Department's web site. Rather, I am talking about the internal stuff from the official internal messages through to the daily conversations. I have been critical of some aspects of Department administration, but this is a place that still cares.

My blogging activities are no secret to my colleagues. I know that some of them have even read them from time to time, although blogging or even reading blogs is not what I would call a mainstream activity!

In talking about the personal and professional things that I intended to do next, I spoke about my plans to continue writing and commentating as one key stream. I also said that one thing that I wanted to do now that I was free of the constraints of my previous position was to add to debate on social housing issues.

I do think that this is important because the NSW social housing system faces very considerable problems.

Social housing in NSW has been cash starved for an extended period.

The immediate response to this was to focus available funds on new supply, creating a maintenance backlog that was hard to meet since new funding continued to be limited. This is not a problem unique to housing. We saw the same in public education at all levels.

The second response was to set access criteria so that available housing went to those most in need. Whatever the social and equity arguments may have been, this had the effect of increasing the proportion of tenants on very low incomes, as well as those with more complex problems.

Social housing rents are income based. The new approach meant that average rents fell, while support costs increased. It also increased the concentration on housing estates of disadvantaged and problem tenants, changing the character of the estates.

The Department also faced a major problem in that demographic and social change meant that its $28 billion housing portfolio - a huge asset - was increasingly located in the wrong places and composed of the wrong type of housing.

In business terms, we have an organisation with falling income, rising costs and an asset structure that no longer meets business needs. The Department has hardly been blind to these problems. Now that I am free, I will explore the nature of its responses in later posts.

Maintenance Reform Program Announced

I did not know as I wrote this post that the Sydney papers were in fact carrying stories of the announcement by NSW Housing Minister Matt Brown of a five year $1.6 billion dollar program to improve maintenance of the 127,000 houses in the NSW public housing system.

Among other things, the money will allow 24,000 properties to be painted externally, 22,500 properties to be painted internally, with 18,000 kitchens to be replaced.

The Minister also announced that the maintenance system would be centralised. Responsibility for fixing and upgrading properties across the state is to be divided into 22 new contracts with the aim of gaining economies of scale. In future, all requests for maintenance are to go through the Housing Contact Centre, the Department's call centre.

The numbers indicate the scale of the problems I spoke of in the post.

Postscript 2

In Neil's post The South Sydney Herald September 2008 the reproduction of the paper's front page carried a story on public housing that I really wanted to check. Each time I tried to do so, the computer crashed - a memory problem I think. Maybe you will have better luck.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ethnicity in Hurstville - and other Australian cities

I have noticed a number of searches on the topic of ethnicity in the Sydney suburb of Hurstville. HSC essay perhaps?

This search brings them to Economic and demographic change, education, ethnicity and the maintenance of social cohesion in Australia simply because the post contains a reference to Hurstville. So they won't be helped.

The best way of getting data on ethnicity in particular areas is via search on the ABS census data. Here there are two posts that will directly help you to do this:

The immediate need for information on Hurstville may have passed by the time this post is written. Still, the post may help in future.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

£35 on eBay buys details of one million bank accounts

My thanks to IT Wire for this fascinating if worrying story. It begins:

When Andrew Chapman from Oxford, England successfully bid £35 for an old computer on eBay he wasn't expecting to have the details of a million bank accounts thrown in for free...

You can find out the full details here, It would really be very funny if it were not so serious.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The apparent silliness of Headmaster Rudd's truancy plan

I have a post to complete, but Headmaster Rudd's plan to deny welfare recipients their benefits for a period - thirteen weeks has been mentioned - drew my attention because of its apparent silliness, as well as its implied cruelty.

Let's start with a few parameter stats.

Assume that we have a single mum totally dependant on welfare with a thirteen year old daughter, fifteen year old son. I have not been able to check the exact figures, but this family will be receiving per fortnight something like $348 in Family Tax Benefits plus $546 in parenting payments for a total of $894.

This is not a lot of money. If they are renting in the private market place the family will attract some Commonwealth Rent Assistance. Outside regional areas, this family probably cannot afford private rental.

Assume that they are paying $400 per fortnight for a three bedroom cottage. This will attract $126 in rent assistance. After rent, their fortnightly net income is $620 or $44 per day.

They may be in social housing. In this event, they are either not eligible for rent assistance or in NSW, Victoria and Queensland will have it included in rent.

Social housing applies income based rents. This family will pay 25% of income plus 15% of Family Tax Benefits, giving a fortnightly rental of $189. Now the family has a fortnightly net income after housing costs of $705 or $50 per day.

Think about it for a moment. This family has between $44 and $50 to spend per day, or between $15 and $17 per person. Not a lot, is it?

Assume that our fifteen year old son is difficult and is playing truant. Mum loses her income for thirteen weeks.

If they are renting privately they lose their house. If they are in social housing, their rent will drop to minimum, $5 per week in NSW. They will keep their house, but starve.

I don't think that this is good public policy. Am I wrong?


This one is obviously worrying me since I am still thinking about it.

Under questioning, Government ministers said that the proposed action was a last resort, something that would happen in a small number of cases where other things had failed. Further, the intent appears to be to trial the approach in a small number of locations.

Maybe if the proposal had been announced in this way in the first instance I might have had a lessened response. However, it was presented as a major initiative to address a major social problem - this is inconsistent with the last resort line.

In any event, it still strikes me as bad policy because, as described, it is such a blunt instrument.

The first thing to note is that the proposed withdrawal of benefits is a threat and then, if implemented, a punishment. This is different in kind from welfare quarantining.

I suppose one could argue that it is somewhat similar to the actions of the Howard Government in imposing requirements on job seekers. Failure to comply here meant loss of benefits. This is not actually re-assuring, because there is considerable evidence that the Howard Government approach created very considerable hardship in individual cases, including homelessness. It is also not clear that the approach delivered much in the way of benefits.

At least in the job seeker case, there was a clear nexus between the individual and the response. In the case we are talking about now, the punishment can affect the innocent as well as the guilty.

More broadly, we seem to be dealing with a measure generated by a specific problem in specific areas (the failure of Aboriginal parents in certain localities to send their children to school) that is then presented as a universal measure (the failure of certain parents across the country to send their children to school).

The two raise very different issues.

As with the Howard/Brough intervention, it is possible to argue that specific problems require targeted vertical responses. In a sense, this is policy by exception and should be judged in the context of the specific problem, as well as the broader implications of the action. Further, the costs of the response (individual as well as administrative) are self contained and can be seen and measured.

Things become very different if that specific vertical response is then generalised into a horizontal measure applying across the whole country. Now the key questions becomes to what extent are we dealing with a national problem, is this an appropriate response to that problem, what are the gains and costs?

These can be difficult questions to answer in a large complex national system. Just because a thing might work at a local level does not, of itself, make it suitable for national application.

Finishing, a key thing with any policy measure is to try to define the pre-conditions required for it to work, to deliver the desired results. I do not think that this has been done in this case.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The social and economic pain of demographic change

Bob Q and I are continuing our Kondratiev conversation with Bob posting a comment on Sunday Essay - Kondratiev cycles, economic change and the ICT revolution. I will respond with a comment there, but I also thought that I would pick up one issue here, the potential social and economic pain associated with demographic change.

I am going to bare bones this post, stripping out detail as well as supporting evidence. Later I will add links to some of my posts on this issue at the end of the post so that those who are interested can check.

The world's population continues to increase. However, that increase is due to historical factors and conceals major changes to demographic structures that will force significant structural change. This change has aggregate and distributional elements.

Let's start with Australia.

At aggregate level, the first effect of the fall in the birthrate from the 1960s on was an expansion in the workforce as a proportion of the total population. This was aided by social shifts that saw many more women enter the workforce, so there was a double impact.

This created what we can think of as a demographic dividend. The cost of educating the young, for example, was now spread across a relatively larger workforce. This allowed us to spend more per pupil. Something similar happened in health, as another example, because spend here tends to be greatest on the young and old.

This demographic dividend has now gone into reverse with the aging of the population. To compensate for the relative decline in the workforce, we are going to have to achieve significant productivity gains just to stand still.

At distributional level, we are dealing with complex demographic patterns across Australia.

A few years ago I did some analysis on the NSW (New England) Mid North Coast, a major retirement area, that on the raw numbers suggested a precipitate population decline before the middle of this century. Moving inland across New England, we can already see this type of process working itself through.

These demographic changes will bring other changes that we can barely perceive. Just at present because of social as well as demographic change, the number of households has been growing. As part of this, the traditional family has declined as a proportion of households.

We are building and will continue to build lots of one and two bedroom flats to meet immediate needs. My problem is that I do not know who is going to live in them in the longer term. My best guess is that the structure of Australian households will move back to something approaching a more traditional level from 2030, leaving a growing unused housing stock.

Australia's problems are relatively mild by global standards. Japan and most European countries have already entered actual population decline. This will accelerate. In turn, this will lead to major changes.

These changes will benefit some, not others. More of us will be able to afford cheaper villas in Tuscany, although the locals may be less pleased.

No Government will willingly accept long term national decline. We have already seen pressure to increase the birthrate, to attract new migrants.

The first will have some affect, the second less so. There is now just too much global competition for migrants of the desired type.

The pattern of population aging varies greatly between countries.

The decline in the Chinese birthrate means that while the overall population is growing, the workforce is growing at a slower rate. The Chinese demographic dividend is going into reverse.

India's population is growing faster than China to the point that India will overtake China as the world's most populous nation. India's birthrate, too, is dropping, so that the country will experience the same problems a little later.

High population growth still exists in some parts of the world, Africa is an example, but here we come to another problem.

All other things being equal, the type of problems that I am talking about could be accommodated by shifts in economic activity and people over time, in so doing raising living standards.

Note to readers

I have run out of time in writing these musings. I will continue later.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Welcome Visitor 36,000

Welcome to visitor 36,000 who came direct to the blog from Pico Rivera in California.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings & now Sunday Snippets - a complete mixture

As so often happens when I am looking for a photo to illustrate a post, I turn to Gordon Smith. This photo shows the creek bed up to Faints Mine in the gorge country near Armidale.

The mine itself is the end point, the reason why we blog. We do this for many reasons. Sometimes there is real pay dirt, at other times not.

The creek bed is the road, and a bloody rocky road too. Many of us finally stumble over the rocks. We burn out.

Not seen in the photo is the spectacular country around. This is the unexpected pleasures we find on the track.

The Post

Today as part of tidying up, I thought that I would devote this edition of Saturday Morning Musings to a somewhat rambling review of things that I have written, things yet to write, things that I may never get the time to write about.

How does this link to tidying up? I often cut things out that might provide stories. I really need to throw some of these out, but would like to record some first for later reference.

Some time ago I increased the number of posts shown on the front page. This marked a small change in direction. It gave readers access to more posts before they vanished into the blog archives. I also thought that it would provide a greater reason for me to update posts by keeping more posts current.

I do think it important where possible to update posts because it makes for greater currency for readers. A lot of the updates are simply postscripts, things that correct or extend the post. However, some provide an added reference point.

Two updates are worth specific mention here.

Thomas has continued adding posts about his holiday. I have therefore updated Thomas's tour de force (and in some cases, farce) by updating the chronological list of Thomas's posts. Here I have just noticed that Thomas has added another. I will add this later.

Barbara Martin has also continued her series on the war of 1812, the US invasion of what is now Canada. I am adding a full list of her posts as they come out to Barbara Martin and the War of 1812.

I plan to do more of this for series that I enjoy. It is a simple value add for me, my readers and (I hope) for the bloggers in question. There really is some good stuff around that deserves added recognition.

Over on my other blogs I am still in post catch-up mode. I dealt with one aspect of this in Blogging Perspectives - the need for persistence.

A number of the professional blogs (professional in the sense of the professions) that I follow have stopped posting at just the same time that my own posting ran into trouble. All have been around for a while.

I think persistence is a key point with blogging. Once you stop posting, the blog enters a period of accelerating decline. The further down the curve, the harder it is to start again.

My first post on Managing the Professional Services Firm was on 3 July 2006. This makes it quite an ancient blog. At the time I said:

This blog has been created to encourage debate about and to provide information relevant to the management of all professional services firms. With time, I hope that it will develop into a valuable resource.

Looking at the popular posts mentioned in Managing the professional services firm - what to people want to know 1, I think that I am still tracking on the lines of the original objective.

It's not always been easy. I am now in rebuild mode after the break in posting. I cannot blame people who suffer blogging burn-out, although I may miss them. Yet from my viewpoint I try to keep going because I have made blogging such an important part of my personal and professional life.

I was fascinated by the above graphic from Neil's Gateway. It shows how we bloggers feed of each other, although the flow through to Neil from this blog is far smaller.

Blogging is a cooperative effort, a dialogue. We bounce off each other.

At the risk of causing Neil to blush, and to return to the analogy that began this post, he forms part of the surrounding scenery that makes blogging such a pleasure.

My message to any new blogger would be to join in the conversation. Don't be a solipsist. Use your blog to discuss other bloggers and their posts. Look for linkages. Look for contributions.

I seem to have come a long way from my starting point in this post. so a few things that I have noted that I might or should write about.

Richard Ackland's piece How the Haneef affair became carry on coppers deals with the farce that the Haneef case has become. I want to write about this in the context of the case itself, as well as the broader issue, the failure of the Howard Government to properly follow the due process on which we all depend.

A pause for lunch

I need to stop here to prepare lunch. I will continue a little later.

Much Later -in fact early Sunday morning

As Neil noted in a comment, lunch obviously became a long affair.

Still on Neil, congratulations on the very positive feedback from your former student at Sydney Boys High (This has bowled me over completely!). If you look at Neil's comments on English over time and at the things that he has tried to do as a teacher and coach including his specialist blog English, ESL - and much more, you can see why he was (is) such an inspirational teacher.

Returning to my theme, in the context of the Haneef case I mentioned the failure of the Howard Government to follow the due process on which we all depend.

Whether in China or Australia, government involves the coercive use of state power. All ministers and officials tend to believe that they are right, that the Government's will must be enforced. The difference between a democracy and some other forms of Government lies in the way in which law and due process controls the exercise of state power.

The problem during the Howard years is that both due process and legal protections began to fray at the edges. For a number of reasons, Australians have become more accepting of controls on their freedom, more willing to accept or at least condone actions that breach or at least threaten due process.

As time passes, more evidence emerges suggesting that a systemic problem developed during the Howard years. On the surface, there appear to have been more cases of abuse or at least misuse of state power during this period than any other period of Australian history, with the possible exception of the First and Second World War.

This may sound a large claim, but there appear to have been more than one hundred cases of wrongful immigration detention alone.

The huge ($50 million plus $5 million in costs) payout by the Commonwealth Government in the Pan Pharmaceuticals case is another example.

Put simply, officials appear to have suffered a rush of blood to the head in the way they ordered the 2003 recall of products manufactured by Pan, in so doing destroying not just Pan, but other businesses as well. Now more than one hundred companies are reported to be considering a class action against the Government over the Pan collapse.

The Wheat Board scandal, Pan, immigration detention, Hicks, Haneef etc, the aggressive action taken by Centrelink to enforce welfare rules, all seem to suggest a pattern of misuse of power and of administrative failure.

Turning in a completely different direction, the obituary sections of the newspapers continue to be a fruitful source of possible stories.

The death (and here, here) during the week of Hua Guofeng (1921-2008) who succeeded Mao as head of China appears to have gone largely un-reported in China. Hua was Mao's man, but he also seems to have been responsible for more of the transition from the Mao period than is normally allowed.

The growing problems faced by Australia's higher education sector have been highlighted in submissions to the higher education review being conducted by a former University of South Australia vice-chancellor, Professor Denise Bradley.

I would be the first to accept that the universities themselves are as prone to special pleading as anyone else, but there are some very real and growing problems. As a simple example, because it is easier to get money for new buildings than for old, we have more new buildings along with an ever growing maintenance backlog. This is simply unsustainable.

I haven't commented much on politics recently, not even the Northern Territory or WA elections nor the up-coming by-elections.

End post: I am going to have to end this post here. For some reason either my computer or the blogger system is playing up, making it very hard to add new material. The system keeps freezing for short periods. I am concerned that I will lose the post. Still, you will see why I said that there was so much to write about.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Problems with teacher accreditation

I started reading an article in the Sydney Morning Herald suggesting that teachers who met new professional standards would elevate themselves above their colleagues.

When I first read this I thought good thing, recognition for better teachers. Then I looked at the details and found myself reacting very badly - this is another professionalisation thing that really is independent of performance.

In this part of the post I am simply registering my concern. I will outline the reasons a little later.


Before setting out my concerns, some factual information.

The process we are talking about is an accreditation process managed by the NSW Institute of Teachers. Accreditation simply means that some form of process has confirmed that your knowledge, skills and performance at a point meet a defined standard.

To this point there have been two standards - Graduate Teacher and Professional Competence. Two more are now being added - Professional Accomplishment and Professional Leadership - creating a standards' ladder. If you are interested, you can find details of the standards here.

If you look at the Australian debate about teaching you will see that it has centered on the attraction and retention of teachers on one side, the desire to improve teaching performance on the other. Central to this debate has been the need to create structures and opportunities that will reward and retain good teachers.

Accreditation based approaches of the type we are talking about have a different focus. They are concerned with professionalisation, the establishment of and recognition of benchmarks that those in the profession should meet.

I was a strong supporter of standards based approaches because I saw them as a device for establishing standards and then recognising performance against standards. In recent years I have become increasingly concerned at the way that they have led to creeping credentialism and to the creation of professional barriers independent of performance.

Most professionals learn their craft by doing. The best push the boundaries. The problem is that when you mandate formal standards you create a focus on the formal standard rather than performance. You cut out out those who want to try new things independent of the restrictions mandated by the standard. You also cut out those who may perform remarkably well, but who are not interested in complying with the professional consensus encapsulated in the standard.

I have had direct experience of this at a professional level.

Working as a consultant, a significant market was destroyed when the Federal Government was persuaded by a professional body to mandate their professional qualification as a pre-condition. The entry point then became the credential, not the competence to do the job.

This is my concern about the message in the Herald article. In broad terms, I have supported the Institute's desire to create standards that would enhance teaching's professional reputation. If those standards become the requirement rather than actual performance, then we may have a very real problem.

As a broader comment, the NSW Government's obsession with standards and measurement does not seem to have made NSW a model for good public management.

ABS releases New Murray-Darling River Basin statistics

At the moment, there is much discussion in Eastern Australia on the parlous state of the Murray-Darling River system focused on the lakes at the mouth of the Murray.

I don't know about you, but I like to check things. I just don't trust some of the discussion.

One of the difficulties has been the absence of data for the river basin as a whole. Here the Australian Bureau of Statistics has just released a new publication providing a statistical snapshot of the basin as a whole.

I have only browsed the data, but it provides an interesting perspective on the system as a whole.

For an entry point providing consolidated access to some of my ABS posts see The Australian Bureau of Statistics - a real national resource.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Personal Training Metrics

I finished another workshop tonight, the last in the series. I am very tired, but feel that I can take a reasonable degree of pride in what I have done.

In the last ten weeks or so I have delivered 18 one day workshops in six locations across New South Wales attended by 270 people (around 154 individuals; some came to more than one workshop) from 32 organisations.

I had to write the original technical material from scratch, turn it into training material and then deliver it. 85% of attendees ranked the workshops as good to very good. Mind you, the proof here lies in the later capacity to deliver. On this point, so far so good.

I have learned a lot. I now have to turn this into train-the trainer material, another workbook, and then deliver a shorter train-the-trainer course next week. That brings my role to an end.

This may sound a bit like a boast, and in a sense it is, as well as an explanation for slow blogging sometimes. Still, I do feel a real sense of satisfaction.

Next week we are having a champagne afternoon tea to mark the success of the first stage of the project roll-out. This will also be my farewell. I am looking forward to it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Australia needs an Olympics reality check

Photo: Grant Hackett's silver medal.

There is something unseemly about some Australian reporting of and responses to the Olympic games. Yes, we are competitive, but even so enough is enough.

We have twenty one million people, so we pull well above our weight. But we also have a climate that encourages outdoor activities and are a wealthy country that can afford to invest in sport.

As I write, Australia's Olympic committee is busy downgrading its claims on our possible medal tally. The answer, they suggest, is that we spend more money on sport. Commentators have suddenly focused on the possibility that we might be beaten by the British in the medal tally. Tsk Tsk.

In all this, there is a real danger that we will lose sight of just how well our athletes have done. We also seem to have lost sight of the fact that this is sport, that the aim is to do better at a personal level while also having some fun.

I watched Grant Hackett race. Like many Australians, I was on the edge of my chair. I really wanted him to win. However, this was just not for Australia but a personal response to Grant.

Grant was gracious in loss. Unlike some commentators' responses, he suggested that the Tunisian winner had earned his gold. I admired Grant's response. I can and am proud of him as an Australian.


I really had to laugh. Going to work yesterday (Thursday 20 August), the Sydney Daily Telegraph poster read: Brits steal our gold with our coaches.

This sort of captured things. The traditional rivalry with Britian, "our gold", the implication that Britain had to use Australian coaches to do it!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pacific Perspective - Australia (finally) trials Pacific guest workers

One of the things about the Rudd Government that has pleased me is the greater Australian focus on the Pacific. Now in conjunction with the 39th Pacific Island Leaders' summit being held on the tiny island nation of Niue, Australia has announced a trial guest worker program.

The initial program is quite limited. Up to 2,500 workers from Tonga, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Papua New Guinea will be granted visas for seasonal work in the horticulture industry, an industry struggling to find seasonal workers. Workers will be restricted to a maximum of seven months in any twelve months period, with the whole scheme being reviewed at the end of eighteen months.

The guest worker approach has already been tested in New Zealand. I see no reason why it should not work in Australia, to the mutual benefit of both sides. The horticulture sector has an estimated shortfall of 22,000 seasonal workers, while employment is in short supply on many of the Pacific Islands.


I was not aware that there had been long standing discussions about East Timor guest workers. Now it appears that agreement may be near for a pilot scheme in the Kimberleys.

I also see that Warren Mundine has been calling for the scheme to be extended to indigenous workers. I don't have a problem if there are features in the guest worked program that would facilitate Aboriginal employment. However, our indigenous people are already in the country.

Why aren't they already taking advantage of the opportunities? This is a serious question, not a shot. My impression, I stand to be corrected, is that there has been a sharp decline in indigenous interest in seasonal work over recent years.

Postscript 2

The guest worker program proposal has led to something of a split in the Federal opposition between Dr Nelson (appears to be against) and National MPs especially Kate Hull and Barnaby Joyce. Neil (Ninglun) blogged on this

Previous Posts in the Pacific Series

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Essay - Kondratiev cycles, economic change and the ICT revolution

Photo: Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950).

This Sunday essay fulfils my now long standing committment to Bob Q to respond to the comments he made in our earlier discussion on Kondratiev Cycles. For the benefit of new readers, I have listed previous posts at the end.

By way of background first, the term Kondratiev Cycles or Waves has been used to describe what its proponents see as long growth waves associated with technological change. They argue that such waves come to an end as the gains from the technology exhausts itself, leading to extended periods of slow growth - Kondratiev winters - before another cycle begins. I mused that we might be coming to the end of the latest wave, the IT and communications wave.

Bob Q challenged this. To his mind Kondratiev Cycles are rubbish, concepts imposed on the historical record without either historical validity or predictive power. In essence, GIGO, garbage in, garbage out. He also disagreed that we were at the end of the ICT revolution, suggesting in passing that I had overstated the importance of the revolution in the first place.

To extend the discussion, let's start by clearing a little undergrowth first.

Kondratiev proponents suggest that the first Kondratiev Wave began with the industrial revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century. If true, this makes them a relatively new phenomena in historical terms.

The significance of the industrial revolution is that it marked a break in the previous pattern of economic activity. This was partly a matter of new technologies, partly of new organisational forms. In turn, this led to the development of new economic theories including marxism. Kondratiev himself was a marxist.

Kondratiev's ideas were taken up by Joseph Schumpeter, one of the most famous economists of the first half on the twentieth century. Concerned to explain the nature of economic fluctuations within an overall pattern of economic growth, decline and renewed growth, Schumpeter developed the idea of a hierarchy of economic cycles of varying lengths driven by different economic variables. The Kondratiev Wave became the long cycle within which the others operated.

Economics, like all human thought, is a creature of its own place and time.

Schumpeter and his views were effectively sidelined by the rise of Keynesianism because this seemed to explain the nature of economic fluctuations more effectively and indeed offered hope of controlling those fluctuations. When I first studied economics at what was, in retrospect, the high water mark of Keynesianism, I found Schumpeter's economic cycle material mechanistic and un-satisfying. By contrast, Keynes seemed to explain both the why and the how.

While Keynesianism seemed to deal effectively with the nature of economic fluctuation, it had little to say about the dynamics of growth. This was equally true of microeconomics with its focus on value and distribution. Growth was effectively side-lined to development economics or economic history.

The failure of Keynesian economics during the 1970s opened the way for new ideas. Among others, Schumpeter came back into fashion because of his focus on innovation and entrepreneurship.

The point of this short history is that intellectual frameworks affect not just the way we analyse things, but the very questions we ask in the first place.

When I first came to look at industry development issues in the 1970s, I found a dearth of conceptual material outside the narrow bounds of the tariff and free trade debate. Further, the very questions I wanted to ask were seen as heretical, invalid, by some of my Treasury colleagues because they suggested that Government intervention might support economic development. After all, it was less than ten years since the Department had effectively killed the Vernon Committee report.

I do not think that Kondratiev Cycles as expressed have necessary historical validity. I certainly do not think that they have predictive ability. Indeed, I think that long term economic prediction is highly suspect, although I am not above chancing my arm at it!

To my mind, the interesting point about Kondratiev Cycles is that they incorporate a model that I find interesting and intuitively plausible: the way in which technological change moves in waves, leading to a period of expansion followed by potential stagnation or even contraction as the wave ends.

Economic growth is not simply a matter of adding additional resources of labor or capital as would be implied by the simple production function model. This model is deeply imbued in thinking.

Faced with economic growth faster than could be explained by an increase in capital, economists suggested that the additional increment might be explained by improvements in human capital flowing from the spread of education. I have no doubt that this is correct. However, it is still a production function model.

Beyond these explanations, there are discontinuities - change points - where the application of new technology has led to fundamental shifts in economic activity. The invention and application of the steam engine is one such example, the internal combustion engine another.

In each case, the application of the technology has resulted in expanded economic activity. In the Australian case, the spread of the railways allowed expansion of wheat farming, wheat whose entry to the international marketplace was aided by faster shipping.

In each case, the gains from the technology declined with time. Using the same example, the cost of horse drawn transport limited agricultural production to a relatively short distance from the railway line. There were substantial economic gains as railways spread, but these then tailed away. The next big change came with the development of the internal combustion engine, the car and lorry since this allowed a further spread of cropping.

In conventional economic terms, the first effect of changes such as these is a shift in the production function. The second effect is an expansion in markets as new and cheaper goods increase demand.

These two changes are linked. Mass production meant that more people could afford industrial goods. In turn, this expanded market created jobs, leading to further market expansion.

This type of process does not make Kondratiev or Schumpeter right. My point is that their approach suggests fruitful questions and possible answers that fall outside the domain of some of the current economic orthodoxies.

In my Kondratiev posts I suggested that we had come to the end of the ICT revolution and that this might lead to a Kondratiev winter. Before going on, I should make it clear that in saying this I was talking about the economic growth effects. Other effects will continue.

In economic terms, the ICT revolution affected both production and markets.

As an input to other production, ICT shifted production functions to the right. It also created major new industries and markets. Both encouraged growth.

Importantly, the ICT revolution combined with three other changes that also encouraged growth.

The first was a change to work processes. The big fall in employment in certain sectors - the utilities are an example - may have been supported by ICT, but began in advance of the full impact of the ICT revolution. Here we have changes brought about by process and job redesign. In turn, this freed resources for other activities.

The second was the freeing up in world trade, creating bigger market places while facilitating more efficient production.

The third has been called the demographic dividend. The sharp fall in the birth rate in many countries from the sixties meant that the proportion of national resources devoted to things such as basic education declined at a time when the work force was increasing in absolute terms.

We now face a quadruple whammy.

The easiest efficiency gains from ICT are past us. Many of the new products and markets have entered the mature stage. There is still potential for growth in particular markets, but in aggregate terms market growth has peaked.

Gains from changes to work processes have, I think, come to an end at least in developed economies. In Australia at least, and I do not think that Australia is unique, people are now demanding different life styles.

Liberalisation of world trade appears to have ended, at least for the present.

Finally, the demographic dividend that has supported growth has turned into demographic deficit in many countries as they start to come to grips with an aging population.

Within all this, we can debate the relative role of ITC itself. Clearly many variables are involved. However, one of the points made by many Krondratiev exponents is that waves come to an end because of an accretion of factors that slow and then stop growth. This is, I think, true.


I forgot to add previous posts. Will do so later.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The vanished Kamilaroi and the need for a new approach

Photo: Kamilaroi - family pea picking at Tingha

As part of my blog tidying up, I brought on line an earlier post, New England's Kamilaroi people - web search August 08.

In writing about Australian history on this blog, I have often made a number of linked points.

The first is that what is not presented and re-presented in our history becomes forgotten and distorted. The second is that historiography, the writing of history, is subject to fashion. I usually make these points in the context of the history of New England, my own area, whose history has largely vanished because it is now out of fashion.

In writing about policy towards our indigenous people on this blog I have repeatedly tried to make the point that the Australian Aborigines were not, nor are they now, a single entity. I have suggested that a key reason for policy failure lies in the failure to recognise this diversity.

These two themes link in my approach to New England's Aborigines.

At policy level, I have suggested that the NSW Government's Sydney-centric approach combined with the ghettoisation of indigenous policy means that the specific problems of New England's indigenous people and of indigenous-non-indigenous relations have not been properly identified or addressed.

At a history level, I have complained about a dearth of the most basic information on the history of the different language groups within New England.

The Kamilaroi were a major group, occupying a territory stretching from Southern Queensland down the Western Slopes into the Hunter Valley. Yet when I search I can find very little on-line information that will provide any coherent picture about them.

Does this matter? I think that it does, very much.

The Kamilaroi people themselves, and especially the younger generation, need access to information about their long past, not just history presented almost exclusively through a prism of black-white relations. Non-Kamilaroi people, too, need access to that information.

It is impossible for a lone person like me to fill this gap.

As a simple example, I have neither the time nor the resources to go through all the material. There are some twelve theses at the University of New England alone. Nor can a series of blog pages properly fill the gap, even though I have begun the process of trying to provide at least a stop-gap.

I have suggested before that one simple practical step would be Government funding to establish a web site for each language group. In the New England case, this would cost about $250,000 to set up, and then about the same annually to maintain.

Nationally, it would cost a lot more. Still, this is not a lot of money measured by how much we are already spending and the effects would be quite profound.

It would give all Australians access to information about our different indigenous peoples, bringing them alive as people. It would stimulate and disseminate study and research at school and beyond. It would break down barriers and increase understanding.

I do not think that this is too much to ask.

Tidying Up

There will be no Saturday Morning Musings today. I am doing some blog tidying, catching up on various back-logs especially in the New England area.

I realised when I got up this morning that recent time pressures meant that I had lost momentum and direction in a number of areas. There is nothing profound about the material I am putting up, some of it would be dead boring to the reader because it is no more than historical notes or cross-references, but it is useful to me.

Friday, August 15, 2008

New Zealand's beauty - and its dangers

Photo: Mount Cook National Park

Today's news that six mountain climbers believed to be Australian are missing on the Annette Plateau near Mount Cook village in New Zealand's South Island is just the latest in a long line of New Zealand bush mishaps.

New Zealand has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. I have spent many hours just looking at the southern Alps. There is something incredibly mysterious about the cold feel of those mountains stretching up into the sky.

It is almost sixteen years since I had an extended holiday in New Zealand. Prior to that date I went every two years.

I had been to Wellington on a marketing trip. We were trying to break into the New Zealand Government marketplace for consulting and training services, something that was hard because our fees were high by New Zealand standards.

After a week knocking on agency doors, I collected a car and took the ferry to the South Island. It had been cold, snowing heavily. The weather cleared, allowing the mountain passes to re-open. I drove from Christchurch to the West Coast through the just re-opened Arthur's Pass. It was quite spectacular.

I then drove south along the coast, travelling back up over the mountains to Te Anua. The last time I had been here I had walked the Milford Track.

Hearing that the road to Milford Sound had re-opened, the road is often closed by avalanche, I decided to see the area in winter.

Climbing over a ridge and looking across the snow covered land towards the Homer Tunnel I stopped the car to have a look. There was low cloud, so that the mountains and sky merged.

The road had been deserted, with not even car tracks in the light snow on the cleared road. Standing by the car in the cold, I listened to the almost continuous rumble of avalanches in the surrounding mountains. There would be a pause, and then the rumble would start again in another spot. I had never heard anything like it.

The Homer Tunnel was not far, but it was also near the centre of the most continuous noise. I stood there for ten minutes, and then turned back.

Time, I think, for a return visit to New Zealand. There were five tracks that I had planned to tramp. So far I have just done one in full, with bits of two others.


In a happy postscript, the lost group were Australian and have survived.

The uncertainties and thrills of new directions

I realised today that I will be finishing up my current work round in just two weeks. Of course I knew this, but it has become real as we tried to squeeze things into this last short period.

I have mentioned before that I have been doing some project work. Back in early July in A blessed sense of relief I said in a post:

Yesterday as I walked through the city crowds I felt a blessed sense of relief. I had had to go into the city for a meeting, and then managed to squeeze in coffee with Noric. As I walked round looking at the people and buildings I gawked, just as I had all those years ago when Sydney was still fresh.

The relief came from the fact that I had resolved some things that had worried me. The renewed interest in things about me was linked to this, giving me a capacity to look at things anew.

The relief came from my decision that some work that I had been doing was at a natural end point. In turn, this gave me the capacity to look at the world afresh.

Since then, things have been a bit of a whirl as I have tried to transfer my knowledge to others.

Six more workshops round the state, writing up technical material, thinking about the next stage of the project so that others can carry it forward. Then in the next two weeks I am doing two more workshops, a train-the trainer session plus a training session for those who will be responsible for managing the help desk.

You will see why the fact that I am finishing has become somewhat submerged in the activity! Those who are interested will get a feeling for all this from posts I wrote while on the road in the first workshop round:

This project has certainly brushed up my training skills. Delivering training in a new subject area where you may be the subject expert but still have to write material from scratch is always a challenge, as is the need to make sure as best one can that those you are training can actually do what is required. With two fixed go-live dates in a short time horizon, the project's success depends upon people's ability to do.

In all the activity I have not had time to properly address next steps.

I have been the primary child care for much of the last twelve years. As a consequence, I have chosen to work a lot from home. I mined this experience in another post, Teleworking - a personal perspective.

While there were costs, one was a degree of professional isolation, I gained much in terms of closeness to my daughters. The constant structure of kid's activities and the need to have meals on the table also provided its own structure.

All this has come to a a natural end. As I write my wife is in Melbourne on work, youngest is working. I think eldest will be home for tea after she finishes coaching, but I am not sure. She is home as I write, but not for tea.

After twelve years, I find the withdrawal of the old regime a tad unsettling. I recognise that it is also an opportunity, but I still feel a sense of loss. So I am in fact dealing with two changes, one a change in work direction, a second a change in personal life.

One thing that I am determined to do in this next phase is to maintain my writing, while building on the personal and professional base it has created.

Over the last two years I have been able to use my writing and especially my blogging to generate new ideas, to consolidate my existing thoughts. It has also opened some new worlds for me, new things that I can do.

The exact form of what I might do may still be unclear, but it's actually all very exciting.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Heresies, pleasures, procrastinations, pain and punishment

Photo: Girls with red flowers, Rome 2008

I have something to do that is critical but painful. I am behind on things that are pleasurable but not critical. I wonder which is winning?

Neil had an interesting post wondering whether blogging was on the way out. It is not, but it is changing.

The drop out rate from blogging is high. Sometimes this is painful when one loses old friends.

There are now perhaps one hundred million blogs. Obviously the standard varies.

The new social networking tools continue to gather strength. People migrate from blogs to them.

We are all time pressed. Blogs compete with a myriad of other distractions.

Blogs with their date postings are not suited to certain activities.

In all this, blogs and blogging are simply redefining their roles to those which most suit the medium. So long as they continue to make money for their hosts on one side, so long as they meet the needs of writers and readers on the other, blogs will continue.

In a comment, and with justice, Bob Q queried my delay in following up on my Kondratiev posts (here, here, here). Now there was a bit of an in-element in Bob's comment in that I do have a bad habit of saying that I will return to something and then not doing so! However, in this case I would plead that I have been thinking about some of the issues.

In this case, the question on my my mind has been the impact of the new computing and communications technology and especially the question as to whether the IT revolution has come to an end in terms of its major economic impacts. This links to Kondrtief cycles in that some of its proponents have argued that the ending of the IT revolution marks the downturn in the cycle.

I started exploring all this in Have we come to the end of the IT revolution? and then in End of the IT revolution - organisational rigidity. I am presently working on a somewhat counter post looking at ways in which the IT revolution might continue.

At a personal level I am not a technology leader. I like things to work. I am not greatly attracted to fashion. And I hate replacing equipment to gets something new if the existing equipment is still working. Despite all this, I am also a tester of new things, if with a lag. When I do, I look at how they might be used.

As a simple example, take facebook.

I am a member. I check my facebook five or six times a week. But I will never become a facebook fanatic. I dislike its clutter. I do not have the type of social life that might benefit from facebook. And its working systems are not especially friendly to the type of uses that might attract me. So to this user, facebook is a helpful but limited tool.

Blogging, by contrast, is a far more useful tool for my own interests. It allows me to write. It keeps me in touch with the broader personal and professional world. It forces me to question my own views.

I am a bit of a heretic, a tendency that has increased with age. I have seen too much to allow me to take any assertion for granted.

Just at present there is much debate about the parlous state of the mouth of the Murray. As I listen or read about this I ask a very basic question: what was the mouth like before? What is new?

The short answer appears to be that the modern Murray mouth appears to date to the construction of a dam near the mouth that changed the river, a change that created its own economic and social dynamics. The river mouth that we are trying to protect is in fact a relatively modern construct and is driven by forces created by that construct.

Just at the moment the media is full of Olympics reporting. This draws out clearly the way in which perceptions affect reporting.

One issue is the way in which medal tallies are reported.

Channel 7 news carried a story reporting on the way the US media reported the medal tally, adding the medal total together. This allowed the US media to report that the US was still in front of China. By implication, this was wrong, with Channel 7 suggesting that only gold counts. Yet Channel 7 itself totals the medals in the same way!

A second issue is the nature of reactions to Chinese Government developments and actions.

Let me make my own position clear. China is a one party state. Perhaps more importantly, it is an empire that now and then operates as an empire. It is an empire whose history has been dominated by tensions between central control and regional separatism. And it is also an empire whose history over the last two hundred years has been strongly affected by external intrusion that has directly attacked the centre of Han Chinese pride and sense of self-worth.

In terms of the broad sweep of Chinese history, the communist period is but a brief passage. The current communist government is simply the latest manifestation of broader Chinese historical trends.

There is no real recognition of this in media reporting, nor is there any recognition that the values that are held as self-evident by the western press are a minority view in both current and historical terms.

Again don't get me wrong. I share those western values. I just struggle with what I see as biased, insular, reporting.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Morning Snippets - Jiawei Shen, bogans and social change, our universities and the pleasure of positive responses

Neil's response to my post Saturday Morning Musings - the art of Jiawei Shen included a link to the National Portrait Gallery. There I found this painting, Guo Jian and Elly 1998, Collection of the Artist.

I thought that this painting was great. The Gallery has this to say about Jiawe Shen's work:

Jiawei Shen’s portraits demonstrate a masterly realism. in all his work, he brings traditional skills to bear in the rendering surfaces, the effects of light and the appearance of depth. Clothes, jewellery, hairstyles and the setting all tell something about the subject of a portrait, their social standing or job. Shen aspires to represent the sitter’s inner life, their essential character and virtues, but appreciates the difficulty of depicting more than just surface appearance. Thus, while his portraits are as realistic as a photograph, he inserts symbolic objects in his paintings that inform the viewer about the subject’s identity.

Over on skepticslawyer Legal Eagle has a rather good post, Snobbery and class. Here I want to comment on just one point, the continued use of the word bogan and what it says about Australian society.

Legal Eagle found about this word when she was 13. I was a lot older - I first heard some of my daughters' friends use it a few years ago and had to ask what it meant.

I have come to really detest this word. Use it in my presence and you are likely to get a very tart response.

Social class and snobbery has always existed in this country. However, in the past it was in some ways more benign than the current version.

To begin with, the strong egalitarianism that marked our language - what Hurst has called a democracy of manners - provided a natural control because it effectively rejected more extreme pretensions. Then, too, social structures had linkages to elements of our past and carried their own responsibilities.

No more I fear. I cannot put this really clearly because I do not properly understand it. However, as best I can, the old social structures have been replaced by new ones less tolerant of differences, more coercive, more complacent, structures now based on behaviour and brand.

I explored social change in Sydney a little in an earlier post, Saturday Morning Musings - everchanging Sydney. In a funny way the new Sydney social structures are based on evolving tribes that mix less, understand less of each other, than was the case in a world where social stratifications were in some ways more clearly defined.

I still mix with a reasonable range of groups. In doing so, I am constantly struck by the differences between them, by the absence of cross-linkages of the type that I have known in the past.

Still on social change, last night I went to a Sydney University alumni dinner, a gathering of different alumni groups. I am not a Sydney University person of course, I was there as handbag.

It was an interesting and enjoyable evening. Very well organised, even slick. My immediate dinner companion who was also there as a hand bag came from Grafton and had studied at UNE, so we had plenty to talk about.

A few things stood out from the evening.

Chatting with some of the academics including a dentistry group really highlighted the way in which social change is now affecting our ability to meet national needs.

We all know that we need more health professionals. The starting point here is the number of people in training. To increase this, you need to increase the number of teachers. Yet SU is struggling to find them. In fact, the whole system rests on an aging cohort still prepared to participate in teaching.

The usual answer to this is pay. Pay more, get more. This is the modern market approach. However, to my mind the real problem lies in the declining attractions of academic life independent of pay.

Academic life used to combine a substantial degree of social prestige with somewhat above average income. Academic salaries have declined in relative terms, but the social prestige has declined far more. Further, we have removed many of the trappings of academic life, while increasing performance pressures.

Less pay, more pressure, lower prestige, fewer trappings means fewer interested in teaching and research. This feeds through into the training of professionals we need for our national future.

In this context, Sydney's new VC had some interesting and very frank things to say about the modern university. It would be unfair to quote him directly, he was speaking to the broader SU family and I need to respect that. However, I can approach the matters he raised indirectly by linking them to things that I have said.

In many ways, we are milking our universities, living off our past investments. We have created a situation where universities are forced to battery farm some students for cash in order to try to cross-subsidise other activities.

I have spoken of the effects of this in the context of the University of New South Wales. There was another example of this last night, not from the VC, where a former student of another university commented on the low standard of the MBA he had done.

When asked if this had affected the market standing of his degree he said no. Just having the MBA on his CV met his needs. However, he was disappointed at a personal level.

This is the crux of the issue. In the beginning, you can get away with battery farming. However, sooner or later the decline in the total value of the university experience will follow through to market reactions. The MBA university in question has lost this former student for ever.

On a completely different matter, Kangaroo Valley David and I have been having an interesting email exchange on a couple of my stories. As part of this he wrote:

I forgot to pass on my thanks for another of your posts - about the poet-traveller Hugh Frewen.

I was fascinated by your comments, and your quotes of his words, so I Googled for more info re the book you were quoting from and ended up on the website of (New Jersey USA) and hence in email contact re "a near fine first edition with slight bumping and wear to corners".

(aside: this bookseller description could very easily be attached to myself!)

Anyway, no more than four days later it arrived, and was presented to my business partner of many years who has since told me it is one of the most interesting little books he has read, and how he particularly loved the verse.

This post has got a very good response, including a comment from someone who used to live in Brede near the old Frewen Home.

Getting positive responses is always nice. As I said to KVD, I do try to write for my known readers, not just the google search engine algorithms!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - the art of Jiawei Shen

By accident, we tuned into the SBS program (5 August) on the Chinese artist Jiawei Shen. I knew nothing about the documentary, had never heard of Mr Shen, so had no expectations.

Jiawei Shen was born in 1948 in Shanghai, China. After showing promising talent in his early 20s he decided to cultivate his skills and build a solid career as an artist.

However, Mr Shen’s dream of becoming an artist was cut short as the Cultural Revolution engulfed China. Under Mao’s rule all art schools were closed down and the working class were shipped out of the cities and ordered to work on the land, leaving Shen to teach himself the craft which would become his livelihood years later.

With the death of Mao in the late 70s and a new pragmatic leadership in place, the art school doors were reopened allowing Mr Shen to study for two years at Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

We joined the documentary a little after the start. Having no pre-conceptions, I will explain this a little in a moment, we took the program as a study of a Chinese artist and the relationship between his life and work. Here it pointed and counterpointed between Mr Shen's life and his painting in an absolutely fascinating way.

Both of us were struck by what we saw as the different influences on his work, sometimes impressionist, at other times what I sometimes call the Napoleonic style, patriotism and state triumphalism.

I use the term Napoleonic style because this was the mental label I created after my first visit to the Louvre where I spent several hours looking at French paintings from the revolution through to the giant paintings celebrating the triumphs of Napoleon and his empire.

There are parallels between this period and modern China. Both had ancien regimes torn down by revolutions that created powerful secular ideologies. In both cases, those ideologies morphed into imperial states.

To our surprise, the documentary then moved to Mr Shen's migration to Australia and his subsequent experiences here as he built a life as a successful painter.

I am glad that we did not know this. Had we known, and this is the way preconceptions affect perceptions, then I suspect that we would have viewed the first part of the documentary as a precursor to the second, the Australian experience.

The end of the SBS program description rather neatly captures this:

Apart from the normal demands of being a husband and father, the major challenge now facing Jiawei is the migrant experience. Jiawei is trying to create a place for himself as an artist in the Australian context. But this poses a dilemma. What does Shen Jiawei now paint in his adopted homeland? Displaced from China and its history he must now find new historical themes that reflect his current experience. It's through his art that he tries to convey a sense of the ongoing dialogue between his Chinese self and the Australian that he's becoming.

I am sure that this - the Australian experience - would have been our core focus as well. Instead, we really saw the program as two documentaries, each distinct in its own right, thus adding to our enjoyment.

I thought that the second half of the program was distinctly weaker than the first. The Shens' Australian story is fascinating. However, while the personal story was well told, I really did not get a strong impression of the way that Mr Shen's art had changed. The personal dominated the artistic.

I have tried to explore the relationship between the Australian artist or writer, environment and our history in a number of posts.

Central to this has been the interaction between a migrant community and their new land. Central, too, has been the way in which local artists have borrowed overseas styles and models. Both have melded to form new Australian forms.

So I would like to have learned more about Mr Shen as an artist, more about the way in which his art has evolved.

Assorted Posts

A partial list of associated posts on Australian art and culture follows. In creating this list, I realised that there were a lot - not all are here - and that I needed a way of categorising them so that linked themes could be properly drawn out. But this will have to wait.


Neil has kindly put up a companion post to this one looking at other aspects of Australia-Chinese art. I suspect that there is a fertile field here that we have barely touched.