Friday, October 31, 2008

Road Stories

I am writing a new post looking at some of the hints about changing patterns of Australian thought revealed by our recent conversation on In defence of the Lord's Prayer in the Australian Parliament. This will take time. A few random thoughts in the meantime.

This photo by Gordon Smith shows the main road heading towards Hungerford on the NSW/Queensland border.

Traditionally Australians, especially country Australians, spend a lot of time on the road. We have to - the distances are so large.

My memory is littered with the roads that I drove on a regular basis. Particular curves, the way the road unfolded in front of me, the changes to the country, the little towns and regular stop points.

This can be real distance driving. In one thirteen week period I drove 52,000 miles.

My daughters' old school has recently abolished muck-up day, to the fury of both girls (and their father!), on the apparent grounds of risk. Yesterday, youngest SMS'd us to say what a buzz she got from sky diving on her first independent trip in New Zealand. Bungie jumping is next.

At sixteen, I hitch-hiked on my own through Tasmania. I ran out of money and did a three day perish with no food. At twenty, our family along with another drove from Bangkok to Seam Reap in Cambodia. We drove against the advice of the local CIA Station Chief - the Vietnam war was raging - in cars with UN plates and UN flags. We saw Angkor Wat and many other temples just before the Khmer Rouge came to power.

My step-grandmother was a UN worker in Korea and China at the end of the Second World War. She was there during the Communist Revolution, the invasion of Korea. My aunt was a Red Cross nurse in Malaya during the Emergency. Driving alone in unarmed vehicles, her job was to bring medical support to the kampongs.

In Beijing in 2008, our hosts were organised for us by Joan Rowlands. Her book, Voluntary Exiles, is the story of missionary families from Madagascar to North China at the time of Japanese invasion. One of those who were in the book featured as a main protagonist in Chariots of Fire, the Scottish boy who refused to run at the Paris Olympics because his race was on a Sunday.

One cousin, an anthropologist, lived with local families in New Guinea while writing his PhD. His brother, also an anthropologist, focused on Central America and the Caribbean and is now best know for his role in re-introducing wolves to North America.

My grandfather and mother visited Europe on an official mission in 1936. Convinced that war was inevitable, he returned to campaign to re-build Australia's industrial capability. Combining with Mick Bruxner, they put NSW onto something approaching a war footing while the national Government was still temporising.

My point with these apparently disconnected meanderings is that I sometimes find modern Australia a much diminished place.

It's partly a matter of size. As places get bigger, external interaction diminishes compared to internal interaction. It's also partly a matter of social attitude. We live in, as I see it, a very conformist, risk adverse society.

I have done some stupid things in my time. In fact, I have been lucky to survive and am still embarrassed by things in my past. I am also naturally cautious, conformist and even a bit of a coward. I am also stubborn when it comes to certain things.

A number of years ago, a swimmer got into trouble in a rip at Tuross on the South Coast. He was calling for help. I looked around, and the small number of people on the beach were just watching.

I am not a strong surf swimmer and so I hesitated. Finally I went in. As it happened, we sort of rescued ourselves in combination.

I still remember being in the water. There was a pine tree on the headlands. It went backwards and forwards as I struggled to get back to the beach. I was getting tired, and began to wonder if I should simply give up.

I take pride in this episode because I overcame my fear. There was another that I was not so proud of.

I had been staying in Kings Cross and was on my way to an important meeting. A policeman was chasing someone. The man kept hitting the policeman and then running on. The young officer called for help.

I was in a hurry, and did not know what to do. If I stopped I would miss my meeting, something that was important to my company. I was also worried about losing my briefcase with its papers. Finally, and to my eternal regret, I went on.

The things that I take most pride in in my life are those where I have somehow managed to hold the line against pressure to conform or against my own fear.

My willingness to reject the school cadet corp even if it meant my expulsion. My stand as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. My willingness to stand and fight in a Country Party pre-selection campaign where my Vietnam views had become a central element in the campaign. My support for a staff member against John Stone as acting head of Treasury. My willingness to go into the surf at Tuross.

The things that I take least pride in are my failures, the cases where I have broken my own principles.

I cannot give my girls the personal freedoms I had. This is no longer possible in modern Australia. I can try to give them the freedom to make their own decisions, to try new things.

One area in which modern Australia has advanced is in the relationships between parents and kids This is a whole new topic in its own right, one that I do not want to debate. In simple terms, a closeness is now possible in a way that was nor possible in a more formalised past.

The Road Stories continue. Their form has changed.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Freedom of religion in Australia - a historical note

180px-Cranmer_Window_Christ_Church This stained glass window commemorates the death by burning of the Anglican martyrs Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley (1555), and Thomas Cranmer (1556). The last person burnt at the stake in England for religious reasons was the Baptist Edward Wightson in 1612.

It appears that the last person executed by burning in England was the counterfeiter Phoebe Harris who was burned to death at Newgate in 1786. This form of execution was removed from the statute books in 1790.

I was in the process of responding to comments on my post In defence of the Lord's Prayer in the Australian Parliament with some historical material when I thought that the material might be of broader interest.

Freedom of religion is one of the few freedoms explicitly recognised in the Australian constitution. The constitution reads:

116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

The convict ships that sailed for what would become Australia came from Islands marked by deep religious and political divides dating back to the Reformation, the period when the previously dominant Roman Catholic Church's claim to universal spiritual (and indeed temporal) authority was challenged by new Christian movements. These growing religious divisions interacted with the politics of the period, including the early stages of the creation of nation states.

In England under Henry VIII the authority of the crown was asserted over the Roman Catholic Church in England creating what was in effect a State church, the Church of England, headed by the crown.

Faced with constant threats to her power and indeed England's survival as an independent nation, Elizabeth I consolidated state power. The legends from this period - the Elizbethan age - became powerful English symbols. This was the start of the rise of Empire.

The history in Scotland and Ireland were different.

In Scotland, too, there were often religious divisions. However, history there meant that the divides played out more between Protestant and Roman Catholic. In Ireland, the Catholic Church remained dominant.

In the period following Elizabeth, religion continued to mix with politics. The English Civil Wars that established the dominance of Parliament were very much religious wars. Cromwell drew his support heavily from the continuing dissenting voices to both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. The Protestant settlements in Ireland - the start of the Ulstermen - were deliberately established for political reasons, to protect the English position.

The convict ships that arrived in Botany Bay carried people from all parts of the Isles. The paramount need to maintain order in a convict colony, the presence of multiple faiths including especially the powerful Scots Presbyterians, all dictated a different approach to that holding in England. No matter how some Anglicans might have desired it, there was never going to be an established state church in NSW. The new order might still see itself as Christian, but it was going to be secular.

The sectarian divide between a Roman Catholic especially Irish minority and an Anglican/English and Protestant (English/Scottish) majority continued and had to be managed. Further, not all the population was Christian. There was a Jewish element from the beginning - early colonial NSW was possible the first jurisdiction in the world to grant Government funding to a Jewish school. There was a larrikin irreligious element suspicious of any form of religion and of what it saw as middle class morality, the imposition of social controls - the derogatory Australian term wowser used to describe especially middle class people determined to enforce social morality reflects this conflict. There were other elements as well, including a Chinese population and a little later a Muslim population. Australia probably had more mosques, generally little tin buildings in outback towns, in 1890 than it did in 1990.

The deliberate inclusion of a freedom of religion clause in the Australian constitution reflects this varying history. This is a very powerful clause. However, it is important to recognise just what it means.

The first thing is that it imposes an absolute prohibition on the Australian Government specifically legislating to enforce or prohibit any form of religion or religious observance. I do not know, but I suspect that at this level this is one of the most powerful religious freedoms clauses in the world. The Australian Government (but not necessarily the states) lacks all power to do some of the things that, for example, the French or Turkish Governments have done in regard to head scarves, the Malaysian Government in specifically enshrining aspects of the Muslim religion in law.

The second thing to note is that it does not prohibit the Australian Government from banning certain practices so long as the legislation applies generally and is not specifically applied to a religion.

All Australians are equal before the law, but the law also applies equally: our changing age of consent provisions now place certain Aboriginal customary practices outside the law; female genital circumcision practices are banned; polygamy is banned; and so on.

Those coming to Australia or who live in Australia must comply with our law or pay a penalty under that law.

The third thing to note is that the clause applies only to law. The issue that we have been discussing, the use of the Lord's Prayer in the Federal Parliament, is not a legal matter, but one of custom.

I suspect that few Australians, let alone those outside the country, are aware of either the religious freedom provision in the constitution or of their historical context. Hence this post.

The Hunter Valley Draytons

Yesterday on the New England Australia blog I carried a story, New England Stories - the Hunter Valley Drayton's recovery from tragedy, on one of the most moving TV shows that I had seen. It had everything - romance, tragedy, the sheer goodness of people.

I sometimes wonder just how I can explain what I see as the essential goodness of the Australian character to others, to explain how we think and feel. I thought that this show did a pretty good job.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More on the distributional effects of the Australian economic stimulus package

One of the points that I made in my post The Australian economic stimulus package - distributional and timing issues was that we should not assume that the whole spend would automatically flow across into increased consumption.

A survey by the National Retailers Association suggests that the effects of the package is likely to vary greatly across groups, with a significant proportion planning to use the money to pay down debts or increase savings.

This should not come as a surprise, nor does it of itself invalidate the package. We just need to be realistic about likely effects.

In defence of the Lord's Prayer in the Australian Parliament

The King James version of the bible (there are a number of versions of the bible) is one of the literary masterpieces of the English language. Within that bible, the Lord's Prayer has been one of the best known and most loved poems for Australians over many generations.

The prayer begins:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

I think that few people of any religious faith would seriously object to these words because they express a view of a supreme being. The exact form of the being or beings may vary, but the words do capture a common human belief.

The prayer continues:

Give us this day our daily bread.

Who could argue? We live in a world, including Australia, where many people are worried about having enough to eat. Then we have:

And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.

This one is much harder. We live in a world where the idea of trespasses, of the need for consequent punishment, seems to expand all the time. Yet, or so I feel, if we want to be forgiven our trespasses. if we want to forgive ourselves for our own mistakes, we must extend this to others.

The prayer then says:

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

Again we have the dichotomy, the need for us as individuals to avoid temptation, the desire that we should be protected from the evil delivered by others. There may be debate about the meanings of temptation and evil, but I think that most of us would accept the central meaning.

The payer concludes:

For thine is the kingdom,
and the power,
and the glory,
for ever and ever.

Again, I think that few people of any religious faith would disagree with the spirit in these words.

It has been a long standing tradition for each session of the Federal Parliament to open with a recital of the Lord's Prayer. This tradition, while recently re-affirmed, has come under sustained attack. Those attacking the tradition appear to belong to two schools.

The first school, here for example, seems to regard religious expression as arrant nonsense, superstition, that should have no place in the public sphere.

The second school, here and here for example, suggest that the prayer is no longer appropriate in a modern secular Australia with multiple beliefs, that it might perhaps be replaced by another ceremony, a welcome to country.

I cannot share their views.

Like it or not, Australia comes from a Christian tradition. Yes, we are a secular society that has welcomed people from many different parts of the world, but that does not mean that we should as a consequence reject our own traditions.

Further, the majority of Australians do believe in some form of supreme being or external power. The forms of belief vary greatly, from the religions of the book to Hinduism or Buddhism to new age believers. This group has no objection to prayers to a supreme being.

The words of the Lord's Prayer itself, while Christian, are to my mind sufficiently general to capture core concepts relevant to most faiths. They also express aspirations that many of us would dearly like to see embedded in political life.

The fact that politics, politicians and Governments do not live up to the simple values in the prayer is not a reason for discarding it. Rather, it is a reminder of things that they should aspire too.

I find it puzzling that this issue - the use of the prayer - should be of such recurring importance. It seems to have become one of those symbolic things in the continuing discussion on what Australia was, is or should be.

I also feel that this is a very dangerous thing to raise to symbolic class because, as a symbol, it has the capacity to deeply divide the Australian community over matters of faith. This is the key reason why our political leaders on both sides of politics will not change the status quo. There is little to gain from a change, much to lose.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A rare tick for NSW Premier Rees

I have complained before that NSW did not make ministerial press releases available on line, making it harder to find relevant information.

I have just discovered, apparently all un-announced, that the Government changed its policy in September. Ministerial press releases are now available on Departmental web sites.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Puzzles about the fall of the Aussie dollar - more economics 101

The gyrations in the Australian dollar continue to bemuse me. Three months ago it was closing on parity with the US dollar. Over the week-end it reached 60.57 US cents for a dollar.

I am very glad we went to China when we did. A little later, and we would be struggling to pay for things.

Like many, I am puzzled by the dollars gyrations and especially the size of the fall.

The problem is that the Australian dollar is one of the most traded currencies in the world, I think one of the world top five. This is far out of line with our share of the global economy, a bit under 2 per cent. The aussies's role in complex global currency markets with its myriad transactions means that its price is driven by often unclear factors that have little to do with our real economy.

I am not sure that we should complain, however. As I remember it, a similar dollar decline in 1997 was one of the reasons why we cruised through the Asian financial crisis with so few domestic impacts.

I hesitate to predict the future value of the aussie, my success rate in this area is very poor. I feel more confident about discussing the likely impact of a lower dollar.

The first point to note is that the impact of the lower dollar depends upon just how long it stays down. The longer its stays down, the greater the impact on the structure of the Australian economy.

The first effect of the higher dollar is higher import prices for both consumer and producer goods. The impact here depends upon the extent to which Australia's major suppliers reduce their prices to hold market share, the extent to which retailing in particular reduces profit margins on imported product to hold sales. The longer the lower aussie dollar value continues, the lower the ability of suppliers and retailers to contain price increases.

We can already see this in retailing where reduced domestic demand in combination with higher import prices is now affecting retail sales. Retailers are already restructuring strategies to increase focus on domestic products where they can.

We can also see it in producer prices - the cost of inputs - where rising producer prices have been feeding into inflationary pressures. Australia is heavily dependent upon imports, so the effect of a fall in the dollar is substantial. The extent to which this will flow into further inflation depends upon second round effects and especially wage responses. Weakened domestic demand will tend to suppress these effects.

On the export side, the fall in the value of the dollar means that our exporters receive higher returns on exports expressed in aussie dollar terms. The impact here depends importantly upon the combination of two things: the extent of international price falls for our exports because of reduced global demand, together with the relative importance of imported inputs in the final export product.

This combination means that a lower aussie dollar value has substantially varying impacts across export indutries.

Traditionally, changes in the external value of the aussie have provided an important buffer for our main commodity exports. International prices fall because of reduced demand. This is then offset by higher local dollar prices. We can already see this happening in iron ore.

The impact on some of our agricultural products is a little less clear cut because imported inputs have become relatively more important in some sectors. Still, in broad terms the pattern applies.

The impact on manufactured exports is far less clear cut because so many of our manufacturing exports depend upon imported inputs, as well as the exact markets those exports go to. I lack the data to make a proper judgement here.

The position on the services side is also variable.

Tourism is a major export earner, but also one where our imports (Australians going overseas) largely offset, sometimes more than offset, exports (those visiting Australia).

The lower aussie dollar cuts back international travel by Australians, but also makes it cheaper for overseas people to visit Australia. In the short term, the international downturn is cutting tourist visits to Australia. Qantas is already talking about the combined impact of the two on its international traffic.

Reductions in inward tourism means that the dollar value of tourism exports will fall. However, the net balance of payments effect is unclear because this will be offset to greater or lesser extent by reduced tourism imports.

Our exports of education services, a very big net contributor to the balance of payments, will benefit from the lower value of the aussie. I have been seriously worried about this area because lower global economic activity is likely to reduce the number of students studying internationally. I saw this having a major impact on an education sector now heavily dependent upon international student fees.

I remain concerned. However, the much lower aussie dollar does provide at least some short term protection.

The likely impact of the lower dollar on our exports of professional and financial services is unclear. As a general statement, the global economic downturn will obviously affect service activity since the volume of traded services is a function of economic activity. To maintain exports, Australia will need to increase market share.

Some service exports (and imports) depend in whole or part upon on-ground delivery. Higher Australian dollar costs for international travel and for accommodation will reduce Australia's ability to compete, although this may be offset to some degree by the reduction in hourly rates expressed in aussie dollar terms.

The position is different where the activity can be carried out remotely. In legal services, for example, Australian hourly rates are now 40 per cent less in US dollar terms than they were just three months ago. That's a very large shift. On the other side of the equation, major service import areas such as call centres are 40 per cent more expensive.

The best gut judgement that I can make is that our exports of traded services are likely to increase, our imports decline, for a net gain.

The position on the capital side of the balance of payments is very complex.

Australia has been a net importer of capital to fund the deficit on the balance of trade, as well as our own capital exports through direct international investment. If, as seems likely, a lower exchange rate leads to an improvement in the balance of trade, then our need for capital will decline. Further, the lower dollar also tends to choke off capital exports by making overseas investment more expensive in real terms. This holds also to some degree for overseas funds invested in the country - people may prefer to hold, rather than realise immediate capital losses.

On the other side of the ledger, the local dollar value of dividends and interest payments on existing investment stocks increases, although this will also be adversely affected by the impact on global profitability of the international downturn. In addition, the lower value of the dollar is likely to attract some investment because of the lower real price of Australian assets. Already some overseas investment advisers are recommending investment in Australian shares.

The longer the aussie dollar stays down in value, the greater the impact.

Expectations are critical here. Real investment decisions depend upon expected longer term profitability. If the present low value of the aussie dollar is perceived as short term, then the immediate impact on real investment will be reduced. The longer people expect the dollar to stay down, the greater the change in the real economy.

In all this, my gut judgement is that Australia continues to be a somewhat lucky country.

We are probably not going to cruise through this one as we did during the Asian financial meltdown or the end of the tech bubble. That would be hoping for too much. However, in the short term the lower dollar will at least cushion the financial impact, while the economy as a whole should emerge in a relatively stronger position in the longer term.


Australia's Reserve Bank has been obliged to enter the market to buy Australian currency in order to preserve market liquidity, thus easing fluctuations in the dollar value. Thinking about this made me realise that there was one part of the jigsaw that I did not deal with in this post.

Australia has very little Government debt. However, we do have high exposure in terms of private borrowings.

Where those borrowings have been expressed in US dollar or some other foreign currency, the effect of an exchange rate reduction is to increase the amount of local currency that must be paid to meet interest and capital payments, this places downward pressure on economic activity.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Club Troppo problems - or is it my computer?

I know that Club Troppo has been having problems with its server. I wanted to check a story, and it seems to have been off-line for some time. Does anyone know if its a problem with CT, or is it at my end?

Death of Australian painter and writer James Gleeson

Painting: James Gleeson, Irregular Behaviour of a Setting Sun, 1996

The best known Australian surrealist painter James Gleeson died a week ago.

The material that follows on his life is drawn very heavily from the Art Gallery of NSW 2003 exhibition on Mr Gleeson's work. I have added some additional background material to provide a personal perspective, although I hasten to add that I did not know Mr Gleeson.

I love Australian art and grew up surrounded by it. There were paintings on the wall at home and at my grandparents place. The Hinton Collection at the nearby Armidale Teachers College, a building we visited all the time because there were so many activities there, was simply displayed on the class room and corridor walls for all to see.

I found Mr Gleeson's work intriguing when I first discovered it because (to my mind) it was so different.

James Timothy Gleeson was born in Hornsby (Sydney) on 21 November 1915. He studied art at East Sydney Technical College and teaching at the Sydney Teachers College, where his first surrealist painting City on a tongue 1938 was included in a student exhibition.

It is hard for modern Australians to cast their mind back to Sydney of the late thirties at the time James Gleeson was studying. In 1938, the total Australian population was just under seven million. In NSW there were four higher education institutions, Sydney University, the just established Armidale based New England University College, plus the Sydney and Armidale Teachers Colleges.

Those interested in art largely studied at technical colleges or one of the private art schools. Despite the small population base and distance from major population centres in Europe and the United States, there was great interest in overseas trends. There was also considerable controversy - as there is today - about what constituted art.

In 1937, the Australian politician Robert Menzies spearheaded moves to establish an Australian Academy of Art along the lines of the British Royal Academy. This split the artistic community, coming at the end of a period of growing tension between the traditionalists and modernists.

In 1939 one of the traditionalists, the art critic James MacDonald wrote of the 1939 Herald exhibition of contemporary French and English painting:

'They are exceedingly wretched paintings … putrid meat … the product of degenerates and perverts … filth'.

The modernists who had been trialing new approaches took the opposite view, defending their positions with vigour. It was an exciting period to study art.

From 1941-44 Mr Gleeson taught art at Kogarah Girls High School, and lectured in art at Sydney Teachers College 1945-46. Between 1947 and 1949 he travelled extensively in England and Europe which afforded him the opportunity to see the work of the Italian and Northern old masters as well as the work of surrealists including Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and Rene Magritte.

Like a number of other artists including Norman Lindsey, writing, especially poetry, occupied Mr Gleeson almost as much as painting. For a time he was undecided as to which path to take as a career. In fact, he did both.

In 1964, his major monograph on the work of William Dobell, published by Thames and Hudson, established him as a serious art historian. His other books include Masterpieces of Australian Painting 1969, Colonial Painters 1788-1800, Impressionist Painters 1881-1930 and Modern Painters 1931-1970, 1971, Robert Klippel 1983. In 1993 Angus and Robertson published his Selected poems.

In the midst of all this, Mr Gleeson found time to serve in a number of capacities for bodies including the Teachers Federation Art Society (Sydney), Contemporary Art Society, the Sir William Dobell Art Foundation, Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, International Art Critics Association and the National Gallery of Australia. He received a number of awards including Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1990 and was awarded membership of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to art in 1975 and holds honorary degrees from Macquarie University, Sydney (1989) and the University of New South Wales (2001).

Mr Gleeson's work is represented in all major Australian galleries and has been included in major exhibitions including the National Gallery of Australia’s 1993 exhibition Surrealism: revolution by night 1993. Books on his work include those by Lou Klepac (James Gleeson: landscape out of nature 1987) and Renée Free (James Gleeson: images from the shadows 1993, reprinted 1996).

In all, Mr Gleeson came a long way from the Sydney of 1938

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Macellous's Magnificent Posts

Nor really a post. I just wanted to record my appreciation of the continuing high standard of Marcellous's posts. And to tell Thomas that I am awaiting his return to duty.

Saturday Morning Musings - Confusions over China, labels and ethnicity

HotpotNeil and Ben kindly left some informative and mouth watering comments on my post Personal confusions over Australian food. I did not realise either the variety or long history of steamboat or hotpot. This photo shows the Sichuan Hotpot.

Still on China and food, Yawning Bread had a fascinating post, Cantonese Sydney, that provides a picture of life in one part of Sydney from a visitor perspective. This got me thinking about some of the confusions in my reactions to China including food.

Before going on, one small correction to the history in Yawning Bread's post - the Chinese who came to Australia to mine gold and other miWing Hing Long & Co letterhead, 1927. Photograph by Stephen Thompson.nerals including tin did not go just to Victoria. There were, for example, relatively large Chinese populations in the mineral provinces along the New England Tablelands. The photo shows Wing Hing Long & Co letterhead from Tingha, 1927. The big general stores in Tingha, Inverell and Glen Innes were all Chinese owned.

We all use labels - Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Australian are examples - to describe things. We then attach meanings to those labels, bundles of attributes. This helps us simplify and understand the world, but it can lead to confusions and misunderstandings.

The first Chinese food I ate was Cantonese modified for Australian tastes from the first Chinese restaurant established in Armidale in the 1950s. The first Chinese I heard was Cantonese. The first Chinese I met were overseas born Chinese largely from Singapore, Hong Kong or Malaysia or, a little later, the Republic of China (Taiwan). I did not meet someone from mainland China for many years.

My first intense exposure to Asia came when I was twenty when brother David and I stayed for a week with an Indian family in Singapore, then for another week with a Chinese family in Taiping (Malayasia), before going onto Bangkok where our father was working for the UN. Upon our arrival in Bangkok the first thing we asked for was a steak!

Living in Canberra gave me a different exposure. I added other Chinese dishes, acquiring a taste for Sichuan food. One of my main friendship groups were Asiaphiles,far more knowledgeable than I about Asian - especially Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. Richard was very friendly with the owners of the Golden Phoenix restaurant at Dickson. We used to go there a lot, coming in through the kitchen, trying special things. This remains some of the best Chinese food I have ever eaten.

Yet again, we have the Cantonese flavour, the Cantonese language. I now ate many types of Chinese food, but the rise and fall of Cantonese - something that I tried to imitate, although I am dreadful at tonal languages as I had found when I tried to learn Thai - was central to my mental label "Chinese".

Track Beijing Street Sceneforward.

Arriving in China, I found Shanghai a Chinese city, Beijing not. This was partly a matter of cityscape - as indicated by the photo, Beijing is recognisably an imperial capital city along lines that Europeans would find familiar. However, it was also true that the mental label "Chinese" that I had in my mind with its Cantonese flavour was more attuned to Shanghai.

My confusion was compounded by the fact that after eating so much Chinese food of different types over such a long period, the label "Chinese cooking" had become an absolute pot pouri in my mind, a mixture of styles that had come together to be Chinese. I expected this to be the reality, and (of course) it was not.

One of the issues that I have explored from time to time on this blog is the way our perceptions of the world, the labels we use, are affected by our personal history. Here I have pointed to what I see as a fact, that current cultures and attitudes are like an archaeological site, combining things from different stages in the past.

The migrants who came to Australia brought with them all the mental mud-maps formed from their experiences. Upon arrival in a new land with its different experiences, those mud-maps became frozen in time. Still there, still important, yet no longer refreshed.

To say that the world changes is an obvious truism. Yet we do not properly relate this to our own experiences and those of others.

I do not think that I am mis-quoting Yawning Bread if I say that he found Cantonese Sydney somewhat alien, almost a time warp as compared to the modern Mandarin China and Chinese.

In Saturday Morning Musings - ethnicity and change in Australia I noted in passing that Sydney's China Town - the area that Yawning Bread comments on in particular - was only one of Sydney's Chinese areas. Now in Australia we have multiple groups of Chinese ancestry. The differences between those groups are as wide as any other part of the Australian community. The simple label "Chinese" is of no help in identifying and understanding these groups.

More broadly, and I will finish on this point, I think that we Australians are not good at understanding the archaeology, the derivation, of the labels that we use. We need different perspectives to draw them out.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Strictly Personal

The Sermon

Photo: Clare (left) with some of her friends at Helen's 21st. The striking girl on the right, one of my favourites, lost most of her family in Cambodia's killing fields.

This is modern Australia. Despite our national problems and sometimes failures, we provide a home to people from more than 140 countries.

Now for the post

Up very early this morning to take Clare (youngest) to the airport for her New Zealand trip. Lots of fussing since this is her first international trip on her own. Her mother who is away must have rung four times!

Then updated references on my last post, Ken Henry, Malcolm Turnbull and the Australian Government's bank deposit guarantee - issues arising. I am still not satisfied, but time to move on.

Going through my posts for this story and trying to pull my ideas together, I wrote Musings in the midst of economic downturn. Again not perfect, but I think that it gets some points across.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ken Henry, Malcolm Turnbull and the Australian Government's bank deposit guarantee - issues arising


Photo: Dr Ken Henry, Secretary, Australian Treasury

For someone like me, the current flutterings in the Canberra dovecotes over the fall-out from the Australian Government's bank deposit guarantee are fascinating.

I do not want to comment on the detail of the saga - that has been well covered in the mainstream media. However, I thought that I might usefully make some observations on some of the issues raised. I also thought that I might add some context for the benefit of international readers interested in Australian developments. I have added links at the end of the post.


In Australia, the three main sources of official advice to the Government on the macro economy are the Commonwealth Treasury, the Reserve Bank and the Department of Finance.

Treasury and Finance are both Departments of State. Treasury is concerned with the economy as a whole and provides a range of economic advice on both macro and micro issues. Finance focuses especially on budget issues. When I joined Treasury, the two Departments were in fact one - they were split because the then Government saw Treasury as too powerful. As an acting SES officer at the time, I still remember the final drinks put on by Departmental Secretary Fred Wheeler as the unified Department dissolved.

Australia operates under a Westminster system of Government. Under our system, the national Government is formed by the party controlling the lower house of Parliament, the House of Representatives. The Government appoints ministers who control portfolios, areas of responsibility. Within those portfolios, the Departments of State are responsible for the provision of advice to ministers and for the implementation of ministerial and Government decisions.

Traditionally, the public service is seen as politically neutral, serving whatever Government is in power. This ethos is central to the Australian tradition. Advice provided by public servants to their political masters has traditionally been seen as private advice. Governments make decisions on that advice, but also factor in a range of other considerations and sources of advice.

In contrast to Treasury and Finance, the Reserve Bank is an independent authority responsible, among other things, for the stability of the currency and for monetary policy. The decision to create an independent Reserve Bank, something that I support, created a divide between fiscal policy (Treasury) and monetary policy (the Bank). This has created its own tensions and policy difficulties.

There has been concern in Australia about what is seen as the erosion of the Westminster system. One element of that has been a decline in the power of Parliament as compared to the Executive. A second element has been the perceived politicisation of the public service, the transformation of the service from a body serving any Government to one serving the Government in power at the time.

In July of last year, a speech that Dr Ken Henry gave to Treasury staff was leaked to the media. Malcolm Turnbull

This speech took place against a background of the announcement of a new plan by the Howard Government to save the Murray-Darling River system. Spearheaded by Minister Turnbull, now Opposition Leader (photo), the development of the plan had sidelined Treasury.

Dr Henry's speech re-affirmed Treasury's role as a source of independent advice, advice that needed to take Government views into account,but should be delivered without fear or favour. Minister Turnbull was dismissive of it. He said:

This is not a narrow or arid economic analysis issue, this involves a lot of big questions, it involves dealing with practical people, people who've got a lot of dirt under their fingernails, who work all day in the bush and know how things work. And they're the people I'm spending my time consulting with and listening to.

Dr Henry was punished for this episode. It was only later that press reports recorded the apparent fact that his performance bonus was withheld.

Following this imbroglio, Opposition Leader Rudd announced his intention to restore the Westminster system. Then, in announcing his new ministry, he stated his intention to restore Treasury's role with a special focus on micro-economics reform.

Now track forward. When the Government announced its new guarantee package for bank deposits, the opposition initially supported it. As the problems with the package become clear, the opposition switched its position, focusing on reported differences in advice between the Reserve Bank and Treasury. This led to a seven hour grilling of Dr Henry by the relevant Senate estimates committee.

Returning to institutional matters, the Senate is Australia's upper house. Originally conceived as a states' house, the Senate has evolved into a house of review largely because Governments of all persuasions have not been able to obtain majorities there because of the state based proportional representation system used to elect the senate.

Within the Senate, the estimates committees formed to review Government expenditure have come to play an especially important role because they provide an opportunity to review the detail of Government activity.

The opposition's attack in estimates committee focused on the differences in advice between Treasury and Reserve Bank. The opposition has also focused on the failure to model the effects of the economic stimulus package. Now the opposition has rejected the bank guarantee scheme as a clear failure because of its distorting effects on the money market.

The Government itself is moving to modify the announced scheme to try to compensate for the distorting effects.

The issues

Mr Turnbull is an intelligent man with close links to the merchant banking community. I have no doubt that he quickly understood the adverse effects of the bank deposit guarantee package.

For the benefit of international readers, the decision by the Australian Government to guarantee all deposits of Australian banks, building societies and credit unions was introduced in part because decisions by other countries to provide guarantees had affected the competitive position of Australian banks. However, it then had the effect of of encouraging flows of funds from non-guaranteed bodies such as mortgage funds to guaranteed bodies. It also adversely affected the operations of the inter-company money market since no guarantees were in place here.

Dr Henry states that The Treasury and Reserve Bank supported the initial package.I have no reasons to doubt this, although it still leaves open the issue of nuances in the form of advice. I also have little doubt that the Reserve bank did provide advice as soon as the problems became clear. All this said, there are some things in the current situation that concern me.

The first is the apparent assumption that official advice must be made available. This, to my mind, is a breach of the Westminster tradition. Governments make decisions and can be attacked on those decisions. The issue as to whether or not they accepted advice is quite different. Mr Turnbull and his colleagues seem to be implying that the failure to accept advice, if that advice existed, is a fault. This is not a view Mr Turnbull took as minister.

The second is the apparent rush by the Government to decision. Here I have complained quite consistently about what I see as the tendency of the Rudd Government to try to do much, to come to sudden positions.

Now the Government might argue, and I would accept the argument, that urgent action was required. Here I do not accept the argument put forward in the context of the stimulus package that the outcomes of every set of decisions must be modelled first. This argument misunderstands the purpose and limitations of modelling.

That said, I am concerned that the bank deposit guarantee package now requires significant amendment to fix up its flaws. You do not require detailed modelling and testing to follow through the likely implications of a policy change - in most cases, rough back of envelope stuff will suffice. So this really should have been done.

The third issue, and one that I find quite complicated, is the question of when it is appropriate for the opposition (and the media) to comment.

The stimulus package, the really big dollar item in actual spend terms, seems to have attracted little substantive comment. On the other hand, commentary on the guarantee package seriously worried me in terms of the safety of a little bit of money this family has in a cash management trust. Should we, too, rush to safety?

My point is that I am not sure that the public comments on the guarantee package are very helpful. I would have thought that the best course was to let things ride. There will be time for comment later.

A little later

I ran out of time on this post. Thinking about it and listening to Parliament in the car, I am far from satisfied about my own discussion of the issues.

To begin with, given global responses, I am not convinced that the original decision to provide the guarantee was, of itself, wrong. I can understand the desire for quick action, while we do need to protect the global competitive position of our banks.

My instinctive reaction at the time was that, given the strong position the Australian banks already held, the guarantee was likely to signficantly advantage them in global terms. I stand to be corrected here, but this is still my gut judgement.

I remain concerned that the flow on effects in the Australian financial market were not sufficiently addressed. The imposition of what the opposition calls a tax, the Government an insurance premium, on deposits (I do not have the details available) is not, as Dr Henry suggested, fine tuning details, but a significant change.

My point on media and opposition comments about problems with the guarantee package probably seems obscure. My point is that for a period those comments actually encouraged a run on other financial institutions.

Does this mean that the comments should not have been made? I suspect that, so far as the opposition is concerned, the answer is yes.


Even as I was writing my update, the radio was carrying reports that at 4.45pm Perpetual announced that it was freezing withdrawals on a number of its funds.

These are conservative, well managed funds whose mortgages are reported to be around 50 per cent of the value of the properties involved. If my maths is correct, this brings the total of funds frozen in the last few days because of sudden cash outflows to about $A5 billion.


A list of posts relevant to this story follows. Like all blog posts, they are somewhat fragmentary and subject to my own biases.

The controversy created by the leak of Ken Henrys' speech to staff was carried in Australia's Treasury and the Formation of Public Policy. For the announcement of Mr Rudd's new ministry and the role of Treasury, see The Head's New Team - Mr Rudd announces his new ministry.

The Hansard record of Dr Henry's grilling is still not up. Check here to find the current status.

For comment and information on Mr Rudd's approach to policy see the following posts. Looking over them, one of my concerns with Mr Rudd has been his tendency to try to do too much, to rush to decision.

22 November 2007, The Rudd Approach - Efficiency Dividends, Axe Wielding and Razor Gangs
27 November 2007, Mr Rudd - the Head or Headmaster
5 April 2008, Saturday Morning Musings - foreign policy, Mr Rudd and the dangers of Australia's middle power status
28 April 2008, Mr Rudd and a dreadful sense of deja vu
29 April 2008, Mr Rudd and a dreadful sense of deja vu - Managerialism and systemic failure
1 May 2008, Alcopops and mixed drinks - The Head strikes
14 May 2008, Australia's 2008 budget - written from a slightly US perspective
30 May 2008, Slow down Mr Rudd, for all our sakes, slow down
22 June 2008, Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed?
3 September 2008, Mechanistic management and Mr Rudd's education revolution

For economic analysis see the following list.

12 October 2006, Demography, Universities and the Trades in Australia. I have included this post because it includes some material on the structure of the Australian economy.
17 October 2006, Water, Drought and the Environment - working from facts
3 November 2006, Changes in Public Administration - Notes. This post, one of a series on changes in public administration, is included because it points to the importance of the stagflation of the 1970s in changing attitudes to public administration and policy. We are at another such tip point now.
8 November 2006, Impact of Demographic Change in Australia. While this post contains outdated material, I gave included it because it provides a simple introduction to a key longer term issue.
8 November 2006, Drought in South Eastern Australia
23 November 2006, GDP - Australia in its Region
21 December 2006, Australian Economy - Mid Year Economic Report
8 May 2007, The Australian Budget 2007 - an international perspective
5 September 2007, Australia's remarkable economic performance - the need to avoid hubris
19 September 2007, Australia's good economic management
11 December 2007, Bali, Climate Change and the Australian Economy 1
19 December 2007, The Balance of Payments, Australia and the sub-prime crisis
17 March 2008, Deposit bases, credit rationing and the Australian banks
14 August 2008, Inflation's mechanics - and the importance of improving productivity
27 September 2008, Saturday Morning Musings - longer term impact of the US financial crisis
30 September 2008, The fallacy of modern management
1 October 2008, Why the US financial package should be rejected - and why Australia will ride out the storm
2 October 2008, The international curse of the ratings agencies
8 October 2008, The international financial crisis - return of the liquidity trap?
9 October 2008, Australia and the global financial crisis
14 October 2008, Keeping a sense of perspective
14 October 2008, Australian Government's new stimulus package
14 October 2008, The Rudd economic stimulus package -a missed opportunity
15 October 2008, The Australian economic stimulus package - distributional and timing issues
16 October 2008, Paul Frijters observations on the financial data + measures of decline in Australian personal wealth
21 October 2008, Unintended Consequences - Australia's bank guarantee places pressure on the non-bank financial sector

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Welcome to my Indonesian readers - and blogs as fine wine

At the start of Sunday Essay - Musings on Australian foreign policy (among other things) I said that I was taking a break from posting on this blog. That has proved far harder than I expected. So I am breaking my rule - again!

First welcome to my new if small group of Indonesian readers.

Tikno kindly listed this blog in his post The Essence of Blogging. Tikno is a new blogger and worried about his English. His English is sometimes a bit mangled, but it can be understood. And the best way of improving English is to read, write and talk.

To my Indonesian readers, Tikno wanted more on Indonesia and Australia. My post, listed above, was a small step because it emphasised the importance of cooperation between our two countries. I will do more posts. However, I need help on the Indonesian side. I know Australia. I do not pretend to know Indonesia. So comments and feedback welcome.

The term blogochurn was used on Australian radio the other day to describe the way we bloggers repeat, circulate, material. That's true, it's part of our role, but it also misses the point. The blogosphere is a lot more than that.

The blogosphere has given people like me - reasonably intelligent people interested in events or ideas or simply the idiocies of life - a platform to express our ideas.

The photo shows a scene at a restaurant in Beijing. Denise and I found it by accident. We just walked in.

The table in front (you may have to click on the photo to see it properly) is a group of para-olympians and officials. Behind them is a celebration. The guest was a very attractive pregnant women. Table after table came across to drink toasts and to sing songs. Everybody else watched and, sometimes, joined in. We wondered if she was some form of media star.

How does this link to blogging? Blogging gives us platform for sharing experiences, but also for understanding sometimes subtle differences.

While I have learned to perform in public (speaking I hasten to add, not singing!), like many Australians I am a fairly inhibited person. This makes me very different from the Han Chinese. More precisely, they too are inhibited in their own way, but the expression is different from mine.

My experience at the restaurant was personal. Enjoying the enjoyment of those celebrating.

Blogging gives me the chance to turn this type of experience into a more public form, to articulate and test my reactions, to learn from others.

The relations between blogging and the conventional media are complex and fascinating. Blogging does compete with the conventional media at one level simply because the blog response time to events is so fast. However, the relationship is really a symbiotic one.

Most bloggers depend on the conventional media for input - the blogochurn. However, bloggers also provide an external crtitique, a response factor, that has become increasingly important in maintaining the standards of reporting at a time when reporters are under great pressure to meet deadlines.

Regular bloggers have their own deadlines. This has led to criticism of the standard of reporting and analysis in the blogosphere itself. These criticisms are justified, but miss the point.

Taking Australia as an example, for every reporter writing on a current issue there are likely to be a number of bloggers also writing. Some of this writing may be bad, most ephemeral, but there will also be a number of people who do have expertise, some of whom may invest significant time.

This may not feed directly into reporting, although most media outlets do some blog monitoring. Even some of my writing has been picked up! However, what does happen is that blog writing conditions and corrects over time.

One of the most important advantages that bloggers have is the ability to return to a topic, regardless of whether it is news or not. Conventional reporters do not have this luxury.

I am coming to the view that we bloggers do not take sufficient advantage of this. Too many of us write like reporters, write and move on. This may help us in the blogger stakes measured by things like Technorati, current writing gets the traffic spikes and the most cross-links, but is (I think) a mistake.

To my mind, a good blog should be like fine wine, constantly improving with age. To do this, we need not just to refresh our current thinking, but also constantly remove past impurities, recognising mistakes.

We also need to refresh and re-present good writing from our collective pasts, bringing it back into currency.

Active bloggers write a lot. On this blog alone, I have written 851 posts since my first post 0n 19 March 2006. 851 posts. That's a lot! I struggle to remember all of them.

None of us can maintain a consistent high standard all the time. There is, I think, a real gain in standing back from time to time, looking at what we have said before. This helps us in current writing, but also ensures that we make corrections as required to previous posts or, as an alternative, simply provide a link to new thinking or developments. Some posts we may simply choose to forget.

I think that the point that I am searching for here is that those of us who are active content bloggers need to think more about what we do, why we do it, how we do it.


A comment from Neil reminded me of one of his posts, Why I blog — Andrew Sullivan, that was in the back of my mind when I wrote this.

Tikno, Neil has added your blog to his Google Reader list, so you have an added incentive to keep blogging since many of us read Neil's Shared Items An Indonesian flavour!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Where to find the new NSW population projections

The Sydney media today has extensive coverage of the new NSW population projections made by the NSW Department of Planning.

These numbers are quite important for those who live in the state because this is the data the State Government uses for planning purposes. There is no attempt in NSW to use policy to affect population distribution through, for example, economic development action. Rather, the Government simply goes with the projections, making them something of a reinforcing prophesy.

I am completing a full analysis of the numbers for the New England, Australia blog - to say that the projections for Northern NSW are depressing would be an understatement.

In the meantime, those who want access to the original report can find it here.


I have now put up my first post on the numbers, New NSW Population Projections 2006-2036 - what do they mean?. Recognising the qualifications I have made, I think that the analysis shows the need to avoid the type of breathless reporting, here for example, that has been so prominent today. It is sensible to look at the assumptions involved before jumping to conclusions.

I found one very odd thing in this first analysis. Assuming that I have not made a silly error, the projections show an actual decline in the population of NSW outside Sydney between 2006 and 2016. I don't believe this. On the surface, it just does not make sense.

Later note: I was right. It did not make sense and there was a silly mathematical error, now corrected!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday Essay - Musings on Australian foreign policy (among other things)

After this post, I am going to take a break in posting on this blog for a few days because I need to do some other reading and writiForeign language book store 1ng.

I took this photo in Beijing at the Foreign Language book store for youngest daughter because it displays the Australian writer Markus Zusak's The Book Thief in very good company indeed. This was a remarkable store especially in its English language stock selections - all sorts of older titles that I like that have simply vanished from Australian book shops as fashions change.

Why for Clare? Well, she went to a writer's course run by Markus and really likes him. This was her second writer's course - the first was a children's writer's camp run by another popular Australian author, John Marsden. I like Marsden's writing, he tells a ripping yarn, but the popularity of his main series says something about modern Australia.

The series is set in country Australia and begins with an invasion by an unspecified Asian power headed by a dictator. The invasion succeeds in occupying half the country. The Australian kids find themselves on the front line and fight back, wreaking great damage.

One thing to remember about Australia is that there has always been a deep sense on insecurity in the country dating back to our beginnings as a small in population terms European enclave on the edge of a very different continJohn Marsdenent. The fear that we might lose our home - to be dispossessed as we had dispossessed the Aborigines - was very real.

Modern Australia is very different in its ethnic mix, yet the fear remains. You have to remember our history if you are to understand our national reactions to issues. I find it sad but not unremarkable that Marsden's books play to two central themes in Australian life - to fear, plus the nation's sense of nationalism centred on war. As other unifying national symbols have declined, been rejected, our military tradition has come to occupy central stage as the official central unifying element in a way that I for one did not foresee.

In our sister country of Canada, peace keeping has been central in recent years to that country's international military involvements. This is true of Australia too. However, there is a much harder edge in Australia in that we are prepared to use military force to directly defend our strategic objectives. If you look at the official messages, you will see that the need for the country to defend itself, the prowess of our military forces, the value of Australians sacrificing for their country, are central.

I do not want to be misunderstood here. I find it inconceivable that Australia would ever invade another country just to gain territory. But our willingness to use force in defence should never be under-estimated. We are being trained for it. Just as happened in the two previous world wars, Australians of all ethnic groups would rush recruiting stations should full war break out.

One thing that few Australians realise is just how complex and sophisticated Australian foreign policy is. Some Australians would laugh at me for saying this, yet it's true.

In military and economic terms, we are presently a mid power facing inevitable relative decline. We have done much better than many expected to this point - remember, twenty years ago many in Asia saw Australia as the soft and lethargic sick man of Asia, some still do. Still, the facts of economics and demography are working against us.

Fortress Australian has been one option much canvassed in the past. Keep within our walls, make the pain of action against us so great that no-one will try. The problem with this approach, although it remains one element in official thinking, is that we depend on one side upon sea lanes that could be easily cut, on the other on the import of key products and equipment to maintain our defence. To go this route would required us to re-build domestic capabilities at considerable cost, protection in the face of a globalising world.

Having studied elements of the Australian response to the Second World War, at the way in which national policy was slow to respond, I think that we could do more to maintain strategic capabilities. However, I do support the core of the alternative approach.

The first element in this is trade policy. Here Australia is building a network of free trade agreements designed to integrate the Australian economy into our key trading partners of the future. We hope to gain in economic terms. However, we are also aiming to become economically important to those countries as suppliers. More trade. less threat.

One of our problems here is the potential of conflict among trading partners. Here ASEAN is a key. In total, ASEAN is a critical trading partner. More importantly, ASEAN countries form a military buffer, while many of our most vulnerable trade routes run through ASEAN waters.

There have been problems in the Australian relations with ASEAN, including especially the attitudes of Malaysia's Mr Mahartir as well as Indonesia and East Timor. Yet when you look at our foreign and trade policy towards ASEAN, it has been both persistent and consistent. We are working to build relationships.

The longer term advantage that Australia and New Zealand ( I group the two countries together in this context because of the linkages between them) have in ASEAN is that our combined economic size, while declining in relative terms, is still very high. We offer a largish market, we can supply food, commodities and technology.

My personal view is that ANZ and ASEAN will inevitably move towards a more integrated economy. In this, our relations with Indonesia will be of particular importance.

Indonesia are Australia are very close in geographic terms. They are in fact next door neighbours. To put this in perspective, Indonesia is closer to Darwin than Sydney is to Brisbane. However, border myopia creates a problem - most Australians see Indonesia as a bit distant.

It will not be easy to build closer integration with Indonesia. As a simple example, the Indonesian population is now projected at 300 million plus. This dwarfs the equivalent Australian projections. Free movement of people could swamp Australia. Yet closer integration including people movement will come. We have to decide how to manage this.

Again, my personal view is that it is going to come in small incremental bits. Only looking back will we be able to see the changes.

Indonesia must succeed in developing. The implications for Australia as well as the Indonesians themselves are just too dire to contemplate. Yet the more Indonesia succeeds, the more unbalanced the relationship may become. Imagine an Indonesia with two times the population, six times the GDP.

Just at present, Australia's GDP is roughly three times that of Indonesia. We are talking of a world in which the Indonesian economy is twice as large as Australia's with the gap growing. Yes, this is good for Australia, but it does change things.

I am nor sure how things will work out. What I am sure is that we should be aiming to build as many links with Indonesia in particular as we can.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - ethnicity and change in Australia

This has been an interesting week, made more so by some of the conversations around me.

On Ninglun's Specials, Neil Whitfield has been carrying his camera around taking photographs of his immediate area within Sydney, including Sydney's China Town. The modern China Town was not the first Chinese area in Sydney, nor is it the only one. However, it is the best known.

Up in New England, Gordon Smith from lookANDsee has taken his camera to the streets of Bingara on New England's Western Slopes. I thought that I would use photos from both to illustrate this morning's musings.

This photo by Neil shows the high rise residential development on the northern edge of China Town. This is part of the development that has seen a dramatic rise in the residential population within central Sydney, attracted by the metro lifestyle.

Wikipedia has quite a useful article on the Chinese in Australia.

At the last census, 669,890 Australian residents identified themselves as of Chinese ethnic origin, or 3.4 per cent of the Australian resident population. These numbers are not spread evenly across Australia, but are especially concentrated in Sydney, where the 292,338 Chinese make up approximately 7 per cent of the population.

Again, the Chinese in Sydney are not spread evenly, with special concentrations not just in China Town, but also places like Hurstville and Ashfield. Sydney's popularity as an entry point for migrants combined with out-migration from the city of locally born means that the Chinese proportion of the population, more broadly the migrant proportion of the population, will continue to grow. Here Sydney is heading towards the position already holding in Auckland, if with a different ethnic mix.

The photo on the right shows the main street of Bingara on a quiet Sunday morning.

Perhaps best known now because of the nearby Myall Creek massacre, Bingara has been fighting to retain population, including the promotion of its own tourist attractions.

Bingara's population is older than Sydney, the locally born proportion of the population is very high, the small overseas born group all comes from Europe.

New England has its own Chinese tradition dating back to the gold rushes. However, if the census data is correct, there was not one person of Chinese ancestry, not one of Asian ancestry, living in Bingara on census night.

The life styles in Bingara and Sydney are very different, not just the ethnic mix.

Neil's photo shows Sydney coffee addicts in China Town. This is a mixed, cosmopolitan world.

People densities on the street may not be as high as say Shanghai, but this is still a crowded world.

China Town is not in fact typical of Chinese Sydney, just as metro Sydney is not typical of Sydney. There are huge differences between metro Sydney and the further out suburbs where the majority of Sydney's population lives.

Now compare this to Gordon's photo of Bingara's Regent Cafe. I have had coffee here. The contrast could hardly be greater. Bingara is a quieter, village world with its own concerns. Sydney seems very remote.

I have used China Town Sydney and Bingara simply as examples, the tip of the iceberg, of diversity in population mix, lifestyle and attitudes across the country. Darwin, as an example, is as far removed from both Bingara and Sydney's China Town as they are from each other.

One of the points I have tried to make in my writing is that Australia has always had greater diversity than is commonly allowed. That said, Australia is presently dealing with waves of change across the country, waves going in different directions, moving at different speeds. I find this fascinating.

Still using Australia's Chinese as an example, the previous dominance of those from Southern China as well as other parts of Asia has been challenged in recent years by a rise in Mandarin speakers. Both may see themselves as Chinese, but the two groups are not the same.

Then there are the differences between the ABCs, the Australian born Chinese, and more recent arrivals, sometimes summarised by the derogatory term banana, yellow on the outside, white within.

Yesterday I was talking to a mother, European, who has enrolled her son in a coaching college to improve his maths. The Chinese concern about education has led to a proliferation of coaching colleges across Sydney preparing people for key examinations, especially those for entry to the selective high schools. While standards may vary, some of the colleges are very rigorous indeed.

In the case in question, to gain entry to this college mother and son were first interviewed, then the son had to sit a test to demonstrate suitability. He was admitted, the only non-Chinese at the college. He is known by other pupils simply as white boy.

I am not suggesting prejudice in this case, although that may be there, simply that the term is used as descriptor.

In all this, at least some Chinese parents worry about cultural acculturation, the way their children are adopting Australian attitudes.

I used to worry about the risk that Australia might fragment into different ethnic groups. This was part of my concern about official policies that seemed to deny the validity of the central Australian culture as a national unifying device. I am less worried about this than I was, say, five years ago.

Part of the reason for this is the diversity in our migrant intake. However, part too is the sheer power of the central culture itself, as well as the ability of Australians to distinguish between attitudes to specific groups (group x is ) and individuals (Fred is alright).

What I find more interesting now are the growing divisions within Australia based on geography. Australia is segmenting.

I am not suggesting that this is of itself a problem, although it does pose some long term risks. So long as these risks can be contained, then I think that the trend will ultimately add to the texture of Australian life. However, that's another story.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Personal confusions over Australian food

Photo: Peking Duck, Beijing.

Back in March in Problems with Peking Duck I vented my anger over what I saw as the diminished quality of Australian Peking Duck. So while in Beijing we obviously had to try Peking Duck.

I must say that I did think it nice, although not the best I had ever had. That was in Canberra.

Our food experiences on the trip (I will talk about this at some point) drew out just how mixed and eclectic my tastes in food had become, with a whole variety of influences merged together in my mind and my cooking.

The real trigger was my attempt in Beijing to get a dip of soy plus one a chopped up fresh chili. I like this as a dip, especially with greens. I made three attempts at different places - it simply could not be done.

This created confusion in my mind because I thought of this as Chinese, and indeed most Chinese restaurants in Australia will provide it. That was not the case when I first started asking for it. Then I realised that the confusion came about because I did have so many influences merged together, distinguished only by very general labels.

A little while ago I ran a short series of posts on the topic of what would you describe as Australian cooking. For the benefit of international readers I have listed the posts at the end.

One of the key issues in the discussion lay in the question: is there such a thing as an Australian cuisine? My answer was yes, simply because our cuisine is what we eat. At the same time, I have to admit that it has become a strange mixture.

Thinking about all this, I thought that it might help me and be of interest to international readers if I looked at some of the influences on my own cooking. You will see that it really is a strange mixture.

Steamboat is one of my favourite meals, although I have done this very little in recent times because steam boat is a sociable meal suited to a group. My family likes to eat in front of the TV on those now few occasions when everybody is home together!

With steamboat you start with a pot in the centre of the table with a bubbling broth - I use chicken stock. In the beginning I used a charcoal burner, but an electric wok is now easier.

You cut up meat and fish and a variety of suitable vegetables, place a mixture in a small long stemmed holder and place them in the bubbling stock. When cooked, you place them in a bowl with rice and use chopsticks to dip them in various sauces. The broth itself is drunk at the end of the meal.

Steamboat itself is, I think, Vietnamese. Certainly I acquired the habit from a group that included a number of Vietnamese girls with Australian boy friends who had fallen in love with Asia. This was a fun group whose members went everywhere, including a later Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank.

If Steamboat is Vietnamese, the dipping sauces were more varied. In My case they included the required soy with chili, soy plus vinegar (Japanese I think, acquired from Japanese BBQs at the Shogun in Sydney - but that's another story), sambals (South East Asian) as well as things like Hoi Sin.

Steamboats contrast with roasts, a traditional English stream that my family likes. And so do I. I cook a roast at least once a week. Roast chicken on Sunday is one of the few real combined family meals.

Even here other influences come in. I marinate the chicken with lemon steeped with oregano (Italian, I think), the stuff it (English) and rub it with olive olive (Italian), before placing it on a drip tray in the pan.

The use of olive oil has been one of the big changes in Australian cooking. Olive trees were planted soon after the Europeans arrived, but for much of the period since olive oil was seen as medicinal. I now use olive oil all the time, as well as sesame oil (South East Asian, I think). I very rarely use vegetable oils.

Unfortunately my children do not like curries.

The first curries I ate were a mild English variant using curry powder imported from the Indian raj. Cooked by my mother, this was the only time we ate rice apart from sweetened rice deserts (rice with prunes comes to mind) that I thought were dreadful. At University, my friends cooked me real sub-continent curries, hot and very spicy. I turned red, sweated, but gobbled them up.

When I came to Canberra I taught myself to cook a variety of curries, using original ingredients. I have forgotten now how to do this. In addition, I can no longer eat such hot curries without discomfort.

If alone, I love a moist curry (if you are broke, a potato curry gives cheap bulk) with lots of juice, My wife is a better curry cook now, although her curries are drier than mine. Still, lamb with spinach is to die for.

Chili versus curry.

The Europeans brought chilies from the Americas to Asia. There it was incorporated in South East Asian cooking, among others.

I learned about chilies in Canberra, one of the first Vietnamese influences on Australia.

As an aside, I don't think that I have ever seen a proper article on the Vietnamese influence on Australia. To my mind, it was quite important.

My family does not share my love of chilies. Unlike the Americas, and here I express a prejudice, the South East Asian use of chilies is more subtle, far less like that episode of the Simpsons. My youngest will laugh at Homer, but not eat a chili. In fairness, I should add that she blames this on me because I gave her a very hot chili to eat!

A salad in a bowl with a little bit of fish sauce (something else I always have now) and chili makes a great lunch.

Good heavens, look at the time. I have become completely distracted!


My thanks to Neil Whitfield for pointing me to this Wikipedia article on steamboat. I do love the way in which our blogging community constantly extends our collective thinking!

The Australian cuisine series